Author: Campbell, Bruce

Ultra-Complex Systems in Selected Bucolic Environments

Mathematicians say some of the most complex systems include traffic flow, hydrodynamics, and global weather patterns. To this, I say “feh!”Those high-falutin’ number crunchers have never observed a bluegrass jam.

Like the birth of a solar system, it begins with a tiny nucleus, followed by simple accretion. Solar systems begin with smallish bits of matter, and slowly, they attract other particles. How is that different from a jam? Start with a nucleus of say, two friends – one on guitar, another on mandolin. They begin to pick and sing, and if they’ve got anything on the ball, an orbiting particle, in the form of a banjo player, is drawn out of its ellipse by the gravitational pull of the nucleus.

Now the trio is making some pretty good music, and this does not go unnoticed in our nascent solar system. Another heavenly body’s orbital path intersects the trio, and voila! – we have a bass! Within a few minutes, the quartet becomes a quintet, with a wandering fiddler caught in the tiny wrinkle in the time/space continuum.

Now we’ve got a self sustaining system. But there’s no danger of intelligent life developing – this is bluegrass, after all (I’m kidding! I swear!). Actually, the ensemble does take on sentient characteristics – song selection becomes more varied, and harmonies begin to evolve. This makes our little system even more attractive to other charged particles, and five becomes six, then six becomes seven.

At this point, it’s all still good. The excitement level continues to build, and the size of the system allows for some members to pause to sip a beverage or maybe chat with a friend, and then join back up as the opportunity presents itself. The future looks bright!

But eventually, the jam becomes a victim of its own success. It all sounds so good, more and more players are attracted, and even with members rotating in and out, the session becomes to creak under its own weight. The jam is changing now, and its future may take any one of a number of interesting paths.

It may super nova – exploding in all directions, sending pickers out in clusters of twos and threes, where they re-accrete and begin their own little systems, each of which begin the evolution that the original jam underwent. Like the mythical hydra, the pieces of the broken jam are all individually viable, and begin their instinctive jamming behaviors almost immediately.

Sometimes, the bloated jam undergoes a slower, sadder demise. As new players come in and realize they can’t get a foothold in the huge group of pickers they begin wandering away, and with departure, another picker is also drawn away, and the jam inexorably begins to collapse, and becomes a musical black hole. Where once existed a vibrant, exciting musical event, there now only exists a few scattered lawn chairs, still warm to the touch – a sonic naked singularity.

There are no ways of knowing which twists and turns a given jam will take in its comparatively brief lifespan. No sound mathematical models exist that can accurately predict such a complex dynamicsystem. What’s the lesson in all of this? Well, there ain’tno lesson. Wait – maybe there is one: some stuff is flat out unknowable, but we’re all gonna jam anyway..

Posted:  11/10/2010

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