Monthly Archives: January 2009

Every good boy deserves favour

On the way home from Giraffe, facing the Savoy. What a view.

On the way home from Giraffe, facing the Savoy. What a view.

To the National Theatre to see Every Good Boy Deserves Favour by Tom Stoppard & André Previn on the recommendation of Chris who happily went to see it again with me. Brilliant. You have to call it a play because it’s in a theatre, but it’s a concert, a dance, a play, and a collaboration that doesn’t have a name yet.

There were so many coups de théâtre it made me think the piece is a justifcation for theatre itself, and to give any of them away would be to spoil the experience, so go and see it. It’s only on til Feb 25th, and not often performed.

Well, all right, I’ll give one away. At the beginning, the on-stage orchestra all start playing very quietly, and an eery, almost supernatural sound emerges. Then you realise they’re not playing, the violins are just moving bows in the air. But you could swear you can hear music. And as the play is about a schizophrenic in a prison cell who’s convinced he has an orchestra, this has already unsettled your own sanity before anyone’s spoken a word.

Multi-tasking? No thanks.

What your brain looks like multi-tasking, I bet.

What your brain looks like multi-tasking, I bet.


“I’m just multi-tasking” is a phrase that annoys me like no other.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard a man use the word about himself, but then ‘multi-tasking’, according to women’s magazines is what women can do better than men, so it’s usually used as a weapon of barely masked sexism. It offends me.  For one thing, if you want to believe that you (as a woman) are better at multi-tasking than men, then you have to subscribe to the kind of gender-stereotyping that would be considered out of order, if it were used the other way round. I can multitask, thank you very much. I can cook. I’m good at all kinds of things which are conventionally considered ‘feminine’ in our society (but not others) including music, and I can do many of them all at once.

Although I hate the term, I have been multi-tasking recently. I’ve just spent the best part of two days fighting HTML, plug-ins, hyperlinks, CSS while keeping mind and body on a host of other things too. I was bemused to wake up feeling slightly resentful and empty afterwards, until I realised that however engrossing  this diversion from my usual diet of philosophy, psychology, aesthetics & music education for my MA might be,  it is all rather mindless, compared with the job of thinking. I could quite easily watch Brick Lane while I was doing precarious things with .htaccess files and php on a server, send emails, Google stuff and edit web-pages.  But I couldn’t watch telly and read a book, or consider a problem in aesthetics, or have a focused conversation with someone.  My resentment and emptiness was a direct result of not having time and space to think properly about stuff in the way I’d like. The only reason I could multi-task is because the tasks themselves were low-level and impersonal, hence the disatisfaction.

Don’t mind me. At all.

“I’m just multi-tasking” is 21st-century womanspeak for “I’m not listening to you”, or “Carry on talking while I do something that I consider more important”, the unspoken insult, traditionally, of men to women. Added to that, it means ‘And I’m better than you, because women can do this stuff, and you can’t.” So look at in another way, and “I’m just multi-tasking” means “I’m just an unreconstructed selfish man in a dress.  I have decided to adopt traditional male attitudes of discounting, ignoring and supercilious behaviour, and justify them with pop-psychology which I read in those women’s magazines that rationalize my current beliefs”. If you were in a room with your (male) boss and they started shuffling papers, tidying up and answering emails, you’d think “OK, this is a signal for me to go”.  “I’m just multi-tasking” means “Please stay so I can do you the dishonor of not really listening”. And, get this, half the time when people I know say they’re multitasking, I have to keep repeating myself, or give up trying to explain anything complex, or which requires sensitive attention to detail.

Sexist? Moi?

Now, before you accuse me of sexism, the point is that of all the people I know who are excellent listeners, who take time not just to listen to what you have to say but the way you say it, and who observe the non-verbal signals, and weigh this all up before continuing the conversation in a relaxed and meaningful way, the majority are women.  Most of the people I know who think that other people deserve time, consideration, focus and attention, are women. Most of my friends  who know how to have a conversation which is co-operative and explorative, rather than the parallel re-telling of anecdotes, are women. I’m just saying that if you really want to continue gender stereotyping, good listening is a classier female trait than ‘multi-tasking’.  Polite people, men and women, say ‘I’m afraid I’ve got rather a lot to do, but if you don’t mind me doing this while we talk, we could try and talk about it now’.

Glorious mono

But my point isn’t really about gender or stereotypes, it’s about the forgotten quality of the offline, analogue, monotasking world. Since returning to study after all these years, I’ve re-discovered the joy of reading & thinking. Stimulate your brain in the right way, and you simply can’t multitask, and why would you want to? When I read about ‘today’s children’ watching telly, Facebooking, downloading music, texting their friends, and Googling all at the same time, I don’t think this is particularly extraordinary.  I do this all the time. It’s not just for kids. But all of those things are low-level tasks, that’s why you can do them all together.  But you can’t apply the concept of ‘multi-tasking’ to any old set of tasks, just as you can’t stuff your washing machine with 3 weeks worth of washing, just because it’s a washing machine.

Multi-tasking kills

What pressed the final button in my brain and made me write this rant, is that for the bazillionth time since I’ve been riding a bike in London, I’ve nearly killed some poor Wandsworth baby, because its mother decided to use the pushchair as a kind of mine detector, thrusting it ahead of her with one hand into the road to test for passing traffic, while using the other hand to hold a mobile to her ear. Because she’s listening to the conversation or talking, she doesn’t hear anything less than a bus or juggernaut coming her way, and since most people are right-handed, she’s holding the phone to her right ear and facing away from the oncoming traffic (me).  This isn’t multi-tasking, it’s madness.

Why music?


Waiting in the check-out queue at Sainsburys the other day, I was mesmerized by the sight of a lardy teenage girl standing – or rather pulsating and jerking compulsively like an enormous chicken in the throes of food-poisoning – at the adjacent till. What was particularly engrossing was the fact that the cables of her headphones looked as if they’d been pushed into her ears like cannulae, and that they were delivering some toxic fluid direct into her body with enough force to make her head jerk back and forth while the fateful emetic did its job down below. Just when you thought she was going to throw up, she would emit lusty, mezzo voce microtonal grunts of an intensity quite unmatched to groceries, all right, babeeee, girrrl, uh-huh, yeaaah, her face unconsciously contorting into pop-video soft-porn pouts.  If I didn’t know what an MP3 player was, I’d think she was mad, ill, or taking part in some unethical medical experiment.

A colleague had just given me an article from a recent issue of the Economist called Why Music? which explores some of the attempts by scientists to find evolutionary arguments for why we have music at all. Why indeed, I thought.

The London Eye. A metaphor for music?

The London Eye. A metaphor for music?

Meanwhile, at my checkout, I was pondering something in Michael Spitzer’s Metaphor and Musical Thought to do with painting as a potential metaphor for music (as opposed to, or rather complementing the ‘literalization’ theory of Lydia Goehr). If I’d understood it, I’d be explaining it better here. However, the day before, I’d had an epiphany cycling up to  the awe-inspiring London Eye. I suddenly saw at least some of the point – a beautifully formed wheel like that could be a metaphor for a piece of music, couldn’t it? A Bach gigue in metal.

If she could have read my mind, the girl with the earphones would have thought I had a screw loose too. Which makes me wonder how much you can develop a theory about music, when ‘music’ has such enormous varieties of experience attached to it.

On Mendelssohn, Hampson, and ‘musical music’

This has nothing to do with the post, but in the spirit of Mendelssohn, it expresses something about the poetic content

This has nothing to do with the post, but in the spirit of Mendelssohn, it expresses something about the poetic content

Hello world, happy new year.

Though I say it myself, I rather liked my Advent Calendar of 2008. It’s nicely ironic that I should have begun it with ‘Solving Musical Problems’, because as it turned out, that’s exactly what I continued to do for most of the calendar.  One of the reasons I blog is because there are things that irritate me (both in the quotidian sense, and in the ‘sand that makes the pearl’ sense), and blogging is a way of working out those problems on virtual paper. Teachers acknowledge that you learn by teaching, and by the same token, I find it easier to solve problems when I share them with even an imaginary reading public.

My favourite post was the one about music that is too musical, because I surprised even myself in being able to find an advocate in one so erudite as Raymond Monelle for a position that seemed so illogical – that  music that can be  too “musical”.

But I now find that the concept of ‘musical music’ in a perjorative sense is not as recondite as I thought. It turns out that Mendelssohn used the term (I wish I knew where). That’s nice, because elsewhere, I’ve said that it was Chris Hampson who made me appreciate Mendelssohn, and it seems they might well have had stuff to talk about.

I came across this in Susanne Langer’s Feeling and Form. It’s a shame that Langer is dismissed as a bit of a well-meaning also-ran as a philosopher these days, because there are bits of her work which are brilliant.

“If the procedures of the several arts were really analagous, a composer could only translate that form into its musical equivalent.[…] But a shad0w-like following of verse forms and literary concepts does not produce a musical organism. […]Let Mendelssohn speak once more: “I can conceive music [for a poem] only if I can conceive a mood that produces it; mere artfully arranged sounds that aptly follow the accent of the words, forte on strong words and piano on mild ones, but without really expressing anything, I have never been able to understand.  Yet for this poem I can’t imagine any other kind of music than this – not intensive, integral, poetic, but accompanying, parallel, musical music; but I don’t like that sort.”

Langer, Feeling and Form (1953, p. 159)

“What Mendelssohn called ‘musical music’ is something independent of the poem, externally similar in structure, but manufactured out of entirely independent material to “match” the verses, which remain essentially unchanged by it.”  (ibid, p. 160). This isn’t the same thing as Monelle’s meaningless symphonism, but it’s another rather surprising view that music can be ‘over-musical’.  And it makes perfect sense. Well, it will do, after another glass of wine.