Sunday, March 24, 2019

Bach and Chaos Ramble

Yesterday afternoon I was listening to the radio while driving to hear my seven-year-old student play a Bach piece at a local beauty pageant. She was the reigning 2018 Little Miss of our town. She won her title last March, and she started playing the violin in September. This was her first public performance. Ever.

There was a person on the radio talking about how the laws of physics showed that there is no past or future, and that in some parts of the universe time could even go backwards. Interesting. This was all spoken over a performance of the Prelude of Bach's Second Cello Suite. I wondered if it was supposed to prove a point about Bach and time or about time and music, but I was disappointed to realize that the Bach just served as background.

Then this person started talking about chaos and order. He said that there are many kinds of chaos, but only one order. He said something about the laws of physics backing up that claim. His example was that if you clean your house it inevitably gets messy again.

He then went on to explain that conditions had to be just right for the big bang to happen as it did, and he mentioned something about the original smoothness of the Earth that I didn't understand. Then he used the word "design," so I then suspected that his argument might have had something to do with trying to put the geological record of the big bang into a religious creationist's worldview.

I tuned him out, and started thinking about the Bach cello suite (another movement from a different cello suite was playing in the background this time) and that the greatest gifts Bach gave to musicians are the many "right" ways his phrases can be played. His music is a gateway to infinite musical possibilities. When we play solo Bach, every experience (musical and non-musical) can inform the way it sounds or feels to play any phrase at any given moment. The counterpoint inside each of our heads while we are playing Bach's pitches and rhythms is always different.

For the Ancient Greeks the word "chaos" meant emptiness, which eventually got translated into the King James Bible as void. It was first used to mean disorder by the 16th-century English satirist Stephen Gosson, and then much later became used to name a branch of mathematics.

When we write music (or anything for that matter) I don't believe that order comes out of chaos in either sense of the word (I don't know enough about mathematics to weigh in on that meaning). There is no "void" because we are living and breathing people with senses, experiences, and ideas. And writing is effectively lining up ideas so that they make sense. I don't think of putting ideas together as creating order out of disorder, though I sometimes create disorder when I put ideas together.

My student played very well. The person doing the announcing introduced her piece as being by Jonathan Sebastian Bach, but very few people in the audience noticed.


Anonymous said...

You included in your article of some commenter: " Then he used the word 'design,' so I then suspected that his argument might have had something to do with trying to put the geological record of the big bang into a religious creationist's worldview."

I don't understand, given that Bach, a composer of so much religious music, could be tagged with being a "creationist." Ditto Haydn with his "Creation." And of course within the context of your posting the fine arrangement of Ravel's "Kaddish," most texts include the second phrase, "...beʻalma di vra khir'uteh...." So creation, Godly and human as we compose music from out of nothingness, that chaos as you write of it, can be tagged as creationist. So much of Western music hinges on creation as one player among many in a detailed tapestry, so why the skepticism. How might someone sing the Kaddish, or Bach's Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51, if creation is to be so suspect from our modern perspective. A comment to clarify would be appreciated. Best wishes.

Elaine Fine said...

I have no problem with Bach's faith or with Haydn's faith (or for that matter with anyone else's faith). Music to me is really as vast as my concept of God, and in my personal cosmology/theology both (all) are bound (and sometimes knotted) together. I understand why Haydn thanked God every day for the music he was able to write, and I fully appreciate Bach's devotion to Lutheran church music, as well as the tradition of Lutheran music he grew out of (Senfl, Walther, Praetorius, Forster, Resinarius, etc.)

I took issue with those movements of Bach's Cello Suites being used as background ambience in this broadcast, and had the distinct feeling, once I understood that this person wasn't going to be talking about music, that it was there to give some "gravitas" to his argument. I do take issue with people, like this guy, who use the "laws of physics" argument to suggest that there is one "order" (i.e. Christianity) and that there are many kinds of "chaos" (i.e. religions that are not Christianity).

I took issue with this person defining "Chaos" as something like having a messy house.

I do wish I knew who this particular "he" was!

Bach lived in a world that had no concept of the universe as we now understand it. He lived in a world governed by clockwork (the world seen through the incredible mind of Isaac Newton), and lived his whole life as a church musician. And I believe that his music came out of love, joy, poetry, and tradition, and when it came out sounding good to him, he probably thanked God for it. Nothing comes from nothing.

Anonymous said...

And yet, we read at the beginning of Bereishit, "unformed and void." I watched Penrose's lecture on the cyclical big bang, as best it can be described, and one comes back to relying on some "prima causa." It is interesting that the "echad" of an order is "one" and is first found referring to that first mythic couple, as it applies to you and your husband, as it is is found in the "Sh'ma." I think a problem with the modern "chaos" theory is that it has become chic and shallow. Though I did not hear the article you heard, like so much today, I wager this fellow was busy selling hi book, or something like it. I listened to an NPR article and it struck me s more advertising than perhaps intended. But generally I put way chatter in favor of music, or as Boulanger said, "music, music and music." So let's go write/arrange some today. Thanks for the response. Best wishes.