Meander Sonor Ode

(a listening deeply gift from the urban inside)

A speaker faced down the bench
where we sat, directly
adjacent to the Duet.

Their aging laptops looping maybe scooping
the sound from their devices,
strung and hung in air plus wired,
synth sound supple and rounded
towards their combined long-tone sculpting.

As the bench began to resonate,
this pool of glacial tones clustering
and extended found the grains
of smooth planked architecture,
drawing the room in sound.

Such sand-dune-shaped sonority
left a freedom in long form structures.

The minor clink following crunch or crinkle,
shuffle and creak leak from wooden blocked chairs
like hexahedron slid mid string.

Instead then
a bowed extent
alongside a weaker vibration wood,
shifting underneath the wound six.

Swimming hands proximate
and glanced through
inflating resonances,
a subtle but driving mix
in the center
of feed loop backs,
underneath the bridge.

Careful by-finger tilted wrist
slight and steady,
each formant-mans emitted
layered in oscillation,
breeding combinations where the space itself
breathed against its moorings.

Then the building hummed
some hidden motor, vent, or rotor sung.

Crick the other colored side
in delicately high frequencies
that appeared in the sonic atmosphere
like fireflies drifting into dusk.

Complexity relationships
distilled into parallel,
submerging the fragile bubble
into silence.

(September, Nashville, 2019
Duet for Theremin and Lap Steel @ Proper Sake)

Musical Intuition meet Technology and Chaos

Today I read through the InfoQ eMag on Chaos Engineering, and was struck by John Allspaw’s (@allspaw) contribution because it reminded me of something I jotted down on a sticky at my desk a few days ago:

Intuition is valid because it is learned like jazz changes.

I’m pretty stubborn and refuse to accept that music is merely a hobby of mine. When people ask me if electronic music or singing is my “hobby”, I am wincing inside. So a question often on my mind is: how does the intuition I have when performing and composing music connect with the work I do as a technologist?

Some musicological background might help. One concept in learning how to improvise (jazz or otherwise) is that you have developed an intuition built around internalizing the materials and form of the piece (or genre) – like scales, chord changes, or rhythm structures. This is different from the more lizard-brainy concept of instinct. Think about a blues progression, the foundation of music you hear every day, everywhere. You know intuitively the chord progression and timing is “right”, even so much that anomalies and departures come across as emotionally significant. The rest is pop history.

But you, homo sapiens, do not have this chord sequence pre-programed in your DNA, it isn’t something that is instinctual. By the same token, great technology leaders develop good intuition (expertise over hundreds of interviews) when hiring engineers but never rely on instinct (oh I just have a good “gut feeling”). The best DBAs have an intuitive understanding of their platform (you want to do X, but did you think of Y+Z?), but there’s nothing instinctual about it.

It is not a stretch, then, to recognize that intuition in improvised music can be directly compared to how Allspaw writes about the “mental map” that engineers develop. They each have their own subjective view on relevant (but overlapping) parts of the system and are challenged when relating each substrate to theirs. For instance, a phenomenon known as “fundamental common-ground breakdown” (Woods & Klein: Common Ground and Coordination in Joint Activity) happens when what I describe as intuitions (accumulated individual learnings about the system) are assumed knowledge among participants, good or bad. Part of the game is learning how to harmonize these separate threads of experience, avoiding costly coordination surprise and re-synchronization… and trust me, I have been in plenty of rehearsals and narrowly saved performances that fit this description!

The important point here is that a system becomes more complex as it grows dimensions, shrinking the capacity of any one person to comprehend the whole thing. Therefore we rely on shared and discovered knowledge to fully grok these fascinating systems. Take any ensemble of musicians: as it grows in membership, individuals gradually lose the ability to contain its myriad relationships in their mental map, so coordination and integration become a matter of listening and rehearsal experience (both modes of communication). Oh and it characterizes the music, too. Building intuition about how to play a part in an opera is much different than in a free improv vocal trio. Orchestrating ten thousand linux containers in a cloud provider doesn’t compare to managing two rows of server racks at the datacenter downtown.

Technologists grapple with the task of building and sharing intuitions about a system because understanding an entire system contributes to what we know about making it more resilient. Communication is key in either musical or engineering teams, collaboration on understanding the whole is no exception. Our mental maps should be adaptable to constant updates, and practices like Chaos Engineering that make discoveries in complex system behavior are supported by this kind of cross-pollination and proliferation of our combined understanding.

A quote from Allspaw’s article highlights it well:

Maybe the process of designing a chaos experiment is just as valuable as the actual performance of the experiment.

– John Allspaw, Recalibrating Mental Models through Design of Chaos Experiments

The use of the term “performance” is apt. We’re familiar with this concept: practice makes perfect. Taken further, the experience of practice is necessary such that the result is merely an extension of practice. It takes meticulous work to understand a piece of music to the level of having an intuition about how it operates, and the same goes for building experimentation that challenges what you think you know about complex software. The results of the “performance” can be enhanced by a focus on understanding the system’s design and steady state (i.e. nominal condition), what we would call the language of the musical work. It is as if the performance of the event naturally evolves from learnings gained preparing for it.

Imagine you are a jazz musician, you have gone through years of studying scales and changes and charts and recordings of a particular artist, and have built a capability for understanding how the language of their music works. One evening at a local club, your dreams are fulfilled, you’re in the audience and invited up for a set with them. You intuitively know how this person plays their music, as it has been a guide for your own. But when you’re jamming together, they do something indeterminately that informs your intuition in a way you would have never discovered yourself. Not only has the process of designing your inevitable collaboration been valuable to understand what you thought you needed to know to play like your biggest influence, but it also served as the basis for learning something new and unexpected.

Whether it is free improvisation or interpreting a through-composed piece of music (and everything in between), there is a certain amount of experience and training informing the performance. Eventually, when we’ve practiced enough, the music itself steps out of the way and intuition takes over. I think this is where my musical performance connection with technology starts: once you understand the fundamentals of the system, let the presentation of the system get out of the way, and you’re in a better place to evolve your mental map and gain further intuition through disciplines like Chaos Engineering.

SoundWalk 2011 is coming

Just in case you missed it, SoundWalk Long Beach 2011 is just around the corner! Check out the newly posted set of mp3’s from last year’s event at craque.net (or download a zip file of flac files directly).

Here’s a couple of pix from last year’s event…

Craque performing at SoundWalk 2010 in Long Beach, CA

Dave doubles as stagehand and soundmaker improvisor

Later in the evening, up close with participants

New improvisations on SoundCloud

Freely improvised one-takes. Instrumentation includes homebuilt instruments, sampled objects and looping hardware.

This music sharing site is a great tool for posting various non-published tracks, as well as released stuff, and has a nice embeddable player and comment system. Really nice for being able to just slap some stuff up, I have one friend who has recently been doing the same with sessions on his new Serge Modular Creature, and another who posted “in progress” snapshots of a track he is working on.

Feel free to download and remix, just give the proper attribution. 🙂

The Pull of the Unexplored

Once aspect of creativity I haven’t quite discovered how to manage is the navigation of intuition.

It strikes me that some are better than others at accessing this elusive part of the imagination. As a visceral experience it’s unmistakable, but the pathways to obtaining that level of immersion are not so clear.

Inspiration strikes at the most incredulous opportunity; sometimes it’s like a pull, like gravitation towards a goal not seen, being drawn into a feeling that is indescribable beyond the need to create.

What about when it’s required? On-demand?

Like an actor playing the same role week after week, or a jazz musician improvising over the same progressions night after night… the good ones – the ones really in touch with the craft – know where to look for passageways, or how to prepare themselves to accept the supernatural-like ability of the unconscious brain to know exactly how things go and exactly where in the most immediate and uncalculable ways.

That doorway is really the goal itself, the ego-freeing feeling of letting go and allowing what Nature designed to take its course. In a way artists do nothing but recite what they already know by understanding themselves as part of the entirety of life outside of themselves.

Metatron Press releases Gray Code on archive.org

Metatron Press (the website is slightly outdated, but not necessarily incorrect) has started a netlabel archive, posting releases formerly available only on CDR, as well as more new stuff to come.

A quintet I played in for some time called Gray Code now has a live recording up, from the 2000 Philadelphia Fringe Festival.

The name of the group is taken from the structure we often used to improvise: “In performances using the Gray Code structure for five players, we proceed through all the possible combinations of members of the group, including the silence that starts and ends the performance, five solos, ten duets, ten trios, five quartets, and the single quintet involving all the players. Each combination appears exactly once. To move from any combination to the one that follows it, a single player starts or stops performing.”

New on CraqueCast: Amalgamation

Starting off the new year with an archival live show: Amalgamation: Live at Smartbar, Chicago, 2002 is a set I did at SmartBar in March of 2002.

This is a set where I combined many influences, methods and directions together through a wide assortment of sampled objects, guitar playing, voices, and softsynths. It’s glitchy, ambient, dark, funky, beaty and bouncy all at the same time! A really nice listen with highly contrasting sections of sound and rhythm.

Subscribe to the CraqueCast, or download the whole show to listen. You can also preview CraqueCast entries through the iTunes podcast library. The ‘bug’ cover art was done by my wife, Kary.