Not-tism: “The Music of ‘Flow.’” Or, On Divining the Purpose of Music

Welcome to this ‘not-tistic’ post, a post on Angry Autie that is not related to autism. You’ll see these every now and again because I am certainly allowed to have interests outside autism, right? I’m interested in a lot of things, chief among them are music, philosophy, and psychology, and if I want to write about any of them among other things, I will. If, for some reason, this confuses or upsets you, do what any reasonable person would do and feel free to not read this post. Or you could read it and create an oblique interpretation of my words and thoughts in juxtaposition with my autism. Either way, I’m unconcerned.


Read this article:

In it, composer Richard Carrick discusses the use of non-musical influences in music composition, particularly psychologist Mihaly Csikzsentmihayli (pronounced ‘me-hy cheek-sent-me-hy-ee’…I think) and his theory of flow, which Carrick uses in his own work. The theory of flow is one of the most poetic theories I’ve ever heard, as it attempts to capture that feeling of transcendence we get when we become deeply immersed in doing something, a state that some of us claim to be impossible, too magical, to put into words. Basically, it states that the more a task matches one’s skill level, the more immersed one becomes. If your skill level is higher than the task’s difficulty, then the task will be boring. If your skill level is lower, the task will be anxiety-inducing.

Reading the article somehow got me thinking, once again, about what the ultimate purpose of music is. Right now, the popular school of thought in the field of ‘classical’ music seems to favor composers who apply really heady and esoteric techniques, usually those completely alien to traditional music theory. I understand that this is all for the sake of expanding our expressional ability as composers but to what end? I often feel that they do this because they can and not because they should. Is the music really any better because we can take weird mathematical equations and transform them into sound? If one were to listen to this music, one might get the impression that it actually makes the music LESS enjoyable. Or would we be able to appreciate this music at some later point in time?

I’m interested in the application of non-musical influence in composition on a theoretical level, since it’s an attempt to capture some aspect of the world as accurately and literally as possible and express it in music; the ultimate intellectual exercise. It’s an attempt to give music a concrete language. It’s as scientific an approach to art as you could get. Plus, if you’re up to the task, figuring out the meaning of such a piece can be very rewarding. I remember doing an analysis of this monster for my composition class, Metastasis by Iannis Xenakis:

(In fact, the guy who curates “The Score” where the “Music of ‘Flow’” article came from taught the class for which I wrote said analysis! Cool, huh? No? Not really? Fine.)

To make a six-page paper short, the point of this particular piece was not to sound as pretty as possible but to capture some aspect of the world. More specifically, Einstein’s theory of relativity. If you’re actually listening, then you’ll notice that the piece feels slow when the density of instruments is low and feels fast when there are more instruments playing. It’s far more involved than that but I don’t feel like going into it and this blog is hardly the place to engage in such an analysis. But when I finished said analysis, I really felt like I emerged a more informed composer. Do I actually plan on applying any of the techniques that I picked up? Well…

Though the curious philosopher in me gets nerdgasms when the subject of non-musical influence pops up, along with all of its beautiful theory, the artist in me is very suspicious of this approach and sees it as totally pointless. I see the wonder of music as coming from its imprecise yet fantastical quality. To me, music is a transcendent experience first and foremost and to have music merely imitate the physical world that we already experience not only is really fucking pretentious but also defeats the purpose of music. Some of us listen to music to escape the world, not to take part in a simulation of it! As interesting and enlightening as it was to analyze Metastasis for my class, it’s a privilege reserved for the few who have such time on their hands and after all that I went through with writing that paper and understanding the piece, I’d still rather listen to something like this:

Or even this:

I have personally found that it’s best to find some middle ground to work with. Don’t be too simplistic and run the danger of being too predictable and boring and don’t be too esoteric and run the danger of being too inaccessible and boring (again). Be novel but don’t be so novel that no one could see where you’re coming from. At the end of the day, music is an art and these ‘serious’ composers are unreasonably turning it into a science. I think of people like Iannis Xenakis and Richard Carrick as interesting but too stuffy to actually enjoy when you get beyond all these silly techniques. My opinion of them might change as I get older but I believe that music can’t move forward unless we build off its current state rather than just totally start from scratch.

As for approach, I’ve found that you could apply some non-musical techniques to open up the piece but it’s not necessary to apply them to every single parameter. For example, for my piece, “Strike the Sun,” I derive some of the rhythmic patterns from the Fibonacci sequence but the rest is the work of pure intuition:

And here’s Part II in case you’re interested:

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