Wednesday, May 28, 2008

THE Issue

I'm sitting here listening to Muse (a fantastic British rock band), and I'm overwhelmed by a thought: somewhere, music lost its way. Why doesn't much of the music written over the last century affect me the way this does?

Of course that statement is nothing new, but I've long been concerned with how to create music with the visceral power of popular music without sacrificing complexity (in my opinion, Brahms was the last one to get the balance right). Listening to my music, one might not think that about me (maybe in my big band piece), but it's definitely a direction I want to take in my music.

I think John Adams and Osvaldo Golijov come close — certainly closer than many of today's other classical composers. The best film composers, too, though they are generally viewed as outside 'art' music, blend power and prowess quite convincingly.

Does music that has a groove or a beat automatically lose complexity? Should we bother trying to 'incorporate' pop music at all?

I realize I'm opening a can of worms larger than the scope of this blog — this is pretty much the only thing composers talk about amongst themselves — and that I could never come close to commenting on each of the myriad musicians who have presented their own solution to this issue, but feel free to chime in about Brahms, Adams, Golijov, film composers, or if you have a favorite composer or performer that walks and blurs the fine line.

Monday, May 19, 2008


When I was a freshman in college, I read a short piece by Donald Hoffman that postulated that humans experience the world through a species-specific interface (you can read excerpts from this piece as well as by his contemporaries here). At first I didn’t think much of it, but gradually the importance — and obviousness — of the concept dawned on me.

If you own a dog (or any other pet for that matter), consider how it experiences the world. Consider how fundamentally different its assumptions about the world are from yours. It knows nothing of the Earth beyond your home, your back yard, or your walk route. It has a very different understanding of how food comes to its bowl, how televisions work, and even of you, its human, than you do. Consider also that a dog’s perception — and therefore understanding — of the world is very different from a frog’s, which is in turn different from a fish’s.

I would suggest (as does Hoffman) that humankind’s perspective of the world is only slightly nearer to actual reality than that of any other animal’s. I won’t speculate as to what that actual reality might entail — lest this take a hippie, sci-fi tone — but it is probably very different from our current worldview.

Why do I feel this way? Why do other people vastly more educated and insightful feel this way?

Throughout human history, people have tried to explain through stories the things about the world they could not understand. Only in the last several hundred years, though, have people begun to examine elements of the story-making process — the interface — itself. Although to us it appears that the world is flat and that the sun moves across our sky, people found out that the world is, in fact, round. Not surprisingly, this was met with some pretty intense criticism and even denial: a few people were beheaded — typical fun history stuff. This trend has continued, uncovering countless realities — think biology and chemistry — about the world that for millenia of human existence had remained a mystery or had been explained away by myth.

As I said, history tells us that several centuries ago, the average person knew that the world was flat and that the Sun moved around the Earth. How much more fulfilling or convincing, really, is our current worldview? If anything, it opens up more questions. We can now observe all kinds of phenomena in the heavens, but we have no concept of what they are. Consider, for that matter, how many things science can measure and observe but not come close to explaining. Gravity. Life.

Science also fails to answer what humans see as a fundamental question: why? If ‘why’ is too metaphysical and ambiguous, replace it with ‘how’? Biology can detect all kinds of life functions, from hormones and DNA to the interactions that form ecosystems, but can not touch the question of why or how.

And yet science has almost completely replaced religion as the universal basis of our worldview. Why is it that, despite the considerable evidence above, no one questions the absolute truthfulness and rightfulness of science? Surely it’s a better approach than religion, but is it the ultimate truth? Fool me once with myth, chalk it up to history; fool me twice with a sometimes just-as-incomplete science, and I’m just not keeping my eyes open. It is almost certain that, in accordance with the grotesque flaws listed above, in several hundred years, certain scientific facts that we consider inalterable truths will be proven as false as the flat Earth worldview.

One possible alternative is philosophy. Philosophy as a field of inquiry is much older than science as we think of it today. It has always been concerned with questions more than answers. Research at the crossroads of philosophy and modern science concerning the inner workings of the brain, still in its infancy as a study, has already produced some tantalizing results.

Take for example, the struggle philosophy and psychology have waged against our species-specific interface about the true nature of the unconscious mind; some have even said that the conscious realm exists only to justify the action of the unconscious. This is remarkably well-supported by a new study, featured here by NPR, about subjects choosing to press buttons either on their right or left. It found that, with stunning accuracy, a researcher could determine which button a subject would press by monitoring and mapping his or her brain activity — before the subject was even aware that he or she had made a decision. In this case, it seems that an age-old and decidedly unscientific field of inquiry beat science to the punch.

Where does this leave us? Am I suggesting that philosophy, and not science, should be the new basis of our worldview? No, if we blindly believe anything a particular philosopher writes. Yes, though, if it means that we routinely and vigilantly examine the basis of our worldview.

Accepting that we don’t really know what gravity is, for instance, can take some getting used to and may not have watershed daily-life implications, but maybe acknowledging that we know impossibly little about the way our brain works and shapes our behavior does. Who knows? It’s the questioning that counts.