Quote of the Day

I don’t believe people when they say “I don’t understand this music, will you explain it to me?”. It means they don’t understand themselves and the place they occupy in the world, and that it doesn’t occur to them that music is also a product of collective life. Sometimes I have a strange feeling that musical processes can be more intelligent than the people who produce and listen to them; that the cells of those processes, like the chromosomes of a genetic code, can be more intelligent than the perceptive organs that should be making sense of them. It’s as if the music were miming one of the most incredible of natural processes: the passage from inanimate to animate life, from molecular to organic forms, from an abstract and immobile dimension to a vital and expressive one.

—Luciano Berio, in Rosanna Dalmonte and Bálint Andás Varga,
Luciano Berio: Two Interviews, translated and
edited by David Osmond-Smith (1985)


  1. A beautiful quote, marred only by the fact that the “genetic code” does not have “chromosomes”. Whenever non-scientists appropriate ideas from science, it’s almost always inaccurate, but there appears to be no effort to verify metaphors or no shame in getting things wrong. Though this is a minor point, and I do get the fundamental meaning of the quote, it bothers me as a scientist that it’s ok to display one’s ignorance of science, especially when one is using science to make a point.

  2. Yeah, except that science only deals in dead things disassembled and trimmed to fit into simple categories.Music contains science.Both are functions of brain chemistryScience is a stupid attempt to control, to get outside life.The fact that “science” has named certain concepts “genetic code” and “chromosomes”does not invalidate their usefulness as metaphor.Try this; “The four bases are the chromosomes of the genetic code”Just try it buster.

  3. Well, to be fair to Luciano, it’s a translation, so it’s possible “of” is not necessarily the best representation of what was probably “di” in the original. I’m guessing he knew enough to mean “the chromosomes that contain the genetic code” and used the preposition in the same way as “a bottle of wine,” for example. Or, then again, maybe he just had it wrong.

  4. I think Berio’s just plain wrong. Sometimes truly people can’t figure out what they’re listening to; the style or composer is unfamiliar or more complicated that what they’re used to or familiar with. There are plenty of cases of experienced critics being profoundly wrong in their judgments of new music (see Slonimsky).

  5. Lisa: well, I think that’s partially Berio’s point—some music, somehow, is out in front of our ability to perceive it.I’m fascinated by his way of putting it, since it seems to be related to an idea I’ve always been intrigued by, that of pieces taking on a life of their own once they’re finished. Berio seems to imply that they take on a life of their own even before they’re finished—the composer’s ultimate job is not necessarily to see a piece through to its polished completion, but to provide that initial spark that converts the musical amino acids and carbon into something that can evolve into a self-sufficient artistic object.I hope this makes sense. I’m a little woozy from celebrating the Cubs.

  6. Wow, the magnitude of hostility in Lane Savant, to try to rip science apart completely with as little prompting as a simple clarification of term usage. No one’s being prevented to use any scientific concepts in metaphors– I do it all the time. But no one can’t expect to communicate a thought properly with an ambiguous or inaccurate metaphor, and the use of scientific concepts necessitates more than a “poetic” justification. It may indeed have been a “lost in translation” thing, so no need to either blame Luciano for the misfire, or science for its obsession with “dead things”, as Lane Savant so eloquently put it.

  7. Michael Shermers “Skeptic” article in the October issue of Scientific American speaks to this issue.there is a wide gulf between “hard” science, (physical science or “measuring things”,music theory, notation, scores etc.) and “soft” science (social sciences or “experiencing things”,performances)Ultimately, any music is too organic to ever be fully understood “scientifically” Yet,at the same time, it is too human not to be understood instantly It’s like asking the millipede how his legs work.It is a beautiful quote.

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