Non-Linear Art: music, composition, and the tyranny of entropy

It’s strange, but I’ve always felt mildly oppressed by the second law of thermodynamics. That’s the one that (essentially) says that Time Marches On, and in one direction only. Linear things are linear.

I’ve always had a brain that was more visual and three-dimensional, seeing most things as landscapes or tinkertoy models. This is a wonderful way to understand things quickly, and to generalize one’s knowledge so that building a mental abstract model for Subject A can be useful when it comes time to learn Subject B. This is in fact how I learned to write music, by generalizing my almost-autistic-but-not-quite ability to absorb languages quickly. And for a variety of reasons, this was also generalized by me as a child to mathematics. I never did see the point of telling words and numbers apart, and have always made an icky-face when people would make sweeping, useless statements like, “There are word people and number people!” gleefully clinging to the left-brain-right-brain nonsense that I’ve already said I lose patience with.

At any rate, it seems that the reason why I don’t bother telling words, pictures, numbers, and music apart very much is that my brain conceptualizes all of them as three-dimensional landscapes and branching shapes.

And of course, once you have that nonlinear shape and want to communicate it you are stuck using … linear language. One word after another in time. It’s next to impossible for some of us. I tend to feel unfairly put out and impatient with the fact that I have to step through the complex, 3-d structures in my head in a certain order by the march of time. It reminds me of being forced to look at a painting only from the top left corner to the bottom right, at a given fixed pace. No one regards paintings that way! There may be predictable ways in which people’s eyes pass over things, but in general, you can look at the thing however you like — some people might look at the Mona Lisa’s eyes first, some the background, some might fixate on the folds of her clothing. Some might notice and gaze endlessly at the way the light was painted in the sky behind her head. You can apprehend a painting in any order you like. I adore that.

And I’ve been thinking of music versus composition that way as well. I’m not fond of performing music, just because it’s very linear. (Surprise to all the artistic types who love to talk about how right-brain they are!) One note after another in time, and apprehending it requires that it be linear. We are forced to listen to a piece of music in a given order, from first note to last. It’s part of what makes it music, apparently.

However, we need not do this when we write music. I can write in chunks, and reorder them at will. Indeed I’ve noticed that I often write the end of a piece of music first. Not always — sometimes I seem to go in order. But many times, I will write chunks and pieces and then proceed to juggle them around. They all came out of my head while focused on the same project; I can even tell that they are part of the same structure. But I don’t yet know how they will go together … and as a composer, I need not. It’s not music. It’s sculpture. Architecture. Science, where you build and understand things piece by piece, in what is often a highly individual order.

This is another reason why I prefer to write rather than speak. Speaking is also tyrannically linear. But text? I can stop at a given point, write a bit, move sentences around, change things, and then put the entire thing out after it’s been put together in any order we wish. I might even discover more to an idea than I thought was there in this process, connecting it to other ideas, or finding out that it wasn’t at all what I thought when I first started. In speech, this makes me sound like a stroke victim. (The only reason I can sometimes avoid this is when I am speaking extemporaneously about something that I’ve done a great deal of thinking and writing on. That can and has saved me from time to time.) In text, this is not at all a handicap, and often is a good thing since no one writes anything in a linear fashion, and the best written pieces will engage in the sort of foreshadowing and nonlinear thematic play that my head seems to crank out as its default.

Composing allows even someone like me, a rebel against the tyranny of entropy, to be a musician, to take part in the most tyrannically linear of all arts.

More evidence that no matter who you are or how your brain works, there’s a place for you in music. 🙂