Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Power of Association

Earlier this week, I posted about the power that association has to improve a runner's endurance. In addition, I believe that association is even more influential in the development of one's musical preferences.

So, here's my confession: I really can't stand much country music. At all. I don't like it.

And there's really no reason for this -except that I associate country music with rather unpleasant things... like motion sickness. And it's amazing how even songs that are musically beautiful and interesting can do nothing for me if they cross that "country music barrier" in my mind. There are very few country songs that I can enjoy, and when I do enjoy them, I have to try very hard. It's a shame, really, but I just can't help it.

I tried to listen to Indigo Girls yesterday and couldn't sit through even one song before I turned it off. I didn't like the Bon Jovi CD, Lost Highway, because it shared too many similarities with country music. Now, I'm probably making this sound worse than it is. I have no phobia, no irrational, psychological aversion. I can listen to country music without vomiting, but I feel like there's this certain barrier that prevents me from enjoying it the way others do, simply because of this association it has in my mind.

I think Cage was aware of this power of association, and therefore sought to remove all of his own tastes and preferences from his work - and in some cases removed all taste from his work- in order to allow everyone to experience it in as unbiased a way as possible. We all bring to our experiences our own set of "goggles," our own biases and preferences, a culmination of life experience that influences how we view the world. By removing his work from all those musical parameters set by society at large, Cage freed his audience of all the "baggage" associated with so much of the music that was out there, allowing them to experience it with the least amount of distortion from these personal "goggles." He introduced them to things never heard before, so that the audience could not have made associations regarding it and hear it for what it was, and not for what it meant.

And to my knowledge, no one ever vomited.

As an aside, I love Celtic music, which is really just Irish country music when you think about it... funny, huh?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Not a Contradiction

The more I delve into my studies of environmental science, the more I think I share John Cage's way of viewing the world. Comparing his early to his later writings, one might think that he contradicts himself, that he's changed his mind with regards to his general outlook. He begins his career with the view that the world is beautiful, and that one only need open one's eyes (or ears) to what exists around us. His later writings take a more activist approach, a conservationist stance. In his How to Improve the World: You Will Only Make Matters Worse, he expresses an urgency, a desire resist the adultrative changes that mankind is bringing to the planet.

I don't think this later philosophy is a contradiction to his earlier one. Rather, I see it as an extension, a natural progression. Cage opened himself to the world and found it to be amazing. He spent his early career trying to get others to see the world as terrific as it is, without mankind's interference or meddling. Consequently, it only stands to reason that he would come to the realization that what he saw as so beautiful was threatened, and that it deserved to be preserved and protected. This later world view is simply the second stage of the first. To find enjoyment in the sounds of birdsong is to see the world as beautiful the way it is. To realize that the birdsong may disappear with the advent of a mini-mall and only the sounds of traffic in its place will no doubt spur one to protect the world and preserve the beauty that is.

I won't argue that he didn't change his mind about things. He said so himself. At first enchanted with the possibilities that electronic sounds presented, he later moved to an attitude that valued the preservation of natural soundscapes. He liked the sounds of traffic, but not to the extent that he would have the sounds of traffic drown out the sounds of nature. His belief that all sounds are created equal still stood, but he came to see that, all sounds being equal, no sound deserved to be trampled upon, to be eradicated or driven out by another.

I see the world as a beautiful place. I want others to see the world as a beautiful place. And if they do, I hope that they will also be moved to keep it that way. So many individuals just let life happen, without reflection, without opening their eyes to the world, which, in the words of John Cage, "is so terrific." The optimist in me wants only to show them this beauty. The realist wants to tell them how stupid they're being for not protecting it better. I'd like to think that Cage may have felt the same way.
Today was spectacular. Absolutely, without a doubt magnificent. I got out of organic chemistry lab early and sat outside to read. We spent all of my ES Research methods class outside collecting water samples and being outside, with the water and the ducks and all of the trees decked out in their flashy fall ensembles, a riot of color... it was simply wonderful. I walked to the parking lot, intentionally swishing through the leaves the whole way, admiring how they appear nearly fluorescent as they lay scattered on the green grass. I may or may not have even picked up an handful and thrown them in the air to see them flutter down again. The sky was so blue, the grass so green, the leaves so obnoxious in their fall colors that I actually did a little dance out beside my car (And then I found a present for me there, which brought me to the point of possibly exploding with happiness).
Perhaps I was wrong when I thought Cage's work devoid of inspiration. Perhaps it wasn't the work itself that was inspired, but the process that was inspired. I can't contain myself on a day like today, when I want to share the beauty of the world with anyone and everyone. That's what Cage's philosophy was grounded in: sharing. Perhaps he felt like I do today, and thought that the best way to share the glory of the world was to present the world to people in the way he did. Me, I have settle with a little happy dance next to my car, because I barely have time to write up a lab report...but I can do with that.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Wednesdays, for me, are busy. School, then work, then over to the elementary school to teach ballet and tap to little girls before having my own dance class. This particular night, classes were rearranged such that I actually got a break in between teaching classes and starting my own. As I lay on the floor of the stage, I closed my eyes and listened to the music that the tap class was dancing to. I pressed my hands into the floor at my sides and felt the vibrations- but these vibrations weren't from the music coming from the CD player. I was feeling the vibrations from the girls' tap shoes. It was an interesting sensation to hear the beats from the CD and then feel the beats from the tapping. The vibrations were like a harmony, a compliment to the music I was hearing, rather than the simultaneous beat that is felt in time with music when you listen to it loudly.

I've always loved that aspect of tap dance. The fact that one can dance to the music, or with the music, or even outside of the music (and let me tell you, fourth graders have no problem dancing outside of the music). It's almost like singing along, or playing along with the music. Your tap shoes can be your own instrument and, I think, are a superior instrument in that they allow you to listen to music, play music, and dance with music all at the same time. It reminds me of the idea that John Cage and Merce Cunningham shared on how music and dance can be independent and simultaneous. Tap dance is definitely one of the more independant types.

A friend brought up in a discussion today that there's a distinct difference in the experience of music for the composer, as compared to that of the musician who plays it, as compared to the audience that hears it. I would argue that the dancer gets to experience music in yet another way that is different from all the others. I think a certain type of relationship is formed between the dancer and the music and such relationships exist on a spectrum, with the dancer and the music being partners on one end (as in tap dance) and the dancer and the music becoming one on the other. Both ends are quite enjoyable.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Why it Feels So Right

Just as important to a runner as a pair of broken-in shoes is their source of motivation, inspiration and distraction: their music. Running with music has become so common that the two biggest names in both industries, Nike and Apple, have been joined at the hip with the Nike + iPod combination. So just what is it about music and running that feels so right?

Scientists have been working to find out more about this special connection between our ears and our feet and in a recent study, sports psychologists helped to create a half marathon in London that tried to find the perfect music mix of live bands based on research of human reaction to rhythm (Now, how cool would that be? Ultimate multitasking right there. Go to a concert and run a marathon all in one Saturday morning). This second annual "Run to the Beat" event was held a few weeks ago with 9,000 runners either enjoying the live music or listening to their own mix of tunes on their MP3. Scientists even offered a scientific selection of songs based on their findings. Wonder what that playlist is like...

According to the study, there are four factors that contribute to a song's motivational qualities: rhythm response, musicality, cultural impact and association. Surprisingly, a runner's response to rhythm is actually tied not only to how well it matches their pace, but more importantly tied to how well it matches their own heartbeat. Syncing running with music has been shown to improve endurance, allowing runners to require up to 7% less oxygen, and has a dissociation effect that results in a significant reduction in perceived effort.

But then again, it's not like we needed to be told that running to music was a good idea. Nice to know anyay, though.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


I had the opportunity the other day to listen to Primus for the first (technically second, but who's that picky?) time. The CD was a collection of greatest hits, or something of that nature, and though lots of things struck me about the music, the first was probably... how democratic it was. Throughout every song I listened to, the instruments appeared to play an equal role in the creation of the music. The lead guitar wasn't actually "in the lead" as in "in the foreground" while all else is in the background. Rather, the drums, the bass, the electric guitar, they were all allowed an equal share in the presentation, without any one instrument being designated solely to the background (which I greatly appreciated, because the bass player, Les Claypool, is amazing).

This idea of democratic music reminds me of John Cage's democratic approach to sounds in general. All sounds are created equal. No one sound is more fit to be music than any other sound. All has potential to be music. A bit more extreme in its context, true, but I've a feeling Primus might agree with that.

The friend who introduced me to this band made the comment as we listened to the CD that he was somewhat disappointed that he had gotten their greatest hits collection, because it gives one a different experience of the band's music. I hadn't thought of that, but I have to agree. Picking the songs which someone out there deems best and compiling them into a CD of their own might serve to give the "highlights," but I don't think the Spark Notes version ever really does the novel justice. And besides, songs compiled onto an album such as this are taken out of context. Perhaps they weren't made to be played together, or in this certain sequence. It's just not the same.

So, to truly get this "experience," I decided to get one of their CDs from the library. I happened upon Sailing the Seas of Cheese, which, if anything, was worth checking out for the title and cover art alone. Then, come to find out, Les Claypool has led a bunch of side projects with just if nifty, if not better names, including, Les Claypool and the Holy Mackerel, Fearless Flying Frog Brigade, Oysterhead and Colonel Claypool's Bucket of Bernie Brains. And his newer release, Whales of Woe, came out under the moniker "Les Claypool and His Fancy Band." This one's supposed to incorporate everything from the saxophone to the sitar (perhaps the coolest looking instrument I've ever seen, by the way).

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Big Apple Jazz

I never cease to be amazed at all the apple varieties there are (of course, I never cease to be amazed by apples in general, but that particular amazement is not quite as justified). There are thousands of varieties and, if you're a horticultural geek like me you can spend hours pouring over seed and tree catalogues ogling the plethora of types and laughing to yourself at the funny names they have. Recently, a new conventional breed has been making an appearance. It's called the Jazz apple (I was getting around to music eventually) and much like its namesake, it's a hybrid of some great things(Braeburn and Gala, to be precise).

NPR's Take Five series recently showcased five jazz tunes related to this fall fruit. I'm not sure why they did it, because the whole thing was kind of corny, but it was fun for me to listen to. The songs included Stealn' Apples by Fletcher Henderson, Apple Honey by Woody Herman, Back to the Apple by Count Baise, Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me) by Coleman Hawkins, and finally -my personal favorite- Scrapple From the Apple by Charllie Harper. I'm not exactly sure how one makes scrapple from an apple, and I'm not certain that I even know what scrapple is, but like I said, I enjoyed listening to it immensely.

Wow. I think this might be the most awkward post yet. I just heard this compilation of good jazz music and thought it was a great excuse to talk about apples too. But it's really not that much of a stretch, is it? Jazz is wonderful, apples are marvelous, it all works out.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


When we walk to the edge of all the light that we have

And take that step into the darkness of the unknown,

We must believe that one of two things will happen:

There will be something solid for us to stand on,

Or we will be taught how to fly.

I don't think that this has anything to do with John Cage or music, but I'm putting it here anyway.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


I've come to admire Cage's philosophy of compositition and music, his celebration of sound as beautiful without orchestration for man's purposes. In the world of composers, too often it seems that the sounds themselves are only means to an end, rather than ends in themselves, only tools by which the composer or musician communicates their message or expresses their emotion. In choosing to remove his tastes from his music, Cage allowed the sounds to be the meaning, rather than assign meaning to them. This, I find admirable.

But, I do sometimes wonder if this approach is lacking in something that seems so integral to creation. Inspiration. It's the stimulus behind artistic work, that which sparks the desire to create something beautiful. I don't think that Cage's approach to composing music through indeterminacy leaves room for inspiration because it attempts to take all emotion out of the process. Emotion and inspiration are inseparable. One can't be inspired without the impetus, the longing to express something.

In a way, I feel that this could be seen as a deficiency in Cage's work. I'm sure he would adamantly disagree with me. He would claim that the highest purpose is to have no purpose. He would insist that sounds need not be given purpose, that they can exist as they are. I wouldn't put it past him to say that I just don't understand the Zen of it all, and he might even sigh and shake his head at me. But I can't help it. Perhaps I'm a hopeless case, brainwashed in romanticism, but I believe that feeling is important to the artist and makes for some of the best artistic work. I know I couldn't dance if I felt nothing. I know I wouldn't paint either.

Maybe it's alright for Cage, but I just can't see keeping a desire to come back to my art if I weren't emotionally involved. Inspiration is, indeed, a beautiful thing.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Frogs in Australia

This post is really just gratifying my inner science nerd, but it has to do with sonic phenomena, so I can justify its being here -or, that's my story, at least.

Australia's Frogs are having a hard time hooking up. Male brown tree frogs meet their girls by vocalizing elaborate mating calls. The sound of the male looking for a date hits the ears of the female tree frog and she chooses weather or not to pursue the guy -or that's how it's supposed to work. But lately, there's been some interruptions. Traffic noise and other sounds of city life, like air conditioners and construction noise, are drowning out the mating calls of male frogs in urban areas. These guys can sing their hearts out, but add the sounds of nearby traffic, and the serenade never reaches the female. The distance over which the male frog can be heard is cut dramatically by traffic noise from hundreds of meters, in some instances, down to maybe only 20 or 50 meters. Consequently, these frogs aren't hooking up and their population has seen a sharp drop recently.

Remarkably, some of these persistent Romeos have come up with an interesting strategy for making themselves heard. They're changing their calls to a higher, squeakier pitch, increasing the distance over which they can be heard. One would think this is the solution, right? Survival of the fittest? But the Juliets out there don't seem to agree. While the males have figured out how to make themselves heard above the noise of the city, scientists say this just may not be what the females are looking for. When females have a choice between two males calling, they tend to select the one that calls at a lower frequency because, in frogs, the frequency of a call is related to body size (So, the bigger frogs tend to call lower, and well, that's very attractive in a frog, apparently). In other words, the high talkers typically don't get the girls. Yes, brutally unfair, but true. Personally, I prefer tenors...

Nights in Aussie are noisy nowadays and female frogs can only hear a few of the males that are all calling in a group. So the number of mates she can choose from is reduced. The scientists describe it like being in a noisy cocktail bar and there are men everywhere. You can only see and hear the three that are closest to you. You either choose to go with one of them, or you spend more energy going to search the room to find someone who looks a little bit more promising. This results in the females doing quite a bit more hopping around, and the longer they spend looking for mates, the more time they're exposed to predators and the more energy they use. Not the best situation and infinitely more frustrating for those girls, I'm sure.

Yep, a bit of depressing news. But didn't even John Cage acknowledge the meddlesome nature of humans in his How to Improve the World: You Will Only Make Matters Worse? I'm sure no one took the time to consider the love lives of nearby frogs when they installed that new air conditioner. How thoughtless of us!

Emily Howell

Haven't you heard? There's a new and mysterious classical composer on the scene. Her name is Emily Howell, and no one has ever seen her in person. Wanna know why? Its because she isn't a person. Emily Howell is a computer program created by David Cope, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz (whose middle name just happens to be Howell). His program allows him to use letters from a computer keyboard, as well as musical input to "collaborate" with the computer in creating new music. The foundation upon which Emily operates is created from a database of musical composers, all mostly dead, classical composers. Emily is then able to analyse this data and then compose in the style of these composers without actually recreating any of their original compositions. Basically, when one collaborates with Emily, one is essentially collaborating with all of these said dead, classical composers to create new music. Pretty cool.

Now, I think Cage might have been a fan of this idea, given that the human composer would be involved as little as possible in the composition process, therefore removing his or her own tastes and preferences from the work completely. But then again, Emily is programmed with the "musical knowledge" of all of the great 18th century classical composers -most of which we can agree had massive egos and perhaps personal agendas or emotional messages they wished to push with their music. We know what Cage thought of this "pushiness" and his opinion of Beethoven... perhaps Cage would have programmed Emily's database with something else.

There's also the technical aspect to consider. From an indeterminacy standpoint, one might question the degree of chance involved with a program like Emily. When one hears her music, one can note that she operates off of patterns. She is, indeed, following the musical patterns most likely used by those composers that make up the data base from which she draws. It might also be noted that even computers can express a "personal preference," accessing memory and running operating patterns which they can most easily access and run (even ipod shuffles do it).

So maybe Emily isn't exactly "up to snuff"in the indeterminacy department, but her work is truly original and I personally think it sounds fantastic.

Moving away from the John Cage ethos for a moment, Emily Howell also presents some rather alarming questions. Is a computer program that composes its own (her own) work a threat to the human spirit of creating music? Emily's creator doesn't believe so. David Cope says that since computers can do only what humans program them to do, Emily is only as talented as the composers in her database and the programmers who dictate her method of analysis. Not to mention the feature that allows the operator to "collaborate" with Emily to create the composition. Though this may be true, and though Cage would definitely agree that human meddling is involved, I must disagree.

I see Emily as a formidable opponent to the human composer with respect to composition of a technically complex piece. Her ability to produce variations and spit out bar after bar of original and interesting material is admittedly intimidating. I don't, however, think that Emily's compositions can hold a candle to the very aspect of human composition that Cage sought to avoid -emotional involvement. The classical composers from which Emily's database is made filled their compositions with feeling and sentiment. When they are all mashed together and drawn upon, that feeling is convoluted and renders Emily unable to produce anything with the same emotional intensity that springs from the human composer. Technically interesting, Emily's pieces lack that underlying, magical quality that elevates music to an intimate and personal experience, for the composer, the musician, and for the listener. In short, Emily's amazing, but I don't think us humans have anything to worry about.

Oh, and if anyone's interested, Emily Howell's first record will hit stores next spring.
P.S. The picture up top is really a photo of Daft Punk (more on them later) but I thought it was fitting.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Cage at the Movies

Having become acquainted with John Cage's philosophies, his views on music and of the world, and having gotten a sense of his personality, I somehow feel as though I've been privy to a small glimpse inside of his head. To study his philosophies brings one so close to something that seems so intimate, and though I will never meet him, I have a sense that I've gotten to know Cage personally -sort of. Anyway, seeing as, in reality, I didn't know Cage, I can only wonder about some things. And I do. Quite a bit. Feel free to call me a weirdo if you'd like, but I find myself asking "What would Cage do?" or "What would Cage have liked?"

Don't tell me I'm the only one who ponders these kinds of things. Didn't we all wonder what kind of doughnut Cage would have most appreciated on the last day of class? (Doughnut holes, wasn't it?) Well, I find myself doing that all the time. What was Cage's favorite sandwich? What would Cage think of reality TV? I don't believe he ever wrote about such topics, even in his tangents during his talks, so I can only wonder.

Most recently, I found myself wondering what kind of movies John Cage might have liked. Judging by his reaction to the Hallelujah chorus ("I don't mind being moved, but I don't like being pushed!") I doubt he would have enjoyed the big money Hollywood blockbusters. Hitchcock is definitely out -too much manipulation of the audience, too much orchestration. No, Cage seems to me like a guy who would like a film that emulates what life is truly like. Perhaps one with no plot at all. Like Napoleon Dynamite, maybe, but even that seems too much. He'd be interested in all aspects of the film, like camera angle, musical score (or lack thereof, which I believe he might have preferred), lighting... I'm thinking low budget, independent film. Or maybe he would like something more along the lines of the bizarre, like Huis Clos by Jean-Paul Sartre-but then again, there's an existential message behind that one. No, nothing that tries to communicate a meaning or moral. Gosh, this is tougher than I thought...

Okay, I've got it. Cage would probably most enjoy watching a movie made by just setting a camera up at a bird feeder or in a fish tank, an maybe moving it around at random, periodically. Yes that seems right. No meaning, no orchestration, no agenda. Just birds or fish living out their days, the only way they know how. And best of all, complete indeterminacy. Yep, I think I've got it right this time.... then again, maybe he was a fan of Star Wars...