Friday, May 25, 2012

The Mister and Mockingbirds

Watch and listen to The Mister and Mockingbirds by David Ocker
282 seconds - © 2012 by David Ocker

It was May 16, 2012, a Wednesday.  The sun was shining directly into our backyard.  That's unusual except at this time of year as the sun journeys north to the spot at which it celebrates the solstice.  The time was about 6:45 p.m.  The sun was low on the horizon, moving down in the west to where, each evening, it celebrates another successful day.  The sun, I guess, likes to party.  And why not?

Leslie was puttering in her "victory" garden (tomatos and strawberries are very big this year) with Chowderhead following on her heels hoping she'll throw the ball or rooting in the bushes hoping to catch a small furry creature or protecting us by barking at other dogs as they walk their owners on the other side of the fence, out on the street.

I sat quietly on the patio watching the two of them.  There was a slight breeze.  Somewhere not far off and a little farther than that and again farther yet, a sequence of mockingbirds sang.  Maybe they were trying to identify the limits of their individual tree domains.  Or maybe that's something mockingbirds just do.

At one point, because she had decided that her hanging ferns needed water, Leslie turned on the misters.

Little hoses run under the patio roof feeding water to nozzles.  These emit sprays of small droplets. More expensive misting systems produce super small droplets and might be used, say, to cool diners on fancy patios at expensive restaurants during hot weather.  You can feel those drops but they're hard to see.  Neither our patio nor our misters could be called fancy.  The misters spray larger droplets and are intended to water the plants.  Even so, if one sits the right distance from them, the spray can be very pleasant - a cooling showerette during any heatwave.

As it turned out, I was in just the right spot not only to enjoy the refreshing mist but to watch the sunlight reflect off each little drop as it fell.  And there were a lot of drops.  During their short lifespans these drops obey twin masters: gravitational attraction and wind currents.   Maybe other masters as well, but my grasp of physics is weak.  Each drop takes a slightly different course to its ultimate destination.  As they fall they swirl.  And they're very good at swirling.

Lit perfectly by the setting sun, the drops followed the wind as they fell to earth, forming sheets and clouds and clusters and more complex shapes and sometimes even shapeless amorphous indescribable masses of moving airborne bits of water, like a thousand monochromatic fireworks all going off at once creating a torrent of cool wet sparks in constant flux.  Each one sang the sun's song as it rode the wind to its own landing point. (1)

I enjoyed watching this show.  It was a near perfect moment.  Simply enjoying it wasn't enough.  I was struck with the notion to capture it on video.

So I pulled the aging point'n'shoot from my pocket and possessively made a video.  I suppose I wanted to save the experience for later.  I concentrated on the cloud of droplets.  "This," I thought, "might be a good video for music." And then I added "David, please try to hold the camera steady."

I think the music I wrote takes more inspiration from the mockingbird song than from the clouds of mist.  That's okay.  There's more than enough complexity in the moving image to keep your eye distracted while your ear listens.  I tried to leave space in the music for the birdsong to come through.  By "space" of course I mean "time".  Or maybe "silence".  I've been writing a lot of silence lately.

I've been fascinated with the musical possibilities of mockingbird song for a long time.  I remember the first time I heard a mockingbird - it must have been 1975.  I had been sent home from CalArts for something called "summer vacation".  Before my long drive back to Iowa I was staying with two of my trumpet-playing buddies who were house sitting for their trumpet instructor in Hollywood.  I was amazed by a bird which sang all night, spinning out a musically interesting continuously changing vocal solo - a John Coltrane bird.  I figured it had been tricked into singing by the bright nighttime city lights, but apparently singing at night is something mockingbirds just do.

Anyway ... I've taken this combination of mockingbird song and clouds of water mist as the basis for a piece of music.  A commemoration of a simple moment in my life, unmemorable except for the fact that I enjoyed it.  Moreover, this is a good example of my desire to make art from the small things in life - the things that otherwise go unnoticed or get forgotten.  Other composers can write music about the meaning of life or great love or destiny or fate or death or whatever eternal cosmic verity they care to choose.  This piece, The Mister and Mockingbirds, is about where I was at on Wednesday May 16, 2012 at approximate 6:45 p.m. and what I did for about 5 minutes.  And that is quite enough for one piece of music.

While we're on the subject of video...

It seems that water and birds are favorite subjects for my videos.  The combination can most obviously be found in Water With Ducks and less obviously in Flap!

The Mister and Mockingbirds video benefits greatly from higher resolution.  But even the 480p version on YouTube still suffers from blocky compression artefacts.  It looks lots better streamed from my hard drive.  Sorry about that.  My grasp of video technology is weak.

And finally an announcement ... I've created a YouTube playlist devoted to my music videos.  It's called David Ocker Music Videos.  There are 19 of them which, according to YouTube, last a total of 54'54".  Almost an hour.  I described the playlist as containing...
Only those videos for which I have composed music, sorted (more or less) beginning with the most recent and ending with the most embarrassing.  My first attempt to put music to a moving image was "Birds Who Don't Know The Words" - in 2007.

I think the species of the mockingbird under discussion here is mimus polyglottos.  A discussion of their vocal habits is here.

The title The Mister and Mockingbirds might remind you of this, but I suggest you not seek out more similarities because there aren't any.

(1) I worked hard to write this paragraph without using the phrase "danced on the wind".  You're welcome.

Mocking Mist Tags: . . . . . . . . .


synthetic said...

Great piece and I loved the story behind it.

ericnp said...

Ah, Mimus polyglottos, the bird I love to hate. Their song can be really pretty, often intriguing but the thing is they just don't ever shut up. They are also very territorial and rather rude about it.

What I found interesting in the read and nicely written by the way, was this, "I think the music I wrote takes more inspiration from the mockingbird song than from the clouds of mist." I had watched and listened to the video twice before reading your commentary and somewhere during the 2nd viewing I thought the opposite. It is, in fact, what made me go read the story. It doesn't mean anything, I'm simply pointing it out. I tend to make visual connections with music all the time if they're supplied and frequently even if they are not.

The thing about the artifacts in the video. Fine detail aliasing is going to be a problem with any camera and then the problem will be further exacerbated by transcoding whatever CODEC was native to the camera and then YouTube transcoding it again. Anyway, tiny little misty dancing dots are hard to convey over the medium. You did a good job though it was very entertaining and a really splendid read.

David Ocker said...

Thanks for the nice comments guys.

Eric, as I wrote the music I simply gave up on trying to coordinate it in any way with the movements of the drops. It seemed like too much work to make the music ebb and flow to match the billowing of the water. I did think about the bird sounds a lot. If you experienced the opposite then I guess that proves just how illusive or imaginary the meaning of music really is.

I also neglected to mention that I sharpened the video - it doubled the size of the file but it made lots more drops visible. Another moral, if YouTube asks if you want your video stabilized, say NO.