I found this drawing in the street on my block.
In the mornings outside, when the sky just begins to get light, there’s a certain moment when all the birds start busting a number nine nut, all at once. If you think about it, as the Earth turns and the line of sunlight progresses endlessly around the Earth’s surface, it’s preceded by a line of birdsong, all up and down the Earth’s longitude, a wave of birdsong eternally rotating around the planet.
But in the West, there’s another moment, that arrives a little earlier. Before dawn is even a rumor, in the canyons and dry grass of Western hillsides, the eerie sound of coyote calls echoes in the night.
There’s no sound like it. When I first heard it I had no idea what it was. There’s a reason they call them “songdogs.” It definitely doesn’t sound like barking. It’s more like a mixture of women screaming and laughing with wolves howling at the moon, but at times it takes on a huge resonance and sounds more like whale song. Complex patterns will arise and be repeated, call and response, back and forth across a valley, mimicking each other with frightening precision. If I had become a biologist I would have tried to do a musicological and linguistic analysis of coyote calls; there’s no way patterns that complex can be devoid of meaning. On that first morning, out in the woods, when I finally figured out what had waked me up, I felt as Brion Gysin said he did on first hearing the Master Musicians of Joujouka: that I had heard my music, and would do anything in my power to go on hearing it forever.
I also sometimes use the term ‘coyote time’ to describe the state of mind you get into in the backcountry, by yourself, after you put your watch away. Time ceases to have any meaning at all. Your mind can’t get any grip on it. You are (again quoting Gysin — I wonder why he’s on my mind?) “all out of time, all into space.” The walk ahead could take one hour or it could take three, but somehow you know when you need to leave to get back by nightfall. And the hills stretch on endlessly.
One interesting thing that happened to me while I was living on coyote time recently was that I came across one truckload of young hunters giving another a jumpstart. Henry Coe State Park is a big place — 80,000 acres, six times the size of Bermuda — and it has a number of inholdings, chunks of land that are privately owned, often by hunting clubs. So it’s not unheard of to run into people driving into or out from their property on the old dirt roads.
On this occasion I was a little puzzled as to why these drivers seemed so nervous around me. After all, there were six of them, with two V-8 pickups and a handful of shotguns, and only one of me, with nothing but the clothes on my back, not even a pocket knife or water bottle, nothing but a map in my pocket. Yet it seemed as if they were more scared of me than I was of them when I walked up to them and inquired about their car troubles.
It was only later that I realized that the problem was that I was living on coyote time. I did not fit in anywhere. I didn’t look like a backpacker. Backpackers wear microfiber and carry ski poles and, most importantly, backpacks. I came walking up out of the trackless wilderness (I had been walking, actually, for miles far from any trail; I found an old ridge road — the backcountry of California is littered with old roads cleared along the spines of ridges, often only recognizable by the growth of yerba buena and chamise that now covers them — wandered for miles along it, scrambled at random down a side spur, then along a creekbed, hopped some barbwire onto private land for a while, then followed another creek back out to the dirt road I found the hunters on) wearing sandals, shorts torn by a thicket I had forced my way through, a torn Chanel tee-shirt spattered with blood from when my nose had been bleeding earlier, and a baseball cap, and proceeded to splash across a river and walk right up to them. God knows what I looked like, or what potential explanations flashed through their minds. Poor kids. They were probably wondering, “What if he tries to touch us? or collapses? or tries to touch us and then collapses?” But their trucks were pointed in the right direction — out — so I let them live.
I’d spent all that morning standing naked in a cold swimming hole in the creek, watching fat salamanders congregate beneath the water. Salamanders love to play a game where they clmb up to the top of an underwater rock and then launch themselves off it, with their arms and legs outspread, and slowly float back to the bottom of the pool. As I watched, I felt sun beating down on my upper body. There’s a kind of electrical current that happens between the sun-heated upper body and the water-frozen lower body. Like charging a battery.
Me and Steve Dye recorded coyote song one time and I used it to make a sound collage for a presentation at UC Berkeley — but I can’t find it on my computer. I wonder where it is? So instead I’m including a song Honey Boy Martin wrote about me and what a badass I am.
(And if you even remotely buy that, please know that if you had been around the night I got back from camping, sunburnt, tick-bitten, itching with poison oak, dehydrated, exhausted, lying whimpering in bed with the sweat pouring off my body in rivulets and my heart beating uncontrollably from sunstroke, you would not have thought me a badass at all… it’s a good song though.)
While I was pruning this amazing Chaenomeles I was reminded of a story by Rudy Rucker, in which he personifies the apeiron, or primal chaos, by five characters: The Tangled Tree, The Braided Worm, the Bristle Cat, The Swarm of Eyes and the Crooked Beetle.
Rucker writes in a note (Gnarl, p. 566) that these characters correspond to five core characteristics of mathematics: Number, Space, Logic, Infinity, and Information, respectively. He may be over-thinking things a bit here. He also seems to want the Apeiron beings to represent the troublesome infinities that lurk around the neat corners of the Pythagorean theorem; numbers which like Î or âˆš2 are unending decimals and cannot be represented as the ratio of two integers. Pythagoras taught that all numbers were integers or the ratios between them, and so Î and âˆš2 were problems, especially because they are geometrically simple entities; Î is of course the ratio between a circle’s circumference and its diameter, and âˆš2 is the ratio between the diagonal and side of a square.
Honestly, it’s not a very good story, except for those five characters, who I just love and feel like I know intimately. Pythagoras’s relationship to irrational numbers is a pretty interesting topic, though. Musicologically, it comes up as something called the “Pythagorean comma,” which is the little bit that’s left over if you follow the circle of fifths all the way around — it’s not a real circle, you see. By the time you’ve gone all the way through the octave and come back to whatever note you started with, you’ll be off by a certain amount, 0.23 of a semitone. The Pythagorean Comma.
I fuckin love that thing.
That’s why some Baroque dude invented “equal temperament,” which is out of tune everywhere, and Bach wrote the “Well-Tempered Clavier.”
What it points to is that the reality we find ourselves immersed in is fundamentally incomprehensible. There are no elegant answers — or they may be elegant, but our minds can only grasp them for fleeting moments. The music of the spheres is dissonant.
Its also the true reason for the cult of the number 23.
Anyway, I won’t go into the music theory behind just intonation and equal temperament right now, except to say that in a strictly Pythagorean musical universe all notes are perfect harmonic ratios of each other, but you can’t change key. You are basically in a heptatonic space. The farther you migrate around the circle of fifths the more the Pythagorean Comma comes back to bite you. Bach was so psyched on equal temperament because, by spreading the dissonance around everywhere, it allows you to be almost in tune in any key at all, and that’s why he wrote all those collections of pieces organized by key. So, equal temperament is the opening up of a true dodecaphonic musical space, which, of course, is the space of twentieth century art music.
Personally I think it’s kind of like putting a bandaid on your problem, and, arguably, the intellectual edifice of serialism, which reduces music to a kind of logic problem, begins with equal temperament: the idea that our minds can come up with a better musical system than the inherent harmonic relations of a struck string.
And lest you think that I am the only nutcase to take this kind of thing so seriously, a major war of words has been fought among the post-minimal underground over this topic. Tony Conrad, a former colleague of LaMonte Young, has extended their legal battle over whether their early recordings were group improvisations or Young’s compositions into ideomusicological terrain by arguing that Young’s preference for just intonation is elitist mystification, and that equal temperament is the triumph of musical democracy over mysticism — something like that. Young’s responses are even more incomprehensible. Of course, they were happy just not hanging out at the same cafÃ© until, somewhere in the last decade, kids got interested in drone music, meaning the royalties on those old recordings actually amounted to something. Kind of pathetic but also adorable — funny old coots.
I confess that LaMonte Young is one of my all-time musical heroes; however I did once see Conrad and Faust open for AMM in London. Faust were lame but Conrad’s violin playing totally shredded. Maybe later I’ll post some music by both of them and let them duke it out.
(But of course we all know that the real winner is: the Apeiron. The Tangled Tree.)
Today I was photographing this plant, Xanthorrhea, which blooms every 15 or 20 years. I observed over the last few days that the flower bud has been growing about 6 inches a day, which makes about 0.25″ per hour, and I said to myself, “just a little too slow to be seen by the naked eye.”
This seemed like a funny thing to say; I mean, what kind of creature could see this growth with its own, unaided, eye and brain? Then it occurred to me — time has no inherent speed.
Just as my capacity to perceive certain frequencies of oscillation of the electromagnetic field as “visible light” having a definite “color” has nothing to do with any inherent properties of those frequencies, but is something my ancestors’ brains and eyes evolved to do because it turned out to be incredibly useful (though who knows how useful it might have been had they evolved to “see” x-rays, or something), the rates of change in my surroundings which I am able to perceive as “movement” have only to do with the length of my life and the speed I am capable of moving.
I know, that sentence is fucked. I have this problem with syntax.
I began to wonder if, to a dragonfly, my movements are so glacial as to be nearly imperceptible. Because after all she wouldn’t need to see something that moves as slowly as I do — I could never catch her.
It might be that every being’s lifespan feels subjectively to be about the same. Or, for that matter, it might not. Dragonflies may feel the way it would feel to me if I lived for a thousand years. They may be so world-weary after a month that they don’t even notice their deaths.
I wondered if this might be sort of what Dogen meant when he wrote, in Shobogenzo Uji, that being is time. In fact he rejected the copula, writing it as one word, beingtime, and writing that every being has a time.
This is a blog about tantric alchemy, elves, and several other things.
Suddenly, without warning, the old-timer began quietly singing:
"It's like an old war wound, and it hurts me sometimes
Like an ache in the plate in my head
It's like an old war wound, and it hurts me sometimes
When the weather is fixing to change"
I use this for thinking. You can help.
"I turn to stone and my pain goes on."
–Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 288
"Naturally one should not simply identify this consciousness with that of 'mere supposal,' that nymphs, for instance, are dancing in a ring."
–Husserl, Ideas I
"If by enlightenment and intellectual progress we mean the freeing of man from superstitious belief in evil forces, in demons and fairies, in blind fate -- in short, the emancipation from fear -- then denunciation of what is currently called reason is the greatest service reason can render."
"By and large, it is painful to think."