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Priests of Another Knowledge

I AM A MUSIC THEORIST. It is a title I almost never claim, though it is on my diploma (A.B. in Music Theory and Composition). I am a "writer," "composer," "record producer": these are the job titles people will swallow. But because it is my lot in life is to agonize over the Why questions, I endlessly return to the theory, the blueprint, the mission statement.

When I went into music, it was not to "make music" as if it were weaving rugs or stamping out widgets. Music as art, as communication, needed a content for its traffic. Sometimes I am fully committed to the conventional issues: "Golly, am I sad!" "This is what I think beauty is and balance and symmetry and suspense and repose . . ." But I do go back always to the base questions: What is music? Where does it come from? Where does it go? Can we see the whole perimeter of its range, its spectrum?

In a book I am writing, the special, personal revelation I hope to defend is an applied tactical concept of music history as an evolutionary process: the logical, even inexorable mix of anthropology and physics. And then, to consider the larger implications of that context, and of the possibility that the new context projects some useful grid lines into the future.

That is the practical plan of the work. A lot of books teach music theory; and while I believe I am good at the work of teaching and clarifying, I do not see myself as irreplaceable. However, I take on the process of  repeating the whole context because I will need my whole background laid out to support the fact that I will end up in a new place, beyond where I was led I think.

Here are synopses of the first two chapters (as they stand, tentatively, thus far).

We begin by me explaining where I hope to get us in the end. One of my music professors at UCLA paraphrased Beethoven to us in some class. I will find the original for the footnote, but the gist of the paraphrase was that Ludwig had said: "All of the secrets of the universe are contained in my music, if people could only hear them." My first reaction was to wonder what kind of arrogant son of a bitch he must have been to say such a thing. It bothered me greatly. In spite of the rather practical attitude towards artistes given me in school, I couldn't help but see some people like Beethoven as gods. It hurt to think of him as so arrogant. It took me many years to understand that such a statement could in fact contain no pride at all. What if he meant it literally? (I believe Ludwig was in the middle somewhere we're all entitled to a just pride in a job well done; and a little extra is only natural.) But when Moses went up onto Mount Sinai and received the ten commandments, he came back and said he had heard the voice of God and that God had given him His law for the people of Israel. Just the facts. Edison invented the electric light bulb and changed the experience of being a human for all time to come. Whatever his emotions were, it was just the truth. What if Ludwig van Beethoven really felt it had been his personal experience as a composer that he had been able to quantify a musical testimony, a report of his philosophical experience that really did describe an alternate, parallax look at the universe? What if he really did believe he
had been somewhere, attained a view over the wall that no one else seemed to have reported? Would that not place him in the class of Moses or Neil Armstrong or Columbus or Leif Eriksson or Marco Polo or Lewis and Clark? They were there. They saw what they saw. Did Ludwig see God? Why not? Can we follow him to see God?

It is the nature of the Human to be synthetic: to recognize patterns, join A to B and then feel the gnawing hunger to find C. This is the key characteristic that has brought us to the top of the food chain and, by no accident, to the top of the heap as powers of modification on the planet.

To begin to understand music we must begin with anthropology. Mathematicians and physicists can pretend, at least, that the truth of what they examine is a pure truth in that whether the math is done by chickens that count, horses that do addition, or imagined intelligences elsewhere in the galaxy, however they perceive or describe it all, they are dealing with structures of matter or logic that do not change. 2 + 2 = 4 for everybody. Hydrogen and helium are the simplest, lightest elements wherever you find them. But music is only human. Possibly it will be communicable to extraterrestrials someday; but that would be dumb luck. Every living thing in the history of life on Earth has been related to us. We all use the same amino acids to build ourselves, we have all stored our blueprints in deoxyribonucleic acids. Every creature of every kind has been like that: blue-green algae, fish, insects, dinosaurs, toenail fungus, whales, coconut trees, condors, and your Aunt Hannah. Biochemically, we not only speak the same language: we are the same language, we are different words of one long story. We are chemically interchangeable, we are so identical. The slime in your toilet could read and process your genes. It would too, but it would realize really fast that making a copy of you was much too much work and it couldn't be a good parent once you started to get bigger than a slime cell.

But in spite of all that relationship, all that integration and commonality, there is not even a second creature in the history of our entire evolution that seems to have the slightest clue about what we are up to when we get around to music. Other animals can apprehend images in photos or paintings. Even language gets across to hundreds of species. It doesn't mean to them what it means to us (apparently); but they are vocal among themselves to some extent, and they recognize some fraction of what we are up to. The general concept seems familiar. Most mammals seem to learn to interact with us via vocal signaling. Some birds and even fish. Still we can't raise a rhythmic handclap or a tapping foot from a chimpanzee, gorilla, or anything else among our own nearest relations in the gene pool. We have no evidence that even the other hominids could have shared this with us.

It seems that musicality dwells in the newest, most uniquely homo Sapiens layers of our brain. It might be our last-evolved capability. I believe it could be that the brain functions that utilize rhythm and musical architecture might be the physical part of us that contains our most forward-looking imagination. It seems to be the case that the ability to think abstractly is generally dependent upon being able to clearly classify events in time: past events become data for pattern recognition. We discover an acute awareness of the uniqueness of the eternally moving present moment where we perceive ourselves to live, where we are interacting with the rest of the material world (and eating or being eaten); and we define a character for the future as being something we anticipate as a regular extrapolation of the pattern that the past revealed, and that the present keeps ticking off in what we perceive as some kind of constancy and steadiness. Couldn't it be possible that in creating this new, human idea of time and time/space, the cerebral mechanism of time keeps house in the language of music, or maybe plays and tunes itself musically to build and hone the system that applies itself consciously and literally to time reckoning? Could music be the microcode, the internal machine language of the newest module of the human brain / computer? All of this is equal parts my guesses and dreams.

I had been thinking along these lines anyway and then several years ago I read an article in Omni, an interview with one of their own contributors: a science writer musing on his career. One sentence leapt out at me. He suggested that as there is a verbal means of storing the universe in our minds, and a visual model, and a tactile, etc., possibly music could be another system
of knowledge. That was the operative word I was looking for: music as another Knowledge.

And just as Plato defined his concept of the world in a verbal manner the Republic maybe Shakespeare's body of plays created a model of his philosophical universe; maybe Picasso eventually assembled a graphic/sculptural model; maybe Rembrandt. . .

And Beethoven (and others) who think in the musical system of their brains, store life, process life, understand life best as it dwells in their minds in the form (absolutely literally) of a musically structured analog universe. Does it not naturally obtain then that their conclusions, revelations, insights, philosophical sytheses become literally expressed as music? Each of us carries around several redundant models of our universe. We carry a visual model, verbal model, tactile model, aural model each model interacting with the others; each one of varying complexity and completeness. We have seen that Helen Keller and others become perfectly human with only a verbal model and a tactile one, never having an aural or visual mental analog. And other combinations and deprivations exist, of course. We also know that something like taste is an information system but we don't use it for creating a universal model. We know that taste and smell link into our old, primitive brain structures. But maybe music is equal to the universal model function, and we have underestimated it because it doesn't connect in perfect translation to our standing models (mainly verbal and visual). Music is separate from our sound environment; it is a four-dimensional plotting grid that often describes hundreds of moving vectors for us, at once and in real time. It implies a capacity to manipulate information for which we have scarcely given ourselves credit.

Over a period of years I have set myself the task of occasionally trying to describe parts of this to certain people I thought might care, and might be able to follow the thread with the aid of their own already sophisticated musical knowledge. One of the descriptions that was of some use was to imagine someone like a sibling. You have known your brother all of your life; seen him navigate millions of little and large life decisions: corn flakes or oatmeal, blue crayon or turquoise, blonde or brunette, America or France, plumbing or the law. Forest Lawn perpetual care or scattering of ashes at sea. After all of that, you still may not be able to anticipate what he would order next; chocolate or vanilla. But in looking at the whole, you would feel that he had revealed to you his philosophy that you know what "kind of person" he is. You could speak for his general point of view and understand your own point of view by describing it in terms of his. By the time you have heard and really digested the content of the million decisions made in each symphony ... notes chosen, patterns reinforced or broken, voices exchanging roles phrase by phrase . . . and then all of the other symphonies, sonatas, piano bits ... in the end would you not know a version of Beethoven, the musical mind, as well as you know your brother? And even if it isn't Ludwig, specifically: haven't you had the feeling that some musician Dylan, Lennon, Jimi, Miles Davis was revealed to you in complex and intimate ways? Why did you love/hate/etc. via vinyl plates with an intensity you have lacked with some other people even face to face? How could you be so sure? How much contact of other kinds would you need for you to "know" someone equally well?

So those are the first two chapters.

I have heard it suggested that architects, as a profession, arguably have had the greatest impact on the nature of daily life for all people and all cultures. I think, at least in the present age of high fidelity, that music may be as permeating a force as architecture or electrical engineering. As I wander into the thin air of esoteric musical structure, I find I am in the company of very few other explorers; and most of them are there as cartographers, looking for tools they will be proud to discover, but not necessarily for their own use. If Ludwig was remotely accurate in his description of the capacity of music, or if I have been on the right track at all in the anthropological implications, it seems to me that music is in the hands of such a small group of disconnected practitioners that it is reminiscent of nuclear physics in the 1930s: priests of another Knowledge.

The good news is that I can't imagine any application of this arcane work that is dangerous or subject to abuse. The bad news is that it is both an open window and a toolbox for delving into ourselves and we neglect it. We educate our children and ourselves in these ideas as if they were a decorative therapy, like needlework. Music is at least the equal of the other arts as a forum for philosophy. At a minimum we need to equip ourselves to be literate musically, so that we have the option of participating. And maybe we are talking about a wedge into our lives that needs to be self-directed. Martin Luther upset the world by suggesting that access to God should not be mediated by priests. Maybe access to our musical souls should also be taken out of the hands of our priests however benign or unconscious.