Tag Archive: music

Good Reasons…

I have been silent for some time, but for a good reason: I became a father last year and I spent most of the last months with my newborn son. What a wonderful experience! And how irrelevant the digital world turns…

But there is another good reason, which has to do with a project I’m contemplating for more than a year now. It has to do with the future of music in a digital world, with copyright problems, the sources of innovation and creation and with musical algorithms. It will eventually cumulate on a German web platform and condense in a radio feature. I can’t say so much about the project in the moment but you might get an idea when you find time watching the documentary below which I stumbled upon recently. Think of all the questions left open at the end of this beautiful film, that is where I intend to start off. There is a tremendous amount of work to do, so don’t expect too many posts here over the next half year, but I might drop in with some updates from time to time. The documentary is called “Press Pause Play” and was produced by House of Radon:

Listening to the Silence

“Africans listen to the silence and use it as a dimension in which they can improvise,” observes John Collins, host of this excerpt’s video about African cross rhythms. The word for music is not found in all African languages because music is omnipresent in even the daily routines, as this next video demonstrates…

via renewable music


„The basic problem of studying the origins of language is, to understate matters, language leaves few fossils.“ – Edmund Blair Bolles.

In „The Singing Neanderthals“ Steven Mithen, professor of Archaeology at the University in Reading, summarizes his views of the co-evolution of music and language in the history of our species. Drawing evidence from many areas such as anthropology, psychology, neuroscience and musicology, he asserts that music is not only a byproduct of language with no evolutionary value in itself as stated by Steven Pinker for instance. More than that Mithen introduces a hypothetical proto-music/language that was holistic (not composed of segmented elements), manipulative (influencing emotional states and hence behavior of oneself and others), multimodal (using both sound and movement), musical (temporally controlled, rhythmic, and melodic), and mimetic (utilizing sound symbolism and gesture) – a musicking that he calls ‚Hmmmm’ as an abbreviation of the before-mentioned communication modes. These holistic utterances, each with its own meaning but lacking any meaningful sub-units (that is to say, words) were used to manipulate other individuals, as commands, threats, greetings and requests. They would have been as much music-like as language-like. According to this theory „modern language only evolved when holistic utterances were ‚segmented’ to produce words, which could then be composed together to create statements with novel meanings.“

Here is a brief summary of Mithen’s hypothesis in form of a collage of key citations taken from his book:

„Music and language are universal features of human society. They are hierachical, combinatorial systems which involve expressive phrasing and are reliant on rules that provide recursion and generate an infinite number of expressions from a finite set of elements. Both communication systems involve gesture and body movement. They provided the human mind to switch from a ‚domain-specific’ to a ‚cognitively fluid’ mentality that was only attributed to Homo sapiens alone. Cognitive fluidity refers to the combination of knowledge and ways of thinking from different mental modules, which enables the use of metaphor and producing creative imagination.“

Mithen stresses the role bipedalism has played in the evolutionary development of the homo family:

„Both the multi-modal and the musical aspects of such utterances would have been greatly enhanced by the evolution of bipedalism. Bipedalism required the evolution of mental mechanisms to maintain the rhythmic coordination of muscle groups. As our ancestors evolved into bipedal humans so, too, would their inherent musical abilities evolve – they got rhythm. The new degrees of motor control, independence of torso and arms from legs, and internal and uncouscious time-keeping abilities, would all have dramatically enhanced the potential for gesture and body language in Homo ergaster, hugely expanding the existing potential for holistic communication. This would have added to vocalization an invaluable means of expressing and inducing emotions, and manipulate behaviour.“

„Bipedalism requires a relatively narrow pelvis and hence puts a severe constraint on the width of the birth canal. To be born at all through the narrow bipedal pelvis, infants effectively had to be born premature, leaving them almost entirely helpless for their first eighteen month of life. Thus creating selective pressures for the development of vocal and gestural mother-infant interactions, which would have been of a music-like nature.“

„Music-making had considerable survival value as a means of communicating emotions, intentions and information and therefore facilitated cooperation, that is: the sharing of information and resources, working as a team during a hunt, caring for each other’s well-being, advertising and consolidating pair-bonding. In all known societies music-making is frequently, if not always, a group activity.“

Then, Mithen speculates on the transition from a holistic communication system to a referential language:

„Alison Wray uses the term ‚segmentation’ to describe the process whereby humans began to break up holistic phrases into separate units, each of which had its own referential meaning and could then be recombined with units from other utterances to create an infinite array of new utterances. This is the emergence of compositionality, the feature that makes language so much more powerful than any other communication system.“

„Simon Kirby of Edinburgh University is one of several linguists who have begun to explore the evolution of language using computer simulation models. He was able to simulate how children acquire language simply by listening to their parents, siblings and other language-users. In his simulations he gave each speaking-agent a ‚random language’, which is in fact a holistic language, and as the simulation runs, learning-agents are exposed to a sample of speaking-agents and by this means acquire a language by their own. Because they will only ever have heard a sample of the utterances of any single speaking-agent, their language will be unlike that of any other individual. As the simulation proceeds, Kirby finds that some parts of the language systems become stabilized and are passed on faithfully from one generation to the next. A learning-agent mistakenly infers some form of non-random behaviour in a speaking-agent indicating a recurrent association between a symbol string and a meaning, and then uses this association to produce its own utterances, which are now genuinely non-random. Kirby refers to this process as ‚generalization’. Other learning-agents will acquire the same association between the symbol string and its meaning, so that it spreads throughout the population and, eventually, the whole language system will have been stabilized and will constitute a single, compositional language. With his work, Kirby challenges Noam Chomsky’s argument that children are born with an innate language abilities, something he called ‚universal grammar’. Instead Kirby’s simulations show that the process of learning itself can lead to the emmergence of grammatical structures.“

„The transition from a predominantly ‚Hmmmmm’ communication system to a compositional language most likely took tens of thousands of years. Some communities may have continued primarily with ‚Hmmmmm’ for much longer than others; some individuals who had become proficient language-users may have died before their knowledge was passed on, but finally compositional language emerged from ‚Hmmmmm’ and changed the nature of human thought and set our species on a path that led to global colonization and, ultimately, the end of the hunting and gathering way of life that had endured ever since the first species of Homo appeared more than 2 million years ago.“

 Well, from the latest spectacular fossil findings, Ardipithecus ramidus or short „Ardi“ being about 4.4 million years old, it is estimated that the homo lineage is much older than it was recently assumend. But Mithen admits that Archaeology is always coming up with new pieces of a broader puzzle and that human history has to be rewritten over and over again. But since fossils don’t say much about the language and music of our ancestors, much of the theorizing about the origin of language must remain highly speculative and that one of the few weak spots of Mithen’s endeavour: there is too much could-be and might-be in the text and some conclusions appear highly speculative. I also think there is a lack of ethnomusicological background that would have provided a broader, non-western perspective, but doubtlessly this book is a great starting point to dive into the different academic controversies about the evolution and origin of language and music.


This Book collects writings from a variety of authors: included are, among others, Rainer Maria Rilke, John Cage, R. Murray Schafer, Steve Lacy, Michael Ondaatje, Pauline Oliveros, David Toop, Francesco Lopez, Toru Takemitsu and Bernie Krause, to name a few. Here starts my problem with this publication: the sources are of such variety that the book lacks a certain focus. All kinds of text forms appear – interview, essay, collage, project description etc. – and the conjunction of nature and music is spreaded to an extend that the whole effort of this book appears a bit arbitrary. This starts with the introduction of David Rothenberg which – in my sense – collects nothing else than usual stereotypes about the relation of music and nature. Nonetheless the book can function as a starting point on the thinking of certain composers and writers. In that sense I found the essay “Lift-up-over sounding” of Steven Feld very interesting and a good introduction to his field work in Papua New Guinea. Strikingly blunt and disillusionizing then the interview Tim Hodgkinson conducted with Pierre Schaeffer in which the musique concrete legend speaks of his disgust towards the rock music his daugther listens to. He even let himself be carried away to the point to say that we live in barbarian times musicwise and that he hopes civilization eventually collapses one day and makes place for another renaissance. Surprisingly he considers musique concrete not as music but sound structure and himself as a researcher rather than a musician or composer. In this sense the book is helpful in a completely other direction: it reveals that Schaeffers thinking was basically very technical and restricted and makes him probably one of the most overestimated music theorists of the last century.

…because it imposes silence on noises and before all else the most unbearable of these noises are words. Music is the silence of words, like poetry is the silence of prose, it makes the gravity of logos more bearable and prevents men to identify with the act of speaking. The conductor waits till the audience ceases to speak, because the silence of men is like a sacrament music needs to raise its voice.”

This quote is by Vladimir Jankélévitch, taken from the German version of “Somewhere in the Unfinished” (translation of the quote by myself, sorry for the poor English). It unfortunately was never published in the English hemisphere to this date, though this book probably offers the best introduction to subtle thinking of this French philosopher. It is based on a conversation with Béatrice Berlowitz that was taped, then transcribed and edited so the text reads more like an inspiring philosophical talk and is far more accessible than his theoretical writings. That I’m able to read some of his books in German translation now was not possible till lately since Jankélévitch turned his back on German culture after fascism and ordered that his books should never be translated into German language. He fought the German nazis in the résistance and blamed German culture for not only failing to prevent fascism but even being partly responsible for its rise. His voice was heard 20 years after the end of second world war when a French debate boiled up about legal limitations to collaboration crimes. He wrote an essay called “Should We Pardon Them?” which was so influentual that the law was dismissed. Nonetheless Jankélévitch stayed mostly unknown since the existentialists and post structuralists dominated philosophical discussions. Things might eventually change now, after his death 1985 his ruling about no German translations seems to crumble and slowly some of his writings are translated and published.

Jankélévitch is very much rooted in the romantic French music tradition, even to such an extend that in “Somewhere in the Unfinished” he evades all questions towards modern music at all. He appears to be completely immersed in an old disappearing tradition of piano salons and silent studies of classical scores that he loves. Dispite this superficially conservative stance his thinking is much more inspiring than many modern music thinkers. He is driven by a deep sensitivity and his thinking is sharp and elusive. Many of his thoughts about music mentioned in “Somewhere in the Unfinished” point back to his book “Music and the Ineffable” with a great final chapter about music and silence.

I will try to translate a few more words taken from “Somewhere in the Unfinished” where Jankélévitch discusses the comparison between the two “languages” speech and music. This also provides a poetic answer to that recent comment I made about what sense writing about music finally does. First he says about the limitations of language: “There are not enough keys on the keyboard of language to be able to discribe all the endlessly subtle nuances of thinking and passion. Therefore we have to speak beyond words and induce misty clouds, a twilight zone, a halo around those words where ambivalence simmers and the powers of desire grow.” And then he ponders about the “logic” of music and the music can evade rational discourse and thus be highly ambivalent: “Music is a process of ‘doing’ at its best, because music uses tones without inner meaning, that way staying perpetually new and accessible. Therefore music is made to be played, not to be spoken about!”

There are three events dealing with the role of the musician in the digital age within only a few weeks here in Berlin. It started last weekend with the conference “dancing with myself” and featured keynotes of speakers like Jacques Attali or Matthew Herbert besides some German intelligentsia. On Friday the tenth club transmediale kicks off with a week of panels that deal a lot with the same subject of the economic and social repercussions driven by the digitization of music. One panel on Saturday gives the chance to learn the results of that first conference from the organizers Tobias Müller and Christoph Gurk. Even more promising sounds a third event taking place on February 6th to 8th at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt called Audio Poverty. Curated by Ekkehard Ehlers and Björn Gottstein the conference offers a weekend of discussions and lectures, concerts and parties, performances and experiments, apart from others there will be the chance to hear the style-crossing and transcontinental world music of the New York DJ Rupture, some noise excesses of the US border crossers Hair Police and Birmingham’s Modified Toy Orchestra.

Writing about Music is like…

My dear friend Henning turned my attention to the fact that the introductory quote of my last post goes actually like this:

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture – it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.” Elvis Costello, in an interview by Timothy White entitled “A Man out of Time Beats the Clock.” Musician magazine No. 60 (October 1983), p. 52.

But there is even dispute whether the quote tracks back to Costello or even other sources such like Clara Schumann, David Byrne, Thelonious Monk, Frank Zappa and others, as the webpage of Alan P. Scott exhaustively shows. It seems that some sayings, like urban myths, take a life of their own after circulating for a while. Nonetheless, there has never been more talking and writing about music than in these times and alone the sheer scope of this discussion proofs that there is something ineffable surrounding the experience of music and sound that keeps us talking about it.

“To say that we do not need to speak about music, one needs to speak, and philosophy itself, as a whole, attempts to explain the following: that it is better not to try to say the unsayable.” Vladimir Jankélévitch in “Music and the Ineffable”

More Deep Listening?

In a brilliant essay in The Atlantic Nicholas Carr wrote about the effects of screen-reading on our brain and the changes to our media consumption through web-based technologies. Carr received a lot of approving feedback on his article, many admitted having problems to read deeply, to focus the concentration „ necessary to wrestle any text longer than a paragraph or more intellectually demanding than a TV listing“. The collection of search engines, news feeds and social tools encourages us to link to, follow and read only that which we can easily assimilate. It seems that the exploration incentives of internet use (finding new information) is far stronger than the incentive for reflecting and exploiting synthesized information in order to come up with fresh ideas. The same might be true to blogging: it can be corrosive and we might loose a sense of quietness and depth in our literary and intellectual and spiritual lives.

How does this apply to music, do we need more deep listening as well? I have to admit that my attention span listening to unknown music has decreased in recent years, I easily get impatient if some music does not attract me in the first place, I often just don’t give it the time to develop and make its point. Sometimes, on a day off with a lot of time for random listening to demo CDs or downloaded stray MP3s, I discover music that I really like but had dismissed on first hearing. It seemed that information overload and time pressure just didn’t opened my inner ear enough to appreciate the music that I was exposed to. On the other hand I also have the strong feeling that a lot of music on the net – and I’m talking about more experimental music from the fringes, the underground sound art mushrooming in the niches of net labels, you tube and the likes – is brought out without much editorial time, has a cursory character or just lacks a compositional statement. Most digital music (especially drone music, not to speak of the many permuatations of the techno and house genre), I feel, gets historic only through the type of sound processing software that was used, the musicians/composers assemble snippets of a stream of ubiquitous audio without historic reference. It is some kind of pancake music, spread wide and thin, a permanent nervous aural flickering of the net. Is this what Jacques Attali recently predicted: the work (the concept of a closed composed structure of organized sound) will die soon as the music industry is disintegrating? I have no answer, but I’ll try to listen, as deep as possible.