(Hello my darlings. It’s hard to write about anything else, isn’t it?
There are almost-finished drafts for you about a constructed language for naming stars, about Lina Bo Bardi, about the Triadex Muse, Fantômas, Su Tissue, Carl Schuster, John Cage’s recipes … but thinking about anything other than current events is a challenge right now as it has been for months.
This is deliberate: the Republican president’s ghostwriters have transcribed his techniques, such as they are; they make for interesting reading. They boil down to pushing so aggressively – demanding so much at the top – that you put your counterparty into a kind of shock. The goal is not good-faith negotiation, because a transparent huckster with no willpower or impulse control and a long record of losing other people’s money is not in a position to negotiate in good faith and hammer out a mutually beneficial contract. The goal is to overwhelm, bully, and intimidate the counterparty into agreeing to a deal that is not in their best interest. The way you do this is by making unreasonable demands seem normal, compressing the schedule to prevent time to think, wrong-footing them with sudden shifts in focus and confusing language, making them doubt the reality of their situation, and comical “alpha male” personal-brand posturing, like crushing “pump” handshakes, looming and violating personal space, power ties, and staring contests. The end result, he hopes, is a short-circuited negotiation with a cowed and confused counterparty who has forgotten that this is not a real, reasonable way to do business, and who will make the wrong choice under duress – to settle quickly, just to get it over with.
If all these sound exactly like the tactics of a rapist: yes.
Along with all the other important things to do now – marching and showing up, calling offices and sending postcards, donating when possible and refusing to comply in general – it’s useful to cultivate patience, the sense of the long view and the big world. If the adversary’s goal is exhaustion, burnout, an inescapable negotiation with no alternatives to his terms, there’s some value in keeping the before, the after, and the everywhere else in mind. The hectoring pace is meant to induce breakdown, to interfere with clear thinking. Focused, calm, persistent, in no hurry to leave the table: the strong, patient counterparty can stymie these cold-call boiler room scammer methods. Taking time out to think of other things, to do good work and care for others in this time of shoddiness, rip-offs, and lies, to stay healthy, happy, confident, unwilling to be bullied, and angry as hell for the long way to go, can all be useful. (For that last part, taking up a martial art works wonders.)
In 1929, Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson (this pair of badasses in repose) decided to end their magazine The Little Review. Every issue was like the two of them drilling through solid rock for daylight, with diamond bits from Amy Lowell, Hart Crane, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Emma Goldman, Gertrude Stein, Joyce, and more; they once published an issue with twelve blank pages because there wasn’t anything in the world exciting and fearless enough for them at that moment. They closed the magazine’s run with these four questions to their contributors:
“What should you most like to do, to know, to be? (In case you are not satisfied.)
Why wouldn’t you change places with any other human being?
What do you look forward to?
What do you fear most from the future?”)
When Bebe and Louis Barron got married in 1947 they received a wedding gift from the future. Louis’s cousin was an executive at 3M and his present was one of the first tape recorders in the United States, plus a steady supply of reels of newly created magnetic tape. Bohemians, musicians, and tinkerers, the Barrons took their gear with them to Manhattan, where they set up a legendary electronic studio for the avant-garde at 9 West 8th Street. Here they are at work – that massive white object behind Louis was his custom speaker that produced the deepest, most brutal bass in town. For a brief stretch, these awesome weirdos – stinking of solder, with cuts on their fingers from the razors used in tape splicing – had the American monopoly on magnetic tape recording. It was as though they’d stumbled across a UFO and taken only the sound system, with a string of consequent breakthroughs: they montaged sounds, built drum loops and tape delay machines, mixed multitrack recordings with the tapes gliding in and out of synch. They recorded Anaïs Nin reading (with Josephine Premice on drums!), made soundtracks for Maya Deren and Shirley Clarke, and were enlisted by John Cage as engineers in the epic saga of Williams Mix, a chance-operations audio montage with a 193 page score, producing a few minutes of music that took more than a year to record and edit. They started recording electronic sounds straight to tape – the thrum and chime of oscillators, clicks and pops and modulations. (Nin said their new music sounded like “a molecule that has stubbed its toes.”)
And then they read Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics.
Afterwards Louis explained that the problem with electronic music, as he and Bebe saw it, was that it was being made with repurposed lab equipment, which was too precise and reliable. You wanted something a little ragged, spitty, fragile, weird, that could “do something even more interesting that you hadn’t expected.” Working through the equations in Cybernetics, they started making circuits that were more like abstract organisms, creatures with idiosyncratic personalities that made “dirty noise,” Bebe said, rather than sources of clean tones. They started cooking up metabolisms and simple minds, and their studio became a terrarium full of noisy beings diagrammed on graph paper and made with wire and cheap cannibalized components, chattering through speakers or onto spooling tape.
Pressing Nin readings to red vinyl and collecting “small sounds” for John Cage didn’t really pay the bills, so they jumped at the chance to make sounds for Hollywood. They weren’t unique in this: the Trautonium, an electronic instrument that’s like petting an enormous vinyl cat, was played by the avant-garde composer Oskar Sala to make the sound all those shrieking, chirping flocks in The Birds. The Barrons were brought in to produce spaceship and alien noises for Forbidden Planet; their ten-minute sample reel landed them the job of composing the whole soundtrack, music and all.
Rather than compose, though, they built. Going through the script, watching scenes, they made unique circuits to express the personality of each major character, which they would stimulate in ways that would mimic the events of the scene – Wagnerian lietmotifs reinvented for cybernetics and electric current. Bebe: “We set down a list of characters and approached it like a director would, directing the actors. … Those circuits really could express a full range of emotions, and we treated each little theme like a character rather than a musical theme … It was more fun to build a circuit, activate it, and personify it.” Imagine an instrument where the knobs weren’t for pitch and timbre but for anxiety, happiness, anger. As things got bad on the alien planet – where scientists keep dying mysteriously while investigating the ruins of the Krell, an alien civilization that built a colossal machine underground and then vanished overnight – Bebe and Louis turned up the stress dial. Bebe again, on overloading the circuits: “You could hear them literally shrieking! It was like they were alive, and with a lifespan of their own. … The same conditions that would produce breakdowns and malfunctions in machines made for some wonderful music. The circuits would have a ‘nervous breakdown,’ and afterwards they would be very relaxed, and it all came through in the sounds they generated.” When the scientist Morbius is being destroyed by his own mind as expressed through the alien machines, “that really was the Id/monster circuit dying at that point.” The sound of it burning out, live and irrecoverably.
The Krell machine cares for itself long after its creators have all been exterminated by the amount of power they’ve delegated to their machines. Norbert Wiener was fixated on the possibility that delegation of weapons control to machines running game theory models would likewise wipe out the human race. But in their studio, Bebe and Louis were inventing a different and more interesting kind of future, a greenhouse of messy, perverse electronics that coexist with us, a population of cybernetic familiars and kinds of minds all singing together.
Over almost twenty minutes, the accumulating patterns of Wim Mertens’s “Circles,” off the 1985 Maximizing the Audience, comes together around you not like an event but like a place. Scored for seven clarinets and a soprano saxophone, it’s the elapsed time of a winter sunrise at a remote latitude: blue ice, white light, silver clouds.
87 Clockers is a romance manga about overclocking computers – some quick searching will find the entire run
Hundreds of ancient earthworks in the Amazon
(Thanks for reading, as ever.)
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