Least Concern

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List is a database of endangered species. IUCN evaluators analyze the population and habitat needs of species and then rank their risk of extinction on a seven-point scale.

In 2008, the IUCN conducted an assessment of Homo sapiens. They concluded that humans’ risk of extinction is “least concern.”

Humans have the widest distribution of any terrestrial mammal species, inhabiting every continent on earth (although there are no permanent settlements on Antarctica). A small group of humans has been introduced to space, where they inhabit the International Space Station.

At the very least, humans help define the end opposite “extinct” on the IUCN’s scale. But a small group of scientists thinks otherwise. They argue that the combination of technological innovation and environmental exploitation that has gotten humans this far will ultimately be our downfall.

Thanks to the ravages of climate change and wildlife destruction, Frank Fenner says, humans are up next to face a severe loss of habitat and resources. It’s already clear that anthropogenic climate change endangers countless species. Fenner's camp simply adds that humans are no exception. We'll run out of fuel and arable land eventually, and “we’ll undergo the same fate as the people on Easter Island.”

Reading the entries in the IUCN Red List suggests human dominance over wildlife as a matter of course. Just see the entry on the red panda: "Red Pandas are starting to enter the pet trade, perhaps partly in response to the increasing number of ‘cute’ images on social media." It seems like nothing will stop us. But geo-microbiologist Katrina Edwards says that of the current period of ecological unrest, “The Earth could care less. We will be recorded as a minor perturbation in the Earth system. The Earth will go on. The question is: Will we?”

The basic problem is overpopulation. "As the population keeps growing to seven, eight or nine billion, there will be a lot more wars over food," says Fenner.

The idea is not a new one. Thomas Malthus’s landmark Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) is the defining text in this area. Malthus said that growth in the food supply can’t keep pace with population growth:

Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will shew the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second.

Malthus championed chastity and delayed marriage as a kind of proto-eugenics. He thought the imminence of human extinction was a self-evident mathematical fact. His snark is tempered by the fact that we’re still here. Thanks to technological innovations and land conversion, humans have managed not to starve yet. But could that be what’s next?

Decompositional Music

Dehydrated and tired, I made a musical discovery in the practice room today. I was playing the standard "You Must Believe in Spring," a contrapuntal arrangement I've been working out, when I started to doze off. I found the texture reduce itself to three, then two voices, until I was barely awake, playing only a single melody that tracing the harmony and thematic motives. It was liminal music: the notes gradually spread further and further apart in time, until finally—nothing.

I fell asleep.

In free jazz—totally unconstrained improv—we start with chaos and try to find our way towards a group coherence, although we may stop shy of metrical form or harmony. On the personal level, the game is listening, and its object is for each musician to be so attuned to what the others are playing that they start to anticipate what they will play before they play it. On the collective level, the goal is to "make music," or arrive at a product that sounds intellectually organized.

It's an end-oriented process. A free jazz session, in this model, begins with the assumption that the music will arrive at a sort of form, and then it goes there. And I think that this kind of free jazz is "too easy."

I don't mean that it's easy to play, which it obviously is not. It takes a high degree of technical fluency, musical sensitivity, and intuition to perform a successful free jazz piece. I mean that this mode of playing free is too conceptually simple for a music that is so advanced in other areas. Starting from musical chaos and then nudging it into musical coherence meshes too well with the way the brain naturally operates. We already know that our brains are pattern-finding machines. Why do we need music to prove it?

For some, watching free jazz is like watching someone fill in a sudoku puzzle. It's clear to them that there is a tremendous amount of intellectual activity going on, and it is satisfying to see all the parts line up, but the wow factor disappears as soon as they realize that the performer is just following a certain procedure. Though the outcome (numbers in squares, notes in space) may vary, the method is the same. The listener is easily drawn away, either by music that follows a more sophisticated compositional procedure (occasionally), or by music that doesn't have any pretenses about its simplicity (more often).

I am not that easily-bored listener. I love listening to even the sort of free jazz that people call repetitive. But I cannot say for sure whether or not my enjoyment of it is merely intellectual, connected to my being a student of jazz—the same way a chess fiend can truly love reading a move book recounting a match between two masters, while the rest of us just want to know who won.

What both groups have in common, though, is a desire to have something new to sink their teeth into.

My new experiment is to play a free jazz that actively tries to break down pattern. It takes reified musical structures and harmonic and melodic concepts and lets them disentegrate—into silence, or some pre-formal essence. I think I succeeded at this by accident with "You Must Believe in Spring"—beginning with little, and then subtracting.

I want to play that kind of music with my eyes (literally) open.

On the Occasion of My Baptism

I am technically dead now—
dead in order to be reborn on Sunday, November 13,
a scheduled birth, my autogenous due date,
when I will be delivered.