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Book Commentary/Review – Exploring Music by Charles Taylor July 20, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in book review, books, Charles Taylor, Exploring Music, music.
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(This is the seventh of what will be a series of commentaries about a series of ten or so books about the nature of music. The first six commentaries of this series were about the books Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks, This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin, Music, the Brain and Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain, Music and the Mind by Anthony Storr, Good Vibrations/The Physics of Music by Barry Parker and Measured Tones by Ian Johnston. This series has been triggered as a result of  my rediscovery of the love of creating and performing music. There is definitely a spiritual connection to this rediscovery, evidenced by my recent release of “Issa Music” and my posts about mystical/spiritual aspects of the music of the progressive rock group Yes (The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes: Introduction to “The Revealing Science of God—Dance of the Dawn” from “Tales from Topographic Oceans”  and The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes). This further relates to spiritual meditations with the theme of more than one path to God, and the possible coming together of both physics and metaphysics I and II).

In Exploring Music, physicist Charles Taylor goes into the technical details of producing music from instruments, both with conventional and non-conventional instruments. The book is formed from a series of lectures, and a subsequent BBC television series, during whichTaylor demonstrates sound/music production to a live audience, demonstrating the principles he describes. We can call this “Mr. Wizard meets music.” This is a hands-on, physics-heavy approach, a tinkerer’s paradise. For me, an important element of his approach is his use of the oscilloscope to look at waveforms and envelopes of particular musical sounds. This is another helpful tool for determining if there is some universal aspect to music, universal enough to be shared among any conscious creatures coexisting with us in our universe, universal enough to offer a bridge between the material and the divine, between physics and metaphysics.

Some key highlights:

  • Oscilloscope traces show that musical notes we recognize as “musical” tend to occur in regular wave patterns.
  • Taylor describes a Nigerian instrument called a “shantu,” a gourd that makes a pitched sound depending on the size of the gourd.
  • Taylor also examines the harmonic series part of his hands-on look at wind instruments. The harmonic series appears to be a universal component of sound.
  • Taylor looks at the harmonic overtones of gamelan “bowls and bells,” explaining their distinctive timbres by how the notes are generated.
  • In his discussion about what makes the “best” tone for a violin, Taylor offers a “philosophical problem.” He suggests humans may find “perfection” in musical tone to be “too bland.” He suggests we need some edge, some “non-uniformity” to interest us in the tone, to bring us musical pleasure. This opens the door to cultural subjectivity. There are clearly universal physics principles that apply to all music. But how we enjoy music once it is created is learned, through cultural tradition, and through education and willingness to experience something outside of tradition.
  • In a section on synthesizers, samplers and scales,Taylorgoes over the various theories on the physics behind the formation of consonant intervals and scales using the Pythagorean theories of ratio of string length vibrations and an examination of the harmonic series. This is material covered in other reading on this subject, but is covered byTaylorin a more hands-on way.

Measured Tones: The Interplay of Physics and Music (3rd Edition) – Ian Johnston June 27, 2012

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(This is the sixth of what will be a series of commentaries about a series of seven or so books – it looks now like the total will be around ten – about the nature of music. The first five commentaries of this series were about the books Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks, This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin, Music, the Brain and Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain, Music and the Mind by Anthony Storr and Good Vibrations/The Physics of Music by Barry Parker. This series has been triggered as a result of  my rediscovery of the love of creating and performing music. There is definitely a spiritual connection to this rediscovery, evidenced by my recent release of “Issa Music” and my posts about mystical/spiritual aspects of the music of the progressive rock group Yes (The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes: Introduction to “The Revealing Science of God—Dance of the Dawn” from “Tales from Topographic Oceans”  and The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes). This further relates to spiritual meditations with the theme of more than one path to God, and the possible coming together of both physics and metaphysics I and II).

Ian Johnston’s book Measured Tones is another excellent discussion of music and physics, probing in even more depth into the physics aspects than my previous reading on this subject (see above). As I have indicated, my interest in these books is to learn about the physics of music as part of a larger quest to examine the combining physics and metaphysics, and if somehow music offers humans, or even other intelligences elsewhere in the universe, a spiritual door to the metaphysical, a bridge between the material and the mystical. I will discuss Measured Tones in the context of these issues.

Johnston, a physicist by profession, tells us he wants to “develop the physical concepts and musical applications together.” This leads to a sometimes bumpy organization, with detailed, step-by-step chapters on the physics concepts pertaining to music punctuated by “interludes” that go into details about specific musical instruments (and with a final “interlude” about the human voice). He does attempt to introduce instrument “interludes” as he describes the physics concepts applicable to them. Of course, much of this material is covered in my previous reading. But Johnston’s attention to detail brought me to some new ideas on the subject of my concern:

From Chapter 1: Why these and not others?

  • Johnston discusses the pentatonic scale, the closest to a universal scale evident across cultures. (In Appendix 7: “Pentatonic scales,” Johnston examines pentatonic scales in depth, bolstering the assertion that this is the closest there is to a universal scale by quoting pentatonic scale tunes from cultures all over the world, including the unique Japanese scale, E-F-A-B-C-E, which has no third in it, and is perceived instantly as Japanese by anyone with even a passing exposure to Japanese music.) He relates planetary orbits to the same ratios that are evident in musical scales, a compelling relationship between the astronomical and the musical. He goes into great detail on the ratios of string bisection needed to create scales, making the case that there is something universal in the physics of what we hear as consonance and dissonance, and in the physics of music scales.

From Chapter 2: Music and scientific method

  • He examines the harmonic series and the behavior of “stretched strings,” building more physics origins for the scales and harmonies we experience, and continuing to build a case for some universality of how we experience music. In my opinion at this point, the best way to think of this is that physics does bring us a basic musical framework, basic “notes” that comprise harmonies and scales. But that basic framework is then subject to cultural influences. So while the octave, and the perfect fifth, and maybe even the pentatonic scale may be universal, the choices made by humans (or other intelligences capable of music) can vary a great deal among cultures, based on familiarity and tradition.

From Interlude 1: Brass instruments

  • We run smack into the overtones series again, a phenomenon inherent in discernible notes of all kinds, as we look at tone production for brass instruments.

From Chapter 3: Harmonies of a mechanical universe

  • Johnston elaborates on concepts of “universal harmony,” expanding on “the law of stretched strings” and other ideas as he surveys the evolving scientific thinking about physics as those ideas relate to musical development.

From Chapter 4: Overtones of enlightenment

  • Johnston expands into a meticulous analysis of the overtone series to offer a physics explanation for what became the tradition of “Western harmony.” He draws on the work of Jean-Paul Rameau, a composer/theorist known for his musical theories underpinning conventional “Western harmony,” intertwining those ideas with a developing understanding of the physics related to those ideas.

From Chapter 5: Over the waves

  • Johnston details the concept of waves in physics and offers us the simple but profound idea that sound is nothing more or less than energy waves. Sound is energy. Music is ordered energy. This is a huge idea from Johnston’s book for my area of concern.  I have discussed this in [post on how we are energy] that we are energy fields. So with music, we are feeding energy waves into ourselves, directly into our brains via our ears, sound energy waves organized by us, derived from tones with a universal quality to them because of the numerical ratios evident in the harmonic series/string bisection/string stretching principles. This could be the concept that brings music and physics and metaphysics together.

From Interlude 5: Woodwind instruments

  • Archeological evidence “confirms that nearly every society, however isolated from the rest of humanity, has always started off playing flutes.” Could this be close to a universal instrument for any intelligent creature capable of producing a column of air?

From Chapter 7: Summer in Heidelberg

  • Here Johnston goes down to the micro level to detail how the ear discerns pitch. With this is a discussion of how much our ears are capable of distinguishing—pitch-wise, overtone-wise—and how that relates to the perception of consonance and dissonance. He concludes “we have found a truly basic exclamation, in terms of the properties of the ear, for why these intervals should be pleasing to listen to.” As mentioned earlier, some basics can be considered to be universal: 1) an octave or perfect fifth sounded together will be considered consonant, 2) a half-step (or less) sounded together will be considered dissonant. For other perceptions of consonance, culture and tradition factor in. Also, we are left to wonder if the human ear is a unique sound perception tool, or whether other intelligent creatures would hear sound the same way we do. That is an issue will not be able to address directly for the foreseeable future—until we meet and greet intelligent extra-terrestrial creatures! But we may be able to speculate that if there is a basic nature of sound, the biological evolution of intelligent creatures to sense that sound as music could well be the same or similar to our own.

From Interlude 6: Percussion instruments

  • Johnson touches on Gamelan music (from Java/Indonesia) and its odd, nonstandard scales sounded with percussion instruments. I will want to hear this music in its pure form to see how my Western-traditional (but open-minded) ears perceive it. That will be part of the future study of this issue.

From Interlude 8: The sublimest of instruments, the voice

  • Johnston mentions that from “the very earliest writings, we know that people have always sung, and that singing has always had religious associations.” So humans use their bodies, through the process of running air through their vocal cords, to generate tones/sound energy waves that can be absorbed by other humans—and by the humans themselves who are doing the singing. This is an inherent quality. Are we looking at a key argument for music as a bridge for humans between the physical and metaphysical, an aptitude wired in, perhaps even placed there by a greater power as a conduit of communication, placed there as part of a process we have yet to understand, or that may even be unknowable to us?

Book Commentary/Review – Good Vibrations/The Physics of Music by Barry Parker June 21, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in Barry Parker, book review, books, Good Vibrations the Physics of Music, music.
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(This is the fifth of what will be a series of commentaries about a series of seven or so books about the nature of music. The first four commentaries of this series were about the books Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks, This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin, Music, the Brain and Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain and Music and the Mind by Anthony Storr. This series has been triggered as a result of  my rediscovery of the love of creating and performing music. There is definitely a spiritual connection to this rediscovery, evidenced by my recent release of “Issa Music” and my posts about mystical/spiritual aspects of the music of the progressive rock group Yes (The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes: Introduction to “The Revealing Science of God—Dance of the Dawn” from “Tales from Topographic Oceans”  and The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes). This further relates to spiritual meditations with the theme of more than one path to God, and the possible coming together of both physics and metaphysics I and II).

Good Vibrations/The Physics of Music by Barry Parker is the next book I have read in my quest for understanding of how music affects humans the way it does, and if there is a physics/metaphysics connection provided by music. As the title indicates, this book takes us much more “down to earth,” out of the psychological and philosophical subjects I have been reading about in the previous books. Good Vibrations takes us methodically from the basics of sound to the nuances of music, with an emphasis on current music. Parker provides clear diagrams—of sound waves, of the precise components of our ears, our organs used to sense the sound waves, of graphs meticulously describing in physics terms what we sense as pitch, volume, and timbre. I suspect as I try to make sense of music, humans, and the physical and the spiritual, a precise understanding down to the most basic concepts of physics, to the molecular, even atomic and subatomic levels, will help us draw connections. Parker’s book gives us those basics in clear, understandable descriptions. 

Parker then goes on to discuss scales, chords and rhythms, mainly within a Twenty-First Century Western context. This includes examinations of various styles of popular music. He also goes through various musical instruments, detailing how they make sound. Again, the focus is all on the Western instruments. This part of the book includes a detailed examination of the human voice—how sound becomes singing. He also addresses electronic music including the concept of MIDI, and he discusses acoustics. 

*******

This book will not by itself answer questions of music’s connection to metaphysics, and whether there is some connection that music may offer humans to what ever deity exists. But the clear descriptions of the physics of music make this book a good reference as I seek to discover whatever connection there may be. The closest Parker’s book comes to something beyond nuts and bolts is when he discusses “making music beautiful” in Chapter Four. He looks at waves and harmonics, looking at the numbers associated with them. As I have stated before, we know mathematics, numbers, have to be universal everywhere. Conscious intelligent creatures all over the universe can have many different ways of living, of perceiving reality, of culture and political organization. But two plus two will always be four, three squared will always be nine, and so forth on to the most complex mathematical ideas. Mathematics is the best bet for communication with another intelligent life form. Is music also universal? Is there something about the physics of sound that makes music universal? Parker does not answer those questions. But his clear, simple, easy-to-understand presentation of basic concepts will allow the analysis to help ferret out the answers to these questions, bringing us closer to an answer as to whether music has some universal qualities, maybe even offering a doorway, a passageway, from the physical to the metaphysical.

Book Commentary/Review – Music and the Mind by Anthony Storr May 27, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in Anthony Storr, book review, books, music, Music and the Mind.
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(This is the fourth of what will be a series of commentaries about a series of seven or so books about the nature of music. The first three commentaries of this series were about the books Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks,  This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin and Music, the Brain and Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain. This series has been triggered as a result of  my rediscovery of the love of creating and performing music. There is definitely a spiritual connection to this rediscovery, evidenced by my recent release of “Issa Music” and my posts about mystical/spiritual aspects of the music of the progressive rock group Yes (The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes: Introduction to “The Revealing Science of God—Dance of the Dawn” from “Tales from Topographic Oceans”  and The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes). This further relates to spiritual meditations with the theme of more than one path to God, and the possible coming together of both physics and metaphysics I and II).

In Music and the Mind by Anthony Storr, we examine music and the mind from less technical, more abstract perspectives, looking at music from psychological and philosophical angles. In the first three books of this series, the focus was on how the brain processes the sound waves that comprise music, and how those brain processes can be interrupted. Storr brings us back from the trees, to examine the forest. This felt like a digression at first from my stated purpose of trying to make sense of and even combine the physics and metaphysics of music. But Storr’s book tackles the subject directly, less mystically than my approach, but in a way that allows us to monitor what recent ideas have been on the broader effects of music on the mind. 

Some highlights:

  • Storr starts Music and the Mind with this sentence: “No culture so far discovered lacks music. Making music appears to be one of the fundamental activities of mankind; as characteristically human as drawing and painting.” From there, he looks back to how music evolved as a human activity. He tells us “the origins of music may be lost in obscurity, but, from its earliest beginnings, it seems to have played an essential part in social interaction. Music habitually accompanies religious and other ceremonies.” Storr goes on to refer to the renowned Twentieth Century composer Igor Stravinsky and his belief that “‘the profound meaning of music… is to promote a communion, a union of man with his fellow man and with the Supreme Being.’” Though Storr does not appear to concur with the idea of music as some form of physical/metaphysical channel of sensation/awareness, he at least includes the idea, not included, blatantly excluded, from other treatments of the subject.
  • Storr does spend some time discussing the body’s response to music in his chapter “Music, Brain and Body.” He refers to some of Oliver Sacks’ work in this area.
  • Storr looks at the idea that music can be a “universal language” and rejects it, pointing to the diverse forms of music around the world. (I’m still studying this issue. I suspect I will disagree with Storr. I completely acknowledge the diversity he points out. But I believe within that diversity, there are some commonalities. Right now, this is only a belief, an intuition, awaiting further objective examination. An examination of exotic music from different cultures, music with apparent dissimilarity to “Western” or closely culturally related music, will be needed. This dovetails nicely with my own creative efforts. My CD “Issa Music,” consisting of music created over twenty years ago, resulted from efforts at combining music styles from different cultures. This study will result in more music!)  Storr goes into the Pythagorean discoveries of the ratios of octaves and perfect fifths with respect to the lengths of vibrating strings. But he then suggests that the Western tonal system, stemming from the studies, is far from universal. He points to music in the world formed outside Greek influences as different from the Western tonal system. He concludes “different cultures produce different musical systems just as they produce different languages and different political systems.” (But there are common “universal,” characteristics of languages and political systems…)
  • He reminds us that music started as song, and instruments appear to have been created to accompany singing voices. Purely instrumental music appears to have been a more recent human construction. He discusses “form and expression” in instrumental music.
  • Storr offers the idea that music “promotes order within the mind.” It is an integral part of human nature to try to bring order from chaos. Music brings order to sound.
  • Storr discusses how: “Music began as a way of enhancing and coordinating group feelings.”
  • In the final three chapters, “The Innermost Nature of the World,” “A Justification of Existence,” and “The Significance of Music,” Storr goes deeply into philosophy, focusing heavily on ideas about music, and reality, offered by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Here, he touches on the metaphysical. (Frankly, we learn that these atheists seem less than atheistic. Schopenhauer’s idea that “ultimate reality is a unity…  inaccessible,” and Nietzsche’s “Will to Power,” described as “cosmic energy, the force that moves the planets or forms the stars, as well as to the energy which activates human beings” seem suspiciously like a broad definition of God to me. Hey Nietzsche, I’m not so sure He/She/It is dead after all!) Both Nietzsche and Schopenhauer give music a special place in the arts, with Nietzsche (a composer and performer himself—something I did not know before reading this book) much more positive and optimistic about what music can do for human beings. Schopenhauer sees music as an “escape” from the pain of existence, a transcendent form of expression that leaves reality. Nietzsche sees music as “life-enhancing” rather than “escapist.” During the philosophical discussions, Storr also brings in Freud and Jung, blending the psychological and philosophical.
  • A key issue raised by Nietzsche is the existence of opposites in life; no light without darkness, no joy without sorrow, no pleasure without pain. From this idea in Storr’s book, we are reminded of the idea of consonance and dissonance in music. In a sense, music illustrates the pain/pleasure idea in little dramas throughout a musical product— song or instrumental piece. Resolutions of harmonies, of melodies, and of rhythmic tensions play out—these resolutions are piped directly into us through our ears, directly into our brains, to be absorbed by our minds. These little sonic dramas are controlled, meticulously controlled. Our world does not allow us to control pain and pleasure so easily. Music gives us this opportunity, in motion, in time, penetrating directly into our minds. I think this is an important insight—stimulated by Storr’s book—into the nature of music and why it is so ingrained in all humans.
  • Storr offers us an insightful parallel between music and religion, possibly explaining music’s affinity with the metaphysical. As discussed earlier, music brings order to sound, so exists as a way of ordering the world. Religion brings explanation to existence. So we are left with the questions I have asked over the course of these posts: Are “communal chanting and dancing, often of an ecstatic kind” simply a human characteristics, or do they this mean music could be a wired-in route to a mystical/spiritual reality beyond what we see in the material world? Could the effort to sense God, to communicate with the God force through music, confer some form of evolutionary advantage on humans? 

For those wishing to absorb broad perspectives on how music and the mind relate, perspectives spanning cultures across the globe and throughout time, from the Greeks to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, this book is a quick, focused read. The music listener will see music in a new, more expansive way. And music creator will need to fight off the new ideas that will flow.

Book Commentary/Review – Music, the Brain and Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain May 17, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in book review, books, music, Music the Brain and Ecstacy, Robert Jourdain.
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(This is the third of what will be a series of commentaries about those books a series of seven or so books about the nature of music. The first two commentaries of this series were about the books Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks, and This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin. This series has been triggered as a result of  my rediscovery of the love of creating and performing music. There is definitely a spiritual connection to this rediscovery, evidenced by my recent release of “Issa Music” and my posts about mystical/spiritual aspects of the music of the progressive rock group Yes (The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes: Introduction to “The Revealing Science of God—Dance of the Dawn” from “Tales from Topographic Oceans”  and The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes). This further relates to spiritual meditations with the theme of more than one path to God, and the possible coming together of both physics and metaphysics I and II).

Robert Jourdain’s Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy is a definitive overview of how music affects human beings, a masterpiece of communicating the current state of knowledge of key disciplines, organized in a clear, accessible manner. As I’ve indicated in my two previous posts on this issue, I am interested in how the physics of music may relate to metaphysics. If I was to devise a reading list for this subject, I would suggest Jourdain’s book as the first to be read, for its overview qualities. The Sacks and Levitin books would be better read after an overview.

The key to the effectiveness of Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy is its elegantly simple organization. The sections are laid out in a continuum: “(1) from sound… (2) to tone… (3) to melody… (4) to harmony… (5) to rhythm… (6) to composition… (7) to performance… (8) to listening… (9) to understanding… (10) to ecstasy. Each section contains a thorough discussion of the subject of the title, filling in details of the concept while pointing forward to the next link in the chain.

Some highlights with particular attention to bridging physics with metaphysics in music: 

1) From sound…

  • Jourdain brings us the miracle of the ear and how it senses the vibrations that are sound, and takes them into the brain. He discusses comparisons with sight, and how the processes are different. Jourdain also discusses how other creatures “hear” differently. 

2) From sound… to tone…

  • He discusses how every tone is essentially a chord because of the overtone series.
  • He also discusses timbre and loudness.
  • At the end of this chapter, we discover that the “auditory cortex does not consider individual sounds in isolation. Instead, it always interprets sounds within the context of what has preceded.” 

3) From sound… to tone… to melody…

  • Humans have considered “songs” important from well before civilization. Jourdain tells us pre-historic human societies also considered songs to be “privately owned,” to be “traded, bequeathed or bestowed as gifts.” So this appreciation of a musical line, a melody, appears to be wired into human beings.
  • He concludes music requires “tones of fixed pitch and duration.”
  • Octave equivalents are universal to all scales in any culture. This is almost certainly derivative of the overtones series, a given from the physical nature of sound, a fundamental of physics.
  • He also reaches back into what can be found in history to conclude that roughly the same pitch relations come out in “widely dispersed cultures” over time and location. An Egyptian flute of antiquity produced “much the same sequence of scale tones we use in the West today.” This makes music a possible universal form of communication. He goes on to discuss a possible physics basis for this—halving octaves going through perfect fifths (the next tone in the overtone series after the octaves) creating a cycle of fifths that in essence produces the twelve tones of a chromatic scale— C: C-G-D-A-E-B-F#/Gb-Db-Ab-Eb-Bb-F. He discusses problems with the Pythagorean scale, and how Western music came up with the “well-tempered” scale, just slightly out of tune, to give us our current keyboard white-and-black key chromatic scale. He also looks at other cultures, and concludes that twelve tones seems to be a limit for notes within the universal octave equivalents. Many cultures have fewer. (I have noted in other books that some cultures boast scales of more than the twelve tones of the chromatic scale. However, I have also seen in the reading that the actual perceived tones don’t seem to exceed the twelve tones of the chromatic scale. I expect to be reading about the precise nature of the music from other cultures in some of my upcoming reading and will discuss this in future posts.)
  • Jourdain also discusses the “ideal melody,” and possible rules for creating it. But there can be no such thing, as individual tastes vary, as do cultural comfort zones. The best that can be done is to suggest some principles. 

4) From sound… to tone… to melody… to harmony…

  • After a brief turn West to discuss “classical tonality,” Jourdain turns to dissonance and its possible origins in the overtone series. But not everything about dissonance, and the major chord, considered consonant by our ears, can be explained by the overtone series. Jourdain points to the half step as a dissonant interval. But its intervalic reciprocal, the major seventh, creates a sweet, by some ears almost saccharine, sound. (My composition teacher in college, Stanworth Beckler, hated it and discouraged my use of it whenever he found it in my writing.) When filled in with the third and fifth to create a major seventh chord, it comes to our cultural ears as a sweet, warm sound. (Listen to the opening of “Color My World” by the rock band Chicago for an arpeggio of a series of those chords in a sweet-sounding context.) And Jourdain points out that “harmony needs dissonance like a good story needs suspense.” He concludes that “our brains are probably not tailored to triad’s, but… triads are a particularly fruitful and flexible way of organizing simultaneous tones…”

 5) From sound… to tone… to melody… to harmony… to rhythm…

  • Jourdain looks across cultures to find variations in how humans process rhythm, and explains the distinctions among rhythm, meter and phrasing.
  • Memory and anticipation play essential roles in sensing rhythm in music.
  • He concludes that the idea of rhythm in music based on a heartbeat is probably not a causal relationship. He goes on to discuss other bodily rhythms. I think heartbeat alone probably is too simple to relate to the human affinity for rhythm in music. But in my own opinion, I think there are various bodily rhythms—heartbeat, breathing (both with fluctuating tempos depending on exertion), walking/running, chewing, sexual activity—all of these and more serve to wire into humans the concept of rhythm. So music encompasses rhythm because rhythm is so ingrained into human existence.

 6) From sound… to tone… to melody… to harmony… to rhythm… to composition…

  • Here, Jourdain discusses mainly Western composers over the last four or five centuries. He discusses inspiration and tries to delve into the creative process of composers. I found this the least insightful section of a book generally filled with incredibly helpful insights. I think this is because of the Western “art music/classical music/concert music” focus on the individual composer. It may be that this way of creating and experiencing music is not the norm for humans, and hasn’t been for most of our existence. He also makes the peculiar statement that no link between talent for music and mathematics has been demonstrated. I don’t know about this issue experimentally. But my own experience is that they are absolutely integrated. I was a bit of a numbers prodigy as a child, learning addition/attraction/multiplication/division well before my peers and before the usual ages. I still delight in doing many varied number operations in my head. I know this talent for numbers led directly to my ability to write concert pieces for jazz band and concert band while in my teens, without a composition lesson. I developed my own numerical system for the relations between musical notes before learning conventional harmony systems in college. It was math/arithmetic that related these notes/intervals/chords together.

 7) From sound… to tone… to melody… to harmony… to rhythm… to composition… to performance…

  • Jourdain takes us through the mechanics of performance—what parts of the brain are involved, from the competent musician to the virtuoso. He also discusses music savants, but cautions musicians not to be too envious of their abilities as the performance process involves a number of areas of the brain, and savants are missing competence in areas that would allow them to be complete musicians, with full expression of the music, as opposed curiosities, circus performers, those who can render music performance as if it is an athletic accomplishment. 

8) From sound… to tone… to melody… to harmony… to rhythm… to composition… to performance… to listening…

  • Jourdain discusses how for the first time in human existence, music surrounds us. It is no longer just a special event at a concert hall or for a feast or celebration, or a communal ritual around the campfire. For this reason we risk trading real listening for just hearing, for involvement with the music to relegating it to the role of background noise. He laments that our own listening skills may diminish and become limited to narrow frames of merely familiar reference. (It is my aim with “Issa Music” to stretch out from those frames of references by combining exotic styles. I have a long way to go to even approach all the possibilities!) Jourdain also calls rock “profoundly anti-intellectual.” Some of it, maybe. But he may not be familiar with Yes, or Flower Kings, or many other rock acts who have sought to combine intellect with rock—generally referred to as “progressive rock.”

9) From sound… to tone… to melody… to harmony… to rhythm… to composition… to performance… to listening… to understanding…

  • Jourdain looks at how the brain comprehends music, discussing the results of brain scans and comparing how music is processed with how language is processed. There are no easy conclusions. Clearly, music is not language. As Jourdain points out, language is for the purpose of precise description. Music often expresses the unexpressible, emotions, but even beyond emotions. He asks us to consider if intelligent creatures from another world who could sense music the way we do would hear/listen to/process our music the same way we do. He seems to believe a cultural context would be needed. I am not convinced. Is there something inherent in the physics of the overtone system that that would allow intelligent creatures also to perceive Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” as a cry of pathos, or the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s “Messiah,” or the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth as outpourings of joy? The answer to that question really goes to the heart of the question of whether music has some universal reach into the mystical/spiritual, into the metaphysics of physics.

10) From sound… to tone… to melody… to harmony… to rhythm… to composition… to performance… to listening… to understanding… to ecstasy…

  • Jourdain reminds us that the evidence shows music to be “very old,” with humans for most of their existence. He embraces the “social interaction” explanation for music evolving as a human capability. Again, as in the Levitin book, no discussion is given to whether music evolved as a spiritual adaptation and/or capability. He states that early evidence points to religious ceremonies for early humans, but never considers a spiritual capability as a possible evolutionary driver. As I said in my post about the Levitin book, I understand wanting to stay away from religion in scientific deliberation. But if the evidence points toward a religious component, I believe it is unscientific to ignore it! There is evidence that it wasn’t just social interaction, it was spiritual interaction that brought those early human beings together to dance and make music.
  • Jourdain then discusses how music brings pleasure, including how there is even pleasure in a piece of music that elicits “sad” or “painful” the emotional states, as well as how music can take us on a journey from pain to pleasure. Music also seems to be intertwined with movement, maybe even inseparable from it. Movement with sound may create the natural release of substances that give us the feeling of ecstasy. He ends up this discussion with the idea that music can be more than simply pleasurable—it can be transcendent. 

*******

This book is bound to stimulate thinking for any music lover interested in understanding how music brings joy to so many in so many diverse ways. There was no author bio with this book. After trying all the standard internet search techniques, all I can seem to find is that Robert Jourdain is a composer, maybe also a scientist, working in French Canada, perhaps in or around Montreal. Monsieur Jourdain, or anyone familiar with you, I would love to hear from you if you become aware of this blog post. You have written a truly phenomenal book, one that will undoubtedly be a part of the literature about music for a long time. As I was reading this book recently while waiting for a table at California Pizza Kitchen where I live in Southern California, a stranger approached me saying this book was required reading for his graduate degree. I didn’t have a chance to engage him further (I wondered what his degree was in exactly). But this showed me that Music, the Brain and Ecstasy is an important book, thought-provoking and perspective-shifting.

Book Commentary/Review – This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin April 10, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in book review, books, Daniel Levitin, music, This Is Your Brain on Music, Uncategorized.
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(This is the second of what will be a series of commentaries about those books a series of seven or so books about the nature of music. The first commentary of this series was about the book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks, This series has been triggered as a result of  my rediscovery of the love of creating and performing music. There is definitely a spiritual connection to this rediscovery, evidenced by my recent release of “Issa Music” and my posts about mystical/spiritual aspects of the music of the progressive rock group Yes (The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes: Introduction to “The Revealing Science of God—Dance of the Dawn” from “Tales from Topographic Oceans”  and The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes). This further relates to spiritual meditations with the theme of more than one path to God, and the possible coming together of both physics and metaphysics I and II).

Daniel J. Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music brings readers a layman’s state-of-information look at how music affects the human brain physiologically. Levitin’s background as a professional musician (performer and producer) and scientist (neuroscientist) places him in a position to understand music and brain function intimately, from deep inside these diverse disciplines. Levitin draws on a broad knowledge of music, from “classical” to pop, and from his knowledge of experiments at the frontiers of brain research to bring readers this information.

Levitin starts us with a solid practical discussion of what music is. Intellectuals have played with the boundaries of this definition. But Levitin stays away from some of the overly broad definitional ideas offered by 20th Century theorists that could render a discussion of these issues impossible. He also goes into aspects of music that appear to be inherent in music no matter where it is played. The octave pervades music everywhere. This is undoubtedly universal, dictated by the physics of acoustics. (If we played an octave for an intelligent extraterrestrial with musical capabilities, it would likely be understood the way we understand it. If we encounter extraterrestrials, math and music could be the starting points for communication.) He also looks at interval ratios, showing that the simpler ratios of a bisected vibrating string are more likely to lead to a consonant interval. Rhythm also factors in, and Levitin thoroughly discusses how rhythms and accents drive music. He also discusses volume/loudness; how it can be measured and its potential effects.

After laying the groundwork of music basics, Levitin goes into specifics about how humans respond to music, based on cutting edge scientific experiments and studies.

  • He maps the specific places in the brain responsible for sensing rhythm, emotional reactions to music, playing instruments and dancing (among other musical activities).
  • We learn that the brain creates structure in our world and that music is a sophisticated way of ordering a sequence of sounds. He admits that the emotional power of music, of this brain mechanism for organizing sounds, is still a mystery. But the methods used by the brain to process and organize sounds are more and more clearly understood.
  • He goes into how our brains have a facility for remembering music, and how we can transpose that memory to recognize a new version of a musical passage.  “…without memory, there would be no music.”
  • He spends time discussing what makes an expert musician. He points out is it is only very recently that human beings became divided into expert musicians and spectators. Music has, in humanity’s hunter-gatherer formative past, been a group activity. It may well be more natural for people to participate in music than to sit quietly and watch it.
  • He discusses dissonance and consonance, how different people tolerate different levels of dissonance, and how consonance and dissonance are processed “via separate mechanisms in the auditory cortex.”
  • In the chapter “The Music Instinct,” Levitin goes through possible evolutionary advantages music might have conferred on humans:
    • An increase of sexual attractiveness for those with musical skills. (But this begs the question of why musical skills would be valued by a potential sexual partner.)
    • Music brings humans together, contributing to social bonding and cohesion, favoring those humans who band together. Humans are social creatures; an aptitude for the social activity of music may have favored early humans.
    • Musical activity—making music, learning music, listening to music—promoted cognitive development including speech. The rhythm of music is wired into us—a mother rocking her child to sleep with a lullaby appears to be “culturally universal.”
    • He mentions birds and other musical creatures, but cautions us not to attribute to humans the same motives as animals. They may experience music completely differently—it may not even sound the same to them. Sexual selection, alerts to fellow creatures, and territory are among animal uses for what we might call music.
    • As much as I love this book, and learned a lot from it, I could not help but notice a huge omission from possible evolutionary adaptions—the religious/spiritual/mystical role of music, possibly present in humanity from almost our beginnings. This is identified in Oliver Sacks book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, as a possibility. I do understand that science does not seek to become tangled in issues of religion. But we mustn’t become so scientifically tunnel-visioned that we go out of our way to exclude religion/spirituality as a possible explanation!  Yes, I admit my bias in this area. I’m looking for possible connections between physics and metaphysics, and wondering if music offers humans a connection through the mind to something beyond the material world. I do not ask scientists to join me on this journey. But my reading indicates that hunter-gathering societies used music, with all those basic elements Levitin talks about—rhythm, singing melodies, communal performance—to communicate to with the God force, to access their conception of God. Could the effort to sense God, to communicate with the God force, to access the perceived spiritual world—could that effort confer some form of evolutionary advantage? Of course, the sexual aspect as pointed out by Levitin is present—now and probably in the past. But the spiritual angle may well mix into this, and offer additional understanding of the connection of human beings to music.

This Is Your Brain on Music, largely because of Daniel Levitin’s unique expertise in diverse disciplines, is a must read for anyone trying to understand how precisely music affects human beings at the basic neurological and biochemical level. His wealth of musical examples cut across many music preferences, and anyone reading this book will certainly find applicable examples even if not familiar with all musical examples cited. And is quite clear Levitin has mastery over both of these subjects, a mastery required to make this such an effective book.

Book Commentary/Review – Conqueror: A Novel of Kublai Khan by Conn Iggulden February 25, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in book review, books, Conn Iggulden, Conqueror: A Novel of Kublai Khan, historical fiction, Hulegu Khan, Mongols.
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Conqueror is the final novel of Conn Iggulden’s series about the Genghis Khan dynasty. As with the previous eight novels of the series, Iggulden delivers an energizing combination of history and entertainment as he takes us to the apex of Mongol domination of a huge portion of Eurasia during the 13th century. The title tells us the focus will be on Kublai as opposed to other members of the third generation of the Genghis Khan dynasty, and Kublai Khan definitely emerges as the protagonist in this book. But there is more to this book than the story of Kublai Khan.

Conqueror breaks out neatly into three parts, two succession controversies surrounding Kublai Khan’s fight against the Sung Dynasty in China. The first succession controversy involves Kublai Khan’s brother Mongke against his cousin Guyuk. Kublai is not the unambiguous protagonist at this point. He is the scholarly Genghis Khan grandson, under Chinese influence, with appreciation for cities and advanced civilization not within the understanding of his grandfather, and not shared by many in the ruling elite of his family. He seems a very unlikely warrior, or future Great Khan. His mother, Sorhatani, one of the truly remarkable women of the Middle Ages (Iggulden comments in his historical note at the end that she merits a book of her own—I would love to read that book), works in the background of events to involve the future Kublai Khan in a huge personal risk on behalf of his brother Mongke. He completes his arduous task, essential to the resolution of this succession conflict.

The second involves Kublai the scholar transitioning to Kublai the warrior. The new Great Khan undertakes unfinished business for the Genghis Khan dynasty. After all, they’re supposed to conquer the world. “All lands belong to us.” Kublai is sent to China to complete the conquest of millions of Chinese. At first, he seems uneasy in the role. He is tolerated by the generals assigned to him, but they show little apparent respect for the young man perceived as bookish, barely even Mongol. Through battles against larger armies, through adverse conditions, Kublai gradually earns the respect of his generals. But on the verge of victory over the Sung, news comes that the new Great Khan has died. Kublai declares himself Great Khan while on Chinese soil, believing he is next in line to be Great Khan, but not wanting to leave China on the verge of defeating the Sung. What Kublai does not know is that his brother Arik-Boke, in charge of the area around the Mongol capital, has declared himself Great Khan. This triggers a new succession battle, one Kublai is right in the middle of as the unambiguous protagonist.

The third part involves Kublai’s battle with Arik-Boke for the Great Khan position. Odds appear to be against Kublai. He has to return from China to take on a larger army. Kublai’s development as a warrior will be tested, but there’s no doubt that the Kublai returning home from China is a different person, still with the scholarly influence, but submerged within the warrior legacy of the Genghis Khan dynasty. Kublai the scholar becomes Kublai Khan at the end of this conflict, with a satisfying resolution to the conflict after a few suspense points.

Conn Iggulden has a talent for telling epic tales, for taking history and energizing it into compelling stories populated by characters we care about. This series-ending book maintains the quality of all the Genghis Khan novels.

*******

Personal Note: As I mentioned, this is Kublai Khan’s novel. Hulegu Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson who becomes “Il-Khan” of the area around what is now Iran, is a supporting player with a minor role. Conqueror summarizes Hulegu’s activities during this period to simplify the story, focused on Kublai. Iggulden mentions Hulegu’s defeat by Muslims in the Middle East, the defeat of Hulegu’s Christian general. In my upcoming novel, The Sultan and the Khan, I tell the story of that conflict with the focus on Hulegu, his Christian general, and Baybars, the “mamluk”/slave-soldier who will later become a key sultan in the emerging Mamuk Dynasty, a dynasty that would rule huge areas of the Middle East from Egypt for over two hundred years. Christianity mixes in this conflict in strange and exotic ways as is dramatized throughout the story. The Sultan and the Khan involves a fictional Christian adventurer from Baghdad and a fictional Muslim scholar who confronts the changing circumstances at a nearly apocalyptic time for his faith and the world he has known. Anyone interested in The Sultan and the Khan should keep in touch—The Sultan and the Khan is completed and details will be provided about its availability as they develop.

Book Commentary/Review – Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks February 15, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in book review, books, music, Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks.
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As I have written elsewhere, I have recently rediscovered my love of creating and performing music. There is definitely a spiritual connection to this rediscovery, evidenced by my recent release of “Issa Music” and my posts about mystical/spiritual aspects of the music of the progressive rock group Yes (The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes: Introduction to “The Revealing Science of God—Dance of the Dawn” from “Tales from Topographic Oceans”  and The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes.) This further relates to spiritual meditations with the theme of more than one path to God, and the possible coming together of both physics and metaphysics (I and II). As part of this, I’m reading a series of seven or so books about the nature of music, looking for mystical/spiritual connections between the material world and the spiritual world as they may be provided by music. This is the first of what will be a series of commentaries about those books.

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks

The title describes exactly what this is, a string of anecdotes of how music and the brain interact. Many of the anecdotes refer to malfunctions of the brain, and how music is affected by them, an understandable focus given Dr. Sacks’ background as a neurologist. This book does not help me directly with what I described above, “a search for mystical/spiritual connections with music.” The focus is on the details of specific conditions, not a grand theory connecting music to physics and metaphysics. But if I ever needed confirmation of the power of music, evidence that music is wired into human beings, inherent in our natures, Dr. Sacks provides it here.

He starts with a discussion of the music we hear in our minds, moving into full-blown musical hallucinations. He moves from there to losses of musical ability and appreciation, to music savants—people with staggering musical abilities while lacking basic mental function, to how music can treat afflictions from dementia to Parkinson’s disease. This includes stories of people suffering from terrible accidents or disabilities leaving them impaired, but also leaving them with prodigious musical abilities. The anecdotal style makes for fascinating reading—readers interested in how music affects humans will turn pages expectantly to get from one intriguing story to the next. Throughout the book, Dr. Sacks also provides numerous specific stories of individuals dealing with various conditions related to music, including a few personal anecdotes of his own experiences.

Some isolated thoughts triggered by this book relating to my quest for a connection between music and metaphysics/physics:

  • With respect to musical hallucinations, Sacks refers to neurophysiologist Jerzy Konorski who instead of asking “Why do hallucinations occur?” asks “Why don’t they occur all the time?” There may be a mechanism in the normal-functioning human brain that blocks hallucinations, helping to sort out reality. But this calls into consideration our barely rudimentary understanding of consciousness, and poses the question of what “reality” actually is. There are is an agreed-upon reality shared by us “normals.” But does majority rule on this? Is our brain function blocking “true reality” (if such a thing as one “true reality” exists)? Is that filter that allows us “normals” to share an agreed-upon reality something that facilitates accurate perception, or something that holds us back?
  • Sacks does offer the idea of a broad concept of music, with the only requirement being “discrete tones and rhythmic organization.”
  • Sacks explores the idea that imagining music “may be as potent, neurally, as actually listening to it.”
  • Sacks does mention briefly that there is evidence human religious practices “began with communal chanting and dancing, often of an ecstatic kind…” Is this simply a human characteristic, or does this mean music is a wired-in route to a mystical/spiritual reality beyond what we see in the material world?

Book Commentary/Review – Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman November 24, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in book review, books, crusades, historical fiction, literary commentary, medieval period, Middle Ages, Richard the Lionheart, Richard Warren Field, the crusades, The Swords of Faith, third crusade, writers.
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(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

Sharon Kay Penman’s Lionheart tells the story of Richard the Lionheart’s mission to the Middle East to take back Jerusalem for Western Christendom, commonly referred to as the “Third Crusade.” Lionheart delivers Sharon Kay Penman’s usual attention to research—she may write in the genre of “historical fiction,” but readers can always depend on Penman’s story-telling to contain accurate history to go with whatever fiction she has added. Being closely familiar with this period because of research on my own novel, The Swords of Faith, I can attest to the accuracy of the historical detail provided.

The story begins in Sicily, not with Richard, but with Richard’s sister Joanna. Readers discover quickly that though this book is about Richard the Lionheart, his story will be told from multiple points of view. Two prominent viewpoints are Joanna’s and Richard the Lionheart’s potential future wife, Berengeria. This multiple viewpoint technique brings gusto to the legendary aspects of one of history’s most dynamic characters by giving readers the chance to witness Richard through the eyes of others.

When we think of “Crusades,” or of Richard the Lionheart fighting Muslims, we think of battles in the Middle East. But Penman has the courage to delay delivering readers to that expected setting until halfway through Lionheart, staying with the accurate history. This rewards readers with a richer, more dramatic story. Because the “Third Crusade,” for Richard the Lionheart, was much more than fighting revered Muslim Sultan Saladin for Jerusalem. Getting to the fight (and returning from it, which could be an even more dramatic story Penman will tell with her follow-up to Lionheart, Ransom) is as compelling a story as the fight itself. On his way to fight Saladin, Richard chooses between two possible wives and marries his choice, seriously alienating his main European ally. He rescues his sister, widow of the late king of Sicily, held in dubious circumstances by the successor to the throne. He rescues his sister and fiancé after a shipwreck puts them just off the coast of Cyprus, within reach of the unprincipled despot ruling the island. What Richard does next in Cyprus as a result of this confrontation will change the history of the island, and factor into his own future activities. So readers will be too caught up in the drama of Richard’s journey to be impatient for arrival at the Middle East.

Penman remains loyal to the history once the story arrives in the Middle East, again relying on the true facts of one of history’s great confrontations to provide the drama. It is hard for me to understand why writers feel they need to change the facts of Richard’s crusade—it is a great story without any help! In the hands of a skilled story-teller like Penman, intimately familiar with the time period so able to re-create for readers the physical settings, as well as the mental settings—the attitudes of the age—all that is needed is to place the characters in the events and let the story unfold. This is what Penman does, and she delivers entertainment and accurate history bundled together.

Penman avoids a major temptation other storytellers have succumbed to when telling this story.  These two iconic historical figures never met face-to-face. For over a year they were locked in an intense military and diplomatic struggle with lives and the future of their faiths on the line. It is tempting to try to heighten the intensity of this story, of this personal rivalry, by putting these two men face-to-face. But history did not put them face-to-face, and neither does Penman. The resolution of their head-to-head battle takes extraordinary twists and turns without a personal meeting between the two. This includes harrowing battles with Richard’s life in jeopardy, life-threatening illnesses at inopportune times, negotiations that take peculiar diversions no author of fiction would dare to invent, and even a bizarre assassination that thwarts a potential negotiated peace. Through all this, Penman takes us through the events as experienced by Richard the Lionheart, and by those around him, including his sister and his new wife, struggling for Richard’s attention through these history-making events. This guarantees maximum entertainment even for those familiar with the events.

Sharon Kay Penman leaves us at a logical stopping point, the resolution of Richard’s conflict with Saladin. All Richard the Lionheart has to do now is get home. That, as I mentioned earlier, will be much easier said than done.

Lionheart is definitive reading on the topic of Richard the Lionheart during this part of his life.  It is entertaining while maintaining historical accuracy, a difficult task to accomplish, a task accomplished well by a master of her craft.

Now for Some Personal Comments
I would be a fool not to mention that my award-winning novel The Swords of Faith, released about a year before Penman’s Lionheart, tells the story of the events of this same “Third Crusade” that is the subject of Lionheart. With that mention comes the question of why readers should ever consider reading The Swords of Faith now that Lionheart, written by a master historical novelist of this particular time period, is available. The answer is simple. The story is handled completely differently in The Swords of Faith. In fact, these two books complement each other. Readers enthralled with this story will enjoy my alternative approach to the same history. And not an alternative approach to the facts—I share Penman’s choice to stay with the actual history. As I have indicated in this post, the real history needs no embellishment. But my interest in the story is not a biographical interest but an interest in the religious confrontation. So I do not offer nearly as much detail about Richard the Lionheart and those around him, choosing instead to offer Saladin’s point of view, as well as providing the points of view of two fictional characters who experience these events through the prisms of their own religious orientations.

Other comments concerning Lionheart and The Swords of Faith:

  • Stylistic comparison—there are two big differences between the story-telling style of Sharon Kay Penman and my style in The Swords of Faith. Penman uses a lot more narrative exposition, so provides a great deal more narrative detail. My style utilizes episodes/scenes, with as little narrative exposition as possible. (This is a deliberate choice, used in writing on subjects as varied as The Swords of Faith, Dying to Heal, and my 1997 novel, The Election. (I comment in detail on this style choice at my web site and at Lisa Yarde’s blog.) This is not to imply that one approach is better—I would not want to be seen as even hinting at that idea when comparing myself to a well-respected and successful author. But the styles are different, and readers interested in the subject can enjoy a fresh take on the material.
  • As I have previously indicated, Lionheart is a richly detailed biographical novel, fair and accurate, about one of the most intriguing characters in history, and one the best-known and most familiar even now. The Swords of Faith addresses the same events with an eye toward religious fanaticism and the impact it has on historical and fictional characters of the era. A theme of The Swords of Faith is that the less fanatic the behavior of the main characters, including Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, the more successful they are thriving and achieving their own goals. True even then, as we certainly see it is true now.
  • Is The Swords of Faith more historically accurate than Lionheart? No. Is it as accurate as Lionheart? The honest answer again is no. Is The Swords of Faith more historically accurate than most of the historical fiction written about this, including recent films (“Kingdom of Heaven” comes to mind)? Yes, and this includes the classic Sir Walter Scott novel The Talisman, though in fairness to Scott, he was not attempting to be historically accurate. There is no doubt that Sharon Kay Penman has a lot more patience with research than I do, combing through primary sources, some difficult and/or expensive to acquire. She could certainly provide informative lectures to scholars on this era. This depth of research allows her to take to task Steven Runciman, a writer of one of the most acclaimed histories of “the Crusades,” for his treatment of the slaughter of the Acre hostages. My research relies on the work of people like Runciman, as well as scholars and historians Penman cites in her bibliography.
  • I’ve had the pleasure of exchanging some e-mails with Ms. Penman, some as she worked on Lionheart. She asked if I was going to continue to write about this era. She mentioned how she feels “at home” in the 12th Century. I admire her dedication and mastery of this era (as do her legions of readers). But the events attracted me because of the clash of religions. I’m off to a new century—a few generations later in The Sultan and the Khan. (And I won’t stay there long either.)
  • Did I enjoy being sandwiched between two novels offered by mainstream publishers on the same subject? The Swords of Faith was released one month after Shadow of the Swords by Kamran Pasha, and about a year before Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman. (I have previously written about Shadow of the Swords.) That’s fine. They’re all companions, taking three very different approaches to the material. The more interest generated in the characters and their stories, the better.
  • And I may bump into Conn Iggulden as his Mongol novels reach the third generation of the Genghis Khan dynasty. That’s fine too. Again, I’m certain our approaches to the material will be way different. 

So I hope an interest in Lionheart generates an interest in The Swords of Faith, and vice versa. It’s an entertaining time of history—Richard the Lionheart, and Saladin, are intriguing people to read about, and to write about! 

Lionheart - Sharon Kay Penman

Lionheart - Sharon Kay Penman

Book Commentary/Review – The House of Wisdom times two; authors Jonathan Lyons, and Jim al-Khalili September 17, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in Baghdad, book review, books, history, House of Wisdom, Islamic Golden Age, Islamic Science, Jim al-Khalili, Jonathan Lyons, medieval period, Middle Ages.
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(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

A few years ago, as I considered my concept for The Ghosts of Baghdad, a book that will be the third novel in my trilogy started last year with the publication of my award-winning novel, The Swords of Faith, I became interested in the “Golden Age” of Islam. Even though The Ghosts of Baghdad is still down the line a bit, I like to stockpile books on future projects. In 2009, I bought a book called The House of Wisdom by Jonathan Lyons, about “How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization.” I read it, underlined it (as is my practice), and set it aside. In 2011, I bought another book called The House of Wisdom through Scientific American Book Club.  When it arrived in the mail, it looked familiar to me. I pulled out the 2009 The House of Wisdom. Even the covers looked similar. It looked to me as if I had purchased the same book twice. I was all set to return it when I took one last look. The 2011 The House of Wisdom is subtitled “How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance.” The author is Jim al-Khalili, and the book is offered by a different publisher. A closer look—these are two completely different books! I read the 2011 The House of Wisdom and now offer comments about both books in this blog post.

The two books, of course, cover a lot of common ground. For me, they complement each other, each providing unique information for readers interested in this subject.  Both books reflect the backgrounds of their authors. Lyons is a journalist now working with the Global Terrorism Research Center. Al-Khalili is a nuclear physicist who grew up in Iraq (leaving the country in 1979), son of a Muslim father and a British mother. (Al-Khalili is a self-described atheist.)

The House of Wisdom by Jonathan Lyons, Bloomsbury Press, 2009. Lyons’s book brings us into “the House of Wisdom” through a Westerner’s historical route. “Part I, Al-Isha/Nightfall,” starts with an overview of the Crusades, and a discussion of how the Crusades brought Arabic/Muslim learning to the West. From there, we move to “Part II, Al-Fajr/Dawn,” back to the beginnings in Baghdad. We learn how the new religion of Islam embraced learning from the ancient Greeks, and from sources to the east as well. “Part III, Al-Zuhr/Midday,” discusses 12th Century scholar Adelaide of Bath and others of this period who absorb Islamic learning and bring it back to the West. “Part IV, Al-Asr/Afternoon” closes the book out with the final stages of the transfer of knowledge from East to West that would plant the seeds for the Renaissance. Lyons’s book focuses on the path to the West, though he certainly details the innovations and information that came down that path. This The House of Wisdom gives us a well-documented, eloquent discussion of the debt owed by the modern “West” to the intellectual accomplishments of the medieval Islamic “East,” and how that knowledge made its way from medieval Islam to our world.

The House of Wisdom by Jim al-Khalili, Penguin Press, 2011. Al-Khalili starts us in Baghdad, a city he knows well, the city where the intellectual activity known as the Arabic/Muslim “Golden Age” of learning began. He brings a personal perspective to this material, though he acknowledges present-day Baghdad is a much different place from “Golden Age” Baghdad. His The House of Wisdom brings us to this information through a Muslim chronology, explaining how early Islam developed and gave rise to an emphasis on science and learning. He describes the translation movement, the reaching out from Baghdad for knowledge from ancient Greeks, and from Persia and India as well. He continues on with the Arabic/Islamic additions to the knowledge collected by focusing on the stories of scholars/early scientists based in and around Baghdad. He also visits Spain/Andalusia, another area where learning blossomed during the Middle Ages. His focus is on the Arabic/Islamic figures themselves, and less on transmission than the Lyons book. Al-Khalili’s The House of Wisdom takes us from his personal connection with the area to specifics of the great Islamic scholars, giving readers an entertaining, enlightening look at what exactly Arabic/Islamic scholars contributed to our world.

*******

Though there is some overlap between these books, there is enough distinct material to make both of these books good additions to the library of anyone interested in this aspect of history.