The Curious Proceedings of “Sentient Vortex”

Most Distance to Jupiter tracks begin in the unconscious. They begin as fragments, splinters, particles, sometimes with words or phrases attached. I’ve often called them “proceedings,” for lack of a better term. I find wisps of melodies or chord progressions in my head sometimes when I wake up in the morning. They are stuck, repeating, and they force me to stumble sleepily into the studio where I attempt to rescue them from the inexorable oblivion that consciousness brings. Months can then pass, as these proceedings pile up on the computer. Eventually, there comes a sudden urge to sift through them all, and work begins on a new collection of tracks.

Philip K. Dick was an American science fiction novelist (December 16, 1928 – March 2, 1982). I’m a huge fan, but that wasn’t always the case. In high school I found his prose to be an impenetrable wall. I didn’t possess the elasticity of thought that was required to truly get into his work until much later in life. Today, I’m fascinated by Dick’s life, and by what he put himself through to produce his work. Dick once wrote and published seven novels in a single year. He’d often produce work that required little to no revision. Finished prose simply flowed from his mind, through his hands, into his typewriter. His biographers have suggested he suffered from the best form of hypergraphia, a so-called uncontrollable desire to write brought on by issues with the temporal lobe of the brain, perhaps due to amphetamine abuse. No matter the cause, the reality is this: he was a beast of a writer. He could finish an entire novel in a month, and these hallucinatory texts still reverberate today. Based on his visions, Dick once postulated that the universe was made from information, decades before this notion became a core tenet of the Holographic Principle (itself a property of cutting-edge string theories and a supposed property of quantum gravity theory). I’m still amazed by the volume of Philip K. Dick’s output. After reading various Dick biographies, I realized my workflow for creating music wasn’t dissimilar to his for writing novels, especially during the period 1999-2005 when I released eleven albums, five in the year 2000 alone. I don’t know if there’s even a term for an uncontrollable desire to make music. That said, some very curious things occurred in 2015 while working on Sentient Vortex. I spent the early parts of the year skimming or rereading some of Dick’s novels, mostly in preparation for Amazon Prime’s adaptation of Dick’s Hugo award-winning novel The Man in the High Castle. At the same time, I started rummaging through the dream fragments of music I’d been collecting.

I worked on Sentient Vortex for seven months, from early May to mid-December, 2015. Ultimately, eleven tracks emerged. In the end, two never made it (they had health problems). A third was jettisoned quite late in the process, in mid-November. The eight tracks that remained all had strange words associated with them. These were part of the original dream fragments. I’d label blocks of MIDI data with these words. This allowed me to preserve these dream words along with approximations of the melodies, and ultimately, the words became working titles for each track.

In mid-November, after binge-watching the first season of The Man in the High Castle series on Amazon Prime, I found myself digging through the Exegesis of Philip K. Dick looking for clues. I am unsure what I was looking for, but as I flipped around, opening the heavy tome at random day after day, I’d find sentences that contained the words I used in the temporary track titles. Statistically-speaking, this isn’t exactly unexpected; these are all fairly common words. But the sentence fragments in the Exegesis made much better track titles and truly fit the moods of the music. My one regret is that I didn’t make a note of the pages I found the sentences on (it didn’t cross my mind; the published Exegesis is a gargantuan work, a mere chunk of the thousands of handwritten pages that constitute the original, and which even now hasn’t been fully transcribed or published in any form). I found a searchable version – a work in progress – of the Exegesis online and input the final track titles, but they can’t be located. I can find the words, but they appear in different orders. This delighted me. It’s the kind of thing PKD’s otherworldly sources of enlightenment might have subjected him to as he struggled to come to grips with the life-altering events he experienced in March, 1974. In the case of these track titles, the fact that I now couldn’t find the exact phrases within a searchable form of the Exegesis amused me greatly. It’s as if the words I’d found had rearranged themselves, or been rearranged by one of PKD’s otherworldly intelligences (or PKD himself?). Sentient Vortex was inspired in no small part by Dick’s body of work. The mental imagery he conjures, especially in works like VALISUbik, and A Scanner Darkly, is often difficult to shake off. This album is about disparate fragments of “dream melody” finding a form in reality. It’s about barriers breaking down between worlds, mysterious places and things, and celebratory rhythms that evoke distant times, either in the past or the future. 

“Causal Trains Melting” video, with visuals from Double Damage Games’ “Rebel Galaxy.”

The next Sentient Vortex curiosity occurred during the creation of the album’s cover art. The piece developed over a matter of a few hours. It consists of four layers: a symmetrical star field (background), a blue layer, a red layer, and the text/logo layer (foreground). No real revision was required except for some positioning of the text elements. The whole thing just sort of happened. And the eeriest element is the “sentient vortex” itself. The blue layer. The face.

Left: the original render. Right: copied, flipped and overlaid to reveal the face.

Curiously, if you look closely at the center, a five-pointed star emerges (slightly blur your eyes, you’ll see it). What’s odd here is that my original idea for the cover was that it would be based on simple linear forms. The plan was to place a large, hollow circle on a black background, and within it, a smaller off-center hollow circle. I was going to map the position of the smaller circle to the exact position of the planet Jupiter’s great red spot. The outer circle would represent Jupiter’s atmospheric perimeter. I had an urge to drop a five-pointed star within the smaller circle, to form a pentagram (potentially inverted) or pentacle. I had collected a series of pentagram images for reference, as well as some high resolution images of Jupiter from JPL to use as a positional guide. The initial version of the cover amounted to nothing more than an uninteresting framework, so experimentation with fractally-generated vortexes ensued. I found a lovely construct almost immediately, and started playing around with it. I duplicated the layer and flipped the copy along the horizontal axis. Suddenly staring back at me was the “face in blue.”

The myterious “face in blue.”

Not only did this eerie thing instantly satisfy the “sentient vortex” theme, it also met my desire to place a five-pointed star somewhere within the design (though not inverted, unfortunately). After a few color enhancement passes, the organic five-pointed ideogram became more apparent. The red layer was another simple randomized fractal rendering, horizontally duplicated to frame the blue face. The fact that the face emerged instantly, from the very first random mathematical seed I generated, is very “phildickian,” and a testament, perhaps, to the power of the sentient vortex we all wander through as we sleep.

When purchased via Bandcamp (see link, below), the full 24bit/96kHz album comes with a thematic digital booklet and copies of the album’s cover art – perfect for whichever era the listener/time traveler is computing in (aspect ratios include 4:3, 16:9, and 16:10, featuring resolutions as high as 5120×2880)!

Sentient Vortex is $7.99US at Bandcamp in 24bit/96kHz format. It can also be obtained in standard 16bit/44kHz format from iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Music, and most other digital music retailers. It can also be streamed on Spotify, Apple Music, Napster, or just about any other streaming service you can think of.