The Music of the Spheres

Day 94: Tuesday

Good morning Zak,

It’s cloudy outside in Milan.  I don’t really feel like writing.  I think I’ll just curate other people’s words today.

Quotation 1

Allow me to start you off with a piquant taste of French existentialism, as it were.  The vintage year on this one falls somewhere in the 17th century.  Of course we all know the French have been existential for at least that long:

“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.”

-Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Quite memorable, isn’t it.  I know this line about the emptiness of the universe has become kind of trite and overused, but I think there’s a good reason for that.

It was inspiring enough for 20th century composer George Crumb to cite it in the preface to his piece Makrokosmos.

Quotation 2

But the naturalistic pessimism of the 20th century is really too much for me sometimes.

In the Middle Ages people used to think that the planets made music as they revolved around the Earth.  The proportions between their respective orbits created a perfect, mystical harmony called Musica Universalis or “Music of the Spheres.”

The ‘silence’ which frightened Pascal was, according to the [Medieval] Model, wholly illusory; and the sky looks black only because we are seeing it through the dark glass of our own shadow.  You must conceive yourself looking up at a world lighted, warmed, and resonant with music.

-C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image

Doesn’t that sound wonderful?

Item 3

Well no… it really doesn’t.  Here’s what the proportions between the revolution frequencies of the eight planets really sounds like:

That’s the sound of a 20th century universe, the sound of humans and all living things gradually perishing into chaos.

Quotation 4

But that’s what imagination is for, right?

Whatever else a modern feels when he looks at the night sky, he certainly feels that he is looking out—like one looking out from the saloon entrance on to the dark Atlantic or from the lighted porch upon dark and lonely moors.  But if you accepted the Medieval Model you would feel like one looking in.

-C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image

Maybe the godawful dissonance of the planets and all the apparent chaos of the universe is just a part of a larger harmony too great for us to perceive.

Quotation 5

That’s what early medieval philosophers proposed in response to the dualistic heresy known as Manichaeism.

Faced with the misgiving that in the world there may be established a dialectic of uncertain outcome between good and evil, the Scholastic tradition seeks to confirm the positivity of all creation, even in the apparent zones of darkness.

-Umberto Eco, Scritti sul pensiero medievale

Maybe that sounds like a naive proposal in modern times… maybe naivety is a good thing.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

More like America-nada

Day 92: Friday

Good morning Zak,

Zak, you’re too clever for me.  I think I must have spent twenty minutes mulling over your use of the letter ‘d’ before I got the pun.

Anyway, you raise a good question: is technology partially responsible for the Excess I’ve been whining about?

When I first got music notation software, I went through a phase of writing all my music directly into the computer.  Eventually I stopped that and went back to writing by hand before copying into a notation program.  The quality of my music improved drastically at that point.

I know correlation is not the same thing as causation.  But I do think there’s something to this…

A lot of music and art in general is predicated on the mechanism of pattern recognition.

“In effect aesthetic pleasure derives from the fact that the soul recognizes in the material the harmony of its own structure.”

—Umberto Eco (In reference to the views of Ugo di San Vittore)

I don’t know if the physical process of writing by hand makes it easier for me to recognize patterns.  At the very least, it makes the artistic processes much more intimate.

But patterns are a big deal.  The more arcane a pattern is, the more rewarding it is when our brain/soul recognizes it.  But if it’s too arcane, of course, there’s the danger that we won’t recognize it at all.

I’ve written before about the pattern of pairing love with death in medieval poetry:

“All I can say is that the collective wisdom of Western poets throughout history tells us that love is a kind of death.”

That’s maybe one of the most interesting patterns in Western literature.  It’s something that resonates with us all on a fundamental level.

That’s why people like the story of Paolo and Francesca so much.  Frankly I get a little annoyed by the excessive popularity of Inferno Canto V.  The fame of Francesca’s little vignette has tragically eclipsed the rest of the Divine Comedy in popular culture.  I went to Bergamo and saw this excessively Romantic depiction.

While the hipster in me is, as I said, a bit annoyed, I do understand why people like this kind of thing.  This story should be popular.  When we experience a piece like this, our soul recognizes in the material the harmony of its own structure.  We understand on a fundamental human level that life couldn’t really be a thing without love to the point of death.

That’s easy to recognize.  As far as other patterns go… a hyphen may be well advised.

Until Monday,

Tim

Americanata

Day 90: Monday

Good morning Zak,

So I just picked up this book from the library.

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I can explain… it was an honest mistake.  I went to the bookstore the other day to pick up a different book, but they didn’t have it.  Then I saw this monster.  Umberto Eco’s Writings on Medieval Thought.  It was too late.  I had seen it!  How could I resist now?

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A sense of scale

I have to return it in a month, and the library has a strict “no backsies” policy—one of the many reasons I miss the old country.  *Sigh*  If it turns out to be half as good as I’m expecting I think I’ll have to go out and buy it.

Anyway, just starting to read this thing has got me thinking about a few things.  One of them is this: how intense does an experience need to be for us to enjoy it?

Thomas Aquinas was opposed to the use of instrumental music in Church.  He was afraid that the aesthetic rapture elicited by the music of instruments would be so overwhelming that it might prove an obstacle to focused worship.

Now Zak, I listen to a lot of medieval music… some of it with instruments… I don’t have a clue what this crazy old man was talking about.  I mean it’s very beautiful music.  That’s why I listen to it.  But distracting?  Enrapturing?

I guess what I’m saying is, what ever happened to the days when maximum euphoria consisted in a few notes plucked out on a lute?  Today I go to concerts, and people are adding laser shows, eight-channel surround-sound, live electronics…  Even the sounds themselves need extra spice.  We add noise components, odd timbres, aleatory…  It’s all great stuff.  But what happened to mere music?  You know, like pitches and rhythms… harmonies, if you wanna get fancy with it…

I have a flat-mate who watches TV on her computer while listening to music on her phone at the same time.  There’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s what you want to do.  I’m a contemporary composer, so I’m used to noise.

The Italians have a word, americanata: “an action or behavior characterized by an unsophisticated taste for grandeur and ostentation, which is usually attributed to the Americans.”

If I have any ascetic impulse in me, it’s there out of selfishness, not moralism.  I want to enjoy things as much as I can.  That’s the only reason I’d prefer less over more.  I’m a fan of synesthesia.  It’s excess that bothers me.

I’m writing a piano piece of just chords.  One chord about every two to five seconds.  In between there’s nothing.  Just resonance.  I think it would go nicely with wine and dark chocolate, in an intimate setting, with friends.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Peanut Butter

Day 80: Friday

Good morning Zak,

So I’ve been thinking a lot about peanut butter recently.  Especially about its texture.  There’s something very interesting and unique about that silky quality it has.  It can take just about any shape, but it always has the same generally smooth and even consistency.

We don’t have peanut butter here in Italy.

Zak, one thing I’ve noticed through my experience as a composer and a poetaster is that writing takes a bit of frivolity.  Writers are usually the sorts of people who take pointless things very seriously.  Things like pyjamas.

That’s one aspect I admired about my composition teacher in undergrad.  You could present the most pointless and ridiculous ideas to him, and he would always dive right into them with you head first.  There wouldn’t be even a moment of hesitation to ask how worthwhile something really was.

In the end, I think pointlessness usually does turn out to be worthwhile, but an artist needs to be willing to invest in something while it’s still just pointless.  There was once a 34 year-old man who started spending all his energy thinking about four little notes.  He was clearly just wasting his life, and if he had any sense he would have dedicated himself to something more useful.  But then we wouldn’t have Beethoven’s fifth symphony.

In your last entry:

“I’ve been a bum of a correspondent recently. […] I have allowed myself to become overwhelmed.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI used to think that lyricism was kind of pointless at its core.  Lyrical poetry could express its meaning just as clearly without so many rhymes.  Lyrical melodies could be taken out of a composition without really disturbing its functional structure.

But none of that is actually true.  Lyricism is a fundamental part of communication.  If even our everyday language were fully devoid of lyricism, it would quickly become unintelligible.  That starts to happen whenever we write complex sentences with lots of prepositional phrases and parentheticals.  Try reading this sentence:

“At a time in the history of Western thought of serious skepticism toward teleological thinking in general, I admit that a theory of semiotics based on the purpose of language may seem like a naive proposal.”

Don’t hurt yourself.  I had to revise this because each of the prepositional phrases seemed isolated from the overall flow.  When you read it aloud, it sounds like the individual bricks are falling apart and the overall building is crumbling.

A certain amount of lyrical peanut butter is needed as mortar to hold together the meaning of language, even when it’s prose.  Rhythm and euphony are not just fun games for people with nothing better to do.  They are an essential function of human expression.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Circles and Lines

Day 75: Tuesday

Good morning Zak,

This is the signature of composer Giacinto Scelsi:

Pretty jokes, right?  The circle and the line represent the Eastern and Western perspectives of time…

Remember the movie Groundhog Day?  Bill Murray somehow gets caught in an endless circle where he’s reliving the same boring day over and over again.  But literally.  He wakes up every morning in the same stupid little town where he was supposed to spend only one day—groundhog day—to film an on-site news special.

That movie is pretty popular.  Probably because a lot of us can relate.  Time is moving in an endless circle, with no final destination.  The story of my life.  Right?

Well, take away the pessimism and that outlook is basically the Eastern perspective of time.  Life moves in cycles.  The cycle of seasons, of days, of birth, death, and rebirth…

Then there’s the Western view.  Remember Machiavelli’s The Prince?  Machiavelli basically thinks that a ruler should be as cruel or dishonest as necessary to instill civil order.  As the saying goes, the end justifies the means.  So if there’s an end, then time moves linearly, right?

Some people say that Christian thought proposes a strictly linear view of time.  We waited for the Messiah, he came, and now we’re waiting for the end.  The same people who point out these things also tend to complain about how boring our vision of Heaven is.  Just eternally praising God?  In an endless circle of eternity?

The East and the West aren’t as different as we sometimes make them out to be.  We just don’t think about things the way the early Christians did.  There’s a reason Dante’s nine circles of Heaven are the least appealing part of the Divine Comedy for the modern reader.

In your last entry:

“I’d propose that by ‘willing’ we often mean lacking desires that are against what’s ultimately best for us, and, when they do appear, being able to deny them anyway.”

I became a composer because I had a poetic vision.  I think everyone has that on some level.  I mean the ability to look at something and see potential in it.  That’s what an artist does.  But you know, things are complicated.  While in the process of realizing it, it’s easy to lose sight of that vision—that end, if time is linear.  

“We always say ‘Gertrude Stein’ – she said, ‘In the beginning was the word. Then they put two words together, then they made a sentence, then they made a paragraph and they forgot the word.’”

-Morton Feldman

But every time I hear something beautiful and see what it does to people, it makes up for the sacrifices I’ve had to make along the way.  I’m like an old gramma who never studied music.  They’re really the ones who appreciate this stuff the most.  The rest of us tend to get too caught up in everything to remember the reasons we’re making music in the first place.

But an old grandma is fantastically disinterested.  She doesn’t care about anything but the music right in front of her, and that music is simply a gift—no strings attached.  I wish I could appreciate my peers the way an old grandma would.

So the moral of the story is be like an old grandma every now and then.  But I don’t mean to stereotype.  My apologies to all the mean and anxious grandmas out there.  I hope I didn’t offend you.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Spacing Out

Day 71: Wednesday

Good morning Zak,

It’s beautiful outside this afternoon in Milan.  The sky is pure blue.  It’s really stunning.

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See this mess?  This means I’m in the middle of a very good piece.  Whenever that happens, other things become harder.  Like cleaning.

You asked me some kind of philosophical question the other day.  Something about moral responsibility, I think.  Normally I’d be all up in it, but philosophizing is a bit like cleaning and today I have a truant disposition.  I’d rather just sit and stare at the miraculously blue sky.

Seriously, how is it so freaking blue?  It’s ridiculous.  There’s just nothing there.  It’s like one of those contemporary monochromatic paintings.

blue

I’ve been listening to a lot of Morton Feldman recently.  His music has that kind of sensibility—monochromatic, I mean.  It’s just exquisitely singular.

Usually when I look at the sky I’m used to seeing it with all kinds of nasty clouds blotted all over it.  But the thing that’s so appealing about this particular sky is the way it contrasts with all that.  Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the clouds when they’re there, but at the moment they would be a nuisance.  It would be a shame to splotch up something that’s just so perfectly blue.

There goes an airplane.

I guess what I’m saying is, it’s not like it’s Wednesday Afternoon’s fault that I find her so appealing.  It’s just ’cause I’ve seen a lot of other days—perfectly fine ones mind you—and Wednesday Afternoon stands out.  I mean, I probably wouldn’t feel this way if I’d never seen the likes of Saturday at Eleven.

If Morton Feldman composed a perfectly blue sky, would he be at fault for how heinously gorgeous it is?

But I said I wasn’t going to philosophize today.  I should really clean this room up, but I’m probably not going to.

Until tomorrow,

Tim