First Contact: ISM – Originally published in Artborne Magazine

Amongst mathematicians, cosmologists and sci-fi nerds with a willingness to dig a little deeper than a bong-fueled conversation beneath a mote of stars on a June night in the Catskills Mountains, there is the Drake Equation. This probabilistic argument is used to estimate the number of intelligent alien civilizations in our Milky Way galaxy and the likelihood of an E.T. visit or communication. This is based on three main variables: the number of habitable planets, the evolution of intelligent life on those planets, and the capacity for civilizations to survive long enough to achieve interstellar communication or travel. The Drake Equation relies on lots of conjecture and little observation and thus results in a wide range of answers. Many are playful or combative extrapolations, and occasionally innovative re-applications. One such retool of the Drake Equation was used by male physics students at Harvard University to address a mystery closer to home: how many eligible single women their age are living in Boston? They arrived at a depressingly sober estimate of around 2,500.

Frank Drake was a young radio astronomer when he formulated his equation in 1961. His intention was to catalyze an orderly search for alien life. Radio telescopes had been in use since the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that radio telescopes – like the one built at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico – became powerful enough or sensitive enough to possibly detect an alien radio signal amidst the noise of the cosmic microwave background radiation. This noise is the low-level, leftover fluctuating glow of thermal radiation from the Big Bang that streams at us from every direction in the microwave region of the radio spectrum.

Eventually, large arrays of radio telescopes were employed. One was featured in the popular 1997 film “Contact,” based on the novel by Carl Sagan, where Dr. Eleanor Arroway, a SETI scientist played by Jodie Foster is chosen to make first contact with an alien civilization after compelling evidence is discovered of an extraterrestrial radio signal.

It is quintessentially human to create and use equations and formulas to prove or predict. We are creatures obsessed with our knowledge of time. We want to understand our past and know our future. Einstein’s E=mc2 helps us understand the very nature of space and time on a universal scale, while the Pythagorean Theorem (a2 + b2 = c2) links algebra, geometry, and trigonometry and made navigation on Earth possible in the first place.

On a more immediate, earthly, less math-y level: predictive formulas have emerged behind the scenes to powerfully manipulate consumer behavior, from food to clothing to music. The addictive nature of most junk food is no accident. Food researchers relentlessly test subjects to find “the bliss point” for their products: the optimal palatability where the synergistic combination of sugar, salt, and fat produces an endorphin rush run by the neurotransmitter dopamine that has us suddenly staring at the bottom of a bag of chips like an addicted casino slot-jockey in Atlantic City with a cup of dollar tokens wondering where it all went.

It doesn’t stop there. In the age of data mining and digital streaming, companies like Echo Nest use software to analyze a song’s basic musical characteristics such as beats per minute, tonality, and loudness, but also more refined elements like texture, timbre and perceived brightness. This is all in an effort to create hit-predicting algorithms and serve you tailored listening suggestions on services like Spotify or Pandora. Songwriting teams now search for a musical bliss point, serving you copious hooks and ear candy, with greater homogeneity of tonality, timbre and loudness.

I want my music scene to be more like the Drake Equation and less like the Bliss Point. This column will be dedicated to finding signs of intelligent musical life in Orlando, of the non-bliss-point-data-mined-group-think variety. I’m going to start with a local 8-piece funk-slash-jazz combo called Ism. Led by vibraphonist Ian McLeod, he and the majority of players are all faculty members in Full Sail University’s Bachelor of Science in Music Production degree program. Full Sail launched that degree program in 2010, and with it came an influx of composers and musicians both local and from around the country.

Ism performing at the Full Sail Music Fest, February 2016. Photo provided by Ism.

Like a toddler with a machine gun, Ism’s sound doesn’t aim in one direction for long, and they don’t care, spraying in the general area between funk and modern jazz, with tight rhythm changes, unconventional instrumentation, and forays into mixed meter. Occasionally Hip-hop and Salsa wind up casualties of war too. The consistent strain, though, is that this is music in motion, party music that may relax its pace a bit, only so you can catch your breath for the next up-tempo romp.

Ism is a young group, but they have the experience and attitude of seasoned professionals, trained to read music. Ready to play and ready to learn, they are musicians’ musicians, without the drawback of diva tensions. Individuals have played throughout the country for years, done hard time at Disney, recorded albums everywhere and engineered them too. As their backgrounds are diverse, so their eclecticism derives in part from the writing and arranging styles of its members.

Ian McLeod did a lot of the early arranging and writing. But Scott Dickinson, Ism’s trumpet player who was hired by Full Sail just shy of his doctorate at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music for his facility with arranging, has contributed tunes too. Increasingly, writing credits expanded to include more and more members of the group, reflecting McLeod’s easy-going leadership style. Individual contributions are welcome, and the group gives all ideas an earnest shot.

Veit Renn, Ism’s German-born keyboard player teaches mixing at Full Sail and was recruited in part because he has written and produced for artists such as N’Sync and the Backstreet Boys. Under the name F8te he recently released “Overdue”, an R&B album of his own songs featuring himself as vocalist. Renn is the mix engineer for Ism’s yet untitled album that will be released at a performance party at Will’s Pub on July 14 at 9pm (1042 North Mills Avenue, Orlando).

Ian McLeod – Vibraphone/MIDI Vibes
Scott Dickinson – Trumpet
Jeremy Fratti – Tenor Sax
Derrick Harris – Trombone
Veit Renn – Keys/Vocals
Greg Jungbluth – Bass
Nik Ritchie – Drums
Bob Patterson – Guitar

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