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A review of my book called Music as a Can Opener. It was written by Dieter Jung and published in Acoustics and Beyond.

Music as a Can Opener

Hyakujo wished to send a monk to open a new monastery. He told his pupils that whoever answered a question most ably would be appointed. Placing a water vase on the ground, he asked: “Who can say what this is without calling its name?” The chief monk said: “No one can call it a wooden shoe.” Isan, the cooking monk, tipped over the vase with his foot and went out. Hyakujo smiled and said: “The chief monk loses.” And Isan became the master of the new monastery.

When I first heard this Zen koan, I was in high school and I should admit that I didn’t really comprehend it. I thought that Isan was a cheater. A few years later I came across our cooking monk again, this time in Douglas Hofstadter’s masterpiece Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. This second encounter was more enlightening since the story made much more sense in context. So when I met Isan for the third time in Music as a Can Opener, I felt like I met an old friend. But soon I realized that Hede’s interpretation of the koan was surprisingly different, and actually much more entertaining than the one in my mind.

Music as a Can Opener is a collection of essays on the notions of meaning, interpretation, function and intension in most of which Hede extrapolates on the premise that intension is a euphemism for prejudice. He claims that what matters is the extension or the richness of possible interpretations. For him, the sentences “Music is a can opener.” and “Music can be used/seen as a can opener.” are one and the same. To illustrate his point, he even composes a musical piece called Reneponac (can opener spelled backwards) while writing the book which can open metal cans when played with the proper equipment. Quite a few respectable music critics praise Reneponac without knowing its intended function. This gives Hede a lot to say about artistic intension and modern art. He also mentions Susan Sontag’s famous article Against Interpretation and says “That’s not enough! In place of a hermeneutics we need a pornographics of art.

The most amusing parts of the book, I think, are the examples. Hede seems to take an almost childish pleasure from writing about things which turned out to be useful in unexpected or unintended ways. The essay on Viagra, which was originally developed to treat high blood pleasure, exemplifies this style perfectly just like the one on washing machines used to make ayran (yogurt drink) in the rural areas of Turkey. There are also some more serious and technical examples. A huge part is devoted to Marxist dialectics which is, in a sense, Hegelian dialectics used in a way Hegel did not approve of. Biological exaptation is another technical example in which Hede explains, in detail, the theory which conjectures, among other things, that the bones of vertebrates were used to store calcium and not used for body support in the early periods of evolution.
Hede’s style, like in most of his writings, is a balanced blend of academic rigor and subtle sarcasm which makes the book difficult to follow from time to time. This is the only downside of the book though. Content is original and should be of interest to a broad audience, from academicians to simple trivia fans.


One Trackback/Pingback

  1. By Figures of Action « Imaginary Drugs on 09 Sep 2010 at 10:58 am

    […] My book Music as a Can Opener is full of such examples, like using a washing machine to make yogurt […]

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