Long Now co-founder Brian Eno on time, music, and contextuality in a recent interview, rhyming on Gregory Bateson’s definition of information as “a difference that makes a difference”:
If a Martian came to Earth and you played her a late Beethoven String Quartet and then another written by a first-year music student, it is unlikely that she would a) understand what the point of listening to them was at all, and b) be able to distinguish between them.
What this makes clear is that most of the listening experience is constructed in our heads. The ‘beauty’ we hear in a piece of music isn’t something intrinsic and immutable – like, say, the atomic weight of a metal is intrinsic – but is a product of our perception interacting with that group of sounds in a particular historical context. You hear the music in relation to all the other experiences you’ve had of listening to music, not in a vacuum. This piece you are listening to right now is the latest sentence in a lifelong conversation you’ve been having. What you are hearing is the way it differs from, or conforms to, the rest of that experience. The magic is in our alertness to novelty, our attraction to familiarity, and the alchemy between the two.
The idea that music is somehow eternal, outside of our interaction with it, is easily disproven. When I lived for a few months in Bangkok I went to the Chinese Opera, just because it was such a mystery to me. I had no idea what the other people in the audience were getting excited by. Sometimes they’d all leap up from their chairs and cheer and clap at a point that, to me, was effectively identical to every other point in the performance. I didn’t understand the language, and didn’t know what the conversation had been up to that point. There could be no magic other than the cheap thrill of exoticism.
So those poor deluded missionaries who dragged gramophones into darkest Africa because they thought the experience of listening to Bach would somehow ‘civilise the natives’ were wrong in just about every way possible: in thinking that ‘the natives’ were uncivilised, in not recognising that they had their own music, and in assuming that our Western music was culturally detachable and transplantable – that it somehow carried within it the seeds of civilisation. This cultural arrogance has been attached to classical music ever since it lost its primacy as the popular centre of the Western musical universe, as though the soundtrack of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th Century was somehow automatically universal and superior.
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