Thursday, November 13, 2008

Cause & Effect

"It's atomic!" Those words, given in knowing confidence by the heroic plumber Mr. Zabladowski to young piano student Bartholomew Collins* in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. were a signal of power, mystery, and danger to a generation of children raised, in the years after WWII, and reinforced by the duck-and-cover films and classroom "civil defense" drills that were a regular part of elementary school curricula. Atomic was code for modern, mysterious, dangerous, explosive, and, of course, invisible. We still do not have a good estimate of how dangerous the nuclear threat of those years really was or wasn't and yet, while that particular danger was played up, there were plenty of other dangers that were played down.  How many kids on the block had parts of fingers missing due to short fuses on firecrackers?  What of all those poisonous critters collected in bottles and bags to bring to "show & tell"?   Tree forts builts too high with rusty nails?  How about all those dental x-rays I had as a kid in the 60's?  Helmetless cycling and skateboarding? Or how about the time I dropped a thermometer on the floor of the school nurses's office, and the nurse & I got down on hands and knees and tried to gather the mercury with pieces of typing paper, pouring whatever we collected down the drain...

This past week, I had five sessions of radiation therapy, preventive measures for something that could eventually become a major inconvenience, nothing life threatening (it is truly humbling to spend time in a hospital department in which most patients have concerns much more serious than your own). As it seems worthwhile getting rid of this while it is still in an early stage, I've managed to temporally put aside fears of matters atomic. There was an odd disconnect to the procedure, which involved an impressively large machine, a linear accelerator to be precise, but we can call it an x-ray, which made a nasty enough sawtooth-like noise as it shot photons at my left foot, and yet for all the theatre of the treatment there was no immediate effect. Maybe a bit of tingling or warmth, but that was probably more my imagination at work than anything else. You go into something like this with enormous expectations, but postive results are only supposed to show up over a time period of six months or so, so there is a real disconnect. It's something like the circus clown who threatens with an outsized gun and then fires, only to have a bouquet of fake flowers or a little flag with the word "BANG!" written on it pop out instead. And while, in a theatrical context, such anti-climaxes can be effective, startling, and amusing, the routine I'm hoping for is effective and reassuring, with as little surprise as possible.

One of my favorite sound installations (and one that is uniquely effective as a concert piece, as well) is Alvin Lucier's Music for Pure Waves, Bass Drums and Acoustic Pendulums (1980). Like the large hospital equipment I've been admiring, it involves a somewhat preposterous physical apparatus: four bass drums in a row with loudspeakers hidden behind the drums, and four ping-pong balls suspended from the ceiling by fishing line, each ball resting on the head of its own drum. As the oscillator makes a slow sweep, the drum heads respond sympathetically, eventually moving enough to cause the balls to bounce. The balls bounce in response to the individual characteristics of each drumhead, the frequency and amplitude of the sine waves, and the timing of each bounce with regard to the relative positions and velocities of the ball and drum head.  One soon starts to perceive patterns of repeated bounces, automatically framing them as little rhythmic units, but these patterns are quite local in both time and physical space, and the combinations of the four drums in concert creates a composite rhythm of a complexity well beyond that of a three-body problem. Best of all, the regular bouncing of a single ball (and sometimes a duo, trio, or quartet) may suddenly stop, dead, when the drum head suddenly curves inward in a — and this is literally and mathematically true, in the sense invented by René Thom — catastrophic change of shape.  This is truly funny, like slapstick, and the obsever may well have a somewhat tragic response to the lonely ping pong ball, also like slapstick (at its best). We are obviously in the presence of a phenomenom with causes and effects, but the precise nature of those causes and effects is continuously obscured and nothing beyond that is obvious.

In the composition and experience of a work of music as a continuity, there is considerable tension between two ideals: the first is one in which continuity is maximally smooth, with every cause immediate to an effect and every effect clearly traceable in memory to a cause.  This is a largely comforting feature of music, an order setting aside music-making from the disorders of everyday life.  But this can also result in a nightmarish monotony.  The other ideal is that music can equally well embrace surprises, maximum disjunctions in continuity, causes which are divorced from effects, familiar processes made strange (think of deceptive cadences and false recapitulations), and unrelated materials can be simply juxtaposed without the intervention of connecting or explicating materials (Stravinsky's "assertion").  In practice, all the music that I understand (and, perhaps, you, too) as interesting, no, good, music finds some special, if not unique, balance between  these two ideals.  Some repertoires may emphasize one ideal rather than the other (music for the theatre — opera and dance —, for example, became more heavily invested in rapid changes in continuity than did concert music, and the most lasting impact of this is probably in film editing, which borrowed much from music-theatrical continuity, well before films carried their own sounds!), perhaps individual composers settle into emphasizing one more than the other over their careers and catalogues.**  


* Was anyone else, as a young reader and movie-goer, troubled by Dr. Seuss's change of Bartholomew's surname from Cubbins to Collins?

**My friend, David Feldman, a composer and mathematician, in talking about this blog item, suggested that it would be useful for me to read up on symbolic dynamics.  

1 comment:

Paul H. Muller said...

Some friends of mine returning from France described an installation (in a wine cave, of all places) where several amplified guitars were placed in a bird cage and filled with seed.

The birds flew about the cage, landing on the guitar strings now and then, taking some seed, and upon leaving again their claws would pluck the guitar string. There were a lot of birds in the cage and room was filled with the most amazing sequence of sounds, apparently random, but somehow organic and soothing.

An interesting idea, but I'm not sure I'd want to do the clean-up afterwards.