National Botanic Garden

A couple of weeks ago went on one of our regular family visits to the lovely (and noticeably improving) National Botanic Garden of Wales. Here are a few of the pictures I took. Making no claim to be a great photographer—a point-and-click merchant at heart—I’m really only interested in composition and colour. Or maybe texture. Whatever:

Hothouse Lily
Hothouse Lily
Green Fireworks
Green Fireworks
Black Lightning
Black Lightning
Zen Drainpipe
Zen Drainpipe
The Great Glasshouse
The Great Glasshouse
Red Flower
Red Flower
Slime Wall 1
Slime Wall 1
Pink & Orange Flower
Pink & Orange Flower
Slime Wall 2
Slime Wall 2
Flowers & Path
Flowers & Path
The Great Glasshouse (Detail)
The Great Glasshouse (Detail)

A Brief History of Electronic Music

Raymond Scott
Raymond Scott

1992 found me studying Music Information Technology at City University under Jim Grant and Simon Emmerson. As part of my dissertation I wrote a long piece on the history of electronic music. It sat around on the old for a while, but I recently revised it and updated it for my own students, and, for those who are interested in such things, I’m including it here.

I think it remains useful. It is only a brief history but it covers a lot of ground, technological, artistic and political. It finishes around the time synthesizers entered the mass-market and just before MIDI, but it goes right back to the medium’s real beginning. Contrary to what most people think, “music technology” didn’t begin in the late 1960s with Bob Moog: as far back as 1906 Thaddeus Cahill had a working polyphonic additive synthesizer that transmitted pure electronic music over a telephone network. Talk about being ahead of your time…

The Telharmonium
The Telharmonium

A Brief History of Electronic Music (372kB .pdf)

Quote of the Month

One late evening, about 10pm London time, I was sitting on the crew bus with the rest of my crew. We had just arrived home from the States on an unusual schedule: normally the flights from there come in overnight and arrive in the morning.

Anyway, it was a nasty night with drizzle and occasional heavy rain. The bus had to stop at a control point before crossing an active taxiway. As usual at that time of night the taxiways were busy, and on this particular evening we sat in the stopped bus beneath the wingtip of a 747-200!

We sat there with the airport lights shining at us through the rain, the bus wipers swishing, the traffic lights illuminating the interior, and this enormous aeroplane just next to us with its large engines humming at idle. I looked up at the cockpit but was unable to see anyone because of the dimmed lights I knew they’d be running. I thought: there are just three men sitting there listening and alert who would be flying this lovely aeroplane all night to Africa.

It was one of the most impressive visions I’ve had of the 747 and what it was like to operate it, despite all the training, walking through it and around it, and knowing in detail how it works. I just wish I could have a picture, somehow with the sound, to show you and to keep myself. Obviously I will always remember it, but the thrumming and gentle rocking of this monster almost at rest, itching to go into the night when it was given full power—oh boy! I’m glad I don’t have to do it now.

Just a memory, from me to you. Keep well please.

Edwin Hazel 1933-2009

Quote of the Month

The defining element of the desktop GUI is the icon, which, although it often has a name, is above all a picture that performs or receives an action. These actions give the icon its meaning. As elements in a true picture writing, icons do note merely remind the user of documents and programs, but function as documents and programs. Reorganizing files and activating programs is writing, just as putting alphabetic characters in a row is writing. Rather like the religious relics after which they are named, computer icons are energy units that focus the operative power of the machine into visible and manipulable symbols. Computer icons also remind us of the cultural functions of Hebrew letters in the Cabala or of alchemical and other signs invoked by such Renaissance magi as Giordano Bruno. Magic letters and signs were often objects of meditation, as they were in the logical diagrams of the medieval Raymond Llul, and they were also believed to have operational powers. As functioning representations in computer writing, electronic icons realize what magic signs in the past could only suggest.

Jay David Bolter

Korg DS-10

Here’s something: a venerable analogue monosynth re-imagined for the 21st Century and the Nintendo DS, no less.

2 twin-ocillator synths and a 4-part drum machine pre-loaded with samples create by the DS-10 itself. A 6-track sequencer. Built-in FX and real-time sound control via the touch screen. Wireless communication allowing you to sync multiple units together and swap data. From this:

To this:

Fun. Amazing. Mind-blowing. And yet so musically limited (to put it mildly). A Toy.

Point Of View

Champagne Reaction
The way it turned out, I found myself sitting one Thursday lunchtime at Manor House waiting for the southbound train. On the far wall of the tube was one of those big hoardings, this particular one advertising Mercier Champagne.

Apart from a narrow bottle-green strip down the right with the Mercier label in it this advert is a massive single black and white image of a ‘typical’ Parisian street cafe. In the foreground three small round tables rise up in a gentle diagonal from left to right. Young and seemingly affluent couples are seated behind the first and third tables.

On the left, the man is seen from a rear three-quarters view, a smiling Audrey Hepburn lookalike leaning into him, eyes gazing up adoringly, her hand slipping up inside his tweed jacket. Their table is spotlessly clean and noticeably Champagne-free. Across from them sits a beautiful Mediterranean woman, arms folded, legs crossed. Her partner is perched on the extreme right-hand edge, chin in hand, elbow on table, completely excluded by her body posture. Both appear to be looking enviously over at the first couple. On the table in front of them is what looks like a half-finished bottle of white wine. No glasses are in evidence.

In the space bookended by the two couples half-blurred background figures can be seen amongst the geometric pattern of tables and chairs. Across the top are the words ‘Mercier pour la memoir’, as if written in a woman’s handwriting. For those without basic French this is a pun on ‘Thanks for the memory’. Audrey: you’re a scream.

At first glance, the poster appears to be nothing more than another glossy-mag styled resynthesis of a mythical 1960’s Paris, full of chic images worn smooth and translucent with use. It tells us the couple in front have already eaten their meal and drunk their bottle of Mercier in its entirety. They are sated with good food, tipsy, and in love. He has paid by credit card. They will go home and make passionate love. They, or couples very like them, inhabit countless advertising scenarios. They drive nice cars and live in houses where the sun always shines in the kitchen. They always tell us the same thing: if you buy this product, as we have, you too will be happy. You can be like us. All we can know for sure about them is that they’re actors.

But what of the couple on the right? She is unhappy because her boyfriend doesn’t love her. We know this because he didn’t buy her Mercier Champagne. Instead he ordered this cheapo white wine which is so bad they can’t even finish it. Asshole! He is unhappy not because she is unhappy but because he has been publicly humiliated, out-thought, outspent. He’s a loser and he knows it. Such is the familiar language of advertising.

So why bother mentioning it at all? Well, closer inspection of the poster leads one to suspect things are not as they first seem. Crucially, the unhappy couple are definitely not looking at the happy couple at all, but at something happening behind them, out of the frame of the photograph. This immediately brings the meaning of the whole image into question. Are this couple actors, or mere unwitting dupes? Are they just two people accidentally caught up in an outdoor photo shoot? What are they looking at? Why haven’t they finished their wine? Why aren’t there any glasses? What are their real feelings for each other? Eventually: was this image designed, or was it largely accidental?

In the sheer absence of so much information—especially the product itself—the ‘Mercier pour la memoir’ becomes a throbbing neon sign. Your eyes flicker between text and image, image and text, the banality of the pun counterpointing the sudden incoherence of the photograph. Your eyes are dragged again and again across the gulf between the tables, between bottle and non-bottle, between distance and intimacy. Vainly you try to contain the energy created by the exploding image and within seconds what happens is that you invent a story, you wrap it up in a plotline. Not consciously: your brain just does it. Where meaning does not exist, the human mind will create it.

After looking at this poster you may not have the same story as mine, but you will certainly have a story of some sort.

Brian Eno’s Ambient 4/ On Land has on it a track called ‘The Lost Day’. It always used to evoke within me a deep and particular emotional response, like watching a film. I could see everything in widescreen, crisp, and in deep focus. I could sense the wind, feel the desolation, hear the soundtrack. I was there.

About a year later I read a Brian Eno interview in which he spoke at some length about ‘The Lost Day’. He told us what each sound represented, the weather, everything. It would seem the track is an almost literal painting in sound of a real place at a particular time, a recreation of an event, an experience.

This forbidden knowledge has catastrophically ruined the track for me. Sure, I still get a film running behind my eyes when I listen to it. Unfortunately it now views like a TV set randomly hopping between two channels, one showing a BBC1 documentary about a sleepy English coastal village on a grey winters day, the other scenes from an early Japanese Samurai movie. It’s rubbish.

In the same way that a photograph is double-exposed, Brian Eno’s landscape has been superimposed upon my own. You can’t be in two places at once.

Ways Of Seeing
Quantum Physics is still a mystery to most people, an area of knowledge akin to Voodoo or Theosophy. Like if an atom was the size of the Earth, the nucleus would be the size of a basketball. The electrons orbiting the nucleus would be a flock of geese skimming across a lake. Inside the nucleus, wave/particle probability functions with names like wooden idols whizz about in Space-Time. Somewhere: we’re never quite sure. But it works nonetheless, faultlessly, repeatedly. If it didn’t the modern world as we know it simply wouldn’t exist. The central problem of Quantum Physics is this: it’s been here nearly 100 years and we still can’t assimilate it. We can’t imagine it, we can’t picture it.

It wasn’t until 1980 that the first photographic image of an atom was published. The nature of the quantum wave/particle thingies inside the nucleus are deduced by smashing atoms together and tracking the trajectories of the bits, the shrapnel. They are too small to measure properly or to see, and perhaps they always will be. Einstein coined the famous image of the Universe as a watch. In 1938 he wrote:

In our endeavour to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears its ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility of the meaning of such a comparison.

This has changed Western science in a very profound way. For the first time the role of the observer entered into the equation. For the first time what happened depended in part upon who was looking, what they were looking at, and with what. In a very real sense, it said we make reality up as we go along, we create it. The myth that the scientist was disinterested, detached, some noble and objective pioneer in search of absolute truth, was finally shown to be false. Worse than that: it just wasn’t possible. How could you not have a point of view?

This aspect of Quantum Physics is not difficult to grasp on a common-sense level. For example, if you and I stand next to each other and look simultaneously at that Mondrian painting over there we’ll still see different pictures. Our physique, our age, our sex, our education and experience, whether we’ve got a headache or not, all of these will dictate how we see it. Until we come along the painting isn’t doing anything: it isn’t complete until someone looks, someone participates. Each of us will complete the painting in our own way. All of our lives are like this. We live in our own worlds, making them up as we go along: improvising.

Now. All you have to worry about is whether you’re going to be Charlie Parker or Clarence Clemmons…

Quote of the Month

The words are all on a transparent film. The experiences to which they refer are taking place seamlessly behind the film overlay. The words are like digital samples of a continuous analog experience. If you focus on the word-film, the experience becomes a blur, the way that focusing on an insect on your car windshield prevents you from seeing the road in the distance clearly. Preverbal experience of primitive people takes place entirely behind the overlay or rather without it. Early verbal cultures see the word and the thing which it names in somewhat equal focus, connected by an invisible membrane. Later verbal cultures come to see only the verbal overlay, with a vague blur of experience behind. As Homo Sapiens lives ever more in the realm of symbols the membrane connecting thing and symbol atrophies. Discourse becomes a same-symbol with-different-underlying-meanings/same-meaning-with-different-underlying-symbols quicksand.

Jon Hassell


Narrative 4: Narrative & The Brain

I am currently doing a PhD entitled Narrative Structures In e-Learning. I’m doing it part-time and am about half-way through: that is, 3 years into a 6 year project.

Whilst doing my literature search I became fascinated with the ubiquity of narrative—this amazing facility all humans have to tell stories in various ways—and I spent more than two years researching this problem, writing it up, and then going back over it all again. Eventually it all came together in a paper that will be published later this year in Interactive Learning Environments. What follows is an extract from that paper.

The Origin of Narrative in the Brain
The ability to narrate is generally considered to be available to all human beings regardless of gender, race, colour, or cultural milieu (Barthes 1967), and Bruner has suggested that we have a “predisposition” for narrative (Bruner 2002, p.33). These observations suggest that there is something built-in, something hardwired, that allows for this ubiquity. Reviewing recent research in the fields of cognitive psychology and neurobiology this section is an attempt to offer some explanation for the universal human facility for what we call ‘narrative’.

Our ability to narrate depends entirely upon our having some way of encoding and retrieving time-sensitive memories. These are usually called our episodic memories, that is, memories that include “the detailed sequence of events that constitute an experience and the spatial and temporal context in which the sequence occurred” (Eichenbaum 2003, p.236). Although little is known about our memory systems with absolute certainty, many researchers implicate that part of our Limbic systems called the hippocampus as being instrumental in the encoding and retrieval of episodic memories (Burgess et al 2002; Eichenbaum 2003, 2004; Xu et al 2005). It would seem that the hippocampus was originally specialized for encoding spatial relationships, but in humans the left side has evolved to encode time-based experiences.

Figure 1: The Hippocampus & The Brain

However, having this ability on its own would not necessarily be responsible for the creation of a narrative facility. For this type of higher-order cognitive skill we need to look to certain parts of cerebral cortex, namely the frontal lobes. These are responsible for what are often called the brain’s ‘executive functions’ and are particularly related to language production, decision-making, problem-solving, and socialization.

Wheeler, Stuss, and Tulving (1997) have identified a particular function of the frontal lobes that they explicitly relate to episodic memory, called autonoetic consciousness. This is defined as “…the capacity that allows adult humans to mentally represent and to become aware of their protracted existence across time” (Wheeler et el 1997, p.335). Autonoetic consciousness allows us not only to look back into our past and monitor our present state, it also allows us to project ourselves into the future: “We consider this the most highly evolved form of consciousness […] which provides a fluid link from the individual’s past, through the present, to the future, and back again” (ibid).

Given that we have this relatively primitive organ (the hippocampus) that is actually doing the work of encoding episodic memories, and given that we have developed a time-aware consciousness in our frontal lobes that is exploiting these episodic memories in complex ways, it seems inevitable that a representational form—that is, a means for expressing these experiences both internally and externally—must evolve as well. On this evidence, then, it would seem that what we call ‘narrative’ is an emergent property of the interaction between the hippocampus and the frontal lobes.

Narrative and Memory
Having established a basic description of brain anatomy that offers a mechanism and evolutionary imperative for narrative, I would now like to look in some depth at the human memory system, with the aim of showing how fundamental narrative is to human comprehension.

Our declarative memory is memory for things, events, and experiences that we are able to consciously access and articulate (e.g. Squire 2004, p.173; Baddeley 1999, p.19). This declarative memory is usually considered to be made up of two closely interrelated sub-systems, episodic and semantic memory. Episodic memory, as we have seen, is “memory for personally experienced events set in a spatio-temporal context” (Burgess et al 2002, p.625), whereas semantic memory is concerned only with the storage of ‘facts’ and other knowledge about the world. How these two relate to each other and how they interact—if in fact they are discrete systems at all—bears directly upon our discussion.

Firstly, although there is a good deal of experimental evidence to suggest that episodic and semantic memories are distinct systems, it has to be pointed out that we have no conscious knowledge of them as being discrete, or ability to control them individually. Secondly, although there is a significant body of research implicating the hippocampus in the encoding of episodic memory—as we have discussed—there is no known mechanism for the separate encoding of semantic memory: all memory encoding is mediated by the hippocampus (Eichenbaum 2004, p.109). This suggests that the episodic and semantic memory systems may be different aspects of one larger and more complex system. Eichenbaum (2003, 2004) has developed a model of hippocampal memory encoding that includes and explains both episodic and semantic memory, whilst also allowing for phenomena such as the inferral of new information from existing memories and contextualization.

As we discussed earlier, our perception of the world is as a linear series of experiences: we move through time, gathering sensory input. These experiences will be encoded in episodic memory by the hippocampus. However, an episodic memory of a particular event can be broken down into a series of associative representations that include the people involved, the environment in which it occurred, and the actions that took place. What’s more, these actions are sequentially organized, that is, they occurred in a particular order at this particular event. And because we may have met some of these people before, or been in this environment before, and performed similar actions before, this particular episodic memory may have many features in common with existing episodic memories: this allows the formation of relational networks (Eichenbaum 2004).

Figure 2: After Eichenbaum 2003, 2004

Figure 2 is a schematic diagram of what Eichenbaum calls a “simple memory space” (Eichenbaum 2003, p.236). It shows two episodic memory sequences and the associative representations that make them up. We can see that the two memory sequences have certain elements in common at positions 3 and 4 that could begin to form the basis of a relational network. It may be that activity in the Episode 1 sequence may trigger recall of the Episode 2 sequence. Also, from this commonality certain inferences could be made about the indirect relationship between elements 1 and 2 in Episode 1, and elements 5’ and 6’ in Episode 2, or between elements 1’ and 2’ in Episode 2, and elements 5 and 6 in Episode 1.

In this model semantic knowledge is not a distinct memory system, it is abstracted from the links in the episodic memory sequences: the commonalities between them become established as ‘general knowledge’. However, because this common knowledge remains embedded within those episodic memories—it remains situated within its original context—it can be used to make inferences about novel experiences, about information that is not explicitly related, or things that have not been experienced directly. Consequently, these simple relational networks can be seen as the basic building blocks of human learning, planning, simulation, and creativity.

Support for this conception of our memory system and the structural networks that underlie it can be found elsewhere in the Cognitive Psychology literature: as long ago as 1932 Bartlett used the general term schemas to describe memories that had been grouped, categorized, and stored as structures and used to rationalize new experiences. More recently researchers have identified schemas that relate to particular types of knowledge:

  • Frames are “knowledge structures relating to some aspect of the world (e.g. a building) containing fixed structural information” (Eysenck & Keane 2005, pp.383-384).
  • A script is a “predetermined causal chain of conceptualizations that describe the normal sequence of things in a familiar situation” (Schank 1975, p.117), the prototypical example of which is his ‘restaurant’ script (ibid).
  • The story schema, which is the “idealized internal representation of the typical parts of a typical story and the relationship between those parts” (Mandler & Johnson 1977, p.111).

These schemas are learnt. They are generalizations about environments, sequences of events, and stories, that over time and through constant exposure have established themselves as stable, yet dynamic, structural elements in declarative memory: in Eichenbaum’s terms, they are relational networks.

Their use offers several distinct advantages. Dijk (1980) suggests that they aid memorization in three ways. Firstly, they allow global organization and the imposition of coherence on the raw data: “Without this kind of global organization in memory, retrieval and hence use of complex information would be unthinkable” (ibid, p.14). Secondly, it allows for a reduction in the amount of data that needs to be remembered: this increases efficiency. Thirdly, the process of actually deriving a schema from the mass of raw data “may involve the construction of new meaning (i.e., meaning that is not a property of the individual constitutive parts)” (ibid, p.15. Italics in the original). These mechanisms are largely unconscious, although we may be able to consciously exploit them, e.g. ‘chunking’ information to aid memorization (Miller 1956).

Whether we call them schemas or relational networks, we should recognize that our memories are largely made up of knowledge structures that create expectation about experience and that aid comprehension. Making meaning can therefore be seen as a negotiation between these existing structures and new experience: this is of course exactly what constructivist theory proposes.

This discussion strongly implicates narrative as one of the most important mechanisms we possess for comprehension and for making meaning. Firstly, because there is a considerable body of evidence to suggest that our entire declarative memory system is time-dependent, and secondly because the three schematization strategies we have discussed here all strongly relate to narrative construction.

Baddeley, A.D. (1999) Essentials of Human Memory. Hove, New York: Psychology Press.
Barthes, R. (1977) Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives, in Image-Music-Text. London: Fontana.
Bruner, J. (2002) Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Burgess, N., Maguire, E.A. & O’Keefe, J. (2002) The Human Hippocampus and Spatial and Episodic Memory, in Neuron, 35, 625-641.
Dijk, T. A. van (1980) Macrostructures. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Eichenbaum, H. (2003) The hippocampus, episodic memory, declarative memory…where does it all come together? In Ono, T., Matsumoto, G., Llinas, R.R., Berthoz, A., Norgren, R., Nishijo, H., & Tamura, R. (Eds) Cognition and Emotion in the Brain. Elsevier Health Science.
Eichenbaum, H. (2004) Hippocampus: Cognitive Processes and Neural Representations that Underlie Declarative Memory. In Neuron, 44, 109-120.
Eysenck, M.W. & Keane, M.T. (2005) Cognitive Psychology. Hove, New York: Psychology Press.
Mandler, J.M. & Johnson, N.S (1977) Remembrance of Things Parsed: Story Structures and Recall, in Cognitive Psychology, 9, 111-151. From: [Accessed 2.3.07]
Miller, G. A. (1956) The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two, in The Psychological Review, 1956 (63), 81-97.
Schank, R. (1975) Using Knowledge to Understand, in Proceedings of the 1975 Workshop on Theoretical Issues in Natural Language Processing. From: [Accessed 24.1.06]
Squire, L.R. (2004) Memory Systems of the Brain: A Brief History and Current Perspective, in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 82, 171-177. From: [Accessed 4.1.06]
Wheeler, M.A., Stuss, D.T. & Tulving, E. (1997) Toward a Theory of Episodic Memory: The Frontal Lobes and Autonoetic Consciousness, in Psychological Bulletin, 121, 3, 331-354.
Xu, J., Kemeny, S., Park, G., Frattali, C., & Braun, A. (2005) Language in context: emergent features of word, sentence, and narrative comprehension, in NeuroImage, 25, 1002-1015. From: [Accessed 7.9.06]

From Russia

This week I managed to get up to see the From Russia exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in London. In particular, I was keen to see the collections of French art assembled by Shchukin and Morozov, reappearing for the first time in the West since they were bought in the early years of the 20th century.

To be honest, I found the exhibition bit of a disappointment generally. A lot of the Russian stuff I found very poor and/or highly derivative. However, it was worth the price of admission alone for the relatively small number of paintings by Cezanne, Derain, Matisse, and Picasso. There were also some fine works by Kandinsky and Malevich on display. My highlights:

Paul Cezanne, Bridge Over the Marne at Creteil (1894?)

Pablo Picasso, Farm Woman (bust) (1908)

Henri Matisse, Nude (Black & Gold) (1908)

I had never seen this Matisse before, and it completely blew me away: the boldness of execution, the use of colour. It’s so rough, so far removed from ‘reality’, and yet manages to be a totally convincing representation of the woman. Sculptural!

Henri Matisse, Harmony In Red (1908)

One of my favourite Matisse’s. I would have paid the £11 just to come and see this, and it didn’t disappoint. The image above gives no real indication of the impact it has in real life: it’s huge—over 2 metres wide—and the depth and richness of that red really is something. Interestingly, this painting was originally called Harmony In Blue, but just before it was due to be delivered to Shchukin Matisse repainted it. Although you can’t see it on the image above (which has been cropped slightly), Matisse left a thin strip of the original blue around the edge. This creates the illusion that this huge expanse of red is somehow floating on the canvas: a brilliant touch.

Wassily Kandinsky, Winter (1909)

Kazimir Malevich, Red Square (1915)

Kazimir Malevich, Black Circle (c.1923)

Finally, there was a large model of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International. The model wasn’t all that fantastic, but there was a film looping in the same room that showed what St. Petersburg would have looked like had it been built. In other words, they taken archive footage and inserted a CGI model of the building into the landscape, and ‘aged’ the model so that it blended in with the grainy black & white film stock. Incredibly convincing.

Although this isn’t that film, here’s a similar short from YouTube that at least gives an impression of what I’m talking about:

So, despite my reservations about much of the work on show, I’m really glad I made the effort to go. It really was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to directly experience some great works of art. Sweet…