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Arthur Rosenfeld

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The Frogness of Music

Posted: 07/07/09 03:13 PM ET

Say you see your first frog and want to understand what it is. Not so much what it's croaking about, (although that can be interesting too) but what the frog really is. Traditionally, Westerners like us would grab the little guy and drop him into a bottle of formaldehyde, a preservative that doubles as a deadly poison. Frogs respire through their skin, so your "specimen" would die a quick but agonizing death. Next step, take it out, pin the frog's legs out wide on a tray of hard wax, dissect it with a scalpel and have a look at what's inside.

You might pay some passing attention to the frog's stomach contents; maybe note them in your book (eats bugs). Then you would go on to pull out its organs, assess their level of development and their morphology, and generally link the frog to other creatures you have dissected in hopes of getting a sense of where this new creature fits into the scheme of things. You might note particular specifics of the heart and lungs to learn about its circulatory system, and perhaps details of the reproductive tract. If you were lucky, your little "guy" might turn out to be a little girl and you might find some gelatinous eggs about to be laid. That would tell you something of how little frogs were made. After that you would look at it under a microscope, perhaps even an electron microscope, drawing a bead on the structure of the frog's eyes, its brain, and more. Last but not least you would take a DNA sample (okay, better to do this before you drop it into formaldehyde) and then, if you like, you might even be able to clone the dead frog and watch it hop around.

At this point you've got a pretty good picture of what a frog looks like, but there's still a big piece missing because you don't really yet understand frogness. Put another way, you've got a decent idea of what makes a frog tick, but you are no closer to understanding what it is to be a frog. To fathom that you have to see a frog alive in its environment, watch how its eyes respond to movement and how it chases and eats its prey. You need to know how it swims when floodwaters come, how it digs a hole to find mud when there's a drought, how it finds a mate in spring, how it carries its babies on its back, (or holds them in its mouth for safety) and how a tadpole becomes an adult frog. Watching this last amazing transformation you can even see a recapitulation of a frogs evolution from just one step up from a fish to a completely different creature altogether.

Understanding frogness requires system-think. Science in general, and biology in particular, is increasingly moving in the direction of putting things together to understand them instead of taking them apart. That's where we get ecology, population biology, and a plethora of new scientific disciplines that represent the coalescence of previously distinct ones. Our long, Western history of deconstruction (taking things apart to understand them) is giving way to synthesizing, (putting things together to understand them) the way Eastern philosophy does. First we made everything separate, then we began to look at the way things interrelate, then we went to the quantum level and found that everything really is one. In other words, we've taken what was simple, made it very complicated, and found ourselves looking for the simple again in order to achieve deeper understanding.

At this point, no doubt, you must be wondering what all this has to do with music. Well, we've done the same things to music that we've done to frogs, namely we've killed it in the name of understanding it better. We've taken the sounds made by real people in real life on real instruments and recorded them. Then we've compressed that information to make it easier to store and copy and retrieve. The result? Music today is to live, real music as an origami frog is to a real one. Music has, in short, been dumbed down.

One consequence of so many thin recordings lacking in detail is that those of us who have rarely, if ever, heard live (especially acoustic) music actually prefer it to better quality sound. Musicians like Bob Dylan and Neil Young have complained about this and released their music on higher quality discs. Audiophiles, once a multitude and now a beleaguered if not endangered minority, are fighting back. Digital recordings are now being enhanced to sound more like analog, and transistor electronics are now being melded with (and sometimes replaced by) old-style vacuum tubes in an effort to restore live music's warmth and ambiance.

The technological simplicity of a live orchestra or band has been replaced by complexity of a tiny iPod brimming with ten thousand songs, each one compressed into a thin shadow of its original self. Aware that something has been lost, some of us music lovers are starting to look for it again. While we can expect some improvement in music technology over time, do yourself a favor and find the frogness of music. Go hear a live performance, preferably in a small and intimate setting, and hopefully with acoustic instruments played at a moderate level. Even better, find a live orchestra performing classical greats. Taste the violin's strings on your tongue the way the frog feels a cricket. Feel the tremble of the jazz singer's voice, the twang of a folk musician's banjo, the boom of the bass. Discover how much emotion, how much pleasure and pure sensation there is to be had when the full range of music hits your ears. The experience of live music completely eclipses listening to an iPod, no matter how good your earbuds, and remains one of life's finest and most therapeutic pleasures. It's good for what ails you!

 
 
 

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