The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Unconsciously Screamin'

One of my favorite moments in Annabel Scheme is the party thrown by a mysterious musician known as “The Beekeeper”:

If you had electronic eyes and night vision—I had both—you would have seen slips of paper passing from person to person. On each slip was a phone number. Each one was different, and there were a dozen circulating in the crowd. Each wandered and blinked like a firefly as kids used their phones, torch-like, to illuminate the number, then passed it on. Here and there, then everywhere, they were dialing numbers, switching their phones to speaker-mode and pushing them up into the air like trophies.

The buzzing was coming from the phones. It was a low, rhythmic drone. At first you couldn’t hear much, but apparently, if you put enough phones on speaker all at once, it starts to get loud.

Really loud.

So that was the trick: There were no speakers because the crowd was the speaker. The bees did not sound so far-off now.

Scheme clenched her teeth. “This is hurting my face.”

Suddenly it stopped. The graveyard fell silent. It was a field of pale arms thrust to the sky, swaying like seaweed. Kids were bouncing silently on the balls of their feet. Waiting.

Then there was a count-off, a tat tat tat tat and then the music started and it was everywhere, megawatts of power flowing out of every palm and pocket. There was no focal point, so bodies were pointed in every direction, ricocheting and chain-reacting. Kids were losing it, jumping up and down, colliding and cuddling in the dark grass.

The music had a clear beat, but it was warped and scratchy, like someone was tuning a giant radio. Snatches of singing would ring out for a moment, then decohere. There was a trumpet that pealed from somewhere very far away…

The music was coming together as kids followed their ears. If your phone was buzzing with bass, you joined the bunched-up sub-woofer section. If it was sending high notes sizzling into the air, you joined the line that snaked around the crowd’s perimeter. The music worked its pattern on the crowd. It was both amazingly high-tech and totally pagan.

The first question I had after reading this was — I wonder if Robin knows about Zaireeka, the Parking Lot Experiments, or the other stuff that The Flaming Lips tried in the late 1990s?

I still don’t know. But I was reminded of that perplexity today reading this interview with Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson that’s all about the amazingly high-tech and totally pagan crap that the Lips tried before exploding with 1999’s The Soft Bulletin. Complete with YouTube videos, several of which were new to me.

If you were taken with either (Scheme or the Lips), try both.


timdoug says…

I read the last line as: “…(Scheme or the Lisps), try both.” Better stop coding and get back to reading & listening to music!

(I am a founding patron of the Committee to Find and Rescue Annabel Scheme, by the by.)

Scheme or the Lips! Scheme or Lisp! I love it.

(sorry, smart post, my brain was just short circuited by the geeky textual pun.)

Tim Carmody says…

Totes. Wish I’d spotted it.

Wow. W-o-w. On all counts.

(And of course: I did not know about any of that Lips stuff. But I am glad to know about it now!)

Tim Carmody says…

If Robin reminds me of anyone in indie rock, it’s Wayne Coyne.

This seems similar to silent discos, albeit using a piecemeal dial-a-dance system instead of radio, and communal rather than individual.

I’d be more curious for the implication of real life EQing, specifically, all you’d need as one of the listeners is to identify the whole range of sound, and instead of grouping all the bass, all the mid, all the treble, you could stand around with six other people, each phone playing a different range, and still get the full experience without being drowned out by people of the same range standing around you. In turn, if you want more bass, you have two phones with low registers playing near one another. Bulk up the mids? Add a few more phones to beat back the highs and subwoofer tones. Granted, the audio register capable on cell phone speakers is limited, but it should be sensitive enough that it would matter if you limited it to three or four or maybe five frequency ranges.

I’m also curious if instead of breaking it down by frequency range, what would happen if you segmented it by instrument? Could you have 60 people standing together, all with cell phones acting as a Marshall stack? Even more interesting, if you were to run this system with the performer amidst the audience, what kind of effects could you manage from having 12 feedback loops running in every direction around a guitarist with a portable amp and broadcasting rig. You could create a drum resonance chamber by just having people stand around the drum kit while it’s played.

Now I’m just all kinds of curious to see how this scene fits into the whole book.

You know Tim, I was never knowledgeable about the Flaming Lips, but I finally got around to browsing them (inspired by this post) and I think you have converted me.

You also made me realize I completely mis-pictured this scene when I read it. (I really loved/love it too.) This is the problem with reading books in a tearing hurry because you just want to find out what happens, little slip-ups in the mind picture. I did not realize that every phone was receiving a different track of the song and moving according to that, rather I thought that the location of their phones was interacting with the Beekeeper server to get them the right track. This is much more pagan.

It reminds me of a little ritual Athenian did last spring when sending off half the juniors to Death Valley for the required 26 days of backpacking. The ceremonial start of the course, dividing the group into three desert-animal-named-patrols (when you found who, exactly, among your classmates you’d be sharing the experience with), has always been rife with tension and expectation, perfect ceremony material. Last spring the instructors tried something new: for each patrol they made a sound associated with its patron animal, very specific and silly. Then they got all the students to stand in a circle. (The rest of the community–schoolmates, teachers, staff, parents) watched from outside the circle. The instructors went around the circle from the outside, blindfolding each student and then whispering the name of their patrol’s animal into their ear. When each student knew their patrol animal and knew their patrol sound, they were all gently pushed into the circle to wander around, quacking/squwaking/growling/whistling or what have you, carefully feeling around until they found each other. Only when all three groups had coalesced into clusters of joyful noise were the blindfolds removed. It was totally awesome to watch; I wish we had done it when I went to the Sierras 15 years ago.

I actually wanted to propose recreating the phone rave as the Scheme spin-off, but I couldn’t even begin to imagine whom to commission, and the sound engineering challenges were too daunting. (I still cringe when I think about the horrible interference effects caused by Berkeley’s misaligned campus announcement system.)

Tim Carmody says…

If you’re interested in more Lips, I can highly recommend the documentary The Fearless Freaks — I think it might be the best movie about a rock band I’ve ever seen.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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