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Quote of the Week: Stephenson’s Anathem

What do Brian Eno’s 2003 album January 07003 and Neal Stephenson‘s new novel, Anathem, have in common? They’re both inspired by the Clock of the Long Now. The device, which is billed as “the world’s slowest computer,” was initially envisioned by Danny Hillis as the Millennium Clock, a device that takes us out of the instant and into the depths of time. For perspective, it is a clock that ticks once a year, and whose cuckoo, as Hillis put it, comes out once every 1,000 (more info at longnow.org/projects/clock). The album by Eno, who gave the clock its name and who is on the board of its foundation, was composed of bell tones synthesized from the device. In Anathem, Stephenson imagines a world vaguely like ours, but one in which the mythic clock, and others like it, have provided a sense of scientific-ecclesiastic routine amid the chaos of many millennia. The book is narrated by a young servant of the clock, named Erasmas, who early in the story (on page 22 of the hardcover edition) recounts part of the process of maintaining one of these massive yet prickly clock devices:

Our combined strength could not overcome the static friction of all the bearings and gears between us and the sprocket hundreds of feet above from which the chain and weigh depended. Once it became unstuck we would be strong enough to keep it going, but getting it unstuck required a mighty thrust (supposing we wanted to use brute force) or, if we chose to be clever, a tiny shake: a subtle vibration. Different praxics might solve this problem in different wqays. At Saunt Edhar, we did it with our voices.
Note the emphasis on voices. Like Eno, Stephenson hears music in the Clock of the Long Now, which is why the very title of the book turns out to be a song itself, one of “mourning and farewell,” as Stephenson puts it a little later in the novel (one page 100). An album of music inspired by the mathematic systems of Anathem, titled, Iolet: Music from the World of Anathem, is due for release by David Stutz (more info at Stutz’s website, synthesist.net). “Iolet” is appaently the word for music in Stephenson’s world.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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