When Jaron Lanier called, there were random notes from a pipe organ, being tuned in his Berkeley home, floating in the background. It was an apt reminder that the former child math prodigy – he entered college at 14, became a renowned computer hacker before working for Atari, pioneered “virtual reality” software, and led other cutting-edge research – also loves music. The venerated computer scientist, author and composer is speaking (12pm Thursday at CSUMB) and playing music (8pm Friday at Henry Miller Library) at the Days and Nights Festival. And he has an awesome Big Sur story.
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What are you playing at the festival?
I have a whole lot of instruments. I’m not even sure what I’m going to bring yet. One instrument I played quite a bit, with Phil in the ’90s, is called a khaen. It’s a large-mouth organ from Laos. It’s a really good kick ass instrument. Extremely versatile.
How did you get into ancient instruments?
It’s been an obsession a long time, it’s beyond any defense, I have too many of them. A lot of people are interested in the lives of others, through novels, history books, documentaries. But there’s something unique about learning to play instruments from another time and place, because you have to move your body like they do, get into their body language.
What’s something you and [theoretical physicist] Brian Greene might discuss?
I remember him visiting me in New York. I work with physicists a lot. A lot of my friends are in the opposing camp, called loop quantum gravity. It’s like hip-hop versus rock and roll.
Do you know [filmmaker] Godfrey Reggio?
He’s a friend. I know these people independently of each other. I used to hang out in this weird filmmaking world.
What are you especially adept at?
I have no interest in promoting myself that way.
[Giggles]. I’m OK at math. I do different things. I also write books and do music.
Have you been to Big Sur or the Henry Miller Library before?
Oh yeah. The first time I was in Big Sur I was a teenager and rode on back of somebody’s motorcycle. I have a funny Big Sur story. One time I got a call from Timothy Leary saying “Oh my God, I’m trapped. I’m supposed to give this Esalen workshop.” He was trying to get a lookalike to replace him. He asked if I could sneak him out, so I drove down there and smuggled him out in the trunk of my car. That must have been in the ’80s.
Did the lookalike conduct the workshop?
Yes he did.