I had the good fortune to hear Roger Penrose on the radio a couple of weeks ago. Penrose is, of course, the mind who, along with Stephen Hawking, first posited the nature and mechanics of black holes. Penrose was talking about the big bang, painting a very different picture of it than the one we generally operate under; he described it not as a point, an explosion, an instant of time, but rather as smooth unfolding, outside of time, one that, very much in the way of black holes, presents us with a singularity between our universe (or Eon, as he prefers to describe it) and one before it. Moreover Penrose is certain, and movement in the cosmic background radiation seems to bear him out on this, that information passes from one universe into the next.
However we are to understand Penrose’s notion of information here, I’m reasonably certain he wasn’t referring to an accumulation of blog posts. What we’re really talking about are traces of energy that have crossed the event horizon separating our universe from its predecessor, energy that describes patterns that allow us to “read” the motion as meaning something. Huge caveat here: what that meaning actually means, beyond the mind-altering notion that it has its source in a previous universe, is not to be specified, and certainly not along conventionally constructed notions of spirituality. Penrose is an atheist, but one who unapologetically dismisses the idea that the universe is itself “meaningless”. And so we confront an onrushing of energy whose meaning is palpable but abstract, tangible but wonderfully immune to any attempt to domesticate it within any specific system of belief. We seem to be talking, then, about music.
Of course we’re not actually talking about music. The cosmic background radiation is one thing, Das Lied von der Erde quite another. Let us please not blunder into any magical thinking with regard to the identity of our souls and the nature of the cosmos as revealed by modern physics. This is all too easy and usually all too stupid. I hate it when it’s done to music, so I’m not about use music to do it to physics in a way that, in the unlikely event that he ever reads this, is sure to make Penrose throw up. So let’s not say “this is that; everything is everything”, but let’s riff for a moment, follow an imaginative chain of associations and ask ourselves if maybe “this is like that”. There is a deep and deeply important river of imagination in physics that informs day-to-day science, and even where unproved some ideas change the way we think regardless of their speculative nature. That’s where a blog comes in handy…
What makes this notion of the passing along of information so irresistible to me is that I, as a human being, am part of that extended family of dreamers whose essential being is that of matter-made-conscious. We are, all of us, made of all the stuff released at the big bang, and yet we have the self-reflexive power to consider and question that strange and wonderful reality. In us the universe looks itself in the mirror and asks after its own nature. This is a mighty truth that has been harnessed in the service of everything from proof of the existence of God to proof of the sheer randomness of the development of consciousness. I’m not interested in either of those extremes; frankly, they do nothing for me. God may exist, but my consciousness does nothing to advance the argument; at the same time, consciousness may in fact be an irreproducible accident, but that makes it no less wondrous. What fascinates me here is the nature of information, of messages sent and received, and of the potential longevity of patterns of energy, shared over neural networks spanning hundreds, even thousands of years (consider Gilgamesh, the plays of Aeschylus, the Vedanta, the Musica Enchiriadis and the book of Esther, to name just a few), and their capacity to cross event horizons independent of and entirely unknown to us. What traces of these patterns of psychic motion will remain when we are gone, and will the universe, either ours or a new one, know how to read them?
Silly questions, unanswerable and perhaps better left unasked. But think of it this way: unless one accepts at face value the bio-nihilist notion that, after a certain point, say around age 30, we’re all little more than genetic garbage cans, one is left to ponder what it is that we contribute to the continued evolution of the species. Fortunately, evolutionary biologists ponder this all the time, and so there’s already a considerable body of work and a set of shared ideas around this very question. I don’t need either to summarize their work here or pretend to be in their league where the physical or social processes of all of this are concerned. My interest is in the passing on of information, specifically in the form of music, and I would only suggest that the constant accrual and renewal of musical traditions, the taking in of abstract patterns of thought and feeling, some ancient, some brand-new, amounts to a kind of dissemination and transformation of expressive DNA, a continually expanding network of psychic messages that has the power to cross seemingly inviolate borders of time and culture.
I write often in this blog of the singular power of live music, especially as manifest at WCM, and I try as best I can to articulate what it is I find so vital, so life-giving, so life-changing in it. More and more, I think it’s this extraordinary capacity of ours to be psychically remade through the sharing of information that exists only as the abstract trace of an emotional intention, and through that the development of a trans-cultural and non-temporal theory of mind, that is, a personal experience of the thought processes of another. We do this through literature, film, art in general, even (gasp) the internet, but we do it through music in a way that is both uniquely inchoate and emotionally powerful.
The composite experience here, the one much-discussed and most deeply treasured by us, is that of our shared humanity, and this is appropriate, as music seems to be a uniquely human phenomenon (I say “seems” because even this truism of musical understanding is now very much up for grabs, but that’s for another blog). But what I can’t shake at the moment is the possibility that, as sentient blobs of cosmic stuff, we hear ourselves singing each to each not just as people, but as the universe itself, singing its own continuing evolution out to the next singularity. Never mind that much of the music we have access to now, music from every corner of the planet, available whenever and wherever we want, speaks to us, whomever “we” are at any given point in time or space, not of shared experience but rather of the incredible diversity of human existence, delivering an experience that seems wholly alien and other. Consider that all biological matter, at least, seems itself to be sentient, and that even the relative levels of consciousness of paramecia and mitochondria are much discussed and accorded all due respect by neurologists and philosophers of consciousness, such that our self-reflexive gaze seems only to be a uniquely complex manifestation of a force basic to all living things, and perhaps to matter itself. The universe made conscious, singing to itself. I love this image and can’t let go of it.
Could, then, John Corigliano’s Mr. Tambourine Man and Beethoven’s Op. 3 string trio somehow encode themselves in the cosmic microwave radiation and make the leap from our universe to the next? Or were they already in some way shaped by the background radiation on which we can travel back to the big bang and perhaps even farther? In a word, no. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say, who the hell knows? And if so, how would that be? And what would that mean for us, anyway? At the same time, if I were to answer with a yes, who would challenge me, and on what basis? The question is absurd, so much so that it positions itself well outside the frame of rational inquiry. This is the nifty trick of all goofy and intellectually convenient science-flavored spiritualism. But let’s go back to the moment of the performance, to the experience of having our souls re-wired by Bach, Ravel, Boulez, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Mahalia Jackson, Beyoncé or any of the music we love. In that moment, in the vastness of our own psychic space, such a thing seems not only possible but self-evident. We are in the grip of something we can neither fully name nor understand, and so at that moment might as well be connecting with universes both past and future. Penrose’s numinous idea of information exchange across singularities seems easy to imagine.
The power of music is both demonstrably less than we sometimes would like to think (this is especially true in the political arena, where outsized claims abound), and at the same time infinitely greater than our capacity for description and explication. The razor’s edge seems too puny an image for the position we find ourselves in. We hug the event horizon with every performance.
In preparation for this summer’s WCM season I might have titled this Persistence of Information. And to be sure, this is all in some way of a piece with the idea of Persistence of Vision, which is our point of departure for the summer. But more about that next posting…