Sunday 24 March 2024

In the Vineyard of Music Scores

In the wake of the lack of mainstream public comment on the death of one of the world's greatest pianists, Maurizio Pollini, last week, there has been a lot of commentary on the apparent dismissal of classical music by people who should know better. Coupled with the closure of a number of university music departments (with a number of others under threat), alongside the existential threat to some leading orchestras, there does seem to be something going on which bodes ill for music, and for the richness of "culture" - although, as Niklas Luhmann pointed out many years ago, that word "culture" is very slippery indeed.  

Posts on social media talk about the "rot" of the declining civilisation for which they blame the present vogue for revisionist iconoclasm that reads cultural history as essentially colonialist, patriarchal and racist. As is often the case, the sins of those who are accused of destroying culture are very similar to those who make the accusation. The common point of error is that both sides in the debate cannot imagine that contradictory positions can both be true simultaneously. It is true that classical music, like much high culture from past centuries (and like the intellectual roots of many academic disciplines), is sometimes colonialist, patriarchal and racist. Given our history, it is hard to imagine it could be anything else. It is also true that it represents the deepest expression of the basic human condition that humanity has created. Like quantum mechanics, or like the magnificent logic of John Duns Scotus's "synchronic contingency", it is true and not true at the same time. And unfortunately protagonists on both sides the debate cannot deal with it.

If there is a decline in culture, it lies in this very point - the inability to deal with contradiction and ambiguity. It is a symptom of reductionism. Were the artists of the renaissance aware of the ethical contradictions that lay beneath their art? Of course they were. This has always been the essential content of art. 

The art of classical music, represented in the performances, scores, treatises, biographies, etc, is the quintessence of ambiguity -  of "synchronic contingency". A score created by a great composer is an artefact created as a biproduct of an intellectual (for which we might say biological) process dealing with contradiction. A score not only enters into the space of synchronic contingency, but it spins something out of it, without ever resolving a matter as one thing or another: a cadence merely closes - it is not an answer. 

More than any other art, classical music demands the intellectual skill to navigate the indeterminate space of black dots on a page so as to attend (with ears - our organ of balance) the fact of music's internal contradiction. It's rather like Ivan Illich's beautiful book "In the Vineyard of the Text", which discussed Hugh of St Victor's "Didascalicon" as an intellectual journey of appreciating the broad field of religious and secular texts, through entering the minds of their various authors. In entering into the space of the score, we enter into the space of the composer and their experience of grappling with the indeterminacy and contradiction of life. In trying to play the notes, we physically experience exactly the same constraints of human anatomy and emotional reaction that the composer would have known in creating it in the first place. The score is "writing as transmission" across centuries of physiological experience in a way that no other form of human communication can achieve. To be in a library full of scores from all periods of music is to be immersed in the sheer consistency of the endeavour to engage in music's ambiguity over the centuries.  

It is not music which is under threat. It is ambiguity. We will preserve music by seeking to uphold ambiguity. Unfortunately, neither side in the debate about music wishes to do this, and educational institutions have no interest in ambiguity since their business models insist on reproducible and measurable "learning outcomes". Decolonisers attack music with blunt instruments of a shallow "ethical emotivism", while those opposed to them too often appear reactionary and tone-deaf, craving an educational world which force-feeds children a didactic diet of Bach and Beethoven. 

The irony is that this situation is the product of our privileging of text over more refined forms of communication. The privileging of text has also made us very vulnerable to artificial intelligence which appears to be able to select words often better than we can. But AI is not good at ambiguity either, and it is certainly not good at music.   

We will need music in the future precisely because of its ambiguity, and also because of the intellectual demands it makes of us to appreciate its ambiguity. It is this ability to deal with ambiguity and contradiction at a deep physiological level which, in the end, differentiates us from machines. While it is obviously now possible to create a computational mechanism for selecting words which is topologically similar to our own human mechanism for selecting words, the creation of a selection mechanism for selecting sounds, or instructions to make sounds, with a specific meaningful intention, is far more challenging.  Computers are not connected to the universe. But we are. And the skills of understanding our connection to the universe lie in music and its ambiguity.

Saturday 9 March 2024

Music and Breathing

There is an oscillation in my academic work between thinking about things which are practical and of importance - either in health or education (or both) - and thinking about music. Music, of course, is extremely practical and very important, but few people will support research work into music directly. They should of course. I've found that techniques for thinking about music become applicable to more practical stuff. Most specifically, developing information theoretical techniques of analysis of music is highly valuable across many fields. In addition to education, I'm currently working on the organisational impact of AI, AI and information theory (specifically focusing on my work on diabetic retinopathy diagnosis), and work-based stress. 

Why is music so important? Quite simply because it protects us against hubris in our analytical thinking. Whatever social theory one might have, it has to work for music, or it is no good. Or at least, not good enough. Most cybernetic theories fall short because they can't "breathe" - and that is the key. Much as I admire and find very useful the work of Beer, Luhmann, Bateson, Von Foerster and Maturana, in each case their theories don't breathe properly. Not in the way that music does. The wisest of them (particularly Beer and von Foerster) knew it. 

This is partly why the deep physiological ontology of John Torday, Bill Miller, Frantisek Baluska, Denis Noble and others has attracted me, and music has often been at the centre of discussions with Torday and Miller. By situating consciousness with the smallest unit of biology - the cell - breathing becomes foregrounded because it is obviously biologically fundamental. This is really what my recent paper for Progress in Biophysics and Molecular biology was about (see Music, cells and the dimensionality of nature - ScienceDirect)

Within this biological perspective, there are two fundamental principles: the maintenance of homeostasis and the endogensation of the environment through symbiogenesis (i.e. how cells absorb factors in their environment like bacteria, which become mitochondria). The two principles are deeply related in ways which challenge the conventional cybernetic view of homeostasis. 

Endogenisation turns the cell into a history book - a memory of environmental stresses from the past, for which adaptive strategies can anticipate the recurrence of similar stresses in the future. Cells are anticipatory agents which maintain a deep homeostasis - not only with their immediate environment, but with the entirety of their developmental history. That history is itself a vector which points to some originary state, and through the commonalities of these vectors, a deeper level of biological coordination can be organised. No current AI can reproduce this. If we were to have an AI in the future which could, it's architecture would be so fundamentally different from what we have at the moment: more like biology. 

ChatGPT and the like are clever illusions, behind which lie some deeper truths about nature - not least it's recursive structure, and the anticipatory capability that recursion provides. But it is nonetheless a useful illusion. And it might be able to write great text (although the more I use it, the more I can detect it's hand), it remains rather poor at music. It simply cannot breathe. 

Current social theories, theories about stress, methods of epidemiological study, etc, all have a breathing problem. You can often tell, because the champions of these theories tend to be a bit breathless in the way they articulate them. They desperately WANT to have the answer, for their pet theorists (Beer, Luhmann, Giddens, Bhaskar, whoever...) to be able to blow away the cobwebs of confusion. But it never works and it's always breathless.

This is not to disregard those theories - they are all great. But the high priests of those theories knew the limitations of the theory, where the clergy who slavishly follow them do not. This is why I stay close to music. It is to stay close to breathing amid a lot of breathless exhaustion.