Shanghai Journal #7: Simple Design


It’s time to reflect and to write about writing. That’s in part because I have the time to do it. But, before I reflect, part of the story, or the reflection as it were, is it takes so long to write these posts, by the time I finish one I’m off somewhere else!

Therefore, time to reflect is a phrase of interest. But I’m not sure what it means! On ther other hand, I know I’d be remiss if I didn’t put thought into why am I writing. But, the answer to that question is because I’m in China!

And relative to that, we begin in one place. We finish in another? In between the beginning and the ending are things that change. So if the middle’s always changing then so is the beginning and so is the ending? It’s a fraught rabbit hole that’s not yet lambent!

For example, I’m writing and thinking and thinking and writing THAT I need to visit, RIGHT NOW, the 798 Arts District because there’s an incredible instrument maker there. He specialises in resonant instruments made from metal with both Western and Chinese tunings. As I continue to develop my solo piano concert format which usually consists of two continuous sets that I call Improvisation 1 and Improvisation 2, I’m thinking:

An instrument this guy makes would be an fantastic addition to the electronic this and thats I already use—including a Haken Continuum.

Meanwhile in China there’s long been a profound way to conceptualise beginnings and endings and middles and really anything at all—insofar as nothing exists on its own but is always in a relationship with something else. That’s why the Chinese word for relationship— 关系 —or Guānxì as it’s written in pinyin—is so important.

It’s possible this image captures the general idea and likely that it encompasses much more!

Mark Polishook Skype Jazz Piano

Simple Design—But Not So Simple

I’m not a designer, I mean … what do I know about design?

But for some reason or another, well … I do know some of the reasons …. I’m about to write, or ruminate might be the better word, about design. Why and how?

I’m sitting on the 16th floor in Beijing, it’s the PolishookPiano office of the day as it were.

Polishook PIano Jazz Lessons

In a few weeks in Shanghai in a different office of the day I’ll be talking about design relative to the piano and the electronic instruments that I play. So, that upcoming presentation is in the background and meanwhile we’re all the time meeting new friends.

And let it be said, that—meeting new friends—is one of the really wonderful things about traveling. Some of our new friendships we make will be long-term, as in they’ll transcend time and distance. For example:

Polishook Piano Lessons

The last time I shared a meal with this gentleman we were in the same neighborhood directly across the street at one of the two North Korean restaurants in Beijing. That restaurant is staffed almost entirely by North Koreans—many of them students who come to study in Beijing.

But, here, in the pic above, what we have is a monster of pizza that’s just arrived at our table. That’s why our host—he’s one of Janet’s museum colleages—is smiling as he is.

He know we’re were about to learn in Beijing … well, in Beijing pizzas can be on the same scale of size is as the city! Meanwhile, he and his wife lived for a period in Boston, which is where I attended the New England Conservatory. He was there on a post-doc at Harvard.

So there we sat, with pizza, connecting Shanghai to Somerville with Beijing and Boston always in the background. On my right, but not in the picture was a student who spent an exchange year in Vermont near the Canadian border.

Now I know, or at least I can put it into words: When we travel we connect all sorts of things or, rather, all sorts of things connect us. Those connections, simple or complicated, often begin with shared experience(s)—here shared experience includes Boston, Beijing, and pizza. (!) (!) …. somewhere there’s an emoticon for that?

Joseph Beuys Redux And Wittgenstein’s Ladder

Several weeks ago, maybe longer, I saw the Shanghai museum exhibit about Joseph Beuys—a Fluxus member. I’ve already written about that experience. But, it resonated for me such that the few paragraphs I wrote a few weeks ago—somehow they need to be said again but not with the same words.

The impossible thing I want to verify is is what I wrote a few weeks ago

  • What I meant?
  • What I wanted to say?

But trying to explain something twice is like trying to climb the ladder of Wittgenstein. I say trying because Wittgenstein’s ladder, I think, was designed for one single, supposedly simple climb.


My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.

However or whether or not we get up or down on the ladder, here, a passage from  Wikipedia instead of a label on a museum wall. It explains what I’m trying (again) to say about Joseph Beuys.

QUESTION: A well-known saying of yours asserts that ‘Every man is an artist.’ If every man is an artist, then why have art academies and art professors at all?
BEUYS: To be sure, ‘every man is an artist’ in a general sense: one must be an artist for example, to create self-determination. But at a certain stage in his life every man becomes a specialist in a certain way; one studies chemistry.

Every man or everyone? Whether or not Beuys meant or simply used that turn of phrase—well, it was a different time and a different era—one thing is clear: My camera no longer takes pictures of what I see. It’s instead responding only to the light that hits its lens.

Polishook Piano Lessons Skype

It’s time to read the manual because the light in the picture can’t possibly be what’s hitting the lens.

Design By Numbers

John Maeda’s Design By Numbers—In that interesting book, code—computer programs—is proposed as a medium with which to create designs. From my reading of that book, there’s

  • design as code
  • design is code
  • code as design
  • code is design.

That list of four items can just as well be factored down to to things.

  • The process of writing code and designing are one and the same
  • The outcome of writing code and designing is one and the same.

So Says The Publisher

In the publisher’s description of Design By Numbers is:

Most art and technology projects pair artists with engineers or scientists: the artist has the conception, and the technical person provides the know-how. John Maeda is an artist and a computer scientist, and he views the computer not as a substitute for brush and paint but as an artistic medium in its own right. Design By Numbers is a reader-friendly tutorial on both the philosophy and nuts-and-bolts techniques of programming for artists.


… Some years ago I read DBN and worked through the code examples it contained—each and every one of them—all of them. They were composed in a simple as language—DBN, it was called and it was created specifically for the book.

To further my understanding and, really, just to see what would happen, I recoded all of the DBN examples into Squeak, an offshoot of Smalltalk. About Smalltalk, it’s arguably one of the most influential computer languages of then, now, and forever.

SuperCollider And The Bridge

But, then there’s yet another offshoot of Smalltalk that many musicians, artists, and researchers use. It’s called SuperCollider.

I fell so under SuperCollider’s spell that I used books like Design By Numbers to teach myself how to program. Later, I wrote a tutorial on how to use SuperCollider. It’s still included in the SuperCollider open-source distribution.

Not long after the tutorial I coded a bridge in SuperCollider so users could generate code in NodeBox, yet another computer language created for graphic designers and artists. The way the bridge worked was SuperCollider code generated sound AND NodeBox code. SuperCollider then told NodeBox to render images from the (NodeBox) code it had just written.

A composer in Italy, unfortunately I can’t remember his name, wrote several compositions in which he connected SuperCollider with my bridge to Nodebox. Having crossed the bridge, he used it to write scores in a graphical notation style.

Coding As Composing?

One thing I saw often in books about programming was the idea that the best code is expressed elegantly. Elegant code? What a fantastic expression!

Yet, most software engineers I know—and here I GENERALISE—don’t usually see themselves as makers of something that’s elegant. As far as I know.

But then, again, there’s Joseph Beuys, always in the background, always asserting we’re all artists. And some software engineers probably DO see themselves as artists just as

Because we don’t see buzzards in the park doesn’t mean there are no buzzards in the park.

Meanwhile, the more I learned about programming, the more I more I learned about composing. I suppose that’s very natural. Coding is about structuring idea so a computer can work with them. Composing is about structuring sounds so musicians can work them.

Well, it’s not quite that simple. But because I was composing sequences of electronic sound with SuperCollider, really, I had to code to get any sound at all. In the larger picture, composing, for me, was morphing into programming and vice versa.

But that’s what code is great for, which is morphing. For example, with a little help from Google:

I translate, therefore I am. 我翻译,所以我是

In other words, code very naturally shows:

What’s the essence of the idea?

From Architecture to Music

In the 19th century, German philosophers and poets not uncommonly referred to architecture as frozen music.

As I understand it, poets such as Goethe and philosophers such as Fichte were fascinated by how music unfolded over time. A different way to say that is music as a durational, dialectic art pointed to some larger idea that competed with each new moment of listening.

The larger idea was musical structure could be heard but not seen. But, with architecture structure is visible. With music we hear the structure but we don’t see it. That is, we don’t see it unless we go a musical score.

But, look in the score, find the structure, and then one kind of magic is gone. In it’s place is different magic? Magic we know really isn’t magic. Instead, in this case, the magic has become the knowledge and ability someone who turns a score into the music we hear.

Well, it’s not magic. But when it’s done well I can’t be convinced that it’s NOT magic.


Or perhaps what I’m really getting to is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow. Now, it’s just once of those coincidences, but while most people refer to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—because Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Is the name by which he goes, actually his name is is Csikszentmihalyi Mihaly. In other words, as in China, surname first, forename last.

Prototyping, More Reflection, Some Speculation?

Meanwhile, travel in China—such as my recent trip to Shantou and an upcoming presentation I’ll give at ShanghaiTech University on prototyping interfaces—both events, the one concluded, the other upcoming—had me and have me thinking about design and where and how I began thinking about it—which as I explained before was more or less with John Maeda’s Design By Numbers.

Prototyping: There’s the example of endless revisions and refinements that were part of Beethoven’s composing process. And is all improvisation prototyping? Is that what we hear in part in Miles Davis’ 1960’s quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, and Ron Carter? Or in some of Miles Davis’ other groups where they perfected the repertoire they played?

What’s Next

My two-day visit to Shantou University. I had a great time there (thank you Heidi, Sophia, and Joanne). Therefore description, pictures and more reflection, it’s in the pipeline. And also a magnificent week spent in Taiwan (that you Jenny, Wen-ling, and CinCin), THAT’S in the pipeline as well.

Here’s a preview from Taiwan:

Haken Continnuum Mark Polishook

Here’s a preview from Shantou University:

Jazz Piano Lessons Mark Polishook Improvisation