Math, Sex, and George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue


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She didn’t have the language ten years ago to convey the technical and melodic reasons why Rhapsody in Blue had her pulled over on the side of the road crying hysterically. For a non-lyrical composition, there were something about the melodic decisions in Gershwin’s famous piece that struck her as a justification of the seven tone octave format inherent to all western music. He composed with a dazzling array of intervals and a jumble of melodies which made a math-hater like herself really appreciate the elegance of set theory.
She had learned that set theory was the underpinning of all numbers. It was the idea that three apples in a basket achieve some hypo-spiritual signification by virtue of there being "three" of them. (Or two, or four.) In other words, the number signifies that the apples are different than the basket and the tree they fell from, they may be different sizes but whatever they have in common which differentiates them from their surroundings is the difference which justifies language. Once units can be counted by some essential virtue, value emerges and we are allowed the concept of importance.


She had remembered a similar cry, albeit less intense, the first time her body discovered the emotional routine of sexual stimulation in ninth grade. The tears were only similar to the Gershwin tears for the reason that her body was identifying an emerging concept of importance which altered, however slightly, her pre-existing ensemble of value and meaning.

She always thought the phrase “sexual pleasure” was a fraction of a hair imprecise. Pleasure is not exactly what sex feels like, even though “pleasure” is usually what we call the result of behaviors for gratification’s sake. The sexual urge is driven not exactly by a feeling of pleasure, but rather (in its most raw nature) a feeling of “importance”. The first time you feel it is one of the more memorable moments in life, for its uniqueness. The feeling of sexual buildup and climax for the very first time is the partial loss of total selfhood. It’s a chromosomal experience rendering those who pay close enough attention cognizant that they’re part of something bigger than oneself. Or, older. At that moment we assume one’s place in the animal kingdom, for better or worse, in terms of nobility.

She always admired how the religious tendency manifests in lying prostrate to a higher power or a prior intention. And if DNA is indeed a phenomenon of replication, the mathematic intervals between tone-steps in Rhapsody—and the rhythmic intervals between sets of melodic interplay—begin to suggest that language isn't actually here to describe our emotions; emotions exist as a result of language. That primary characteristic for things to be labeled, made manifest in the outer electron shells which say: One molecule will keep you alive while another molecule will kill you, and a third will have no effect This nature of some things being good and some things being bad gives rise to psychology, and the resulting paradigm of preference.

She hated to admit that math is the guarantor of value (regardless of how unprecedented and derangedly Gershwin used it for arranging intervals of tones in a soaring chase of call and response melodic phrases between woodwinds and pianos.) She appreciated that the emergence of order from chaos is the precursor to life itself, and mathematical reflections of that emergent order are disguised in Rhapsody as a melodic description of the emotions for intrigue, romance, anxiety, triumph, and anticipation.

That last one is pretty important, because the motif of call and response in the melodic phrases and in the use of crescendo and release, well they suggested to her a conversation between the instruments which was driven by excitement. Excitement is a rare feeling you would be recommended to experience if you’re privileged enough to have the kind of life in which you know what it feels like when things are about to get better. (And maybe, most exquisitely within that touchstone of privilege is the occasion of genuine fearlessness in which we don’t know exactly what to expect, but we feel it’s going to be good. It’s a feeling that can probably only occur in relation to others, or maybe simulated by music.)


But she knew those feelings that constitute the melodies in Rhapsody are merely the facade, the storefront of this 16 minute sine wave which smuggles in language like a double helix smuggles nucleotide code in the shape of a human.

The underlying language of Rhapsody in Blue is in the intervals. If math is merely set theory then music is just interval theory. It’s the result of different tones arranged for their differences from each other, and the resulting suggestion that those differences are meaningful.

That’s the really cool magic trick. We know why words are important. Arrangements of phonemes and syllables guide us through life as the signs of survival—it’s anyone’s guess why tonal and rhythmic intervals can feel like something so complex. Can feel like a story.

At a certain point in her 20s, she promised herself she was only going to listen to Rhapsody once a year. Just like anything else, she found to her horror a diminishing emotional resonance with repeated listens, and she didn’t want the magic trick of being utterly emotionally dominated by intervals of squiggly air to disappear into vanishing youth like so many other appetites for repeated stimuli.

And she’s been incredibly disciplined. There’s an argument to be made that this has been the most successful discipline triumph of her life.

That is, until tonight. Tonight she was listening four times in a row while she laid in bed sick with a cold and chewing a thc gummy. She was actually slightly nervous that over-listening would do noticeable disservice to her future enjoyment of life, just as a reckless youth keeps one brain cell on the possibility that a weekend bender or ill-advised romance might materially shorten her lifespan. As with most cases, though, this was a "tomorrow problem". And her sonic hubris to live like there’s no tomorrow was probably informed by all the memes joking on about World War Three. 

(She pondered, if there’s one thing memes and music have in common, it’s their borderline nihilistic motif of “living for tonight”. At the intersection of "Existing in the Present Moment" and "Nighttime" you can find memes and popular music, texting their exes and guzzling club drugs.)

She knew that she had burned through four years' budget in one night, and she made some headway articulating to herself the reasons why the particular vibrations of Rhapsody’s waveform were so capable of turning different keys in her head. But she was still only in the foyer. She was still in the facade shaped like emotions. She wanted to really dive through the trench-vents and play around inside the source code. The various mixtures of gummy and cough syrup, warm white wine and persistent insomnia from the night before, writer's block for her grad school final and troubling reflections on sense of self... Well it was just as good a night as any for her to let Rhapsody graduate from Daddy to Dad.

But her problem with swimming out past the breakers on a melodic dependency is that you never honestly know if it will ever get better than it had been. You have no clue if this is as good as it gets, but you know it’s better than you deserve.

She hesitated, but she knew the longer she delayed, the more nauseated she would grow towards the privilege that allows for such a precious inwardness to begin with. Her obsessive nature for psychological cartography was under its own scrutiny. It didn’t feel good.

“Maybe this is what going to the gym feels like,” she thought, knowing full well that even two minutes at the gym feels much worse.

She wondered why the superficial decoding of Rhapsody’s intervals feels so other worldly? She insisted on getting on with it. There was an old saying about jokes and dead frogs. In order to dissect a frog you have to kill it. If you have to explain a joke, it’s no longer funny. But this axiom was not absolute, she had found. The very funniest jokes actually become funnier when you audit their mechanics and then stuff the guts back in. This Leonard Bernstein rendition was her frog to dissect, and if it was actually as good as it made her feel on, probably, 35 occasions during her life, then it would survive the living autopsy, as well as the added emotional wear from too many spins in one day.

She likened the over-listening of a great jam to wanking off too many times in a day. But 3 am was banging on her vestibular cortex and she was at risk of surrendering to that awful half-insomnia where your body is exhausted but your brain is stuck in record skip with a groove-jumped needle repeating mediocre dirges on the delinquent stewardship of all your hopes and fears. The worry of failure was slowing her down. It was time to pull the trigger on that fifth listen and really dig into the substrate, but what if there’s nothing there. Nothing there in terms of her ability to describe it to herself further. You don’t commission a four-year-old to paint a sunset in the heart of the Four Corners. And you don’t wear away at your ability to obsess over something just because you think you’re gonna have a critical breakthrough after ten years. Among all the hallmarks of privilege, obsession was by far her favorite. And she knew she tinkered with it at her own peril.

Alright, it was time. Time for her to attempt to describe the polyrhythmic and tonal intricacies of a sonic Greenwich clock tower, with the musical equivalent of Charlie Chaplin diving into the factory gears of Modern Times.

Check back next week for the results of her underdog performance during this, the year of our lord 2020. A year in which clarity will be a renewed obsession. This paradox of relief, this uroboros tightening around an alarming aperture will guide our lucidity through the calendar year. A year in which paranoia will continue to out-perform the god delusion in the chromosomal race to inspire whichever dreams dissuade us from the fact that we are on the front line of reality, exposed on the razor’s edge of existence.

“Baba Booey,” she thought, as she briefly emerged and fetched a glass of water.