Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The CE3K board makes no sense

Okay, so loooong before I became fascinated with the Glass Bead Game, and its goal of a symbolic language that unifies art, music, mathematics, and science, there was this:
This is the big color/light/musical-tone board from the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind that was used to facilitate communication with the aliens. Throughout that movie, the scientists were struggling to understand how the aliens were communicating using musical notes. They also used some real-life hand signals for the notes, but what everyone remembers is that five-tone sequence that got played hundreds of times in the movie...
So yes, it was my unbridled geekdom at the age of 10 or whatever to be fascinated by the implied correspondences between the colors and rectangles on that grid and the musical notes. For example, what was the system used to position the notes on the board and to determine what color went with what note?

I happened to think of this again yesterday and went to Sage Google... and found... nothing.  Some comments about how the musical track and the lights weren't synched up with one another until post-production, but absolutely nothing about the design of the darned thing.

So I thought about it.  (You know that old saying:  "Sometimes I just sits and thinks.  And sometimes I just sits." Not sure which one this was.) The board has 12 columns and 6 rows. The 12 columns may correspond to the 12 semi-tones of the chromatic scale. In fact, the first three notes of the 5-tone alien sequence are positioned correctly for that to be the case. (Thanks youtube for having this full section of the movie... with funny subtitles to boot!) So it looks like the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd notes correspond as follows:
But the final two notes?  Nope!  Not positioned where they "should" be at all, based on this idea. If "down" corresponds to a lower octave, then it should be this:
but in the movie it's this:
Oh well.  Maybe someone proposed the first idea, and then some assistant director (or maybe Spielberg himself) said: "Nah, that doesn't look cool enough. We need the lights to be whipping all over the board, from top to bottom!"

So what does this have to do with anything useful or real? Well, probably nothing. But there has been a long tradition (from the Italian Renaissance to the 20th century Surrealists!) in finding new insights at the intersections of the traditional arts and sciences.  Isaac Newton was fascinated by the correspondences between color and music, and people have invented strange devices and rigorous mental disciplines to explore these things. Even psychologists are learning about the workings of the brain by studying people who see sounds and hear colors!

3 comments:

  1. Thanks! Somebody had to blow the whistle on this insidious 30-year-old coverup! (Well, no... they really didn't... but you know what I mean!) :-)

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  2. This is off topic, but hopefully good news. I've nominated you for the Stylish Blogger Award.

    What does that mean? Only positives I hope. I've posted all of the details here:

    http://theporkster.blogspot.com/2011/04/where-styles-at.html

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