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Cybernetic Composition

"Wu [wisdom or comprehension] is customarily found in least imposing places, as in the Christian aphorism, 'stones rejected by the builder.' One experiences awareness of wu in such trash as an old stick, or a rusty beer can by the side of the road. However, in those cases, the wu is within the viewer. It is a religious experience. Here, an artificer has put wu into the object, rather than merely witnessed the wu inherent in it."

Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High Castle

(NY: Putnam, 1962), p. 164

I created literary websites at http://cmcottrell.tripod.com. You don't need to know code to paste texts into Tripod's templates, and they have plenty of add-on gear. (Other Internet providers offer similar free services.) Most of my sites are experimental, but three have grown into significant publications. Polygrammar is a funny phonetic fortune-telling game, Poetamorphosis animates classic kinetic cut-ups, and Stocosmetrix weaves components sampled by many means.

I'll show you how to create your own computer compositions as we see how these projects evolve.

Did you ever notice how a computer tends to land on names when you run a spellcheck? And how that list of nine phonetic approximations seems to sing out an alliterative rhythm? What if we input a whole list of names in lower case? And what if they weren't just any names, but names with linguistic significance and magical motifs giving an uncanny incantational quality? Oxford linguist J.R.R. Tolkien had the index I wanted--The Lord of the Rings. These names were not arbitrarily inspired. They are highly motivated words crafted from the deepest roots of the English language. The epic provided enough names to produce a large database exhibiting the distinctive patterns of statistical trends. I even interfiled the index of The Silmarillion to increase the number of samples and add diachronic depth as a resonating thematic subwoofer.

Absence is presence for the signified when input stimuli are omitted and only output misreadings are recorded. I ran all the names through the spellchecker and then did another spellcheck on my results to filter out most of the noise. I'd isolated mainly those names with the strongest signal--the capitalization errors occurring because my input was in lower case. Then I put all the words in upper case to further filter the samples down to the most individuating chance elements--typographical errors revealing unconscious obsessions and phobias. The resulting psychic residue brings the automatic writing of Gertrude Stein and the surrealists into the new millenium. Not only is my individual personality psychoanalyzed, but the whole legion that assembled the computer's lexicon is characterized by the way it chooses and connects words. (And there are ghosts in my machine--Creole names added to the dictionary by the original owner, who processed New Orleans Medicare claims.)

How about the anatomy of this exquisite corpus? Most of the cognates in The Lord of the Rings are French and Anglo-Saxon names of humans and hobbits. Fewer vestiges remain from the Scandinavian, Welsh and Celtic derivations for the names of dwarves and elves. Smeagol himself wanted to get to the roots of things. That's why Gollum worked his way up the river to its origins in the caves of the mountains. The lure of the precious hermeneutic ring compels us to follow each tributary trace. The Druids' woodland dialect that mythographer Robert Graves interprets in The White Goddess is an essentially organic branching activity. The Great Mother's moonshadow silhouettes Laurelin, wreath of the writer's triumph. Or is she nymph turned tree eluding rationality?

This poetic exercise was extremely labor-intensive, but the process produced a big enough sample to note phonetic and thematic patterns. The payoff came when I spellchecked names of characters from Shakespeare's plays. The computer not only recognizes Shakespeare's puns, but it's really good at unscrambling anagrams. Right away we find Abhorson, the executioner from Measure for Measure, turned into a mostly motivated series "abortion abhors aphorism aborts" and Cymbeline serendipitously becomes "symboling symbolize symbolizes symbolized symbolling." My first website http://cmcottrell.tripod.com/spielcast introduced "Bardo Bill," "Elvish Ringbane" and other phonetic samplings. Casts of Anthony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, and Titus Andronicus generate resonance of "Cigarbox," "Orangade" and "Titus Moan."

This glass pearl game combines several found objects just as I had strung together multicolored Mardi Gras beads with an assortment of suggestive novelty items on telephone wire hooked by safety pins to a baseball cap with slogan buttons stuck to the bill. One discarded object is a hunk of junk. But link several together, and artful contexts arise from the interplay of contrasting differences. Woo wu.

If the spellcheck reaps such results, what about the thesaurus? Synthesaur was my next experiment. Since Shakespeare had yielded the most resonances, I tried his familiar sonnet "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" "Shall" is so common that the thesaurus produces no synonyms but gives us thirty phonetic approximations in case we have accidentally introduced spelling errors. "I" stands on the borderline between "hypersensitive" and "ideal," while "thee" falls between "theatrical presentation" and "theft"--certainly semantically provocative gaps.

I tried to think of series of terms suggesting thematic unity. "Chromatic Scale" has colors of the spectrum revealing social connotations. "Creole Seasoning" blends sequences of time, such as months of the year and days of the week. Nabokov's Pnin gags on an epic about the periodic table of elements, so I decomposed one. My mother's college spelling book provided several genres--agriculture is Georgic, and sports are Pindaric. Indices of Husserl's phenomenology and texts on astronomy, geography, geology and psychology produce larger lists. In "Shining," we sniff traces of stress in the engine's exhaust of "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."

What if the computer could string together a series of phonetic approximations of names the way that James Joyce had turned Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker's monogram into "Here Comes Everybody" or "Haveth Childers Everywhere?" Thus Spielcast and Synthesaur spawned http://cmcottrell.tripod.com/polygrammar. This dictionary exercise is cast in the form of a fortune-telling parlor game. Setting the results of chance selection within an occult frame of reference, the experiment becomes a projective device working on the same psychological principles as Rorschach's inkblots, Murray's Thematic Apperception Test and Rotter's incomplete sentences.  (Do what you will with Crowley's Tarot.) Human nature abhors absence, so our minds create absurd stories as our imaginations connect the dots between arbitrarily produced signifiers. Flashbacks of primal scenes may be triggered by subliminal suggestions. Who do deja voodoo?

Polygrammar is a pantheon of abstract expressionistic portraits. Most subjects are heroes; some are rogues. Many are musical, literary and historical figures. The picture gallery at the end of the website shows a few representative influences. William Burroughs and John Cage pioneered cut-up techniques. Emily Dickinson condenses elliptical fragments, and Ralph Waldo Ellison reminds us not to overlook the tracks of Invisible Man.  A cartoon of "Shame's Voice" as a question mark punctuates this guessing game.

The signal to noise ratio is best for names whose origins reside in the Latin, French and Anglo-Saxon roots of the English language. Non-Indo-European names produce mostly noise with hardly any valid cognates. Names that are also ordinary words in the lexicon were intentionally misspelled by adding a letter at the end to trick the machine. "Cage" was input as "cagea" to stimulate a phonetic rather than a semantic response from the thesaurus.

I started with easy clues. Franklin Pierce Adams signed his newspaper columns with the initials "FPA." His name fits between the 14th clue, "Frankfurter Pierce Adamantine," and the 15th, "Frankly Piercing Adapt." The second polygram for John Quincy Adams is a cinch, since "Join" sounds almost like "John," few names begin with Q, and his last name is the same as that of the previous person. The third set of clues is a bit more difficult, because African playwright Publius Terentius Afer is simply known as Terence. Nevertheless, Publius gives us "publish," and "Afer" sounds like "afar." The first clue is a motivated derivation, while the last is a coincidental homonym. Even I have to go to the dictionary's list of biographical names to guess Harvard naturalist Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz, but notice how the first three letters of each name are repeated in the 14th clue, "Jealousy Loudness Rod Against." As far as reader response goes, is there a Fish in this class? How about a Weiner? A Bloom? ... Stanley? ... Norbert? ... Harold!

It doesn't matter whether you solve the riddles--it's how you play the game. The ones that get away and can't be guessed stand on their own as poems. These experiments can come alive like Faust's shiny test tube homunculus. Just use your sense of humor and a dash of plasmatic imagination.

Polygrammar is an interactive meeting of minds. The exchange of ideas with cultural icons promotes the growth of new thought. Expand your craft by exercising your creative imagination to find amusement in absurdity. The joke's on us!

The real work has yet to be done on Polygrammar. Although this game is a very useful educational device, people really want to run their own names through the computer's thesaurus to cast their own fates. If someone could automatically program names into a word generator the way that I have done by hand, children could learn to play with language the way they play with toys. Perhaps I should post this game on www.rhisome.org as an open source project to attract collaborators.

Although theories of collaboration by Burroughs and Gysin in The Third Mind are inspiring, my real mentor for the cut-up technique is musician John Cage. His composition workshop sponsored by James Joyce Quarterly preceded a performance of Muoyce, a random selection of words, phrases and sentences from Finnegans Wake. Cage previously used the I Ching to sample Thoreau's journal for a Chinese chorus. The composer told how he applied the technique to a Cartesian grid to place stones in a rock garden. The first results were not esthetically satisfying, but as he continued adding stones, Cage learned that quantity produces quality. The more samples we collect, the more apparent latent statistical patterns become. The mathematic properties of numbers will produce enough repetition to generate some sort of organic design. And there's nothing uncanny about math unless our imaginations project our preconceptions when we try to interpret arbitrary patterns.

I asked Cage if the I Ching was essential for good results or if you could use cards or dice to produce a random series of samples. Although throwing the binary Chinese sticks was an arbitrary preference, he was also exploring computer sampling. I later used playing cards to choose samples from classic texts in the public domain. The results of these initial trials have been posted on the Internet as Hypodrama, Metalfriction and Xaostomathy. For Curtxt, I cut up several of my own short stories, college term papers, an unmailed letter to a lost lover and a list of books recommended by late friend James Fell, who unsuccessfully sought the meaning of meaning.

I shuffled and drew cards to determine numbers of pages, lines and words to select. I used the difference between red and black cards to determine whether to count from the top or bottom of a page or the left or right of a line. Patterns of numerical repetition result from interaction of the decimal system of pagination with the deck's base 13. Lines with numbers ending with 1, 2 or 3 automatically repeat as refrains. We can also make the rules of each game favor certain parts through differential weighting of sections we want to repeat. That is to say, some lines have better odds of being selected than others. I defaulted the titles of "The Tears of the Muses" by Edmund Spenser and "A Fit of Rhyme against Rhyme" by Ben Jonson as refrains to fill in for the remainer of lines needed to make an even hundred. Patterns of gestures arise when we fail to shuffle the cards completely and series of numbers repeat themselves forming accidental refrains.

Web surfers want to see something new when they go to the Internet. Interactivity is the name of the game. My chaotic chrestomathy was static. How could I make it kinetic? Then I found Tripod's Text Gear, originally intended to randomize messages for the day on web pages. What if I could string together randomized lines so that a whole poem could be continuously sampled with almost infinite variation rather than selecting relatively few static parts? Here I discovered the kinetic cut-up technique of a new literary form existing only on the Internet--http://cmcottrell.tripod.com/poetamorphosis.

First I selected two poems with the same metrical structure from William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience. "The Divine Image" and its cynical counterpart rejected from Songs of Experience were finally mated in a true "Marriage of Heaven and Hell." Keats' odes on melancholy and indolence likewise upset the repose of the Grecian urn and the aspirations of the skylark. I gave Chaucer the last word in his dialogue with Fortune--tipping the odds 4 to 3 in his favor against two contenders. The moon and the river are symbols of mutability. So scramble Vachel Lindsay ("Phrases of the Moon") and Sidney Lanier ("Chattahoochee Boogie"). To get more repeating rhyme schemes, I tried "Itylus" by Swinburne ("Swallow Tale") and "The Lady of Shallot" by Tennyson ("Green Onions"). It's easy for readers to fill in the gaps in the plot of Lord Tennyson's familiar story of the magic mirror and mystic web. "Medium Rare" mesmerizes chance meetings with the Brownings.

I asked my friend taking a statistics class to figure out the number of combinations for a randomized sonnet of sonnets such as Christina Rossetti's Monna Innominata ("Jane Doe") or William Wordsworth's Sonnets upon the Punishment of Death ("Dead Man Walking"). She replied that if I put 14 first lines into one randomizer, then 14 second lines into the next and so on, the total would be the factorial of 14 equal to over 8 million permutations. If only 14 sonnets produce this many variations, then the 40 randomized from Dante's La Vita Nuova must generate astronomical results. This song of songs will indeed become a "New Rose" blooming each time that a reader refreshes the page. All of Dante's poems are about his well-known relationship with Beatrice, so each sampling makes some sort of sense.

Since the title Poetamorphosis is derived from Ovid, I had to figure out how to sample a narrative that was not in a regular stanza form. I noticed the division into verse paragraphs of Joseph Addison's 18th century translation of the Echo and Narcissus episode. Randomizing each paragraph retains the plot sequence. I had traced narrative grammar in "The Lady of Shallot" and played around with Lewis Carroll's "The Hunting of the Snark" ("Boojum Bait"). I could do this with Ovid, too, turning Addison's rhyming heroic couplets into blank verse. Since the verse paragraphs are different lengths, the shorter ones with the best odds of repetition become refrains.

We explore yet another sampling technique in http://cmcottrell.tripod.com/stocosmetrix. Cards were getting tiresome, so I found a more random selection without the manual errors of inadequate shuffling. Composer Steve Reich had used numbers from the phone book to determine his choice of notes. Try this technique on lists of words taken from Roget's Thesaurus. Topics include colors, musical instruments, and games of chance. Separate synonyms into groups according to the number of syllables. String five two-syllable words together to produce an irregularly stressed pentameter and combine three-syllable words to become triplets in 6/8 time. I even made a list of four-syllable names of tyrants to explore the paeonic rhythm of the Greek choral dance. For Christmas, I thought up several three-syllable words associated with the holiday season and threw in "bah humbug" to spice up the mix. Then I ran a spellcheck on a sampling of phrases from "A Christmas Carol" to generate some phonetic emanations. I found that "scrooge" was in the computer's lexicon and traced each trail of meaning in the thesaurus function. Finally I combined several cut-ups in a punchbowl for "Yuletidal Rave."

I wove together several more components taken from Xaostomathy, Spielcast, and Synthesaur into stochastic/ cosmic/metric compositions. None of these early experiments is that original in itself, but how about stacking the components into asymmetric strata united thematically yet contrasting as ironic foils? Blake and Spenser meet the index of Keynes' dismal science of economics in "Mammogram!" Byron, Shelley, Keats, Roget and Gates dance around a convocation of dictators in "Tyrannicide!" A Lover's Discourse by Roland Barthes meets Anthony and Cleopatra from John Dryden's classically unified All for Love during a spellcheck in "Discours d'Amour!" When I have perfected stocosmetric techniques by experimentation on classics, I will weave together the samples of writing collected in Deconscription and Curtxt poetamorphing my own lyrics and narratives.

I perform these works on an LCD video projector tapping the down arrow on the computer keyboard in time with jazz bands. We videoed Bloomsday at the Hi Ho Lounge with Mnulysses accompanied by Gas Tank Orchestra jamming with Dogstar Communications. What if Harry Partch composed a phonetic fugue on the vapor trail of a quark ricocheting around a cloud chamber bowl? Would it sound something like this music of the cybersphere?

The great thing about the Internet is the ability to continually rewrite. I am constantly improving websites, and I encourage readers to contribute their own works to publish in the letters pages. Run a poetamorph of your favorite verses or a polygram of your own name. John Cage's composition workshops were meant to inspire new schools of creation, not only explicate his old ones. The Zen master shot many arrows into the air. They fall to earth we know not where. Start your search at my home page http://cmcottrell.tripod.com.