the musical rules behind the universe

I must admit that the concept “computational geometry” almost made my brain go into freeze mode. How can anyone say anything understandable about Bach from the perspective of computational geometry & algorithms?

Well, to my SURPRISE: Bernard Chazelle can! “Discovering the Cosmology of Bach” is actually a fabulous interview. It is informative, engaging and also quite funny. To be honest, this interview has – despite my initial concern – turned out to be one of my all time favorite episodes of On Being.

Discovering the Cosmology of Bach

Bernard Chazelle, who is Eugene Higgins Professor of Computer Science at Princeton University, with a specialty in computational geometry, works with algorithms. He is not a traditional music historian, but he is a really good one! Chazelle is different, but not difficult. I highly recommend this podcast to everyone interested in the music of Bach.

One of the works discussed in the conversation between Tippett and Chazelle is the final part of Bach’s St John Passion, you can listen to it here:

Bach – St John Passion – Ruht wohl ihr heiligen Gebeine (chorus)

perfectly useful concentration

What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.

 – Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Anne Stevenson, Jan. 1964

In the same boat: It’s very interesting to see how Bishop, in this short and powerful statement, parallels experiencing & creating art i.e. the perceiver & the artist; we are both looking for the same thing – a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.

Self-forgetful concentration is precisely what happens in the artistic process–an absorption in the moment, a pouring of the self into the now. We are, as Dickinson days, ‘without the date, like Consciousness or Immortality.’ That is what artistic work and child’s play have in common; both, at their fullest, are experiences of being lost in the present, entirely occupied.

Mark Doty, The Art of Description, 2010

Maybe it’s possible to – instead of Doty’s “the artistic process” – describe the self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration as the aesthetic moment, a place where artwork and receiver fuse.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude  Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76

Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76

The next step could be – and here I’m bringing Damasio into the party – to evolve out of the fuse = become selves (again); to separate emotion from feeling. For neuroscience, emotions are more or less the complex reactions the body has to certain stimuli, say for example art. This emotional reaction occurs automatically and unconsciously. This is what happens in what I termed the aesthetic moment.  Feelings occur after (according to Damasio feelings occurs after emotions) we become aware in our brain of such physical changes; only then do we experience the feeling of pleasure, fear, joy etc.

Mind begins at the level of feeling. It’s when you have a feeling that you begin to have a mind and a self.

In short: Art is about loosing and creating self …

Mirror Mirrored

Great news:

My friend Michelle at Gwarlingo/Gwarlingo Press is launching a new series of limited-edition classic books, illuminated by contemporary artists, starting with twenty-five Grimm’s fairy tales.

We have a strong fairy-tale tradition in Norway. Best known are the folktales collected and published by Asbjørnsen & Moe (mid 19th century). The Norwegian folk tales have a strong romantic and nationalistic aura; they are filled with trolls, dramatic waterfalls, deep woods and steep mountains, i.e. lots of nature. Norwegian folk tales do not quite match the German aesthetics, they are exciting – but are rather rough.

My favorite Norwegian-tales illustrator is Theodor Kittelsen


Theodor Kittelsen: Skogtroll (1906)

The illustrations are a very important part of the total fairy tale experience. I’m really looking forward to see what Michelle’s artists have done for Grimm

brødrene grimm

The 1819 Edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales

finding words, creating subjectivity

From a bold perspective; would it be possible to claim an affinity between the ideas of the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and the poet Lyn Hejinian? Comparing how they both present making art as a way of making subjectivity makes me think they might approach a similar conclusion from different points of view.

Here is Lyn Hejinian:

The desire that is stirred by language is located most interestingly within language itself—as a desire to say, a desire to create the subject by saying, and as a pervasive doubt very like jealousy that springs from the impossibility of satisfying these yearnings.

In the gap between what one wants to say (or what one perceives there is to say) and what one can say (what is sayable), words provide for a collaboration and a desertion. We delight in our sensuous involvement with the materials of language, we long to join words to the world—to close the gap between ourselves and things—and we suffer from doubt and anxiety because of our in­ability to do so.

Yet the incapacity of language to match the world permits us to distinguish our ideas and ourselves from the world and things in it from each other. The undifferentiated is one mass, the dif­ferentiated is multiple. The (unimaginable) complete text, the text that contains everything, would in fact be a closed text. It would be insufferable.

The Rejection of Closure (1985)


Explaining Emotions

A great post by Ann Michael made me curious about the work of Antonio Damasio: Here is Damasio in a recent interview:

Q: What made you so interested in emotions as an area of study?

A: There was something that appealed to me because of my interest in literature and music. It was a way of combining what was important to me with what I thought was going to be important scientifically.

For me, it’s very important to separate emotion from feeling. We must separate the component that comes out of actions from the component that comes out of our perspective on those actions, which is feeling. Curiously, it’s also where the self emerges, and consciousness itself. Mind begins at the level of feeling. It’s when you have a feeling (even if you’re a very little creature (animal)) that you begin to have a mind and a self. 

We wouldn’t have music, art, religion, science, technology, economics, politics, justice, or moral philosophy without the impelling force of feelings.

Antonio Damasio


Q: Do people emote in predictable ways regardless of their culture? For instance, does everyone hear the Western minor mode in music as sad?

A: We now know enough to say yes to that question.

At the Brain and Creativity Institute [which Damasio directs], we have been doing cross-cultural studies of emotion. At first we thought we would find very different patterns, especially with social emotions. In fact, we don’t. Whether you are studying Chinese, Americans, or Iranians, you get very similar responses. There are lots of subtleties and lots of ways in which certain stimuli elicit different patterns of emotional response with different intensities, but the presence of sadness or joy is there with a uniformity that is strongly and beautifully human.

clipped from: Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio Explains Emotions | MIT Technology Review.

I really do believe it could be very interesting to study art from Damasio’s perspective. It might help us to see why art is of general importance to the well being of individuals and society at large.

Last text on print in 2014

My last review this year was of a beautiful exhibition by the Finnish photographer Nelli Palomäki.

bilde large

 Nelli Palomäki: Roi at 7

Nelli Palomäki was born 1981 in Forssa, Finland. She lives and works in Helsinki.

Palomäki is connected to The Helsinki School – a selected group of artists who have graduated or attended Aalto University, School of Arts, Design and Architecture. The Helsinki School was originally conceived in the early 1990´s as an educational model for introducing the use of the photographic process as a conceptual tool.

Today it has grown into one of the most internationally recognizable programs of its kind in the world.