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Carl Sagan+Dave Eggers=Charles Ives: Break the Rules

In our continuing American Mavericks: Break the Rules series, we present the work of Columbia University Music Humanities students Nidale Zouhir and Eva Alba, who have used the disparate concerns of scientists Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan, and author Dave Eggers to create a work inspired by the godfather of American mavericks, Charles Ives.

"I am a parcel of vain strivings tied
By a chance bond together,
Dangling this way and that, their links
Were made so loose and wide,
For milder weather."
—Henry David Thoureau from "I am a parcel of vain strivings tied"

Charles Ives's work is rhythmically complex, often playing various melodies against one another or layering different instruments to form meaning. In the same vein, Eva and I played a scientific and humanistic text against one another, layering it over the melody of a popular Kid Cudi song in order to establish both tension between the pieces and sort of have them in a kind of dialogue.

Eva chose the complex piece, a hybrid of texts by scientists Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan. This piece discusses the influence of science of humanity, speaking generally at first about the atomic existence and then slightly more specifically about the human race as a whole. The beginning of this piece—the very first sentence—comes from Feynman, and the rest of the musical piece we created sets out to answer the question Feynman poses: "If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?" The rest of the text sets out to sort of answer that question, lending hope to the existence and furthering of the human race without entirely losing the wonder Feynman himself suggests.

I chose the more simple piece, Dave Eggers "What it Means When a Crowd in a Faraway Nation Takes a Soldier Representing Your Own Nation, Shoots Him, Drags Him From His Vehicle, and Then Mutilates Him in the Dust." The short story is about just that—a man dealing with this image that represents the sort of inhumanity of humanity, and failing entirely to deal with the implications of that. The piece is linguistically simple; the events of the story are fairly straightforward and the short story itself is only about a page and a half long. However, its message is one that discuses the nature of humanity itself; there is this idea that we are fundamentally wrong in some way and that we can recognize that wrongness in others only when the others are separated from ourselves. This is why the main character of the short story feels more devastated over the image of the mutilated soldier than any of the closer-to-home tragedies Eggers discusses.

Many of the choices we made regarding this piece had to do with emphasizing the complex message, while still maintaining its linguist simplicity. For that reason, it is fairly broken up at some points and often indistinguishable from the other texts (the complex one and the lyrical one), which emphasizes its complexity. On a more basic level, the indistinguishability of this text also sort of mirrors the inability of humans to recognize the reasons behind their feelings, which, in Eggers's example, are compassion for a soldier in a different country whose life otherwise does not matter to the main character. Furthermore, the variation in volume of the simple text, while also increasing its complexity and allowing for the other texts to be emphasized at points, serves to create a the feeling of a physical distance between the listener and the speaker. This symbolizes the same distance one needs to have in order to properly recognize the immorality of humanity, which goes hand in hand with the main character of the short story's thought process throughout the piece.

For the most part, the words of the short story are arranged to correspond with the lyrics of the song and words of the complex text. For example, when the complex text discusses humans (all of them), the simple text comes in and starts talking about this one man and his individual pain. In addition, when the lyrics of "Pursuit of Happiness" talk about morality, the simple text comes in again, discussing the revulsion the main character feels at the exact opposite of morality that he sees in the newspaper. In some sense, the simple text often clashes with the complex one, with the words often coming layered over one another at varied volumes. Sometimes, my voice is louder; more often, Eva's is. This was done to stress the importance of the human race on a collective atomic level over the importance of the individual, but the times when the individual breaks through suggest that this is a faulty mindset to have.

The point of using both these texts is that they both speak to this greater truth about what we fundamentally are. One suggests an understanding of humanity based on science that has not lost its beauty, while one suggests an almost invisible sense of immorality that comes along with being human—a sense of immorality that we lack the ability to recognize on a more individual level. This is what comes into play in the short story; the main character lacks the wonder that Sagan and Feynman discuss because he has been too scarred by the world, not the world around him, but the world he knows exists. If Feynman posed that beginning question to him, the main character probably wouldn't have an answer, but if he did, it would probably be something like, "The world is a terrible place." This provides a sharp contrast to Sagan's words of wonder and hope, thus establishing a clashing tension between the two texts that is only emphasized by the Kid Cudi song, which starts out fairly ominous and gets gradually more hopeful. As this happens, the Eggers text starts to clash more and more with the music and lyrics, being layered loudly on top of them rather than working with them to create sound as it does more toward the beginning of the song.

The end of the piece was done both for aesthetic value and symbolic value. I think there's a point to be made regarding the way the texts end: Eva's voice is fairly loud and can be heard clearly over both the music and my voice, and she ends on a sort of beautifully hopeful note, then the music ends on a similarly happy note, and then I end on a very depressing and bleak note. The scientific text calls to humanity to go out and explore, and the music ends on a hopeful note, but then my voice comes through, almost inaudibly quiet: The man will do none of the things he could do. This speaks to the dichotomy between both texts (and their arrangement in the song): scientific versus emotional, the universal condition versus the human condition, slow versus fast, clear versus muddled, and, of course, hopeful versus bleak. It also places blame on the individual for the lack of wonder and exploration of the whole, which is an issue that can be clearly seen in everyday society: The individual lacks an interest in exploration, and then so does society, and then NASA loses funding; the individual sees the death and mutilation of a soldier as painfully, debilitatingly immoral, but does nothing against it, and then neither does society, and then a deadly and economically draining war lasts for 10 years.

American Mavericks
Break the Rules  

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