Category Archives: music

R2AK_FullCourse_Map

Racing an amphibious Kinetic Sculpture … 750 miles to Alaska?

“Inconvenience is only Adventure Improperly Construed; Adventure is Inconvenience properly construed”. -G.K. Chesterton

I used to think The Grand Championship Kinetic Sculpture Race (GCKSR) in Northern California was the most ambitious and inspiring event I’d heard of,   especially irresistible to type-2-fun loving,   artist-tinkerer-engineer-adventurers.     There, people race over a 50 mile course in human powered vehicles they’ve built themselves,    where the course includes a mile in the Pacific Ocean,    ascending and descending steep sand dunes,   crossing the Eel River,     and – if that weren’t enough –   judging each other on how inspiring and excellent is the ART that they, and their vehicles, comprise.  There’s something irresistible about such an insane specification, with so many conflicting challenges needing to be overcome to build, and propel,  a vehicle over such a course.   Inventors and adventurers (and generally the sorts who delight in problem solving)   thrive on such implausible and difficult tasks.   A tough-mudder for the mind, and body, and workshop, all.      Thinking of Chesterton’s Quote on the kinship of inconvenience and adventure,  the Kinetic Sculpture Race seemed like a perfect way to “Creatively Inconvenience Myself” in the pursuit of adventure and a context in which to invent wonderful things.

“For the Glory” is the tagline of the Kinetic Sculpture Race  –   a cheer and sentiment which inspires years-long passion projects by avid tinkerers.  Such a mantra might well be the rallying cry also of those who do another,  unrelated race: the “Race To Alaska”.    This 750 mile ocean race (often abbreviated as “R2AK”) starts one week after the Kinetic Sculpture Race,   and goes by Inland Passage along the Pacific Coast – by water – 750 miles to Ketchikan AK.    The only rules are that no motors are allowed,  and two waypoints set the rough outline of the course.   First prize is a hefty $10K.   Second prize is a set of steak knives.   I don’t think there’s a third prize, and yet people do this daunting and bold trek in Paddle-boards and Kayaks,   even when the chances of ‘winning’ in such vessels,   where carbon fiber sailing rocket catamarans are competing on equal terms,  are vanishingly small.   Obviously,   this is an opportunity for exploration under the rubrik of a race,  and with the benefit of the camraderie of a few other hardy souls following similar goals,  but which is a fundamentally personal challenge.   These racers know the same Glory spoken of by Kinetic Sculpture Racers.

An idea of outlandish ambition has entered my mind, and taken root.  I am entertaining the delicious engineering challenges of making a vehicle which is light enough to be human propelled over land,   and at the same time be seaworthy and efficient in the water.     The additional constraint is actually helpful for the design,   of an efficient amphibious craft.  The Race I’m building for only begins in Arcata;   it will end in Ketchikan.  To do it, I’ll need to build an amphibious,  human and wind powered, vehicle that can move as efficiently as possible over each of the following terrains:

All Terrain means:

  1.  the Northern Pacific in high winds up to gale force, with tidal currents up to 15 knots and steep waves.
  2.  glass-smooth protected waterways with zero wind
  3.  paved roads
  4.  steep sand dunes and slippery cement boat ramps
  5.  rocky river shores

There have been several times in the past,  where I’ve undertaken things which at the time seemed bold in the context of my comfort zone at the time.    Month-or-two long self supported bicycle tours and hiking trips across deserts in summer and snow-capped high mountain passes, mainly.     Consistently,  each stretch of my sense of what is possible,   what risks endurable,   has quicky become clear as  seminal,   epoch-defining rites of passage;  intensely rewarding in the moment and over much longer views, both.   Intensely rewarding in physical and mental health and vigor.       Each time such trips have begun,  the flood of recognition, of joy, has inspired me to ask:  how did I let it get so long!   Don’t wait so long to do this again!   And it has been a while since my last adventure. This has been a period of incredible growth, and I find myself better poised than ever before to undertake something grand.    My engineering skills have never been greater,  and I’ve recently,   finally,   acquired my own CNC milling machine (a beautiful early 1990’s Bridgeport),  and can make sophisticated and strong parts out of metal in the comfort of my own home, at last.  I have a community of mentors to talk to,  and a recent success at work has granted me more independence and autonomy than previously,  with which to take a month or two for a grand epic adventure.   To the toolkits of a mechanical and electrical engineer I’ve recently added also initial forays into carbon fiber and fiberglass composite construction,   and I’m excited for bringing to bear the full force of my creativity and craft to build a vehicle meeting my needs for these races.

And so I begin here a thread of documentation,  detailing the engineering thinking and progress towards realizing a vehicle capable of both the Kinetic Sculpture Race, and the Race to Alaska,    in May and June of this year,  2019.

Vehicle Specification:

1. Design and build a seaworthy boat which will be transported to the race site in 135 days, May 25th 2019.   This boat will be able to carry me and necessary supplies to live for at least 1 week between resupply points in the coastal wilderness of British Columbia and Alaska

2. The boat will be able to be powered and move as efficiently as possible on both land and water.   Power sources will include sail,   oar,  and pedals.    Motors powered by solar panels are out.   Fuel-burning non-biological engines are out.

3. The boat will Be, and carry, Art.   My best idea of this at present is musical: the boat is a thin shell not unlike a cello body.  It will be sonourous if excited into vibration by strings.     I am an excellent improvisational cellist.  I have performed on sailboats before and been delighted to see the bobbing heads of seals come to visit and listen,   and I would have more of such experiences.    Ideally I will instrument the boat with hydrophones and frequency shifting electronics so that I can maintain a constant awareness of the soundscape of the waters I travel over,    whose inhabitants include whales,  seals, otters, dolphins,  and much more.     At intervals,  I will intersperse the sustained exertion with musical explorations of my mood, and my settings,  and any collaborators I can find to riff with – hopefully including a few marine as well as other terrestrial bipedal mammals.

4. The boat will be able to be propelled up a slime-covered common boat-launch ramp slope of 6% grade under human power without exiting the craft. Reconfiguration, if necessary, must be accomplished in the water.

4.  The boat will be able to be propelled along a level paved road at an average speed of at least 7mph,  and ideally 12mph,  under human power alone. (Sets rolling efficiency and wind resistance maximums.)

5. The boat should weigh less than 300 pounds,  and ideally closer to 200 pounds,   unladen.

6.  The boat should be tough and not brittle, and redundantly buoyant.   The boat should be tested for collision endurance against blunt rocks and submerged logs, and all practical measures taken to increase it’s survivability in such an encounter.

7. The boat will ideally have autopilot when under sail.  (I am a robotics engineer after all).   Autopilot should be able to tack to maintain course in high aspect ratio coastal inlet passages.  Autopilot should self-diagnose all anticipatable failure modes and in particular detect implausible sudden shifts of position that may indicate invalid data due to mountainous interference.

8.   A GPS-enabled physical pointing device will be built as a smart compass.  It can point directly at things.    GPS pointer will be able to  pivot around 3 perpendicular axes of rotation, so that if distances are sufficienty remote,   the pointer will be seen to be pointing below the horizon due to the curvature of the earth.

…   more to come …

A small concert for solo cello, deep inside the Grand Canyon, during a meteor shower.

redwall_sunrise
Sunrise seen from The Coconino Plateau off the North Kaibab trail. This is a beautiful natural promontory and stage, but experiences high winds which, at least during the morning as I hiked past, made it unfit for performance.
redwall_best2
First sighting of my podium, the Redwall Bridge on the North Kaibab trail, 2.8 miles and 2000 vertical feet below the North Kaibab trailhead. The Redwall bridge is seen as a straight line deep in the canyon seen here.

Six years ago,    while hiking rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon the first time,  I discovered a profoundly spectacular location with interesting acoustics.    A wooden footbridge crossed a chasm,   forming a convenient stage,    with sheer rock walls ascending close together towards the north rim of the canyon,   2000′  overhead.   The Kaibab trail is even, in spots, blasted as a “C” shaped ledge into a sheer-vertical cliff face.  It is the largest and most topographically interesting  space I’ve ever gotten to sing in.

What stood out, to my ears, was the unusual quiet and echo.   It is free of almost any noise,   except the sounds of small ground squirrels or birds traipsing in the underbrush.       But when a sound was made, the echoes were unusually distinct and lively.   Echoes would echo, and echo,  and it seemed you could hear the fourth or fifth reflection of a handclap.    I stopped and whistled  for a few minutes,     and remember thinking to myself,   wistfully:

“If only I had my cello”.  

Six years passed.  A time of incredible growth and flux,    and now I find myself living on the west coast,  theoretically within a day’s drive of this spot.    (13 hours from the San Francisco bay).   The idea is still high among my crowded backlog of adventures / projects / enthusiasms.  And then the news arrives,  that the Perseid meteor shower this year (a regular August occurrence) was expected to be unusually brilliant this year,  “The brightest in a decade” even.        This finally pushed the idea (of revisiting the North Kaibab trail with my Cello) from “A good idea worth doing sometime”  to “A unique opportunity to do now“.    I messaged a few friends to inquire if anyone wanted to go,  and join me in a middle-of-the-night cello recital on a footbridge in the canyon,   beneath the brightest meteor shower of a decade.    Many were interested but could not attend due to prior commitments,  or the extreme driving:hiking ratio (near 2:1).   but the invite met an enthusastic “yes” from a friend who, it turns out,  was more apt a fellow adventurer than I could have known beforehand:  not only a willing impromptu adventurer,  but an aerialist/gymnast/theatrical producer,  with extraordinary insights and ideas about unconventional audience/performer relationships.

Gordon Kirkwood Performs Solo Cello at Silicon Valley NewSpace Conference Black Tie Gala Award Ceremony

The Space Frontier Foundation’s annual conference is one of the most important commercial space conferences in the nation, and will be held July 16-18 in Silicon Valley.

Attended by the elite and rising stars of space entrepreneurship and the administrators of NASA, the FAA,  and the founders and directors of significant aerospace companies,  I am inspired and delighted to play to a crowd of rocket scientists at the culmination of such a conference.

Moth Mainstage sells out Byham Theater, Gordon Kirkwood Soloist on Cello

Copyright Gordon Kirkwood 2014
Sold out Byham Theater! capacity 1,300

I was honored to be invited to perform as the soloist and featured performer for the Moth Mainstage event at the Byham theater in Downtown Pittsburgh.

from the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures writeup:

“The acclaimed storytelling group, The Moth, based in New York City, will return to Pittsburgh on Wednesday, August 27, 2014, for a sixth annual appearance presented by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures.  Consistently a sell-out event, The Moth Mainstage is a two-act show featuring five true stories, told live and without notes. A mix of celebrated raconteurs and storytelling novices from Pittsburgh and beyond, this year’s lineup will explore the theme “Don’t Look Back” in wildly divergent ways.”

—–

The Byham theater has 1300 seats,  and it was sold out.   As lights dimmed at the beginning,  then after the intermission, I walked on stage and played my own compositions on unaccompanied Cello. I then sat on stage through the whole event,  in the best seat of the house,  eight feet from each performer.

The theme was “Not Looking Back”.

  • Kate Tellers told a warm story about  her 85 year old mother’s last hours,  with family and friends gathering around, sharing cheeses and familial warmth,  paying their respects as the old lady felt her death approaching and called a loving family near.
  • Vanessa German told a wrenching story of the most positive perspective shift,  on the occasion of the recent death of her abusive schitzophrenic mother, and the moments and words surrounding her death,  and the perspective she found to forgive her mother instead of resent her,  and give her in dying the sort of comfort and tenderness that she and her 5 siblings so long sought themselves.
  • Richard Price told a fascinating story of his 15 year old great grandfather, born in 1900, as a short 110 pound napoleon-complex russian jew in the bronx with not much sense, taking on a gang of killers and thugs, the fein gang,  in their lair to secure their release of a girl to her mother.  And of how that gang got back at him by praising his courage,  welcoming him, then initiating him by sending him to beat up a girl in a picket line who turned out to be his cousin,  who he begged to play along,  but would not.  The gang saw he betrayed the intent of his initiation (he did not cripple his cousin) and he fled to the docks to save his life,  got hired by a merchant ship (despite the sailor’s tale that a jew on a boat is bad luck),  and then having further problems of similar origin when he confronted (on the third day of the journey) one of the rude sailors who demanded coffee from him, by dumping the pot of coffee on his head.  His grandfather was then KEELHAULED,  and survived.  When they got to Algiers,  his grandfather was again duped by the villains, and the sailors made peace with him and offered to take him out for a night on the town,  visiting a brothel,  and eventually slipping him a mickey finn,  knockout drops, and tattooing this jewish boy from the bronx with a large christian cross on his arm, before abandoning him in port of Algiers.   He was told that tattooing over a  fresh tattoo would kill him (infection?), but replied to the tattooist he’d rather return to his mother dead, than for her to see a christian cross on his arm-he wanted the tattoo transformed to an anchor.  He was rendered quite sick, but had the second tattoo, and then as a penniless teenage boy, made his way back from Algiers to New York over 6 months in or about 1916.
  • Horace Sanders told a story about his divorce and reconciliation with the mother of his third through eighth children.
  • Cole Kazdin told a story about how she broke up with her boyfriend of several years,  amiably, then was rendered amnesic in a stunt she was roped into as a TV actress (being thrown in the air in a cheerleader outfit amongst people who were supposed to catch her, but didn’t).  She forgot the breakup, and doctors asked her boyfriend to play along for the first few days.  The details of how she would make post-it notes to collect details of her life, foreign to her, were fascinating.

 

copyright Gordon Kirkwood 2014
Sold out crowd of 1300 holds their cell phones up to show themselves, upon the host’s request, after intermission. He pulled out an iPhone and I realized I had my Nikon and wide angle lens just offstage, and so I present to you here my 2.5 second exposure, handheld, on stage before 1300 people holding up cellphones. (C) Gordon Kirkwood 2014.
The view from my seat
The view from my seat

A great pleasure of the evening,  in addition to talking to fascinating people all night, was getting to play solo cello for a half hour in the empty Byham before doors opened.  It is a surprisingly live space,  and there was no problem filling it with unamplified cello.   Perhaps the highest point personally came shortly after I’d played at the beginning of the event, as the host chose to take the first two minutes of the event to tell 1300 people about how impressed he was with the other stuff I do.

Backstage just before going on,  I got to talk to a stranger who turned out to be the executive director of the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures Series,  Stephanie Flom, who was to follow me onstage to introduce the event.    She and her husband Peter,  I learned later,  met at Pitt,  from which they graduated the year before I was born,  in an experimental degree program in  social activism.  Her career has spanned arts management,  social activism,  her own artistic career,  environmental education, and library and theater establishment. It also turns out we used to be neighbors.  #talktostrangers.