In paranoia news, some fear that a Swiss experiment attempting to duplicate conditions obtaining picoseconds after the Big Bang will create a series of black holes that will swallow the earth. (A series of Swiss white holes would, however, merely be an enormous cheese – which, in line with its opposite coloration, would be swallowed by the earth.)
Since as far as I can tell the winning lottery ticket is likelier to materialize in midair in my bedroom, held between the teeth of a nude Scarlett Johansson, also materializing in midair in my bedroom, I’m able to worry about this in the abstract…and stumbled across a curious philosophical issue. If the universe as we know it dematerialized utterly, would we even be aware of it, in any sense? Barring supernatural beliefs, I find myself wondering whether time wouldn’t also cease, and whether it would “feel” to us merely as if we were in a perpetual present (which wouldn’t feel perpetual, being only a present, it being only time passing that’s recognizable as time) – rather like being on hold to the cable company.
Slightly more seriously, it got me to thinking that what makes disasters disasters isn’t only what happens to those killed in the disaster – it’s those deaths’ impact on survivors. But an instantaneous, universal disaster would leave no survivors, no tremorous onset, no “omigod” moment of impending death – and no aftermath. It would seem to be an existential disaster only.
And that led me to recognize, yet again, the depth of our interdependence, that we really aren’t whole persons except in the society of others. In his most recent book I Am A Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter addresses the nature of consciousness by arguing (this is an extremely reductive summary) that consciousness and intelligence emerged initially from self-recognition and then (and crucially) from the recognition that others are self-perceivers like we are. More than that: if “identity” means anything, each person’s is inextricably bound up with those of others: who we are includes, is formed by, and continues to inform our consciousness of other beings, our mental maps of them, the mirror sites in our minds of their consciousness. Our language, our knowledge, our habits, our folkways, our likes, dislikes, joys, and fears, all are part of multiple continua with all the others we’ve met: most closely, our parents, families, partners, children, and friends, but in more scattered but legible circles radiating to encompass coworkers, political, social, and religious leaders, and those whose consciousness is transmitted (however also transmuted and refracted through whatever aesthetic lens) through their writings, artwork, or music.
And all that was on my mind as I recently collected a bunch of stray Brian Eno songs, including a song he did in collaboration with German duo Cluster, called “The Belldog.” The title phrase (as Eno explains in a sadly out-of-print book called More Dark Than Shark, which compiles critical essays on Eno’s work with “portraits” of each of Eno’s lyrics by a young Russell Mills and comments from Eno himself) comes from an encounter with a New York street musician, playing an “out-of-tune upright piano on wheels” (!). The musician sang, over and over again, the words “the belldog, where are you?” Eno writes that he vaguely thought the belldog must be some sort of “herald,” since bells (a later strong interest of Eno’s) tend “to summon attention.”
Despite Eno’s disavowal of the importance of lyrics in his music, as a lyricist his work is first-rate. He avoids cliché, his lines are clean and unforced, and his imagery is fresh and evocative. While he claims that his lyrics often evolve from improvised sound, similar to the Surrealist practice of “psychic automatism,” Eno – by contrast with many Surrealists’ reluctance to edit its results – typically then worked with these near-nonce syllables to sculpt some sort of meaning from them, often guided by the mood of the music. While occasionally he’d develop something like a narrative, more often his words were content to evoke, to suggest, to weave a loose web of imagery, leaving plenty of space for the listener’s consciousness to collaborate. “The Belldog” is one of Eno’s more worked-through lyrics – Eno discarded several drafts – and while there’s no clearly set story here, there is a narrative of sorts: from day to night, from control to uncontrol, from isolation to incorporation. Reductively, the main character begins by disregarding surroundings (“in the dark sheds / that the seasons ignore”) and attempting to exert control over his immediate environment (“I held the levers that guided the signals”), then gradually begins to “lose control” and individuation (“at last I am part of the machinery”), to the extent that the last verse is in third person, with the narrator no longer present. “The world makes its circle through the sky,” “the light disappears,” and the belldog…well, where is the belldog? What is the belldog?
I find it interesting that whether these transitions are positive or negative is left wholly open-ended, and that what the narrator becomes one with is not “nature” or “the universe” but “the machinery.” That machinery seems to have something to do with communication, or lack thereof (the “signals” referred to above are guided “to the radio,” but “the words I receive” are “random code, broken fragments from before”), but there’s no hint that communication ultimately does take place. Only that, perhaps to the narrator, it no longer matters, as the light disappears, and the narrator’s no longer present. (Maybe this can be the soundtrack to our impending disaster.)
Musically, the song is concerned (as is much of Eno’s work) with flattening out aspects of music that are typically hierarchical. In terms of time, we have a rapidly pulsating sixteenth-note sequenced bassline…but rather than being propulsive, it ultimately seems static, even meditative. In contrast there are many long notes, often indeterminate in terms of beginning and end, and frequently shifting in pitch as well. The song is content to let its introduction play out for some minutes before the vocal enters (we cannot immediately slot the piece into “vocal” or “instrumental”), and harmonically it oscillates between what might be two chords (G-flat major and E-flat minor), except that both chords are harmonized somewhat unusually. Frequently the G-flat is a G-flat 6/9, with added A-flat and E-flat, and the E-flat minor adds a 7th, while the bass oscillates for both chords between the root and the fourth degree of its respective scale, implying harmonic movement that never arrives. (Now that I think of it, it seems likely this was written on the piano, using primarily the black keys: those keys’ pentatonic scale recurs throughout.)
As a sort of companion piece to “The Belldog,” consider “St. Elmo’s Fire.” (Amusingly, although I hadn’t noticed earlier, this one’s in C major…that is to say, as far away harmonically from G-flat major as you can get, and entirely on the white keys of the piano…) Lyrically, this is as close as Eno gets to narrative: he and a companion (“Brown Eyes”), having exhausted themselves, find respite “in the blue August moon, in the cool August moon.” And there – in a “desert” (which I take, for some reason, in an older sense merely of “isolated area”) – they experience the mysterious phenomenon of St. Elmo’s Fire – in what Russell Mills describes, aptly, as an “electrifying couplet”: “And we saw St. Elmo’s Fire / spitting ions in the ether.” The numinosity of that phenomenon would be less striking in the absence of Robert Fripp’s fantastic guitar solo: he was asked, I recall reading somewhere, to imitate the effect of electrical sparks arcing unpredictably from point to point. (I stole the idea – and a phrase or two from the backing piano figure – in my entirely in-camera laptop synth solo on “Victorian Photographs.”) Here again Eno embeds some intriguing oppositions: in the first verse, “Brown Eyes” and the narrator “had walked and…scrambled / through the moors and through the briars”; in the second, their mode of travel is less clear: “Over the nights and through the fires / we went surging down the wires / through the towns and on the highways / through the storms in all their thundering.” In contrast to all that activity and travel is, first, the cool, blue August moon, and second, the desert (with bones bleached white, contrasting conceptually with the dark nights, storms, and vegetation…although Eno stumbles in one of his rare lyrical gaffes, forcing a rhyme with “ether” with the comically superfluous “bones…white as teeth, sir”) – and finally, the narrators at rest – where they can experience this strange phenomena (which does, as it happens, spit ions).
The songs begin with similarly restless activities, and while “The Belldog” evaporates its narrator, “St. Elmo’s Fire” presents its characters with beguiling meteorological phenomena. You could argue that the characters wouldn’t have been in the desert to experience it if not for all their surging and scrambling – or you could suggest that if they’d stayed right where they were, they would have experienced it anyway. Certainly, the moon would be as cool and as blue no matter where they were. But in contrast (yet a sort of concord) with the narrator in “The Belldog,” these characters seem highly present in their moment – or the moment highly present in them. It’s the latter reading that brings the situation closer to that of “The Belldog.”
Aside from Fripp’s miraculous guitar, the song, for me, nearly exactly evokes the feeling of a late summer evening, the heat of the day finally dissipating into a cooler stillness, but still a sort of captive energy to the air (which, I suppose, in the song finds release in St. Elmo’s fire).