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The Beleboke: A unit of meaning (a meme). Also an antidote

Within the Beleboke is an idea.  A meme.  Richard Dawkins coined the term 'meme' in his book The Selfish Gene, referring to the smallest unit of cultural meaning.  A meme is a unit of meaning equivalent to the genetic meaning held in a gene.

Today, we use the term to refer to ideas that have moved rapidly through the internet.  Some of those may be memes in the strict sense, but most of them are clever variations on a theme, more like a rhyme than a unit of raw meaning.

The Beleboke injects a meme in to the scientific paradigm.  The rational and scientific is blended  with the irrational and magical.  To pursue the Beleboke is to insist that experience can be partially told but never fully defined.  When we encounter the electromagnetic, we enter the fey, the magical.  We re-program our body senses to accept a wider range of perception, a broader sense paradigm.  If at first we need to borrow tools to transfer that experience over to something within our existing sensory limitations then so be it.  

This  is a pre-Victorian view of science, one where Keats writing poetry on the rooftop during an electrical storm provides as much insight as a lab experiment.  

If we were to map the human physiology using electronic circuitry, then each of the sense would be a balance of Inductance and Impedance.  For example, we impede an awareness of time to allow for a generally accepted linear chronology.  

This is the meme:  The Beleboke induces an ecstatic physiological response.  



Garfield watertower and psychogeographic Pittsburgh

Looking out my front door, I see the N. Graham avenue which goes steeply up the hill in to Garfield.  At the top of the hill is the Garfield water tower (picture at top of post).  One summer, when I was at home recovering from some surgery, I found the walk up the hill, along the ridge, and down again was a good becnhmark for how my strength was returning.  I would walk past the watertower, and often sit for a few minutes to regain my composure.  The big water tank is supported by steel columns, a dozen or so that are themselves connected by a lattice structure to evenly disperse the weight across all points of the poles.  In the early morning, I would try and remember Yeats, mumbling through the folk song setting by Britten:

Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish, with her did not agree.
In a field by the river my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder she placed her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.

  But it was easier instead to remember a nursery rhyme:

The Grand old Duke of York
He had ten thousand men
He marched them up to the top of the hill
Then he marched them down again. 

The sense of enormous water suspended above me, the sunshine, the peace and quiet (there's a small farm just a few yards further down the road ), the melancholy of  snow-white hands and feet.  I could imagine the bright sunshine casting a shadow through the supporting lattice that rests over the full East Liberty plateau, maybe reaching down as far as the Point.  From my office window downtown, 33rd floor, I could look past Oakland and see the Garfield water tower in line with the Herron Hill tower.  I once walked East until Penn Ave ends at the foot of Penn Hills.  I walked up and along the short ridge of Penn Hills, and came back down Frankstown road.  There were only a few places blocked by buildings where I could not see the tower.  It is the most singular object on the landscape around here.  A good psychogeographic map of East Pittsburgh would start with the sight lines for the tower, and mark off those places where you cannot see.  Identify those dead spots - the Garfield watertower transmits Quiddity across the area.

In a different summer, my friend Nick and I decided that it would be a good walk to start from the Garfield tower, and head as straight a line as possible to the watertower up on Herron Hill.  That route takes us over the Bloomfield bridge and up a few miles to Oakland.  When we went out to begin the walk - and you've seen the picture, that tower is big and present - we got up on the ridge, turned left expecting to see the tower, and no shit it wasn't there.  We walked up and down, we thought perhaps our sense of distance was off and that we needed to walk a bit further North.  But no, the damn thing wasn't there. 

Later, we considered the option that the heavy tree growth in mid- August blocked our vision, and that we must have walked within feet of the tower footprint.  I don't buy that for a minute.  That watertower wasn't there.  There are three salient factors at play:  Time, Place and View.  Were we in the right place?  Most assuredly.  A thousand pictures demonstrate that this is where the watertower is.  Did we have the right View - meaning, were we looking for the right thing?  Were we looking for a rabbit, when we meant to find a watertower?  No - again, we had the perfect view in mind.  In fact, it is all we wanted to do, was to find that tower.   That leaves only time.  We must have arrived at the wrong time, the time when the tower wasn't there.

And so now, because everything is swirling around a realisation of The Beleboke (all about The Beleboke...), I'm thinking this may be a good place to set up my Very Low Frequency receiver, pull out my didgeridoo, and record the results. 

A Didgeridoo and The Beleboke

[All about The Beleboke...]

The didgeridoo is an instrument from the aboriginal cultures in Australia.  The didgeridoo is a hollow piece of wood, and when air is blown into one end, a rich low drone comes out the other. The wood is eucalyptus, whose leaves are favored by the koala:  hollowed out by the action of termites, the didgeridoo is a found object from the landscape.

There are no finger holes, no mechanism to change pitch.  The didgeridoo sounds at a fundamental based on the column of air vibrating in the wood.  The players lips are placed entirely within the didgeridoo opening and then rapidly fluttered.  This quick alternating of wind pressure, combined with the inconsistencies and uneven surface left by the insects inside the wood cause a buzzy complex sound, full of overtones and shifting frequencies.

A few years ago I grew out a beard.  I've grown beards on and off, usually for the winter months and then clean for the rest of the year.  Now I have a permanent beard, and in preparation for The Beleboke work, I had to start practicing didgeridoo playing again.  I have found it very difficult to make the seal between my lips and the wood -  I think a re-application of beeswax around the edge may help.

Compare to the sound of a flute.  The inside of a flute is perfectly smooth, and the wind pressure is a consistent smooth flow from over a constructed mouthpiece.  Flautists can over-blow their instrument and create noisy effects, but the default setting on a modern flute (or a medieval recorder) is a sine wave.

Changes to the shape of the lips, jaw and even the position of the tongue inside the mouth will all serve to change to mix of partials coming out of the didgeridoo.  These changes - roughly equivalent to moving between different vowel sounds - can be combined to generate powerful rhythmic inventions.  Skilled players can also add vocalisation from deep in their throats.  Tuned correctly, this will create a beating pattern between the voice and the fundamental of the didgeridoo. An occasional yelp or gargle can imitate animal calls. 

If the player is able to maintain sufficient pressure from reserve air stored in the cheeks, then a quick inhale can be stolen through the nose without disrupting the ongoing drone.  This is called circular breathing, and is one of the challenges faced by my beard.  It is inconceivable that I will shave just for this piece, even if it means slathering my beard with brylcream. 

So the didgeridoo is a naturally occurring sonic device that is activated by the most straightforward of human gestures.  The resulting shifts in harmonics and the gradual undulation of the drone seem nature-bound to capture the recurring patterns of metabolism.  Breath, heartbeat, circulation.  Perhaps neural synapses firing. 

Stories tell how the world was created by songs.  Sound precipitated matter from dreamtime.  When the didgeridoo plays, creation reverberates with the essential forms of vibration.  Sonicism   posits in the second point that "Sound represents the interstice of physiology and cosmology".  The didgeridoo creates a vortex, overlays mythology and activates the human body in this interstitial environment.  This is why it is the perfect instrument for The Beleboke, where we are asked to interact with the electromagnetic frequency spectrum typically outside out immediate sense perception.

In the song "Tie Me Kangaroo Down", Rolf Harris sings about a dying Australian farmer.  the song begins with a list of instructions for the care and feeding of his livestock.  For example:

"watch me wallabies feed, mate "
"take me koalas back, Jack"
"mind me platypus duck, Bill"

and of course ... "tie me kangaroo down, sport".  His final instructions touch on the impact of the didgeridoo. 

 "Play your didgeridoo, Blue
Play your didgeridoo.
Oh like keep playing till I shoot through, Blue
Play Your didgeridoo"

This shamanic figure, Blue, can use the didgeridoo to help the spirit of his friend break free from the collapsing energies of the dying physical body. He will shoot through, perhaps breaking the veils between relative and absolute, discovering with his final breath a view of reality that shows no distinction between dreamtime and the current moment.  The didgeridoo is a tool to support consciousness in the preliminary bardo.  Without the support of the body, confusion can overwhelm the nascent consciousness (see  the final stanza, " we tanned his hide when he died, Clyde..and that's it hanging on the shed" ), and the resonant frequencies of the instrument provide a final memory of metabolic structure. 

I don't want to read too much in to this song.  On the wiki page where you can find all the lyrics, Rolf Harris says that he actually didn't know what a didgeridoo was when he wrote the song.  But then, not knowing never prevented me from moving ahead with an idea either (for example, see my admixture of 'bardo' and 'dreamtime' in previous paragraph).

So:  the didgeridoo is an extension of the human form, a highly charged artefact from dreamtime with mythic resonance for the creation of timespace.  As such, it is ideal for The Beleboke, where the drone will sound in counterpoint to the electromagnetic structures generated in the Earths atmosphere.

What is The Beleboke?

The last couple of days, I've started writing about the realization of a piece for electromagnetic signals from the earth's atmosphere, and didgeridoo. 

When I write, there's always a noisy, boisterous part of my mind that won't settle down.  Sometimes I think this is a distraction, and other times I think it is actually the source of any ideas I may end up with.  Like a greek Daemon - spirit ally, spirit of the place.  I do recognize it as part of my mind/psyche...but at the same time I also feel that this entity or voice fits in to a specific shape outside, in the aether.  The archetypal unconscious.

As I sit at my desk, best time to write for me is as early as possible in the morning.  That accompanying voice settles in to a fairy tale sing-song voice.  Not always comfortable, this.  Do you know the stories of the Dingle Dell?  It's a wooded area in the center of a village with a pathway often used as a shortcut.   Many the strange occurrences in that dell.  Misty trees and pixies, lumbering green men.  Simmering pots of meat for unsuspecting children. 

Harrison Birtwistle composed a piece called Down By The Greenwood Side which uses bits of British folk song and old mummers plays.  He also wrote an opera on Punch and Judy.  Punch throws his baby in the fire, attacks his wife Judy and eventually is sentenced to hang for his crimes.  Pantomime, commedia del'arte - dark and mysterious underneath the competing chants of "Oh yes we can/Oh no you can't".

Those are the sounds of my daemon, I guess.  It all can be occupied by the right song.   If I'm not actually writing - if the work at hand is more like editing, proof-reading or working in Sibelius to produce the score - I can listen to a song on repeat.  If there's a blank piece of paper in front of me, then I have to turn off the radio and listen to the other music instead.

I've been known to play one Yanni track for several hours. It's on the album "In My time" but I don't know the name of the song.  If I need it, I have to grope through each track, breath short, heart pounding until I hear the blessed release of those opening notes.    Eldar and Nigar (the 2011 Euovision song contest winners) sang a song that also fit in the required slot.  I can't recall the title of their song, and certainly can't remember any of the lyrics although I've probably heard it over a thousand times. 

I'm going to start calling the electromagnetic pieces "The Beleboke".  That word comes from our own family word games, and is a variation on the word telescope.  But the telescope is not a tool anymore, it's a receptacle or alchemical retort.  These pieces for atmospheric electromagnetism are a first step - I'm going to learn how to build backyard receivers for solar activity, Jupiter, galactic rises.  Apparently I can use an old FM radio to pick up meteorite activity.  All these layers of activity, filtered through a developing computer patch, in counterpoint to the didgeridoo.  That is The Beleboke.


counterpoint for atmosphere and didgeridoo

The earth's atmosphere is alive with electromagnetic activity at the low end of the radio spectrum,  Most comes from lightening storms across the globe, although some of the most beautiful forms are generated by the interaction of solar winds with the magnetosphere.

I say "beautiful" forms, because with a Very Low Frequency (VLF) receiver, you can pick up this electromagnetic activity and reproduce an equivalent sound.  Check out the NASA page for streaming 'sferics'  .  The available sounds are like bird song, animal calls or deep breathing.   With some pretty good electronics skills, I could make a receiver myself.  With passable skills, I could probably put together one of the available kits.  Since I have neither, I'm deeply grateful to Steve McGreevey and his website Auroral Chorus.  In addition to providing a great introduction to the subject, the site also includes many examples from his own field recordings.  And most important, he sells completed and tested VLF receivers.  One of which I have on order.

I'm going to start working out a piece that I first started thinking about over 5 years ago.  Called Voices of the Noosphere, it is a piece for radio telescope and didgeridoo.  The idea was that the telescope would be receiving electromagnetic signals from a pulsar.  That pulsar signal would be represented in sound.  I had a patch written in the cSound software language that would apply the envelope of my didgeridoo playing to the 'sound' of the pulsar.  I'd throw in some optional granular synthesis processing for aesthetic effect, and then re-broadcast the signal out to the stars.

If I remember right, the very first impulse for this came as part of a discussion of SETI message construction with Doug Vakoch.  We'd met at a SETI workshop, and started to write down a proposed structure for an outbound message, one that attempted to encode notions of 'creativity'.  We did this by presenting material that was shaped by the fibonacci series.  Rhythmic bursts of radio at specific frequencies, harmonic relationships across the radio spectrum:  all governed by the Fibonacci series.

The idea was that a receiving culture would identify the underlying series, and then would recognize that other parts of the message manipulated this underlying pattern.  A natural source - like a pulsar - could create a repeating pattern, but it is highly unlikely that a natural source would move through the first 5 numbers of a Fibonacci sequence, and then retrograde that pattern.

I thought that a larger piece could be done using an identifiable radio source - like a pulsar.  The electronically manipulated sound along with my didgeridoo would provide a couple layers of counterpoint.  A receiving culture could identify the pulsar, and then ask themselves what on earth that other material represented.  I like the didgeridoo for this because of all instruments, it seems to create music with a period about as long as a human breath, with overtones that seem to resonate with the human heartbeat. 

Another element of the piece was that this same material would be meaningful for a human audience, listening to the sonic representation of it all.  The sound becomes an interstitial space, a place where the biological necessity of sense perception overlaps with a representation of the larger electromagnetic form of the universe.  This is a privileged location, one that is liturgical, poetic, alchemical.

I've gotten a lot of mileage out of this piece, for something that has never been realised.  With the VLF receiver, I'm going to start working out the details, and creating the alchemical conjunction.  I may not (yet) be working with pulsars, but I will be interacting with the electromagnetic spectrum in a meaningful manner.


Returning to the Blog

Pacific Garbage
I've had material on the domain for many years.  I used it originally as a repository for longer form essays like my UNESCO keynote, some program notes, or an early iteration of Voices of the Noosphere.  No traffic, unless I pointed someone to a specific article.  I didn't get and still struggle with the idea that a blog is an emerging entity, comprised of many smaller unfinished ideas.  I say something today that I correct tomorrow and tangentially refer to the third day, leading to a critical mass of material at some future point.  Like a coral reef.  Or the Pacific Garbage Vortex

At the same time, my notebooks filled with just those kind of partial thoughts.  A few months ago, I determined to write every day, 500 words or so.  I won't say it was to "have fun" but I do know that the act of writing is a pleasurable one for me.  It is an immersion in a strange place, a place that is both inside my psyche and not  - a sensation that is in the room with me and also somewhere in my body.  Spending an hour or so each morning is like taking a bath in salt water, sloughing off a layer of skin while floating in a crystal suspension.

My focus was vague but around the ideas of noise, physiology, creativity, memory.  A unified experience of sound and meaning.  Liturgical constructs of abstract sound.  Developing an aesthetic appropriate to off-earth or extra-terrestrial conditions.

Questions about what is noise led to a discussion of randomness and complexity.  Memory has taken me to a reading of Henri Bergson "Matter and Memory".  Writing a finished book seems further away than ever as my reading list grows before me.

Today, I've been away from blogging for 2 months, which is almost as long as I had been disciplined in puttingh out daily updates.  We travelled to England for a vacation, and it looks like while the Noise book is percolating in the library, a rhapsodic memoir of East Anglia is emerging.  After England, we were home for a few weeks then off again to Pennsic - an event which always inspires me to practice hurdy gurdy.  So maybe some occasional blogs to come on that instrument.

Tomorrow, I'll post the start of a builder log for the realisation of Voices of the Noosphere.  The date on that first post is 2005.  It's now 2012, and I'm at least 13 years older than I was back then.  So I've set out to acquire a Very Low Frequency (VLF) receiver , and have started the patches that will mix my didgeridoo playing with the sonic representation of atmospheric sounds.

Interesting to note that my single most popular post ever  - measured in number of views - was my prognostication on the 2012 Eurovision song contest