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Pittsburgh Field Recordings: Blvd of Allies and Wood Street 011313

I walk through this intersection each morning from the bus stop over to my office building.  The pedestrian walk signs have an associated alarm sound.  I'm not sure how to interpret the beeps.  I would expect that the signal would beep when there was a green "walk" sign, but each signal seems to be beeping all the time.  Although I'm confused whether or not to cross the street, this does create an interesting soundscape.  Overlapping patterns change intensity with  my position in the street.  
I set out to record this on Sunday morning a few weeks ago.  Here's the video and soundtrack.  

It's possible that I'll manipulate the source recording, perhaps call it Field Recording with Unfolding Sonic Manipulations.  That would fit with other pieces, like Impossibly Loud and Unbearably Silent (for singer, automobiles and the 16th street bridge) or Hurdy Gurdy and Freight Train (for Hurdy Gurdy, East Side Parking Lot and the  Norfolk and Southern Railroad).  Pieces where the landscape is a counterpoint for the composed bit.  Part of the larger exploration of Pittsburgh sonic Psychogeography.   
But for now, this is the sound of a street corner, with waker.

Ekpyrosis and Ecstasy

Ekpyrotic art is an aesthetic that recreates the experience of the eschaton.   Earlier post on Ekpyrosis here

What are the mechanics of Ekpyrotic art?  Trance through repetition:  drumming, mudra, chant.  When material remains consistent, the mind latches on to epiphenomenon.  Perception of a pattern in repeated gestures is to remove the gesture from time and perceive a crystalline structure.  

When physical phenomena are perceived outside of time, the mental attributes of that action are lost , without meaning.  The body becomes  open to new imprints.  Like a new born duckling.  Its a condition before the new material.  Ekpyrosis is liturgical, and ecstasy is a functional  precondition for effective liturgy.  

To this duckling mind, then, we throw contemplation of the immense.  Contemplation of the immeasurable:  large or small. The breath-devouring ancient.  The face-melting future.  Experience of the impossibly loud.  The unbearably silent.  

Imagine the very small.  The nano.  That experience, the full-on contemplation of the vanishingly tiny:  a big part of that is looking back and recognizing our bigger selves.   Like Alice in wonderland. It is an anticipation of our death, as much as an anticipation of our departure from earth, where every glance will be backwards. 

This is not only the definition of, but also the reason for, the Overview effect.  Think on it:  the entirey of your life  - of all life - is "out there", external, not-all-around-ness.  It's  probably like going to a sensory deprivation tank and realising you left your body behind for real, a sensory deprivation tank where your body is vaporised for the duration.

For sure, I feel this sometimes when I look at a map of the US Eastern coast.  I've lived in Washington DC for High school, Lewiston Maine for College, and Pittsburgh for everything else.  A  psychogeographic asterism on the map.

The extraction of the physical gesture in to a space outside of time has some consistent and remarkable sensations.  It feels to me like biting on a piece of metal foil, a clenching in my abdomen, a  slight shiver that feels like it is generated by the muscles at tip of my spine where it meets the skull.  There is  enough of a contraction that my jaws quiver from side to side, although there are no muscles moving  in my face or neck.  A quiver.  An impulse.   At the bottom of my breath, all air expelled from my lungs ( if my eyes are closed)  I  feel a swaying -   or more like there's a cyclone, a small cyclone that I've swallowed,  When I breath out,  I contract enough to touch the sides of that moving wind. 

That's what it feels like. 

Mircea Eliade talks about Hierophany.  Hierophany is the revelation of the sacred,  a differentiating event.  Essentially poetic.   A shift where the pattern is perceived, the physical gesture ("mortality") has been removed from time.   If it isn't an intimation of death, it's an intimation of hypersptial experience.  


Glenn Gould, Haptics, Ekpyrosis.

Glenn Gould is up  at the family cabin.  He's young, playing on the family piano.  Something by Bach.  You can hear the articulation click-clack on the left hand line and then he's up and over by the window.  The relentless flow of information continues, he's still practicing, still playing, but looking at the lake.    


 Haptics are the physical actions required to play an instrument, the sense of touch, the interaction with mechanics.    That's part of what we're seeing here.  

There's a structure, an underlying phenomenon, the Ineluctable Modality of Bach, let's call it.   There's this other thing, let's call it Glenn Gould.  Imagine a Venn Diagram.  Some part of Glenn Gould interacts with the Ineluctable Modality of Bach.  Some other part of Glenn Gould  moves through a world of chairs and dogs and fingernails.   The intersection of the three is at the keyboard, to "play the piano" . 

When I write music, I can't hear notes.  I've never had a great ear, sightsinging and ear-training I just wasn't very good at it.   What I do get is a sense of what it would feel like if my body were the shape.  A sense of gesture.  If Messiaen wrote by Synaethesia, I'd describe this as a sense of "Kinaesthesia".  It's not dancing, I don't visualize choreography or movements.  But I do feel  muscular contraction.  My body isn't convulsed, I'm not talking about actual movement.  Rather, there's the intuition of a gesture. 

 If I could compose in the medium of physiological twitches and quiverings, I think I would.  Sound is an epiphenomenon of these  Kinaesthetic whispers.

I always write at the piano.  The  exercise of compositional craft is to be able to recognize when I've fit the right notes to the gesture.   Today I spent an  hour trying to figure out a rhythm I'd been tapping on my fingers this morning on the bus.    I'm spending the time trying to figure out if I need to notate a precise tuplet rhythm, or a trill with poetic license.   There's something about the difference between an appogiatura and a grace note that I feel could define a big piece.  But I can't remember the damn thing.   

Most of the time, the music under my fingers at the piano ends up not feeling right.  Composition requires time, sure:  but we all have time.  What it really requires is urgency and if that's lacking, then it requires faith.   

Gould at the window




The Larkin Project: secret pre-release video

The Larkin Project is music inspired by the recorded voice of poet Phillip Larkin.  "Cod Poetics" are 5 pieces on the album that are the most removed from his voice.  They retain only the outline of the recitation, the cadence of fragments.

Free album to anyone who can tell me within 100 feet where I'm standing when the video was filmed.


Release scheduled for early February.  I'm also working on an Amazon storefront, where you'll be able to get ZenGlop fridge magnets.

The Sake Hut: Pittsburgh in 2112

BODHIDHARMAI live in Pittsburgh.  150 years ago, technology transformed this city.  The landscape was filled with new machines, new money brought financial, social and cultural institutions.  I worked for 10 years at Mellon Bank, the same institution that funded Carnegie, Frick, Clay in their early industrial development.  New work brought waves of people, who in turn built new houses, new transportation and new public works  infrastructure.  The Pittsburgh Steelers dominate the NFL (unless Tom Brady is on the field).  None of this was pre-ordained.   

Nick and I were out walking one day, and started thinking about a good life.  Brewing Sake, we decided, would be not only the Good life:  quite possibly it is The Best of Lives.  To work from early morning until late at night, our children learning the business after us, offering good jobs, a tradition.  Our sake distributed to the sushi bars in town.  

What if we imagine ourselves to be living in Pittsburgh in 2112, 100 years removed.  Why shouldn't there be a vision of Pittsburgh as radically different from what we see today, as today would look from 1850. I look at the rivers, and I imagine the brown soil transformed through phyto-remediation.  The hills above the Allegheny are terraced into fields, flooded with clean river water and growing high grade rice.  Why not imagine Pittsburgh as the sake brewing capital of America. 

Urban agriculture is a breaking wave:  there's plenty of spaces in between buildings that can be cultivated.  There are two farms within walking distance of my house.  I got a flyer one summer from a couple of people who wanted to grow vegetables but had no land.  they were asking anyone with an unused section of yard if we would let them plant in it.  What a great idea...they would walk around the city cultivating a batch of beets by the gazebo, a crop of carrots by the corner, a bigass bag of brussell sprouts by the bird bath. 

Sake is good drink.   It begins with a mix of steamed rice and koji.  Koji is a mold that converts the rice starch into sugar.  Added yeast, with water and time time,  turns that sugar into alcohol.   Rice is polished, rubbed smooth like pebbles.  Different degrees of polish yield higher grades of rice.  Different grades of rice yield different qualities of sake:  since we'd also be running production of rice through The Sake Hut, we could offer all kinds. 

We'd build The Sake Hut down by the river, somewhere between Lawrenceville and the Strip district.  The Sake Hut is a long , 2 story building made of dark bamboo wood.  The first story contains all the brewing facility, as well as an open quarter where people can come and fill up growlers with our 100 cup sake. 

Nick says to only trust a man when he's drunk 100 cups of sake.  Or don't trust a man who won't drink a hundred cups of sake.  Something like that.  Whether it's Confuscian wisdom, or something he made up (we were probably on 10 cups of sake), it's an excellent meme and one we'll use to name the basic grade of Pittsburgh Sake.  100 Cup Sake from The Sake Hut, Pittsburgh.  Made with locally produced rice.   Even if the story about 100 cups turns out to be a fabrication, Nick is our Master Brewer.  He earns the title through natural talent, god-given perserverance, and the fact of having already brewed a batch of sake.  I'll have to see if we can dig up an image of the label, the first batch of 100 Cup Sake.  It was a touch salty, but that all fell by the wayside  halfway through the second bottle.

The second floor of The Sake Hut would be company offices, which is where I'd be the tool running spreadsheets.  A single room running the full length with a smooth-edged  table in the center for office space.  There would always be a Go board out (Nick would take on all comers). 

Around the hut would be bamboo plants which our daughters would harvest and weave into cups used  to serve Sake .  We'd grow marijuana in hidden groves, waiting for the commonwealth to come to it's comon senses. 

Sake gets a distinctive characteristic from the water.  A lot of what American brewers do to their water is to try and recreate the water of particular Tokyo prefectures.  British beer makers do the same thing, adding minerals to the water to 'Burtonize' it, to make it the same as the water found in Burton, home of the perfect English Ale. 

The beer from Burton was so popular that most of the train stations in London are shaped the way they are to facilitate the transportation of beer kegs in to the city.  That's the ticket, that's what we'll do to Pittsburgh.

Our 100 Cup Sake would use water taken from the Fourth River here in Pittsburgh.  The Fourth river is a sand and gravel aquifer left over from the last glaciation, running from Milwaukee or Minnesota or Mississippi but not Manhattan, the geography is unimportant, it is the last vestige of  an event which  shaped the flow of our other three rivers.  

I have a friend who lives in Highland park.  The back of his house faces a ravine, the other side is the Pittsburgh zoo.  His land has 7 springs.  1000 Cup Sake  would use only  this spring water with only the finest polished rice.  Where 100 Cup Sake  is available for purchase by growler,   1000 Cup Sake would be available only in signature serving bottles.  

So why not also re-establish the glass factories that once worked in Pittsburgh, using their product to serve Sake from The Sake Hut?  Tiffany had factories along the Monongahela, why not start back up an artisan works producing fine glass bottles for 1000 Cup Sake.

I mean, a transformation will happen regardless, so why not think large.  This is a treatise for the city planners.   Here's mud in your eye!


meditative awareness: is reality analog?

I've been reading a book called Mastering the core teachings of the Buddha: an unusually hardcore dharma book written by Daniel Ingram. He says something interesting in a section talking about the contemplation of impermanence.

Coming directly after a physical sensation arises and passes is a separate pulse of reality that is the mental knowing if the physical sensation.


Each one of these arises and vanishes completely before the other begins, so itis extremely possible to sort out which is which with a stable mind dedicated to consistent precision and to not being lost in stories

The idea is that at a fundamental level, the brain processes information sequentially. Meditation is a process of becoming familiar with this sequence, and developing stability to recognize increasingly rapid fluctuations.

We perceive objects as a stable, continuing entity only by a trick of the brain, a combination of incredibly fast processing, and by fooling ourselves. We reside a step removed from the experience, we reside in the interpretation of the experience.

This is the Buddhist teaching of impermanence. Impermanence also suggests lacking in an essential form. This is not the same as an illusion. Just because something lacks inherent form and is constantly changing does not mean it is unreal.

I was having a conversation at a friend's studio with Ottoleo. We were talking about thermal energy as noise in an experiment he's working on at McGill. That led to some discussion of white noise, and the nature of sound. I asked him the question I asked in an earlier blog post. Can noise exist?

True white noise is equal excitation of all frequencies at all times. But here's the thing. Between each defined frequency is a smaller partial. It's a form of zeno's paradox, no? 440 and 441 contain an infinite number of possible partials. So too do 440 and 440.1. 440.1 and 440.11

I'm likely to talk about noise as a sonic phenomenon, but noise exists in any medium. Ottoleo, remember, was talking about thermal noise in his lab equipment.

A computer cannot generate true white noise, because a computer algorithm substitutes randomness for completeness. But a computer does not understand random, so white noise generated by a computer is only an approximation of white noise

We talked about for sure there's a capacity of measurement that is discrete. Perhaps this perfect noise exists, but we are limited in our perception of noise by the granularity of our equipment, including the biological senses.

A world that is listened to is still a discrete world, even if we are listening to analog sine waves recorded on perfectly manufactured vinyl. Or the song of the humpback whale. There are frequency differences too fine for our ear to pick up. So we would perceive this continuous wave as an evolutionary convenience. Ingram puts it:

Predictability is used to assume continuity

But surely at some level, the noise exists completely, unutterably? I'd argue that at every degree - maybe it has to be at the atomic or the thermal or the quantum - there are discrete steps. Isn't that what Planck's constant is all about, the unit of a quanta? Planck time,the smallest possible measurement of time: 10^-43 seconds.

Built in to the fabric of space and time is emptiness.

Project Management, or "What I do when not blogging"

Most mornings, I leave the house and say something like "Going to work now".   It's a mysterious statement.  If you ask,  I explain that I am a program manager in the technology divsion of a financial services corporation.  I expect blank stares. Maybe a smirk (they're thinking of Dilbert).  Perhaps a sad grimace, I'm another sell-out artist.

Let me back up a bit.  Project Management as a discipline emerged out of the Department of Defense and NASA back in the 60's and 70's.  They were trying to build a rocket to go to the moon, or develop a new fighting plane and then build lots of them.  The Project Manager ran everything, a figure of distant power.  Project Management methodology is a set of  tools that allow the Project Manager to answer a couple of simple but profound questions.  I'd frame those questions as follows:

  • First,  based on what we know today, are the things we said yesterday still true. 
  • Second,  did everyone mean the same thing when they all said "Yes".  

It boils down to insight, and the protocols to communicate across a wide group of stakeholders  Talking about those two questions identifies  risk.   Or rather, talking about those two questions identifies risks, plural, of many different types.  

  • Schedule (will we finish what we said we'd do when we said it would be done). 
  • Cost  (when we're sitting here, finished, will it have cost what we thought it would). 
  • Scope (when we say we're done, have we done everything that the people paying for the project intended).

The level of risk can most simply be reflected as a relationship between the likelihood of something happening, and the results if it does happen. Just because something is certainly going to happen, maybe the impact is so low - and the cost to prevent it so high - that we decide to accept the risk.  On the other hand,  a highly unlikely event that could have a catasrophic impact is the kind of risk that should make your bowels watery.  If you're a project manager, watery bowels are an occupational hazard.

At any point in time, a project manager needs to understand myriad questions.  Questions like what work has been completed, what work is remaining, who's going to do that work, when will they be available.   What is the impact of a delay to a specific task.  Work Breakdown, Network diagrams, Gantt charts, Pareto's all to give an insight into risk.

More important, it is to give insight into risk before that risk occurs.  It's much easier to make a change on a whiteboard than it is to re-engineer a widget.  I'm assuming that they had whiteboards at DoD in 1965...probably reverse engineered from alien technology.

Its different where I work, in software technology.  We apply the same principles, but the stakes are lower.  We aren't building the space shuttle, or a new suspension bridge.  If my projects go awry, some people may lose some money (serves them right!), but nobody will die and for the most part it can all be fixed by getting the right computer jock on the phone at 2am.   

It isn't what I thought I'd end up doing .  I always figured I'd end up Chair of Music Composition somewhere, or become Phillip Glass.  (Maybe The Larkin Project  will get me on a magazine cover).   I didn't choose this career.  Except in the sense that I think we all some part of us choose a lot more of our present moment than we are aware of.  I can complain about the drudgery ...but the reality of it is that when I'm at work, I enjoy a set of challenges that aren't accessible anywhere else. 

And I get a nice paycheck, which doesn't come with any preconditions about my writing.   This was fun, I'm going to blog more about project management, the office etc.


Charles Ives, adumbration

In my last post, I wrote a bit about Charles Ives, and described an imagined listening of his Universe symphony. I'm reading Jan Swafford's biography of Ives and there's a quote from Ives:

"why can't music go out in the same way it comes in to a man, without having to crawl over a fence of sounds, thoraxes, catguts, wire, wood and brass?"

Ives is already expressing a tension between an idealized sound, and the reality. What I called the adumbration of the music in that earlier post.

p.224 of _Charles Ives a life with music_ by Jan Swafford