Railways and Reading

Since starting a job in Leicester six months ago, I’ve been travelling to work by rail. On the return journey, the railway follows the river Soar going North out of Leicester all the way up to Ratcliffe, then takes a turn where it joins the Trent and heads on into Nottingham city. The journey to work and back is quite pleasing, for two reasons:

Firstly, it affords the opportunity to take in some sights not usually seen: Familiar parts of the city observed from different angles – Nottingham castle, the Inland Revenue offices, scrap yards and construction merchants; waterways – including gravel-pits, canals and rivers, which have been prone to freezing and flooding recently; bird life – migratory wildfowl at Attenborough Nature Reserve, also swans, ducks, herons, cormorants, coots, moorhens, and the occasional buzzard; and Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station, close enough to the platform at East Midlands Parkway station to see the shower of water droplets through the concrete struts at the bases of eight large cooling towers. In the mornings, if it’s not too cloudy, these towers and their plumes of water vapour cast large shadows over the station and the surrounding fields. When it’s cold enough, ice hangs in fringes from the lip at the base of the towers.

Secondly, the half-hour journey allows time to read. I’ve got through quite a few books on the train. Below is a list of some of the books I’ve read recently, approximately in order of reading, with brief summaries of each. What interests me now, seeing them together in this list (and in a pile beside me now), are the connections between the themes of these books. One common thread is the perception and evolution of form in nature and art. Another is our understanding of the world in which we live, and how this shapes our role within it. Together, they do a fair job of representing some of my main interests, which I sometimes describe on things like my Twitter profile with the following string of words:
‘art : complexity : music : nature : science’.

Philip Ball (2011) The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can’t Do Without It
Collecting together some of the most recent findings from scientific studies of music, Philip Ball explains how we perceive it and why we listen to it. Far from being dry and technical, the book presents a rich and rewarding exploration of the physics of acoustics and psychology of music perception, cognition and emotion. With plenty of diagrams, references to well-known pieces, and examples using notated music, the many different topics are dealt with in a way that balances breadth and depth of information. As a whole, it does a good job of showing just how much we understand music (through biological evolution and cultural learning) without knowing, and how much is known (from the scientific point of view) but not yet understood. Philip Ball’s website is worth a look, where there are articles to read and links to his other books.

Robert Macfarlane (2008) The Wild Places
This is an account of travels to the wildest places in the British Isles. The book has a beautiful structure, each chapter being based on a particular journey to a specific type of wilderness, with succinct and evocative titles: Beechwood, Moor, Summit, Holloway, Storm-beach, Saltmarsh. Besides the rich narrative accounts of his travels, woven with references to history and literature, one of the most fascinating aspects of this book is the transformation of McFarlane’s concept of wildness that occurs as he explores more of the few remaining wild places and deepens his understanding of the relationship between the land and its inhabitants. Macfarlane’s descriptions of climbing trees reminded me of my own adventures in trees in the fields near where I grew up. I also felt comfortably familiar with this first chapter on beech woodland because it is a habitat I know well from my favourite camping spot in the High Peak, Derbyshire. The photo of the woodland canopy at the start of chapter 1 is similar to this picture I took whilst camping in my beechwood, which was used in my thesis to illustrate the concept of natural fractals:

Beech and oak trees. If you squint a bit, you can see the picture as a satellite image; then the branches become rivers, and the sky between the leaves becomes snow on mountain ranges. It is because both trees and rivers are fractal that this image allows for these two interpretations.

James Tenney (1986) Meta-Hodos and Meta Meta-Hodos: A Phenomenology of 20th-Century Musical Materials and an Approach to the Study of Form

The increased aural complexity of much of the music of the 20th century is such an evident characteristic that it should need no demonstration. Nevertheless, an examination of the many factors which produce this complexity, and of some of its effects in our perception of the music, will be necessary before we can hope to describe the musical materials in a meaningful way.

Those are the first sentences of this book on the analysis of musical form. Tenney’s theory is grounded in auditory perception, drawing on Gestalt psychology but extending its principles by analogy from the spatial dimensions of visual perception to the domain of time in music. Tenney’s name for a perceived musical form is the temporal gestalt-unit (TG). TGs are perceptually grouped or divided into larger or smaller units according to principles that parallel those in Gestalt theories of visual perception; broadly speaking, they are grouped by similarity and proximity, and are separated by difference and distance. Element, clang and sequence are the terms used to describe TGs at the first three hierarchical levels of perceptual organisation. An element is the TG at the lowest level, and is that which is not perceived as being composed of smaller temporal units. The book is available via Frog Peak Music, and there are a couple of publicly available papers on the same subject, such as one co-authored with Larry Polansky: Temporal Gestalt Perception in Music (PDF).

Simon Scott (2012) Below Sea Level
The special edition of Simon Scott’s album, Below Sea Level, came with a little book that collects together writing, drawings and photographs in a study on the East Anglian fens that provided both the inspiration and the source of sounds for the album. I like the small-format of the hardback book, similar to the classic Ladybird series of books for children. I still have my copy of the Ladybird book of Dinosaurs, which opens with a painted scene of volcanoes by a tempestuous sea, accompanied by the words “In the beginning, the world must have looked like this” (notice the use of a biblical phrase to introduce the science of evolution). Scott’s book shares the same sense of joy in learning that the Ladybird books engendered, being authoritative yet accessible. The special edition of the album also came with this drawing of a pike:


China Mieville (2009) The City & the City
      ”          ”          (2012) Embassytown
      ”          ”          (1998) King Rat
      ”          ”          (2010) Kraken
I didn’t read these four books in direct succession, but it makes sense to consider them together, though I won’t try to summarise the different stories here. Kraken was the book that first caught my attention, but actually The City and The City was the first one I read, following recommendations from Marc Weidenbaum and Tobias Reber. It was a good introduction to Mieville’s world, and it’s interesting to see how much his writing has developed, because the oldest of these books, King Rat, seems to lack some of the sparkle and virtuosity of the later works. Embassytown in particular glitters with an alien colour and complexity that contrasts with the relatively drab and dirty London of King Rat, but of course the difference is also partly due to subject and structure as well as style. The power of Mieville’s writing is that it offers a fantastical twist on familiar reality that has the capacity to transform our view of aspects of the world in which we live: Embassytown – language and communication; Kraken – knowledge and belief systems; King Rat – magic and myth (also Marxism); The City and The City – cultures and society.

Manuel DeLanda (2000) A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History
De Landa is attempting to build a materialist philosophy that ties together the post-modernist theory of Deleuze & Guattari with the scientific understanding of complex systems. Structured in three sections that cover the geological, biological and linguistic history of the West over the past thousand years, DeLanda explores the processes that have given rise to the structures that compose our present day world. The evolutionary flows of matter, energy and information within the three domains are explained in terms of complex systems theory, which provides the conceptual toolkit of feedback, emergence, bifurcation, and nonlinearity. These concepts support the development of a new way of thinking about how the structures that surround us are formed from a dynamic history of self-organising processes.

Bob Katz (2007) Mastering Audio: The Art and the Science
Considered a ‘bible’ for music mastering, what makes this book a definitive reference is not just the wealth of detail on technological systems and processes but also Katz’s love of music and his sensitivity to (and his arguments for preserving) musical dynamics. A nice addition to the book is the fold-out reproduction of a hand-drawn chart by EJ Quinby of Carnegie Hall in 1941, a diagram that illustrates the frequency and pitch ranges of different instruments:

Musical Pitch Relation Chart from Carnegie Hall by E. J. Quinby [Image via Reason101 blog: http://www.reason101.net/general-soundboard/more-substance/ ]

Roger Deakin (2008) Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees
I’d read about Roger Deakin as he accompanied Robert Macfarlane on some of his travels in The Wild Places. It was saddening to learn that he died whilst that book was being written, though not before he managed to finish writing his own book, Wildwood. Deakin celebrates trees and woodland in all their varieties, travelling from the walnut tree that gave its name to his farmhouse home to the ancient wild apples of Kyrgyzstan. Deakin’s passion and knowledge, which were sparked by early experiences of rigorous ecological observation, shine through each chapter. A loving, lovely book.

George Kubler (1962) The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things
An unusual little book, this is a meditation on the historical development of form in human artefacts, both aesthetic and functional (i.e., both ‘useful’ tools and ‘useless’ art). In contrast to the wealth of material on the symbolism and meaning of objects, Kubler’s study addresses the more neglected and “unfashionable” issue of the formal relationships of artefacts. The concept of style as a means of classification is replaced with a conceptual framework built on the idea of sequences, series and continuous change. But whilst it could be said that the book lacks a concrete theoretical structure that could be practically applied to contemporary studies, there is much food for thought. Kubler’s sensitivity to the dynamic nature of time marks out this study as a unique and interesting approach to the evolution of form:

Style is like a rainbow. It is a phenomenon of perception governed by the coincidence of certain physical conditions. We can see it only briefly while we pause between the sun and the rain, and it vanishes when we go to the place where we thought we saw it. […] Style pertains to the consideration of static groups of entities. It vanishes once these entities are restored to the flow of time.

Joe Banks (2012) Rorschach Audio: Art & Illusion for Sound
Based on nearly 15 years’ worth of academic and artistic work, Rorschach Audio is a project that explores the scientific and perceptual aspects of electronic voice phenomena (EVP). Joe Banks’ research into EVP has previously surfaced in the form of exhibitions and music under the name Disinformation, and this book presents some of the most recent explorations of the technical, spiritual and creative approaches to the subject. The central argument is that EVP can be explained as a basic auditory illusion – a projection of mental imagery analogous to the visual associations prompted with the Rorshcach ink blots that were used in psychoanalysis. The book is more than a debunking of pseudo-scientific spiritualism, though, showing how an understanding of the relevant phenomena can contribute to art criticism and appreciation, especially for music and sound art. But mainly, it’s a fun read, cutting between subjects, and Bank’s sense of humour comes through. Particularly interesting are the suggestions that art historian Ernst Gombrich was influenced by these ideas in his audio work for the BBC Monitoring Service during WWII. Read more on the Rorschach Audio project at: http://rorschachaudio.wordpress.com/about/

Gilbert White (2004) The Illustrated Natural History of Selborne
First published in 1789, this is a collection of letters written by the Reverend White to the naturalists Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington. This edition includes reproductions of contemporary illustrations, but omits the second part of the original book which details the antiquities of Selborne (an account of the local history). White’s style of writing is idiosyncratic and archaic but is a joy to read, with beautifully detailed observations of the local wildlife. He obviously had a good ear too – describing the local soundscape and details of particular species, even noting the pitch of owl hoots. White’s approach – a focused observation of a local habitat – set the example for subsequent nature writing and ecological study, and his influence is recognised by many including Deakin, Macfarlane, David Attenborough and Chris Watson.

Manuel DeLanda (2011) Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason
DeLanda further develops his materialist philosophy in this book, in which he examines various types of simulation that generate emergent behaviour, explaining each in terms of their mechanism and their structures of possibility space (or phase space). Through these analyses, DeLanda constructs an epistemology of simulation that provides support for his philosophical endeavour. But this book is less coherent than Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (2002), which provides a clearer (though more technical) connection between D&G’s rather opaque writings and recent scientific findings in the field of complexity. There is so much focus on exploring different types of simulation that the central thread gets lost from view. The book would also benefit from better punctuation and the addition of a few explanatory diagrams to illustrate some of the mechanisms behind the various forms of simulation.

Ilya Prigogine (1996) The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos and the New Laws of Nature
After initially suffering ridicule and abuse in the scientific community for his theories, Prigogine eventually won a Nobel prize for his contribution to thermodynamics, which showed how order could arise from non-equilibrium conditions. Before then, thermodynamics focused only on equilibrium and reversible systems, and was considered a closed subject. But Prigogine showed how little of reality was accounted for in this science, and also took issue with the way in which it treated the arrow of time as an illusion. This book encapsulates his work towards incorporating the arrow of time into the fundamental laws of physics, showing that the illusion resides instead in a world view based on determinism and certainty. There are lots of difficult mathematical equations in this book, which are beyond my comprehension, but the main points can still be grasped.

Stuart Kauffman (2001) Investigations
Kauffman builds on Prigogine’s pioneering work, but with a scope larger and more ambitious. This wonderfully rambling book represents Kauffman’s grail-like quest to identify a fourth law of thermodynamics. (Whilst there are already four known laws of thermodynamics, they are numbered from 0 – the first one being called the ‘zeroth law’ – so what Kauffman is proposing is to find law number 5, which would be known as ‘the fourth law’.) The most significant of these laws are the first, which  describes the conservation of energy (and/or matter, since they are interchangeable, as Einstein’s famous equation demonstrates), and the second which describes the tendency towards equilibrium and increasing entropy. Kauffman hopes to pin down a new law that accounts for the creative construction of order amongst physical, biological and social processes – the same non-equilibrium thermodynamic processes that Prigogine worked on. Such an account is necessary, Kauffman argues, to explain the diversification of chemical and biological forms that has occurred since the big bang. Darwin’s theory of evolution explains how variation between organisms leads to natural selection of the fittest, but it fails to account for the generation of structure in the first place. This is where a ‘fourth law’ could fit in – by providing an explanation for the complexification of matter and life which, on the face of things, appears to contradict the second law of thermodynamics. This book shows us what we don’t yet understand, and points to the places where we might begin to find answers to the questions that we are still struggling to formulate. Kauffman establishes that ecologies and economies both develop by continually expanding into the ‘adjacent possible’ of configuration space, also showing that – unlike in linear systems – it is impossible to pre-state this space.

I see potential for Kauffman’s approach – especially the idea of the adjacent possible – to support a study of artistic development of the kind that Kubler attempted in The Shape of Time. Such a study might connect with some recent economic theories of art, such as the work of David Galenson or Stoyan Sgourev. DeLanda’s materialist philosophy may also support this line of enquiry by providing an ontological and epistemological foundation. Human creativity works in a similar way to the evolution of biological morphogenesis, ever expanding into the adjacent possible through interaction between existing structures and processes, finding new ways of making a living and expressing ideas in a landscape that also continually evolves with us. These are ideas that I hope to develop in my own research into the perception of complexity in the appreciation of visual art and music.

This entry was posted in Art, Auditory Perception, Complexity, Music, Nature, Research, Science, Visual Perception, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Railways and Reading


    Interesting reading list! I’m especially a fan of both MacFarlane and Deakin’s writing myself…..

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