Friday, March 30, 2012

Virtue and Virtuosity

In the last 100 years, playing musical instruments with a degree of facility has fallen out of favor. Knowledge of how to play music was once considered part of a proper education, and part of how one was social. The invention of recorded music changed all that.

In our time, instrumental virtuosity has been raised to a professional sport, like so many other things. There is either the "shredder" or virtuoso who is "the best", and then there's everybody else. The virtuoso is packaged and marketed and sold. The music is just product to validate the brand.

Check this out. It's a wonderful video of someone covering "Rolling In The Deep" by Adele on the guzheng, which is a kind of Chinese zither (I used samples of a guzheng extensively on Reflection):

That is virtuosity. They make it look and sound effortless, fun, and compelling. It's not gratuitously flashy (that stuttering pluck is one of the guzheng's idiomatic techniques). That's music. See also: Eddie Van Halen.

Much modern music is content to focus on the false punk rock ethos of "we don't know how to play, we just fumble around". I have no problem with that. There are plenty of artists who worked chance or "naïve" techniques into their work. But most of those artists made good work, and they started from a place of deep understanding of art.

I have a problem with those who somehow think not being trained or schooled or practiced somehow makes them more creative or better than those who are more studied.

Another band I followed once said they had started out not knowing how to play, and that was fine for their first album. But over time they said they just turned into people who couldn't play very well, and they buckled down and learned about music, their instruments, and so forth.

Nadia Boulanger famously said "To study music, we must learn the rules. To create music, we must break them." She meant these things to be done in order.

A bit of research, study, and practice goes a long way in any endeavor. It helps you accelerate to creativity, saving you the trouble of re-inventing many things. More importantly, it shows you ideas you may not have thought of and provides a framework.

Practicing your craft, whether it is guzheng or fretless bass or drawing or making websites or baking pies is the best way to get better. You want to get good at something? Do it a lot!

Don't fall into the trap of assuming you must either be an unschooled accidental genius or a complete virtuoso. The majority of the productive and creative world falls smack in the middle of those two extremes, and manages to create wonderful and compelling work.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Hum, Drum: SXSW 2012

A bit of the line for MOG's party,
as seen from the VIP area

Even all the way up here on the 13th floor, the snare drums are clearly audible. They cut through the night and the mushy roar of a hundred bands and a quarter million people in the streets. They echo off the shiny glass faces of the buildings. I’ve heard enough snare drums pounding out rock rhythms to last a while. And enough guitars, too.

It’s after midnight. I’m packing for my return trip. Everything is folded back into my luggage except tomorrow’s clothes, my dop kit, and the clothes I’m wearing. Spent books and magazines line the bottom of the bag, then gym clothes and shoes. 

I slump into a chair for a moment, wondering how I will get to the airport on time tomorrow when everyone else is trying to do the same thing.

I set the alarm for 4 am. Early bird catches the cab, I guess. I hope.

Lights out. I slide into the hotel bed, blackout curtains closed. Even with foam earplugs in, I can still hear the snare drum tattoo, still feel the subsonic rumble of the kicks and bass playing. So many bands, so many people. So little actual listening.

In the few minutes before my mind shuts down, it replays the events of my time at SXSW this year.

The weather was pleasant. The constant threat of rain kept the skies overcast and brought the occasional refreshing breeze. All the places I had to go were walkable, which was good because driving was impossible. Streets were blocked off and/or choked with people, garbage, and music.

The beat pauses for a moment, then comes back. This drummer’s not much for fills, I guess.

I had some good meetings. I didn’t have to stand in too many lines. Best of all, I got to see a few friends I hadn’t seen in a while and had some great conversations. The work stuff was fun. But I’m exhausted and ready to go home. The air itself seems tired of carrying vibration.

I managed to eat reasonably healthy, going for as many green vegetables as I could and trying to avoid endless piles of salted meat and beer from plastic cups. I enjoyed the company at meals, though, whether it was friends or the New Yorker.

I didn’t see much music, but it’s sort of like saying I didn’t see too much air. The music was everywhere, inescapable, seeping from every shadow into every pore. Countless bands banging away. I’m sure they were all great. Or all terrible. You can’t tell after a while, and even the most poignant, compelling, well-crafted stuff starts to sound ordinary or boring or like dismal hackery when your ears are full.

Every other building had some band playing or setting up or tearing down. Bands were installed on buses and flatbed trucks, blasting their way up and down the streets. An endless parade of denim and t-shirts and telecasters and boots and beards and earnestness and 4/4 and riffage and ROCK and clack…clack…clack and this one’s called... and here’s a new one and Thank You SouthBy and come on people can you feel it. 

I saw Bob Mould play. And The Roots. By all accounts, Mould was fantastic. I guess. He sounded great, competent, professional. But it’s like going to a great bakery after walking through Bakery Town, smelling baked goods and flour and butter and watching it all get made and watching people eat bread and brioche and donuts and cake and brownies while the entire time they're constantly talking to each other or their phones about how good the pastry they just ate was and which muffin are you going to eat next. 

You sit down and know it’s going to be delicious, but so many aspects of your hunger have been sated that it’s hard to take even one bite. It's all too much.

I was grateful to get in with my VIP access. Happier still to see some of my former colleagues, about to wrap up one stage of work and move on to another. I miss them.

I think of the email piling up on my computer and wonder about getting to the airport in a few hours. The front desk told me all the shuttles were booked, and they couldn’t get cabs to answer the phone. They shrug and say “sorry!” in that pleasant “I’m so glad I’m not as fucked as you are” voice. No help, no service.

I think of the friends I saw and the smiles and good conversation and real human connection. These are the things I treasure about travel.

I plunge into a brief, deep, dark sleep.

When I wake a few hours later at 4 am, the music has finally stopped.

I pull myself out of bed, drenched in sweat. In the next 20 minutes, I shower and finish packing. I contact a cab company on the internet and summon a cab to the hotel. Adrenaline pushes me through the creeping nausea of too little sleep, early rising, and stress. It's good that I planned ahead, because my full brain is just not working yet. Early bird, I think.

In the lobby, I hear the desk clerks laughing at how they can’t get transportation for any of their guests. I push through the glass doors, the straps of my bags grinding into my shoulder. 

There’s a cab right in front of me at the curb.

I slide into the back seat, my bags crawling off my shoulder. “Airport, please.” The driver nods and returns to his mumbled mobile phone conversation.

The cab sharks through the now-deserted post-apocalyptic streets. Trash lines the gutters and covers the sidewalks. Plastic cups. Badge holders. Bags. Flyers. Paper.

I roll down the window and let the dark, cool, pre-dawn air wash over my face. 

The silence is beautiful.