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

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

Wisdom

Day 43: Wednesday

Good morning Zak,

So you might know that in ancient Greece an idiotês was what they called a person who withdrew from society and kept private.  We might say, someone who kept their head in the sand.  In the context of Athenian democracy, this type of individual was viewed very negatively, since individuals who kept to themselves rather than engaging with society were seen as a threat to the political system—a system based on public discourse.

By the way, the word īdiotês is based on the same Greek root as the English word “idiot.”

But you’d have to be an idiot to think that knowing the Greek somehow gives you a more proper understanding of the modern English.  If you subscribe to this line of thinking then you are falling for what’s known as “the etymological fallacy.”  That’s a fancy term we non-elitists use to stigmatize certain elitist philologists—people who clam to have a superior understanding of proper uses and usages as a result of their knowledge of where words come from.

“Proper,” by the way, comes from the Latin adverb proprius, which is close in meaning to the Greek word idios.

These days, the general consensus is that language is best understood in terms of both diachronic and synchronic analysis; this means that we need to look at not only where modern words come from, but also how they relate to other words within the same modern language.  A proper idiot is clearly not the same thing as an idiotic idiot.  Right?

The one type of analysis I haven’t seen anyone yet consider is metachronic analysis.  Perhaps, an idiot is not merely distinct from an ancient idiotês nor merely from other people who exist synchronically—at the same time and in the same society.  An idiot, in the truest, fullest sense of the word, is an individual.  Someone who must be analyzed outside of time all together.

Maybe human identity isn’t only about other people who come before or at the same time or even after.  Maybe it’s also about the human as an individual.  A man who chooses to wear a yellow bow tie exists not only in relation to past and present fashion trends.  He also exists outside of time all together, in relation to all possible men with and without every possible kind of neck piece imaginable.

A good philologist is someone who also considers unusual uses and usages…

Until tomorrow,

Tim

All’s Fair

Day 35: Friday

Good morning Zak,

giuseppe_verdi_by_giovanni_boldini

Giuseppe Verdi, 1813-1901

So there was once this gran maestro in Milan named Giuseppe Verdi—maybe you’ve heard of him.  Verdi spent most of his time writing operas and growing magnificent facial hair.  If you’ve ever been to a Verdi opera, you have a deep appreciation for the meaning of the phrase “it ain’t over ‘till the fat lady sings…”  Verdi’s operas tend to last on the order of 3 to 4 hours.

But don’t worry if you sleep through part of that.  Before the fat lady sings, Verdi will write into the music one elusive little something that miraculously summarizes the entire work.  He calls this magical something the tinta.  A tinta can sometimes be as short as two notes, but in those mere two notes, Verdi embodies the underlying spirit that unifies hours upon hours of music.

The first time I came here to Milan, I had to go through a bit of cultural sensitivity training.  Just as you would expect, cultural sensitivity training consists primarily in listing off a detailed catalog of facts: Italians tend to be less punctual than Americans. Italians tend to talk with their hands more than Americans. Italians tend to

img_1134

I should’ve just asked them to print the receipt on foil

Zak, this letter comes to you from an airport.  I am about to spend twelve hours in a giant metal tube shooting through the air above the Atlantic ocean at unfathomable speeds.  All this so that I can be home for Christmas.

Reading the Odyssey has taught me not to expect too much whenever I come home from a long trip.  I’ll really just be glad if I don’t find my house invaded by a ruthless band of hostile men I have to slaughter single-handedly.  That would be super awkward.

Italians tend to speak at a louder volume than Americans.

I wish I could bring you back something that would summarize what Milano means to me.  Some kind of tinta that could explain everything.  I guess a lot of travelers probably feel this way.  That’s why there are so many souvenir shops.  I love useless junk as much as the next guy, but somehow I’m not sure if I feel that a “kiss me I’m Italian” tee-shirt really summarizes the spirit of this place.  There’s just something in the air here that I wish I could share with you.  Cigarette smoke, smog, and then something else…

Yesterday I had a conversation with an Iranian composer who is setting a poem written in Persian to music.  He translated the poem into Italian for me.  It’s this brilliant little double entendre: at first it seems like a tragic piece about unrequited love, but only at the very end you realize that the whole thing has just been about a school boy trying to copy answers on an exam.

Italians tend to like pasta more than Americans.  Don’t let any of these things freak you out.

Shame the poet’s work is only available in Persian.  Then again, translating poetry is extremely difficult and impractical.  Communication is hard enough when it’s confined to one culture.  People often have trouble interpreting each other’s business emails.  That fact should put things into perspective whenever an artist tries to share the human experience on a deeper level.  Being human, after all, is about more than just information in a business email.  It’s about cheating on exams in school.

See you soon,

Tim

day 2 of battle.png

Day 3 of Battle: I neutralize your vinegar with electrons, and I huff and I puff, and I blow your base down.

Expressing Light

Day 25: Friday

Good morning Zak,

At the moment, I’m working on several musical compositions that set various poems from the dolce stil novo, a movement in Renaissance Italian poetry. Despite their antiquity, the poems are surprisingly resonant with contemporary sensibilities, and paradoxically I feel they are some of the most apropos texts I could have found to set at the present moment.

La dolce vista e ‘l bel guardo soave

la-dolce-vista-e-l-bel-guardo-soave

In these compositions I am fixated on the expression of light and the universality of light and of the juxtaposition between darkness and light. I am structuring the texts in a metaphorical “tonal space” in a way that reflects my symbolist reading.

Ciò ch’i veggio di qua m’è mortal duolo

cio-che-veggio-di-qua-me-mortal-duolo

These illustrations are what I call “concept scores.” They are similar in function to graphical scores, except that they attempt to capture the overall poetic vision of the piece and not the music itself. The actual scores are written in conventional notation.

Although I don’t really know what I’m doing when it comes to visual art, I’ve found concept scores to be useful to me in several ways. In the case of these compositions, the main benefit of incorporating a visual medium is that it allows me to articulate my vision of light and spacial symbolism more concretely.

Li occhi dolenti per pietà del core

li-occhi-dolenti-per-pieta-del-core-2

It’s hard to really capture the lyricism of the Italian poetry in translation. But just to give you a rough sense, I’ll try to translate a small passage from this last poem, which is by Dante Alighieri.

Beatrice has betaken herself to heaven,
on high in that dominion where angels are at peace,
and you, O ladies, are left bereft of her.
'Twas not the quality of chill nor fever
that brought her there, as many others falter,
but her benignity alone deprived us so;
for Light of her humility and lowliness
has pierced the very heavens with such virtue
that the Immortal Master is made to marvel—
such that sweet desire
obliges him to bid untimely salvation.

Dante’s Italian is an example of a kunstsprache, or “art language.” It is a purely literary language that cherry picks elements from different spoken dialects. It would have been very awkward and impractical to use in everyday speech, and I feel this justifies a stylized use of English when translating.

Maybe once some of these are performed I’ll share the recordings as well. We’ll see how the singers and instrumentalists feel.

Until Monday,

Tim

Plagiarizing Pick Up Lines

Day 19: Thursday

Good morning Zak,

As you know, I have a bird back home named Jerry.  Jerry is able to speak basic American English, but he has a heavy conure accent.  So far he has learned how to say “hi Jerry” and “hi there,” and he spends a lot of time repeating these phrases.  It seems like, for Jerry, these two greetings contain most of what he wants to express in life.

But let me ask you a question, Zak: what if this weren’t the case?  What if Jerry suddenly decided he wanted to learn more phrases?  For example, what if he learned how to say “I love you” or “I am a self-aware moral agent capable human-like empathy.”  This second phrase might be very cute to show people at parties, but should we believe what he’s saying?  Does the fact that English is Jerry’s second language effect the credibility of the things he asserts in it?

By the way, Zak, I just found this hilarious cat picture online:

Speaking of second languages, when I learned ancient Greek, I spent a lot more time than I normally would writing about “the boy leading the oxen through the field.”  This is a fairly interesting topic.  I could maybe justify writing a page or two about it; as I remember it, though, my Greek writing for the first couple months expressed an almost obsessive fixation with boys, fields, and oxen.  It was all I ever talked about.  “The boy leads the oxen through the field.”  “The boy plows the field leading the oxen.”  “The field would about to have been plowed if the boy were to lead the oxen through the field in order to plow it.”

Zak, while these sentences were all great works of literature, do you really think readers should have believed that they expressed my genuine sentiments about boys plowing fields with oxen?  Of course, in normal life, language is clearly not about parroting back phrases you’ve heard somewhere else.  If that were the case, every online blog would be fixated on the same things—like cats or inspirational catch-phrases or Fw: Fw: Fw: How I Made a Fortune Blogging and Hilarious Prank Gone Wrong!!!!

For some people love and dating is a fixation like this.  I am given to understand that boys, when they’re not plowing fields, sometimes speak a second language to pick up girls.  (On which, see bizarrelovetriangleblog)

When I first came to Italy I sometimes would accidentally use words or phrases that were either archaic or very formal.  This was because most of my Italian up to that point had come from books and literature I had read, some of which was very old.

This made for some awkward conversations…

I’d meet people and they’d ask, “so what’s your story?” but then they wouldn’t believe me when I started to answer, “midway through the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wood…”  I didn’t understand the problem; it seemed to me like a perfectly reasonable answer. If an inspirational blogger ever tells you to be true to thine own self… I won’t say they’re being inauthentic, but it is possible they’ve learned English from reading Shakespeare.

For some English speakers, when they think of Italy the first thing that comes to mind is Dante, for others it’s more or less spaghetti ? I think that’s what that is.

Maybe Jerry should start a blog.

Until tomorrow,

Tim