Thursday 24 November 2016

Laws of Form of Music

*Update 26/11/16 - Sadly, Pauline Oliveros died yesterday. She will continue to be a source of inspiration - *

George Spencer-Brown's death in September (see prompted me to think that I really ought to work out what his Laws of Form is really about. Coupled with that, I've been doing some thinking about music which invited some comparisons to the idea of distinction and constraint which is at the heart of Spencer-Brown's work (see

So on a cramped, delayed train journey back from London to Manchester (via Leeds!) I puzzled over his little book. I still don't understand it but I'm gradually getting a feel for where my questions lie. But in the notes, he says quite a lot about music as he defends the style of his writing. He adopts what he calls a style of "injunction" which he explains:

It may be helpful at this stage to realize that the primary form of mathematical communication is not description, but injunction. In this respect, it is comparable with practical art forms like cookery, in which the taste of a cake, although literally indescribable, can be conveyed to a reader in the form of a set of injunctions called a recipe. Music is a similar art form, the composer does not even attempt to describe the set of sounds he has in mind, much less the set of  feelings occasioned through them, but writes down a set of commands that, if they are obeyed by the reader, can result in a reproduction, to the reader, of the composer's original experience.
When Wittgenstein says "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent", he seems to be considering descriptive speech only. He notes elsewhere that the mathematician, descriptively speaking, says nothing. The same may be said of the composer who, if he were to attempt a description (i.e. a limitation) of the set of ecstasies apparent through (i.e. unlimited by) his composition, would fail miserably and necessarily, But neither the composer nor the mathematician must, for this reason, be silent. 
Spencer-Brown then highlights Russell's scepticism about Wittgenstein's statement, pointing out that Wittgenstein in fact manages to say a good deal about what cannot be said. Spencer-Brown highlights the importance of injunction in natural science and music:
"the professional initiation of a man of science consists not so much in reading the proper textbooks, as in obeying injunctions such as 'look down the microscope'. But it is not out of order for men of science, having looked down the microscope, now to describe to each other, and to discuss amongst themselves, what they have seen, and to write papers and textbooks describing it.[...] When we attempt to realize a piece of music composed by another person, we do so by illustrating, to ourselves, with a musical instrument of some kind, the composer's commands"
I am convinced of the power and importance of music for our time and perhaps part of this power lies in the injunctive mode in which the composer operates. This is partly why things like Pauline Oliveros's "Sonic Meditations" are so powerful. The injunctions are crystal clear here... and what a wonderful effect!

Russell suggests that there may be "some loophole though a hierarchy of languages" and Spencer-Brown suggests that the loophole is the "injunctive faculty".

Is this why we're so torn by social media, fake news, and so on? The semantics (or the description) and the injunction become confused. "Vote Trump" or "Vote Clinton" were injunctions after all.

What if  our political language was injunctive and not descriptive? You could probably re-represent the script from "I, Daniel Blake" as a set of injunctions:

  1. Consider a man who has recently had a heart attack and cannot work
  2. Apply welfare qualification rules (see appendix 1) to enable him to survive
  3. Introduce x amount of complexity and noise
  4. Consider output from stage 2 and apply next layer of rules (appendix 2)
  5. Amplify complexity and noise
  6. Consider output from stage 4 and apply next layer of rules (appendix 3)
  7. Observe algedonic emergency
  8. Apply emergency procedures for dealing with 7
  9. Amplify complexity and noise ...
  10. ...
  11. eventually... hold inquiry

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