A leph in Jewish mysticism represents the oneness of the Divine. The letter can been seen as being composed of an upper yud, a lower yud, and a vav leaning on a diagonal. The upper yud represents the hidden and ineffible aspects of God while the lower yud represents God’s revelation and presence in the world. The vav connects the two realms.”
T he 1-hour 53-min recording of Terry Riley’s solo synth performance of his composition, ‘א’, is beautiful—and precisely the sort of experience you would expect from Riley.
B ut, apart from whatever else it may be and apart from its merits as a composition and as a performance, I have found it to be especially conducive to my own productivity when working on complex math problems and coding software to solve them. For me, silence works only up to a point, after which I need minimalist music.
B ut not just any minimalist music. For example, Michael Nyman’s music interferes with concentration. La Monte Young’s music contains, for me, too many distractions. I do find Ellen Fullman’s recent work conducive, though, in the same way that Terry Riley’s ‘Aleph’ is conducive.
T he timbre of the Korg Triton Studio 88 Synth is bright like a Chinese single-reed or double-reed, but with a lot of spectral flux like a car horn... or a choir of Chinese tenor and bass suonas. Spectral flux and spectral irregularity are distinguishing features in car horns (see Lemaitre 2003, link below).
T he two-hour performance is filled with dense, organic, continually-changing textures—nimble car horns, if car horns can ever be nimble, and these are supernaturally nimble. The automaticity of preschool kids’ trying out their fingers on a keyboard, enjoying the raw pleasure of making notes and reproducing patterns and sequences... reflexive movements of their fingers and arms, yielding arpeggiation that involves just those notes that are within easy reach without stretching.
T he effect, some minutes into listening to it, evokes a freedom from intention and planning that is unknown to sober adults, and this is what facilitates my problem-solving and coding mind. The uncertain continuation of woodwind-like fingering patterns without aim, as long as they last, until superceded by some new motif... the stochastic, aleatoric innovations... Riley discounts the creative value of mind and deliberation and discounts it again, and again... the dollar-store of intellect... until the passion of meat is all that’s left, and animal instinct is restored...
O nly connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect...”
E.M. Forster, ‘Howard’s End’, Ch. 22, 1910.
H ere’s a short MP3 clip.
T here is a ceremonial, magisterial, quasi-liturgical quality of ‘Aleph’ that reminds me of requiem forms. Or of chant, which can be heard as both archaic and contemporary. It is a mystical piece that unfolds at an implacable, glacial pace. The tone is largely meditative and serene, which provides space for contemplation and veneration. There are dozens-of-voices atmospheric Ligeti-like sound-fogs... fields of dissonance that convey an inhuman, infinite, primeval power—this surely is part of the Hebrew significance of Aleph; as is true also of the meaning of ‘א’ in mathematics—fitting as well in the context of requiem-writing.
I t has been said that my ‘Requiem’ does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience. The music of Gounod has been criticized for its over-inclination towards human tenderness. But his nature predisposed him to feel this way: religious emotion took this form inside him. Is it not necessary to accept the artist’s nature? As to my ‘Requiem’, perhaps I have also instinctively sought to escape from what is thought right and proper...”
Gabriel Fauré, 1902.
T hroughout, the piece is prodigiously inventive, with prolific layers upon layers of rhythmic and harmonic complexity, yet all presented with what appears on the surface to be minimalistic... it embodies the best of what minimalism can be: full of latent variety that captures and nourishes the listener’s awareness. (Which is why I find it helpful to listen to when I am tackling a hard problem, and why I am writing this blogpost you are reading. If you are interested in reading more about quantitative evidence concerning music listening and work productivity, have a look at the links below, esp. the book by Vikram Kiran.)
T he seamless, cluster-like blends fan out like a spilled liquid on a flat surface—part of the organic quality of just intonation, providing a support structure for the synth suona-like parts, a Toop-style “rawness” of intonation that sustains the emotional intensity of the piece.
M ost a cappella ensembles naturally gravitate to just intonation because its ‘stability’ or ‘target-pitch predictability’ is comfortable. In that regard, maybe the spectral flux and on-again-off-again frisson of this Terry Riley recording will be of special interest to people of a vocal bent, both amateur and professional singers alike.
T his sound of synth suonas keening, synth voices keening, choir of synth car horns keening... bears some resemblance to the György Ligeti piece in ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’, ‘Lux aeterna’... A friend who was overhearing my repeated playing of the 2 Riley ‘Aleph’ CDs wondered aloud “How can you stand that!? It’s driving me nuts!” So, to be truthful I should say that this is an acquired taste, or reveals a patience borne of equanimity. It is like being transported by William Kraft’s music in the walkway between terminals underneath Chicago’s O’Hare airport. It is like listening to a choir of chainsaws in the forest at a great and comfortable distance. Or like the persistent-but-beautiful bleating and tintinnabulation of sheep in a high alpine meadow in the Swiss alps, below the Jung Frau Joch in the late mornings of mid-summer. In other words, the bleating and tintinnabulation signify tolerant, salutary, and humane qualities that are implicit in our planet’s troubled story. Children of the Universe, you (every living creature) are here, hurray. Have a good life.
I n short, these are qualities which make humans, the sum of which could be seen in love (esp. agape, which in turn can be seen as an embodiment of the ‘idea of One’). The musical gaze cast from this sphere upon the story world is distanced, more or less withdrawn, non-judgemental, calm, quiet, and slightly melancholic, yet non-sentimental. As film music, tintinnabuli music often qualifies as an ‘against all odds’ score capable of making the complicated plot-level matters more poignant.”
Kaire Maimets-Volt, p. 172.
I f you were in a foreign country and experiencing the local people performing on their native instruments, a long raga, for example—you would exhibit a tolerance toward such bleatings and tintinnabulations. But if instead, like my friend, you regard it as a choir of annoying car horns—multiple car alarms being set off repeatedly by marauding kids on a street a couple of blocks away—you just want it to stop.
I n summary, playing these 2 CDs consecutively without a break induces an awareness that can facilitate productive concentration at work and lift you into a realm beyond human understanding or hearing. The music requires an audience who must be willing to accept the spirit of the work and suspend their disbelief in order to receive its many rewards.
- Terry Riley website
- Riley T. Aleph. (Tzadik, 2012.)
- Just intonation page at Wikipedia
- Just intonation compositions (abbreviated list) at Art of the States
- Acoutrier J-J. The hypothesis of self-organization for musical tuning systems. LMJ, 2008.
- Fong A. The growing proportions of just intonation. ShakeTheAir, 2010.
- Forster C. Musical Mathematics: On the Art and Science of Acoustic Instruments. Chronicle, 2010.
- Holopainen R. Self-organized sound with autonomous instruments: Aesthetics and experiments. PhD dissertation, Univ Oslo, 2012.
- Lemaitre G, et al. Perceptively based design of new car horn sounds. Proc 2003 Intl Conf on Auditory Display, Boston, pp. 47-50.
- Neubacker P. What does ‘just intonation’ mean? Harmonik & Glasperlenspiel, 1994.
- Bill Sethares’s tuning-timbre page at Univ Wisconsin
- Bill Sethares lecture
- Toop D. Sinister Resonance: Mediumship of the Listener. Continuum, 2011.
- Suona.com website
- Tenor suona in MFA Boston
- Liu Ying. Suona Master. (Naxos, 1998.)
- MelodyOfChina.com woodwinds
- Aleph-nought page at Wolfram MathWorld
- Aleph Judaica at Wikipedia
- EpicDrones group on Facebook
- Blood D, Ferriss S. Effects of background music on anxiety, satisfaction with communication, and productivity. Psychol Rep. 1993;72:171-7.
- Huang R, Shih Y. Effects of background music on concentration of workers. Work 2011;38:383-7.
- Kiran V, Chukkali S. Effect of Music on Work Productivity: A Musical Work Life. Lambert Academic, 2012.
- Shih Y, et al. Correlation between work concentration level and background music. Work 2009;33:329-33.
- Smith A, et al. Effects of prior exposure to office noise and music on aspects of working memory. Noise Health 2010;12:235-43.