Metaphors, music, and learning from the absurd

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It finally happened. I think every graduate student gets one, and I got mine: a reading assigned for class that is completely blowing my mind. Steve Larson’s Musical Forces is provocative, funny, and controversial. Larson argues that, like the physical world, music has forces that govern (or, in the case of music, “influence” might be appropriate) its motion through time. Music has forces that are similar to the physical forces because of the one thing common to every human: the experience of having a body and existing in the physical world. And we base all of our knowledge in metaphor for the physical world. (Note: “base,” “in,” etc.)

 

Larson even says he can quantify the musical forces. You’ll have to read it yourself to see if you agree. I have yet to make up my mind.

Anyway, time to pivot:

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… says the pawn shop, without a hint of irony.

I’m finally starting to gain some perspective on what truly interests me and the conceptual continuity that connects all of my expression. From a personal perspective, I see little distinction between my identities as a scientist and a creative. Research, to me, is a fundamentally creative endeavor and despite the stereotypes about creative types, I think scientists and creatives face very similar problems:

 

  • What hasn’t been done yet?
  • How can I synthesize things that have been done to produce new things?
  • How do I know if it’s good?
  • When is it done?
  • What do I do with it when it’s done?
  • What value does this create?
  • What else could I have been doing if this fails?

The threads that I see more and more connecting these aspects of my life are all about levels of abstraction. Cast in another light, it might be described as metaphor in the same way that Hofstadter and Larson mean it: cross-domain mapping. (As well as allegory, which is intra-domain mapping). Now, before you recoil in horror at that jargon, let me clarify this idea a bit while also making it more opaque.

Cross-domain mapping is about making an association between two unrelated things. First of all, think of domains as categories. The classic example is “the legs of a chair.” Chairs don’t have legs. Not really. Animals have legs, and a chair is not an animal. We call those sturdy vertical protuberances on the bottom of a chair “legs” because their function and form are evocative of actual legs. An example of intra-domain mapping is something like saying “[song a] starts the same way as [song b].” They don’t literally start the same way, but we choose to relate them. Surely the notes played, arrangement, tempo, etc. might be highly, highly similar but they aren’t literally identical. Larson calls this kind of comparison “hearing as.” Going back to the legs of a chair, that would be an example of “seeing as.”

Right about now, if you’re still with me, you might be thinking “oh, well this isn’t so hard.” But there’s that sense of something lurking in the depths, isn’t there? A sense of unease. An ugly question rears its head: what exactly qualifies as a domain? The short answer is that there is no answer. There are big, obvious domains that would be hard to argue as being part of the same domain like cars vs dogs, South Indian cuisine vs Southern Indiana cuisine, blogs vs good sources of information, and so on. Got it? Good.

For your consideration, what is this pictured below?

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Depending on your individual knowledge, possible answers range from “that Star Wars thing” to “the Enterprise NCC-1701-A, a refit Constitution class cruiser, under command of Admiral James T. Kirk.” Now, given the disparity between those descriptions, and not even considering everything in between, can you see how it would be hard to define universal, concrete domains? Let’s go further. Is the ship below the same or different from the one above?

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Very quickly, you’ve probably come to the conclusion that “it depends – it’s complicated.” You’d be right. Domain mapping gets complicated quickly because domains are highly context driven as well as individualized.

There’s good news, though. Metaphors and allegories can organize nicely into hierarchies depending on your level of analysis: human vs animal -> animal kingdom vs plant kingdom -> multicellular life vs single cellular life -> … Whatever the context or individualized knowledge you possess, we all have hierarchies of abstraction.

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Inevitably, you end up with this trope.

And at least right now, that’s the thing that interests me: how do we, as humans, manipulate these hierarchies of abstraction to communicate effectively? Music, to me, is a primary example of this. I could orate, paint, or even write all I want to try and have you understand a piece of music and it wouldn’t matter one bit if you haven’t actually heard it. The music-ness of the abstraction of thought is part of communication itself, and it can’t be expressed in any other way. At least, I don’t think so.

Furthermore; when creating music, how do we manipulate levels of abstraction to communicate something? What does it mean to strum a guitar? When I’m working with my bandmates on a new song, what do we talk about and why? How does it influence what we play? And when assembling a song for dissemination as a piece of media, what does it mean to put the guitar in the mix one way or another?

Brian Eno talks at length about some absurdities he uses when working with other musicians to provoke and evoke certain moods, vibes, or styles of play. One of my favorites is Oblique Strategies, which was originally a deck of cards meant to be a guide through abstract ideas and commands when stuck on some sort of creative task. Follow that link, check out a few cards.

You draw a card and read it, then put it back down in a huff. What the hell does “Change nothing and continue with immaculate consistency” mean? Well, it’s up to you whether or not that prompt relates something meaningful to you. It’s a pointedly absurd way to provoke someone into thinking about different levels of abstraction, but none the less it’s a tool that people (myself included) swear by.

I don’t think there’s any one answer to any of the questions I’ve raised about manipulating levels of abstraction. I do think if I constrain myself to one type of communication (recorded music) there’s probably commonalities to what it means to experienced listeners and what it means to them on some basic level, since we have so much more in common than different because we’re all grounded in the same physical reality.

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