Thursday, 31 March 2016

Music Black-Boxes

Everyone knows what a music box is - when we turn the handle a known tune will start at some random point. We understand the mechanism inside. The charm is perhaps that despite understanding the mechanism, the music itself can make us feel different at different moments. The box might be predictable and mechanical, but we are not.

This has got me thinking about music itself and the somewhat mechanical way we are taught to think about it. We are told of the component parts of music: there is rhythm, harmony, melody, tonality, dynamics, etc. Music is such a difficult subject because all of these things are incredibly abstract: where is the difference between harmony and counterpoint, for example? Ian Kemp, my professor of music at Manchester would often say, "well, perhaps it's just a nice noise".

We only think we understand the components of the mechanism of the music box. Just as we only think we understand the components of music itself. In both cases, we lose sight of ourselves as the context within which the understanding takes place. Imagine the music box is broken down into independent boxes: one for the crank, one for the chimes, one for the sprockets, one for the barrel, etc. To make the music, these components have to 'communicate' in the right way. The glue that makes things work is us: and we are not predictable and mechanical in the way we imagine the components to be. Indeed, the components and their interconnections are a product of our unpredictableness.

To see how we invent components and their relations, I've found it useful to consider not the components as "things" (like melody, harmony, etc), but simply as 'black boxes': entities whose behaviour is obscure, and whose mechanisms cannot be inspected, but which define themselves through their interactions with us and with other black box entities. A music black box is an entity with behaviours which we can only speculate on through observation. As we speculate we may in fact create new kinds of black box: rhythm, harmony, melody, and so on. Doing so creates more things to distinguish any particular black box against.

What's interesting me is that all intellectual inquiry about things such as music creates multiple black boxes with various inter-connections. A black box establishes itself in its contradistinction to other black boxes. It is not in itself real; it is only real in its relations. We can do analysis or research on this by making explicit judgement about particular kinds of transactions which one boxes engages with another. So there might be rhythm transactions, and harmony transactions, and melody transactions and so on.

By determining a body of transactions and associating it with a particular black box we can speculate on the dynamics of the interaction between an interconnected chain of black boxes.  We are part of the chain, and the 'nice noise' emerges from the ensemble.

Where does this take us?

The important thing here is the relations between black boxes. Each box exercises constraint on the others, and each produces the conditions for growth in the others. There is mutuality of constraint in their relations and there is a kind of mutual catalysis. This may be like Bateson's distinction between 'symmetrical schismogenesis' and 'complementary schismogenesis'. There are empirical ways we can analyse this through information theory. Each component transforms and is constrained by a lifeworld of expectations and events which affects all components. The environment contains the realm of the 'possible' - and this realm changes are things progress. It is the equivalent of 'maximum entropy' in information theory. So the rhythm of 'Bolero' constrains other elements like harmony, melody, orchestration in a way which maintains maximum entropy; the Tristan chord shapes melody and tonality (particularly) in a way which increases it (this is why it was revolutionary).

Every distinction we trace through a pattern of growth and development takes the form of a black box defined in contradistinction to others on account of its 'transactions' with its neighbours and its environment. Studying the transactions between things: the mutuality of constraint, the autocatalysis can give some indication of the underlying conditions within which things grow - including us. Understanding how we grow can help us understand the conditions for creating new distinctions and new black boxes...

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