View From The Strangers’ Gallery: a symphonic work on consciousness

Are we on the same path

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Background

In the 1990’s, I was running a successful music conference, and in my spare time, I took an extreme interest in cognitive science, starting, like so many people, with reading Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel Escher Bach.  I especially fell in love with the works Dan Dennett and Nick Humphrey, and I began telling people that I would love to set these philosophers’ books and papers to music.  Then, one day, my wife told me that if I didn’t sell my business and start composing, she’d divorce me.

So I sold the business, moved to NYC, and enrolled in classes at Mannes and Juilliard.  After a year of learning as much orchestration and composition as I could, we moved to the island of Heybeliada in Turkey, where I composed my work.  (The sketches were almost finished when I interrupted work on them to shoot our film COUP / DARBE).  After filming completed, we moved back to upstate New York, where we edited the film and where I orchestrated my piece (which happened to be, it turns out, in the same town and place where Derek Sivers was starting CD Baby, though we never crossed paths!)

As I was finishing the music, I finally contacted the various writers who had inspired the work.  Humphrey recommended it for the Wellcome Foundation sciart grant, and I was flown to London, where it was the runner-up.  After that, I went on to write more works with them (with more modest performance requirements).

Description

View From The Strangers’ Gallery illustrates various topics in cognitive science. I set out to create a musical language to represent the simultaneous and “multitrack” nature of “processes of interpretation and elaboration of sensory inputs” as the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett descrives in Consciousness Explained and other works. I flexibly vary the depth of polyphonic structures in the piece to illustrate simultaneity in the brain and the ebb and flow of activation and attention.  One of my primary goals was to insert as much humor as possible so that I could set the words and ideas of their philosophical papers to music without sounding dry, forced, or obtuse.

A rich internal dialogue and debate rages within each of the three movements, with the music’s stops and starts and overlapping voices reflecting the constant revisions and alterations of the multiple streams of consciousness (as described in Dennett’s Multiple Drafts Model. Throughout the piece, fragmented, abstract musical forms represent the issues of subjective experience and “self-binding” that the philosopher Nicholas Humphrey sees as central to the project of “creating a person’s life.”

Performance requirements

 – Full orchestra* with keyboard synthesizer, alto and tenor saxophones, five timpani**, and a drum kit.
– Eight pop singers (miked) and one classically-trained soprano.

*Any instruments other than strings can be supplemented with MIDI instruments.
**If piccolo timpani is not available, use tom-tom or roto-tom instead.

 

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