Kalpa (2018) is a self-generating computer composition which can be experienced online and in live installations. It is based on the enormous time cycles found in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. The Sanskrit root “kal” is the same root that forms the English word “calendar”, as in a measured marking of time. Varying widely among traditions, kalpas are organized into a hierarchy of durations. Descriptions of their duration are not always exact in terms of solar years, which are based on revolutions around the sun. For example, the kalpa upon which this piece is based is described by the amount of time it takes for the average human life span to vary between two extremes, generally thought to be 10 and 1000 years, based on the amount of merit generated in that time period. To put it in perspective, our current lifespan is nearly at the bottom; however, we do appear to be on an upward trend. In the Buddhist Visuddhimagga canon, written around 430 CE (this text is concerned mostly with meditation, as the Buddhist tradition is wholly uninterested in speculating on the future), they are described in solar years loosely as:
Regular Kalpa: 16,798,000 years
Small Kalpa: 1000 Regular Kalpas, or 16,798,000,000 years
Medium Kalpa: 20 Small Kalpas, or 335,960,000,000 years
Great Kalpa: 4 Medium Kalpas, or 1,343,840,000,000 years
This composition is based on the Regular Kalpa, which is about 16.8 million years. It uses the 7-note major scale, providing a familiar and pleasant pitch field for the listener. Taking our time interval of 1 second as a basic unit, I found a set of 7 prime numbers reasonably close in size which, when multiplied together, yield a number very close to the duration in seconds of one Regular Kalpa. Each note of the scale follows a rhythmic and register pattern which repeats at its assigned time interval. While the piece has no real beginning or end, the simultaneous occurrence of all seven pitches at their lowest octave represents the beginning of a cycle which would would repeat c. 16.8 million years later. This complex layering of embedded time cycles expresses these cosmologies, which, fairly early in our human history, expressed an understanding of “deep time”. While many repetitive and process compositions are based on permutation patterns, I felt that constructing the piece from time cycles was a more proper reflection of the underlying patterns.
As it is based on repeating patterns, Kalpa has no real beginning or end. However, the lowest F and C notes can be heard as grounding events, as they occur at intervals of 191 and 173 seconds respectively– the longest cycles of the 7 notes in the scale. Additionally, they serve as a scale roots for the patterns unfolding above them. When listening to Kalpa, the listener is hearing a single slice of a pattern which is unique within the 16.8 million year span. After listening for several minutes, I find myself picking out 2 or 3 notes and listening to how they interact. Listening for longer, it is possible the track how the scale tones moves between different octaves. All seven notes will sound together 1728 times over the course of 16.8 million years, but only once in their lowest octaves. At shorter intervals, smaller groups of notes will sound together. Groups of two notes sound together on the average of one or two times per minute, giving the listener a method of grounding themselves in the present while appreciating the larger time cycles at work, many of which will take place outside of their lifespan. In the Buddhist canon on which this piece is based, it is believed that as human lifespans increase, we collectively accumulate more merit, giving us the opportunity to gain realization through meditation and benefiting other beings through kindness and generosity. As a result or our increased realization, we will require less moment-to-moment stimulation, and the performance of this piece, which sounds slow and sparse to our contemporary ears, could become quite exciting.
The sounds of the pattern are simple sampled piano sounds using the 1/4-comma meantone temperament. The purity of the sounds and intervals provide a pleasant and familiar listening environment. In addition, when multiple notes align together as a chord, an additional sound pattern is played based on the number of notes in the chord, giving a sense of the larger form of the piece while providing a pleasant marking of time outside of the base time unit.
Below are two excerpts from Kalpa at different moments within the 16.8 million year cycle.
Excerpt #1 – August 22, 2018, 13:12 MT
Excerpt #2 – c. 222,500 years from now
A live audio stream of the piece is available at this location. This stream is a live “performance” of the piece, performed on a Kalpa device and streamed over the internet.
The primary vehicle for listening to Kalpa is live playback from a Kalpa Device. The Kalpa device is a Raspberry Pi, which is a credit-card sized $40 mini-computer running a specially-tuned version of the Linux operating system. It is outfitted with an inexpensive audio card that interfaces to the sound system, though the audio card is not required for internet streaming. I encourage listeners to hear it live, as the spatialization in the live performance is not audible in the streaming recording. The performance is controlled by the open-source SuperCollider (http://www.audiosynth.com) music programming environment. The Kalpa program, which I wrote using the SuperCollider language, controls the SuperCollider audio server running on the computer and is, essentially, the composition. At device startup, the Kalpa program captures the system time, counted as the number of seconds since January 1, 1970 00:00 GMT, and calculates the pattern state based on the performance having started at that time. It then simply plays the piece until it is switched off or otherwise stopped. As a result, the device, if properly synchronized to the world clock, will always resume the piece in its correct state wherever it is started.