Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘music’

21 FEBRUARY, 2012

From Philip Glass to Patti Smith, How 1970s New York Shaped Music for Decades to Come

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On “people taking the lousy hands they’d been dealt and dreaming them into music of great consequence.”

“If you know what the ’70s are, or have any inkling where they’re going,” announced The Village Voice upon launching their “Invent the ’70s” contest in 1973, “write to [us] and any feasible answers will be printed.” This notion of the 1970s as having an identity crisis permeated all aspects of culture, from politics to fashion, but something extraordinary was afoot in New York City, a kind of parallel universe of invention and reinvention that not only defined the identity of the decade but also laid the foundation for cultural eras to follow. In Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever, NPR and Rolling Stone music and pop culture journalist Will Hermes takes a fascinating “telescopic, panoramic, superhero” lens to what happened in the period between 1973 and 1978 that shaped the course of contemporary culture and popular music.

An excerpt to give you pause:

Much has been written about New York City in the ’70s, how bleak and desperate things were. The city had careened into bankruptcy, crime was out of control, the visionary idealism of the ’60s was mostly kaput. For a kid growing up then, it was pretty dispiriting. The ’60s was an awesome party that we had missed, and we were left to drink its backwash.

[…]

Even the music was failing, it seemed. Jimi, Janis, and Jim were dead; the Beatles and the Velvet Underground had split. Sly and the Family Stone were unraveling amid mounds of cocaine. The Grateful Dead buried Pigpen. Dylan grew a beard and moved to Los Angles. R&B was losing power as slick soul and featherweight funk took over. Jazz and classical music seemed irrelevant — the former groping fusion or post-Coltrane caterwauls, and the latter dead-ended in sexless serialist cul-de-sacs.

There remains a myth that early- to mid-’70s — post-Aquarian revolution, before punk and hip-hop begot the new age — was a cultural dead zone.

And yet, amid the skyscrapers…down on the streets, artists were breaking music apart and rebuilding it for a new era. Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataaa, and Grandmaster Flash hot-wired street parties with collaged shards of vinyl LPs. The New York Dolls stripped rock ‘n’ roll to its frame and wrapped it in gender-fuck drag, taking a cue from Warhol’s transvestite glamour queens. Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith, both bussed in from Jersey, took a cue from the elusive Dylan, combining rock and poetry into new shapes.

Downtown, David Mancuso and Nicky Siano were inventing the modern disco and the art of club mixing. Uptown, Eddie Palmieri, Willie Colón, and the Fania All-Stars were hot-rodding Cuban music into multiculti salsa, making East Harlem and the South Bronx the global center of forward-looking Spanish-language music. In the wake of Miles Davis’s funk fusions, jazz players were setting up shop in lofts and other repurposed spaces, exploding the music in all directions, synthesizing free-jazz passion with all that came before and after. Just blocks away, Philip Glass and Steve Reich were imagining a new sort of classical music, pulling an end run on European tradition using jazz, rock, African an dIndian sources, and some New York Hustle.

All this activity — largely DIY moves by young iconoclasts on the edge of the mainstream — would grow into movements that continue to shape music around the world.”

Though historically fascinating and an absolute treat for music geeks and New York lovers alike, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever is at its heart about creative entrepreneurship, about “people taking the lousy hands they’d been dealt and dreaming them into music of great consequence” — the same spirit of possibility and clarity of purpose that once reverberated through innovation meccas as diverse as the Renaissance and early Silicon Valley.

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15 FEBRUARY, 2012

Guitar Zero: A Neuroscientist Debunks the Myth of “Music Instinct” and Learns to Play

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On nature, nurture, and the neural pathways of possibility.

Are musicians born or made? What is the line between skill and talent in any domain, and can we acquire either later in life? That’s exactly what neuroscientist Gary Marcus explores in Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning — a fascinating journey into the limits of human reinvention.

In an effort to reconcile his lifelong passion for music with his self-admitted chronic musical inaptitude, Marcus set out to debunk one of science’s longest-running theories about learning — that there are “critical periods” in which complex skills can be learned, and that they slam shut after adolescence.

If critical periods aren’t quite so firm as people once believed, a world of possibility emerges for the many adults who harbor secret dreams — whether to learn a language, to become a pastry chef, or to pilot a small plane. And quests like these, no matter how quixotic they may seem, and whether they succeed in the end or not, could bring unanticipated benefits, not just for their ultimate goals but of the journey itself. Exercising our brains helps maintain them, by preserving plasticity (the capacity of the nervous system to learn new thing), warding off degeneration, and literally keeping the blood flowing. Beyond the potential benefits for our brains, there are benefits for our emotional well-being, too. There may be no better way to achieve lasting happiness — as opposed to mere fleeting pleasure — than pursuing a goal that helps us broaden our horizons.

To his astonishment, however, Marcus found a dearth of scientific literature and research on music learning in people of his age. The problem, it turned out, wasn’t lack of scientific interest but, rather, a lack of subjects — studying the outcomes of adults who put in 10,000 hours of practice proved difficult since most people of that age have life responsibilities that prevent them from putting in that time in the first place. So, Marcus decided to turn himself into the guinea pig.

For a glimmer of hope, he looked to a number of well-known musicians who arrived at their particular musical talent late in life — Patti Smith didn’t consider becoming a professional singer until she was in her mid-twenties, iconic jazz guitarist Pat Martino relearned to play after a brain aneurysm at the age of 35, and New Orleans keyboard legend Dr. John switched from guitar to piano when he was 21 after an injury, then won the first of his five Grammys at the age of 48. Having no such aspirations of grandeur, Marcus, aged 38 and with a documented lack of rhythm, still found himself desperately longing to learn to play the guitar. As he puts it, “Perhaps few people had less talent for music than I did, but few people wanted more badly to be able to play.” So he confronted the fundamental question:

Could persistence and a lifelong love of music overcome age and a lack of talent? And, for that matter, how did anyone of any age become musical?”

Curiously, one of the most influential experiments on critical periods comes from barn owls who, like bats, rely heavily on sound to navigate; but, unlike bats, they see better than bats do, and one of the first things they do after hatching is calibrating their ears with their eyes, attuning what they hear to what they see. But because this navigational mapping of auditory information depends on the exact distance between their eyes and ears, which changes as the owl grows, it can’t be hardwired at birth.

To study how the owls calibrate their visual and auditory worlds, Stanford biologist Eric Knudsen devised a clever experiment, in which he raised owls in a kind of virtual reality world where prisms shifted everything by 23 degrees, forcing the owl to adjust its internal map of the world. Knudsen found that young owls learned to compensate for the distortion easily, and older owls could not — at least not in one go. But as soon as the 23 degrees were broken down in chunks — a few weeks at 6 degrees, another few at 11, and so forth — the adult owls were able to make the adjustment.

Using this insight, Marcus turned to David Mead’s Crash Course: Acoustic Guitar, which broke guitar playing into the kind of bite-sized morsels fit for the human equivalent of adult owls. It gave Marcus the basics, and thus the first step in rewiring his own brain.

This book is about how I began to distinguish my musical derriere from my musical elbow, but it’s not just about me: it’s also about the psychology and brain science of how anybody, of any age — toddler, teenager, or adult — can learn something as complicated as a musical instrument.”

Wilder Penfield's cortical homunculus, a pictorial representation of the neural tissue in the primary motor cortex assigned to different body parts, illustrates that the exact amount of 'cortical real estate' varies between body parts, with the more sensitive ones getting more real estate. Marcus suggests a try-this-at-home test:

'You can confirm this with the aid of a pin and a trusted friend. Close your eyes as the friend gently pokes you with the pin. In areas with heavy cortical representation, you will be able to easily discriminate closely spaced pinpricks; in areas with light cortical representation, you will sometimes be unable to distinguish two pinpricks that are close together but not identical.'

Along the way, Marcus explores the basic elements of music and how it evolved culturally and biologically. He dives deep into the popular “ten thousand hours” theory of mastery, developed by cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson, “the world’s leading expert on expertise,” and examines Ericsson’s second, lesser-known prerequisite for expertise — the notion of “deliberate practice,” which describes the constant sense of self-evaluation and a consistent focus on one’s weaknesses rather than playing on one’s strengths. In fact, the practice of targeting specific weaknesses is known as the “zone of proximal development” and offers a framework for everything from education to videogames:

[The "zone of proximal development" is] the idea that learning works best when the student tackles something that is just beyond his or her current reach, neither too hard nor too easy. In classroom situations, for example, one team of researchers estimated that its’ best to arrange things so that children succeed roughly 80 percent of the time; more than that, and kids tend to get bored; less, and they tend to get frustrated. The same is surely true of adults, too, which is why video game manufacturers have been known to invest millions in play testing to make sure that the level of challenge always lies in that sweet spot of neither too easy nor too hard.”

But what makes Guitar Zero exceptional isn’t simply that it simultaneously calls into question the myth of the music instinct and confronts the idea that talent is merely a myth — at its heart is a much bigger question about the boundaries of our capacity for transformation and, ultimately, the mechanics of fulfillment and purpose.

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17 JANUARY, 2012

The Solar System Set to Music: A Near-Perpetual Homage to Bach

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532.25 septendecillion years of fugue, or what Pluto has to do with the longest palindrome in existence.

I have a soft spot for music made with unusual means or from unusual raw materials, and have long been fascinated by unusual notation. Naturally, I’m head-over-heels with Daniel Starr-Tambor’s Mandala — a remarkably dimensional musical composition created by assigning each planet in the Solar System a particular note along the natural harmonic series, starting with Mercury’s B and going all the way up by two octaves and a ninth to Pluto’s C#. The composition is a palindrome, which means it can be played the same way in either direction, and, with more than 62 vigintillion individual notes, it’s the longest palindrome in existence — by far. At the accelerated tempos of the Solar System, it would continue without repetition for over 532.25 septendecillion years — a sort of soundtrack for near-infinity.

An homage to Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Art of the Fugue, embedded in the piece is the iconic composer’s “musical signature” — the arrangement of the stereo imaging reflects the precise position of the Solar System at the moment of Bach’s birth, viewed from the perspective of the Sun as it faces the constellation Libra, “so that each note chronicles his birthday on every planet.”

If Bach is calling to us from the outer planets, I hope he would accept this music as a fitting response.” ~ Daniel Starr-Tambor

It hardly gets more faceted and cross-disciplinarily creative than this — bravo.

via It’s Okay To Be Smart

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