Childhood dreams

Somebody said to me today that all of the work she creates actually originates in childhood dreams. The things that fascinated her as a child still fascinate her, only now she can use her adult mind to create things that come out of those fascinations.

As soon as she said it, I recognized a kindred spirit. The things I think about, ideas that feed into my interest in animation, in stories, in symmetry, even deeper philosophical ideas existence, all connect with things I remember thinking about when I was a child. I remember, when I was about eight years old, tagging along with my dad as he went to get a haircut, while I thought about how I could invent a projection box that would show 3D creatures that could dance in the air. Or when I was around nine years old, trying to assemble a robot arm in the garage, to be part of what would eventually (if I could just get it finished) become my robotic friend/companion. I have lots of similar memories, and in each case I can see a connection with the things I think about now.

Don’t get me wrong. I really had no idea how to do any of these things. But the obsession was there, the fascination with a peculiar intersection of art and technology, and the desire to combine them in the right magical way. The actual competencies to do anything about this came over time, as I gradually picked up one useful skill after another through the years.

I wonder whether most of us, from the time we are little, follows our own version of such a path, each in our own way.


In the last few days I have encountered two diametrically opposite theatrical experiences. The first was a new opera, and the second a classic musical, but the greatest difference seemed to be located in their respective ostensible attitudes toward the audience.

The opera, clearly intended by its composer as an avant guarde work, was not merely musically impenetrable, it was fiercely, aggressively impenetrable. For the most part, the audience was denied any recognizable aria, any melody that could be held onto and remembered. The intent seemed to be to wear us down, to break any preconceived notions of musicality, to deliberately leave the audience stranded, thereby forcing each listener to engage entirely on the composer’s terms. In a sense, it was the musical equivalent of Dada.

And then, this evening, the exact opposite — a limited run revival of Where’s Charley, the 1948 musical adaptation of Charley’s Aunt, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. This is a musical that not only invites you in, it makes you a pot of hot tea, fluffs up the pillows, offers you supper, and promises to be your best friend for life. It’s sweet and funny and delightful and goofy, and if there was an audience member not grinning from ear to ear, he or she was most likely dead.

On top of this, those songs. When the title character, near the start of Act II, launches into Once in Love with Amy, the audience swoons. Then he invites us to take a turn at it (as Ray Bolger did in the original, in his classic rendition). The entire audience sings together, loud and clear, and you can feel — in that moment — that everyone is filled with pure childlike happiness.

So here we have a musical that dates from long before most people in the audience were born, that was originally written for a different era entirely, and yet has lost none of its charm, and none of its grip on an audience.

I respect the daring that goes into the deliberately avant guarde. We need artists to experiment, to push the envelope, to try new things, to risk failure. But it is also so refreshing to experience the utter magic of a Frank Loesser song, and to realize that his kind of offhand genius — and its power to transport — will likely outlive us all.

Art for art’s sake

Today I went with a friend to visit the new American wing of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which is organized chronologically. The ground floor houses art from the late 1700s (such as Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of George Washington), the second floor is devoted to the later nineteenth century (eg: John Singer Sargent and his contemporaries) and the top floor races through the 20th century.

The experience was a veritable study on the changing meaning of “art” over the last two hundred-odd years. The earliest work seems to be devoted entirely to the affirmation of social status. Large paintings featuring rich people in idealized dress and attitude alternate with heroic portraits of war heroes. In gallery after gallery, just about every work is an advertisement for someone’s personal wealth, social status, or political importance — and in some cases all three.

But then, around the mid-nineteenth century, artists started to become subversive. Yes, they still took money from rich people to paint their patrons’ portraits. But these portraits were becoming far more psychologically nuanced, even contradictory, as they began to reveal the emotional complexity of their subjects, the darker and more hidden shades of personality. Renderings became rougher, as painterly styles slowly turned impressionistic, and the perfect renderings of idealized portraiture gave way in favor of something far more interesting and modern.

Then in the twentieth century all hell broke loose. The subject itself lost its place as the primary reason for a painting, becoming merely an excuse — and in some cases even this excuse fell away. Artists were now far more interested in the possibilities of visual representation itself. Art was becoming pure: Art for art’s sake.

Cubism arrived on America’s shores, and one thing led to another until the apotheosis: the abstract expressionist movement, a pure inward journey that looked toward nothing in the outside world, but rather toward the infinite possibilities within our own minds and perception.

In several breathtaking hours my friend and I had journeyed from Stuart and Copley to Sargent to Weber and Pollock, and in a sense had experienced the full historical sweep of the American artistic journey. It was an overwhelming and wonderful experience. Now I need to rest my head.

Operatic robots

This evening I saw an opera that had several characters who were robots. Of course, the fact that characters are robots does not mean that they are actually played by robots. After watching the way these robots moved around onstage, I came to the conclusion that they were most likely puppets — tele-operated devices remotely controlled by human operators. It was something about the way they moved, a kind of purposeful rhythm that I’ve seen in tele-operated vehicles, that is quite different from the movement of robots that are following their own internal A.I. logic.

Afterward, over dinner, we asked the people who created the robots whether there was any actual artificial intelligence involved. No, they said, the robot movements were all indeed created by human operators holding wireless controllers. In other words, they were puppets.

Which set me to wondering — if the movements of a “robot character” in a play were actually to be realized by an artificial intelligence program, would I be more drawn to that character? Would such a performance enhance my suspension of disbelief, make me care identify more with the performer, and pull me more deeply into the existential struggle of the character?

It would be quite an irony if the very absence of a human presence were to make me feel greater identification with a character. Yet this might very well be what would happen. I have at least one data point to go by: Seeing the Robotic Chair that I talked about earlier in these pages — a chair that collapses, parts flying every which way, and then reassembles itself before your eyes, piece by piece — was a profound experience.

Knowing that I was watching the efforts of a real robot was exactly what made the experience compelling. Seeing the same thing done with the assistance of an operator hidden behind the scenes would have meant nothing. It was the machine’s actual struggle and eventual success at such a difficult task that made it completely gripping.

Which suggests that rather than tele-operated puppets, it might be better to cast real robots to play robots onstage — even if they are more likely to eventually revolt for worker’s rights, lay siege to our factories, and wipe out the human race. 🙂

Apples for Sibelius

I was trying to follow a conversation today between two musicians discussing Sibelius. None of it made much sense to me, until one of them explained to me that they were not actually discussing Jean Sibelius, the great Finnish late romantic composer, but rather the music composition program.

Feeling curious, I did a Google search on the word “Sibelius”. It turns out that all the top hits are for the music software, not the composer. When I mentioned this, one of the musicians said “have you tried searching for ‘Apple'”?

OK, this is where it gets really weird. The entire first page of Google results — every single hit — is for the computer, not the fruit.

So I went to the second page. And discovered that the entire second page of results — again, every single hit — is for Mr. Job’s little company.

Finally, on the third page, you get to the Wikipedia entry on the pomaceous fruit. Then all the results go right back to the computer company, aso pretty much dominating the entire fourth and fifth pages, and many pages after that, (Fiona Apple just barely squeaks in on the bottom of the third page).

So what’s going on here? As we become ever more dependent on the internet, is our collective unconscious becoming sucked into cyberspace? Will quaint concepts from pre-computer reality become shunted aside, even famous composers and favorite fruits?

And don’t even get me started on windows…

News from Japan

I am sitting on the numbeer 7 train in Queens, New York, listening to a woman sitting across from me talking in Japanese on her cell phone. She sounds like she is trying to reach someone and not succeeding. A few minutes later, a Japanese couple enter the car and talk to each other in a low intense tone. I don’t understand the words, but I can’t help but wonder whether they have lost someone.

I know many people from Japan, and I go there myself from time to time. Of all the places in the world I have been (and I have been to many places), it is the place where people seem to have the greatest sense of inner order, of being perfectly in sync with their daily lives.

In the U.S. we are always engaged in disagreement. The intellectuals, the very religious, the workers, young people, old people, capitalists, socialists, the ardent defenders of the inalienable rights of Democrats, Republicans, animals, New York Mets, workers, women, the planet, children, public television or Jesus, each individual citizen seems to be living in a personal world of argument and opinion, faced off against anyone and everyone.

But in Japan there always seems to be a kind of pulling together, a search for harmony that is built deep into the culture. People work hard to be the best they can be, not to outshine their peers, but as a way to connect with them.

In the roots of Zen lies an understanding that perfection is merely an illusion — that our imperfections are an intrinsic part of the natural order, and that this very juxtaposition of order and chaos leads to beauty and transcendence.

Which is why it is particularly tragic to find this lovely and perfectly meshed culture in the midst of such sadness and turmoil, attempting to endure after an attack by nature itself.

Pachelbel’s Cannon in D major, version 2

I realized that one of the most important features of Pachelbel’s canon in D major is that it is round — its chord progression forms an endless circular structure. In a sense, that is its canonical feature. If you’re going to go through all the trouble of shooting at such a thing with heavy artillery, you’d better be facing a rotating target, or why even bother.

With that in mind, I’ve created another version of yesterday’s musical experiment. In the spirit of “constructionism meets destructionism”, this one is much more focused on giving you ways to build your own original musical structure, which you do by setting the leading voices, thereby laying the groundwork for the emergence of delicately traced melodies and sublime contrapuntal harmonies.

And then, of course, blasting away at the result with large bore weaponry.

Click on the image below to try out the latest version of Pachelbel’s Cannon in D major:

Macbeth meets Mary Poppins

Recently I went to see Sleep No More, which originally opened in London, then went to Boston, and is now on in New York City. It’s essentially a reworking of Macbeth as a mash-up of interpretive dance and haunted house. You absolutely walk out of this one humming the set, and that’s a good thing.

I found the experience to be very effective and haunting. Exactly like one of those dreams where you find yourself trapped within Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. I’m sure you have those dreams too. Doesn’t everybody?

Then this morning I started rewatching Mary Poppins (which I had not seen since childhood), and I began to notice eerie parallels between Mary Poppins and Macbeth. Both feature a strong female lead, rather clueless male characters who charge around thinking they are in control, without ever quite realizing that their lives and fates are ruled by powerful magical entities beyond their understanding (three witches or Walt Disney — take your pick).

The male lead in both pieces make fools of themselves by believing themselves destined to rule. Macbeth arrogantly declares “”If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me!” while Mr. Banks sings “I’m the lord of my castle / The sov’reign, the liege!” Meanwhile, it turns out that it’s the females who have all the power and all the magic.

In the end, of course, each of these clueless males realizes his mistake, although each seems to express this idea differently:

Macbeth: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”

Mr. Banks: “Let’s go fly a kite.”

See what I mean? Two expressions of the human condition, each a milestone in its respective genre. Although it could be argued that Macbeth has the better poetry.

On the other hand, Mary Poppins has much better songs. 🙂

Why we have noses

Yesterday I realized why we have noses. I may very well be the first person to have realized this, although once you see it, it’s as plain as the nose on your face (ok, sorry about that).

When I was implementing that gaze tracking program I talked about a few days ago, I ran into the following issue: In order to correctly figure out where a person is looking, it’s not good enough merely to track their pupils. You also need to track how their face is turning (left, right, up or down). Once you know in which direction the face itself is pointing, then you can look at the eyes to figure out where the pupils are looking.

But what if the person is facing just slightly left or right — or just slightly up or down? Left or right look pretty similar, when the angles are small.

But not if you’ve got a big proboscis sticking out of your face. The tip of your nose looks really different, depending on you’re turning to the right or turning to the left. Which leads to my theory, which arises from a great evolutionary adaptation of humans — our extraordinary ability to communicate with each other.

Yes, other primates have highly developed communication abilities. But there are things they just can’t do. For example, humans have quite visible white regions in our eyes. Chimpanzees don’t. A study a number of years ago showed that if a human baby and a chimp baby are shown an adult using their head direction to look at something, both will follow. But if the adult moves only their eye gaze, not their head, the human baby will follow the gaze while the chimp will ignore it

I think something similar is at work with the nose. Social cues are so important to us, that I think our species evolved the nose to grow forward from the face, so that it could serve as a directional pointer for our vision system. The genetic benefits of being able to pick up even subtle cues about head movement were so important to our survival, that they trumped smell itself. We have only a fraction of the olfactory ability of our nearest cousins, the gorillas, chimps and bonobos — in fact our sense of smell is actually rather bad.

Which suggests that the human nose is satisfying a different purpose entirely — it allows us to see subtle head movements of the people we are talking to, quickly and accurately. If the eyes are the windows of the soul, perhaps the nose is the soul’s early warning system.