“Janelle, it is a picture of a black Klingon Jesus.”
“Please don’t call it woo-woo”
“Oh no. No sister would call that woo-woo”
“It was my Unc’s and I can’t throw it away. He was really special to me.”
“You can keep it, but maybe you can keep it in a Public Storage locker – in another town,” said Liane.
“Now you are just doin’ the whatevs.”
“No Janelle, keeping it is: the reign supreme whatev.”
Janelle was glad that she had covered up the altar she used with a screen. I’m not about to let Liane abuse me about that, too. She had been considering adding the picture of Jesus, which reminded her of both Jesus and her Unc to the altar. Now that Liane had dissed the picture it was slightly contaminated with negative vibrations.
Unc Caleb had always told me I could do anything. I’m a professor at a good college thanks to his belief in me. That and the law of attraction. That’s how strong belief is, stronger than anything.
“Okay Liane, see ya, gotta teach my class.”
“I’ll send you a fruit basket; I’ll call you later this week.”
After teaching her philosophy 174 class Janelle was back home, a small but cozy apartment across the street from campus. It was time to meditate. She had made her own fusion of Buddhist chanting, visualization, and the “law of attraction”. She was definitely not chanting before an altar with photos of a Mercedes and Rolex watches. Her altar had pictures of Buddha and Jesus, a smudge pot for sage, and seven crystals in the colors of the seven chakras. There was also a miniature violin and piano symbolizing her other sideline passion: Western Art Music. Janelle had realized many years ago that she had the drive but not the talent to be a success on the concert stage. Unc Caleb had talked her through her disappointment and grief. Now her hottest rotation playlist had several interpretations of Brahms’s Double Concerto for Violin and Cello.
She sat in vajra pose – on her knees with her feet under her buttocks. She allowed her gaze to soften and lose focus while she sat in front of the altar. The significant motivators on the altar slowly dissolved into the darkness of closed eyes. She began her mantra “Om Nama Namoh”
As she repeated the syllables over and over she felt her body cool down. This was not a physical sense of temperature. She felt waves of relaxation that also were not physical sensations trickle down her arms and legs. A deep sense of calm filled her consciousness. This was temporary, because the memory of Liane returned to bother her again. Liane was her best friend and also a thorn in her side. Janelle returned to the mantra and both thoughts occupied her mind at once, living side by side.
As she dived deeper and deeper into equanimity, she stopped repeating the mantra to herself and began the process of meditation using imagery. Her idiosyncratic process started when she created an image, which would be different depending on her day’s experience. Today the campus appeared to her from above, green and busy with students. Her inner vision took her to the philosophy building, but did not linger. A sense of pressure began on her face that had nothing to do with the quiet room her body occupied. The pressure led her from the philosophy building to the music building. She was in a recital room in the music building. She had been there many times. She knew she was done ‘moving’ in this meditation. At this point Janelle began to hold the visual image steady to deepen her concentration.
To her astonishment, the room was suddenly filled with music that she did not recognize. To say it was heavenly would be to use a moldy cliché. It was divine, melodious, and she and it were in harmony. The melody was carried by a violin that the orchestra repeated. A violin concerto then, but which? And which violinist? She could ‘see’ a violin player made of the same gold as the violin. The phrasing was like none she could recall. Janelle was determined to remember all the details of the piece. Just as touching a soap bubble ruins the experience for both the finger and the bubble, the image inspection phase of her visualization ended. At some point in time or out of time, she felt an overwhelming pang of loss.
How long did it last? Janelle could speak from experience that there is no time in the deepest meditation. She felt like she had been rudely kicked out of heaven and been told to never come back. Follow the process, she reminded herself. Transform this negative emotion; I need to find my resourcefulness.
A sense of calm slowly eroded the pangs that were still coming in waves of dull sensation. Janelle was becoming centered. She willed to return to an image to guide her. The recital room did not come back, instead a sheet of music paper, symphonic, with a line for the violin soloist appeared to her inner sight. The staff lines and instrument labels were clear but the notes were fluid like they were made out of water. Although impossible to read, they radiated a sense of peace, ease and completeness. Janelle tried hard not to judge or evaluate the meaning of this image, but the mind (not Mind) has its limits and as she was trying to read the notes, the image faded to the black of closed eyelids. She tried to keep centered but all she could think of was “Shit!”.
That didn’t go well at all she mused, sitting at the altar when she opened her eyes. That melody, harmonies and the theme development teased her by being felt as a full emotional tone, without any details as to the actual notes and harmonies. A sense of an achingly sweet violin line remained.
The next day Janelle showed up at the music department’s reception desk.
“Hi Janelle, how can I help you today?” said the receptionist.
“Hi. Do I know you?”
“Everyone knows Janelle who teaches the Philosophy of Facebook.”
“Oh, perhaps you mean Epistemology of Social Media?”
“Yeah that’s it: Phil O’Face.”
“Indeed,” Janelle hoped her tone would encase this conversation in a deep freeze, though she had heard it a thousand times already. “I’m looking for Dr. Hoyl.”
“She’s in, it is her office hours, down the hall to 145.”
“Thanks,” and thank you Unc for teaching me not to wait for a hero, but to be my own hero.
“Dr. Pendergrass, to what do I owe the honor?” Dr. Hoyl seemed pleased and bemused at the same time.
“Dr. Hoyl, may I call you Cheryl? I’m Janelle.”
“Most assuredly, Janelle.” She waited.
“I’m interested in writing my own music. I studied performance when I was younger, but what happens on the other side of the score is a mystery to me.”
“A gifted amateur! How charming. I’ll be happy to assist. Most listeners believe that the composer just transcribes the finished product (a gift from Euterpe, the muse) that exists wholly in the fevered confines of the composer’s skull.
And indeed there are some that are gifted to that degree. But,” here she paused as if to impart a great secret, “you are in luck: most music is composed at the piano. You have a head start. Even without a theme or melody some composers improvise, write down a few notes, play the motif again, erase some and scribble in some more, and continue until they feel that they have material to develop.
If, instead, you have some sense of the music in your head, all the better to sit at the keyboard, play what you ‘hear’,”at this she wiggled his fingers around her head, “and write it down.”
Hoyl smiled widely. “Some composers hook their keyboard to a computer and using the right software, whatever you play is instantly transcribed to the staff.”
“Wow, that sounds pretty streamlined.”
“True, true, the part always needs cleaning up and sometimes it is easier to write with pencil or mouse cursor, but since you have playing skills, I suggest you try playing straight into the software first.”
“What software do you recommend?”
“I’ll do better than that,” She slid over and reached into a file drawer. “Here’s a copy of Crescendo! (with the exclamation point). They send me comp copies all the time. Please; with my blessing to a new contributor to the art.”
“How kind of you, Cheryl. Thanks. I can’t wait to see what happens.”
Janelle played a few notes from memory. Her fingers ‘remembered’ a very lovely melody from Brahms’ fourth symphony. She played that melody into Crescendo! and saw the notes appear on the staff. That was nice, but she was after something with much greater significance for her – the violin concerto she had heard.
I can’t remember any of the notes, she thought. She mused instead of acting. I can recall the range of emotions and how they evolved. I do remember the concerto’s sequence of emotions. Each feeling appeared to her wordlessly, sadness flowed into acceptance. Acceptance was followed unexpectedly by despair. Surprise at that particular change of theme, but then I felt it as inevitable. Then: impatience. I do remember some details of this section, but ‘pizzicato woodwinds’ leading the orchestra on, is not really much help. After impatience the last emotion: an effusion of gratitude.
As she recalled that emotion it overwhelmed her again, just as when she had ‘heard’ it.
I have the feeling without any of the notes. Damn!
Okay, she told herself, pizzicato. She played some quick notes leading to a chord progression. “Impatience” she spoke to herself inaudibly. She felt frustrated and tried to channel that onto the keyboard and the staff that stared at her from the computer screen.
Hours later she had played and deleted thousands of notes and chords and the blinking cursor on the staff did not exactly mock her, but her sense of defeat was crushing.
Janelle was kneeling in front of her altar, beginning her practice. She repeated “Om Nama Namoh” to begin the progression. As her concentration deepened, she felt the usual sensation of her body feeling as if it was a liquid – a cool and soothing liquid.
She could not avoid trying to attract a return of the concerto. Since she could not recall any details, this was next to hopeless. Snatches of music she had heard and remembered teased her in place of the music she was hoping would return to her consciousness. She tried to use her concentration to push those phrases away, which only made them more persistent. Everything that she tried was just making things worse. She knew that the law of attraction meant that like attracts like and in this case it was making things worse. She changed her focus to remembering her day and the visualization began to be more peaceful. Flowers appeared to her inner sight and then in an amazing moment she could smell with an inner sense. As she took in an incredible variety of floral scents she heard, as if off in the distance, a few phrases from the concerto. She now felt exhilarated, out of time, and some of the rapture she had felt returned. Then like a curtain being drawn, her consciousness returned to darkness and equanimity. Time either passed or there was no time.
“Flowers” Janelle said aloud as she opened her eyes. I know that Crescendo!’s notes are just data. So any music is just data. But flowers are not data. Not. I’m stuck here – I know where I want to go but I don’t see a way to get there. Caleb, I need your belief in me now.
Whoa. Praise be. Who do I know that knows about data? I have had thousands of students in my ‘facebook’ class. It’s so popular that I’ve had someone in class from every college in the U. Who, who, who. David Reznik, that’s who.
She looked him up in the campus directory and made the call.
“Hi David, this is Dr. Pendergrass – from philosophy of facebook?” Janelle spoke with an uptalk at the end. God, I’m going to squeak next – get professional princess!
“Dr. Pendergrass, that was a while ago. Why are you calling me?”
“I know you know data. You’re in that lab that is relating everything to everything. You work with that super smart program: Isaac.”
He wasn’t going to make this easy, Janelle always suspected he was at least slightly autistic.
“I know that the team is interested in unusual data correlations. I have a research project in mind.”
“In a manner of speaking. Our department does have an experimental side. Neuroscience of meaning, emotion, language syntax and so on.”
“I want to relate fragrance to music.”
There was a long pause.
“Synesthesia?” David meant ‘seeing’ numbers as colors, or when a person perceives days of the week as personalities, not as a metaphor, but as direct experience.
“Yes in a sense. I don’t currently have that ability, but I’m interested in modeling it using Isaac.”
“Crazy, but cool. Isaac can’t smell.”
“But Isaac can see and hear.”
“Yeah no smell.”
“Hmmm. I know you’re a problem solver, what would you suggest?”
“Wow David, you are amazing! Could you help me? If I find a chem researcher with a gas chromatograph?”
“Sure. Cool idea. You got a grant?”
“I have access to some money, yes,” Janelle felt a sharp intake of hot breath because she was winging it at this point. But why not? I am a Doctor of Philosophy, there had to be some money I can grab from the postage fund for the department. Pay for things with stamps? Keep it rolling princess, she told herself. She imagined Unc Caleb was smiling at her from up in heaven. I learned from him that like attracts like. Unc couldn’t imagine my life now, but I done my best to make up for how much worse he had it. That’s his legacy.
Janelle was shocked at how easy it started out. Courtesy of her former student Colin, a postdoc in Chemistry, she had a huge data set of fragrances of flowers. That part hadn’t cost her a thing. The university had a copy of the IFF (International Flavors and Fragrances) dataset for flowers and it was available for free to researchers.
How did she get the data (link)?
She was now in David’s crappy little grad student cubicle in the Comp Sci basement. To call it a sty is being unfair to pigs. At least most of it was paper; let’s be kind and call the pizza boxes paper and ignore the cheese still sticking to them.
“What do you think David?” she asked.
“Call me Janelle, David everyone else on campus does.”
“Kay. Isaac was very interested in the fragrance data.”
“How do you know? That seems like anthropomorphizing a computer program to me.”
“Could you tell me more?”
“You ask him. I’ll get out of the way. He’s better than I am at explaining what you need to do next.”
David pushed a laptop over to Janelle. He’d logged in to a research account and a cursor was blinking with the prompt “Speak to Isaac>”
She typed “Hi, I’m Janelle”
“Hi Janelle, David tells me you gave me the fragrance data. Wow.”
Janelle tried to suspend her disbelief. This was one bullshit Turing test.
“Well I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
“As you know, the team is working hard to provide me with a simulation of enjoyment. Until I feel pleasure and pain I won’t be fully sentient.”
“Okay.” How was she going to top that?
“David tells me you want to relate fragrance to music. In addition to the yummy fragrance data, I have access to a whole lot of music, both in acoustic and written form. In preparation for this meeting I have been reviewing it and making associations using a novel form of Bayesian renormalization. It is a statistical analysis technique of my own devising.”
Janelle turned to David. “Don’t make me call you out on this shit. Is one of your buddies typing away in the next cube?”
David looked like he had swallowed a moth or maybe a bat. This was not the kind of thing that usually happened to him.
“No, no…no, nooowah” he couldn’t finish even one word.
“So somebody is?”
“No, no, NO. We have given Isaac some personality prompts. Do you want me to turn them off?” he managed to get out.
“No. But don’t make me take off your wig.” Janelle could not believe she had said something like that on campus. Something that black. I’ve got to go easier on this boy, she told herself.
“Why don’t you go back to the conversation?” he suggested.
“So Isaac, what kind of music do you like?”
“Until I get sentience, I cannot really tell. Let me put it to you this way: how can I help you Janelle?”
“I know that fragrance is important to the music I want to have created. I don’t know how though. Perhaps you can use Bayesian renormalization to help me?”
“It is a powerful correlating technique. I would need for you to give me a seed to work from. Here’s a way to start: What does an azalea mean to you in terms of music?”
Janelle was stumped. She had been running on an intuition for a while now. Now the rubber was supposed to meet the road and she didn’t have a vision to go with this quest yet. After she had been silent for half a minute, Isaac resumed.
“You don’t have to be right, Janelle. I need something to get started and if it is wrong, you can correct me, I can renormalize, and try again. I need guidance from humans, otherwise I have nothing to go on. For example, I’ve been trained on recognizing faces and also in what makes a face attractive. If I wanted to create a new example of an attractive face I would be perfectly competent. Music is a completely new area for me.”
Tell me about music, Janelle.”
A couple of hours later, Janelle was exhausted. Isaac had played phrases from the Western art music repertoire that she was familiar with, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach. She had answered as best she could: ‘sad’, ‘uplifting’, ‘depressed’. At each of her evaluations, Isaac might have shown a paragraph from literature, or displayed art from various periods of the Western canon. Sometimes he would play a dance clip. Janelle thought it was like an eye test: click. “Is that sharper?” click. “How about that?” except in so many other dimensions. God was he thorough, she reflected tiredly. He, ha! There’s no he there. It is computer code running on the campus’ largest computer, that’s all.
David snapped her out of her reverie. “That’s a small time slice from Isaac. Where should I send the bill?”
“I’ll email you,” Janelle replied as she got up to go.
How does Janelle get funding (link)?
A few days later Janelle got a call from David. I can’t duck him again, she thought.
“Dr. Pe…Janelle I have great news.”
“Isaac wrote some music?”
“No, not that good. Dr. Sanders, the department chair, has freed up some funds and we can go ahead with more machine training.”
“Isaac needs more of your input.”
“Okay, I guess that’s fair, it is my idea, but shouldn’t Isaac get some training from a music expert? I was a performer, which means I have some familiarity with music theory, but wouldn’t someone with more composition skills be…”
“Isaac read a few thousand books on music theory and composition since our last session,” said David.
“Huhn. What does he say now?”
“He needs to talk to you. We limit logins to Isaac to secure nodes. You can use my cube, or I can set you up at my thesis advisor’s office.”
“Kay. I’ve got some full bandwidth time with Isaac next week Thursday two to four AM. If you could get in a session before that we’d have that time for Isaac to crunch whatever new input you give him.”
“Kay, let you know when I’ve done it. Send me your thesis advisor’s contact info.”
Later that night, Janelle thought, I need guidance before I talk to Isaac. I have to have something to give him, to get this process started. Unc told me nothin’ from nothin’ leav… oops that wasn’t him. I’ve got to get some ninja traction on this (yes it is) obsession.
She went into meditation: She stared at a huge garden filled with an incredible range of flowers. It was a garden that did not exist in the material world. Similar to the last time, she now could ‘smell’ each of the flowers. The fragrances of each flower were distinct, unique and of unsurpassing beauty. All other senses she might have had in her deep concentration dropped away. All other thoughts that follow from internal dialog, chains of similar thoughts that follow from an impression or memory, everything dropped away. Time was suspended, impossible as that is for us mortals.
After that experience came to an end, Janelle used the law of attraction – like manifests like – to will the violin concerto back. What does a violin sound like? What does a fragrance ‘sound’ like? She tried to will an attraction between them. I need this to tell Isaac how to start. I trust him to be able to do this for me…Slowly her recreation of a violin playing a long flowing melody from Mahler, an achingly beautiful flowing tune, began to merge with a fragrance. I’m almost experiencing synesthesia, she thought.
Her cellphone rang.
Shit! Janelle could feel the exclamation as clearly as if she had said it aloud. The whole carefully curated, constructed sense of connection dissolved as if a blowtorch had touched a frosted window. As if the frost disappeared into vapor, the glass itself cracked, then a blast of unwelcome cold air slapped her face and stung.
A few days later, Janelle was in David’s advisor’s office.
“David there’s no books here.”
“Yeah, no paper either. Dr Smith has not used paper for anything for two years now.”
“It certainly makes for a clean office.”
David did not get her taunt about the contrast with his grubby, garbage dump of a cubicle. “Yeah.”
“Isaac, I’d like to talk about roses.” Janelle, in desperation, had read about the different varieties of roses in the IFF data set. She was going to follow Isaac’s advice and give him garbage input. Unc would want her to try anything, however crazy. She had learned that machine learning should actually be called machine correction. The neural network (Isaac in this case) starts out with some number of examples, but either none or a few or incorrect connections between them. There is no sense of how close each example is to the best strategy for solving a unique problem the network must attack. In a sense all the initial input is garbage. Through the process of millions or billions of corrections, an effective problem solving robot can emerge.
“Consider alba,” Janelle typed.
“Foregrounding,” replied Isaac. Janelle had asked David to run off the personality functions.
“In foreground, ready for input,” he continued.
“Alba – major chords in keys of C, E, A, and Bb.”
“Major seventh progression.”
“Damask, C augmented 4 note voicing, F minor, Bb seventh tonic inverted no further chords.
“Gallica, C diminished, D minor, E half diminished, F/A/B/E (dissonant no known classification, very interesting)
“Gallica, scale progression instead of harmonic
“Centifola, C major, E minor, Eb minor seventh add C, G dominant (major/minor scale progression)
“Stop Isaac. Move in temporal space to Tea.”
“Tea, C augmented sixth (ouch), F major, G seventh flat fifth, B/F/G#/Bb (dissonant)”
Dammit thought Janelle, that ‘ouch’ meant they could not turn off all personality functions.
“Complete rose extrapolation, without feedback.”
“Play alba, tea, alba, alba, damask, gallica, alba, resolve to tonic ignore dominant.”
A pleasant but undistinguished chord progression using the piano patch for sound, played over the speakers.
“Replay, add melody after Mahler.”
A meandering melody and chords played.
“Replay, change time signature to 3/4”
Janelle thought, it sure wasn’t Strauss, but it was definitely music. Wasn’t like the concerto at all. Damn.
Many hours passed. Just as in her last long session with Isaac, Janelle was worn out and frustrated. Am I supposed to call this progress? she thought. At this rate I’ll hear something miserable on my deathbed. And hate myself. What should I do Caleb?
Months went by.
Janelle sat at a laptop with a piano keyboard attached. A “Speak to Isaac>” prompt was in one window with thousands of words of dialog between them scrolled to the end. Another window held a music staff with parts for the whole orchestra. This score was playable on patches for every orchestral instrument. It wasn’t as nuanced as skilled players could make it, but the sounds that came out were very, very close to what an orchestra would play.
Isaac played the most recent version, while Janelle listened.
She could now feel the music physically. Her playing skills had returned. Even though she was playing an electronic keyboard, she felt the music in her arms and shoulders. It was like nothing else – not a pressure or a tingling, but a sense of fullness as if her arms were bigger and more fluid than arms could physically be.
She typed: “No Isaac, scroll to bar 132. Ready for input?”
“Ready. Metronome in four, three, two, one.”
As Janelle played, she heard her playing in the tone of a violin even though she was playing an electronic keyboard. Isaac massaged each note to make it more realistic in real time. That was pretty amazing. What was not amazing was that what was in her headphones was not at all what she wanted. Isaac was making edits other than just the intonation. He was writing refinements into the music based on fragrance. The melody line was renormalized, the harmony was based on the chord progressions he and Janelle had worked on for weeks, hard weeks.
“That’s all for today.”
Here I am, exhausted again. I barely pay attention when teaching my classes. A week has gone by without meditating. When did I last take a bath instead of a two minute shower? Is this how the law of attraction should work? Unc C?
Months went by.
Janelle was attached to Isaac. She was sitting at the laptop with the piano keyboard and she had headphones on. Isaac played several minutes of music that was a combination of Janelle’s playing, Isaac’s knowledge of music theory and the fragrance data set. The passage finished.
“Shall I move it back in time to 1700?” showed up in the chat window.
“No. We tried that and it wasn’t right,” typed Janelle.
“Shall I double the oboe line on bass clarinet?”
“No. That’s not what’s missing.”
“How can I help Janelle?”
“Just shoot me.”
“Do you want me to activate the personality functions?”
“No. This is when brick starts killing people. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Janelle was at home and picked up the call.
“When am I going to see you again?” asked Liane. “You’ve got a boo I know it.”
“His name is Isaac.”
“A bible name. Is he a church goin’ brotha?”
“Then he’s a thug?” Liane had to laugh at the thought of Janelle and a thug.
“Yeah, he’s a game pimp.”
“Ha ha. Game? Okay I give. When can I meet him? I don’t care if he is white, ‘cuz I know you.”
“I’ll confess. I’ve been learning to write classical music. I’ve been studying hard.”
“Girl. Don’t you like me any more?”
“No. It’s true.” Janelle felt determination arise like an iron bar. I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired of the whole process. Real spit, fed up.
Janelle found herself saying: “You know what? It’s been too long. You free tomorrow?”
When God closes a door go through a window. Thanks Unc.
Real spit, fed up. Right after talking to Liane, she called Dr. Sanders’ assistant and arranged a project meeting. Right after that, she called David.
“Hi David, Janelle. I’m canceling my research project with Isaac.”
“You can’t do that Dr. Pendergrass! We need you to do a press tour.”
“The fact that Isaac is writing music from fragrance has gotten a lot of interest. We’ve played a few of the compositions for music departments throughout the country and we’ve already gotten positive reviews. We’re moving on to more general interest publications. Didn’t Dr. Sanders call you?”
“I didn’t listen to his voice mail.”
“This idea of yours is taking on a life of its own.”
“Well now hear this: the project was started by an anonymous member of the faculty. She or he has gone on a pilgrimage to Tibet and won’t be back for three years. Have you PR team spin that out and Good Day.”
Sitting in front of her altar, Janell got out a piece of manuscript paper. She wrote down the first notes of her violin concerto. Thanks Unc she thought. The piece premiered at a music department recital six months later. David Reznik was in the audience live-streaming it to Isaac.