How smart are you? How smart are we as a culture? How much can your brain juggle? Are we getting smarter or dumber?
It might seem random and counterintuitive to begin this discussion with an examination of a compositional form from a few hundred years ago, but trust me, I’m going somewhere with this. So let’s start by looking at what a fugue is. Watch this youtube video of Bach’s Fugue in G Minor, with coloured bars to represent the various melodic lines:
Did you get what went on there (or what’s still going on, if it’s still playing)?
-A single voice (let’s call it “Voice A”) plays the main theme, all by itself.
-Once it finishes the theme, Voice A plays a variation on the theme.
-A second voice (“B”) comes in and plays the theme while Voice A does its variation.
-Once Voice B completes the theme and Voice A completes its variation, Voice B goes into a variation of its own, Voice A goes into a second variation, and Voice C comes in, playing the theme.
-And so on, for as many voices as the composer cares to add. Might be two, might be a eighteen hundred million. Probably closer to two.
-Each voice does any number of variations, and eventually the various voices come together and conclude the piece.
Notice how each voice is independent, and yet works within the overall composition. Simultaneous notes from different voices have to harmonize with each other, but their primary job is to be contribute to the melody line they're part of. Any voice might disappear and reappear. The main theme recurs here and there in the various voices, and usually gets restated by all the voices together in a grand unifying conclusion.
It changes the way you hear and experience a piece of music when you have a better handle on what's going on with it. And in the case of a fugue, there's a lot going on. But we can handle it.
We have the capacity for wrapping our brains around increasing levels of complexity. It takes effort, but we can do it. And technology can prompt this. It can also dumb us down. But it’s our choice whether to let it sweep us into complacency or to use it as a ladder.
Think of the similarity between the coloured bars of that fugue video and the video game Rock Band. When music gets broken down into an easy to follow coloured code, the less celebrated parts (like the bass) seem a lot more impressive all of a sudden. Especially if you can’t play along to a simplified version. And keep in mind, you’re not playing an actual instrument. Or dealing with the stress and adrenaline of standing in front of a live audience. You’re probably not wasted, either.
Accessible complexity can exist in the music of a single player, too. Andrew Bird plays the violin and does great shit with a loop pedal. Check out this TED talk he did (a musical performance, not a lecture)(let it play as you keep reading, if you like).
He'll lay out a single line on the violin, and loop it. Then play a second track over that, and loop that, and a third track, and a fourth, and so on. And he sings. And sometimes plays guitar. And whistles. And plays the xylophone, in tandem with his whistles. Looping anything he wants to use. Building on anything he wants to build on. Because you heard him layer each violin line in, it's easier to keep track of them. You can listen to any one individually. You can listen to the violins as a whole, and as a part of the whole. You can switch your focus back and forth, like looking at an optical illusion and making your eyes see the vase, and then two faces, and then vase, and then two faces.
In the movie MASH (1970) there's a scene where two characters meet three others. They shake hands, everyone talks at once. Robert Altman directed them to speak overtop of each other. The viewer gets pulled into a participatory role, choosing who they're going to listen to.
Aldous Huxley's novel Point Counterpoint (1928) presents the reader with more than a dozen characters in 1920s London. None is the protagonist. A lead in one chapter is a supporting character in another, or a cameo, or just mentioned, or entirely absent.
The main characters in Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen (1986/87) are superheroes, and none dominates the narrative. Each chapter (originally single issues in a twelve issue comic book maxi-series) explores the present situation and backstory of a different hero. The overall story advances, and each character's backstory becomes relevant to the narrative as he takes centre stage.
ABC’s Lost (2004 - 2010) did this too. The dozen or so main characters get stranded on a mysterious island after a plane crash. Every episode focuses on one of them. We see scenes from their pre-island past. Back and forth we go between the past and the present. The past reflects on the present.
Here's a passage from Point Counterpoint, the omniscient narrator describing a flute and strings ensemble playing a Bach piece:
The parts live their separate lives; they touch, their paths cross, they combine for a moment to create a seemingly final and perfected harmony, only to break apart again. Each is always alone and separate and individual. 'I am I,' asserts the violin; 'the world revolves round me.' 'Round me,' calls the cello. 'Round me,' the flute insists. And all are equally right and equally wrong; and none of them will listen to the others.
From the first episode it's clear the island has paranormal properties. But the closer we come to finding out the answers, more mysteries open up. And really, did the show’s creators want the audience to know all the answers? Would they lose interest? And what if the creators themselves didn't know the answers? Series creator JJ Abrams did a TED talk in which he held up a box he’d bought from a magic store in the 70s. $50 worth of tricks for $15 – but you don't know what they are when you buy the box, hence the discount. He still hasn't opened it.
I've played Rock Band exactly once. With the playing dumbed right down (and with me pressing buttons on a little plastic guitar instead of playing an actual electric bass) I could keep up, but barely. The friend who owned the game played the drums at the expert level. He could play any instrument at that level. Rock Band instruments, I'm talking. Outside of the game, he can't play anything.
A minor character in Watchmen sits by a newsstand reading a comic book. Panels of this comic within a comic alternate with what you the reader are reading. The characters aren't direct parallels, but the themes are relevant, if you're willing to consider them instead of anxiously waiting for the guys in costumes to start blasting and smashing each other.
Novelist Robertson Davies recommended rereading your favourite book when you’re at least the same age the author was when he wrote it. Gives you a new angle to consider the book from. Prompts you to consider your reactions when you’d read it at a younger age. I’m due to reread Point Counterpoint, now being older than Huxley was when it came out (I’m 36, he was 34). Here’s another excerpt:
In the human fugue there are eighteen hundred million parts. The resultant noise means something perhaps to the statistician, nothing to the artist. It is only by considering one or two parts at a time that the artist can understand anything.
Overlapping, improvised dialogue became a hallmark of Altman's directing. The actors wore clip-on microphones, and were directed to speak freely and naturally in every take.
London cab drivers’ hippocampuses (the part of the brain associated with navigation) expand the longer they drive. London is a city of twisting streets, with many repeated or similar names. Street signs sit against the sides of buildings, not easy to notice. Most roads only last a few blocks. It takes years to become a London cabbie.
Andrew Bird put out four albums of solo live tracks covers, and reimaginings on his own songs (titled Fingerlings (1, 2, 3 and (you guessed it) 4)). The audience is always dead quiet until the final note plays out. And then they whoop into applause. And you realize what you heard wasn't meticulously laid out and perfected in a recording studio, but a variation he created on the spot, for that audience, at that moment.
The title Point Counterpoint refers to the structure of a fugue, sometimes called a counterpoint. A composition in this style is said to be “contrapuntal.”
Errol Morris did a neat bit of contrapuntal filmmaking with his 1997 documentary Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. He interviewed four experts on unrelated subjects, and then wove the interviews together in criss-crossing patterns in the editing room.
In 1975 Altman directed Nashville, with more than a dozen main characters, and none clearly in the lead. He did this again in A Wedding (1978). Again in Short Cuts (1993). And again with Gosford Park (2001).
In his memoir Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain recounts how Mississippi riverboat pilots in the 1850s had to know every bit of shore, on both sides of the river, coming and going, day and night. They had to know the depth at all points, too. And the river shifted regularly. A meander would break through, leaving an oxbow lake.
Andrew Bird never repeats the way he performs a song. He won't change it so much that it's unrecognizable, but he'll never play it exactly like it is on the album. Or the way he played it the night before. Every performance is a variation. Every song sets up myriad possibilities.
I saw Fast Cheap & Out of Control in the theatres in '97. It made demands on my mind and I could keep up. So could everyone in the theatre. I liked that. I was writing one of my first one man shows at the time. I structured it with multiple streams of monologues intertwining, overlapping and eventually resolving. Seemed a good way to tell a story. Engage the audience. Get them sitting forward. Putting the pieces together themselves.
Twain said being a riverboat pilot was like driving a cab in New York City, but with no street signs, and different streets and buildings changing location periodically, arbitrarily.
We tend not to listen to music. It's selling us shit, it's soothing us into a stupor as we shop, it's staving off the terrifying silence when we’re alone. It’s a cheap commodity, casually downloaded, taken for granted and easy to ignore. But you can sit in a room and turn up the volume and let a composition wash over you, exploring its details, focusing on different aspects with each listen.
Television used to present simple stories with simple solutions. But consider how many shows begin with “Previously On,” implying a commitment on the viewer’s part to a continuing story. The Family Guy, 30 Rock, Corner Gas, Arrested Development and other sitcoms use smash cuts pretty much every episode, jumping out the scene for five seconds to a quick gag, and then jumping back. Reality TV necessitates following a sizeable number of contestants for the length of the season, keeping track of their abilities and relationships and alliances and rivalries.
I've written a bunch of one man show since the late 90s. It's been the main way I've made my living. They've all been in that non-linear, interwoven, elliptical style. The most frequent compliment I get is “I love how it all came together at the end.”
In Robertson Davies' novel The Manticore, the main character recalls a blind law professor he'd studied under at Oxford who was always engaged in a dozen or so long distance chess games. A postcard would arrive and the prof would have the single chess move it described read to him. He’d immediately dictate a counter-move, and have it sent back.
Twain didn’t have a great memory before starting as a riverboat pilot. He developed one on the job. He had to. So he did.
Anyone proficient at Rock Band must hear the songs they're good at in a new way, catching all kinds of details the rest of us miss. Any expert level player must have this relationship with hundreds of songs.
Life in the information age is turning us all into that blind law professor. We commonly have many interactions going on at any given time. Emails, phone calls, texts, tweets, Facebook messages, instant messages, comments on blog pieces. Maybe there are minutes between responses, maybe days, maybe weeks. We calibrate our responses to the nuances of each relationship, including how long we’re going to take to respond, how formal our language will be, how flirty, how inside we’ll make our references. Each message is a chess move.
Rock Band is making their game instruments more sophisticated. In an interview on the podcast Sound Opinions the game’s creator said it was always his intention to get people learning to play real instruments.
My creative life has become contrapuntal. I’ve always got a number of projects on the go. Put in an hour on this one, tweak that one. One that’s been at rest for months comes back to life, another goes into hibernation. Brainstorm with this collaborator, give notes to that one, get notes from that other one. Redraft, redraft. I’ll commonly be involved in multiple plays in a given theatre festival. See how the show I’m performing does for a live audience. Adjust, tweak. See how the shows I directed do. Brainstorm, jam, rewrite, rehearse.
Any novelist’s non-fiction provides new shades of perspective on their fiction. Aldous Huxley has six essay collections - big fat volumes. I’ve only read the first one. Haven’t caught up to his essays from the period when he was writing Point Counterpoint yet.
I used to eschew TV. I thought it made people stupid. Now I gobble it up. Getting off the on the extended exploration of characters and themes the medium can offer. I follow multiple continuing stories, season by season. Flipping between them, contrapuntally. Renting or downloading. Avoiding the remote control trap. Too easy to get sucked into surfing endless channels, not liking anything and still unable to turn it off. But if you use it judiciously, it can pump up your brain.
Same with youtube.
Same with Facebook.
The ongoing superhero tales in Marvel Comics intersect more and more these days, with great editorial consistency and better writing than ever (many thanks to Alan Moore for raising the bar in the medium). Four to six issues will get collected in trade paperbacks (referred to as graphic novels, by some). I buy them second hand. The stories come at me out of sequence. Bit of this storyline, bit of that one. Following writers instead of characters. And the good writers write multiple titles, which often fit in with each other, but also stand alone. This one has a cameo by this other character. This one takes place on the periphery of some major event in the Marvel universe. Many perspectives. Multiple voices in the same key.
Any writer’s body of work contains recurring themes, repeated points of emphasis, even favourite words. Aldous Huxley’s literary output is a sort of fugue, with each book being in the key of Huxley. They intersect, they overlap.
We have access to a greater variety of points of view than ever before. Information is more easily accessible. TED talks distill complex subjects into accessible twenty minute lectures, available to all, for free. Website discussion boards allow the possibility of interacting with a writer directly, and other readers. They’re often plagued by trolls who delight in stirring up shit, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Vimeo - an alternative site to youtube - describes itself as a “respectful community of creative people who are passionate about sharing the videos they make”.
Open source technology builds on collective intelligence and effort. And people give it away.
Same with Wikipedia.
The tags at the beginning of a blog article or essay list many of its subjects, like the key of a musical composition.
It’s possible you're listening to music while reading this - played from your computer. Maybe it’s been a distraction, but perhaps you’ve been able to absorb both the music and the text. Maybe your attention and has shifted from the music to the essay to the music to the essay.
Perhaps you read this essay in chunks. It’s certainly on the long end of the kind of thing people read online. Maybe you’ve read other things in the meantime, before coming back and reaching this paragraph. Maybe you bailed long ago.
This piece is mostly a song of optimism about our intelligence and capacities in this changing world. But there’s also the parallel trend of the information age turning us into a different kind of blind person: fumbling, groping, touching this and that as we’re led along by one tangent after another, only interacting with the surfaces, knowing and accomplishing less than ever before. It behooves us all to wrestle with and adjust to these new modes of communication that have burrowed their way into our lives, to see to it that they serve us instead of zap us of our energy, motivation and attention spans. But I believe it can be done. I’m still working on it. There’s a minimized icon of my email and Facebook accounts open at all times on my screen. All it takes is to drag the cursor arrow over to see if a little number’s there, singing its siren song that I’ve got a message of some kind. Abandon whatever you’re working on! See what it is! It’ll only take a second... I’m fighting that impulse as I write these words.
On the other hand, the experience of writing for a group blog like Beams and Struts has given me an avenue and a reason to explore my thoughts in more depth, write them, revise them, research the topics they deal with, and send them off to my Beams co-editors, get notes, incorporate those notes, all in the name of making the piece better, better, better, looking at my topics from other points of view and adjusting to new insights and questions as I do. And I sure as hell wasn’t writing and crafting this much in my old notebook, typewriter and word processor days - I wrote like a madman, but rarely read my writing a second time, much less worked it into something worth presenting to the public. New music took longer to reach me, and I didn’t get as much of it. The only way to watch a TV show was the remote control and commercials way. I wrote physical letters and put them in envelopes, and got maybe one in return for every ten I sent. It took longer and was more arduous to do research.
Many people let this new world keep them distracted and dumb. Brilliantly well written, directed and acted TV shows like Mad Men, The Wire and 30 Rock win awards but get consistently low ratings. Many hated the series finale of Lost because it didn’t spoonfeed the viewer the answers to all the mysteries. Probably the majority of the blogs out there are superficial and narcissistic. A great many comments on websites are ignorant, the commenters completely unwilling to listen or exchange ideas.
But would I have been able to explain what a fugue is with anywhere near the ease that that youtube video afforded, and without the existence of youtube, and without the time and effort of Stephen Malinowski, the gentleman who made that video (and fifteen other compositions arranged like it)(youtube user name “smailin”)?
So where's this new world taking us? Will the forces of stupidity prevail? Will at least some of us be able to ride this wave of rapid technological advance and remain informed, dexterous and productive? We’ll have to wait and see.
For now, this fugue fugue is ready to come to a rest, with a resolving chord containing notes and melodic patterns that look and sound like Mark Twain piloting a Mississippi riverboat at night, Aldous Huxley climbing out of a London cab, Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen giving a TED talk, Hurley from Lost playing an Andrew Bird song on Rock Band on a sophisticated plastic violin-like thing, and a great big ensemble cast from a Robert Altman film all speaking at once about something complicated and interesting but presented in a way that anyone can get and that helps our spheres of understanding swell and overlap.