Friday, January 09, 2009

Butterflies of the cosmos

An exceedingly interesting thread in Comments the other day (Jan. 6) on "subjective" and "objective" reality. I was struck by a few sentences of Pat, mainly because of what I was reading at the time.
Our "subjective" thoughts are themselves as much a part of "objective" reality as cosmic rays and anti-matter. A sentient mind is an unknown in the grand scheme of the universe. Even if all of its sources and resources are known, the new connections, beauty, and ideas it will create from them cannot be deduced nor anticipated. We are the butterflies of the cosmos. The conceptions we spin, whether expressed in music, paint, words, or our lives themselves, are a brand new wrinkle in the fabric of reality, unforeseen, and profoundly unpredictable. They permanently change local reality and ripple through the totality of its existence.
Of course, we have no idea to what extent human consciousness is unique in the universe. If experience is any guide, we are utterly typical, mediocre really, neither the lords of intelligence nor the fools.

But consider this. As I read Pat and the others, I was also reading The Day Is So Long and the Wages So Small: Music On a Summer Island, by Samuel Charters, published in 1999, recounting the summer of 1958 when music anthropologist Charters and his partner Ann Danberg, graduate students at the time, made their way with little money and a tape recorder to the isolated island of Andros in the Bahamas to record native music. Their greatest discovery was a guitarist named Joseph Spence, descendant of slaves, dirt poor, minimally-educated and immensely talented, who one day stopped his work with his friends and gave Charters and Danberg a spontaneous concert. Charters writes:
In all the years of recording music since then, and with all the guitarists I've worked with, Spence is still in a musical place by himself. He was playing simple popular melodies and hymns, but he was using them as the basis for extended rhythmic and melodic variations. There were sometimes two separate rhythms crossing each other simultaneously, while the melody extended the harmonies into another dimension. He often seemed to be improvising in the bass, the middle strings, and the treble at the same time. Sometimes a variation would strike the men and Spence himself as so exciting that he would simply stop playing, they would forget about their work, and they would shout at each other in their excitement.
When later on musicians in the States heard the recording Charters made in Andros, Spence was dragged out of anonymity (by Pete Seeger) all the way to the Newport Jazz Festival and concerts in New York.

A tiny settlement on a swampy, mosquito-infested island with no road to anywhere, no indoor plumbing, almost no electricity, and a man with self-taught, world-class musical talent who can bring people to shouts and tears with the beauty of his playing. "Even if all of its sources and resources are known, the new connections, beauty, and ideas it will create from them cannot be deduced nor anticipated," says Pat.