Friday, January 24, 2020

Cognitivism for the Critic, in Four & a Parable

I published this in The Valve in March of 2010. It's a guide on how to get on board with the computational thinking that's the driver in the so-called "cognitive revolution" — which, BTW, has peaked and is now deep into routinization. Computational thinking is a style of thought, a way of looking at the world. Alas, the most familiar example of computation, arithmetic, is not a very good way to get a feel for the style, not as you need it to investigate literature, the arts, or even the human mind. This post is a brief guide to THAT style. 
Note that the first book I recommend is a comic about comics. Forget about MLA-authorized easings into literary cognitivism and similar things and forget about Turner and Lakoff, More than Cool Reason. Move them down on your list. Put McCloud first. Why? Because cognitivism is in fact about building things, about how the mind builds  perceptual and conceptual structures. McCloud is about how comics are built. And, in one way or another, the other books give you a sense of construction as well. The Braitenberg constructs a mind, mechanism by mechanism. There's NO sense of mechanism in Turner and Lakoff. See also Cognitivism and the Critic 2: Symbol Processing.
It has long been obvious to me that the cognitive sciences are what happened when the computation and the computer hit the behavioral sciences as a source of models and metaphors. And that is what is missing from almost all of the work I’ve seen in cognitive approaches to literature. In this post I list and annotate four modest books that can help restore the sense of computation, and the constructive, that’s otherwise absent. I list them in order of suggested reading, starting with a comic book about comic books. After that we have a bonus section, a parable about computation based on passages from Simon about a drunken ant walking on the beach.

(1) Scott McCloud (1993). Understanding Comics. New York: HarperPerennial.

In some odd, but wonderful, ways this may be the best single introduction to the cognitive study of literature. It's not an academic book; there's no scholarly apparatus. But it yields a superb sense of what it is like to think about story-telling from a cognitive point of view. It takes the form of a comic book, words and images in panels cover every page - McCloud is a cartoonist. The pictorial form is what makes it so effective. So, McCloud has the reader thinking about visual objects and how they're constructed and how those constructions are organized into stories. It conveys a sense of design, engineering, and construction which is very important and which is missing in much of the current literary cognition literature. It gives the reader a whiff of mechanism without the pain involved in understanding the computational models of the cognitive sciences.

(2) Valentine Braitenberg (1999). Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

This is a cumulative series of thought experiments, 14 of them in the first 83 pages. Braitenberg asks us to imagine a simple (artificial) creature in a simple environment. Here’s how he begins to describe the first one: “Vehicle 1 is equipped with one sensor and one motor. The connection is a very simple one. The more there is of the quality to which the sensor is tuned, the faster the motor goes” (p. 3). He then works out the consequences of this very simple creature, how it moves about. In the second chapter he gives the vehicle two sensors and two motors and from that constructs primitive fear and aggression. And so it goes for the rest of these 14 chapters. In each chapter he adds a little bit to the vehicle from the previous chapter and explores the behavior consequences, e.g.: love (vehicle 3), concepts (#7), getting ideas (#10), egotism and optimism (#14). The last 50 pages contain biological notes on the vehicles, thus relating to the real nervous systems of real animals. Like the McCloud, it conveys a sense of design, engineering, and construction that is essential to the cognitive science.

(3) Herbert A Simon (1981). The Sciences of the Artificial, Second Edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Trained in political science, Simon became one of the founding fathers of artificial intelligence, computing, and cognitive science during the 1950s and 60s. This is a relatively informal collection of essays that has been widely, and justly, influential. From the preface (xi): “Engineering, medicine, business, architecture, and painting are concerned, not with how things are but with how they might be—in short, with design. . . . These essays then attempt to explain how a science of the artificial is possible and to illustrate its nature. I have taken as my main examples the fields of economics (chapter 2), the psychology of cognition (chapters 3 and 4), and planning and engineering design (chapters 5 and 6).” Chapter 7 is entitled “The Architecture of Complexity” (originally published in 1962) and takes up the problem of biological evolution. The bonus section of this post is based on a thought experiment or parable from chapter 3, “The Psychology of Thinking: Embedding Artifice in Nature.”

(4) John von Neumann (1958). The Computer and the Brain. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Von Neumann was an mathematician who made contributions in many fields. But he is best known for his work in computing. This slender volume (82 pages) is the last project he worked on and is incomplete. Brain cancer took him before he could finish. It is about two ways a computing process can be embodied in physical matter, the analog and the digital, and addresses, among other things, the limitations these modes impose on the process. Though the book contains no math, it is quite abstract, its details at some remove from all the complex details about existing computers (then and now) or the messy wetware of the brain. That is to say, it is about the essential. Forget about the fact that computers are now quite different from those von Neumann knew, and forget about the fact that most of what we know about the brain was discovered since von Neumann’s death. In this book first class mind grappls with deep questions in simple, if abstract, terms. Reading it is a good work out.

Bonus: Simon’s Ant and Slocum’s Pilot

Think of this as a parable about computation, about how computational requirements depend on the problem to be solved. Stated that way, it is an obvious truism. But Simon’s thought experiment invites you to consider this truism where the “problem to be solved” is an environment external to the computer – it is thus reminiscent of Braitenberg’s primitive vehicles.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Sun showers

The third 20th-century revolution in physics [non-linear dynamics]

Ashutosh Jogalekar has an interesting article, The Fermi-Pasta-Ulam-Tsingou problem: A foray into the beautifully simple and the simply beautiful (3 Quarks Daily, Jan 20, 2020) about an important foundational result in non-linear dynamics. From the conclusion:
Fermi’s sense of having made a “little discovery” has to be one of the great understatements of 20th century physics. The results that he, Ulam, Pasta and Tsingou obtained went beyond harmonic systems and the MANIAC. Until then there had been two revolutions in 20th century physics that changed our view of the universe – the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. The third revolution was quieter and started with French mathematician Henri Poincare who studied non-linear problems at the beginning of the century. It kicked into high gear in the 1960s and 70s but still evolved under the radar, partly because it spanned several different fields and did not have the flashy reputation that the then-popular fields of cosmology and particle physics had. The field went by several names, including “non-linear dynamics”, but the one we are most familiar with is chaos theory.

As James Gleick who gets the credit for popularizing the field in his 1987 book says, “Where chaos begins, classical science stops.” Classical science was the science of pen and pencil and linear systems. Chaos was the science of computers and non-linear systems. Fermi, Ulam, Pasta and Tsingou’s 1955 paper left little reverberations, but in hindsight it is seminal and signals the beginning of studies of chaotic systems in their most essential form. Not only did it bring non-linear physics which also happens to be the physics of real world problems to the forefront, but it signaled a new way of doing science by computer, a paradigm that is the forerunner of modeling and simulation in fields as varied as climatology, ecology, chemistry and nuclear studies. Gleick does not mention the report in his book, and he begins the story of chaos with Edward Lorenz’s famous meteorology experiment in 1963 where Lorenz discovered the basic characteristic of chaotic systems – acute sensitivity to initial conditions. His work led to the iconic figure of the Lorenz attractor where a system seems to hover in a complicated and yet simple way around one or two basins of attraction. But the 1955 Los Alamos work got there first. Fermi and his colleagues certainly demonstrated the pull of physical systems toward certain favored behavior, but the graphs also showed how dramatically the behavior would change if the coefficients for the quadratic and other non-linear terms were changed. The paper is beautiful. It is beautiful because it is simple.

It is also beautiful because it points to another, potentially profound ramification of the universe that could extend from the non-living to the living. The behavior that the system demonstrated was non-ergodic or quasiergodic. In simple terms, an ergodic system is one which visits all its states given enough time. A non-ergodic system is one which will gravitate toward certain states at the expense of others. This was certainly something Fermi and the others observed. Another system that as far as we know is non-ergodic is biological evolution. It is non-ergodic because of historical contingency which plays a crucial role in natural selection. At least on earth, we know that the human species evolved only once, and so did many other species. In fact the world of butterflies, bats, humans and whales bears some eerie resemblances to the chaotic world of pendulums and vibrating strings. Just like these seemingly simple systems, biological systems demonstrate a bewitching mix of the simple and the complex. Evolution seems to descend on the same body plans for instance, fashioning bilateral symmetry and aerodynamic shapes from the same abstract designs, but it does not produce the final product twice. Given enough time, would evolution be ergodic and visit the same state multiple times? We don’t know the answer to this question, and finding life elsewhere in the universe would certainly shed light on the problem, but the Fermi-Pasta-Ulam-Tsingou problem points to the non-ergodic behavior exhibited by complex systems that arise from simple rules. Biological evolution with its own simple rules of random variation, natural selection and neutral drift may well be a Fermi-Pasta-Ulam-Tsingou problem waiting to be unraveled.
I'd like to add some observations:

1. It seems to me that quantum mechanics and relativity are focused on explanatory principles whereas non-linear dynamics tends more toward description, description of a wide variety of phenomena. Moreover quantum mechanics and relativity are most strongly operative in different domains, the microscopic and macroscopic respectively.

2. Back in the 1970s and 1980s Ilya Prigogine observed that living organisms are relatively large objects operating in the macroscopic domain, but the internal processes of individual cells are in touch with the microscopic quantum domain. So life exists in the overlap between those two domains.

3. And then we've got computation. In many cases there are various computational paths from the initial state to the completion of the computation. As a simple example, when adding a group of numbers, the order of the numbers doesn't matter; the sum will be the same in each case. In the case of non-linear systems successive states in the computation 'mirror' successive states in the system being modeled so the temporal evolution of the computation is intrinsic to the model rather than extrinsic.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Sticker on a reflective sign in Hobken, photographed at night

Yuval Levin on the collapse of institutions in contemporary America

"Collapse" may not be quite the right word, but read these paragraphs from his current article in the NYTimes, How Did Americans Lose Faith in Everything?:
What stands out about our era in particular is a distinct kind of institutional dereliction — a failure even to attempt to form trustworthy people, and a tendency to think of institutions not as molds of character and behavior but as platforms for performance and prominence.

In one arena after another, we find people who should be insiders formed by institutions acting like outsiders performing on institutions. Many members of Congress now use their positions not to advance legislation but to express and act out the frustrations of their core constituencies. Rather than work through the institution, they use it as a stage to elevate themselves, raise their profiles and perform for the cameras in the reality show of our unceasing culture war.

President Trump clearly does the same thing. Rather than embodying the presidency and acting from within it, he sees it as the latest, highest stage for his lifelong one-man show. And he frequently uses it as he used some of the stages he commanded before he was elected: to complain about the government, as if he were not its chief executive.

The pattern is rampant in the professional world. Check in on Twitter right now, and you’ll find countless journalists, for instance, leveraging the hard-earned reputations of the institutions they work for to build their personal brands outside of those institutions’ structures of editing and verification — leaving the public unsure of just why professional reporters should be trusted. The same too often happens in the sciences, in law and in other professions meant to offer expertise.
And so forth with the academic world, religious institutions, artists, and athletes.

A very interesting formulation. Just how true it is, I can't say, but interesting to think about.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Friday Fotos: Random one

TwoSet Violin – In synch and holding it in

I’ve been watching a lot of TwoSet Violin recently and wanted to bring two rather different videos to your attention. The title of the first is self-explanatory as, I suppose, the title of the second as well.

2 Boys 1 Violin

The premise is simple. One plays the violin with two hands, but do both hands have to belong to the same violinist? Not necessarily. In this video Brett and Eddy divide the execution chores between: one of them fingers the violin while the other wields the bow. They switch tasks back and forth between them from one composition to the next. The result is surprisingly good?

But what’s surprising about it? They’re both excellent musicians and, as such, have had a great deal of experience making music with other musicians. That requires close coordination. When playing in the violin section of an orchestra, all violinists in the section must necessarily play the same notes at the same time and with the same phrasing. That requires, among other things, that their left hands move along the fingerboards in the same way and that their right hands execute bowing motions in the same way. From that point of view it is an accident of physical circumstance that, for each violin, the fingering hand and the bowing hand happen to be attached to the same violinist. But that’s not a matter of logical necessity, only physical structure.

From my notes:
A number of years ago I saw a TV program on the special effects of the Star Wars trilogy. One of the things the program explained was how the Jabba the Hutt puppet was manipulated. There were, I think, perhaps a half dozen operators for the puppet, one for the eyes, one for the mouth, one for the tail, etc. Each had a TV monitor which showed him what Jabba was doing, all of Jabba, not just their little chunk of Jabba. So each could see the whole, but manipulate only a part. Of course, each had to manipulate his part so it blended seamlessly with the movements of the other parts. So each needed to see the whole to do that. That seems to me a very concrete analogy to what musicians have to do. Each plays only a part in the whole, but can hear the whole. [Here’s an old post spun out of this observation.]
In the case of these TwoSet performances we have, 1) a single violin instead of an elaborate electromechanical special effects puppet, and 2) Brett and Eddy instead of a team of half a dozen puppet operators. But the underlying principle is much the same.

In this video TwoSet in effect takes us behind the scenes two show us how this puppet (that is, the violin) is operated. What we see is, in effect, a single mind operating this strange double-body. Well, not quite. Their coordination isn’t perfect. For one thing, they aren’t the same height, and that causes problems here and there. And it seems that in at least one passage, they didn’t use the same fingering so bowing and fingering went haywire for awhile. Still, if they worked at it 40 hours a day, like Ling Ling, who doubts that they could blend the motions seamlessly?


Here they did violin covers suggested fans. They begin with a medley of Mary Had a Little Lamb and Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, with elaborations, and then onto BTS’ Mic Drop, which I’m not at all familiar with; Eddie dances, and both of them fiddle around, throwing in some classical references. And then they arrive at the MOST DIFFICULT JOHN CAGE at 07:00. You can imagine what that is.

Yes, 4’33”. Here’s what Wikipedia says about it:
4′33″ (pronounced "four minutes, thirty-three seconds" or just "four thirty-three")[1] is a three-movement composition by American experimental composer John Cage (1912–1992). It was composed in 1952, for any instrument or combination of instruments, and the score instructs the performer(s) not to play their instrument(s) during the entire duration of the piece throughout the three movements. The piece consists of the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is performed, although it is commonly perceived as "four minutes thirty-three seconds of silence". The title of the piece refers to the total length in minutes and seconds of a given performance, 4′33″ being the total length of the first public performance.

Conceived around 1947–48, while the composer was working on Sonatas and Interludes, 4′33″ became for Cage the epitome of his idea that any sounds may constitute music. It was also a reflection of the influence of Zen Buddhism, which Cage had studied since the late 1940s. In a 1982 interview, and on numerous other occasions, Cage stated that 4′33″ was, in his opinion, his most important work.[9] The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians describes 4′33″ as Cage's "most famous and controversial creation".
And that it is, but it is not difficult in the sense that the word ordinarily has in reference to music, where it indicates technical difficulty. On the contrary, this piece is very easy to execute. The performers just sit or stand there doing nothing. It has a fairly extensive performance history.

Brett and Eddy make an elaborate show of not making any music (in the ordinary sense of the word). While they’re not making music – though Eddie does take violin in hand and is clearly fighting the temptation to play it while Brett stares at the ceiling – we see a digital clock counting out the minutes and seconds. Are they really going to stretch this nonsense out the whole four minutes and thirty-three seconds? Yes, it seems, they are. And they do. From about 04:15 to the end they are visibly suppressing the sounds of laughter, which breaks out at 04:33.

At this point I’m not sure what to say. I’ve known about this piece for decades. I don’t think I’ve ever attended a live performance of it, nor, for that matter, do I recall watching any other version on YouTube, though I’ve certainly come across them. Cage’s first book of essays, Silence, was very important to me in my undergraduate years, so I’ve got some understanding of and appreciation of the milieu surrounding Cage. A family friend, Jon Barlow, taught at Wesleyan University, where Cage had an affiliation. In the late 1990s when I was researching my book on music I visited Jon at Wesleyan and we performed one of Cage’s compositions. While it was only scored for piano, it was fundamentally improvisational in character and I was quite happy to play it with Jon (I play trumpet).

But all that’s incidental. It’s just my personal history, which now includes watching this video. I suppose there’s something to be said about the cultural trajectory that led from John Cage conceptualizing that piece in 1952 to TwoSet’s 2018 YouTube video. But that trajectory is a very diffuse one. It’s not as though there’s a single line of musical development that connects these two. In fact, one could reasonably say that there is no line of musical development between them at all. 4’33” is simply one piece of cultural material available to TwoSet, like Mary Had a Little Lamb, or Mic Drop.

Thomas Chatterton Williams on living in the muddle [abundance]

Thomas Chatterton Williams, An Incoherent Truth, Harper's Magazine, February 2020.
Like Nietzsche (and Schmitt), Hannah Arendt argued forcefully that life is perspectival: reality appears different from different angles. It is made most legible through an abundance of views. It is only “guaranteed by the presence of others.” Depending on one’s standpoint, progress can seem like regress just as stasis can look like motion. The rapid demographic shifts of our society—and the increasing visibility and audibility of many identities and voices—may appear to one American as a threat, while to another they are a form of hope and even deliverance. This is to be expected, and it is the duty of the thoughtful person not to proscribe, ignore, or “cancel,” but to take measure, persuade, and engage. Of course, edifying sermons about a moderate and compromising consensus will never pierce as deep as the primal and particular certainties and grievances that animate our politics.

An inconvenient fact of human life is that we cannot and never have been able to neatly add it up. To do so would be a distortion of what it means to be alive. “Something in the soul . . . seeks release in transgression or transcendence,” wrote Mark Lilla about the life and work of Daniel Bell, himself an erstwhile adherent who demonstrated that modern societies could never be interpreted through a single set of laws. “Every orthodoxy brings in its train heterodoxies and heresies that would destroy it. The more rigid the orthodoxy, the more likely they are to prevail.” What our society sorely misses now is not some sterling ideological consistency but rather a genuine liberalism that is strong and supple enough to look for ways to build on who we are, in all our human incongruity. Yet we must also acknowledge that one of the more frightening lessons of the Trump victory has to do with the implacability of tribalism and extremism in our society. A total reconciliation may never come about, and this lamentable enmity may be a permanent fact of our lives.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Eat what you love, love what you eat, in Midtown Manhattan

Nina Paley on sex and life

Nina Paley reflects on sex and her complex experience of it in, My Sex-Positive Memoirs, 4W, January 14, 2020. It's mostly about her years in San Francisco in the 1990s. Near the beginning:
A horny, childfree, sex-loving, non-monogamous (that’s another story) heterosexual young woman should have had no trouble finding sex partners, yet this was not the case. I did find a few men to have sex with—once. They would have sex once, then I’d never hear from them again. Even finding such men was difficult.

Why was I pursuing non-committal, “empty” sex anyway? Sure I loved sex, but I didn’t understand it.

I had received plenty of sex education: my mother worked for Planned Parenthood, and my childhood was filled with earnest Liberal sex-education books like “How Babies Are Made” and “What’s Happening to Me?” Throughout my teens and young adulthood, I was encouraged to talk about sex, to “communicate,” so I would be spared the repressive hang-ups of my mother’s generation. I was naturally drawn to the Sex-Positive circles of San Francisco, where we talked and talked and talked about sex. But this “sex education” - all the Liberal discourse around sex - unwittingly encouraged dissociation: we could only talk about the body as a thing that does acts. Much of our intellectualism was a defense against vulnerability and what we dreaded most: shame. We separated sex from love and relationships; we thought that was progressive and empowering.

Overall, I wish we had shut up about sex more, and mediated it less. Mechanics aside, sex is a mystery, to be experienced directly and personally. Talking about sex is as useful as talking about God. Mediating spiritual experience does nothing to enhance such experience, but it does allow manipulation of seekers, giving rise to cults.
Toward the middle:
Was I supposed to save myself for Love? I’d already been in love, several times, and my lovers imploded and left me. Men found me “too intense.” No one wanted my love, not even me. The idea of men loving me for who I actually was was long gone. No one wanted my soul, but some wanted my body, which was thin at last, and with makeup, a wig, and high heels was literally a hot commodity.

I was well aware I was supposed to be cautious, and took precautions; I only responded to solicitations specifying “no nudity” and “no sex” (both of which turned out to be laughable, and are tactics still used to this day to recruit young, vulnerable women). I was also aware that I was supposed to feel ashamed. I spent a lot of time considering shame, and rejecting it: I wasn’t harming anyone (ha!), my choices were informed, my eyes were open. Sex was nothing to be ashamed of. Objectifying my own body was nothing to be ashamed of: all the strippers, prostitutes, and porn models/directors who spoke at SFSI made that clear. It was work, it was art, it was expression. No shame in objectification: we are all objects, we live in a material world. Nothing wrong with exchange for money, either; we exchange all kinds of goods and services for money, why are bodies and sex any different?

Now-me knows sex is different, and bodies are not commodities. Then-me simply wouldn’t have believed it. The body is sacred? Nothing is sacred in this world. Was I supposed to just cloister myself, be abstinent until Mr. Right came along? There is no Mr. Right, there was no one who would understand and respect and love me the way I needed to be loved, and time was ticking away while my very temporal body was at its peak of beauty and my hormones were screaming “fuck! fuck! fuck!” [...]

A hot body is often the biggest asset many young women have. We are lucky if we have hot, conventionally attractive bodies. All my years developing my mind and talents meant nothing compared to my brief moment of hot-boddedness. Men who were never impressed by my art would fall over themselves to buy me drinks and otherwise attend to me when I went out in a wig and makeup. I actually felt sorry for these men, so helplessly conditioned they were to respond to stupid gender cues, their feeble minds taken over by mediated programming. Do I pity them still? As much as I pity anyone who surrenders personal responsibility and critical thinking in favor of unexamined social programming. Such people are pathetic—and authoritarian, dangerous enablers.

For about a year, I enabled them myself, by dressing up as the male idea of a sexy woman: drag.
Toward the end:
My 20’s were hard. So was my childhood. So is right now. I’m not entitled to a do-over of childhood, youth, or last week. Do I regret the choices I’ve made? Yes, in the sense I wouldn’t make those same choices again. But no in the sense that all of those choices made me who I am, and I like myself. I did stupid things because I didn’t know any better, and the only way for me to learn was to do the stupid things I did. It’s not like “sex work will hurt you” was any secret. Warnings against it were plentiful but not persuasive, and besides, I’d found my way into a kind of cult. The herd I homed to was all about sex work, porn, objectification, and “non-judgement”; who was I gonna listen to, them or a bunch of repressed prudes?

Now I’m in menopause, and have hardly any libido anyway. Whether that’s due to the permanent scars of my “sex-positive” 20’s, or the natural exhaustion of my ovaries, I do not know. Many or most women slow down a lot sexually in their 50’s, yet sex is still worshiped throughout our culture. Much of our population couldn’t care less about sex, even while it permeates all media as the be-all and end-all of life. Sex in advertising, sex in novels, sex in movies, sex on television, sex, sex, sex — and most women over 50 don’t give a damn. Many women under 50 do, but we have to see sex from the male perspective all the damn time, because men still make most media. We objectify ourselves.

It is a relief to not be horny all the time any more. It’s also unnerving, because in this society we’re supposed to be horny. Except when I was horny, men didn’t like that either. Women are either out-of-control nymphomaniacs, or dried-up prudes.

Or maybe, just maybe, women’s sexuality doesn’t exist to please men.

I just wish it had pleased me.

Of Music and Roller Coasters

Last in the video in Sunday's post on the TwoSet Violin interview with Hilary Hahn she makes a number of comments using an analogy between music and riding a roller coaster (at about 1:07:09). Yes! Some thoughts:
This is from my notes, about 10 years ago or so. I’m using a roller coaster ride as an analogy for the subjective experience of listening (and even dancing) to music.

Basic Analogy

One thing you frequently find when reading about music, especially musicological material about Western art music in the so-called classical tradition, are discussions of large-scale structure. Some of these are relatively informal, but others may be quite detailed and rigorous, even formal (in a logical or mathematical sense). In any case, these discussions purport to be about something that really exists in the music.

This brings up a problem (which has been discussed at least since the late 19th century, see Jerrold Levinson, Music in the Moment, Cornell UP, 1997): we don’t seem hear or experience music that way. It’s easy enough to take in a whole painting, for example, in a single glance. But we never take in music that way. Music arrives note by note. We can anticipate some ways into the future, we can recall what we heard, and we have the sense that we’ve heard something like this before, but we never grasp it all at once. Various psychological experiments indicate that the present extends about 3 or 4 seconds; that is to say, our conscious awareness covers that much time, but no more.

Given that, what are we to make of the large-scale structures revealed by analysts and often consciously constructed by composers? Ultimately I think the issue can only be resolved by understanding how the brain works, but short of that, I propose an analogy: the roller coaster.

Even as we’re approaching the amusement park we can see the roller coaster snaking around high in the air. We can take it all in at a single glance and we can focus our attention its various parts. But no matter how much we visually inspect the form, how much we think about it, that’s not going to give us the sensations we get from riding the roller coaster.

Things begin to change once we’re strapped in and it starts moving. We can no longer see the whole structure, but only what’s in front and to the side (though, with some effort, we can turn our heads so that we’re looking directly behind us). Some part of the roller coaster is very very close while other parts are more distant.

But that’s secondary to the vigorous vestibular, haptic, and kinesthetic sensations we experience while riding. We may also be anticipating what’s about to happen -- especially during the long and relatively slow ride up the first “rise.” These sensations are what the ride is about; these sensations are, in the physical nature of things, closely linked to the over all form we observed from a distance, but they do not in any way depend on our knowledge of that form. If, when we first approached the amusement park, we had been blindfolded so that we never saw the roller coaster, and thus had no knowledge of its form, we would still get the vestibular, haptic, and kinesthetic sensations that are the object of the ride.

And this, in some sense, is how music works. It is a device for producing sensations. Those sensations are a function of the device’s form, but we don’t need to know that form in order to experience the sensations.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Ceaze, Meres – Jersey City Wall of Fame

Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories [Media Notes 31]

I’m now well into the second season of Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories. It’s one of my favorite series (on Netflix), but I don’t binge it. Rather, I watch an episode every day or three or four. Why is that?

It’s a modest half-hour “slice of life” show. It’s not a really a drama, or a comedy. It is what it is.

As the name indicates, it centers on a diner in Tokyo; it opens at midnight and closes early in the morning (7AM). The chef is known simply as The Master, but the show isn’t really about him, though he features in each episode. There’s also a handful of regular customers who show up from episode to episode. The show isn’t about them either; rather, they function as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action, which mostly takes place some place outside the diner.

Rather, each episode is focused on a character or two or three who show up at the diner. Sometimes they reveal a difficult or sad situation in their life while chatting at the diner. Sometime they’ll meet someone. Whatever it is that happens to them in the course of an episode, it is generally of some consequence in their lives, for example, an old relationship (with a parent, child, friend) is resolved. Off hand I can’t recall any of the episodes in any detail, though each has given me pleasure.

It’s that kind of show. Modest an unassuming.

It is thus quite different from the science fiction epics which I also watch – at the moment, for example I’m into the second season of The Expanse, a post Blade Runner show in which Mars and Earth are on the brink of war. What a world that has a need and a place for such different shows, Midnight Diner, The Expanse, and many others.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Candy ahd cake

Hilary Hahn on daydreaming as a mode of practicing music, of priming yourself to go with the flow in performance

Some time in the last week I discovered TwoSet Violin, a YouTube channel for two Australian violinists, Brett Yang and Eddy Chen. They are classically trained and are perhaps the most interesting musical comedians since Victor Borge – though admittedly, musical comedy, in the sense of comedy acts organized around musical performance, is a scarcely populated genre. They’ve done a number of videos with Hilary Hahn, the classical violinist, who has also performed with them in some live concerts.

The following video is an hour and a half of conversation between the three of them. It starts off with chit-chat about being a performer, the logistics of touring, this that and the other, and then hits pay dirt when Hilary talks about daydreaming when she practices.

Of course, I know about daydreaming. And I know about daydreaming while practicing, too (I’m a semi-virtuoso jazz trumpeter). But daydreaming is something that’s been extensively studied, in one way or another, by contemporary neuroscience, and is associated with a complex of neuro-functional areas known as the default mode network (which I’ve blogged about). So I’ve transcribed some of that conversation below.

Starting at roughly 55:54:
Hilary: I daydream a lot when I practice. I don’t practice full volume all the time. I don’t practice like I’m performing. I’m daydreaming about the music. I’m playing it but I’m thinking what could I do? Can I do more of this here, or could I do more of that there? I just kind of leave my mind blank to see if something suddenly occurs to me that I wanna’ then practice, expound up on in the practice session. [...]

I don’t do visualizations, I guess. I don’t know. I’ll be practicing and I’ll think...Well, I kind of want to...

Brett: You talk about tinkering with practice.

Hilary: Yeah.

Brett: How does that work? Because it’s – I mean –

Eddy: I think a lot of people watching this would love

Eddy & Brett: to know how to

Eddy: Even help their own practice improve in efficiency, right?

Brett: What goes on in the mind of Hilary Hahn?
There’s a bit of chat back and forth in which they agree that Hilary will give a demonstration a bit later (at 1:22:22). She makes it clear she’s not talking about “spacing out,” that she’s “not giving them permission to not focus” (Eddie’s words).
Hilary: I’m not daydreaming about other things. I’m daydreaming about what the music could be.
Brett and Eddie with questions:
Do you hear it? Do you see like characters playing a story? Do you see yourself doing it? Do you see colors? Do you feel something? Smell? Taste?

Hilary: Let’s see. So, I’m trying to think of a parallel in another topic because it’s really hard to describe. It’s like if you just have a blank piece of paper and you have a pen and you draw a line. What else can you do with that line? Are you going to draw another line off of that line? Are you then gonna do like a circle? It’s kind of doodling? It’s mental doodling, with phrasing, with tempo, with everything.

I kind of start with a blank slate. I reverse the assumptions that I have. I just neutralize everything and then I’m...Kind of letting my mind wander. I’m thinking about what is going on with the orchestra. [Remember: she’s talking about personal practice here, not rehearsal much less actual performance.] Waiting for something to occur to me. I think people don’t ever think that happens in practice.

For a lot of people, I think practice is about being more accurate, improving your playing, being more expressive, being more this or that. But for me, yes, there’s that, but... Those are the tools to get to the point where you can let your mind wander and get ideas. Or it’s like having a bunch of Legos. What are you going to build with those Legos? You put one Lego on top of another and it kind of looks like a house. But then you realize, oh, I have these other Legos. Am I gonna build more in this house? Or am I gonna go off in that direction?

I’ll think about basic things like do I want a crescendo when it goes up or a decrescendo when it goes up? I’m always trying to trigger in mind into new phrasing ideas, so I don’t get stuck and so that when I’m working with other people, I don’t have a lot of rehearsal time and I need to present a unified concert. So, when I’m working with other people, how can I play it in a way that’s authentic to me, but really coincides with what they’re doing and brings out a better version of the music than we could arrive at ourselves separately.
Just a few seconds later after a question from Brett she’s switched from questions of aesthetic interpretation to matters of bottom-level physical technique. That is to say, these may seem to be very different worlds – the highest levels of almost “spiritual” artistry and the brute business of how to hold and manipulate your instrument – but to the skilled performer, one is but the obverse of the other:
I change my technique all the time too. I tinker with the angle of my thumb, the angle of my hand and I notice something’s getting explicably tired. So I’m playing and thinking, why is that – why is that tired? [...] Why is this...Is it how I’m...It’s like ... What is it? I’m just asking questions. [...] Why is this happening? Where is this going? What’s that about?
Eddy goes on to remark that after he left university things got better because he began to question the traditional way he was taught. And then he began to “play around with it.” But, “how much do you think one should balance between just self-experimentation and that creativity versus have a strong kind of teacher or a guide?”

And at this point (1:01:59) I’m going to leave off transcribing. You can decide for yourself whether or not you want to listen to the rest.
Hilary (1:02:23): “I know it’s good when I get goosebumps. [...] Or you feel like the audience was just 100% silent for a second and that second felt like forever. It’s just wow something magical just happened.”
Let that be the last word. But, I assure you, there’s some really interesting chat about actual performance from all three of them. Audience interaction makes all the difference in the world.

* * * * *

On magical moments in music, see this working paper for a collection of anecdotes: Emotion & Magic in Musical Performance. When Miles Davis brought the audience to 100% silence. Finally, note the remarks about riding a roller coaster and music at about  1:07:09. I've got a post on that.