Tag Archives: fife-&-drum

Music comes from the strangest places…

Diana Deutsch is a Professor of Psychology at the University of California, San Diego, who studies sound and how we perceive it. Specifically, she is interested in musical illusions and paradoxes. You could think of these paradoxes as being the auditory equivalent of an M.C. Escher drawing.

Relativity

Diana has performed a variety of interesting sound experiments over the years including a fascinating one where she demonstrates that pitch and tone may be stored by our brains in locations that are separate from where speech is stored. In other words, the sounds of someone talking is not stored in the same region of the brain as music regardless of the fact that they are both made from the same elements, pitch and tone.

I’m not a psychologist nor a neuroscientist but it seems logical to me that as we are perpetually bombarded with a cacophony of sounds, such as speech, our brains are probably most concerned with our basic well being and survival versus our enjoyment. For example, there are two very different ways to listen to an oncoming train: Hear it and get the hell out of the way; hear it and feel the grove. Feel the groove before establishing your safety and your likely to become track pizza. Conversely, it stands to reason that while basking in the glory of a Bach concerto the fight-or-flight department of our brains is at rest while the sit-back-and-relax department takes over. But once your safety has been secured what happens to the rattling of that train in your head? Can it morph into music?

Diana stumbled upon a compelling auditory phenomenon demonstrating that seemingly arbitrary sound can, in fact, morph into music without any changes being made to the sound itself. In a story she conveyed on NPR, she described how one evening she was working with tape loops of recorded speech. She started with the following recorded bit of speech:

The sounds as they appear to you are not only quite different from those that are really present, but they sometimes behave so strangely as to seem quite impossible.

She then created a tape loop consisting of the following fragment:

sometimes behave so strangely

At some point she got up to take a break from her work, maybe get a cup of coffee, and forgot about the running tape loop. A while later, she spontaneously started hearing the faint sounds of music and eventually realized that the audio loop playing in the background had transcended from mere speech into melody. Most strikingly she found that when listening to the snippet of speech, placed back into the context of the sentence from which it came, it still retained it’s melodic qualities, as though being sung, while the rest of the speech was heard as being normal.

What happened here? My humble guess is that at some point her brain stored a copy of the speech loop in the sit-back-and-relax department and, consequently, gave her noggin the opportunity to make music from it. To be clear, this music was made not by the speaker but by the perceiver!

Making that synaptic leap is the sort of thing composers do well, which may be part of the reason they are what they are in the first place. One of my favorite stories of spinning arbitrary sound into something beautiful was conveyed to me by the late great composer of fife music, mentor and friend Roy Watrous. For many years he worked in a machine shop where he would hear the repetitive sounds of the machines chugging away at their mechanical tasks. The sounds of these machines were seared into his brain and he eventually heard them as melodic in the same way we are fooled into believing that the looping speech in Diana’s experiment was sung. Those machines were Roy’s inspiration for a wonderful tune he entitled ‘Billy Budd’. The tune, and many other classics, can be found in The Watrous Book. Here is the notation to Billy Budd as written out by Roy:

Billy Budd

So, take a listen to Diana’s sounds that Behave so Strangely. Listen to it twice. I guarantee the second time you will hear it differently. After that, sit back and relax to Roy’s classic ‘Billy Budd’ as played by The Ancient Mariners on their American Fife & Drum Music album from 1981. Can you imagine the machines?

The Hazards of Hatteras

Stinson Davis

My great, great uncle Stinson Davis, pictured above, was a sailor. He wasn’t just your average day sailor. He was the real deal. In fact, he was the last real deal.

A captain of three, four and five masted schooner ships during the waning age of sail, he spent years of his life carrying whale oil from the West Indies, coal from Portugal and hauling lumber out of Africa.

schooner

Stinson was one of those witty Yankee Mainers with enough salt and grit to live four years past the centenarian mark in spite of the fact that he was cast adrift twice after loosing his vessels at sea. He had two lives worth of stories and if I accumulate half the stories of one of those lives I’d have twice as many as anyone I know.

When I was fourteen I attended his hundredth birthday party. You think it is hard buying a gift for your dad’s birthday? What do you get someone turning one hundred? My father was wise and convinced me to do some research and draw him a big map of all his sailing routes. I spent weeks with colored markers and piece poster board charting his journeys. On the day of his birthday party, in some Grange hall near Five Islands, Maine I nervously presented my gift. He quietly looked it over. After a few moments, instead of a ‘thank you’, he began pointing out the routes I had missed, like the one that lead him a thousand miles up the Congo River. He began to tell me stories of his voyages, bouts of malaria, brothers lost at sea, The Maude Palmer, Cape Horn and the hazards of Cape Hatteras. I suppose I thought I was giving an old man a map to remind him of the places he’d been. Truth is, he didn’t need it.

Reflecting back to that day I think it is safe to say that my real gift to him was the wide eyed curiosity of a young boy. And in a way it was he who gave me the map. I pull out that map on days when life is hard and I ask myself this: Have I really been everywhere I want to go? If the answer is ‘no’ then it is time to start charting a course for my West Indies, even if it means that I will have to face the Hazards of Hatteras.

The following tune is the first one I wrote that I was every happy with. It is also the first of many that have titles that serve as my own reminders of my ancestry. I have included two mp3’s in which you will find three stylistic variations of the same tune.
live album
The first recording was done by The Ancient Mariners and comes from a live album I co-produced with good friend Roger Hunnewell. Incidentally, that is me with outstretched arms at the top of the disc and no, I was not responsible for the artwork. The graphic work was a surprise to me! The second is from an unreleased recording that I did back in 2000. I was interested in combining both fifing style with Irish flute style onto one track. Lastly, here is the chart for this trio.