MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Heavy of Heart


“When your heart beats irregularly from heart disease, it does so in some predictable patterns. We think we hear some of those same patterns in his music,”says Professor of Internal Medicine Joel Howell about Beethoven, referring to findings in an article he recently co-authored: “The Heartfelt Music of Ludwig van Beethoven” (together with cardiologist Zachary D. Goldberger and musicologist Steven Whiting.

Their article, according to the abstract, “strengthens the hypothesis that Beethoven suffered from cardiac arrhythmias by placing Beethoven’s music in its historical context, and by identifying several compositions that may reflect Beethoven’s experience of an arrhythmia.”

Of course Beethoven’s best-known physical condition was his deafness, which started setting in around the turn of the century, when he was entering his thirties. The causes, however, remain a matter of speculation. In her post on the Futurity website, Beata Mostafavi remarks that additional claims have been made over the years that the composer suffered from “a litany of mysterious health problems including inflammatory bowel disease, Paget’s disease (abnormal bone destruction), liver disease, alcohol abuse, and kidney disease.”

As for the claim of an abnormal heartbeat, the new study zeroes in on such compositions as the late string quartets: in particular, the Cavatina from Op. 130 in B-flat major. Mostafavi cites the famous score indication in the middle of the Cavatina — “beklemmt” (“anguished,” “pinched,” “oppressed”), which the authors apparently render as “heavy of heart”:

[The] authors note that “heavy of heart” could mean sadness but may also describe the sensation of pressure, a feeling that is associated with cardiac disease. “The arrhythmic quality of this section is unquestionable,” they write.

I wonder, though, whether their premise might be working the wrong way. Scientists and artists approach unpredictability and patterns in a radically different way. Musical genius deliberately expresses itself via unpredictable patterns. One of the key factors that makes mediocre music mediocre and boring is precisely because (usually unconsciously) we can tell “where it’s going” as it repeats the same formulas over and over.
(Note this is NOT to be equated with the techniques of Minimalism: predictability can also be made artfully unpredictable.)

But to the extent that this study is trying to “explain” pattern aberrations, I think it may be on the wrong track. On the other hand, there are plausible arguments for a composer like Mahler — who we know did suffer from a serious heart ailment — inscribing his bio-rhythms into something like the halting rhythmic patterns at the start of his Ninth Symphony.

I’ve also seen convincing descriptions of the finale of Beethoven’s Second Symphony — one of the great examples of humor in music — as alluding to the composer’s digestive problems to create a musical joke:

Pay attention to how that chirpy opening figure is set against the rumble lower in the strings that follows it — the leap from this “hiccup” high up to the rumbles and quivers below, like a belch with belly-growl. The Second was actually considered bizarre and even shocking music at its premiere in 1803. One contemporary review on the piece as a whole: “a hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to die, but writhing in its last agonies and, in the fourth movement, bleeding to death.”

Filed under: Beethoven, health, science

Apollo 11

This week marks the 45th anniversary of the first human moon landing via Apollo 11: on July 20, 1969, at 20:18 UTC (unless you’re a conspiracy theorist who believes the event was staged — possibly also buying into the claim that the temperature on Mars “disproves” the reality of human-caused climate change).

So in this week filled with depressing reminders of humanity’s dark side and cruelty, reminding ourselves of our greatest aspirations seems more needful than ever.

Discovery offers this trove of rare photos from inside Apollo 11. is paying tribute to this historic anniversary with a retrospective including memories from Buzz Aldrin, an Apollo quiz, historic photos, “scariest moments,” and more.

For the 40th anniversary in 2009, the Telegraph compiled a list of music (mostly pop) inspired by the moon. Oddly, Holst’s The Planets is mentioned (none of its movements is devoted to the moon), but these are omitted:

–the “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’s opera Rusalka
–Haydn’s opera buffa Il mondo della luna
–Bellini! Norma’s prayer to the moon (“Casta diva”) or the arietta “Vaga luna”:

Filed under: science

Zeroing in on Consciousness



This Sunday’s New York Times carried a fascinating article by Alex Halberstadt (“Zoo Animals and Their Discontents”) reporting on recent scientific thinking about the distance between humans and other species:

A profusion of recent studies has shown animals to be far closer to us than we previously believed — it turns out that common shore crabs feel and remember pain, zebra finches experience REM sleep, fruit-fly brothers cooperate, dolphins and elephants recognize themselves in mirrors, chimpanzees assist one another without expecting favors in return and dogs really do feel elation in their owners’ presence.

Meanwhile, as for humans, Helen Thomson at New Scientist reports on the apparent discovery by researchers at George Washington University of a way to turn consciousness “on or off” by means of electrical stimulation of the region deep within the brain known as the claustrum:

When the team zapped the area with high frequency electrical impulses, the woman [epilepsy patient] lost consciousness. She stopped reading and stared blankly into space, she didn’t respond to auditory or visual commands and her breathing slowed. As soon as the stimulation stopped, she immediately regained consciousness with no memory of the event. The same thing happened every time the area was stimulated during two days of experiments.

Thomson reports that Mohamad Koubeissi, who published the study, “thinks that the results do indeed suggest that the claustrum plays a vital role in triggering conscious experience. ‘I would liken it to a car,’ he says. ‘A car on the road has many parts that facilitate its movement –- the gas, the transmission, the engine –- but there’s only one spot where you turn the key and it all switches on and works together. So while consciousness is a complicated process created via many structures and networks — we may have found the key.'”

Shortly before he died in 2004, Francis Crick, according to Thomson, had been pursuing his idea “that suggested our consciousness needs something akin to an orchestra conductor to bind all of our different external and internal perceptions together.” And with his colleague Christof Koch, Crick actually posited the claustrum as the area in charge of this operation. (René Descartes famously claimed that the pineal gland was the locus for the interaction of the immaterial mind with the physical body — and hence the “seat of the soul.”)

“Ultimately, if we know how consciousness is created and which parts of the brain are involved then we can understand who has it and who doesn’t,” Koch told Thomson.

Filed under: science

The Vanishing

Alexis Rockman: Adelies (2008); collection of Robin and Steven Arnold

Alexis Rockman: Adelies (2008); collection of Robin and Steven Arnold

A new exhibit at the Whatcom Musuem in Bellingham, Washington, examines the specter of disappearing glaciers in this era of climate change:

“Vanishing Ice” … in its array of various mediums, conveys the beauty of alpine and polar regions—the pristine landscapes that have inspired generations of artists—at a time when rising temperatures pose a threat to them.

As the exhibition’s narrative tells, ice has captured the imaginations of artists for centuries. The very first known artistic depiction of a glacier dates back to 1601. It is a watercolor depicting the topography of the Rofener Glacier in Austria by a man named Abraham Jäger. But, in the 18th and 19th centuries, it became more common for artists, acting also as naturalists, to explore glaciated regions, fleeing the routine of everyday life for a jolting spiritual adventure. Their artistic renderings of these hard-to-reach locales served to educate the public, sometimes even gracing the walls of natural history museums and universities…The recent art tends to illustrate the disheartening findings of climate experts.
Patricia Leach, executive director of the museum, sees “Vanishing Ice” as a powerful tool. “Through the lens of art, the viewer can start thinking about the broader issue of climate change,” she says. “Believe it or not, there are still people out there who find this to be a controversial topic. We thought that this would open up the dialogue and take away the politics of it.”

Filed under: art exhibition, environment, science

People Who Need People

Carthage in Berlioz's Les Troyens: ROH production by David McVicar (photo: Cooper)

Carthage in Berlioz’s Les Troyens: ROH production by David McVicar (photo: Cooper)

The science journalist Ed Yong sums up two recent studies showing the significance of social interconnection:

Now, two teams of scientists have independently shown that the strength of this cumulative culture depends on the size and interconnectedness of social groups. Through laboratory experiments, they showed that complex cultural traditions — from making fishing nets to tying knots — last longer and improve faster at the hands of larger, more sociable groups.

Psychologist Joe Henrich, lead author of one of the studies, brings up the implications of these findings for the Internet era:

“Innovations like literacy, writing and mail allowed us to access the thoughts of people in distant places and times,” says Henrich. “Extend that to the Internet, and things should only speed along even more.”

Jong points out an additional issue suggested by the two studies: “a large population size may be necessary for the evolution of cumulatively complex cultures, of the sort that distinguishes modern humans from other primates.”

For example, Henrich notes that many anthropologists assumed that Neanderthals were less intelligent than humans even though their brains were the same size, because they built less complex tools. “Another possibility is that they lived in scattered groups without much interconnectedness,” he says. They lacked the large groups that ratchet culture to new heights.

But [primatologist Lewis] Dean notes that human culture is more sophisticated than these experiments allow. We help one another with complex tasks, teach each other and provide feedback. “I think the experiments risk underestimating what all groups, including small ones, can achieve,” he says.

Is it too far-fetched to try to extrapolate from this a model for the evolution of musical thought vis–à–vis sophisticated ensembles such as the string quartet or modern orchestra?

Filed under: science, sociology

The Two Cultures and the Idea of Beauty

Large Hadron Collider at CERN being constructed

Large Hadron Collider at CERN being constructed

The Science Museum in London currently has an exhibition on the Large Hadron Collider on view. In connection with the exhibition, The Guardian invited theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed and novelist Ian McEwan to engage in a conversation about the rapport between science and the arts.

The chemist and novelist C.P. Snow coined the phrase “the Two Cultures” in his Rede Lecture in 1959 to characterize the seemingly unbridgeable divide between the sciences and the humanities that had come to replace the omnivorous appetite for knowledge of the Renaissance. Arkani-Hamed observes:

It’s an asymmetry that doesn’t really need to exist. Certainly many scientists are very appreciative of the arts. The essential gulf is one of language and especially in theoretical physics, the basic difficulty is that most people don’t understand our language of mathematics which we use to describe everything we know about the universe. And so while I’m capable of listening to and intensely enjoying a Beethoven sonata or an Ian McEwan novel it can be more difficult for people in the arts to have some appreciation for what we do. But at a deeper level there’s a commonality between certain parts of the arts and certain parts of the sciences.

He also observes that the idea of “beauty” is at its core something shared by science and the arts, explaining that “what we mean by beauty is really a shorthand for something else. The laws that we find describe nature somehow have a sense of inevitability about them.”

Beethoven's working MS for the opening measures of his Fifth Symphony

Beethoven’s working MS for the opening measures of his Fifth Symphony

A year ago I ran into this great lecture on YouTube by Leonard Bernstein about the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth. And Bernstein used precisely this language – not approximately this language – exactly this language of inevitability, perfect accordance to its internal logical structure and how difficult and tortuous it was for Beethoven to figure out. He used precisely the same language we use in mathematics and theoretical physics to describe our sense of aesthetics and beauty.

Filed under: aesthetics, science

Keeping Time

If only György Ligeti were still around to see this. Robert Gonzalez reports on an amazing experiment in induced metronome synchrony:

If you place 32 metronomes on a static object and set them rocking out of phase with one another, they will remain that way indefinitely. Place them on a moveable surface, however, and something very interesting (and very mesmerizing) happens.

The metronomes in this video fall into the latter camp. Energy from the motion of one ticking metronome can affect the motion of every metronome around it, while the motion of every other metronome affects the motion of our original metronome right back. All this inter-metranome “communication” is facilitated by the board, which serves as an energetic intermediary between all the metronomes that rest upon its surface. The metronomes in this video (which are really just pendulums, or, if you want to get really technical, oscillators) are said to be “coupled.”

(Hat tip: Steve Silberman)

Ligeti’s famous “anti-ideological” Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes from 1962 works in the opposite direction. The metronomes are wound up to start more or less simultaneously, and the work then takes shape as a sublimely absurd/absurdly sublime music of entropy: individual “voices”/rhythmic patterns emerge from the cloud of sound until…silence overtakes the last one:

Filed under: modernist composers, science,

Screams and Drums: Nature’s Score for “Götterdämmerung”?

Volcano erupting
(Credit: Oliver Spalt)
According to a report released yesterday by the University of Washington, “Some volcanoes ‘scream’ at ever-higher pitches until they blow their tops. It is not unusual for swarms of small earthquakes to precede a volcanic eruption. They can reach a point of such rapid succession that they create a signal called harmonic tremor that resembles sound made by various types of musical instruments, though at frequencies much lower than humans can hear.”

Smithsonian’s blog has a recording of an eruption sequence from March 2009 at Alaska’s Redoubt Volcano.


Filed under: science

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