Monday, April 14, 2014

Music, to Whose Ears?

You have never demonstrated any particular skill with numbers.  You could sit in the same classroom with them, listen to individuals who, for the most part, you enjoyed, talking about numbers as though revealing family secrets or telling you about combinations and formulas you ought to know.

These individuals who, for the most part, you enjoyed, without exception reached a point in your relationship with them when they expected you to settle disputes or conundrums related to numbers.  That is to say, they expected you to solve problems calculated to demonstrate your understanding of the enormous potential for nuance between numbers, their use, and the outcomes of their use.

Take Jim and John, for instance.  They live in different parts of the city and wish to meet downtown.  When should each one leave for the meeting without causing the other to wait?  Stuff like that.  And what about the these same two dudes being out on a lake fishing, at least half an hour from the dock,when one of them notices a leak in the boat.  If the boat is taking on two quarts of water a minute, how long will it be before the boat sinks?  And what about their chances if one of them uses the bait bucket to bail water?

You could never bring yourself to care much for these individuals, or their problems about how many pizzas they needed to feed twenty-three persons without any left-over slices?   

Thanks to your father's interest in such things, you learned about measurements of distance you'd seen no previous reason to feel concerned about.  You'd worked your own way through the number of yards in a quarter mile, a half mile, three quarters of a mile, and a mile itself, all this because you hoped to demonstrate some skills in running these distances.

You became intrigued by a unit of measurement called the furlong, which is an eighth of a mile or two hundred twenty yards.  You noticed that most of the thoroughbred racing horses ran distances measured in furlongs.  Thanks to occasional instructions from your father and your growing interest in listening to radio broadcasts from Hollywood Park and the Santa Anita Race Track, narrated or called by one Joe Hernandez, you had a growing sense of which were effective times for horses to cover distances expressed in furlongs.  

You also began, as boys do, to appreciate the number of times baseball players were able to hit baseballs with bats to the point where they were not immediately fielded and thus, in accordance with rules of the game of baseball, considered various types of hits, with various consequences attached to them.

Such horse racing and baseball demonstrations of your familiarity with numbers did not have positive influence on the otherwise agreeable men and women who urged you to see numbers in entirely different relationships

To put the matter in another perspective, the one time you did appear to demonstrate a skill set with numbers was the time a teacher told you how creative your answers were, although they showed no recognition of the way in which most people arrived at answers.

Somewhere along the way, you'd been exposed to the theory that individuals who had skills in music tended to be good at math.  You had no yearning to be good at math, but you did wish to have musical skills.

You spent a good deal of time with various primitive instruments, such as a dime store kazoo, your own equivalent of a cigar box banjo, and a pocket comb and a sheet of tissue paper, doing your best to demonstrate enough skill to convince your parents to support your musical learning.  You did impress your sister, but not in the way you'd hoped.

You impressed your sister and parents in more positive ways through your skills with a Duncan yo-you.  Some of the model airplanes you built actually flew, and you seemed to be able to build small radios that worked without electricity, vacuum tubes, or batteries.  Oddly enough, you were able to identify various musical compositions after hearing scant opening chords, to the growing bafflement of Mrs. Lovejoy, your sister's piano teacher, whom you pleaded with your parents to extend to you as well.

For a number of years during your immersion in scholarly book publishing, you discovered a use for your old Nemesis, geometry, and for uses of more or less simple arithmetic that gave you great satisfaction.  Designing the interior of a book became every bit as meaningful and significant to you as recognizing from a manuscript or sample chapters the text of a worthwhile project.  Design of books is, in some ways, Getting things to fit and look as if they were intended to fit; also to present particular information in an appealing and accessible way.

While you were coming to terms with numbers and some, but by no means all, of the philosophies relating to them, you were coming to terms with yourself and with words, not to forget the presentation of words in appealing and accessible ways.

Sometimes, when you hear individuals speaking a language which remains a stranger to your ears, you recall conversations with mathematicians and with musicians and with polyglot speakers of languages.  Listening to them, you hear what is among the purest of music to you; the sounds of ideas and concepts, tumbling along in some structure.

If numbers could talk, would they sound like music?

When you listen to music, you try to listen for numbers.  

When you're at a poetry slam or the reading at a new book signing, you listen to the music of ideas, swirling and beckoning.  And all is well.  At least, as much as you can understand of it is.

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