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JF Ptak Science Books Post 1540 (Part of a long series on The History of Blank, Empty and Missing Things.)

So, in the history of very creative people saying things, I wonder if Ludwig van Beethoven said the most of the least interesting things? I'm referring to his correspondence and other written works, and not his music of course—and given the music nothing else really matters. But given the amount of surviving letters and conversation books, and of course his staggering genius (which makes him one of the most important men of the century) it is kind of remarkable that there isn't more attractive, inventive, interesting content in his communications—which at the very least makes reading the stuff somewhat disappointing, and, at the very most, pretty much the same.


When Beethoven (who died at age 57 on 26 March 1827, a year younger in death than Dickens and five years old than Shakespeare—a remarkable thing to consider how much these people accomplished in a very short period of time) began his experience in being deaf he resorted to using largish, quarto-sized blank chap books for his visitors to write their questions and answers to him. These books, Konversationshefte, the Conversation Books, were precisely that—they recorded the conversations with Beethoven over a number of years. Unfortunately, they reveal some very basic, daily, non-sequitur sorts of stuff, and contain almost nothing of what Beethoven actually said.

Sometimes—according to scholars—it is possible to intuit what Beethoven sort of said by looking at series of questions and answers from his guests. But by and large the notebooks offer few clues to what the voice of Beethoven was actually saying. This is particularly grueling given the extent of the notebooks—136 of these books remain, covering the periods from about 1819 to 1827. (Actually, at Beethoven's death there were more than 400 of the things, but his biographer, Anton Schindler, the man who inherited much from Beethoven including the notebooks, managed to purposely destroy at least 160 of the books. Evidently he found them impolitic, among other things, and tried to protect Beethoven's reputation by making the evidences of the supposed impertinences disappear.)

The conversations cover all manner of small, daily bits of life, including numerous one-sided conversations with/to the Maestro on how to take his enemas. (It is extraordinary that such evidence remains in the face of how much other –and probably more interesting—material didn't.

The letters of Beethoven, too, as voluminous as they are, are a terror to read, mainly because—at least to a general reader—there's so little of interest in them. I have no doubt that for scholars they are vast repositories for things like Lost Punctuation and the sort, but the letters as intellectual documents, as things that give and insight into the mind of Beethoven, or what he thought about his work, or the works of contemporaries, and so on, well, the content just doesn't seem to be there. (There are some occasional bright spots, like his continued reference to how extraordinary Handel was and that he, the great Beethoven, still learns from the man, even on his deathbed, but there's really very little like this, relative to the great weight of the sheer number of words in the letters.)

A number of writers have quoted W.H. Auden saying that there was only one memorable sentence in the whole of the Beethoven correspondence. I can't yet find what this was to Auden–my first guess is that it is in the "Immortal Beloved" writing, where we do get a big, deep cut into Beethoven's mind.

The letters do reveal all sorts of other things, most of which makes me sad, particularly when the sick room of Beethoven is described in not-pretty terms as an outreach and indicator of his possible poverty, and how much the ill Beethoven had to worry about securing a little money to pull him through his illness and into the next half-year or so of life if he survived himself.

Even making my way though the Thayer biography of Beethoven and looking for his voice is a chore. I tried to content myself constructing found poetry in the questions of the visitors to Beethoven in the notebooks, but that was fairly well a failure.

It is in these cases that the authentic voice of Beethoven seems to be almost entirely missing–a blank, empty and missing sound from the man who made some of the most beautiful music ever created.

The other end of this part of blank, empty and missing things history, and sound, and Beethoven, would obviously be his deafness, or perhaps his depression (in the 1815-1820 period, when he was plagued by, well, something). For years Beethoven heard very little; and then for years after that, he heard almost nothing at all. But he was sensitive to vibration, so he was able to experience music, though in a different sense form what we think of as auditory. Missing music–though I wouldn't call it "Empty" or "blank."

JF Ptak Science Books Post 1358

[Above: a gorgeous display of ear bones of humans and animals: reading across the top: man, cow, hors,e dog, leopard, cat, rat, pig and sheep, coming from Athanasius Kircher's book on sound and acoustics, and about the first of its kind: Musurgia Universalis, printed in Rome in 1650. Image from Special Collections of the University of Glasgow library, and which is the bottom half of the engraving reproduced int he "notes" section1.]

It seems that almost all of human history's hearing has been impressionistic–a collection of aural landscapes that would disappear as soon as they were ended, unless of course someone was there to write down what was heard on papyrus or sand or mud or clay or paper. Finding the sound was important because, well, it was a single-shot phenomenon, unless it was repeated by the presenter, or someone else copied the presentation, or wrote it down so that it could be read and interpreted later. It was a phenomenal invention of Mr. Edison's that brought the possibility capturing sound so that it could be played over and over again, the experience becoming a simple piece of technology available to anyone who could afford it.

The odd thing now is that virtually everything is findable, recordable, archivable. We can also hear just about anything from just about anywhere. Before the telephone–invented by Mr. Bell only 135 years ago–in order to hear something from a distance beyond the normal auditory range, a person would've needed the assistance of objects such as these "propagation horns" from Kempsten's Phonurgia nova (of 1673, pictured at left). Sir Samuel Morland, a fantastic English polymath (1625-1695) also produced an instrument similar to this in his stentoro-phonica, constructed in the 1660's It is in a way similar to the giant listening devices devised and constructed by the Imperial Japanese Army in the earliest days of WWII, prior to their use of radar. Or, if one was a monarch or other highly placed aristocratic or ruling class person, one could have used something like Kircher's listening device, found again in his Musurgia Universalis of 1650 so that a little eavesdropping might go on from one far-placed room to the next.

Wheel-mounted acoustic locators for detecting enemy aircraft over Japan in the 1930s
[Kircher's device, below.]
If one were to construct a monument to "found sound" certainly an important element of it would have to involve Pythagoras, who by virtue of walking past a group of blacksmiths heard something in their pounding that struck him deeply, exciting his foundational ideas about pitch.
We see him featured prominently in the frontispiece to the Kircher work mentioned above–well, that and a lot of other symbolism as well.

The blacksmiths are seen at middle bottom, and the man to their left is Pythagoras, pointing to them with a staff, seeming to lean on a marble pillar, but what that really is is a manuscript of his theorem regarding pitch. reigning over all is a sun representing the Holy Trinity, its rays anointing the earth in the forms of light and angels, the world scene in the center, surrounded by the zodiac and hosting the seated Musica, all representing the ealier beliefs of mathematical/artistic/musical relational proportions, the music of the spheres. [There are other interesting appearances: musical instruments at the feet of Pythagoras, Pegasus (perhaps?) at the top of the stairs at middle-right, mermaids in the distance, and of course the figure at right, surrounded by all sorts of musical instruments as well as a golden owl. Of lesser importance but of high interest is the figure just to the right of Pythagoras' elbow, a figure who seems to be singing, or yelling, or attempting to hear an echo,]
Perhaps the most significant manufactured found sound–in the tradition of Swift and later that of Burroughs and Gysin–was Kircher's absolutely fabulous music-making machine, the arca musarythmica. It was with a device such as this that any person of any (in)sensibility could compose a slightly pre-arrnaged piece of music, combining previously tranbscribed scores together at random to produce a wholly new musical composition. As described on the Glasgow Library site, the instrument functioned so:

The arca musarythmica is a device by which a non-musician could compose a piece of four-part music using prearranged musical fragments inscribed in wands arranged in columns inside the box. Each type of wand corresponded to a particular metrical unit e.g. 4, 5, or 6 syllables, and on each wand there were examples of florid counterpoint on one side and more simple note-against-note settings on the other. Once the phrase to be set had been analyzed into its fundamental syllabic units, each of these could be set to an example taken from a wand of the appropriate type

I don't reckon that I'd like the music much (have there been any recordings of anything ever "composed" in this way?) but I sure would like the object.


JF Ptak Science Books Post 1252

This engraved plate from Abraham Rees' Cyclopedia… is the wonderful invention of Alexandre Choron (1771-1834), and appeared (perhaps for the first time in an English press) in London in 1814. It is a concise and interesting display of the comparisons of the reach of instruments along the eight octaves, and is a very strong example of clear and useful graphical display of quantitative data.

Music compass a949
The full subtitle: "Table of the Compass of Voices and Instruments, Shewing the Place Each Occupies in the Scale". (The original print is also available for purchase through our blog bookstore.)

From Grove Music Online:

Choron, Alexandre(-Etienne)

(b Caen, 21 Oct 1771: d Paris, 29 June 1834). French writer on music, instructor, publisher and composer. While still a boy, he taught himself Hebrew and German and acquired a permanent interest in scientific experiment and a fascination for music theory and the techniques of composition. Although he reached the age of 16 before taking music lessons, he had already attained elementary skill on keyboard and other instruments. He greatly valued a friendship with Grétry which began in his 20th year and which suggests that he moved to Paris after his father’s death.

Read Full Article →

JF Ptak Science Books 1150

Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, Hobbes’ Leviathan, the Buddha at Yungang (Shanxi) and Melville’s whale were all pushed to their competitive monsterous edges in the 1950's, when you were more likely to think of The Bomb and creeping Communism before thinking back to any of these great representations. And it is also my general impression, having been paging through Life magazine for the 1950's, that there are some other major, lesser heralds of gigantism, especially if you paid attention only to the advertisements. There were 1950's colossal characters who were pale imitators of their earlier counterparts–the Amazing Colossal Man and Colossal Woman being two minor mirrors of older ideas–but they hardly contained the colossal ideas that were resident in the earlier creations. (Perhaps part of that is due to having just witnessed the demise of two enoromities in Hitler Stalin.)

Monumental television theatre446

The new Pantegruels seem to have been television (completely victimizing
and nearly eradicating radio in its day), giant cars, liquor,
cigarettes, breasts, and, television, followed by television. There was
also the movies, with films filmed in super-spectro-pano-fabulism; and
of course there were the computers (the 1943 machine at Bletchley Park
was actually called the “Colossus” with Mark 1 and Mark 2 varieties,
which were actually less colossal than the other period colossi such as
the Harvard Mark I/IBM ASCC and ENIAC), which just now turning the
corner on “big” and getting faster/smaller/more powerful, and also
fulfilling the “Giant Brains” dream.

Monumental television flying445
I’m not sure, but it feels right to say that there is a direct correlation to things getting both bigger and smaller as things got faster.
Monumental cigs the king444
Anyway the new Colossuses/Colossi were hardly as attractive and had
virtually no literary value compared with their earlier Rabelaisical
counterparts or the giant 4th century BCE statue bearing that name in
the harbor at Rhodes. It is certainly true that the big things that
were imagined in the 20th century were beyond any conception of “big” in
the Western Canon of Big. (There are certainly great big things in
other cultures, say, in India for examples, where there are entities and
numbers so vast that there was nothing to compare them with in the
West. But that’s another story.)

Monumental whisky world442


Monumental world tophat447

Monumental world tire440

And of course joining the gigantic cultures of guns and booze:
Monumental gun farm441

JF Ptak Science Books LLC Post 605

Just a fun post tonight, having bumped into these wonderful pieces of music performed by the High and Mighty on Seasame Street. Below are Yo Yo Ma (who winds up very bluesy), Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder (doing an almost seven minute long version of Superstition), Tito Puente, Los Lobos, Randy Travis, and Johnny Cash. Enjoy! Stevie.

JF Ptak Science Books LLC Post 557

Dark is the present that denies change, or misunderstands it,
or ignores it. I was thinking
about this last night watching Ed Harris in an odd movie about Ludwig van
Beethoven (“Copying Beethoven”, made I think in 2006)—more precisely it was
about Beethoven’s time from 1824 to his death in 1827. The movie introduced a woman who was sent as
his score copyist as the Maestro worked the final days of the 9th
symphony. (There were copyists of course but not women; I couldn’t imagine a
woman filling that role for Beethoven, and I’m not sure what was added to the
general knowledge of the man by supplying a fictional character in a general
grand biopic. Seems to me that we would
have all been better served if the movie was told from B’s point of view and
that the copyist was a creation in his own mind, a fragmentary muse.) It was an offhandedly annoying film, except
when it touched on the Grosse Fugue, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen
mentioned in any movie that I’ve ever seen.

The Grosse Fugue was supposed to be the last movement in his
String Quartet No. 13 (opus 130), but it was so difficult to perform, and it
was so incredibly unlike anything else and so completely insistent in its
originality that he was persuaded to replace the movement with another work,
allowing the Grosse Fugue to survive in its own (opus 133) as a titanic single
movement composition. The music was very
hard and demanding—in the movie, the completely-deaf Beethoven sat facing the
musicians at the front of the audience, and slowly but steadily as the piece
was played the audience left, until at the end almost no one remained. Ed Harris’ Beethoven was overjoyed that the
musicians played the piece successfully, and then was shocked to see that there
was almost no one left who had been listening—no one “got it.” It was seen as a beastly piece of music from
a beautiful beast who had lost touch—it remained so for a long time, too. (The great Louis Spohr, along with almost
everyone else in the 19th century, found it “an uncorrected
horror.”) Anyway I liked the idea of
tossing the Fugue into this mix—surprised, really, to see someone deal with the

But as with many visionaries, their insight into the future
can be largely solitary—Beethoven’s visions lasted longer than most.

Johannes Kepler, in the midst of finally overthrowing the Aristotilean
concept of the universe in his Harmonies
of the World
, writes to Urania, one of the nine Muses, the Muse of
Astronomy (and also the favorite of John Milton in Paradise Lost):

“But now, Urania, there is need for a louder sound while I
climb along the harmonic scale of the celestial movements to higher things
where the true archetype of the fabric of the world is kept hidden. Follow after, ye modern musicians, and judge
the thing according to your arts, which were unknown to antiquity. Nature, which is never not lavish of herself,
after a lying-in of two thousand years, has finally brought you forth in these
last generations, the finest true images of the universe. By means of your
concord of various voices, and through your ears, she has whispered to the
human mind, the favorite daughter of God the Creator, how she exists in her
immortal bosom.” It seems as though he
could’ve been writing about a lot of things, not the least of which could’ve
been our immortal Ludwig van.

Beethoven’s Fugue, like some of the other late quartets would
have to wait, unappreciated, not understood, for a hundred years, a little
piece of the future swathed in black. A
Dickensian-black, a Victorian mourning-black, when black in mourning (for
women, anyway) was deeply black. Bombazine black (a lusterless, lightless black material that ensured
nothing but black). Arnold Sommerfeld’s
B-1 bomber black.

And then somewhere in the earlyish 20th century
it wasn’t a figment of bad imagination anymore; the Fugue was recognized as a
piece of modern music written hundred years too early. To top it all of Igor
Stravinsky said that the Fugue was a piece of contemporary music that would always
be contemporary. Except of course when
it was written as a piece of the future in a dim past.

JF Ptak Science Books LLC Post 524

0 abay feb 23 pascal computer621

Music is the pleasure of the human soul experiences from counting without
being aware that it is counting. – Gottfried Leibniz

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), physicist and
mathematician–rather, mathematician and physicist–and philosopher as well,
invented the second mechanical calculator in 1645 (after that of Wilhelm
Schickard (1592-1635) in 1623). He had a
phenomenal output in many different, difficult, and complex areas, all
completed before he died at the improbable age of 39. (His predecessor in invention,
Schickard, was dead at 43.) We see him
here, seated in front of his beautiful invention (called the Arithemtique, and
the Pacalina), looking to be quite a bit older than his age at invention, which
was 23. He looked pretty content with
himself, even though, I think, he didn't care all that much for the machine–at
least he didn't care enough about it to perfect it, or to try to make real
money on the thing. But the picture of
him here always looked to me as though he was playing an enharmomic harpsichord,
or using some sort of musical instrument, or doing something more socially beautiful
than the optical doing of arithmetic, though both were exhibitions of tuning
the polyphonic sub-mysteries harmonies of nature. His image seems to wed the millennial Pythagorian
creation of the music of the spheres, and Leibniz’ scorn of Newton’s occult-y causes of nature’s
phenomena, and of Augustine’s “distraction” of perfect creation—a polychord
romance of science and music.

Or, maybe, it was just a guy sitting behind a calculator.

JF Ptak Science Books LLC Post #98

It’s intriguing to think of writing systems standing for things other than words—for example, one has the whole of the mathematical sciences, chemical notation, Feynman diagrams, weather patterns, and on and on. Lines and dots and squiggles and the like, not forming words, but something entirely else, an amanuensis for words.

The idea of adopting a written dance iconography—replacing drawings and written descriptions of dances—is nearly as old as the dance instructional itself. The notation used by Lana in the 1920’s was the first image that came into my mind for this alternative wiring scheme, but in fact there were several systems for recording the simple movement and placement of the feet that reach back into the 16th century. The first of these books to attempt to codify the movement of dance via non-descriptive writing is the letter codes employed by Thoinot Arbeau in his 1588 book Orchesographie. In this Socratic introduction to dance Arbeau showed foot and movement patterns and linked them (visually) with the music. What Arbeau was describing was solely the movements of the feet—everything else beyond that—position of the legs,

arms, head, etc.—was left unaddressed in the iconographie though he did connect them with engravings showing how the rest of the body should look at some point during the dance.

A similar system was employed in the 1680 Nvove inventioni di balli; opera…(left) , and then again in The dancing master; or, Directions for dancing country dances, with the tunes to each dance, for the treble-violin, "10th ed. corrected; with addition of several new dances and tunes never before printed", by Henry Playford (in London) in 1698 (below).

A major development occurs in the Choregraphie of Pierre Beauchamps (and published by Raoul Feuillet, and known perhaps unfairly as the”Feuillet System”), which instituted a floor plan of sorts, showing the movement of the feet by symbol and viewed from . As better described by the Library of Congress site: “Feuillet’s procedure was analytical; he broke up the steps into their mechanical parts, invented symbols for each of those parts, and organized them temporally by bars on the progression line. These bars reflect the temporal sequence of the steps according to the musical score.” (The Feuillet illustration is below.)

The view from above, or bird’s-eye view, was replaced in one 19th century system of annotation with stick figures, which were viewed from the front. Again, from the Library of Congress: . “In his Stenochorégraphie, published in Paris and St Petersburg in 1852, Arthur Saint-Léon used a scheme consisting of five horizontal lines for the movements of the legs and one additional line for the actions of the upper body. The figurative notation signs appear directly above the musical score, relating them approximately to the musical values.”
Movement was also recorded on whatr appears to be a musical template, using bars an staffs and musical-note-like notation to record movement, which seems to hjave possessed a more lyrical quality, with the potential for capturing more of the movemente than foot arrangements and speed of motion. The Library of Congress writes about this in reference to the system of Vladimir Stpeanov’s 1892 Alphabet du Corps Humain, “…Procedures of sound notation are transferred to movement notation: addition (a movement is, just like a musical sound, the sum of several elements) and duration (the temporal value of a movement is indicated by the time value of the note). described the human body within a scheme consisting of nine lines, divided into three parts. The top two lines are used for the movements of the head and torso, the three middle lines indicate the actions of the arms, and the bottom four lines the movements of the legs. The position of the tail of a note indicates whether the movement concerns the left or the right body part: for the left parts, the tail is directed upwards, for the right parts, it is directed downwards. “

In 1910 Vaclav Nijinsky published a very similar system of notation to Stepanov, using the basic template and then adding five more lines to the figure to denote movements throughout the core of the body.

It seems to me that the greatest pre-WWII advancements in all of this is Kinetography Laban (and afterwards known as Labanotation), which belongs to Rudolf von Laban, who seems to have incorporated movement of the feet, the body, the head, arms, as well as expression and speed, as well as relating it all to music in his own (famous) writing system. I call again on the authorless Library of Congress work on dance notation to for a superior and extended description of the notation:

“Kinetography, and Labanotation use geometrical shapes as symbols that indicate not only directions, but also specific levels and duration. Direction symbols modify the basic rectangular shape and show the directions forwards/backwards and left/right as well as the diagonal directions in between; the shading of the shape indicates the direction upwards/downwards, and its length shows duration. The body is represented within a vertical system from behind that is to be read from the bottom of the paper towards the top: following the central line, the right side of the dancer is also the right side of notation. The central line represents the vertical centre line of the body, and also the progression of the movement. Next to this line, on both sides, there are the columns for all movements transferring weight. The body parts themselves are identified by particular symbols. Their various movements are observed and notated separately and then synchronized in the notation score.”

This post would somehow seem incomplete without at least mentioning the contrary to this notation–the warnings by some religions that The Dance itself would lead humans directly to Hell. So, not only should people not have recorded dance, but they shouldn’t be dancing in the first place. OR thinking about dancing, for that matter.

The article that I have quoted from here is found HERE.

Some other interesting, and beautiful alternative means of writing in regard to recording dance include:


Wilson, Thomas dancing master; An analysis of country dancing: wherein are displayed all the figures ever used in country dances, in a way so easy and familiar, that persons of the meanest capacity may in a short time acquire (without the aid of a master) a complete knowledge of that rational and polite amusement. To which are added, instructions for dancing some entire new reels; together with the rules, regulations, and complete etiquette of the ball room. By T. Wilson … Embellished and illustrated with engravings on wood, by J. Berryman; London, Printed by W. Calvert, to be had to Mr. Dutton [etc.] 1808

Nvove inventioni di balli; opera vaghissima nella quale si danno i giusti modi del ben portar la vita, et di accommodarsi con ogni leggiadria di movimento alle creanze et gratie d’amore. Convenevoli a tutti i cavalieri, & dame, per ogni sorte di ballo, balletto, & brando d’Italia, di Spagna & di Francia. Con figure … in rame et regole della musica et intavolatura quali si richieggono al suono et al canto. Divisa in tre trattati …Blogwritingdanceitalian_note