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The Science of Music

[Ancient Faith Radio; November 20, 2008]

Frederica Mathewes-Green: I’m sitting in the kitchen with my son Steve and his wife Jocelyn and their baby Ruth Anne, who is crawling around on the floor. She has just learning how to walk, but it’s a lot faster if you go by crawling. She’s carrying an arrowroot cookie, and dropping it, and sitting on it, and picking it up again. And every once in a while she sees that there are fingers on my hands, and she grabs a finger and tries to lead it—because she wants to walk holding on to my hands. So I kind of have to hide my hands where she doesn’t see them. Isn’t that right, Ruthie?


There are many things that we can talk about. Jocelyn is a professional photographer as well as an artist. There are wonderful things to see on her website. Is the name of the website


Stephen Mathewes:, and


FMG: Of course that’s with Mathewes spelled m-a-t-h-e-w-e-s, like ewes, like female sheep doing math. That’s the mnemonic device we can use to remember how to spell it.


SM: Not that we have to try to remember.


FMG: (laughs) Not that we have to remember. Often I lie awake thinking, there’s gotta be a trick where I can remember how to spell this name. My son Stephen has recently begun working for IOCC, and is considering going to seminary and following in his dad’s footsteps one day. But one of your strongest loves from, I would say, early adolescence has been music. And not just listening to music and playing music (because you play several instruments) but the study of music. I remember when you were in high school you started saying that what you wished that you could major in, your course of study, would be the science of music. Say something about that.


SM: I didn’t even know if there was such a thing. I was a music theory geek, and I still am. And I guess I say that because most people—I did go on to study music in college, I studied musicology, which basically is the science of music. So there turned out to be something that was that. But most of the music majors I knew were wonderful people, brilliant, talented, but most of the time they didn’t like music theory. And that was the part that I really loved, seeing how does everything fit together? What is a chord? What is the nature of a scale? Just kind of learning all that. Just having a rote memorization of what each key signature is, and the circle of fifths, and all that. I don’t know. I’m not much of a math person, but there’s a clear-cut scientific aspect to that that just pulled me in. So that’s kind of where I first entered into loving music. But yeah, I’d say it’s pretty all-encompassing. Pretty much any facet of music I’ve come to love.


FMG: I was thinking, I watched that movie about crossword puzzles. I forget what it was called. ‘Crossword’ or something like that. “Wordplay”! And it said that, you would think that the people who would be really great at crosswords would be people with big vocabularies, writers, teachers of English… They said, that’s not the case. They said it’s scientists and musicians. And it had to do with, in both those areas you have to keep your mind open, you have to have a lot of possibilities going on simultaneously, and you sort of have to be able to see a structure that doesn’t exist yet. You have to be keeping all these letters of all these words floating around. So there’s a way in which music is like building something in the air.


SM: I think that they say that most scientists, if you go to a typical science lab, that most scientists are into music. I think they say that a lot of scientists as hobbies they’ll play in rock bands, or jazz or something. I don’t know what it is, but there is that correlation. So, the science of music is kind of a logical step.


FMG: Kind of what it’s about. Well, the thing I wanted to ask you about was a conference that they held here in Baltimore just a few weeks ago.


SM: A music festival.


FMG: A music festival. The reason I call it a conference is that it was about the science of music. It was not the kind of music that people listen to for pleasure… I’m probably digging myself into a hole here… but it’s not the kind of music people like. But no, there were very interested fans there to hear this. But tell me, what was the name of this festival?


SM: The festival is called the High Zero Festival of Experimental Improvised Music. It’s a very unique one in the whole world. That scene, of experimental improvised music, is not necessarily unique to Baltimore, although it certainly has quite a vibrant, burgeoning life here. There are other festivals around the world, but this is easily one of the biggest and most important. Which is funny to say, because at any given performance night throughout the weekend in which it takes place, there’s probably no more than fifty people in attendance. So that gives you an idea that it’s still a very, very small fan base at this time.


FMG: Just about fifty people at this, which is one of the biggest and most influential experimental festivals… it’s both experimental and improvised.


SM: Right.


FMG: So explain or give some examples of what that would mean.


SM: Well, just to be clear, that those words aren’t interchangeable. You can have music that’s experimental and not improvised: a John Cage piece- well, maybe not his later stuff, but his earlier stuff, like the Interludes for Prepared Piano. At the time of course, that was tremendously experimental, to prepare- to put pencils and metal, aluminum, things like that inside the piano and then play it. But that was all scored music. That wasn’t improvised.


And then you can have music that’s improvised but not experimental. You can play an old Tommy Dorsey tune, you can play, you know, “Satin Doll”, and you can solo on “I Got Rhythm”, but that’s not experimental. Everyone knows that tune, everyone loves that tune.


So this really connects those two dots. Obviously there is some overlap in the aesthetic appreciation of experimental music and improvised music. So they go well together, and that’s kind of where this festival comes from. It’s performers who want to create music extemporaneously, and create it in an unconventional manner. And that would also be a way of saying that, the manner in which you’re creating it might also be extemporaneous. You might be making up the way in which you’re making things up as you go along. Which I think is a big aspect of what the performers at the festival try to do.


FMG: I think we need to have some examples. Because it’s hard to even picture this. It sounds like performance art, where somebody lies on the floor of an art gallery for three weeks and that’s his art. But all of this did have to do with making sounds, at least, whether or not it’s music. I don’t know if there’s a difference there. What were some of the ways that people made these sounds? How was it experimental and improvised?


SM: Well, first let me say that performance art and the “happenings” of the Sixties, the New York scene… those really go hand-in-hand. They really are blood brothers. They kind of come from the same place. And there is a slight overlap of that in the festival. This was their tenth anniversary, and one of the special artists that they had to commemorize was a woman named Olga Adorno who was part of that New York happening scene, and she wasn’t a musician per se. So she had a solo performance at the beginning of one of the evening concerts. And that’s essentially what she did: she just got up there and did whatever she wanted. She talked and told stories, and sang, and had people come down… So there definitely is something there. And as someone to appreciate it, you could come at it in the same way, you could look at the music and say, I just don’t know if I would call this art. Or, I don’t know if I would call it good. I don’t know if I would call it good art.


But anyway, to answer your question, like I said, this year was their tenth anniversary. They had some really fantastic performers that I enjoyed. They had a local named Tom Borem. He’s in a duo that I’m a fan of. They’re called Leprechaun Catering. He’s an eccentric fellow. He wore this kind of black and red ensemble and he had this waistcoat with the long tail and everything like that. He’s in his mid-thirties, but he had this kind of ironically regal air to him. And one of the evening shows that I saw, he also opened with a solo set. And he began tap dancing, and…


FMG: Was this the guy the program said that his instruments would be voice and piano, and he actually did not use either one?


SM: Yes. Voice and… synthesizers. That’s what it was. And in his performance he didn’t use either one. He tap danced around the stage for a while, and then he came into the front center part of the stage, and tap danced there, and it was there apparently where microphones were set up that I couldn’t see, that were capturing the sound of the tap dancing, and running into batches of electronic processors and modules. And I guess he had these presets, so that as he tap danced, they would run in there, and then in the speakers, they would be processed, these digital delays, echos, reverb, and pitch changes and stuff like that. So he’s tap dancing, you can hear the acoustics, he’s only a few feet away. And you’re also hearing this kind of digital mish-mash of the same sound.


He did that for a while, and then he sat down at a piano, which was prepared, in a similar way he had aluminum on the strings and things like that. But that also was picked up by a microphone and run through the same electronics and distorted in a similar way. And then to top it all off, he had balloons tied to the top of the piano and he would occasionally take a pin and just kind of swipe at them, and pop them all, and keep playing. So again, you might think, experimental music is someone taking a trumpet and [experimental trumpet noises]. And there is some of that. But I think the more that I have come to experience the music, the more that I have found just how far people’s imagination can go. Where the inspiration comes from, and I’m just constantly impressed with the ideas that people have. Not just to say, “Who can think up the craziest thing to do?” Because that’s not the point. And that shouldn’t be the point. But just how differently people can think about things. That someone can take one instrument and not play it very rhythmically or melodically. And that might be experimental. But someone else might think about the texture of the sound, and wants to work in that field. And someone else might be much more interested in silence. And just work with silence.


FMG: Now wait a minute. Silence, that’s cheating.


SM: That’s not cheating. Silence… well, we’re getting into a whole nother conversation now. But, John Cage was a big proponent that silence is still music.


FMG: He had a famous piece, I forget forget what the title was. Three minutes…


SM: “4:33” was the title. A famous piece. It was a “piano” piece that didn’t actually involve any playing of the piano. And the idea was, at the time he was very interested in Zen Buddhism, and the idea that everything is one, and so the idea behind that piece was that as the pianist sits at the piano and plays no music on the piano…


FMG: For four minutes and thirty-three seconds.


SM: Right. And the audience sits there and listens, they start to become more aware of ambient noises. The cars outside, the air conditioning system in the building, and themselves, coughing, fidgeting, jiggling their seats. And that noise becomes the music of the piece. And not only that, but the audience, the whole atmosphere becomes the performer. So that’s how everything becomes one.


FMG: So the point isn’t silence after all. I thought it was vacuum that he was aiming for.


SM: And that’s a common misconception. “4:33” isn’t about silence. But it does have to do with his concept that silence, in a way, doesn’t exist. That music is always happening. Sound is always happening. Even if you were in what they call an anechoic chamber, like at testing facilities- they have these special chambers where the walls are textured in such a way, they’ve got this foam and it’s all jutting out, it’s completely deadened sound in there. You can talk and barely hear yourself. So it’s like one of the most silent places in the world. John Cage went to one of these at one point when he was a student, and he wanted to just kind of see what it was like, because he was interested in sound. And he went in there, and he listened, and he came out, and he said to the technician, “I was hearing like a low-pitched ringing?” And the technician said, “Oh yeah, that’s your circulatory system.” And he said, “Well, I also heard a high-pitched ringing.” And he said, “Yeah, that’s your nervous system.”


So that’s the idea. If you ever notice that, if you’re ever in a really, really quiet space, you’ll hear those noises in your ear. And that’s your own body making its own music. Human beings can never truly experience silence.


FMG: Well, that makes it more likeable to me. Because I thought it was just like playing a mean trick on the audience.


SM: I know. And I’m not the hugest fan of John Cage, I don’t wanna be a cheerleader for him, because he did a lot that I didn’t think was so great.


Jocelyn Mathewes: He’s still significant.


FMG: Yes. And it helps me understand. It makes me think of a book I read called “Touching the Rock” written by an Englishman, I think his name was John Hull. But he went blind. He went blind as an adult. And one of the things that remained with me from this very interesting book was his sense of sound. He said, when you’re blind, your world really shrinks to the boundaries of your body. And you become so aware of the little sounds that you make, and you become so aware of where your body is in space. I think that would be kind of like that experience in the concert hall, as everybody realizes they’re just one big breathing entity as they’re listening to silence.


But I remember you saying, when I guess you had just decided to become a musicology major, and that you were talking to the head of the department maybe, and she was talking to you about experimental music, crazy experimental music, and you said, Like John Cage? And she said, Oh, that was decades ago. We are so far past John Cage. Imagine where we’ve gone now. And you said, there was a Steve-shaped hole in the door of her office.


SM: Yeah. I was not interested at the time. And I often think now that I do enjoy listening to that type of music. That I can go to the High Zero festival, I can sit, listen several nights in a row, listen for like three hours to this music, love every minute of it.


FMG: Well, that’s the one other thing I wanted to ask you. When you were telling me before that you were planning to go to this conference, you said, “And sometimes the pieces don’t work out.” And I said, “How do you know?” What do you enjoy or not enjoy, and how do you know if it’s working or not working?


SM: That’s a great question and I worry that there’s not a good answer to it. But I would say…


JM: I have an opinion!


FMG: Jocelyn! Come on over here and give us your opinion.


JM: I’ll give you my opinion as long as Ruth lets me. She may grab the microphone.


FMG: She’s- whoa, that hand went right out! a swipe through the air.


JM: (laughs) I think for me, having been to not as many nights as Steve has, it’s whether or not the ideas that are being communicated through the music are clear, or if they’re working together. Like, for instance, the Saturday performance- and there goes Ruth, hitting the microphone!- The Saturday performance that I went to with Steve involved, what was it, four women standing together, all wearing the same kind of uniform, sort of behaving as muses. They had these veils over their faces, and they would, they had these big boulders that they pushed around in a circle for a while, and then they all gathered up together, and one sat in a chair, and the others stood around them and they just kind of moaned and groaned and kind of half-sung, and then eventually…


SM: The idea was that they were giving oracle and prophecies to people in the audience.


JM: So they would do this, and somebody is sitting there and waiting for their reading, and eventually they would do this kind of word, or set of words, or something. Like, one of them was, wasn’t it ‘wind down’ or something?


SM: Yean, I think so.


JM: ‘Wind down’. (slowly) ‘Wind Down!’ And it’s all very serious and intentional, but I felt like it really fell flat because it was so… funny? Like if they had…


FMG: It was the self-importance.


JM: Yes, but then I felt as though it might have worked if they had actually created costumes that looked more authentic in some fashion. You know, if they actually looked and acted more like a cult. Or if they had maybe even chosen the readings ahead of time to be kind of creepily meaningful. So, it was like it was close, but no cigar. So I just spent the time thinking to myself, it would be really funny if they said, (dramatically) “You have something in your teeth!”. You know, just inventing things! (laughs)


FMG: (dramatically) “The Camry with the license plate… your lights are on!”


JM: Exactly! So, I didn’t enjoy that one as much as others.


FMG: How much of this has to do with visual arts as well? They’re wearing costumes, and you know- it’s something that you’re looking at, and not just something that you’re listening to. Is that typical of the acts?


SM: No. It’s pretty rare.


JM: Pretty minimal. It was a unique performance.


FMG: So there are some of them that don’t quite work. I guess we should be wrapping this up. Steve, do you want to tell me about- what was your favorite? What was something that you found really exhilarating at this conference? This conference! I mean festival. I keep thinking they’re musical scientists having their conference.


SM: If I can, I’d like to instead mention someone who performed last year.


FMG: Sure.


SM: We actually were just taking a walk outside with Ruthie and I mentioned him. His name is Jaap Blonk. He’s Swedish, I believe, and he’s maybe close to fifty. Kind of a goofy looking guy, but very nice. And he’s a vocalist. He’s an avant-garde vocalist, and he also plays saxophone and he also deals with electronics, but his main instrument is voice, and that’s really what makes him the most interesting. He would sit at a little table with his electronics in front of him, and a microphone, and just make some of the craziest and most interesting noises that you’ve ever heard. I hesitate to even try to imitate him. You’re looking at me, and you want me to, but I’m not going to because it’s not worth it. But I would encourage people to look him up online, he has a website, you can listen to his stuff. He has a little (I think he calls it) the Jaap organ, on his website, where you can click on faces of him and hear him make little noises. But anyway, his performance is just… some of the people that are vocalists at the High Zero Festival just sort of moan and groan and yelp and scream, and to me it’s not that interesting. It’s not really going anywhere.


FMG: It’s so random it doesn’t really have enough intentionality.


SM: Yeah. But the thing that really struck me about Jaap was the command over his voice, that he could really create some, he had a terrific range, and he would use that, and he had a very nice falsetto, and he would use that. And he would also really work to shift all the muscles in his mouth, in his throat, alternately, to try to come up with any different sound that he could. He was so varied in his performance, that’s what really impressed me. And on top of it he would use his electronics to kind of change, further change, the sound. And in addition to all that, he just had a really nice kind of whimsical, fun attitude to him that I really enjoyed, interacting with the other performers that were onstage with him, just really wanting to make the evening fun. It was fantastic, and I’ve started collecting his music since then. I was just so impressed by it.


FMG: It reminds me of how people say that their favorite professor, their favorite teacher, is the one that loves the subject so much and is so excited about it. And it sounds like that was kind of what he was like; it’s like you were along for the ride as he was delighting in and experimenting with all this variety, and like an athlete trying really hard to stretch himself. That’s one way that it can be enjoyable, as contrasted with this troupe that Jocelyn was talking about. It was like they tried to front-load the seriousness of it, and try to force you to take them as this profound oracle, but they really didn’t have the chops to back that up. There just wasn’t really that much there. Less than meets the eye.


SM: A performer like Jaap Blonk is not sitting down in front of the audience and doing something that he already thinks is good, and that he is already assuming that the audience, or expecting that the audience will like, or thinking that the audience should be liking this. He’s sitting down and he’s trying to prove to himself that he’s worth their attention. He’s working very hard to make the best experimental music that he can. That these are new and exciting ideas that he’s coming up with, so I think that he’d succeed because he never gives himself rest and he’s always trying.


FMG: I think that what has helped me as we talk about this, which we haven’t really done at any length before, is that I no longer have the impression that it’s all snide, highbrow people looking down on us peons who don’t get it.


SM: No, it’s bohemians all the way. You should see some of the people at these shows.


FMG: And you’re interested in all kinds of music, you have a very wide taste in music, but you also sometimes fill in as the choir director at Holy Cross, and you wrote a setting for “Receive the Body of Christ”. Do you sense any kind of conflict between enjoying that kind of High Zero music and using a cappella music to praise God? Some people, from the outside, I think would say, How can you do both? What do you think?


SM: The music that I try to eschew for those reasons is music where there’s a clear intent from the composer of being anti-Christian in some way. That was actually one of the reasons that I was a little turned off by that Saturday performance, the faux oracles. Even though I knew that they weren’t really, they didn’t really mean it all that seriously, they didn’t really consider themselves oracles, I still felt like, it’s prophecies and all that, I felt that as an Orthodox Christian, it’s all silly, it’s just hogwash. So why should we pretend, why should we sit around and pretend that we’re doing this? So yeah, there are artists who at times I may have listened to and felt that they had a consistent anti-Christian message or were blasphemous in some regard, and I do avoid that. But if you have four people up on a stage playing really crazy, crazy music where they’re trying to find all these strange sounds and trying to play their instruments in the most unorthodox way possible, I don’t feel in any way that that’s against God’s creation. If you take a saxophone and you take the reed out and you try to blow through it without the reed, that’s not going against God’s creation because God created the reed. That’s not how it works.


FMG: That’s creativity. And I have to admit it makes me think of PDQ Bach as well!


SM: Exactly! Who wrote some blasphemous music. (laughs) But I feel as though if it’s not decidedly against God, then it can always be used to praise God. And I can certainly sit there and listen, and I can only assume that most of the people that come to this performance probably aren’t Christians, and probably aren’t very conservative, but I can marvel at the creativity of Man, I can marvel at how creative we are, and all the beautiful arrays of sound and music that we have at our disposal. And that makes me want to praise God.


FMG: That’s great. Thanks, Steve. Maybe next year you can pick out one of the performances and take me to something you think perhaps I would enjoy. After talking to you I understand it a little bit better. You’ve got a blog, Steve, about the music you’re listening to, and I know that you did several days writing up what was going on at the High Zero. What’s the name of your blog?


SM: Yeah, I went to three performances over the weekend and I wrote about each one individually. The blog is Very simple. And it’s all about music, various things, album reviews, concert reviews, news…


FMG: I think you’re a good writer about music, you’ve got a deeper interest than a lot of people who just, “I like it, it’s cool,” you know. You have some insight into the structure of the music.


SM: I hope that if people are interested in learning about the High Zero Festival that they can read my recaps and maybe get a better insight about them.


FMG: And write you, I guess.


SM: Absolutely.


FMG: There’s a way to contact you through the blog?


SM: Yes, you can leave comments on the blog, and I think my email is attached there too.


FMG: Good. Thanks.


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