Friday, May 6, 2011

Fascinatin' Readin'

This last school year I didn't do much recreational reading - not that I don't love to! But to me reading a novel is like watching a 4-6 hour movie. I pause for dinner, but I've got to finish it in pretty much the same sitting. I don't know how many times I've started a book at bedtime and finished just before its time to get up. This last school year was no exception. When Qait finally convinced me to read the Hunger Games series right after Christmas, each book took me just a day to read. It was wise to chose not to read a lot of recreational stuff during the school year. Instead, I had loads of books and scores out from the library. I listened to dozens and dozens of pieces this school year with the score (The big discovery was Earle Brown, the big rediscovery was Messiaen). I would have a number of music-related books that, when I wanted to read, I would grab and pick up somewhere interesting, not feeling obligated to read the whole thing. (Highlights include Persichetti's fascinating harmony textbook, or Henry Cowell's still-interesting-eighty-years-later New Musical Resources)

My main go-to book this last semester was only tangentially related to music: Douglas Hofstadter's mind-bending Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. I'm now several hundred pages in, but I don't think I can tell you succinctly what the book is exactly about - it may be the 'biggest' book I've ever read, in terms of scope of ideas. I can say that I'm loving it and it makes me feel smarter to read it. I think that its about the nature and complexity of intelligence. On the way it's talked about everything from Bach's Musical Offering to Escher's paintings to Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem. (I haven't gotten to the part that explains exactly what that is...) In between chapters are a series of humorous dialogues between characters known as the Tortoise and Achilles. Each dialogue illustrates some of the logical and paradoxical points that Hofstadter is making in the surrounding chapters. A lot of it has to do with mankind's ability to recognize fiction, or things that are unsaid in a given context. For example, we may be able to see the first few minutes of a movie, and nobody will have to tell us that its set in German-occupied France during World War II and that the main characters are a nurse and a peasant boy. We'll be able to infer all of that. Further more, we are also able to comprehend the sudden random time travel to the year 2099 without blowing a circuit. A computer might have a pretty difficult time telling you these things that are inferred, and would not be able to comprehend the fiction of the time travel. Like Escher's art, seeming impossibilities are reconciled by the fact that we are outside the world being portrayed. The impossible can exist as long as there is another sphere in which that impossibility is not impossible. (Two hands drawing each other? Not impossible because its contained in the world of a drawing.) Anyways, its a super geeky book and I've loved it. The dialogues are so hilarious that I shared them with Qait. "Unaccompanied Sonata for Achilles" "Crab Canon" "Ant Fugue" all taking names punning on Bach pieces. We even came up with an artsy/experimental composition where we put both our phones on speakerphone while on a call and right next to each other. It creates a number of interesting feedback loops that we played with while reading the dialogues. (She was the Tortoise, I was Achilles.) So although I can't really explain the book, it has made me feel really smart to read it. Maybe someday I'll do a performance art piece which involves the staging of The Dialogues of the Tortoise and Achilles.

Now that school's out for the summer, I've picked up a book that I've wanted to read all semester - Charles Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. I can't recommend this book highly enough to anyone who ever wanted a more satisfying answer than high school's two paragraph explanation about what was really going on in the Western Hemisphere before Columbus and company brought disease, death, plunder and Christianity to these "scattered barbarians." Notable eye-openers:
  • North and South America were actually quite highly populated (over 100 million, or more than the Europe of Columbus!) by a number of well organized and established peoples, notably the Inka (the 'true' spelling) which ruled the largest empire in the world in 1491. (Larger even than Ming Dynasty China)
  • The Mexica (the chief tribe of the Triple Alliance commonly known as Aztecs) were as deep into philosophy and art as the ancient Greek, a fact widely erased and obscured by their 'conversion' to Christianity.
  • The coast of New England was populated by hundreds of thousands, prior to the spread of diseases from Europe.
  • Corn is a mysterious miracle from Mesoamerica. The truth is that before the Spanish introduced it from the "New World," no one had ever seen corn. Maize is an amazing anomaly amongst all the crops of the whole world - nutritious, cost effective, and totally domesticated (it requires human supervision to cultivate it) Corn is now one of the world's most widely grown crops. Its introduction to Europe/Asia/Africa is part of the population boom post-Columbus. The shocker: corn was somehow (still unknown) artificially created by ancient Mesoamericans. No natural species of grain is anything like it - ancient genetic manipulation of species! In combination with a healthy diet of beans, meat, and fruit, most native Americans were healthier and taller than your average European of the day. (They also bathed more! (as in, ever!) T
  • The introduction of cotton into Europe revolutionized clothing because it was cheaper and more comfortable than wool or leathers.
  • European-introduced diseases killed unimaginably more people than previously supposed. Smallpox, bubonic plague and food-transmitted Hepatitis A hit the various populations of the Americas in waves like the wrath of God. Not only had the isolated immune systems of the natives never been exposed to these diseases, they were actually less capable genetically of fighting them off. (As in, almost all Native Americans come from the same genetic stock.) The last decades have seen most scholars significantly increase their estimates of how many people lived here before Columbus and how many died after. With death rates in communities as high as 95%, a tribe in Massachusetts went from 20,000 members to less than 1,000, giving the pilgrims not only the Indian's recently abandoned food supply but also their land. The Inka hadn't even seen Europeans yet, but smallpox reached them first. Killing the Emperor (totally throwing off his groove) it plunged the Inka into a massive civil war even as the population was decimated by the illness. The conquistador Pizarro landed just in time to benefit as the whole thing crumbled at the touch of his small force of less than two hundred men. Cortez found the same thing with the Aztec, whose empire seemed to turn to dust even as he attacked. The total population of North and South America went from as many as 112 million to less than 10 million. Another way of saying it: more people lived here than in Europe when Columbus came, and many areas that were explored and seemed to be 'untouched' had only been recently depopulated!
  • The rapid depopulation also had huge ecological implications: the vast swaths of the continent which had previously been cultivated turned into the wild woods the pioneers/pilgrims/colonists would later encounter, assuming it had been there all along. Bison/buffalo populations soared to millions, their human predators greatly reduced.
  • The Amazon rain-forest is somebody's garden gone wild. Far from being an untouched pristine wild-land, the Amazon had been the home to hundreds of thousands. It's just been hard to find remains because fertile paradise they cultivated has eaten up most artifacts. Remains of cultivated soil show that the natives had created uncounted thousands of acres of charcoal rich super soil. Scientists are currently trying to unlock its secret not only to save the Amazon's ecosystem, but also to improve soil poor places like Africa.
It seems like every paragraph I read my whole understanding about the Americas is expanded and changed. Did you know that around the time Sumer (Babylon) was creating the world's first 'civilization,' two independent civilizations were springing up in the Americas (the ancestors of the Inka and the ones we call "Olmec") Don't even get me started on how many things sound like Book of Mormon correlations. Not that anything is an exact match, but so many things just sound sooo similar, how could Joseph Smith have known that our understanding of ancient Americans would pan out anything like it is? He didn't. He just translated! It is totally possible that the Jaredites, Lamanites and Nephites all fit right into this whole picture right among some of these other historically proven cultures. Tales of people from the sea, whole cultures disappearing into the night, cataclysmic wars, gross idolatry, etc... And in spite of all these 'revelations' about the Americas, the main point that the book drives home to me is that we don't really know much at all about these peoples. A lost history of a significant part of the world!


Qait said...

YES! I'm so so excited to read that book when you're finished. That really is fascinating reading, and I've been eager to hear everything you've shared with me so far!
Plus your Godel-Escher-Bach book has been exciting to me as well. :)
I love that I can get away with not reading as many brain-feeding books (hey, my time is limited) and still feel enlightened by them since you share what you learn! :D

Eric Hanson said...

Awesome books!! I will have to check those out. Have you read "Evening in the Place of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment" by James R. Gaines? Fun insight into the context Bach was writing in.

Also, on the subject of creativity three books I have been into over and over again recently: "Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art" by Stephen Nachmanovitch, and a couple favorites by Robert Fritz: "The Path of Least Resistance: Learning to Become the Creative Force in Your Own Life" and "Creating:..." (subtitle is long).

Oh, oh, and the book which perhaps informs my compositional experience more than any other, at least right now, "Harmonic Experience" by W.A. Mathieu - awesome!! It even has exercises to help train the ear to different tunings. Plus the idea of the harmonic lattice blows my mind. I'd love to talk with you about this one some time. I think I told Q about it some time ago.

R. Michael Wahlquist said...

I've heard of the Bach book, but not had a recommendation, now I'll have to check it out! Never heard of the others, but I'm interested.