A Test Case for Glass Bead Game Design

This piece offers Glass Bead Game designers a specific move, possible in some but perhaps not all variants on Glass Bead Game design, and invites them to comment on how such a move would be handled -- if at all -- in their own games. In this way, the move in question can perhaps function as a test case by means of which different approaches to GBG design can be clarified and perhaps classified.

The move in question has to do with the roots of New Orleans jazz in voodoo trance, and owes its existence to Michael Ventura's penetrating writing on this topic. This piece originally appeared as two concurrent posts on the Magister-L mailing list. A brief note at the end addresses the fascinating topic of creative misreading, and clarifies where Ventura's thinking ends and my own perhaps begins.

Charles Cameron


I: Of Games and Moves

I have come to realize that the most important thing [in my mind] about my own games is that they center around certain kinds of moves that already interested me before I started designing games as such.

I think I was from the beginning more interested in these moves than in faithfulness to Hesse's "evolved" Game as described in Magister Ludi, and that my games are perhaps closer to the game he played in his own mind while burning leaves, and described in his poem Hours in the Garden -- though much of my understanding about the power, structural integrity, and clarity which is possible in a game derives from the book itself.

Hesse describes sifting a mixture of the ashes from previous fires and old, moist soil in a sieve, until a small cone of the mixture forms beneath it, "a cone of finest, ashen earth". He then "falls into the rhythm" of his sifting, and the rhythm reminds him of a melody: he hums along, and suddenly it strikes him that it is an Mozart oboe quartet...

Within me, my thoughts begin to play
A game, an exercise I have practiced for many years.
It is called the Glass Bead Game, a charming invention
Whose framework is music, whose basis is meditation.
Joseph Knecht is the Master to whom I owe my knowledge
Of this lovely fantasia. In happy times it's a game
That delights me; in troubled times it is consolation,
Helping me reflect; here, by the fire, by the sieve I often
Play the Glass Bead Game, though not nearly as well as Knecht.
While the cone towers up and the earth-meal runs out of the sieve,
And, as soon as required, my right hand mechanically
Tends the smoking stack or again fills the sieve with fresh earth,
While from the stable the tall flower-suns hold me in their gaze,
And behind the tangle of grapevines the distance smells noon-blue,
I hear music and see men of the past and the future.
Wise men and poets and scholars and artists, all of one mind,
Building the hundred-gated cathedral of the spirit -- I
Will describe this at some later time, its day has not yet come.
But it will come, sooner or later, or may never come.
Whenever I need consoling, Joseph Knecht's amiable,
Compelling game comes to me, that old man who journeyed
To the East, transported through ages and numbers to his divine
Brothers, whose harmonious chorus also takes in my own voice.

Hesse doesn't describe the moves in this game he played while sifting ashen earth, but they must have been moves which he could hold in his mind's eye -- "natural language" moves, then, for I doubt that he envisioned them in hieroglyphs, though of course they may have been more visual or aural than verbal...

I really don't intend to slight my own games in saying all this, just to suggest that they fall somewhere in a continuum from this game of Hesse's to the full blown Castalian game, and perhaps closer to this end than that. I have, for instance, made no effort in devising them to conceive of or reproduce the analytical language of the Castalian game... although I have attempted to ensure that my games would permit the kinds of subject matter in moves which I understand the Castalian games were all about:

A Game, for example, might start from a given astronomical configuration, or from the actual theme of a Bach fugue, or from a sentence out of Leibniz or the Upanishads, and from this theme, depending on the intentions and talents of the player, it could either further explore and elaborate the initial motif or else enrich its expressiveness by allusions to kindred concepts. Beginners learned how to establish parallels, by means of the Game's symbols, between a piece of classical music and the formula for some law of nature. Experts and Masters of the Game freely wove the initial theme into unlimited combinations.

*

Thinking along these lines, I have come up with a question which I believe would help clarify, at least for myself, the range along that continuum of the games which we are working on. Essentially, my question proposes a specific move which is possible in one of my own games, and asks whether that move would be possible in the games devised by my colleagues in the enterprise of Glass Bead Game design.

I suspect that in some of the games we are already playing or devising, it would be possible with only minor adjustment; that in others something very like it would be possible; and that yet other approaches might require a very different kind of move -- and I'd like to propose this move as a kind of test case, and see what you think.

 

II: The Move Itself

Michael Ventura has a very interesting observation in the wonderful essay "Hear that Long Snake Moan" which can be found in his book, Shadow Dancing in the USA.

His insight is based on the idea that Dixieland jazz emerges from Voodoo seances in New Orleans: at a time when voodoo was strongly prohibited, the drums of the sacred dance continued to beat as the drums of the secular -- and that when the drumming reached such a pitch that in voodoo one of the dancers would become possessed by a loa, in jazz a soloist would take flight.

In Ventura's view, the relationship between ensemble dancing and the emergence of individual trance in voodoo, and ensemble playing and the emergence of the solo in jazz is not merely a fortuitous and close parallelism, but the direct translation of the moment of ecstatic breakthrough from one medium to the other.

I am not concerned with the question of whether Ventura is right or wrong about this, only with the beauty and symmetry of the idea.

I feel that this is in some sense an informal game move on Ventura's part, the sort of sensing of a parallelism between two cultural phenomena which in my view interested Hesse.

*

I would like to propose this insight as a sort of test case for our various game approaches, so that I could ask you these questions:

In asking these questions, I don't wish to imply in any way that games which can include this move are superior or inferior in kind to those which cannot: my purpose is simply to clarify what kinds of move are possible in each of our games -- or would be possible in each of our approaches.

*

For instance, this move could be made in a WaterBird game by assigning emergence of trance in a voodoo seance in one position and emergence of the solo in a jazz session in an adjacent position, and it would be notated with a prose comment elaborating Ventura's point, possibly with quotations from his brilliant essay.

I imagine that "the same" move could be made in one of Terence MacNamee's linguistic games by using emergence of trance in a voodoo seance and emergence of the solo in a jazz session as two tropes on a more general sentence such as emergence of an ecstatic individual flight from within a group event.

I imagine that "the same" move could be made in one of Ron Hale-Evans' Kennings games, and that it might for instance, be formulated in the kenning:

voodoo : trance :: jazz : solo

And I imagine that "same move" could also be made in Dunbar Aitken's Glass Plate Game: that if the conversation had somehow broached the topic of voodoo, a player might lay down a card which stood for breakthrough from everyday life to ecstasy, and begin talking about jazz, noting the parallelism with voodoo trance which Ventura asserts.

*

The fact that these four styles of game can all "contain" this move (assuming that I understand the matter aright -- and I am open to correction) seems to be to suggest a strong level of kinship between them.

I am far from thinking that this is the "only" -- or the "best" -- question of this sort which might be asked with a view to exploring the kinships and relations between our various games, and would also welcome discussion of the question itself, or the suggestion of other questions which might bring us close to the heart of our similarities and differences...

If I have failed to do justice to Ventura's elegant and passionate article in thus simplifying it, I apologize, and would in any case invite you all to read the original...

*

Friends and Players, I have placed my question before you, elaborated a little for clarity sake. I trust that you will not find this question too much of an imposition, and would very much appreciate the opportunity to learn from your responses.

-- Charles Cameron


Note: Creative Misreading & Ventura's Article

[written and posted a day or two after the above]

I've just done a quick re-read of Ventura's article, and find somewhat to my chagrin that I may have read a little more into it than was actually there...

I feel a little timid about admitting this, but I've just "sort of reread" Ventura's essay -- and now I'm not sure whether the "insight" is actually present there or not. It's still a wonderful piece of writing, of music history, of comment on the Cartesian mind/body split and voodoo and jazz and rock'n'roll, and he certainly documents the passage from voodoo into jazz into rock, but the precise relation I set down and which Mark has formulated in the manner of his game may be something I felt emerged from Ventura's writing, rather than something I found in it full formed. I probably need to read it again very carefully to know how much is Ventura and how much is Charles.

Curious business, this of reading. There's a book by Edith Cobb which I was introduced to by Paul Shepard when we co-taught a seminar of some kind, and I could swear he said or I read in it that six to seven year olds voyage outwards from a safe area (roughly the home and yard) into an unknown (roughly the neighborhood), and that they build a map of this environment which contains not only the paths taken and the spots visited but also a series of associated emotions and / or processes -- the difficult but manageable with concentration passage, the place and moment of fear and seeming impossibility, the place and moment of breakthrough and relief, and so forth -- and that when a "genius" is questioned in later life about the creative process, he or she often, or sometimes, or on occasion, reveals that he or she still maps the difficult passages, moments of impossibility and breakthroughs of adult life onto that same terrain, using it as a visual topography of mental process in a manner which strikes me now, writing this, as analogous to the Art of Memory...

The only problem is that, again, I can't find this in the book...

If true, of course, it may have implications concerning the impact of our constantly tearing down and rebuilding neighborhoods, or even of moving house at this particular point in child development: -- above and beyond the analogical beauty of the idea itself. But am I finding analogues even where they don't exist -- or perhaps sensing them hidden in texts which imply but don't assert them? I'm not sure. But a grim sort of honesty compels me to admit to you all that the Ventura Insight may be a "reading" of this sort...

*

There was a section of road in the tranquil English village where I passed those years where the sidewalk ("pavement" for the English reader) ended, and a small embankment, maybe two foot high, took its place for fifty feet or so. You couldn't walk along the top of the embankment, but there was a small trail worn into the side of it, about half way up, which was just about navigable with careful balance and a certain amount of forward momentum by a six year old... I remember very little else of those times, but I *do* remember that.

I am not asking you to infer genius on my part, and as far as I know that path plays no role in my thought process today, apart from offering me a vivid glimpse of my own childhood terrain... <grin> call that one "Memory Lane"...

*

Everyone there at the time said that the first man to play what came to be called "jazz" was the cornet player Buddy Bolden, sometime in the early 1890s. And what he usually played was the blues.

Here was the African metaphysic distilled by American curcumstances into an extraordinarily supple form and played on European instruments with African simultaneity in an American-marching-band lineup. Here was the fruit of the hundred years' cohesion of New Orleans black culture -- the sense of shared heritage, the sense of identity, fostered and exemplified by Marie Laveau. Here was a metaphysics finding, for the first time, an authentically American voice. What had been played at Congo Square was African music. What was played by Sousa and the popular songsters of the time was still a music derivative of Europe -- especially of English music halls and Scotch-Irish airs. What Buddy Bolden started to play was American music. Within thirty years its impact would make an American tune instantly distinguishable from a European tune, no matter how strait-laced the music. And it would be a music, in all its forms, that would reject Puritan America. Even at its mildest it would have a beat, and in that beat would be everything that denied the split between the mind and the body.

In rural blues, all of this had been and would be implicit in the tense containment of the form. In Buddy Bolden's music, the implicit would instantly become explicit.

Buddy Bolden. "On those old, slow blues," trombonist Bill Matthews remembered, "that boy could make the women jump out the window. On those old slow, low-down blues, he had a moan in his cornet that went all through you, just like you were in church or something." Words are as close as we'll get to how Buddy Bolden sounded -- no black jazz band recorded till 1920, and none recorded extensively till 1923; a precious quarter century lost -- but it's significant that people talking about this very secular music very often reach for sacred images. "Like you were in church or something."

"His playing had one indispensable feature, 'the trance.' He had the ability," wrote Harnett Kane in 1949 from descriptions of people who'd been there, "to immerse himself into the music until nothing mattered but himself and the cornet in fast communication."

That's Ventura, that's about as close as I can find: the hint that I seem to have transmuted into a clear parallel between trance and the solo... The continuity of trance between voodoo and jazz is there (and indeed Ventura traces it onward to Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra, and likewise the dances of Congo Square to Elvis and beyond): but the specific link with the *solo* seems to be my own.

None of this affects the question I was raising about a "test case" sample GBG move in more than the most peripheral of ways. As an example of a possible move, the voodoo / jazz move still stands, though we may need to call the proposed analogy Cameron's Hypothesis rather than Ventura's Insight -- and sadly, Cameron is a *whole lot less* informed about jazz and the like than Ventura...

-- Charles Cameron


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