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A Conversation on Polyphony with Peter Pesic

January 8, 2018 | By Eve Tolpa

Peter Pesic recently published his sixth book with MIT Press.

Peter Pesic is Tutor Emeritus, Musician-in-Residence, and Director of the Science Institute at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. His new book, Polyphonic Minds: Music of the Hemispheres, was published by MIT Press in October, 2017 and will be presented in Santa Fe’s Great Hall on Wednesday, January 31, 2018 at 7 p.m. A question period and book signing by the author will follow.

What was your impetus for writing Polyphonic Minds?

The project came out of my experiences in the St. John’s music tutorial, in which students begin by studying and singing Gregorian chant, a single melodic line. After about a month of that, they encounter music that has more than one voice—the polyphony of the Middle Ages.

It’s kind of a shock. All of a sudden you go from just a single melodic line to several. You have the experience of trying to sing your part while the other parts are going on, so that you have to block them out, to some extent. At the same time, you have to pay attention to them. It can be quite a wrench for people, a disturbing and interesting experience.

In our classes, the question naturally arises why people went from singing in a single voice to many voices. Why did they do that and what did it mean to them? This book is the result of trying to figure out how it happened historically, what it meant to people at the time, and what it could mean to us now.

What I found was that during the Middle Ages, these compositions for many voices were a way of representing the mind of God, which was seen as polyphonic, as opposed to the single human voice. In our time, I think polyphony has become a way of speaking about the way the human mind works.

Can we infer an historical equivalence between the mind of God and the human mind?

Well, that’s enormously controversial. Aristotle had already argued that a human being could only know one thing at a time; going from that, people in the Middle Ages wondered about the music that they were hearing, which had many voices. Thomas Aquinas argued that God and the angels could know many things at once, which would indicate that polyphonic music may be more suitable for God or for the angels.

Now, is it also suitable for human beings? Aquinas himself thought that church music should be simply chant. He thought people should be able to understand the words clearly, whereas in these polyphonic compositions you lose track of the words.

There was a lot of controversy over these matters. Though he greatly admired Aquinas, Dante argued that polyphony is the music of paradise, suitable for the blessed souls and hence for human beings: those who live in accordance with God can and should experience the beauty of polyphonic music.

How was it determined that it was music, in particular, that was analogous to the mind of God?

Since ancient Greek times, music and mathematics were associated with the divine. Plato and the Pythagoreans already started to make this connection centuries before Christ because they considered music to be the bridge between the immaterial, seemingly divine realm of mathematics and the visible world. In astronomy, certain numerical ratios govern the relative movements of the planets, hence Plato argued that God formed the universe using musical intervals.

To put it in a provocative way, both the soul and the cosmos are made out of music. Thus, we’re so moved by music because the musical intervals in the cosmos and in our minds are the signature of the same divine numbers. The sense of exalted beauty that some music evokes is close to the divine.

The book has many musical sound examples. In the ebook version, you touch an example and can hear it immediately. The website of the book also makes the examples available easily (https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/polyphonic-minds).

What is the relationship of polyphony to the human brain?

From a secular point of view, one could say that what in the Middle Ages was being discussed under the image of the mind of God was really a way of talking about the human mind, about mental functioning as a whole.

There seems broad, long-standing consensus among neuroscientists that the human brain doesn’t have any single center. It’s many sub-centers all operating somewhat independently yet interact with each other, analogous to the dissonance between voices in a polyphonic composition. Summed together, all those sub-centers somehow produce what we call consciousness or awareness and its apparent oneness.

My book argues that our minds are polyphonic in the sense that many things are happening at once in each brain, most of them hidden from consciousness, but in fact constituting it.

Can you give an example from the book?

Once I had a student who was diagnosed with ADHD and I asked him what he experienced. He said it was like having three radios playing in his mind at once—two talk shows and a music program. When he was in class, the difficulty that he had was in trying to pay attention to yet another thing.

He’s not alone. There are other accounts of people with ADHD saying similar things. That means that those people may be experiencing something more like the raw polyphony of the human mind than the rest of us, for whom it’s been hidden by the processes through which the “dissonances” between those inner voices lead to the overall impression of unified awareness.

What is your relationship with MIT Press?

This is my sixth book with them, and they have been absolutely wonderful to me. At St. John’s the faculty is so busy many of us have very little time to publish, but I have learned that there are people in the world that will hear us and support us in what we do, so that it’s worthwhile reaching out and trying to find them.

I think there are many people who have never heard of St. John’s but who, in their own lives and thinking, have a great deal in common with us. Thus, if we can reach out to them, there are many who in fact share our quest and would very much like to know more about what kind of things grow out of our soil.

In that spirit, my book has emerged out of many conversations with colleagues and students here over the past 35 years. The question of polyphony goes far beyond me; I have tried to bring it to the widest possible audience, to invite them to join me in thinking further.