DARPA, Defense Sciences Office, is seeking individuals with advanced musical training and expertise with audio software environments for a wide-range of research initiatives tasked with the development of disruptive technologies for U.S. national security. Submit CV and statement of interest to DSO-SPW@darpa.mil.
Trawling through the opportunities page on the site of the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency as she sometimes did, X never expected a request like this to surface. What could this musical securitarian collusion involve, she wondered, as her interest received an exponential boost from the coincidence of the position’s requirements with her portfolio. A conservatory-trained violinist turned audial modulator, known on the streets of Chicago as dronegrrrl, she surfaced here and there, loaded with the inevitable dual Samsonites and a massive black camping-style backpack containing all manner of tweeters, preamps, computer speakers, adaptors, all couched against knotted nests of 22-gauge wire. She blended frequencies distilled from recorded soundscapes captured over months—time-lapse recording bringing out the city’s baseline frequencies through slow accumulation—with on-the-fly circuit-bending. Once she used a highly directional speaker to blast out one of her altered soundscapes from an extremely narrow alleyway, effectively amplifying the background drone of the Mag Mile for a split-second as you walked by. Eventually some started basking in the amplification, which drew so much sudden attention that X quickly aborted the intervention. The hidden sides of dumpsters provided usual cover. Not to mention they were good resonators, especially after garbage day. She believed in maintaining strict anonymity, just in case future operations demanded it, just as they had in the past. It made things easier. But now she needed a job, and the prospect of getting an insider’s view of what for her remained a defiantly mysterious entity was too much to resist.
She had instantly forgotten about all of it, until receiving a curt email signed G. Hertzman two weeks later yielding little more than the time and location of the interview and polite formalities. On an unabashedly sunny Monday afternoon, X showed up at DARPA HQ, North Randolph Street, in the Ballston enclave of Arlington, Virginia, a six-story mildly futuristic looking building overshadowed by the Kettler Capitals Iceplex, which was really a massive parking garage. Maybe that’s where the DARPA deep throat meets with reporters, on a skating rink. An intern escorted her to Hertzman’s top floor office, 619. There seemed to be a remarkable lack of people milling around. Maybe they were all in their labs. She chuckled to herself in recognition of what this place would do to her already deeply conspiratorial disposition. The grayish man slumped in the leather swivel that dwarfed him barely noticed the opening door. Throughout he spoke too loudly, as if deliberately misgauging the remit of his speech, and for the first minute or so his gaze remained trained on a green psychedelic ceramic ashtray.
“You were on TV, miss?”
“Uh… once or twice.”
“OK. Do you know about speech-song transmutation?”
X didn’t. The formulation appealed.
“Politicians speak in organized ways, and I don’t mean through words…”
Without warning, Hertzman whipped out a handkerchief and began hacking uncontrollably. X thought, this guy’s probably been there since the ARPANET days, when Licklider was around. X had read the latter’s “duplex theory of pitch perception” paper with the expectation that it would give her clues as to how to break open the brain-ear, but found it lacking. Still, he did invent the internet. Further investigation warranted. After a solid half-minute, Hertzman sputtered on.
“They’re literally singing for their supper.”
“Singing from their point of view… I mean, hearing! To the rest of us, it sounds like regular speech. It’s an old mnemonic trick, and it works to activate aphasics too…. to a certain extent. We’ve all done it, you perhaps more than others. You set a list of things to remember to music… when you remember the melody, the list comes with it, right? Now the problem is you can’t go around singing all the time… well some people do… Reagan… Buckley, heh heh. So you need a way to conceal completely coherent melodies, real tunes, so that they’re only hinted at when the speech is perceived by the… uninitiated. Deutsch uncovered all of this decades ago. You start by recording yourself saying something and loop fragments of different lengths until you find one that starts to turn into music. It’s magic. Something… corrects itself. Like after a few days of wearing those glasses that flip the world upside-down back to the way the light waves actually hit you in the first place! Stratton glasses. You can no longer hear that passage as anything other than music. And then you listen to what comes before and after and it’s like, you’re bursting into song! Listen to Jack Lemmon in the China Syndrome. It’s practically a Broadway musical when he’s in the room! That’s the magic time he talked about. The kicker is that, since your audience hasn’t had the training, they’re not binding these fragments the way you are. But the melodies, in their non-altered state, if you will, are entering them differently, underground. It’s powerfully seductive. Meanwhile, your speaking style remains the same as it ever was, because you dial back the melodic aspect you’ve discovered until it’s just noticeable. You sort of reverse engineer yourself back into the state you started in, but with a twist. It’s consistent. It’s reliable. And you can remember a whole lot, too!”
The act of describing the phenomenon had buoyed Hertzman, now affecting an energetic disposition proper to a younger, Carl-Sagan-type agent from the 1980s, perhaps working on the fringes of science, paranormally. And the hacking had ceased.
“Let me get to the point, miss. You’re here to listen to speeches in order to detect their melodic undercurrents.”
“You want me to… find melodies?”
“Yes. By pinpointing fragments in each speech and listening to them on loop until they give way. You’ll have to judge where the loops start and end. It’ll probably take a little doing at first. The main thing though, is this. At times these melodies align with popular songs, or bits of them anyway… and it’s no accident. If you can hijack, subliminally, an association, a positive association, it’s win-win, for you and the consciousnesses of the people you’ve attracted to your cause. When listeners become participants, hearts and minds are synchronized and health is restored. Ku-ber-ne-tes.”
On that word, he looked X right in the eyes, for the first time. A Wesley-Clark-glassy-delusional kind of direct, perhaps useful when the stakes of the matter are being acknowledged.
“Your credentials are impeccable, miss. Can you start tomorrow morning?”
X smiled. “I can.” That was easy, she thought, not that she understood what she had just signed up for. Hertzman pushed a small black storage box towards her. On the front of it, hastily scrawled: Trump.
After crashing at an unexpectedly fleabag motel, X showed up the next morning to room 432, no bigger than a conventional walk-in closet, equipped with a laptop and two high-quality Genelec speakers secured to an awkwardly-sized table and a microphone and stand leaving little room to maneuver. The Trump box contained a shiny metallic orange hard drive on which 126 entries were grouped into two folders, “speeches” and “informal,” the former containing everything from his Republican Nomination acceptance to the Inaugurination and the bizarre announcement of his Supreme Court choice; the latter housing a more heterogeneous blend of “remarks,” “statements” and “conversations.” X had been unable to sleep much, for pondering the implications of the task before her. Anyone could do such a thing and achieve stealthy control of another individual’s attention. True, it could cut in multiple directions, and that was fine for a while. But mostly, she couldn’t face the concept of listening to… that President.
Yet face it she did, and the inaugural speech would inaugurate. The hard drive had only one folder, the computer only one application, STS, represented by a nondescript black square icon. On dragging the file onto it, a spartan interface opened, expanding the clip’s waveform to fit the entire screen. There was a resizable yellow bar at the top of the window for setting loop boundaries. You couldn’t play back without looping. You couldn’t loop a segment under 6 seconds, or over 15 seconds, which constrained things rather specifically. And you couldn’t stop the loop once engaged. You had to wait for it to exhaust the amount of repeats specified in advance, that you entered in a dialog box that popped up once the loop limits determined. A sizeable spectrogram covered the lower half of the screen though it didn’t appear to play a part in the process. The summed effect of these weirdly monomaniacal formalisms and lack of interactivity immediately suggested significant work had already been accomplished on the matter and that X had arrived in medias res to fine-tune. Perhaps.
The mic was another matter. Hertzman told her to record herself singing the found melody, as confirmation of a successful conversion. It’s a tune once you sing it, or so the quantum reasoning seemed to go. “First you subvocalize, then vocalize.” He also told her this singing would be recorded and all other operations in STS meticulously tracked, not for purposes of surveillance he insisted (all too performatively), but to precisely record the various spans of time required for full “turning” (as he put it) and to feed this information into a database. That’s one database I want to hear, X thought.
She received a jolt when listening to the ex-President’s inauspicious inception. His schematic way of speaking, condensed into a limited number of pat phrases, repeated often, fast-tracked him for speech-song conversion therapy. There was music everywhere! Not to mention that the speech format—concerned with projection and expression—already impelled more robustly articulated contours. Maybe Hertzman didn’t think she could handle the more subtle technics of melodic extrication required when dealing with the monotone set. If only he knew.
Still, for a while X remained hypnotized by one particular loop from the NRA speech. “But earlier in the evening remember. Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina. Pennsylvania. All the way up we ran up the East Coast. And you know…” X caught herself singing it, remembering the words, on the way to the can and back. Could this be what Hertzman had in mind? No, too obvious. After all, Trump ran with that electoral night story—and did until the end—squeezing it in wherever and whenever he could, and then some. It had nudged itself toward song by virtue of copious rehearsals.
X found a more promising candidate in the Gorsuch nomination address: “Whose qualities define… really and I mean closely define… what we’re looking for.” It contained a signature turn-of-phrase at its core (“really and I mean”), whose musicality radiated in both directions, infecting recalcitrant speech and gently shoving it towards song. This meant a lot more repetition. For the first time, X registered on a somatic level the inertial aspects of her newfound position. She also noted how the rigidity of the procedure (abetted by digital replication) kept the fragment in place during the ongoing morph, ensuring its smooth incorporation. By the thirteenth or fourteenth repeat, X intuited a shift had taken place, retrospectively noticing her bodily rhythms slowly succumbing to the loop, adopting its intensities as their own. Around the 22nd or 23rd, she gained a sense of what it would feel like to sing this emerging melody, subvocalization kicking in. By the 32nd repeat, X felt secure enough to sing the nascent melody for posterity and surely, she thought, for immediate analysis by her superiors. She now felt a sympathetic connection with this tune. That made sense; she had surfaced it in the first place. This fact by the same token uncomfortably exposed how quickly something can be claimed as one’s own, re-ontologized through incantation. More than imagining yourself producing it, you’ve actually created it. You own it. And then a wave of pure revulsion prompted by the thought of becoming connected in any way to that abject meatsack of a president postponed consideration of the conceptual intrigue this weird binding secreted.
The next day at 9 AM sharp, Hertzman, looking particularly frail, stopped in, shutting the door behind him. An uncomfortable intimacy quickened his pace. He reached into his suit pocket for a small pill bottle. He spoke quickly.
“Some analysts use these. THC. Taking one of these will increase your ability to track down contours. The right hemisphere surges and does the work the left usually suppresses. OK, good day miss.”
Hertzman had already departed by the time X could manage acquiescence. Brute force maneuvers dominated the morning, which meant endless repetition. X set an inordinately high number of them—111—for an altogether hopeless fragment in order to carve out a space to think without drawing attention. Something about Hertzman’s account didn’t sit right. Why would politicians go through the trouble of listening to loops of themselves just to remember a speech? Didn’t they all use teleprompters? And isn’t all of this musicalizing only tantamount to standard expressive and rhetorical tactics that seduce and compel? The motivation for this esoteric undertaking eluded her completely. Nor could she find anything on G. Hertzman except that the G. was for Gig and he had a PhD., and that was all exclusively from the DARPA site. Kubernetes was Greek for steersman. Wiener appropriated it to coin cybernetics.
Nevertheless, the process remained fascinating to X, who had noted Hertzman’s use of the word transmutation, signaling the alchemical realm. X’s preoccupation with slow background transformations in the portentous Chicago soundscape opened her to the language and practice of alchemy, and to the transformation of minds and bodies via particular frequency combinations. The transmutations at play here took place differently. It wasn’t just that sense zeroed out after a certain amount of repeats. Any child knew that from repeating words until they deliriously melt into sonic magma. It was way weirder than that, even creepy. The pitches actually changed, adjusting upwards or downwards in order to conform to frequencies that could bind together to simulate the contours of the system of reference X found herself in, the equal-tempered Western scale. X could feel that slip happening, the percept revising itself in small increments. The melodies became more spaced out in range, as if a veil had been lifted. The tune had been there all along, it only needed surfacing. And it happened rhythmically too. Irrational intervals progressively distorted into synchrony with an implied beat. Slow quantization. Even the more intractable elements of a loop behaved as expressive deviations within a secure meter. X came to believe that it was the speech’s rhythmic profile that first tripped the abductive intuition of melodic potential. Perhaps the only significant precondition lurking in this nebulous process. Still, at times you really had to work it. One particular rhythmic intuition, admittedly faint, took 86 iterations before anything resembling a melody became apparent. It felt like a protracted boiling down, but also the worst kind of enforced pareidolia. X wondered, feeling on shaky cognitive ground, were musicians able to better sniff out cues because of some kind of skewed, hypermelodic umwelt? Was that why she was here?
The binding took, as it always did, especially when one’s tendencies to see things through verged on the masochistic. Before divining a new sequence, X accidentally nicked the spacebar into kicking off playback a few seconds before the last conversion and heard the phenomenon described by Hertzman, the springing into music. Only minutes before had X merely suspected the passage suitable for looping; now it was music, incontrovertibly and totally. The discrete interval, the qualitative jump, flashed in an instant the extent of the disfiguration, how far things had strayed. Something in the background, a weak signal, had been boosted. But these weak signals remained weak signals for anyone who hadn’t gone through the loopy maneuvers that were warping her brain. Despite Hertzman’s contentions of subliminal influence, it wasn’t clear that these covert musicalizations could perform as advertised.
X popped the pill after lunch, in need of other stimulations and a temporary deferral of all these questions. It might not have been the best idea. Now, patterns became manifest the second a passage was singled out, in quantum fashion. And practically any passage would do. Like this one: “Some point in the future we ought-a look back and say how did we do it without space.” The nonsensical sentence slotted itself compliantly into the frame of a stuttering, descending melody: a one-note ostinato on E-flat, moving to D for “we ought-a look back and say how did we do it,” then a doubled C on “without” to finally land on A, for “space,” the largest interval in the sequence. But if it was open season, where were you supposed to set the boundaries paramount for any elusive melody to emerge? Even accounting for the restrictive frame set by STS, no human could possibly assay all the options.
On the morning of the third day, exasperated by two days of stumbling around, X visited Hertzman, who this time instantly broke his ashtray fixation, summoned by her somewhat impulsive entry.
“There must be a way to get there faster. Surely a computer could process the speech, extract possible melodies, compare with existing tunes, a Shazam-like thing, all in milliseconds!”
Hertzman gestured X to sit as Sagan surfaced again, smiling for the first time.
“Heh heh. If it doesn’t take off after one hundred and eleven, it’ll never get there! Hahaha.”
He knew of the temporal transgressions, but continued as if they didn’t bother him.
“It’s not that it can’t be done with computers. We are doing it. As well. The thing is, a computer doesn’t get infected the same way a human does. Do you know about primers?”
“Some musically gifted folks developed odd tics after undergoing absolute pitch experiments. They started spontaneously humming tunes they had never heard before. The theory is that they were… incubation media for earworms later harvested for corporate purposes. Priming for something to come, get it? These primers self-generated the earworms, somehow, and then jettisoned these accursed things by humming them out. It’s a well-known technique. Many subjects had Williams-like dispositions… they were bursting with song and couldn’t wait to spread the earworms around. Their brains and vocal cords both were humming! Amazing generators! The hooks would either catch on, become pervasive, or die out. It was hit and miss, but… essential that the earworms be human generated. Some sort of program for stimulating this generation must have been implanted during the PET scan. Do you understand?”
“That what we’re interested in is the way your particular inclinations modulate the machinic process. Lick used to say ‘it’s the coupling, stupid!’ The computers provide the speed and accuracy, the humans bring flexibility and intuition.”
Hertzman shook his head slowly, caught in a timewarp. “Computers. Heh. Invention, the mother of necessity. We can design speeches, put them in other people’s mouths, which are of course beautifully simulated visually. That was a tough nut to crack. Working on that since the 90s. Sound of course is porous from the get go. I’m assuming you know about VoCo through the consumer end and maybe some of the work we’ve done, though I can’t talk about a lot of it, naturally. Yet, anyway.”
It dawned on X that Hertzman had been singing his last few interventions. Could that be? It seemed implausible that the speech-song effect, which after all required a particularly vigorous kind of shepherding into existence, could jump scale to prime phonic encounters willy-nilly. Surely not after only two days at it? And Hertzman might just plausibly be a master at covert melodicizing, able to slip into that mode at will.
“The truth is, machine audition has not matched the detection sensitivity and flexibility of the human auditory system. You hear into the backgrounds of things, miss. We want to know… how you deal with all of this.”
Hertzman’s speech-melody had slipped into an even more concrete articulation, with a mid-80s affectation, redolent of a cheesy Foster-era Chicago tune.
“The neural circuitry in the temporal lobe that controls pitch salience, right hemi especially, gets aroused while the semantic side retreats. It whisks the speech away from its communicative function towards more shadowy realms of experience.”
Retreats, my ass! X defiantly attended to the content of Hertzman’s florid speech, to reverse the process. A bad feeling came over her, the one that always accompanied an impending crossroads. The melody began to flicker out, the speech crossfading itself back into its unquantized, untempered mode. The veil back on. Fuck. Hertzman had not been speaking any differently than before.
“Broca’s area takes care of the syntactical part. And there’s an intense amount of activity in the motor and pitch areas when you’re looping. Speech and music were neurally one before the secession. Language used the repetition endemic to music to jumpstart itself into existence! Bindings of sounds become words that go on their merry way, while music careens off the deep end.”
“You need musicians… to pick up the melodies, the rhythmic cues, as a shortcut… to jumpstart the process, right?”
“Well… yes and no. Musicians are good at pinpointing but, as it turns out, take longer to convert speech to song. They’ve been conditioned to hear pitch within a relatively rigid framework, which is hard to let go of. The pitch alterations that occur happen slower for them. They detect something in the background, on a pre-conscious level, but can’t close the circuit as quickly. It’s that effort we’re interested in. You’re here in more of… an exploratory capacity. And in no small part because of your software expertise. You have first-hand knowledge of the methods by which one thing can transmute into another. Though I have to say, when you finally did close that circuit, when you sang those melodies out… you fashioned that malarkey into something really gorgeous.”
X contemplated the prospect of being another organism probed for data, a suitable biological medium from which to extract better methods of subliminal control for more insidious persuasion schemes. If I quit, I have to do it now, she thought. And then, having reached that conclusion, another trajectory imposed itself, the way that crossroads, even arbitrarily designed, clarify stakes in an instant. Sure, knowing what operational levels the agency worked on, and what they considered promising lines of investigation, even if completely crackpot, could come in handy. Useful intelligence for blowback ops. And clearly, the insufficiency of Hertzman’s explanations pointed to deeper implications lurking, surely connected to “disruptive technologies for U.S. National Security,” a matter which hadn’t really been explained. There was that primer thing too which, though saturated with the earmarks of a gonzo CIA initiative, appeared to pose certain mysteries for Hertzman, an “all-knowing” type, at least from his demeanor. More visceral motivations clamored. The momentary attunement X felt moments before was signaling something, even if its cause couldn’t be identified with any certainty. It was peculiar enough hearing speech as music after the requisite effort, yet quite another, altogether shocking thing, for the procedure to metastasize into everything, coupled with the even more extraordinary ability to turn the filter off at will, which left X dumbfounded. A weird circuit had been activated, a new form of transit between modes of perception and production that X would want to trip repeatedly, perhaps with this job as useful cover.
X couldn’t believe it. Tony Conrad was standing outside of the main DARPA entrance. He double-taked on catching sight of her, and burst:
“You gotta be kidding! You? Here?”
“What do you want me to tell you? Infiltration, maybe? What are you doing here?”
“I figured, when in Arlington, visit DARPA, right? They must have loads of interesting information about things even we never thought to suspect, the paranoids we are! Good thinking, I know. Even people who work there probably don’t know the whole of it. You think I can ask someone about that Cuban thing? What are they getting you to do?”
“Speeches that become songs… politician speech… I spent the day with fucking Drumpf…”
“Oh fuck! Really? Well you know what I always say about melodies. They’re for control! But they’re way out of control now, like hoaxes that perform beyond their intended function. They fuck a whole lot more things up… very proactive. Melodies… they’re major brain operations… quantum operations. When you hear music you’re in the past, present and future at the same time! Temporalities are… what’s that Barad word? Entangled! Hey, what’s your safe song?”
“Your safe song. The one that gets you out of trouble up there, if you know what I mean.”
“Well get one! Mine’s Wild! Dee Dee Sharp. “And I knoooooow…. in the end… you’re gon-na leave me, my friend.”