Stochastic Music

The university library here in town dumps a collection of LPs from its listening room. Out with the old, in with the new. I encounter them in the bins at Goodwill. To them by chance led. The ones I come away with are remarkable: compositions by the likes of John Cage, George Crumb, Alvin Lucier, Pauline Oliveros, Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Krzysztof Penderecki. One pursues one’s education here or not at all, thinks the Narrator.

“To Xenakis—as, indeed, to most philosophers—” writes Bernard Jacobson in his liner notes to one of the Xenakis LPs, “chance itself is a scientific concept.”  The reference to “chance” catches my eye, given that “hap” (a Middle English word meaning chance) has been a preoccupation of mine of late.

“Central among the scientific laws [Xenakis] has applied to music,” continues Jacobson, “is Bernoulli’s Law of Large Numbers, which provides that as the number of repetitions of a given ‘chance’ trial (such as flipping a coin) increases, so the probability that the results will tend to a determinate end approaches certainty. Hence Xenakis’s use of the term ‘stochastic’ music, which means probabilistic in the sense of tending toward a certain goal.”

Xenakis’s approach intrigues me. Yet what interests me most about “stochastic music” and stochastic processes more generally is that, despite their probabilistic nature, their behavior and outcome is intrinsically non-deterministic.

Tuesday June 1, 2021

We buy varieties of veggies and herbs plus a blackberry bush and a fig tree from a local nursery. Seedlings, mostly, though also some packets of seed. With a bit of digging, we plant these. With a bit more, I unearth several classic Blue Note jazz LPs on CD in the bins at Goodwill: Sonny Rollins’s A Night at the Village Vanguard, Freddie Hubbard’s Hub-Tones, and John Coltrane and the Thelonious Monk Quartet’s Live at the Five Spot: Discovery! Welcome additions, all.

Thursday May 27, 2021

It is the discussion of aesthetics in Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows to which I am drawn as I contemplate objects that have “come into appearance” at the level of the trash stratum. The book is one I gleaned just this morning from a bin at Goodwill. It begins with an appreciation for traditional Japanese architecture. Tanizaki mourns this architecture’s defeat by the trappings of modernity: electricity, lightbulbs, flush toilets. “A man who has a family and lives in the city cannot turn his back,” he writes, on these “necessities of modern life” (1). Places of beauty and meaning undergo “improvement.” Homes of paper shoji give way to homes of glass. This change provides the occasion for Tanizaki to reflect on “how different everything would be if we in the Orient had developed our own science” (7). “The facts we are now taught concerning the nature and function of light, electricity, and atoms,” he writes, “might well have presented themselves in different form” (7). ‘Tis a delicious thought. Tanizaki’s thought experiment supplies the premise for an alternate history. Tweak the premise a bit and you get Sesshu Foster’s novel Atomik Aztex. Or better yet, Foster’s latest book, ELADATL: A History of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines, co-written with Arturo Ernesto Romo.

Thursday August 1, 2019

Wise ones suggest that messages from beyond, furtive communications from a higher consciousness, are to be gleaned from their point of entry amid the trash strata of capitalist-realist everyday life. To perform this gleaning of meaning, we peer into the apparently random assemblages of this strata (in my case, the blue bins of a nearby Goodwill outlet, the blue skies of my locality), peering bemusedly at emergent patterns, teacherly anomalies, portals into novel domains. This is where Cosmos and Psyche manifest as acts of love. Today, for instance, the bins supply me with Pookah, a self-titled LP by a psychedelic, early prog group from 1969, as well as the debut LP by The Firesign Theater from two years prior. Weird stuff, for sure — some of it quite trippy, like Pookah’s “In a Field.” It’s also a bit scary at times — so when a bird arrives outside my window, I go out and follow it, a path disclosing itself as I walk. Before long, however, the path loops back and leads home again, where Sarah joins the quest. The two of us share reports of life’s bounty as we pass a garden hosting swallowtails and enormous drunken bumblebees, one of the latter conjuring in my mind a cartoon-rendered hippie van or microbus, a yellow one resembling the Mystery Machine from Scooby-Doo, bopping along, rubbery wheels bulging as it buzzes by.

Wednesday November 29, 2017

Stare at a downward-pointing stairwell long enough and mind will move matter. We masses will erupt from our seats and change our condition. Hit “play,” however, and the image stutters in uneven intervals. Patches of sunlight draw us outward. Another beautiful day. I smoke up in a nearby park and walk the perimeter of a lake. A way of forgetting the remaining workweek. Dead leaves — now fluttering, now sizzling — hang above me, in the wind, in the trees. Bicyclists whizz by like members of a different species. The city curves atop the underlying geography. A friend and I had speculated half in jest earlier about whether or not Ayn Rand owned pets — speculation inspired, no doubt, by the current tax bill. No way she could have cared for other creatures, we laughed — but apparently she fancied cats, and bragged that she could demonstrate “objectively” that cats have value. LOL. Her name turns up again, though, after the park. A middle-aged mohawked dude who I often see at Goodwill and who never fails to corner me and talk my ear off sidles over as he always does — this time announcing, however, that he’s looking for a copy of Atlas Shrugged. “Can’t help you with that,” I mutter, peering at the day’s findings. I leave the store afterwards bearing God Loves, Man Kills (an X-Men graphic novel from the 1980s that I remember reading as a kid), along with an early 2000s reissue of Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky, and several volumes of Marxist theory.

Greenbaum’s title track earned its hit status by turning cheery Christian piety into a divine, bluesy, highway-speed, hand-clapping bit of fuzz-pop. The album’s other great charmer, “Jubilee,” succeeds with roughly the same formula. Time, it says, can be spread like butter. Any time, any time at all. Mind removes itself, quickens its pace. I imagine a round white “start” button like the ones featured on old arcade cabinets. When I press it, the dream begins, projecting outward the world as seen.

Sunday November 12, 2017

Yesterday began with the rescue of Lou Reed’s Street Hassle and Steven Halpern’s Spectrum Suite, both of which turned up on vinyl mid-morning amid Mantovanian dreck in the bins at Goodwill. Afterwards, I drove to campus, my Horatian Ode derailed by mere rhetoric, the literary at odds with the fast-paced commercial. History as the text’s intertext, Trump’s America oozing into every moment of one’s embodiment in the present. Poet and fiction-writer friends read from their work. Pink light, concentrated into single beam. As day approached evening, the sky erupted into radioactive pink against an ever-deepening blue. Not too much more, too much more. Murky, kudzu-clothed shadow-trees hung over me, filling me with welcome reverence. In the moments before dark I forever and ever locked eyes in what I interpreted as a show of mutual respect with a cat in my neighborhood. The magic around me prepares to repeat itself for another season. I find meaning in this, the world’s parts become rhyme, no matter the slant. The day shapes what I write, and what I write shapes the day. What of the film version of Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur?

A loving assemblage of voices and impressions. What can be heard, though, when we go inward? No gurgling creek. Beatniks launch out on a weed-and-alcohol-fueled weekend romp. Kerouac’s alcoholism was the snake he invented to keep him from his own creation. To stave off death, he frames experience as the passage of a soul through its seasons. The postwar subject suffers its alienation from others via words. Whereas today’s suffers soul-death as perpetual contingent labor. Reality steals away from us our powers, our capacities, our faculties. One’s wit is applied to standardized drool, in a stalemate of crossed purposes: meum and tuum. Barely sensate, the one risks becoming by the other crushed underfoot. One must defend oneself, rise up, demand more.