Who cares if you listen?

I pride myself on having big ears, on listening to everything I can and trying to find the beauty in it. I’ve learned to enjoy some aspect of just about every kind of music, except one: high modernist twentieth century classical music. I just can not deal with it, at all. But I’m in music school now, and am having to confront it, listen to it, write about it and produce it. So I’m trying to figure out whether I’m missing something, or whether the whole musical academic elite is out of its collective mind.

The title of this post refers to an infamous essay by Milton Babbitt. He says that modern classical will never have an audience beyond its practitioners, and that it shouldn’t even bother to try.

I am concerned with stating an attitude towards the indisputable facts of the status and condition of the composer of what we will, for the moment, designate as “serious,” “advanced,” contemporary music.

I do not like the terms “serious” and “advanced” when self-applied by classical composers.

The general public is largely unaware of and uninterested in [the contemporary composer's] music. The majority of performers shun it and resent it. Consequently, the music is little performed, and then primarily at poorly attended concerts before an audience consisting in the main of fellow ‘professionals’. At best, the music would appear to be for, of, and by specialists.

My question is this. Are we all missing out on something important because we’re unwilling to do the work? Or are we rightly shunning the music because it’s unbearable?

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Music theory and quantum mechanics

In high school science class, you probably saw a picture of an atom that looked like this:

The picture shows a stylized nucleus with red protons and blue neutrons, surrounded by three grey electrons. It’s an attractive and iconic image. It makes a nice logo. Unfortunately, it’s also totally wrong. There’s an extent to which subatomic particles are like little marbles, but it’s a limited extent. Electrons do move around the nucleus, but they don’t do it in elliptical paths as if they’re little moons orbiting a planet. The true nature of electrons in atoms is way weirder and cooler.

Pictures are a terrible way to understand the nature of quantum particles. Music theory is much better.

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How is Earth’s gravity generated?

Gravity is the warping of spacetime by mass or energy. A mass like the Earth warps spacetime so that the shortest path, the “path of least resistance,” for inertial movement is towards the Earth’s center.

Using instruments like the Hubble Space Telescope, it’s possible to literally see the warping of spacetime by very massive objects like galaxies and huge conglomerations of dark matter. When you’re looking at a very distant object and there’s a large mass along your line of site, it warps spacetime to produce a visual effect known as gravitational lensing. Here’s a schematic diagram showing how it works.

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So what is the big deal with Einstein?

I’m a humanities guy, but I’ve never lost my childhood love of math and science. I’m looking forward to the Large Hadron Collider being fired up next year the way normal male Americans look forward to the NBA playoffs. I like to be an informed fan, and since Einstein is the Michael Jordan of scientists, I wanted to know what it is exactly that he figured out, and why it’s so important. Beyond the physics, I wanted to know what put Einstein into the pop pantheon alongside Bob Marley and John Lennon. You never see dorm room posters of Henry Clerk Maxwell or Neils Bohr. The only other scientist who comes remotely close in pop stature is Darwin, but aside from his dramatic beard, Darwin the person doesn’t register much beyond his theories. Why is Einstein such a rock star? Continue reading