Saturday, November 22, 2008

Aristotle meets the monome

Aristotle's metaphysics, like Plato's, and like the basic world-view of most of the ancients, assumed that there were realities that transcended the material and human. And for both of them, forms, or, what I want to call "patterns," were more real than matter, or "stuff." The key difference between these two thinkers being that, if a certain pattern was not currently found actually shaping something (some stuff), then, for Aristotle, it simply no longer existed.

Now, I am more a Platonist myself; and I like the idea of patterns, as higher ontologically than stuff, actually somehow existing whether or not they are currently shaping anything at all, or not. Nevertheless, when it comes to the monome, I love the beautiful and kind of melancholy seriousness of Aristotle's ephemeral patterns.

Now here is the question: which is the pattern: the monome grid, or the given software application running with the monome at a given time? I think there is an analogy from Aristotelian metaphysics to working with the monome and I want to draw it out. Same question from the other side: what is the stuff, the mater (the prime material): is it the actual physical equipment of the monome, or, again, is it the application?

One thing I know, the concrete instance is the resulting music, design, or what-have-you output of the artist's creativity. Which, I suppose, makes the artist or musician a kind of demiurge. Is this poesis or mimesis? Oh, boy, I need to slow down.

Look, here is what I am really meditating on right now that I think is so cool. It seems to me that at least a significant part of the beauty of the monome as a minimalist interface is the way in which it so clearly embodies (at least analogically) this Aristotelian paradoxical intuition of both the primacy of pattern over material and, nevertheless, the fleeting nature of the pattern. The pattern, for Aristotle, although higher, has this kind of dependence upon stuff, material, the lower.

A recent discussion in the monome community asked this question: which is coolest about the monome: the interface itself, or the amazing user-developed and community-shared applications? Now, someone commenting in this discussion quite definitively stated that it was the interface, giving the example of a certain program (mlr) and saying that it would be horrible, on, say, a traditional keyboard. True enough. And yet, if I remember my monome history correctly, Tehn invented the monome to realize certain musical ideas that he had envisioned. So now which is it?

Here is where I want to loop back to my previous theoria post and remember that the monome, without an application and its creative user, is really nothing. But not "nothing" in the sense of absence; rather, "nothing" in the sense of possibility. The monome as interface is the possibility (literally, the matrix) for the artist (demiurge) to forge new pattern possibilities. So now we have pattern (pater), matrix (mater), and creator (demiurge). Wow, this is starting to move beyond Aristotle, and get kind of theogonical. Cool.

At least in terms of its musical application, being "freed from the comfortable tyranny of the piano keyboard where . . . hands fall into comfortable patterns" (as sagely stated by Stretta while describing one of his early and beautiful applications, fourths), means the freedom to generate music in new directions, directly exploring the nature of music as itself beauty in pattern formation, dissolution, combination and reformation. The beauty of the monome is that of a minimalist interface that enables maximalist results (if desired).

So, I still haven't answered any of my above questions. But I have begun a fun line of meditation. Thanks for following and thanks for the support.


  1. What WOULD Aristotle say about the monome? What did he say about music? I don't remember much from Metaphysics. Did he see music as pointing back to a perfect form of "MUSIC" somewhere in the universe? I thought it was just Plato who took on Forms, so can you help?
    Love you - Kelly

  2. Music for Aristotle would have been inseperable from epic poetry. This stuff is in his poetics, not his metaphysics. No, Aristotle isn't much into pointing back to forms - that's Plato's thing. They both have forms, but the point is that they understand them very differently. Plato's forms last, Aristotle's don't. Plato would send all the poets (so, also, musicians) out of his republic. Aristotle things mimesis (creative arts) is great and cathartic (he coins the term). Thanks for the post!


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