Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Indre Viskontas Augments her SFCM Faculty Artist Series Recital with Thoughts About Brains

Last night’s Faculty Artist Series performance in the Sol Joseph Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) was actually a lecture-demonstration by Indre Viskontas. The program sheet listed her as “soprano and neuroscientist,” the latter due to her doctoral degree in cognitive neuroscience from the University of California at Los Angeles. Viskontas made a case for the relevance of knowledge of the brain in our efforts to understand the nature of music in both behavioral and artifactual terms, using her own vocal performances to reinforce that case. She was joined by the members of the Telegraph Quartet (violinists Joseph Maile and Eric Chin, violist Pei-Ling Lin, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw), Stephanie Payne on bass, and Keisuke Nakagoshi on piano.

It goes without saying that, over the course of two hours with a generous amount of time allowed for the performance of music, Viskontas could only scratch the surface of her neuroscience expertise. She chose to focus primarily on time and memory; and, while confined to that surface level, she could still offer up a few clues about brain physiology that offered more than a few strong hints as to just how complex this subject matter is. Nevertheless, my own academic background conditioned me to the conviction that the best lectures are the ones that raise good questions. So, rather than stick to Viskontas’ path, I am hoping I can convey a better sense of last night’s experience by raising some reflections on the content.

With regard to her primary focus, she casually dropped the observation that you cannot have memory without time. Such an assertion can be an effective stimulus to speculation, but I would like to be a bit of a stickler for terminology. While there are any number of schools of thought of the question of just what memory is (most of which tend to agree that human memory definitely is not like computer memory), time is nothing more than a basic physical property. If you are going to say that you cannot have memory without time, you may as well also say that you cannot have life itself without time, let alone planets orbiting around a star (or the swinging of a pendulum, for those reluctant to leave the planet).

Most likely, Viskontas was using “time” as an abbreviation for “time-consciousness.” This is a far trickier concept, sufficiently tricky that, with reinforcement from my own reading experiences, I would differ with the ordering she proposed. Those who have been following this site for at least a year know that my personal thoughts about mind (not to be confused with brain) have been strongly influenced by an admittedly speculative book by Friedrich Hayek entitled The Sensory Order. While the book has never had wide appeal, it has influenced several major thinkers.

The title of the book could easily have been inspired by William James’ famous assertion that our sensory organs bombard the brain with a “blooming, buzzing confusion.” To the extent that brain is the organ of mind, it has the job of bringing order to that sensory confusion. Hayek’s book speculated on how a physical (albeit biological) object could achieve that task; and he developed a sort of “gradus ad parnassum” that began with a fundamental ability to form perceptual categories and escalated through a series of steps to what the cognitive science community now calls consciousness.

Now categorization clearly depends on time. It amounts to establishing, one way or another, some kind of similarity between stimuli experienced now and stimuli experienced then. Thus, Hayek’s path initially ascends from the ability to form categories to the ability, at some relatively primitive level, to retain them; and this is where the word “memory” enters his vocabulary. On the other hand time-consciousness (i.e. explicit awareness of the distinction between “now” and “then”) does not arise until later in Hayek’s plan. So, while it may be not be possible to have memory without time, it is possible to have memory without explicit consciousness of how time passes.

(This is probably a good time to state that one of those “major thinkers” influenced by Hayek was Gerald Edelman. Edelman’s book The Remembered Present amounts to efforts to find physiological evidence in support of Hayek’s speculations. The book never makes an airtight case, but suggests that Hayek may have been on to more of substance than even he may have dreamed. On the other hand, Edelman’s title resonates with one of Viskontas’ key observations: Because the brain needs time to process the signals it receives, “now” is always the result of processing a “then!” Another thinker influenced by Hayek, by the way, was artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, who also happened to be my doctoral thesis advisor!)

I feel it is important to establish a firm perspective around the concept of time-consciousness, because this probably provides the foundation for how mind kicks in when one is either making or listening to music. For example, Viskontas’ first round of remarks converged on the fundamental property of awareness of a pulse. This was illustrated by having the Telegraph Quartet perform three of the movements (omitting the Menuetto) from the fifth of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 18 string quartets (written in the key of A major). Viskontas’ observations made this a fascinating experience, because one could begin to appreciate how the definition of that pulse would pass from one quartet player to another as Beethoven developed his ideas.

All that was overlooked was the skill with which, for rhetorical purposes, Beethoven could abandon that pulse. Beethoven’s interest in full-stop silences goes all the way back to the three Opus 2 piano sonatas he dedicated to Joseph Haydn. Indeed, his interest in the rhetorical impact of those silences can probably be traced back to many of Haydn’s own compositions. In the first of the Opus 18 quartets (in the key of F major), the Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato movement is a high-wire act that pits the presence of pulse against its absence; and it offers some of the earliest signs of rhetorical techniques that would mature significantly by the time of the “late period.”

The weaker side of the evening came with the vocal selections. This included songs by Gabriel Fauré and Ernest Chausson in French and Aaron Copland in English. What was problematic is the need to add linguistic semantics to the mix when considering what the brain is doing with such repertoire. Language capacity was very high up Hayek’s ladder, high enough that he passed over much of it in silence. Fortunately, this was music that could be taken on its own terms, particularly Noah Luna’s string quartet arrangements of the four Copland settings of poems by Emily Dickinson. If he has arranged the entire cycle of twelve of these Copland songs, then here’s hoping that they will all get presented in recital in the near future.

No comments: