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One Thousand Buterflies

Lampblack, bone black, ivory black, vine black, orpiment, yellow, red and brown ochres, lapis lazuli, white lead, cinnabar, red lead, purple lake, made with Tyrian purple and green lake, are all pigments that were known and widely used by ancient painters of Greece. In their search for reproducing nature with as much likeness as possible, Greek painters had had to familiarize themselves with stones, grinding, mining, and dyeing, showing already at that time the complex interplay between art and science in general, and painting and chemistry in particular.

Apollodorius, one of the first Athenian painters, considered Zeuxis to be the greatest of all. Parrhasius disagreed, and challenged Zeuxis to a duel with paint brush. Zeuxis brought a painting representing grapes, of such likeness to real grapes that birds tried to eat them. Parrhasius, unphased brought a curtain. Zeuxis, thinking his opponent was trying to hide his painting, rose to pull the curtain, only to realize the painting was the curtain.

Albert Einstein said that "the most incomprehensible thing about the universe, is that it is comprehensible." Likewise, it is nothing short of a miracle that men, who came hundreds of millions of years after the Earth, can imitate it. Paintings, with their cotton-based stretched canvas, mounted on cedar wood frames, and their mineral-based pigments applied with a brush made of sable marten hair, and absorbing every component of sun light except the remaining hue, are a complex and rich world within the world, deeply rooted in both nature and art.

I thought for a long time about how it was possible for man to copy nature, until I realized that it was not nature that was thus being reproduced, it was our visual impression of nature, as recorded by our eyes and interpreted by our brain. Images can be imitated, and give us the same impression as an actual landscape, or at least almost.

Sounds, too, can be copied, and this virtue is at the heart of music mixing and mastering. When I play music on my computer, I hear music made with sounds that are synthesized by a synthesizer. That machine receives orders such as play an A for 0.2 seconds at the same time as a C for 0.3 seconds. These are not pure A and C, for they belong to, say a violin and a piano. Except, there are no violin nor piano inside my computer. The A played by a violin, means a complex series of sounds involving A and many more frequencies, reproducing the sound of the bow attacking the string, the body of the violin resonating, and the decay of the sound. Likewise for piano. These frequencies, are what the computer plays.

There is no need for a real piano to be present, for we never hear a piano. All we hear are the vibrations of the air, set in motion by the piano. We could, in principle, use buterflies to reproduce the sound of a piano. One thousand buterflies flapping their wings in the precise manner that the piano string vibrates after it has been hit by a padded wood hammer, could, in theory, imitate Keith Jarrett playing the Koln Concert. Training buterflies to imitate a piano would require much time, and would be quite expensive, especially if we have to pay the buterflies union scale, but it could be done.

That is an example of an analog piano. A digital piano sees things differently. All it "knows", are pure sounds, i.e. sounds with constant frequency. We know since Joseph Fourier, my hometown predecessor, that any complex sound can be copied with as many pure sounds as it takes. That is the attack of the hammer on the strings, the resonance of the frame, the reverberation off the walls of the concert hall, all that can be reproduced with simple pure vibrations.

Other things can be done, such as adding a saxophone part to a piece after the recording. That process is called dubbing. It uses our brain's innate ability to reconstruct the source of music, based upon hearing it, and involves determining the spatial disposition of instruments based on comparing the times of arrival of the sound of each instrument.

You can thus insert a saxophone recorded in LA to the right of a piano recorded in Nashville and have both of them play in Carnegie Hall, without the musicians ever being in the same room at the same time.

This ability that the mind has, to perceive space through sound, always amazes me. How our ears and mind conspire to create a worldview, using nothing but air, and allow for the communication of a truth carried by buterflies from one human being to another, is the mystery of music.

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...or carried by the sound

...or carried by the sound of wind in the trees on a July day when i have the ocean in my garden and all i see is a swirl of surf and tangled branches. m