Category Archives: imagination

That’s All Folk

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Louis Armstrong once remarked to the New York Times, “All music is folk music; I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.” This quotable quip suggests that music-making is among the creative behaviors that set human beings apart from the instinct-driven animals of nature. This supposition has been challenged with some success in recent years. There is growing recognition of intentional sonic production (read: music) among nonhuman species from rodents to whales. Armstrong’s point reflects the conventional view that humanity’s claim to distinction—which is ever diminishing in light of evolutionary theory—is somehow proven by our musical imagination.

Although the notion of a song-less horse may be faulty, the first part of the phrase jives with the deconstructive tendencies of the postmodern age. All human music is, in a sense, folk music—or at least has the potential of achieving that distinction. This is true not only in the literal sense Armstrong implied—folk is a synonym for people—but also in the technical sense that folk music, as a category of musical material, has become less amenable to definition and more inclusive of kaleidoscopic sounds.

Folk music first entered the nomenclature in the nineteenth century, alongside other cultural elements somewhat derogatorily identified as folklore. Words like simple, savage, unsophisticated, primitive, rough and unschooled were common in those early writings. As the designation proliferated in the musical literature, its meaning expanded at a corresponding rate. A casual review of its usage over the past century and a half reveals an array of imperfect, oft-chauvinistic and non-binding definitions: music passed on orally; music of indigenous peoples; music of the lower classes; music with unknown composers; music with collective origin; music interwoven with a national culture; music long associated with an event; non-commercial music; music that comes to identify a people in one way or another.

Any one of these meanings is susceptible to collapse under closer inspection, and contradictions arise when they are placed side by side. For instance, cherished songs of unknown authorship are commonly packaged for consumers as art songs, recordings, concert performances and other profit-seeking ventures. Does this eliminate their folk-ness? Oftentimes, too, melodies identified as folk can be traced to known composers and may have been extracted from more elaborate works written with commercial aims. This is the origin of many “traditional” melodies of the church and synagogue, and describes how show tunes and other popular idioms find their way into the nursery, where they pass from the mouths of one generation to the next.

While matching a presumed-anonymous tune with its true composer is admirable and responsible, it does nothing to change its folk status. The same can be said for similar investigative pursuits. This is because folk music is a process, not a thing (we might dub it “folkalization”). Almost any music of almost any origin can become folk through widespread circulation, continuous use, accumulated associations and its role as an identity marker for an affinity group.

In his instructive book, Folk Music: A Very Short Introduction, musicologist Mark Slobin concedes that the term folk music is so widely applied and has so many nuanced meanings as to evade simple summary. He stresses that it is a fluid amalgam of sounds that constantly adapts as it travels from person to person, location to location, and age to age, and that it is best to identify it using the practical, though unscientific, measurement of “we know it when we hear it.” One of Slobin’s key points is that folk music is not a body of fossilized tunes but the record of a living experience, which is subject to shift depending on cultural trends, courses of events, a performer’s whim, etc. As he relates: “Every group has a stock of tunes and texts that have come together so skillfully that they have no past and which expand into an unlimited future.”

With all of the sentiments, convictions, disputes and controversies a discussion like this entails, the best we can do is scratch the surface. The topic is endless. Yet despite the uncertainties, speculations and counter-speculations folk music has and will provoke, it is increasingly apparent that Louis Armstrong was, perhaps unintentionally, on to something.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Music Good and Bad

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The God of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) is not a personal or independent creator of the universe, but the universe itself. The deity, whom Spinoza called “God or nature,” is the ultimate cause of all things because all things follow causally and necessarily from the divine essence. There is a definite order in the universe, and everything operates according to that structure. In this deterministic system, where the whole of nature proceeds “eternally from a certain necessity and with the utmost perfection,” “bad” and “good” are illusory categories relative to human experience, and free will (as commonly conceived) is but a figment of human consciousness. We are not free to do what we want: every action is conditioned by circumstances preceding it, those circumstances are determined by causes preceding them, and on and on. Things can only turn out one way: the way they do. As such, the appearance of rightness or absurdity, justice or unfairness in nature stems from our ignorance of the coherence of the universe and our demand that everything be arranged in accordance with human reason.

Arguing the merits and demerits of this concept is a favorite sport among philosophers. In some ways, Spinoza’s ideas seem as radical today as when they led to his expulsion from Amsterdam’s Jewish community in 1656. What is intriguing from a musical standpoint is an analogy he used to challenge conventional wisdom on morality: “As for the terms good and bad, they indicate no positive quality in things regarded in themselves but are merely modes of thinking, or notions which we form from the comparison of things one with another. Thus one and the same thing can be at the same time good, bad and indifferent. For instance, music is good for him that is melancholy, bad for him that mourns; for him that is deaf, it is neither good nor bad” (The Ethics, IV).

As controversial as this evaluation may be, the comment on music deserves our consideration. There have been many attempts to devise standards and categories of good and bad music. Famously, sociomusicologist Simon Frith proposed four signifiers of bad pop recordings: tracks that rely on false sentiment; tracks featuring outmoded sound gimmicks; tracks displaying uneasy genre confusion; and tracks incompetently performed or produced. Yet, aside from perhaps the last part, these are essentially matters of taste. To use a well-worn aphorism, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Similar issues of preference and bias—which, we might add, are deterministically conditioned by circumstances like exposure and environment—cloud attempts to separate the trash from the treasure of any musical genre. Objective measurements simply do not (and cannot) exist.

Spinoza goes a step further in identifying the murkiness and subjectivity of musical judgment. Namely, he recognizes utility as a determining factor. Certain music may be appropriate or inappropriate for certain people in certain states at certain times. (Hence, the examples of the depressed person, the mourner and the person unable to hear.) It follows, then, that the perceived goodness or badness of a piece derives from two qualities: personal taste and situational function.

Spinoza sums up this non-absolutist, contextual approach thus: “By good I mean that which we certainly know to be useful to us.” If the music is “good,” it is because we like it and because we find it suitable for a particular situation. “Bad” music fails on both accounts. It is also true that one’s opinion of a piece may shift from good to bad or vice versa depending on changes in aesthetic leanings and the contexts in which the music is heard. As Spinoza might say, the conditions, causes and effects leading up to the listening experience determine whether the music is heard as good or bad (or indifferent).

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Musical Worlds

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The supreme value of human life in Jewish thought is encapsulated in the oft-repeated phrase: “Whoever saves one life, it is as if he saved the entire world” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). A slogan for the sanctity of human existence, this well-worn saying is practically manifested in the commandment of pikuach nefesh—saving a soul. Jewish legal consensus holds that religious regulations—including and especially prohibitions associated with restrictive days like Shabbat—are to be abandoned for the sake of preserving the life of someone in peril. The Talmud gives representative scenarios in which Sabbath rules can be broken, such as rescuing an infant from the sea and extinguishing a threatening blaze of fire (BT Yoma 84b). The rabbinic phrase is also regularly invoked in discussions of healthcare, human rights and other ethical concerns.

Though it is not customary to do so, one could evaluate the saying through an existentialist lens. The notion that a person constitutes a unique world is a profound comment on the relativity of human experience. We can be equated to entire worlds because we each fashion and exist within the world as we understand it. How we process information and the amalgamated situations and activities that comprise our biographies cannot be duplicated.

The world is actualized through our perceptions and interpretations; reality is in the mind of the beholder. Each one of us understands the objective universe through a combination of sensory intake, emotional cues, mental associations, personality traits, educational exposure, instinctive proclivities, personal relationships, social conditioning, genetic predispositions and so on. As a result, no two individuals share identical experiences. The world, as processed through our senses and critical faculties, belongs to us and us alone.

This can be illustrated using music. Musical sound was once touted as a universal language understood by everyone in more or less the same way. Whereas language fails to communicate beyond a fluency group, musical dialogue was imagined to be immediately discerned. This view—popular in the nineteenth century and marked by ethnocentrism, false assumptions and genuine naiveté—was eventually discarded. Not only do varying cultures and sub-cultures have distinct sound preferences, stylistic conventions and aesthetic barometers, but they also consist of individuals conditioned to react to musical stimuli in certain ways. For instance, the major and minor of the Western diatonic system induce generalized responses for people in that cultural sphere, which may or may not be present in outside groups. Moreover, even where there is musical homogeneity, like in a church or folkloric society, individual members hear music in individualized ways. An ingroup’s most popular song still passes through many ears and evokes thoughts, sentiments, images and memories specific to each participant.

It is through these shades of apprehension—musical and otherwise—that our existence takes shape. When we expire, a complex network of cognitive, emotional and functional reality perishes with us. It is tantamount to losing an entire world.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Bad Vibrations

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The destruction of Jericho is the most powerful sonic event in the Bible (Josh. 6:1-27). Told as the first Israelite battle during the conquest of Canaan, the story depicts deafening sounds shaking the walls of Jericho to the point of collapse. Sound waves alone, the story tells us, were enough to topple the thick fortification and assure a swift and victorious invasion.

The opening verses of the narrative set the dramatic scene. Joshua is given a divine command to send his troops marching around the walled city for six days. They are to circle Jericho one time per day, accompanied by the Ark of the Covenant and seven priests carrying shofars. On the seventh day, they are to complete the circuit seven times as the priests violently blast their horns. The march is to climax with a sustained blast accompanied by screams and shouts. “Thereupon the city wall will collapse,” the Bible tells us, “and the people shall advance, every man straight ahead” (Josh. 6:5).

In the excessive attack that follows, Joshua’s soldiers exterminate the inhabitants of Jericho, slaughter their livestock, and burn the city to the ground, sparing only the family of Rahab, a harlot who hid two Israelite spies during a reconnaissance mission to the city. The Israelites also pilfer gold and silver and objects made of copper and iron, which “go into the treasury of the Lord” (Josh. 6:19).

In the first decade of the twentieth century two German archaeologists, Carl Watzinger and Ernst Sellin, conducted a scientific investigation of the Jericho site, expecting to validate the historicity of the biblical account. They determined instead that the city had been unoccupied during the purported period of Joshua (c. 1400 BCE). Archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon confirmed their findings in the 1950s, and radiocarbon tests done in 1995 dated samples from the site to 1562 BCE (plus/minus 38 years).

This does not mean that the myth is without basis. Jericho is an earthquake-prone location. In fact, a fault line runs through the area, known as the Jericho Fault. Most researchers agree that a massive earthquake struck the region and demolished the city’s ancient walls. Legend of the cataclysmic event grew as the story passed from person to person and generation to generation. The Israelites inserted themselves into the retelling, distorting and embellishing the details to include their tribal hero Joshua and the noisy people under his charge.

Clothing earthquakes in mythological images is fairly common. Seismic events have given rise to several Japanese myths, including the story of a gigantic catfish named Namazu, upon whose back the land floats. When the fish flips its tale, the ground trembles. A West African myth has the Earth resting atop a giant’s head. Earthquakes occur whenever he sneezes. The Maoris of New Zealand tell a story of Mother Earth, who is pregnant with the god Ru. When Ru kicks in the womb, the world shakes.

These and other earthquake myths are rooted in observable phenomena. Trying to explain the Earth’s random and ruinous power, they draw on imagery from ordinary experience: fish, pregnancy, people, etc. And since the audiences are familiar with these elements, the stories seem like reasonable depictions of cause and effect. Mystery solved.

The plausibility factor is important when considering the biblical story of Jericho. The people of Israel were intimate with the audible force of the shofar, a utilitarian instrument with civic, ceremonial and military uses. They heard its ear-splitting tones and felt its bone-rattling vibrations—the impact of which was amplified when more horns were added to the cacophonous mix. With a little imagination and exaggeration—and the added roars of Israelite troops—the sound was amplified to destructive levels.

The collapse of Jericho is a uniquely Israelite take on earthquake mythology. It projects human responses to sound onto the Earth, and incorporates Israel’s favorite instrument into one of its most important stories.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Composing Legends

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Prolificacy is a common characteristic of the creative mind. The creator must create. By definition, a painter paints, a sculptor sculpts, a cake decorator decorates cakes. Yet there is a certain (if unspecified) quantity of creating that must be done before one can earn such a title. And in most creative fields—artistic, culinary or otherwise—a substantial body of work is a prerequisite for being considered exceptional. In the musical world, astounding output is seen as a sign of special insight, sensitivity and genius. The giftedness of a musician is thought to be proportional to his or her productivity. Thus, we find large sums of music attributed to two biblical figures remembered for their astuteness, sagacity and wisdom: David and Solomon.

Tradition ascribes the entire Book of Psalms to King David, and 73 psalm chapters bear his name. A version of the Psalter from the Dead Sea Scrolls goes further, claiming that David wrote 3,600 psalms, along with 450 additional songs. Solomon, David’s son and successor, is said to have authored 1,005 songs and 3,000 proverbs (1 Kgs. 5:12). That reference prompted a veritable library of Solomonic pseudepigraphy, including two biblical psalms (72 and 127), the books of Proverbs, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, the deuterocanonical Wisdom of Solomon, and the Psalms of Solomon (an extracanonical book from the first or second century B.C.E).

Doubts have been raised about whether these monarchs authored any of the songs to which their names are attached. For one thing, it was customary to put wisdom in the mouths of kings, regardless of their reputation. It could thus be that David and Solomon were made into fertile songwriters as a way to venerate their wisdom above that of “ordinary” monarchs. Another problem is that epigraphical evidence from their time is scanty. The world of David and Solomon was virtually illiterate, and it is likely that neither was capable of writing—let alone scribing beautifully intricate verses.

There is a more basic question apart from these historical considerations: Is it even possible for the kings to have been so musically prolific? The answer is a qualified yes.

Über-prolific musicians have been known in every epoch of human history. Purandara Dasa (1484–1564), the father of Carnatic music, wrote at least 1,000 songs. The oeuvre of German Baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) is believed to comprise over 3,000 pieces. Simon Sechter (1788-1867), who taught music theory at the Vienna Conservatory, wrote over 8,000 pieces (a comparative few of which were published).

Super-productive musicians of modern vintage include Sun Ra, an avant-garde jazzer and self-styled extraterrestrial, who is credited with 159 albums. Musical polymath Frank Zappa put out 62 albums during his brief lifetime, and 29 additional albums have been released posthumously. Minimalist composer Philip Glass has nearly one hundred albums to his credit, and Ennio Morricone has provided scores for some 340 films.

It hardly needs mention that the work of these creative personalities is not always masterful in terms of quality, originality or care of construction. Anyone who has done a lot of anything knows this to be an inevitable truth. Nonetheless, a simple fact must be acknowledged: prolificacy requires time, diligence and dedication. This makes the idea of David and Solomon as fertile songwriters all the more doubtful.

As a rule, prolific musicians are fully absorbed in their calling. In contrast, David and Solomon are portrayed as warrior kings whose days were full with diplomacy, strategizing and nation building (not to mention their eventful personal lives). At best they would have written songs in their limited spare time. So, even if we set aside questions about ascriptions and literacy, the volume of material attributed to them would have been exceedingly difficult to achieve. It might be a remote possibility, but remote bordering on highly improbable.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Sound Science

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The Book of Ezra chronicles the return from the Babylonian exile and restoration of Jerusalem. The sacrificial system is recommenced, the priesthood reinstated and the Temple reconstructed. During the course of the rebuilding, a special ceremony is conducted for the laying of the Temple’s foundation stones. High priests garbed in festive attire blow their trumpets. Levites assume musical formation and crash their cymbals. They sing “songs extolling and praising the Lord,” to which the people respond with a “great shout” (Ezra 3:11). Some who recall the glory of the First Temple weep loudly. Others burst forth in uncontainable joy. The music and the moment fuse to stir an eruption of emotions that can be “heard from afar” (3:13).

This ceremony did not have to occur. The construction site could have been a place of uninterrupted labor. But the significance of the location and building project pushed the people to a commemorative mood. Likewise, it was not essential that instruments be played or songs be sung. A subdued ritual could have sufficed. Yet musical effusion was the chosen modality. Organized tones and coordinated rhythms gave structure to the event and intensified the associated moods: hope, loss, exuberance, sorrow, gratitude, wonderment, awe. The music was confined in form, but boundless in effect.

This mixture of formal design and amorphous impact is why music is labeled a science and an art. Aspects of music can be distilled and analyzed: pitch, timbre, duration, frequency, volume, harmony, etc. Its sound waves can be electronically mapped and quantified. But its influence on human psychology and physiology cannot be mechanically predicted or empirically examined. In the compendious phrase of Søren Kierkegaard, “Music, like time, is measured but immeasurable, is composed but indivisible.”

The merging of science and art accrues an added dimension when we consider the relationship of music and imagination. A distinction is usually made between the kind of imagination that propels scientific pursuits and the imagination involved in artistic activities. As biologist and polymath Jacob Bronowski explained in The Identity of Man (1965), scientific imagination seeks to resolve ambiguities by conducting decisive tests between alternatives, while artistic imagination encourages divergent paths without deciding for one or the other. The “single-valued action” of science contrasts with the “tense and happy indecision” of art. In Bronowski’s evaluation, the two trajectories of the imaginative process—narrowing and expanding—form the basis of consciousness. What makes music distinctive is that it travels both avenues simultaneously.

Returning to the scene in Ezra, we can detect practical applications of music’s double nature. The songs were presumably tonal, conventional and logically shaped. These scientific qualities supplied the event with a concrete sonic framework. At the same time, the artistic aspects of the music allowed for open-ended responses. The musical ceremony was a single, choreographed occurrence with space for many interpretations. To use Bronowski’s language, it satisfied both parts of human consciousness: the longing for certainty and the desire for limitlessness.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.