Thursday, June 19, 2008

Narratives And Vignettes In Music

I have been reading an excellent book by Alex Ross (NYTimes music critic) called The Rest Is Noise. It serves as a fantastic primer and introduction into the great composers of the Twentieth century, both in terms of their work, their contexts, and how they are in conversation with one another and in history. Armed with this book, and an account which I have been using to purchase the seminal works of the book (Thus Spake Zarathustra, the Ring cycle, symphonies by Mahler and Struass and Shostakovich), I have been exploring one of the genres of music which I have previously been unacquainted with: classical music.

Classical music has been somewhat of a puzzle to me. I have very much enjoyed certain of the iconic musical gestures of classical music (the beginning of Thus Spake Zarathustra which features so prominently in 2001; the theme to Edward Grieg's In The Hall Of The Mountain King from Peer Gynt; the signature of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and the 1812 Overture). And yet I find it not very fulfilling background music. Film scores (which are similar in musical gesture) did not prove quite so forbidding.

After a while of scrutiny, and with some insight provided by The Rest Is Noise, I think I have put my finger on it, and it has given me a lens, which has given me an anchor with which to listen to the music more properly. This reminds me of certain lessons I learned over the last couple of years which had given me more of a toe-hold in the world of painting, which I also confess I was not quite so interested in.

Much has been made of our current fast-paced media saturated culture. But one thing I will highlight is different between so-called "classical music" and today's pop culture is in format. Whereas symphonies were epic works spanning between a half hour and two hours, today's pop song spans between a minute and a half and five minutes--certain exceptions excluded.

There are reasons for this, mostly having to do with the early methods of encoding sound. But the difference between the musical story being told in a three minute song and being told in a three hundred minute song is a phenomenal one.

Narratives and Vignettes: Theater

Take, for example, a three minute piece of stage and a three hour piece of stage. These are known today as 'flash plays' if they are in one vein, or 'skits' if they are in another. What is notable about a skit or flash play is that (because of the constrained time) they quickly establish their premise, build this premise, and then pay it off. A beginning, middle, and end. But there is one dimension to the progression.

Take, for instance, a classic sketch by Monty Python: the Dead Parrot Sketch. The shop patron enters, and says, "I'd like to make a complaint." Upon questioning, he reveals that his parrot is dead. The shopkeep does not believe him. This is the thrust of the beginning. But this is also the premise of the middle. The patron builds in frustration, insisting the parrot is dead. The shopkeep builds in obfustication, coming up with more and more elaborate ways of dodging the buck. The conflict is finally defused (the shopkeep offers to replace the parrot) and after a brief denoument, the sketch is done with.

This is the layout of a vignette: a single image or idea established, examined briefly, and let loose. There is only one tone (in the sketch, comedy; in flash plays, any number of tones) that predominates. If the Dead Parrot Sketch had two minutes of comedy about whether or not the parrot is dead, and then suddenly the shopkeep revealed that his denial of the parrot's death was a serious grief-based reaction to losing the parrot, something more complex would have opened up--and the sketch wouldn't have the time to deal with it. So there is one narrative thrust: one tone, one plot-line, and a quick succession of events.

On the other hand, imagine a complex play. Let's take Hamlet. I will not synopsize Hamlet here. If Hamlet were able to be easily synopsized in one or two sentences, it would be a vignette. I could write a flash-play in which Hamlet is told by the ghost of his father that he has to kill his uncle, but Ophelia wouldn't be in it. Nor would Polonius. In fact, every added character and every added dimension of the play forces the play to be longer, in order to be adequately dealt with. The best example of that is Rosencranz and Guildenstern. Even after being dead, the playwright must further acknowledge the complicated link between cause and effect by having their deaths cause a war with England.

This is a narrative. There are a number of tones--Rosencranz and Guildenstern arrive, and bring with them merriment (which causes a scene in which Hamlet's "madness" is actually funny), but the same two characters betray their friend and are murdered for their role. There are competing interests, complex dimensions, etc. etc. etc. Hence, a narrative. And hence, a play in five acts.

Narratives and Vignettes: Music

I think that narrative/vignette dichotemy (which, of course, is not merely black and white) was more obvious to me in the realm of theater than in the realm of music because I am far more at home in theater than in music.

Pop music today, if you look at this narrative/vignette breakdown, is more clearly in vignettes. Usually, in three minutes, you have the establishment of an idea, its development, and its completion. A little more rarely but still common enough, you have the establishment of an idea, its development, its subversion, and its completion. Take, for instance, a very very classic song: When I'm Sixty-Four, by the Beatles. It establishes itself very quickly: the tone is kitsch, and it asks, "Will you still be there for me when I'm sixty four?" This song would more more troubling if, right after proposing a summer at the Isle of Wight, it suddenly broke into a screaming guitar solo replete with burning instruments, shattered equipment, and violent curse-words.

On my iTunes, I have my songs broken down by mood. I have loud and angry songs when I want to feel powerful, calm songs when I want to chill out, positive songs when I want to be cheered, nostalgic songs when I want to wallow in nostalgia.

So when I sat down to listen to Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, I was thinking I would listen to it in the background, and that it would very quickly say what it had to say. I wanted to figure out where among these playlists I would put it. But really, Firebird, and most symphonies, have a complex narrative function. Firebird begins with what can only be described as a pastoral setting; a beautiful, calm melody, woodwinds barely audible. I slowly turned up my radio dial several times because it was faint and imperceptible. Clearly, this was going on my "calm" playlist.

And then Stravinsky hit, fortissimo, possibly the loudest and scariest chord of noise. Partly because of my expectations and partly because of my high volume knob, the surprise note blasted out and nearly killed me. Then came the angry building of music, tearing apart whatever pastoral scene we saw before. Any attempt to boil down this suite into a single mood was clearly futile.

This is the narrative of Firebird. And it goes on from there. And because these longer classical songs were in the form of a narrative, it was impossible to get into them in my usual way: "getting into their groove" lazily while my mind heads out elsewhere. The narrative begs to be followed, to be examined.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Genes, Memes, And Temes: Reams of Teeming Beings Seemingly Teaming To Dream

The TED conference is one of my favorite places in the world. I love hearing ideas, hearing what people are thinking of, and seeing new fields of study in their infancy. One of these new fields is Mimetics, which is formed around the concept that brilliant biologist Richard Dawkins created.: memes. Memes, from the Greek word mimesis or imitation, (also related to the root mneme, from memory), are anything that can be imitated. Typically, we think of memes in the context of ideas or social habits (Natural Selection is a meme, as is this blog), but they can be as banal as "You can't HANDLE the truth!" or the Numa Numa dance meme.

The defining aspects of memes are two-fold: they spread through carriers like viruses, and they are subject to Natural Selection. Dawkins first created them as a model for genes, demonstrating that genes are not the only codings of information that Natural Selection can describe.

My interest with memes is that I am interested in culture; if culture is, as I've said before, the sum total of all the creative and spoken and intellectual and social creativity of a culture, than in a way, culture is entirely composed of memes. You could say that the sum total of all the memes in a given set of people is culture. I'm not sure that's the only definition, but if I were a mimeticist (which I am not, bear in mind) I'd probably go with that.

So I was interested to see Susan Blackmore's talk at TED--I was not previously familiar with her, but the title "Memes and Temes" caught my attention. Early on, I suppose, it became clear to me that my opinions about memes (although founded on the same beliefs as hers) have diverged with hers over several points.

  • The first point is which she made which I must strongly disagree with is one she made rather offhand, and at first I thought I would leave it out, but having thought about it I realized it was very important. Blackmore at one point makes reference to the fact that only human beings can support memes. I might have agreed with her, but two important references.

    The first is When Elephants Weep, an excellent book by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson Susan McCarthy. The point of this book is not to catalogue all of the range of emotions of all of the animals, but if you read it all the way through you are convinced entirely that animals have, at the very least, a complexity of emotional intelligence beyond what we normally give them. You see, the book posits that humans assume that only humans are intelligent, and this causes them to not recognize the differing sorts of intelligences (emotional being the focus of the book) that creatures have. The more specific arguments in the book are hit and miss, but to the degree that animals are smarter and feel more than we usually give them credit, the book argues its point excellently.

    The second is another TED talk, given by Joe Klein. Klein, thanks to a cocktail party wager, spent a long period of time researching crows, with the eventual aim of creating a vending machine that crows could be trained to use. The point he was making is that crows are far more intelligent than we believed, and thus we could try to forge a new relationship with them, a more beneficial one.

    What these two sources have in common is a belief that not only are animals smarter than we give them credit, they also deserve to be treated in a manner more equal to us. Inserting the meme, as it were, that there is no huge chasm between mankind and animals, but rather that we can come into a new cultural relationship with animals.

    Indeed, if it is true that animals have memes--which Joe Klein reveals when he discusses the spread of crows teaching one another to use cars to break open nuts--then that means that animals too have culture (certain tribes of chimpanzees have different levels of tool use, as I understand it). The relationship between two cultures is very difficult than the relationship between one culture and a large number of automata.

  • The second point in which Blackmore lost me is in her new definition of temes. I understand, to a certain degree, that technology develops like verbal or social ideas--but I have no idea why she wants to treat them separately, and why she says that now is the point at which temes are becoming part of our society. When did we cross the "third threshhold" into teme-creating parts of culture? Was it the Industrial Revolution? The invention of the computer? Was it robotics? Or the first use of tools? (which would suggest that crows and chimpanzees are perhaps at the third threshhold already).

  • The third point I disagree with is her contention that each of the three threshholds has a potential to destroy the race. Any mutation has the potential to destroy its bearer. But the cataclysmic turning point in history that she seems to foresee smells of hyperbole and sensationalism.

  • The last point with which she and I don't see eye to eye is her fork-in-the-road for technology: mankind integrating into technology and disappearing, or mankind being replaced by more-competitive temes which don't care about the planet or about us.
The deeper problem that seems to me to unite these problems is the tendency of certain thinkers to try to fit new ideas into pre-constructed narratives. After all, the last point has been the subject of science-fiction writers for many decades now: if you combine the two choices you get The Matrix. But what her entire premise leaves out is mankind's self-consciousness.

I was looking down at the comments for the video and I saw, quite at random, this comment:
Genes don’t have any way of caring about whether they survive or not, and most species don’t have any way of knowing or caring if their species survives or not. The only way we human beings are able to care about our survival is because we host memes that identify us as human beings, as members of biological families, social groups, races, etc.

What memes are you host to? If all races disappeared as distinguishable entities and we all became a homogeneous latte color, would you care, and if so, why? How did you come to harbor a meme that says race is important?

If world culture became homogenized as well, so that we all shared the same language, values, and technology, would you be sad? Why?

If all nations became subsumed under some super union so that national boundaries were no more than administrative districts, would you lament the loss of the USA, France, Japan, etc.?

Suppose we lost the meme that says it’s important for human beings to survive, and instead of identifying with a particular instance of biological evolution--human beings--we became identified with evolution itself in whatever form it takes: animal, vegetable, or mineral. If computers become more intelligent than we are, and self-reflective, and capable of propagating themselves more efficiently than we can, would you lament that we were being replaced by products of evolution?.
The poster, Norman Bearrentine, is making a point that the desire for human survival is, in itself, a meme. And in fact, Bearrentine is pointing to something important: we, as humans, have a self-consciousness that gives us choice.

This brings me to the major point of divergence between Blackmore and myself. The idea behind CultureFuture is that we have the ability to control our own fate by exercising self-consciousness and criticism to guide ourselves forward. It is not natural selection: it is human selection. We, as human beings, have proven the ability to stop natural selection by saving the lives of people who would otherwise die. And we, as human beings, have the ability to look for ways to cooperate rather than compete. And we, as human beings, have the ability to make choices about our future.

Blackmore, in her discussion about the third threshhold possibly killing us all, is making an oblique reference to global climate change. But the very idea that we are discussing global climate change and alternative sources of fuel means that we as a race are invested in changing our fate. One of the most misleading phrases in science or statistics is "if current trends continue." Current trends rarely continue, and they especially don't continue if we see a trend we don't like and choose to make it not continue. We can do that.

It's true: eventually there will be implants. And there will be drugs available that will make people stay up all night without sleeping. But so long as there are hollistic doctors, and the Amish, and luddites, and people who don't trust surgeries, and government regulators, and a world-wide conversation on the effects of our actions, we have our hands on the steering wheel. The only challenge is to get us all to make the right choice.

Blackmore, in the outset, tells us that memes and temes and genes can't "want" and don't "care." But this is missing the point: we humans care. And since we humans generate memes, and temes, and genes, we can learn how to manipulate them to our ends. Sometimes these ends will be destructive--propaganda is the science of using memes to manipulate populations, for instance--but my faith is to believe that we eventually will make the right choices, and will bumble our way towards a tomorrow that is just so slightly better than today. Not through natural selection, but through human selection.

EDIT: [removed the video due to its irritating habit of playing from the get-go. find it at]