Monday, August 9, 2010

Musings about Friends and Music

  This has nothing to do with Austria or the YSSP.  I recently swapped iPods with a friend here at the YSSP for a week.  This has given me an influx of new music that I'm excited about, from Josh Rouse to Julian Casablancas to Tulipa.  Now I've got my own iPod back, and I've been listening to a few albums that I missed during the week that we were separated.  All this has got me musing about music and the way that it connects me to old friends, because most of the music that I listen to has come to me from friends.  When I was younger we would swap mix tapes, and then later lend each other CDs, rather than trading iPods; but it's the same really.

  I got Oingo Boingo from Keir.  I got Caetano Veloso from Lee, and the Beatles as well.  I got Negativland from Steve.  Cat Stevens from Max.  The Story and The Innocence Mission from Rob.  Brian Eno and Robert Fripp and King Crimson and David Sylvian from Jenny.  Rush and Santana from Malcolm.  Paul Simon from my parents (one of my earlier musical memories is listening to There Goes Rhymin' Simon on vinyl in my childhood house in Ithaca).  Laurie Anderson and Herbie Hancock and Peter Gabriel from Tim.  The Time from Patrick.  Dire Straits and Bruce Springsteen and the Horseflies and Kate Bush from John-Paul.  Gabriel Yacoub and Dead Can Dance from Robin.  Melanie Oxley and David Bridie from Sylvan.  Jane Siberry and U2 from Noah.  Leonard Cohen from Vern.  Thomas Dolby and James Brown and the Talking Heads from Nick.  This list could go on for quite a while.

  Some connections have become very faded in my mind.  I got Rickie Lee Jones from a woman I dated briefly in San Francisco many years ago; I actually no longer remember her name, but I remember how nice it was making out while we listened to Pirates, and it's still one of my absolute favorite albums.  Other connections have vanished completely; who gave me Stereolab or the Smiths, the Cocteau Twins or R.E.M., John Coltrane or Dave Brubeck?  There are huge debts of gratitude here that will probably go forever unpaid.  But the connections that I do remember are very meaningful to me.  I'm no longer in touch with many of the people I've listed above, but every time that I listen to these albums, I remember the people who gave them to me, and it makes me glad to remember them.

  Steven Pinker somewhat famously wrote that "music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged."  I'm not sure I agree.  Music is not just sound; it is a social glue that binds us together in a web of relationships and memories.  I would argue that it is quite central to the human experience, and that its removal would have unexpectedly deep repercussions.  Pinker's thesis is that our ability to appreciate music is an evolutionary accident; it was never "selected for," it is just a side effect of brain centers that developed for other types of auditory processing (perhaps particularly speech).  I find much more compelling, however, the thesis that the ability to make music was directly selected for among our proto-human ancestors, because it advertised (to potential mates) fine motor control, focus, timing, good hearing, and other useful traits.  However, both of these alternative theories are "just so stories"; there may never be a way to determine just how and why an appreciation of music evolved in humans.  On the other hand, those who have bet that "science will never be able to understand X" have generally been at the losing end of history.

  Finally, lest you think that a love of music is unique to humans, allow me to introduce you to Snowball.

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