Monday, August 4, 2008

The Power of Random

What follows is a bit of a stretch, because it assumes that my reinterpretation of "My Man's Gone Now" (as a tribute to Manny Ramirez) is an artwork, but there are a couple of interesting points to be made about its genesis. The execution of the "artistic concept" may not have been perfect, but I do think the song and story go together in an amusingly appropriate way. Pairing them is quite an odd idea, of course, because Major League Baseball doesn't have much in common with "Porgy and Bess." So, what made me put them together?

The reason this question interests me is that I hadn't noticed what made the coincidence take shape until after the fact. It just so happens that my family's been listening regularly to a CD featuring my daughter's violin teacher, and it just so happens that one of the works is a "Fantasy on Porgy and Bess," but the truth is I hadn't paid much attention to that piece. So, here is the chronology as I experienced it: 1) I hear the news that Manny Ramirez has been traded. 2) I experience a strange and difficult-to-explain sense of sadness (see previous post) knowing that Manny's gone now. 3) My brain makes the "my man's gone now"/"Manny's gone now" connection and soon I'm reshaping lyrics, googling images of Manny and Big Papi, etc.

(By the way, I am proud of my decision to map the "Old Man Sorrow" content from the aria onto "David Ortiz (Big Papi)," Manny's fellow Dominican slugger. These guys have formed the most potent 3-4 combo in the game for years and it's a big loss for Ortiz not to have Ramirez protecting him. After I had already posted the video, I saw Ortiz being interviewed on TV, and he was almost in tears answering questions about Manny's departure. OK, it's not quite Serena having her husband killed in a gambling fight, but the sense of loss was real. I now wish I had cast the whole rewriting of the lyrics from Big Papi's point of view, but I think that ship has sailed.)

Only the next day when we had the "Porgy and Bess Fantasia" playing again did I realize that its first major section features the violin wailing out "My Man's Gone Now." So, although I've known the tune for years, it's highly likely that the Manny connection happened only because I'd recently been hearing it - it was probably a featured selection in my sub-conscious playlist. The point is that creativity (remember, we're pretending that this was a creative act) almost surely depends on this kind of fortuitous coincidence all the time. The brain has a stupendous amount of data floating around, so it has to help when this kind of coincidence puts two promising ideas together. (Remember, we're pretending that this was a promising idea!)

This reminds me of something I wrote about before in one of my favorite posts: "I don't make any great claims when it comes to creative abilities, but I'm always struck by how often the crucial creative moment comes when the mind makes an unexpected or previously unnoticed connection between two somethings. It's kind of like an accident you've been designed to make." I love this idea that all of one's experiences conspire to put the creative mind in the position to make the right connections - or, in the case of "My Manny's Gone Now," maybe it's the wrong connections.

By the way, one reason my mind has been thinking about creativity in this way is that the experience of making Wordles had already fired up an interest in random connections. (Thus, we find a connection between two different sets of posts which each have to do with connections!) The Wordle engine is a very cool little app that is quite creatively programmed to be both creative and somewhat random- but the quality of the results still depends to some degree on the inputted text and on the inputter's ability to make good decisions about font, color, spacing, etc. Although there's really no limit to what sort of text can be used, it's become clear that some of the most effective ones are the ones that lend themselves to interesting coincidental connections.

So it is that my favorite result happened by inputting the complete text of Samuel Beckett's Endgame. Because this play uses language in such a minimalist way and focuses on the simplest acts (such as walking to a window) by avoiding having much of anything actually happen, a semi-random Wordle can do an effective job of summarizing the feel of the play. I don't mean that just in a "this play's so stupid, it means the same thing if the words are scrambled" way; it's just that the experience of a Beckett play is a bit like experiencing a Wordle: one is compelled to make unexpected connections between seemingly random and banal coincidences.

If you look closely at the Endgame Wordle, you'll find the following little themes pop out: "feel nothing," "never gets," "can time leave," "God halts," "dead face," "story going," "Narrative brief," etc. None of these word groupings were intended (unless the Wordle engine is cleverer than I though), and, to add a layer of aesthetic intrigue, it's the very fact that they happened accidentally that makes them interesting. The point is, most of those little mini-phrases could be considered themes of the play, and they turn out to be available to us just by throwing the most-used words around.

I've found this doesn't work as well with more traditionally literate texts. I inputted the entire text of A Room With a View, which is one of my favorite novels, and then spent some time trying to make something of those words. Here's the best result I came up with, but it's not nearly as telling as the Endgame one, because Forster's prose is so beautifully chiseled that we seem to lose everything when the words are just words. It's true that I chose to leave the characters names in here, but without them, I found the results even less compelling. At least this gives a nice visualization of all the characters spinning around Lucy Honeychurch's life, and yes, I did keep hitting the "re-layout" key until I got a fairly satisfying little solar system of names.

There are many internet memes that take advantage of the "power of random." There's the one where you pick a book, turn to page 123 and write down the fifth sentence, or whatever. There's the somewhat more interesting ones where random images and texts are combined to produce record cover art and the like. In all cases, the point is that our minds do their best to make sense of just about anything if we're cued to believe a connection is there. Random input can quickly be reinterpreted as intentional and meaningful. After all, what's more random than a baseball fan expressing his grief at losing a favorite player by reworking an opera aria?

By the way, there are many effective Wordles that are less about coincidental connections than they are about showing underlying structural words (which, I suppose, is the basic point of Wordle.) I continue to find Barack Obama's rhetoric to be more tiresome than inspiring, but I'll admit that his "Yes We Can" speech makes a fine Wordle (this one's not my work). A few other Wordle creations of mine that take advantage of important recurring themes: The Cat in the Hat, Madeline, The Complete Suzuki Violin Repertoire.

P.S. By the way, I've used the phrase "By the way" to begin three paragraphs in this post. Good thing there's no Phrasle app to expose me.

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