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Thinking Outside the Bachs

New York
Rubin Museum of Art
01/11/2014 -  
“Brainwave: Mind Over Matter”:
Michael Harrison: Just Ancient Loops (Film by Bill Morrison)

Maya Beiser (Cellist), Jhamshed Bharucha (Cognitive Psychologist)

M. Beiser (© Courtesy of the Artist)

”Pythagoras alone has seen beauty bare.”

Actually, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote that about Euclid. But after the illuminating talk between a famed cognitive psychologist and an equally famed cellist last night, it was evident that the essence of music comes from the mathematics of Pythagoras, not his century-younger colleague.

That, though, was only one of endless concepts, ideas, and controversies in the discourse between these two eminent practitioners in different fields. Nor was this a rarity for the Rubin Museum of Art. Once (and still) noted for its collection of Asian art, today it is in the forefront of thinking (and I use that word in its too rare literal sense) outside the box.

The Rubin’s film series is eclectic enough. The Flowers of Saint Francis, The Sting, Cool Hand Luke, Days of Heaven etc etc). But the introducers for each film are definitely not in the usual scheme of things. A Buddhist teacher to introduce Fitzcarraldo, a Zen teacher for My Left Foot, a lyricist to introduce North By Northwest.

Last night’s “Mind Over Matter” has a forthcoming series embracing a poker player-and-psychologist, composer Michael Neyman and a neuroscientist, and basketball artist Walt Frazier with another neuroscientist.

Last night, even before the discussion, the French/Argentinian/Israeli cellist Maya Beiser, was thinking far outside the Bachs (as well as the Dvoøáks and Haydns) with a work that involved five or six pre-recorded cellos, a black-and-white film with circa 1890’s ersatz-scratches, (á la director Guy Maddin) depicting macrocosms, microcosms and the cheesiest picture ever made of Christ’s resurrection.

Yet the 25 minutes of movie and playing was transforming, for artist and audience. The background of film started with the pre-recorded cellos playing Indian tablas, followed by more “live” Indian ragas, themselves transformed into apparent Greek modes (though we haven’t really discovered what these modes actually are), back to the ragas again. The title itself–Just Ancient Loops was itself a pun on the “just intonation” an algebraic concept in musical tuning.

What we had in fact was a primordial pulse throughout. And Ms. Beiser, who has worked with virtually every composer of the past 10 years, gave it the physical and aural impulse which steadily gripped the audience. Dr. Bharucha laster classified this as “minimalist”, but that puts the film/music into its own pigeonhole, and that was hardly fair.

M. Beiser, J. Bharucha (© Coco T. Dog)

When this pair–the cognitive psychologist who has written extensively on the effects of music on the brain, and the artist who actually creates these effects–came together on the stage, the discussion was far-ranging indeed. There was little doubt that not all of the audience understood everything–the talk ranged from the mathematics of Pythagoras, the music of the spheres and String Theory to the concept that “well-temered clavier” doesn’t exist.

It did come as a surprise to me that mathematically, those who believe in the major or minor scales believe in a mathematical falsehood. “The scales aren’t well-tempered. The people who made it up fudged the results.”

Which elicited the response from the cellist, saying that when playing with a piano, some things just didn’t seem right.

Ms Beiser also asked exactly the right question for this writer, who had at various times been music critic and film critic.

“Can an audience simultaneously pay attention to both film and music?”

Definitely not, said Dr. Bharucha. “The film and the music strike totally different parts of the brain.” In theory, he implied, it’s unfair to have both.

This I recognized immediately. Ms. Beiser had worked with composer and film-maker for over two years to make Just Ancient Loops, and her goal was to “expand” music. Perhaps so, but those of us not performing were transfixed by her music and by Bill Morrison’s film.

The main point of this discussion is that there was no main point. They could have spoken for hours, and in the question period I withheld myself, since I had so many questions to ask about the effects of Asian music on the brain.

What this “Mind Over Matter” did accpomplish, though, was that mind and matter do not overcome each other, that an understanding only enlightens and only expands the art we hear.

It was a joyous experience. And it brought back that quote from the famed lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov (a man who also, I hear, dabbled in novels):

There can be no science without fancy,” he said, “no art without facts.”

Harry Rolnick



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