Saturday, May 26, 2007

what's the difference?

"Looks like the same species of cactus to me," many cactus freaks proclaim. Even experienced growers with a trained eye claim they have a hard time telling the above two plants apart. In my opinion this is like someone well versed in music claiming that they can't tell the difference between 1950s Sonny Rollins and 1960s John Coltrane.

Anyway the above two plants are growing in the xeric demonstration garden at Santa Fe Greenhouses; the first is Echinocereus triglochidiatus and the second is Echinocereus coccineus. The E. triglochidiatus is from seed collected from the gigantic plants that grow in the White Sands area of New Mexico- it might be hard to tell from the photo, but the largest stems are more than three feet long. (Del Weniger, who is usually much more detail oriented and thorough as a botanist, takes it on hearsay that these White Sands plants revert to the usual much smaller size when they are grown elsewhere....obviously not the case).

So the surprising inability to tell the above two cacti apart reminds me of how it is for anyone who knows even a passing fair amount about anything. The more I learn about music, for example, the more clear detailed distinctions become. I never really bothered distinguishing Joseph Jarman from Roscoe Mitchell in any active way, for example, while listening to Art Ensemble recordings. But somewhere in the process of getting it together for the Mitchell interview the distinction became entirely clear, and I wondered how I had never been awake to it before.

One of my favorite pastimes in mid-adolescence (and occasionally since) was listening to music and identifying who the players were. That we can make these sorts of distinctions, in the manner of a "blindfold test," is truly remarkable and would probably be difficult to analyze. Sure, there are the easy ones: Ayler, for example. But my friend Emery and I used to make fine distinctions between, for example, tenor sax players whose styles were all mutually informed. I suppose this is "voice": that even drummers can have a unique voice, or piano players, both of whom deal not with breath and timbre so much as some mysterious something else, is also remarkable.


Dan said...

It is a fascinating issue, Peter. The neuroscientists/musicologist Daniel Levitin discusses this very issue in his book This Is Your Brain on Music. I wrote a post about it over at Soundslope actually:

If you're interested in the subject I found it to be an engaging read, if not particularly challenging.

peter breslin said...

thanks, I'll check it out,


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"In the course of a lifetime, one encounters very few major musical talents. Vincent Bergeron is one of those few, a unique composer who is at the forefront of musical thinking."

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Professor Emeritus, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York
Director Emeritus, Center for Computer Music at Brooklyn College