Book Review:”Measure for Measure” by Thomas Levenson

Measure for Measure by Thomas Levenson

This book is interesting to read today because it was written in the early 1990s, right at the cusp of the Internet revolution. Levenson writes about the history of science and music, exploring the role of tools (i.e., technology) on culture. Even based in Boston, and in touch with the latest digital gizmos, he could little imagine the changes we all saw in the next quarter century.

The theme of this book is the term and concept of “instrument”, which is commonly used to refer to musical instruments and scientific instruments. These two uses of the word evolved around the same time, and many times technical advances in both areas have moved in tandem.

The first section considers the long germination of European science, which was intimately connected with music theory. Levenson calls attention to the understanding of the mathematical patterns inherent in music, which set a precedent for the scientific imagination, which recognized deep, mathematical patterns in nature. And, he tells us, these abstract patterns were reflected in instruments: the pipe organ, and the telescope.

Underlying these instruments was a belief that nature is perfect and can be perfectly known and described. In music, this perfection was reflected in simple but elegant theory, notation, and compositions. At the same time, the study of nature evolved into science, which was conceived as observation and description of the world, which, given sufficiently precise instruments and description (mathematics), was assumed to be subject to complete and correct description.

In the second period considered by Levenson, musical ideas evolved from melody to harmony, and science developed from Newtonian absolutism to modern uncertainty and relativism. These concepts were realized in alternative tuning schemes for stringed instruments, and it the increasing capabilities of microscopes and other measuring devices.

The object of study, the focus of modern science, has therefore shifted inward, to examine not nature itself but rather to study the abstract representations of nature, the choices made of what to leave in and what to drop out of any given study.” (p. 229)

At the same time, it has become understood that the experience of music, too, is relative and uncertain.

It is here that the experience of music touches the issues with which modern science has been grappling for a hundred years and more.” What Bach wrote is fixed, determined, unchanging—and untouchable by the audience. But then Ma, reading the score and transforming that text into an experience available to a listener. And each member of the audience in some sense chose a particular version of the suites heard that night, encountering the music Ma made from individual, distinct vantage points.” (p. 231)

The third period discussed in the book is the contemporary, model-based science, and a corresponding period in which musical theory is so abstract as to be nearly untethered from human experience. These approaches are “subjective”, especially compared to the earlier notions of a fixed, external “nature” (“music”) that could be observed (“performed”).

Levenson describes what we now know to be the early days of “informatization” of both music and science. Digital technology has enabled music to be generated from data and algorithms, and to be propagated as data. Similarly, scientific studies increasingly concern models (digital and otherwise), which are held to represent key aspects of nature.

In both musical composition and scientific theory, uncertainty and informatization mean that nearly anything is possible, so meaning can only be obtained by imposing constraints. There are many possible constraints, and the choice may be subjective or even arbitrary.

The final chapter is titled, “We Need New Instruments Badly”, echoing Edgar Varese (1916). The idea is that it is necessary to create means of expression that are constrained in useful and beautiful ways, just as a specific musical instrument constrains performance.

Rereading this book this year, it is striking just how far informatization has gone. Levenson saw clearly what was possible, and now it has come to pass. As he foresaw, digital music fills the world, infinitely mobile, with no physical medium, and nearly free. Everyone can own a powerful digital synthesizer (and camera), which can generate a vast range of sound (and video). Everyone can “perform” digital music, anywhere, any time.

Similarly, science is awash in digital data, infinitely mobile. Everyone can generate and manipulate data, and publish results and observations. In this environment, much of science is built on vast collections of data processed by abstract algorithms, used to study artificial model worlds that are meant to simulate aspects of nature.

The “new instruments” that we have acquired are ubiquitous computers and mobile devices, connected to a vast network. Both science and music largely reside “in the cloud”, and are access via computer screens. A ubiquitous mobile device is the new musical instrument, and also the new scientific instrument. Single purpose instruments are rapidly vanishing, in favor of endless “apps” and networked datasets.

These ubiquitous new instruments are in the hands of everyone, which certainly raises intellectual hazards, hazards that were anticipated in the historical periods described by Levenson by pioneers in science and music. Today, many people are naively trusting of digital data and algorithms, and too many people seem to believe that if we have enough data, we can understand reality. At the same time, many hard questions are plagued by uncertainty about the validity and interpretation of the digital models we construct to simulate them.

In a musical example, we see efforts to categorize musical performances, to be used to navigate (and market) musical taste. Similar technology is sometimes used to automate composition and performance as well.

Levenson’s account of subjectivity make plain the shaky logical underpinnings of these techniques. These statistical models of people, taste, and music effectively assume that they are objective and real, and can be accurately represented. While it may be possible to make some money with these models, they certainly do not represent the real world very well.

In scientific domains, we see whole fields that are digitized. For example, the study of weather and climate is done through the creation of complex digital models, validated as much as possible by (digitally modeled) data. However sound the models, they are abstract representations of reality. And however believable the findings, they depend on a massive chain of digital computations, which are can only simulate the physical systems we are interested in.

As Levenson discusses, this sort of knowledge is the heart of contemporary science. We cannot know the objective truth of nature, and now we may not be able to even understand the models we used to describe reality.

Levenson’s history shows how these two quintessential intellectual activities, music and science, have led the way into our current life. Today we see that our whole culture is now based on the same “instruments” developed for science and music, so it cannot be surprising that all forms of expression and meaning face the same deep challenges seen earlier in specialized domains. (See: “fake news” and “alternative facts”.)

In this light, we can see that “digital optimists” are rather naïve. The notion that ubiquitous, unconstrained spread of information increases understanding (and freedom), is revealed for the folly that it really is. We may have solved the problem of delivering information, but relying on each of us to impose meaning on it results in incoherence and disagreement about everything.

In the case of music, people impose meaning based on aesthetics and experience, which are scarcely arbitrary. In the case of the scientific enterprise, understanding depends on transparency and logical argument about contingencies. Scientific arguments are hardly arbitrary, even if sometimes subjective.

In the case of our wider culture, we see that a flood of digital information does not lead to understanding or even agreement. Imposing meaning (“controlling the narrative”) is an act of power, and the practice of power is, by definition, arbitrary. Whoever controls the network and screen can say what is true.

Our “new instruments” are the oldest instruments of our mental toolkit, story telling about supernatural, imaginary worlds, in the service of the powerful.

  1. Thoma Levenson, Measure for Measure: A Musical History of Science, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1994.


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