Monthly Archives: July 2013

Music: Biopoesis and Ego Solvent

I have never been really good at music, but I have always been compelled towards it. I remembered hating being forced into band in 6th grade. Music did not make much sense to me. You were given a list of absolute commands, and then judged upon how well you could become a robot that repeats these instructions. To me, this seemed like an alright thing to do for a little bit, just to get an idea of how frequencies and rhythms were encoded onto paper, but once you had that part down, it seemed like the appropriate thing to do would be to program a synth or computer to perfectly replicate whatever you composed. The playing of the actual instrument itself seemed a flawed a pointless pursuit to me then. I felt that the only value in making music could come from composing new songs. However no one could really describe what the true point of music was anyway. Other arts seemed to have absolute value at least in representation; you could paint a picture, or make a sculpture to obtain a lasting record of parts of the world. There was nothing we were explicitly replicating with music however.

Experimental Musical Instrument by JPOM (“Mushy Lightning”)

Music had no explain-able higher purpose. You did things because they sounded good, and things sounded good if that’s the way we were used to hearing them. It strictly relied on following conventions agreed upon unconsciously by our culture. Particularly when I was younger, this notion of following conventions purely for the sake of appreciation by others seemed to be the antithesis of creativity.

I still appreciated good songs and secretly admitted to myself a fondness for popular catchy tunes, but the schism between analytic and emotional appreciation of music just drove my curiosity further. I sought out music that broke conventions and did strange or discordant things that you could grow an appreciation for like Zappa, Aphex Twin, John Cage. No matter what, though, I could still get a terrible song by Train stuck right in my head.

So I had this slow burning question that I always carried with me from a very young age:

What is music?

What is its function? How does it work, and why do we enjoy it?

The first thing I did when I moved away from home in High school was create a band to violently deconstruct music ( Maybe by stripping it down, I could finally see the naked truth of music.

Cover of one of our first albums

Even the band’s unpronounceable and unreadable name, Ju9mp_ily PLant Orgasm > Mayhap, was developed for cognitive jamming. Scientifically speaking, the methodology involved to pursue this inquiry involved taking one assumption and then applying one algorithm.

Assumption: we were the best band on earth, and thus had unlimited creative freedom to define an artifact as “music.”

Algorithm: if I could identify a musical convention or standard, I would try to do the opposite.

A lot of this is your standard teenage contrarian-ness, but I very consciously always tried to channel this push to inversion towards its limits in investigation and general weirdness. The first thing to destroy  was any pre-determined roboticism about creating music. So no rehearsing, no aiming for particular notes, no written poetry, just fill a room with energetic people, hit record for a certain amount of time and accept what results as the purest of music.


After a while I would identify other commonalities in music to attack: the proper way to play instruments, non-disgustingness of lyrics, types of juxtapositions of content and form, and standard components such as rhythm, melody, and tempos. We also explored all the satellite activities that constituted being in a band such as making music videos, producing records, battling other bands, creating the official soundtrack to major motion pictures, and even starring in our own documentary about the prices such an amazing band must pay for fame.

After exploring one factor thoroughly in experiments, such as the point of percussion in a song, I would relax the constraints on the banishment of this particular feature, and allow a song to have normalcy in this aspect while I experimented with some other part of music. Towards our later albums the contrarian-ness became more subtle and songs started to almost sound like real songs as I focused on attacking more and more specific parts of songs. For instance, the impetus behind the “Pee Pals” song was to see if I could make a simple song that people could dance to the beat whose content was also about something less appealing like peeing all over the dance floor. And this all started as an attack on the common reference in so many songs to the roof or ceiling as holding down the dancing. So in this song I tried to paint the picture of the roof holding in everyone as they literally drowned in their own piss as the dance room filled with party urine. Like all my songs, this exact sentiment may not have come across, but this manic process always did lead to something.

This still never directly answered questions for me about music as a whole, or even about this specific component (i.e. “oh, songs need percussion because of X”), but slowly I began to tacitly understand the impact of certain conventions. In fact, it was becoming clearer and clearer to me that music was a recursive set of conventions scaffolded deep in the trenches of history beyond memory.

Over the 15 years of this thought and analysis, I have currently arrived at two definitions that have been bouncing around in my brain.

Now prepare for conjecture…


One of my earliest definitions for stating precisely what music is came to me at a Ladysmith Black Mambazo concert.

The group danced in front of the audience, and followed and played with the musical rule-sets. Musical algorithms developed amongst themselves and the unconscious genetic and cultural regulations governing our thoughts and bodies. As they twisted and undulated, and non-verbally encouraged the rest of the audience to clap along, I was struck with a vision of the creation of life. The arbitrary rule sets were no different than the arbitrary universal constants set forth to govern the universe at t=0; the entangled patterns that repeat themselves in these musical rule sets were no different than the forms, and behaviors that have distilled from the chaos according to the universal laws. Music was biopoesis. Music created the simplest version of “life;” a single note resonating against the void. The persistence of a pattern throughout space and time could serve as the simplest definition of a “living” entity for me, and music was the conjuring of these patterns. At a concert everyone participating is aiding in the birth, exploratory life, and eventual death of a living creature.


Ego Solvent

The other definition upon which I arrived for music was an oblique one. It defines music indirectly by describing the conditions for the experience of it.

My thought is this:

Music is what you receive when you are no longer an individual. Static and discord are only felt when a thing exists as an single organism. Musicality is what your bodily cells live in every moment of their lives until they die or turn cancerous (perhaps in cancer a different tune takes over, perhaps the biological equivalent of getting a terrible Coldplay song stuck in your head).

This definition had been with me for several years, but did not manifest itself as well into words until I made a concert video for peter and his friends in their band Ptarmigan. I had them perform an acoustic concert with Peter’s research animals, the Azteca ants living in Cecropia trees.

[Video of Ptarmigan’s performance in the jungle with their research creature/collaborators]

Watching them follow the secret patterns governing the actions between them (both the band and the ants), solidified for me that what we call music was the experience of living as a larger entity beyond our “individuality.” Also with things like Mirror-Neuron theory stating that our brains actually enact what we see others do, the idea that listening to music is cognitively similar to playing it removes a categorical distinction between musicians and audience. Thus living in music is the same as living in a superorganism. Living in static is living as a solitary singular creature.

To find the atomic organism at a given moment, we travel up levels of organization until the music experienced starts breaking down.

Music is the dissolution of identity. It is ego solvent.

It may be communication without meaning. A meaningless medium.

When social insects like honeybees slowly evolved an increasingly tight social co-dependence, the musicality of their everyday encounters would be increasing. Evolution is the ultimate composer, crafting species specific songs over millions of years. Individuals merge identities not through explicit goals, but through a developing drive towards a certain sought after harmony bred into their brains. The ant collects and returns food to the nest not because it has a stated intent of helping the group, and perhaps not even because she herself is hungry, but instead because she is caught in a musical rapture.

Brains are little more than multi-dimensional harmonic oscillators shaped by adaptation and genetics. They are software both learned and burned-in. These oscillators respond to our environment and actions, and when our behavior shapes the external world to vibrate our brains correctly we experience music.


Dissolution into the Conjured Being

I think both theories are interesting to ponder, both music as the simplest living creature, and as superorganismal glue. They need not exclude each other also. Perhaps music is a creature to which we can become a part. Music can be the female anglerfish, and by following its siren spell, we the male anglerfish attach, dissolve and become just an additional appendage of this larger animal. The function of music as an art can be to let us create new forms of life, and leave ourselves to become part of this new creature, if only for a brief period.

The male anglerfish attaches to the female during mating and then dissolves its entire body leaving little more than an appendage of gonads for the female that produces sperm.(from


Big BCI Day: Part II – Glowing Night

Daan and I make it back to the main labs on the island to meet with Courtney. I chat with her about her research with Leaf cutter ants and computer vision. We were supposed to meet in the lab, but suddenly before my arrival, the ants decided to get moving, and she had to hurry up and capture their activity in the field. She wants to see the effect that an additional cache of leaves will have on the Atta’s foraging. That is, she sets a big pile of pre-sliced leaves next to a foraging trail, and sees how this changes what the ants will do who are marching up to strip the trees. She wants to see if their response to this cache will also be affected by the blocking of more ants returning with leaves.  The idea is to see if the ants in a colony will start using more of the close by piles of “leaf-reserves” if the incoming stream of fresh leaves dries up.

She blocks ants returning with fresh leaves by placing  large U-shaped hunk of mesh over their path which lets ants through but not ants carrying large leaves. This ingenious intervention preserves their same pathway on the ground but just prevents the fresh leaves from getting drug in.

On the way up to visit her, a playful group of spider monkeys play in the low trees just a couple meters above our heads.


We eat and see that night’s BAMBI talk and then gather participants for a special BCI version of the firefly game. A good amount of people wimp out, but we have an awesome group of super cool people joining anyway! This time we play in a slightly more urban environment. I thought it might be too easy in this format (not in thick jungle), and that this might break the performance/game. In reality, however, these more open spaces (yet still very dark) create a very compelling, fun game. In fact, since the fireflies themselves don’t have to deal with the drudgery of walking through tangled vines on the forest floor, and instead float effortlessly about, this part of the simulation may fall closer to the real experience of the fireflies.

The main things that keep breaking in the game were the solder joints on the wires (especially in the mouth pieces). This is also the first time we wore the costumes on our ventral sides which reduced the amount of times you would get unknowingly snagged on things.

After a couple of rounds we recuperate in the visitor’s center before hiking out with the group into the woods to hunt for luminescent fungi. It is tricky to find because in the light there is absolutely nothing to see- No mushroom body, or slimy growths. You have to let your eyes adjust, and suddenly, what you thought was a speck of light filtered from the moon down to the forest floor grows brighter and brighter. Soon you see that the ground is littered with sticks and leaves infested with the fungus.


We set up the camera and take a couple of long exposures. Really long exposures. The glowing is very faint, so we crank the camera open and let it sit for 30 minutes to an hour at a time.


Meanwhile we set up these amazing tents called “Hennesee Hammocks.” They are fully covered, uterine-like sleeping devices. You string up these sacks between two trees like a normal hammock, and stand underneath. Two velcro lips open on the bottom and you are able to sort of reverse-birth yourself into the sack, and it automatically seals behind you.

I drift off to sleep while the camera seeks out photons from the fungi. The tent/hammock surrounds me, a mosquito prophylactic, that still gives the full pleasure of immersion in the jungle.

(these tent things are prone to flowery euphemisms)

Big BCI Day: Part I – Traps

Up at 5am to fix some quick electronics for the firefly costumes. Print off Posters for peter’s performance, hang them up. Grab my gear and hike to boat to hopefully catch the 7:15 for BCI.


Meet Daan there who takes me on a whirlwind tour of the island. First I shadow her methods in her Forestry Management research. She sets up camera traps all over the island jungle to survey the wildlife rooting around. This requires lots of maintenance for the cameras as well as shifting and replacing cameras to catch activity in new spots. Also it takes a shit ton of batteries.

I try to learn about all the quirky and practical problems of doing what, in principle, seems to be a very straightforward task: Put cameras in jungle.


One of the biggest parts seems to be finding a good placement. You need a correctly sized tree to attach onto first of all. Next Daan tries to get into the mind of the animal. She walks around the chosen tree and searches for pathways that an animal might take when walking by. Then she orients the camera correspondingly so that it correctly sets off the motion trigger. She can put the camera into a test mode where she then physically crawls (or in this case, sort of apes around) in front of the camera in order to test the camera’s range.


Concerning things that can go wrong with the cameras are mostly on the electronic end. These camera traps seem to have few problems with the lenses, or being broken into. When planting cameras in more publicly accessible areas she does need to put unbearably heavy locks onto the cameras to stop poachers from stealing them, but other than that physically the cameras are quite solid devices.

Electronically, there are many problems. They are often running out of energy at different rates which screws up her schedule. The displays get corroded by the moisture, and sometimes the motion trigger goes berserk and fills the card with meaningless photos.


Our planned route today includes stops at several cameras around the island, the careful collection of a moth that had succumbed to a crazy tentacle fungus, and a stop at the remains of one of the largest trees in the world.

We have a lovely picnic under the moth’s H.R. Giger – styled remains. Sitting quietly in the forest we hear growingly braver stirrings as the creatures adjust to our presence. Different animals around us which remain unseen stir about more frequently in their quests for food, sex, and comfort. The forest awakes around us in this midday-hour culminating in a massive roaring of the howler monkeys. The howling signifies a sort of orgasmic release which then silences the building cacophony.

Following her GPS back in a loop we stopped by a disheveled clear patch in the forest. Limbs were strewn about in this disaster zone, and the eerily cleared space looming above was penetrated by a sharp, snapped obelisk.

Until two weeks ago there stood the island’s famous “Big Tree.” The massive kapok tree held a 13 meter diameter supporting massive, spreading limbs covering all of the nearby jungle. As the Smithsonian noted, “This was by far the largest crown known on the planet for a tree with a single stem.”

I had been to BCI last year when it was still standing, but Peter and I got a bit lost walking around and never found it. It’s fun to get to clamber about parts of the tree that were just previously inaccessible. Gravity and decay brought them down to sate our curiosity.



Embedded Design


Dad takes off from Panama, and I head to the weird zone between the city and Gamboa along the canal to get my final shot in my Rabies series. Had to erase part of my prescription and write in a new date because I think the nurse had gotten it wrong. It’s a tiny bit scary considering my prior reactions and just manipulating the hospital workers’ decrees in general, but everything works out fine. Ummat on the other hand became super Ill. We had to drive him to the clinic, and they gave him some antibiotics, but in two days his condition went back worse. Poor guy being sick in the field is terrible, but now it looks like he will be in the hospital for quite sometime. (Update: 15-7-2013 They still haven’t figured out what is wrong with the guy. They had been thinking rickettsia,  leptospirosis, and several types of meningitits (including fungal meningitis), but haven’t nailed it down. He had brain and liver swelling, and all they have been able to do is treat the symptoms.).


Peter and I uncover an electronic mystery during the rest of the day which we relegate to digital crafting. We are able to send communication wirelessly and drive a servo from a soldering iron.


Peter starts working on flick-o-matic 2.0. He’s coming up with growingly crazier designs to meet his goals of delivering fully automated powerful thwops against the tree. What started last year between us as a simple idea of programmatic smacking device, grew into more specifics as we developed the device with his experimental requirements. He needs the device to hit the tree with the following constraints:

– Deliver a consistent, hard enough wallop to be felt by the ant colony many meters above.

– Repeat this hit 10 times consistently and then automatically stop itself.

– Be blunt and soft enough to not bruise or cut the tree (stop it from releasing chemical stimulants in the tree sap)

– Be able to be bounced around in the back of a truck driving down a rough jungle road

– Be easily positioned near the tree, but only touch it when the experiment starts (even minor brushes with the tree can screw up the experiment). Peter waits at least 30 minutes after an accidental knocking on the tree to restart the official trial.



PETER: “I find myself thinking in new ways of the materials I have available. Like I use these things (plastic collection vials) for everything. I wonder sometimes about how if I had a different workspace with different materials how my designs would appear then.”