From the monthly archives:

January 2009

Frozen Fingers, Fumbled Phrases

by Matt Blair on January 31, 2009

in Performance

During the inaugural last week, four musicians played a new arrangement of “Simple Gifts” — or so we thought. Later in the week, we learned that what most of us heard as we listened on the National Mall or television or radio was a recording the same musicians had made two days earlier.

To the critics, professional and armchair alike, I must ask: Have you ever tried to produce a warm and rich tone on a cello in sub-freezing weather? This was not an average ‘lip-syncing scandal’ — I haven’t heard anyone claim that these musicians were incapable of delivering such a performance in better circumstances.

Above the rumbles of criticism, it seems the real issue is what we expect from performers under such conditions. If they had played the music live, with considerable physical difficulty, would we have applauded their pain, regardless of the beauty of the music? Or would the obvious difficulty of the task have distracted from that historic moment? Would watching their struggle have made us more inspired? Or more uncomfortable?

Is it the responsibility of the musicians to demonstrate their virtuosic skills despite the conditions, or is it to create an appropriate musical experience for their audience? This is not an academic distinction. If it is the first, their choice was inexcusable. If the second, it was absolutely correct — especially since they were not the headliners. I learn towards the second: you use the tools at hand to create the desired effect. The ends justify the means.

And then there is the example of Chief Justice John Roberts, who decided to play the expert by administering the oath of office from memory. And he flubbed it.

Had he read the oath from paper, it is unlikely anyone would have had any further comment. No one would have thought of him as a faker, or somehow incompetent for relying on the original text. But by choosing to walk the wire without a net, the focus shifts from the performance above to the graceless fall and thud. And we wonder: why didn’t he have it written down, just in case? Did he fear an index card might freeze?

It seems amusing that while even a middling teenage pianist can memorize the hundreds of notes required to re-produce a Chopin mazurka or a Scarlatti sonata, the head of the US Supreme Court struggled to utter a thirty-five-word oath in its proper order. But maybe it wasn’t a question of memory. Steven Pinker offered an alternative explanation: Justice Roberts may have been trying to quietly correct the split infinitive in the original oath. America’s founders probably wouldn’t have anticipated such puritanical thinking — grammatical or otherwise — from a 21st-century Chief Justice. So much for strict constructionism.

What is canned is reliable. What is live, is uncertain. And maybe this is what upsets us most about canned performances: That we in the audience have made ourselves open and vulnerable to the possibility of the moment, that we are taking a chance, knowing full well that while we hope to be overwhelmed, we could be underwhelmed and unaffected. While hoping to be delighted, and maybe even transported, we are taking the risk of being disappointed and let down.

When the performance is canned, the performer is not taking the same risk we are taking. The performer is not sharing in our vulnerability, but rather taking advantage of our credulity, opting out of risk, and, under false pretenses, exceeding our expectations. When successfully duped, we feel euphoria. Having discovered we’ve been duped, we feel cheated.

How do we as performers decide which risks to take? Do we recreate tricky sections that might not go well? Do we feign confidence even as we can’t remember what comes next? What are the consequences if no one notices the difference? And what if they do?

And how does our internal knowledge of any undisclosed ‘assistance’ in a performance change our perception of our own work? Are we compromising our goals, or just finding a better way to achieve them?

If we are too averse to risk, we may miss an opportunity for true accomplishment. To face a challenge, and prevail is a reward for audience and performer alike. But taking a silly risk, and making a spectacle of yourself, is pitiable. Audiences respect audacity, but may feel disrespected by bumbling.

I don’t think there is a definitive way to evaluate the risks and rewards, no quick ethical calculations or aesthetic formulas. The questions above outline some of the variables. Different situations call for different solutions.

Choose your risks carefully. Use any tools or techniques at hand. And remember: though risk adds vibrancy, having your lines in your pocket isn’t a bad idea.

A final thought, from Walt Whitman:

“All music is what awakens from you when you are reminded by the instruments…”

A performance triggers what is already within the audience. The music does not consist of sound waves traveling through the air and arriving in ears of each hearer. The music is the effect those waves create between the ears, whether their source is a violin string or the rim of a clarinet — or the cone of a speaker.

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Steven Johnson has a piece on Boing Boing about his writing process, and how he uses DevonThink to avoid the intimidation of an empty screen:

Instead of confronting a terrifying blank page, I’m looking at a document filled with quotes: from letters, from primary sources, from scholarly papers, sometimes even my own notes. It’s a great technique for warding off the siren song of procrastination. Before I hit on this approach, I used to lose weeks stalling before each new chapter, because it was just a big empty sea of nothingness. Now each chapter starts life as a kind of archipelago of inspiring quotes, which makes it seem far less daunting. All I have to do is build bridges between the islands.

I went to hear him speak at Powell’s a few weeks ago, and he shared another aspect of his writing process: how to approach a final draft with fresh eyes. By the time you have finished a book, he explained, you have read your own material so many times that the color has drained out, and it is difficult to tell what is working and what isn’t.

To minimize the re-reading, he writes each chapter straight through, and makes a note at the end of each day about where to start the next day. He tries to only read each chapter once, until the final edit phase. This yields a messier first draft, he admitted, but also a better perspective for the task of tidying up.

And it is quite a contrast to Joan Didion’s approach:

When I’m working on a book, I constantly retype my own sentences. Every day I go back to page one and just retype what I have. It gets me into a rhythm.

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Blooming

by Matt Blair on January 28, 2009

in Quotes,Volition

Malcolm Gladwell:

Ben Fountain’s rise sounds like a familiar story: the young man from the provinces suddenly takes the literary world by storm. But Ben Fountain’s success was far from sudden. He quit his job at Akin, Gump in 1988. For every story he published in those early years, he had at least thirty rejections. The novel that he put away in a drawer took him four years. The dark period lasted for the entire second half of the nineteen-nineties. His breakthrough with “Brief Encounters” came in 2006, eighteen years after he first sat down to write at his kitchen table. The “young” writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.

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MLK: Tomorrow is Today

by Matt Blair on January 19, 2009

in History,Quotes

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood — it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.”

Martin Luther King, Jr, on April 4, 1967

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Brevity

by Matt Blair on January 18, 2009

in Exercises,Process and Workflow

I’ve been thinking a lot about brevity lately.

Some of the best things in life are small. DNA, for example. Small is generative.

Our sound bite and text message culture can create the impression that small is insignificant, that short is shallow. When an experience lacks context or detail, our brains build an environment around that experience and fill in the holes. At the risk of overstating things: when details are lacking, audience members can become co-creators by exploring the implied depths.

Last year, Smith Magazine published a book of six-word memoirs titled “Not Quite What I Was Planning”. The original inspiration was Hemingway’s (possibly apocryphal) six-word short story:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

You don’t need a thousand words to evoke a compelling image.

They have since expanded the idea, with a new collection on “Love & Heartbreak” (promotional video) and recently ran a contest to come up with a six-word inaugural address for Barack Obama. (The contest is over. My submission would have been: “Thank you. Now, we rebuild together.”)

I can read and re-read some of these concise memoirs, and they strike me differently each time, depending on my mood, or a conversation with a friend a week ago, or something I saw yesterday.

Some describe a life-defining moment:

Just in: boyfriend’s gay. Merry Christmas.

– Seshie Harget

Or life in a series of abbreviations:

ABCs
MTV
SATs
THC
IRA
NPR.

– Jancee Dunn

What an extraordinary outline of a life in twenty letters! Of course, such density is only possible with an awareness of the cultural context of those abbreviations.

Others summarize a disposition:

Wildly crooked,
unlikely to be straightened.

– lê thi diem thúy

And some are ambiguous enough they could describe a moment or a disposition or a lifetime:

No thank you, I’m just looking.

– Kariann Burleson

Twittering

I’ve also started to twitter recently. (No, don’t worry — that’s not a medical condition. If you aren’t familiar with Twitter, here’s a primer.)

Yes, banal tweets vastly outnumber the epigrammatic, as in other spheres of communication and life. But if you think texting and tweeting are limited to tween preening, I’d point you to actor/writer/director Stephen Fry or New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof as counter-examples, among many others.

Figuring out how to say what you want within the 140-character limit becomes a kind of editorial game. As you type, the editing window indicates how many characters you have left. The trade-offs are as clear as they are for a poet writing in a traditional form: “If I get rid of that adjective, I can add an interjection. Or maybe a link? I’ll trim that excessive adverb, and be able to properly punctuate. Could that sentence make sense without a subject?”

After a while, you just start thinking smaller, unconsciously shifting to a more terse frame of mind.

Concise. Terse. Laconic. Pithy. Whichever appeals. That’s the trick for this month.

Questions

Are you generally attracted to small art or big art? Short songs or multi-hour operas?

What is the smallest or shortest art work that you have really enjoyed? The biggest in size or longest in time?

Some words are worth more than others. Much more. Think of some of the key turning points in your own life: did it take a thousand or ten thousand words for you to realize that your life had changed in a profound way? Or a single breath’s worth?

Exercise

1.

Take something you’ve been working on: it could be art or an email or a piece of music or a memo on some boring topic. (It might be easier to do this non-destructively, with something you can easily duplicate.)

What is essential? Is there anything that can be trimmed? What aspects must remain for it to retain its meaning?

Cut it in half. I don’t mean physically, although that may be an option. I mean remove half of the material, however you define material. If it’s a song, it could mean making it half as long, or taking out half of the instrumental parts. If it’s a sonnet, try to cut it down to a quatrain and a tercet.

How small could this work become before it changes unrecognizably? Is it changing into something else interesting and alive? Or is it losing its vigor? Can you cut it in half again?

2.

After completing the exercise above, set your intermediate drafts and final result aside for a few days or a few weeks.*

Then review the details of your decisions with fresh eyes (or ears) and ask yourself: “Did I lose anything vital or essential in my reductions? Did less turn out to actually be less, not more?”

If you look at your final version as though it is a rough draft, would you be inclined to expand it? Or would you maintain its size and scope and refine what is there already?

* You may have noticed by now that letting ideas age is one of my favorite techniques. It is not the ideas that are altered by time. It’s our perspective on our ideas. Setting a project aside is frequently the best way to ‘work’ on it — as long as the schedule allows for it. I let this piece sit for about ten days and then applied this exercise to an earlier draft of itself. At one point, it had swelled to more than two thousand words! By the time I hit the ‘Publish’ button, it was less than half of that.

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Resumption

by Matt Blair on January 18, 2009

in Background

I had planned to take a short break around the New Year, but did not intend to be quite this late in restarting the publishing schedule for January.

Wintry travel delays, the sudden death of a family friend and business associate with whom I had worked for more than a decade, unexpected complications from the treatment of a minor skin irritation, misbehaving technology, and myriad lesser annoyances have extended my hiatus.

On a more positive note, I have a number of things in the final edit phase which I’ll be rolling out over the next week or two, starting with an new exercise about brevity.

I’ll be posting that in a few minutes.

Happy New Year, Everybody!

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