Passion for Numbers

A Letter from the Composer

This is an album of piano music, but I wrote it without a piano. Not having a piano turned out to be constructive, because I had to rely on my brain instead of my fingers, and particularly on my imagination and inner hearing. The album belongs to a category called phase music, and it’s also algorithmic, or more precisely rules-based generative music.

I don’t write music in the usual sense of the word “write.” I build kinetic sculptures, and the sculptures generate my music. My sculptures are virtual, meaning they’re invisible machines that exist only as data within my home-grown software. My process is related to the work of a relatively obscure early 20th century artist named Thomas Wilfred. Like me, Wilfred was an engineer-artist, and built machines that generated art from phase shift.

My music is in complex polymeter, meaning it’s not just in odd time, but in multiple odd time signatures, and not one odd time signature after another sequentially, but all of them running concurrently. Most music isn’t constructed this way, which is why I needed to develop custom software in order to compose my music. My software is called The Polymeter MIDI Sequencer, and you can easily find it on the Internet. I also use music set theory, change-ringing and Gray code, explanations of which can be found in Wikipedia.

Instead of using machines as servants, I invite them into the creative space as equals. They have abilities that I lack, and I also have abilities that they lack, so we complement each other. They supply speed and precision, I supply desire and intuition, and what emerges is greater than the sum of the parts. Machines are no longer mere tools or extensions of ourselves, and their strengths don’t necessarily overlap with ours. Machines can surprise us, make interesting mistakes, and reveal hidden realms, but only if we’re willing to become fluent in their languages. To collaborate with machines, we’re obliged to learn new skills.

There’s a hierarchy of skills, not just in engineering but in life. The more general a skill is, the further up the hierarchy it is. Near the top are skills that apply to any problem, and I call these meta-skills. Reading and writing are meta-skills, because they help us acquire and use other skills. A more specific example of a meta-skill is the strategy known as “divide and conquer.” If we divide a problem in half, and find the symptom in only one of the halves, we’ve simplified the problem, and by repeating this process we progress towards the solution.

At the top of the skill hierarchy sits the ultimate meta-skill, the one ring to rule them all. I jokingly call it “giving a shit,” but more properly, it’s caring. Caring is the most important skill, and by far the hardest one to learn, because it can only be taught by example. Without caring, all other skills are useless, because a careless person can’t be bothered to learn them. Conversely, with care, all other skills can eventually be mastered. Thus caring is the secret formula that makes everything possible.

By caring, you unavoidably risk suffering if what you care for is harmed, whereas not caring makes you invulnerable, but at a terrible cost: you become incapable of skilled work, in art or anything else. Just as caring is the superpower that unlocks mastery, not caring is the opposite superpower, the dark side of the force. Any inquiry or exchange of ideas can be terminated by incuriosity, which is a type of not caring. Metaphorically, carelessness is the road to Hell.

To cultivate caring, we need to know its root, and the root of caring is love, in the specific sense of nurturing, protecting and giving selflessly without expecting anything in return. The love that produces caring is the same kind of love that emanates from good parents. I love my projects as if they were my children, meaning I’m willing to sacrifice myself so that they’ll thrive. I put a lot of love into this album, because I’m passionate about the ideas it represents.

This brings us to the album’s title, Passion for Numbers. Too few of us truly care about future generations, a theme I explored in a previous work. But sadly, even fewer of us care about numbers. It has been my great fortune to be mentored by an actual polymath, a mighty force of caring who prepared me for a joyously numerate life. Only with numbers can we comprehend the immensity and complexity of the universe. Numbers help us better understand our world and ourselves. This album is dedicated to all who labor carefully in the fertile fields of knowledge. May lovers of wisdom inherit the earth. Like the planetary orbits that inspire polymeter, my art would be inconceivable without arithmetic. Through numbers to the stars.