Where the architect-composer Iannis Xenakis used probability, game theory, group theory, set theory, Boolean algebra, and computers to produce his scores, thus pioneering “stochastic music,” Cage composed “aleatoric music.” While stochastic and aleatoric forms of music both rely on chance procedures, aleatoric music eschews mathematics in favor of ancient divinatory devices like the I Ching.
Readied by Cage for further weirding, I tune in and listen to Alvin Lucier’s “North American Time Capsule 1967,” a 10-minute composition that neighbors a track by Cage on Side A of Extended Voices. The Lucier piece uses a vocoder designed by Sylvania Electronics Systems “to encode speech sounds into digital information bits for transmission over narrow band widths via telephone lines or radio channels.” Lucier says of the piece, “The performers are asked to prepare material using any sounds at all that would describe for beings far from our environment, either in space or in time, the physical, spiritual, social, scientific or any other situation in which we currently find ourselves.”
Thinking of 1967 as “situation,” I relate the song to the psychedelic consciousness of that year’s Summer of Love. Lucier worked at Brandeis, directing the University Chamber Chorus there from 1962 to 1970. While dwarfed in scale by hippie meccas like Berkeley, Brandeis was nonetheless an important independent nexus of sorts for 1960s consciousness. Abraham Maslow taught there during the 1950s and 1960s, as did Herbert Marcuse, who served as a faculty member at Brandeis from 1954 to 1965. Future Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman studied there, too, under both Maslow and Marcuse. Through Lucier’s time capsule, one becomes entangled again in that scene.
CCCC is an agency encountered or imagined by legendary scientist-psychonaut John Lilly. The latter claimed the group reached out to him in the early to mid 1970s through its local affiliate, the Earth Coincidence Control Office, or ECCO, while Lilly was studying dolphins and conducting experiments involving combinations of LSD, ketamine, and sensory deprivation tanks at his marine research lab, the Communications Research Institute, on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Erik Davis writes of Lilly’s odd experiences from this period in his book High Weirdness. Lilly wanted to communicate with dolphins, and Margaret Mead’s ex-husband Gregory Bateson assisted with funding. Lilly writes of his encounter with ECCO in his 1978 memoir The Scientist. His ideas informed the 1973 science fiction thriller The Day of the Dolphin starting George C. Scott, as well as the 1992 Sega Genesis videogame Ecco the Dolphin. Lilly also served as the basis for Dr. Edward Jessup, the mad professor character in the 1980 film Altered States. My sense of him follows a trajectory the exact opposite of Jessup’s: Lilly was a villain of sorts only in his early years. His research of the 1950s, funded by the military, was what we might call “MK-Ultra”-adjacent. Despicable acts like sticking wires into the brains of monkeys in the name of science. Yet Lilly rebelled, acquired a conscience, became a free radical of sorts. With commencement of his self-experimentation with psychedelics, Lilly transforms, becomes a rabbit hole of immense strangeness from the 1960s onward. Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog promoted Lilly’s books, especially Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer. A 1972 paperback edition of the latter features Brand calling it “The best internal guidebook I’ve ever seen—far more practical and generalized than transcendent Eastern writings or wishful Underground notes….It makes an open start on fresh language and powerful technique for the frontier.” By the latter, Brand means what? Some sort of moving boundary or threshold state, I guess, where through self-experiment with tools, subjects grow new organs.
Caught up on witches, let us sit with creatures and plot reading lists, end of schoolyear approaching. When time allows, we’ll plant our garden. Up onto the turntable I place an album from the 1960s folk revival, rescued from a bin at Goodwill: Mark Spoelstra’s Five & Twenty Questions.
Liner notes by counterculture folksinger and novelist Richard Fariña. The latter died tragically on April 30, 1966 in a freak motorcycle accident, two days after the publication of his novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. Fariña is the writer to whom Thomas Pynchon dedicates Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon had been best man at Fariña’s wedding to Joan Baez’s sister Mimi in spring of 1962. Along with the title track, other highlights on the Spoelstra album include “On the Road Again” and “My Love is Like a Dewdrop.”
Ellen Sander’s book Trips begins with a lovely dedication to “the incorrigible spirit of the Sixties; a seed planted, a weed grown, the promise, forever beckoning, of a garden.” That garden is the same one that beckons to us as the before and after of these trance-scripts. Sander was an early rock critic who covered the scene for Hit Parader, Vogue, and Saturday Review, among other outlets. Her book documents a change in awareness, the consequences of which continue to be felt today. She wrote in an age of bombs, flying saucers, superpowers, rock and roll groups — the same age of “high weirdness” analyzed by Erik Davis in his recent book of that title. These were the years when we first made contact — people of the world united in dance. Where has it led us, though? Localized changes, small but significant, keep me hopeful, each of us doing what we can. One of my nephews honors me, for instance, by adopting my habit of wearing colored Tyvek bracelets, the kind acquired as tokens of admission during visits to amusement parks, concerts, carnivals, and pools. It’s a quirk of mine, I guess — part freak flag, part makeshift memento mori — something I’ve been doing ever since I was a teenager. A modest bit of deviant self-fashioning.