Feeling compelled to participate in year-end list-making but harboring no pretension of comprehensiveness, I offer here a few short lists of musical things I heard & did & made & loved this year. It was a good one.
New Albums of 2013
Ken Thomson and JACK Quartet - Thaw
Notes and rhythms. Lots of them. Unaffected, unwarped, un“problematized,” notes and rhythms, played.
Spektral Quartet - Chambers
Textures and timbres. Lots of them. Mind-expanding, thought-provoking, consciousness-deepening. Carefully written, carefully played, carefully recorded.
Bill Callahan - Dream River
He had me at “the only words I’ve said today are ‘beer’ and ‘thank you.’” There is a special genre of fiddle playing; just a little bit out-of-tune. Just enough.
Dawn of Midi - Dysnomia
I looked up all of them.
Io, the innermost of Jupiter’s Galilean moons, was named for a lover of Zeus who was turned into a cow by Hera. Sinope is an “irregular satellite” of Jupiter, named for an uncertain character who may have been seized by Apollo, or tricked Zeus to remain a virgin. Atlas, of course, is the inner moon of Saturn, named for the Titan who holds up the earth. Nix is a moon of Pluto, discovered in 2005. She was the mother of Charon, the boatman of the underworld, and the goddess of darkness and night. Ymir, another moon of Saturn, was in Norse myth the ancestor of the frost giants. Ijiraq is a small moon of Saturn; in Inuit myth, a child-stealing shape-shifter. And Algol, a star in constellation Perseus, is known as the “demon star,” after the word “ghoul” in the Arabic tradition. It has been associated historically, in multiple cultures, with blood and violence. Astrologically it is considered one of the unluckiest stars in the sky.
Dysnomia itself has three meanings. An inability to remember words or names. The daughter of Eris, who was the goddess of chaos, strife, and discord. And a moon of Eris, the solar system’s largest dwarf planet. Eris was discovered in 2005, and it is roughly three times further from the sun than Pluto (far).
Dysnomia is a jaw-dropping debut album. Focused, deeply realized, completely unique and bracing and compulsively listenable.
Ashley Paul - Line the Clouds
A creaky-floored haunted house of a record, full of broken-music-box melodies. An album with holes in it where the wind can come through.
Wayne Shorter Quartet - Without a Net
I’ve adored Wayne Shorter’s recent band since I heard Footprints Live in 2005. The group is a standard-bearer of the sort of free-flowing explorative small-group jazz classically epitomized by Miles Davis’ second great quintet, the group that revealed the compositional force of Wayne Shorter in the 1960s. He’s still exploring, and this group’s communication and alchemy has grown only more powerfully subterranean in the past decade. “Pegasus” seamlessly weaves the Imani Wind Quintet into the proceedings to further widen the expressive palette. This record was the inspiration of my afternoon walks at the VCCA in February.
The Necks - Open
In December it got very cold. I insisted on going out walking every day, and when I got back in the low-gathering early darkness it was sometimes all I could do to get under some serious blankets and listen to this record. For a week or so, the length of that cold snap, I listened to Open repeatedly every evening, and a narrow but walkable path opened before me into 2014.
Eamon O’Leary and Jefferson Hamer - The Murphy Beds
Songs songs songs songs songs. Song. Sing. Songs.
Live Shows of 2013
Dave Douglas Quintet at the Green Mill, 12/7
I walked to the Green Mill by myself that night and gradually consumed three Alpha Kings, so I was loose, sitting RIGHT next to the stage, about five feet from the drums, and I wrote feverishly in my notebook between sets. “This is the real shit,” I scrawled. “The real thing. This wakes me up.” Every player in the band asserted a distinct personality in the kaleidoscopic flowing of things. At the eleventh hour they slipped in a warm and expressive version of “Whither must I wander,” from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel. This was one of those moments where the music seems directed at you personally. The rest of the crowd disappeared.
Shakey Graves opening for Shovels & Rope at the Metro, 9/26
It got a bit too packed for the main event, and the sound was not good, but as people were still filtering in, Shakey Graves played a solo set with his suitcase kick drum and guitar. Fantastic time feel, quirky, unexpected tempo modulations, and songcraft. He put on a show.
Martha Scanlan at SPACE Evanston, 11/20
Certain musicians invite you, with the intimacy and directness of their music-making, to address them on a first-name basis. This is common practice in the jazz world, where great, oft-discussed musicians are often referred to by first names or nicknames. When I looked back in my calendar to check the date of this concert, I was not surprised to see it marked as “Martha -- 8pm, SPACE.” This show took place in a recording studio in the back of the venue, where about 18 people sat to listen and the musicians conversed openly with us between songs. Warm, personal, lovely. I’ve been mounting shows lately, and it was important to be reminded that a larger audience does not necessarily make for a better experience.
Kalispell and Cuddle Magic at Music Means Family, 914 California, 11/13
The warmth of music-making among a few humans in the coldness of the city. Most of them knew each other already, and they were overjoyed to reconnect, to listen to each other’s songs, to hear how things were developing in each other’s musical worlds.
Sam Amidon at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 10/2
I’ve been a great admirer of Sam Amidon’s records, but it was never clear to me which specific credit belonged to Sam and which to Nico Muhly, who was responsible for the beautiful orchestrations, and (I thought, to some uncertain extent) for the arrangements. But in this solo set mostly comprised of old standards and unknowns, Sam played guitar and fiddle and banjo, and the personal level of his folk transformations became perfectly clear, his own humorous, musically deep personality totally palpable.
Meehan/Perkins Duo - Tristan Perich’s Qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq at Constellation Chicago, 8/25
Focus, focus, intensity of focus.
Owen Weaver and Vicky Chow playing Chris Cerrone / John Luther Adams at le poisson rouge, 4/22
This concert was a wonderful meeting-of-worlds between musicians I know and musicians who I admire but don’t know personally--in the audience as well as on stage. JLA has been a compositional role model since undergrad, and I’ve rarely had the chance to hear his music in live performance. Chris Cerrone is close to my own age, and I was touched by the warm, dusty, lived-in quality of his spectacularly-titled solo percussion piece Memory Palace. This intergenerational composer pairing offered some unique perspectives. I’d never thought of him this way, but JLA, as Chris pointed out to me, is essentially a modernist, at least insofar as he adheres to a purity of formalism in his music, a particular set of assumptions that Chris doesn’t share (and neither do I). This is not a criticism. I love JLA’s music and admire its precision and strength. But this night, I felt more personal resonance with Memory Palace’s formal scruffiness.
Karl Larson - Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories at Constellation Chicago, 11/3
We all sat for an hour and a half and listened to Karl play quiet music on the piano. It was completely impossible to determine how much time had elapsed, after a while. We fell into a more comfortable relationship with the music, freer of expectation; the music had been proceeding for a while, now, and would continue.
Old Albums of 2013
Thelonious Monk - Alone in San Francisco
Here is the sound of a composer at the piano. You can hear Monk thinking through each motion, savoring every chord change. At each final cadence, he adds a careful dissonance up high, plays it again, maybe a third time. This is a special recording that displays high-level jazz syntax encountering pure love of sound.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy - Master and Everyone
I listened to this record as I drove alone across the plains states from Iowa in a crooked line across Kansas to windswept eastern New Mexico. It sounds like he took a pile of half-written love songs and left them out in the rain. Now they are soggy and pulpy, but he sings them with perfect sincerity, holes and all. Sometimes the lyrics just stop. Often an idea or metaphor is half-formed. It feels more honest this way, like it is depicting things as they actually are, not as we usually imagine them in songs and stories.
Some Things I Did in 2013
I wrote a maritime mini-musical with my Grant Wallace Band brethren for ourselves and members of Ensemble Dal Niente. We’ll premiere it at Constellation Chicago on January 5th, as part of Chris Wild’s CD release concert. I’ll write more about this intensive collaborative experience soon.
“White Owl Invincible” music video
The first official demo from GWB’s upcoming album, “White Owl Invincible” is a murder mystery I wrote about a mountaintop cabin in the Gila, and we brought in our whimsically brilliant band artist Alex Mitchell to create an animated music video for it.
“The Game of 58 Holes”
This tale of a forgotten deity living alone in an abandoned city is another sample of the upcoming full-length from Grant Wallace Band.
In Banff in February 2012 I checked out an outsider art book and fell into the ornate drawings of Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930). I adopted his titles and atmospheres and wrote a few disembodied folk carols on the Yamaha upright in my little snowbeset studio hut. This year I properly recorded them on a beautiful Steinway.
To Evening Lands
At the wildly inspiring Ucross Foundation in March I wrote a short album called To Evening Lands. The recording will release come spring. Today I’m happy to unveil a preview, “The House.”
By these limits were they circumscribed and of them were they locus
The latest Golconda collection is named for a passage in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. These songs emanated from the New Mexico desert in summer 2012.
Commissioned by Singers on New Ground and the Poetry Foundation; text by Chloe Honum; composed at the VCCA in February; premiered at the Poetry Foundation in May; recorded at Experimental Sound Studio, Chicago, in December. Alison Wahl, soprano; Kate Carter, violin; Ammie Brod, viola.
Eric Malmquist’s Piano Sonata
I was honored to premiere this piece in May 2012, and this year I recorded it. It’s a kind and generous work, a joy to play and hear.
Words I Keep Using to Describe Positive Musical Experiences Lately
(or, Mantras for Music-Making in 2014)
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
-- T.S. Eliot
P. The Ferris wheel lifts you up and brings you down, while all the while you’re looking straight ahead. Cycles lift us from a place and return us to a place. Often to the same place. But we’re never the same person. When the music stops, you’re always a little bit older. You’ve lived a little more. You’ve seen some things.
In May of 2011 I drove from Iowa to New Mexico. It had been two years since I finished my Master’s degree and the same two years since I’d had any sort of reliable street address. It was a nomadic time, and I was tired. I’d just spent several weeks visiting family and composing a major new piece. When I set out for that summer’s travels I felt I was embarking on the final journey of a particularly adventurous chapter.
A long day’s drive brought me from Des Moines to a place called Black Mesa, in the extreme northwestern corner of Oklahoma. There aren’t too many great places to camp in that stretch of country. I’d traveled southern Iowa, the northwest bit of Missouri, and a bent line across the state of Kansas from KC down to the wide-open southwest.
There is a town down there in the flatness called Greensburg, Kansas. Around 800 people live there. In May 2007 it was hit by an EF5 tornado. 95% of the city was destroyed. When Greensburg rebuilt, they decided to make their town the greenest in the United States. All city buildings meet LEED-platinum requirements; they are the only city in the U.S. to do this.
You can’t help but notice this energy, as you drive through Greensburg.
I saw an icon on my map, indicating there was camping at Black Mesa State Park. As you cross into the Oklahoma panhandle, as far out-of-the-way as you are, you must go further out of the way to get to Black Mesa. In Boise City, you leave the highway and follow a county road that bends from west to north, skirting close to the spot where Oklahoma, Colorado, and New Mexico meet.
Black Mesa is a plateau covered with a layer of lava rock. It is the state’s highest point, at nearly 5,000 feet.
There is a feeling that you have entered an older, wilder West. One can easily imagine a cowboys-and-indians-style skirmish occurring there along the Dry Cimarron River. Ripped by arroyos and pockets of piñon/juniper forest, it’s a good area for hiding out. This part of Oklahoma was a mostly lawless area in the mid-nineteenth century, often called “No Man’s Land,” and several notable outlaws did set up hideouts near Black Mesa. William Coe and Blackjack Ketchum built a fort here called Robber’s Roost, which boasted a blacksmith shop and fully stocked bar with a piano.
Ketchum was apprehended following an attempted train robbery in 1899 and executed by hanging in nearby Clayton, New Mexico, two years later. His reported last words were a request to dig his grave “very deep.” Legend has it that William Coe’s gold is still buried somewhere near Black Mesa, in a place they called Flag Springs Arroyo.
Everything about Black Mesa is transitional; I’ve found it a perfect place to perch above the unknown. Ecologically it sits in a zone between the Rocky Mountains and the shortgrass prairies to the east. Many of the species there are at the westernmost or easternmost edge of their range. Mountain lions find their way down from the foothills, and horned lizards up from the deserts.
At this particular spot along the steady rise of the North American continent, none of our time zones particularly fit. Technically it’s in Central, but the Mountain time zone begins at the New Mexico border just a few miles west. Depending how you set your watch, it’s either a bit too early or a bit too late. Either one seems inaccurate, and you begin to distrust your timepiece. Nowhere else has so eloquently stressed upon me the essentially analog nature of time. Not a passing or a loss, and not essentially quantifiable. A slow and inexorable cycle of shifting light.
P. When we hear Jean Sibelius’ music we imagine the forests of Finland, when we hear Charles Ives we are transported to a New England town square; it may be that no recent composer has been so associated with a specific place than John Luther Adams has been with Alaska. It has made a useful and generally aesthetically appropriate marketing tool to describe Alaska as his muse and his broadly drawn compositions the result of time immersed in the forests and taigas.
But he wrote music before he got to Alaska, too. In the summer of 2008 Adams was working in his studio when he discovered a box of reel-to-reel tapes recorded in California in the early 1970s. The first was labeled “Scrap. Unknown.” The sounds on the tape were no less mysterious. Adams couldn’t tell what was forward and backward, nor could he determine the correct playback speed for his tape machine. He began to overlay new elements and ended up with two new pieces, In a Room and The Place We Began, which use material from the tape flowing in both temporal directions. In the former piece the music rises, in the latter it falls.
He explored the other tapes, resulting in two more pieces to complete an album he called The Place We Began. One tape contained electro-acoustic feedback designed to explore a room’s resonant frequencies. Another contained improvisations on Fender Rhodes electric piano and tam-tam. Another, the sound of rain collecting in pots and pans.
In a Room shapes feedback into a twelve-part motet. The Place We Began descends in the form of another twelve-part composition based on the same materials. It begins on the same pitch that closes In a Room and ends on the same pitches that begin it. At a Still Point transforms the Rhodes piano into a tempo canon. The same and similar sounds flow across the piece at tempos related by a ratio of 13:14:15:16. In the third piece, In the Rain, Adams built a series of veils and curtains from rain and metal sounds, behind which he “hid” recordings of one of his early compositions, also recorded in the early ‘70s.
The construction of those veils suggests the creation of space. More than any other composer, Adams’ music works on the level of geography. In a Room builds walls around the listener; one can feel the floor beneath and hear the reflections of the sounds around. Similarly, In the Rain too builds a space by projecting its boundaries, like Proust drawing a room by describing the narrator’s shadow on the wall.
In this music the past and present peaceably coexist, wrapped around and through one another like the Ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a serpent eating its own tail. It is a powerful symbol of something creating itself. It has been compared to the cycle of a day or year, the creative spirit of humanity, and was a crucial symbol for alchemists. Evidently in the jungles of South America it has been told that the flat, round world is everywhere encircled by a great snake, wrapped around everything with its tail in its mouth.
P. The story differs with the teller. We are in the Alps, we are in Hanoi, we are in Varanasi. A temple, a monastery, a church. A group of monks, or priests. Most popularly the story takes place in a Brahmin temple in India. Three wooden posts rise from the ground, and collected between them are sixty-four golden disks. Since time immemorial the priests have been moving these disks, one by one. They began on one post, stacked bottom to top from largest to smallest. Brahma has instructed them to transfer the disks to another post, stacked in the same manner. It is said that when the priests complete their task, the world will end.
We needn’t be overly worried about this eventuality. We’re not sure how long they’ve been at it, but even if they were flying right along, moving disks at a rate of one per second, and if they’re really good at the puzzle, never making a wrong or unnecessary move, it would still take them about 585 billion years to fully move and rebuild the tower.
The legend has inspired a popular toy--or perhaps it’s the other way around. The toy is usually called the Tower of Brahma or Tower of Hanoi. It can feature any number of disks; eight is a common ballpark, which makes the task much more reasonable than that of the priests.
585 billion years is a long time. It’s about 127 times the present age of the sun. The largest of these sixty-four golden disks would be heavy indeed and would surely take much longer than a second to transport; let’s multiply the whole thing by ten at least, and end up with a ballpark figure of 5.85 trillion years.
This is an unfathomable quantity to the Western mind, but not so for the Brahmin priests hard at their work. Hindu cosmology deals in numbers of this magnitude all the time.
There are different versions of this, but essentially we are dealing with an inconceivably broad set of nested time cycles in which the universe is continually created and destroyed.
So, Brahma made the universe. Each day, on Brahma’s time scale, a universe is created and destroyed. To our perception, each of these “Brahma days” lasts for around 4.3 billion years. Then Brahma sleeps for a night, which lasts as long as the day. This process continues for a full year of Brahma.
They actually have units for all this. 4.3 billion years, that day of Brahma, is also called a kalpa. 72,000 kalpas constitute a Brahma century, which in human terms lasts about 311 trillion years. This pleasurably baffling unit is called a Maha-Manvantara.
Now, Brahma is the creator, but not necessarily akin to the singular God of western thought. There are many creations, and accordingly many creators. That Brahma century is considered the lifespan of Brahma. After this “death” of Brahma, another 100 Brahma-years, another Maha-Manvantara passes before the cycle begins again. This has always been, and it continues infinitely in every direction.
To bring this back again to ourselves: return from the scale of a Brahma century to that of a Brahma day. Each Brahma day is divided into 1000 cycles. In each of these 4.3 million-year cycles, life begins and ends in the universe. A human race is created and destroyed. One thousand times. Every day.
The present idea is that we sit at around the 51st year of the present Brahma’s life, which puts us about 158.7 trillion years out from birth of Brahma, but hey, who’s counting. It is of course a convenient and tempting proposition at any moment in time to consider oneself and one’s position to be at the apex of experience and perspective, the accumulated result of past events, the point of saturation, the beginning of the Ferris wheel’s descent.
We always see ourselves at the center of the cycle, at the point of transition, at the moment of emergence.
P. The first crucial thing to know about Thoreau, New Mexico is that it is not named after Henry David. Its namesake was a local railroad baron, and the pronunciation is “thuh-ROO.” The Navajo is Dlǫ́ʼí Yázhí. I can’t begin to tell you how to pronounce that.
About 2,000 people live in Thoreau, though it’s hard to tell precisely where to stop counting. Population spreads thinly across the desert. The old Route 66 passes through town on its way between Gallup and Grants. Long, long trains pass by. The town sits in a valley below an escarpment of red sandstone. Above rises the Colorado Plateau and the San Juan basin stretching toward the four corners. Desert vegetation is sparse in the valley. To the south the land thickens with ponderosa forests and waves with the subtle foothills of the Zuni Mountains.
The Zuni are a small group, with 10,000 enrolled tribe members compared the neighboring Navajos’ 300,000. Archaeologists believe they have farmed in their current area for 3,000 to 4,000 years. Their language is an isolate. It has no known relationship to any other native American language. Linguists believe it to be some 7,000 years old.
The Navajo language, by contrast, is Athabaskan in origin. Related languages are spoken in Alaska and northwest Canada. The Navajo people are believed to have migrated from this area to the American southwest by around 1400 CE.
It must have been puzzling to arrive on the Colorado Plateau and find great cities, Chaco Canyon and outlying settlements, completely abandoned. The ancient Puebloan societies had left them a century or two before, for reasons uncertain but probably connected to drought, deforestation, and bad environmental management.
The ancestral Navajos, for reasons equally fascinating, chose not to occupy these elaborate buildings. The Puebloan cities remained empty and haunted, as they still stand today.
Thoreau is south of Chaco. As you pull onto Interstate 40, Mount Taylor rises to the east. This is one of the Navajos’ four sacred mountains, marking the cardinal directions and the geographical boundaries of the Navajo homeland. It is named of course for Zachary Taylor, who became U.S. President in 1849 after a long military career and died sixteen months later, his primary achievement being that the union did not fall apart during his presidency. To Spanish settlers in the area Mount Taylor was known by the somewhat lovelier Cebolleta (little onion). But the Navajo name is of course the most poetic: Tsoodził, the turquoise or blue bead mountain.
When you see this ancient volcano you are marked geographically and temporally; you see the past that is there with you.
East of Tsoodził, a wide volcanic field opens toward Albuquerque and the Rio Grande rift. To the south is the Malpais, a vast country of lava rock that flowed from the sacred volcano in the distant past. According to old Navajo stories, Monster Slayer and his brother Born for Water slew the last of the great alien giants atop Mount Taylor. The giant’s blood became the Malpais and his head rolled down Mount Taylor to land in the desert below. It is now known as Cabezon Peak, the field’s largest volcanic plug, rising 2,000 feet above the plains.
Highway 371 runs south from Farmington, where the high peaks of the San Juan Mountains loom across the border in Colorado, through the center of Thoreau and under Interstate 40. It becomes State Highway 612 and winds through a narrow canyon before opening to the Las Tuces Valley, where the Zuni Mountains begin to rise. The road continues to Bluewater Lake, a reservoir popular for fishing. In recent years’ droughts the water level has become too low to allow larger boats. Below the lake is Bluewater Canyon and another winding road into the Zunis.
Above the lake, a creekbed crosses the road. This is Sawyer Creek. Often, in recent years, no water runs here. Sometimes there is snow accumulation at Rice Park, site of a distant dam and occasional reservoir high in the Zuni Mountains. When they release this snowmelt in the spring, Sawyer Creek swells. The riparian zones along its banks are green, the meadows flood. This year New Mexico saw a historic monsoon season, and in September a string of rainstorms caused not just Sawyer but its nearby tributary, Once-in-Ten-Years Creek, to flow dramatically.
But I’ll always remember Sawyer Creek dry, the way I first saw it. I’ll always remember a dry, dry June, starchy white desert light hiding in the shade of the cottonwoods down by the creekbed. The crunch of the dry crackling pine needles on the ground. Otherworldly colors at dusk, as the sunset reached us through smoke floating over from the Wallow fire in Arizona. Walking down the driveway back across 612 in the profound breezy silence of mid-afternoon.
P. “Papa made that up, now, that last verse,” the lady says as she finishes her song. She and her sister were trading stanzas. Ohioan musician Brian Harnetty found this recording during his artist residency at the Appalachian Sound Archives in Berea, Kentucky. Each morning he entered the library and listened to old tapes all day. He treated it as a 9-5 job. The archives document Appalachian life and culture and include recordings of music, storytelling, radio programs, and speeches.
And in the sound of these stories, in the deep hesitations in the speakers’ voices, in the space between the verses, in each forgotten lyric, Harnetty heard music. He heard isolated picked notes from the guitar and banjo, he heard quiet drums. He heard the voice of Will Oldham, also known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy. He began to dream of working with the singer-songwriter to make music based on the Berea archive’s field recordings.
They corresponded for a while, but schedules didn’t immediately align. In 2006 Harnetty released an album called American Winter. It begins from the Berea recordings, with strips of Harnetty’s own music wrapped around the source material and through the holes in its center. The field recordings are the body of the album. The original music mostly ornaments them.
There was more to be said and sung from the library in Berea. For Silent City, Harnetty’s 2009 release, Will Oldham joined the process. The field recordings are not the proper body of the album this time, more its quiet heart, not always visible but always beating below the surface.
The record opens with soft harmonium blankets and grows to patchy drumbeats and piano patterns. It isn’t until the end of the first track that we hear a field recording, a splash of old fiddle music. In American Winter the question was whether Harnetty’s music grew from the field recordings or simply commented upon them from a detached position, accentuating certain elements. In Silent City the relationship is more complex, a knotted symbiosis in which the music is inspired by the field recordings, and yet the field recordings themselves seem to grow up out of the music, the 1940s springing from the 2000s like aspen saplings in hard mountain soil.
Oldham’s entrance in the fourth track, “Sleeping in the Driveway,” is a decisive moment of arrival. It occurs to me now that the album bears a dramatic structure like a subtle baroque cantata. The first two pieces are instrumental, a prelude and a chorus; the third introduces the album’s first voice, a radio announcer speaking a brief recitative. Then at last, with the first appearance of Oldham, we get a proper aria. He sings on only three of the album’s twelve tracks, but his presence lingers remarkably where he is absent.
The composer John Cage famously suggested, in his music and writings, that true silence doesn’t exist, that if we listen in the right places there is always sound, always music. Silent City makes the opposite case. Harnetty begins from sound and dismantles it. He uses sound to create a texture that feels a lot like silence.
“Well, there’s a lot of stories,” an older man says to a younger interviewer. “I can remember one of them. Now, this is not really a...It is a story, but it’s an actual story.” The breaks in his speech, which might be described as proper silences, are more dramatic, more poignant, more silent because there is music, because there are quiet tones sustaining and distant plucks on the banjo punctuating the time between his statements.
P. The great physicist Enrico Fermi thought it was always a good idea, before experimenting on a vexing question, to make as an informed an estimate as possible. Even in the absence of any reliable information on the subject, working through an estimation can identify the general magnitude of answer one is looking for, help illuminate the most relevant missing information, and identify underlying assumptions that might be clouding one’s foresight on the issue.
Such an approximation is now often called a Fermi problem. One famous example: how many piano tuners are there in New York City?
Well, how many people are there in New York City? Say, around ten million. And how many have a piano? One in forty? One in fifty? Let’s be optimistic and say one in forty. That makes 250,000 pianos in the city. Perhaps they get tuned once a year, on average. This makes 250,000 piano tunings total. One could continue: how many working days a year per piano tuner, how many pianos can they tune each day, and so on. Eventually you end up with a respectable guess, or one that at least puts you in the right numerical neighborhood.
In 1961 an astrophysicist named Frank Drake used a Fermi-like method of approximation to determine roughly how many intelligent civilizations might exist in the Milky Way galaxy. Again, he did so not to seek accuracy, but because he was curious what sort of answer we could expect.
Drake formulated the question as an equation. The calculation of galactic civilizations with whom communication might be possible depends on the total number of stars, the fraction of those stars that have planets, the likelihood that any given planet can support life, the fraction of those planets which actually DO develop life, the fraction of life that might become intelligent and form civilizations... and such. These are intimidating factors. They make our ignorance regarding the daily activities of piano tuners seem relatively inconsequential.
The Drake equation has therefore been more an object of contemplation than of calculation. Which is not to say that calculation hasn’t been attempted. In 1961, Drake and his colleagues debated each factor and ended up with an estimate of between 1000 and 100,000,000 civilizations in the Milky Way. Not just civilizations, again, but intelligent civilizations. Civilizations that we might conceivably communicate with.
One of the more evocative and controversial factors proved to be the shelf life of any given civilization--because ultimately to be included in the Drake equation a society must not merely exist, but exist long enough to develop interstellar communication. Astronomers such as Carl Sagan, theorizing during the Cold War, were understandably suspicious of any complex society’s ability to survive for this length of time without self-destructing.
Nonetheless, three zeroes or eight, the Drake equation seems to yield a fairly large number. Undoubtedly, the universe is old and incomprehensibly large. Statistics suggest that we are not alone, and yet we have seen no evidence whatsoever of the existence of any of these 1000 or 100,000,000 civilizations who supposedly share our galaxy. This odd state of affairs has been referred to as Fermi’s paradox, after a conversation at Los Alamos in 1950. A group of physicists were casually debating the likelihood that human beings would observe extraterrestrial activity of some sort in the next ten years. Some hours later, while silently eating lunch, Fermi perked up and exclaimed, “Where is everyone?”
P. Iowa is underrated. People who only see it from the highway associate it with industrial agriculture, with the vast and hideous monocultures that cover about 60% of the state’s area. There is more. Iowa is not primarily flat. It is mostly rolling hills. Just a few hundred years ago it was covered with tallgrass prairie and savanna, and there was substantial forestation. There is not much evidence left of this not-so-distant past. Protected areas are rare within the state. Just 1% of its lands are publicly owned, ranking it 49th in the country.
The state parks that do exist, I’ll attest, are always small but usually quite nice. There is a place called Maquoketa Caves. It sits in the geological Driftless Area, which stretches from northeast Iowa into southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin. In the most recent ice age, when glaciers flattened much of the surrounding country, the plateau of the Driftless Area remained unaffected. As a result it still displays ancient erosion patterns, dramatic hills and deep river valleys. The bluffs along the Mississippi River here reach heights of around 600 feet.
During this ice age, unbothered by glaciation, little Raccoon Creek was doing its slow work, sculpting a karstic canyon that now features features thick forests on the surface and a complex hidden world beneath. Beautiful limestone cliffs rise from the creekbed. There are fourteen named caves and the suggestion of countless others. Raccoon Creek runs directly through the evocatively named Dancehall Cave, a tall cave about 1100 feet in length. A small opening not more than two feet high opens from one cliff face. This is Wye Cave. It is narrow but long and deep. Recently two explorers became trapped 300 feet below ground in Wye. It took twenty hours to extricate them. Lack of oxygen in the cave was a concern during the rescue effort.
I camped there once, with high school friends, the summer after our first year in college. We arrived piecemeal in different vehicles throughout the afternoon. We explored the caves. I documented the day on a toy digital camera I’d received as a gift after serving as an usher in my sister’s wedding that same month. I took eighteen pictures. They’re terrible. But they do show blurry, lush forest scenes, and they show blurry old friends in the full thrall of goofing around.
I injured my shoulder in a fall in Wye Cave, which really shouldn’t be explored by three people with only one flashlight. Later that night we sat around the fire, hemmed in all around and above by dense forest. When I ponder the definition of friendship, I still consider that evening and the torrential flow of conversation that took place, less a creek and more a floodplain. Adult concepts such as “having things in common” we were not so concerned about, partially formed post-adolescents that we still precariously were. The one discussion around the circle that I still precisely recall, and will never forget, centered on the question of which species, in all the wide animal kingdom, that one would choose to be eaten by. My shoulder hurt terribly. It was one of the worst nights of sleep I’ve ever had.
Another state park in eastern Iowa is a place called Palisades, near my hometown, along the Cedar River. It seems smaller but isn’t--840 acres to Maquoketa’s 323. It began as a summer getaway in the 1890s with an inn and private cottages. Poet Carl Sandburg was a yearly visitor for some time. It became a park in 1922, and during the Great Depression a camp of the Civilian Conservation Corps was established there. As many as 200 workers lived at the park from 1934 until 1941 and built roads, trails, and a lodge.
I remember a night there one autumn in high school, with friends from the summer camp where I worked. It was that surreal experience of seeing a group of people associated with one specific place and time in another context and discovering that the connection between you, though deep, extends in only one dimension. It’s deep, but not long or wide.
A ways south, not at all convenient to Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, or any other population centers, there is a town called Fairfield. Growing up, I heard of Fairfield as the location of a phony school that purported to teach people to levitate. This is not an entirely charitable way to describe the Maharishi University of Management, an accredited institution founded in 1974 by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (yes, the one the Beatles hung out with). The Maharishi developed the technique of Transcendental Meditation, which boasts celebrity adherents as diverse as Russell Simmons, Jerry Seinfeld, and David Lynch.
And all these people come to Fairfield, Iowa for events promoting meditational practice. It isn’t immediately clear why Maharishi University is there, beyond the fact that in 1974 there was a bankrupt college in Fairfield whose campus was evidently available for purchase on the cheap.
Let me paint you a picture. You drive out of Iowa City into cornfields. Highway 1 dips to meet the English River, a tributary of the nearby Iowa River. There are some fetching hills and forested areas. You pass through Kalona, home of the state’s largest Amish community and a great deal of quilt-making. More cornfields. The town of Washington fails to make much of an impression. There is another town in there someplace. You will recall charming main-street downtowns, but not much else. You pass the Skunk River, which is more picturesque than its name would suggest. Cornfields. Perhaps you are listening to a podcast, in your vehicle. As the sunset melts toward the far horizon that meets the corn, your mind begins to wander.
And then, on your left, there are two immense golden domes. You have arrived in Fairfield. A few blocks further and there is an organic food market. Sleepy, shady avenues lined with bungalows. Around the stately, classic town square in the gathering dusk there are people about, and within view are a selection of vegetarian Thai and Indian restaurants. It is still a small Iowa farm town. But new-age culture has settled in, and now the two coexist.
To be fair, the golden domes are in fact primarily used for a technique called Yogic Flying, which evidently involves hopping while seated in lotus position. It is uncertain whether this is designed to lead to proper levitation. It does supposedly enhance mind-body connection and allow one to think on a higher state of consciousness. Transcendental Meditation advocates argue that a larger number of people thinking in this manner enhances peaceful energy in the world. This sort of thing really enrages scientists.
There is also a town nearby called What Cheer. I just have to mention that.
P. For decades, any mention of Paul Lansky has described him as a prominent composer of computer music. Things have taken something of a turn, though, since 2001. Now, of all things, the name Radiohead often follows.
Their song “Idioteque,” from Kid A, is based on a sample from Lansky’s piece mild und leise, from 1973. It was actually his first piece written with computers. He used an IBM 360/91, which was developed in 1966 and is one of those computers the size of a room. Lansky recalls it as the only computer in Princeton in 1973. It had one megabyte of memory and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. A whole staff was required to operate it. Poignantly enough, mild und leise is based on the famous “Tristan chord,” a beautifully enigmatic sonority from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.
Legend has it that Radiohead--who did diligently ask Lansky for permission to use the sample--still offers the composer free concert tickets each time they tour the states.
Lansky has taught at Princeton for some time. His music grew to incorporate vocal samples and other non-electronic sounds. He achieved significant renown in the circles of academic music.
And then a decade or so ago, at around the age of sixty, he made an interesting change. It was the reverse of Dylan’s ‘65 Newport set: Lansky went acoustic. He gravitated away from computer-based composition and began to compose lithe and beautiful works for acoustic instruments.
In 2005 he wrote a percussion quartet called Threads. The piece departs quietly but dramatically from the percussion ensemble tradition. In its pioneering works by composers like Edgard Varese and John Cage, percussion music was proudly ostentatious and noisy. Threads, by contrast, is understated, lucid, transparent. Unlike those early works, it has no historical ax to grind, no major musical movements to react against. It has a subtler statement to make. And it electrified the percussion world. Everyone wanted to play Threads.
In 29 minutes the music sinuously shifts its focus from metal sounds to drums through a category of non-traditional instruments like glass bottles and ceramic flower pots. A basically melodic “thread” of simple musical ideas carries the piece through this timbral and dynamic continuum. Its rhythmic force is often quite restrained, again unusual for percussion music. There are moments of simple quarter-note and eighth-note pulses. But I’ve not heard anyone describe the piece as “minimalistic.” It covers a great deal of ground, almost a modest little compendium of percussion-ensemble strategies.
P. How many colors do you need to make a map? We easily ignore the fact that it is colors, not shapes, that make a map perceptible. Colors are the way we separate its regions, the way we differentiate one state from the next. Without colors it’s all just one country. So how many colors do you need to make a map in which no bordering countries share the same color?
It turns out you need four, though this was difficult to prove with any mathematical rigor. Some maps can be drawn with just three. A theorem suggesting that five colors are sufficient is easy enough to prove. But getting it down to four was a task.
The “four-color theorem,” as it became known, was first proposed formally in 1852. There is a curious and fetching exception in cases of “bizarre maps” whose regions have, for example, infinite perimeter. It also technically requires that each country is a simple and contiguous region, uninterrupted by other countries’ lands or by water.
Over its first century the theorem gained infamy for the large number of false proofs and false counterexamples it attracted. The generally accepted proof arrived in 1976 courtesy of a pair of mathematicians at the University of Illinois. It was the first major proof completed with a high degree of computer assistance. They generated a certain (high) number of distinct map possibilities, which the computer checked one by one. This effort took the machine roughly 42 days of computation. Some, but not all, of the work was checked by hand. This section of the proof runs to over 400 pages.
There was controversy stemming from the use of the computer; not all of the mathematical community was immediately willing to accept it. Errors were uncovered and addressed, but the basis of the proof has remained. Other, simpler proofs have emerged. It remains the case that we only need four colors.
Unless our map is shaped like a Klein bottle or Möbius strip, in which case more are probably necessary.
The theorem has really been of no interest, oddly enough, to professional mapmakers, who have no particular reason to limit their color palette to four or five. Most maps use far more shades than this.
Recently a great deal of press has descended upon an Oregon cartographer named Dave Imus. He drew a map of the United States. It won a major award: “Best of Show” from the Cartography and Geographic Information Society. This award usually goes to large institutions like National Geographic. Imus worked alone.
He had worked as a cartographer for over thirty years before starting this map. Even after winning the award, he was $117,000 in debt from the two painstaking years he spent working on the map seven days a week. Then Slate published an article, NPR covered him, and suddenly he had sold over 10,000 copies.
Most wall maps use different colors for each U.S. state, in the manner suggested by the four-color theorem. If they don’t paint the whole shape of the state, they at least include strips of differing colors on each side of each state border. Imus’ map uses thick state borders but colors each state identically, allowing color gradations to be used for other sorts of geographical differentiation.
Imus’ map is celebrated not for precision or comprehensiveness. These things are easily achieved by computers. And Imus did work on a computer, but the level and choice of details and information--these things he decided himself. The fifty states everyone has to include. But which towns make the cut and which don’t? What attractions from a given city should be shown? What topographical details are important? Elevation, forests? A computer algorithm can easily separate cities by population and parks by area. But it might not know about Maquoketa, about Fairfield. It has not been down in Wye Cave, nor seen the golden domes.
10 Best of 2014
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February: New Mexico and the Holes
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