Sunday, May 2, 2010

In Search of Foundations for a Theory of Performing Music

It seems as if much of the writing I do these days is directed toward trying to establish what would be a theory of performing music and how such a theory could be developed. Recently I have finally gotten around to starting in on reading The Sensory Order, one of the final works of Friedrich Hayek. I have been meaning to read this book for about a year and a half, and it has suffered the cruel fate of always being bumped down a notch or two on my priority list. If we broaden our perspective of Hayek beyond his usual role as a "founding father" of "Chicago School" economics, particularly as both preached and practiced by Milton Friedman, we discover that, as far as pioneering is concerned, Hayek's interest in economics was pursued within the context of mathematical problems concerned with the analysis of what we now call "complex systems." To invoke my past language, these are systems "based on nonlinear equations whose interactive behavior cannot be reduced to the better-understood principle of linear systems and that, from a statistical point of view, may easily be perceived as chaotic." In this terminology The Sensory Order takes on what is generally recognized as "the mother of all complex systems," human consciousness. Basically, the title refers to how we bring order to what William James called the "blooming, buzzing confusion" that assaults our sensory organs, not just external but also internal.

When I started telling some of my colleagues about Hayek's book, I was not surprised to discover that it had influenced the work of two thinkers who have a major impact on my own approach to the nature of the human mind. One was my doctoral advisor, Marvin Minsky; and the other was Gerald Edelman, whose The Remembered Present is one of the most fascinating attempts to account for consciousness in terms of physiological foundations. All this background was at work yesterday when I settled into the fourth chapter of The Sensory Order, entitled "Sensation and Behavior." As I began this chapter, I recalled preparing to give an expository talk on Edelman's theory to members of the research laboratory where I was working in Singapore at the beginning of the last decade. I used the word "behavior" in my introductory remarks and was immediately called to task by a psychologist for not being specific enough in how I was using the word. From this point of view, I was encouraged that Hayek was using the word at a highly intuitive level, which he could do because he never tried to conceal the thoroughly speculative nature of the thinking behind his text.

At that intuitive level, Hayek was just interested in establishing the relationship between what our sensations tell us about objects in the world and what actions we take through knowing about those objects. By the time we have reached this chapter, he has made it clear that, while the objects of the world may be physical, we know about them through properties that are phenomenal, rather than physical. For example, when I look at the printed page next to me, I see the marks organized into words; and I recognize that different words have been printed in different colors. I do not see the page in terms of a spectral representation of the different frequencies of light that are reflected off of its surface. Hayek's chapter is thus about how and why we act the way we do in the physical world on the basis of how we apprehend the phenomenal world; and that chapter gave me a better appreciation of the extent to which the performance of music is concerned heavily (but not entirely) with actions ultimately grounded in the phenomenal world. (I actually have one colleague with whom I converse heavily over the relationship between the physical world and the phenomenal world behind the performance of music. This includes not only what goes into producing the sounds but also our perception of our sounds and those of others.)

At some level, then, developing a theory of performing music requires developing a prerequisite theory of the relations that exist between objects and actions. In thinking about those relations, I have come up with three categories (knowing full well that there may be more):

  1. At the most objective level there are the mathematical relationships between representations of state and representations of process, covering disciplines running all the way from the calculus to cybernetic models of control through feedback.
  2. Physiologically, there are the relations between perception and action, which were the primary focus of Hayek's chapter.
  3. In the social world, however, relations are established through how we communicate about them; so we also need to account for grammatical distinctions between how we apply nouns and noun phrases to objects and how we apply verbs and verb phrases to processes.

I have no idea whether or not I shall still be thinking about this framework a month (week?) from now; but today is seems to be helping me to sort out my own confusions!


manwithoutqualities said...

"Recently I have finally gotten around to starting in on reading The Sensory Order, one of the final works of Friedrich Hayek."

TSO was published in 1952. The bulk of Hayek's work had yet to appear.

Stephen Smoliar said...

I stand corrected. Certainly, if we go by the strict enumeration of books on the Wikipedia
Hayek bibliography page
, more books follow The Sensory Order than precede it. On the other hand I am not sure how we want to count things like essays, correspondence, and other documents, which are currently in the process of finding their way into volumes of the Collected

There is also the more problematic issue of whether we measure "bulk" in the basis of "output pages;" or if we try to assess the impact of those pages. The Sensory Order had very little impact, regardless of my personal connection to the work. These days we tend to view The Road to Serfdom as his work of greatest impact, but there are any number of reasons why this would misrepresent Hayek. My personal bias leans heavily towards "Economics and Knowledge," which dates from the Thirties; but even the most rabid "knowledge evangelists" (past or present) tend to be unaware of this essay.

One final thought: The 1994 version of the Collected Works project included a volume entitled The Sensory Order and Other Essays in Psychology. If you follow the hyperlink to the Web page for the current plan, you will see that the volume title is now only The Sensory Order. Since that entry has neither date nor hyperlink, we can assume the volume has not yet appeared, which has left me wondering whether or not there are any "other essays!"