“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Friday, January 30, 2009


So now I'm on the mercury warpath. As a Gemini with loads of planets in Gemini I guess this is a good thing for me...

So I'm no scientist and I'm definitely not a statistician. And I have my doubts about the MMR vaccine as a cause of (in whatever sense) autism.

BUT—it's odd that the Californians discovered that when they got rid of vaccines that contained the mercury-based propellant, the rates of autism still rose. And that recently other researchers have screened out race, class, gender and economic status as well as genetics as factors in the steady rise of autism, so that they're now compelled to consider environmental factors. Oh yeah, and they also screened out better diagnosis and better counting.

Since mercury disappeared from vaccines, the rate of high fructose corn syrup consumption has risen.

I'm not drawing any conclusions from this but there does appear to be a smoking gun here.

Mercury is retrograde

Could the Bush Administration have trashed America any worse than they did? It now turns out that there are measurable doses of mercury in high fructose corn syrup, and if you don't know how many products contain hfcs, you should find out.

When I was a poor food scholar I used to get up people's noses by banging on about how food was ideology, etc. I was told that “we” didn't need any “muckraking” of the Marion Nestle sort. And a food scientist at my university told me that the Food and Drug Act of 1906 made sure that all food was safe (!) and that “the consumer” would make sure it had what it “demanded.” Clearly I shouldn't have worried my pretty little humanist head.

Now call me picky but I never ever demanded mercury in my Coca Cola, breakfast cereal, chocolate bars, yogurt, bla bla bla ...

Given increasing evidence that there's a connection between autism and mercury consumption by fetuses and infants, perhaps this might explain the rather alarming rates of autism I see around me here in Northern Cali.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Dig those brambles

I wasn't too keen on the Inaugural poem by Elizabeth Alexander. But what a horrible burden. First you have to do a public poem, in an age where most people haven't even read a poem, let alone a public one. Then you have to do it in front of millions of people. Then you have to compete with Arethra Franklin and Joseph E. Lowery. Arethra's one word “Protect” versus your hundreds—there's already no contest, is there? Oh yeah, and it's for the first African-American President in history, and everyone is tuned in. (What a beautiful day for the world, by the way.)

So I think Alexander went in the right direction—contemplation rather than action, understatement not overstatement, metonymy not metaphor. (Metonymy being evoking things by their properties or by their causes, a rather more subtle trope than the well known metaphorical leap from one domain to another.) You can't compete, so go sideways. In fact, given the way the poem went for something contemplative and metonymic, the door was open for something like ambient or ecological poetics.

But if you're going to do metonymy, you have to really really do it. This means you have to dive into one small detail and just let it kind of suggest and evoke others. The brambles in the second stanza (surely a punning reference to Obama's beloved Blackberry) would have been a good way to go: shades of Whitman's lilacs (on the occasion of Lincoln's death).

Instead we got a shoe box full of less than vivid items selected for reasons that were hard to glean (PC name-checking?—I wasn't sure).

Against the pundits who didn't like it because it wasn't loud enough, I guess I'd argue that it wasn't quiet enough. Against those who said it was too intellectual, I'd like to stick up for the general introspective and intellectual direction, and say Alexander should've gone further—further into the mind...

The master of this mode is of course my man Wordsworth—viz. “The Thorn.” I guess if you're looking for a contemporary master you could do worse than Amiri Baraka, whose “Something in the Way of Things” (set to music brilliantly by The Roots on their album Phrenology) is a genius indictment of contemporary capitalism and ideology—oops, now I remember why Barack didn't choose him...

But Alexander could have somehow morphed those brambles into the vast ocean of people in front of her, and ended in a democratic-sublime place. Paging Percy Bysshe Shelley...

It's so easy to criticize isn't it?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Ecru and beige versus magenta and blue sound

So I've spent several days in Just Intonation world and I'm lovin it. (See my previous.)

It occurred to me that all “Western” sounds have been geared to
the equal-temperament pianoforte since its invention in the Romantic period. It always used to bug me when I did violin exams that the examiner was usually a pianist, and thus habituated to equal temperament. The violin has no frets, so intuitively you're going to play intervals in something like just intonation, because it feels right. So I often got bad marks for playing “flat,” which is what a just intonation third sounds like to an equal-temperament ear.

Equal temperament makes
available a brownish, beige version of all the keys, and it makes the keys roughly resonant with one another. This means you can create lots of different narratives, through modulation (key changes). This helps Romantic (and post-Romantic) music because you can tell a story with lots of twists and turns, climaxes and anticlimaxes, and yet always be sure you're navigating around a fairly consistent brown world. All neuroses have something in common I guess.

With just intonation you can't do narrative, because the keys are radically different—there's no brown world anymore, no general background against which the sounds make sense. So you're stuck with pure beginning—which I call aperture—the feeling of “is this the beginning?” or “have we started yet?” Aperture, openness.

(BTW it's fascinating to me, from the ecological criticism point of view, that narratives depend upon a consistent world. Think of The Lord of the Rings. That mysterious yet complete world, totally realized, like the Wagnerian “total work of art,” with its languages and histories and depths built in. It's the perfect product of Romantic nationalism. There's a bit of a discussion of it in the second chapter of Ecology without Nature. Bilbo Baggins sings “The road goes ever on and on.” There's this Romantic sense that at the edge of your front door, there's a road, and the road could lead anywhere into who knows what. But with just intonation there's no road. Just the front door.)

Listening to just intonation music is like looking at a very luminous, transparent color. We painted our house light purple a couple of years ago and got into a lot of trouble with the white and gray crew—the colors our painter called “death box colors.” Because all the wave forms are related to each other in rational number ways, you can kind of “see” far up and down them, and the notes slide over each other.

Equal temperament, by contrast, is about friction, because the wave forms are slightly off all the time. There's a good website on this by Kyle Gann that compares equal temperament to other products of capitalist consumerism like fizzy drinks. They're stimulating and have a kind of buzz—literally equal temperament chords buzz (try it). Fizzing brownness, like Coca Cola. Versus pellucid magenta. Stimulation and speed versus contemplative inwardness. Story lines versus stillness. Ego versus non-ego.

I'm hooked!

If you think about it, the dominance of the piano is about literally hard-wiring a certain way of listening to sound into the instrument itself, and so into all the other instruments around it. I've thought that the piano is the ultimate modern instrument, because with pianos you can hear the space inside them (thanks to the sustain pedal): piano music seems intrinsically about inner space. And yet and at the same time, this inner space is reified into this fuzzy brown. You can sort of see how the piano becomes a symbol for the commodity fetish—an object that appears to have its value directly inscribed into it. All those pre-programmed keys, ready to play anything you want, as long as it's brown. “Where do you want to go today?” (old Microsoft ad).
The piano is the ultimate living-room possession. You could think of it as a sort of giant wooden cyst, like the shell of a sea creature. The metastasized cancer of the bourgeois ego.

So the minimalists started messing with this object, detuning it from the inside, to open up non-reified spaces within.

You could argue that just intonation music is perfect for our age of ecological emergency. Because in just intonation, there's no world. In our age, we're finding out that there is no world as such—once you become conscious of the environment, it stops being the brownish-beige background to all your narratives of success and failure, all your adventures in capitalism.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Tim's guide to Timbre

This is a brief exploration of timbre, which I think is so important to ecological criticism. You can find a little more in the first chapter of Ecology without Nature and in an essay I wrote for the online journal Literature Compass, called “Of Matter and Meter.”

Think of Yves Klein's paintings of pure color, such as IKB. Color is always suspended in a medium. In Yves Klein's case, it's a very precious, unusual medium that lets the lapis lazuli base of ultramarine blue shine forth with unusual luster.

Now think of a sound. We never hear sounds as such: we only ever hear sounds as mediated through a material of some kind or other. Heidegger puts it beautifully when he says that we never hear the wind in itself, only the wind in the door, the wind in the trees. We never hear B flat as such, only B flat through a trumpet, B flat through a violin. The material out of which the instrument is made generates the timbre of the note.

This is also true of the voice. Vowels are a way of adding different timbres to breath. An /o/ sound requires a certain tension of the throat and windpipe, while an /a/ sound requires another kind of tension.

When you hear a violin note, you are hearing the cat gut or wire out of which the strings are made; the horsehair bow modulated by the wood on which the horsehair is strung; the wooden body of the violin, curved and of a certain thickness and quality of wood, and so on. Timbre is the materiality of sound. And what a materiality.

You only hear certain aspects of that materiality. Because we have ears and an auditory system of a certain range, we do not hear wood as a bat might hear the same wood, when it sends out a high-pitched sound that bounces off its surface. So in a sense when we hear a timbre we are also hearing our nervous system's way of processing that particular sound—there is no sound as such.

Bridget Riley's paintings work directly upon your optic nerves. Well—all paintings do; but Riley's work puts this work into the foreground. You can think of sound art as the sonic version of Riley's paintings.

This week I played La Monte Young's Drift Study 31 1 69, which is basically two superimposed tones. I was surprised to find that the sound changed as I moved around the room—sometimes it was a clear single tone, sometimes it varied in pitch.

Notes are made up of layer upon layer of harmonics. The particular timbre of a sound is the harmonic signature of the material out of which it's made: which harmonics are amplified, which ones repressed, and so forth. The breathy, scratchy sound of a bowed violin string contrasts with the open ting of a vibraphone. This is because the metal in the vibraphone and the materials of the violin allow certain harmonics to be heard. So when you hear a sound, you are hearing a sensory material manifold consisting of the matter through which the sound emanates, modulated by the ears and auditory equipment of the brain-mind.

If you like, scent also has a kind of timbre. That's why you can talk about woody or spicy notes in a perfume. You are literally inhaling and smelling the volatile particles circulated by a certain material. So timbre is the perfume of sound. That's why it's so primal and intimate. Timbre affects our bodies just as they are. There's no way of avoiding the cringe your nervous system does when you hear fingers going down a blackboard. It just happens.

Some contemporary artists make music out of timbre (principally or alone), just as some artists have made visual art out of color. Composers such as La Monte Young have produced music that attunes us to particular timbres. One way of doing this is through just intonation. Most modern instruments fudge the way they produce sound, so that most sounds are okay most of the time, but none are spectacular—all are relatively muddy, that is, they have a limited harmonic range.

The visual equivalent would be dull browns rather than Yves Klein's brilliant blue. Perhaps the most egregious example is the equally-tempered piano. Because the piano is the reference instrument for so many other ones—including, for example, most synthesized instrument sound—piano tuning has a pervasive effect on what we think musical sound is. Piano notes are fudged to make the instrument even across a range of tones and scales, but the notes are ever so slightly out of tune with each other, as they are tuned to fractional harmonics rather than ones with whole-number values.

When you tune a piano or any other instrument with whole-number values, you create an instrument with a much narrower functionality (you can't play everything on it without some things sounding weird), but extreme depth and beauty (and, if you like, astonishing dissonance).

Or you can write drone music that consists of notes held for an extremely long time, to allow the listener to get a feel for the timbre of the instrument playing the note. This is common in Indian music, which developed many wonderful instruments that emphasized harmonic depths and heights, such as the tambura.

Or you can put sounds in actually existing spaces and have listeners walk around the spaces (such as La Monte Young's Dream Houses), so that the environment as such becomes one of the instruments that modulates the sound (as it always does in any case), thus making you aware that your position and movement relative to the sonic source is also part of the music.

You can (and La Monte Young does) combine all these things, of course, and produce something really compelling and powerful. Something that allows the listener profound insight into the nature of matter, the receptive properties of her or his body and mind, and the resonant qualities of the environment in which an instrument is played. All these phenomena are bound up in the notion of timbre.

Timbre, quite simply, is the material environment as such emerging as aesthetic experience. Ecological art, then, must necessarily have to do with timbre.

One problem with our “materialistic” society is that it's not nearly materialist enough. The short, rigid time frames in which capitalism compels us to live, and the drifting, aimless consumerism it enjoins us to perform, don't allow for anything like a deep appreciation of matter. Certain religious contemplative traditions such as those found in Buddhism hold open a space for a far more engaged materialism than is currently permitted in contemporary society. And certain forms of art walk us through the insights that contemplative traditions enable us to gain into the nature of matter and the qualities of our bodies and minds. These insights are earned through serious investments of time (if not money).

One important insight is that there's no sound as such, there's no matter as such. At bottom sound and matter are differential, relative phenomena. Matter is vivid and empty, real yet illusory. In fact, our sense of its realness is in direct proportion to our sense of its illusoriness.

The more of a hardcore materialist you become, the more you open up your mind.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy 2009

I was never one for falling balls or pieces of metal going around on other pieces of metal. I'm a solstice boy. Still, as a dear old friend Nigel Smith said to me today, may all our best aspirations come true this year. I start the year with 1000 lbs of CO2 offset, an essay on queer ecology not quite done, and plans to connect Derrida and Dennett. “Don't join the streams!” (Ghostbusters)—oops.