My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Sat, 01 Nov, 2014

Music for the Winter Solstice

I haven't posted a music-themed entry for quite a while, so here's one that's timely. I received a review copy of this CD some time ago but only now have I paid serious attention to it. The CD is PRINCIPLE OF SILENCE: LIVE, by multi-instrumentalist "Vidna Obmana" (Dirk Serries), and Joris De Backer on string bass. It is a record of a concert that took place on the Winter Solstice of December 21, 2002, held in the Theobaldus Chapel in Brecht, Belgium.

You may remember early on in this Weblog, I posted a number of articles about experimental ambient/electronic music. This is one of my specialties and over the years I have written numerous reviews of this kind of music. "Vidna Obmana" is one of the masters of the genre. If you wish, you may read my earlier entry about him here.

Vidna Obmana combines forces with a fellow Belgian, bass player Joris De Backer, calling their ensemble PRINCIPLE OF SILENCE. While Obmana is mainly self-taught, with a strong influence from "world" and aboriginal music, De Backer is classically trained as well as experienced in jazz and avant-garde bass playing. He is equally at home with the bowed bass of classical music and the plucked bass of jazz.

The live recording is unedited and unmixed, recorded, as the album notes say, "real-time onto CD without overdubs." So basically what you hear is what went forth into that chapel in December 2002. The set is divided into five sections, though the transitions are unmarked except for the CD divisions and there is no gap between them. Obmana brings with him a variety of instruments, including an electric guitar which is not only played by hand but bowed, and his signature Hungarian "fujara" flutes, which play overtones and microtones. He also has an array of synthesizers, looping machines, and digital reverb which melts his notes together in true "ambient" fashion. De Backer has only his bass, but he plays with bow, plucked, bowed harmonics, and even at one point uses the body of the bass as a percussion instrument.

The opening section is called "Solstice," and is a drifting introduction into the dissonant soundworld of Obmana's surrealistic vision, where he plays his overtone flute against sustained, slow notes by DeBacker. Everything goes slowly, mysteriously, like floating grey clouds over the Low Countries' wet fields. The second section, "The underneath," brings in a slow, regular rhythm, marked by the bass, marching steadily along accompanied by soft, looped wails from Obmana's flute. It has a ritualistic quality that mixes the influence of shamanistic sound from aboriginal sources and later religious music from Europe.

The third section, "Choral," is a drone piece, where both DeBacker's bass and Obmana's synthesizers stay on sustained notes that play subtly against each other, sometimes in fifths and sometimes in microtones. This is the only piece with a clear vocal element, as one or both of the musicians chant over the intensifying drones. "Choral" ends as the drones subside into the next piece, "Netherworld." The bass again sets the ritualistic rhythm as Obmana casts eerie loops of sound into the mix. As the piece progresses, Obmana returns to his fujara flute, soloing with a subterranean, dissonant virtuosity.

The last piece, "The Fall," is presented both as an audio track and as a video, playable on the computer. The last 12 minutes or so of the concert have been documented in a sophisticated short film by Patrick Ceuppens, shot in soft sepia monochrome tones. The film shows the two players, wearing their headphones to hear the electronic effects, standing beside the altar like cyber-angels. They look rather alike, at least in the dim light of the chapel, which is lit only by many candles and by a pale light seeping through the high windows. As the music unfolds, Ceuppens shows us the old wooden carvings of the chapel, as well as the architecture, the furniture, and the windows, giving us as much of the visual experience as can be recorded onto a CD. The chapel is small, filled with perhaps thirty listeners, though it is hard to count them given the perspective of Ceuppens' camera. Ceuppens at one point focuses on the figure of Jesus on the crucifix, and the whole effect is very much religious, even though there is no specific religious content to the music.

Usually, Obmana's music is in the "dark ambient" category, and this concert would qualify, but I won't categorize it so easily this time. It may be slow, droning, and dissonant, but here in this religious environment, on the day of the year's turning in Advent just before Christmas, it is neither dark nor despairing, but reverent. In this last piece of the concert, about two-thirds of the way through, DeBacker returns to conventional tonality, setting down a three-note row, descending slowly down a minor scale, which brings the experimental work back into the realm of European concert and religious music. Even so, as the bass repeats the three note row, Obmana still plays his eccentric flute harmonies until the very end. There is well-deserved applause when they finish, something which I have not heard in other "live" ambient performance records.

This is a contemplative, even soothing meditation on winter and the sleeping world just at the turning of the year. It is a darkness which is not scary or chilly, but the darkness of a world at rest, of empty fields and bare trees and the beauty of a minimal, austere landscape.

You can find this album, with information about it, at the Principle of Silence website which will direct you to the Vidna Obmana website where you can, if you are interested, purchase this PRINCIPLE OF SILENCE recording.

Decorating the avant-garde christmas tree

I have a miniature, artificial Christmas tree which I decorate most years according to the Year Color (see previous entry of December 9). Usually I choose Tschaikowsky's "WINTER DREAMS" symphony #1 as the background music. But this year I used this compelling solstice vision of Obmana and DeBacker as my tree-decorating music. Thus emerged the Electric Green Christmas Tree, which can be viewed here, photographed in its place in my studio. The green free-form decorations are cut from craft foam and hung on the tiny branches with ordinary metal ornament-hangers. The silvery humanoid figure near the top of the tree is my Vampire Elvis Christ the Redeemer trinket, a unique treasure acquired many years ago in Cambridge, Mass. Underneath the tree can be seen my 1986 Red Sox American League Champions Christmas ornament. Give thanks to Reality and the new universe, for it was finally our year in 2004. The tree is topped by a green and silver flame. I have never seen any Christmas tree topped by a flame, but this is my winter invocation of the auroral energies of charged divine matter.

Posted at 12:01 am | link

Cactus Flower Math

Those (few) who have been following ELECTRON BLUE from its beginnings know that I keep cacti. In March I lamented the death of one of my cacti, "Spinoza." But this time I have much better cactus news to report. One of my cacti, out on my terrace for the summer, has bloomed. Cactus flowers are often rare, brief events, and so was this one. I was glad to catch it. During the day, I saw the buds appear on the top of the plant, where I had noticed activity some weeks earlier. When I came home from work in the evening and looked at the plant, I was thrilled to see that the buds were in bloom. Knowing that these glorious white flowers would only last one night, I quickly grabbed my new digital camera and snapped some shots. I took some by the light of a fluorescent camping lantern, but they were slightly blurred so the shot you see here was illuminated by the flash.

By the next morning, the flowers were folded up, and would not bloom again. I don't know what kind of cactus this is; I'd love to know its Latin name. I suspect it is of the Mammillaria or Echinopsis genus. For all I know, it may put up more blossoms. But most likely, that is its big moment for this year.

To get this entry back onto the topic of math, take a look at the body of the cactus in the bud photo. The areoles, or the points where the spines emerge, are arranged in a regular interlocking hexagonal pattern, which if joined would cover the hypothetical surface of the round plant, rather like the famous geodesic dome associated with Buckminster Fuller.

But this plant isn't really spherical, it is an oblate spheroid, a sphere flattened at top and bottom. Its green surface is not smooth, but actually made of cones which support the spiny areoles. The spines of this cactus are curved inward and crisscross to form a tesselated pattern that is not quite regular, but subdivides the basic triangular planes which the areoles define. The spines form a three-dimensional network of curved lines. Other spines have the same inward curve, but are set at a higher angle, to make the outward-facing points which protect the plant. So this little cactus, if you look at it closely, is a marvel of geometry.

Posted at 12:00 am | link

Another Hole In the Wall

Some of you may remember the portrait I did of the comic book and used book shop "Hole in the Wall." This was in March of last year, when I was creating pictures for the art show I had in June of 2007. The picture went up in the gallery and was sold to a person who was moving away from Falls Church and wanted something to help her remember the place. I had promised the picture to the owners of "Hole in the Wall," though, assuming that it would not be sold in the show.

Since it was now in someone else's hands, the Hole folks commissioned me to do another picture of their shop. This time I put more color and detail in. In order to get the shot I wanted, when the light shone onto the front of the shop rather than the back, I had to visit the place at 6:30 in the morning, just after dawn. I photographed it on a brilliant but very cold October morning, with golden sunlight and fall leaves. Now I've finally done the re-make of my Hole portrait. I've made that little blue bungalow look like an autumn palace. I'll be presenting the picture to its owners in a few days.

"Hole in the Wall 2," watercolor and gouache on board, 12" x 16"

Posted at 12:00 am | link

Losing the Electron in a three-dimensional grid

I briefly lost the Electron Car in a large three-dimensional space yesterday. That is, I forgot where I parked in a great big four-story garage. Maybe you haven't had this experience, but probably you have. I emerged from the mall as a thunderstorm was brewing and went towards where I usually park in that garage. The lightning flashed, and thunder rumbled, and I saw, in my usual parking space, a Honda CRV that was just like mine, except it was black, not Electron Blue.

My first thought on seeing this was that I had entered into one of Max Tegmark's parallel universes (see my posting from February 9) and that this was my car, but in that universe I had chosen a black one, not a blue one. What, doesn't everyone think about parallel universes in a parking garage? What about parallel parking? Well, after realizing that I was probably still in this universe, I was faced with finding the true Electron.

I traced a path back and forth along the usual directions I go when looking for parking spaces. Of course, I conceived of it in trigonometric and geometric terms. You mean you don't think about parking spaces as trigonometry? I do all the time. I turned 180 degrees from the black car and traversed the perimeter of a large rectangle inscribed on the plane of the second floor of the parking garage. No Electron.

I set my visual scanner (that is, eyes and color memory) to pick out the color of Electron Blue, since my car has such an unusual color that it usually stands out among the duller cars. Instead, I found two bright blue Volkswagen New Beetles and one Toyota RAV4: similar colors, but not the true vehicle.

Then I tried looking for Hondas, that is, car structure, rear-mounted spare tire, and/or logo recognition. But Hondas were everywhere, including CRV's. I passed by and inspected a Honda Positron, that is, a bronze-orange "Element." This car is a Positron because it is a Honda which is the complementary (opposite) color to my blue Electron, thus made of auto-anti-matter. Thank goodness I hadn't parked next to this one. If I had somehow bumped it during entry or exit from the parking space, they would have annihilated each other, along with the entire mall, and myself with it.

I needed to think three-dimensionally. After all, it worked for Mr. Spock in three-dimensional chess and space warfare. I trudged up the stairs (the rain wetting me as I went through the open stairway) to Level Three, hoping to find the car. No joy. The usual spot where I park was empty. Had my car been towed? Stolen? If so, why? No, it was still in this garage somewhere. Now I needed to think historically and do some more trigonometry. Had my car been at an incline at any point during my drive through the garage?

The passageways through the garage from floor to floor, for cars, are at about, say, a 7 degree incline, maybe even more, and I remembered that I had driven downhill. Ahah. Declination, not inclination. I went down the stairs again, watching the lightning flashes illuminate the featureless brick walls of the mall. I had entered the garage on level 2, street level. Take the sine of the angle of declination, and that will bring me to level 1. Down into the dungeon of level 1 went I, as the thunder rumbled. Now things were becoming clearer. I had found no parking spaces on level 2, close to the mall entrance, and had driven down the incline to level 1, where there were plenty of available spaces.

There in the dimness, my blue Electron shone forth. Trigonometry saves the day. And I now know what it is like to solve a math problem not on paper or by calculator, but just by walking through it.

Posted at 12:00 am | link

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