Monday, April 11, 2011

The Brain Remembers and the Heart Lies

I don't like to indulge in nostalgia because it tends to confirm the hypothesis that the present is the only form of life possible and that our memories are projections, screen memories.

Bear with me, however.

I recall as a child that the much anticipated Saturday evening television was preceded by an interminable overture that my parents enjoyed -perhaps yours too, for that is what I am trying to determine.

The show, as I recall it, was old-fashioned and nostalgic -even for my parents. Its songs seem to originate in some infinite pastel colored past, some deep racial memory of superannuated sing-a-longs, past a screen of time made from the flux of popping champagne bubbles and soft music. Youthful faces of Mormon uniformity in matching outfits sang slowly in all-too perfect harmony at a pace that slipped behind dirges and foghorns, pleasant, beaming ditties that could be sung through a mouthful of teeth without ever missing a smile or taking a breath. The show itself was named after its gently accented and genteel host. 

I mean, of course, The Singing Brain.

The mature series never started with the Singing Brain himself; he mainly introduced the acts. By then people had gotten comfortable with his appearance in his tank (as comfortable as they were going to be, anyway) and the careful orchestration and skillful direction of the show created the willful illusion that the brain could see and hear, engage in playful banter and tender duets.

ʼ"Well, if you're so smart, you tell me which came firs!"

In reality, of course, the brain was wholly isolated, deprived of any sensory input, its seemingly flawless ability to integrate, interact and intermesh with the external world being explained wholly by the principle of epiphenomenalism.

The other challenge the show repeatedly faced, according to Wikipedia, was lighting the brain, as directors struggled with numerous unique problems involving the albedo of the tank, the need for a clear focus on the camera subject without making the dinner time audience nauseous and the ever-present potential risk of damaging the brain's tissues by overheating.

Nonetheless, every show ended as its premiere had, with the brain singing one its signature solos, a strange song, to be sure, plangent and affecting, a singularly original composition of a mind entirely freed and quarantined from all stimulus and feedback, entirely a priori and alienated -and yet human, all-too human.

Toward the end of his solo he would be joined by his old chorus, in the full dress uniforms of their departments and lab coats. I always wondered if the scientists and generals who has created the brain enjoyed their brief moment on the stage. They never appeared in any other segment. I like to think they kept on out of sense of obligation to their lonely creation. Though the stage was ringed by singing siblings in identical golden curls, it was Lockheed Martin and the technical staff at Groom Lake who were the brain's only true remaining family.

It was always hard to predict when this final solo of the brain would end, because of its musically (and mathematically) unfathomable structure. Perhaps this regular uncertainty helped explain why the show seemed to go on forever -the producers had to accommodate the brain's indeterminate number and cut the show accordingly. Above all, they had to bracket the end of the show with a prerecorded farewell, rather than the violent pleas for death that the brain ended all his performances with.

Of course, everyone knew that the brain wanted to die and begged for the release of death almost constantly -especially people in the industry. It was an open secret among professionals on Ventura Boulevard. It even made the air on the show a few times: oh, grandpa, the girls would laugh.

By the time of The Far Out Brain Show, however, the brain had stopped singing, per se. Its contribution now consisted of scripted artificial dialogue, that it often flubbed, and long, bizarre stream of consciousness monologues whose appearance had prompted the retooling of the show. Eventually the show was basically just these opaque and inscrutable soliloquies that sounded like Samuel Beckett characters arguing about Whitehead while reading lottery numbers and directing air traffic accompanied by freaked out acid rock on a stage where the brain seemed to float through the groovy oil projections with the go-go dancers.

It was hard to follow, even for the turned-on set, as the brain would simply blurt out NUMBERS ARE REAL ENTITIES; PEOPLE ARE NOT during a “Mother Goose” skit (copied from The Goodies) with Ken Berry and the cast would basically just try and rap along: that's heavy, man. Soylent Green is people, too.

People (real or not, soylent or not) began to wonder why the show was still on the air; my parents, anyway, stopped watching. The loyal viewers of the show, however, remained: cognitive and mathematical scientists, radical psychiatrists and, for reasons still unclear, members of the intelligence and diplomatic communities.

The singing brain's performances, however, continued to decline and rumors of organic damage or drug abuse began to circulate. People said the brain had difficulty remembering people's names and appeared “bloated and disheveled.” 

A reclusive and paranoid brain in a dingy tank

Perhaps this was to be expected: it was, after all, the longest continually publicly performing brain on public record. The Soviets supposedly had a “harmonizing cortex,” but it shrunk and died and never performed publicly.

When a suddenly youthful and invigorated Singing Brain returned to the stage with catchy tunes and ribald banter, the brain's longterm fans sensed fraud. Indeed, Fake Brain had none of the genius or otherworldly charm and talent of the original, being hired largely for its looks.

The photo that broke the hoax. Note the different part in the central sulcus.

Yet for those who knew him, the Singing Brain had earned its rest and were glad for it when it moved out to New Mexico. The albums it eventually produced there are now widely hailed as prefiguring much of ambient and low liminal post-human post-music today and there is a great deal of interest in the scientific and military communities for these and other lost masterpieces. There is hope that a complete catalog might be reconstructed, but its surviving wife and son have been reticent about releasing any further “brain music.”

To his credit, Fake Brain continues to this day to perform a loyal, if derivative act at the Sahara. It is, however, an imitation done in the sincerest flattery and as a true art. As Fake Brain writes in his memoirs, I Am Not The Singing Brain, there's something about the Singing Brain's music that “people with bodies will never fully understand.”

1 comment:

  1. The Sahara will close May 16, so anyone hoping to see Fake Brain should make reservations soon. Don't miss the Sahara Burrito Challenge: Finish It and It's Free!