Feed-back loop, the groove, and other earth shattering phenomena.

Feed back is a term that musicians who use amplification, like myself, are very familiar with. For those who might not be used to the phenomena, an audio feed back can be quite annoying, in particular for singers who walk around concert stages with a microphone. When a mic gets too close to a speaker, it picks up the resonant frequency of the room and sends it to the speaker after being amplified by the P.A. system. This is then picked up by the mic again which sends it a second time (feeding it back) through the system around the same loop. Soon enough it amplifies itself out of control and produces a loud whistling sound. By moving the mics away from the speaker you break the loop.

On the other hand musicians, in particular electric guitarists, have learned to use this to their advantage, and have created a unique blend of guitar tones and controlled feed back into the rich sustained sound that is so unique to the instrument. One example would be the tone of Carlos Santana’s guitar.

So there is two sides to the feed back loop- the Dr. Jekyll and the Mr. Hyde.

There are many examples of feed-back loops, and one of them has to do with bridges, which I’ll get to in a minute, but in thinking about this it came to me that this could also explain another musical phenomena. I am thinking of the one we call “groove”. As a percussionist I am always concerned about it; is it good, or is it not good? What makes it good, or what makes it lame? What is a groove, anyway? I’ve never seen a definition of it; the only thing I know about it is if it is there or not. I then read this story about the London Millennium walking bridge and as an analogy it made perfect sense…..

The closest thing to a string in the everyday world in which we live is the bridge; it is long, stretched, and subjected to all kinds of vibrations.

When the London Millennium bridge was open to the public, people enthusiastically started to walk on it in great numbers, but it wobbled a little bit, which then fed back to the people, which made them want to synchronize their footsteps to the bridge’s motion, which made the bridge’s motion worse. In other words, the situation created a feed back loop between the bridge and the foot steps of the people. It is not a new phenomena, it has been well known for a long time; military parades have to break their lock step while walking on a bridge, because they could create such a feed back loop that they could collapse it.

So, to me, a groove does behave in a similar way. There is no physical bridge or amplification system as previously, but only the sympathetic relationship between the different elements that constitute it. They re-enforce each other by feeding back in a looped pattern. The common denominator is the down beat, which can be present or only suggested by the interlocking parts. A groove is made of at least two parts (bridge-steps or mic-speaker), or, in this case, down beat and syncopation. But it can include many different parts.

When a groove is locked in, and it is important to stress that this word is a paraphrase helping us describe the “groove” phenomena the best we can (there is no lock on a groove), in this case the analogy is the lock step of the aforementioned parade. When a groove is locked, it means that the feed-back loop is enabled and is re-enforcing each part in relation to the other. To make another ‘bridge’ to the scientific lingo, you can say that the synergy is at its highest, the whole become larger than the sums of its parts.

Just listen to African, Latin American, Jazz and Funk music, and when the feed – back loop is enabled, feel your step locking with the groove, and as with the Millennium Bridge– shake your whole body.

The International Year of Astronomical

One could say that it is the Hubble telescope’s amazing images, the Cassini/Hyugen circling Saturn, or even the discovery of new planets around faraway stars that are responsible. Add the fact that this is The International Year of Astronomy, and it would seem obvious why people are becoming acquainted with the vastness of space. But I am referring to something much less obvious, but no less astronomical. I am talking about the numbers that are spread out in the front headlines of all of the newspapers, tv, and websites around the world.

One of these numbers is the $818 billion (818,000,000,000) stimulus package. What does a number such as this one represent? One thing for sure is that it can be described as “astronomical”. Now what does it mean to call something astronomical? First of all it means that because of its size, we just simply don’t understand it. Let me give an example:

The distance from here to the Moon is an average of 239,000 miles. This is something that we can wrap our heads around, barely– just think of going around the earth 60 times at the equator. From here to the Sun it is 93,000,000 miles. This number is already beyond our understanding; it is 389 times the distance to the Moon, or 23,340 times around the equator. From the Sun to Neptune, our most distant planet (I do agree that Pluto is not a planet, but that’s another topic) it is 2,790,000,000 miles. That number makes no sense to us humans. We are not made to understand this kind of distance; we can only try to compare them to others, which conveniently makes the numbers small. In the process, we often use the speed of light: 186,000 miles per second; but that new unit is already one we can barely understand. Even so, it conveniently translates distances into time: at the speed of light, it would take 4 hours and 10 minutes to reach Neptune.

If dollars were miles, we could go on for 51 days (at the speed of light) until we reached the amount of the stimulus package. In comparison, Voyager 1, the furthest traveling man-made object, is just over 1% of that distance, and it was launched on September 5th, 1977. We would still be four years and one month away from the nearest star, Proxima Centauri. Far enough away, but actually not so much, considering that already the government is considering buying bad loans from banks to the tune of a trillion dollars ($1,000,000,000,000). That would put us 62 days closer. In this department, The Treasury is way ahead of NASA- they’re reaching for the stars!

The point of this little exposé, if you are still with me, is just to try to put things in perspective. We continue to be exposed to larger and larger numbers, but do we really understand what they mean? Chances are that we don’t… when we talk of light seconds, minutes, days or years, we are just surrendering to galloping inflation. Yes, 40 years ago a New York City subway token was 25 cents; now it is about to be ten times more. 400 years ago “our” universe was 1500 miles; it is now roughly 15,000,000,000 light years, and we are now thinking that our universe is one of many. Billions of any currency used to be safely confined to one or two figures, but a trillion? Can we understand what it means to the scale of our wallet? No, we can’t.

So when you hear complaints about the $50,000,000 designated for the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts), I would not pay too much attention to this, as it represents only 4 minute and 30 seconds out of a 51 day stimulus package! Or averaging less than 5/100ths of a percent.

Think about it, or don’t think about it; in the end, it’s above our heads.