Saturday, April 26, 2008

Déjà Vu All Over Again

This is what the back of my minivan looks like – what you might have seen if you were tailgating me on I-95 over the holidays as I made my pilgrimage from Miami to the area south of Orlando to visit family. It's a drive I've been making at least once or twice a year for decades. But this time for some reason – maybe just because my A/C was broken and I had to roll down the windows – I found myself having a serious experience of déjà vu.

Back around 1970 I owned a similar though larger van. It was even the same color, white. In fact it was big enough that I lived in it, or out of it, for a couple of years. I built a pair of wooden bookcases into the sides and made myself a little desk of mahogany (which I still own). Some square cushions served as seats during the day, and at night, along with a sleeping bag, as a mattress. A propane stove allowed me to heat canned food and make tea.

In those days air-conditioning was still something of a luxury in a vehicle, like an automatic transmission. So naturally I had a three-speed stick shift and no air. Then, as now, the hot Florida wind rumbled in through the windows and blew my (then longer and less gray) hair. Then, as now, something about the van testified to my objection to war. And then, as now, the country was mired in a conflict that seemed to have no end.

Iraq is different from Vietnam, of course, as it is different from Afghanistan, and as Vietnam was different from Korea and World War II. But the disease of war is ever the same, a malady that afflicts the aggressor and defender alike, both the strong and the weak, the victors and the vanquished, and those who only stand innocently by.

Then, as now, I had reason to fear hostility from some of my countrymen for my opposition to war. Sad to say, it is still far from a universal view. The early 70's were still the era of “America, Love It or Leave It” and “Better Dead than Red.” My long hair and mustache were all it took to identify me as one who believed that love of country might manifest as hatred of its policies and a desire for change, and that “reds” might be interesting partners in a political discussion. Had I got caught in a backwater town full of John Birch Society members and cornered in a dark alley, my appearance alone would have been all that was necessary to insure I was beaten up and ridden out of town, maybe even murdered like the unfortunate bikers in Easy Rider.

But I was younger then, perhaps more threatening because of my refusal to serve in the military. Those were the days of the draft, and this is now the time of the “professional” army (something the Founding Fathers tried hard to avoid) that supplements itself with professional mercenaries. Now I'm of an age where I'm not expected to serve, only to cheer the troops along and to pay my share of the staggering cost--now estimated at some 400 million dollars a day.

I no longer look out of place in a crowd. My beliefs would be invisible were it not for those telltale stickers on the rear door of the van. Some drivers have actually complimented me on them, and once a woman even rolled down her window to ask where she could get some. One comes from FCNL, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker-funded political lobby. Another comes from a local group called Miami for Peace. And the old reliable peace sign was clipped off the end of a longer strip that originally contained the phrase “Back by Popular Demand.” (Speaking of déjà vu!) But all that was too involved to yell out to someone in traffic, so I answered with a single word, “Quakers!”--trusting that she could track them down online.

Not everyone is so sanguine toward these sentiments, however. Back when we still hoped the invasion of Iraq could be stopped, I attended a protest rally at Bayfront Park. Two young men of military age--not in uniform, but possibly already in the army to judge from the cut of their hair --approached the crowd with such obviously hostile intent that a police officer intervened to explain things to them and direct them to the far side of the street. Not to be easily deterred, the pair got in a taxi and cruised past us shouting, “WAR! WAR! GO TO WAR!” in voices suitable for a parade ground.

So the hostility is still there in some, and I still wonder how to confront it if challenged. After a protest in 1968 where everyone wore black armbands, I was accosted by a belligerent drunk who demanded to know, “What's that on your arm?” This was a purely rhetorical question, as he clearly knew what it meant, and only wanted me to admit outright that I was one of those commie-pinko-hippies threatening to destroy American life as he knew it. Tongue-tied by the futility of discussion, I simply said, “I'm in mourning,” and went on my way.

Could I do any better now? What would I say if my flagrant bumper stickers caused me to be challenged at a rest-stop by some irate neo-fascist who was upset that my opinions seemed to demean either his own military service or that of his friends and relatives, or simply to run counter to his rage at “those people” in far corners of the world?

I've thought about it, and I think I could say, “I believe that since the time of the Old Testament we have been commanded not to kill. And I believe that when Jesus told us to love one another, even our enemies, that it was a piece of advice we were supposed to follow.”

My imagined adversary might not be a religious person himself, but I can pretend that he grew up in a rural town surrounded by such people, and that long experience would have taught him to defer to the weight of their collective opinion whenever the name of Jesus was invoked. So I imagine him falling silent in the face of this simple statement of principle.

Would this be cowardly of me? Would I then be taking refuge behind this long gone but still powerful figure, like someone jumping behind a stronger friend in the face of a bully? Maybe. But I'd rather think I was following the example of a revolutionary, one whose fondest aim might have been to give us the courage of our convictions.

“If anyone questions you,” I can hear him say, like an older and wiser brother, “this is what you can tell him. And tell him I said so.”

Or, in the simple words of 1970, “Peace, man.”

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Best Music You Ever Saw

I've never been much of a dancer
, but ever since I was about six years old I've been visualizing when I listen to music.

I'm not alone in this, of course. Some people see colors, others patterns or even complete landscapes as they listen. There is a long history of artists who have attempted to translate such visions into a form that others can see, from static paintings to animated cartoons like Disney's Fantasia, to the vast wasteland of MTV music videos and the randomly generated wallpaper of digital audio players.

But I've never seen anything like Animusic, the apparent state of the art in linking visual effects with a soundtrack. Imagine what would happen if Dr. Seuss designed some musical instruments, let Rube Goldberg build them, and then got The Blue Man Group to play them in concert--oh, I almost forgot, when the Blue Men are not dressed up as robots or impersonating instruments, they are invisible, so the instruments appear to be playing themselves.

If you can picture all that, you have some glimpse of what Animusic is all about. (For a better idea, check out the samples on their web site at animusic.com.) It's a complete delight to witness music being emitted as light beams, pumped through tubes like a fluid, or flung through the air like balls--not to mention the wealth of self-tapping and self-strumming simulated instruments that resemble their real world counterparts.

The first time I saw their work was in an animation festival on TV. The piece was "Drum Machine," in which an imaginary bell tower driven by huge clockwork gears activates a collection of percussion instruments. I found it captivating, but had no idea how it was done.

Then recently I caught another example on Public TV, followed the link to their web site, and quickly ordered both of their DVD collections. The contents knocked me out. There is an amazing variety of both sounds and visuals, with each piece seeming to exist in its own little world like a precious objet d'art in a niche on a wall.

Equally interesting is the additional material on how the animations are created. The two guys behind Animusic, now known as "the core production team," are Wayne Lytle and Dave Crognale. Wayne is primarily the software engineer while Dave is the artistic designer. Both are clearly infatuated with music and the instruments that produce it. Between them they came up with the idea of inventing virtual instruments that could take their cues from computer and keyboard controls, and create matching images just as music synthesizers create sound.

One of the things they explain should be obvious, but at first glance is not. Their technique requires the animation to be created after the music, because the images have to anticipate the music. In other words, if a note is going to sound when a ball lands on a bell, then the animation has to produce all the action that precedes the event, and to coordinate with that exact moment in time. Watching them pull this off is endlessly fascinating. But for this reason the software does not operate in "real time" while the music is being played. (However, according to their website, they are experimenting with ways to do that, too.)

If any criticism is possible--and of course it is always possible--it might be to observe that many of the animations are of static instruments. The only motions are those of the instrument being played (or playing itself) and the wandering point of view of the virtual camera that pans around and through the scene. This reproduces the experience of watching a live performance, but not the dynamics of the progressive evolution of the music as it takes place in the mind of the listener--what we might call the "processional" or visionary aspect of music.

But there are exceptions that prove the rule, such as "Pogo Sticks," where a quintet of, well, pogo sticks rolls along a wooden highway like a Thomas the Tank Engine track while jamming together. The way their pauses and resumptions of motion match the music are an example of what can be done along these lines.

You might also complain that while the music is engaging and entertaining it is not "deep" -- neither classical nor truly jazz, and no more experimental than the tamest sorts of "new" music. Here again there are exceptions, though. The ear-popping finale of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition shows that Animusic does not shrink from the classics. And the lyric simplicity of "Aqua Harp" (one of my personal favorites) approaches the perfection of a Chopin prelude.

It remains to be seen what will emerge from this new synthesis of audio and visual. Possibly the biggest contribution of the Animusic team will turn out to be the software tools they have created rather than the specific works they have created with them. Up till now, they have kept those tools proprietary, but now are considering marketing them for others to use.

Once these capabilities are released into the hands of the global community of artists and musicians then we'll find out what they can really do. You ain't seen music yet!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

In Praise of the Book

"But what's going to happen to all the books?" asked my friend ...

Having praised the new breed of digital book readers, I'd like to take a step back and argue the opposite case. First off, isn't it a bit of a misnomer to call these devices "readers?" To paraphrase the slogan of pro-gun lobbyists, "Computers don't read books, people read books." All these devices do is show them to us; we still have to read them. They should be called "viewers" or "displayers," but that is way too dull to ever catch on, so we are probably doomed to call them readers from now on. Soon the noun "reader" will come to mean the thing, not the person who reads, and instead of "reading" we will end up "readering" our books.

Of course it's a good thing that we still have to read, and that we have so much material available both from the present and the past. It's also an advantage that the size of our personal libraries will no longer be limited by the amount of windowless wall space we are willing to devote to bookshelves in our homes. But two incidents have forced me to look again at what we are losing in the transition.

The first one was a visit with my high school English teacher and personal mentor, Harry. For years I've been telling him that digital books are on the way, and how great that will be. Some time ago I showed him a laptop computer with text on the screen just to give him an idea, but he was unimpressed. Even though this machine was probably outweighed by the Oxford English Dictionary, it seemed way too heavy and clunky to him--not the sort of thing you would curl up in bed with before going to sleep.

Even though I know people who would do that, I had to concede his point. I also knew that his attention span would far outlast any available battery (we're talking Marcel Proust), and the idea of having to be plugged in while you read was a non-starter. But just wait, I told him, they're getting smaller and lighter all the time ...

So naturally I had to show off my cute little Sony when I got one. Small enough to fit in a jacket pocket, able to go weeks without a charge, lighter than a hardbound book, holding enough reading matter for an entire summer vacation ... it's Superbook!

"But," he said, his faced lined with concern, "what's going to happen to all the books?"

It's easy to dismiss this attitude as clinging to the past. Who would want to go back to the days of cassette tapes or vinyl LP's or player-piano rolls now that we have digital recording technology? Or, perhaps a better analogy, why would we copy a book by hand once the printing press has been invented? Or use a typewriter instead of a word processor?

But his feelings were not just nostalgia for the past. They came from a form of fetishism familiar to anyone who has ever loved a good book. Through the act of reading them these objects become parts of ourselves, as well as talismans representing their authors and the worlds of imagination contained within them. It's no accident that a staple of children's fiction is the magic book, one whose cover is a door into an enchanted other realm.

I remember a friend saying of a cherished volume of short stories, "I'm carrying it around like it's my velveteen rabbit." Is it possible we will ever feel the same way about our ebook readers, whose covers are always the same regardless of what text they contain, and whose pages never get dogeared and fly-spotted from use? Even the yellowing paper of an old book speaks to us of its age and lends import to its counsel.

The second incident involved Jack Kerouac. I've rediscovered him more than once since the first time, when I was in high school. This time it was due to a reading at our favorite bookstore, Books & Books, by John Leland, who has written Why Kerouac Matters. I won't tell you why if you don't know already, but I can say that the best thing about the reading was that it sent me back to read Kerouac again. Consulting my bookshelves (they occupy two of my windowless walls) I selected a battered copy of The Subterraneans, the same one I had bought and read while still in school so many years ago when it was newly published in paperback by Grove Press with a cover price of $1.45. (Let's not forget the fetishism of publishers, too.)

This book, containing some of Jack's most powerful and lively stream-of-consciousness prose, details--dissects might be a better word--his brief affair with a black woman who was going off her rocker in the hipster subculture of 1950's San Francisco. It was actually made into one of Hollywood's most atrocious movies (mercifully NOT available from Netflix) in which the part of Leo/Jack was played by George Peppard and his lover, Mardou, by the not only white but blond Leslie Caron, which kind of shows how they missed the whole point. In spite of a terrific jazz soundtrack by Andre Previn, featuring Gerry Mulligan and Carmen MacRae, I can only recommend that you read it, not watch it.

So one day this week that's what I was doing. I carried it into Chick'n Grill at lunchtime and had it on my tray while I paid. The cover caught the eye of the young woman at the register--The Subterraneans in big bold letters with the rough shape of the Golden Gate Bridge giving a sense of location.

"What's your book about?" she asked. In the moment that it took me to think how to answer, I noted the flash of intelligence in her eyes, and felt a sense of pride in the democratic lifestyle that spreads our culture widely, however thin it may be.

"The Beat Generation," I replied.

"The what?"

"You know, the beatniks? Back before the hippies?"

"Oh. Was that you?" A mischievous smile, letting me know my age.

"No, that was before me."

"What were they like?"

"Well, they were pretty far out."

She laughed, and took my money, and I took my book to eat with me. There it was, my own name on the inside of the cover, written in my teenage hand. My pencil underlines were still to be found, and occasional notes of appreciation in the margins -- the record of myself cheering the author on like a jazz aficionado shouting "Go!" and "Yeah!" during the sax solo, exactly what Kerouac's fondest wish had been.

This book and I were old friends. The experience of renewing our acquaintance was more than just taking in the words again, it was touching a part of my past. And it was an experience I could never have in digital form. Nor would that young woman have thought to ask what the book was about if all she had seen was the blank leatherette cover of my reader. When people see that they are more likely to ask, "What is it?" rather than "What are you reading?"

So here's to the lowly book. Though it may come to be regarded as a Dead Sea Scroll, or a cuneiform clay tablet, and though it may be on its way into oblivion, let's honor it and think fondly of it as we set it gently on the shelf of history.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Perchance to Dream

"For in that sleep of death what dreams might come ..."

Just recently I had my first experience of anesthesia during a medical procedure (a colonoscopy, if you must know). Part of my reluctance to go through with this -- I had put it off for ten years -- was that I didn't like the idea of being forcibly put to sleep. I suppose I had always imagined it as a kind of suffocation, like in the old days when people had to inhale ether. But nothing could have been further from the truth. Besides being more pleasant than a visit to the dentist, the experience actually taught me something about consciousness and about life itself.

As the nurse prepped me by painlessly inserting an IV into the vein on the back of my hand, she let me know that the doctor liked to listen to classic 1950's rock, shoo-be-do-wop style, while he worked, so that I wouldn't be surprised when the music started. The doctor greeted me during my short roll to the OR, then my nose was fitted with an oxygen tube, and I came face to face with the anesthetist. Far from being intimidating, she struck me as a careful, introverted technician who was more comfortable monitoring her instruments than confronting a real person -- which of course is exactly how I would wish for her to be.

"You might feel a little burning," she murmured as she attached her potion to my IV. The lights dimmed a bit and I heard the opening strains of an ancient rock tune trickle from the speakers in the ceiling. I'm not feeling anything yet, I thought to myself.

"Stephen?" The nurse again. "Time to wake up."

And that was it. I awoke as if from a pleasant nap, less groggy than the way I usually feel when my alarm clock goes off in the morning. Absolutely amazing. I never knew I had an off-switch before, but it's true, and there are people who know how to throw it. I had shut down and rebooted as efficiently as any sci-fi robot. Not even a dream to mark the lost time.

And here at last we come to what I learned.

Lying in wait before the procedure I had ample time to harbor thoughts of mortality. Surrounded by medical paraphernalia in the kind of environment that lab rats must be familiar with, it's hard not to reflect on the certainty with which we will all end up there someday with Something Serious -- that unknown thing that is going to catch up with us eventually and bring us to The End. This frightens us of course, as it should, so that we will avoid it as long as possible and get in as much living as we can. (And by the way, I'm perfectly fine for now.)

But what if it turned out not to be frightening after all? What if it was no more than having that same off-switch thrown, and just not coming back? Now you see me, now you don't. In short, suppose it was no big deal.

In light of this experience of induced unconsciousness, I find I can now contemplate the end of life not as a suffocating trauma, but as a mere sleep at the end of a hard day. Naturally we all hope not to suffer too much, but that is part of living rather than dying. The dying will be a letting go of suffering.

Will we dream then, as Hamlet wondered? Or will there come a voice calling us to wake up? Will we find ourselves in a future cradle, squalling over being born again?

Those are the things we will never know. But isn't it just as amazing to think about the miracle of consciousness? We experience this every day, just as we did at the start of our lives. Somewhere a switch is thrown, we awaken, and look around. How incredible is that? And this frail thing, this mere point of view as insubstantial as a shadow, is everything to us, is life itself.

To quote Shakespeare again, "O brave new world, that hath such people in it!"