Applying Science to Music

I have to start this post with a spoiler: you can´t buy this book. It´s listed at amazon, but unavailable for purchase.

Update, June 24:
I just heard that the book is now available on amazon for Swedish readers - and I understand it has been for American readers (and others, perhaps) all along. (Those who don´t have the Kindle reader can download a free app from amazon for their computer or smartphone or read it in their browser. All is explained on the amazon website.)
The author, Nyssim Lefford, is a collegue of my husband, and he happened to mention one day over fika that she had written a novel. I googled it immediately, and the name, "The Music Box", and the description made me curious. I asked him to pass along an inquiry about where to get it. Next thing, it was in my mailbox. It´s a great book, by far the most interesting thing I have read in years. I don´t think I have underlined a novel this much since I read my first Kundera in the 80´s.

First of all, it has a forked plot. At some twenty places in the book, you have a choice of two to four versions of a chapter. The choice isn´t context related, you just get to choose a, b, c, or d. Hyperlinks are the doors you go through to get to the right place in the story. It is a kindle e-book, and you have to have a kindle reader or kindle software on your computer to read it. This is what the author says in the introduction:
"At every juncture, decide. Reading all the options at each fork leads to outcomes that are not as interesting, not as musical, as they might be. Our agency comes from choosing. To avoid choosing is to abdicate the part of us that is most worth recording."
And I haven´t. I made my choices and read my story. I imagine that someone else´s choices would give a slightly different story, although I suppose the foundations are the same. Exactly what levers the readers are allowed to (blindly) push, only the author knows. The whole structure is just like the mixing console that this story takes place at, for this is a story about music production, and a discussion about the creative process and what art really is, and is for.

The story revolvs around four people. First, Leo Nolden, star music producer. 
"Cass sighed. "Something will have to happen soon." "It will," said Leo, "and when it does you´ll realize that the distance between here and there was not as great as you had imagined.""
Second, Cass, his trusted and brilliant engineer, who has producer dreams of her own (and a severe shortage of confidence). 
""Beauty isn´t a one-sided thing," said Cass. "A painting isn´t beautiful unless we take part in viewing it. It just is without us. We choose to see it a certain way, the eye of the beholder thing. It´s a relationship... and we each have different ways of participating..." She drew a breath. "...which is terrifying." "Why terrifying?" asked Leo. "When no one else gets it. Sometimes, Leo, the sound is so clear in my head and no one else hears it.""
Then, Liam, Leo´s best friend and agent, a clever and smartly dressed lawyer, who is also a devoted art lover.
"I don´t shop for relationships. It´s like music. Music, art, they take you. Relationships, at the end of the day, it´s not about the size or color or the name romantic on the label. Like art, it´s the quality of the experience. I don´t care how that experience comes packaged. It can be pop music or a painting. Does the experience deliver, that´s all that matters."
And, Gabe, owner of the studio where much of the action takes place, super-kind, quietly writing his own music by his desk when he has a minute to spare.
"Great players, in Gabe´s humble opinion, players like Thurston Moore or Jonny Greenwood, their music reflected most clearly when it was at its dirtiest. Players like that zeroed in on a specific emotion, like a parametric equalizer. They boosted or cut emotion until hearing it and feeling it was the same thing."

Cass and Leo gets involved with AI software developer and scientist Andrew Singh, in a project where Leo´s musical preferences are recorded and programmed into what they call The Music Box, an expert system that mixes music, and learns (or programs itself) at the same time. 
"Andrew loved this problem. He was smitten with the notion that some goals could not be sufficiently described, and that humans faced those sorts of problems a lot. Humans produced things without having a specific goal in mind all the time, and they did it extremely well. They produced great things. Andrew wanted to find out about that process, how did humans make decisions when they did not know where they wanted it to lead."

This is a novel of ideas. The character´s lives are fairly simple, they don´t have relationships that complicate the story, no spouses (except Leo´s wife who is a very minor character), no children. There is Gabe´s mom, but she is there to make a point, I think. Often, these kinds of novels can feel a bit fakey. I felt this very much with "Sofie´s World" by Jostein Gaardner, a novel I couldn´t even finish because I found the dialog so awkward. But Lefford really is a good writer of dialogue. People who concern themselves with ideas really do talk like this (I know a few), and I found myself very much drawn into the discussion.
"Leo observed the rhythmic structure of Andrew´s intellectual arguments. Andrew paused for preplanned moments of reflection. Key points, whether made by him or others, were given a moment to establish themselves in the mind. Threads closed. There were dominant chords, dissonances and resolutions. Leo wondered how Andrew worked out his timings. It was a tight, if nuanced, performance, and it brought them to Andrew´s main interest in record producers, not knowing what will ultimately be produced."
There are long bits where the actual work of producing records, mixing music, is depicted. It can be hard to follow if you (like me) have no clue about music recording. I am grateful that the Kindle has a built in dictionary, I can tell you! but it doesn´t explain everything just to get the words translated. What I did was read those parts at a good pace and have in mind some creative activity where I find myself in the zone, as Cass and her friends are. Like knitting and designing a sweater from scratch, as I go. It´s not as fast paced, but I think there may be similarities of experience. Or writing. Or baking a loaf from left-over stuff in the pantry. Photography, if that´s your thing. Painting or drawing. Or speaking, like in the quote above. 
"Why make the process artificial? Why put it in a Box?" he asked. "In the studio, the piecing together of combinations, the decisions, they race by so fast. There´s no way to hang on to ideas. No way to think about them. It almost feels like the decisions are made for you by something external. The Box was a way to look at those choices and to make the instinct tangible.""

Tragically, before they can start testing the box, Leo dies, and the others are left with the box and the project he started. Cass, Liam, and Gabe are all idealists, all good guys working for art and the benefit of artists and their audiences. The evil forces are represented by a big record company trying to get their hands on the box (which they seem to think is Leo´s brain in a bottle!) (even Liam kind of feels that way, which makes him particularly protective of it) and put it on a website to make money.  

""Creative freedom," she scoffed. "You either like the music or you don´t. Can´t we just get on with it? What´s the fuss?" "The fuss?" asked Liam. "What if someone does or says or represents something that I didn´t expect? What if I don´t know how to respond to it? What if I can´t sell this recording the way I sold the last recording? What if someone makes me feel something I´m not ready to feel? That´s why the business of music imposes so many limits on creative freedom. Creative freedom is threatening not just to the business model, but to the individual.""

Another enemy is Gabe´s mom, who sees art as a rival for the attention she feels entitled to. Really, the scenes with her and Gabe are quite spooky, and I think Lefford has done a marvelous job of dramatizing that manipulation that some people are so good at, particularly with their children. It´s so easy to feel just what Gabe feels in those situations. I mean, she really nails it. I´d love to give you a shorter, meaningful quote, but the scenes have a long build-up, and I´d have to quote at least a whole page. I think there should be a whole novel about Gabe and his mom.

As you have noticed, I quote heavily from this book. Partly because I can´t say anything more intelligent about it than what is already in there, and my small selection might be your only taste of it, so I am sharing. I hope to meet the author in person soon, and I intend to argue for it to be made available somewhere.

Lefford doesn´t give any definite answers, but she asks a lot of very interesting questions, and if I can make a guess, she answers them a little differently in all the versions she provides. It´s astonishingly clever. I´m blown away, really.  
 ""We don´t ever look at art objectively. We´re all biased. Each of us is open to some possibilities and closed to others." "At some point, you have to determine what´s good. Are you biased about my music?" "Yes." He was tickled by the question. "What´s wrong with bias? You built a whole Box of bias. Bias is interesting." "But, then how do I really know when I´m good?" "You don´t find out that way. If that´s your metric, you´ll have to find a different way to make your music.""


  1. i had to look up "fika" and now i want somebody to open up a coffee shop here with that name.

    kundera! yes! :) i've read a couple by him and have a couple on my tbr shelf.

    i finished sophie's world. it was recommended to me as a good introduction to philosophy for the kids when they were in (i think) high school. it was that -more like a teaching text in novel form than an actual novel.

    this book reminds me of those choose-your-own-adventure books the kids liked so much back in the day, except those only gave the reader 2 choices. it sounds like you could re-read this many times and read a different book each time. it sounds intriguing. there's not much better than interesting questions.

    1. Yes, I definitely will re-read this one. Not immediately, but eventually, perhaps when I run out of creative fuel. I really do feel quite energized by this whole reading experience. But it was hard to write a post about it, perhaps because I liked the book so much!