I think I first came across the music of Austin Cairns (AKA r beny) on Soundcloud, where he has a page you should check out, but he also posts some things just to YouTube, of which the piece above is a superb example. It has a quality that I especially prize in ambient music, which is that it rewards just as little or as much attention as you choose to give it. You can play this in the background as you work, but if you choose to focus on it there’s enough going on to fully occupy your musical neurons. (This cannot be said of much ambient music.) And there’s something oddly fascinating about watching his hands show up from time to time to make their delicate adjustments to the machine — it almost seems a living thing.
And of course I really really want a Digitone now.
Another music post…
Nearly thirty years ago now I bought a CD on pure impulse, knowing almost nothing about the performers: When in Rome, by the Penguin Café Orchestra. You’ve probably heard some of their songs: “Perpetuum Mobile” — in 15/8 time! — or “Telephone and Rubber Band”, though maybe not my favorite of their songs, “Dirt.” The style is difficult to describe and definitely doesn’t work for everyone. Simon Jeffes, who founded the PCO, wrote its songs, and played whatever instruments needed playing for a given tune, called their work “modern semi-acoustic chamber music,” and, in a different context, “imaginary folklore.” I like that latter description: I imagine a hidden land somewhere populated by people of English, Celtic, Portuguese, and Venezuelan descent, playing away on instruments they found in their grandparents’ attics. As I say, not for everyone, but I loved it from the start.
When Simon Jeffes died of a brain tumor in 1997, at the age of 48, it seemed that the story of PCO was over. But a one-off reunion concert on the tenth anniversary of his death, featuring his son Arthur, caused a great many people to say that they want more. So Arthur Jeffes (an archeologist by training) got some musicians together and founded Penguin Café to play his father’s music and some of his own. The results are getting more interesting — for instance, in Cantorum, an attempt to use some of the characteristic rhythms and repetitions of electronic music with analog ones. Check it out:
A few years ago the German pianist/composer/producer Nils Frahm fell out of bed and broke his thumb. As he later recalled,
All of a sudden I had so much time, an unexpected holiday. I cancelled most of my schedule and found myself being a little bored. Even though my doctor told me not to touch a piano for a while, I just couldn’t resist. I started playing a silent song with 5 fingers on my right and the remaining 4 on my left hand. I set up one microphone and recorded another tune every other night before falling asleep.
If you click on the link above, you’ll see that you can download for free the resulting recording, called Screws in honor of what held his thumb together as it was healing.
I like Frahm’s electronic music very much, but it’s his solo piano work that really captivates me. He often uses an upright piano that he has modified slightly by adjusting the size and texture of the felts, though his wonderful 2015 record Solo was recorded on a unique 12-foot-tall piano called the Klavins M370. He can play loud and fast, but his best music is slow and contemplative, and has reminded many people of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies, though when his improvisations get chordal they remind me a bit of Keith Jarrett’s quieter moments.
Maybe the most important predecessor to Frahm, though, is Glenn Gould — not in pianistic technique, but in recording technique. In his recording sessions, Gould famously insisted that the microphones be placed as close to the piano strings as possible, yielding a very intimate sound — one which was intensified, I think, by his spare use of pedals. Try listening to a random piece from Gould’s version of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and then compare it to, say Sviatoslav Richter’s (equally great) version, and you’ll immediately envision Richter playing on a big stage in a great concert hall. Gould’s music is for the private listener.
And Frahm takes this emphasis on privacy even further. He has fitted one of his pianos with a pickup that sits inside the instrument, so that you can hear the mechanism moving as the hammers lift and drop and as the pedals engage and disengage. You’re reminded that pianos are made largely of wood — Frahm seems to be playing a living creature rather than a thing. I am not certain that in recording Screws he had the mic inside the piano, but it sounds like it to me; and there are ambient noises from the room in which he recorded it too. In an interview a few years back he commented: “There is something very beautiful about a mono recording of a piano. ‘Screws’ which I just recorded was with one microphone, an old condenser, fed through an EMT stereo reverb and that was it. That was the whole process.” Simple, analog, warm, quiet, private. (Similarly, here’s Nils with one of his favorite toys.)
However: the benefits of such simplicity and warmth are not so easily accessed by the listener. Listening to Frahm’s solo music on a bog-standard pair of earbuds will not allow you to discern many of the subtleties that make it beautiful, and will reveal none of them if there’s any noise at all in the room where you’re listening. My hearing is not nearly as good as it once was, thanks to a youth misspent in too much rock-and-roll played at far too high a volume, but I’ve found that to get the most out of Frahm’s music I benefit from the lossless 24-bit versions he offers on his site, played through a DAC headphone amp and a very good set of headphones. So, as so often in our world today: simplicity and warmth are expensive, and increasingly available only to a privileged few.
But in the best way available to you, check out Nils Frahm’s music. It’s truly remarkable.
For the last month, almost every night, I have listened to Max Richter’s Sleep. I have some things to say about it:
- It amounts to more than eight hours of music.
- It is comprised of 31 sections, ranging in length from 2:46 to 33:46. Only seven of the sections are shorter than ten minutes.
- The music is made by voices, strings, and keyboard instruments (some of which are electronic).
- I think I have listened to it all, but I am not sure. I have played it mostly in bed, though sometimes at my computer as I write. In bed I have drifted in and out of sleep while listening. I think I have listened to some sections several times, others no more than once, but I cannot be sure.
- Sleep is dominated by three musical themes, one played on the piano, one played on the violin, and one sung by a soprano voice. (Though other music happens also.) One way to characterize Sleep is as a series of themes with variations.
- The piano theme is the most restful, mimicking most closely the rhythms of the body breathing; the violin melody is the most beautiful; the vocal melody is the most haunting. (Also, when it appears when I am sleeping, or near sleep, it wakes me up.)
- I could tell you which of the sections presents the violin melody most fully and most gorgeously, but then you might listen to that section on its own rather than in its context. I do not wish to encourage shortcuts in this matter.
- It is said that the music of Arvo Pärt is especially consoling to the dying; I think this may prove true of Sleep as well. There is a very good chance that, should I die slowly, I will listen to Sleep regularly, perhaps even exclusively.
- Sleep is the half-brother of death.
- The number three plays a large role these pieces: the time signatures vary a good deal, but a good many of them come in units of three. Also, at least one section — maybe more; it’s so hard to be sure — features a bell-like tone that rings every thirteen beats.
- If you have a very good pair of headphones, that’s how you should listen to this music. If you’re listening on, for instance, Apple’s earbuds, you’ll miss a great deal of wonderful stuff going on in the lower registers.
- The musical materials of Sleep are deceptively simple: Richter is not by the standards of contemporary music tonally adventurous, yet he manages to create a remarkable variety of treatments of his simple themes. The power of the music grows with repetition, with variation, with further repetition. This is yet another reason why sampling this composition will not yield an experience adequate to its design.
- Since I started listening to Sleep I have thought a good deal about sleep and what happens within it. As Joyce insisted in Finnegans Wake and in his comments on the book when it was still known as Work in Progress, we have no direct access to the world of sleep. All we have is our memories of dreams, and these may well be deeply misleading: “mummery,” Joyce says, “maimeries.” And even dreams are not sleep tout court. A third of our lives is effectively inaccessible to us.
- Listening to Sleep is, I think, one of the most important aesthetic experiences of my life, but I do not have any categories with which to explain why — either to you or to myself.
In 1817, Dr. James Parkinson, an English surgeon, scientist, and political activist, wrote in An Essay on the Shaking Palsy about a new medical pathology. In this work, he
describes the characteristics of what would later be called Parkinson’s Disease (PD). The essay is worth
examining because it offers a perspective on a disease that we see quite often — PD is one of the most common debilitating neurologic disorders
today, affecting about 1 percent of people over sixty.
Parkinson set out to characterize the illness by doing what a scientist ought to do, observing and taking notes:
The disease is of long duration: to connect, therefore, the symptoms which occur in its later stages with those which mark its commencement, requires a
continuance of observation of the same case, or at least a correct history of its symptoms, even for several years.
The onset of PD is extremely subtle; its initial symptoms are “slight and nearly imperceptible.” Nevertheless, patients generally experience a sense of
weakness and a minor unilateral hand tremor at rest (the typical tremor is exhibited in this video). Soon, “the morbid influence is felt in some other part,” perhaps the leg on the side
of the affected hand. Other symptoms arise over months to years, too, making precise manipulation, for instance when writing, more challenging:
As the disease proceeds, similar employments are accomplished with considerable difficulty, the hand failing to answer with exactness to the dictates of
the will. Walking becomes a task which cannot be performed without considerable attention. The legs are not raised to that height, or with that promptitude
which the will directs, so that the utmost care is necessary to prevent frequent falls.
In addition to falling frequently, patients’ handwriting shrinks in size (this is known as micrographia); they experience difficulty sleeping and increased severity of
tremors (eventually affecting both hands and both legs); the disease even alters speech, causing patients to speak softly (hypophonia); and uncontrolled drooling occurs along with increased muscle rigidity. Patients often feel
frozen in space, trapped by the inability of their muscles to obey their commands.
Parkinson describes the last stages of the disease as follows:
The chin is now almost immoveably bent down upon the sternum. The slops with which he is attempted to be fed, with the saliva, are continually trickling
from the mouth. The power of articulation is lost. The urine and fæces are passed involuntarily; and at the last, constant sleepiness, with slight
delirium, and other marks of extreme exhaustion, announce the wished-for release.
And yet, despite Parkinson’s detailed knowledge of the disease course, there was no real indication as to the etiology or pathology of it. One can sense Parkinson’s frustration with the ignorance of the scientific community:
We are in fact as little informed respecting the nature of the affection, inducing the carious state of the vertebræ, as we are respecting the peculiar
change of structure which takes place in this disease. Equally uninformed are we also as to the peculiar kind of morbid action, which takes place in the
ligaments of the joints; as well as that which takes place in different instances of deep seated pains and affections of the parts contained in the head,
thorax, and abdomen….
As for “the means of cure,” Parkinson writes, “nothing direct and satisfactory has been obtained.” Indeed, he proposed a treatment that seems absolutely
bizarre to us today: drain blood from the upper part of the neck. One theory held that the disease came from irritation of the theca, a covering of the spinal cord, leading to inflammation and pressure. According to Parkinson,
draining the blood could release that pressure and mitigate symptoms.
Though this treatment amounted to very little, Parkinson does conclude his work with some hope:
There appears to be sufficient reason for hoping that some remedial process may ere long be discovered, by which, at least, the progress of the disease may
be stopped. It seldom happens that the agitation extends beyond the arms within the first two years; which period, therefore, if we were disposed to divide
the disease into stages, might be said to comprise the first stage. In this period, it is very probable, that remedial means might be employed with
success: and even, if unfortunately deferred to a later period, they might then arrest the farther progress of the disease, although the removing of the
effects already produced, might be hardly to be expected.
Looking back at Parkinson’s essay with today’s knowledge about the disease, we can say that his descriptions are unusually accurate for a medical text that is two centuries old. In fact, many of the
patients I’ve seen in clinic today with Parkinson’s disease have stories identical to those described by Parkinson. However, there are a few corrections
that we need to make. First, Parkinson neglects to mention the dramatic changes in facial expressions among these patients — a practiced observer can pick out a PD patient
merely by making eye contact.
I saw a seventy-year-old female in clinic with a new diagnosis of the disease. She had the classic hand tremor and muscle rigidity, but I
remember her face the most. It was haunting. She rarely blinked and stared with the utmost intensity, not quite sure when to look away. That small social
grace of breaking eye contact had been lost. The eyes peered, not vapidly, but creepily. They challenged you to speak or break the stare. The whole face
seemed devoid of a crucial aspect of its human expressiveness. I noticed no smile or frown even when I joked around with her. Her expressions contained a strange mixture of repressed
anger and stoicism. Facial signals, emotions, and features are dampened and even nonexistent in PD to a frightening extent. And imagine the emotional pain
that comes with the knowledge that your face publicly separates you from everyone else.
Parkinson also did not know anything about the pathology of the disease. We now understand that the disease can be linked to the death of neurons. Specifically, neurons that release dopamine in the brain in the substantia nigra die off, leading to an overall reduction in dopamine in the brain. The disease
causes symptoms after 80 percent of these dopamine-producing neurons are lost. Why this happens is still unclear — approximately 85 to 90 percent of the cases are idiopathic
(meaning the cause is unknown) and 10 to 15 percent of affected patients have a first-degree relative with the disease (and we’ve identified at least some of the genes that are associated with PD). But there
are interesting non-genetic factors that contribute to the risk for developing the disease. Pesticide exposure and the drinking of well water have been linked to PD (see for instance chapter 77 of the textbook Neurology of Movement Disorders by Haq, Foote, and Okun). And the use of tobacco, bizarrely, has been
inversely associated with risk for the disease.
Thankfully, though, the treatments for PD have improved tremendously over the last few decades. Dopamine agonists and medications like carbidopa-levodopa stimulate
dopaminergic receptors in the brain, freeing patients from their feelings of bradykinesia (slow movement) and rigidity. One patient I spoke with called his
medications “a miracle.”
Deep Brain Stimulation
(DBS) also dramatically improves patient’s symptoms. Neurosurgeons implant a thin electrical wire either in the globus pallidus internus or the subthalamic nucleus — two different parts of the brain — which then connects to a pulse
generator. This generator sends electric pulses into the brain, and symptoms can change almost immediately. I clearly recall my first encounter with a patient who received DBS. In the
exam room, the attending physician increased the voltage going through the generator and the patient’s tremor gradually
decreased until it disappeared. It was absolutely incredible to witness.
There are, of course, side effects to these medications and procedures. Impulsivity is one that I have had a particular interest in: patients on dopamine
agonists and with DBS can take up gambling, excessive shopping or risky sexual activity. Additionally, the medications can cause nausea, vomiting,
dizziness, hallucinations, and constipation. The most serious side effects of a drug like carbidopa-levodopa are dyskinesias, which occur after long-term use. Dyskinesias are involuntary movements: patients writhe sometimes fluidly and sometimes suddenly. An arm shoots up in the air and is forcefully pushed down into
one’s lap; the tongue hangs out of the patient’s mouth and licks the upper and lower lips; the lips smack together uncontrollably; legs kick. The patient
seems to be possessed. Since these are uncontrollable, patients are not only forced to do things they don’t desire but are also faced with
the stigma of their unusual behavior when they leave the home.
Dr. Oliver Sacks, the late neurologist, writer, and professor at NYU, describes one unusual method of dealing with parkinsonian symptoms in his book, Musicophilia. He observes the fascinating, rare, and still mysterious response a particular patient had to
If one walked her down the hallway, she would walk in a passive, wooden way, with her finger still stuck to her spectacles…. As soon as she sat down on the
piano bench, her stuck hand came down to the keyboard, and she would play with ease and fluency, her face (usually frozen in an inexpressive parkinsonian “mask”) full of expression and feeling. Music liberated her from her parkinsonism for a time — and not only playing music, but imagining it.
Rosalie knew all of Chopin by heart, and we had only to say “Opus 49” to see her whole body, posture, and expression change, her parkinsonism vanishing as
the F-minor Fantasie played itself in her mind.
Even with all these treatment options, nothing halts the progression of the disease. Many patients I have met in the neurology clinic have had PD for
almost twenty years, and their symptoms severely affect their lives. They have dyskinesias; their medications last for a much shorter period of time than
they did years ago; they use a wheelchair; some of their voices barely rise above a whisper; and some have drool constantly leaking from the corners of
their lips. Modern therapeutics hold the symptoms at bay for only so long.
But perhaps we, like Dr. James Parkinson, can hold out some semblance of hope. In an
article in the New York Times in February 2015, Jon Palfreman, a professor of broadcast journalism at the University of Oregon and author of the book Brain Storms, described his own experience with PD. He explains that one biotech company is now
experimenting with genetically engineered compounds from viruses to neutralize specific proteins that build up in the brain and may be implicated in PD. This is a
very interesting development and one that we ought to keep our eyes on. Clearly, we have come a long way from draining blood in
order to treat PD. But we are also far from being able even to slow it down, much less stop it.
As physicians, we rarely consider the healthy human body. We learn
about normal human physiology during our first year of medical school
but soon afterwards are exposed solely to pathology. In the hospital we
almost always inquire, “What is going wrong here?” but rarely ask,
“What is going
right here?” It is worth taking a moment to examine
well-functioning human biology. Let’s start with a deep breath.
contracts and pushes downward against your liver, spleen, and stomach.
chest expands and sucks in molecules of oxygen, nitrogen, and other
gases through your nostrils and mouth. These airway entrances humidify
the gases while filtering out foreign bacteria and dirt. Air travels
deep into the lungs along a system of progressively smaller passageways
reaches the alveoli,
compartments at the termini of the lung lobes. Here, red blood cells
passing through adjacent vessels pick up oxygen from the alveoli in
exchange for carbon
dioxide, a waste byproduct of the energy exchange in each
cell in the
Next, the red blood cells carrying oxygen travel through the pulmonary
vein to the left atrium
of the heart. During diastole,
period of relaxation of the heart, the left
ventricle expands like a sponge and fills its
chamber with the blood from the left atrium. This muscular left
ventricle subsequently contracts and forces blood into the aorta,
the main artery of the body. The aorta squeezes and moves the plasma
forward. Then, it splits
into two different pathways — some of it ascends into smaller arteries
that move up into the arms and the brain and some of it descends into
arteries in the abdomen, legs, and toes. Either way, the flow is highly
pressurized and continues to be guided along by the muscular arteries.
Each artery further branches off into arterioles,
or small arteries. These
arterioles also decrease in size and eventually become capillaries,
which are so minuscule that red
blood cells have to move through them single file.
In the capillaries, another exchange takes place: the red blood cell
offloads oxygen and picks up carbon dioxide. Cells from other tissues,
muscles and the gastrointestinal tract, pick up the oxygen and use it
respiration, a complex biochemical
reaction that creates energy for all kinds of cell tasks and thus for
everything that human beings do. You can digest food, speak, and read
energy. And you have energy because of oxygen.
The red blood cells continue their single-file journey. But, something
begins to change. This time, the vessels enlarge as they coalesce and
and then veins.
Unfortunately, veins are
not muscular in the way that arteries are. Blood, then, is pushed
forward because of the back pressure from more and more blood that
Additionally, one-way valves within the venous system prevent backflow,
ensuring that the deoxygenated blood continues to move forward. And
even as we walk
or stretch, our contracting muscles push against the veins and coax the
red liquid’s movement.
Finally, blood arrives in the Superior
Vena Cava, large vessels that lead into the right atrium of
the heart. During diastole, blood enters the right ventricle. During systole,
a period where the
heart contracts, the right ventricle squeezes blood into the pulmonary
artery and eventually into the lungs where the process repeats itself.
There is beauty in this cycling
system. It repeats itself with every heartbeat, over sixty times a
minute, every hour, every day, for one’s entire existence. The
efficiency, the speed, the different parts — the whole thing is
stunning. And as we delve even deeper into how this whole system works
we uncover more relationships that demonstrate our impressive biology.
The volume of blood that the heart pumps out is called cardiac
output. We can calculate the
cardiac output by multiplying the heart rate and the systemic
vascular resistance, or the
resistance that must be overcome to push blood through the vessels. The
arterial pressure, or the average pressure in the arteries
during one heartbeat, can
be calculated by adding two-thirds of the diastolic pressure (the
pressure while the heart is relaxed) and one-third of the systolic
pressure (the pressure
in the arteries when the heart is squeezing). Alternatively,
multiplying the cardiac output and the systemic vascular resistance and
adding the central
venous pressure, the pressure of the blood in the veins as it
returns to the
heart, can also give you the mean arterial pressure. As one can see,
elements of the whole system are related to each other mathematically.
These relationships allow for push and pull: change one side of the
equation and the other side changes to maintain balance. Increase heart
rate and the
systemic vascular resistance may decrease in order to maintain cardiac
In addition to the mathematical relationships between our internal
organs, there are musical relationships, too. Like the percussionist,
the heart maintains the rhythm and slows or
quickens pro re nata (as needed). Using musical
terms, we might say that during exercise the heart beats in presto or allegro;
during the moments before sleep, perhaps andante.
Our breathing coincides with the beating of the heart. Our lungs whoosh
as they fill up with air and suddenly deflate as air
rushes out. This, too, is rhythmic and audible. The intestines and
stomach churn and rumble as they break down food and move waste through
the long gastric
In his beautiful book Emblems
of Mind (1995), Edward Rothstein, critic at large
for the Wall Street Journal — and, full disclosure,
my father — examines the
relationship between music and mathematics. Reading it from a medical
perspective, one immediately notices how integrated mathematics and
music are in human biology, beyond the superficial examination we gave
these relationships above. Let’s take our discussion of the musical
aspects of human physiology, for
example. Rothstein explains,
A rhythm is not like a sequence of numbers at all; it is closer to our
experience of continuous time. When we feel rhythm subtly, it is not
thumping of a mechanical drum machine, with accents calculated and then
routinely repeated; it is more like the movement of a conductor’s baton
Astaire’s feet. The model for rhythm is not the goose step but the
breath — the inhale and exhale — or the heartbeat, with muscular
interior chambers. This sort of rhythm slides and elides.
There is something beyond just mechanics in the musical ensemble of our
bodily rhythms. The beatings of our heart and contractions of our bowel
continuous despite the pauses or rests in between them. Pauses mean
just as much to our efficient functioning as the muscular
contractions themselves. If there are no rests in between heartbeats,
for instance, the heart cannot fill with blood and thus cannot pump
oxygen to the
rest of the body.
Music’s great energies derive from the creation of continuity out of
discontinuity — a sort of inversion of the calculus, interested
not in the infinitesimal and the instantaneous but in the ways they
combine into the gestural and fluid that resembles some inchoate way
our inner life.
As with music, our body changes and moves such that at any instant
something new is happening. But physicians are not as interested
in the instantaneous as in the trend. Is there consistency in the heart
rate? Is there consistency in the blood pressure? Is it low or high
extended period of time? What does this tell us about the relationship
between the cardiovascular, pulmonary, and nervous systems? We want to
these measurements combine to create the clinical picture of a fully
functioning and continuous human life.
And what about the mathematical
relationships between our blood
pressure and heart rate that I described and that are so integral to
system? In a section on the subject of topology Rothstein writes,
Differences and similarities are established through mappings, which
can even link objects that at first appear to be drastically different.
mappings can themselves become the object of intense scrutiny.
“Mathematicians do not deal in objects,” Poincaré [Henri
Poincaré, a French mathematician] observed, “but in
relations between objects; thus, they are free to replace some objects
by others so long as the relations remain unchanged.”
Now let’s go back and consider the heart’s relationship to blood
pressure. The heart beats and the vessels
contract and relax to increase or decrease pressure. As the blood
pressure decreases, the heart rate increases in
order to maintain cardiac output — to keep the same amount of blood
flowing through the vessels and reaching our brain, liver, and kidneys.
mathematical linkings or mappings allow us, as physicians, to make
hypotheses about what is going on inside the body. We can place
variables in the system
and draw conclusions because these mathematical relationships are
constant. For instance, giving a patient a medication that increases
blood pressure may
cause the heart rate to decrease. Like mathematicians, physicians deal
in relationships between things that may not always seem like they are
By sharing fundamental principles with music and mathematics, human
biology is certainly a thing of great complexity. But it is also
beautiful. In thinking about our circulatory system, its sounds, its
relationships, there is no doubt that, as Rothstein describes in a
about the sublime, it is “tremendous, awful, and humbling, yet also
elevating.” He notes,
The sublime is linked to limitlessness and the infinite, yet it also
has its effect because that limitlessness is somehow grasped and
experienced at once,
as a single whole…. It makes the imagination seem inadequate while
giving our understanding an almost ecstatic sense of having apprehended
what should be
beyond its containing powers. The effect of the sublime is not out
there, in the world of objects, but in the experience of the subject.
The sublime is
part of inner, not outer life.
Think of the circulatory system again and its millions of cells
carrying and distributing oxygen, picking up carbon dioxide, squeezing
capillaries — all this occurring constantly as we rest, move, and eat,
and on such an infinitesimal scale and in such a limitless fashion.
Imagine trying to
invent or create such a system. One’s imagination may be inadequate.
Nevertheless, we can just barely grasp these repetitive events, which
are happening as you
read and as I type. Our cells “echo up and down the line, in all our
caverns.” They die and are replaced. They work and seem never to rest.
They perpetuate the indefatigable to and fro of the circulatory system
and the life of the human being, “knowing that the end of one journey
is just the beginning of another.”
Holy cow, does Nick Carr pin this one to the wall. Google says, “At any moment in your day, Google Play Music has whatever you need music for — from working, to working out, to working it on the dance floor — and gives you curated radio stations to make whatever you’re doing better. Our team of music experts, including the folks who created Songza, crafts each station song by song so you don’t have to.”
This is the democratization of the Muzak philosophy. Music becomes an input, a factor of production. Listening to music is not itself an “activity” — music isn’t an end in itself — but rather an enhancer of other activities, each of which must be clearly demarcated….
Once you accept that music is an input, a factor of production, you’ll naturally seek to minimize the cost and effort required to acquire the input. And since music is “context” rather than “core,” to borrow Geoff Moore’s famous categorization of business inputs, simple economics would dictate that you outsource the supply of music rather than invest personal resources — time, money, attention, passion — in supplying it yourself. You should, as Google suggests, look to a “team of music experts” to “craft” your musical inputs, “song by song,” so “you don’t have to.” To choose one’s own songs, or even to develop the personal taste in music required to choose one’s own songs, would be wasted labor, a distraction from the series of essential jobs that give structure and value to your days.
Art is an industrial lubricant that, by reducing the friction from activities, makes for more productive lives.
If music be the lube of work, play on — and we’ll be Getting Things Done.
When I learned to play the guitar, many years ago, I developed a near-obsession with the musical virtue of articulation. I’m not sure why; maybe because I found it so hard to play without slurring notes or missing them altogether, and without introducing unintentional variations in volume. I came to love guitarists, like Martin Simpson and Stephen Bennett, who managed to articulate every note with wonderful precision — but who did so without losing musical flow and flair.
(Simpson is above all others my guitar hero, and if you want a brief master class in mixed finger- and thumb-picking, slide-playing, and alternate tunings, just take a look at this video — and listen to the stuff at the beginning about why he plays what he plays. Also, don’t stop before the six-minute mark. If you want a closer and higher-definition look at what he does, check out this video — especially useful for guitarists interested in technique. )
Oddly — or maybe not so oddly, I don’t know — my fascination with articulate guitar players has affected my listening to other music. For instance, I have long loved Glenn Gould’s way with Bach: his pedal-free, hyper-articulated approach plays right into my obsessions — especially given his famous recording style, with the microphone stuck right into the piano. Gould’s Goldbergs, and his Well-Tempered Clavier, were simply my versions of those masterpieces for many years.
But … that humming. When I’m listening on speakers I can ignore it; but in the past few years I have been listening to music more and more often on headphones, and the extraneous racket increasingly got on my nerves. I decided I needed a new experience of listening to Bach’s piano music.
So I bought this: the performances that Sviatoslav Richter recorded in the 1970s. At first they were almost impossible for me to listen to: all that pedal! And the echo! — as though it were recorded … I don’t know, in a concert hall or something. What’s up with that? I huffed and sighed; Richter made me deeply uncomfortable. In comparison to Gould his playing seemed so florid and Romantic, thoroughly un-Bach-like.
But I kept listening.
And after I settled down, I couldn’t deny that Richter played with great intelligence and, yes, articulation; his playing wasn’t so stereotypically “Romantic” as I had first assumed; he was, I came increasingly to feel, simply adapting Bach’s music to the character of the instrument, which was, after all, not a harpsichord but a pianoforte. The magnificent architecture of Bach was still there, and in a way brought forth with a new clarity and beauty by Richter’s style.
And after Richter captured my imagination, going back to Gould was … well, not disappointing, exactly — but his way of playing Bach no longer seemed to inevitably right to me. Perhaps he was, at times, allowing a fetish for articulation to displace other musical virtues. On the other hand, I noticed that he did indeed sneak a little pedal in there, allow a few resonances — he was not as rigid a purist as I had thought. And Gould, who is famous for his fast tempos, can take things very, very slow as well: try listening to his version of the Prelude and Fugue in F-minor, followed by Richter’s: Richter takes the Prelude about twice as fast as Gould does — I have to listen with some care to be sure that they’re playing the same thing.
I still love Gould, but at this point I think I love Richter more. In fact, I don’t know that I own a record that I treasure more than Richter’s WTC. I do wish that Richter’s recording technique, as opposed to his playing, had been a little more like Gould’s; but he has somehow become my measuring rod, the performance against which I measure others. If only he had recorded the Goldbergs! But if I want contrast to Gould’s approach to that masterpiece, I have Murray Perahia ‚ and, more recently, Jeremy Denk.
Who knows what versions of Bach I will listen to the most over the coming years? But in any case I am immensely grateful to live in an age which offers me so many wonderful recordings, so many performances of such variety. In exploring this music in the company of multiple performers I draw closer and closer to its heart.
The Flight of the Conchords’ “Carol Brown (Choir of Ex-Girlfriends)” is an exemplary case study in the intertextualty of the comic song, or rather, the parodic-travestying song (see Bakhtin, “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse”). Its major and obvious debts are to two previous popular songs, one American and one English, which, given that the Conchords are from New Zealand, might allow us to note the ongoing generative power of the postcolonial; but those concerns may perhaps be set aside for now. The tropes of a certain masculinist discourse shall be our primary focus here. “Carol Brown” and its ancestors point to a kind of “gender trouble” (see Judith Butler’s book of that title) in parodic-travestying popular song.
When “Jemaine” — let us employ, with due reservation, his self-nomination — sings “There must be fifty ways that lovers have left me,” he’s clearly signaling a debt to Paul Simon’s 1975 song “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.”
But though “Fifty Ways” is explicitly invoked by the Conchords, a perhaps more direct and substantial influence goes unremarked. This is “Song for Whoever,” by The Beautiful South (1989).
Note that each of the three songs features a list of names, hearkening back to “Madamina, il catalogo è questo” — the famous “catalogue aria” from Mozart and da Ponte’s Don Giovanni — and perhaps even to the genealogies of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles (see, e.g., Genesis 5 and Matthew 1).
Of the three songs, “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” might at first seem to be the least thoroughly captured by the masculinist rhetorical enterprise, since it features a woman listing the names of men: Jack, Stan, Roy, Gus, and Lee. But this appearance is misleading: note that no woman actually speaks in the song, but rather is spoken for by the masculine singer — and the emphasis is solely on how she relates to him: “The problem is all in side your head, she said to me.” (This is not a song that would pass any musical version of the Bechdel Test.) If a woman seems to have power in this song, it is power yielded to her by the singer, provisionally and temporarily. He remains the true decision-maker.
“Song for Whoever” is more obviously and flagrantly sexist, with its frank emphasis on using the tears of women for financial and reputational gain: “The Number One I hope to reap / Depends upon the tears you weep, / So cry, lover, cry.” Yet the song ultimately deconstructs itself, reaching its aporia in the namelessness of the singer: it is only the women who receive names, while he remains a cipher. He claims the power of speech and song — like Orpheus — but can only receive it by giving up his name, while the specificities of identity remain with the denigrated women. This reversal of power is indirectly acknowledged at the end of the song, with its narration of female vengeance — meant by the singer to be feared, but understood by the listener as a proper and indeed necessary act of retributive justice.
This “return of the repressed,” as Freud might have called it, finds a completion and intensification in the video of “Carol Brown.” Note here the presence of the woman’s name even in the song’s very title — indicative of things to come, as the singer strives unsuccessfully to control the narration of his sexual history. His crucial mistake is the decision to display images of his former lovers, with the obvious purpose of subjecting them to the masculine gaze — but to his surprise and consternation, those images come to life: an ideal instance of the feminine subaltern speaking back to masculinist power.
Who organized all my ex-girlfriends into a choir
And got them to sing?
Ooh ooh ooh, shut up
Shut up girlfriends from the past
But — and this is the key point — they do not shut up. (He later repeats his order — “I thought I told you to shut uh-uh-up” — but they do not obey.) Through utterance they overcome their status as mere images, and take control of the song. As Baudrillard might put it, the simulacrum here becomes the hyperreal — and thereby the undoing of the Don Giovanni figure is complete.
Let me close with one ambiguous, and ambivalent, note. The wild card in “Carol Brown,” the figure that represents and enacts excess of signification, is “Bret” — whose evident chief trait here is silence. Unlike “Jemaine” and unlike the “Choir of Ex-Girlfriends” he does not sing. And yet he acts: and his primary acts involve manipulation of the image of “Jemaine,” including, most notably, shrinking him. Thus through “Bret” we see the reversal of the woman-as-enlarging-mirror trope that Virginia Woolf limned so memorably in A Room of One’s Own.
One might then see Bret as a Trickster figure — see Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World, though one might also describe “Bret” as a “whiteface” version of the “signifying monkey” about which Henry Louis Gates has written so incisively — but a trickster acting in order to help liberate women from imprisonment in the image constructed by the masculine gaze. But does such behavior enact a genuine male feminism? Or does it rather re-inscribe masculinist control in the deceptive guise of the Liberator? These questions will have to be pursued at a later date.
One of the oddest moments of my youth came soon after I bought the LP pictured above. I ran out to get it after I heard on the radio a song from it, called “Vincent,” which struck my fourteen-year-old self as the most profound and artful and insightful and poetic thing I had ever encountered. And then, listening to the whole record, I was blown away by the title song and wanted to tell everyone about it … only to discover that everyone already knew about it and had been listening to it on every pop radio station in town over and over and over again so that they had been sick of it for some months already. But I had never heard it until I put the LP on my turntable.
I could not account for this then and cannot now. I listened to the radio as much as any kid my age: I pleaded with my grandmother to let me control the car radio whenever we were out and about; I had a small transistor radio I kept by my bed to listen to every night; I even strapped that transistor to the handlebars of my bike so I could listen as I rode around the neighborhood. And yet, somehow, in utter defiance of probability, I had never managed to have the radio on when “American Pie” was playing.
I experienced something slightly similar today when someone on Twitter linked to this post on a sportswriter named Gary Smith, who is evidently Kind of a Big Deal. I mean, just read the post. The guy has won every journalistic award a person could win. He’s every sportswriter’s writerly hero (well, almost). But I have never heard his name and as far as I know have never read a word he’s written. And yet I’m a reasonably serious sports fan and read a good deal about sports. How could I have altogether missed Gary Smith?
I find these gaps in experience, holes in the fabric of knowledge and cultural connection, oddly fascinating. The other big one I can think of involves Joni Mitchell’s song “River,” which, despite its being one of her most-covered songs, and despite my having owned several Joni Mitchell albums when I was young, I had never heard until about five years ago — almost forty years after its release. But of course, these gaps I have mentioned here I can mention only because they’ve been closed. Who knows how many other songs or writers or poems or whatever I’ve missed, what essential elements of the experience of my generation have passed me by and left me unwittingly denied some bond, some link?
And what about you, my friend? What about you?