Reno: The Maestro’s Take. Art vs. Science

It’s becoming more and more clear as we do this that the Doc is into it for the adventure and fun, and I’m into it for the science. He almost always orders a different type of pizza, and I almost always go with sausage and pepperoni. Part of it is that I like sausage and pepperoni. But the doc pointed out that having a “control” in the great pizza experiment is a more sciencey thing.

And I think that kind of goes for everything surrounding this. The pizza. The music. The go karting. I derive a lot more fun out of something when I know how it works. Knowing how the sausage is made is fascinating. I used to worry that knowing more about music, and knowing how it’s put together would somehow ruin the magic for me. But it’s the opposite. The more I know how a piece of music is constructed, the more I am fascinated by it.

Obviously this is not true for everyone. There are many people (my father included) who enjoy opera in a foreign language, simply because if you know exactly what they’re singing about onstage, sometimes it’s a little… how do you say… silly? But hearing it in a language that you don’t fully grasp, sometimes the effect can seem more poetic.

But from a purely compositional point of view, I love seeing how things tick. Take for example, Ligeti’s masterpiece Lux Aeterna (most famously used in Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey)



If you’ve never listened to this kind of music before it can sound completely random, with no direction whatsoever. Or it might sound like an organic growth of something. Starting with one pitch and then blossoming out into weird harmonies, and then compressing back again. In any case, barring some seriously photographic memory and perfect pitch skills, there’s no way you can possibly understand what is going on, beyond a very surface feeling of “we start on one pitch, (F) we go to a bunch of other pitches (E, F, G, etc.), and then we end on 2 pitches (F, and G).” (This is me just going on a very superficial listening here).

Looking at the first page of the score though, we get a lot more information:

Besides probably completely breaking copyright law by posting this, the page gives us some indication that it’s not so simple as “starts on one pitch.” Sure it starts on one pitch, but it’s 2 solo voices, a soprano and an alto, and then within seconds, 2 other voices have joined, always on the same pitch. And it’s not random at all. The entrances are meticulously dictated. This score is really tiny on my computer screen, but it doesn’t look like another “new” pitch enters until measure 4. So that means 3 measures of the same note. But even though it’s the same note, it’s not the same color, and people are coming in and out of that note, attacking it very gently, almost imperceptibly. Ligeti writes “All entrances very gentle.” But no matter how gentle it is, you’re going to pick up that something new is happening every time. Somewhere deep and maybe not on a conscious level, but you will hear it.

It doesn’t really matter that you can’t make sense of it in the few seconds that it takes for those few measures to unfold. What matters is that it all contributes to the general effect of something unfolding. And the word that they’re all singing is “Lux,” “light.” Listen to it again, you have all these entrances of “loooooooooooo” and then a little “cks” at the end of each one, and they unfold in a pattern that starts to fall over on itself. The first time we get a new note (E), we have a different word “aeterna,” “light.”

Actually just typing this out, I’m getting more excited about looking at the score, just to see how this thing is unpacked. The more I see in it, the more I can hear in it later, and the one feeds the other. But it’s not even always about complexity. Sometimes knowing that something came out of simple materials is just as fascinating.

Most of you don’t remember that in 2012 the Pulitzer Prize in Music went to Caroline Shaw for her composition for her Partita for 8 Voices. The first movement sounds like this:


Which is completely arresting on a gut level. The composer used to have excerpts of the score on her website, and what was fascinating was that on the page it looked so simple. Just text in the beginning. But the text was set very rhythmically (as you can hear in the piece), and then it accumulated (not unlike the Ligeti), but at the saturation point it exploded in a very tonal, almost rock-anthem-like “chorus.” There was almost a disconnect in my brain between these sounds I was hearing and the way they were represented on the page.

Or take the more subtle movement, Sarabande:


She’s outlining some harmonies in the beginning, but the harmonies in and of themselves aren’t the interesting part. The interesting part is how they begin. Kind of like a very low, unpitched “hmmm” which then slides up into something identifiable. And it’s this going from unpitched chaos to familiar tonal harmonies, and the alternation between the two that makes it so interesting. I don’t have the score here, but I seem to remember it being dictated something exactly like “unpitched hmmmm,” followed by a glissando, and then a pitch. Which is an incredibly simple and effective way to notate something that is not at all simple.

If anybody is still reading this, I’ll bring it back to the realm of go karting and pizza now.

So when we go gokarting I always enjoy it. But I seem to enjoy it the most when I’m either racing alone or against people who are better than me. If I’m doing it alone I’m racing against myself (you’re always racing against yourself, don’t let tell you otherwise), and I can really analyze how I took this corner, where I applied the brake on that corner, etc. When I’m racing against people that are better than me, inevitably they pass me, but these cars aren’t so fast that they whip right by. They usually creep up slowly, and then overtake me at a turn, or more commonly I let them pass me. Because I’m interested in following their line. If someone passes me, it’s at least a couple laps before they’re so far ahead of me that I can’t see what they’re doing. And you learn more by seeing what good drivers do than anything else.

So, pizza? The pizza at Reno was delicious. And I’m starting to understand that, barring pizza that is like Gioacchino’s or La villa (which has that perfect Chicago blend of: lots of cheese, but not exactly “stuffed” like in deep dish, very thin and salty crust, and cut in squares), I’m realizing that I love it more when it’s wood fired. The way it kind of burns the crust, no matter what the dough. The way it comes out much faster than other pizzas. The way the cheese will almost burn into the crust, and the way that the sauce is almost painfully hot. All of this seems to be a consistent with the wood fire ovens.

Well duh. I can’t believe that even though I’ve employed a scientific control method to our pizza outings it’s taken me more than six months to realize what thousands of pizza lovers already know.

But I don’t know that I would’ve arrived at this conclusion without the analytical part.

That is, unless the Doc just told me “you seem to like wood fire.” But he rarely just tells me these things. He’s a fan of letting you figure out the obvious on your own.

And this is why we dig him (among so many other reasons)


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