Not long ago I was in a very dark area on a clear moonless night. Andromeda was well above the horizon. I hadn't seen it clearly in awhile and just thinking about it fires your imagination - its light took well over two million years to make it to Earth. The closest galaxy, but the most distant object you can see unaided. As I stood just watching that galaxy as well as the rich band of our own galaxy a coyote barked in the distance. A chill, a good chill, went down my spine. I miss regularly encountering and appreciated nature. We have far too much artificial light and noise in our environment.
I sometimes escape noise by sealing off the outside world and listening to music that makes me pay attention. I don't think this is as common as it once was. Early this morning I had an exchange with Om on our bond with music. This is the note I sent with a bit of light editing:
Our connection with music is an area that couple of us spent puzzled over in our Human Computer Interface department. We were sketching out what it would take to build a framework probing what music meant to people sociologically, anthropologically and neurologically. Ultimately the On Music to Sontag's On Photography. Some of the questions are extremely deep and difficult, but we learned a little.
In the past decade progress has been made on the neurological front. We’re clearly musical creatures and that may be rare in the animal world - it may be that music is more of a definition of what makes us human than tool making or certain types of abstract thought (or not - it is an active area of research). We can recognize certain acoustic patters as music, but it takes experience and focus to understand this music thing more deeply. The act of learning to play an instrument or sing causes some neural rewiring and this can be significant in early life. People who follow this path have a tendency to listen to music more closely than those who don’t - even if they’ve given up their instrument later on. At a more extreme level is the act of creating novel music - very few people compose music. The percentage is lower than those who write books, poetry or do art.
Anthropologists note that music is universal across the thousands of cultures they've studies. Singing is common to all but a handful and percussion appears to be everywhere. Once we had to make our own music or be in physical proximity with those that did. Technology made it extremely easy to obtain and listen to passively. As phonographs and radio became common, music instruction slid. Concert going has become more rare and is tending towards a social occasion. Marketers have come to understand the subtle power of music in ads and stores so we have an overabundance of musical wallpaper. The same goes video and movies.
When I was a teenager music was a dominant form of both entertainment and communication among the young. I can’t stress the last point strongly enough. Music was how we talked about the important issues of the day - the war, feminism, racism, poverty, pollution, love and dreams. Electronic communication was mostly broadcast media with a limited number of channels. The written word was expensive and not terribly targeted (there were exceptions). Music linked and inspired a generation.
The quality of reproduction wasn’t important. You listen closely enough that the creation in your mind is more important than the quality of the reproduction machinery. People have been moved to tears by wax cylinder recordings - I’ve soared to ecstasy listening to monophonic 78s. The same with a friend singing to me over an extremely low fidelity cellphone link.
There was a period, mostly beginning in the 50s, when people began to collect records seriously enough that their playback mechanism was worth less than their record collection. Teenagers latched on with cheap 45rpm monophonic players and became a serious market. At the same time advances were being made in sound reproduction and home hi-fi become seriously better than radio or 45s. By the late 60s teenagers were spending money on their own stereos or were using their parents.
Move ahead to the present and we have many other ways to spend our time. Teenagers aren’t allowed to have the free interactions with others their parents had, so as danah notes, networked communications while being physically solitary or in small groups has become more common. This has reduced the amount of time focused music listening once occupied. Now we're more driven by novelty and following someone or something else's selections. Self assembling radio channel equivalents have become important and are replacing radio, but we rarely seriously listen. We value portability and often listen with enough background noise that good reproduction quality or even stereo imaging is not terribly important.
There was a period where audiophiles lead the way - they were buying kit that would become mass market five years later. These folks still exist, but the mass market no longer does. If you don’t listen closely, a smartphone streaming 64 kbps to medium quality earbuds or a bluetooth speaker is overkill. Few take care installing systems into homes and work on sound field reproduction largely came to a halt a decade ago (other than some serious research trying to understand how to do it in movie theaters).
Speaker manufacturers have to deal with a world where the mass market is one of convenience and style. There are a few physics tricks you can use, but the source material isn’t terribly demanding given how people listen. Serious non-audiophile people are most using ok quality convention diaphragm speaker systems or headphones. It is difficult to find a medium quality system these days. I wouldn’t want to be in the component business in the US.
One has to wonder if serious listening and perhaps amateur performance and composition will make a comeback. Will some of us move away from passive uncritical listening? There are some interesting tools you can imagine, but it is impossible to judge if they would be useful without making them real and teaching people how to use them. Steve Jobs misjudged this.
I take great pleasure listening deeply. I don’t really need to have a high quality installation to do do - but I do spend money attending live performances and know composers and serious musicians. I don’t know if we’ll come back to listening and playing. There are a few interesting conjectures that suggest paths, but behavioral change is difficult to arrange. But there may be a benefit - the neurological benefits of performing music may guard against dementia along with having an impact on what being ‘happy’ means, so these are interesting societal questions.
There is no right or wrong. Music is important to me - it is locally brilliant performing the job that I want it to do. I may be a dinosaur.
a most fascinating area…
Isaac Stern talks about the importance of the space between the notes and how you move among them. Yo-Yo Ma talks about the material of music - do you express it as wood - if so what kind? Is it steel, light, water. How are temporal structures created that seed ideas in the listener's mind only to be expanded on later? How does a musician interpret all of this.
One of the first pieces of music that seized my imagination is Schubert's E flat major Piano Trio. I've listened to the at least a half dozen performances of the Schubert piece and several have been live. I'm not a musician and this is not an analysis by any stretch of the imagination - just a few observations. The most remarkable version was recorded in 1952 by Pablo Casals (cello), Mieczyslaw Horszowski (piano) and Alexander Schneider (violin). Schubert wrote it soon after he learned about Beethoven's death and shortly before his own. Beethoven was something of a hero and the second movement (starting around 12:20) is a funeral march with a haunting theme in a minor key. You've probably heard it in movies even if you haven't listened to the Trio. The second movement is followed by a happier lighter movement and then a bright allegro for the forth movement. Somehow the memory of the development of the funeral theme has been maintained - expertly in the hands of these musicians - and near the end of the piece it comes back twice and then almost magically is transformed to a major key. It doesn't cease to take my breath away - the universe you are in becomes something else in a half step.
The old recording I had was monophonic and in poor shape. It completely blows away any live performance and the best 24 bit 192 kbps recording I listened to at a recording studio in Cleveland using a reference system that cost a good deal more than a luxury car. The music is closer for me on a low fidelity digital version I made that came from the original scratchy old LP via a cassette,
Someone has uploaded it to YouTube. There are many wonderful types and performances of music. There are several piano trios I like as much and one even more, but there be deep magic here.
I had some extra mango puree (any Indian market will have some - restaurants use canned pulp when mangos are out of season). This wasn't carefully measured, but came out just fine. Substitutions would be interesting... honey rather than sugar, cashews rather than almonds... cardamom goes so well with mango, that I wouldn't leave it out.
° 2 cups whole wheat flour
° 1 tsp baking soda
° 1 tsp baking powder
° 1/4 tsp salt
° 1/4 cup vegetable oil
° 2 tsp ground cardamom
° 1/2 cup white cane sugar - use a bit more if the pulp isn't very sweet
° 2 cups mango puree
° 2 tbl flaxseed meal
° 1/4 cup of slivered almonds
° heat oven to 350° F and grease a 9x5 pan
° in a mixing bowl whisk together everything from flour to salt
° in another bowl blend the remaining ingredients except for the nuts
° Mix in the dry ingredients with the wet and add the
° pour into the pan and bake about until a toothpick comes clean - about 45 to 50 minutes
° transfer to a wire rack for cooling