Quantum States of Time

Dawn of Midi live at Cafe 939 (Berklee School of Music) October 21st, 2013

Excerpt from "Dawn of Midi," Radiolab, August 29, 2013: 

"If you just let it do what it's doing and have none of the usual expectations of resolution—or of that usual arc—it's not going to tell you a story, it's going to keep you company. That's what's happening here. What it's trying to do is to get you into a different state of mind—like a different state of time—that experience of time that is non-narrative—where you're sort of existing in time, not is sort of a regular story way where everything leads to the next thing—beginning, middle, and end—something else.

What I often talk about is that you have quantum states of time. What I take it to mean is something very ancient in a way...What you have are these vertical stacks of rhythms, like almost multiple time flows existing simultaneously—in the same moment.

And if you listen in to this music...and try to pick out, Okay.What's the base doing? What's the drums doing? What's the piano doing? You will hear that they're actually almost not fitting together, like they're playing different beats, pulling at each other in some sense.

If I listen in and try to pick out all the lines, I get lost in the intricacies of their rhythms. If I listen out, I can just nod my head to it for forty-five minutes...And that's just interesting to me, the way the patterns on the interior just kind of mess with your ear because they all seem to be on their own cycle, but then when you pull out and just listen to the whole thing together, you're like, Oh yeah, I can nod my head to this. 

Like Nothing's Missing

Poems Composed for by the Left Hand
by Mary Molinary, from Beloit Poetry Journal, Winter 2010


to keep dementia away
most of the doctors say
use the opposite hand --
          force new learning on the mind

my left hand laughs
says it's all silly,
doesn't buy the split-
          brain theory

but being a good sport, plays
along--works hard against being

it's my right that slays
me--sulking and skulking
at the margins--curled
          up like a forgotten turnip


Using Your Nondominant Hand
Excerpt from How to Train a Wild Elephant: And Other Adventures in Mindfulness by Jan Chozen Bays

The Exercise
Use your nondominant hand for some ordinary task each day. These could include brushing your teeth, combing your hair, or eating with the nondominant hand for at least part of each meal.  If you're up for a big challenge, try using the nondominant hand when writing or when eating with chopsticks.

This experiment always evokes laughter.  We discover that the nondominant hand is quite clumsy. Using it brings us back to what Zen teachers call "beginner's mind." Our dominant hand might be forty years old, but the nondominant hand is much younger, perhaps about two or three years old. We have to learn all over again how to hold a fork and how to get it into our mouths without stabbing ourselves.  We might begin to brush our teeth very awkwardly with the nondominant hand, and when we aren't looking our dominant hand will reach out and take the toothbrush or fork away! It is like a bossy older sister who says, "Hey, you little klutz, let me do it for you!"

Struggling to use the nondominant hand can awaken our compassion for anyone who is clumsy or unskilled, such as a person who has had disabilities, injuries, or a stroke.  We briefly see how much we take for granted scores of simple movements that many people cannot make...

Deeper Lessons
This task illustrates how strong and unconscious our habits are and how difficult they are to change without awareness and determination. This task helps us bring beginner's mind to any activity--such as eating--that we do several times a day, often with only partial awareness.

See also: "Each Flick of a Digit Is a Job for All 5," by Natalie Angier, The New York Times, Feb. 27, 2012

Daybreak in Alabama

by Langston Hughes, from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes

When I get to be a composer
I'm gonna write me some music about
Daybreak in Alabama
And I'm gonna put the purtiest songs in it
Rising out of the ground like a swamp mist
And falling out of heaven like soft dew.
I'm gonna put some tall tall trees in it
And the scent of pine needles
And the smell of red clay after rain
And long red necks
And poppy colored faces
And big brown arms
And the field daisy eyes
Of black and white black white black people
And I'm gonna put white hands
And black hands and brown and yellow hands
And red clay earth hands in it
Touching everybody with kind fingers
And touching each other natural as dew
In that dawn of music when I
Get to be a composer
And write about daybreak
In Alabama.

[Thanks, Poem-a Day!]

Poetry Doesn’t Need Music; Lyrics Do

Green Finch and Linnet Bird
by Stephen Sondheim, from Sweeney Todd

Green finch and linnet bird,
Nightingale, blackbird,
How is it you sing?
How can you jubilate,
Sitting in cages,

Never taking wing?
Outside the sky waits,
Beckoning, beckoning,
Just beyond the bars,
How can you remain,
Staring at the rain,
Maddened by the stars?
How is it you sing
How is it you sing?

Green finch and linnet bird,
Nightingale, blackbird,
How is it you sing?
Whence comes this melody
    constantly flowing?
Is it rejoicing or merely halloing?
Are you discussing
Or fussing
Or simply dreaming?
Are you crowing?
Are you screaming?

Ringdove and robinet,
Is it for wages,
Singing to be sold?
Have you decided it's
Safer in cages,
Singing when you're told?

My cage has many rooms,
Damask and dark.
Nothing there sings,
Not even my lark.
Larks never will, you know,
When they're captive.
Teach me to be more adaptive.

Green finch and linnet bird,
Nightingale, blackbird,
Teach me how to sing.
If I cannot fly,
Let me sing.

*     *     *     *     *

"Lyrics, even poetic ones, are not poems," states Stephen Sondheim in the introduction to Finishing the Hat, a collection of his lyrics from 1954 to 1981. "Poems are written to be read, silently or aloud, not sung. Some lyrics, awash with florid imagery, present themselves as poetry, but music only underscores (yes) the self-consciousness of the effort…Poetry is an art of concision, lyrics of expansion…Poetry doesn't need music; lyrics do."

"Green Finch and Linnet Bird," sung by the character of Johanna in Sweeney Todd, may not be a poem, but to read it without its haunting, angular melody is to "hear" it slightly differently.

~ From Knopf’s Borzoi Reader Poem-a-Day from today. Visit the site to hear actress Kate Levy reading Sondheim’s lyrics.

Listen to the Music of the Traffic in the City

“The song written by an Englishman about an American city whose promise of togetherness really yields loneliness sung by a white Parisian woman everyone thought was black.”

~ From “Pop Music: Songs that Cross Borders,” Radiolab, April 21, 2008

When you're alone and life is making you lonely
You can always go - downtown
When you've got worries, all the noise and the hurry
Seems to help, I know - downtown
Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city
Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty
How can you lose?

The lights are much brighter there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
So go downtown, things'll be great when you're
Downtown - no finer place, for sure
Downtown - everything's waiting for you

Don't hang around and let your problems surround you
There are movie shows - downtown
Maybe you know some little places to go to
Where they never close - downtown
Just listen to the rhythm of a gentle bossa nova
You'll be dancing with him too before the night is over
Happy again

The lights are much brighter there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
So go downtown, where all the lights are bright
Downtown - waiting for you tonight
Downtown - you're gonna be all right now

[Instrumental break]

And you may find somebody kind to help and understand you
Someone who is just like you and needs a gentle hand to
Guide them along

So maybe I'll see you there
We can forget all our troubles, forget all our cares
So go downtown, things'll be great when you're
Downtown - don't wait a minute for
Downtown - everything's waiting for you

Downtown, downtown, downtown, downtown ...


To Be Able to Sing

An excerpt from a Radiolab conversation between Jad Abumrad and musician Juana Molina (May 4, 2009):

Juana: I usually feel that the sounds tell me what to do with them. Every sound has its own behavior. I’m just feeling like a driver of those sounds. Little by little, my ridiculously small universe becomes huge. Anything that has a note or a rhythm, you can make music with.

Jad: Are you inspired more by a thought, like I want to say something?

Juana: No. Never! There’s absolutely nothing that I really want to say.

Jad: Really?

Juana: Really.

Jad: Well, you have lyrics sometimes.

Juana: Most of the times.

Jad: So when the song pops into your head and you develop it, you’re not thinking of  a story per se.

Juana: No. Never.

Jad: But you put the story on afterwards, why?

Juana: In order to be able to sing.

Un Día

Un día voy a cantar las canciones sin letra y cada uno podrá imaginar si hablo de amor, de desilusión, banalidades o sobre platón.

One day I will sing the songs with no lyrics and everyone can imagine for themselves if it's about love, disappointment, banalities or about Plato.

Music is More Magical with Understanding

Cottton Top TamarindFrom “Music Written For Monkeys Strikes A Chord,” by Richard Harris, Morning Edition (9.2.09):

David Teie has been developing a theory to explain why music plays on human emotions. His theory is that music relates to the most primitive sounds we make and respond to, like laughter, heartbeats, or a mother's cooing.

Fearful monkey music:

Happy monkey music:

He says, "the paradox is that I distinctly remember thinking once that when they figure out why Puccini makes me cry, I hope I die the day before the news gets out. But the great news about this exploration into music is it's actually more magical and wonderful once you realize how it works."

David Teie Plays the Schuman Cello Concerto in A minor (Mvt 1) with the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, April 2007

See also: Music for Cats

Mapping Algorithms

“I'm a composer, orchestrally-trained, and the inventor of the AlloSphere. With my visual artist colleagues, we map complex mathematical algorithms that unfold in time and space, visually and sonically. Our scientist colleagues are finding new patterns in the information. And our engineering colleagues are making one of the largest dynamically varying computers in the world for this kind of data exploration. I'm going to fly you into five research projects in the AlloSphere that are going to take you from biological macroscopic data all the way down to electron spin.”

~ Composer JoAnn Kuchera-Morin, founder of the Center for Research in Electronic Art Technology (CREATE)

How to Fly

Regina Spektor

Regina Spektor on trying to explain her song writing process:

“To try to go back and take it all apart, then try to put order on it, is almost not fair to it. Let’s say somebody actually knows how to fly, but people just can’t deal with that, they’re constantly looking, going, ‘But where is the button, the propeller, the jet?’ And eventually the person has to strap on the jet and say, ‘Here’s the button.’ I think that’s what happens with people having to explain their songs. The song was flying, and now I’m being pushed to make up shit about it. Sometimes it’s almost like people take it as an insult, like you’re being facetious or pretentious. Or, and this upsets me even more, people say, ‘Random’, ‘Puts together really cool sounds’. It’s not random, it’s very specific, and when I’m writing it, it feels like life and death. It would be so much more fun if people went, ‘Wow, that’s cool, he just flew.’”

[Thanks JC!]

It’s Like You Talk

Rose McCoy“When I’d get started putting something down and Charlie’d play chords and I’d get the melody in my head from his chords. I got to keep thinking anybody could do it, cause it’s like you talk. It’s like you talk. And if you do that, it just sort of writes itself.”

~ Rose McCoy, from “Lady Writes The Blues: The Life Of Rose McCoy,” Radio Diaries, NPR (2.27.09)

How Relevant is this Anymore

“…in 1996 I was in my hardcore Romantic phase. I was so in love with Puccini and Tchaikovsky and stuff like that. Very romantic, emotional music. And I got to Harvard wanting to learn how to do that. Of course that music is not only a hundred years old, but it was just completely out of style after the 20th century and everything that happened. So I don’t even know what I was hearing. It was atonal. But several years later I got another music teacher and I was in a different frame of mind and I really came to love some of that 20th century music—Stravinsky and Bartok and even Schoenberg—stuff like that.

“I got this great composition teacher who taught me private lessons from UCLA. Some of the homework assignments he gave me at that time—2004—I integrated into a song on Weezer’s latest album, the Red Album, called The Greatest Man That Ever Lived. At the end of that song—it’s a six-minute song, very epic—and at the end there’s all this vocal counterpoint. He taught me how to do all that. And actually, a lot of it is from a homework assignment he gave me. I was learning how to write three-part vocal counterpoint in the style of 16th century.

“And as soon as the album was finished, I sent it to him. I knew he would be overjoyed to hear his influence on a modern rock record. You know, as a college professor in a somewhat obscure field, you might start to think like how relevant is this anymore. And he probably would have been overjoyed to hear that on a Weezer record. He was such an enthusiastic guy. And I was sad to learn that he passed away before he had a chance to hear that album.”

~ Rivers Cuomo, speaking to Terri Gross on Fresh Air (1.21.09)


Impermanence "How do you convey a sense of change? How do you convey that everything in our lives — everything — is constantly changing and that one cannot hold on to anything? And certainly the impulse was coming from the sense of the preciousness of life and that every moment is the only moment that we have."

~ Meredith Monk, discussing her recent work, Impermanence, with Lara Pellegrinelli on All Things Considered (May 13, 2008)

Words are Much Trickier

Excerpt from Andrew Bird's essay "Words Will Tell" posted on the New York Times music blog Measure for Measure:

Almost every breath contains some fragments of an escaping melody. If I shape my lips so as to whistle, my breath will take on a musical shape like sonic vapor. Words are much trickier. I would forgo words altogether if I didn’t love singing them so much. My choice of words and my voice betray so much and that’s what’s so terrifying and attractive about it.

I’m not the most forthcoming person — I only speak when I have Armchair Apocryphasomething to say. What is becoming more challenging of late is dealing with so many fully formed melodies that are unwilling to change their shape for any word. So writing lyrics becomes like running multiple code-breaking programs in your head until just the right word with just the right number of syllables, tone of vowel and finally some semblance of meaning all snap into place.

I’m kind of the opposite of the confessional singer-songwriter who fills notebooks full of poetry and intones them over a bed of chords. Meaning or “the truth that’s in my heart” usually reveals itself well after the record is released. I’m often surprised that the things I care about actually end up in my songs. Until then I’m mostly concerned with shape, tone and texture. I’m really an instrumentalist who sings words...