12: Hermeneutics, Quantum Physics and Music… Oh, my!
If you’ve endured my last 11 blah-gs on this subject, you are probably asking yourself right now, “What just happened? Weren’t we talking about tempo? What’s this about quantum physics? And what in the world is hermeneutics?” [N.B.: I beg the indulgence of those already familiar with this field of study.]
Since we’ve been very focused on specifics of tempo, history and analysis, etc., I thought we might take a short break and get a little esoteric – in more ways than one! – and search for some additional insights from other disciplines that might illumine our decisions.
Hermeneutics? What’s that?
Briefly defined, hermeneutics is the art of interpreting. Traditionally, this has been applied to texts, mostly in literature, law, and especially religion. Over time, however, hermeneutics has developed from the question of “how do we read?” to “how do we communicate?” and one of the tenets of hermeneutics holds that we should be deriving meanings of a text solely from the text itself. We could translate this in musical terms as asking questions about tempo, dynamics, expression, affect – and of, course, interpretation in general – and deriving the answers only from the music in front of us (the “text”), without recourse to external evidence. In other words, doing what would seem to be exactly the opposite of the entire methodology that I’ve been suggesting!
Or is it?
Employing hermeneutical concepts allows us to not give exclusive credence to the composer’s original intentions. It is a concept that holds that the creative work stands separate from its creator in such a way that it can be subjected to interpretations that the creator neither deliberately intended nor of which he/she might even have had conscious knowledge. If the work (the music), taken as a whole, presents a particular interpretation to an audience, then that interpretation is valid, even if the creator would not necessarily agree with it. Whether one would concur with this concept – or even the application of the concept – is a defining question for the musician.
For example, let us again return to Widor’s Toccata. Imagine it being played twice as slow as the composer indicated. Obviously, this is a distortion that we would never entertain in the real world, but I would ask you to imagine it performed this way in your mind’s eye. What “affect” does it convey? To me – and of course, it may be different to you and that is as it should be – the work begins to take on the feel of a formal exercise, with musical content (what little there is of it – we’ll discuss that in another blah-g) stretched so thin that it begins to collapse under its own weight. At that slow tempo, it would – again, in my view – be more of a Hanon-type exercise for organ than an actual musical composition.
What if we played it substantially faster than indicated and faster than what the composer professes to desire? Again in my view, the work takes on an almost whirlwind-like feel, and a virtuosic element that may be missing from a more “middle of the road” interpretation.
Can either of these extremes peacefully co-exist not just with each other but also with the composer’s original intention? Remember, hermeneutics suggests that if a performance of the work suggests a particular interpretation to an audience, then that performance is valid. The answer, of course, is up to each of us as individual musicians. Since this is my blah-g, I feel comfortable sharing with you that I do believe that the hermeneutic approach can have some application, or at least offer some valid input, if we can keep our perspective.
By the way, the etymology of hermeneutics comes from the Greek word for “translate”, but there is a more “mythological” connection that suggests the word comes from the deity Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Traditionally, he is the mediator between the gods, and between the gods and the world of mortals. I find it a little amusing that Hermes also appears in myth as Hermes Trismegistus, a combination of the Greek deity Hermes and the Egyptian God Thoth. He has been viewed in many ways over the centuries, and is the deity of Hermeticism, which was worshipped at the Hellenistic Egyptian city of Hermopolis. Thus, my allusion to the “esoteric” earlier…
And Quantum Physics?
First, a personal note: while I do have a substantial grounding in the natural sciences (I almost pursued Physics as a vocation before succumbing to the siren song of Music), I make no pretense of a deep understanding of Quantum Physics beyond that available, through many instructive and informative books and publications, to any individual interested in educating themselves on the subject. That being said, I am appalled – as I suspect many of my friends in the natural sciences are, as well – at how the word “Quantum” has become attached to virtually anything to make the subject sound cutting edge, contemporary and “scientific”. From books called “Quantum Healing”, “The Field”, etc. to the endless parade of pseudo-scientific “self-help” books on “intention” and ”positive thinking”, a gross misconception of the concepts of Quantum Physics and the role and the influence of the conscious observer abound.
So, before professional physicists and engineers roll their eyes, let me assure them that my allusions to Quantum Physics are analogies only, and not to be taken as yet another “too lightly informed” layman’s foray into deep scientific and philosophical concepts involving consciousness and its role in the Universe around us. I do find, however, that some scientific illustrations and ideas from the natural world can inform and bring an interesting perspective to our artistic endeavors, and I hope to do another series of blah-gs on this subject sometime in the future.
Another personal note: contrary to the impression I may give in the previous paragraphs, I am a strong proponent of “intention” and “positive thinking”. I just don’t think it’s been proven to be connected, via Quantum Physics, to consciousness, the observer, etc., and I believe that has also been mostly debunked by the greater scientific community.
So what about Quantum Physics?
Quantum Physics, sometimes called Quantum Mechanics or Quantum Theory, is the study of the very small, where matter begins to show both particle-like and wave-like properties… at the same time. Classical mechanics, sometimes called Newtonian mechanics, is actually a corollary of quantum mechanics, with the predictable observable results actually being the approximation of quantum interactions for a large system of objects (or particles).
One of the really strange results of this wave/particle duality is manifested in the famous double-slit experiment. In this experiment, a very thin piece of metal or film with two very narrow slits is placed in front of another piece of photographic film (other materials or detectors can be substituted), and photons (discrete “particles” of light) or other particles are shined or projected at the apparatus. The result is precisely what one would expect of a wave, something we’ve probably all seen at a dock or seashore: the waves going through two openings interfere with each other, and create an “interference pattern”, caused by the two wave fronts adding together to reinforce each other, and vice-versa. Odd things begin to happen, however, when the experiment is varied a bit. For instance, suppose the emission of the photons (or particles) is reduced to just one discrete unit being emitted at a time. Naturally, our intuition would suggest that we would find two vertical lines, corresponding to the photons going through one or the other of the slits. But if the experiment continues over time and more and more of these individual photons are allowed to build up their images on the film, the exact same interference pattern is observed! How is that possible? With what is the photon “interfering” to create that interference pattern? Because of the uncertainties of motion and position on the quantum level, the answer is that the photon is actually interfering with itself; mathematically, it is in two places at once!
Something even more astonishing occurs if detectors are placed alongside each slit, so that there is actual knowledge (an “observation”) of which slit the photon goes through. When the experiment is set up this way, the pattern rendered on the film or detector is exactly what our intuition would have expected: two vertical slits, and no interference pattern. This is known as the complementarity principle, stating that light (and electrons, etc.) can behave as either particles or waves, but not both at the same time.
It would seem as if the conscious actions of the observer really do have an effect on the physical world around us! But of course, there are other explanations offered and other experiments performed, and another point of view on this phenomenon is that the experiment is set up to detect what the experimenter (the observer) desires to detect: if one wants to know which slit the photon goes through and sets up the experiment that way, then it can no longer be in two places at once; if the experiment is arranged to detect where the photons strike the detector after passing through the slits, creating the interference pattern, then there must be no knowledge of which slit the photon travelled through.
These phenomena are actually quite predictable mathematically, and are measured in waveforms and probabilities. The equations allow prediction of where a particle is likely to be. An interesting extension to this was proposed by the great American physicist (and bongo player!) Richard Feynman, who described a “path integral formulation”, which replaces the classical notion of a single, unique trajectory for a system with a sum over all possible trajectories. This is quite fascinating, as it – conceptually! – actually allows the trajectory of one of the photons emitted to travel the length of the universe and back again, through the slit and onto the detector. However, the likelihood (and thus, the contribution to the sum of all possible trajectories) is inconceivably small, and thus negligible, though theoretically possible. The theory offers another window into visualization of the double slit experiment: since a particle traverses every possible trajectory on its way from the emitter to the detector, the particle passes through both slits and interferes with itself. Feynman himself stressed that this was a mathematical description and not an explanation of an actual physical process, but it certainly illumines some of the other theories of the Quantum universe. One of them is the “many-worlds” interpretation that holds that all the possibilities described by Quantum Theory simultaneously occur in a multiverse composed of mostly independent parallel universes.
The scientific, philosophical and historical implications of quantum phenomena are vast, and far too profound to go into in much depth here. For those interested, I suggest you pursue it at your leisure, with the following caveat: it’s absolutely fascinating and transforming, and you will find yourself sinking a great deal of time into the strange world of Quantum Physics!
But what does it have to do with music?
I think these Quantum phenomena are wonderful analogies for what we face when making musical decisions, or if you prefer, “manifesting a musical reality”. Just as Richard Feynman posits a “sum of all possibilities” for a system, which still matches the probability wave, so in music all possibilities exist, but not all are likely. Just as the “many-worlds” interpretation suggests that all things that can happen do happen, and thus different branches of reality are created every instant, so music is also infinitely variable. Since music takes place over time, every instant creates an infinitude of consequent possibilities, and thus no performance can ever duplicate itself. Just as the physicist may choose to measure which slit a particle may go through or where it lands on a detector behind those slits and thus generate different outcomes, so the musician, by choosing what to observe – by choosing what he/she considers most important – will achieve different results in performance. And finally, we must bear in mind that sheet music – the notes on paper – are only a map or guide to the intentions of the composer. It is not music, but rather a representation of music, more like – dare I say it? – a probability of what the music may be. Just as it seems the observer may play an integral part in Quantum phenomena, so the performer – the observer – plays a vital role in “collapsing the waveform” and bringing a work of music from an immeasurable state in a sea of Quantum musical conceptual foam and possibility to musical reality in the here and now.
We’ve analyzed, studied, and pondered the first question of the title of this series of blah-gs, “How Fast Does It Go?”, spent a little time exploring the perspectives given by other disciplines, and have even delved a bit into philosophy. It is now appropriate to answer the second part of the title, “The Answer Defines Us”.
Join me next time…