Saturday, February 23, 2013

How Music Works, by David Byrne

Every page left me torn -- keep reading, or share ALL THE THINGS with anyone present?

Every now and again, you come across a book that tangentially interests you, and then it rearranges the bricks in your foundation. It makes you think about how you come into contact with the world. It alters how you fit in with the world, too.

(More than likely, such books come across you and not the other way around. Books can be crafty like that.)

How can I pin down any single way this book redecorated my brain-plots when it coaxed open my mind in so many directions? I certainly pay less attention to music than many people, but for all that, I think I pay more attention than some. I notice the type of music playing in various stores (and not just when it's Christmas music in October). I try to ensure that smaller-time artists whose music I enjoy get supported by my money so they can continue making music. I bemoan the corporatization of the radio and the channels through which popular music delivers itself to us, the listening public, all the while acknowledging that I enjoy some of that very music.

Neil Young's Greendale tour: "Support Our War" -- on a Clear Channel billboard

But what do I know about the forces that shape our music? Not just the songwriters and the producers and the record labels and the means of distribution, but the venues, the scenes, the environments, the rituals, the cultures, the technology? Turns out, I hardly knew a blessed thing.

Then How Music Works came across me. From the title, I expected only a practical and theoretical look at the science of music: say, how its sounds are produced, what effect it has on us, how our brains interpret it, and so on. That's all in there, to some extent, but the book is so much more than that -- and so much more fascinating! David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame and serious experimental reputation, examines not just how music works as a transitory sonic effect, but also how it functions with us and how we function with it. (The dude can write, in that charming intellectual way that's conversational without ever dumbing down to the reader. How many writers of such deep subjects can claim that talent?)

Music, Byrne says (and I agree), is not the isolated art we often think it to be. Context shapes music just as much as music shapes context. He explores beautifully how music is better for being terrestrial, for being ephemeral yet not ethereal. Limitations on creativity spark innovations and developments and surprises -- so yes, let's acknowledge that Bach's music was shaped as much by his church and its organ as it was by his genius, and the Ramones were catapulted as much by the scene at their regular club as they were by their talents! Let's understand how recorded music differs in its very essence from live music, and then acknowledge the merits of both!

Let's recognize that we shape the music we listen to, just as it shapes us!

This book may not change how you acquire recorded music, or the type of music you listen to, or whether you play music of your own. But it's a bit like watching a documentary on factory farming. When you do each of those things, you will be aware of how you acquire, what you listen to, whether you play. You will understand that you are participating in a community that extends to wherever in time and space there is humanity.

Your foundation will change to allow for just how connected you are. Aren't these devious books the best?

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Why Is Sex Fun? by Jared Diamond

Support the blog. Get the book. Then impress your friends with your knowledge of concealed ovulation and penile evolution!

Assumptions are part of our daily lives. And for good reason -- imagine if you had to qualitatively assess every aspect of your regular day. You assume that the food at the grocery store (and in your pantry) is edible. You assume that even the idiot in front of you will drive through a green light. You assume that you will, indeed, wake up tomorrow instead of dying in your sleep. These patterns lead to a certain degree of predictability. They happen to be right (most of the time), and therefore to spare some brain power for the surprises of the day, we assume them to be given.

Basically: it works this way most/all of the time. It makes sense this way. Why imagine it any other way?

When something deviates from our assumptions, it's abnormal. Weird. Strange. An aberration. Which is why we think so many animals have the weirdest mating habits. Mantises and some spiders eat the male during copulation? Chimpanzees' lady-butts swell during ovulation? We humans procreate just fine, thank you very much. Our system is tried and true. Why can't these other critters behave more normally, like us?

This is why I love to have assumptions challenged and perspectives placed in context. We assume humans are normal because we have to in order to function. But in so many ways, taken in the larger contexts of primate-kind, mammal-kind, and animal-kind, we are the freaks. The kooks. The evolutionary deviants.

From time to time, we all benefit from a little bit of reality check. Why Is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality puts our species into perspective and tries to riddle out why we're this particular kind of peculiar. The reframing of perspective is hijinx-level fun in your brain cavity.

(I have an issue with the book. It puts human culture -- that is, the evolution of our mental constructs -- on the same workbench as human and animal sexuality -- that is, the evolution of our reproductive constructs. Gauging how a "natural" human behaves is impossible, because the crunchy cultural coating we all wear gets in the way. Our cultural constructs are, on an evolutionary timescale, brand spankin' new. That is, our biology is practically identical to the way it was eleven thousand years ago. Yet our self-domestication is only ten thousand years old, as earmarked by the advent of agriculture.

Our culture has not yet had time to significantly affect our evolution -- and yet our variety of culturally-imposed sexual and reproductive habits are viewed in the book as evolved behavior. I don't see how Jared Diamond could have handled it any differently, because there are no "wild" humans. But I wish he had addressed the issue more thoroughly.

What I would like to see -- listen up, science nerds -- is an exploration of how our brain plasticity interacts with our sexuality. I think that approach could reconcile our reproductive and physiological evolution with our behavior.)

Monday, February 4, 2013

Losing Julia, by Jonathan Hull

One of my dad's favorite movies is the mid-2000s Garden State so revered for its indie-rock soundtrack. My favorite part of the movie is that everyone I know takes something different from it. For my dad, the film is about a father and son reconnecting after their strained past. For others I've asked, it's about developing a friendship, discovering that happiness is more important than a career, and finding true love in unexpected places and times. For me, it's about a man becoming himself.

The beauty of our disparity is that each of us is right.

Like any thorough story, Losing Julia is about many things. A moving novel leaves part of itself in you when you finish it, and I can only speak to what I walked away with. Which is:

Live life.

Yeah, yeah, it's not new. Even Latin speakers had something to say about seizing the day, and they be old school. But old folks keep trying to tell us young farts that our youth is wasted on us, that we don't know what's important yet, and if we did we would just live for what's important rather than wasting away our time. That's what old-man Patrick keeps on about throughout the book, anyway. (Don't worry. He learns to go for the gold.)

Those old folks don't give us snappers of whippers enough credit, though: we know exactly what's important. We just have to wager a whole lot of life on our decisions, because if all goes to plan, we still have forty or sixty or eighty years to carry around with us. The trick is not figuring out what's important, so much as going for happiness now instead of mortgaging it for later.

I've never liked the motto "live like there's no tomorrow," because quite frankly I couldn't condense into every day all the big things I'd want to do on my last day on earth. Too many small things deserve to be spread out and absorbed and pondered and enjoyed. But I suppose I'm echoing the sentiment of the mantra. Go for happiness. Be who you are. Love who you love, and make sure they know it.

That way, when you're old, you won't bore all the young'uns with your drivel about the mistakes you made. You'll have them begging you for stories. And instead of putting up with whatever message you want to instill, those kids can carry away from your tales precisely what they need.

(Mad props and many thanks to my sister Kara, who gave me this book for my birthday after experiencing what it is to hunt down an out-of-print book. It now appears that a trade paperback version is available on Amazon, but who knows how long that will last.)