Consider This

Dispatches From the Fringe

This Is Your Brain

A stunning review of a book that probably changed my life a little bit (This Is Your Brain On Music):

Half-whispered in the background, it’s hard to get too far away from suspicion. The question remains: Does analyzing music scientifically take away from the aesthetic appreciation?

I had once thought of music as the ultimate proof of the glorious irrelevancy of science. But it’s really no different than any other pleasure. Does learning cosmology detract from the beauty of a star filled night? Can a couple of physics lessons dull the gaping excitement of seeing a massive rainbow absorb the sky? I conquered this ambivalence personally, while lying in the sun, on a hot day, at altitude, following a final in a physics class. Everything clicked together in my head, the nuclear reaction I watch sizzling eight minutes and eighteen seconds ago, the light as waves, the heat as energy, the energy as mass, the waves as particles. It all clicked, and it was fine. We were all vibrating together in the same rich meaninglessness, and a good feeling felt good whether I purposefully conquered every little detail or it blindsided me and left my head spinning.

That’s the day I got it. That science is not a static pool of knowledge. It is not a religion. It is not a method. It is a process, and a spiritual one at that. That was the day, lying there, absorbing photons and resonating passively in the hum, the Ohmmmmm. Science is as much a quest as any other system of belief. And nothing is off limits. Nothing is reduced by knowing that another layer of explanation can be sought out.

And what better subject to tackle scientifically than the beauty of music. Like consciousness, like science, music too is an arbitrary punctuation around organically transmitted, unconsciously determined, preferred patterns of influenced interactions.

So, how’s the book?

Not bad. He does a nice job of illustrating the importance of music in our lives and the emotional impact music can convey. He has a nice introductory section where he defines the basic terms of music such as pitch, rhythm, tempo. It’s the kind of stuff you get the first week in a music appreciation class, and Levitin does a nice job with it. He never takes his eye off the bigger questions though, for example, he opens his definition of pitch with the disclaimer: “Pitch is a purely psychological construct.” He then needs an introduction to neuroscience before he can connect the two streams, discussing the hotter than ever topics of mind, brain, and consciousness. Of course, he has to throw in a little introduction to evolutionary theory as well.

The mistake armchair Anthropologists frequently fall into is taking a complicated concept, music in this case, or intelligence in other infamous cases, and reify it as if it were a single discrete thing. So let’s come up with theories of selection for musicality as if it were the scientific equivalent of Mendel’s wrinkled garden peas. But Levitin does a nice job of showing how different parts of the brain process different aspects of music. He gives a nice sense of the complexity involved and the parallel processing necessary between different realms of music. If you think about it, this should come as no surprise to anyone who has listened to a one-year old discover language. They can babble with the rhythms, intonations, and prosody of fluent speech well before they have the actual words. It should come as no surprise to any musician, anyone who has experienced that moment when the execution shifts from working memory to procedural memory. My favorite part of playing the piano is reaching the point where my cerebellum and basal ganglia are doing the heavy lifting. Then I can sit back and enjoy the music, like some kind of twisted grandiose self-sycophantic fan, without thinking about what I’m doing.

So formulating the question as “What evolutionary advantages were conferred on individuals who exhibit musical behaviors?” is a mental exercise. A fun and pleasantly meaningless one. Musical sensibility is much more likely an offshoot of multiple smaller functions of the brain, such as language processing, mother-infant interactions, the novelty seeking and cognitive flexibility behind creativity, or empathy, all of which individually may respond over time to certain selective forces. This does not mean, as Steven Pinker and the Blank Slaters would assert, that music is a meaningless accident. It is a part of all the systems that contribute to it, an echo of numerous other functions that comprise our humanity.

When a music lover hypothesizes that musical instincts may have been the prime factor in promoting the cognitive development of the species, it is no more a sophisticated argument than when a drug enthusiast, such as Terrance McKenna, proposes that psychedelics were the primary force behind the expansion of the human cranium. Isn’t it funny? No matter how far we come, we’re still story tellers creating creation myths in our own image. So my personal hypothesis: The primary force behind the evolution of human intelligence is the drive to drink Tanqueray and play backgammon while listening to Gabby La La. You heard it hear first. Evidence pending.

It is an ambitious book in its scope, especially when the conversation also needs to be liberally peppered with references to Philip Glass and John Cage, Bernstein and Bach, Sinatra and Parker. Well, you know musicians love showing off their chops. Anyway, thumbs up for a solid, thought-provoking read. You’ve just got to appreciate anyone who uses “mirror neurons” and “iPods” in the same sentence.

Damn. Well played.

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Written by Ryan Georgioff

April 2, 2012 at 2:48 pm

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Not A Prayer

I’ve been thinking a lot. I know that probably comes as a shock to everyone, hence why I decided to be as up-front as possible about it. Thinking about me, my social spheres, my culture, my planet, the universe, and of course life and death themselves. Brian Greene (The Hidden Reality) is saying into one ear that it is very possible that everything — every choice, event, formula, pattern — has already happened and will happen infinite times over. Very difficult to shelve that bit of information; not so different from attempting to store a liquid in your cupboard without the use of a container.

In the other ear Michael Azzerad (Our Band Could Be Your Life) has given me pause about the experience of being in a band, and what it means to be making music in the present age.

I’ve been slowly reading through David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus Infinite Jest for some time now, spawning many thoughts about the artist, the writer, the madman that he was, his relationship with Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections; Freedom) and others. Exploring Wallace’s “Hal Incandenza” has been an unsettling experience, and an energy consuming one at that.

My headphones have been pumping Kurt Vile’s experimentally drugged-out melancholy (Smoke Ring For My Halo), a slew of favorites, and some locals (The We Shared Milk, Radiation City), among others.

Even as I write this I grow tired of blogging. I was tired of it a long time ago. I don’t often have it in me to explain what’s going on in my head, since I can’t put a finger on what my motivations for educating myself are exactly. On a base level (and Maslow would probably approve of this perspective), I am ever-so-painfully aware of the limitations on my influence that are imposed by my current social status, and that the way out is by knowing more and better how to do something, so as to rise. Perhaps it will be cooking (that would be amusing) which finally settles me. Enough of this blather. I’ll write more soon (within the year at least: HA).

Written by Ryan Georgioff

March 7, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Blind Art Collector

I’m pretty excited. Everything that has happened since returning home has been dense; I’ve explored many limits, met people, shared my mind, established preliminary roots, and Reed Lakes is preparing to release a studio E.P. I suppose I can say this isn’t our first release, but in a way it represents the band as something evolved from our home-recorded six-month reflective. We studied up and built upon our strengths; we addressed our weaknesses and, in the midst of weekend touring, approached a kind of fluency with each other in musical language.

It was harmonious, making this record, and an achievement in many ways, for each of us in unique ways. I didn’t join the band until we moved to Alaska, but the other Reed Lakes have been playing together for years — as perad and Gayda and as nameless noise before that. And from all that came this: Blind Art Collector. We had six weeks, and conjured up five songs. A couple had been jangling around in our heads for months before being finished in Heather’s Garage or, in some cases, at Twisted Penguin. Out of necessity more than artistic intention we entered the studio with the album not-quite-realized and this left each song accessible for spontaneous inspiration and important input from Evan and James.

With some subtle, essential, suggestions to each track and experienced mixing, we eventually wove together some harmonious, sweet tones to interesting beats and out popped our long-gestating E.P.

I’m excited. This album was, and is, a goal of mine since the Yurt, since back when we played Maxine’s Open Mic, since A Three Way E.P. Can’t wait to share it. Stay tuned.

Written by Ryan Georgioff

December 11, 2011 at 12:37 am

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Dissonance

It’s all been corrupted again; perhaps it always was

an orchestral piece of broken instruments,

brass in half, rusty slides on wooden floors,

snapped strings and shredded bows hung as laurels

earnest proclaiming relevant competencies;

cracked and corroded the timpanis,

someone removed all the glockenspiel keys,

laid out and stomped the cymbals,

stripped the snare, punctured the tense heads,

beaten bare and lonely;

dented the mellow sousaphone, chucked at the walls

bleating wet smacking barbaric throat noises,

harmonic bassoons with splintered reeds

dissonant and dying their somber buzz.

Crescendoes at fortissimo tax the wary band;

they wonder when the song will end.

Written by Ryan Georgioff

November 30, 2011 at 3:33 pm

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Air Into Gold

I wonder sometimes where I lost my nerve. I’ve had this blog since the end of my freshman year of college, and for over a year after its founding I managed to be relatively prolific, opining on this or that current event or pet interest, and churning out words if not perspective. In those days, it wasn’t about figuring everything out, or even convincing anyone of anything; it was simply about figuring. It was a venue for dialogue. And I was challenging my surroundings, seeking a higher ideal, pushing the boundaries of my sphere of influence.

Maybe I just decided at some point that nobody would benefit greatly from having another voice added to the fray of online bickering, and bickering is absolutely an appropriate word to describe the general level of discourse one finds in most online outlets. If you search hard enough, the voices become less strident and more interpretive, but it isn’t common. And I suppose I look into many of my past opinions and tirades and feel them to be juvenile, or overconfident, and can’t help but grimace. Another nail in the coffin of what I thought to be my budding writing career.

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Written by Ryan Georgioff

November 16, 2011 at 2:55 am

Self-Portrait

Self-Portrait — 6/7/11

 

The slight flab:

a gray paunch, finally

to call his own

sitting launch-pad.

 

Holding back, restive,

ever more reservedly;

a death, of sorts

the red kind he couldn’t read about —

it hadn’t happened yet.

 

Beginning again,

again, and then again,

unruly, surly,

tumbling rapidly into the ever

lightning next…

One might call this a self-portrait.

Written by Ryan Georgioff

November 16, 2011 at 1:32 am

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The Earth Is Round

The Earth Is Round — 11/13/11

 

The Earth is round.

The sky,

matte black and endless,

interrupted by chaotic masses

of gravity and gas

permanence; eruptions

and emergence in the cosmos.

 

The Earth is round.

The scale,

its orbit a flywheel invisible,

emanating an everglow;

auburn sunbeams engulfing

moon’s pale eyeline

apropos the dance of satellites.

 

The Earth is round.

The sight,

a bloody revolution

vouchsafed in souls; the

mossy center of the universe

belongs to the ant,

his heart a mold.

 

The Earth is ground.

The sand,

founder of things,

a shifting sea;

mind, its own —

a looking-glass

into vast spaces.

Written by Ryan Georgioff

November 14, 2011 at 3:17 am

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