Painful Truths

Recently a friend posted a story about how, in an English class somewhere, the teacher was reading aloud from To Kill a Mockingbird, and how the use of the word “nigger” in a passage in the novel was painful for an African-American girl in the class. This is one of those places in modern life where there are no easy answers. It’s a clash between two values — on the one hand, acknowledging the pain of racism and making social changes to overcome racism; and on the other hand, teaching about works of literature. Both are important!

My friend is of the opinion that the teacher ought not to have read the passage aloud, but I fear that’s not a complete or satisfactory solution.

I want to make it clear at the outset that I’m not denying the reality of racism in this country (to say nothing of the rest of the world). It’s an appalling business from sea to shining sea, and we all need to become more aware of our unconscious participation in racist culture.

Nonetheless, I have several questions about this incident.

First, would it have been okay to read the passage aloud if everybody in the class was white?

Second, should the teacher simply assume that the word would be painful for a black student to hear? Some black students might not be bothered at all. How can the teacher determine, in advance, just how painful it will be for a given student to hear the word?

Third, should the book have been assigned to the class at all? How is reading aloud any different from asking students to read the book silently?

Fourth, what if the teacher were black? Would that change anything? Some people feel this is a word that only African-Americans should be allowed to use. Shall we judge that the teacher was wrong because the teacher was white? How is that not a racist judgment?

In the book The Coddling of the American Mind, which I recommend, Lukianoff and Haidt document the trend of which this incident is an example. Tenured college professors have lost their jobs when students protested what they perceived as racist comments. The students were badly over-reacting to comments that were not, in fact, racist, but that’s not the point. The point is, a lot of people have latched onto the idea that people in vulnerable, marginalized groups have a right not to be confronted by ideas or speech that they find painful. The book refers to this as “safetyism.”

This is a profoundly dangerous idea. The whole point of freedom of speech is that it’s not just for ideas that you and I find pleasant and acceptable. Freedom of speech works explicitly to protect speech that you and I find dangerous or deeply offensive. Failure to understand that fact invites a swift descent into fascism.

There’s a lot more to it than this, and I’m not going to go into detail. I would suggest that anybody who is puzzled or disagrees really ought to read the book. But let’s consider another example, a thought experiment that I made up myself. Let’s suppose that the teacher is reading aloud from the final act of Romeo & Juliet, and that one of the students in the classroom has been traumatized by having a brother, sister, or parent commit suicide. R&J ends with a dual suicide, you’ll recall. This student would quite likely have a painful emotional reaction to this scene.

So should we not teach Romeo & Juliet, for fear a student might be overwhelmed by painful emotions on hearing (or reading) that scene? Should the teacher poll the students ahead of time to find out if anyone will be triggered by a discussion of suicide? What if the student knows he will be distressed but prefers not to reveal a private family trauma?

Where do we draw the line? Is the pain of racism somehow uniquely different from other sorts of trauma — and if so, how is it different? This is one of the questions that I have been unable to answer.

Authors who wrote 60 years ago, or 160 years ago, or 460, lived in a different world. They worked within the social norms of their time. Shakespeare’s treatment of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice was certainly a Jewish stereotype. It was racist. Should we refuse to teach this play to students of literature? There are bits of anti-Jewish stereotype in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, by the way. Where do we draw the line? If a teacher proposes to teach Gatsby in an English class, is the teacher expected to poll the class to make sure nobody in the class is Jewish? To me, that seems absurd. Do we teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn only to white and Asian students in order to avoid offending black students with Mark Twain’s use of the word?

We might hope that a teacher who is presenting to the class material that may be controversial will take the time to explain the controversy to the students. But might that explanation be even more painful for the black student? Yes, I think that’s one possible outcome. Some black students might prefer just to let the word sail by and not dwell on it. Having attention called to the fact that there’s this one black student in an otherwise all-white classroom might make matters worse! How can a teacher possibly figure out what’s best, or what’s needed?

As a writer, I feel it’s a profound mistake to expect writers from another era to live up to today’s standards of cultural inclusion. Their works, however flawed, remain worthy of study and appreciation.

Beyond this, I don’t like seeing teachers forced to tiptoe through a minefield of social expectations. Teachers should be free to teach. Given the complexities of real life, it’s not realistic to expect teachers to avoid saying anything (or assigning any material) that might be painful for a few of the students in the class.

That’s how I view it. But I don’t think for a moment I’ve prescribed a solution to the problem. The problem remains intractable.

Posted in random musings, society & culture | 1 Comment

Are Good Intentions Enough?

If you aspire to be a writer, you will need to learn correct spelling, punctuation, grammar, and word usage. There, I said it.

A surprising number of people consider this proposition outrageous. “You can hire an editor!” they shout. (On Facebook, everybody can see you shout.) “Agatha Christie and F. Scott Fitzgerald were lousy at spelling! What matters is the nuance in your writing, the emotions, not those picky details!”

If you have as much talent as Christie or Fitzgerald, then you can probably get away with writing however you please. But most of us don’t have that kind of talent. In today’s overheated book market, thinking you can get away with sloppy writing is just a form of self-sabotage. You’re setting yourself up as a victim. After which you get to whine endlessly that your talent is unappreciated. That’s the payoff.

“Oh, but dyslexia! How can you be so cruel as to insult writers with dyslexia?”

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t understand dyslexia. It may be a real condition, the result of some sort of brain organization that is simply different. Or, in some cases, it may be a result of bad teaching and toxic self-esteem. I once knew a man who was dyslexic, and he definitely suffered from toxic self-esteem. He had been held back in 6th grade because he was dyslexic. But whether the dyslexia caused the low self-esteem, or whether he seized on the dyslexia as a convenient explanation for what he was feeling when the feelings were actually due to the dysfunctional family in which he grew up, I would be unable to say.

Let’s turn the question in a different direction. Instead of writing, let’s talk about music. If you had a dear friend or relative who was tone-deaf and unable to tune his violin, would you seriously suggest that he should be allowed to play in an orchestra? Would you be angry at the orchestra conductor for not respecting your friend’s creative passion? I sincerely hope you would suggest that rather than dwell on having been rejected by the conductor, he invest in some music lessons.

Still, an orchestra is a special situation, not really comparable to writing. How about a solo violin recital, that’s a better analogy. If your friend proposed to book a small recital hall in order to perform his own original compositions, and proposed to sell tickets, but was unable to tune his violin, would you seriously suggest that he go right ahead and sell tickets? Would you tell him, “Tuning doesn’t matter — what matters is your creative spirit! Your accompanist can tune your violin for you.”

If you would tell him that, you’re an idiot. If he can’t tune his violin, he doesn’t understand intonation. If he doesn’t understand intonation, not more than one note in ten that he plays will be in tune. And you would encourage this? You would expect people to pay to listen to it?

It’s the same in other art forms. What would you say to someone who proposed to sell her pottery but produced mostly bowls and dishes that cracked in the kiln, or sagged sideways lopsidedly? What would you say to someone who proposed to hire out as a landscape designer but had never learned about pruning, weeding, or watering? “Oh, that doesn’t matter. You can hire people to take care of those pesky details. What matters is the beauty of your vision for the yard!”

I hope you wouldn’t say that. Probably you would know better. But somehow, when it comes to writing, people see it differently. Somehow, when it comes to writing, developing a basic set of skills is supposed, by millions of well-meaning people, to be irrelevant. Suggesting that an aspiring writer needs to learn the craft is perceived as arrogant, as elitist, as an insult.

“We should nourish creativity,” cry the skeptics, “not force it into a straitjacket by insisting on all these petty rules!”

There are two difficulties with this line of thinking. First, it’s asking too much of your audience, be they listeners or readers. You’re demanding that the audience overlook your friend’s lack of skill (or your own, if you’re the violinist). Second, learning the craft actually helps you become more creative. People who worry that learning the craft will stifle their creativity understand nothing about creativity, and nothing about the value of learning the craft.

If you’re writing purely for your own private enjoyment, then I hope you’ll feel absolutely free to spell and punctuate however you like. You need follow no rules! But when you want to present your writing to anyone outside your immediate family, you’re playing in a different ballpark. The fact that your mother thinks your writing is wonderful is absolutely, shockingly irrelevant.

If you’re dyslexic, I hope you’ll consider that perhaps some other art form might suit you better than writing. Perhaps you’ll find wonderful success as a sculptor, in video production, or in modern dance. If you propose to become a writer in spite of your disability, I hope you’ll come to grips with the fact that you’re going to have to go through a laborious learning process. The learning may be painful. But if you’re dyslexic, and propose to share your writing with others, and think learning the craft doesn’t matter, the hell with you.

“Oh, but I can hire an editor!” No, that’s not a viable solution. Not all editors are good. Absolutely anybody can put up a website and claim to be an editor. And if you don’t understand the craft, how will you be able to judge whether the editor has done a good job?

Learn the craft. Stop whining.

Posted in fiction, writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment


Synthesizers will spoil you. That’s one of the possible answers to today’s pressing question. There are other possible answers.

I love microtonal music. There are many, many interesting tuning systems, and my piano, as lovely as it is, only does the one tuning we’re all familiar with. I also like the idea of just being able to sit down and play. Composing and recording into the computer is mostly about sitting and thinking, it’s not about being in the moment.

So I decided to buy a qanun. I’ve never played one. I’ve never even seen one, except in YouTube videos. But it arrived yesterday, and now I’m confronting it.

It’s beautiful, and not too awfully expensive. ($1,500 delivered, including tax.) There are 77 strings, and that row of black things along the left side are the tuning pegs.

It’s expected that tuning a qanun requires some time and effort. I don’t mind that. The trouble is, the darn thing won’t stay in tune. I tune it meticulously, and almost before I finish, a few of the strings are sliding flat. I’m hoping this is because the strings are new, and they’re still stretching, but I’m not sure. A few of the pegs actually slipped completely loose while I was tuning it. I managed to bear down on them and get them to stay put, but the fact that that’s happening at all suggests that perhaps the pegs are not being gripped quite hard enough by the peg block.

I’m going to tune it a few more times over the next couple of days. Maybe it will stabilize. I sure hope so. I wouldn’t want to have to get in a wrangle trying to explain to Amazon customer service why it’s defective and needs to be returned.

Here’s the test case. Four days after delivery (which means at least two weeks since the strings were put on the instrument — time enough for them to stretch, or so one would imagine), this audio file shows how poorly the instrument holds its pitch. I tuned it yesterday afternoon, adjusting each of the strings as well as I could do be in perfect unison with the concert pitch played by my synthesizer. And my ear is not bad; I can find a unison. This morning I sat down and recorded the instrument. I plucked each string in each 3-string course twice. I then sliced the recording apart in my computer, so that you’re hearing each course plucked four times (plucked twice, and then the same audio repeated). First I let you hear the strings by themselves. Then I play the concert pitch to which I tuned them yesterday, so you can hear the bad intonation clearly.

As you’ll hear, a few of the courses retained their tuning quite well. In some of them, a single string had gone flat. In others, the entire course was flat, and not just by a tiny bit. And for the record, I should explain that the qanun was sitting on a table in a temperature-stable room, not banging around town in its case, and between the tuning and this morning’s test recording I never even touched the mandals. My question is, is this normal? Is this what I should expect of a qanun?

Using digital synthesizers, which are always perfectly in tune — well, except when the person creating the preset has screwed up — may have raised my expectations unrealistically. I expect the tuning to be perfect! When I play the cello, my intonation isn’t always perfect, but that’s down to my left-hand technique. The cello itself is staying perfectly in tune. Okay, it only has four strings, not 77. But the pegs do not slip. They just don’t.

A more subtle issue, and not one that I would dream of complaining about if the tuning turns out to be okay, is that this is not the instrument pictured on the Amazon page. The top board is a different color and has different sound holes. I don’t mind about the sound holes; these are pretty. The problem is, my eyesight is not that good. The one on the Amazon page has a deep red top board, so the strings are clearly visible. On this one, the strings are much the same color as the wood, which is lighter — and they cast shadows. It’s hard for me to see them clearly, and with this many strings, you really do want to be able to see what you’re doing.

A qanun has a system of levers called mandals along the left edge. Flipping a mandal up or down changes the pitch of the associated strings by a quarter-tone, give or take. As a result, it will do melodic modes that you just can’t play on a piano. It’s an elegant system. This is a Turkish qanun, so it has quite a lot of mandals. That’s one of the things I want to explore. But if the strings won’t stay in tune, messing about with the mandals isn’t going to produce pitch inflections that make much sense.

More will be revealed, I’m sure.

Posted in music | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Not Yer Grandma’s Minimoog

If you’ve been around electronic music for a couple of decades, as I have, you may perhaps be forgiven for thinking you know what synthesizers do, and how to use them. But the world keeps on turning.

This week I started working on a review of a plugin called Nest, from German software manufacturer Sugar Bytes. I’m not going to tell you about Nest, not today. You’ll have to read the review, which should be available on the Synth & Software website in a couple of weeks. But to whet your appetite, here’s what it looks like:

When I first saw that panel, I knew I had to write about it, because I didn’t understand it! One of the best ways to learn about things, I’ve found, is to write articles or books about them. As a bonus, you get paid, but the real benefit is that in the course of writing you have to develop your understanding to a rather high level.

Nest makes music using patch cords, as you can see, but it’s not a synthesizer. It’s a host for four synthesizers. What you do on that panel is, you build an algorithm that will send notes to the synths. Calling it a step sequencer on steroids wouldn’t quite do it justice, but you get the idea.

So I’m digging through the Sugar Bytes website, and I find two more instruments — and yes, these are synthesizers — that I’m hoping I’ll get a chance to review. What I like about them, quite aside from the fact that the sonic textures produced by the downloadable demo versions are unusual, is that I have not the faintest idea what’s going on. I need to learn about these instruments!

Here’s one of the user interface displays of Aparillo, and below that the main front panel of Obscurium.

It’s already the case — it was true 20 years ago — that today’s instruments will do things that don’t fit into any known musical vocabulary. How might one use the sounds that come from a panel like that? I have no idea. But I claim that it’s a question worth investigating.

It’s not as if Sugar Bytes is alone in their quest to embrace the weird. Consider Torsion Lab, a Rack Extension for Reason from Lectric Panda that was released (or unleashed) more than three years ago:

This granular synthesizer can host up to six long sampled sounds at once (the image above shows it with three loaded). It’s monophonic, so it won’t play chords from the keyboard, though of course any of the samples could contain chords. It has (gasp! shudder!) no filters and no envelopes! On the other hand, the LFOs (the little waveform displays in a column on the left) have hundreds of weird waveforms.

What are we supposed to do with all this audio strangeness? I wish I knew. But if I knew, I might get bored and want to move on. The fun part is finding out.

Posted in music, synthesizers, technology | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Sound in Motion

Music is a much nicer thing to write about than religion, so let’s get back to it without delay, shall we?

I try to avoid buying new bits of music software, because I already have too many great devices, but I keep my eyes open, because you never know. Today, while poking around on the Reason website, I grabbed a free 30-day trial version of a new filter called Strive. And, oh my. It’s very nice.

Here are a couple of audio clips. First you hear the sound of the synth dry, and then after a few bars Strive kicks in.

And here’s what Strive looks like:

I deliberately tried it out with a couple of vintage synth replicas from Cherry Audio. I really like what they’re doing with their instruments. I bought their Eight-Voice and reviewed the PS-20 for the Synth & Software website, and I now have their other instruments, which I’m looking forward to digging into — but I have to admit that after a while all vintage analog emulations start to sound just a tiny bit alike. Ideally, one would want a couple of analog-style synths, a couple of FM synths, one or two physical modeling synths, a synth with wavetable oscillators, a sampler with a hefty library, and a granular synth. Each has its own sonic signature.

The simplicity of an analog model is why adding a device like Strive to the signal chain offers some real possibilities. A nice rich analog sawtooth wave is ideal as an input for Strive. The first audio clip uses Mercury-4, as you can see. The second uses their Polymode. In both cases Strive is being animated a bit using Reason’s stock Pulsar dual LFO module.

Strive provides 8, 16, 32, or 64 bands of filtering. The curve on the panel, which is animated when the parameters are being modulated, gives you an idea what sort of filter response you’ll hear.

Or maybe in saying all analog models sound alike, I spoke a bit too quickly. Here’s a slightly more worked-out sketch using the same patch as the second one above, but this time with an added melody from Cherry Audio’s CA2600 (modeled on the fabled ARP 2600) and some chime chords from the PS-20. The trick is to find sounds that have some character of their own, and then figure out what notes to play on them.

Posted in music, synthesizers, technology | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Dreams of Destiny

The trouble with religion is that it’s backwards. If you’re religiously inclined, you start with a pre-ordained set of answers and then try earnestly to distort whatever you’re seeing so that it will lead you to the answers you’ve already seized upon. If religion gives you a round hole and reality gives you a square peg, you just keep banging on that square peg trying to force it into the round hole.

Teilhard de Chardin was both a paleontologist and a Jesuit priest. He wrote a book called The Phenomenon of Man in which he attempted to reconcile the findings of paleontology with the “truths” with which Catholic doctrine had supplied him. Faced with the concrete and unarguable evidence for the fact of evolution, he seized on the idea that evolution had been intended by “God” to produce us humans.

I don’t seem to have his book on my shelf anymore. I guess I recycled it years ago. I’ve requested a copy from the inter-library loan system, purely so I can have a look and then return to this post later and edit it if need be. I don’t want to misrepresent the man’s ideas. But while the details are fresh in my mind, I want to rip this preposterous notion into tiny pieces.

There are four or five problems with de Chardin’s hypothesis, each of them as big as the Rock of Gibraltar.

First, there is not a scintilla of credible evidence that such an entity as “God” exists or is capable of doing anything at all. But we’ll set that aside. It’s too large a subject, and not relevant to the point I want to make.

Second, the notion that evolution was aimed at producing the human species is breathtakingly arrogant. If we were able to ask an elephant, the elephant might, with equal plausibility, assert that evolution was quite obviously intended to produce elephants. Dolphins would insist that it was designed to produce the marvelous dolphin species. And so on. The idea that humans are somehow superior to the rest of the animal kingdom is Biblical in origin. It is not based on any scientific evidence. It’s perfectly true that we do a variety of things other animals don’t, but we’re still animals for all that — less beautiful than dolphins, less strong than elephants, less fleet of foot than antelope, shorter lived than tortoises, with less sensitive noses than dogs, eyes less keen than those of eagles, and entirely incapable of unassisted flight.

Third, if “God” had indeed been stacking the deck to produce the human species, he could surely have done it more quickly and with less muss and fuss. Life on Earth has existed for around three billion years. For the first two-plus billion of those years, if you were able to hop in a time machine and go back to check on how things were developing, you wouldn’t have seen any living creatures at all, because they were too small to be seen by the naked eye. For more than two billion years, life as we know it consisted, basically, of pond scum.

If an intelligent and benevolent deity had been aiming from the first at producing the exalted and noble human species, would he have dawdled along for two billion years tinkering with pond scum?

The same consideration applies to the history of the human species itself. For at least two million years, the most exalted activity that our own ancestors had mastered was bashing rocks together to produce a rock with a sharp edge. Also, they carried the rocks around and remembered not to drop them. This was an important survival skill, and I’m not complaining! Bashing rocks together is how we became what we are. But if the goal of a deity had been to produce modern humans, why waste all that time? Why not send a few angels down to show our ancestors new tricks they could do with rocks?

But wait, it gets worse. Having developed a species that mastered fire, knapping flint to make arrowheads, agriculture, irrigation, writing, the domestication of various other species, pottery, and the wheel, Chardin’s God then waited several thousand more years before descending upon a small nomadic tribe in the Middle East to explain to them what he was up to and finally to offer a means by which they might aspire to the perfection he had had in mind all along.

Why wasn’t the Son of Chardin’s God sent down to the Babylonians, the Egyptians, or the Hittites thousands of years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth? Was God just dawdling again? Chardin’s thesis would seem to rest firmly on that peculiar idea.

Fourth, death. Death, death, death, and more death, interleaved with thick slabs of pitiless cruelty. Evolution, you see, works its magic by using death. For every fast-sprinting antelope alive today, there are millions of antelope who were not its ancestors because they didn’t run quite fast enough and were eaten by lions before they could produce baby antelope. If there were no die-offs of creatures (and whole species) that failed at the game of survival, there would be no such thing as evolution. Evolution works by producing boatloads of random mutations in the genome of a species, most of which are harmful or irrelevant. The harmful mutations get weeded out, quickly or slowly, by means of death. The occasional helpful mutation gets passed on to future generations.

Chardin has proposed a God who makes callous and incessant use of death. Even the God of the Old Testament, who delighted in the destruction of entire cities, is wearing ribbons and playing patty-cake compared to Chardin’s God.

A rational scientist — that is, one who was not already committed to Catholic doctrine — would have understood all that. My fifth and final argument might easily have eluded Chardin, however. He died in 1955, before the evidence was widely seen or understood. It has now, belatedly, become quite apparent that the human race is a disaster of planetary proportions. We are well on the way to destroying the lions, the antelope, the elephants, the dolphins, and probably most other large vertebrates. There seems to be no way to stop us.

What has now become abundantly clear is that a benign, intelligent God would never have created the human species in the first place! A benign, intelligent God would have celebrated the beauties of the elephant, the antelope, the dolphin, the spider, the hummingbird, the redwood tree, and would never have been so grotesquely inept as to have taught a small band of African primates to bash rocks together.

In spite of all this, there are still a lot of people who think Teilhard de Chardin was a profound thinker. Me, I’m just an ordinary musician. I was born in Illinois. My grandfather was a farmer. If I can see the cavernously yawning problems with Chardin’s thesis, I have to wonder what’s wrong with these people? But that’s a subject for another time.

Posted in evolution, random musings, religion | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Delusions Great & Small

Richard Dawkins is a magnet to whom polarized opinions are irresistibly drawn. For those who are spiritually inclined (whatever that means), Dawkins’s unstinting attacks on religion can be deeply disturbing. Such people seem, in many cases, to feel a need to disparage him.

I’ve been reading The Greatest Show on Earth. It’s not specifically a polemic against religion, though Dawkins does take it upon himself, repeatedly, to rip apart the idea of “intelligent design.” He’s a scientist. He’s happy to explain, in detail, the ways in which evolution exhibits no intelligence and no foresight. No intelligent designer could possibly have been guilty of such ineptitude, nor of such cruelty, nor of such flagrant waste.

I happened to mention on Facebook that I was reading this book. A friend who is among the spiritually inclined (whatever that means) took it upon himself to refer to Dawkins as “cartoonish,” “adolescent,” and “immature.” I asked him to provide three quotes from Dawkins’s writings that would support such accusations, and of course he didn’t do anything of the sort. Instead he pivoted to talk about how Dawkins has confronted religious thinkers in televised interview settings.

I’ve never seen any of these interviews, so I can’t comment on them. Quite possibly Dawkins was rude, illogical, or evasive, though I doubt it. The underlying accusation against him, and it may have some merit, is that he mistakes a really bizarre grade-school form of fundamentalist Christianity for the whole of religion — that he fails to grasp the more elegant or refined metaphysical or metaphorical import of the religious texts or religious testimony that he is at pains to debunk.

The preface to the paperback edition of The God Delusion deals with this criticism, and others. I can’t very well quote the whole preface, though it’s worth reading; this one excerpt will have to do: “The melancholy truth,” Dawkins explains, “is that this kind of understated, decent, revisionist religion is numerically negligible. To the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of Robertson, Falwell or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini. These are not straw men, they are all too influential, and everybody in the modern world has to deal with them.”

My friend said that Dawkins “can’t be bothered to confront the very rigorous theological arguments of thinkers like Tillich, De Chardin, and many others.” But why should it be required of any thinker that he waste days or weeks pointing out the flaws in the writings of whatever pundit a complainant thinks he ought to have grappled with? One could as easily criticize Einstein for not refuting Ptolemy.

At that point we started talking about Pierre Teilhard De Chardin. De Chardin was both a paleontologist and a Jesuit priest, so it’s clear he had an axe to grind, spiritually. He was committed to the God hypothesis, and felt compelled to square it with the findings of evolution. His approach, as described in a Wikipedia article, was to assert “that evolution occurs in a directional, goal-driven way.” I no longer have my copy of De Chardin’s book The Phenomenon of Man. Evidently I recycled it years ago. It’s not available in my local public library, nor is it available as an e-book, so I can’t verify the details, but that seems to be a clear statement of his view as I recall it.

The trouble is, it’s hogwash. (For more on the hogwash, see tomorrow’s blog post.) Evolution has no directionality. It isn’t aiming at anything. Evolution doesn’t even rise to the level at which it could be called stupid, because you have to have thoughts and intentions to qualify as stupid. Evolution is a blind, neutral process, and that’s all it is. If you have trouble understanding this, I invite you to read a couple of Dawkins’s books on evolution. The details are all there, laid out in black and white.

My friend began to tremble, all but visibly (on Facebook no one can see you tremble), at my assertion that De Chardin’s view is hogwash. He responded as follows: “In the spirit of seeing things from your point of view, I would like to second your suggestion that we throw De Chardin into the hogwash bucket. Along with, I’m sure you’ll agree, all other thinkers who support the idea of an intelligent consciousness (which is not to say a personal God, per se) behind the curtain of evolution, including, but not limited to: Liebniz, Spinoza, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Shakespeare, Descartes, Da Vinci, Aristotle, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Henry James, Francis Bacon, Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi, and most importantly, Frank Marino of Mahogany Rush. (Great shredder, too, Frank.)”

I have no idea who Frank Marino is, but the rest of my friend’s list of authorities — and yes, this is nakedly an appeal to authority, one of the types of argument that is not allowed in a debate that attempts any sort of rigor — is shocking in its irrelevance. What possible contribution could Aristotle, Da Vinci, or Shakespeare make to a discussion of evolution? None at all. Henry James was a novelist; possibly my friend meant his brother William James, who was a psychologist and wrote about religion. Gandhi was a politician. Tagore was a poet. Hegel, Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Bacon, and Kierkegaard all lived and wrote before the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, and for that reason none of them could possibly tell us anything at all about evolution.

What my friend was attempting to do here was, I think, to place spirituality (whatever that is) on a pedestal equal in height to the mountain of scientific evidence for evolution. To suggest that the two disciplines are different but coequal, and therefore, by implication, that the study of evolution can shed no light on spiritual matters. Very possibly he meant to imply that it’s the other way around — that we can’t understand evolution other than as a manifestation of some sort of spiritual essence (whatever that might be).

Elevating, or attempting to elevate, the writing of spiritually inclined people to the point where it is not subject to science-based criticism is a form of special pleading. Religious people love special pleading. As far as I can see, there’s nothing in religion but special pleading. It’s special pleading from top to bottom. As the song puts it, “My god is red-hot. Your god ain’t doodly-squat.” Possibly I’m misquoting the lyric, but you get the idea.

And this brings us to the nub of the question.

It is perfectly true that there are things science can’t investigate. You can think whatever you like about them, and none can gainsay you. One of those things is the nature of conscious awareness. We can do brain imaging and get some notion of how and where conscious awareness arises in the brain, but we have no way of testing the awareness itself in any objective way. We have to rely on subjective statements made by individuals about their own internal experience.

There are also events, rare but by no means unknown, that seem to indicate that the world is not arranged quite as haphazardly as a rugged materialist would have us believe. I’ve had a few of those experiences. Events in the outer world seem (emphasize “seem”) to have a meaning that corresponds directly to my own inner thought processes at a given moment. Carl Jung called this phenomenon “synchronicity.” He defined synchronicity as a meaningful connection among events that is not caused by anything, or at least not by anything physical. The connection is acausal.

It’s not possible to investigate synchronicity scientifically, because we can’t bring it into the laboratory. It happens when it happens, and not very often, but seemingly, in my own experience, at moments that carry a strong charge of meaning. The conditions under which it happens are, by definition, not repeatable, and the scientific method is applicable only to events that can potentially be repeated.

The temptation, for those who are spiritually inclined, is to project Deep Meaning onto their own internal experiences and onto the occasional outer events that seem to support their lovely view of How It All Really Is.

These days, they often drag quantum mechanics into the discussion. Here’s my friend again: “Your cherished modern quantum physics makes it clear that consciousness has a direct impact on the subatomic particles being observed! That is, evolution is a co-creation; it is not separate from the conscious universe that set it in motion.”

It’s a standard ploy, among the religiously inclined, to find God in the gaps. Whatever science has not yet been able to explain, that’s where God is! In ancient times, God was in the thunder and the lightning. In Medieval times, God healed the sick and punished the wicked with plague. (But then the microscope was invented.) In the 18th century God was obviously what made life itself possible; the theory of life involved a so-called elan vital, a mysterious substance that resided only in living things. The theory of the elan vital was cast aside when it was found to have no predictive power and no evidentiary support. There was nothing in it.

As scientific knowledge marched forward, God retreated. Now he’s hiding among the subatomic particles.

What my friend seems to be saying in this passage is that some sort of universal consciousness steers the cosmic rays so that they smack into the right DNA molecules to provoke beneficial mutations, as a consequence of which evolution occurs in a progressive direction, leading to … well, leading to us. The supposed crown of creation.

This is plain hogwash. It ignores the fact that easily 98% of the mutations that happen in a strand of DNA are not beneficial at all. More often, they’re disastrous. As it happens, my sister died prematurely of a disease that was caused by a nasty mutation, but we won’t get into that. The point is, changes in the DNA are random. No consciousness directs them. If they were directed by any sort of conscious process, and this is the point that Richard Dawkins hammers home again and again, the results would be very, very different!

The trouble with believing in cosmic consciousness (or whatever you want to call it) is that there’s no evidence that would support the idea, other than subjective, non-repeatable anecdotes. For a theory to be taken seriously, it has to have predictive value. That is, the theory has to allow us to make predictions that we can test — predictions that will be borne out by different scientists who use the same procedure.

Religion does not do that. Not even transcendental meditation (which I expect my friend practices in some form) can do that. Two people who practice meditation may have entirely different experiences. Not only that, but if they claim to have had the same experience, there’s no way to test the validity of their claim.

Claiming that cosmic consciousness, if there is such a thing, tells us anything about reality is on a par with claiming that prayer works. If you pray hard enough, X or Y will happen. Well, sometimes it may happen, and sometimes it won’t. If it doesn’t happen, the religious person will tell you that you didn’t pray hard enough, or that you aren’t spiritually fit, or that it wasn’t in “God’s Plan.” And if it does happen, wow! Prayer works!

I trust it’s obvious how flagrantly disingenuous this is. It’s hogwash. The same objection applies to the results of meditation. Your guru will tell you what to expect. If you achieve cosmic consciousness, then see, your guru was right! But if you didn’t get there, it’s your fault. You need to meditate harder, or more clearly, or something. Give up eating meat. Wear unbleached linen. Something.

If my friend enjoys a heightened or purified form of awareness, that’s wonderful! I’m happy for him. But when he tries to use his subjective experience to construct a framework that puts cosmic awareness (or whatever he calls it) on equal footing with the rock-hard findings of paleontology and laboratory science, I can do no better than quote one of my favorite British aphorisms:

Pull the other one. It’s got bells on.

Posted in evolution, random musings | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Music as Property

In most parts of the world, and in European/American culture until about 200 years ago, music was not something that could be owned. Musical traditions were freely shared among musicians. If you heard a troubadour play a particular tune, and if you were clever enough to remember the melody afterward, you could work it out on your lute, add your own verses if so inclined, and sing it yourself.

As Big Bill Broonzy said, “It’s all folk music. I never heard no horse play none of it.”

All this began to change around 1800. Musical ensembles were growing larger, and the system of patronage, in which the ruling class paid for the privilege of hearing fine music, was breaking down. In order to make a living, composers could no longer rely on a duke or prince to hire and pay the musicians who would perform new works. Increasingly, composers needed to be able to get income through publishing sheet music.

Various nations established copyright laws to prevent one publisher from pirating the material of another publisher — but there was no legal framework that could prevent a British publisher from stealing the material brought out by a German or French publisher, or vice-versa. It wasn’t until near the end of the 19th century that composers and authors could rely on an international copyright convention to protect their sources of income.

I’m totally in favor of musicians (and authors) being able to earn a living from their work! But I also recognize that the law of copyright can inhibit artists’ creativity in rather horrible ways.

This year I uploaded a set of radically re-envisioned arrangements of Beatles songs. It’s on my bandcamp page. It’s called Reimagine. Now, these songs are covered by copyright. In order to do this upload legally, I had to pay a licensing fee. I acquired the licenses through the Harry Fox Agency, which handles this sort of thing in the U.S. The process is fairly simple, and the cost, if you’re not planning on selling a lot of copies, is rather modest. But the licenses have to be renewed every year, so there’s an ongoing cost.

Thus far, my income from Reimagine is precisely zero. I hope a few people have listened to the streaming audio, but nobody has yet bought a download. The question naturally arises, is it even faintly sensible that I’m required to drop money into the groaning coffers of the Beatles’ song licensing apparatus every year in order to make available to listeners what is, in some limited way, my own creative work? Paul, Ringo, and whoever else is making money off of the Beatles catalog is not going to miss my paltry contribution. But if I don’t re-license, I’m a criminal.

I’m thinking of possibly doing a similar collection of non-Beatles tunes from the ’60s and ’70s. They were great tunes! And I have no intention of copping the original arrangements. I’ll be making rather extensive creative contributions of my own to the recordings. Nonetheless, the fact that “Paint It Black” or “Wooden Ships” will be recognizable even after I’ve wrestled it to the ground is very much the point of the endeavor. Doing original music with the same digital orchestrations wouldn’t have the same aesthetic impact at all. So I am gaining something by using these well-known songs. But I’m making no money at it. If Harry Fox wanted 50% of my gross proceeds, I’d be perfectly happy to send them $0. But that’s not how the licensing is set up. There’s a minimal fee for up to, I forget, 250 downloads, something like that. Ka-ching.

Oddly enough, if I were playing the same arrangements of these well-known tunes live, I could do it for free. ASCAP and BMI would take the songwriters’ cut from the club owners, and to the best of my knowledge the club owner is specifically prohibited by law from passing this expense on to the musicians. So I could play live (if I had a band — and that’s a subject for another time). Or I can pay yearly fees to support the infrastructure of Big Music, Inc., which will not do Mick Jagger or Paul Simon a bit of good, because they’re already rich. Or I can just make the music for fun and not upload it anywhere, which is a rather lonely prospect. Or I can be a criminal.

None of these is a very appetizing choice. But it’s a choice I have to make, because the world of modern music does not function socially in the way that music has functioned throughout history and everywhere in the world. If I were spiritually inclined, I’d say that the system we’re burdened with is spiritually deadening.

The same thing happens in book publishing, of course. Anybody can write a novel about Sherlock Holmes, because the Holmes stories were written so long ago that they have entered the public domain. But you can’t write about Harry Potter. Don’t even think of it. No matter how talented you are as a writer, and no matter how profoundly your work might enhance the Harry Potter legend, you can’t do it, because a certain billionaire owns the copyright. Not that I begrudge her the money. She’s a fine writer, and I love seeing writers succeed! But Harry Potter is her personal property. You could no more go skinny-dipping on a private beach than poach on the Potter fields.

Musicians have, at least, the benefit of compulsory licensing. If a song has been recorded and publicly released, you can’t be prevented from releasing your own version; you just have to pay for the privilege. With books, the author of a derivative work has no such option. But even with compulsory licensing, the limitation is still rather galling.

If you’re a high-level professional musician — a Lady Gaga, let’s say — you can do what you like. You have money to cover the up-front licensing fees, and you have people to file the paperwork. You just say, “Hey, I’d like to record ‘Paint It Black.’ Get me the rights.” And someone will make it so. Ordinary artists have no such luxury. We have no apparatus at all. The deck is stacked in favor of Big Music, Inc., and the individual troubadour is not the one who ends up with the lute.

(Terrible pun. Sorry. I couldn’t resist.)

Posted in music, society & culture | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The X

Few things in life are as much fun as exploring the features of a new synthesizer. Assuming the feature set is deep, of course. I’ve seen pretty much everything, so I sometimes measure out my excitement with coffee spoons, if you see what I mean.

I’ve just written reviews of a couple of new software synthesizers, the Cherry Audio PS-20 and the freeware Surge. Both are excellent, and those reviews should be live on the Synth & Software website within a few days.

We’re in kind of a golden age of softsynths. A lot is going on. How much of it musicians will be able to incorporate in their music is perhaps a slightly different question: Instrument design is moving faster than musical style. But electronic music producers are always looking for fresh sounds.

I probably won’t be reviewing Dexed, so I thought I ought to mention it here. Dexed (pronounced, I’m sure, “dee-ex’d”) is another freeware synth. You may now gaze upon it:

The reason not to write up a review for a magazine or website is that there is absolutely nothing new here. Quite deliberately, this is a faithful recreation of the Yamaha DX7. Aside from the charming front panel, which is a vast improvement over the very constricted panel of the DX, I haven’t spotted a single new feature — and that’s a good thing. There are no effects, no extra waveforms, no added algorithms, not even stereo panning on the output.

The DX7 took the synthesizer world by storm in 1983, for several reasons. What people remember best today is the sound of its FM synthesis. FM had a level of sparkle and detail that no other keyboard of that era could even come close to. For several years, the DX was showing up on one pop hit after another.

Eventually people got tired of the sound, and pop music moved on. The sound was derided as too clean, too sterile, and that criticism is not entirely without merit. But as with other electronic instruments of that era (such as the Roland TR-808), what was once looked down on may have hidden virtues that we can now appreciate.

If you never tried programming sounds on the DX7, the functions of the knobs on Dexed may not make a lot of sense to you. Best hunt up an old DX7 manual; I expect you can probably find one online.

The DX7 was a success for other reasons. It arrived at the same moment as MIDI, so a lot of musicians were rushing out to buy any keyboard that had MIDI in and out jacks. Its keyboard was velocity-sensitive, where the previous best-seller, the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, had only organ-type on/off keys. The DX7 boasted a mammoth 16 notes of polyphony, and no other user-programmable synth could play more than six or eight notes at once. And then there was the price — $1,995, if I recall correctly. This was half of what other manufacturers were charging for six or eight voices of polyphony with no velocity sensing.

All in all, it was a perfect storm. But none of those other factors is relevant today. What we’re left with is FM synthesis in its pure form. Sure, there are other FM softsynths — Native Instruments FM8 and Image-Line Toxic Biohazard are two of my favorites. But they’re tricked out with extra waveforms, filters, and effects. The now discontinued PX7 from Reason Studios was a sincere attempt at a DX7 clone, but they omitted the important EG bias implementation, so PX7 just wasn’t quite as expressive. Dexed includes EG bias. Also, if you still have a real DX7, you may be interested to learn that apparently Dexed will function as an editor/librarian, uploading and downloading system-exclusive files to your hardware.

Gotta go. Gotta make some music now.

Posted in music, synthesizers | Leave a comment

Stop the World, I Want to Get Off…

The story was behind a paywall, so I didn’t read it, but the headline got me thinking. Apparently a professor in the music department at some university in England has resigned in protest at the retooling of the music curriculum to include the music of other cultures. He seems to have referred to this as “cancel culture,” which creates the impression that he’s a conservative, and I have no use at all for conservatives. There was also something in the subhead of the article about how the tradition of European classical music reflects imperialism.

There’s a lot in this to unpack.

First, it has to be acknowledged that the music departments in a lot of colleges and universities exhibit a strong bias in favor of European classical music, to the exclusion of almost anything else. This is a real and pervasive problem. The last time I was in a college music theory classroom (fifteen years or so ago), the students were still being taught figured bass. Figured bass was a form of notation shorthand used by harpsichordists in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Unless you’re either a harpsichord major or a musicology major, there is no reason at all why you would ever need even to know that it exists, much less how to interpret the numbers. But it’s still being taught. Conversely, at that time that particular college had no instruction whatever in music technology — no digital recording, no MIDI, none of that new-fangled stuff.

If you think the snobbery of the classical music establishment isn’t a thing, I invite you to gaze at this post (not behind a paywall), which details how a classical radio station refused to air a live concert by a leading violin virtuoso because he wanted to play an orchestral arrangement of a song by Jimi Hendrix. The station felt it wasn’t suitable for their audience.

There are, to be sure, colleges where the music department teaches modern technology. Probably more now than there were fifteen or twenty years ago. But if you’re entering college and want to get a degree in music in order to pursue a professional career in the 21st century, you need to inquire closely before you enroll about the biases in the department.

World music is a different thing. UC Berkeley does have a gamelan, I believe. Here and there you may get some exposure to non-European music (by which I also mean non-American-classical music, since American classical music is frankly European). But it’s hard to imagine that the theory instructors would in every case be able to communicate on the subject of raga, to say nothing of traditional Chinese music … of which I will say nothing, because I don’t know a single thing about it.

I’m not even sure there is a theoretical framework that embraces both European and Asian musics. Not only is the musical idiom different, the cultural usages and understandings of music may be very different. Just learning that a raga makes use of some particular subset of a 22-note microtonal scale doesn’t really tell you how the music would have been experienced by players or listeners in the pre-modern era.

And then there’s jazz and pop music. Probably most music departments have a jazz band. I hope so. But if you want to play prog rock, much less hip-hop, I’ll bet you’re on your own.

With respect to imperialism, it’s perfectly clear that the white Europeans actively tried to destroy the native cultures of the lands that they invaded. Whether Cortez specifically set out to rid the world of Aztec music is extremely doubtful, but when a culture falls apart, musical traditions are lost. And that sucks.

On the other hand, I’m not willing to look at Beethoven or Brahms as an imperialist. When Napoleon declared himself emperor, Beethoven wanted none of it. By the standards of his time and culture, Beethoven was egalitarian. Yes, Wagner was anti-Jewish, we know that. But I don’t quite see how any music can, in itself, be anti-anything. Music is always a positive expression. Even Sousa’s military marches are positive expressions, in their own way.

So I don’t think it’s possible to blame European musicians for the ravages of imperialism. If that’s what’s going on in that professor’s university, he’s quite right to protest. And sadly, that scenario is not beyond the bounds of possibility. There is afoot these days a tendency to dismiss and derogate the things white people say and do, on no better grounds than that they’re white people. If I like Mozart and a person of color likes John Coltrane, it can happen that the person of color might dismiss my enjoyment of Mozart on the grounds that liking Mozart is evidence of my unacknowledged “white supremacy.” This would be a grotesque accusation, but such things have been happening lately, sporadically but often enough to be troubling.

There’s also, I suspect, a trend toward the dismissal of music analysis. Postmodernism, which is still the vogue in some universities, will teach you that any response you have to music is as valid as anybody else’s. What matters is your subjective experience, and on that basis Sonic Youth is exactly as valid as Debussy. Postmodernists are entirely capable of dismissing the role of analysis.

Music analysis is a rational process, and I have seen rationalism being dismissed, by people who feel threatened by it, on the grounds that it arose in European culture and is therefore white supremacist. If rationalism is being attacked, why go to college at all? If you don’t believe in the value of rational analysis — of music or of anything else — please, just drop out. The college doesn’t want you, and you will never be happy there.

Bringing non-European music into universities is a fine and necessary thing. And yes, that will probably mean that the study of Beethoven and Mozart will no longer be the core of the curriculum. But dismissing the music of Beethoven and Mozart as exemplifying imperialism — no, if that’s what’s going on, it’s just bullshit.

Posted in music, society & culture | Tagged , | Leave a comment