A recent Gizmodo post titled “This Clip Is Proof That Birds Are Secretly Composers” features a transcription of a beautiful perched melody. The seemingly random configuration of birds on a line is, apparently, a complete pleasure to listen to.
“Looking at Plato’s works in their original scroll form, he noticed that every 12 lines there was a passage that discussed music.” – excerpt from NPR.org: “A Musical Message Discovered In Plato’s Works“
This article is fascinating to me, not because of the DaVinci Code-like revelation, but rather the emphasis on the number 12. It is a story that, yet again, links mathematics and music. It also dovetails nicely with a post of mine from January 2009 (“Twelve“), while referencing Pythagoras and the importance placed on ratio and proportion (also detailed here, “The Golden Page“)
There is no real conclusion drawn from the NPR feature, so we are left wondering why the preeminent thinker of 300 B.C. felt strongly enough about music to encode its defining principles into an otherwise non-musical work. The real takeaway here, and this is irrefutable: Plato felt compelled to draw connections between various arts and disciplines. Perhaps by conceptually linking disparate ideas, Plato believed he could reconcile the conflict and strife that always seem to arise when concepts appear at odds. (Science vs. religion, math vs. art, sculpture vs. painting, etc…)
These links and connections, as expressed through music, are what BlogSounds is all about.
The Hands Symphony is an interactive website sponsored by the American Heart Association. Choose from one of three styles of music, then click your way through various “hand instruments” as you introduce them to the piece.
If nothing else, this is a great example of using the barest of essentials to create. Remember this website when you keep insisting to yourself that you NEED that new instrument/program/pedal/gadget etc…
- The Post arranged to have a man play the violin for 45 minutes in the middle of a busy DC-Metro station. The material consisted of six different works by J.S. Bach.
- Reactions from onlookers and passersby were documented, peaking at mild, short-lived interest. (Oddly enough, some of the strongest reactions seemed to come from children, whose parents were quick to scurry them along regardless…)
- In total, only six people stopped to listen and twenty gave money (grand total: $32)
- Upon completion there was no applause or acknowledgement.
The violinist was world-renowned virtuoso Joshua Bell, playing a $3.5 million Stradivarius violin (more on Bell and his extravagant instrument here). Two days prior, Bell performed a sold-out show in Boston where seats averaged $100 each.
A litany of questions and conclusions followed (“In a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?…”). But for me, it brought to mind a comment from jazz pianist Bill Evans in his biography Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings, where he laments the fact that jazz music is all too often relegated to being background music for the din of conversation in a club. Bill estimated that only a very small percentage of his listeners during a performance actually picked up on the nuances and excitement of what he and his trio were playing.
The DC experiment demonstrates the importance of the listener participation. Listening to music is not a passive act, where the notes and chords wash over your ears and into your head effortlessly. To get the most out of a piece of music, and thus putting it on par with a great novel in terms of complexity and storytelling magic, the listener needs to take an active role in the process. Literature transcends entertainment as soon as you learn to read, and music can do the same when you learn to listen.
Hearing and listening are not the same thing, as the DC Metro experiment makes clear…
Here is a link to a great New York Times conversation with Aniruddh D. Patel, author of “Music, Language, and the Brain,” fellow at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, and self-proclaimed Neuroscientist of Music. One insight, following the discovery of a parrot named Snowball who dances to the beat of a Backstreet Boys song:
“What do humans have in common with parrots? Both species are vocal learners, with the ability to imitate sounds. We share that rare skill with parrots. In that one respect, our brains are more like those of parrots than chimpanzees. Since vocal learning creates links between the hearing and movement centers of the brain, I hypothesized that this is what you need to be able to move to beat of music.”
“Before Snowball, I wondered if moving to a musical beat was uniquely human. Snowball doesn’t need to dance to survive, and yet, he did. Perhaps, this was true of humans, too?”
The question, of course, remains why? Why do we, along with parrots, respond instinctively to music?
My take: it could be that music provides the same “neuro-catharsis” during daytime hours as dreaming does while we’re asleep, stimulating our brains and escaping our analytical reality. Music (and through association, dance) may be a vestigial “sanity check,” a screensaver of the mind, to bring us out of our day-to-day and prevent our mental processes from becoming to static and habitual.
SEED Magazine has a great article regarding creativity—it’s an investigation into the way artists are able to utilize their creative talents on command. They probe this mystery through the use of an fMRI machine to identify which parts of the brain are utilized, and when, during an improvised jazz solo. The goal was to untangle the disparate elements of inspiration:
William James described the creative process as a “seething cauldron of ideas, where everything is fizzling and bobbing about in a state of bewildering activity.”
The findings are interesting: before the solo even begins, a pianist was found to have “deactivated” their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), which is the portion of the brain associated with planning and self-control: “In other words, they were inhibiting their inhibitions, which allowed the musicians to create without worrying about what they were creating.”
The article drives on from there, delving into other aspects of the improvisatory experience. Spikes in medial prefrontal cortex activity, for example, which is an area associated with self-expression (“it lights up, for instance, whenever people tell a story in which they’re the main character”), and premotor cortex activity which is linked to the physical execution of notes. But it’s the first point I find the most interesting: It is a musician’s lack of activity in a particular area—conscious thought—that drives a successful solo before a single note is played.
Creativity, then, may not be a result of the presence of talent, but rather the lack of inhibition. One’s supreme willingness to simply try may be the best kept secret to artistic success.
This is a topic first introduced to me by one of my college professors in a Gustav Mahler seminar. He mentioned it only in passing, essentially a very raw footnote to some other point I’ve since forgotten. This forced me to connect the dots myself.
But first, a glossary:
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – (1749-1832) Arguably Germany’s greatest writer. Contemporary of Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher whose concept of the “will” (i.e. man’s basic motivation and desire) formed the foundation of his ideas.
- Gustav Mahler – (1860-1911) Austrian composer and conductor. One of the most influential late-Romantic composers known for his rich and distinct use of the orchestra and all its colors. Many of the ideas of Goethe and Schopenhauer have made their way into Mahler’s work.
- Goethe’s Faust – His magnum opus. A tragic play in two parts, based on the German legend of a man who makes a pact with the Devil in exchange for knowledge. Also the inspiration for the second movement of Mahler’s 8th Symphony.
- Abbey Road – One of The Beatles’ finest albums, featuring the songs, “Come Together,” “Something,” “Oh! Darling,” and “Here Comes The Sun.”
The idea here is that Abbey Road has very strong connections to both Faust and Mahler’s 8th. Much like the supposed parallels between The Wizard of Oz and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, the connection between The Beatles and Germanic philosophical closet drama are likely equal parts serendipity, synchronicity, and unconscious inspiration.
The concept is best explained by making our way through Abbey Road’s sequential track listing:
- Come Together – Taken literally, the title of the first track mirrors the meeting of God and The Devil, propelling the album into the crux of the plot (The Devil bets God he can tempt Faust away from his ideals and pursuits). Through the lens of Mahler, it can also come to mirror the duality of his 8th Symphony–Part I being the setting of a hymn, and Part II being the setting of Faust. God and Goethe. Latin and German… both coming together to create one whole. I should also note that the first word of the first movement of Mahler’s 8th is “Veni,” the latin word for “Come.”
- Something – This is a love song, and pulls from Mahler’s hymn in its description of God’s love.
- Maxwell’s Silver Hammer – The cheekily bouncy tune describes Maxwell Edison, medical student, killing several people with a hammer, including the judge condemning him to prison. It juxtaposes nicely against the scholar Faust in his study late at night, pondering violent fantasies out of frustration.
- Oh! Darling – This song is a reassurance, an apology of sorts, that the singer will “never do you no harm.” I imagine Maxwell singing this song after awakening from his silver hammer daydreams, much like Faust is pulled away from his murderous reverie by the sound of an Easter celebration outside his window.
- Octopus’s Garden – An octopus’s garden, in which Ringo Starr sings that “we will be warm, below the storm, in our little hideaway beneath the waves,” is a sales pitch. Ringo is trying to convince the listener that “below” is where we should all spend our days. After Faust’s reverie is broken, he is approached by Mephistopheles in the same persuasive manner. This is when the Devil makes his offer.
- I Want You (She’s So Heavy) – This long, aching, humid tune is the epitome of raw desire. It mirrors perfectly Faust’s efforts to free Gretchen from prison and eventual death.
- Here Comes The Sun – This song opens up Side 2 of the Abbey Road LP. Part 2 of Faust opens with Faust awakening in a field of fairies, symbolizing a new beginning and a fresh start. The fact that both themes kick off the second part of their respective works is one of the more solid anchors of this theory.
- Because – This song echoes Mahler’s 8th more than Faust directly. The similarity is in the harmonies: Lennon, McCartney and Harrison all sing harmony parts that are tripled, thus sounding like 9 singers instead of 3. The second part of Mahler’s 8th is very much a “choral symphony.” In fact, Mahler once described it this way: “Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. These are no longer human voices, but planets and suns revolving.” Coincidentally (?), the song “Because” begins with the lyrics “Because the world is round…”
- You Never Give Me Your Money/Sun King/Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came in Through the Bathroom Window – These songs are short, interweaving pieces that form a “suite” of sorts and work together to build drama toward a theme of trancendence. This is the very same theme and technique employed by Mahler to set Faust in the second part of his 8th Symphony. The “here comes the sun king” lyric echoes the earlier song “Here Comes The Sun” and points to a higher power. In fact, the second part of Goethe’s Faust is said to be comprised of 5 acts—distinct episodes—”each representing a different theme.”
- Golden Slumbers – This song sits separately from the medley described above. It is not segued into, and introduces Faust to his “golden slumber”… that is, his final slumber, if you will…
- Carry That Weight – This song picks right up from “Golden Slumbers” and describes Faust’s striving and effort (this is Schopenhauer’s ‘will’). Goethe’s Faust is a troubled intellectual seeking “more than earthly meat and drink.” Mahler’s 8th describes the angels bringing Faust’s soul up to heaven. They even declare: “He who strives on and lives to strive/ Can earn redemption still.” The striving, this being Schopenhauer’s ‘will,’ is the “Weight” that Faust carried the whole time. It also features the vocals of all 4 of The Beatles, which is a fitting comparison to Mahler’s 8th, also referred to as the “Symphony of a Thousand” for its enormous use of singers and musicians. Themes from “You Never Give Me Your Money” are recalled, and the horns ring in a true transcendental sound.
- The End – “In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” This is how The Beatles brought their work to a close, and it’s as fitting an end as Goethe could have ever hoped for.
- (Her Majesty) – This curious track was “hidden” on the original Beatles album. It’s not even listed on the first printing of the album cover. In this way, it stands apart from the underlying theme described here. But consider this: Mahler’s 8th symphony had strong themes that dealt with the Sacred Feminine, and was dedicated to his wife, Alma Maria. Also consider this portion of a note Mahler wrote to Alma in June 1906, describing his 8th Symphony:
That which draws us by its mystic force, what every created thing, perhaps even the very stones, feels with absolute certainty as the center of its being, what Goethe here—again employing an image—calls the eternal feminine—that is to say, the resting-place, the goal, in opposition to the striving and struggling towards the goal (the eternal masculine)—you are quite right in calling the force of love. Goethe … expresses it with a growing clearness and certainty right on to the Mater Gloriosa—the personification of the eternal feminine!
This last quote by Mahler himself describes the end of his own work, as well as the end of Abbey Road: “Carry That Weight,” “The End,” “Her Majesty”… all three referenced nicely in the context of Goethe’s symbolism.