Walking late one afternoon after a day deep in Cognitive Systems and Resilience Engineering workshops, chatting with one of the eminent researchers in the field, the conversation circled around common ground in joint activity and social-technical systems sharing qualities with music ensembles. I remember agreeing how some uncategorizable thing exists on both sides as an outcome, where a result far greater than merely the sum of its parts occurs.
Music isn’t just the combination of the instruments, it’s the way in which humans push their operation forward through time both creating and adapting to the music and each other simultaneously. I feel like adaptive capacity in a resilient system works much the same way, and this workshop helped confirm my thinking. Here are some reflections about how it forged new connections between my Ops mind and my Musical one (which are not that far apart already).
What is this thing?
I’ve learned that I have latched onto bits of information when discovering. Something will catch my eye or ear and make a little meerkat synapse in my brain stand up and look around and go, “hold up, what’s that?” It’s probably the element of my psyche that drives my vinyl record store diving. I am not sure I would have never become the Paul Bowles fanatic I am without first hearing “Tea in the Sahara” by The Police in the ’80s. Never would have come across the thinking of Gilles Deleuze while studying music if I didn’t ask myself “why is this record label called Mille Plateaux?”
A Thousand Plateaus (1980) is a tome Deleuze penned with Félix Guattari that discusses artists, musicians, psychoanalysts, historians and all sorts of other things having to do with asking questions about reality. It’s heady, as metaphysics and social philosophy tend to be, but one takeaway I like is that ‘experience’ necessarily includes the novelty of ideas and actions. That means newness. Discovery! An expansion of knowledge, an unbounded dimension of insight, an openness to adapt, embracing the unknown and the unexpected.
In fact, later that workshop evening, as a bunch of Human Factors geeks had drinks in a hipster place with fake wood stoves, I learned of someone who has done recent research on cognition in jazz improvisation. Wonderfully adjacent to my own interests, and I may have never heard about it under other circumstances. I love these tendrils of discovery, and it’s those veins of potentials that Deleuze is suggesting belong to a Body without Organs.
Regardless of whether Deleuze speaks of art, philosophy, or science, his view emphasizes that we are the most interested in how something works. In fact real work – the things you and I do every day to complete our job titles – cannot be separated from the surprises and adjustments that lie therein. Any number of virtual possibilities potentially describe our engagement with a complex system beyond its components, beyond its recognizable organs and their describable arrangement.
I’m no philosophy student, so an evaluation of metaphysics isn’t my goal here. Nevertheless, when I perceive new angles of thinking about things in different ways, I jump on them as opportunities to discover something about a topic through following a different, sometimes oddball, perspective of that topic. Again, the latch-and-tendril effect. In the spirit of Mille Plateaux, I will proceed dutifully Postmodern and arbitrarily decontextualize a bit I can latch onto!
I have already mentioned the Body without Organs (BwO). It is a strange concept, and not one that I immediately grokked (the wikipedia entry may help). However, on that day of Cognitive Systems workshops, I learned that there was actually an entire discipline built around the indeterminacy that I loved to see in nature and society and the things we build and operate. Suddenly, I knew the BwO better. The uncertainty of the world practically describes it, so I began to wonder how it relates and connects things outside of metaphysics. Like musical improvisation and resilience engineering.
The BwO is one way to think about the thingness of complex systems beyond their components, where effects and outcomes may be more interesting than systemic organ function. That sounds like the opposite of a thing, but that’s the point; it’s not the thing, but beyond the thing. The thing has limited, if any, control over what its BwO looks like.
For my purposes, it resembles inherent Chaos. For instance, it is not that outside agents cause this of their own unpredictable accord (“our users/jr.engineers give us this already”), but that combinations of all factors create unpredictable outputs at the boundaries of competence. There’s just no way of knowing, but there are potential possibilities.
When the thing is a complex socio-technical system, we already know that diversity and collaboration help understand it well beyond its organs. More expansive than just a “whole that is greater than the sum of its parts”. The result of the complex system is a condition that only exists in real-time, and is ultimately empirical and practical in application; it simply cannot exist contained within a theory or design.
This is “the practice of practice” that guitarist Derek Bailey ascribes to the music in his book Improvisation. It does not exist outside of its practice, it is beyond just musicians and any score. The music itself is not a combination of elements and not more than the sum of its parts, indeed that implies a linear relationship and a known quantity! Instead, it is expansive along the various potential faultlines of novelty and experience set before it.
My mentor and musicology professor in grad school would always pronounce that word like “thhheeeaoryy” and we’d laugh and go about our day putting screws between piano strings. So keep in mind that these examples are not so much about the metaphysical concept of the Body without Organs, but rather how I’ve recognized its qualities in other disciplines, outside of theory.
The Cognitive Systems workshop introduced me to a wonderful talk by another researcher in Resilience Engineering, Dr. Richard Cook (Adaptive Capacity Labs), titled Bone is Resilience. He shows how adaptive capacity among interoperable body systems continuously regenerate and strengthen bone as the result of a complex system. It involves everything from diet and vitamin intake to blood circulation and bone marrow operation, not to mention each of those systems, in turn, all cooperate with other systems that would seem to have nothing to do with bone growth. These are all quite literal organs. What’s not codified as an organ, or otherwise described as one, is the result of what happens when bones build robustness along lines of stress, heal fractures, or even just grow in a world dominated by gravity. Bone system adaptation along the axis of time is descriptive of a Body without Organs.
Another example that comes to mind is the notion that work-as-planned is never work-in-practice. Rather than say “all models are false”, maybe it makes more sense that all models aren’t models unless they contain a BwO, or the real work of the system, its potentials. Which of course requires the existence of a ‘non-static model’ to differentiate it from the system-as-designed (i.e. work-as-planned). If the system-as-designed is the organs, elements of putting these organ-ic systems into practice comprise the non-static model, which includes its Body without Organs.
A crucial lesson from the workshop is the idea that what we’re studying when we analyze why a complex system fails is the same domain as what happens when it succeeds. Bob Edwards (Human & Organizational Performance Coach) taught and talked about this, putting it beautifully: “To understand failure, study success. The same things that are there when failure happens are the same things that are there when success happens.” Including all potentials on the same stratum, success or failure, is descriptive of a Body without Organs.
Finally, improvisational music is squarely in this realm. The obvious answer is, well of course it is! Mental models and Bailey’s “practice of practice” are quintessentially BwO domains. They are defined by the novelty of their creation in each individual, and when combined with other individuals create a much greater understanding of the whole. The ongoing collaborative understanding of a complex system as it changes and adapts is descriptive of a Body without Organs.
Practical Postulating Virtual Potentials
What I’ve been describing in these examples that include virtual potentials (i.e. indeterminacy or unknown unknowns) is described by Deleuze as a ‘Healthy BwO’. They are non-static planes of existence, fluid and open to reframing and adaptation. Not necessarily bad, not necessarily good. Just all bits of the same virtual potential, creating new knowledge.
The goals behind adaptive approaches to managing complexity consider this. A central workshop motif was our everchanging, adaptive world. My interests over the years have resonated with this, I am fascinated with discovery and change, and realize a lot of my art – visual and sonic – reflects that.
My current work interests follow the same themes, most certainly Chaos Engineering. Its goal is not to cause damage or create chaos, but to employ careful experimentation to examine what Dr. David Woods calls the system’s graceful extensibility, and how it is exposed during the loss of integrity at an operational boundary. These distributed systems we build quickly corporate a Body without Organs almost merely by their variable nature alone, any observation is one in the past, we cannot know the state of the system. As they begin operating at boundaries of competence, they encounter novel modes of potential, whether it be an outage or a surprise efficiency. Chaos Engineering experimentation really becomes a window into the BwO, not an element of it.
The Equality of Immanence
When you think that this thing has both good and bad stuff in it, and they’re both as variable as the other, it comes pretty close to another feature of Deleuze called the ‘Plane of Immanence’. That sounds lofty, but it’s the opposite. It simply means one thing: life, death, consciousness, spirituality, all of it is equal in the same metaphysical flux. None of it ‘transcends’ any other bit of it. This struck me as similar to the ‘new view’ of safety espoused by Sydney Dekker, where there is no such thing as a transcending root cause explanation like human error. The alternative is what Deleuze might call a ‘Cancerous BwO’: petrified regeneration of static patterns, recursive and stuck in linearity. I would certainly say the ‘5 Whys’ and ‘Root Cause Analysis’ are elements of a pathologically cancerous Body without Organs.
The Healthy BwO concept, even as an allegory, makes sense in our adaptive world. The way to survive an environment that is constantly changing isn’t to create barriers and simplifications, but to embrace its Immanence and maneuver complexity with diverse perspectives instead of fighting it, because virtual potentials will happen whether we like them or not.
The most memorable lesson I got from the workshop is that there is a simple answer to complexity: Let it happen.
Plenty of people who work in technology are musicians. Plenty of humans are musicians, and all of us are listening, even those who cannot hear. In my travels through datacenters and software, I have come across musicians like myself who have not only done double-duty with their computer science and creative lives but also relate and interweave them. If they’re like me, they cannot break them apart. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of us. We all have different stories, came into the worlds of music and of technology from different angles and different backgrounds.
I’ll hazard a guess that when you think about the words music and technology together, it’s likely you’re thinking about music technology. This isn’t surprising, a great deal of music technology surrounds the production, performance, and recording of music. Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), studio recording, guitar pedals, analog control voltage synthesizers, DJ decks, Ableton Live, Max/MSP, Joe Armstrong running Erlang on Sonic Pi… the list goes on and gets fractally esoteric. All great examples of technology facilitating the art of music, but I’m interested in what’s happening the other way around.
The original impetus for this post was a comment someone made that raised an eyebrow… it made me briefly question the ideas I have about the field of resilience in distributed systems somehow relating to music. But humans share such an indisputably organic relationship with music and musical training that I knew I wasn’t just some crazy person, the connection was there and it was real. How else do I have the job I have now? This pushed me to want to find others that share my views on the close relationship music has with software and operational reliability.
Take Chloe Condon (Dev Advocate at Microsoft), a self-described recovering musical theatre actress. Now, my musical theatre training and tastes are preeetty specific, but I can relate. She pulls her theatre training into her work unforgivingly, and that is awesome because I fear that. Inspiringly passionate about the connections between her performing arts expertise and working in tech.
Recently chatting with her at SCaLE, Chloe clued me in about someone close to my wheelhouse: “Opera Singer turned Software Engineer” Catherine Meyers. Her Mozart could’ve been an Engineer talk correlates music theory and counterpoint to building software. She emphasizes the similarities of pattern recognition between the two disciplines, especially as it relates to learning. Preparing a new piece or constructing a score interpretation is 100% relatable to the software engineer learning a new language or building in a new framework. I especially love how she emphasizes the importance of having different types of minds together in one group, in other words, don’t be afraid to hire a music major.
These folks that are trained in synchronizing common ground through the experience of playing in musical ensembles carry a distinct advantage. Diversity and communication are the trademarks of both successful musical groups and software teams. Establishing common ground through shared learning is crucial to the modern team building and operating distributed software. It is obvious to me that ensemble music not only relates to complex systems but also to highly coordinated teamwork, to wit:
I’ve conducted marching bands, wind ensembles, and jazz bands... They are complex, highly interdependent systems.
This couldn’t be more true! I have been in an experimental vocal trio, a free improv quintet, a blues band, a jazz group, an early music ensemble, a 330 piece marching band, uncountable operas with full orchestra and cast, chorales of few to many, piano accompanists by the dozen. There is nothing in any of these situations that doesn’t require common ground and shared experience.
In her blog post, The Origins of Opera and the Future of Programming, Jessica Kerr (Lead Engineer at Atomist) introduces the concept of symmathesy, a state of collaboration that is integrated with learning, all as part of the system (even the tools are team members). She does so by taking us back to the foundations of modern opera in Italy, adeptly adopting the term ‘camerata‘ from the Florentine Camerata example she uses, applying it next to social circles of painters and artists in later centuries, and then to teams creating software. She considers how our mental models evolve and how common ground is reached through the shared experience of a varicolored team from all sorts of different backgrounds, ultimately making the team more powerful. “We are developing whole new ways of being human together” she states, and to me, that’s nowhere more clear than with multi-disciplinary collaboration.
The CS / Math / Music crossover is clearly one I have encountered a lot, from early on. While I was studying voice and music technology in undergrad, I vividly remember walking with a good friend in downtown Blacksburg, and her saying to me “I could never major in music, there’s too much math.” I used to laugh at this because there’s really only as much math as that you wish to encounter. Want to dive into tempered tuning and Kepler’s mathematical ratios for perfect fifths? Go for it. But you know, these days I look at that statement through different lenses. Yes, there is just enough math! And if you study music, you may run the risk of studying computer sciences. * Please be aware that some practitioners of both have reported sudden bouts of inspiration and lightheadedness due to euphoric discoveries that cross disciplines.
On the subject of cross-discipline study…
I find a lot of what of I learned in music performance transfers directly to public speaking.
As a student of opera, I couldn’t agree more. Long ago I had a theatre teacher tell me “you will never be happy not onstage.” I didn’t know what she meant until I myself experienced exactly the same kinds of challenges and rewards with giving talks and public speaking as I did singing Mozart or Fauré in front of large audiences. I discovered that my experiences onstage presenting music are exactly the same headspace as when I’m talking in front of a room of computer people about distributed systems.
When I gave my talk Measuring Distributed Databases Across the Globe at Southern California Linux Expo 13x (2015), a very enthusiastic artiste-cum-techie approached me afterward. They had decided to move into software engineering after art school and said my talk, which combines theories and ideas in music with those of observing and operating huge distributed databases, was inspiring. They had been trying to reconcile their internal ‘artistic identity and self’ with their passion for coding, and I had opened their eyes to a new way of considering it.
I will never forget this. It was exactly like having someone come up after one of my experimental music performances (which are also heavy with technology) being blown away and asking how things worked. Even if one mind out of a thousand is influenced by what I’m doing, whether it’s music or technology, I’m building the camerata through sharing.
Eureka! The audience contributes to symmathesy, too. There are tons of examples; the feedback of a crowd during a DJ set, participants of David Tudor’s Rainforest, someone opening a candy wrapper at the symphony. There’s no getting away from the audience, however small. John Cage preached throughout his career as an avant-garde composer: listeners are participants. Every performance is something new because there are different people in different places every single time. The title of this piece is a play on Cage’s Musicircus, an amalgamation of disciplines and performers occupying the same large space together with the audience.
So consider the sheer experience of music and how it feels oddly in-step with how we think about technology, and take it one step further. Many of us trained in the practice of music consider it so much a part of our bones that it seeps into our work, we don’t have a choice, the pattern recognition pathways seem to match up. They fit into our psyches in a comfortable way, share the same affinity for abstractions, incorporate complex and overlapping systems that stretch the human capacity for comprehension.
Do I have an aptitude for music because I’m successful in understanding the practical application of complex things? Or do I have an aptitude in technical operations because I have been trained in music and theatre arts? Doesn’t it make sense that the diversity of music is a human quality, not a disciplinary one? Why should our work as computer scientists, software engineers, database operators, and network gurus be any different?
Temple Grandin talks about the world needing all kinds of minds. In her view, different people fall amongst three “categories” of thought: Picture (common on the autistic spectrum), Pattern (code, math, music), and Verbal (writers). It resonates with me a great deal because I always feel like I’m thinking in ways others are not. More specifically, though, it underlines how different styles of thinking can bring entirely new perspectives on a particular question, and how crucial diversity is to human endeavor, if not evolution itself.
This post started out as me being passionate about a subject and wanting to search for others who were. I had some bullet points of my own to insert, but as I searched and connected with others in the field, I learned new things and this blog transformed from a list of Twitter handles to real human relationships. I have grown to understand what Kerr means when she says that ideas are for sharing and collaboration, not hoarding and heroism. I for one am claiming my spot in the camerata that pushes us forward through a New Renaissance.
In no particular order, post 10 of your favorite albums, one per day, which made an impact on you. Post cover, no explanation, nominate someone each day to do the challenge.
I think these games are fascinating windows into peoples’ aesthetic, but because of FB’s sorting and selection criteria, I see maybe TWO of a particular friend’s ten-albums-once-per-day series. So, if I am taking the time to compile, I want to make sure you see them all. Plus I’m all into the cross-platform sharing thing and doing this on my blog helps me spread the word of good music (and keeps me writing). And being a DJ there are plenty of previously posted lists, check out previous blogs for more of my listening habits and recommendations.
One final note: this was fucking hard, and I had to mostly stick with certain genres (I can’t even begin to describe the numbers of vocal music recordings that have influenced me, for example). To cull influential albums down to 10 is worth the challenge alone… indeed, mine goes to 11. It could be an entirely different list tomorrow. Nevertheless, every one of these has a story (and not necessarily musical ones), but in keeping with the guidelines of the challenge, they will remain untold… for now. 🙂
Back in the mid 90’s before I ever got into techno music, I owned the original VHS copy of Peter Greenaway’s 1983 release 4merican Composers (natch, “Four American Composers”) and watched it constantly while in music school; I think I probably saw the Cage movie no less than 10 times.
As a honorable musicologist is want to do, I lent my copy out to a friend who had never heard of any of them, but then never got it back because of moving across the country. So I’ve been searching high and low for higher quality versions of these videos.
It is way out of print, but you can still find the VHS version… they’ve been released on DVD in Europe, but only in PAL format. In the digital age, this is unacceptable for me, so I finally came across someone who ripped the videos and I now have – albeit in relatively lowres VHS-sourced AVI files – all four on my iPod. The quality is what you’d expect from a 30-year old VHS tape, but it’s not horrible.
I’ve been struggling about whether to post them myself, but today Ubuweb has answered my prayers and posted all of them for me (lo and behold, the quality is no better than my collected AVI files, I suspect they may have procured them from the same source).
So here they are, I highly recommend… they are the greatest films about avant garde music you’ll ever find anywhere:
Incredibly, when I was a young boy I assumed everyone was supposed to know everything. It wasn’t until I was probably 30 that I realized things are meant to be learned and practiced, never known outright or assumed to be perfect.
But I spent a long time growing up thinking the opposite, that because I didn’t know something meant I couldn’t belong.
When I was thirteen, between finishing The Lord of the Rings and discovering Playboy, I locked onto a character in David Eddings’s The Belgariad; a wizardly type bloke who espoused silence and the ability to listen, leaving speech to those who knew not how to think. I locked step, it made sense. There wasn’t ever a time I felt like speaking up in a crowd, my opinions didn’t seem that important, and for some reason my brain always seemed busy doing other things, so speaking up is never a real priority for me.
What does this mean in the long run? There are a lot of times when I think I am incubating some genius, that there is buried deep within my soul a discovery I could only make by living this long… up until now nobody has caught on, if I am truly guided by intuition. Or am I? I wonder if I have already encountered my own Fitzcarraldo, or if it has yet to come; my instinct is that it is in the near future.
Even so it scares me to jump into something as if it were the last promontory of the final peak of some long meandering cliffside where I haven’t learned anything but where to go next, can I reach that handhold just beyond my grasp. There are moments where I can see clearly into the future, precisely recognize a moment or passion, but it soon falls away into a sense of loss, where I cannot understand the pathway to that end.
I happen to be a voracious reader. I would probably write more if I didn’t read so much. One thing I’ve noticed is the tendency to obsess on a single writer’s work: someone or something will turn me on to a specific author, I’ll read one of his or her works, and immediately want to read everything they’ve ever done. On occasion I accomplish this, but sometimes the task is simply too great.
Currently I’m on an Arthur C. Clarke (CBE) trip, embarking with Childhood’s End after recently finishing Rendezvous with Rama. To be honest these purchases were inspired by Clarke’s death in March of 2008, when I remembered how he changed my life while a freshman in high school.
It’s pretty interesting how we remember things, especially points in time that present themselves as an immediate recollection, almost painting-like in their clarity. When I first was assigned the task of reading the novel 2001 as a freshman in the remote western mountains of North Carolina, there was some sort of stencil work done on my brain. I recall a very specific day in that classroom, noticing the green of a fresh blackboard, where I was so incredibly thrilled with this fantastic view into the Universe, that I immediately picked up 2010 and kept reading. Probably it was two or three years before I saw the accompanying films.
Then there was William Gibson. I read Neuromancer and was completely hooked: I went through a barrage of Gibson novels right in a row, staying up late into the night when I should have been practicing, but instead being sucked into fantasies of Black Ice and the fast paced action of transient networks and cyberpunk, reality TV and a California civil war, popular meme-based advertising and terrorist plots – the language and ideas all resonate with me strongly.
But perhaps this was all an extension of my admitted affairs with the art and writings of William S. Burroughs and Paul Bowles (his Wikipedia entry curiously devoid of photographs); authors whose catalog I have yet to extinguish but to whose prose I am drawn. Bowles holds a special place with me because I really got into his compositions for voice, singing many of them in recitals. My next multi-book adventure will be The Red Night Trilogy, parts of which I’ve read and even adapted to music.
I’m not sure what it is, but perhaps others have the same sort of drive I do, to explore authors and artists to whatever extent necessary. This leads me to wonder whether these types of minds will always exist, regardless of what we think ‘technology’ is doing to our ability to appreciate non-technical forms of expression. Just because our mediums change doesn’t mean the human spirit has lost the ability to create beauty.
It’s been a while since I’ve sincerely blogged, as I’ve been somewhat obscured by computing lately. You’d think with all these computers around me, I’d be blogging all the time; but what I really want is less of them around me so that it feels like something more special than just another thing I do on the computer.
For example, this weekend was my birthday weekend (born in 1971, for those counting), and it felt very good going on “computer silence” for two days after the Friday night party. In fact, I didn’t do much of anything except plan my set for next Saturday, play Super Mario Bros Wii, and work through the pileup of recorded Showtime serials with my wife.
A good deal of people I know that make music on computers do so as a second life to their work day on them. Multitasking on computing problems at the same time as applying yourself creatively – and otherwise using software, interfacing with recording gear, attached hard drives, sound drivers, etc… all while you’re also concentrating on finishing that perl script for your job (if you’re lucky enough to be in an environment where your work computer can double as a creative tool), and of course keeping up with “the scene” in blog format or forums or twitter and social networks, not to mention keeping up with what feels like an exponentially growing volume of album releases – is not a very sustainable way to work.
Switching between brain processes like this often makes me feel fractured, like I am not quite in touch with the things that I identify with creating art. The myriad problems of computer technology are an infinitely complex layer of interaction which I can frankly do without. The irony of this is that before I went into a highly disciplined performance school, I had a “designed” undergrad major in music, focusing on Composition and Music Technology (a type of degree that’s now been heavily formalized in many universities, and is no longer rare at all). From that point forward, technology became a very important part of my musical description.
At some point, however, technology took over. It’s taken me many years to see in retrospect that what I was doing isn’t quite what I loved to do as a performer and an artist, and splitting my attention between things wasn’t helping my attempts at doing great things. As an extension of that, I believe my will to do original things was diminished by the layer of complexity and confusion brought on by an intervening computer operating system. Pretty soon, the issues I faced in my day-job became the same issues I faced in music making on the computer, and it wasn’t long that I couldn’t handle that union of cognitive space. I’ve now found myself not wanting to open a computer at all after I get home from work.
This may have a lot to do with circumstantial things: my day-job work environment isn’t great (bright fluorescent lamps, no privacy, high stress when on-call, poor management, general chaos), and I’ve had to sideline my musical activities in lieu of getting back up to speed on things I need for this job. When I get home, I don’t want to do much except unravel from the day, my motivation to create is low – not necessarily because I don’t want to make music, but because the enormous task of what to do with it after I’m done isn’t something I feel like dealing with any longer.
So I’m looking forward to this week in particular: in the coming days I’ll continue preparation and practicing for my set on 12/12, where I can just play music and not worry about computers in the process. I have some hurdles to overcome – fixing/patching the new modular so that at least *some* of it works, paring down the complexity of my instruments – so I will be forced to focus on music in the way I love: brainpower in the pursuit of creativity.