I tell you now: there are no epiphanies.

Category: writing (page 3 of 4)

The Dark Matter

Here’s how the book starts.

* * *


The Dark Matter

Know that such a dark circle as this is not empty but filled in the way a seemingly empty cup still contains the potential of volume.  Know also that in the longest nights, these are the spaces worth holding.  Look up and out from the same vantage point you have used to ponder all your days and nights and understand that you will see no difference even were you to stare up into such darknesses for all your life entire: focusing not upon a star or cluster or nebula or galaxy but rather upon the empty spaces between and even though you know it to be an illusion of scale such knowledge does little to increase the range of your vision.  Were you to flit to some more distant vantage the whole of it would change, each landmark metamorphosing so completely that it would have become something else.  Find, then, your Centaurus.  Your V645.  Your Alpha A and B.  Find your Barnard’s Star, your Wolf 359, and your Lalande 21185.  Fix them if you will with your azimuth quadrant and astrolabe.  Your false and meaningless compass points.  Fool that you are.  That we all are.  Stare then into that darkness as if it might reveal something of itself.  And know that it never will.

Halos of light bend through the black spaces even now, lensing through clusters of stars and through the heat-spread temperatures of hot gases in distant galaxies.  An eight sigma to indicate that the formula has gone awry.  What else then?  Take your Galton Board and drop the tiny metal balls down through the pins and into the channels and you will see the curve that is the guiding principle of everything that moves.  Place that against your eight sigma.  Now do you believe me?  A network of filament and line and curved space and the illusion that something—time, gravity, matter—somehow abides.  And perhaps it is so.  The universe all around you as flat as a sheet of paper for reasons you cannot even begin to understand and yet the whole clockworks in motion.

Relax then into in your squeaky metal lawn chair and slip your eyes closed and let tears swim up out of the black depths that drive you.  Now cast your metaphors aside.  Know that the materials stringing together the bleakest aspects of the human heart are the same that web over the universe itself.  And know too that such descriptions are specious but they are the best you can do.  You will go nowhere, for where might you go?  There is no where.  There is no here.  There is no now.  There is only what is: a squeaky metal lawn chair.  A taped-together telescope.  A sense that whatever you once thought was your purpose has already been forgotten.  There will be no remembering it no matter how long you stay out here in the warm night air, your smoke-addled head staring up into the night.

Know, at least, that the absence you feel in your heart is not an isolation but is rather a sliver of something larger: an indication that you are connected to the dark matter itself.  The filaments pulse to the secret rhythm of your life which is the secret we all keep close and silent and is therefore so secret at all.  Even this: an illusion.  A feeble metaphor like so many others.  Nothing like anything else because everything breaks down to its tiniest particles and smaller still and yet connected even now like a dusting of letters collected together here and here and here, a constituency of meaning rising up out of a topography of fragmented sounds.  These sounds.  Now.  This the dark matter connecting you and I.  Let it flow into and out of you.  Let it be a black river.  Breathing.

January ends

Thanks to all of you who have been kind enough to keep track of my novel-writing progress over the past year.  It’s been a lengthy and rewarding process.  This is my fourth manuscript and the first one that I really felt like was beyond the “apprentice” phase.

In any case, I finished the beast earlier this month–515 manuscript pages in all–and it’s off to the agency.  Let’s hope they choose to represent it.  I really do think that it’s worth reading and in some ways its the most important art I’ve yet been able to make.  I likely say that every time I finish something new, but then again that’s why I keep making art so hell yes I’d better feel that way.

Much of the time since reading.  Some are asking when I’m making a new album.  That question I can’t yet answer.  I can tell you that Digitalis has one last album that I did with Tetuzi Akiyama and Tom Carter.  It’s titled “The Darkened Mirror” and will be out whenever Digitalis does it (and it will be on vinyl only).  I also have a cassette-only release with Digitalis under the band name “Generals & Such,” which is a project I did with friends Erik Werner (who directed the Washington Dreams of the Hippopotamus video) and Tim Rowan.  It’s called “Quixote” and is marvelous.  I’m the drummer.  Sounds like a noisy freakout of Explosions In the Sky.  Perhaps a bit more obtuse than that.

As for new songs, I have a bunch demoed from before the novel, but I don’t have much interest just now in delving into them.  I likely have enough for an album, actually, but those who know my work will already know that I don’t really release song collections.  Everything always has to have a central theme or idea or narrative.  I don’t run sprints; only the distance.  So either a theme will be revealed or I’ll keep silent until something comes along.

One thing to look for on the music front: Ptolemaic Terrascope asked me to contribute some material for a scrapbook project they’re working on and offered up 10 minutes of time on the accompanying CD.  This I filled up with a single track: “Cartographers.”  It’s a long rumination on mid-19th century explorers in the Western American mountain ranges.  Heavy but luminous at times.  I recorded it with help from Tim Metz, Scott Leftridge, and percussionist Bob Gemelin.  These are good people, all.  The finished track sounds (I hope) like Talk Talk’s best work: Spirit of Eden.  A luminous album indeed.

I’ll get some chunks of the book up here in the near future, I promise.  Meanwhile, thanks again for all the e-mails, twitter comments, texts, and facebook messages.  You guys are all champions.

Another piece from the novel…

Call it what you will.  The sky a field of black that covers us all, not as a dome but as what it is: an infinity of dark matter that stretches in all directions and in which you are suspended like an insect caught up in some viscous fluid, twitching and scrabbling for a surface that does not exist and in fact has never existed.

Go ahead.  Cast your mind back and back and back before all your various disappointments stacked themselves like cordwood at your feet.  Your eye still pressed to the eyepiece.  A cruel monocle indeed.  The black emptiness of space with its uncountable stars.  What might you learn from that emptiness?  Humility?  A lesson you learned long ago and need no reminder here.

A lane of dust, although Messier likely could not have seen it and yet there it is: a swath of darkness akin to a bruise again the thick swirl of stars not like a bruised eye but like a smear on a napkin, the diner having already belched out his final gaseous surprise upon eating—yes—a galaxy.  Indeed.  So the universe works just like the local diner: the lights even flickering on and off now and again.  Power outages as the grid browns out once or twice and then ducks the neighborhood into frantic candlelight.  The diners sit with their forks suspended between plate and maw.  Where’s my coffee cup now?  The final bite in the black and then setting the fork down next to the plate with a metallic clink.  Quizzical.  Quixotic.  That too.

Which galaxy are you in now?  The one devouring or the one being devoured?  Could you know?  Would you care if you did?

So it is everywhere.

There is no jewel and so there will be no lighting up your dark heart.  Ah god.

From the novel I’ve been writing…

It is as if lying at the bottom of a swimming pool: a shining, shifting object like a small coin. The object is there: it can be seen. Its outlines can be traced, some details detected, and yet if the pool could be drained only for a moment: the letters on its surface, the small scratches and nicks from handling, a sense of its history and its purpose.

Look out the window and see the sky aglow with its stars in all their staggering indistinctness. And now: a starfield incomprehensible and crowded with lights that do not shimmer but are firm and steady and do not falter. Every feather and crest perfectly outlined. Each beak sharp in its point. How they shine even now.

There are a variety of longings. This one drifts through the circle of lit space like a ghost.

A cluster of blurred light whose history you already know. Galileo had counted forty individual stars. You could likely count the same number had you the desire or need to do so. The Beehive. Messier, never the poet: “a cluster of stars known by the name of the Cancer nebula.” Before it had been as if a huge mystery floated in plain view of everyone but was essentially akin to a foreign text impossible to read except for those trained in its grammar. The forty-five had become one hundred and ten by the end of his life. And not stars but objects: clusters and nebulae and distant galaxies. Indistinct. Curiouser.

Of course there is no answer. What answer might you give? An answer in minutes and seconds? The low sky to the north until your eyes blur out trying to resolve objects. And you have a count of them too. But which have you already counted? Each star shifts against the pool bottom of the atmosphere and so his view continues to be garbled by distance and by the last light of the sun still blues out the horizon even to the north. The array of stars tangled together as if it had some meaning but no meaning could it have. And so it goes on: the night a blurry, terrible thing that is stationary only as a cruel illusion, like the camouflage of an animal that lay so still as to seem part of the landscape itself and then, in an instant, slithering away, the illusion so complete that when it was gone the landscape itself appeared exactly as it was and then again the motion for all the while the slithering animal had been replaced by another and another until the watcher knows only that the landscape viewed is no landscape at all but only a field of slithering animals all moving at once and that the watcher itself is standing upon such a field so that he too moving along with them and as such the entirety of the scene is of motion itself and yet offers the illusion of being frozen and so shall it ever be.


Yikes!  Blurt liked my review of Doveman’s new reimagining of the Footloose soundtrack album that they ran it as a feature instead of a review.  Nice!  Check it out here.

Branca from NYT

I got the idea for this piece from mathematician David Hilbert’s well-known list of 23 “Paris Problems” (1900) that he hoped to see solved in the new century. Of course there is not the slightest connection between Hilbert’s list of problems and this list of questions. Not to mention the fact that many of these questions contain the answers simply in the asking.

Klein bottleQuestion mark Klein bottle.

1. Should a modern composer be judged against only the very best works of the past?

2. Can there be truly objective criteria for judging a work of art?

3. If a composer can write one or two or more great works of music why cannot all of his or her works be great?

4. Why does the contemporary musical establishment remain so conservative when all other fields of the arts embrace new ideas?

5. Should a composer, if confronted with a choice, write for the musicians who will play a piece or write for the audience who will hear it?

6. When is an audience big enough to satisfy a composer or a musician? 100? 1000? 10,000? 100,000? 1,000,000? 100,000,000?

7. Is the symphony orchestra still relevant or is it just a museum?

8. Is micro-tonality a viable compositional tool or a burned out modernist concept?

9. In an orchestra of 80 to 100 musicians does the use of improvisation make any sense?

10. What is the dichotomy between dissonance and. tonality and where should the line be drawn?

11. Can the music that sooths the savage beast be savage?

12. Should a composer speak with the voice of his or her own time?

13. If there’s already so much good music to listen to what’s the point of more composers writing more music?

14. If Bach were alive today would he be writing in the baroque style?

15. Must all modern composers reject the past, a la John Cage or Milton Babbitt’s “Who Cares If You Listen?”

16. Is the symphony an antiquated idea or is it, like the novel in literature, still a viable long form of music?

17. Can harmony be non-linear?

18. Was Cage’s “4:33” a good piece of music?

19. Artists are expected to accept criticism, should critics be expected to accept it as well?

20. Sometimes I’m tempted to talk about the role that corporate culture plays in the sale and distribution of illegal drugs throughout the United States and the world, and that the opium crop in Afghanistan has increased by 86 percent since the American occupation, and the fact that there are 126,000 civilian contractors in Iraq, but what does this have to do with music?

21. Can the orchestra be replaced by increasingly sophisticated computer-sampling programs and recording techniques, at least as far as recordings are concerned?

22. When a visual artist can sell a one-of-a-kind work for hundreds of thousands of dollars and anyone on the internet can have a composer’s work for nothing, how is a composer going to survive?
And does it matter?

23. Should composers try to reflect in their music the truth of their natures and the visions of their dreams whether or not this music appeals to a wide audience?

24. Why are advances in science and technology not paralleled by advances in music theory and compositional technique?

25. Post-Post Minimalism? Since Minimalism and Post-Minimalism we’ve seen a short-lived Neo-Romanticism, mainly based on misguided attempts to return to a 19th century tonality, then an improv scene which had little or nothing to do with composition, then a hodge-podge of styles: a little old “new music,” a little “60’s sound colorism”, then an eclectic pomo stew of jazz, rock and classical, then a little retro-chic Renaissance … even tonal 12-tonalism. And now in Germany some “conceptual” re-readings of Wagner. What have I left out? Where’s the music?

Listening/Reading Now

From the pile...

From the pile...

Some of the pile on my desk includes:

Davy Graham, Folk, Blues & Beyond
Geoff Muldaur, Sleepy Man Blues
Calypso Pioneers, 1912-1937
Bob Dylan, Artist’s Choice (from Starbucks but MAN is it gooood!)
Sonic Youth, Murray Street
Loren Connors, As Roses Bow: Collected Airs 1992-2002
Gregory Orr, Burning the Empty Nests

Seek them all out fair traveler.


And my review of the new James Blackshaw album here in Blurt.

New from BLURT

I’ve been writing some reviews for BLURT, a new on-line mag from the guys who used to run Harp, a magazine that I liked quite a bit.  In any case, here are a couple that have recently appeared, with more in the queue and waiting to arrive in cyber-print:

Richie Havens, Nobody Left to Crown

Milton Cross, Light in the West

Incidentally, if you’re wondering why this is all so quiet in Crowtown, take a quick walk over to the Of Great and Mortal Men site as that’s where all the action is happening these days.

Oil Barrels

My wife and I have been discussing the reasons for oil barrel prices being as high as they are.  Here’s an interesting article from The Economist about the various reasons (and scapegoats).  The Economist is generally a bit too conservative-leaning for my tastes (including its frankly reprehensible support of the invasion of Afghanistan), but this is a good article.


Double, double, oil and trouble

May 29th 2008
From The Economist print edition

Is it “peak oil” or a speculative bubble? Neither, really


AFTER oil hit its recent record of $135 a barrel, consumers and politicians started to lash out in every direction. Fishermen in France have been blockading ports and pouring oil on the roads in protest. British lorry drivers have paraded coffins through London as a token of the imminent demise of the haulage industry. In response, Gordon Brown, Britain’s prime minister, is badgering oil bosses to increase production from the North Sea, while Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, wants the European Union to suspend taxes on fuel.

In America, too, politicians are haranguing oil bosses and calling for tax cuts. Congress has approved a bill to prevent the government from adding to America’s strategic stocks of oil, and is contemplating another to enable American prosecutors to sue the governments of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) for market manipulation.

But the most popular scapegoats are “speculators” of the more traditional sort.OPEC itself routinely blames them for high prices. The government of India is so sure that speculation makes commodities dearer that it has banned the trading of futures contracts for some of them (although not oil). Germany’s Social Democratic Party proposes an international ban on borrowing to buy oil futures, on the same grounds. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee, is also mulling regulation of some sort, having concluded that “speculators are responsible for a big part of the commodity price increases”. The assumption underlying such ideas is that a bubble is forming, and that if it were popped, the price of oil would be much lower.

Others assume the reverse: that the price is bound to keep rising indefinitely, since supplies of oil are running short. The majority of the world’s crude, according to believers in “peak oil”, has been discovered and is already being exploited. At any rate, the size of new fields is diminishing. So production will soon reach a pinnacle, if it has not done so already, and then quickly decline, no matter what governments do.

As different as these theories are, they share a conviction that something has gone badly wrong with the market for oil. High prices are seen as proof of some sort of breakdown. Yet the evidence suggests that, to the contrary, the rising price is beginning to curb demand and increase supply, just as the textbooks say it should.

Stocks, bonds and barrels

Those who see speculators as the culprits point to the emergence of oil and other commodities as a popular asset class, alongside stocks, bonds and property. Ever more investors are piling into the oil markets, the argument runs, pushing up the price as they do so. The number of transactions involving oil futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX), the biggest market for oil, has almost tripled since 2004. That neatly mirrors a tripling of the price of oil over the same period.

But Jeffrey Harris, the chief economist of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), which regulates NYMEX and other American commodities exchanges, does not see any evidence that the growth of speculation in oil has caused the price to rise. Rising prices, after all, might have been stimulating the growing investment, rather than the other way around. There is no clear correlation between increased speculation and higher prices in commodities markets in general. Despite a continuing flow of investment in nickel, for example, its price has fallen by half over the past year.

By the same token, the prices of several commodities that are not traded on any exchange, and are therefore much harder for speculators to invest in, have risen even faster than that of oil. Deutsche Bank calculates that cadmium, a rare metal, has appreciated twice as much as oil since 2001, for example, and the price of rice has risen fractionally more.

Investment can flood into the oil market without driving up prices because speculators are not buying any actual crude. Instead, they buy contracts for future delivery. When those contracts mature, they either settle them with a cash payment or sell them on to genuine consumers. Either way, no oil is hoarded or somehow kept off the market. The contracts are really a bet about which way the price will go and the number of bets does not affect the amount of oil available. As Mr Harris puts it, there is no limit to the number of “paper barrels” that can be bought and sold.

That makes it harder for a bubble to develop in oil than in the shares of internet firms, say, or in housing, where the supply of the asset is finite. Ultimately, says David Kirsch of PFC Energy, a consultancy, there is only one type of customer for crude: refineries. If speculators on the futures markets get carried away, pushing prices so high that refineries run at a loss, they will simply shut down, causing the price to fall again. Moreover, speculators do not always assume that prices will rise. As recently as last year, the speculative bears on NYMEX outweighed the bulls.

There is, admittedly, a growing category of inherently bullish investment funds that seek to track commodity-price indices, in which oil is usually the biggest component. Politicians have begun to denounce these “index funds”, since they make money for their investors only if prices rise. According to Mr Lieberman, they have grown in value from $13 billion to $260 billion over the past five years. This surge of investors betting on rising prices, many observers contend, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, helping to push prices ever higher and thus attract yet more investment.

But Bob Greer, of PIMCO, an asset-management firm, argues that even index funds make unlikely suspects. For one thing, they too invest in futures, rather than in physical supplies of oil. So every month, they must trade contracts that are about to fall due for ones that will not mature for several months. That makes them big sellers of oil for prompt delivery.

What is more, their growth is not as impressive as it first appears. Paul Horsnell of Barclays Capital, an investment bank, puts the total value of index funds and other similar investments at $225 billion. That is less than half the market capitalisation of Exxon Mobil, he points out, and a tiny fraction of the $50 trillion-odd of transactions in the oil markets each year. Although index funds have grown quickly, that growth stems in large part from the rise in value of the futures they hold, rather than from fresh investment flows. He estimates that index funds swelled by $13 billion in the first quarter of this year, for example, of which all but $2 billion derives from the rise in commodity prices.

Back to basics

Mr Harris of the CFTC, for one, believes that the oil price is still a function of supply and demand. For the past few years, the world’s production capacity has grown only sluggishly. Meanwhile, demand, especially from the developing world, has been growing faster. So there is hardly any slack in the system. Only Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are thought to be able to increase their output from today’s levels, and even then, there are doubts, since Saudi Arabia, in particular, is secretive about the state of its oil industry.

That leaves the oil market at the mercy of even small disruptions to supply. Prices tend to jump each time militants sabotage an oil pipeline in Nigeria, bad weather threatens production in the Gulf of Mexico, or political clouds gather over the Persian Gulf.

The problem is exacerbated by a growing mismatch between the type of oil being produced and the refineries that must process it. The most common benchmark prices, including the one used in this article, refer to “light” crude, the least viscous sort, which produces the most petrol and diesel when refined. “Heavy” oil, by contrast, yields more fuel oil, which is used mainly for heating.

At the moment, diesel is in short supply and there is a glut of fuel oil. That makes processing heavy oil unprofitable for some refineries, since the gains from diesel are outweighed by losses on fuel oil. As refineries turn instead to lighter grades, it pushes their prices yet higher. The discount on heavier crudes has risen to record levels. But even then, points out Ed Morse, of Lehman Brothers, another investment bank, Iran is having trouble selling the stuff. It is storing huge quantities of unsold oil on tankers moored off its coast.

Presumably, Iran and other heavy-oil producers will eventually be obliged to drop prices far enough to make processing the stuff worth refiners’ while. In the longer run, more refineries will invest in the equipment needed to crack more diesel out of heavy oil. Both steps will, in effect, increase the world’s oil supply, and so help to ease prices.

But improving an existing refinery or building a new one is a slow and capital-intensive business. Firms tend to be very conservative in their investments, since refineries have decades-long life-spans, during which prices and profits can fluctuate wildly. It can also be difficult to find a site and obtain the right permits—one of the reasons why no new refineries have been built in America for over 30 years. Worse, new kit is becoming ever more expensive. Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), a consultancy, calculates that capital costs for refineries and petrochemical plants have risen by 76% since 2000.

Much the same applies to the development of new oilfields. CERA reckons that the cost of developing them has risen even faster—by 110%. At the same time, oilmen remain scarred by the rapid expansion of output in the late 1970s, in response to previous spikes in prices, that led to a glut and so to a prolonged slump. Exxon Mobil claims that it still assesses the profitability of potential investments using the same assumptions about the long-term oil price as it did at the beginning of the decade, for fear that prices might tumble again. Environmental concerns are also an obstacle: America, for one, has banned oil production off most of its coastline.

Increasing nationalism on the part of oil-rich countries is adding to the difficulties. Geologists are convinced that there is still a lot of oil to be discovered in the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, but governments in both regions are reluctant to give outsiders access. Elsewhere, the most promising areas for exploration are also the most technically challenging: in deep water, or in the Arctic, or both. Although there have been big recent discoveries in such places, they will take longer to develop, and costs will be higher. The most expensive projects of all involve the extraction of oil from bitumen, shale and even coal, through elaborate processing. The potential for these is more or less unlimited, although analysts put the costs as high as $70 a barrel—more than the oil price this time last year.

Nonetheless, PFC Energy has examined projects that are already under way, and concluded that global oil production will grow by over 3m barrels a day (b/d) over the course of this year and next. In particular, it expects production outside OPECto grow by about 500,000 b/d both years—a marked increase from the near stagnation of recent years.

Meanwhile, the high price is clearly beginning to crimp demand. The growth in global consumption last year was barely a quarter what it was in 2004 (see chart); this year, it is likely be even lower. In rich countries (or at least among the members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a rough proxy), the effect is even more pronounced. Consumption has been falling for the past two and a half years.

Poorer countries’ demand for oil is still rising, albeit at a slowing pace. That is partly because their economies are growing faster, and partly because their consumers are shielded from the rising price through subsidies. But the increasing expense of such measures is forcing governments to water them down or scrap them altogether (see article). That, in turn, should further sap consumption.

Oil pique

China’s growing thirst for oil is often put forward as one of the main factors behind today’s higher oil prices. Demand for diesel there, for example, rose by over 9% in the year to April. But Mr Morse argues that such growth might not last. The government has ordered oil firms to increase their stocks of fuel by 50% to be sure there are no embarrassing shortages during the Olympics. It is also planning to run some power plants near Beijing on diesel rather than coal, in an attempt to reduce pollution during the games. These measures are helping to boost China’s demand for diesel, but the effect will be transitory.

In the short run, neither demand for nor supply of oil is very elastic. It takes time for people to replace their old guzzlers with more fuel-efficient cars, or to switch to jobs with shorter commutes, or to move closer to public transport. By the same token, it can take ten years or more to develop an oilfield after its discovery—and that does not include the time firms need to bolster their exploration units.

Gary Becker, an economist at the University of Chicago, has calculated that in the past, over periods of less than five years, oil consumption in the OECD dropped by only 2-9% when the price doubled. Likewise, oil production in countries outsideOPEC grew by only 4% every time the price doubled. But over longer periods, consumption dropped by 60% and supply rose by 35%. The precise numbers may be slightly different this time round, but the pattern will be the same.

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