From the category archives:

Six Dense Minutes

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In a comment on my recent post about English as a kind of second language, Zoë Westhof mentioned the Surrealists’ interest in the unconscious mind, and their question of whether our unconscious experiences can escape the ‘taint’ of the conscious mind.

This got me thinking about all those wordless singers and composers, from Lisa Gerrard to György Ligeti, who have used ‘nonsense’ languages to sidestep the entanglements of verbal meaning. A lot of vocal music in the Western tradition was never meant to be understood by the audience. Avoiding the vernacular has been an important historical thread for centuries.

Our conscious mind wants to interpret, to construct meaning and narrative from our fragmentary sensations. Look at all those examples floating around the internet of human faces seen in everyday objects and urban landscapes: from fire hydrants to sinks to peeling walls.

When we see a manhole cover with a smile on its ‘face’ we know on a rational level that happy manhole cover is incapable of being happy.

Sourire

It's just metal. (photo by skywaaker on Flickr)

Yet the ‘found faces‘ group on Flickr has nearly 5000 photos, contributed by almost 1200 members.

Interpretation of sense as symbol seems inescapable. And once your mind has made such an interpretation, try undoing it. Try looking at that manhole cover without seeing a smile. It’s incredibly difficult.

I’ve found in music, as with fire hydrants and manhole covers, that sounds with no semantic meaning, phonemes that are presented entirely outside of language, are still perceived as meaningful.

Ha-bee-uh-doo-ah-eh-oo-ai

Back in the 90s, I heard a recording of baby sounds on an effects CD I got from the library. The twists and turns in these little voices reminded me of the ornaments and appoggiatura you might add to a Bach sinfonia or a Haydn sonata. Why couldn’t these sounds become the basic elements of a composition, instead of a piano or an oboe? Surely they are more natural musical material than the sound of an organ or a turntable?

I began to imagine writing music for a choir of toddlers. While thrilled at the potential, I knew it was impractical in the extreme, but I also thought that maybe I could create some semblance of the idea by chopping up the recording and rearranging the pieces.

Click here to listen to the final result in a new window.

As I’ve played this piece for various people over the last fourteen years or so, the range of reactions has been fascinating to me.

Some people seem to run into an “It’s not music” wall, or for some other reason just don’t like it. And that’s fine.

In those that do react with interest, there seems to be a tendency to project whatever is on their mind onto the sounds.

For example, one friend, more concerned about the efficacy of her birth-control tactics than the ticking of her biological clock, felt haunted by it. The sounds evoked a terrible image of a baby army on the march — and maybe they were coming for her!

Another listener paused contemplatively at the end, and then, almost in tears, he told me that I had “captured the too-long-repressed voice of the Native American people crying for freedom!” In a random assortment of British babies?

By far the most common response has been: “Aww, that’s cute!”

Really? It wasn’t meant to be.

To me, these were just interesting sounds that I liked and wanted to work with. That’s all.

An Antidote for Too Much Math?

Well, maybe there was a little more than that going on. I created the piece in 1995, when home computers were only barely powerful enough to do this kind of thing. I used a system called CSound, which required tedious number-crunching: each entrance, exit, change in volume or position had to be calculated to the millisecond or programmed with a mathematical function. It was more like working on a complex spreadsheet than a musical score:

The original score for #30

Meaningless numbers? (Parts of the original score for #30)

The software took about an hour to process each minute of sound, so even the slightest change required hours of computing time before I could hear the results.

It was incredibly sterile and linear and boring work. The warmth and complexity and nuance of the sounds themselves — these little pre-verbal gurgles — provided an antidote to all that left-brain work. It kept me going in a way that might not have been possible if I’d been working with digitally-produced beeps and squiggles.

So I guess, even to me, as I was working with them, these sounds were not just sounds.

Meaningless: Impossible?

No matter how much I might have wished to work with meaningless phonemes, they just aren’t heard that way.

To our brains, that’s not a muted two-second sine wave that wavers slightly in pitch towards the end, it is a vulnerable little human that needs protection, affection, nutrition or attention. Maybe it even triggers instinctual responses?

Whatever we as artists and idea-shapers do to try to escape cultural references and connotations, we can’t control the other side of the equation: the interpretations of our audience.

What we intend to express and the message received can be very different.

We can deny that, or we can work with it.  And if we choose to work with it, we take on the task of understanding as much as we can about how the mind works, about how perception works, about culture, about history — about all the different things it means to be and feel and see and hear as humans.

Is it possible to perceive without interpreting or translating? What’s your experience?

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I’m back after an unexpected break. When I finished writing this piece last week, my nose was stuffy and my throat was unhappy, and it seemed really inappropriate to read a post that had “tears” and “history” in the title in a voice eerily close to that of Henry Kissinger. I’m planning to get back into a weekly rhythm, alternating between podcasts and text-only posts. I’ve also decided to post the full text for each podcast, in case you prefer reading on screen while I get all the audio kinks worked out. Thanks for tuning in!

Some headless, all nameless

Some headless, all nameless

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Nearly every creative person I know has experienced the question, often asked by someone with a blank, slightly-confused look: why do you do that?

Why do you take all those photos, or scribble notes everywhere, or make birthday cards by hand? Why do you knit, or make quilts, or paint with watercolors, or make sculpture from scrap? Why do you want to write a novel or make a film?

Some people ask these questions out of innocent curiosity, because they’ve just never experienced such impulses.

But from other people, the tone can be vaguely threatening — even menacing.

It seems that what they’re really saying is: “What gives you the right?  What makes you important enough to do that?  Who do you think you are?”

Studs Terkel once described his work as “conversations with people not celebrated”.

In a 1997 interview, Terkel references a Bertolt Brecht poem which he considered a kind of credo. Here’s the audio from the interview:

And here is how I summarized Terkel’s recollection of the Brecht poem in the podcast version:

Who really constructed the Pyramids of Egypt and the Seven Gates of Thebes? When the Great Wall of China was built, “where did the masons go for lunch?”

“When Caesar conquered Gaul, was there not even a cook in the army?”

When Sir Francis Drake defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, “did he do it by himself, or what?”

“When the Armada sank, we read that King Phillip wept. Were there no other tears?”

I hadn’t heard of this Brecht poem until Terkel mentioned it, but it does remind me of reading the description of Xerxes’ army in The Histories. According to Herodotus, there were 2,641,610 soldiers of various origin in that army. When you add what I’ll euphemistically call ‘support staff’, the number more than doubles.

Of course, Herodotus isn’t exactly considered an investigative journalist, but even modern scholars think the number might have been at least two or three million.

So it wasn’t Xerxes, who invaded Greece: it was millions of people. What was that really like, from moment to moment?

For example, what did all those standing on the shore really think when they saw the king order soldiers to lash the waters of the Hellespont as punishment for destroying his bridge?

So I tracked down this Brecht poem. It’s translated title is “Questions from a Worker Who Reads“. Here are the last two stanzas:

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.

History is not simply a grand procession of other, more important people.  It’s not merely wars and occupations of territory, religious bifurcations, trade disputes, endless intrigues, rapprochements, and murderous royal successions.

History is an aggregation — an accretion, actually — of the thoughts and experiences of each human being.

Great 20th-century historians like, Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn taught us that, though others like Montaigne laid the groundwork before them.

We don’t shoot photos or scribble notes or quilt to capture history with a capital H. We shoot to capture our history — our own lives and experiences.

Let future generations — the Studs Terkels of the 22nd or 28th centuries — worry about how to catalog and absorb the materials we’re creating. That’s not our job.  Our job is to capture, document and preserve the ideas of our time so those future historians have something to work with.

The diaries we keep, the poems we write, the photos we take and post to Flickr — whatever medium we use to capture our sensations of the world around us — they are all ways to store ideas in seemingly-inert objects.  It’s through such artifacts that ideas can survive local indifference or open hostility and be brought to life again in another place, or another time.

What gives us the right? What makes us important enough to do all this “creative stuff”? Who do we think we are?

We are not slaves hauling stones to the gates of Thebes, leaving no other trace of our existence. We are not another unnamed laundress in Xerxes’ caravan.

We are making those reports Brecht was talking about. We are the keys to exploring those many questions.

We are the other tears — and joys — of human history.  And, unlike King Philip’s contemporaries, we have widening literacy, pens and paper, blogs and Twitter, podcasts and HD camcorders. Why shouldn’t we use them?

Sources

Credits

Outro music: A song by students from the Xi’an Biomedical Technical College, Xi’an, China. Recorded in September, 2007.

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Into the Unknown

Into the Unknown

After starting off with a somewhat obtuse quote from Glenn Gould, I set up a metaphor of an island and the surrounding sea:

  • The land is certainty, and the sea, uncertainty.
  • The land is solid, the sea is liquid.
  • Land represents belief, and the sea, doubt.
  • Land is well-defined, while the sea is vague and elusive.
  • Land is static, the sea — dynamic.

What do our wanderings between land and sea have to do with the creative process?

Have a listen:

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Questions

  • Which areas of  this continuum between system and negation, between land and sea, support your work? Which enrich your life? How do you move within it?
  • Are you content with occasional trips to the beach, to watch the tides of uncertainty lap at the edge of the known?
  • Do you derive enough inspiration by wading knee-deep into the mystery? Or do you long to go deep-sea fishing every single day?
  • Do you like to go to sea in a row boat? A crowded cruise ship, with lots of coordinated activities? A freighter with a few people and lots of heavy but valuable cargo?
  • Do you get sea-sick easily?

Please share your thoughts by adding a comment below.

Sources

The Glenn Gould commencement speech I quoted is available in The Glenn Gould Reader, edited by Tim Page.

Here’s another Gould quote from earlier in the same speech that I ended up cutting from the audio version of the podcast:

“You must try to discover how high your tolerance is for the questions you ask of yourself. You must try to recognize that point beyond which the creative exploration — questions that extend your vision of your world — extends beyond the point of tolerance and paralyzes the imagination by confronting it with too much possibility, too much speculative opportunity. To keep the practical issues of systematized thought and the speculative opportunities of the creative instinct in balance will be the most difficult and important undertaking of your lives in music.”

John Keats, in a letter dated 28 December 1817, to George and Thomas Keats:

“I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

from poets.org: Bright Star: Campion’s Film About the Life and Love of Keats

Björk, in Oceania:

“Your sweat is salty/ I am why…”

Credits

Outro music: An excerpt from Amb07 (DrunkAtTheLabAgain) by AFS (An improv project by surdus and Tony Grund, who is now performing in Echostream.) Recorded live in May, 2001.

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An unlearned constellation?

An unlearned constellation?

Whose permission do we need to express ourselves?

Questions

How have you found poetic license in your own work — and life?

What do you do to encourage those around you to express themselves?

Are are you inviting others into the conversation?

Please share your thoughts by adding a comment below.

Links

  • Clay Shirky on Weekend Edition Saturday
  • Poetry Foundation: e.e. cummings
  • In Just- by e.e. cummings — the kind of poem my 7th-grade English teacher would not have enjoyed

Credits

Outro music: “Kinoko Otaku” by AFS.  (An improv project by surdus and Tony Grund, now performing in Echostream.) Recorded live in January, 2001.

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You may have noticed that the pace of posting on this blog has slowed over the last few months. I’ve been working on a few other projects recently, mostly long-term, some more public than others.

I’m excited to announce one of those projects today: the Six Dense Minutes podcast.

I question the ergonomics of this mic stand

I question the ergonomics of this mic stand...

There’s no intro music, hastily added outro music, and I think I heard a few sloppy splices — it sounds like a pilot episode!

As Pam Slim once put it, sometimes you just have to stop fretting over all the imperfections and “let your scrappy self loose!”

This preview episode includes an explanation of my ideas and goals for this podcast, some thoughts on brevity and density, and a question for the audience.

I’ll be publishing new episodes at least weekly. I hope you enjoy it.

Links For This Episode

The Scrapbook post with the Heather McHugh quote

Blog post: My Experience of English as a Second Language

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