What brown did for me

Heads-up: I spent the last month rolling out a Substack newsletter service called Silent Friends, if you’re interested. Each letter focuses on a single book of fiction, poetry, or nonfiction. And honestly I’m pleased with the subscriber pool that has already developed! 

One result is that the Substack platform is going to be the principal outlet for writing posts about books, which has been my habit for more than a decade of being online. That leaves the ole WordPress open to different kinds of writings and ruminations.


I don’t like white noise. It’s coarse, rough, irritating, and gets everywhere.

Brown noise, on the other hand? Brown noise is the shit.

I was aware of the concept of sound colors since high school. You can mess around with them here. Noise signals can be divided into a spectrum of colors, based on the dB level within a certain frequency interval. Warmer colors are assigned to low frequencies while cooler colors denote the high end. They occur naturally as minimal drone tones, the eerie static on a CRT monitor, or the soughing of sea waves, or the traffic from the highway. 

This period also marked my first exposure to harsh noise music, which was a popular scene in Portland OR in those days. Harsh noise is a wonderful thing, after all how often can you claim a work of art is actively trying to hurt you? I’m also a fan of hardcore punk and extreme metal bands that approach the frontier of harsh noise in their sheer ferocity, such as The Gerogerigegege and Last Days of Humanity.

But now, 2023 is shaping up to be the year of smooth noise. Soft is obviously the more correct antonym to harsh, but I choose smooth to emphasize the timbre, and because white and violet noise still have a bit of edge to them. Brown noise as such was advertised to me on Instagram. It quiets your mind, slows down the racing thoughts, banishes your inner disquiet, helps you fall asleep and stay asleep. In my experience it’s all been true!

It’s established here at Second Slope that I’m a fan of conceptual edgework (or “edging” as I’ve come to privately call it), and the appeal of harsh noise and aggressive rock ‘n’ roll is in the edges created by putting different textures, timbres, and riffs together. And a noise signal of a given color is essentially a single musical timbre. Turns out the absence of edges, a smooth planar sound, is quite a pleasurable experience.

After listening to some low frequency brown noise tunes, a rabbit hole of sound hues opened. All sorts of colors and mixtures of stochastically generated audio tracks were brought to my attention at once like ice cream flavors for the ears. If brown gets you down, try Pink or Blue—or Violet. How about white, pink, and brown layered like a neapolitan treat? There’s also the “green” option of minimal nature soundscapes.

Spotify delivers a veritable cottage industry of smooth noise producers, artists with names like Sound Dreamer, Klangspiel, White Noise Workshop, and DJ GOTOSLEEP. They seem to have appeared within the last two years, without exception. The song titles can be poetically allusive like “plunging waterfall” or do nothing more than read out the signal’s frequency in Hertz. One brown noise track by Sleep Miracle called “Low Freq Brown Noise for Baby Sleep” is only 58 seconds long, but it tells a little story: you could hear a kind of glissando within the signal, descending down and down, like the doppler effect from a jet plane. Put the song on repeat, and the glissando descends forever, plunging into untold sonic depths. 

Smooth noise is like a red eye flight, or the humming engines of a spaceship, or a wind tunnel. Blast it to cancel out intrusive sounds in the environment, like construction or partying neighbors. Or keep it at an ambiance to support a podcast. I’ve even kept sound colors going while watching movies. It aids with focus and sleeping, while also aiding tinnitus and ADHD symptoms. It’s a “pure” art that is also of pure utility, as if its current TikTok-fueled buzz is a concession to how messed up we feel just getting by in our lives.

The “brown” of Brown noise is not a color, by the way, but the namesake of Robert Brown, of “Brownian motion” fame. The “proper” color for this frequency range is actually red. Perhaps we should compromise with russet noise? Brownian motion describes the random movement of suspended particles, and it’s happening everywhere from nature to videogames to avant-garde music.

Indeed, soft noise traces its origins back to the stochastic techniques of contemporary classical composers like Ianis Xenakis. Granular synthesis tracks are made by layering tiny samples—only milliseconds long—a technique pioneered by Xenakis with magnetic tapes in the 60s. (He also composed pieces employing probability mathematics like Pithoprakta.) Xenakis had already cut a cool figure in my book before I began the year of smooth granular noise music. He joined the Communist youth wing in Greece and was hurling Molotovs at Nazi tanks rolling through the streets as a highschooler. The “masses” of sounds he created in his early phase reflected the footfalls of the crowds marching in demonstrations and making history.

It was a pleasant surprise to run into this great 20th century composer again while checking out this utterly 21st century phenomenon of therapeutic smooth noise music proliferation.

In the meantime we’re blasting the downward sloped spectrum noise. I got a lotta reading to do!

Autobiography of a long walk enjoyer

After a health setback and adjusting to new medication, I effectively stopped reading or writing for nearly seven weeks.

Unable to think clearly or concentrate on work, I needed a way to fill the time. So I looked at pictures of crime scenes and accident victims: the aftermath of a killer who chopped a young person’s head off, a man who’d been run over by a truck so that his innards had burst through the apertures of his face. I couldn’t digest or even comprehend narrative in any form, so instead of movies I watched YouTube and archive.org videos: a satanic ritual to reanimate a corpse; a shirtless man seated at a table with a bowl of soggy ramen, holding oversized chopsticks, held in captivity by two life-sized and malicious Funko Pop figures, taunting their victim as he sobs between slurps; endless footage of ‘Karens’ disturbing the peace; a couple of good police car chases.

After a great deal of sleeping, my capacity for fiction gradually came back, first with mysteries and whodunnits, then Kobo Abe’s WOMAN IN THE DUNES and Kafka’s AMERIKA: THE MISSING PERSON. It was also an occasion to get reacquainted with graphic novels and manga, which I used to read voraciously, much more than Literature. I finally read MAUS, which was absolutely stupendous—such a bold choice to have animals represent European nationalities, with the mouse as unassimilable(?) Jews, which is absolutely courting controversy, as the epigraph by Hitler confirms, but I love what Spiegelman does with it when, halfway through the story, we go to the world of the making of the comic, where people wear animal masks.

Also the first three volumes of the MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM ORIGIN manga, drawn by the animation director of the original show. The mechs and ships look more imposing and less like toys in monochrome panels, and in general the artwork is a very crisp update of the 70s style. I read a manga adaptation of Lovecraft’s MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS as well, and while it was what you want from a visual adaptation, the drawings were a bit lacking.

I took numerous long walks, up to five miles sometimes, till the weather got too cold. These walks confirmed that my feet were indeed on the ground. I learned that I don’t really care for any of the holidays except new year’s. I don’t even wanna guess how many times I listened to “Cotton Eye Joe.” For a little while I drove a Jeep.

I seem to have bounced back to a more or less stable state, and my activities and aspirations once again involve more than sleeping for 13 hours, so to make up for my posting drought, here are selections from the last three months of my longhand journal:

October 3. WAVES. The first one came from the west. It crashed on those islands initially. But it was a big wave and it sloshed right across to the mainland. It landed on the basin with a big Crash! Water sprayed in innumerable beautiful droplets and the wind carried them further east, but not south. Then it looked like the business was done. However, from the east this time, another huge wave! SMASH! Onto the driest parts of the land, that had never gotten a fleck of the last one. These waves took two and a half centuries to do their thing. No sign of rushing water in many years. You think another rip tide is coming? If it happened before it can happen again, no?

October 9. EVENING, after a day out in Manhattan.

A comet hangs in the sky above me like my weekly assignments. The dirt path ranged over obsidian fields like a ribbon of caramel. Praise the lips of NANDINI, glossy as the Milky Way and pink as bubblegum, and of KUNDAVAI the proud feline of the river. Please allow me to remove the clinking bangles from your wrists, the rain of jewels from your olive-skinned necks. Yellow medicine rims the labial fleshwounds of the heroes. Mary Reufle and Kalki tried to explain stochastic processes to me over philly cheesesteaks and sweet potato fries.

October 13. Jack and some other friends and I arrived on a campus of old red brick buildings one afternoon, the sunlight bathing the grass lawns for now but with some rain clouds approaching in the distance. There were folks in our group I didn’t care to see and I sprinted across the quad to the next building as the drizzle began to fall and darken the paving. I went through an old fireproof door. I texted Jack to tell him where I was hiding and looked around. The floorboards creaked beneath my tread. The halls went on forever. I flipped through deckled pages as the rain pattered on the winter windows. This was my idea of a place!

October 14. [After a viewing of TAR] How do we know we are in the world of high art? Because a hazy strip of Klein International Blue hangs over Berlin, over New York City, over any place where the children enjoy Monster Hunter.

November 22. Fourth day on Z[oloft]. Saturday I took to mustering the strength to read. Read nothing. Sunday morning I managed to read some poems by Marguerite Young. Then some Marx in the evening. Brain fog. Lethargy. I slept for hours on Monday. Food makes me drowsy (but tastes GREAT).

December 24. One foggy Xmas Eve! 

The dialectical operation at work in literary history. Sterne is the greatest ‘experimental’ novelist, everyone agrees. But he laid down the blueprints for 19th c. realism, see BALZAC and TOLSTOY. Then at the end of the century the Russian masters summated realism and in many senses cleared the ground for modernism and surrealism in the next century. Kafka loved Dickens and many of his scenarios originate as pastiches of the English writer. Tendencies toward opposing states.

Systemic eczema rashes on arms, torso, groin. Feels itchy!

December 26. Boxing Day. In addition to CATS, we put on another cursed “film”: 1973’s HANZO THE RAZOR.

When corruption threatens Edo Japan, only one samurai is horny enough to answer the call. He bellows his catchphrase: “Time to destroy my shit!” Hanzo is a mountain of integrity. Incorruptible, he doesn’t even take his officer’s oath, for then he would stoop to the level of his dissipated peers. A sado-masochistic freak, he uses his implements of torture on his own flesh before inflicting them on his criminal prey, to test their efficacy. His blood runs thick as cranberry jam off the thigh-crushing machine. He rises. The impression of blood remains on the spiked seat—but it seems there is a sizeable area of dryness where his genital region had once been. Yes, Hanzo the Razor gets sexually aroused by his own degradation. Don’t worry about it! He takes a wooden mallet spiked with nails and brings it down repeatedly on his titanically turgid member. He pours a kettle of boiling water over his immense penis, laid out on a wooden pedestal like a meatloaf dinner. A cloud of steam and the water cascades to each side like a parted sea. His dick now thoroughly worked upon, he makes a little hole in a sack of rice and proceeds to pump into it, plowing the rice, turning the grains over like white virgin soil. Now that’s what I call compression!

So much for the duty-conscious Hanzo the Razor.

December 28. But the worst part of this “film” I haven’t talked about. This scene is the chestburster of the movie, the true shocker set piece. So HANZO THE RAZOR is a most effective interrogator. When he needs information he simply rapes it out of women. During one such procedure, we see a shot presenting three overlapping images, one, Hanzo’s sweaty grunting mug, two, the woman screaming first in pain then in pleasure—everyone enjoys being SA’d by Hanzo the Razor in the end—and three, what seems to be the camera positioned in a moist tunnel and pushing its way back and forth like a piston. The image says, “POV: you are HTR’s dick!!!” Horrendous movie.

The clamorous Texan

First off, the great Misery Tourism observed Flag Day by publishing a piece of historical fiction, based on a certain president and premise I’d been kicking around for a few years. It was delightful to hear that readers have indeed learned something from this work. Folks oughta learn things from fiction I say.

Meanwhile, it’s been an eventful summer (a bout of Covid infection, a fulfilling visit west to see friends, a neat museum trip) with some excellent movies—but this post will focus on a couple of old masters I felt the need to revisit, to kickstart myself out of a midsummer reading dry spell.


I’ve been underrating Raymond Carver.

I’d meant to write about this for a few weeks but every time I tried, I would just read another poem or story.

It started with grabbing his later collection of poems A NEW PATH TO THE WATERFALL. Carver has been there for virtually my entire literary upbringing, yet I’d never read his poetry till now. It has the same starkness as his prose, but he also permits more weird stuff—some of these lyrics approached James Tate territory.

A large amount of these poems were actually just epigraphs, passages of prose from the 19th century or earlier cut up into lines. A lot of it by Chekhov.  And a great deal of these are about fishing. 

His lineation of the Oliver quote helps to bring out the driving rhythm you can find in early 19th century prose, compared with the syllabic austerity in the 17th century epigraph on the opposite page in the image above. The former has the self-assured tenor of a teaching pamphlet, while Chetham’s text, while expressly the same purpose, feels like a spooky recipe.

I’ve used the past month to go through the stories collected in the amazing Vintage Contemporaries selection called WHERE I’M CALLING FROM. Reading these masterfully crafted pieces altogether, you get the sense that they are about the same lower middle class heterosexual couple, somewhere in the American west, sometime in the late seventies or early eighties, drinking too much, smoking pot occasionally. The stories unfold like a garden of forking paths, different jobs, different housing situations, different struggles, different processes of breaking up. But other elements remain constant: fishing, coffee in a thermos, taking the phone off the hook. (This is I think the content of Carver’s “minimalism,” if he has it.)  Beneath the placid phrasing on the surface is an ever-winding tension. One feels like disaster could strike any moment, but instead of drama you get lines like these:

“Jesus,” he said. “Jesus, Eileen. I don’t know what to say to that. I really don’t. I have to go now. Thanks for calling,” he said. (“Fever”)

I feel as if I’ve come to a place I never thought I’d have to come to. And I don’t know how I got here. It’s a strange place. It’s a place where a little harmless dreaming and then some sleepy, early-morning talk has led me into considerations of death and annihilation. (“Whoever Was Using This Bed”)

She sits there waiting, her dainty fingers poking her hair.

It is August.

My life is going to change. I feel it. (“Fat”)

Wes, it’s all right, I said. I brought his hand to my cheek. Then, I don’t know, I remembered how he was when he was nineteen, the way he looked running across this field to where his dad sat on a tractor, hand over his eyes, watching Wes run toward him. (“Chef’s House”)

Just the simple “I don’t know” in the middle of that last example before the memory has that mini blast of pathos; the phrase lends a whole atmosphere to the narration, and the occasion for her telling this story and who her “audience” could be coming around the edges.

In the multiple fictive worlds of this typical-Carver couple, these narratives end up staging certain epiphanies, never quite directly related to the sometimes odd encounters they experience, but such experiences trigger the same kind of realization (like at the end of “Fat”), that is precisely expressed in the epigraph from Milan Kundera (another favorite of Carver’s):

We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.


Graham Greene’s THE QUIET AMERICAN was a terrific shred, a story that feels like an emotional disaster in slow motion, seething with pain. The hero is an aging British journalist who mostly hangs out with a prostitute named Phuong, smoking opium in his Saigon apartment while filing war correspondence (it is the final years of the French Indo-China war). But then a young and high-minded American named Pyle comes through, with ideas of a “Third Force” between the colonists and the Communists. He wants to intervene despite Fowler’s discouragement. And worse, he has fallen in love with Phuong and wants to marry her, while Fowler isn’t even formally divorced from his wife in England, and can’t compete with Pyle economically.

This is my second foray into Greene’s kind of fictive world after END OF THE AFFAIR. I was struck once again by that voice full of generic, pronounciatory utterances, and a capacity for self-reproach that can only come from a Cathlolic upbringing or an equal kind of parental cruelty. “We are too small in mind and body to possess another person without pride or to be possessed without humiliation.” Fowler says this after reading a letter from his wife in England refusing him a divorce. Lines like these are peppered through the narrative, including towards the end, when Fowler confirms that Phuong has left him for Pyle, he becomes reflexively anti-American, which is understandable, but in his description he also says: “It was as if I had been betrayed, but one is not betrayed by an enemy.” Which speaks to the human ties that exist between these two men, who indeed go through quite a bit together—even a book taken as a keepsake has a charge of “friendship” to it.

I loved Fowler’s denigration (tinged with pity and caring) for Pyle’s bright-eyed liberal naivety, striving for a “third force” that is neither Communism nor colonialism, relying on spurious bourgeois “analyses” that were indeed very prominent in the mid 20th century (think of Macnamara’s empiricist fetish of statistics in the American war to come). I suppose many of us are in a reflexive anti-American mood at the moment, so it was appropriate.

Suddenly I saw myself as he [Pyle] saw me—a man of middle age, with eyes a little bloodshot, beginning to put on weight, ungraceful in love, less noisy than Granger perhaps, but more cynical, less innocent; and I saw Phuong for a moment as I had seen her first, dancing past my table at the Grand Monde in a white ball dress, eighteen years old, watched by an elder sister, who had been determined on a good European marriage. An American had bought a ticket and asked her for a dance; he was a little drunk—not harmfully, and I suppose he was new to the country and thought the hostesses of the Grand Monde were whores. He held her much too close as they went round the floor the first time, and then suddenly there she was, going back to sit with her sister, and he was left, stranded and lost among the dancers, not knowing what had happened or why. And the girl whose name I didn’t know sat quietly there, occasionally sipping her orange juice, owning herself completely.

Frooty Loops

When I feel the need for inspiration (more accurately the need to avoid working on my projects) I turn to the handful of artbooks I own. More often than not I end up feeling rewarded for taking myself so far afield of what I “ought” to be writing and studying, as this reading tends to detonate new thoughts that help unlock whatever I’ve been stuck on.

In that sense I need to single out the work of Alex Potts. His writing offers a compelling understanding of modern art that takes us away from common narratives of an easy realism vs. modernism polarization. His book The Sculptural Imagination strongly argues that while modernist sculpture deflated the old ideal of the “whole” work, its own petty-bourgeois libetarian illusions of autonomy were brought into question by the Minimalist sculpture trend. And it’s this movement in particular that Potts helped me to appreciate, in particular this passage about loops and looping.

At issue here is also the rhythmic inflection, or lack of it, in the kind of viewing invited by Minimalist work. When Fried describes the sense of ‘duration’ involved as ‘something endless the way a road might be: if it were circular, for example’, he is drawing attention to a sense of looping central to the conception of Minimalist sculpture. Any viewing of a three-dimensional work involves some form of repetitive looping—as one moves right round a work back to the position where one was first standing, or moves in closer and gets absorbed by various local effects of surface shaping and texture and shadowing and then steps back again. The rhythm of such viewing has something of the sense of passing through repeated circuits, which may be more or less regular, more or less expansive, more or less open or closed. A Minimalist work tends to foreground the sense of looping because there are not many variegated incidents in the circuits one traverses, and because the work’s relatively simple spatial configuration invites a similarly simple structuring of one’s pattern of viewing.

Potts’s argument makes a great point later on that, yes, the loops of Minimalism can become boring, but maximalism (like in a Pynchon meganovel) can lead to its own kind of boredom. The “arbitrarily rich variety of incident” actually achieves monotony as all the patterns get flattened into a homogenous flow of sensations. 

Looping is located in the temporal dimension of communing with a work of art. Imagine walking around one of Andre’s heavy metal grids, noticing how the specks reflected in the gallery’s spotlight change in the square units on the floor as your angle of sight gradually shifts. The horizontality of these sheets is quite radical compared to the traditional Venus on a pedestal, but the reduction helps you to appreciate these teeny-tiny variegated incidents, produced by metal units that simply exist as material, without pretending to be anything else. Eventually you may imagine yourself as the artist who laid down these tiles into an array—does the work still exist as such when it is disassembled and in storage?

These circuits that are fundamental to sculpture & 3D art must be present in other media as well.

Minimalist music is an obvious candidate, both the Steve Reich style of overlapping looped phrases that incrementally phase into a new arrangement, as well as the “Holy” minimalism of Arvo Pärt, like the famous Spiegel im Spiegel whose sparse composition for piano and a string musician demands absolute perfection (and traditionally no vibrato for the violin, but perhaps on the cello it can’t be avoided). The “heartbeats” of the piano’s outlined major triads paired with the “long breaths” of the bowing may constitute units of loops.

Erik Satie’s La Socrate premiered the same year as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and it also apparently caused a riot. The piece is an experimental recitative with a soprano singing continuously over a series of riffs from either a piano or an orchestra. People didn’t even want to consider it music at the time! (I’ll link to the third movement only because it’s my personal favorite and I think it the best showcase.)

Even with the drone tones of ambient electronica or doom metal, it’s as if my ears could periodize their stretched out notes with the peaks and valleys of the long oscillations of the various filter effects.

What about film? Looking back on MEMORIA, there is a sequence late in the narrative that is so decisively dead in terms of on-screen action or narrative incident (a character “dies,” or decides to be temporarily dead), sending the audience into a kind of sympathetic collective rigor mortis. We were entranced, yet aware that every second was irrevocably passing by. I seemed to turn my attention back to my own breathing as I sat in the theater. And yet, that scene still cuts between a few views of the scene and ambient sound effects played throughout. 

Bela Tarr’s movies often keep the camera position fixed while the landscape empties itself of any agent, and I’ve noticed that in this situation I like to make “loops” with my eyeballs, and trace clockwise circuits around the inside of the frame, since there are no pretty actor faces to direct my gaze. SATANTANGO has an engaging plot, almost like a crime caper, especially at the beginning, but it is also at the frontier between narrative cinema and video art—some of these moments of dead time and dead space could be clipped and shown in a gallery on continuous loop.

Finally, there is one cultural area where the operation of loops is obvious and crucial. Let’s turn away from high culture and dive into kitschy paperback horror.

I contend that slashers, creature features, and horror stories of the FINAL DESTINATION type are based on loops, specifically, the string of kills. In Michael McDowell’s THE AMULET, the titular piece of jewelry ends up switching hands (sometimes via comical rube-goldbergian mechanics) and people who find themselves wearing it become emotionally dysregulated and at the slightest provocation go on a killing spree, usually by weaponizing a household item. This pattern repeats itself until a whole Alabama small town gets leveled. Similar is Graham Masterton’s GHOST VIRUS, though the mechanics are a little more elaborate: a haunted article of clothing can take over the personality of the victim who wears it, and the victim takes on the ghost’s resentments and antipathies—and acquires a hunger for flesh. You can guess there’s plenty of room for variegated effects in all of these steps and elements.

Quite a productive understanding of art, thanks to Potts.