A Few Words On Generosity

Sometimes I think composers — or perhaps people in general — don't see the big picture, particularly when it comes to generosity. I can count on one hand the number of times composers have recommended other composers for my ensemble, the American Modern Ensemble. This even includes teachers recommending students and colleagues recommending other colleagues. It does happen occasionally, of course, but mostly by older, more established composers who probably (and rightly) think they have nothing to lose.

Why is this?

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Our Harmonic, Spectral Lives


Whether or not we are aware of it, we all follow different developmental models over long spans of time. Many people gravitate toward certain organizational systems without realizing it—in effect, creating large-scale waves. Some people's lives are more like sine waves, others more saw tooth, and so on. Some people's lives begin one way and end in another, or are a combination of different waves piled on top of each other. An alarm clock going off at the same time every morning is a definite pulse, but the emails piling up in your inbox are probably not very pulsed at all.

Many parts of our lives seem to mimic waves; when heard or viewed or heard together, they could create a harmonic or spectral profile of who we are. We are all different chords, melodies or even a series of rhythmic patterns that could potentially come together to create a musical composition that represents each one of us.

If every major parameter of our lives was recorded, I think we could figure our which instrument we are, or chord, or at least whether we lead a life of dissonance, relative sine wave purity or more like the sonic spectrogram of a crash cymbal. I can think of a few people who, if I analyzed their lives, would definitely fit a crash cymbal's profile, like Sid Vicious from the Sex Pistols.

Here are illustrations of different types of sound waves:


The amount of research it would take to decode major waves for any individual with a long lifespan would seem daunting, but if we can send people to the moon or decode the human genome, it is certainly possible. It would mean tracking certain major, interrelated details about someone for a long enough period to see if there are patterns, or more darkly, controlling someone's environment, Truman Show style, so we could analyze as many patterns as possible.

What could be tracked? How often someone becomes sick (perhaps a micro version of Google's Flu Tracker), sleep patterns, financial profiles, what you eat, your weight, disintegration (this could be represented either as a diminuendo or crescendo, or an accelerando or ritardando, depending on your point of view and whether you favor youth or antiquity), which routes you take to work, or even how often I update this blog. Various waves for different parts of our lives are influenced by our surroundings and seemingly random events, circadian rhythms, and perhaps, in a subtle way, the moon's gravitational pull. Interestingly, this experiment would probably work best with those that are not aware they are being tracked, or for those who have been tracked for so long that they become indifferent. (Note to self: tracking when someone becomes indifferent is part of the pattern, and the tracker tracking is a pattern as well.)

As an aside, I believe that the main reason so much research is flawed is because we don't compile enough details and co-mingle seemingly unrelated patterns with enough people, such as what has been demonstrated with the so-called butterfly effect (i.e., sensitive dependence on initial conditions in chaos theory—thanks Wikipedia). If someone is suffering from a disease, often times the root cause is something that is at first, seemingly unrelated, but when a huge sample of people are analyzed, with as much relative, recorded data as possible, the pattern becomes clear. With enough human patterns translated into waves, rhythmic patterns, articulations, melodies or harmonies, someone's musical "iComposition" becomes evident.

In an Elliot Carter String Quartet No. 2 sort of way, you could represent certain patterns in each instrument in an ensemble, and the evolving composition would literally be a musical representation of those patterns. For example, using rhythmic diminution, a whole movement could be based on the four members of a string quartet dining out in a particular month, or an entire year. Each dining excursion is an eighth note, every other day is an eighth rest. Each type of cuisine could be a different pitch (Thai could be B, Chinese, could be C, and so on). This could be coupled with representations of whether anyone became sick with food poisoning (perhaps octave shifts or arco playing rather than pizzicatos, or scratch tone—best done with an adventurous string quartet that eats exotic foods!). The level of dedication to tracking these details is definitely beyond what most people would be willing to undertake, but with social networking devices like Twitter, this becomes possible.

Of course, just as Messiaen's bird songs only approximate real birdsong, this is merely an abstract approximation of certain events. Truncated and normalized, it might be interesting, or even humorous. A lot of rough edges would be shaved off, and you can't really represent every detail, but that's where the art comes in: selective choosing—finding and combining interesting patterns.