By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
Mechanics of the Conformist Strange Attractor
"We're looking for a balance between chaos and structure." -- Uttered by a Conformist during a late-night van ride to the middle of nowhere
"Chaos" is a widely misused term. Although it is often construed as meaning total randomness and a lack of order, in scientific circles "chaos" describes patterns that are unstable and aperiodic. These patterns are often so vast and complex as to defy comprehension, unless one is willing to examine the smallest fragments in order to grasp the larger whole. Chaos' combination of contradictory effects (instability and nonperiodic rhythms) is reconciled by formulas known as "strange attractors." Theorists use strange attractors to map out explanations of complex natural phenomena, such as how weather cells form and dissipate. Strange-attractor formulas can also be used to explain the mechanics of the Conformists' music.
Consider the Lorenz attractor. The Lorenz attractor is a streamlined version of the Navier-Stokes equation, which was derived to describe the behavior of incompressible fluids.
X = theta x + theta y
Y = xz + rx y
Z = xy bz
The variables x, y and z represent the state of an atmosphere. The variables s, r and b correspond to the parameters described by the changing physical properties of the model's "air." If you plug in values for x, y and z, the solution mapped out by the equation corresponds to fluid convection that rotates clockwise for a while, then counterclockwise for a different length of time, then swings back to clockwise for yet another cycle of time, and so on. The system will continue in this arrhythmic pattern until its external source of energy (heat) runs out. The end result of this system depends entirely on the initial conditions defined in x, y and z; the smallest change in initial conditions will produce wildly divergent solutions in a short period of time.
The Lorenz attractor's dependence on initial conditions is what gave rise to the theory that a butterfly's wings flapping in Bolivia could generate a storm in the Midwest. Any excess energy expended in the early going, no matter how small the expenditure, will have tremendous impact in the later stages of the cycle. What is perhaps most fascinating about the Lorenz attractor (for the purposes of our discussion) is that when solutions to the equations are mapped out, they describe a dimension between the second and the third.
Let that last thought sink in for a moment. Now, how does all that science apply to the Conformists? Consider their song "Hatch-it," from their eponymous five-song cassette. If the members of the band and their respective instruments are inserted as the beginning variables, you get the following:
Jim Winkeler, bassist: Bass = theta (bass) + theta (drum)
Tom O'Neill, drums: Drum = (bass)(guitar) + r(bass) drums
Chris Dee, guitar: Guitar = (bass)(drum) b(guitar)
The external source of energy for the Conformist strange attractor is vocalist Mike Benker's guttural black shout.
"Hatch-it" begins with Chris' down-tuned guitar picking out an elliptical riff that wobbles around as if one leg were shorter than the other. Mike barks out his instructions -- "Hatch-it! Feed it! Watch it grow!" -- adding the energy necessary to expand the system. Tom's drum and Jim's bass lock into a clipped beat that bolsters the now chopped and faster chords of the guitar. The system is synchronized, rotating around Mike's chant of "I'm not a tool." At 26 on the tape counter, the guitar repeats the initial riff louder and faster, and the system plays out again, thicker and more powerful from the energy of Mike roaring, "See what this life has done to me/See what hate and destruction bring."
The tape counter hits 42 and the system stops for the barest fraction of a second; then the guitar unravels the initial riff, bending the notes and the pitch into a new pattern. The drums adjust, firing sharp even beats, cymbals punching out windows as the bass stretches across the scales, creating space. The guitar increases the pace, gaining speed as the system begins to rotate opposite its initial impetus. The cymbals gallop along the crest of the riff, drawing the bass and the guitar together in tempo. Now the bass carries the cell; everything spins faster as Mike unloads more energy into the system, screaming it all forward with cries of "Cough it up! Cough it up!" His words become sound only, grunts that cause eruptions of cymbal to equalize the pressure. The system is barely contained, rotating wildly. Too much energy has been consumed, and without Mike's input, the system grinds to a halt.