Cyber Landscapes

Day 67: Tuesday

Good morning Zak,

One thing my studies in Italy have been teaching me is how much of an American I really am.  I mean as a composer.  You see, in contemporary concert music, American composers have a huge indebtedness to European traditions.  All told, it’s probably a lot bigger than the National Debt.

But there are some trends that originate directly from American concert music.  One thing America brings to the table is it’s large open landscapes.  Zak, I know you have a special appreciation for this.  So does composer John Luther Adams.

“My hope is that the music creates a strange, beautiful, overwhelming – sometimes even frightening – landscape, and invites you to get lost in it.”

-Adams

Adams lived in Alaska for about 35 years.

I think moving to a place like that is an attractive prospect to a lot of us who live in cities.  We’ll probably long for it even more as the world continues to urbanize.

It’s easy to feel nostalgia for the ‘golden age’ before modern cities.  Especially while you’re sitting in a little room in front of a computer… surfing the web.

It’s funny we call it surfing.  Makes it sound a lot more exciting than it really is…

Anyway, Zak, you asked me a question:

Do you think that the amount of language has proliferated?

I once had a composition teacher who told me that if you sit down a child of the modern era in front of a piano for the first time, they’ll take one look at all the keys and ask you one of the most instinctual and automatic questions in contemporary society: how many are there?

It’s an interesting question, and probably not the first one that would come to mind a century or so ago.  There are 88 keys on a piano.  How much language is there in the world?  I guess it depends how you count.  This blog post has 435 word.  But it’s gonna show up on, I don’t know, ten different computer screens.  Three people will read it.  So how much language does that count as?

My intuition is that people individually put out about the same amount of language at any period of history.  But there are more people in the world today, and it’s a lot easier to make copies of written and spoken language.

The strange and frightening thing about the internet is that it’s much bigger than any of us.  It’s like one of John Luther Adam’s endless open landscapes.  For better or worse, it’s easy to get lost in it all.  Or to disappear.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Could you have meant porpoise?

Day 64: Thursday

Morning, Tim!

When you first left for Italy I had moderately regular thoughts about you over there during fashion week. I was eager to get the lowdown on what it was like, and knew you’d have some pretty good takes:

“…jean jackets with one arm torn off…”

“…frilly with all kinds of colorful feathers…”

“…art like flamingo jackets…”

“…use a pen to write something that makes your friend cry…”

I’m not sure the last one will really catch on, but I suppose I know nothing about fashion…I hope yesterday was just a taste of more to come.

And, inspired by the talk of art and communication, I thought I’d write a poem.

Others
make me
a Sandwich

Squishy
Not on Rye
No bag of chips

Paper plate
Unevenly spread
Nevertheless, calories

Why
am I
a Sandwich

FullSizeRender.jpg

Until tomorrow,

Zak

Art and Purpose

Day 63: Wednesday

Good morning Zak,

Remember the movie The Devil Wears Prada?  That designer brand, Prada—they’re based here in Milano.  You would think there would be swarms of little devils marching all over this town to get their shopping done.

It’s interesting.  I’ve never really thought about this: what sort of outfits does this Prada-wearing devil really like to wear?  I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff during settimana della modo, the annual city-wide fashion week.  Does he like jean jackets with one arm torn off?  Maybe something frilly with all kinds of colorful feathers?settimana-della-moda-donna-milano-2012

To a fashion-industry outsider, it’s hard to know what to make of these things.  They are “fashion-statements,” but what exactly is being stated?

Usually when we “state” something, we use language to do it.  Regular old language, like English or Italian or what have you.  So there’s obviously something metaphorical about the concept of a “fashion-statement.”  It forms a comparison between fashion and language.

Actually a lot of art forms make analogies to language.  In music, there’s the concept of phrase—a coherent musical thought with a beginning and ending.  Italian musicians take it a step further; the word frase also means “sentence.”  Even painters think of their work as language.  We’re all poet wannabes.  Meanwhile poets themselves talk about poetic images and the musical lyricism of verses.

If all the arts are like language on some level, then they all have similar purposes and similar obstacles to accomplishing those purposes.  So what is the purpose of language?

Well, writers might have some pretty good insight when it comes to a question like that.  Kurt Brindley recently asked a bunch of them why they write.  The answers were pretty interesting.  You should definitely go check it out.

dsc_8770But purpose is a funny thing.  A lot of philosophers these days are skeptical that there really is such a thing as purpose.  Like, back in the day, Aristotle used to explain natural phenomena teleologically, in terms of their purpose.  But today, some people say there really is no purpose behind nature.  A rock falls to the Earth because that’s the way physics works, not because the rock intends or longs to return to its proper place.

But language isn’t a part of natural science.  I think it’s less controversial to argue that a human phenomenon like language has a purpose.  Humans made shoes, and shoes were made for walking.  They’ve even written a song about it…

So here’s my answer to the question: human contact is the end purpose of language.

img_1178Here’s what I mean.  The end purpose of a pen is writing.  If you use a pen to write something that makes your friend cry, that doesn’t mean that crying is the function of the pen.  The pen still functions as a tool of writing.  Crying is only an ulterior effect.

The same is true of language.  Zak, if you write an email to a coworker that results in some restructuring of your company, that doesn’t mean business is the purpose of language.  Language itself still functions merely to bring you in contact with that coworker.  The rest is only incidental to that function.

Some people say that language played a role in evolution.  A species that can use language to cooperate is more fit to survive.  But the survival value of linguistic clarity is only an accidental byproduct of its main function.

Anyway, sorry for just vomiting random thoughts all over the place today.  I guess the point I’m trying to make is that human contact is the end purpose of art.  We can evaluate art—even weird art like flamingo jackets—in terms of its potential to fulfill that function.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Image sources:milanandoblog.blogspot.it & www.justfashionmagazine.com

It’s All a Jumble…

Day 57: Tuesday

Good morning Zak,

“When man wanted to make a machine that would walk he created the wheel, which does not resemble a leg.”

-Guillaume Apollinaire

Descending melody is a universal in world music.  Every culture that we know of has some examples of melodies that generally start high in pitch and end low.  Ethnomusicologists think this is simply due to the nature of our physiology: whenever someone breathes out to sing a melody, they start with a lot of breath and end with very little.  This makes it natural to descend in pitch toward the end of a melodic line.

If I were to indulge myself in speculation about this, I might even take the explanation a step further.  It seems like downward motion is a pretty universal part not only of our physiology, but of all of nature in general.  I mean, here on earth, things pretty much always move downward if nothing stops them.  Water, tree branches, trees themselves…  I guess in that way descending melody is a lot like Cage’s 4’33’’; it’s the sound of nature when people don’t interfere that much.

The so-called “lament meter” in ancient Hebrew poetry is probably an example of this.  Although we don’t have direct evidence of the original melodies, the lopsidedness of the poetic meter itself seems to evoke a diminishing energy toward the end of the verse.  The first part of the verse (the first “colon”) is generally longer then the second.

I feel like there’s something inherently lament-ful about this kind of verse structure.  Isn’t it kind of sad how everything on earth eventually falls back to the ground and dies?  Everything except for some small amount of helium, which, I understand, escapes the atmosphere because it’s so light.

But the really strange thing is how relatively rare this melodic typology is within Western concert music.  Our melodies tend to climax about two-thirds of the way in.  In a sense, you could maybe say our musical tradition is about contrasting the entropy the natural world with the creative energy of human life.

“Right, well, I mean… this piece behind me, I call it ‘The Afous II.’  And, I mean, it’s really about how confusing, you know, society is.  Because, you know, it’s all a jumble, isn’t it.”

-Adam Savage

schermata-2017-02-07-alle-12-39-25

A river or a waterfall might tend to flow downward, but human discourse generally moves the opposite way: I say something, you say something, and eventually we reach some kind of logical consequence… an agreement or a main point or something like that.  Contrary to the entropy of the natural universe, human conversations, or “language games,” tend to snowball, accumulating more energy as logical discourse progresses.

Here’s a a very famous lament, which climaxes, no less, toward the end of each strophe.

God, who created all that comes and goes
and shaped this faraway love,
give me strength, since I already have the intention,
so that I see this love far away
in reality and in a fitting place
so that rooms and gardens
shall seem to me to be new palaces.

-Jaufre Rudel, source

Until tomorrow,

Tim

An arm and a leg

Day 52: Tuesday

Morning, Tim!

I have a midterm today, so won’t have a lot to touch on. I thoroughly enjoyed your post yesterday, despite you stealing one of my favorite jokes. I’m not sure why, but I feel some claim to one of my favorite comedian’s jokes. To ensure that you don’t “steal” any more (and to ensure I don’t try to pass any off as my own), I’m going to curate a few of my favorites below.

One joke with a fairly similar feel that I like to use around the same time as your statues joke:

I like video games, but they’re really violent. I’d like to play a video game where you help the people who were shot in all the other games. It’d be called ‘Really Busy Hospital’

-Demetri Martin

Sometimes you have to be unapologetic about stealing a joke…just make people laugh. But if you aren’t,  you have to be careful with apologizing…

Saying, ‘I’m sorry’ is the same as saying, ‘ I apologize.’ Except at a funeral.

– Demetri Martin

Thankfully, all of these jokes are online, so no one can get away with joke theft….I’m not gonna make any money off of these.

Why is it a penny for your thoughts but you have to put your two cents in? Somebody’s making a penny.

– Stephen Wright

One last clip, with to bookend the amputee theme…

Until tomorrow,

Zak

The Modern Man

Day 51: Monday

Good morning Zak,

“I went to the museum where they had all the heads and arms from the statues that are in all the other museums.”

-Steven Wright

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One of the so-called Elgin Marbles, British Museum

Do you ever wonder what’s with that?  Like, what on earth happened to about half the limbs on these statues?  Well, most of the damage can be accounted for by factors you would expect, like weather, other natural forces, accidents…  But not all of it.  Some of the changes to these statutes are the result of a very intentional human process: bowdlerization.

Dr. Thomas Bowdler was a physician and social activist of the 18th and 19th centuries.  He’s best remembered for his 1807 publication, The Family Shakespeare.  This was like the P.G. version of Shakespeare.  All the offensive material had been removed, making it appropriate for children.

Since then, Bowdler’s name has been turned into a verb: to bowdlerize, meaning “to expurgate, or censure inappropriate material.”  For example, the medieval church bowdlerized some classical statues by covering up or removing the private parts.

One day people will speak also of timothizing and zakifying things… I’m not sure what it’ll mean.

Anyway, here’s a question: what is the significance of bowdlerism from a purely artistic point of view?  Is The Family Shakespeare just as good as the original?  Or does it maybe lose something, inhibiting the full breadth of Shakespeare’s original poetic vision?

Shakespeare’s plays are of course heavily influenced by the plays of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Those guys were a little more liberal than the Christian society of Bowdler’s 19th century England… especially when it came to things like sex, violence, nudity…  But sometimes we tend to think of the cultural difference too dualistically—as if the ancient Pagans were some kind of wild hippies compared to the restrained Christian society that followed.

The truth is, even the ancient Greeks had their forms of censorship.  Physical violence and other obscene acts were considered an abomination to Dionysus, the god of theater, and were not permitted to take place on stage.  On the other hand, Christians are not always so restrained.  Occasionally in Christian literature, poets will attempt to glue the missing genitals back on to our concept of man:

“Pleasant and fitting both their use will be
When time and mode and measure do agree,
Else withering from the root all lives would fail
And that old Chaos o’er the wreck prevail.
Conquerors of Death! they fill each empty place
In Nature and immortalize the race.”

-Bernardus Silverstris, De Mundi Universitateº

Other poets too have since tried to piece together our broken form:

ONE’S-SELF I SING

One’s-self I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.

Of physiology from top to toe I sing,
Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say
the Form complete is worthier far, The Female equally with the Male I sing.

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power, Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine, The Modern Man I sing.

-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Until tomorrow,

Tim

º Ed. Barach and Worbel, Bibliotheca Philosophorum Mediae Aetatis, II.xiv.155

A few random thoughts…

Day 49: Thursday

Good morning Zak,

Some writers prefer keyboards with strong “key action.”  They like the computer to make loud satisfying click sounds as they write.  Author John Green says that the rhythmic thud of the spacebar contributes to his flow and drives his writing forward.  I’m writing this entry on a Mac computer, which have notoriously soft…  Wait a minute.  Shhhhh… Do you hear that?  That music?

The piece you are hearing is titled 4’ 33’’.  It was composed by John Cage in 1952.  I’m not sure what it sounds like to you, but where I am sitting, it includes the occasional opening and shutting of doors, the flow of water as a roommate uses the bagno adjacent to my room, and the depressingly quiet trickle of tiny little key clicks.

Okay, so technically these sounds aren’t really John Cage’s 4’33’’.  No one’s performing that piece here at the moment.  But in a way, 4’33’’ is a song that’s always happening: you see, Cage’s composition calls for the performer to sit at their instrument and do nothing for 4 minutes and 33 seconds.  During this period of time, just like during any other period of time, sounds will occur naturally by chance.  People will breath, cough, shift in their seats…  Someone might fart or drop something…  It might start raining outside…  Cage claims that all of those collective noises are a piece of music.

Anyway, Zak, I think your movie reference is exactly on point. The Brother’s Bloom portrays our concept of “poetic vision” quiet nicely.

“The reason I like the movie so much is because there is just that—commitment to the story: […] the perfect con, where in the end everyone gets just the thing he wants.”

There’s something very compelling about the image of a master con artist insidiously working all things together for some calculated purpose of his.  I think at some level we all would kind of like to imagine an artist like that working behind the apparent chaos of our lives.  It’s a common thing to wish for—almost cliché.  I mean, wouldn’t it be great to know that life is guided by poetic vision and not by mere chance?

“Indeed, when someone said that there was in nature, just as in animals, a mind, a cause of the good, cosmic order and of all the arrangement of things, he seemed like a sober man compared to those before him, who argued otherwise.”

-Aristotle, Metaphysics 984b

Who can say how much truth there really is in this kind of idle fantasizing.  I once tried having a conversation with the allegedly conscious “mind in nature.”  Then I stopped a moment and thought about what I was doing.  I was just a crazy man talking to trees.  I could say the trees were conscious if I’d like… if that would bring me some kind of consolation.  But what would I mean by conscious then?  I could also say that my potato salad is in love with me.

Anywho, the weird thing about John Cage’s piece is… well… John Cage.  I mean, did Cage really compose it if he doesn’t have a say in how it sounds?  Usually I think of an artist as an individual with some kind of conscious agency in their work.  A lot of people find the sounds of nature to be beautiful, but we have difficulty agreeing about whether there is a poetic vision behind them.  Poetry normally has an author.  Someone rhythmically hammering away at the cosmic space bar, driving the story forward to its end.

Until tomorrow,

Tim