.

 

Prolog(ue)

Scott and I head over to Boyd's and see his 3-D theramin.

From my window, as it shakes the house, you go by.

Scott and I took the F to the Park Slope, to Boyd Cale's house.

His wife Nancy let us in and nodded in the direction of the workroom; Nancy retreated to some room out of earshot, to work on whatever she was working on - probably a new chapbook of poems. She has a spot for me because I share her literary pretensions, but she can't abide Scott, whom she rightly senses is sneering at her. But she should also realize that Scott is a pot of arrogance next to her kettle of hope.

Nancy and Boyd were both my friends in college. Nancy wrote poems like this, then:

I don't mean to mock her in particular; college boys are tough on girls, and she had some things to work out. God deliver me if even a fraction of my prose, which can be summarized by the single sentence "I can still taste her" at the end of one short story, be brought to light (almost all of it resides safely in a box at my father's, ready for the fireplace when I get my country cabin). And to her credit, Nancy has a lovely, gentle, funny line now and reads in a clear, plain style that does her great credit. But then she read the poems screeching, lilting up with every line.

Boyd appeared one day at a college poetry reading in owl-glasses and sat quietly through the whole thing, ignoring the resentful stares of the small and awful circle assembled in that room. We hated outsiders; we went to these things to assure ourselves that we were talented. Our work was awful, and someone from outside might blow the whole thing by pointing out how unequivocably shitty the poems were.

Boyd later explained he'd been in that building to meet some fellow EEs who were working on modifying a car to run on composted leaves, but they hadn't shown, so he'd wandered in with a few spare minutes to see who was making all that noise (it was a man named James who was reading a poem about solidarity during the coming American anarchist revolution).

After the reading, which went for about an hour, and which Boyd sat through without a single smirk - an act few of us who (thought we) took poetry seriously could attempt, he hovered momentarily at the edge of the room, then walked out. We looked at each other and giggled at his passing. “Who the fuck was that?” asked someone.

“Boyd,” I said. “A grad student in EE, I think.” I'd never met him, but at a small university most paths cross, and I hung out with engineers who'd pointed him out.

“What's EE?”

Boyd would later admit, as we sat for a drink years later, that he just didn't get most art, although after marrying Nancy, he invested himself with a quick knowledge of the classics by downloading Project Gutenberg texts and printing them on a line printer at Columbia, where he began, but did not finish, his Ph.D.

“I thought of writing some code to sort of parse out the essential parts, so that I could get through them faster, but I couldn't figure it out. (Boyd shares my interest in language machines.) Maybe by cross-referencing to Bartlett's quotations, sort of like a support vector machine thing. That way I could only read the literary parts and the rest would be auto-summarized.” He looked up to see me laughing. “I know,” he said. “It's not cited documents. Still, how the hell am I supposed to get through the whole canon? Life is short.”

I'll save the story of the courting of Nancy and Boyd for some other time, or perhaps I'll come back here and fill it in later - one of the pleasures of my system is that I am free to destroy or manipulate any text once it exists. But in short, suffice it to say that it was Boyd, who'd gone through adolescence without really noting that breasts existed and gave the appearance of utter docility, who grabbed Nancy's attention. They were living together within a month. And also that I had a terrible crush on her - she was beautiful, and the boys had been hard on her, which made me love her all the more.

Now Scott and I found ourselves in Boyd's workroom, while Nancy pecked away at her keyboard down the hall.

The workroom, on the second floor at the end of a bare-wood hallway, was 15 feet on a side, one wall a huge desk assembly and the wall connecting to the left of that three racks of computers. The room smelled of solder. Boyd, wearing jeweler's magnifying glasses over his black plastic frames, looked up.

“Didn't. I'm, uh.” He bent down and dropped a bead of solder onto a circuit board.

“Lowering the noise,” he said. We had come in mid-thought, and while Boyd away from this workroom could be entertaining, socially adept, even funny, certain problems would ignite his mind like a stick of magnesium, and you couldn't extinguish it until he decided that he'd had enough. His soldering iron and jeweler's screwdrivers were his ticket away from abstract consciousness and into a sort of straight alorithmic thinking-space. He was, nominally, a systems administrator for a living, but not the regular kind. He did something quasi-governmental but with corporate backing in real time which involved the airlines and traffic and police reporting and special offices of the governor and 100 Library of Congress's worth of information transferred daily; it was absolutely incomprehensible and performed inside low-slung glass towers in Jersey, and he was not at liberty to discuss it very much. He could only get into his office by biometrics, using both thumbprints. “Although to be honest I've figured out a way around that,” he said, but refused to explain. He was, he once told me in mixed pride and self-mocking, the youngest-ever senior manager of such a facility in State Government. “Although,” he said, “to be paid such a compliment by a supervisor is less exciting when you realize that this is the only facility of its kind East of the Mississippi.”

He stood up. The circuit board into which he'd been dripping solder was the gatekeeper of signals between three devices: a black computer made out of wood, and a wooden box with two antenna coming out of the top; one of the antenna came straight out of the base of the box while the other hung off a sort of elevated platform. The floor was filled with tangled wires, but these went straight into a series of boxes.

“What I did,” he said, assuming our interest (because almost everything he ever did was interesting), “is take two theramins and wire them together, and I'm interpreting the sound” - he pointed at a box - “to get a coordinate in space, which then....” He turned to the screen, and said to me, “put your hand between the antennae.”

Which I did, and as I moved my hand a dot on screen moved with it, growing larger and smaller, and a sound came forth, throbbing and oscillating, and after a moment I realized the sound was flying around the room, growing in bass before us, turning high behind us as I moved my hand.

“I hooked it up to my surround system. Do you hear it? Hold on, let me put in the octave.” And then the sound became sort of beautiful. “And-” he was proud of himself - “I hooked it up to Csound, right?” And the sound came out like someone throwing a piano around the room while playing it.

“Jesus Christ, that's cool,” said Scott. “How much does it cost to build one?”

WAS I WAS PLACED NAKED AT THE WINDOW
FOR YOU TO STARE UP
SCREAMING YOUR REED-VOICED
DO YOU CALL ME "CUNT, BITCH, WHORE, SLUT, BITCH."
DO YOU CUT MY BREASTS, MOUTH?
AM I PART OF YOUR ALL-AMERICAN
BASEBALL GAME?

I don't mean to mock her in particular; college boys are tough on girls, and she had some things to work out. God deliver me if even a fraction of my prose, which can be summarized by the single sentence "I can still taste her" at the end of one short story, be brought to light (almost all of it resides safely in a box at my father's, ready for the fireplace when I get my country cabin). And to her credit, Nancy has a lovely, gentle, funny line now and reads in a clear, plain style that does her great credit. But then she read the poems screeching, lilting up with every line.

Boyd appeared one day at a college poetry reading in owl-glasses and sat quietly through the whole thing, ignoring the resentful stares of the small and awful circle assembled in that room. We hated outsiders; we went to these things to assure ourselves that we were talented. Our work was awful, and someone from outside might blow the whole thing by pointing out how unequivocably shitty the poems were.

Boyd later explained he'd been in that building to meet some fellow EEs who were working on modifying a car to run on composted leaves, but they hadn't shown, so he'd wandered in with a few spare minutes to see who was making all that noise (it was a man named James who was reading a poem about solidarity during the coming American anarchist revolution).

After the reading, which went for about an hour, and which Boyd sat through without a single smirk - an act few of us who (thought we) took poetry seriously could attempt, he hovered momentarily at the edge of the room, then walked out. We looked at each other and giggled at his passing. “Who the fuck was that?” asked someone.

“Boyd,” I said. “A grad student in EE, I think.” I'd never met him, but at a small university most paths cross, and I hung out with engineers who'd pointed him out.

“What's EE?”

Boyd would later admit, as we sat for a drink years later, that he just didn't get most art, although after marrying Nancy, he invested himself with a quick knowledge of the classics by downloading Project Gutenberg texts and printing them on a line printer at Columbia, where he began, but did not finish, his Ph.D.

“I thought of writing some code to sort of parse out the essential parts, so that I could get through them faster, but I couldn't figure it out. (Boyd shares my interest in language machines.) Maybe by cross-referencing to Bartlett's quotations, sort of like a support vector machine thing. That way I could only read the literary parts and the rest would be auto-summarized.” He looked up to see me laughing. “I know,” he said. “It's not cited documents. Still, how the hell am I supposed to get through the whole canon? Life is short.”

I'll save the story of the courting of Nancy and Boyd for some other time, or perhaps I'll come back here and fill it in later - one of the pleasures of my system is that I am free to destroy or manipulate any text once it exists. But in short, suffice it to say that it was Boyd, who'd gone through adolescence without really noting that breasts existed and gave the appearance of utter docility, who grabbed Nancy's attention. They were living together within a month. And also that I had a terrible crush on her - she was beautiful, and the boys had been hard on her, which made me love her all the more.

Now Scott and I found ourselves in Boyd's workroom, while Nancy pecked away at her keyboard down the hall.

The workroom, on the second floor at the end of a bare-wood hallway, was 15 feet on a side, one wall a huge desk assembly and the wall connecting to the left of that three racks of computers. The room smelled of solder. Boyd, wearing jeweler's magnifying glasses over his black plastic frames, looked up.

“Didn't. I'm, uh.” He bent down and dropped a bead of solder onto a circuit board.

“Lowering the noise,” he said. We had come in mid-thought, and while Boyd away from this workroom could be entertaining, socially adept, even funny, certain problems would ignite his mind like a stick of magnesium, and you couldn't extinguish it until he decided that he'd had enough. His soldering iron and jeweler's screwdrivers were his ticket away from abstract consciousness and into a sort of straight alorithmic thinking-space. He was, nominally, a systems administrator for a living, but not the regular kind. He did something quasi-governmental but with corporate backing in real time which involved the airlines and traffic and police reporting and special offices of the governor and 100 Library of Congress's worth of information transferred daily; it was absolutely incomprehensible and performed inside low-slung glass towers in Jersey, and he was not at liberty to discuss it very much. He could only get into his office by biometrics, using both thumbprints. “Although to be honest I've figured out a way around that,” he said, but refused to explain. He was, he once told me in mixed pride and self-mocking, the youngest-ever senior manager of such a facility in State Government. “Although,” he said, “to be paid such a compliment by a supervisor is less exciting when you realize that this is the only facility of its kind East of the Mississippi.”

He stood up. The circuit board into which he'd been dripping solder was the gatekeeper of signals between three devices: a black computer made out of wood, and a wooden box with two antenna coming out of the top; one of the antenna came straight out of the base of the box while the other hung off a sort of elevated platform. The floor was filled with tangled wires, but these went straight into a series of boxes.

“What I did,” he said, assuming our interest (because almost everything he ever did was interesting), “is take two theramins and wire them together, and I'm interpreting the sound” - he pointed at a box - “to get a coordinate in space, which then....” He turned to the screen, and said to me, “put your hand between the antennae.”

Which I did, and as I moved my hand a dot on screen moved with it, growing larger and smaller, and a sound came forth, throbbing and oscillating, and after a moment I realized the sound was flying around the room, growing in bass before us, turning high behind us as I moved my hand.

“I hooked it up to my surround system. Do you hear it? Hold on, let me put in the octave.” And then the sound became sort of beautiful. “And-” he was proud of himself - “I hooked it up to Csound, right?” And the sound came out like someone throwing a piano around the room while playing it.

“Jesus Christ, that's cool,” said Scott. “How much does it cost to build one?”


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