Category Archives: Uncategorized

Just took a look a few days ago at Marooned–an anthology that just came out, which contains a piece by me on Alice Coltrane. No idea why the last two grafs of my piece are italicized–I certainly didn’t do that and I was kind of mortified–but hope you enjoy the piece anyhow. Just imagine that the last two grafs are un-italicized in your head. It takes some mental typographic rearranging.

Books I’ve read over the past week, while I’ve been sick:

Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen by Michel Chion
Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy by Stephen Duncombe
The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler
The Auditory Culture Reader

Woebot with a great post on Todd Terry. One of the records that I always revisit when I’m going through tumultuous times (times such as these) (the record was found, of course, in a 99-cent bin in Brooklyn) is “The Circus/Weekend” [Fresh, 1989]. Probably because Todd Terry’s stuff sounds so tumultuous. Sometimes the modern ‘minimal’ sounds can feel like so many flecks of misty rain; this stuff hits you like water blasting from a fire hydrant. Powerfully refreshing. A psychedelic jumble of ideas, strikingly intuitive and non-intuitive at the same time.

I realized recently that three interviews I did last year really informed my ways of seeing. All three of these interviews were very long and congenial, and ended with us not talking about music or art at all–just life, really. And all three ended up with them offering me advice, in some way.

-Carsten Höller: This guy is one of my favorite contemporary artists, for all things surreal and psychological. He was born in Belgium and lives in Stockholm. In a previous life, he had a PhD in biology and studied arcane insect behavior until he decided to become an artist. He’s probably making more money now than he was back then. Things Carsten reminded me: You don’t throw away your past life as a scientist by choosing to be an artist. Everything you do in your life will inform everything else you do, however subtly. Art and science are not the same, but they are connected.

-David Byrne: Byrne reminded me that science is where it’s at. He spent a lot of time talking enthusiastically about the science textbooks he’d read, and crazy ideas he had about the way the brain might work. He reminded me of Eno, of course, who also spends a lot of time thinking and talking about science.

-Ryuichi Sakamoto: I interviewed Ryuichi Sakamoto in a Manhattan restaurant. He never took off his sunglasses. The interview lasted almost three hours. We talked about Berlin for a bit, and how I felt that, in the increasingly dispiriting real-estate market, New York City was increasingly becoming the province of the very rich, the very lucky, the very neurotic, or all three. He reminisced a bit about how New York was in the late ’70s and early ’80s. I had heard that halcyon story many times before. Why are you living in New York? I remember him asking. If I was your age, he said, I would be living in Berlin! New York will always be there. You can always come back. But you’re only in your 20’s once. Go make your art elsewhere, where the rent is cheap. You can always come back here later when it’s time to sell.

I haven’t been listening to much rock these days; any desire to listen to rock is entirely satiated by the occasional game of Guitar Hero. It’s the first video game I’ve been really fascinated by in about fifteen years. A game so bananas it spawned its own academic conference. I usually play on “Medium” level to avoid loud boos from my fictional graphical audience; I recently tried to play “Smoke on the Water” on Expert level with catastrophic results. I was thinking someone should come up with a video game called “Ambient Electronic Music Hero,” but I’m trying to figure out a way in which that game would not be intensely boring. “Free Jazz Hero” might be good, I was thinking.

I’ve been thinking a lot about music and technology, and trying to figure out how to merge my interests in electronic music with my longstanding interest in cognitive neuroscience. I’ve been reading and re-reading all kinds of books lately–“The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction” by Jonathan Sterne, R. Murray Schafer’s “The Soundscape”; “The Cognition of Basic Musical Structures” by David Temperley; a book I picked up in the discount pile at the MIT Press bookstore titled “The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933”; “Listening: An Introduction to the Perception of Auditory Events” by Stephen Handel; and a whole bunch more.

I originally got interested in neuroscience by studying chemistry and biology. It followed that I got interested in biochemistry, the most logical merger between bio and chem, and synaptic transmission seemed to be one of the best ways to learn about biochemistry. In the mid-1990s, studying the brain seemed really cutting-edge to me, perhaps because of the brain’s place in the popular consciousness at that time: the rise of electronica, various pop-sci and sci-fi books that were coming out, the impending Internet boom, etc. It felt like a time that was ripe with possibility. I was working long hours in an organic chemistry lab at Princeton during the summer of ’96, trying to make a deeply esoteric molecule in a tube, and I wanted to work on something more messy and biological, more real. I remember feeling excited that textbooks were still in the process of being written on a lot of the stuff in neuroscience, whereas with theoretical organic chemistry, it felt like it had all already been said.

I’ve spent so much time in my 20s figuring out what I want to do–music journalist? scientist? science lecturer? post-punk researcher? documentary filmmaker? My first paying job at MIT when I was seventeen was in brain biochemistry–trying to tease out the biochemical pathways by which melatonin seems to help people sleep. I was also taking a music composition class at the time. I didn’t draw a line then between music and the brain.

This semester, I’ve been auditing a seminar at MIT called Music Perception and Cognition. I took it because I wanted to be exposed to a lot of the current research in the field; I had been reading a lot of scientific papers on my own that I had found via the internet and various journals, but I had no idea which ones were important, and my knowledge of music cognition was, for the most part, rocky and self-taught. The class has been particularly heavy on computational models of pitch perception, which is not a forte of mine. Sometimes I feel like I understand maybe 45% of what’s going on, and sometimes it hurts my brain. But I took the class because I wanted to ‘not understand’; it’s also very useful to find out what is, as of yet, not understood.

Simon has a new anthology out, which you can get here, complete with snappy cover. I haven’t read it yet, but Blissed Out is one of my all-time top reads and I’m sure this collection will be too.

Proof positive of the science/art divide: Last week I was in DC for four days, for the annual Medicine in the Media: Reporting on Medical Research boot camp run by the National Institutes of Health. Now I’m in Boston, thinking about music; tomorrow I’ll be in New York, teaching science. The next day, I’ll be in Seattle for the EMP Pop Conference, to present a paper titled “Examining European Fandom of the American Dance-Music Mythos.” Then I’m heading to Vancouver to do a story on Mathew Jonson and the Wagon Repair crew. Then back to New York to do more science. Then back to Boston.