Archive for the ‘ music ’ Category

Nano-opera: Der fliegende Holländer

The bass’s loud approximando and unbecoming costume joins us in his wish for an imminent death. Instead he is taken aboard another ship whose captain must not love his daughter very much, since he soon agrees to give her to the morose ghost captain in exchange for his riches.

optimism in the face of reason, or: another kaddish for new orleans

Mira wrote about having a grudge against optimism recently in an essay that has left me wandering lost in my own mind. See, I agree with just about everything she wrote. I largely agree with her worldview. But I am a persistent optimist.

I am an optimist in the face of considerable clear evidence that optimism is irrational.

I am the most rational person I know. I am a skeptic. I am an empiricist. I do numbers. I annoy people who ask me what my sign is by responding with a lecture they find humorless (I disagree). Do I do this because I’m a Virgo, or because I have a second-grader’s grasp of how gravity works and can therefore deduce that astrology is horseshit? Yeah, must be because I’m a Virgo.

I think Mira’s right when she lists five faiths driving optimism and abandons each of them as hopelessly fluffy, along with hope itself. I have my own issues with faith. We’ve already been over this (see “on playing kaddish“). Faith is a pretty big deal for Lutherans, but I’ve never had any.

Yet I am an optimist, even though I should know better. The biggest heartaches in my life have followed in the wake of my unshakable certainty that people will do good, choose well, act honorably. I keep managing to forget somehow that healthy people who grew up bathed in unconditional love in functional families are a scant minority, and the far more probable case is that any given individual is too broken to recognize a good choice let alone find the strength to act on it in the face of adversity.

Perhaps this optimism comes from pragmatism. On some level I do realize that many people will disappoint me, frequently, and usually without good reasons, but does it help for me to assume that they will? Does it hurt for me to assume that they will not?

In my management career, I’ve seen people trying hard to meet my expectations, which are high. Yes, they disappoint me frequently, but when they fall, they get back up. They try again. They get better. They surprise themselves—and me—with success.

So, Mira’s #1, faith in others: nope. She’s right; I assume incorrectly when I assume people will do the right thing. I get better results from communicating clearly what I think the right thing is.

In #2, Mira dismisses faith in self in favor of preparation. I think she’s right. Her devastating essay yesterday about the water going out in New Orleans has had me thinking about this:

Chicago, where I used to live, was routinely brought to its knees by less than an inch of snow.

Minneapolis, where I used to live, was routinely undisturbed by a foot of snow.

Jane Byrne famously unseated the incumbent to become Chicago’s mayor for basically one reason: the other guy couldn’t get the snow plowed. He talked about it, though. He’d get on radio and TV and go on and on about how he had all the snow plows out and working overtime, and nobody was quitting until the job was done. And it was true.

The difference? Minneapolis had a lot more snow plows than Chicago.


Which costs money. Taxes are the cost of infrastructure we expect. Disastrous failure of infrastructure we ignore is the price of tax cuts. Minneapolis had a big bridge collapse a few years back, and we’re lucky we haven’t seen a lot more headlines like that one, because not maintaining our interstate highway system is one way we’ve been paying for all those big tax cuts. But I’m getting ahead of myself—this is my lack of faith in society, Mira’s #3.

Back to faith in self, #2: not really. I have a surplus of self-confidence in most of what I do, but that’s only because I either see to it that I’m well prepared or I avoid having anything to do with it. I can walk out on stage and play horn because I’ve worked ridiculously hard at horn since I was nine. I’m not good at sports, so I won’t even watch other people play them. Right—preparation.

Which brings us to #4-5, faith in the planet and universe. Where do I even start? Let’s just say my nocturnal insomnial hours look a lot like Mira’s.

So why am I an optimist?

Let’s go back to Minnesota. And New Orleans.

Thomas Friedman has probably the most depressing beat in journalism, the Middle East, with side trips to economic globalism, and yet he describes himself as an optimist—a description that anyone who follows his column in the New York Times would be hard-pressed to refute. The guy even managed to find cause for hope in Dubya’s plan to get back at Osama bin Laden by bombing Saddam Hussein to kingdom come. I may be an optimist, but that plan had “insane” and “quagmire” written all over it.

Friedman’s explanation for his optimism? He says he grew up in Minneapolis. He describes Minneapolis as a city that works in a state that works, and he thinks that is the source of his enduring optimism that places can work, that politicians can lead, that policies can do good.

I think there might be something to this.

I grew up in the snow belt, too, and I went to college in Minnesota about an hour south of Minneapolis. I found Minnesota politics more interesting, but I always voted absentee in North Dakota, because North Dakota needed my liberal vote a lot more than Minnesota did. Mind you, North Dakota is practically a socialist state, with its own bank and its own mill and elevator (a farm thing—don’t worry about it). At the time it was also the world’s fourth largest nuclear power, or would have been had it seceded from the union, so don’t tell me Reagan wasn’t worried about us liver-lilied liberals up there. But compared to Minnesota? Republican enclave.

Perhaps you’ve forgotten. Reagan was reelected in a “landslide” with all but thirteen electoral votes. I’m not sure how a 59%-41% split of the popular vote could be described as a landslide, or how a candidate that almost half the population couldn’t stand could be considered universally popular, but this isn’t supposed to be an essay about why we need a third political party and ranked-choice voting, so never mind that.

But those thirteen electoral votes that Mondale got?


The map in 1984 showed the entire United States in red except for Minnesota, wearing a lonely coat of blue up there in the frozen north.

Minnesota is the state that sent Paul Wellstone to the US Senate, may he rest in peace. He was a poli-sci prof at the college across the river from mine. A rumpled tweed sportcoat kind of guy—probably with the elbow patches, even—a thoughtful liberal who made sense, cared about doing good, and quietly stole the election from the shoo-in who paid for it fair and square.

What does all this have to do with optimism?

There is an essential optimism to this kind of consistent progressivism. Linguist George Lakoff argues that progressives lose a lot of elections because conservatives frame politics in selfish, fearful terms where a strict father protects his family against the evils of the outside world. By contrast, progressives frame politics in empathic, positive terms where a nurturing parent teaches children self-discipline so that they can realize their potential and be responsible for others. That second worldview is a whole lot more optimistic, and optimism just doesn’t play as well on TV. Fear sells. Nurturance is wimpy.

Minnesota was a place, though, where that optimism crowded fear out. Perhaps I’m an optimist because I, like Thomas Friedman, grew up in that place that worked.

I think long winters and all that snow had something to do with it, too. You don’t get through six months of below-zero temperatures on your own. As Mira knew to share water in the Sahara, I knew that “neighbor” is the person whose sidewalk also needs to be shoveled out before you go back inside to warm up, and whose car might start when yours needs a jump.

As for New Orleans—well, I almost moved there.

Eighteen years ago, I won the assistant principal horn audition in the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, which was the co-op struggling to rise from the ashes of the New Orleans Philharmonic’s bankruptcy. I was ecstatic. This was the first audition I’d won for a real job—the job I’d been preparing for since I was nine, playing horn full-time in a symphony orchestra. And it was in New Orleans, a city I’d spent the weekend exploring and falling in love with. Where I’d enjoyed staying with a role model-turned-friend, whose company I could now have regularly.

I didn’t expect this, but within a few minutes of winning the audition, I knew I had to turn the job down. I asked about details of the wage forecast the job announcement had left vague and got grim answers. I asked about the schedule and learned details that ruled out any hope I might have of continuing my software work on the side. I asked about teaching work and chamber music work and learned that there was little demand in town for either.

I asked about the LPO’s financial situation and the factors that had led to the previous orchestra’s collapse and didn’t hear anything that had changed. I thought about the city I’d been enjoying and how I hadn’t seen one speck of classical music. For that matter, I hadn’t seen any music that was being produced for anyone but tourists, and I knew that tourists aren’t known for keeping orchestras in business. I hadn’t seen much of a local population that could afford symphony tickets. I saw an awful lot of people who couldn’t afford lunch. I saw an awful lot of dilapidation.

I knew what all these things meant: New Orleans was not a city that worked.

So on the long flight home, I had a big argument with myself, trying desperately to find any reason whatsoever to believe that I should take the job. All I could come up with was a variety of story-lines that all ended with me too poor to buy a plane ticket to an audition for a better job. (I also got a bit hung up on knowing I’d never be able to afford air conditioning.) The next day I phoned and mailed my decision.

Thing is, I didn’t give up the job out of pessimism about the LPO or New Orleans. I kept my job in Chicago out of optimism that I was on my way to winning a better horn job somewhere else and appreciation that the situation I had in the meantime was a good one.

A few years later I moved to San Francisco with the optimistic plan of trading software for freelancing—a plan that lasted only a few weeks, until a Rottweiler bit me in the face and I couldn’t play horn for the next four years or, for all I knew, ever again. I made the optimistic—and pragmatic—decision to carry on with software. Which is how it came to be that I watched Katrina on a big TV in a house I own in the beautiful Oakland hills.

I was heartbroken along with everyone else. It took me a week to reach my friend. And I couldn’t figure out why anybody was surprised that a town that was known for tourists and poverty fell apart when a big storm blew through. The only surprise was that it didn’t happen sooner.

About New Orleans I have no optimism. I never never, as much as I loved what I experienced in 1992—as much as I’d like to visit again now. A city that makes its money by being a place for tourists to get drunk isn’t spending any of that money on its infrastructure. Nobody’s flying in and buying tickets to see levies. New Orleans’ news-making entrepreneur post-Katrina is a guy who dispatches big, shiny black trucks to the tourism centers every single night to pick up the garbage and hose the vomit out of the streets with a pleasant-smelling detergent, and anybody who doesn’t find that depressing is delusional.


I’m excited to announce a new blog, “kaddish in two-part harmony.”

If you’ve been following my blog lately, you’ll know that I’ve embarked upon a collaborative project with Mira Z. Amiras that we’re calling “kaddish in two-part harmony.” This whole thing started when I happened upon a blog posting Mira had written about Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer used for mourning, among many other purposes. Her post entitled “war stories” inspired my lengthy post “On playing Kaddish,” and the ensuing flurry of comments and email between us led to our starting this new project.

The project is introduced in our joint post, “about the project,” which appears on our new joint blog, “kaddish in two-part harmony” on, Mira’s website. I’m deeply honored to be invited into Mira’s intellectual home for this collaborative project of ours.

What is this project, exactly? Go read that “about the project,” page! If you really can’t bring yourself to click one more link, here’s the gist of it: for a year and a day, I am recording Lev Kogan’s “Kaddish” every day, and Mira and others are listening to it. We’re a virtual minyan of sorts.

Throughout the year and a day, Mira and I are writing about the Kaddish, Kogan’s “Kaddish,” themes of death, dying, and mourning, the dynamics among text, composer, music,  musician, listener, and mourner. Much of the writing will appear on our joint blog, and some of it will remain private between the two of us. At the end of the year and a day, the entirety of the project will come together in some new form—perhaps a presentation, a book, a CD, or all of the above.

We are working on sharing the daily “Kaddish” recordings publicly in a podcast. We have gratefully received permission from the publisher, OrTav/Israel Brass Woodwind Publications, to use Kogan’s composition in our project. Now we are working with the publisher to secure the necessary mechanical rights with ACUM/ASCAP. In the meantime, if you’d like to listen along, please get in touch.

No, I’ve never met Mira. She’s the friend of a friend. We will not meet face-to-face until after the year and a day.

This blog isn’t going anywhere, but my activity here will probably slow down a lot while I focus on my collaboration with Mira. Please follow us at “kaddish in two-part harmony,” and check back here for the latest in food, freelancing, cocktails, nano-scale opera plot synapses, geekery, politics, and the usual randomness.

on how a memoirist changes a musician


Where is the place that you get lost? Is it the stopped horn bit? The fourteen notes with a distant, pinched, buzzy sound, and then the normal horn tone returns? Then there’s a phrase, then a restatement of the second big line of the piece, then the climb to the ending?

I’m doing musicology on the piece now. I’m only partway there; it’s a draft that needs more time and thought.

I worry, though, that a musicological analysis will colonize your brain, as decades of musical training have colonized mine, and it will take something away from your way of hearing, seeing, feeling the piece on your own terms. But I also worry that if I don’t start capturing my present view of the piece, it will be lost to history, because the piece is already changing through this exchange with you.

Your first midrash—your words that sparked this whole adventure—has changed how I understand the ending of “Kaddish,” you know.

When I first learned the piece and researched Kaddish, I didn’t know what to make of these words that don’t say a damned thing to comfort our terrible loss. As I’ve written, I guessed that Kaddish was one of those generic prayers that was used by mourners perhaps by custom rather than apparent relevance or usefulness. God knows there’s a lot of religious behavior meeting that description. Having thus abandoned the text as being of much use to me, I decided to grapple with the music on its own terms.

I found a Jewish chant that was mournful, slow, free, and haunting. I went with that idea and explored ways to bring out those characteristics. What I found was modal music, free (additive) rhythm that was notated with Western metrical rhythm but probably not meant to be played that way, and dynamic and tempo indications that suggest a general pacing and structure for the piece.

Clearly it was mournful. Kogan wrote music that evokes grief in many of its forms, including numbness, sadness, anger, lostness, despair, confusion, and even strength—perhaps triumph, or more likely stubborn will to live. When I’ve played the piece up until recently, I’ve felt it wandering in the areas of numbness, despair, and confusion. Most of the piece works in those moods. 

But the ending—the last long phrase, building up to the highest note and then stepping down through five final notes—has puzzled me.

The ink on the page doesn’t necessarily confuse me—it’s just those notes, in approximately the rhythm you’ve heard me playing, with a crescendo (increasing loudness), a fermata (holding the top note for indefinite length), and a ritardando/decrescendo (slowing and softening) to the end. But the way that phrase naturally feels to me, as a trained musician with many centuries of (mostly Western) music steeped into the folds of my grey matter, who understands phrasal structure in both an oral tradition that is beneath conscious understanding, and the way my educated analytical frame of mind thinks about the phrase, is different from the phrases that come before.

Until this point in the piece, the phrases have been long, wandering, contemplative. They linger on points of pain, sorrow, tiredness. They move more quickly through fragmented statements of will, questions, wishes.

But here, they reach. They stretch into a full, declarative sentence. An imperative. They proclaim.

State what, proclaim what, I could never figure out.

So I did my best with it—I drove up through the line, to a loud, strong, long high g”, and then I stepped down slowly, tentatively, landing on the long final e” with finality but not much conviction. A stopping point only because eventually we stop, not because we felt done.

That made a certain amount of sense to me. After all, grieving is like that. We don’t stop crying because we feel better. We just stop, eventually, because we can’t continue forever. We tire ourselves out. We get interrupted. Someone else’s needs demand our attention. Some other need of our own interrupts and takes over. It varies, but we do stop. We grieve in intervals, we cry in intervals, and we carry with the other truths and feelings and thoughts of our lives in the time between intervals.

Now I understand it entirely differently, and it affects my understanding of the whole piece.

I quote you again, the passage of your midrash that kept me up all night writing my response, your passage whose aftershocks find us now here:

Turns out that the Kaddish began to be used for mourning in the 13th century during Crusades and pogroms, as a public affirmation of faith in the face of pogromic annihilation. That is, instead of using the Shma for that purpose. Thus, the Mourner’s Kaddish was a public display of adherence to one’s faith, and that’s why it doesn’t say one damned thing that might comfort someone’s terrible loss.

Now I understand the piece differently. I still hear most of it as a wandering in the terrible loss. Seeking comfort, asking questions, inhabiting despair. And in the final lines, I hear the mourner gathering strength, taking a deep breath, deciding to live. Proclaiming—something. Making that display. Adhering to faith, or practice. Making a public affirmation, a show of strength, in the face of loss. That last line is the proclamation; it drives to the g” and holds onto it. This is me, affirming. The final five notes that follow are the period on the sentence, the “ve imru, amein” on the prayer.

Because I now hear the ending this way, I also hear the rest of the piece differently. Still a wandering in sorrow, yes; still asking questions, yes. But also gathering strength, drawing in breath, preparing emotionally to make a statement. Looking for the strength to make a statement. Finding it, or deciding to assert it anyway. Sometimes I hear those fourteen stopped notes as the last question: “Can I do this? Do I have the strength to affirm?” After that question, a final statement of the pain, with a gathering conviction. And then the affirmation, and the amein.

Your words have changed my music, already.

Thank you.


on ritual’s tyrannies and blessings

Yesterday’s post will no doubt make one thing clear: keeping my promise yesterday was a pain.

It was also richly rewarding, in ways I didn’t expect, in ways that took time to realize.

When I walked into my studio, I was eager to reach a modest, specific goal: to solve a few of the technical problems and get the notes more under control. I was thwarted almost immediately by annoying technical problems. My recording software is several versions out of date, and working around that seems to require getting the Mac booted, the Mbox 2 plugged in, certain files deleted, the Mbox drivers connected, and Pro Tools launched in a specific sequence. I thought I’d figured out that sequence this weekend, but yesterday it took an hour and several uninstalls, reinstalls, and reboots to get it running. I’ve already ordered the upgrade, and now I have to wait for it to arrive. Nine days for shipping! It might as well be nine years.

During this frustrating hour, I warmed up and worked on a few etudes in brief interludes while installers ran and my Mac restarted, with repeated interruptions to click things and type things and ponder things. Each time I picked my horn back up, it was cold and full of water again. By the time I had Pro Tools running, I was nearly out of time—in twenty minutes, I needed to be out the door, meeting a friend for dinner.

My heart was not in it. If I had made this promise only to myself, a Kaddish a day for a year and a day, yesterday I would not have kept my promise. How much time can I sink into it, when I have a life full of responsibilities besides this one? Sooner or later you have to move on, address other things that are also important.

But I had made this promise, so I forged on. I made the recording, which as previously described was not an entirely pleasant experience.

And now the rewards begin.

After I record a take, I have to convert it from a Pro Tools track to a normal audio file, a process called, mysteriously, “bounce to disc.” It’s a simultaneous convert-and-save operation that takes place in real time while sending playback to my headphones. Then I have to convert that big .aiff file to an .m4a file that takes about half the size, and finally I upload that to a DropBox folder where Mira and others can get it.

While I’m doing all this, I might as well listen, right? So I do.

And no, this is not as obvious as you might think. Usually when I record something I’m working on, intending to study the playback, I have many excuses for why a take didn’t go well, so rather than pause to listen and learn, I jump right into another take. I might do four takes before I get something that seems worth listening to, and only then do I discover what I should have learned listening to the first take. Or worse, I’ll wear myself out on repeated flawed takes. This is inefficient, but it happens. I would be surprised if this isn’t what most musicians do. We’re perfectionists by nature, and when we already know that many things were unsatisfactory, we can’t stand the thought of hearing them—we just want to move on immediately to working on those things and trying again. I have actually gone weeks making recordings and never quite listening to them. It is embarrassing to admit this.

But since this process forces me to work differently, I do listen, and I hear things I don’t expect to hear. I hear phrasing that worked better than I thought, and I hear rhythms I thought were right that were not. In general, my sense of time is inaccurate, even within the context of this piece’s rubato. I hear breathing that is more obtrusive and less effective than I realized. I hear notes that are consistently out of tune. I hear a shift in my timbre where the music drops down to a and D about two-thirds of the way down the page. I have an idea about what’s causing me to keep clamming in the phrase at the end that goes up to g”.

[I refer to pitches in the key of F, as written for horn, using the octave designation system recommended by The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, ed. Don Randel (1986), viz. c’ for “middle C,” c” for the octave above, c”’ for two octaves above middle c, C for the octave below middle C, and C<sub>1</sub> for two octaves below middle C, etc.]

Mostly what I hear is a work in progress—a musician in the early stages of working a piece back up to performance standard. I do not hear the music yet—not really. I hear the notes, and I hear the music beginning to take shape, but it’s not there yet. I get a little lost in the wanderings of the phrasing. I realize I need to figure out the structure better.

What I really do not hear is what I’m amazed to read in Mira’s reply (see her comment on my previous post, “in which the musician…”).

The memoirist is hearing music. She is having physical responses. She is seeing and feeling the music! She is having visions. She is wandering, lost, disoriented. She is wanting to ground this in the words—the familiar text of Kaddish. I am unsure how to reply to this right now. I could probably give her many pointers on how to understand the music and find her way around in it, but I want to hear what she hears—not some version of what I teach her to hear.

She is hearing music!

And she is giving me the tremendous gift of her words, telling me (and all of you who join us in this project) what she’s hearing. My earlier post, “Mandelbrot and music: on listening in fractal dimensions,” explored how I hear music and how I can no longer remember how I used to hear, before my musical training colonized my brain. I have asked her to use her dazzling ability with words to help me with this. (We ask this of our readers, too. Please share your experiences with us in the comments.)

She’s also seeing porn pop-ups. I don’t know what that’s about. Evil gremlins prowling the intertubes?

I had dinner with “the mutual friend who sits at the fulcrum, giggling” last night, and as we walked from dinner to a nearby pub, I shared with her my delight and surprise at my quotidian recording having had such an impact on the memoirist. I had just read the comments—they beeped in while I was in the loo—along with subsequent private comments adding further detail that is to remain private for now.

I was, frankly, blown away. Immensely gratified that my playing was beginning to work as music. Moved that she uses her words—her remarkable ability to articulate the ineffable—to give back to me what it is that I have given her.

The mutual friend is a singer. As we walked, we compared thoughts on how music works sometimes through or despite the musician. I’ve found that I am most able to reach listeners when I am completely on top of my game—in physical and emotional control, playing a piece that I have analyzed, practiced, and planned. I need to spend a certain amount of time playing it only for myself and later a few trusted colleagues, in different spaces, in different moods and times of day. A process of discovery unfolds. Eventually I am ready and I know how to play it so that others will receive my intentions. She agreed that her experience has been similar.

But we’ve also both had experiences where we ourselves were not at our best, and our listeners heard the music anyway. Sometimes the listener is so receptive to the experience that the musician’s performance almost doesn’t matter. It can feel as though I am only a medium for the composer, or even for the music itself. When this happens, one might become mystical enough to ponder whether even the composer is unimportant, that the music comes through the composer as much as through us, the performers. She would probably have no reluctance to describe it this way, but I’m an agnostic and skeptical math/stats geek. Acknowledging that music can have power so far beyond my ability to understand does not come naturally to me.

I came home and talked further with my wife, about how ritual and a promise had already served me. I was willing but not especially motivated to make the day’s recording, and then all the technical problems drained what little momentum I had. I was running short on time. I pushed ahead only because I had made a promise and knew Mira was waiting for her recording. The take went a little better than I had any right to expect, and because I was bouncing it to Mira, I listened to it myself and appreciated what the playback offered me. The promise Mira has made to me to hear each recording each day meant that she made herself available to experience the music, and she further entrusted me with her astonishing reaction right away—so that I then had her words and my experience to compare in conversation with our mutual friend, whose spiritual dimensions are so much richer than my own.

Keeping my promise to Mira and to the ritual itself has already brought blessings I didn’t realize I needed.

A few hours ago, I recorded, bounced, and heard today’s “Kaddish.” The take went fairly well, although I’m still struggling with roughly the same issues. Ironing them out will take a while.

I have temporarily reverted to a lower-fidelity recording method while I await the arrival of my Pro Tools upgrade. I’m disappointed by the murkier sound, but I imagine Mira will appreciate how much faster today’s file downloads.

Our mutual friend and a friend of mine have requested the private link to join us in listening, and to them I extend my welcome and thanks.

if you want to listen along with us

Yes, you are welcome to listen along. We would like to make this available as a podcast and also put links in the blog timeline. However, until we secure permission from the publisher to record and podcast, we can only share the recordings privately.

If you would like to listen in the meantime, please do this:

  • Send Erin email or send Mira email. One of us will reply with a DropBox sharing link.
  • Each day, click that link to get the day’s new recording.
  • Recordings come out daily, sometime between midnight and midnight. Usually before dinnertime.
  • Please also sign up for your own free Dropbox account and install the software. (Do not skip the second step, please.)

Getting your own (free!) Dropbox account and installing the software is not a requirement of listening, but your doing so from this referral link will earn me more free space in my Dropbox account, and for this project, I’m going to need it. Before long, you will wonder how you ever got along without Dropbox.

Using the best headphones you have is a good idea. Computer speakers don’t reproduce the horn’s distinctive timbre well.

This is a process, not a product

The musician has not worked on “Kaddish” (by Lev Kogan, published and copyright by Israel Brass Woodwind Publications in 1982) seriously for over twenty years, and she starts this process fairly out of shape, having not practiced horn at all for several weeks. Each daily recording is done in one take, with no editing, and with no practicing of “Kaddish” beforehand.

This project explores, among many other things, the process of a musician working up a performance from the beginning, including the challenges along the way. As such, the recordings are not final productions of a complete artistic expression; they are a journalistic record of a process.

kaddish in two-part harmony

mira z. amiras, ph.d.
Erin Vang, BMus, MMus, PMP

The Memoirist and the Musician.  The memoirist immerses all night in midrash on the Kaddish.  The musician spends all night in her own midrashic response.  And making the music of kaddish.  Making music kadosh.  A flurry of emails ensue between the two.  They blog.  Their blogs lock horns, as do the writers themselves.  They try to live the life they are given — with now a new ingredient.  A project has begun:  a kaddish in two-part harmony.

The cast of characters:

  • the musician writer who must play and record “Kaddish” every day for a year and a day
  • the listener writer who will hear it for a year and a day
  • the pair of writers who will write, not always by blog

The rules:

  • one take, no editing, no practicing Kaddish before recording it (practicing yes, Kaddish no)
  • one Kaddish every day, and multiple Kaddishim on all Yahrtzeits
  • the music is allowed and expected to evolve
  • the writer and the musician will not meet during the year, neither face to face nor by phone
  • the writing must not be allowed to become a daily tyranny for either party
  • the writer and the musician must not fall in love; to wit, the focus is on the material at hand

The supporting cast:

  • the musician’s wife
  • the dog and the cats of both, who sit patiently (mostly) next to the writers and who will inevitably be heard on the musician’s recordings
  • the mutual friend who sits at the fulcrum, giggling (yes, what have you done?)
  • the musician’s rebbe, who will provide the words, the voice, and the rebbeness
  • the musician’s dad, who has requested the impossible
  • the healers who have left us
  • the tzaddik—lamed vavnik—in the world to come
  • the heeler who died
  • all those who have departed, in one way or another
  • disease, misfortune, and the woes of the world
  • malkah, the shekhinah herself, if she so wills it

The Memoirist is not required to listen to Kaddish. She must hear Kaddish. The ear is an involuntary muscle.

A wise woman has defined rebbe thus:

rebbe — (to be distinguished from rabbi) — a wise rabbi we consider as our teacher and treat with reverence, which everyone else we know thinks is misplaced.

Commitment to a yearlong process together, to becoming a minyan of sorts.

An exploration of how the playing of “Kaddish” and the saying of Kaddish transforms throughout the year.

Immersion in the dynamic between mourner and musician when they are the same woman.

Immersion in the line between Memoirist and Anthropologist—where the mourner seeks to escape the process of mourning, by means of the comfort of analytical process.

Celebration of the dynamics between text, music, musician, listener, and writers.

Some of the (best) writing will be privately transmitted and not appear here in the blogs.

The entire enterprise—both private and public—will make an appearance after the conclusion of the project.

Only then will the Memoirist and the Musician greet each other for the first time face to face.


Memoirist’s blog: and this part is true

Musician’s blog: So you think…?

New, joint blog for this project: to be announced soon

If you want to listen along: href=

in which the musician responds to all this brilliance with a straightforward attempt to play the damned notes

I was all set to play a nice, meditative Kaddish this afternoon when technology decided to mess with me. It took me an hour of fiddling just to get the program to launch so I could record my dulcet tones for you. After all that, I was in no mood to be prayerful. But here it is, an obligation. The promise of daily, already vexing me. As it’s supposed to.

Damn ritual.

Whose idea was this, anyway?

But here it is, your fourth kaddish. I made no attempt to respond to Caprica and the Tzaddik.

(Someday perhaps you’ll enlighten me on this aleph-bet coding scheme, where Bobo is a tzaddik and you appear to be some kind of vav or lamed or mutant vav, and I’ve lost track of which letter Mrs Tzaddik gets to be, so I’m just going to nominate gimel).

Nope, I’m returning to my own snail-like musical agenda, and today’s goal is getting the notes to be well-behaved.

I’m still working on my plumbing problem: when do I dump the moisture that condenses in the pipes of my not-warm-enough horn? It’s a fall-winter challenge for brass players; when the room I’m playing in is so much cooler than body temperature, the temperature of my air and its moisture, the moisture condenses inside the walls of the horn. It gathers in puddles where the pipes make their U-turns, and I have to move those puddles to the nearest exits and hasten them out the door. If I don’t, my air agitates them, and the water droplets leap about, dancing in my sound column and making obnoxious, arhythmic popping sounds.

When it’s warmer, the temperature difference is smaller, the moisture condenses more slowly, the puddles stay put, and I can finish the page before I need to deal with them. Even the little things have their seasons.

But I think I’ve found the right place to do my plumbing—right before the short stopped horn passage. The pinched, brassy sound is enough of a distraction from the longer pause needed for water management, and getting things taken care of beforehand means I can slip seamlessly back into the open horn and the subsequent phrase echoing the theme’s first statement. Then I wind up for the big crescendo to the end—and, voilá, no popping this time on the high note!

Just some lingering clams. That’s what we call them, we hornists. “Clams.” The notes we miss, the notes we chip, the notes we land on sideways, the notes we hit but then fall back off, the notes we squeeze out with our teeth and then frack, the notes we frack, the spliades, the clinkers, the splats. It’s important to our egos that you recognize these are not wrong notes. They are notes that we reached for with clarity of intention and purity of spirit, but they didn’t respond in kind. They vex us, these clams. Treif beasts. Unfit.

On playing Kaddish

Mira Amiras’ blog “and this part is true” had a recent post entitled “war stories” about translating the Kaddish, the traditional Jewish mourner’s prayer.

She asks, “What does this really mean?”

It’s a good question, because the Aramaic text doesn’t say a thing about mourning. It’s a pretty generic prayer, in fact. Here’s the basic mourner’s Kaddish text in English:

May the great Name of God be exalted and sanctified, throughout the world, which he has created according to his will.
May his Kingship be established in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the entire household of Israel, swiftly and in the near future; and say, Amen.
May his great name be blessed, forever and ever.
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, honored elevated and lauded be the Name of the holy one,
Blessed is he, above and beyond any blessings and hymns, praises and consolations which are uttered in the world; and say Amen.
May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life, upon us and upon all Israel; and say, Amen.
He who makes peace in his high holy places, may he bring peace upon us, and upon all Israel; and say Amen.

For those wanting to be thorough about it, Wikipedia offers a summary in its usual exhaustive, unsatisfying style and includes the full text in all its variations in parallel columns of English, Aramaic/Hebrew, and transliteration of same.

But I say, don’t bother. Just go off and read Mira’s post, “war stories,” because it’s far more interesting, and then come back here to read the rest of my post, which is a response to hers.


For my senior recital as a horn performance major at St Olaf College, I decided to open my program with a hauntingly beautiful piece for solo horn by Lev Kogan, “Kaddish.”

I’ve always been annoyed by people borrowing religious practices and/or beliefs without understanding them, and this irritation was particularly relevant for me while I was in college. College is a time that many people go through a phase of what I call “religious tourism,” suddenly embracing new religions—the more exotic the better—without having a clue about their cultural contexts and philosophical underpinnings. They just read a few pages or go on a study abroad program, they shave their heads, and poof!, they are suddenly Buddhists.

I didn’t want to do that.

I also think it’s annoying when musicians study and perform music without learning anything about the music. I was also a music history major, so some of my attitude comes from that training. Music has a context. It was written in a time, in a place, by a person, for a reason. Performers need to know these things about the music. I’m not saying performers have to be slaves to composers’ intentions—far from it—but we at least have to struggle with those intentions. We need to know them, to the extent possible, and we have to try to understand them. And then we can—must—make our own decisions about what we ourselves will express in the music. The degree to which we are deferential to what we know of the composer’s expectations is an artistic decision we must make responsibly and consciously.

So, I took responsibility. I researched the Kaddish.

I was particularly concerned about making sure it was appropriate—or at least not inappropriate—to say, and by extension, perform—a Kaddish during Pesach, because my recital was scheduled during Passover.

This point checked out fairly easily. Traditionally mourners should say Kaddish for a year, at least weekly at synagogue, or daily at a minyan—details vary among communities—and especially several times on the Yahrtzeit or anniversary of death. While I never found anything specifically addressing the question of saying Kaddish during holidays, I reasoned that since death doesn’t respect holidays, nor do Yahrtzeits, so it is inevitable that observant mourning Jews will end up saying Kaddish during Pesach.

I also wanted to learn the text of Kaddish and its significance. I was playing horn and a priori not singing any text, but Lev Kogan made clear by his title that the piece was a Kaddish. That text was implicit. How could I play a melody with implicit text without knowing that text?

(Some perspective: when instrumentalists accompany singers, they have a responsibility to know the text and play accordingly, for technical reasons at the very least. For example, when words continue over notes, those notes should be slurred, not articulated. The number of syllables per beat might change from one verse to the next; if a beat has one syllable in the first verse but two syllables in the second verse, then in the second verse, the instrumentalist should be playing two notes on that beat, e.g. two eighth-notes rather than one quarter note. The phrases should line up with the text, which means breathing only between sentences or at appropriate punctuation points. Et cetera. The point is, text matters, whether you’re singing it or not.)

So I researched the text, in translation of course, and I reached the same frustrated puzzlement as Mira: “What does this really mean?”

Why is this a prayer of mourning? Why would mourners say these words—these words?

Answers vary. I like the explanations Mira cites and offers. If you didn’t follow my instructions to read her post, here’s a key point:

Turns out that the Kaddish began to be used for mourning in the 13th century during Crusades and pogroms, as a public affirmation of faith in the face of pogromic annihilation. That is, instead of using the Shma for that purpose. Thus, the Mourner’s Kaddish was a public display of adherence to one’s faith, and that’s why it doesn’t say one damned thing that might comfort someone’s terrible loss.

This makes sense, and I wish I’d known it back then. At the time I just concluded that it was a generic prayer, with the usual blessings and hopes uttered by the religious at any occasion. So, I decided that my affect in playing the Kaddish would be mournful but restrained, not sentimental or overwrought—sad, yes, but a prayer for the still living.


I knew that “Kaddish” would be particularly dramatic as the opening of my recital. I decided that my stage craft should cue the audience that this piece was different, so that they would greet it appropriately and expect contemplative music—not some flashy barnstormer. I also wanted to prevent an unseemly kind of applause; we don’t usually clap during religious services, and we especially don’t clap joyously after prayers of mourning.

Therefore, I opened the recital with the house lights fully down and with a single bank of stage lights brought up just enough so that I could be seen. I walked out not quite as briskly as I normally would, smiled and bowed my thanks for the applause, and then drew my body to attention, lowered my head, and waited for the audience to settle into complete silence. (That takes a long time, and the pause  is uncomfortable for audience and performer alike. I was counting on that discomfort.)

Then I lifted my horn, took a slow breath, and then played. I played from memory, so that there would be no music stand between me and the audience. I didn’t make eye contact while I was playing; I defocused my sight and looked vaguely into the house, so that the audience could make eye contact with me.

I took a lot of time with my phrasing, inserting pauses far longer than a normal luftpause, and I let the music breathe as slowly and methodically as I could. At the end, I deliberately took one final breath before the last note, so that I could hold it for a long, long diminuendo a niente—to nothing. (A long diminuendo to nothing is difficult; when you’re tired and especially when you’re nervous on stage, your lips quiver, which can cause an unintended vibrato, and you risk losing the note altogether. It’s also hard to pace the diminuendo so that it sounds like an even decay from loudest to softest.)

After the note finished, I closed my eyes and held still. I waited for the reverberation in the hall to decay to nothing. Then I waited longer, until I could hear the audience members letting out their breath. Then I slowly lowered my head and horn, to allow a moment of reflection for the listeners and me both. Finally I let out what little was left of my own breath, relaxed, opened my eyes, inhaled, and lifted my head to the audience.

The applause, so long delayed, was a relief for us all. After a suitable interval, I smiled, bowed, and exited, again walking not quite as briskly as I normally would.


“Kaddish” by Kogan has always been exceptionally meaningful for me, and its meaningfulness has deepened and accreted layers over the decades.

At first I just loved the music. Its modal phrases meander freely, out of time. The intensity ebbs and flows, reaching several intermediate high points and an ultimate climax right in the last phrase, which drives to the highest note in the piece, holds, and then steps down a half step, then a whole step, and repeats that pitch four times, slowing down, diminuending in the last bar’s fermata to nothing.

“Kaddish” had personal meaning for me all along, also, and as I mentioned, its meaningfulness grew during the period of my preparation.

Initially, I was drawn to “Kaddish” because I was in love with a woman who I knew—although she didn’t yet—would become a rabbi. Debora was the first great love of my life, and part of our falling in love was sharing our fascinations with each other. For her, that was Judaica and all things Hebrew. As someone who was raised Lutheran but had always been agnostic, who was frustrated by the heavy Christian emphasis in St Olaf’s religion curriculum, who had a particular distaste for Christian dogma about faith and salvation, I was fascinated by what I learned from her. I found much to love in her perspective on Jewish practice, and on Judaism’s emphasis on ritual and practice over theology, faith, belief in the resurrection, salvation, and all those other problematic greatest hits of Christianity.

Naturally one of my big fascinations was and is music, and learning a little psalmody from this woman of beautiful voice who had learned at a young age to be a cantor from her father and her grandfathers, who had long since memorized their melodies, was intoxicating. So “Kaddish” was and is always, for me, in part a love song.

It has also been, for me, a crying out for meaning that I had never quite found in my own religious tradition. I described myself in those days as “a lapsed Lutheran secular humanist agnostic Jew-wannabe.”

I couldn’t deny my Lutheranism any more than I could deny my tall, Norwegian-German, blue-eyed, blonde-haired appearance. I had always been a part of a Lutheran community, with its endless coffees, tuna noodle casseroles, Jell-O salads, sermons, and music—oh, the music! Jews may have great psalmody, modal goodness passed down through the millenia, but Lutherans have J.S. Bach, and Beethoven, and organists, and four-part hymn-singing. (I recently mentioned to a church-organist friend that I mostly don’t believe in the church, but I believe fervently in the church music. He said he felt much the same way.)

Yet for all I might be Lutheran, I never quite believed in G-d or the Jesus mythology. I was in high school when it occurred to me that it was perhaps unusual that I’d begun doubting G-d and Jesus years before I got around to doubting Santa Claus. With my own inability to believe going way back to toddlerhood, I’ve always thought that the essential Christian doctrine of salvation by faith—that we will either go to heaven or hell based solely upon our ability to believe something inherently unbelievable—made no sense. I’ve always thought that any god worth believing in would know better than that. The Christian G-d struck me as a petty god playing foolish games.

Raised Lutheran, I was taught that I was called to a life of purpose and meaning, so I sought purpose and meaning in what was left of Lutheran thinking after you take out the bits about G-d, faith, and mythology—basically secular humanism.

I was still Lutheran enough to be hung up on theology, because all the big names in Christian thought are theologians. It’s what Lutherans do. So even after dismissing the Christian G-d, I had to figure out some other G-d I could either believe in or at least disprove. It seemed to me it was a definitional problem. The Christian G-d I’d learned about in Sunday School wasn’t worth believing in. But what about the G-d of “Jewish theology”?

I put “Jewish theology” in quotation marks because it is practically a contradiction in terms. Judaism isn’t theological; it’s not about belief in god concepts. It’s an orthopraxis; it’s an historical set of practices, rituals, traditions; and it’s potentially a rigorously intellectual exercise in struggling with sources to determine proper behavior in everything from an overarching ethical framework of human morality to the prosaic habits of daily life.

So, as such, Judaism doesn’t waste a lot of time defining G-d. The purest expression of Jewish theology opens the Sh’ma: “G-d is one.”

One? One?!

I was also a math major, and in several mathematical logic classes, we’d spent a great many weeks trying to define one-ness. Let me just say that the more you contemplate one-ness, the more uneasy you will be about thinking you can do that; define “one.” One is at once the smallest number and a huge number. An infinitude of smaller numbers (points) fills one, fills the interval between zero and one. An infinitude of numbers from 1 to huge is a meta-infinitude of one-sized infinitudes. I love it that mathematicians refer to these two different infinitudes by a Hebrew letter—”aleph nought” or ℵ0 represents the infinity between 0 and 1, “aleph one” or ℵ1 represents the infinity from minus infinity to plus infinity.

So saying “G-d is one” is also saying G-d is infinite, G-d is everything. G-d is infinitely-dimensionally, infinitely-hugely, infinitely-everythingish.

I can’t deny everything, so if that’s what G-d is, then I guess that’s something I can believe in—something I have to believe in.

Meanwhile, the idea that we should live our lives dwelling on matters of impossible faith is unsatisfying compared to a life of thoughtful practice, and the reverence I had seen in Deb’s perspective on thoughtful practice was deeply appealing.

So there you go—I’d become a lapsed Lutheran secular humanist agnostic Jew-wannabe.

Only it turns out that the last hyphenated appendage, -wannabe, might not be necessary. It turns out that both my mom and I have long suspected that the same ancestor—her mom’s mom—was, in fact, Jewish. If we’re right, which we’ll never know, then we’d both technically be Jewish ourselves, which would make me just a lapsed Lutheran secular humanist agnostic Jew.

While I refused to play religious tourist and declare myself Jewish, “Kaddish” became for me an act of observance, a way of practicing something meaningful that wasn’t fraught with spiritual contradiction.

“Kaddish” also became for me, a few weeks before my recital, a connection with my beloved teacher, Boris Rybka. In my lesson that day, I rehearsed the piece with the stagecraft I’ve described above. After the long pause at the end, when I’d resumed breathing and was awaiting his comments, I saw that he was wiping away tears. When he finally began to speak, his voice caught, and slowly he told of how a rift had developed in the family of someone important to him.

She had married a professional singer, and because he wasn’t Jewish, her family refused to have anything to do with him. They stopped just short of declaring her dead. Years passed. A close relative—I think it must have been her brother—died. She and her unacknowledged husband attended the memorial service. When it was time to say Kaddish, her gentile husband walked up to the bima and sang Kaddish. Boris was also in the shul, and he said it was one of the most beautiful things he had ever heard. Tears overwhelmed the entire family. Her parents rose, walked to the bima, and finally accepted him into the family, embracing him, shaking with emotion, wailing their apologies—expressing their love, their new loss, their long loss—begging his forgiveness.

Boris explained to me that I had brought that moment of great emotion back to him, reconnected him with a part of his past that had mattered but faded with time. He thanked me. And as I tried to regain my own composure, he began to make some small suggestions about the music.

And “Kaddish” became a mourner’s prayer for me in the days before my recital.

Deb had lived in an off-campus house at Carleton College, across the river from St Olaf, and a close friend of hers and many of the people in Farm House had just committed suicide.

I didn’t know Judy well. I had met her, briefly, months earlier. But I remembered her, unlike many others I’d met that night, because there was something about her—something in her shy smile, her coiled energy, her shadow of sadness. I couldn’t have known how much sadness filled her life, but in the days that followed her death, I learned all about it from her many grief-stricken friends.

Judy was a phenomenal athlete. She had played professional soccer on a team in Germany, where soccer is a big deal. Judy was bipolar. The treatments available at the time were somewhat effective, in that they lifted her from the depths of despair, but they were unbearable to her, because they drained her of all her energy. This incredible athlete when deprived of her energy felt like an empty shell and when deprived of her medication felt she couldn’t go on. She finally took what she concluded was the only choice, to accept neither option. She killed herself, and none of her friends even at the worst of their grief could argue with her decision. Her great sadness filled the house, it filled her friends, and it filled me.

Three days later, I played “Kaddish” on my recital. Many of those friends were in attendance. As I played, I said Kaddish for Judy. I said Kaddish for her mourners. I said Kaddish for Boris. I sang a love song for Deb. And I sang a prayer of yearning for meaning.


A year later, I opened my master’s recital at Northwestern University with “Kaddish,” and I closed the recital with another prayer by Lev Kogan, “Tfila.” I wished I’d realized a year earlier that my program needed both bookends.

The recital was a Yahrtzeit of sorts. In the year that had passed, I had matured a great deal as a musician. I had also let go of my love affair with Deb. We were still close—and still in touch today—but I grieved for what she had been for me but was no longer. I was in the early throes of a new relationship I should never have begun. I had a difficult relationship with my new horn teacher, and I grieved for the closeness and trust I’d felt with Boris.

The “Kaddish” I played that spring, just after Pesach, was a different Kaddish. It was the final letting go after a year without. I had more emotional control, and I had more musical control. I was no longer telling the story of my grief but telling the story of that story—the rehearsed words, phrases, dramatic arc that you repeat when you no longer can or need to place yourself back in the reality of the pain with each telling. Kaddish had for me all the emotional content, but those emotions were at an arm’s length. My connection with the place, the makom, of the recital, was weaker. My ability to connect with my audience was weaker. My audience’s attention to the sanctity of the piece was scant.

Musically it was a stronger performance.

“Kaddish” has stayed in my repertoire, and I suppose it has aged in me.

A few years ago, I had the privilege for the first time of playing “Kaddish” for a friend and her mourners at a memorial gathering. Anna Livia had died suddenly, mysteriously, young, healthy. An autopsy and long police investigation led eventually to an inconclusive finding of natural death. Her family and friends were in shock. Anna Livia wasn’t Jewish, but her ex, their children, and many of her mourners were. And many of the mourners were not, so before I began to play, I offered an explanation of Kaddish and its place in Jewish bereavement.

As I spoke, I saw tears forming in people’s eyes, I saw faces flattening, I saw postures drooping, and I became a bit undone myself as I struggled to state simply, calmly, my thoughts about Kaddish.

I told them that Kaddish is a generic prayer that doesn’t say one damned thing that might comfort someone’s terrible loss.

So why is it the mourner’s prayer?

I offered my observation that death never makes sense and is rarely bearable, yet we must go on. And so the rituals of bereavement prescribe a way of doing that, in practical terms. You go on living, so days go on ticking by, and you mark those days by doing regular things. You also do special things, to mark the loss, like saying Kaddish in minyan regularly. This means that you haul your weary self to a place where you can find a minyan; you get out of bed, you get out of the house, you move, you speak, you are with your people.

Together, regularly, you repeat a prayer that doesn’t say one damned thing that might comfort your loss, but you keep doing it. Doing it takes time. You keep doing it over time. You repeat rituals and time passes. As time passes, your pain begins to fade, and the repetition of words that don’t say one damned thing that might comfort your loss become a comfort. And as your pain begins to fade, you yet mark your loss by repeating these words, these particular words that you repeat among a minyan in a place outside the place where your pain lives most vividly, that don’t say one damned thing to comfort your loss.

And the words comfort your loss.

I also spoke about how these words that don’t say one damned thing to comfort your terrible loss change over time. At first the words are filled with your terrible loss, and the words express the grief that rends your heart even as you rend your garment. Gradually the grief drains out of these repeated words, and you just repeat the words because you do. You tell the story of the story of grief. When the Yahrtzeit arrives you have repeated the words through the entire range of emotions, you have infused them with hundreds of engaged and preoccupied thoughts and all kinds of thoughts in between. The words that once meant nothing now mean everything, because they are infused with the memories of your entire process of healing.

At first we wail the Kaddish in despair. Eventually we mumble it dutifully. And during that year, and over our years, we come to say Kaddish in all the different ways of our beings.

And so I played “Kaddish” once more, another new way. This time for the first time, seeing pain in the faces and feeling my own, I had to struggle to calm my breathing. I struggled to quiet the quivering in my lips. I struggled to keep my knees from crumbling under me. I struggled to read the music—no longer secure in memory, especially under stress—as my contact lenses blurred with tears. For the first time, my phrasing was uneven. Certain releases were jagged. I didn’t play with the same musical control.

Many of the people in that room had kept their composure all afternoon and finally released it during the Kaddish. I had to hold my pause after the last note much longer than I ever had before, so that they could compose themselves—so that I could compose myself.

Musically this Kaddish was not as strong as other performances, but playing it felt more important. Useful.


In June the second great love of my life fell to ovarian cancer. Nanc was Jewish, and our falling in love included epic discussions of thorny bits of Jewish thought. She left behind a husband and daughter.

In October, a high school buddy several years my junior, Richard, fell to intestinal cancer. He left behind a wife and twins.

In October, my wife’s therapist and as Victoria puts it, “the Jewish mother we all wish we had,” a lung cancer survivor, learned that she had multiple inoperable brain tumors. She went into hospice care the next day, and the end will be soon.

So far I can’t say Kaddish, because the words don’t say one damned thing to comfort my loss. I can’t play “Kaddish” because the notes don’t say one damned thing to comfort my loss.

Yet I must.

Mandelbrot and music: on listening in fractal dimensions

[This is a cross-post from my business blog, Global Pragmatism. I posted it there because of all the math-geek tie-ins, but since it’s about music, it belongs here, too.]

Benoit Mandelbrot died this month. He was the guy who came up with fractal theory, which led to all those gorgeous computer graphics like this one:

A Mandelbrot set

Last week, my friend and contradance bandmate Tina Fields wrote an essay about Mandelbrot’s ideas on her blog, Indigenize! I found it quite thought-provoking, and it surprised me how much I learned from her post, since I’m the one with the math degree. My next surprise was how Tina’s thoughts on this mathematician inspired me to think about listening to music.

This essay is in response to ideas she raises in her essay, so go read hers first and then come back here!

First I’d like to amplify her comment about coastlines by quoting this passage from Mandelbrot’s obituary in the New York Times, about how coastlines played a role in the genesis of his theory:

Dr. Mandelbrot traced his work on fractals to a question he first encountered as a young researcher: how long is the coast of Britain? The answer, he was surprised to discover, depends on how closely one looks. On a map an island may appear smooth, but zooming in will reveal jagged edges that add up to a longer coast. Zooming in further will reveal even more coastline.

“Here is a question, a staple of grade-school geometry that, if you think about it, is impossible,” Dr. Mandelbrot told The New York Times earlier this year in an interview. “The length of the coastline, in a sense, is infinite.”

In the 1950s, Dr. Mandelbrot proposed a simple but radical way to quantify the crookedness of such an object by assigning it a “fractal dimension,” an insight that has proved useful well beyond the field of cartography.

To me, that’s the real genius of his discovery—viewing scale as a dimension. If we measure the coastline or the surface of the broccoli from a mile away we get a much different answer than if we measure it from close up and far different still if we measure under a microscope.

So what is scale, really, but a matter of perspective?

Let’s consider the metaphorical potential: if perspective is a dimension, how does it change the way we view truth about our world? You have some truth, I have some truth, and the differences are not necessarily contradictions but spectral variations along the perspective dimension.

Tina’s big gift to me in her essay isn’t so much her point about Mandelbrot’s focus on verbs rather than nouns, although I enjoy that, too, but her encouraging us to think about new things fractally. The first thing that comes to my mind is Beethoven. (Perhaps I should explain that besides working in statistical software and facilitative leadership, I’m also a professional horn player and hold degrees in music performance and music history.)

Beethoven leads my pantheon, and here’s a bit on why: his compositional technique is extraordinary, and the more you know about musical composition and performance, the more you hear in his work. In addition to doing all the usual classical things—the usual structural designs (four-movement symphonic architecture with movements in sonata, menuet or scherzo, sonata-rondo, etc. forms, linked in a progression of related tonalities, yada yada Haydn, blabbety-blabbety Mozart, blah blah Bach), German-Italianate phrases, symphonic devices of his environment and era—he throws in a few more tricks all his own, chief among them his idea of motivic development.

His every melodic gesture is built up from the smallest motives, e.g. his Fifth Symphony‘s four-note “ba-ba-ba-BOM!” opening. That simple four-note figure is sequenced, layered, mutated, and warped all throughout the first movement, each phrase a new assemblage of basic building blocks, each harmonic gesture arising out of layers and layers of sequences of this tiny musical block and several others.

Here’s an mp3 of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony if you’d like to remind yourself how it goes, but I’d recommend buying yourself a great recording if you don’t already have one. There are many excellent options; one I’d particularly recommend is Bernstein’s with the New York Philharmonic, on an album that also features Bernstein and orchestra members discussing the symphony. They do a much more eloquent job than I will here of bringing the symphony to life.

All the composers of Beethoven’s time (and throughout most of history, with differing vocabularies, of course) have adhered to various conventions from the largest possible scale (the arc of their developmental style through their lifetimes) down through the structure of each opus, each movement within, etc., down to the smallest-scale assumptions about harmonic structure, idiomatic styles of individual instruments, and so forth, but Beethoven brings it all to a whole new level, honoring all those formal rules while also constructing everything both melodically and harmonically, both vertically and horizontally in each case, out of these tiniest of musical blocks.

(We later see Wagner up Beethoven’s ante with his Romantic adaptation, the leitmotiv, where each character, event, place, and even philosophical concept is represented by its own fragment of musical DNA, all these leitmotivs swirling in a pan-theatrical operatic swamp of continuous through-composition, rejecting while also embracing formal conventions in a megalomaniacal Gesamtkunstwerk.)

Struggling valiantly now to pull back from this tangent to return to fractal theory, I might suggest that we appreciate Beethoven and indeed all music along fractal dimensions. For many, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is, simply, its opening four notes and the loud romp to follow. The scale of observation is large; the perspective is simple. “Fun music!”

Indeed, who wouldn’t appreciate it on such simple terms? When I was hospitalized with pneumonia as a second grader, my parents brought me the best of all possible get-well presents: a portable cassette deck, including a cassette of the first movement of my favorite symphony, which dad had recorded by sitting next to the phonograph (mono, of course) holding the mic near the cabinet speakers while the needle rode its groove. I listened to that tape over and over during my several weeks of long days alone in a hospital room. I’m not sure what I heard, exactly, but I know that by the time I was discharged, I could have sung the whole movement. (I wish he’d recorded the whole symphony for me, because I’l never know the rest of it nearly as well.)

As I’ve developed as a musician, I’ve lost touch with how I used to hear music. I often wonder what normal people hear, and I like to ask people to tell me why they like certain music or what they noticed in a concert.I know that I used to hear the pretty music, and while I can tell you to the minute when it all changed, I can’t for the life of me remember what I used to hear.

It changed the summer after eighth grade. I was at orchestra camp, sitting in a muggy auditorium on a hot summer night, and probably intoxicated by the pheromones of my new friends. We listened to a piano quartet recital. First I noticed that I was hearing a group whose intonation was so tight, they made the freshly, expertly-tuned Steinway sound out of tune. All pianos are out of tune, but it was the first time I heard it for myself. Then I realized I was hearing four virtuosi playing the crap out of their instruments as both individuals and as a collective.

Then my trumpeter friend leaned over and said, “You know, we’re never going to hear music like normal people again,” and for only a moment I wondered what he meant. I spent the rest of the concert hearing, seeing, feeling the compositional structure, the interplay of themes, the exploration of key areas, the work of the individuals and their ensemble, and on and on. The only limits to the depth of scale in my listening were my musical intelligence and attention span.

That night was my awakening as a listener. In the decades that followed, my musical intelligence has evolved tremendously, but I still find that the richness of what I hear is limited only by my abilities and attention span.

So, locating my metaphor in the area of musical perception, I might suggest that our listening has a fractal dimension. Anyone can hear the sounds. But our perspective—the granularity of our musical knowledge and the intensity of our focus—determines in how large a range along the fractal dimension we perceive the music; how much we hear of the infinite possibilities depends on how large or small is the scale of our listening.

How do you hear?

As I said, I’ve long since forgotten how I used to hear music. How do you hear music? What do you hear in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? Do you have any musical training? How does this affect your listening (or not)? I’d love your answers, reactions, ideas—please comment!