Thursday, August 11, 2016

Owl hoots, the clave, and narrative patterns

I was having a sleepless night and tried to turn it to good use thinking about how to implement the "moving topic" in Narwhal. I had three good ideas, which I will write more about later. The basic idea of the "moving topic" is that you move through the words of a sentence with a collection of hypothetical meanings that gets added to and narrowed down as you go.

Then there is the clave (or "stick") which Glenway Fripp has been telling me about. Apparently it serves as a fixed rhythmic pattern - whether or not you hear it - and this fixed pattern replaces the regular "beat" of European music, in all Latin American music. This idea of an irregular rhythm being the basis for variation (of the overlayed melody, not the clave "beat") has been in my mind recently - since I started hearing about it in July.

And then around 4:30 AM a Great Horned Owl started hooting. It has a three-note rhythm at the beginning, followed by a more complex rhythm sequence of hoots. The latter sequence of hoots (as I listened carefully to them) were varying in 'attack'/ 'duration'/ 'intensity'/ 'inflection', and in enough different ways that I was not sure if the owl was repeating itself. A casual listener would conclude the song was the same each time with only subtle [and presumably meaningless] differences in vocalization of each hoot.

I bet that is not right. I bet that three-note prelude allows sync'ing to it and guarantees the rhythm expectation (of any listener) for the more variable part of the pattern to follow. I also bet that if you recorded the same owl hoot over and over, you would see a very deterministic variation in the second sequence of notes. As a computer programmer, I know how much information can be encoded in a binary sequence. And with the clave-like sequence of owl hoots, given the idea of an evolving narrative pattern, it totally makes sense that the hoot variations would be within a fixed rhythmic sequence, but with more and more inflection variation towards the end of the sequence.

There is absolutely no mathematical basis for the assumption that all owl hoot sequences are the same, or that their songs are aesthetic but without content. There is plenty of room in that data for subtle meanings. In fact there is plenty of room for a collection of hypothetical narratives to be narrowed down to a final confirmed meaning.
Update: The point is that the theory that birds sing for aesthetic reasons and to show off - but not to communicate, then that theory has to explain a change in variability part way through the song. I don't see how it can.

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