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

Life Abundantly

Day 69: Monday

Good morning Zak,

So I don’t know if you would count blogging as social media, but aside from this blog I pretty much have no presence online.  I don’t do social media.  This is a part of the hipster wannabe in me.  If everyone’s online, I’m not. If everyone likes milk chocolate, I prefer dark chocolate.  Everyone gets their Masters at home, I travel to Italy, etc.

The only downside to abstaining from social media is that it means I miss out on a lot of information.  In Milan there are sometimes weird hipster concerts with zero publicity, but you can hear about them if you’re in the right social media circle.

In your last entry:

“How can [we] use these tools for good — to help others — and not be addicted and lose [ourselves]?”

But there definitely are upsides to being out of the loop.  For one thing, not having direct access to information means that I have to rely on personal human contact to find out about stuff.  Sometimes people realize this and make a point of reaching out to me personally.  Maybe that means I’m a burden on society.  I don’t know.  Frankly I don’t care.  Human contact is worth the extra effort.

I know connection is supposedly the whole point of social media.  But maybe there’s a difference between mere connection and actual contact.  Like, I don’t think everything humans do has to be useful.  Human contact isn’t necessarily about having access to information or gaining a certain number of likes.  It can also be an end itself.

Luigi Dallapiccola used to wear a full suit and tie whenever he sat down to compose music.  He was completely alone; there was no one around to “like” his suit, but he did it anyway.  It was a ritual he needed to do for himself as an artist, not for any practical reason.

As a brief aside, anyone acquainted with the daunting eloquence of Dallapiccola’s music can totally picture him doing something like that.  I’d be more surprised to find out he didn’t wear a suit.

Anyway, I know people do a lot of really cool stuff online too.  I’m not informed enough about social media to really have an opinion on it.  But, Zak, I do have opinions about blogging.  I think we should use these tools to cherish the uselessness of being human.  Life isn’t about getting ahead.  It’s about living.

“I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Until tomorrow,

Tim

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, twenty 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.

denali-1701334_960_720

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