Numbers

“My interest in manipulating numbers is not directed at creating music theory. On the contrary, by using numbers I want to integrate music with the real, changing world. By means of numbers I want to see more clearly those unpredictable, formless images within me that, perhaps prepared over a long time, suddenly emerge in a dream. Through the absolute simplicity of numbers I want to clarify the complexities of the dream. “

– Toru Takemitsu

The quote above is from a lecture Takemitsu gave in 1984. I probably don’t need to even elaborate, but as I have tried and failed on numerous occasions to explain my attraction to systems and numbers as organizing forces in my pieces, I am so glad to run across this quote. It expresses so well the oddly non-theoretical quality of numbers and patterns in music.

I like the phrase “integrate music with the real, changing world.” It names something with which I am familiar. Is our world changing to such a degree that now and in the near and not-so-near future, physical truths will be impinging on conceptual ones? If (when?) we are refugees, if we are leaving our homes to find safer surroundings, clean water, jobs, and so on, what good will any theories – musical or otherwise – be then?

If we are to be set in motion in that way, the true shape of things, especially the true shape of things in new and unfamiliar forms, will be in some ways the only truth we need to know about, and, as a central truth, a crucial subject for art of all kinds.

Numbers (and by extension music) can describe those kinds of things – things that are natural, pre- or non-linguistic, elemental, physical – better than words can. Also, numbers can (almost) describe the universe as it is without human beings in it. It seems important to me that, if we want to really see it clearly, we should remove ourselves from the picture we have of the universe (see the last few posts about nature, romanticism, trying or lying….).

So to me, it seems to be not only relevant, but inherently non-theoretical, to find musical expressions that attempt to take a kind of absolute shape or patterned form from essential relationships between things that numbers can show us.

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