Episode 045: Bach in Business

Stop me if you’ve heard this one… a pianist, a mathematician, and a crab walk into a bar. No wait… I forget how the rest goes. Anyway, this week Julie Meadows, now back from the future, joined me alongside sneezing philosopher Michael Hayslip and spaghetti extraordinaire Kevin Saunders to talk about some music. I think it’s safe to call this one a solid F-isode, people. So grab yourself a bowl of Raisin Brahms, hang onto your mobius strip, and enjoy this aurally stimulating installment of BF…

(No embedded video, but you can check out the archived clips here)

This week’s post-show song pimpage: “Hurt” by Johnny Cash

Trackback URL

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 Comments on "Episode 045: Bach in Business"

  1. rockingjamboree
    17/09/2009 at 11:03 am Permalink

    Musical Expression can go beyond a Communication between “Audience” and “Performer,” it can sometimes better be described as a Communion between the Audience, Performer and “the Divine.” Sometimes it’s not about Communicating a specific idea, it’s about about “BEING” in the moment, sharing in the moment. With written words or written music, that sharing can be across centuries. And when you play music by yourself, it’s more like prayer than a neurotic “talking to yourself” or masturbation. Your BEING in the moment with the music can feel like you are in Communion with something outside yourself, even God.

    Your description of “4:33” isn’t quite right. It involves a pianist, sitting at a piano. The performer sits at the piano, lifts the keyboard cover and looks at the keys in three specifically timed movements that add up to 4:33. At the end of each movement, the pianist puts the keyboard cover down. Usually the pianist uses a watch to make sure the piece is it’s exact prescribed length. You can’t just sit on a stool and do nothing for 4:33. It’s the unplayedness of the piano that is being played. Get it? It’s a perfectly tuned piano, but it’s not doing much. It’s a classically trained pianist (hopefully a master), but his potential is literally left untapped. They tap at nothing. You are listening, actively listening for something that really isn’t happening. And it’s through this act of active attention that we “hear” the music.

    I’ve seen this piece arranged for full orchestra! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUJagb7hL0E

    Here’s a hilarious tutorial video for 4:33. At least watch until 1:18. It cracks me up every time. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LJFJyvZA94

    There was NO first song. There was NO first ART. Is Birdsong (the sounds of Birds) not music? Are cloud formations not art? Once you recognize the beauty even in the music of spheres (the spiraling patterns of atoms or the swirling of the stars, you are on a journey of experiencing and sharing in the Divine. I believe, the reason things seem to contain beauty, (even more) convey beauty, convey meaning, the reason Creation speaks to us, is because that’s part of why it’s there and why we are here! We are born with a desire to seek and doubt, embrace and question, to love and let others love us. It’s not just who we accidentally are, it’s what we are created to be. We didn’t begin to create art until long after we started to recognize it’s existence!

    Just because you don’t understand Twelve Tone Music, that doesn’t make it not music. If you don’t understand French, you can’t claim that French is NOT a language, or that NO significant communication can be done in FRENCH, just because you don’t “get it.” Binary Code is a language, even if you can only perceive it as a seemingly random list of ONEs and ZEROs, ONs and OFFs, YESes and NOs.

    The REASON Tom and Jerry used the music of Mozart was because it already contained some of the “notes” (the themes) of what the Tom and Jerry cartoon wanted to portray. Mozart would easily recognize those same notes. The playfulness, the frenzy, the whimsy and the conflict would all be familiar to Mozart, because he’s the one who originally put them there in the music.

    “Afternoon of a Fawn” is an attempt to communicate a specific idea purely as Music. “Night on Bald Mountain” tries to tell a story, a SPECIFIC story, just with tones and patterns of sound. Most Ballets are attempt to convey a specific story through music alone (aided by dance). Now, how well that idea is communicated can be a problematic in how well the idea is interpreted. But even if someone has no concept of what a “Fawn” is, “Afternoon of a Fawn” still can convey that same pastoral peace and pleasure. It can still be intrinsically relaxing.

    Even if you don’t know the meaning of French words, you still may be able to recognize “A French Mother scolding her child.” You might not know exactly what transgression the child has committed or was about to commit, but the “idea,” the basic sense of the transaction/exchange can still be communicated and understood. The child might not be old enough to know the words either, but even they can easily recognize their mother’s tone.

    In the same way, almost anybody with senses, regardless of language, culture or musical education can recognize that “Afternoon of a Fawn” is about pastoral peace and “Night on Bald Mountain” is about intimidating power. Even if the specific exact ideas aren’t conjured in the minds of the listeners, that doesn’t mean the composer wasn’t trying to convey specific mental images. And it doesn’t mean the piece is a failure if something else is conjured up for the listener. Even without the specific mental images (a fawn, a demon), you can still get the gist of the piece.

    Why do soft, quieter sounds convey “peace”? Why do sharp, loud sounds covey “action” and “attack”? They just do. You could program someone to react oppositely to music. Pinch them, hurt them, surprise them or scare them every time they heard soft, pastoral music and eventually they would hear quiet peaceful music with a feeling of dread and fear. Reward them, praise them, love them to “violent music” and their reactions will be different. This is one reason why kids and parents have different reactions to the same music. They have been “rewarded” by their peers differently as to how they should react!

    Why do red colors feel “hot” or make us hungry. The just do. You can reprogram someone to confuse their color sense, but why would you want to!

    Graphic artists play with our natural and for the most part shared experiences of color, shape and light to make visual pieces “feel” more than what is contained in the piece. The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.

    In the same way, musicians use our shared experiences with sound to make us “feel” ideas that might not be readily explained in words.

    Songs, when they work well, MAKE us FEEL more than what the WORDS or MUSIC could covey on their own. Because there is something instinctual about how we react to certain sounds. Songs not only let us know the meaning of the words, they help us FEEL the meaning.

    “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away.” If you can “hear” the music in your head right now, that is part of the magic of the words. If you can “feel” the sorrow beyond the face value of the words, that is part of the magic of the music. (And the music’s in me, yeah. Do you believe in magic?)

    The OCTAVE system isn’t something we created. It’s something we recognize. It’s something we’ve discovered. It’s a phenomenon of physics and mathematics that exists and has always existed. If you pluck a string and then divide it in half and pluck it again, you will hear the same note one octave higher. That will be recognized by any culture anywhere. The harmonics of fourths and fifths isn’t something we create, it’s something we recognize. It’s a function of the physics and mathematics of sound.

    Primary and Secondary Colors are the same no matter what part of the world you are from or what planet. They are function of the physics of light. Similarly, the octave will be an octave anywhere in the world or even in the vacuum of space, because it’s a property of physics, not just perception.

    All that said, I don’t think we should limit our definition of music to purely auditory phenomena. Yes, Music is MAINLY auditory. But Music is fundamentally temporal. We are playing about with time and how things exist in time. Rhythms are obviously timed. But so are notes. Those are specific vibrations, recreations of specifically defined timed events. The harmonies and dissonance that is created between two or more notes is function of how those notes mix and blend in time. There is an underlying physics to it that isn’t put there by arbitrary definition. Roots and fifths harmonize because they have shared overtones that blend together. Mix a Root tone with tones that don’t blend as well (or aren’t even on the scale, quarter tones away) and you will have dissonance. The “ugliness” isn’t just a function of perception. It’s part of the basic physical character of the sound. The sound waves clash or unite.

    Now, Western Culture uses a tempered scale, this colors the music and our perceptions of music. If you grow up in a culture that doesn’t use a tempered scale, it can make Western music “taste” sour. Like not understanding Twelve-Tone. A tempered scale can just feel a bit Alien and odd to someone who isn’t used to hearing it. It’s like pouring skim milk on the cereal of someone who is used to eating their breakfast only with whole milk. They might spit it out screaming, “Why the hell are you pouring WATER on my Corn Flakes!”

    But a pure scale can be something magnificent. It’s one reason a cappella singers can send shivers down your spine. True harmonies, the blending of real fourths and fifths and thirds and minor thirds (and more complex combinations), that can be the stuff of chills. It can set your hair on the back of your neck on end. The twelve tones on the piano are only aproximations of the “true” harmonies.

    Musicians are playing with movement and expectation and surprise. Tension and release. Static art can only approximate this kind of momentum. And Dance IS music, even when there is no sound accompanying the dance. Because dance has to be about movement and time. It’s why 4:33 is such a funny, perplexing piece. It’s only about time and not about movement. The movement and surprise is mainly in the “found” negative space that constantly surrounds music but is rarely focused on by the composer. But that “found” space isn’t defined by the composer.

    The motion of the planets, the rhythmic swirl and beat, beat, beat of the seasons and moons and planets and stars IS music. Composers have long recognized this and tried to translate that into notes. The submicroscopic spins of particles, the seemingly chaotic “Brownian” motion between molecules is all MUSIC! It’s just Skadillion Tone music! We just don’t understand most of it. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not music or that it has no meaning.

    Machines can reproduce music, and make it almost exactly the same every time too. Some people value that. That’s why we value recordings. It’s also why we value live music, because of it’s ephemeral nature.

    If a committee gets together and writes a piece of music, who is the composer?

    Can someone program a computer to generate music? Can a computer “compose” music that the programmer couldn’t write or even conceive of by themselves without the aid of a computer? If you liked this “Computer Music,” who are you communicating with? Who is the composer? The Computer? The Program? The Original Programmer? Or are the listeners themselves the composer? When they stop and say, “That Bit! Those last 30 seconds of seemingly random Blips and Bleeps. That’s the part that I like and want to hear again, haven’t they become part of the process?” Or are they just recognizing auditory cloud patterns and saying, “Hmm, that one is nice.”

    I think that every time you listen to a piece of music, actively listen, and become involved with it, you are collaborating on that piece! “Oh, I like that bit .. ooh, not so sure about that part. Hmm, this reminds me of a fawn. I saw a fawn yesterday. I believe in Yesterday.” You are the person who can turn recorded sounds into “live” music, by actively listening.

    Sometimes we don’t compose, we recognize what is already there. If I create a piece of music by transcribing birdsong to an approximation of notes, who wrote the music? Did the Bird? Did I? Did God?

    Sometimes it feels like when you create a piece of music that you are discovering it, pulling it whole from the ether. A DIVINE inspiration! And who can deny someone their experiences of the divine! (I guess a cynic or psychiatrist.)

    You can’t economically mint a bobble head in lots of less than 500. I heard this from Hank Green, who created a bobble-head of John for his birthday and is now <a href="http://store.dftba.com/product/john-green-bobblehead"selling them to their fans. So you have to be pretty sure there is going to be a demand before you shell out for the supply. This is contrasted by Zazzle which can print on demand.

    I’m sorry this comment is novel length. I just kibitzed and typed while I was listening to the podcast. I hope you can forgive the tangential and overly verbose qualities of my comments. Those come all too naturally to me.

    Finally, come check out TooMuchAwesome.ning.com. It’s a growing community of artists (mostly songwriters) and other interested fans and folk. I am going to point the TMA crowd toward your podcast too. I’m sure they’ll get a kick out of this episode too. Speaking for the community (and I have no authority to do so, but that won’t stop me), we are in need of some Too Much Awesome Bad Philosophers. Thanks.

  2. StephenTorrence
    17/09/2009 at 11:13 am Permalink


    I think you just eclipsed Taz for longest comment EVER. Congratulations, dude. You will go down in the annals of BF lore.

    I would write a full reply to many of your points if I had time. Perhaps Kevin, Taz, or another one of our listeners might be interested in responding.

  3. KevSaund
    20/09/2009 at 1:34 pm Permalink

    Oh boy! A point by point reaction to your post! I hope you feel special. It’s not like I have a few grad papers to write.

    As far as music being used to communicate with “the divine,” There is still an otherness that is being communicated with in those situations. The situation may be different, even to the point of, as some claim, being guided through the music, but there is supposedly something else there. Even if that otherness isn’t anything, there is still a person experiencing the music, that being the performer. If the piece was composed by someone else it is communication with that person as well, if it was composed by the performer, it is communicating with a past version of one’s own self and if it is being made up on the spot the communication is with the now (much like talking through a problem out loud can lead to new insights.)

    As you later show with your example of 4:33 being performed with an entire orchestra, the piano isn’t actually necessary. As I understand the piece it doesn’t have to be played by a “master pianist,” but is purposely written to be performed by anybody. Cage was very postmodern in his approach to music and I can imagine would eschew the idea. He often proposed through his work than anything could be music, and through extension, anyone could be a musician. Often times, as I have come to deal with, people (especially “artists”) don’t like this notion. They insist upon a certain measure of work that has to go into being a “real” artist. I’m not saying that you are one of these, but I know that Cage wasn’t.

    The instructional video bothers me. Especially because he makes such a big deal of it, with thinks like the intentional mistakes. As I said, the piece can be played by anybody. I see the humor of making an instructional video about it, but making it out to be something that has to be practiced or learned goes against the piece.

    Again we come to your connection fo music and “the divine.” There may have always been birds, and noise, but there had to be a first *intentional* song. Be it an imitation of another sound, or a deliberate attempt to create something never heard before. The intent was began somewhere. Now, an artist like Cage would refute that there has to be intent for music to exist, and I certainly understand that, but music as something “other”began with intent.(also you may want to listen to our episode on the meaning of life, for more thoughts on your definition on what we are born to do.)

    French is a language, yes, but it is a constructed language. I have no idea what Twelve Tone music is, but If I have to learn it to be able to understand what is ‘said’ with it, then your analogy is quite accurate. I don’t think that music is as universal as you want it to be. People can see the same things in a given piece but that’s because of similarities in context and not an inherent quality in the piece.

    If you’re speaking of the “afternoon of a Faun” by Debussy, then I hope you are aware of the Dance of the same name (using the music) by Nijinsky. I find it interesting that you describe the piece as pastoral and relaxing. The dance by Nijinsky was considered vulgar and obscene, depicting sexual release. Was that somehow a misuse of the music? If there is an inherent meaning in the musis as you imply, then it would have to be. But if the music can be open to any interpretation then the pastoral idea you bring forward must be contextual.

    (I’m not skipping stuff here, you just cover the same thoughts multiple times)

    You talk of being able to “program” people to react to a certain kind of music in a certian way. That only proves my point further. We develop and attach meaning to certain stimulus because of how they are presented to us. Is just this way we are “programed” throughout our lives to have certain reactions to certain stimuli. This doesn’t mean there is a right way to react, just ones that we were taught (albeit, not as directly or intentionally as the hypothetical experiment you propose)

    This excuse of “they just do” doesn’t answer anything, unless you again go back to the nature of “divine inspiration.” Also, I hate being a grammar Nazi, but please end your questions with a question mark.

    (more stuff about how music and song can make us feel a certain way, that I counter with the same argument about context above)

    Ah, the physics of music. Yes, vibrations perform in a certain fashion and we have identified that fashion and codified it. But are those notes (specific wave lengths/frequencies) the ones we use because of their physical qualities? The scales were developed long before we could accurately measure amplitude and frequency of a sound wave. does any string go up an octave when cut in half, or only the ones of certain lengths, causing certain notes? The math may be there, but the selection of certain notes ass the important points seems more arbitrary than that.

    How do you know if you and I perceive blue in the same way? There is a wavelength, yes, but how we perceive those is just as important as what they are. The Newberry award winning book “The Giver” as a great bit about this sort of thing when the protagonist begins being able to see in a world of color.

    Saying that music is temporal is a tricky thing. Everything is temporal as we exist within space-time. You then go on a fair bit about the technicality of music that I don’t understand, but that doesn’t mean you’re wrong. It doesn’t mean your right either, but I don’t have the tools to build with you. I’ll jump back on when you get to something I have a response to…

    If a committee writes a piece of music then the committee is the composer. Now you seem to be saying that if it doesn’t come fully from one single person then it must have come from the aether, but if I hold up a stick and so does somebody else, and a third person straps a net between them we can play volleyball. The act of collaboration means everybody brings something and while in art the contributions might be harder (or impossible) to discern it doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

    Yes the audience is part of the process. They complete the composition, which implies that the piece becomes something new and different every time it is heard not even just every time it is played. That whole idea is very postmodern, and taken to the extreme it says that the creator of an art piece doesn’t even need to have an intent when it is created because the audience completes it.

    When I write plays, the characters can seem to take on a life of their own. Aristotle (the jerk) identified this by saying that poets (playwrights) had to be either crazy or a geniuses, because they either heard voices or could step outside of themselves. Just because I surprise myself when I’m writing (and that’s what it is) doesn’t mean I am actually embodying some other person, just that I am changing the way I first envisioned them. I actually have a play where I deal with a lot of this stuff quite extensively.

    Keep in mind I am an amateur and proud of it.

    I could certainly end here with some crap about plugging your own projects, but I won’t because I’ve probably been mean enough already. I do a fair bit of PR for BF, but it helps if you are a little more subtle about it, just so it doesn’t come off as you commenting to plug your stuff, or even worse SPAM. Thankfully, you said enough to avoid that pitfall this time.

  4. Taz
    21/09/2009 at 8:57 am Permalink

    Well… think I’m going to try my best to avoid the preceding shitstorm and issue the following.

    Firstly, I’m glad you cleared up the oral/aural thing. I have first hand experience of this sort of thing going wrong… you can only imagine my embarrassment when my girlfriend politely stated that she had, in fact, offered me favours of the oral variety and that the removal of my personage from her head, with all due care and haste, would probably, ultimately, be best for all concerned.

    It was great to listen to your thoughts on music; interested me greatly. However, I’ve always found music and art to be a bit of a philosophical taboo. It’s about the only field at which I can look and think: “Yup, siree. Is what it is,” and be happy with it too.

    See, I’ve always been one for the “True Art is Useless” school of thought and have always found the study of the useless to be somewhat… absurd, I guess. Of course, that which is without use is not necessarily without value, and it’s those values that actually interest. The arts are worth a truly honorable mention of the highest order when studying these values (order, chaos, beauty and grotesqueness, for example) as they perhaps offer some of the truest expressions of our perceptions of said values.
    I suppose, then, that, within the realm of philosophy leastways, I consider works of art and music to be something more along the lines of literary metaphors or analogies. And while such things can be incredibly intriguing to focus too much thought on them is to somewhat miss the point.

    For example, take the metaphor “life is a journey.” The point of this statement is not to make you think about the statement, nor too much about the comparisons between a life and a road trip to your Aunt’s place in Massapequa, but rather to make you think of life itself – moreover, to aid in your understanding of life.
    So when I listen to anything from the wuthering heights of Beethoven’s Sym’ 7, through Saint Saens Danse Macabre, to the likes of Nobuo Uematsu’s Terra, I can think about how, in their ways, they each represent parts of what Beauty is. To ask why they are beautiful (or chaotic, dark, rousing etc) is not so much a study of the pieces themselves, but an inquiry into what we understand to be beautiful, which, personally, is where I think the goods really lie.

    Incidentally, did anybody else watch the video in the above link to the full orchestral version of 4:33 and spend the whole time wanting so badly for a mobile phone to go off, or am I just a philistine.

    I think I’ve rabitted on enough, so if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some seriour free word association to attend to if I’m going to reclaim the crown for logest post.

    Paint, thinner, fumes, smoking, cough, syrup, figs, regularity, japanese transport system, effeciency, germans, sausages, rusk, babies, commitment, escape, prison, showers, soap, water, sea, cucumber, sandwich, lunch, tea, free radical destroying antioxidents, goji berries, tibet, monks, ecclesiarchy, nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo, desparate housewives, Lost, plot, vegetables!

    (I think I’ll continue in my own time.)

  5. rockingjamboree
    22/09/2009 at 5:37 pm Permalink

    @KevSaund, thank you for taking the time to read and consider my overly lengthy (and sometimes redundant) comment. I do feel special.

    What if a piece is purely improvised? Are you communicating with a future self? And I would like to draw a semantic difference between Communication and Communion, even if I’m picking nits or just totally off base. Communication means that you are trying to pass information between two (or more) different parties. So you have PERSON A, PERSON B and THE INFORMATION PACKET. It’s a transaction. With Communion, the object isn’t passing something from one to the other, but uniting the two within a common bond or experience. There is an transaction in Communication that can be judged as a failure or success. With Communion, the only objective is to be united within the moment. It’s not a “DOING,” it’s more a sense of “BEING.” Like Taz says, Communion “is what it is,” without need for explanation or judgement. And with music being both communication and communion, then it’s “Do-be-do-be-doing.”

    A favorite philosophy joke: “To be is to do”-Socrates; “To do is to be”-Sartre; “Do Be Do Be Do”-Sinatra; “Scooby Dooby Do”-Scooby Do; “Yaba Daba Doo!”-Fred Flintstone

    My point with “4:33,” and why I think it’s better performed by a master pianist, is that the piece is about potential. You can’t just sit at a stool without a piano or stand on an empty stage. The piece is written for a piano, it about the unplayedness of the piano. SO, if a master pianist is playing 4:33, your expectation is, “Why aren’t I hearing lovely music? Is this lovely music I’m hearing?”

    If 4:33 is played by a terrible musician, your reaction might be, “Thank goodness they aren’t touching the keys!” There is a difference in the unheard potentials.

    And yes, I think Cage was also toying with the idea of what musicianship is. He might have been hoping for the reaction, “Now, I can play THAT!”

    One of my points with birds and clouds and committees and computers is “Does art require intention?” And if it does, can the intention be on the part of the perceiver and not on the creator. Does art require a Creator? If I see a pattern in the clouds that I like, is that ART? The creation of the pattern is either random (or Divine), but is it still beautiful without my judgement? Am I the creator of the ART when I say, “That ONE, I like THAT!”? How much of an artist was Ansel Adams? And how much was he documenting the ART that was already there?

    I believe Man first recognized the ART in creation around him (and attributed it to the DIVINE) long before he began to try to create ART(at first) by imitating creation.

    Can I create a work of “ART” using dice? Can I roll the outcome? At the end of that creation, who is the creator? Me or the dice? What if I don’t write the rules to how the dice should be rolled or what each roll signifies? This is a simplified version of my “Can a computer create art?” question.

    If a group of friends sits down and plays Dungeons and Dragons, while another friend takes notes, then those notes are written up as a story, who wrote the story? The Dungeon Master, the game creators, the players, the dice or the friend taking notes? If the dice determined key elements of the “plot” (like which characters live or die), did the dice help “write” it?

    We don’t know that we both perceive “BLUE” the same way. Some people are color blind, they can’t perceive color the same way. But Blue, Red and Yellow will still be primary colors no matter what our perceptions of them are or what are reactions to them might be. If you mix them, you will still get BLACK, no matter how you see that or how that makes you feel. There is physics and math behind the aesthetics of color. And if we don’t see colors the same way, isn’t it amazing that our reactions to similar colors can be so similar!

    Similarly, there are physical properties to sound and vibration and harmony. I’m not a physicist. I’m a lousy musician. And I’m an even worse philosopher. But the acoustics of harmony are not arbitrary. Certain notes mix well, while others clash, not just because we define them that way or perceive them that way. They are physically clashing or harmonizing. And I don’t think the psychoacoustics are all learned responses either. Harmony is calming, dissonance is tense.

    Anyway, thanks again for your responses, KevSaund and Taz. Tossing about ideas like this is fun. I hope that I clarified some of my earlier ideas and wasn’t just repetitiously redundant, repeating myself again and again.

    I’ll recommend a book that has a section on the origins of art. It’s very similar in thinking to Taz. It’s “Understanding Comics,” by Scott McCloud. It’s a great comic book. It’s a great philosophy book. And it’s a great comic book about comic books. (Very Meta.)

You must be logged in to post a comment.