Tuesday, February 19, 2008


My father, I believe, was tone deaf. He certainly showed no interest at all in music, and once, when I played him a major and a minor chord, he said he could not hear any difference. I have had people tell me that there is no such thing as tone deafness, but now I read in the latest book by Oliver Sacks that perhaps five percent of the population is tone deaf. The book is entitled Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (Picador, 2007), and covers an extraordinary range of conditions and phenomena.

Some of the conditions Sacks describes are very rare or unique, such as the extraordinary case of a composer, who, after being seriously injured in a car crash, lost her ability to hear harmony. She describes listening to a Beethoven string quartet: "I heard four separate voices, four thin, sharp laser beams, beaming in four different directions". Other conditions discussed in the book are commoner, such as tone deafness. My father had a good sense of verbal rhythm, enjoyed poetry and wrote it himself. According to Sacks this is certainly neurologically compatible with tone deafness, as rhythm is "represented widely in the brain". Another condition that increasing numbers of us can look forward to as we age is musical hallucinations: hearing music that apparently comes from an outside source. At the onset, people who get this think that someone is playing a radio or CD nearby; the experience is quite different from that of mentally singing a tune. Musical hallucinations are associated with going deaf. The explanation is apparently that those parts of the brain receiving aural signals expect a continual stream of input, and if they don't get it, they produce activity anyway. With normal hearing, silence doesn't produce these hallucinations, as the auditory system actively reports silence. It is only if the communication is broken that the hallucination-generating mechanism kicks in.

Sacks doesn't only consider defects in musical perception or appreciation. He also describes unusual positive abilities, including perfect pitch (something I don't have a trace of). Sacks reports studies by Diana Deutsch showing that native speakers of a tonal language will pronounce words with close to absolute pitch, and that Chinese music students are much more likely to have perfect pitch than U.S. students. Sacks also describes cases of musical savantism, where people who are seriously disabled in many ways display some extraordinary ability, such as the man who knew by heart more than 2000 operas and all the Bach cantatas. These savant abilities usually come at the expense of abstract thought. Sacks mentions the intriguing work by Allan Snyder and others in artificially producing temporary savantism by magnetic stimulation of the brain: inhibiting the activity of the part of the brain responsible for abstract thought can release savant-like abilities in at least some people.

There is a lot more in Sacks's book. It isn't a neurological treatise; as the subtitle Tales of Music and the Brain indicates, it is largely anecdotal. It raises questions rather than answering them, and I think in that general there aren't any answers yet as to why we as a species have such an extraordinary sensitivity to music, though Sacks mentions speculation about the intertwined origins of music and language. Anyone interested in music is likely to be fascinated by this book.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

2007 Asian Art Biennial

Recently I received a catalogue from the 2007 Asian Art Biennial, which opened in October 2007 at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts. It closes on February 24. My connection with the event is through my piece Dissonant Particles; it is on the DVD Video by Numbers from the Melbourne-based group Tape Projects, and this DVD was shown at the Biennial. Unfortunately I didn’t get to visit the Biennial.

I found the catalogue (in Chinese and English) impressive, and I imagine that actually being there would have been overwhelming. Judging from the catalogue, there was a mixture of old and new media and also a mixture of old and new influences. Some of the works refer to traditional Chinese or Korean art (and one to Da Vinci’s Last Supper), others to globalisation, the proliferation of digital technology, and in particular urbanisation. Australia has long had only a minority of its population in rural areas (41% in 1901, dropping to just 12% in 1996, according to one set of figures). For Asia the big movement off the land is happening now: the landmark where more than half the world’s population lives in cities has either just been reached or is just about to be, according to various estimates.

According to the catalogue, most of the artists in the Biennial were from Taiwan, mainland China or Korea, with a sprinkling from other countries, including a small group from Australia. Apart from the Video by Numbers DVD, there was an interactive installation entitled Split Reel by Jason Bond, Benjamin Ducroz, Michael Prior and Tarwin Stroh-Spijer, and a performance (I think, not just a DVD playing) by Robin Fox. Robin is the man of the moment in Australian sound-and-image art, and appears on the Synchresis DVD commented on here. Australian ambivalence as to how much we are part of Asia will no doubt continue, but links like those through the Biennial can only be good.