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The human voice, counterpoint, & the analysis of complex systems

Saturday, February 9th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — with Mike Sellers and Ali Minai particularly in mind, and more to come.. ]
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Roomful of Teeth:

That’s composer Caroline Shaw‘s Partita for 8 Voices, a piece she wrote for Roomful of Teeth.

A piece she composed and wrote for them — in the remainder of this post, we’ll explore the overlap of text (writing) and music (composition) in increasing subtlety and detail..

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I’m brought to make this post by a paragraph I read in a fascinating New Yorker article, Roomful of Teeth Is Revolutionizing Choral Music. Roomful of Teeth is the group whose music I first praised in Pulitzer : Lamar :: Nobel : Dylan?, and showcase again in the video clip above.

Here’s that New Yorker para:

The human voice is the world’s most astonishing instrument, it’s often said. It’s capable of everything from a trill to a bark to an ear-splitting scream, from growling harmonics to liquid acrobatics, lofted on the breath like a lark on an updraft. Instrument is the wrong word, really. The voice is more like a chamber ensemble: winds and strings and blaring horns, strung together end to end. It’s a pump organ, a viola, an oboe, and the bell of a trumpet, each instrument passing the sound along to the next, adding volume and overtones at every step. Throw in the percussion of the lips and tongue, and the echoing amphitheatre of the skull, and you have a full orchestra playing inside you.

My aim in this post is to add that “full orchestra playing inside you” to that other internal polyphony of contrasting desires, identities, and emergent thoughts, and the external polyphony of all those voices with a stake in our common concerns, risk assessments and deliberations — which are constituent of our complex analytic topics.

Done.

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The rest is context…

I’ve often talked about the notion that the analysis of complex human systems involves dealing with multiple stakeholder voices, also on occasion with the many internal voices within each individual, and suggested that music offers the clearest equivalent or analogy that humans successfully and repeatedly navigate. Specifically, the twin notions of polyphony — the sounding together of many voices — and more specifically counterpoint — the juxtaposition of conflicting voices and the possible resolution of their conflicts from dissonance to harmony in an iterative process — are clearly relevant to analytic practice, albeit drawing on a tradition that will seem wildly cross-disciplinary to many analysts.

Relevant here is Edward Said‘s definition of counterpoint:

In counterpoint a melody is always in the process of being repeated by one or another voice: the result is horizontal, rather than vertical, music. Any series of notes is thus capable of an infinite set of transformations, as the series (or melody or subject) is taken up first by one voice then by another, the voices always continuing to sound against, as well as with, all the others. Instead of the melody at the top being supported by a thicker harmonic mass beneath (as in largely vertical nineteenth century music), Bach’s contrapuntal music is regularly composed of several equal lines, sinuously interwoven, working themselves out according to stringent rules

In my view , which I have repeatedly expressed, Johann Sebastian Bach, the master of contrapuntal writing, is a significant exemplar for us at this time. And if it should be argued that musical methods cannot be transposed — another musical term — to matters of verbal thought, let me say that the great Bach pianist Glenn Gould towards the end of his life made specifically contrapuntal human voice radio plays for the Canadian Broadcasting Company..

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Gould’s contrapuntal mind:

Among Gould‘s eccentricities — David Howes in Glenn Gould’s Contrapuntal Constitution calls them bi-centricities, a phrase that reminds us of Arthur Koestler‘s notion of the creative leap as the bisociation of two planes or matrices, are:

the way he liked to have one AM and one FM station playing all the time in his apartment, one for news, the other for music; the way he could learn a score while talking on the phone; and the way he enjoyed eavesdropping on three or four conversations at the same time going on at neighbouring tables in the restaurants he haunted (Kostelanetz 1983: 127).

We can see here that Gould‘s basic thinking is in terms of multiple voices, often contrasting, in simultaneous awareness — Gould, Howes continues, spoke of counterpoint as “an explosion of simultaneous ideas”. As Gould puts it, Howes reports, when speaking of his radio programs for human voices:

The basis of it was that we tried to have situations arise cogently from within the framework of the program in which the two or three voices … [recorded previously in conversation with Gould, but with the latter’s voice edited out for the final version] … could be overlapped, in which they would be heard talking – simultaneously, but from different points of view – about the same subject. We also tried to treat these voices as though they belonged to characters in a play, though all the material was gained from interviews. It was documentary material, treated in a sense as drama (cited in Payzant 1982: 131).

This, then, is Gould‘s contrapuntal radio, and we can see Gould vividly transposing conytrapuntal imagination from the musical sphere to that of the varieties of human verbalization.

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As not an aside but the re-introduction of a theme previously only hinted at, here is Arthur Koestler on the conceptual or creative leap:

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Okay, our concept of music must shift, change, expand, if we are to consider Gould‘s Idea of North as a musical composition — in ways that are consistent with my own development of contrapuntal analysis. As Anthony Cushing explains in Glenn Gould and ‘Opus 2’: An outline for a musical understanding of contrapuntal radio with respect to The Idea of North:

A musical understanding of North requires re-thinking some traditional elements of music theory: harmony must take into consideration semantic content and shifting topic areas; form follows somewhat traditional musical structures (ternary, binary, etc.); and texture encompasses layering of literal voices and dispenses with traditional notions of melody. One must also consider the spatial component of tape composition, in which voices inhabit locations in a sound field. The later documentaries in the trilogy and the Leopold Stokowski and Pablo Casals tribute radio documentaries contribute to a more complete musical concept of contrapuntal radio — complex polyphonic textures, stereo sound, pitch-based harmonic content — the germ of contrapuntal radio was developed and actualized in North.

I’d like to take that lead, given us by the masterful pianist Glenn Gould, across into the field of analytic understanding — as a stream of analysis complementary and in counterpoint (for instance) to “big data” analytic tools — contrapuntal analysis characteristically working with a few, humanly-selected verbal utterances rather than data-points algorithmically-selected in the millions.

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Moving to a larger geopolitical canvas, Edward Said once told an interviewer:

When you think about it, when you think about Jew and Palestinian not separately, but as part of a symphony, there is something magnificently imposing about it. A very rich, also very tragic, also in many ways desperate history of extremes – opposites in the Hegelian sense – that is yet to receive its due. So what you are faced with is a kind of sublime grandeur of a series of tragedies, of losses, of sacrifices, of pain that would take the brain of a Bach to figure out. It would require the imagination of someone like Edmund Burke to fathom.

We see here the invocation of Bach in a context of geopolitical analysis — one paragraph in the life-work of Said, who was a music critic as well as a well-known Palestinian-American public intellectual.

That single paragraph — and Gould‘s clear understanding that contrapuntal thinking can be applied to the polyphony of human voices, not just in the musical sphere — prompts me to go further, and assert that complexity studies with application to the human condition and intelligence and geopolitical analysis will all, sooner or later, arrive at the practice of contrapuntal thinking as basic to their deeper purposes.

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Refocusing at the national level, on Glenn Gould‘s native Canada:

I’ve mentioned the simultaneity of voices in social contexts such as listening, hearing and understanding the views and voices of multiple stakeholder. In similar vein, Howes suggests Gould‘s own taste for counterpoint stems from and reflects the Canadian Constitution:

Gould understood music to provide a model of society, and the performing artist, hence, to be performing society, as well as music. Along these lines, counterpoint, Gould’s preferred musical style, provides a specially apt model for comprehending the constitutional structure of the Canadian state. Gould’s interest in keeping the different voices of a fugue distinct, equal, and bound together parallels the concern of the Canadian state to keep the different parties to Confederation distinct, equal and bound together. In this difficult task, however, there is always a risk of overemphasizing or losing one of the voices. If Quebec is proclaimed “a distinct society” will that disturb the equality of the provinces (for surely all are distinct); if it is not, will that lead to the separation of Quebec and the break-up of Confederation? This bi-cultural counterpoint confronts Canadians daily, from the bilingual product information on their cereal boxes to the reports of English/French political jousting on the evening news.

Counterpoint, or in more general terms, polyphony, is non-dialectical, for it involves the interweaving of voices, of ideas, rather than the Hegelian process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Polyphony as social theory does not, therefore, entail the negation of any countervailing views the way, say, a dialectical social philosophy would. With polyphony, accommodation or peaceful co-presence takes the place of negation.

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Readings:

  • New Yorker, Roomful of Teeth Is Revolutionizing Choral Music
  • NY Times, The Glenn Gould Contrapuntal Radio Show
  • Open Culture, Listen to Glenn Gould’s Shockingly Experimental Radio Documentary
  • Hermitary, Glenn Gould’s The Solitude Trilogy
  • Canadian Icon, Glenn Gould’s Contrapuntal Constitution
  • Politics & Culture, An interview with Edward Said

  • Charles Cameron, Pulitzer : Lamar :: Nobel : Dylan?
  • Charles Cameron, Getting deeper into Koestler

  • Mike Sellers, Advanced Game Design: A systems Approach
  • Ali Minai, A core concern of our research is the desire to catch ‘creativity in the act.’
  • **

    More Teeth — your reward for reading this far:

    And BachGlenn Gould plays Contrapunctus IX from The Art of Fugue — on organ:

    Enemy of the people, battle rifles, Nikita Khrushchev too..

    Friday, August 17th, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — a cascade from dangerous words to deathly deeds ]
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    There’s this tweet from Donald Trump, and it’s one among several like it:

    Certain media outlets are listed as enemies, which is pretty close to calling them targets..

    Remember Nixon‘s enemies list?

    **

    Okay, then there’s this tweet, from Alex Jones of InfoWars:

    Let’s give that a little more context — Alex Jones ups the ante:

    We’re under attack and you know that, and you pointed out mainstream media is the enemy.

    But now it’s time to act on the enemy before they do a false flag. I know the Justice Department’s crippled, a bunch of followers and cowards. But there’s groups, there’s grand juries, there’s — you called for it and it’s time politically and economically and judiciously and legally and criminally to move against these people. It’s got to be done now. Get together the people you know aren’t traitors, and aren’t cowards, and aren’t hedging their frickin’ bets like all these other assholes do, and let’s go, let’s do it. Because they’re coming. Now, in your wisdom you may be playing possum and waiting for them to come in. But America needs to know that they’ve got their little pathetic commie red teams ready. And they’ve got their targets picked out: the sheriffs, the judges, the police chiefs, the patriots, the veterans, the talk show hosts, everybody. And everyone’s going to be amazed when they come and when those cowards come and it’s going to hit in the middle of the night, and they’re coming. And they’re coming. And they’re coming.

    They think they can really take down America. And this is it. So, people need to have their battle rifles and everything ready at their bedsides and you got to be ready because the media is so disciplined in their deception. Antifa attacked all these people at the White House, beat up reporters, beat up women, children, no coverage. And they’ve got discipline folks, they’ve got criminal discipline because they’re a bunch of followers.

    I’m suggesting with this DoubleTwweet that Alex Jones is the compulsive “id” of Trump’s repeated attacks on the “faux” media as “the enemy of the people” — essentially putting a target on the backs of those media listed, and their hournalists..

    **

    In the historical background, almost buried in the hiss of defective memory, we hear the voice of Nikita Khrushchev. As the New Yorker points out:

    Nikita Khrushchev, in his memoirs, observed that Joseph Stalin, his despotic and bloody-minded predecessor, referred to “everyone who didn’t agree with him as an ‘enemy of the people.’”

    And here’s our chance to find out what that phrase, enemy of the people, may lead to:

    “As a result, several hundred thousand honest people perished,” Khrushchev said, underestimating the number of dead from Stalin’s mass repressions by many millions. “Everyone lived in fear in those days. Everyone expected that at any moment there would be a knock on the door in the middle of the night and that knock on the door would prove fatal.”

    **

    Now that’s a dangerous cascade, don’t you think, from Trump’s identification of certain “enemies of the people” via Alex Jones’ call for regular folks to have their “battle rifles” ready — via Khrushchev’s finding an earlier Russian echo of Trump’s phrase in Stalin’s, to Stalin’s tens of millions dead..

    Take a deep enough breath..

    Synonyms for shiver, the noun:

    tremble, quiver, shake, shudder, quaver, quake, tremor, twitch

    There’s quite a bit of poetry in that list. And..

    Shiver, the verb:

    shake slightly and uncontrollably as a result of being cold, frightened, or excited.

    I’d say that cascade frightens me, with maybe some excitement peering out from behind the fright, just because in it there’s a premonition of conflict.. oh, and fright rhymes with excite..

    Let me let you in on a secret: the poetry may be a distraction from the fright, but if so it’s a welcome distraction.

    Metaphors v, We use sports terms all the time

    Sunday, August 12th, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — I’m not the only one thinking sports metaphors are important, though I’ve been collecting a whole lot more examples ]
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    There’s a NYT article — We Use Sports Terms All the Time. But Where Do They Come From? — as you see, tucked away in the Sports section, which I’d really like to transport over here whole, because it’s a sports metaphor article, not a sports article, and sports metaphors are a specialty du maison here at ZP.

    Let’s see if I can ferret out the gist:

    We’re talking about sports idioms, those everyday phrases ingrained in our lexicon, handed down from generation to generation. We use these terms all the time, without really knowing where they came from. Some of their origins are pretty clear: front-runner, on the ropes, the ball is in your court. But there are many others whose provenances are not so apparent.

    The world of sports is a particularly fertile ground for such terms, said Katherine Connor Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press. “Sports are written about and discussed a lot, and so have generated a great deal of colorful, specialized vocabulary. And competition exists in many other spheres of life, so sports terms are well suited to be borrowed into other domains, such as business or politics.”

    **

    **

    As I’ve suggested, the whole piece is a rich trove of materials for the sort of exploration I’ve been working on. Just a few minutes ago, as it happens, I heard someone on TV say in regard to the 2020 presidential election:

    If Michael Avenatti wants to throw his hat into the ring, great.

    As it happens, throwing one’s hat into the ring is one of the examples the NYT piece explores a little deeper. Their example:

    In The New York Times: Mr. Mahathir threw his hat in the ring in the recent national elections. Opinion, May 12.

    Their comment:

    Back in the days when boxing was a quasi-legal, rough-and-tumble affair, fighters and even spectators who had an interest in getting into a bout would signal it by tossing in a hat. It’s mostly used now in the rough-and-tumble field of politics to announce that one is running for office.

    Its first use, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, came in The London Times in 1804, in its literal sense: “Belcher first threw his hat into the ring, over the heads of the spectators.”

    Throwing in the towel would be, I suppose, the equal and opposite phrase..

    **

    Other examples they went into in similar detail:

    Wild-Goose Chase

    We need to get a little lost, pursue “productive and instructive disorientation, distraction, wild-goose chases, dead ends.” Book Review, June 4.

    Throw in the Towel

    Anthony Barile, the owner of this wood-oven veteran where other pizza-makers honed their skills, said he was tired and throwing in the towel after nearly 26 years. Food, March 27.

    Out of Left Field

    It was so out of left field and something so different than anything I’ve done. Movies, July 6.

    Hands Down

    Sue is, hands-down, the best at this. I would marry her in a minute. Television, June 21.

    Wheelhouse, Strong Suit, Forte

    One of the many subspecialities within Wright’s wheelhouse is Italian glass. Arts, April 17.

    and so forth, Back to Square One, Across the Board, and my favorite as a Brit:

    Sticky Wicket

    But ad-driven nostalgia is a sticky wicket. Australia, Feb. 7.

    **

    **

    That last quote, under the Sticky Wicket header, was from Australia, a little far from New York. The writer Victor Mather writes, almost as an apology for straying so far afield:

    “Cricket is the U.K.’s baseball,” when it comes to the lexicon, Ms. Martin said. It’s beyond our purview to get into British English too deeply here; there are British alternatives for many terms in American sports.

    I don’t know, however, that any American can suggest a baseball term or phrase as beautiful as the British cricketer’s triple pun:

    bowling a maiden over

    Over and out.

    Max Boot on a subtly strategic game..

    Thursday, July 12th, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — by thinking of soccer as strategy I see how to make it relevant here ]
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    That time when Germany and Argentina faced off in the final of the World Cup 2014 —

    — Germany’s Mario Götze scored the match-winning goal in the 113th minute. That’s drama for you. That was last time..

    **

    France will face off against Croatia Sunday for the World Cup, soccer’s peak and pinnacle — but that’s not to say all the excitement this year is yet to come. Strategist — well, military historian — Max Boot has been unexpectedly riveted by the lead-in to the Cup Final, and explains why:

    I have thrilled to every dramatic turn:

    The 70th-ranked Russian side getting to the quarterfinals by beating Spain on penalty kicks, only, in a bit of poetic justice, to lose on penalty kicks to tiny Croatia. South Korea, another underdog, defeating top-seeded Germany, thereby allowing Mexico to advance. (Delirious Mexicans showed their gratitude by buying drinks for every Korean they could find.) Lowly Japan leading mighty Belgium by 2-0, only to have the brilliant Belgians storm back and win on a last-second goal. (The well-mannered Japanese players were heartbroken but still meticulously cleaned out their locker room and left a classy “thank-you” note.) Powerhouse Brazil, the favorite after Germany’s defeat and the winningest team in World Cup history, losing its quarterfinal match in part because of an improbable own goal. England, a perennial disappointment that won its only World Cup in 1966, exceeding expectations by advancing to the semifinals — only to lose to Croatia (population 4.1 million ), which became the second-smallest nation to reach the final.

    This, of course, only hints at the drama that has enthralled much of the world’s population

    **

    Boot backends his power paragraph, as you see, with the word “drama” — and goes on to speak of poetic justice, an undergog, delirium, gratitude, lowly Japan, mighty and then brilliant Belgians, a last-second goal, powerhouse Brazil the winningest team, an improbable own goal, a perennial disappointment — that would be England — and Croatia, the second-smallest nation..

    Drama, which is emotion.

    Underdog is the key word here, indicating that which we instinctively support as decent humans. And decent humanity is the inner nature of the game here, as subtle strategy is its outer formalism.

    With all your elbow pads and helmets, America, you failed to make the true “World” Series, the World Cup — oh yes, Boot is suitably humble about that:

    I assumed that, as the greatest country in the world, we must have the greatest sports. It never occurred to me there was anything commands my attention, sympathy and praise. about using the term “World Series” for a contest in which only U.S. competitors (plus one token Canadian team) take part, while disdaining the true World Cup.

    Me? I’ve probably never written about sports since I was forced into produce an essay on “goalposts” in my painful youth. But Boot’s conversion touches me. Amen, or its secular soccer equivalent!

    **

    I mean, there’s something in the tone here, an emphasis on emotion, with ecstasy even at least hinted at..

    And then you see the New York Times today commenting on body language in Brussels, again an emphasis on irrepressible emotion. Right at the heart of the NATO fault line..

    President Trump kicked off his trip to Europe with a biting critique of the United States’ longtime allies, declaring at a breakfast meeting that Germany “is captive to Russia.” Next to him, three of his senior officials seemed uncomfortable at times, pursing their lips and glancing away from the table.

    I mean, at breakfast.. pursing their tell-tale lips.

    We really need to focus our attention on the factor sometimes called “morale”. Call it esprit, spirit: it’s the better half of the battle, or of any contest.

    And then, here we go with the “underdog” again, in today’s WaPo:

    The Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, inhabited by 173 people, may seem unassuming, with homes made of wood and tarpaulin and surrounded by animal pens. But its strategic location puts it at the heart of the decades-long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

    What taste does that paragraph leave in the mind, the heart, decision-making?

    **

    And Boot didn’t even mention the small artificial earthquake detected in Mexico City “possibly due to mass jumping” when Mexico scored against Germany..

    Game and other metaphors

    Tuesday, December 19th, 2017

    [ by Charles Cameron — chess, billiards, dominoes and roulette — one horse, but no cats ]
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    I’m always fascinated by chess and other game metaphors, but they’re generally verbal, so this one is a treat:

    That’s from a War on the Rocks / US Institute of Peace piece, Harnessing Iraq’s deadly array of armed groups after ISIL, by Sarhang Hamasaeed — the first in a series.

    **

    War is the continuation of games by other means. Everyone and her donkey has an “x is the continuation of y by other means” formulation, and they’re mostly a bit lame — this is mine.

    **

    Some recent game metaphors I’ve caught while my computer has been in the shop:

    Chris Matthews had a rather neat billiards insight: “you always want to place the ball after the shot..

    Somewhere — it’s probably a cliche by now — “the first domino to fall”.

    “Nasser is playing roulette with the stability of the whole world” — in the TV series, Crown. second season, episode 1.

    **

    Okay, non-game metaphors, of particular interest when they’re religious:

    Al Franken was identified as a sacrificial lamb after his fellow Dems turned on him en masse by Kevin Nealon, a metaphor disputed by Stephanie Ruhle.

    Scapegoats, sacrificial lambs amd martyrs are about as heady a set of transcendental metaphors as one might hope for — Franken is in heady conceptual company here.

    And here’s a newly-minted Franken-word:

    There’s a new word which has registered on the media’s radar, and that is “unresign” — or “un-resign,” depending on the news organization.

    Aah, aah.

    Okay, back to religion. Church MilitantSteve Bannon apparently used the phrase at a Vaticaan conference in 2014:

    In his presentation, Mr. Bannon, then the head of the hard-right website Breitbart News and now Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, called on the “church militant” to fight a global war against a “new barbarity” of “Islamic fascism” and international financial elites, with 2,500 years of Western civilization at risk.

    Samuel Freedman commented in the NYT:

    While most listeners probably overlooked the term “church militant,” knowledgeable Catholics would have recognized it as a concept deeply embedded in the church’s teaching. Moreover, they would have noticed that Mr. Bannon had taken the term out of context, invoking it in a call for cultural and military conflict rather than for spiritual warfare, particularly within one’s soul, its longstanding connotation.

    Metaphor? The Church as an army? Salvation Army? Or a direct reference to the Church, factually, actually, Militant?

    **

    Well-turned phrases:

    “The cost of doing nothing is not nothing.” John Delaney, (D-MD)

    “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” quoted in The Jerusalem Post, November 2002.

    Well, that’s a bit ancient. How about:

    This is what hell looks like: a country where people talk about morals and wave bibles, defending someone who’s accused of pedophilia. .. and what we need is redmption.

    That’s Frank Schaeffer, son of Francis Schaeffer — founder of L’Abri and the conservative right movement — on JoyAM. Fierce.

    And cruel, but decidedly witty — this amazing headline:

    **

    Then there are the ouroboroi — the self-referential phrasings:

    Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA):

    You call it the Trump privilege. I call it the privilege privilege.

    Also: “To spy on the spies.”

    And somewhere: “investigating the investigators..”

    **

    Mercifully, no cute cats nor kitties.


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