This is a extended version of an essay with the same title that I wrote for the January 1997 Ylem Newsletter. Trudy Myrrh Reagan, founder of Ylem, invited me to write a 500-words-or-less essay on the subject of patterns in nature and the rhythms of life for that particular issue of the Ylem Newsletter which she was organizing. I accepted knowing that, once I began, there was no way I could empty my mind on one of my favorite subjects in 500 words. Accepting Trudy´s trigger set me to writing about the foundations of my compositional thinking. What follows is the first stage of a writing project I plan to continue well into the future. I´ll be expanding and editing it on an ongoing basis; come visit from time to time if you´re interested in the philosophy of art from a working composer´s perspective.

Use the following alphabetical keyword list to move quickly to a specific subject area:

attention/archetypal forms of feelings
common ground for the eye and the ear/culture
dynamic graphic scores
human feelings
laser animation/Laser Seraphim
memory/music composition
natural art
periodic systems
symbolic grammar
Taoist magic forms
visualizing music

Patterns in Nature: Rhythms of Life

Ron Pellegrino, November 1996

I´m a fully committed lifelong student of patterns in nature and the rhythms of life. That study is my favorite occupation. I apply the principles I discover to creating music, laser animations, computer-generated video, performance multimedia, family life, gardens, food, landscapes, learning environments, and my day´s flow.

From the largest to the smallest, the deepest to the most superficial, all the patterns, forms, and processes in nature are born of periodic systems (vibrations recurring at regular intervals of time), their interactions, and the forces that influence those interactions. This holds for music, a natural and invented dynamical (moving and changing) system perceived as trails of sonic patterns pregnant with subcultural, cultural, and archetypal symbolism endowed with the power to affect the soul. With the appropriate translator, such as a laser animation system, those sonic patterns can be seen simultaneously as visual patterns.

People are moved by, that is, respond emotionally to dynamical systems, both natural and invented, that, due to similar morphology, resonate with the forms of human feelings. To humans, human feelings are all that matters. Feelings are ineffable. They seem ephemeral and yet are not. They are not easily forgotten or put aside. And they´re extremely powerful, powerful enough to alloy souls or to keep people divided and at war for millennia. We care because we feel. Inspirational art moves us because it embodies the breath of life in its dynamical forms, forms created by periodic patterns, their intersections, and their interactions.

The keys to stimulating human feelings with dynamical art are 1) to use the right ranges for frequency, amplitude, duration, and complexity and 2) to organize those materials into patterns, forms, and expressions that are culturally and subculturally on target. The right ranges are those that are perceivable and acceptable physiologically - neither too soft nor too loud, too high nor too low, too short nor too long, too simple nor too complex. The expressions require patterns and forms that are understood by the general culture. However they may only create truly strong resonances in specific subcultures. Patterns that work for a string quartet probably won´t work well for a marching band. What works for an Irish tenor probably won´t work well for an acid rocker. On the other hand, if people from the string quartet, the marching band, the Irish group, and the rock group were all present at a memorial service for a much loved and admired public figure, they would probably respond almost equally to traditional music that embodied a feeling of mourning and loss.

Experiences create patterns that live in memory. That memory may reside in the brain mind, the muscle mind, the organ mind, the skeletal mind, the circulatory mind, the digestive system mind, the cellular mind, and various combinations of those and other minds, both internal and external to the subject. Humans certainly share an appreciation of inherited patterns via the genetic mind. And that seems to be true of everything else that lives. Patterns that are passed along as genetic memory must have been very important, repeated very often, and most likely rooted in an evolutionary imperative. Patterns that are embedded in the general culture probably have evolved over thousands of years but they don´t carry the memory weight of genetic patterns. All generational and regional subcultures share experiences that are stored as patterns in memory. Those patterns will feel like natural cultural patterns to people sharing the memories but only rarely will those memories outlive that generation or extend beyond that region to become part of the general culture.

What you do with your attention will determine the nature of your experiences and the qualities of your memories. I´ve always loved observing evolving cloud formations and anticipating what weather they might bring. Some of my earliest memories are of times I sat on a porch in my red rocking duck watching dramatic Wisconsin weather go through its paces. Today through our kitchen window I watch many a storm cell making its way southward through the Petaluma valley between the Sonoma Mountains and the hills of West Petaluma to the top of the San Francisco Bay churning up the sky, spilling rain, and trailing rainbows.

In my youth as a music composition student, I took private instruction on many different instruments to discover what sound patterns were natural to a specific instrument given its requirements for sound initiation and control of pitch, loudness, and tone color. Writing for an instrument idiomatically, i.e., so the patterns suited the nature of the instrument, make it possible to create musical structures that are exciting, flow easily, sound virtuosic but are relatively easy to perform and exploit the full potential of the instrument.

I´ve been working with emerging technology in the arts since 1967. That work always begins with experiments that lay bare the inherent nature of the technology. If you assume an open attitude and allow sufficient time, each tool will naturally suggest how to approach it and apply it in different contexts. If you´re in a hurry, read the manual; if it´s any good, it´ll be a crystallization of approaches and applications of like-minded folks.

Every tool has its own natural voice with its own nuances, inflections, and expressions. In 1967, without a teacher or instructional material, I discovered how the Moog Synthesizer worked by listening to the sonic effect of every synthesizer module on the Moog while I simultaneously looked at the changing oscillographic patterns of the sound´s wave train. I discovered one of the keys to my future (the key to visualizing music) when I learned that there was always a one-to-one correspondence between a sound and its visual pattern.

The oscilloscope was an outstanding teacher. Whenever I worked with a new synthesis technique I connected an oscilloscope at various points in the functional flow. Listening to the sound while looking at the wave train gave me a sense of how a particular synthesizer module functioned in the system that created the sound. The imagery provided insight into every sonic detail.

From 1968 onwards, once I started teaching music composition with electronic instruments, oscillographic imagery became an integral part of every musical explanation. Early on I noticed that people were transfixed by the music-generated imagery. In the early 1970s I created five music synthesizer-generated films that I used in performances as dynamic graphic scores for musicians "to read", that is, interpret with my direction, in real-time.

In 1975 I put together a laser animation projection system which is an electro-mechanical relative of the oscilloscope. It became my new teacher and I´m still learning from it at the beginning of the third decade since I put it together. Laser animation imagery is created by a point of light moving fast enough to leave a trail in your visual perception. The point of light retraces an evolving path formed by the interaction of stereo wave trains. I continue to use the laser system today for performance multimedia, music visualizations, and to demonstrate fundamental principles of music such as the nature of sound, the nature of sound sources, and audio perception.

Intuitively I know that the study of natural patterns wherever they are found will naturally inform one´s art. The tool may be artificial but the art should be rooted in nature if you want it resonate at the deepest levels. The intellect on its own will produce "forced" art, art that doesn´t speak to the soul. The intellect integrated with intuition stands a much better chance of creating natural art. The highest level the art of the intellect can achieve is to be culturally correct. To rise above the culture of locality or inner circle and reach the level of the sublime requires the happy marriage of the intellect and intuition.

While I´m writing this essay I´m in the midst of recording to videotape music-generated laser animations based on ragas (performable structures with shape, rhythm, ornaments, and direction) that I´ve been developing since 1975 for my multimedia performances. The composition of the ragas involves laser imagery and stereo music with absolute one-to-one correspondences. One grows out of the other. What you see is what you hear and vice versa. The compositional game is to create performable structures with wave sets that work equally well for the eye and the ear.

Since the mid-1980s on my multimedia shows I´ve used one title for all my performable laser animations, Laser Seraphim. From the earliest days of working in this medium, I´ve had the sense that spirits manifested through some of the laser images. Of course, these aren´t specific spirits such as the spirits of long lost relatives or notable historical figures; rather what often emerges through the imagery is an strongly articulated sense of the spirit world. I´ve noticed that this is much more likely to happen when I have an appropriate attitude or when certain sensitive types of people are with me while I´m exploring imagery. When an angelic image takes form, I note and record the functional configuration and relationships of all the elements in the system producing it. Public performances of Laser Seraphim involve visiting, in the presence of a general audience, configurations that open doors to the spirit world.

In the course of my research I´ve discovered that many of my laser images resemble Taoist magic forms, the talismans of unorthodox Chinese calligraphic expression that are used to invoke the blessings of the spirits. According to Taoist belief, the magic power of talismans derive from the fact that they are permanently inhabited by spirits. The Chinese talismans have a material form as graphics on paper or as a sculpture. Until recently when I began recording some of my laser animations, there was nothing even remotely material about my laser work. The images were completely ephemeral light forms.

My laser images are produced by a point of light appearing on a reflective surface and retracing music-derived paths creating for the beholder a multidimensioned space that conveys a strong sense of substance. Think about that description for a minute. Tightened a bit with a few scientific terms and fine-tuned for material specifics, the description works just fine for the process that generates matter and other natural events which, of course, are ephemeral when measured by the cosmic clock.

The Chinese artists creating Taoist magic forms developed a symbolic grammar that embodied continuity of form in space in ways that projected relationships of matter and the imagination. They used their observations of metamorphosing clouds, undulating waves, and rising vapors to establish a grammar of representations for movement, change, and energy flow. They sought to integrate the perceptible substance and beat of life with the invisible ether of breath and the spirit world. I figure that´s nice work if you can find it: and I found it. Whatever the art process, calligraphy, sculpture, or music-driven laser animation, there´s enough work in the field of magic forms for many a human life span. Finding a common ground for the eye and the ear has been one of my principle objectives since the early 1970s. Not a mean task since the eye and the ear evolved over the eons for different purposes. Normally synchronized sound and sight is one of our expectations; their pattern trains normally begin and end at the same time in our perception. Of course that´s not always true since sound and light have very different transmission rates; if you sense the sound and light of thunder and lightning at the same instant you´ll probably be turned into a fried egg.

We learn to associate certain qualities of sound when certain materials are stimulated to vibratory states by certain means. We expect different sounds from the slam of a car door than from the slam of a closet door, from a bowed string than from a shattering wine glass.

We expect sound to accompany just about any activity we can see; and based on our experience with that activity, we have very specific expectations as to the nature of that sound. We expect the patterns of the sound to correspond to the patterns of the vibrating material and the patterns of the stimulation mode. Scraping a chalkboard, scraping dried food off a plate, and scraping caked mud off an old shovel all have their own patterned sound signatures. With experience we automatically factor in variables, such as distance and obstacles, that will affect our perception of the sound.

Normally what we perceive as the trains of sound and light patterns emerging from an event is based on the morphology of the event´s dynamics and its context. Compare the sound and light of a July 4th pyrotechnic display with the World War II saturation bombing of Dresden. Imagine waiting alone for AAA rescue truck at midnight during a sandstorm on a Mojave Desert dirt road; compare that with the same problem center span Golden Gate Bridge during a rush-hour wind and rainstorm. The sounds, sights, and feelings associated with those real or imagined experiences are stored more or less with the memories of those particular experiences; they are also linked with the vast store of similar and related personal memories. More importantly, those experiences create connections to embedded memories of archetypal forms of feelings.

Abstract sound and light forms with dynamic structures similar to those of the archetypal forms of feelings cause resonances that lead to the welling up of generalized feelings as well as those more specific to remembered experiences. Art experiences with the greatest impact are those capable of creating archetypal resonances and at the same time providing a fresh and highly personalized experience unique to the artist organizing the experience.

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©1996-2004 Ron Pellegrino and Electronic Arts Productions. All rights reserved.