Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Blazing Butterfly

"But these are flowers that fly and all but sing"
Robert Frost, Blue-Butterfly Day

Tracking Music in Performance, words, and memory

Camp Follower

When I signed on as a chaperone for the Crowden School string orchestra’s Italian Tour, what I most looked forward to was traveling with one of the musicians – my daughter – and exploring Italy’s culture and countryside. As it turned out though, my daughter, busy with her music and her friends, was not in the group of girls I was asked to chaperone, so we couldn't spend much time together. What, then, would absorb my interest? The landscape? Cuisine? The music? I liked music, of course, but didn't consider myself especially musical.

To my surprise, what enthralled me from Rome to Ferrara was following the development of the orchestra. Relieved of the distractions of their busy American lives, immersed in the music, the students played in a school in Rome, in Gubbio’s community theater, in a small church in empyrean Assissi, at Perugia’s Santa Giuliana, a convent turned language school, at Florence’s Conservatory Luigi Cherubini, and in the courtyard of Ferrara’s Estense Castle. In those venues the music moved and entranced with its unexpected metamorphoses, subtle ripening, and powerfully deepening contours. It was illuminating to study how, in concert after concert, the conductors elicited fine performances in ascending order; how they polished pieces by Bach and Tchaikovsky, Lou Harrison and Ralph Vaughan Williams. But my recollections are scarcely of the music, and only selectively of the conductors. What I most vividly recall are the emotions that music associated with the diverse architectures in which it was played. Connected to my images of these spaces, I recall the little communities temporarily formed by the audiences, and the young musicians whose mastery made them seem like adults when they performed.

As the music surprised and delighted me I was surprised by my delight – surprised, because music, though it had always provided enjoyment, had never before commanded so much of my attention, as if it had a story to tell, chapter by chapter. As a traveler in a bustling caravan, I took an interest in all of the incidents that made up the biography of the orchestra. How unfortunate that a player had to sit out the first concert when his bass didn’t arrive in time. How disappointing that the audience in Gubbio didn’t get the avant-garde piece by a student composer. How wonderful that the audience in Ferarra got it! How brilliant the solos performed by the two Davids in Perugia! There, at the Santa Giuliana, the story the music seemed to tell was happily confounded with the most memorable human-interest story of all. There, on June 20 – the festival day on which Perugia celebrates its independence from the Holy Roman Empire – guarded by resplendent soldiers from the language school for the military, the orchestra performed on behalf of the Associazione Elena Marino, a foundation created to honor the memory of a girl who had died before she could fulfill her dream of becoming an opera singer. Elena’s mother – this remarkable woman who had lost her daughter – devoted herself to organizing this tribute to Elena. The concert featured masterpieces of classical music performed alongside Primavera, a poem by Elena that had been set to music by one of the American students. The singing of Primavera was the heart of the concert. But that is simply a story, a wonderful story, about the music I followed on the Italian trail, for in truth, music does not tell a story.

What dreams does it see
Fanning its wings?

Music gives Wings to the Spirit

Music is transformational. It can lift us outside of, and beyond, our mundane preoccupations, as it lifted the audience that day in Perugia. Music is transitory. Music’s audiences are not congregations, they are provisional communities, joined together on this occasion only, joined not by liturgy, but by shape-shifting sound waves that envelop them, by voices that speak indistinctly to some and clearly to others. Music is holistic. When musicians in an orchestra are firm in their technique, free of the need to focus on getting the right notes, they can hear the ambient music, and take part in the whole that was engendered by the composer’s mind. In this respect, musicians are like readers: they can comprehend the whole when they have mastered code; when they attain fluency they can become imaginatively absorbed in another mind. But though they learn to read music, musicians are not like readers of books, who gain useful information, who identify with characters. Music has no useful information about the world to impart, unless it is coupled with words and becomes a song. Music has no human representations to share, unless, again, it is set to words and becomes a musical or an opera. Music without words is syntax without language that reaches beyond semantics to a larger reality that is yet in synchrony with our sentient core.

Words about Music

In her novel Appassionata, Eva Hoffman imagines the thrill of listening to a gifted pianist perform Chopin and the struggle on the part of the audience to become fully absorbed in the composer’s world.  The thoughts of very different members of the audience are now of the music, now of the pianist, now of their intimate and even mundane concerns. For Ricardo Lopez, the music calls up an autobiographical memory that intermittently displaces the music:

…ah, listen, thinks Ricardo Lopez, chromatic delicate like powder / all senses at once / Alicia / yes, I wanted her in that room, the powder, the gesture of her hand coming up to her face, the musk of her body and then / how could they do it, her wrist, broken, shattered / how could they / cold metal the pain how much pain did she feel / ah, listen, that phrase, the elegance, the grandeur, the grand arc / the bend of her neck, the curve of an arm, Alicia / her wrist, broken, the cruelty, where is the music for that! / the torment of it always //

For Lopez, language embodies the double images that shape the experience of hearing Chopin. The word “powder” conveys Lopez’s sense of the quality of the music only to lead him away from it to a world of personal torment. Moments later, the “arc” of the music recalls the bend of a woman’s arm, the curve of her neck.

Because members of the audience use words to think about the music, to parse Chopin, they are vulnerable to the power of words to lead them away from pure music. Hoffman demonstrates this diversionary power of words in the stream-of-consciousness of Fernand Mercier:

Chopin, incomparable / it’s in me, weaving through me, she’s poured it into me / directly into the veins, the soul / what is it we exchange? the Exchange early morning, must read the figures, damn it bloody figures, must catch up / ah, the modulation, where are we, C-sharp minor, the snag on the soul/the economics of the soul//

The word “exchange” causes Mercier’s thinking about the music to pivot away from thoughts that reflect the experience of hearing Chopin and towards Mercier’s mundane, indeed materialistic, concerns. The music calls him back, but it is clear that he will continue, at a conscious, language-inflected level, to be torn between thinking about the music and thinking about the world. Is thinking about Chopin listening to Chopin? Hoffman does not portray a single member of her audience as listening to the music in a way that bypasses stream-of-consciousness association. In effect, the entire audience experiences music as necessarily mediated, always at risk of becoming a metaphor for something else.

What kind of listener hears pure music, music without any language but the language of music itself? Can full musical absorption, in which the listener is with the performer, and the performer is with the composer, note by note, be sustained throughout an entire piece? When we know music, what do we know? Do we know it in the hearing, in the remembering?

More intelligent people than I have asked such questions, and have not come up with any definitive answers that I know of. But I doubt that anyone more intelligent than Proust has ventured out on this mist-covered terrain. If the answers Proust suggests, in the course of his exploration, are not definitive, at least they may be good. For music plays a signally important role in Proust’s narrative about experience and memory, love and loss, time and art.

Swann in Love with Music

Swann in Love is Proust’s tale of the compulsions of romantic passion acted out intimately and in the drawing rooms of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, where listening to music is both a personal and a finely grained social adventure. The refined Charles Swann falls in love with Odette, a woman of modest intelligence and culture. She’s not even his type, but she has him in her thrall. Before falling in love with Odette though, Swann falls passionately in love with music: in particular, with a little phrase from a sonata by fictional composer Vinteuil. Proust’s account of Swann’s relationship to “the little phrase” represents music as the great modulator of mental states – percepts, feelings, thoughts and memories – both conscious and unconscious.

Proust’s account of Swann hearing the Vinteuil sonata for the first time suggests a philosophy of mind as much as a philosophy of aesthetics. Swann’s integration of the musical phrase into consciousness is built up over three separate moments of listening. Proust describes these moments as follows:

·       “But at a certain moment, without being able to distinguish a clear outline, or give a name to what was pleasing him, suddenly enraptured, he had tried to recollect…the phrase or harmony…that had opened and expanded his soul…But the notes themselves [had] vanished before these sensations [had] developed sufficiently to escape submersion under” [the sensations awakened by the succeeding notes].

·       Swann’s memory provides him with a “ ‘transcript’…summary…and provisional…he had before him an object no longer pure music, but design, architecture, thought, and which allowed the original music to be recalled. This time he had distinguished, quite clearly, a phrase that emerged for a few moments from the sound waves. It invited him to enjoy intimate pleasures of whose existence, before hearing it, he had never dreamed…”

·       “He hoped, with a passionate longing, that he might find it a third time. And it reappeared without speaking to him more clearly, bringing him a less profound pleasure. But when he was at home he needed it…this passion for a musical phrase seemed to bring the possibility of rebirth into Swann’s life.”

When he first hears it, the musical phrase enraptures Swann. By the time the music surprises him, however, the moment of hearing it has passed, overtaken by succeeding notes. On the first hearing, the phrase has no graspable syntax, and certainly no semantic value. Swann must recapture the phrase retroactively by creating a mental template: a “facsimile” or “transcript” of the fugitive notes.

Because Swann recreates his first fleeting experience of the notes that moved him with a facsimile, the line of notes recurs as a coherent phrase. The phrase, then, is heard in all its immediacy when it occurs the second time: it comes together syntactically. Now Swann can distinguish it clearly. The music speaks to him, inviting him to enjoy pleasures unknown to him before this moment.

When Swann recognizes the motif a third time, his sensory response and emotional engagement are less intense: the phrase brings him a less profound pleasure, and speaks to him no more clearly than it did on the second hearing. Just at this point of diminished resonance, the little phrase – recollected in tranquility – reveals its meaning to Swann’s conscious awareness. Removed from the scene of the concert, Swann recognizes the semantic significance of the phrase of music in the word “rebirth”. Music calls him to a new life of purpose.

In Proust’s analysis of Swann’s relation to music, music is the discoverable, translatable language that activates percepts, draws forth the deepest unconscious feelings, and inspires the listener to integrate percept and emotion consciously with meaning.

The fugitive notes – which Swann hears so peripherally that they must be configured by facsimile – are part of an infraconscious process, one in which perceptions occur under the radar “at a far simpler level than what philosophers have been accustomed to thinking of as ‘thoughts’.” (Horst, Steven, The Computational Theory of Mind, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2003)

Music offers Swann an invitation to enjoy “intimate pleasures of whose existence, before hearing it, he had never dreamed.” The experience of listening to the music and making it his own allows Swann to receive it as meaning and value: the little phrase stands for personal rebirth. Music becomes, at this moment, Truth.

Memory and Mind

Proust’s philosophy of mind and memory is of course attested in the episode of la petite madeleine. A little teacake and a cup of tea reawaken the childhood memories of Proust’s autobiographical character Marcel. As Swann is surprised by music, so Marcel is surprised by memory.

In the world that Proust wrote, involuntary memory is catalyzed by sensory experience. Sense memories crest in waves of emotion, leading to sudden recognition, to epiphany. Marcel’s cascading moments of joyful recollection are as revelatory as the moments in which Swann is recalled to life by a phrase of music. New representations of Marcel’s past, activated by involuntary memory, make up the elements of his authentic autobiography. The autobiographical narrative that becomes Proust’s novel In Search of Time Past replaces a stereotyped childhood memory: the bedtime drama, that had blocked Marcel from recalling the full, rich panoply of his childhood experience.

The butterfly is perfuming
Its wings in the scent
Of the orchid.

The Literary Understanding

In the world imagined by Proust, memories exist in a complex network of interconnected meanings. Fallible, mutable, susceptible to repression, memories, like unconscious desires and aspirations, can be redeemed, at the right moment, through sensory experience. What is the right moment? The moment when the young Marcel is ready to revisit childhood. The moment when the jaded Swann is ready to open his soul to music. 

In Proust’s literary world, memories are weighted according to their emotional significance. A flower is not just a flower. The orchids that Odette wears the first night Swann makes love to her elicit a pun from the lovers: to “do orchids”. For Swann and Odette, the word “orchid” is forever changed. Proust’s world is indeed one of intricacy, of nuance.

 The rich, nuanced quality of human experience reflected in so much of literature suggests that man, for all his fallibility, possesses an inner world that cannot easily be calibrated. Time and again, great literature argues for the reality of the inner world. This inner world is not a soul, God-given, destined for the hereafter. Nor is it an ineffable something that survives the death of the body. Great literature has done a rather good job of understanding the finality of death. Just so, literature understands the unique, irreducible entities that comprise its characters’ inner worlds. Great literature has a great understanding of the human mind.

What is the future of the human mind? In discussing the prospects for technological augmentation of the mind, cognitive scientist William Bainbridge estimates that “Each adult may have no more than 50,000 episodic and autobiographical memories.” (Bainbridge, William Sims, Denaturing Humanity) Add to this the adult’s acquisition of words, abstract facts, and non-verbal skill memories for a total of 200,000 memories, each of which could be represented “in a computer…by something like 10 neuronal connections. In a computer, each memory could be stored as a string of perhaps 10 numbers representing the addresses of other strings in the set.”

Accessing 200,000 memories in cold storage: the task of some future Proust? Access would not be through the retrieval device of involuntary memory. No need for the madeleine and the cup of tea. Indeed, if the future lies with brain augmentation, the search for time past that wends its way through the labyrinth of repression, forgetting, and recollection would be rendered obsolete. Bainbridge envisions a day when human limitations in the area of memory may be overcome by augmentation systems providing “time stamps”. Time stamps would create the equivalent of “timelines or calendars in our brains”, enabling us to sequence autobiographical memories.

Cognitive scientists like Bainbridge assume that there is no unconscious mind. Autobiographical memories represented by neuronal connections in a technologically augmented brain would therefore be stored as conscious memories, presumably undifferentiated in regard to their emotional significance at any given time. Do we really want time stamps for our memories? The percept that remains below the radar may indeed be infraconscious. But such a percept may also be obscured from awareness because the subject is not psychologically prepared to experience it.

Human Enhancement and Musical Intelligence

If some future equivalent of Charles Swann possessed a technologically augmented brain with time stamped memories, what would his experience of listening to music be?

In that future there would be no unknown desires to be brought to awareness, no personal meanings to be discovered.  With all memories sequenced, undifferentiated by repression, and easily accessed, how could music awaken Brain-Augmented-Swann’s sense of self at a particular moment in time? Humans as presently constituted are responsive to music in a fundamental way, even when dementia has deprived them of their memories. This may be due to the fact that while particular areas of the cortex subserve musical intelligence and sensibility, the subcortex is also involved in musical response (Sacks, Oliver, Musicophilia, 2007). Sacks confirms that, “the perception of music and the emotions it can stir is not dependent on memory.” (Sacks, p. 385) Music therapy with Alzheimer’s patients succeeds because music speaks – beyond memory – to the patient’s sense of self. The recognition and remembrance of feelings resting beneath the threshold of awareness enriches our experience of music, but isn’t necessary for enjoyment.

"that damn bird..."

Birdsong and Facsimiles

In the spring of 2010, I enjoyed a series of Saturday morning concerts by the Alexander String Quartet. I couldn’t talk anyone into getting up early enough to be in San Francisco by 10:00 a.m., so I went by myself. The series featured performances of Dvorak preceded by Robert Greenberg’s talks on the composer. Greenberg’s amusing, erudite talks included excerpts from recordings and live demos of key phrases by the players – facsimiles to help the audience identify important motifs when they occurred.

While summering in 1893 in Spillville, a Czech village in Iowa – which, to the end of his days, he considered heaven on earth ­– Dvorak composed the American string quartet. There is much debate as to whether the quartet is European in form, with some American folk and Indian influences thrown in, or bona fide new American music. At work in Spillville, Dvorak was extremely irritated by "that damn bird, red, with black wings" whose song kept interrupting his composing. In the end, Dvorak incorporated the song of that bird – the scarlet tanager – into the American string quartet. Prepared as I was by the musicologist’s talk, I identified the line of birdsong as soon as it occurred.

Some people don’t like or need lectures before concerts: I suppose they have what Oliver Sacks calls musical intelligence. In the weirdly brave new world of the future, science may offer musical intelligence as an optional enhancement of our technologically augmented brains. I would take it, but only if it meant that I could keep the experience of music as self-discovery and self-transcendence.

When Swann hears the complete Vinteuil sonata for the second time, he identifies the familiar little phrase with his love for Odette. As Swann’s tormented love affair proceeds, the little phrase becomes stereotyped as “the national anthem of their love.” When the affair is all but finished, Swann hears the full sonata once more. This time the little phrase speaks to him, telling him that his lost happiness is nothing: “When the little phrase spoke to him of the vanity of his suffering, Swann found sweetness in [its] wisdom.” For Swann, the consolation of music is the consolation of philosophy. Ever since his love of music was born, Swann “had seen musical motifs as actual ideas…ideas veiled like shadows, unknown, impenetrable to the human mind.”

I don’t share Proust’s mystical ideas about music, but I fear that music may all but evaporate when confronted with the artificial general intelligence of the future. What would there be for music to do, if not to stir unknown desires, surprise us with joy, beguile us, and offer the consolation of wisdom wrested from life? Perhaps, though, I simply lack imagination. This more perfect brain of future humanity may have many capacities for sensory and emotional experience of which we cannot possibly be aware. And if, intuiting the hyper-efficient circuitry of that brain, the nightingale is too dispirited to sing for us and flees to the forest, the augmented human brain will be more than capable of making a nightingale to its liking: superb, sensual, meticulous, mechanical.

Mechanical Nightingale
by Jonah Schultz




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