Beauty is Where You Find It

Beauty is Where You Find It

Although it’s embarrassing at times to admit my lackadaisical Netflix viewing habits, it’s going to be downright painful typing the following: I watched the so-called psychological thriller The Number 23 last night. I only bring this up because, besides the transparent, over-explained plot—any rational person can pick up on the whole “who did it” thing within the first ten minutes—the numerological mythology in which the film is steeped reminded me a little of music theory classes. (This doesn’t explain, however, why I actually kept watching such a god-awful film all the way to the end. That’s a mystery that shall remain forever unsolved.)

For those of you lucky enough to have never seen The Number 23, here’s a little sum up: Jim Carrey plays a dog catcher named Walter Sparrow who begins to read an ersatz-autobiography called The Number 23 penned by, ahem, Topsy Kretts (just say it out loud and groan to yourself). The further Sparrow reads, the more obsessed he becomes, due to the fact that the book’s fictional main character has a past that so closely resembles his own, minus the part when Kretts, you know, murders his kink-loving girlfriend. Anyway, the gateway into Sparrow believing that the book is actually written about him, and in fact is not a work of fiction, is the realization that the digits 2 and 3 appear everywhere in his life: his name, birth date, home address, and the list goes on and on to ridiculous lengths. Eventually, 23 spells out his destiny and ultimate demise—yawn.

In retrospect, I wish I had seen this film back when I was attempting to analyze Morton Feldman’s Piano Piece 1952 for a term paper. All those harebrained methods used to make connections to the number 23 would have been inspiring at the very least, if not truly helpful when put to use in this musical situation. Seriously though, has anyone out there successfully cracked the code behind the aforementioned Feldman piece? When I delved into its monophonic simplicity—single notes evenly distributed over time—I found it to be perhaps the most evenly distributed random string of intervals ever created. It seemed to have no rhyme or reason, which is why really I needed The Number 23. Despite the fact that Feldman never injected Piano Piece 1952 with some sort of grand schematic, theory students can and will impose their own onto the piece—you can always find what you are looking for in randomness. Maybe we can get Nicole, the musicology major on Beauty and the Geek, to sort everything out for us, but more on her next week…

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5 thoughts on “Beauty is Where You Find It

  1. greyfeeld

    This isn’t far from Schoenberg’s obsession with the number 13.

    I had a bit of fun with this myself, when I wrote a comic classical-music mystery novel (in which I bump off a fictional, ‘celebrated’ conductor); this is an excerpt:

    Klipop looked over the list of players and counted them up. “Yes,” he said, “forty-eight. You are quite right. In that case I will be most hoppy to conduct your liddle orchestra.” He snapped the damp programme shut and handed it back. “Now, if you will excuse me, Stravinsky hass made me somewhat tired. It was a pleasure meeting you all.” He dismissed them with a Teutonic bow and went back to the long-delayed business of putting on his pants.

    “This way,” Derek said, as he led them out of the dressing room.
    “Why was he so concerned with the number of players?” Mark asked him as the group descended the stairs.

    “Well, I’ll tell you. He’s a fanatical numerologist; he believes in lucky numbers. Forty-eight is his. As a matter of fact,” Derek winked at them, “it’s such a lucky number that Klipop’s been forty-eight for the past six years.”

  2. Frank J. Oteri

    Since this post is ostensibly about the remarkable capacity for folks to find order in things which originally had no order, the title “Beauty is Where You Find It” made me wonder if, in fact, beauty and order are intrinsically related to each other.

    Do we find beauty in things because we are able to infer some kind of structural cohension in them? Might this be why some listeners find certain contemporary music works ugly? Is it because they are unable to perceive the order from which they were derived

    And what then of pieces that sound beautiful even though their composers claim no order in their process of creating the, e.g. the music of Feldman to which Randy has made reference? I still remember Edward T. Cone telling us that there wasn’t a piece of music that he could not analyse in some way as well as a spirited talk in Gothenberg last june by a British musicologist who came up with a whole construct about magical realism for music to explain Feldman’s pitch choices. Do we as listeners ultimately construct imaginary orders as a way to perceive the beauty of the music we find beautiful?

  3. greyfeeld

    “I still remember Edward T. Cone telling us that there wasn’t a piece of music that he could not analyse in some way (…)”

    Sounds like a Princeton thing to say. (I can say that because I was born there.)

    Being a self-taught composer, I’ve always been a bit suspicious of that conceit. I’ve read analysisi (sic) of Janacek’s String Quartets, and rather suspect they would’ve sent Schenker off the deep end.

    Robert Bonotto

  4. pgblu

    For my own definition of “analysis”, a piece that’s not analyzeable is also not audible. To hear is to analyze. To “analyze” is, broadly speaking, to intellectually reflect on and formulate what one is hearing.

    A more limited definition of “analysis” would indeed make Ed Cone sound conceited.

  5. rtanaka

    If you read over the recent Earle Brown interview, he mentioned about Cage largely using statistics as a way to generate his outcomes. Say, his chance works where he rolls the dice within a chosen sets of parameters can be labelled as a form of Random Permutation.

    There’s actually nothing illogical or irrational about chance processes, for instance, because rolling the die in itself is an imposition of order. You will not get a 7 if you’re rolling a 6-sided die, for example — as with any other compositional choice, it is also a limitation of some sort. As far as I can tell, mathematics has not been able to generate “true” randomness as of yet, and I haven’t seen any evidence that music has been able to do such a thing either. The claims of “no order” made by composers seem to be stretching the truth quite a bit, if you ask me.


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