April 25, 2008



Memories, music, words, ambiguity and mathematics will all feature in this blog entry. It is the third - and will surely be the last - time I write about the band Hanny. The first time I wrote about how I liked their first album. The second time I was actually in the band (a period that lasted for about six months) and I wrote about that experience. This time I'm writing about the new album, Sceneity, which I played on. I attended the album launch at the Henie Onstad Art Centre on 20 April and it was the first time I'd seen the band play since my departure...

The album launch took place during a week-long exhibition at Henie Onstad Art Center of the posters and CD sleeves that the designers Yokoland have made for the Metronomicon Audio collective. Metronomicon have put out this new Hanny CD. Henie Onstad Art Center is a huge building in a distant, wealthy Oslo suburb, tucked in against a little beach at the sea. It was a daytime concert, and a room like a school hall was packed with Metronomicon fans, many of whom had brought their children. The performance was so genuinely beautiful, releasing me from the dungeon of my brain, that it made me feel that maybe I shouldn't have left the band. Oh well. Shortly after the show, Viviana Vega (the drummer when I was in the band, now the bass player) asked me if I missed playing with Hanny. "You've read my mind," I said.

When a great music journalist was once faced with reviewing an album she appeared on as a guest musician, she modestly kept it out of the review section and did the review "blogstyle". A new word then entered the popular lexicon (at least in certain circles). Similarly, seeing as I played piano on some of this Hanny album, I can't exactly "review" it for, but rather I am, er, blogstyling (?). And I have no new words for you, apart from "blogstyling", and of course "sceneity", and possibly one other (see below).

Time spent listening
The album is just over 32-minutes long. I don't think that's too short. On the contrary, half an hour can be a good thing: Nick Drake's Pink Moon was only 28 and a half minutes. How long is an experience, anyway?

Music on two levels
What does Hanny sound like? You can actually stop reading now and go and listen to them on their Myspace page. It's a warm, aesthetically-pleasing sound with singers (mostly Marie Kvamme) and an array of acoustic instruments: guitar, cello, violin, piano, accordion, flute, handclaps etc. but any chamber music feel is offset by the plethora of instruments coming in and out of the mix, sometimes in rapid succession. And although the music flows along airily and melodically, the music is deceptively complex. When I joined the band I remember I had to play the piano part for the song "Plagiarism", which had previously been developed by Sara Cools Yri (she had left the band before I joined, but had re-joined by the time I left) and I remember thinking I was never going to remember that I had to play the first arpeggio 9 times, the next one 5 times, the next one 4 times, and so on. Sara came to see us play live that first time and I actually told her I was hoping she wouldn't show up! But now, at this album launch, she approached me to say "When I came to see you, you were worried about playing wrong notes, but now I played a lot of wrong notes!" Well, I didn't notice if she did. But we both confessed to simplifying each other's parts in order to play them more accurately. Anyway, Hanny's almost-folk listenabilty coupled with almost-prog chord arrangements is what Vivi once described to me as its "duality". I can't recall if she was talking about just the music, or the lyrics too, but "duality" describes both equally well. The sweet-sounding vocals express words of startling imagery that occasionally veer into the sinister, or violent. It's a collage of night and day.

The neologism reveals itself
That "sceneity" is a made-up word is given away by the -ity ending. -ity is used in forming nouns that express a state or condition (e.g. duality is the state or condition of being dual; ambiguity is the state or condition of being ambiguous). This is true for -ty words in general (e.g. difficulty is the state or condition of being difficult). Now, "scene" is not an adjective, so it cannot be formed into a noun expressing a state or condition. The nearest adjective is "scenic" and the state or condition of being scenic would therefore be scenicity but don't expect to use that word without getting blank stares; I just made it up now. There have been no new formations of -ity in English usage for over a century.

The words
Thinking about "scene" being used as an adjective, I realized that this is comparable and compatible with the actual song lyrics. In one song, "Carried Away En Masse", the word "real" is used as as a noun (in the line "And like a real that is big"). I remember discussing that word with Marie, in fact. I'm always curious about these things. I think Marie has a distinctively musical approach to language in her songs. You'll also find this with the "phonetic" style of Talk Talk and Tim Buckley. Also, Jørgen Skjulstad, who produced the album, mentioned the Cocteau Twins to me in a conversation about the lyrics. It is a shame there is no lyric sheet provided with the CD. I have seen the lyrics written down, and they are fascinating, original, and as with My Bloody Valentine, there is very unusual grammar and syntax. An additional reason to make the lyrics available is the unusual pronunciation. As a native English speaker, I would never have made out "martian", "phonic gaze" or "endlessly no difference" in these songs! Whether the way they're sung is caused by accent or for musical reasons, obviously the vocal sounds should be exactly as they are, but it would be nice if the words were made available at some point, for others to read. Or for cover versions by the next generation...

No words
The album also contains instrumentals. One was constructed out of some of the background piano I played on "Dune". I was asked to title it, but I chose only the words from "Dune" I originally played the chords to (i.e. "Be My Love"). I thought as a writer I could not add words to Marie's self-contained, imaginative constructions, which I felt were at a great distance from myself. Even the songs on the album by Sara and her brother Simon seem to me to come from a superlunary, faraway place. Anyway, the interesting method of using background fragments from the songs to create instrumentals reaches its apex with the final piece, the title track "Sceneity", a rich mix of dislocated arrangements in a new form.

The finite nature of ambiguity
Although we are not given the lyrics, we are offered two pieces of text with this CD. The album is subtitled An account of the influence of scenes on occidental societies, and folded up inside the CD packaging is a poster consisting of one sentence in black on a white background: "If you look at an object for months and months you will assume its visuality."

As a linguist friend was often fond of telling me, the meaning of any words in any language are entirely dependent on the context in which they appear. But as both of these sentences refer to visual information and are presented in the context of a music album, there seems to be hardly any context at all, unless ears are eyes. So there is a certain amount of difficulty in understanding. But never mind that. Let's take the second statement first. I think it's fairly straightforward if you think about it, as long as you don't go and confuse "visibility" (the state of being visible) with the word here, which is "visuality" (the state or condition of being visual). I'll leave that with you.

Now for the album's subtitle. I showed the CD to someone in the bar on Wednesday night, and the first thing he did was point to An account of the influence of scenes on occidental societies and ask me what it meant. How was I supposed to answer? I only played piano. Not only did I not write it, but I have always been aware of its ambiguous nature. The ambiguity lies in the fact that the word "scene" has eight meanings:

1 a place in which events in real life, drama, or fiction occur
2 an incident in real life, drama, or fiction, or a description or a representation of an incident
3 a public incident displaying emotion, temper etc. when embarrassing to others
4 a continuous portion of a play in a fixed setting and usually without a change of personnel, or a subdivision of an act, or a similar section of a film, book, etc.
5 any of the pieces of scenery used in a play, or these collectively
6 a landscape or view
7 an area of action or interest, or a way of life, or a milieu
8 (archaic in English but not in Norwegian) the stage of a theatre

Is one of these 8 meanings of "scene" meant, or perhaps, all 8? From my brief conversations with Marie and Jørgen about this, I am guessing that probably all the meanings are acceptable, as the word has most likely been selected for what it can mean. However, listeners cannot be expected to know this, guess this, or believe this.

With 8 single meanings giving 8 interpretations, plus the interpretation that combines all 8 meanings at the same time, we have nine interpretations of the sentence. But suppose we want to exclude one of the meanings, leading to combinations of just 7 of the meanings?


That is an additional 8 interpretations. And suppose we decide to exclude 2 meanings, leading to combinations of 6:

2+3+4+5+6+8 1+3+4+5+6+7
2+3+4+5+7+8 1+3+4+5+6+8 1+2+4+5+6+7
2+3+4+6+7+8 1+3+4+5+7+8 1+2+4+5+6+8 1+2+3+5+6+7
2+3+5+6+7+8 1+3+4+6+7+8 1+2+4+5+7+8 1+2+3+5+6+8 1+2+3+4+6+7
2+4+5+6+7+8 1+3+5+6+7+8 1+2+4+6+7+8 1+2+3+5+7+8 1+2+3+4+6+8
3+4+5+6+7+8 1+4+5+6+7+8 1+2+5+6+7+8 1+2+3+6+7+8 1+2+3+4+7+8

1+2+3+4+5+8 1+2+3+4+5+6

That gives us another 28 interpretations.

Next, we should exclude 3 meanings, and look at the combinations of 5:

2+3+5+6+7 1+3+4+5+6
2+3+5+6+8 1+3+4+5+7
2+3+5+7+8 1+3+4+5+8
2+3+6+7+8 1+3+4+6+7
2+4+5+6+7 1+3+4+6+8
2+4+5+6+8 1+3+4+7+8 1+2+4+5+6
2+4+5+7+8 1+3+5+6+7 1+2+4+5+7
2+4+6+7+8 1+3+5+6+8 1+2+4+5+8
2+5+6+7+8 1+3+5+7+8 1+2+4+6+7
3+4+5+6+7 1+3+6+7+8 1+2+4+6+8 1+2+3+5+6
3+4+5+6+8 1+4+5+6+7 1+2+4+7+8 1+2+3+5+7
3+4+5+7+8 1+4+5+6+8 1+2+5+6+7 1+2+3+5+8
3+4+6+7+8 1+4+5+7+8 1+2+5+6+8 1+2+3+6+7 1+2+3+4+6
3+5+6+7+8 1+4+6+7+8 1+2+5+7+8 1+2+3+6+8 1+2+3+4+7
4+5+6+7+8 1+5+6+7+8 1+2+6+7+8 1+2+3+7+8 1+2+3+4+8 1+2+3+4+5

That equals 56 new interpretations.

Inevitably, we come to the combinations of 4 meanings:

1+3+4+5 2+3+4+5
1+3+4+6 2+3+4+6
1+3+4+7 2+3+4+7
1+3+4+8 2+3+4+8
1+3+5+6 2+3+5+6
1+3+5+7 2+3+5+7
1+3+5+8 2+3+5+8
1+3+6+7 2+3+6+7
1+3+6+8 2+3+6+8
1+3+7+8 2+3+7+8
1+4+5+6 2+4+5+6 3+4+5+6
1+4+5+7 2+4+5+7 3+4+5+7
1+4+5+8 2+4+5+8 3+4+5+8
1+4+6+7 2+4+6+7 3+4+6+7
1+4+6+8 2+4+6+8 3+4+6+8
1+4+7+8 2+4+7+8 3+4+7+8
1+5+6+7 2+5+6+7 3+5+6+7 4+5+6+7
1+5+6+8 2+5+6+8 3+5+6+8 4+5+6+8
1+5+7+8 2+5+7+8 3+5+7+8 4+5+7+8
1+6+7+8 2+6+7+8 3+6+7+8 4+6+7+8 5+6+7+8

That's an impressive 70 additional meanings.

Next we exclude 5 meanings, and combine them in 3s:

1+2+4 1+3+4
1+2+5 1+3+5 1+4+5
1+2+6 1+3+6 1+4+6 1+5+6
1+2+7 1+3+7 1+4+7 1+5+7 1+6+7
1+2+8 1+3+8 1+4+8 1+5+8 1+6+8 1+7+8

2+3+5 2+4+5
2+3+6 2+4+6 2+5+6
2+3+7 2+4+7 2+5+7 2+6+7
2+3+8 2+4+8 2+5+8 2+6+8 2+7+8

3+4+6 3+5+6
3+4+7 3+5+7 3+6+7
3+4+8 3+5+8 3+6+8 3+7+8

4+5+7 4+6+7
4+5+8 4+6+8 4+7+8

5+6+8 5+7+8


...and that's another 56 interpretations.

There's no point stopping now. Exclude 6 meanings and you get combinations of 2:

1+3 2+3
1+4 2+4 3+4
1+5 2+5 3+5 4+5
1+6 2+6 3+6 4+6 5+6
1+7 2+7 3+7 4+7 5+7 6+7
1+8 2+8 3+8 4+8 5+8 6+8 7+8

Yes, 28 interpretations. And we've already calculated how many interpretations you get when you exlude 7 meanings of the word.

Minus 0 meanings, keeping 8 = 1 interpretation
Minus 1 meaning, keeping 7 = 8 interpretations
Minus 2 meanings, keeping 6 = 28 interpretations
Minus 3 meanings, keeping 5 = 56 interpretations
Minus 4 meanings, keeping 4 = 70 interpretations
Minus 5 meanings, keeping 3 = 56 interpretations
Minus 6 meanings, keeping 2 = 28 interpretations
Minus 7 meanings, keeping 1 = 8 interpretations
Minus 8 meanings, keeping 0 = 0 interpretations

1+8+28+56+70+56+28+8+0 = total 255 interpretations

From what I have shown here, someone with more mathematical knowledge than I have could extrapolate the mathematical formula for a sentence with one ambiguous word. In the formula the number of interpretations, in this case 255, would depend on the number of meanings the ambiguous word has in the dictonary, in this case 8. If you can work out the formula, please send it to me and I'll happily publish it.

It looks like I've left the Hanny album behind at this point, so I'll stop here.

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Posted by barry at April 25, 2008 11:33 EM

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