A Child Could Have Drawn it

Day 97: Friday

Good Morning Zak,

So it’s no secret that lots of people find contemporary art disillusioning. When most people think of modern art they probably think of scribbles and random shapes and lines. It’s become almost a cliche; these proported masterpieces look like they could have been painted by a child.

Well that’s exactly the premise of the project I’ve begun with my students at the elementary school: if a child could draw it, then why not ask one to go ahead and do so?

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My example of the project

We’ve been studying Kandinsky. You know, the random-shapes guy.

Today’s “Sames and Opposites:”

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“Area for dogs”

Humans are different from dogs; there are no areas for humans.

Seriously, none!  The dogs have absolutely no reservations about following us even into church…

But back to Kandinksy.  As the poster-boy of the so-called Expressionist movement, Kandinsky is one of those figures that shows up in every textbook.

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Composition VIII, Kandinsky

So how random are these shapes, actually?

Well, in music, we tend to associate the Expressionism with the so-called Second Viennese School, a movement that probably represented the acme of structural rigor in Western Music history.  Like, these guys were intense.  You wouldn’t wanna sit down to tea and cookies with one of them.

So anyway, it’s basically the exact opposite of random.  The music of Weber, Berg, and Schoenberg is about as far from random as you can possibly get.

BTW I know it might seem reckless to just haphazardly mush all different art forms together under the same umbrella term of ‘Expressionism’, but… well… it probably is reckless.  The main reason we do it is because of Schoenberg’s several famous encounters with Kandinsky, who was a synesthete.

Synesthesia is the phenomenon in which one type of sensory stimulus (such as Schoenberg’s music) causes a person a second type of sensory experience (imagining colors, for example).  No cure for this has yet been found… fortunately.

The funny thing about Expressionism and the Second Viennese School is that when people say the music sounds random, well, frankly, they’re right. When Schoenberg told his student, John Cage, that he had no sense of harmonic structure, Cage—in his typical chillness—just did away with structure all together.

What surprised some people was that the new music of Cage and the American school ended up sounding basically the same, despite being—quite literally—completely random. Now days people flip coins, roll die, and use other aleatoric processes to choose pitches.

You heard me, aleatoric.  It’s a more pretentious version of the word “random.”

Frankly the only thing wrong with the phrase, “a child could have made that” is the connotation.  The negativity is insulting to children.  As far as the art itself goes, though, the observation is entirely accurate.  Contemporary sensibilities on both sides of the Atlantic are united by a prevailing interest in child-like wonder over narrative positivity.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

What are words, even?

Day 96: Monday

Good morning Zak,

So here’s one for you: What did the Python-programmer say after computing this expression?

list = [[2, 3], [5, 9], [2.359, 3.0], [92.1, 2], [3.0, 2.592]]

sum([anum[i] for anum in list for i in range(2)])

Stay tuned to find out.

I’ve spent the last couple days mostly just programming in Python, so if this post doesn’t make sense, you’ll know why.

If you ever want definitive proof that the Humanities and the Sciences are fundamentally incompatible, try writing a poem after a long computer-programming spree.  I just realized that the last three strophes I’ve written all inexplicably begin with the same word, ‘class’; the first line of each ends with a colon instead of a comma.

But seriously, computer science does take a lot of mental processing power, even if I shouldn’t be telling a U Chicago health-care professional that science and humanities are incompatible… I guess that’s not a very liberal-artsy thing of me to say.

But, Zak, I have a question: what’s so liberal about the liberal arts?  How do they have anything to do with politics?  And even if they do, why are they more blue than red?

For that matter, why is there such a thing as ‘light blue’ but not ‘light red’?  Is pink so distinctly feminine that it needs its own separate name?  What’s feminine about pink anyway?

On my side of the pond things are different.  Here in Italy there’s no such thing a ‘light blue’.  That’s called azzurro.  I’m teaching my English students the names of the colors.  They all insist on distinguishing between ‘blue’ and ‘light blue’ in English…  What I’m trying to tell you is that there are literally more colors in this country than in the US.

It’s a strange world.

Zak, I’m willing to concede that the way each culture partitions these various categories may be more or less arbitrary.  There may be nothing absolute about the divisions between red, pink, science, blue, humanity, liberalism, or Donald Trump…  But which came first, the chicken, or the word we use to distinguish said young-domestic-fowl-raised-for-meat-and-dairy-products from the so-called “egg”?

In your last entry:

“Tim, I didn’t learn drinks could have calories until I went to college.”

I’m pretty sure drink-calories work just the opposite of colors.  There are more of those in the US.  Actually, between you me and the wall, I suspect that soda-pop may be one of the primary sources of the whole obesity problem in America…

Secondary sources may disagree…

That last sentence was just for the humanists, but the Python joke is dumb enough for all of us:

“That’s some sum.”

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

A Peruvian Table

Day 86: Wednesday

Good morning Zak,

It’s become clear to me that my flatmate is in a pyramid scheme.  I heard her talking about it the other day.  This is something where the majority of income comes from recruiting other people to join.  Not a legitimate business… These things kind of creep me out sometimes.

So here’s one for you: do I have a moral obligation to reason with her about pyramid schemes?

Here’s another one for you: how do you pronounce Xlktsptetizd?

Now that one will keep you up at night.  Every now and then my composition Maestro asks me how to pronounce an American last-name.  I’ve tried to explain that ‘American’ last-names are of all different nationalities; unlike Italian last-names, they have no consistent pronunciation.

“How do you say this?” (points to a string of random letters. mostly consonants.)
“It depends where the name comes from.”

My first-name is enough to give the Italians a run for their money.  Timothy.  Not Team-o-tea.  I just recently started teaching English at an elementary school nearby.  The kids are hilarious.  The moment I step into the classroom they start up like a proper dawn chorus if each bird chanted Team-o-tea instead of its usual morning song.  I guess that’s one ‘English’ word they like.

The short i sound in Timothy doesn’t really exist in Italian.  This means it’s easy for them to confuse words like ship and sheep.  Also hit and heat, fit and feet, slip and sleep… as native speakers we don’t often think about how similar those words sound.  Actually, they almost become poetic when you string a bunch together:

I sit the sheep
in the ship on a seat.
It drifts away,
my mind slips off to sleep—
my feet fit snuggly
in their slippers…

Not all poetry makes sense.

Last week I went to a concert of songs based on Shakespeare poetry. Shakespeare makes me so nostalgic.  Sometimes too nostalgic.  Actually anything I studied a lot when I was younger can have that effect.  Do you ever get the feeling your life is written in blank verse?

Anyway.  Maybe I’ll empathize better with my flatmate now that I get where she’s coming from.  Pyramid schemes are build on dominance.  The dominance of people who join early over those who join later.  Living in a Nietzschean universe like that, I can almost see why you might stick two thick master locks on your cereal cupboard.

Sometimes you gotta have a sense of humor about things.  I told my Maestro I’m starting to teach English to little children.  He nearly rolled on the floor laughing:

“What, they’ll ask you, how do you say tavola.  ‘It depends where the table comes from.  If it’s a Peruvian table, you say tahh-b-lay.’”

So yeah…

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Class Decaffeinated

Day 84: Thursday

Good morning Zak,

So I went to class today only to find that it wasn’t happening.  Our instructor was in Rome, and he forgot to tell us.  A friend of mine was there—another foreigner.  He wasn’t happy about it.  I tried to explain to him that this kind of thing is normal in Italy.

Italians are fantastically impractical.  The other day I was running a bit late for a meeting.  I was trying to buy a train ticket, but the machine wasn’t working.  This was problematic because the Italians had installed a modern art gallery in the metro-station instead of a ticket office.  No joke.  The broken machine was my only hope…

Zak, this crazy country is too much sometimes.  I recently saw a policeman writing up parking tickets.  I’m not sure how he decides which of the cars lying every which way on the sidewalk to skip.

I don’t know how they get anything done in this place.

A different class actually did happen today.  A piece of music we were looking at had a paragraph written in English on the first page.  The Maestro asked me to translate.  I did.  Everyone was surprised by how well I knew English.

So anyway, my friend and I went to get a café together when we found out class was canceled.  My friend is still relatively new to Italian.

“I’m having a café lungo.  What do you want?”

“Uh, café decafenato.”

“What is this word, decafenato?  Café with all the café taken out?”

Somehow that conversation was much funnier in broken Italian.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Writing Rightly

Day 82: Tuesday

Good morning Zak,

As a writer, or at least as someone who poses as a writer, I like thinking a lot about words.  Especially about unusual uses for words.

There are a lot of ways to use the word “right.”  People can be right-handed, right-winged, or just generally right about things…  In Italian, the word we use for “left” is sinistra, which comes from the Latin sinister, also meaning “left.” 

Today’s unusual usage for a spoon: determining a child’s dominant writing hand.

Incidentally, our English word “sinister” has the same etymology.  The ancients used to believe left-handed people were daemon-possessed.  That’s why right has traditionally carried auspicious connotations and left  inauspicious ones.  There’s a symbolism behind it all.

But discriminating against left-handed people is clearly not right.  I was born ambidextrous, so I know this first hand.  I used to drive my parents crazy by picking up my spoon with the opposite hand for every bite of cereal.  But I can’t discriminate against half of myself.  That would be not only logically incorrect, but also wrong.

In your last entry:

“At work, we have this commitment to ‘being curious over right.'”

But there are some things we simply can’t know first hand.  Like, Zak, as much as I’d like to know what it’s like to be you, there seems to be some kind of insurmountable barrier that separates us from each other.  I’m not talking about the Atlantic ocean.  Although that is one obstacle between us at the moment, it’s nothing compared to the ever untraversable threshold that separates one human consciousness from the next.

We all have different ways of handling that barrier.  Some people don’t deal with it at all, which is probably the saddest way.  Other people read and write things:

“I felt I had escaped for a moment from the prison of my own head and caught a brief glimpse inside someone else’s.”

And still others just try asking people lots of questions:

“Too often someone will state their point of view, perhaps more confidently than what they could […] back up if [we] continuously asked [them] ‘why.’”

Now that’s one very charming strategy.  I’m given to understand that philosophers call this “the Socratic method.”

Zak, when I first met you, before you married my sister, I’m pretty sure you were under the impression that the Socratic method was not only for philosophy but also for socializing.  Actually I’m pretty sure that exact thought must have been going through your head during that season of life.

“I like your green tee-shirt.”

“Thanks.”

“Is green your favorite color?”

“Um… actually, it is.”

“And why’s that?”

Zak, in other letters I’ve often bemoaned the lack of sound advice to be found in classical literature for picking up girls.  It turns out I’ve just been reading the wrong books all this time.  The Greek philosophers certainly didn’t let you down.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is I feel like there are some cases where we’re better off doing right than being right.  (I’m sure that sentence must be on a bumper-sticker somewhere.)  Empathy is one of those cases.

If someone asked me why I believe the people around me are conscious, I’d have a hard time justifying it.  I guess I could appeal to older philosophical systems… Descartes certainly comes to mind… but in the end it wouldn’t be a matter of precise science.

We come into this world confident in a few things…  Maybe the burden of proof lies on the side that opposes our intuition.  I honestly don’t know.

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Selfie-Awareness

Day 77: Thursday

Good morning Zak,

I was having a conversation about music with a friend one day, when he just randomly volunteered something:

“Tim, you seem like you live a really peaceful life… like you’re really self-aware, or something.”

This surprised me.  I wasn’t aware of myself coming across that way.

I guess that’s in right now.  Everyone’s trying to be ‘self-aware.’  I’m not really sure exactly what that means.  Seems like it has something to do with tweeting inspirational quotes and taking selfies.  I suppose that helps.  You know, it’s hard to be unaware of yourself when there are, like, tons of pictures of you all over the internet.

By the way, I’m really good at taking selfies…

…on second thought, no, I can’t show you that.

But self-awareness is definitely a big-city thing.  It’s the kind of thing people think about with podcasts blaring in their ears on their way to swig down a quick mocha-grande… or whatever.  Clearly the problem with our society as we sit alone in little cars honking angrily at each other for hours on end is that we aren’t aware of ourselves.  We just assume that the strange smell in the car is coming from the engine or from something outside.  No one would have guessed there was a person sitting in the driver’s seat.

Well one way to achieve self-awareness is to hold a four-hour session at work to talk about yourselves.

In your last entry:

“It’s a long time to spend not doing work…while at work. Yet, the insistence on and discipline in taking time to be introspective, to reflect on how we work well with others is admirable.”

Now I love hearing people talk about themselves.  Really.  But as far as introspection goes, I’ve found that in my experience it begins to have diminishing returns after a certain point.  I say this as someone who spends probably most of his life alone thinking about things.

There’s nothing inherently right or wrong with self-reflection, but there certainly are limits to how effective it can be.  People need something more.  Something that Oprah or Dr. Phill can’t give them—nice as those folks are.  I mean self-help is great, but let’s be honest.  There’s no amount of money we can spend, no amount of therapy we can do, to solve the human condition.  I want a quick fix as much as the next guy, but I’ve never heard of a tweeter feed that causes the lame to walk or the blind to see.

Anyway, Zak, you’re a great sport.  I’m sure you were able to see the good in all that.

Until tomorrow,

Tim