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In a comment on my recent post about English as a kind of second language, Zoë Westhof mentioned the Surrealists’ interest in the unconscious mind, and their question of whether our unconscious experiences can escape the ‘taint’ of the conscious mind.

This got me thinking about all those wordless singers and composers, from Lisa Gerrard to György Ligeti, who have used ‘nonsense’ languages to sidestep the entanglements of verbal meaning. A lot of vocal music in the Western tradition was never meant to be understood by the audience. Avoiding the vernacular has been an important historical thread for centuries.

Our conscious mind wants to interpret, to construct meaning and narrative from our fragmentary sensations. Look at all those examples floating around the internet of human faces seen in everyday objects and urban landscapes: from fire hydrants to sinks to peeling walls.

When we see a manhole cover with a smile on its ‘face’ we know on a rational level that happy manhole cover is incapable of being happy.

Sourire

It's just metal. (photo by skywaaker on Flickr)

Yet the ‘found faces‘ group on Flickr has nearly 5000 photos, contributed by almost 1200 members.

Interpretation of sense as symbol seems inescapable. And once your mind has made such an interpretation, try undoing it. Try looking at that manhole cover without seeing a smile. It’s incredibly difficult.

I’ve found in music, as with fire hydrants and manhole covers, that sounds with no semantic meaning, phonemes that are presented entirely outside of language, are still perceived as meaningful.

Ha-bee-uh-doo-ah-eh-oo-ai

Back in the 90s, I heard a recording of baby sounds on an effects CD I got from the library. The twists and turns in these little voices reminded me of the ornaments and appoggiatura you might add to a Bach sinfonia or a Haydn sonata. Why couldn’t these sounds become the basic elements of a composition, instead of a piano or an oboe? Surely they are more natural musical material than the sound of an organ or a turntable?

I began to imagine writing music for a choir of toddlers. While thrilled at the potential, I knew it was impractical in the extreme, but I also thought that maybe I could create some semblance of the idea by chopping up the recording and rearranging the pieces.

Click here to listen to the final result in a new window.

As I’ve played this piece for various people over the last fourteen years or so, the range of reactions has been fascinating to me.

Some people seem to run into an “It’s not music” wall, or for some other reason just don’t like it. And that’s fine.

In those that do react with interest, there seems to be a tendency to project whatever is on their mind onto the sounds.

For example, one friend, more concerned about the efficacy of her birth-control tactics than the ticking of her biological clock, felt haunted by it. The sounds evoked a terrible image of a baby army on the march — and maybe they were coming for her!

Another listener paused contemplatively at the end, and then, almost in tears, he told me that I had “captured the too-long-repressed voice of the Native American people crying for freedom!” In a random assortment of British babies?

By far the most common response has been: “Aww, that’s cute!”

Really? It wasn’t meant to be.

To me, these were just interesting sounds that I liked and wanted to work with. That’s all.

An Antidote for Too Much Math?

Well, maybe there was a little more than that going on. I created the piece in 1995, when home computers were only barely powerful enough to do this kind of thing. I used a system called CSound, which required tedious number-crunching: each entrance, exit, change in volume or position had to be calculated to the millisecond or programmed with a mathematical function. It was more like working on a complex spreadsheet than a musical score:

The original score for #30

Meaningless numbers? (Parts of the original score for #30)

The software took about an hour to process each minute of sound, so even the slightest change required hours of computing time before I could hear the results.

It was incredibly sterile and linear and boring work. The warmth and complexity and nuance of the sounds themselves — these little pre-verbal gurgles — provided an antidote to all that left-brain work. It kept me going in a way that might not have been possible if I’d been working with digitally-produced beeps and squiggles.

So I guess, even to me, as I was working with them, these sounds were not just sounds.

Meaningless: Impossible?

No matter how much I might have wished to work with meaningless phonemes, they just aren’t heard that way.

To our brains, that’s not a muted two-second sine wave that wavers slightly in pitch towards the end, it is a vulnerable little human that needs protection, affection, nutrition or attention. Maybe it even triggers instinctual responses?

Whatever we as artists and idea-shapers do to try to escape cultural references and connotations, we can’t control the other side of the equation: the interpretations of our audience.

What we intend to express and the message received can be very different.

We can deny that, or we can work with it.  And if we choose to work with it, we take on the task of understanding as much as we can about how the mind works, about how perception works, about culture, about history — about all the different things it means to be and feel and see and hear as humans.

Is it possible to perceive without interpreting or translating? What’s your experience?

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600 Milliseconds

by Matt Blair on October 16, 2009

in Audience,Life Cycle of Ideas,Meaning,Perception

I was just taking a break from editing a followup to my English as a Second Language post, and heard this story on NPR:

In Milliseconds, Brain Zips From Thought To Speech.

A new study using electrodes in the brains of epilepsy patients has hinted at the location, timing and sequence of thought formation and verbal response. (The electrodes were voluntarily implanted prior to surgery, in case you were wondering!)

Here’s an approximate time line in milliseconds of what happened after the patients were asked to read and respond to a “group of words”:

  • 200 ms — Word recognition
  • 320 ms — Grammatical processing
  • 450 ms — Preparing a response

Previous research suggests that it takes about 600 ms to form and speak a thought.

What are the practical implications? What does all this mean? That’s not yet clear.

A quote from Ned T. Sahin, one of the researchers involved in the study:

“Sometimes I feel like we’re a colony of ants who’ve come across a cell phone,” he says. “We can describe parts of it, but we really don’t know what’s fundamentally going on here yet.”

Feeling like one of those ants, I’m going to crawl around that followup post and re-work it a bit.

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Last night, while cutting and roasting these little squares and cubes of yum:

sweet potatoes and red pepper

Not quite squares or cubes...

I was listening to an episode of Philosophy Talk about language titled “What Are Words Worth?” and one of the topics was whether and how our native language constrains our thought processes.

Most people would consider English to be my primary language. Anyone who has tried to comprehend my attempts at French or Japanese or Chinese would consider English my only language. And they’d be essentially correct.

Or is it mostly accurate?  Or spot on? I have a notion of what each of those phrases means, but I’m not sure the best way to say it. I could keep fiddling with it, or come back to it in ten minutes. But I’ll just leave it as an example of my frequent inability to find a word or phrase that precisely fits what I’m thinking.

If my thoughts originate in English, shouldn’t the words and sentences just fall out of my head, fully-formed? Why do I feel inclined to hunt through dictionaries, ponder each word’s heritage, and fret about shared perceptions of what specific words mean?

In other words, why does writing feel like translation rather than transcription?

Micro-Dialects

Maybe it’s a matter of converting my own personal and idiosyncratic dialect into more commonly used patterns? That seems plausible enough.

We each use language in our own peculiar way. Through editing and revision, we move from the quirky, hyper-local dialect of our internal monologues towards the language practices we share with our audience.

To communicate a specific idea, I have to capture its meaning, seal it into these little semantic packets called words and phrases, sequence those into sentences and paragraphs, encode it with one computer, transmit it to another computer, and let you take it from there.

As a reader, you go through an inverse process: you use a tool like a browser to copy it from a computer to your computer, which retrieves text from the numerical codes, and positions the sentences and paragraphs, which you then parse into words and phrases. Hopefully they mean something to you which approximates what they meant to me.

This model works well enough for blog posts, which tend to focus on words and voice, so it’s easy to assume that only the machines are translating and transmuting the ideas as they move from my mind to yours.

An Inadequate Container

But what about all the ideas that never take the form of written or spoken languages?

Could anyone imagine Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring captured in words alone, and then accurately transformed into sound? It might be possible — after all, musical notation is a kind of language — but it would certainly be inefficient and absurd.

I could have described the objects depicted at the top of this post using only language:

“Two well-scrubbed sweet potatoes from the Farmers’ market (cut in 1.5cm cubes) along with a red pepper from the Farmers’ market (cut in 2cm squares) tossed in olive oil, cumin, coriander, black pepper, a pinch of salt, roasted in a glass dish at 400F for approximately 53 minutes, until they were just right.”

Yet there’s nothing intrinsically linguistic about them. I used language to procure them. I just used language to describe them.

Other than that, the experience of them, it seems to me, has very little to do with language. I decided a photo paired with a flippant phrase (“little squares and cubes of yum”) was a better way to present them. Smell and taste would create a more accurate perception in your mind of what came out of the oven, but digital media hasn’t quite caught up with those senses — yet.

If language is not an adequate container for all thoughts, then what is thought?

Do ideas form out of a kind of raw “thought stuff” which is then sometimes translated into language?

In my experience, yes, which is why I feel like writing is translation, like whatever I express in English is at best an approximation of what I’m after.

I’ll explore this question, and some of its implications for idea-making, in my next post.

In the meantime, I’d like to hear about your experiences:

  • Do you feel like you are directly transcribing what’s in your head when writing a short story or a blog post or painting or dancing?
  • Or do you feel like you are translating your ideas, whether into language or image or sound or other physical forms?

Please add a comment or send an email or a tweet, and let me know.

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Am I too word-oriented in my exploration of creativity?  Why do I place such an emphasis on writing, poetry, and language in general?

No matter what we each choose as the preferred medium of our creative expression, we all use language. We all live by language.

Language is the nexus through which most (but not all) thought passes as it transits from mind to mind.  It is the standard intermediate form, and preserves the greatest store of human experience.

Words are probably the most accessible medium that artists and creative thinkers share, and experimenting with words is the most effective way to learn patterns and behaviors and tactics that can then be applied to work in other media. If I was writing about creativity using only terms and processes specific to electronic music, it would be more difficult to translate those ideas directly to sculpture or photography.

This bias is not mine alone: Our computers have keyboards — word capture devices — not paint brushes, uncarved marble, or drumsticks. To work with ideas, and exchange ideas, inevitably and unavoidably, means to work with words.  A greater facility with human language can enhance our work in nearly every domain of human endeavor.

Languages and written words are the jars into which we pour our ideas and perceptions, to store them away, or take them to the market, or mix them with other ideas to share at a table with friends.

Poets and philosophers and linguists and inter-cultural explorers of all kinds discover or invent more intricate containers, or repurpose old ones, or assemble them in exquisite and every-changing arrays, all in hopes of capturing everything between earth and sky and beyond — the totality of human existence.

And that’s the ultimate problem: not all of life will fit in such figurative jars. Much of it doesn’t.

Yes, I love words, but I am equally enthusiastic about what I refer to as the “non-verbal” — the encounters for which words are insufficient. I don’t simply mean those moments when the words we know as individuals, or our own abilities to articulate, are lacking. I’m talking about experiences for which our shared human language — all human language in aggregate — is inadequate.

There is no jar big enough to capture the precipitation of even one thunderstorm. We can catch a little of it. We can drink from it, be rehydrated by it, be cleansed by it. But no matter how well-crafted or expansive the jar, its contents are no substitute for running through the thunder and the rain, the irrepressible storm of life.

As we walk home soaking wet, language and words and poetry are the drops of water we wring from our clothing.

As we seek the uncontainable, the ineffable, and the transcendent, we use words to find our way, and to see where we’ve been.

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Fluxional

by Matt Blair on March 5, 2009

in Meaning,Quotes

“But the quality of the imagination is to flow, and not to freeze. The poet did not stop at the color or the form, but read their meaning; neither may he rest in this meaning, but he makes the same objects exponents of his new thought. Here is the difference betwixt the poet and the mystic, that the last nails a symbol to one sense, which was a true sense for a moment, but soon becomes old and false. For all symbols are fluxional; all language is vehicular and transitive, and is good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance, not as farms and houses are, for homestead.”

from The Poet by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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