29 May 2010

Phoenix Ensemble: Feldman and Babbitt Clarinet Quintets, Security/Acquiescence, Insecurity/Dissent, Morphogenesis

 Phoenix Ensemble

R    enoir said that the same color, applied by two different hands, would give us two different tones. But in music, the same note, written by two different composers, gives us the same note. When I write a B-flat, and Berio a B-flat, what you get is always B-flat. By contrast, the painter must create his medium as he works. That’s what gives his work that ‘hesitancy’—that ‘insecurity’ so crucial to painting.”
  —  Morton Feldman.
M   usicians are used to spinning a phrase or rhythm in a certain way. There is a kind of common grammar to the musical language that we all get used to. Babbitt seems to knowingly throw a wrench in it, intentionally pulling or tugging the musicians in very uncomfortable directions. It’s frustrating, but in the end it makes you think in completely new and different ways and causes a kind of wonderful tension in the music. As scary as it was, I grew to like the feeling. I think for all of the musicians in the group, this was the most difficult piece we had ever worked on. Babbitt made himself available whenever we had specific questions about the score... In [Feldman’s] clarinet quintet, and most of his late music especially, he has a way of sustaining this beautiful world and keeping it interesting over very long stretches of time, and for some reason it works. It’s a real challenge for the musicians because there is never any technique or ‘flash’ to grab onto or hide behind. It’s just this ‘stripped-to-the-bone’ musical expression, and our ability to spin a phrase at a constant ppp.”
  —  Mark Lieb, interview with Robert Carl.
L isten to these excerpts:

    [50-sec clip, Phoenix Ensemble, Morton Feldman, ‘Clarinet and String Quartet, m. 283’, 1983, 1.6MB MP3]

    [50-sec clip, Phoenix Ensemble, Milton Babbitt, ‘Clarinet Quintet, m. 1’, 1996, 1.6MB MP3]

F eldman’s quintet is like a window—a car window or a window on a train—and you can experience what goes by, what is happening outside: it is the epitome of passive observation.

B y contrast, Babbitt’s quintet is caring-but-confrontational: possibly an intense dialogue between fellow passengers who are on the train.

F eldman, instinctive; Babbitt methodical, mathematical.

B    abbitt’s elegant contours—clarinet and string quartet lines thickly folded into each other at the opening, gradually becoming sparser, with reflective pockets of unaccompanied clarinet—radiate genteel yet incisive whimsy, and his pleasure at creating such delicate musical mechanisms expresses itself shamelessly.”
  —  Philip Clark, Gramophone, MAR-2010.
T he aim of each piece seems to be to convince the performers that they won’t be able to get it ‘right’ unless they’ve understood and accepted the composer’s point of view—even when that point of view is that you have no hope of ‘mastering’ the situation—of “winning”; of living forever; of getting your way. You can influence things while you are alive; you can initiate and change the patterns that develop; you can contribute, laugh, cry. But you are not getting out of here alive.

BlindWatchmaker biomorph generator
T he trick in the Feldman piece—with one instrument starting the bar, the next entering on the second beat, and so on until the final note is a chord made up of the motif—is to allow the textural device to do its job. ‘Let it go’ as soon as your note has been played. Otherwise, the building ‘chord’ will tie down the hand and the mind.

I   f you are going to try to learn these pieces, it would be advisable to have a surgeon standing by.”
  —  Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860), commenting on Chopin’s Etudes.
L aunched into the world, the compositions make their way... wild animals, just weaned. (It’s not like their composer-parent releases them with any didactic or political intention, right?)

A    t this first meeting I brought John a string quartet. He looked at it a long time and then said, ‘How did you make this?’ I thought of my constant quarrels with (Stefan) Wolpe, and how just a week before, after showing a composition of mine to Milton Babbitt and answering his questions as intelligently as I could, he said to me, ‘Morton, I don’t understand a word you’re saying.’ And so, in a very weak voice I answered John, ‘I don’t know how I made it.’ The response to this was startling. John jumped up and down, and with a kind of high monkey squeal, screeched, ‘Isn’t that marvelous! Isn’t that wonderful! It’s so beautiful, and yet he doesn’t know how he made it.’ ”
  —  Morton Feldman, recalling his first meeting with John Cage.
  • Mark Lieb (clarinet), Aaron Boyd (violin), Kristi Helberg (violin), Cyrus Beroukhim (viola), Alberto Parrini (cello), on Feldman
  • Mark Lieb (clarinet), Aaron Boyd (violin), Alicia Edelberg (violin), Cyrus Beroukhim (viola), Bruce Wang (cello), on Babbitt
T his recording is an absorbing, totally engaging performance by Lieb and his colleagues and a superb, intimate exposition of Feldman’s and Babbitt’s ideas—about music, about life.

25 May 2010

Jo van den Booren Chamber Music for Films: Musical Narrator, ‘Third-Person-Limited’

 Altman book

T    here are three ways to play the drama: (1) you can play through a scene, establishing a mood that will ignore specific moments of greater or lesser intensity; (2) you can phrase a scene, carefully acknowledging both obvious and subtle shifts in emotional tone and dramatic content; and (3) you can hit the action, accenting specific moments in the drama with the music... ‘Playing through’ is really the earliest film scoring technique, dating back to the pre-sound era of silent movies. In those days the local pianist selected different pieces of music for each dramatic section and simply played through each scene until the next section.”
  —  Fred Karlin & Rayburn Wright, p. 238.
S hortly before Patelson’s closed last year, I was in there rummaging through what was left on the shelves. I found a copy of a peculiar score for brass quintet, entitled ‘Potpourri’, by the [now 75 year-old--] Dutch composer Jo van den Booren. This 10-minute piece is filled with surprising dynamics and exchanges between the players. The rapidly changing polymeter time signatures tell a story—mystery! a thriller!

 Jo van den Booren
W hat a fantastic find! I had never encountered any of van den Booren’s music before. I began to explore, to see what recordings of his works might be available. Sadly, the result was meager. But he has received a number of awards in Europe; his compositions in Donemus’s catalog number more than 200...

 Jo van den Booren
R eally marvelous, van den Booren’s sense of timing and suspense—in the brass quintet, and in other of his music. Not surprising, then, that he has done scores for films, including chamber ensemble works to accompany old silent films—his 1985 score for the 1928 silent ‘La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc’, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer and starring Maria Falconetti, is highly regarded...

 Jeanne d’Arc, Falconetti
W e get natural competition between the visual gestures and actions in the silent film. By contrast, in contemporary films sound-effects compete with the music. But in silent films the sound-effects are implied by the on-screen action and, to some extent, by the sub-titles. Visual effects as surrogates for sound-effects. Sometimes, the musician(s) ‘tread water’ before the cinematic effect; at other times, they come smacking in with something ‘new’ right after the visual effect...

 Jo van den Booren
T rumpet-led ostinato ‘processional’ music; tuba-instigated ‘introspective’ music; trombone gone wild...

 Jo van den Booren, trombone gone wild
V an den Booren considers each scene as though it were a philosophical question, to be considered from multiple angles. This adds to the character development and serves as a stimulus for the viewer to engage her/his imagination. As such, van den Booren is a wonderful teacher to learn from. The composer, acting as an impromptu companion to the viewer, should regale the viewer with honest musical remarks. The viewer sees the wheels inside your head working; you are a kind of narrator, third-person, ‘limited’. Your remarks are not ‘inexplicable’; they are spontaneous but explicable. Most of the time, your remarks are friendly; but sometimes you can be difficult...

 Jo van den Booren, whip-lash
B    efore you phrase a scene you’ll need to select a tempo and rough-in the cue, putting correct timings at the top of every bar or two... consider adjusting the tempo slightly to accomodate any ‘hits’ that need to be precise. Compose your thematic material for the scene, or, if you already have the material, play it against the video without trying to fit it exactly to the scene. Place the thematic material roughly where you would like it to play. This may leave silent bars on one or both sides of the thematic statements, which you can fill in later. Now shift the material slightly and try playing it in several different places. When its location seems most compatible to your music in terms of your selected ‘hits’ or phrase-timings, lock it in. Use the SMPTE timecode to identify the start coordinate... Adding a soft string-pad under the theme as the heroine turns and says, ‘I love you,’ can be enhancing to the scene without disturbing the flow of the music.”
  —  Fred Karlin & Rayburn Wright, p. 307.

22 May 2010

Lumbricals, Some Getting Stronger, Others Discouragingly Staying the Same

 Lumbrical muscles

G   reat strength is necessary in the fingers, yes, but it comes with playing, if one plays rightly—that is, musically. From the moment one senses that the finger must ‘sing’, it becomes stronger. That is quite a different matter from playing exercises or etudes merely for the sake of strengthening, and saying ‘I must exercise my fingers and make them strong.’ Such playing as this latter sort does not help at all.”
  —  Vladimir Horowitz.
M y guitarist-pianist friend and colleague at work comes and visits with me this week, says that for more than a month he’s been doing exercises to strengthen the lumbrical muscles in his hands. The left hand has been responding, but the right hand—especially the ring finger and pinky—has been staying the same or, paradoxically, might even be getting weaker.

H e worries about focal dystonia. (Jason Solomon of Georgia Guitar Quartet has an excellent article about that here.) He worries about carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). I am not a neurologist, but I know enough to know when to go and hire one. I ask my friend about whether he has any numbness or difference in sensation among the fingers on the right hand, or between the right and left...

T he fact that my friend is a professional software developer/engineer who spends 70+ hours at a laptop keyboard each week is something the neurologist will need to know, as part of the evaluation—in addition to the heavy hours on guitar and piano. In other words, if what my friend is experiencing is some type of repetitive stress injury (RSI), then characterizing the various types and intensities of repetitive motions will be clinically important.

T he state-of-the-art of hand biomechanics and hand problems of musicians have been a recurring interest for me for some years, so, in response my friend’s immediate situation, I go online and scan the current medical journal literature, to see what, if anything, is new in the last year or two. For his benefit and maybe for your own, I gather some relevant things together in the list of links below.

W here exactly is the ‘carpal tunnel’? The carpal tunnel is the narrow space anatomically between the small carpal bones of the wrist and the ligament called the flexor retinaculum. Here’s how you can find it: Put your left index finger in the center of your right palm, then move the finger about two inches down your palm toward your arm, stopping when your finger approaches the edge of the fleshy part of your hand. Your finger now lies directly over the carpal tunnel. The carpal tunnel is the U-shaped depression with carpal bones below and on either side. The flexor retinaculum ligament stretches over the top of the ‘U’ to make a tunnel-like space. The cross-section of the tunnel is only a centimeter or so, and nine flexor tendons (two to each finger and one to the thumb) have to pass through that little tunnel. The space is so narrow that some of the tendons are bundled on top of each other instead of going side-by-side the way they do outside the tunnel.

B esides tendons, the median nerve also goes through the carpal tunnel. By contrast, the ulnar nerve does not run in the carpal tunnel. The median nerve supplies most of the palm, the thumb, the index finger, the middle finger, and part of the ring finger. The first and second lumbricals (i.e. the two that are most ‘lateral’ on the radial side; index and middle fingers) are innervated by the median nerve. The third and fourth lumbricals (i.e. the most medial two; middle, ring, and little fingers) are innervated by the deep branch of the ulnar nerve. So if what’s going on is actually CTS, then you might expect weakness predominantly in lumbricals and/or interosseous muscles serving the thumb or index finger or middle finger or maybe the middle fingerward side of the ring finger. And you might think ‘ulnar neuropathy’ if the ring finger and/or pinky are predominantly affected.

B ut, gee, knowledge of the neuroanatomy of peripheral nerves in your arm and wrist and hand only gets you part of the way toward figuring out what is going on. In part, this is because of the interconnections elsewhere, including the motor cortex in your brain. Besides clinical evaluation, electrodiagnostic (EDX) tests are usually needed to confirm the diagnosis.

T he lumbrical and interosseous muscles are important in several motions—including flexing and plucking, increasing and diminishing the ‘spread’ of the fingers, and extending/raising the fingers. The lumbricals are used during an ‘upstroke’ when you are writing with a pen or pencil. These are the muscles that make the fingers separate and spread out or, alternately, converge and come together. The lumbrical muscles, with the help of the interosseous muscles, simultaneously flex the metacarpophalangeal (MCP) joints while extending both interphalangeal (IP) joints. In bats and other animals, these muscles are the ones that enable them to spread the wings and grab the air at one instant and flex and draw them in a few tens of milliseconds later and let the air go. If a bat acquired a repetitive stress injury of its lumbricals, on both sides or one side different from the other, it wouldn’t have long to live. Same thing for a seal: you can’t swim and catch fish if your lumbricals are faltering. Serious musicians—people whose livelihood or soul depends on playing—worry about this, as intently as a seal or bat.

T he EDX testing for these conditions is steadily getting more sensitive and more precise. For example, Sheehan and coworkers (link below) studied people referred with suspected carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) by measuring the ‘second lumbrical-interosseous distal motor latency difference’ (2LI-DML) as well as by other, more standard tests like ‘median-ulnar palmar velocity difference’. The referred cases included 74% who turned out to be CTS. Sheehan suggests that 2LI-DML, which is a more sensitive test than other nerve conduction velocity tests for detecting mild abnormalities, is useful as a screening test for latent CTS on the asymptomatic side.

M otor distal latency (MDL) differences between the median-thenar and ulnar-hypothenar (M-U) muscles and between the median-second lumbrical and ulnar-interossei muscles (2L-INT) have also recently been used to diagnose early or ‘mixed’ cases. After all, there is no law of Nature that says a person can’t have CTS and UNE or CTS and focal dystonia at the same time. In people in whom the conventional nerve conduction tests are so far ‘normal’ despite the symptoms they are having, the neurologist can measure both motor and sensory W-P conduction and in a large percentage of cases this can establish a diagnosis.

U lnar neuropathy at the elbow (UNE) is the second most common compressive neuropathy of the upper limb. Compared to ‘ulnar neuropathy at the elbow’ (UNE), ulnar neuropathy at the wrist (UNW) is rarer and more difficult to localize with routine electrodiagnostic (EDX) tests. In terms of expectation-setting, it is reasonable to anticipate that it may take some time (and multiple visits) to establish an accurate diagnosis and decide on the right treatment plan. In general, these are not things that can be sorted out in a single, quick office visit.

T he important thing—if you are having symptoms like the ones my guitarist friend is having—is to get yourself examined by a neurologist who is experienced in problems of performing artists and who has the equipment and training to perform the newer EDX tests that are available. You can search for practitioners who are diplomates of the American Board of Electrodiagnostic Medicine here. I regret that I don’t know what comparable search resources there may be for consultants having EDX professional certifications in other countries.

19 May 2010

Afflicted Fingerings, Biomechanics, and Energy Budgets

 Miyoshi, Vol. 3, P. 36

B    and B-flat, vying; then C and C#: yow! … all of which as if to reveal some hidden perversity in the interval itself, to show some concealed possible corner of the second’s personality … what the Second does when he’s at home alone, when no one’s watching.”
  —  Jeremy Denk, More about Goldberg Variations, ThinkDenk blog, 11-MAY-2009.
M y hand shifts to make a gradual transition in this Bach sarabande. I never fail to be impressed by how deeply afflicted this piece is. I think of these passages as several competing storylines crossing each other... chains upon [Dutilleux-esque] chains of expressive dissonances in the French Suites.

 Bach, French Suite, No. 1 in D minor, BWV 812, mm. 7-8
W hat fingerings might be best? Bach’s Inventions No. 1 and 2 have been the focus for studies by Yuichiro Yonebayashi, Hirokazu Kameoka, and Shigeki Sagayama at the University of Tokyo (link below). They represent the positions and forms of hands and fingers as Hidden Markov Model (HMM) states and model the resulting sequence of performed notes mathematically as HMM transitions. Or, for me just now, Bach’s French Suites, BWV 812-817, Markovian fingers, compelled by what other neighboring Markovian fingers just did.

F    ingering would be no problem were it not that music notes are preceded and/or followed by other notes.”
  —  Yuichiro Yonebayashi, Hirokazu Kameoka, and Shigeki Sagayama.
O ptimal fingering is essentially a problem of finding an optimal sequence of [reasonably] smooth state-transitions, from one state of each finger to the next. But the issue is not just about ‘ease’ or ‘reliability’ or ‘evenness’, even though those are of course important. The matter has also to do with texture and emotion. In fact, a thoughtful composer who is also a pianist knows very well what biomechanical ‘cost function’ or budget for effort or attention or energy expenditure will likely prevail for performers. If the composer’s intent is to devise an especially afflicted expression, then the composer chooses a key-signature and sequences of notes specifically with the intention of beleaguering or defeating performers’ biomechanics cost functions and built-in instincts.

W    hen pianos were first invented, they were similar in size to harpsichords. Hand size was rarely a limiting factor throughout the eighteenth century because the keys were short and narrow and the repertoire usually contained intervals no larger than the octave. However, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the piano gradually expanded in range and key size. The use of cast iron frames led to an exponential increase in string tension, resulting in heavier and deeper actions that exacerbated problems for small-handed players. Nineteenth-century concert pianos typically featured actions with 6 millimeters of travel depth, requiring 23 gm of weight for full key depression and string tension in the middle register that ranged from 12 to 15 grams. By the end of the century, string tension had risen to 80 kg in the middle register, resulting in a heavier action with 9 mm of travel depth, requiring 45 g for full key depression. Today’s Steinway grands feature even heavier actions and larger hammers: 90 kg of string tension and 10.5 mm of travel depth, requiring 50 to 60 g of key depression force.”
  —  Lora Deahl & Brenda Wristen, American Music Teacher, JUN-2003.
I  sometimes use 2-3-5 LH for triads and 1-2-3 for RH triads, leaving the thumb ready for 7ths or other contingencies. Also, my RH likes 1-3-5 or 1-2-5 when straddling black notes or for inversions or big gaps. But these produce tension in the hand—not just physical stretching but—I realize this now—brain stretching, too. Brain regions controlling the index finger and middle finger—fused under the influence of years of neuroplasticity—get anxious. They are apprehensive of more affliction that’s surely in-store.

T his Bach is undoubtedly about middle age and loss. Written in 1722 or a little earlier—two years after the sudden death of his first wife, Maria Barbara; now soon after his marriage to Anna Magdalena. Bach at 37—he hardly knew over-the-hillness first-hand, but he surely knew about loss. I realize that I am playing this differently now in my late 50s than I did 20 years ago, but I am not sure how to explain the difference in words.

I t has been more than 10 years since I played French Suites. The elapsed time is long enough to have lost any muscle memory I once had. Whole strategies and insights have vanished—and my old marked-up copy misplaced in one move or another along the way. Maybe my explanation for what is different is just that: beginning again, after some sort of catastrophe. Feels like physical therapy/rehab for someone who has suffered a stroke? You full-well know what your appendages ought to do, and you know the self-possessed sensations that you intend, but the body doesn’t cooperate—or even feel like your own self, really.

W hen working out your fingerings—even for a piece that is vexingly familiar and yet alien, like this one is for me right now—you often start at the beginning of a passage and plot your strategy forward from there. Sometimes, though, I prefer to first find the points that demand a specific finger. These points mark constraints such that you must have the requisite finger to proceed into the next phrase; such points are often the highest or lowest points in a passage. In the RH, you don’t usually want to end up with fingers 1 or 2 on the highest note (LH lowest note), nor do you want to end up on 4 or 5 on the lowest note of a RH passage (highest in the LH)—especially if the thing is going to immediately reverse direction. Once you’ve identified those constraints, you can work outward, both upstream and downstream, to plan your optimal fingerings.

I  mark each place that involves a finger substitution, a change of fingering on a repeated note, or crossings (4-over-5; 2-over-1; 3-over-1; 4-over-1; 1-under-2; 1-under-3; 1-under-4; 5-under-4). I used to do this in pencil, and sometimes I still do this. But in the last couple of years I prefer to do it with e-markups in MusicReader™ software, which I use with my AirTurn™ pedal.

I  mark more non-standard fingerings—the more afflicted the passage, the more non-standard it gets. For example, a passage may have a D minor scale in the RH, but it may continue to the octave E. One conventional fingering would cross to 1 on the high D and place 2 on the E. If it were then to return, you would have another crossing (1 - 4 on D to C) almost immediately. In this instance, a non-standard fingering such as 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4 may be more effective. Bach as ‘rehab’; rehab as [self-] ‘discovery’...

14 May 2010

An Accumulation of Energies, Nameless and Named: Evening Chamber Music in Prague

 Prague Store Mesto clock

O   nce you’ve seen the signs about it [The Most-photographed Barn in America!], it becomes impossible to ‘see’ the barn,’ said Murray.
He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced at once by others.
‘We’re not here to capture an image; we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies...’
There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
‘Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see [and hear] only what others see [and hear]. The thousands who were here in the past; those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception.”
  —  Don DeLillo, White Noise (1985).
A    ve Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum, Virgo serena.
Ave cuius conceptio,
solemni plena gaudio,
celestia, terrestria,
nova replet letitia.
Ave cuius nativitas,
nostra fuit solemnitas,
ut lucifer lux oriens
verum solem preveniens.
Ave pia humilitas,
sine viro fecunditas,
cuius annunciatio
nostra fuit salvatio.
Ave vera virginitas,
immaculata castitas,
cuius purificatio
nostra fuit purgatio.
Ave preclara omnibus
angelicis virtutibus,
cuius fuit assumptio
nostra glorificatio.
O Mater Dei, memento mei. Amen.”
W e hastily ran around the small central core of Prague—the Stare Mesto (old town) and the Hrad (castle). The evenings were dark and delicious.

W e found the astronomical clock on the Old Town Hall to be especially interesting, both symbolically and from an engineering point of view. At the top of the hour, the clock features a procession of figurines of the 12 apostles, preceded by the figure of Death (you can see him in the picture above, on the right-hand side) pulling a rope in his right hand, and inverting the hourglass that’s in His right hand. Each evening, we attended one or two concerts featuring Mozart, Vivaldi, local Czech composers—at the baroque Church of St. James, for example. The evenings had more renditions of Ave Maria than I ever knew existed.

E ach night from 8 p.m. onward you can find many—dozens?—of these chamber performances—in churches and other small halls. Very modestly-priced. Small ensembles, quartets, trios, duets, violin and piano, cello and piano, violin and piano and voice, voice and harp, violin and harp and organ/harmonium, string trio with trumpet, violin and harp and flute--anything and everything. Mostly, these are short programs less than 1 hour in length, cash admission collected at the door, with repertoire picked to appeal to a touristic audience and insure a nice extra income for the performers, many of whom are professional members of standing orchestras or chamber ensembles in and around Prague.

I nvariably, there is at least one version of Ave Maria.

F amous and familiar as it is, the most frequently performed is the version by Charles Gounod, who added melody and words to J. S. Bach’s first prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Mozart’s K.554 is the one next most common version on offer. Brahms’s Op. 12.

A ntonín Dvořák’s version, the one composed in 1877. Another one, Verdi’s, for his 1887 opera Otello.

R ussian composer César Cui’s obsession: he is one of several composer ‘repeat offenders’ who have set the text at least three times: Op. 34, for 1 or 2 women’s voices with piano or harmonium (1886), and as part of two of his operas: Le Flibustier (premiered 1894) and Mateo Falcone (1907). Anton Bruckner wrote three different settings...

S ettings by Bruch, Byrd, Elgar, Verdi, Saint-Saëns, Rossini, Stravinsky, Schubert, Massenet, and Perosi as well as versions by less well-known composers, such as J.B. Tresch.

J acques Arcadelt’s setting: in reality, a 19th century arrangement by Pierre-Louis Dietsch, based on Arcadelt’s three-part madrigal, ‘Nous voyons que les hommes’.

F ranz Schubert’s ‘Ellens dritter Gesang’ (D839, Op 52. No. 6, 1825), performed with the Ave Maria prayer sung in place of the original text.

A lso, Josquin Desprez, Orlando di Lasso, and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Nights are cool, chambered Grace, full of Marys. Collective, maintained perception—sort of like DeLillo's most-photographed barn, or like Motif #1.

08 May 2010

Miniature Character Pieces Work by Hormesis?

 Guy Livingston

A    microcosm of the very newest music: one is staggered by the extensive differentiation of technique and form... Modern music is rarely so multi-dimensional, rich in changes and exciting.”
  —  Münchner Merkur.
H    ormesis (from Greek: hórmēsis – ‘rapid motion, eagerness’; from ancient Greek: hormáein – ‘to set in motion, impel, urge on’)
n. favorable biological responses to low exposures to toxins and other stressors.”
M iniatures—whether literary or film or musical—have a special power if they are well-constructed. Reading Harvey Stanbrough’s guide for authors who wish to write ‘flash fiction’, I put pianist Guy Livingston’s ‘Don’t Panic’ disc in the CD player...

L ife as character-piece, life as inevitably ‘miniature’ compared to what we might wish.

A nd ‘humor’ turns out to be a luxury that depends on our having a future to reflect on what was funny and a past to contain things remembered. No future, not much past, not much memory, then no humor—at least not in the normal sense of ‘humor’.

A ny exposure that exhibits a ‘U-shaped’ dose-response curve, something that yields beneficial effects in small doses and deleterious effects in large doses, is said to be ‘hormetic’. Through miniature character pieces like the ones on Livingston’s CD and DVD, we vicariously are able to experience a kind of musical hormesis. We receive just enough sonic stimuli to grasp what the narrative means; the narrative inspires us and propels us; and then it is gone.

 Short-lived animalsM any insect species have very short lives, you know, some existing for only days. The mayfly famously has the shortest life span of all—the adult stage lasts for as little as 30 minutes, sometimes as much as a day. Some humans have tragically truncated lives, too, living on borrowed time. Our species is not prepared for this.

 Mayfly, considering what it will doI n the days ahead here in the middle north latitudes, mayflies will be swarming over treetops near rivers or freshwater ponds or lakes. The pre-adult stages are aquatic and will last a few days. And they will moult and moult, again and again, and then live just minutes to hours as adults: just long enough to mate and, for the females, to deposit their fertilized eggs. Some male mayflies are lucky enough to perform their mating dance over placid water at sunset, joined by females. Others who moulted early in the day won’t make it to such an auspicious, romantic hour—noon, only, or 3 p.m.

 Mayflies on windscreen in OntarioD enis McKeown and colleagues at the Institute of Psychological Sciences, University of Leeds, study the neurophysiology of sonic ephemera (see links below). They find that when listeners attempt to discriminate between sounds separated by an interval of time—seconds, minutes—they do rather well, to the extent they are able to encode the remembered sound into a category with a verbal description. When we remember what someone has said some minutes ago, we recall word- and sentence-level descriptions and usually not fine, detailed acoustical information. Actually, not quite. We may recall the timbre of the voices, or macro-acoustical information, such as remembering “Cecelia sounded hoarse this morning.”

W hen we listeners discriminate between motivic material separated by seconds instead of minutes, we do really well. And if we know in advance that the narrative, whatever there may be of it, will be transacted within seconds and then vanish, then our attention is tremendously acute.

 Yashin, Fig. 1N europsychologists have recently studied how our brains perform ongoing, continuous, realtime processing comparing recently experienced or common sounds with transient new or slightly different sounds. This involves subtracting the averaged pattern of the evoked potentials record for the common repeated sound from the averaged response to the less common slightly different sound.

T he difference is what’s called a ‘mismatch response’ or ‘mismatch negativity’ (MMN). MMN signals reveal that our brains are compiling auditory models of the recent past, and, when something novel comes along, the auditor and mental models are updated. There is good evidence that the ‘model’ is not actually a log of sensory memory, but neither is it a verbal description. More like an unsayable abstraction, on the boundary between higher-order sonic abstractions and the ‘hardware-level’ sensory trace from the ears’ cochlear function.

T he ‘timbre memory model’ (TMM) proposed by McKeown and Wellsted (link below) offers a scheme that accounts for interference in auditory memory. TMM postulates a memory buffer which retains recent sonic information in the form of a compressed encoded spectrum. This spectral code is comprised of a number of frequency-specific components of each tone—features that define different auditory objects (here ‘feature’ refers to predominant spectral peaks, not just frequencies of a component tone, but amplitudes and phases of components as well). Together, these individual short-term memories build up a contextual model of our recent auditory environment and its trajectory.

T o do this, our auditory memory buffer is continuously updated by incoming sensory events over 8- to 20-second periods. Auditory events consisting of novel features require the model to be updated—whereas auditory events comprised of repeated features don’t drive model-updates. TMM hypothesizes that auditory interference and ‘mismatch’ is only caused by tones that present features that are ‘novel-in-recent-context’ and cause updates and memory scavenging, a bit like ‘garbage collection’ (GC) in Java or LISP or other programming languages.

O ur meat computer’s fusion of direct and reflected sounds into a single ‘image’ that is perceived at the location of the original sound is referred to as the ‘precedence effect’. Precedence enables us to localize the sound source and understand it with reasonable accuracy despite the presence of potentially conflicting multi-directional information from reflections.

M aybe there are ‘precedence effects’ at higher levels of abstraction as well.

I n general, my own meat computer experiences each of the compositions on the Guy Livingston CD and DVD as something like free-fall with a parachute.

T here’s a cognitive/narrative difference, I should think, between a 3-sec free-fall in an amusement-park ride (Tower of Power) and a 5-min parachute-jump free-fall from an airplane and a 20-min descent in an unpowered glider. The 3-sec experience resembles, I think, literary microfictions; the piano miniatures that Livingston performs; the lives of mayflies.
 Parachute-equipped Kittinger enters EXCELSIOR balloon, 1960I t’s been postulated that memory consolidation processes require post-learning molecular changes that will support long-term experiences. Blocking dopaminergic D1 and/or N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors impairs consolidation processes: it degrades long-term memory but not short-term memory. But if no long-term experiences will be forthcoming for us--as for mayflies, as in the Livingston CD and DVD--then short-term incentive-salience is all there is, and our neurobiology would do well to maximize the short-term experience for what it is, D1 and NMDA signals or no D1 and NMDA signals.

A lthough interference is a well-established forgetting function in short-term auditory memory, an adequate understanding of its underlying mechanisms is still a ways off into the future. McKeown's listeners compared standard and comparison complex tones, having distinct timbres (four components varying in frequency), over a 5-sec retention interval and made a same-different response. This interval either was silent or included one of 15 distractor tones occurring 0 millisec, 100 millisec, or 1,200 millisec after the standard. The distractors varied in the extent to which the frequencies of their component tones were shared with the standard. Individuals’ performance in comparing the consecutive tones was significantly impaired by distractors composed of novel frequencies, regardless of the temporal position at which the distractor occurred.

T hese results, compatible with teh TMM put forward by McKeown and Wellsted, suggest that interference in our meat computer’s auditory memory operates via a ‘feature-overwriting’ mechanism with automatic GC. We don’t ordinarily notice it much. But the Livingston CD and DVD can make the mechanism very apparent.

B ased in Paris and Amsterdam, Livingston performs all over the world, notably as soloist with the Chicago Symphony, the Orchestre Nationale de France, and as a recitalist at the Centre Pompidou, the Théâtre du Chatelet, the IJsbreker, the MuziekGebouw, the Library of Congress, Lincoln Center, and Le Poisson Rouge. His recordings of 20th and 21st Century repertoire include premieres of music by John Cage, George Antheil, and over 100 other ‘feature-overwriting, GC and update-inducing’ composers from around the world.

M ight there be a limit on the maximum number of rapid variations that our species can stand before dying, about 40 maybe (the so-called Hayflick limit), just like for the maximum number of moults or the maximum number of passages in cell culture?
W orks on the ‘Don’t Panic!’ CD.
  • Dan Warburton: Speed Study I
  • Jonathan Katz: WENDIGO
  • Daniel Landau: Losing it again
  • Carl Faia: What if I just said...
  • Roger Kleier: Step out of the Car
  • Donal Fox: The Scream
  • James Baiye: Database of Desire & spoken word
  • Roberto Andreoni: scendi un minuto
  • Brian Escriv: Mason and Dixon
  • Annie Gosfield: Brooklyn, October 5, 1941
  • Paul Beaudoin: re: dance (PNMR)
  • Marek Zebrowski: Ex tempore
  • Louis Andriessen: non [an] anfang
  • Christopher Culpo: Spangles
  • Isak Goldschneider: 42 Second Piano, tape effects & electronics
  • Richard Brooks: Conflict of Interest
  • Danielle Baas: Joke
  • Charles Shadle: Cowboy Song
  • Sophie de Wit: Who asked you?
  • Pepe-Tonino Caravaggio: EIGHT 8
  • Thomas Jefferson Anderson: Watermelon Revisited
  • Paul von Hippel: Kodaly Music Box
  • Eilon Aviram: NA'OU'RA (the Wedding Dance), prepared piano & percussion
  • Jonathan Norton: 59" of Piano
  • Alan Frederick Shockley: cold springs brand, 10 p.m.
  • Moritz Eggert: Hämmerklavier XI
  • Derek Bermel: MEDITATION
  • Tuyet Tran: Tonal Imagery
  • Fritz Lauer: Slusha, for C.E.
  • William Bolcom: A 60-second Ballet for chickens
  • Joshua Cody: Two-Chord Warp
  • Joanna Bailie: GIRO I
  • Martial Robert: I' de Tonio Kröger
  • Patricia Elizabeth Martinez: Absolutis-s
  • Riccardo Vaglini: PASSATEMPO
  • Gene Pritsker: i'm afraid you might ask for a fragment of my soul
  • Newt Hinton: Nakano-ku (à S.D.)
  • John New: Moondrunk
  • Patrick Cahallan: xxx.rhapsody
  • Yoichi Togawa: prelude I
  • Barbara Engel: Punch and Judy's Waltz
  • Joseph Rovan: Miro Sketch - Mostly Yellow
  • Frederick Frahm: Sonata Moirai
  • Victor Ekimovsky: Jenseits des Guten und des Bösen
  • Alper Maral: Verschiebung
  • Stephane Leach: Piano Piece for Guy
  • Ketzel Cotel: piece for paws
  • Vanessa Lann: DD (Double D)
  • Walter Haven: Minute Rice
  • Giovanni Mancuso: Saltarello for Guy, for piano, prepared tape & percussion
  • Sergio Pallante: Polis
  • D. Andrew Stewart: réveil
  • Elliott Sharp: Snaps
  • Robert Eidschun: Specks
  • Lionel Sainsbury: Prelude
  • Richard Carrick: Slowness
  • Walter Sanchez: Thinking
  • Atsushi Yoshinka: HARU NO YOI - Miyabi no Uta
  • Atanasio Khyrsch: Parce que je le vaux bien
  • Lansing McLoskey: Theft