Music, dimensions, chaos, and extremes

(Or: why I am a pacifist, beyond the obvious basic belief that killing people and destroying property are wrong....)

© Bradley Lehman, 9/15/01

Some semi-random thoughts of the afternoon, somewhat related to one another.

Bach's prelude and fugue in A minor, BWV 894, is full of contrasts. There are harmonic and rhythmic surprises, unpredictable phrase lengths, moments of drive, moments of repose, a controlled irrationality. In short it is an effective piece of music. Good performances (in my opinion) bring out the irrationality, the contrasts, the shocks, the relaxation: with flexible tempo and varied articulation, every moment being affected by every other moment earlier or later, the whole piece in an organic state of flux. I've been working this afternoon on playing it that way. Less interesting performances are more one-dimensional: more consistent in expression, maybe with a lot of drive, but just in one direction.

Contrasts are good. Variety is good. Diversity is good. Bach's music is structurally coherent enough that it can stand a fairly irrational performance approach; the structure will still be there.

We've been seeing a lot of extremism all week. Everywhere. Both in the terrorist acts themselves and (perhaps even more so) in people's emotional reactions, the backlash, the calls for retribution and revenge.

I'm convinced that the enemy of civilization is extremism.

Extremism goads people into hate crimes, into disrespect for anything different from themselves, into a destructive "I'm right and everybody else is wrong" black-and-white mentality. Paranoid xenophobia and polarized thinking. Extremists have only one tool, a hammer, so all problems have only one solution: hit it. Those who listen to extremists can be very easily swept along with the hitting. And it is very easy to listen to extremists. That is why extremism is so dangerous to civilization. Civilization anywhere. It is extremely contagious, and extremely difficult to stop once it starts.

If some in a choir are singing all the notes loudly and insensitively, it is impossible to hear the expressive nuances that any other members might be allowing into the music. The performance sounds one-dimensional: loud and insensitive. Nuances emerge only if everybody listens. Put a few extremists in there, not listening, and the whole thing is ruined. It does no good for an ordinary choir member to sing well if somebody else is overwhelming the effect with a one-sided approach.

On force: the laws of physics tell us a very useful thing. Momentum equals mass times velocity, and force equals mass times acceleration. If something either big or fast is coming at you, it's going to hit you with a lot of momentum. When it hits you, the extremely rapid negative acceleration creates huge force. Bad news. "It'll put your eye out," at the least.

You have choices. (1) You can make yourself more rigid to withstand the force better; take the hit full in the face and hope you survive. (2) Or you can try to strike preemptively with even greater force; this INCREASES the relative velocity and acceleration, making the total force even greater, even more destructive. (3) Or you can try to outrun the object, decreasing the velocity by moving in the same direction...give in to the extremism so it has no force or momentum relative to you. (4) Or you can let yourself bounce off when it hits you, and hope you don't get pushed into something else.

Those are the four obvious solutions that occur to extremists, and also to people reacting to things from quick emotion without thoughtful reflection. Combinations of the above strategies are possible. All of those lead to destruction, though, to some degree. You're either crushed by a huge force, or going in some direction you didn't plan to go. All four of those solutions stay within the single dimension of the incoming object. One dimension, a straight-line path.

But (5) is better. There are an infinite number of directions perpendicular to the incoming force. Pick a good practical one, and move. Just step out of the way calmly, sideways. Get off the line. It can be even a very tiny motion to the side, making a huge difference. It takes hardly any energy at all to move sideways. Meanwhile, the object coming at you with great momentum has no leverage to change direction. Therefore it can't hit you with any appreciable force, if it even hits you at all.

(6) is also a good one: get alongside the incoming object or the extremist or whatever, and from a parallel course gently nudge it off its path with a small force perpendicular to that path. Give it a new course that doesn't harm anybody. Same idea, really, using the second and third dimensions wisely.

There's the old game: get a broomstick and hold it in front of you. Challenge your friend to try to knock you backward by pushing on your broomstick. Defeat him by simply pressing the broomstick upward (perpendicular to his force), dissipating all his effort. It takes hardly any energy at all, just a wise multi-dimensional strategy.

Or the similar game where the friend is supposed to force the broomstick's end downward into a target circle on the floor. All you have to do is keep pushing the end of the broomstick sideways so it misses the circle, and you win. One finger will do it.

Move out of the way, or redirect the attacker's force in a neutral direction. It's all so simple with just a little imagination, and a little knowledge of physics. Would a one-dimensional extremist think of it? Not in a one-dimensional universe, no.

The extremists want us to hate, to be extreme like they are, to pick up the velocity and momentum in their direction. It is the only direction that matters to them since they are stuck on a single line, in a single dimension. Polarization is all they know: alignment along their one line, either for or against.

I'm not just thinking of terrorist extremists. I'm thinking of anyone who sees swift and forceful retaliation as the only possible solution. Anyone stuck in one dimension.

Two dimensions are better, allowing a sidestep or redirection either to the left or right. Three dimensions are even better than that: step up, down, left, right, diagonally, anywhere. Duck! Or jump! Or dive up and to the right! Something. (Intelligence agencies try to work in the fourth dimension, time, sidestepping or redirecting things in time before they come up.)

The most important step, though, is getting from one dimension to two, getting some options. Be able to get off that one-dimensional line and have some perpendicular options. All the attacking force becomes wasted energy, accomplishing nothing. All of it. That is true whether it's an offensive attack or a (so-called) "defensive" or retaliatory attack. Violence can be dissipated by perpendicular motion, letting the attacker waste all his energy. Violence works in only one dimension. Sometimes it works, yes, but only in one dimension.

Read that again.

Even worse, when a violent action misses its intended target and harms the innocent, the consequences are incalculably disastrous. Just for one example: the military action of British troops in Derry, Northern Ireland, on a day in 1972 caused 13 immediate deaths, plus some other deaths from complications. "Bloody Sunday," it is called. That day is still being felt and relived and investigated EVERY DAY in Derry, 29 years later. It is an example of extremism running its natural and horrible course.

Best is to keep the violent action from beginning at all.

Remember the preachy moral from the movie "War Games," 1983: "The only way to win is not to play the game." I hope the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis taught us that, too.

Back to the physics analogy: I could say some things about extremism having no area or volume, since the only variable in a single dimension is distance, but I think I've taken that one far enough.

How about some baseball?

A fastball sort of works because it zips past the batter before he can react. A curveball sort of works because it moves to the side or up or down, out of the plane where the batter expects it to be, but even a curveball can be predicted. A change-up sort of works because it puts the ball in an unexpected place in the fourth dimension, time. All well and good.

But consider the knuckleball. It dips and floats and dodges and does all kinds of weird stuff, and is unpredictable to both the batter and the pitcher: a semi-controlled chaos. (And a knuckleball doesn't take as much out of the pitcher's arm....) A knuckleball colors outside the lines. It moves to the side enough that the batter can't get a good confident piece of it.

Let's throw the extremists (terrorists and anti-terrorists and the along-for-the-ride public, all alike) a knuckleball. They're expecting a fastball or a curveball or a change-up. So let's throw a knuckler, a chaotic pitch that sort of looks like all three of the others but can't be predicted. A knuckler makes all the destructive forces futile, since no one can predict the exact direction or time to deploy any force.

That tiny bit of randomness makes a huge difference. It leaves things in the capable hands of God, or if you prefer to keep it non-theological, fate. The knuckleball has definite purpose and direction, yes, plenty of focus: but it also doesn't try to control everything.

A deliberate avoidance of complete control can be a good thing. Good things must be permitted to happen, not prohibited by someone's overzealous control! We can control many or most things, yes. But not everything.

How about knuckleballs of varying speed: randomness in FOUR dimensions. Get those things across the plate and you've got yourself a winner. Controlled enough to get across the plate, random enough to confuse the batters and make them whiff the air ineffectually.

Random things and semi-random things aren't polarized. If they were, they would no longer be random. A fair amount of contained chaos is healthy. It offers a natural defense. The sidestepping happens automatically. The art is in finding that effective balance, the flexibility, the ability to use all the dimensions.

Just like in Bach.

And now I am going to go practice some music for upcoming concerts, in the hope there will be people around to hear it. And I am going to go out for a drive with a family member, enjoying the beautiful weather and companionship. We are going to walk a cornfield maze, experiencing non-linear space, finding the order in something that at first seems chaotic, but also simply enjoying the chaos. And I am going to mow the back yard, and continue cleaning up the house; until the extremists destroy the world, I might as well keep my little part of it looking nice.

And I am going to listen again and again to the way Wilbert Hazelzet plays the sarabande of the Bach flute partita BWV 1013 in his wonderful recent recording. That balance of predictability and unpredictability is fantastic. And heart-wrenching. And beautiful. And desolate. And rich. And everything. That's what music is supposed to do. It organizes time and sound into appreciable forms, and can suggest important things about life, and can show us things inside ourselves and outside ourselves.

One-dimensionality is dangerous. Fortunately, Bach and physics (among other things) suggest ways out. Bach's music has that fine balance of structure and chaos. The lines are there but it also colors outside the lines. That is why it is good music: it is multi-dimensional even when there is only one note at a time, as in the flute partita. And it symbolizes hope for civilization.

Have a semi-random day. Listen to some Bach. Do good work at the things you need to do. Go fly a kite and watch it dip and spin on the wind, controlled by a flexible string. Phone somebody randomly and offer a kind word. Drink a glass of water. Make the day a poem. Live in three or four dimensions.

© Bradley Lehman, 9/15/01

visits since September 15, 2001