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The Essay
Show #450
Too Cold for Music
David Gunn

Over the past week, Inuits and Eskimos by the umiakful have reportedly flocked to the motels and caravansaries of Miami Beach to escape the rigors of a particularly bitter Arctic cold snap that has overspread their homeland. Many have brought along indigenous musical instruments, partly to carry a piece of their culture with them but mostly to warm them up. For instruments--and music, too--can react adversely when exposed to cold temperatures ... to say nothing of the poor schlimazels who have to play them.

Take the common flute--or, as the Eskimos say, la cannelure commune. When operated in temperatures that the meteorological intelligentsia deem acceptable--typically from 284 degrees Kelvin to 540.6 degrees Rankine--its constituent parts--including lip plate, key cups, tone hole rings, headjoint assembly, flute tube and magnetic resonance spectrometer--should work as intended, paving the way for a satisfactory acoustic event. But expose these same synergistic bits to a thermometer stuck on the wrong side of Centigrade and the result can be ... nothing! Not only do all of the instrument's mortise and tenon joints seize up, but, when the temperature dips low enough, music simply ceases to exist. Sound waves, of which music--excluding covers by the band, Abba--is comprised, need an elastic medium, such as air or a lime Jello mold, in which to propagate. When the waves travel through this medium, they can compress or expand or alter their constitution in any number of ways, however no one without an oscillomometer is usually the wiser for it. But when they bump up against a fixed object, such as an embedded pear half, the result is a vibration that is perceptible by a hearing organ, namely an ear or a Wurlitzer. However, at temperatures low enough to prevent even the pluckiest Sears Die Hard battery from starting that Valiant, pear halves, even those in heavy syrup, readily disintegrate, leaving nothing for the sound waves to collide with, and no ensuing vibration to stimulate that hearing organ.

In 1969, NASA, the National Audible Sound Agency, shipped employees Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon to hunt for music. To nearly no one's surprise, they didn't find any. When they realized how cold the lunar surface was, the sound waves Aldrin had taken along refused to even get out of the landing module. Had not the 53½ pounds of moon rocks that Armstrong lugged back to Earth realized a huge profit on eBay, the whole mission would have been labeled a moondoogle. And now, a generation and a half later, the same agency has stuck a robot music sampler on Mars. You'd think that first affair would have taught them convincingly how sound waves behave in cold climes--or, rather, don't behave. But there's nothing that a well-funded research grant can't obfuscate. Hence we have a rover named "Spirit" loaded down with giga-zillions of dollars in sophisticated on-board recording equipment strolling across the always nippy Martian planetscape for three months searching for sound files. Even the normally optimistic Armstrong called the chance for success fat at best. Better the NASA engineers should have sent it to Miami Beach.

And then there are the poor schlimazels who try to produce music at mega-cold temperatures. Pity the citizens of Tuktoyaktuk, a small but musically vital community in northwesternmost Northwest Territories on the banks of the perpetually icy Beaufort Sea. Their culture is steeped in traditional Inuit operetta, or Angqaq una ayi-rri-ya. But because their performances often accompany thermometer readings close to cero absoluto, they often occur in silencio absoluto. Such was the case last week when Tuktoyaktukian drum dancers and throat singers assembled to perform Arviat Igloolik, a nightlong chronicle of mankind, from his birth in Savoonga, the huge, pear half-shaped cavern at the center of the earth, to his battle with and defeat of the mighty 88-fingered giant, Wurlitzer, to his umiaking up the River Ood-nan-tunk to the Outer World and, ultimately, Miami Beach. Unfortunately, a polar air mass had settled over the entire meteorological quadrant, rendering the drums mute and the throats mum. The performance went ahead as scheduled, and the ensuing quasi-pantomime was still warmly appreciated by the half dozen or so who were actually warm.

Thankfully, the Kalvomometer poked its snoot above the zero degree Fahrenheit mark today, allowing this 450th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar to regale our listening audients with real music, and not the silencio absoluto that filled the days leading up to it, and which is the adversative hallmark of Kalvos.