31 December 2008

31 December 2008: winter wonderland

Some thoughts on precipitation:

Swimming in the rain is an amazing experience. Late-summer rains, the kind that close the beach, bring a silvery gray sheen to the horizon, as a background drape of light velvet, or chiffon. The water roils and bubbles, flat and viscous, metallic and dolphin-grey. In the altered, dull light, objects in the water seem perfectly outlined against the sky and sea, as paper cutouts on a single backing. A universe of no-glare, this strange oceanscape seems endless as one swims through it, becoming riddled with a driving rain and fog that obscures the shore and jetties. We swim in tight packs, bright caps cutting through the silver, and shout to keep track of one another. Sound seems to travel as if within a vaulted chamber, flat and hollow as a long-lost mountain cry.

But a swim in a snowstorm verges on surreal, as if the world might whirl into a snowdrift and disappear. Stripping on the beach feels like total madness. The ocean, thankfully, is more welcoming than the air. The snow and sand mix at the waterline, lace lines of snow flitting across the icy sand vacated by hissing waves. Snowflakes cover the water before the sandy scene. Like a sandstorm executed in snow, the whirling-white beach glitters, swirls and dips as the wind whips your ears. A deserted beach makes a true snowstorm. Being there feels like being in a blizzard at the end of the earth. The water is the warmest place to be, but the hands freeze into hard blocks and rectangles on contact with the air. The birds float serenely at the shoreline, or huddle flocked on the sand.

Spending ten minutes in this alternate world, green and brown water and Siberian chill, is but a tease, but we get out after a brief there-and-back to a pre-determined point along the shore. It's wiser, in this weather, to avoid frostbite.

The wind barely allows me to get my towel around my waist before I lose feeling in my hands, which feel brittle and prickly. I pull on my boots over metallic-feeling feet and throw my coat over my shoulders. Cristian manages to work his hands into the pockets of his parka, and we are walking within 15 seconds. I don't recall looking at anything on the walk back but my hands, which I cannot get into my pockets or my cuffs. I cross my arms against the storm.

When our hands have warmed up, we don't even shiver. What have we done to our bodies? This icy dip-and-sprint, potentially fatal for most, is a nice little bath for Cristian and me. Last weekend, the four of us (plus one on Sunday) stayed in for twenty minutes, shivering afterwards for real for the first time this year. But a short jaunt like this-- almost pointless in the below-zero windchill-- barely affects us. Somehow, we've acclimated our bodies to the cold. It fascinates me that these changes have lasted from last winter until now, that my body not only remembers how to behave in the cold, but seems to have evolved to better withstand it.

Last winter, the vagus nerve at the back of my neck would swell and burn, or so it felt, when I began to swim. This felt like an excruciating headache until I focused on my swimming, a small explosion in my spine, neck and sinuses. This year, it reacts with mild pleasure at the shock of the cold. The vagus nerve controls the communications between the brain stem and the chest organs; stimulation is said to be a balm for seizures, anxiety, dementia and other disorders. Could this explain our winter madness? What does it mean to reach another level? Cristian wonders whether our chests and heads will ever experience the pain we feel in our fingers and toes as they warm up. It's a good question. How much can our bodies endure, and will there always be pain to warn us that they are in danger? Or will we keep adapting and thriving in the cold until we become creatures of the winter? Do our bodies have the memory to change with the seasons?

Introducing the Liminophone:

soulignons l’existence du liminophone. C’est un appareil qui permet de voir comment l’eau monte et surtout de savoir s’il faut donner l’alerte ou pas.

The Liminophone is an instrument that synchs with coastal data from the buoys around urban waterfronts, generating algorithmic real-time compositions.

Each buoy becomes a polyphonic instrument, a character that changes with very subtle fluctuations every six minutes.

Everything is in real time.

Limen, the greek for ‘harbor’, describes the sheltering place of an indented shoreline; the commerce of a Thessalian marketplace; the liminal space of a controlled environment in which our understanding of existence is in transition. Forms of transit could be abstract—commerce and commodity-trade, the beginning of alienation and individualism—or actual, in travel between points.

Phone, the greek for ‘cry’, or a human sound, recognizes that this particular sonification of oceanographic data is not a completely mathematical expression of wave data. It is, rather, an attempt to ‘hook up’ the ocean data, in real-time, to a sound system, in order to create a performance environment that will allow the waters to participate with the musicians in a real-time composition.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Coastal Ocean Observing and Prediction Station (CO-OPS) buoys are an in-water network of tidal-data gathering stations. They register nine categories of data every six minutes: predicted and observed water levels, and the resulting difference; water temperature; wind speed, gust and direction; air temperature; and barometric pressure. These data provide a picture of ocean conditions at each location. By translating this environment into musical events, the Liminophone creates a performance space that simulates human experience of the ocean, factoring in seasonal changes-- the ocean is most wild and active in its cold period from November to April, when few people are there to experience these extremes.

The ocean, ever-changing, ever-moving, unconquerable and unpredictable, is a great constant in human history. Each time we put a toe in the surf, we touch Odysseus’ sea, drops of Heraclitus’ river, Melville’s ocean. The same water that washes our shores eventually reaches all points, earthbound and atmospheric. The ocean is one tangible connection to our planet's long-suffering existence. The sets of information we have to inform our visits to this ever-present wilderness have grown, yet to be immersed in the great waters of our planet is to put oneself into the hands of an unknown entity whose intangible depths, though combed and spelunked over many millennia, can never be completely known. The infinity of space, the relativity of time, and the unsustainability of life—the challenges of this universe and perhaps others—can be faced here, on this planet, albeit in small scale, in recognizing the unfathomability of the sea.

As a swimmer, I am taking steps to evolve toward thriving in bodies of water over long periods of time. In trying to relate to the creatures of the sea, adapting to their watery environs, training my body to move in an aquasphere for as long as possible, I strive to conquer varying distances, temperatures, and the wiles of tides and currents.

As a winter swimmer, I'm fascinated by the experience of the cold ocean, the changes it has caused in my body, and the incredible underwater visibility that only occurs, on these Atlantic beaches, in the depth of winter. The ocean has seasons as distinct as our blossoms of spring and colored leaves of autumn. The incredible variety of life we encounter close to shore from spring through January is just the meniscus of a massively complex ecosystem. The slightest variations in weather either within or without the ocean create a completely different underwater environment.

A body of water is just that-- a living, changing organism of great complexity, strength and also fragility.

I swim to be in the wilderness, miles from civilization. And I swim in the City, because the wilderness comes even to the threshold of our doors.

Over the past year, I’ve grown accustomed to checking in with the two buoys nearest to my training-grounds, either to ease my concerns before swimming, or afterward, to see just what I’ve accomplished, especially in the dead of winter. Comparing the experience of sensation with scientific data teaches me what, if anything, I might expect each time I dive in. Some things, on the other hand, can never be explained or predicted—like the terrible cold of slick, low-salt ocean, or the strange underwater atmospheres I experience, on a number of occasions, or the strange ways in which the taste of the water shifts, or the prickly feeling of unseen danger one has just before swimming through a large swath of invertebrates. All living things in the water- perhaps, even, the water itself- seem to give off a vibration that travels, like sound, over great distances underwater.

The Liminophone is my attempt to engage the ocean on dry land, in a language that I grapple with daily in my endeavor to describe what I can’t sketch out with words. It is also my greatest hope that in duets with the singing harbor, urban musicians and audiences will have an intimate encounter not just with the nearest body of water, but with the wild, the unknown, and the great certainty of change.

the liminophone is under development, in collaboration with guitarist-composer-programmer Nick Didkovsky (www.punosmusic.com, www.doctornerve.org)