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Skateboarding with the Music of the Spheres

 The goal of this essay is to discuss a philosophy of skateboarding and harmony in a way that is hopefully accessible to skaters. Although I'm not an expert skater, for the sake of credibility I begin with describing the extent to which I have been an amateur skateboarder since more than twenty years ago. In that time I have discovered two important facts: first, skateboarders listen to particular types of music and harmony, and second, skateboarding is actually somewhat of an aggregate of circular motion. In order to explore philosophical themes, there is next a brief digression on an ancient, controversial idea about motion and harmony and also a quick theory about harmony in general. Finally, the discussion leads to the idea of how the motions of skateboarding become harmony inspired by the music of the spheres.

When I was a teen, I got my first skateboard as a gift from my father, and it was one of those no-name brands from the toy store. One of the boys in my neighborhood was into freestyle bikes and built a half-pipe in his backyard, and I learned to ride my skateboard on it. I could go up, turn around and come back down, and that was about all. Sometimes I did a 540 degree turn instead of just a 180 degree turn. On the ground I learned practical things like how to go up a curb from the street onto the sidewalk without stopping. Going down the curb was of course much easier than going up. Either way, I could have done an ollie, but I could never greatly control it when there was a lot of speed involved. Other boys took skateboarding more seriously than me, and they encouraged me to learn tricks and to get a better skateboard. Mostly the tricks were simple ones like doing a handstand on the board or doing flashy kick turns and ollies. By the time that I went off to college in Austin, Texas, I had a board from Lance Mountain with Tracker trucks, and I took it with me to ride from home to school or from one side of campus to the other. I think that skating was actually forbidden on campus, but I did it anyway because I thought that the rules were stupid, and besides, I was just traveling without any risky tricks along the way. I took the same attitude later when I moved to San Francisco, California, there using the board to get around town and again even later sometimes in graduate school as transportation. Eventually I returned to my old neighborhood to live, and by then the city had built a skate park at a few miles from my house. Although I was already thirty-five years old by the time it was built, I still wanted to try it out, but being old and not a great skater made me feel a bit lame, especially around all the young and talented kids. I did special things to prove to myself that I could belong at the park. In addition to skateboarding, I had incidentally already learned another sport along the way, and that sport was Capoeira, the Brazilian, acrobatic dance and martial art. Some of the moves like breakdancing seemed adaptable to having a skateboard, so I would go to the park and try to incorporate the two sports into one, with modest success. As long as I kept busy doing my own thing, the kids didn't seem to mind having me there, as they would spend most of their time trying to improve their kick-flips and grinds.

Back in the eighties when I started skating, the music that seemed strongly to associate with it was punk rock and its derivatives. My peers introduced me to bands such as the Sex Pistols, Butthole Surfers, and Suicidal Tendencies. To sum up what skateboarding music is, I suppose that it is angry, noisy and raw, but it is also fairly simple, fast, and direct—sometimes rebellious or with a sense of humor. The boys in my neighborhood at the half-pipe also liked heavy metal music, whereas now the nearby skate park has a sound system that plays a radio station that focuses on new music incorporating similar styles of hard rock. In most cases of skater music, the musicians who form the harmony are singers, bass guitarists or lead guitarists, and I would like to say a bit more about the intuition of people generally who skate as it relates to harmony.

The essence is in the skater's command of circular motion such as in how his wheels are spinning, how he rotates through a kick turn and how on a half-pipe he drops in and rolls down until it flattens out. The fastest of the three is the spinning wheel, being so round and small that it makes a complete turn in a matter of inches, which a fast skater might travel in a split second. The kick turn actually involves three distinct circles of motion, one for the slower yaw of the board and another two for the two wheels which still spin underneath it, actually in opposite directions. For dropping in, the main circle of motion is the gradual change in the board's pitch as it follows the curve of the pipe, and other circles manifest again in the spinning of the wheels. For fancier moves and more exotic surfaces like pools and bowls, the aggregates of circular motions can be even more sophisticated mechanically; although, that fact in itself might not make clear what about skating is essentially like harmony. In order to clarify the harmony of skating instead what is needed is a special abstraction, which admittedly would even seem a bit unbelievable, but at least I promise that I am not making it all up.

The necessary idea comes from a long time ago when scientists and philosophers would debate about the motions of all things and when they had fancy theories about the universe. The Pythagorean philosophers talked about about the stars and the planets as crystalline spheres moving up in the heavens around the Earth, and such movement was said to make the harmony of the spheres. The theory goes on to say, however, that we cannot notice the music because we hear it all our lives long and are never able to know a real moment of silence without it. Aristotle disagreed and said that there could be no such harmony because any noise as loud as it must surely need to be would tear us all to pieces from the sheer force of sound. Kepler thought that they were both wrong but nonetheless still believed in a sense of harmony. He knew that the Earth was not at the center of motion, and in agreement with Galileo and Copernicus, he said instead that all planets in the solar system moved around the sun.

In addition to heliocentric theory, Kepler claimed that the very nearly circular motions produced what he called the “harmony of the world.” Although it may have just been his fantasy, here is the idea. Harmony is commonly made of tones that even a punk rock guitarist could play. A guitar has frets that serve to change temporarily the length of strings while keeping more or less the same tension. Shorter string lengths sound higher pitches just as longer lengths sound lower pitches. If the lengths are all in the right proportion to one another, then when strummed together the strings produce a harmony. Abstractly it is not therefore so much about what sounds but rather about precise arrangements of larger and smaller things. Kepler considered the planetary motions in this way, claiming that they too could fall into precise arrangements which were a harmony at least in some intellectual sense, if not as something to hear. The slower planets such as Jupiter and Saturn were like bass notes, while the faster moving planets such as Mercury and Venus were like the tenor notes.

After I studied all of this old science and philosophy, I thought about applying it to skateboarding. My theory is that the systems of circular or angular motions of a skater—like those of the solar system—are also able to fall into arrangements that produce a harmony if they are made in the right proportions. Metaphorically, we might try to say that the bass notes are when skaters on the half-pipe are dropping in, the lead or baritone parts are from the kick turns, and the highest, vocal parts are from the spinning wheels. One detail worth mentioning is that as in the harmony of the world, not just any motion leads to a concordant harmony because it depends on whether the relationship between motions fits a musical scale. For example, only during the occasional, ephemeral moment are the angular velocities of Mars and Earth in a proportion that is consonant, and similarly for just brief moments might there be a harmony between both the motion of the skateboard through the curvature of a pool or bowl and the motion of the rapid, spinning wheels underneath.

In conclusion, having experience skateboarding and being with other skaters may lead to observations about what notions of music and harmony skaters have and also about what kinds of motions they exhibit when they skate. Ancient philosophy and medieval science can serve to interpret these observations by comparison with ideas about motion and harmony. In particular, Kepler argued essentially that the planetary angular velocities are the pitches of imaginary tones, so in a similar way I argue that the angular velocities of skaters may also be such pitches. The argument finally then reveals how to skate with the music of the spheres.

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