Youth Lagoon, Polanyi and seeing the forest and the trees

When I first started listening to Youth Lagoon‘s Montana I didn’t think too much of it. The opening is simple, and I was working on something else. I’d mostly stopped paying attention moments after it started. It built itself slowly, though, and completely  caught me off guard. Suddenly I wasn’t writing at all but staring out the window completely absorbed in the song.

It opens with simple piano chords and sparse singing. Then the theme repeats with the addition of some toy piano-ish synthesizer. At 2:00 there’s another tier of keyboards and drums as it grows louder. By 3:00 it’s a roaring whirlpool of layered rhythm, chord and melody. What makes it work is the attention to detail and how those individual details work together. Even at its loudest and fullest, you can listen to it all or zoom in and follow each element individually. The simple vocal lines and melody from the beginning are still there and so is the toy piano but intricately woven together to make something completely new.  So there I am staring out the window zooming in to each of these parts and them back out to the effect they create all together. At the end,  sparse vocals return but now they can’t be ignored. It’s achingly simple not boringly simple, sounding different because of all it was connected to as the song grew.

Sitting there still staring out the window in the aftermath of listening, the song reminds me of something Michael Polanyi wrote about understanding complex systems. Polanyi, an early 20th century Hungarian physical chemist, turned to philosophy and sociology of science later in his career. He’s most famous for writing about the importance of tacit knowledge to science: that some of the things that scientists know can’t be fully explained, they’re known intuitively through experience. He’s always been one of my favourite early science studies writers not so because I agree with everything he says but because so much his writing grew out of his personal struggle to make sense of his scientific work and his cultural surroundings, from his time as a medical officer in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I to leaving Germany for England upon the rise of the Nazi party. His writing was driven by a need to make sense of what science means to him and how it related to his political and social realities.

He often concerned himself with the way that scientists are thought to reduce complex systems to a point where they are no longer meaningful. He wanted to remind himself and his colleagues of how important it is to move between different levels of analysis. He gives the example of a complex machine with several smaller systems inside. To truly understand how it works you can’t look only at the whole machine because the intricate movements of the smaller systems inside are hidden. You also can’t only look at the smaller systems. Each of their tiny movements only make sense when you think of how they work together. He argues that science as a whole should constantly zoom in and out attending to different levels of analysis and every time that zoom is made, a better understanding results:

“The alternation of analysis and integration progressively deepens both our insights in the meaning of a comprehensive entity in terms of its particulars and the meaning of these particulars in terms of the joint significance” (p. 129)

This song demands that same kind of attention. The simple theme on its own at first doesn’t seem important and the swelling climax could be droning wall of sound. Both, however, are greatly enriched when you to zoom in and out between them.

Youth Lagoon is the project of young and very talented solo artist Trevor Powers. Montana appears on his 2011 album The Year of Hibernation, released by Fat Possum Records.

Polanyi, M. (1969).  Knowing and being. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Author: mcshanahan

Science education researcher and writer

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