The Importance of (E)motion

“Time is what we and music exist in.”

I can’t quite track this quote down, but I was under the impression that it was from John Cage.

At any rate, it came to mind recently as I was thinking about the connection between the Japanese puppet theater of Bunraku and the behavior of cars at a 4-way stop.

Bunraku is an ancient form of Japanese puppet theater in which three puppeteers control the movement of one puppet with amazing subtlety. To become the main puppeteer (who controls the head and right hand), one must train for decades, which gives you a sense of how refined the motion is. Here is an example (perhaps not the best) that I found on YouTube:

At any rate, what really strikes me about this art form is that the puppet’s face does not change, so the emotion is expressed solely in rotation and translation of the head and arms. It is inspiring to see that such simple means, manipulated so masterfully, have such rich results.

The reason for this is time. If you were to graph the position of the puppet’s head over time, the resulting shape contains all the nuance of expression that the unchanging face lacks*. In a similar way, a harpsichord is just a set of buttons that can click on and off, but the musicality is expressed by the placement of these discrete actions in the continuum of time.

It has often seemed to me that we manage to have a similar, fairly subtle communication on a daily basis at 4-way stops, by virtue of our continuous control of the gas pedal. The give and take, each car edging forward, until one car makes a motion that somehow conveys, “I am going now”; this, like Bunraku, has the same distillation of communication to a few dimensions of motion. Even when you cannot see the other driver, a kind of conversation can take place just through the motion of the vehicles.

One final thought: the word emotion consists of the prefix “e-” (meaning out) and the word “motion”. Thus, when projected outward, motion can become emotion: weeping, in the case of Bunraku, and road rage in the case of Los Angeles.

*As a completely geeky aside, the space of univariate functions defined over a finite interval of time is an infinite dimensional vector space. So clearly there is a lot of depth here.


About marcpevans

I'm a composer, and a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara. This blog contains my philosophical musings on music and on other things. If you want to actually listen to my music, you can find it at Welcome! :)
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