On the Extinction of Animal Species

I’ve been reading Noah Yuval Harari’s Sapiens and have reached the chapter in the book where he tells of the profound impact that the Agricultural Revolution of our species had on ourselves and on the planet. In basic terms, the Agricultural Revolution was the period a little over 10,000 years ago when our species very gradually made the transition from subsisting as foragers and hunter-gatherers to settling down as farmers, living in settlements and villages with accompanying fields of domesticated crops and cattle. The ground that I have covered so far in the book has left me with an impression of this slice of history shaped by two main ideas.

The first is a statement about our effectiveness and superiority as a species above all others in the domains of cognition and fitness, which exploded with the preceding Cognitive Revolution some 70,000 years ago. There are many ways to characterize the dominance of Homo sapiens in ways that paint a favorable picture, but the first few chapters of Harari’s book admonish that it would be more honest to recognize this rise to the top during the Cognitive Revolution as the moment in history when Homo sapiens attained their status as the most destructive species on the planet (long before the Industrial Revolution made such a fact plainly obvious).

There are a few ways to measure this destructiveness, but the most telling for me is the fossil record, which contains a long list of animal species that went extinct in the last 70,000 years, and which tells of a mind-boggling scenario that seemed to play out time after time with the arrival of humans on the scene. As tribes of Homo sapiens made their way across the continents from Africa, and eventually into Australia and the islands of the Asia pacific, their arrival in each of these places was marked by a sudden disappearance of large numbers of local animal species. Through normal, sustenance-seeking hunting practices and deforestation in the form of controlled burning (for the purpose of creating open plains), it seems our ancestors systematically wiped a large percentage of the world’s fauna off the face of planet in just a few millennia. Shifts of this sort in the realm of biology usually take place over millions of years.

On this point alone, there are two interesting details:

  • Homo sapiens did this inadvertently. Research seems to show that these animals, having never been exposed to humans before, simply could not cope with the pressures that normal hunting patterns and deforestation applied to the local ecosystem. Also, at the time (during and after the Cognitive Revolution but before the Agricultural Revolution), we were still hunter-gatherers organized into tribes of probably no more than 100 individuals. It’s highly unlikely such events were orchestrated en masse.
  • The diversity and awesomeness among the fallen species are noteworthy. The fossil record shows these lands to have been inhabited by ostrich-like birds that grew to ten feet tall, rodents the size of bears, enormous saber-toothed cats, and 20-foot sloths. Amazing. Having grown up with dinosaur-centered media and science education, I find the idea of these gargantuan versions of modern creatures fascinating.

The second point that has stayed with me after my reading thus far centers around what Homo sapiens managed to accomplish during the Agricultural Revolution that, paradoxically, guaranteed the longevity of certain animal species but still yet produced destructive consequences. With the transition away from a nomadic existence to one living in farms and villages, our species developed methods of domesticating animals that guaranteed the availability of certain foods. This practice of raising cattle for labor and sustenance, which began some 9000 years ago, has led to our current situation where the world is now populated by 1 billion cows, 1 billion pigs, an equal number of sheep, and roughly 25 billion chickens.

By evolutionary standards, these animals have attained something akin to success. Where proliferating copies of one’s DNA is a metric of such success, cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens have won out among non-human species. Unfortunately, the engine of evolution knows nothing of happiness and well-being, and given their current conditions and the methods we use to facilitate the proliferation of their DNA, they are also the most miserable animals in existence. Understanding that our species is responsible for both the rate of their population growth and the quality of life of each animal, it follows that we have procured in our farms and abattoirs an upsettingly large concentration of suffering visited upon conscious organisms.

Pondering this fact, I wondered if the concern that I extend to endangered species and those that are nearly extinct is skewed by bias, borne of the natural sympathy one might feel for a species on its proverbial last legs. As Harari mentions somewhere, the somewhat solitary life of a rhinoceros on the plains of Africa – even one belonging to a critically endangered species – is probably, in relative terms, not that bad. The threat of game hunters and other acute, human-related factors notwithstanding, the rhino is free to roam the plains and scrounge for food, encumbered mostly by everyday perils like disease, predators (what few rhinos have), and physical injury – all things that its ancestors already faced on a regular basis anyway.

The scale and depth of suffering in our slaughterhouses, by contrast, is really beyond comprehension. While it is certainly a sad thing to witness entire species at a time vanish into obscurity, when I put the two of these things next to each other as ethical concerns that demand attention, the mass suffering of billions of organisms trumps all.

Steven Pinker and Sam Harris at the Dolby Theatre

On March 14, I went to see the launch event of Sam Harris’s Waking Up Book Club, where he and Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker shared the stage at the Dolby Theatre to discuss Pinker’s new book Enlightenment Now and a range of philosophical topics. Among the things they touched on were science, humanism, politics, and artificial intelligence.

About halfway into their conversation, Sam prompted Pinker to speak about the rise of the alt-right. In his response, Pinker first clarified that his conception of the alt-right did not center on what has become the prevailing caricature of that identity — that is, the khaki-wearing, torch-bearing, pseudo-warmongering, male white supremacist who rallied at public demonstrations all throughout 2016 and 2017. Rather, he described the alt-right a product of something more subtle and surreptitious. In my best attempt to summarize his words, he described it as a group of people (albeit still overwhelmingly white and male) who emerged organically as a reaction to political correctness and left-wing taboos making it impossible — or at the very least inconvenient — to explore certain topics through conversation and free expression.

Unfortunately, I can’t remember if Sam or Pinker highlighted any specific taboos or such topics, but I imagine something akin to Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve was the assumed context here. If, for example, a research study were to yield results attesting to racial differences in intelligence among humans, its exposure in academia would be short-lived, since — as the argument goes — leftist and politically correct attitudes on university campuses have turned the classroom into a place that is hostile to broaching such subjects and discussing them openly. Presumably, an open discussion on any of these topics would be of a kind that raises challenges against gender equality, racial equality, and other positions sympathetic to protected classes.

Pinker went on to say that without a space where debates of this sort were welcome, those who found themselves privy to this roiling body of everything from research findings to half-baked ideas withdrew from the usual channels and carried their conversations into hidden forums, where they could share and exchange with other like-minded people. These groups suddenly saw themselves as the beneficiaries of information that began to take on a privileged and secretive character, given its taboo status in other places. Speaking generally, there is something empowering about holding secrets, and it’s this sense of power, derived from enjoying a monopoly on certain knowledge, that drove its bearers to take shape as a collective force.

If this phenomenon is at all what was operative in the formation of the alt-right, then it should be taken as an example that reaffirms the primacy of free speech and the challenges inherent in its implementation. If it’s the case that would-be alt-righters met any resistance to expressing their ideas in the usual academic and political forums, it likely was not in the form of formal, prohibited-speech rules or legislation (at least in the US). Rather, the resistance they met likely took the form of accusations of bigotry or racism, which, true or not, will handily shut down any conversation before it even starts.

South Bay Horn Day 2017

This weekend, I attended South Bay Horn Day 2017 where I was reunited with my teacher and friend, Daniel Wood. As he announced at the end of the evening concert program, this happened to be his last year at the helm of the South Bay Horn Day event, with no one as of yet having stepped up to take the reins. The event has run for six consecutive years, and in that time has built some great relationships among the network of horn players in the Bay Area, while also offering an environment in which some really beautiful musical moments have been crafted.

Daniel’s commitment to the community and the energy he invests in running the event shows in his stage presence as a host, and I think we’ll all miss his knack for stripping away the rigid severity of classical music and bringing the pedagogy and musical performance down to a level that is accessible to everyone, from beginning horn players to veterans to non-musicians and beyond. Here’s to hoping we have a festival to attend next year.

Symphonies in My Head

A symphony really doesn’t deserve to be delivered to its audience through the copper filament of a pair of headphones. For all the labor that goes into a 40-minute work (both in composition and preparation on the part of the ensemble) that sees its finer details realized at the hands and lungs of sixty-some-odd musicians, it’s really a disservice to have the sound injected directly into one’s head cavity. It is not possible to really experience a “wall of sound” when the sound begins and ends as a whisper from a mere earbud. In the act of experiencing sound for pleasure, acoustics are important, and despite the impressive structural complexity of the brain, it sadly has no acoustic features.

Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (stanpacz@flickr)

And yet, for anyone who lives near a major metropolitan center, seats at the concert hall that put you within respectable distance of the stage are upwards of $100. Classical music ain’t cheap, and that is why, for most of the classical music moments in my life, I will hear symphonies in my head.

Or wherever the local community orchestra happens to be playing.

Discovering Barbershop

Singing in a boys choir when I was younger and later singing with my high school chorus, there were few opportunities to perform a cappella music. A cappella frequently emerged in rehearsals as an ear-training exercise, but it wasn’t till I encountered what seemed to be an army of a cappella singers and groups in college that I got my first, real taste of the form. As a freshman, I auditioned for a bass opening in Cornell University’s Last Call, but after not getting the part, I more or less abandoned a cappella for other pursuits. I later came to realize that I also just lacked a basic interest in the genre. Unlike the way I gravitate towards the thick and full sound of a Late Romantic symphony orchestra, I couldn’t get as excited about the typically thinner voicing of modern a cappella.

Enter barbershop music.

My barbershop quartet competing in Taiwan
My barbershop quartet competing in Taiwan

It’s ironic that I had to leave the states and travel over 7,000 miles to Taiwan to discover and embrace what is often known as a uniquely American tradition, but barbershop music proved itself to me to be a class of a cappella singing that shares almost no common ground with the modern vocal band. A precise specification of the style is in fact written into the Barbershop Harmony Society‘s Contest and Judging Handbook. The section that outlines contest entry requirements reads:

Barbershop harmony is a style of unaccompanied vocal music characterized by consonant four-part chords for every melody note in a predominantly homophonic texture. […]

Occasional brief passages may be sung by fewer than four voice parts. […]

Barbershop music features songs with understandable lyrics and easily singable melodies, whose tones clearly define a tonal center and imply major and minor chords and barbershop (dominant and secondary dominant) seventh chords that often resolve around the circle of fifths, while also making use of other resolutions. Barbershop music also features a balanced and symmetrical form, and a standard meter.

The differences with modern a cappella are implied, mostly by way of the limitations this specification places on songs written for barbershop. Barbershoppers do not see these as limitations of course; rather, they are the defining principles that characterize barbershop purity in sound and style.

  • Four-part chords for every melody note
  • Major, minor, and dominant chords (mostly)
  • Understandable lyrics, easily singable melodies
  • Standard meter

The first and bolded point is the kicker for me. Left only to the imagination, music that adheres to this rule might seem cumbersome and texturally uninteresting, and such criticism I think is actually fair. The texture of barbershop music tends not to vary too widely from song to song. However, it is this rule that gives barbershop singing its richness and wall-of-sound quality. There are, almost by definition, very few gaps in phrases and incomplete chords. Most importantly perhaps, it is the combination of this rule with the second (allowing only certain, simple chords) that allows for barbershoppers to “ring” chords — a topic for another day.

二胡

First order of business: I am living in Taiwan (since August 19th).

I am taking an 二胡 (èrhú) class, and thus far have learned the basics of bowing. The proper grip and bow placement is tricky, and having never played a string instrument, the entire experience is foreign to me. In the first two lessons, none of my previous musical training has volunteered itself to be of any use, and the class is furthermore taught entirely in Chinese, so you know, there’s that.

Here I am being amazing. Mhm.
Here I am being amazing. Mhm.

Through my early fumbles handling the instrument, I have learned two important phrases:

  • 放鬆: relax
  • (太)用力: (too much) exertion/force

IHS LA 2015 and Lessons from The Who

I expected my one day at the International Horn Symposium in Los Angeles to yield the excitement and energy usually afforded by conferences of a grand scale, but I instead walked away feeling ambivalent about my lot as a horn player. Oops. Still, I appreciated the closing words of horn player J. Gregory Miller recounting his experiences touring with English rock band The Who:

Lessons from The Who

Oh, also, I bought a fancy-pants mute from Ion Balu, who is quite the gentlemanly dude.

World Premiere

The aforementioned performance of my hymn took place this last Saturday in Mountain View at the Community School of Music and Arts. Below is the one, very awful photo I have of the venue (Tateuchi Hall) from my seat in the back while I waited to go on stage myself.

Tateuchi Hall, Community School of Music and Arts
Tateuchi Hall, Community School of Music and Arts

The performance went well, I thought, given that we were only able to rehearse it once. I still think it’s a hilarious thing that as a composer I get to call this occasion the world premiere of my piece.

Special thanks to my teacher, Daniel Wood, as well as Selin, Linus, and Jimmy Haber who all volunteered to play the piece. Also, thanks to my friends Nick, Anthony, and Lilliana for coming!

A Hymn for Horns

For an upcoming recital, I have been trying to figure out how to perform (or arrange to have performed) my new choral work… without a chorus. Apart from my not having many connections in the choral community, a full chorus would probably outnumber the students and parents in attendance at the recital.

As a fallback, I hastily mixed a synthesized rendition of the hymn for horn choir. I owe this exercise to GarageBand for having an impressive horn ensemble sample in its sound library, but I was happy enough with the results to take the time to “write out” (in Sibelius) the score for a 5-part horn choir.

Horns are great. I'm not biased.
Horns are great. I’m not biased.

Some concerns and considerations:

  • In its original key, the piece would demand of the first horn players a sustained high C. So, I have lowered the key of the piece by a whole step. I am considering lowering it even a half-step further, but that would result in the somewhat awkward key of B major for at least one section.
  • My composition teacher informed me that a 5-part horn choir is a very rare and unusual ensemble. He recommended re-scoring the piece for horn octet, which would have the added benefit of doling out the longer phrases and high parts more fairly (as it is, the 2nd horn part has no rests), as well as enabling beefier chords.
  • Not needing to figure out how to distribute spoken syllables across notes is a huge burden off my shoulders. Not to say that it isn’t a useful exercise, but writing the piece for an instrumental choir has allowed me to reinstate the phrasings, slurs, and ties that I first had in mind, which, you know, I think are more tasteful.

There’s a lesson here about the unpredictable evolution of one’s own work. Something for me to mull over and write about later.

Finding the Right Words

My recent predilection for liturgical music has given rise to what ought to be my first choral work. It’s not finished, but with it, I have tried to produce a hymn in the style of Romantic-era musical settings of Russian orthodox worship services. I have given myself the rather daunting task of trying to capture the same spiritual flavor of these works, while omitting any religious program (that is, for some definition of “spiritual”). I’ve written the piece for a cappella SATBB chorus, and it’s looking to be about three minutes long.

At the moment, I’m in the process of deciding on a text for the work, which is a process so critical and yet unbounded as to be basically paralyzing. My first experiments in assigning words to the music have involved a French adaptation of a poem For the Fallen by Robert Laurence Binyon (1869-1943).

More on my aspirations for this piece later.