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.
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