What’s a Contrapuntal Platypus??
I am a platypus. A platypus is an animal that eludes categorization. It is a venomous, duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed, egg-laying mammal that uses electrolocation and as such has baffled evolutionary biologists for well over a century. In a biological world where every animal is theoretically supposed to have a well-defined niche for which is is highly specialized, the platypus’s bizarre mesh of traits and abilities make it a very visible exception. And yet it continues to thrive quite happily despite this fact…
In a similar manner our society demands an intense specialization when it comes to our career paths, particularly of those in academic or artistic fields. We are told to become highly trained and focused biologists, concert pianists, economists, anthropologists, brain surgeons, musicologists…focusing exclusively on an increasingly narrow subject area to the exclusion of almost everything else. It reminds me of the well-known joke: “A Ph.D. knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.”
This may be an efficient approach for generating a large quantity of information on many specialized subjects, but what does it do to our ability to observe and analyze larger systems as a whole? Is it even a viable long-term approach for human beings, who as young children (before they are taught to “specialize”) are creative and curious in many ways? What would happen if you went up to a platypus and told it, “All this dilly-dallying around simply won’t do, it’s time to pick a single interest: are you an otter or a beaver or a duck or a snake – quick now?”
…Well, in fact it would blithely disregard you and go on being a platypus. As I am.
I am interested in everything.* Music, biology, cognitive psychology, sociology, linguistics, environmental issues, religion, quantum physics, poetry… I’m hoping they’ll all be featured somewhere in this blog, though since my current field is music teaching (see About Me) many of my articles will probably reflect to some degree. But, as I’ve found in my own teaching, it’s utterly impossible to separate music from any of these other disciplines. One can’t teach a subject in an intellectual vacuum. Which leads me to…
I am also contrapuntal. Counterpoint, simply speaking, is any music that has two or more melodies happening at the same time. In truly contrapuntal music either of these melodies will be an equally good, and interesting, “tune” on its own that you could sing or whistle. But when they are played at the same time, they interact harmonically to make an musical texture that is far more rich and interesting than either melody on its own. Counterpoint can be found in traditional Western music but also African drumming, Indonesian gamelan music, and so on…
The most famous composer of contrapuntal music was of course J.S. Bach and you can find much more information on him here. The archetypal form of counterpoint in Western music is the fugue, made famous by Bach – here is one of my favorites. Here is a motet by Thomas Tallis which is probably the single most extreme example of countrapuntal writing: a ten-minute work containing 40 simultaneous, independent parts!
So what does all this have to do with the platypus? In our world many Platypuses** (of the human species) end up resignedly devoting themselves to a single, highly theoretical discipline which they then pursue in the “ivory-tower” atmosphere of academia. Often, especially in the arts, it has little or no real connection to the “real world” and is more or less self-sustaining: people write highly specialized papers to get grants so that they can write even more specialized papers to get more grants (not to mention tenure)…
Don’t get me wrong, these subjects are each truly fascinating in themselves and for a long time this was my approach as well (semiotics of music being my own favorite example from my past). But, about a year ago (for reasons I’ll describe on this blog) I realized that this was not enough for me. I could not in all conscience lock myself away in an ivory tower of academic abstraction and pretend that our earth and the rest of humanity did not exist…I had to do something which would make a real, positive impact on the world and others around me.
This is part of what I mean by being contrapuntal: recognizing one’s own interconnectedness with the rest of our planet and society.*** In some ways our world is going through its most difficult, or at least most pivotal, century since the beginning of civilization. In the coming decades we Platypuses, who can look at humanity’s problems with a holistic approach to complement the individual findings of scientists and economists and sociologists, will be absolutely vital. We can’t afford to shut ourselves away from the rest of the world. (You can play a single melody of a fugue on its own, but it will never be an audience hit, and the fugue as a whole will fall apart harmonically if one of the parts is suddenly missing…)
But being contrapuntal isn’t only a global approach. I believe it has an incredible significance how we interact with and treat others in our day-to-day lives as well. In a good fugue or canon the parts mesh locally (if you take a “snapshot” at any instant, the individual parts interact harmoniously) as well as globally. It’s part of why I am a music teacher: to try to promote creativity and beauty and joy in learning on a small scale, as well as work on a large scale to help solve our world’s problems. They are both vital to our future (and I’ll be talking about my experiences both in teaching and in online activism quite a bit on this blog…)
I hope this has helped explain my name a bit and if not…read a few entries and it will probably make more sense. 😀
– The Contrapuntal Platypus
* Well, everything but pop culture. I don’t “do” pop culture. But then, even Platypuses don’t fly.
** There is considerable debate about the plural of the word “Platypus”. Wikipedia, my favorite authority for such things, gives the following: “Scientists generally use “platypuses” or simply “platypus”. Colloquially the term “platypi” is also used for the plural, although this is technically incorrect and a form of pseudo-Latin; the correct Greek plural would be “platypodes”.”
*** This reminds me of the quantum principle of entanglement: how two particles can be connected (in a way that science hasn’t yet explained) such that, no matter how far apart they are, changing the state of one will instantaneously cause the state of the second to change as well. I nearly ended up calling this blog “The Entangled Platypus”, but decided the musical reference was too good to pass up… 😉