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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution


 
The Essay
Show #448
The Slowest Composer in the World
David Gunn

In the half-light of a full moon's glow on a clear and crisp January night, a shivering man is casting stalks of yarrow upon the frozen ground. He is shivering not only because he is cold, but also because the results of his actions will have such profound effects on him, and he is rightly concerned. The man is Hieronymous Bosworth, a 20th century experimentalist and the slowest composer in the world. Each note of each composition is guided by the I Ching, an ancient form of divination and the fundamental oracle of Confucianism. Reading the I Ching involves casting yarrow stalks to build a series of six lines called a hexagram. Each line is either yin, the passive-feminine force, or yang, the active-masculine force. Pithy passages in the I Ching then reveal the meaning of each line. There are 64 possible hexagrams, each of which can be broken down into three-line groups called trigrams, which in turn can be further divided into rudimentary brainwave activity, or electroencephalograms.

Bosworth is working on a composition now, a piece for either solo voice or bouzouki. (Picking the instrument is itself a prolonged interaction with the I Ching.) He has been writing the piece for 11 years and is just now approaching the 40-measure mark. The total number of notes is 902. You do the math. He begins the process by first silently asking the oracle, "What note shall next be?" Then he throws the yarrow stalks. Each stalk is uniquely scented, and the way their combined odors register on Bosworth's smellomometer determines the equivalent number. The first throw yields a seven, as do the second and third, making for a bottom trigram of Ch'ien, the creative. Bosworth smiles. He may get several notes tonight, which would be an all-time record for him.

But he probably won't. Every throw involves new yarrow stalks. This is neither demanded nor endorsed by the I Ching or its assigns. It's strictly a Bosworth thing. Ergo a lot of perfectly good composing time is instead spent harvesting and prepping an Eurasian weed.

It's not a romantic notion that has him outside on this cold, moonlit night clutching a handful of yarrow. But it's Friday, Penny Ante Night, and his small flat is otherwise engaged by Schnitzler, his schnauzer, sitting at the dining room table with three other yappy dogs noisily playing poker.

The next throw is an eight, yin; line 5, eight; line 6, eight. A yin line! Bosworth sniffs the yarrow. It smells a little like chicken: Hexagram 26, Ta Ch'u, the Taming Power of the Great! He withdraws the ancient book from a hidden pocket in his dashiki, turns to the appropriate page, and reads:

   It furthers one
   To embark on the journey
   The enlightening experience is to partake of the Great Walnut.

Hmm. Sounds like an Eb, though it could also be an Fbb if the yin line is deemed gray, or changing. He continues:
   Ten pairs of old women's shoes cannot reach him
   Constant perseverance brings many nuisances
   The Walnut awaits the blessing of the efficacious tortoise.

There's that walnut again. Maybe it isn't an Eb after all, for don't nuts and seeds typically dwell exclusively in C Major? He reads the concluding three lines:
   The walls fall back into the moat
   One is enriched through unfortunate events
   That isn't chicken you're smelling, buster.

Bosworth checks his smellomometer. Sure enough, the chicken odor was left over from an earlier reading. He diligently cleans the gauge, points it at the six lines of yarrow again, and jots down the new measurements: six, one, one, four, nine, five. Good grief, with the unfavorable line nine in the fifth place, it's Hexagram 28! Bosworth sniffs the yarrow and grimaces. Definitely traces of copper sulfate. That's Ta Kuo, all right. He shivers in trepidation, because he's visited 28 often. In fact, the book readily falls open to that page, which is wrinkled from overuse.

   Perseverance brings humiliation
   It must be announced truthfully
   At the court of the Dog.

As has accompanied so many previous readings, somewhere in the distance a dog barks. Bosworth sighs and continues:
   No blame if you are sincere
   And walk in the middle
   But the danger sitting in the boat also lurks unseen beneath the water's surface.
   The walnut's wisdom remains elusive
   One must therefore resort to contemplating the Omnipotent Zipper
   Have a nice day.

Bosworth doesn't bother to turns the page to the commentary because he already knows what it will advise him to do: use his intuition. Given the nature of his compositional style, however, that's simply not likely. A sudden gust of wind scatters the yarrow stalks, obliterating the lines of the hexagram. Again in the distance, a dog barks. Momentarily thinking like a composer, Bosworth imagines that it sounds a little like an Eb. Then let it be so, he decides, abruptly rousing from his glum reverie. He roots around in his dashiki's other pocket, but discovers that he has exhausted his supply of yarrow. Well, he'll just have to figure out which Eb another time, he reasons, as he heads for home, for once not averse to a round or two of poker.

Today's 448th round of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar is brought to you by Hexagram 63, the Reinterpretation of History, which concludes with the lines:
   Seize the moment
   Cesium oxide
   Si, see Kalvos!