Just Like Nothing On Earth

Yoni Suki sets new standards in electronic music. Listen to sounds you’ve never heard before.

Yoni Suki stands for old school electronic music and still dares to explore new territory as well. Unique synthesizer sounds (noone played factory presets) and melodies rather than just arpeggiators. Diverse rhythms rather than just four-to-the-floor.

The album “Just Like Nothing On Earth” is inspired by the Berlin School (Tangerine Dream etc), the Düsseldorf School (Kraftwerk etc), the Vienna School (Beethoven, Haydn etc) and lots of other stuff.

Now available at iTunes, Spotify, Google Music and around the world:

https://www.cdbaby.com/cd/yonisuki

 

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Dao vs Suchness

The Chinese philosopher Feng Youlan believed that the Buddhist suchness, which he calls Buddha-nature, is quite similar to the concept of the Dao of philosophical Daoism. Is this so? In Chan (Zen), it is said that Buddha-nature is eternal and it is present in all sentient beings although most human beings are blind to this fact. The Buddhist suchness is not so much considered as a principle but as a state. To reach this state means that you recognize the emptiness of the world. Chan Buddhism emphasizes the impermanence of this world. There is nobody who can say I. The person you have been a second ago is already gone. In this aspect, the world we live in is an illusion (samsara). Since there is no permanence, there is also no birth and no death.
When we look now at the Dao of the Daoists, do we indeed find similarities? Yes, but we see also some subtle and some substantial differences. The Dao is the underlying principle of the world. It is the way of nature. The Dao cannot be described. It is eternal but we cannot say that it exists. Neither can we say that it doesn’t exist. All things in the world are its manifestations. The Dao is unchangeable while all its manifestations are constantly in flux. But there is a principle that drives those changes. It is the operation of yin and yang that is at the bottom of all change. Everything in this world is regulated by cycles. This is as true for the seasons as it is for a man’s lifetime. From birth, yang rises and yin is diminished, hence strength increases until the top is reached and yin takes the upper hand. This finally leads to death. With rebirth the cycle begins anew. We see that even the stock exchanges follow this principle.
The biggest difference between the concept of Dao and the Buddhist suchness is the karma. Buddhists believe in cause and effect. Actions and thoughts trigger causes (karma). All these actions must have an effect, even if it can take a lot of time till this effect is seen. And the effect is always experienced by the one who has caused it. Isn’t that a contradiction with the idea of impermanence? Not really. Since this world is an illusion, the effects are also mere illusions. And since birth and death are not “real” either, the karma can survive the death and rebirth of a living being. Buddhism is hence a ethical philosophy. Everybody must take responsibility for what they have done.
Daoism has no such concept, although there are many different variants of Daoist theory. Daoism and Chan have cross-fertilized themselves over a long period but according to the early Daoists, the operation of the Dao is random within the limits of natural laws. The Dao is spontaneity and intuition. Future effects cannot be planned nor can they be influenced by your actions. Being a good person does not bring you any favours. The Dao does not care. Nevertheless, your actions should be in accordance with the Dao. This is not because it is ethical to act in such a way but because it is unnatural not to do it. Wearing a fur coat on a hot summer day is just as stupid as standing naked in the snow.
In conclusion, we can say that Daoism is more practical than Chan. The basic idea is to go with the flow to avoid being hurt. The idea of Chan is more spiritual. The production of karma has to be stopped to avoid effects. Hence, meditation is at the centre of Chan’s philosophy. By meditation, the Chan Buddhists try to stop their thoughts. Only when no thoughts emerge any more, the chain of cause and effect is broken and the emptiness of the world is realized. Also, the aspect of impermanence is seen from a higher angle. Birth and death are only illusions and thus of no consequence. For Daoism, birth and death are just natural conditions.

Feng, Y. (1987) Selected Philosophical Writings (English Edition), San Francisco:China Books
Li, W. (1999) Buddhistisch Philosophieren – Eine Einführung, Münster/ New York/ München/ Berlin, Waxmann

The Power of Sound

How strong  is the influence music has on us? Some think that music has a spiritual power other forms of art do not have.

Murray Schafer cites Hermann Hesse in his seminal book “The Tuning of the World” (I used the German edition because the original was unavailable) with the claim that music reflects the state of society. In a well-ordered society the prevailing music is calm and structured and in times of turmoil music is grim and excited (Murray Schafer 2010 [1977] p.41).

There is some evidence for Hesse’s belief. The early 20th Century was a time of turmoil. So when Schönberg came up with atonal twelve-tone music, one world war lay behind mankind and another lurked around the corner. The rise of the futurists and their machine music and the surrealists and their weird reordering of categories were also signs for the huge upheaval that was taking place. Later, big transformations in US society were also the basis for free jazz and rock’n’ roll.

Murray Schafer extended Hesse’s claim to sounds that were generally believed to be noise. In thus, he refused to make a difference between the compositions of great artists and the sounds of the street. He believed that the soundscapes, as he called them, were not random products but willfully designed sounds. He had of course no sympathy for the rebels who reflected the societal changes in their works. He was a romantic and a conservative. He really thought that the mending of the soundscapes of the world would consequently heal the world.

In consequence, he disliked the sounds machines made. For him, all troubles started with the industrialization. The sounds of the steam engines and motor cars outpowered not only the sounds of nature but also the man-made noises from older technology. The sirens of the police now were louder than the church bells. The old order was besieged and finally overthrown. For him, this fact is root cause for all the turmoil and trouble in our current world.

Noise has always been a means to frighten enemies and now he have this constant background noise. This noise puts uneasiness and maybe even fear into ourselves. Hosenfeld (2006, p. 108) said  that it is an evolutionary artifact that deep sounds can fill us with terror. Our enemies in prehistoric times approached with dark noises while birdsong posed no danger to us. And nowadays, many machines (e.g air condition) issue deep-frequented sounds permanently. Hosenfeld explains the instant reaction to sounds by the fact that the ear is the only sense that has a direct connection to both midbrain and brainstem (p. 97). The latter controls our vegetative nervous system.

Schulze (2008), who is an phenomologist, claims that the body is not a statue. It is permeable and changeable. Music lets the body swing. Music influences and modifies the functioning of our body and the reception of music is not absolute. It is depending on the attributes of the room and on the psychological state we are in. We never hear the same musical piece twice.

It seems to be that both distracting sounds and silence does make us feel uneasy. Hampel (2006, p. 57) believes that silence is something the modern man is not accustomed to any more. Murray Schafer likewise claimed that stillness is asscociated by modern man with death.  When nothing stirs, everything is dead. This lack of sound is threatening to us. We need to fill the silence with sound to get rid of that uneasiness (Murray Schafer, 2010[1977],p.411). So have we to listen to muzak the whole day to feel well?

Murray Schafer was strongly opposed to ambient music. He didn’t want to cover the sounds of our surroundings but change them. He supposed that music – or sounds in general – can heal a troubled society. I think that this is a misconception. Music like all arts is a reflection of the state of society and hence cannot be an agent of change. If it were an agent, how could it then be a mirrored image of the society? Music has a direct connection to our unconscious mind. It can soothe or excite us. A changed soundscape would result in a changed society but that is not the way it works. The soundscape is a result of our society and we have to change society first. The soundscape will follow.

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Appreciate the Noise

With the beginning of the industrialisation noise became a steady ingredient of everyday life. Noise was seen as disorderly. Hence, music theorists created the dichotomy of noise and music. Attali says that “[w]ith noise is born disorder and its opposite: the world. With music is born power and its opposite: subversion” (Cox & Warner 2013[2004], p.7). Murray Schafer, who coined the term “soundscape”, thinks that only “a total appreciation of the acoustic environment can give us the resources for improvising the orchestration of the world” (Cox & Warner, p. 30). For Murray Schafer no distinction between noise and music exists. We need to appreciate the rumble of the jackhammer rather than feel vexed by its intrusion. Reynolds sees noise as something therapeutic. He says that it can tear down the power structure in our brain. We must let it have its way. Let it overthrow the tyranny of our expectations (Cox & Warner, p.57). Again, noise is seen as an agent of disorder.
Umberto Eco thinks that the structure which can be seen in a work of art mirrors the valid structures of science and contemporary culture views. Hence, atonal music could not have possible in Baroque. The Western world believed in the New Jerusalem. Everything had to make sense. Everything was planned and supervised by the almighty god. Only the modern times in which a coherent meaning of life is absent for a large part of the population (at least in the western world), seemingly chaotic music could evolve.
We must, however, not forget that even Schoenberg’s music has certain structures. And there also was a counter-movement. In the years following the Second World War, art music indeed became split into serialist (structured) and non-serialist (free) works, says Smith Brindle. “Yet in the music which was to come, structure was to become so obsessively important that to some composers it became an end in itself – so that poetry could be abandoned in favour of the beauty of mathematics” (Smith Brindle, 2003, p.20). Serialism was the return to very strict structures. In that it echoes the more and more machine-centred production processes. The creators of serialism wanted to create music in the same mechanized way. Smith Brindle has no too good opinion of those composers. He thinks that the artists has to be creative within the constraints of the system and should not be slaves of the mechanism. But these ideas were of course also initiated by the contemporary mathematical view of the world.
On the other hand, the artist ceased to be the almighty creator. Indeterminacy came into Western music. The line between composition and performance began to blur. And this development was rather independent from jazz which like all African music never has known this distinction. In Western music, the composer was the artist and the performer a mere craftsman. In jazz, it always was the improvising player that was seen as artist. The composition may have only consisted of chord changes. But even freedom needs structure. Freedom without structures is chaos. Martin argued that “[in] both science and jazz, a high value is attached to creative thinking and the production of new ideas”. He cites Thomas Kuhn, who wrote as early as 1970, that most scientists seem to be very productive within a framework of assumptions and beliefs. Paradigm shifts happen seldom (Martin, 2006). Smith Brindle argues that “all art has its formal schemes, which in the hands of some give only meagre fruit, while others reap a rich and abundant harvest” (Smith Brindle, 2003, p. 41).

References
Cox C. & Warner, D (2013 [2004]) Audio Culture – Readings in Modern Music, New York:Bloomsbury
Martin P.J (2006), Music and the Sociological Gaze: Art Worlds and Cultural Production, Manchester:Manchester University Press
Smith Brindle, R. (2003) The New Music – The Avant-garde since 1945 (2nd Edition), Oxford:Oxford University Press

Musical Forces

Larson was working for more than twenty years on his much contested theory of musical forces. His work culminated in the book “Musical Forces: motion, metaphor, and meaning in music” which was published in 2012 . Sadly, Larson died from a brain tumor soon after he had completed the book. I am, in general, quite sceptical about theories that explain things but half but Larson’s book is an inspiring read.

Larson agrees with theorists like Zuckerkandl and others that music is created in the mind of the listener. But he adds that we think about music in mainly two metaphorical ways. We see music either as a physical motion, an agent that tries to reach a goal, or as an immobile landscape through which the listener travels. The book deals mostly with the first metaphor.

Larson depicts three forces that shape music: gravity, magnetism and inertia

By gravity he means the (alleged) tendency of a melody to descent which he thinks is universal to all music. The melody is pulled down by gravity.

Magnetism is a force that pulls unstable pitches to the closest stable one. Stable pitches are for him the notes of the current major or minor triad. Although he has also included jazz improvisations in his analysis, he says nothing about chords that do not contain the notes of the major or minor triads (third and fifth). So, according to this part of the theory the sequence (in c major) e f must be followed by e again because e is closer to f (half-step) than g (full step) and thus has a stronger pull than g. However, the sequence e- f – g is still possible because of the third force: inertia.

Apart from stable and unstable pitches, he sees also stable and unstable beats. The downbeats are the stable ones and the upbeats are unstable. He also tells us that stable pitches can be found on stable beat and unstable pitches on unstable beats. Since he concludes that sequences try to reach stability we must ask what that means for backbeat compositions that necessarily end on an upbeat. Larson is quiet about this topic.

The third force is – as I have already mentioned –  inertia. For Larson, inertia is the tendency of a musical pattern to continue in the same manner. Hence, an ascending sequence ( e -f ) will rise further.

All those forces are acting together all the time. Thus, he concludes that a down-down sequence is the most common because gravity and inertia work together. Up-up is the second most popular pattern because inertia is a strong force. The zigzag motions up-down and down-up are less used. This can also explained when seen through the lens of the music as physical motion metaphor. Music is an agent and we expect it to show determination. It should try to reach a goal. Zigzag movements are seen as lacking in determination.

Changes in direction happen through leaps while movements in the same direction tend to step up or down. Leaps can be imagined as real physical motions. You bend your knees before you leap upwards and you also bend your knees to cushion the impact of the landing on a downward jump. Hence, the melody goes down before it leaps upwards and it lands on a note below the stable pitch on a downward jump. This disagrees somewhat with the theory that zigzag motions are not common.

Leaps are only done from stable positions as you would not jump from a shaky foundation in real world either.  Stable positions tend to hold long notes while unstable positions favour short durations. He tells us that a half note on an upbeat is only allowed if it is tied to the first note of the next measure. I mused about this statement for five minutes (how can there be a half note on the second upbeat?) till I realized that I thought by instinct about backbeat music while he was not.

Another interesting insight was offered by him when he told us the perceived tempo of a sequence is influenced by the durations of the notes. A piece with short notes is perceived as faster than a piece with only long notes even though both have the same beats per minute.

In the second part of the book, he tries to harden his theory by evidence from the neurosciences.  He says: “neuroscientists have also studied brain activation in those listening to music [] and their work suggests that melodic expectation and hearing basic rhythms activate the same part of the brain that is activated in the planning and execution of movement[].” The rest of the book offers quantitative analysis of musical pieces to back up his theories.

There are some points in the theory which I find incoherent but maybe I just have not understood it completely. At the end, he writes: [t]he theory claims that evenly paced patterns tend to change direction on the unstable pitches; when change in direction occur in stable pitches, however, those stable pitches tend to be rhythmically lengthened.” This conclusion seems to disagree with the leap subtheory discussed above. Leaps should only happen at stable pitches. Maybe he speaks at this point also of changes that do not include a leap. But then, such changes should not happen since a change is introduced by a leap. And leaps have to start from solid ground. I have already mentioned that the theory also is incoherent about the use of  zigzag movements. Furthermore to meet criticism, he states that he has never argued that musical forces can explain all musical phenomena. Unexpected movements are one of the treats music is providing. So, I must conclude that the book is inspiring but not really convincing.

 

References

Larson, S. (2012) Musical Forces : motion, metaphor, and meaning in music; Bloomington:Indiana University Press

Giveaways

Two new albums are available on Google Play for free (for a limited period only!).

The first one is Nocturnes which consists of 11 slow tracks of piano / acoustic bass / drums music. The virtual jazz trio at work! No sound synthesis this time, only sound fonts. Google Play

The second one is a best-of release consisting of mostly smooth jazz, chill out tracks. The funky, uptempo Solar Cat is an exception from this rule. The album is called Dorian Black’s Return, which is also the title of the first track. This release features the software synthesizer ZynAddSubFx. Google Play

Safely Explore the Unexpected

Music can be felt. It’s an emotional thing. Music stimulates emotions and stirrs memories. Music can make us happy or sad. This is no rational process but when it comes to the production of memories, at least the unconscious mind must be involved. Or can it affect the body without any diversion through the mind?

Emotions are illusions. They are  tricks played to us by biochemical processes. They have no substance. Yet, they play an important part in our lives. They shape our thinking. They trigger our actions. They are a part of our self. Yet, they are only temporary. They do not persist. Not like attitudes.”[] emotions can be conceptualized as the felt and sensed reactions that arise in the midst of the (inter)corporal exchange between self and the world. Emotions can therefore be regarded as quite distinct from the long-term attitudes, feelings or preferences we express about our environment” (Hubbard,2007, p.121).

Emotions can be excited by persons, places, objects, situations and art. Hubbard claims that one and the same place can trigger different emotions according to time and company. A place we feel safe at in daytime may turn into a threatening experience in night-time. We can feel happy somewhere when we are in company and sad and forlorn when we are alone (Hubbard, 2007).

Health and illness raise emotions. Eating and drinking raise emotions. Molz (2007) studied the emotions McDonald’s restaurants in foreign places stirred in Western (mainly white American) travellers . She concluded that the attitude shown towards McDonald’s falls into two contradicting categories. One group was pleased to find something that ‘feels like home’ a long way from home. The feeling of familiarity was stirred by the standardized routine and environment of such a restaurant (although often combined with feelings of guilt). “Travellers are relieved to find a clean, air-conditioned haven where they know what to expect, where the food always tastes the same, the environment always feels the same, and there is always toilet paper in the bathroom. It all sounds so comforting” (Molz, 2007, p. 70). The other group was appalled by exactly this homeliness. They were looking for adventure in unknown territories and were unhappy when they found exactly what they thought to have left behind.

What Molz says about place, can also be claimed for art and music. The same piece of music can stir different emotions each time we listen to it. Like with place we can search for safety and cosiness in music or for adventure. It may depend on our mood (which is also a state of emotions) if we tend to one or the other side. In the first instance, we are in fact longing for a return to the mother’s womb. We are in need of shelter from the harsh world and the demands of everyday life. In the second case, we are in peace with our current existence and are looking for new sensations. Gombrich, the art historian, even claimed that consuming art is a mental training that increases our tolerance of the unexpected (Gombrich cited in Kandel, 2012).

But even the adventure-seeking music lover needs some familiarity. The adventure must not be boundless. The unexpected must not be fully unexpected. If the music is perceived as totally unstructured, it is only noise to us. We must understand what we hear to make sense of it.

On the other hand, art is mostly about emotion. There is not much rational about how we perceive art. In fact, I think rationality diminishes the pleasure art can give us. When I was a teenager, I knew very few about the theory of music (music lessons in school were boring and hence I did not give too much attention to the babble of the teacher). I perceived music solely as exciting or dull sounds. Over the years, I have learned a lot more about bass lines, riffs and motifs. I learned to extract the different instruments from the music while listening. Much of the wonder of music is therefore forever lost to me. (This is at least how I feel about it).

But is the pleasure or displeasure created by our unconscious mind or does the music trigger biochemical proecesses directly? Phenomenologists think that the body is an actor. I think it is a receiver. It can react to music without the help of the conscious mind. Analysis is rational. Feeling is irrational. Music hence seems to be able to trigger biochemical processes in our body. It can make us feel happy, sad, lonely or whatever. Is this a capacity of music? After all, music is just noise. Noise that we perceive as structured. It brings up memories. Memories that are linked with emotions. The brain “analyzes this incoming sensory information in light of past experience and generates an internal representation, a perception of the outside world”, says Kandel (2012). So, music is never just music. It is not perceived as what it is. Everyone perceives it differently. And even, we will hear a different tune each time we listen to a piece of music. Music is made by the listener.

But shamans claim that they can heal with song. What kinds of energies are working on our body when we listen to music? Here I stop before I enter the realm of esotericism.

References

Hubbard, P. (2007) “The Geographies of ‘Going Out’: Emotion and Embodiment in the Evening Economy” in Bondi, L., Davidson, J. and Smith, M. Emotional Geographies, Aldershot:Ashgate

Kandel, E (2012) The Age of Insight – The Quest to Understand the Unconsciousous, in Art, Mind, and Brain, New York:Random House

Molz, J. G. (2007) “Guilty Pleasures of the Golden Arches: Mapping McDonald’s in Narratives of Round-the-World Travel” in Bondi, L., Davidson, J. and Smith, M. Emotional Geographies, Aldershot:Ashgate