From the category archives:

Audience

Make Something Day

by Matt Blair on November 27, 2009

in Audience,Exercises,Meaning

Whether you are a celebrant in the tradition of Black Friday or a participant/non-participant in Buy Nothing Day, the day after Thanksgiving has become its own kind of holiday for many Americans.

Choosing between those two is a false choice, and I’d like to propose another option: “Make Something Day”.

Or maybe “Start to Make Something Day” would be more accurate, though more awkward.

Starting with Soap and Stone

I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak. Earlier in my life, I had a brief career as a soap carver. I’m not sure of my age exactly. I think I was 9.

I do remember it was around the time I realized that demand for my painted rock business was unlikely to return to its peak:

Hey, Kid! Your Florida's pointing the wrong way!

Hey, Kid! Your Florida is pointing the wrong way!

Business lesson #1: Supportive parents buying one unit of output per year is not a viable market.

I needed another outlet for creativity, and found it in soap.

I only remember creating one major work in this more-forgiving medium, and it was a nativity set for my grandparents:

I think those concave abdomens indicate wise men with gifts?

I think those concave abdomens indicate...wise men with gifts?

Though I remember spending a lot of time carving that year, it was just childhood whimsy, and I was soon off to the next thing — digging holes in the backyard, or whatever.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but these little figurines meant a lot to my grandparents: they proudly put them on display every December, told their friends stories about them, then carefully wrapped each piece in tissue paper and stored them away for eleven months. (Luckily, I had the foresight to use a collapsible crib design.)

Decades later, the set is still in the family, unlike countless factory-made gifts that were tossed long ago.

And let me say “Bravo!” to Dial and Ivory for making archival-quality sculpting soap! What’s in that stuff!? Oh, wait — I probably don’t want to know.

More than Atoms

Handmade gifts are not just an economic ruse, a way to escape the madness of the shopping mall or an end-run on rampant materialism.

When you give something you’ve made, you aren’t just giving a physical gift. Atoms are abundant. The universe is filled with them. In terms of what any one of us as individuals can consume, they might as well be infinite.

To make a gift is to bundle up the most precious resources we have – attention, thoughtfulness and time — and put a bow on top.

The medium you choose is immaterial.

For whom?

Think of these creative gifts as imaginary commissions made to please unsuspecting patrons. Audience expectations and reactions may play a larger role here than in your other creative work. Making a gift is a chance to put your empathy cap on, and think more about what another person enjoys than what you enjoy.

Challenge yourself to try new styles and dabble in different aesthetics. For example, when I’m writing poetry, I’m rarely inclined towards traditional rhyming structures, but for many people “it ain’t a poem if it don’t rhyme” so a handful of limericks or rhymed couplets are good choices.

It’s still self-expression, just crafted into a form that connects creator and audience in a direct way. Depending on the way you handle your relationship with your audience in the rest of your work, that may feel like an awkward compromise, or it could feel revitalizing and authentic.

Questions

Have you ever gotten a gift made just for you? Was it something you liked? Did it feel meaningful at that moment? Did that change over time? Did it make you feel like the other person understands who you are?

If someone was going to do this exercise and create a gift for you, what would you like to receive? Do others know what you’d like? Do you give those around you enough clues or hints to guess?

Exercise

Pick at least one person this holiday season and make something as a gift rather than buying them one.

There are two goals:

  1. To finish a specific project for a specific person (or group) on a specific occasion.
  2. To stretch beyond your creative comfort zone and express yourself in uncharacteristic ways.

The process I suggest:

  • Often the most creative — and difficult — part is thinking of something that truly engages your audience of one. (Remember: You are not the audience!) Set some time aside to think about the person, and come up with at least ten or fifteen ideas for gift projects. Set them aside for a day or a week.
  • Make a list of techniques that are a little unfamiliar or awkward, or that you’ve wanted to learn but aren’t comfortable with — especially if you are an accomplished artist. Why? Machines make perfect and predictable things. Humans make idiosyncratic and imperfect and complex things. As Gretchen Rubin recently put it: “Flawed can be more perfect than perfection.”
  • Come back to to your ideas, match them to some of the techniques you listed, and make it happen.

One more tip: Because of the uncertainties involved, I sometimes work on two or three ideas in parallel, just in case one of them completely collapses in on itself. If, for example, you discover that your Florida is facing the wrong way after the paint dries.

It’s been awhile since I’ve used the exercise format on this blog, and I have to admit, my own first reaction is to think: “Wait a minute, who am I to tell readers what to do?” It is a change in tone. If you enjoyed this post, you may want to read past exercises. And if you do undertake a gift-making project, please let me know how it works out.

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Play

In a comment on my recent post about English as a kind of second language, Zoë Westhof mentioned the Surrealists’ interest in the unconscious mind, and their question of whether our unconscious experiences can escape the ‘taint’ of the conscious mind.

This got me thinking about all those wordless singers and composers, from Lisa Gerrard to György Ligeti, who have used ‘nonsense’ languages to sidestep the entanglements of verbal meaning. A lot of vocal music in the Western tradition was never meant to be understood by the audience. Avoiding the vernacular has been an important historical thread for centuries.

Our conscious mind wants to interpret, to construct meaning and narrative from our fragmentary sensations. Look at all those examples floating around the internet of human faces seen in everyday objects and urban landscapes: from fire hydrants to sinks to peeling walls.

When we see a manhole cover with a smile on its ‘face’ we know on a rational level that happy manhole cover is incapable of being happy.

Sourire

It's just metal. (photo by skywaaker on Flickr)

Yet the ‘found faces‘ group on Flickr has nearly 5000 photos, contributed by almost 1200 members.

Interpretation of sense as symbol seems inescapable. And once your mind has made such an interpretation, try undoing it. Try looking at that manhole cover without seeing a smile. It’s incredibly difficult.

I’ve found in music, as with fire hydrants and manhole covers, that sounds with no semantic meaning, phonemes that are presented entirely outside of language, are still perceived as meaningful.

Ha-bee-uh-doo-ah-eh-oo-ai

Back in the 90s, I heard a recording of baby sounds on an effects CD I got from the library. The twists and turns in these little voices reminded me of the ornaments and appoggiatura you might add to a Bach sinfonia or a Haydn sonata. Why couldn’t these sounds become the basic elements of a composition, instead of a piano or an oboe? Surely they are more natural musical material than the sound of an organ or a turntable?

I began to imagine writing music for a choir of toddlers. While thrilled at the potential, I knew it was impractical in the extreme, but I also thought that maybe I could create some semblance of the idea by chopping up the recording and rearranging the pieces.

Click here to listen to the final result in a new window.

As I’ve played this piece for various people over the last fourteen years or so, the range of reactions has been fascinating to me.

Some people seem to run into an “It’s not music” wall, or for some other reason just don’t like it. And that’s fine.

In those that do react with interest, there seems to be a tendency to project whatever is on their mind onto the sounds.

For example, one friend, more concerned about the efficacy of her birth-control tactics than the ticking of her biological clock, felt haunted by it. The sounds evoked a terrible image of a baby army on the march — and maybe they were coming for her!

Another listener paused contemplatively at the end, and then, almost in tears, he told me that I had “captured the too-long-repressed voice of the Native American people crying for freedom!” In a random assortment of British babies?

By far the most common response has been: “Aww, that’s cute!”

Really? It wasn’t meant to be.

To me, these were just interesting sounds that I liked and wanted to work with. That’s all.

An Antidote for Too Much Math?

Well, maybe there was a little more than that going on. I created the piece in 1995, when home computers were only barely powerful enough to do this kind of thing. I used a system called CSound, which required tedious number-crunching: each entrance, exit, change in volume or position had to be calculated to the millisecond or programmed with a mathematical function. It was more like working on a complex spreadsheet than a musical score:

The original score for #30

Meaningless numbers? (Parts of the original score for #30)

The software took about an hour to process each minute of sound, so even the slightest change required hours of computing time before I could hear the results.

It was incredibly sterile and linear and boring work. The warmth and complexity and nuance of the sounds themselves — these little pre-verbal gurgles — provided an antidote to all that left-brain work. It kept me going in a way that might not have been possible if I’d been working with digitally-produced beeps and squiggles.

So I guess, even to me, as I was working with them, these sounds were not just sounds.

Meaningless: Impossible?

No matter how much I might have wished to work with meaningless phonemes, they just aren’t heard that way.

To our brains, that’s not a muted two-second sine wave that wavers slightly in pitch towards the end, it is a vulnerable little human that needs protection, affection, nutrition or attention. Maybe it even triggers instinctual responses?

Whatever we as artists and idea-shapers do to try to escape cultural references and connotations, we can’t control the other side of the equation: the interpretations of our audience.

What we intend to express and the message received can be very different.

We can deny that, or we can work with it.  And if we choose to work with it, we take on the task of understanding as much as we can about how the mind works, about how perception works, about culture, about history — about all the different things it means to be and feel and see and hear as humans.

Is it possible to perceive without interpreting or translating? What’s your experience?

Links and Related Articles

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600 Milliseconds

by Matt Blair on October 16, 2009

in Audience,Life Cycle of Ideas,Meaning,Perception

I was just taking a break from editing a followup to my English as a Second Language post, and heard this story on NPR:

In Milliseconds, Brain Zips From Thought To Speech.

A new study using electrodes in the brains of epilepsy patients has hinted at the location, timing and sequence of thought formation and verbal response. (The electrodes were voluntarily implanted prior to surgery, in case you were wondering!)

Here’s an approximate time line in milliseconds of what happened after the patients were asked to read and respond to a “group of words”:

  • 200 ms — Word recognition
  • 320 ms — Grammatical processing
  • 450 ms — Preparing a response

Previous research suggests that it takes about 600 ms to form and speak a thought.

What are the practical implications? What does all this mean? That’s not yet clear.

A quote from Ned T. Sahin, one of the researchers involved in the study:

“Sometimes I feel like we’re a colony of ants who’ve come across a cell phone,” he says. “We can describe parts of it, but we really don’t know what’s fundamentally going on here yet.”

Feeling like one of those ants, I’m going to crawl around that followup post and re-work it a bit.

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Play
An unlearned constellation?

An unlearned constellation?

Whose permission do we need to express ourselves?

Questions

How have you found poetic license in your own work — and life?

What do you do to encourage those around you to express themselves?

Are are you inviting others into the conversation?

Please share your thoughts by adding a comment below.

Links

  • Clay Shirky on Weekend Edition Saturday
  • Poetry Foundation: e.e. cummings
  • In Just- by e.e. cummings — the kind of poem my 7th-grade English teacher would not have enjoyed

Credits

Outro music: “Kinoko Otaku” by AFS.  (An improv project by surdus and Tony Grund, now performing in Echostream.) Recorded live in January, 2001.

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Last night, while cutting and roasting these little squares and cubes of yum:

sweet potatoes and red pepper

Not quite squares or cubes...

I was listening to an episode of Philosophy Talk about language titled “What Are Words Worth?” and one of the topics was whether and how our native language constrains our thought processes.

Most people would consider English to be my primary language. Anyone who has tried to comprehend my attempts at French or Japanese or Chinese would consider English my only language. And they’d be essentially correct.

Or is it mostly accurate?  Or spot on? I have a notion of what each of those phrases means, but I’m not sure the best way to say it. I could keep fiddling with it, or come back to it in ten minutes. But I’ll just leave it as an example of my frequent inability to find a word or phrase that precisely fits what I’m thinking.

If my thoughts originate in English, shouldn’t the words and sentences just fall out of my head, fully-formed? Why do I feel inclined to hunt through dictionaries, ponder each word’s heritage, and fret about shared perceptions of what specific words mean?

In other words, why does writing feel like translation rather than transcription?

Micro-Dialects

Maybe it’s a matter of converting my own personal and idiosyncratic dialect into more commonly used patterns? That seems plausible enough.

We each use language in our own peculiar way. Through editing and revision, we move from the quirky, hyper-local dialect of our internal monologues towards the language practices we share with our audience.

To communicate a specific idea, I have to capture its meaning, seal it into these little semantic packets called words and phrases, sequence those into sentences and paragraphs, encode it with one computer, transmit it to another computer, and let you take it from there.

As a reader, you go through an inverse process: you use a tool like a browser to copy it from a computer to your computer, which retrieves text from the numerical codes, and positions the sentences and paragraphs, which you then parse into words and phrases. Hopefully they mean something to you which approximates what they meant to me.

This model works well enough for blog posts, which tend to focus on words and voice, so it’s easy to assume that only the machines are translating and transmuting the ideas as they move from my mind to yours.

An Inadequate Container

But what about all the ideas that never take the form of written or spoken languages?

Could anyone imagine Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring captured in words alone, and then accurately transformed into sound? It might be possible — after all, musical notation is a kind of language — but it would certainly be inefficient and absurd.

I could have described the objects depicted at the top of this post using only language:

“Two well-scrubbed sweet potatoes from the Farmers’ market (cut in 1.5cm cubes) along with a red pepper from the Farmers’ market (cut in 2cm squares) tossed in olive oil, cumin, coriander, black pepper, a pinch of salt, roasted in a glass dish at 400F for approximately 53 minutes, until they were just right.”

Yet there’s nothing intrinsically linguistic about them. I used language to procure them. I just used language to describe them.

Other than that, the experience of them, it seems to me, has very little to do with language. I decided a photo paired with a flippant phrase (“little squares and cubes of yum”) was a better way to present them. Smell and taste would create a more accurate perception in your mind of what came out of the oven, but digital media hasn’t quite caught up with those senses — yet.

If language is not an adequate container for all thoughts, then what is thought?

Do ideas form out of a kind of raw “thought stuff” which is then sometimes translated into language?

In my experience, yes, which is why I feel like writing is translation, like whatever I express in English is at best an approximation of what I’m after.

I’ll explore this question, and some of its implications for idea-making, in my next post.

In the meantime, I’d like to hear about your experiences:

  • Do you feel like you are directly transcribing what’s in your head when writing a short story or a blog post or painting or dancing?
  • Or do you feel like you are translating your ideas, whether into language or image or sound or other physical forms?

Please add a comment or send an email or a tweet, and let me know.

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“I think of all the different music that I have done and will continue
to do almost as photographs of my evolution, and just like
photographs, in some I may look great and in some I may not. What
matters to me is that I risk, I trust, I strive, and let things unfold
as they may.”

Azam Ali

I’ve been thinking about eggs, and the way we form ideas and release them into the wild.

My first thought was that ideas are like eggs in a nest, little orbs of potential that we fuss over and tend to and keep warm, until they are ready to hatch and emerge into the world.

But I don’t think that’s quite right. It doesn’t seem to reflect the experience that artists and innovative thinkers have when sharing their new ideas with the world. It’s too detached.

robin's egg

From the Inside (image by brungrrl on Flickr)

What if we aren’t outside watching over our ideas? What if we are inside? Not just inside the nest, but inside the egg?

Maybe our relationship to the ideas we develop is not one of parental vigilance but symbiosis?

We nourish our ideas, and our ideas nourish us. We grow through the exchange.

It might make more sense if we think of ideas not as something that we have or collect, but as something we are. An idea is something we become, at least during those initial stages of growth, before it takes on a life fully its own.

In other words, hatching ideas isn’t a process of anxious observation as our ideas enter the world: it is we who must emerge each time.

The Nature of Our Shell

What does this mean for our creative process?

The shell could be the walls of our studio, or the anonymity of a blogging pseudonym. It could be the comfortable praise of a long-time mentor, or the fears that keep us from expressing our thoughts. It could be the rounded womb of habit, or the way a well-used tool feels in our hand.

The opacity of a shell provides a kind of veil or disguise — there’s no need to be presentable while still forming. And its hardness provides protection from the elements, elements that might damage and inhibit growth before the life within becomes viable.

But the strength of the shell is illusory. Eggs are fragile. They need to be incubated and tended. And they are temporary.

The protection of a shell allows growth, to a point, and then it starts limiting development and warping growth.

Imperfect Debuts

At some stage in every career — in every project, even — there comes a time to emerge, to tap our way through the shell, and enter the world. And that can be a real mess.

We don’t know how the shell will crack, or how long it will take. We peck and peek, hoping we can leap out fully-formed and strutting like a big, beautiful peacock that has always been that way, or a poised and sedate swan, gliding without effort.

We want to instantly be and appear our best, not a wet stumbling mess, with bits of shell matted in our feathers, wondering how many times we’ll need to fall before we fly.

For perfectionists, it’s that much worse, because this moment is about the possibility of letting a whole lot of imperfection happen — in full view.

Good Morning World

A Wee Punk (image by vladeb on Flickr)

You have to trust that eventually, you’ll be remembered for flying, not the missteps and bad hair days you had along the way.

By leaving the shell, you lose its opacity and protection, but it’s impossible to walk, or fall, or fly or grow while you’re stuck inside it.

Whatever the project, big or small: make the first crack, then the next, until you can stumble out, take a spill, and then stand on your two new feet for the first time. Muscles will follow, then growth, then flight.

And it all starts with a tentative little crack.

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Ears Wide Open

by Matt Blair on May 31, 2009

in Audience,Exercises,Meaning

Learning to think and craft ideas, and to creatively express ourselves, is a contribution to our community and a way of participating in the conversation of culture.

That conversation is multi-directional: Developing appreciation for ideas and stories and experiences of other people, and the ability to pay detailed attention to them, are intrinsic to creativity.

For the pragmatists, yes, there are benefits: the ideas of others are nutrients to plow into your creative fields, and nourish the seeds of your own ideas.

But silence, observation and listening have their own rewards.

Audience

As creators, we are used to thinking of audience as a kind of target: who will see this or hear this, and who won’t? What are we trying to communicate, and to whom? Audience is that set of people we’d like to enthrall with our performance or ideas.

When we go to a gallery or a performance by other artists, we think of ourselves as members of their audience.

But audience has a meaning beyond groups of people. Its roots in the romance languages are the same as those for the word audible, and relate to hearing and listening. Audience isn’t merely a group you focus on or join, it is something you can give — the gift of your attention.

Giving an audience might bring to mind antiquated notions of royalty, of a higher class deigning to a lower one. Forget that association, or, even better, reverse it: in a world with so many stimuli clamoring for our attention, paying attention is an act of elevation.

If creative expression is a mix of thinking, exploring, articulating, crafting, presenting, sharing, and storytelling, the flip side of that process is listening, observing and absorbing.

The final exercise for May: Make space in your life to behold and appreciate the lives and stories of those around you.

Put down your pen, don’t go to the studio, don’t click the shutter on your camera, don’t put a fresh canvas on the easel.

Set your ideas aside for a little bit, get out of your own head, and let someone else fill it up for a while.

A Few Tips for Listening

Don’t judge, or wear your own opinions on your sleeve. You often learn more about a person if you are open and receptive, rather than framing the conversation with strong statements about who you are or what you do or don’t believe.

Focus on the details — in the moment. Don’t get caught up in taking notes, or thinking about your next piece, or thinking of their words in some other goal-oriented context. Leave your own projects and plans for another time. Listen without pre-text. Notice their cadence and emphasis: What catches their throat? What brings out a gleam in their eyes? What makes their eyelids flutter?

Don’t anticipate or interpolate. Don’t fill in the blanks and assume you know what you don’t know. Ask questions carefully — if at all.

Be patient. Don’t rush the other person. Part of making space is also making time.

Let silences happen. Let the other person unfold the stories they want to tell, the way they want to tell them. The best parts often come after pauses.

Practice empathy. Listen to understand another person’s perspective, not reinforce your own.

Show reverence. Both verbally and non-verbally, let them know you appreciate their time, and their sharing their life with you.

If you enjoyed this post, you may want to read past exercises.

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The changes we’ve seen in the music industry, and those starting to happen in film and books, are part of a much larger shift in the way we craft and share ideas in a digital age.  It’s happening in fits and starts.

As William Gibson once said: “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”

On Friday, Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud did a show on the future of books. Listening to the parts I missed over the weekend, it seemed like a good time to pull together some thoughts on this transition.

Naysayers

First, what about the naysayers like Siva Vaidhyanathan, the University of Virginia professor who was a guest on the show? I have some of my own concerns about e-books, which I’ll address in future posts. For now, a general comment about those who tend to focus on the gloomier aspects of disruptive technologies.

Go back to the 1990s, and I’m sure you will have no trouble finding academic screeds against the horrors of DVDs: The players cost thousands of dollars, the discs are too expensive, the region-control scheme too onerous, the compression makes the video look awful, etc. There were, and are, some real downsides.

But think of the net effect: DVDs made visual culture vastly more available.

Where I went to college, a few video stores in town had a meager selection of foreign and underground films, and the student association occasionally played a foreign film, but that was it. The vast majority of film culture was inaccessible. If I lived in the same town today, the situation would be entirely different: I could watch more Iranian films in a week than all the foreign films I saw in four years of college. DVDs made that possible.

They have also allowed small filmmakers and film companies to distribute their ideas in ways that would have been far more cumbersome with VHS tapes. Video streaming, though still in its infancy, is changing this equation yet again.

Those decrying DVDs didn’t predict Netflix or understand the way a service like it could broaden exposure for even small and obscure films. While it’s essential to ensure that new formats increase opportunities for audiences and creators rather than simply empowering incumbents, we should also remember that we can’t envisage everything.

The Promise of E-Books

Layout: Many bibliophiles seem to grumble about layout and design of e-books, and it is rudimentary — so far.

But printed editions have their own shortfalls. There are 1775 poems in the paperback edition of the Collected Emily Dickinson, crammed onto 770 pages. It’s not uncommon for a four-line poem to be split over a page turn. Doesn’t each of these gems deserve its own setting, rather than being fractured into two sides the reader’s mind must reassemble?

Presenting each poem in its own space in a paper edition would likely require multiple volumes. With an e-book version, it would be trivial.

On the other hand, the Shakespeare app for iPhone displays 12 lines of text per screen by default — not exactly optimal for 14-line sonnets.

Supplemental materials, in situ: Imagine reading that well-formatted edition of Emily Dickinson, with a reference like the Emily Dickinson Lexicon a finger-tap away. Imagine flipping over to a scan of the original manuscript.  Or reading Herodotus, with every place name connected to ancient and modern maps.

Portability: On trips longer than a few days, I typically travel with 8-10 books. How can I know what I want to read in a week’s time, or longer?  Maybe I’ll need to read something by W.H. Auden next Thursday morning, and I just don’t know it yet?

E-books offer the promise of the kind of portability that’s now possible — and even expected — with music.

I’m under no illusion that listening to mbira music through tiny earbuds amidst the roar of a jet engine is the same as it is in a quieter environment with real speakers, or remotely comparable to being in the presence of the musicians.

In the same way, e-books don’t have to be seen as wholly replacing other formats. They could be just a convenient alternative in some situations. However awkwardly those sonnets are formatted, I still have them in my pocket while sitting on a cliff overlooking the ocean, without the inconvenience of carrying the paper version around.

Making notes: Searchable annotations and highlighting that let readers create their own idiosyncratic index of a work are just the first steps. What about dated annotations, so that I could see the notes I made when I read Brave New World in high school, and compare them to the notes I made when I re-read it two years ago?

And what about shared annotations? We should be able to see what a friend underlined or annotated, and view several sets of annotations at a time. Imagine how that would benefit study groups and book clubs. BookGlutton is already starting to build distributed communities around group reading and note-taking.

Extending this further, could difficult and complex works be made more accessible and enjoyable by overlaying sets of underlines, glosses, scribbles and marginalia by different authors and scholars, which could be turned on and off at the reader’s will?

Variable Length: Try to get a book deal with a paper publisher for a 38-page book, no matter how good it is.  You’ll have about as much luck as you would have had trying to release an 8-minute pop song in the 1950s.

Turnaround: E-book authors are writing editing and publishing, from idea to final product, in weeks.  The paper-based publishing industry isn’t set up for that. It takes months or years. (Obviously larger scale works take longer in both formats.)

Multi-Directional

We don’t think of books as a broadcast medium, but they have been. Author writes, editor shapes, publisher approves, and books are deployed. Marketing teams make deals for the most prominent places in the bookstores, and the rest struggle in obscurity.

For e-books to be revolutionary, they must be read-write-share. They must facilitate and strengthen culture as a conversation, in all directions: author to reader, reader to author, reader to reader.

All those dreams of making your own mix-and-match anthologies, of enterprising teachers creating curriculum mashups, of pulling together the perfect travel guide from ten different books and a dozen novels?

None of that’s on offer — yet.

However logical and obvious it seems, such hybrids upend so many business models that it probably won’t be offered voluntarily: it must be persistently demanded, both by readers and authors.

Pricing and Value

There has been lots of discussion about e-book price points, and this is a complex issue.

I’m actually working on another post about the way we price culture, so I’ll save most of my thoughts for that.

The transition to e-books is an opportunity to reconsider who provides the value in the process of getting an idea out of an author’s head, crafted into a great book and into the hands and minds of readers.  E-books change so many aspects of the journey from final edit to audience that it’s not just an opportunity to rethink pricing, it’s an imperative.

For the most part, current media pricing is based on physical objects and formats. A CD costs x. A paperback book costs y. A hardback book that’s been remaindered costs z.

Does such a pricing scheme reward thinkers and creators for the value of their ideas and the quality of their contributions? Or is it based on the size and wrapping of a pile of paper?

If we encounter low-grade corn oil and high-quality extra virgin olive oil, we don’t expect to pay the same for each just because they are both sold in bottles.

As readers, why would it make sense to pay roughly the same amount for a low-mental-nutrient book you skim in a few hours and a book that you read and re-read and refer to for years?  Wouldn’t it make sense to pay significantly more to the author and the editor of the second book?

I know there are complicated reasons for the current pricing structures, and my hunch is that many of those complexities have to do with the distribution of physical formats.

The inevitable transition to e-books gives us a chance to rethink how we value ideas, and and change the way we pay for culture so that it sensibly and fairly supports both the physical infrastructure of distribution and — more importantly — those creating and crafting the ideas that change our lives.

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Larger Than Life

by Matt Blair on May 12, 2009

in Audience,Exercises,Perception

Da-da-da-dum.

Short-short-short-long.

That’s probably all you need to get a particular music theme in your head.

It is a pattern found all around us, from the way we knock on doors to the way advertisers frame the ominous.  It might be one of the most recognized and over-exposed musical phrases in history.

The source? The opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in C Minor.

To my ear, the loveliest and most under-stated presentation of that musical idea comes at the end of the third movement of that symphony:  Most of the orchestra has fallen silent, while the strings gently pluck a flattened version of the theme. And then it is reduced to a simple pulse played on timpani — one of the first moments in the Western “art music” tradition when percussion carries the main theme.

From there, the orchestra slowly reassembles around that insistent beat, mustering the bombast of the opening of the fourth movement.

It is an extraordinary moment, more than 20 minutes into the piece.

But how often do we get that far?

Daily life keeps us busy.  We’ve all heard that theme dozens or hundreds of times. The initial notes enter our ears, and, if only subconsciously, we think: Yep, I’ve heard that.

Now that I’ve pointed it out, there’s nothing to stop you from going directly to that part of the third movement on a CD or an iPod and listening to the transition.

And there’s the problem: that’s akin to walking into a concert hall with a full orchestra, asking them to pick it up 80 bars before the end of the third movement, and then disrupting them after a few minutes with a “Thank you, that’s enough.”

Described that way, it is absurd. But that’s how we so often treat great music and great ideas.

And by we, I mean me, too! I’m not saying it is easy. Even listening to the Fifth while writing this post, I cheated and started at the beginning of the third movement.  Sorry, Ludwig: You and I both deserve better.

There is an inherent beauty to this passage of the symphony, but what makes it profound is the twenty or so minutes that precede it.

If we encounter the passage as a 30-second excerpt, underscoring a particular emotion in a film, or by starting up the car after an hour shopping for shirts, we have an entirely different experience.

Art, Squeezed Into Life

We tend to connect with art that fits within our hectic and idea-saturated lives.

At 227 minutes long, “Lawrence of Arabia” sits gathering dust as we plow through shorter films in the Netflix queue. The Salman Rushdie novel that makes us wish we knew more about the Partition of Pakistan and India gets postponed, half-read.  Self-appointed critics describe a seven-minute pop song as “artistic self-indulgence”.

I’ve noticed that YouTube has warped my perception of short films: When watching something online, my hand rarely leaves the mouse. Barely thirty seconds in, I find myself grumbling: “If this doesn’t get interesting in the next 10 seconds, I’m on to the next thing.”

That’s not a disaster for most of the trifles on YouTube, but what if I subconsciously transfer that same sensibility to other experiences of art or music or film — or even human interaction?

The experience of beauty often requires sustained attention, physical expanse, perception of nuance and deep thinking.

When we “don’t have time” for such experiences, we will have less beauty and awe and inspiration in our lives.

Meeting Claudio

When I was eighteen, I had a chance to hear Claudio Monteverdi’s opera “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” performed on 17th-century instruments.

I had never been to an opera. I had never even listened to a single act of one, let alone a whole work. How long would it be? Would I get bored? Was it worth the time?

I went, and was enthralled from the first note. Monteverdi remains one of my favorite composers to this day. How much later in my life would I have discovered that music if I hadn’t gone that night?

We don’t have time for such experiences every day.

All I’m saying is give 220-minute-long Italian Baroque operas — or something like them — a chance.

Exercise

Clear some space in your schedule for a big idea or big art. Set aside the time, make a date, and go to a specific place, if needed, to experience the enormous, however you define that.

Choose something you don’t typically have time to enjoy and absorb, and that you think might be humbling and awe-inspiring. It could be:

  • Something physically or sensually larger than you, like standing in the middle of a redwood forest.
  • Something on a timescale outside your everyday experience — like “Lawrence of Arabia”.
  • A complicated idea that requires intricate thinking and focused attention.

Seemingly small ideas and experiences can become enormous in our heads. An Emily Dickinson poem may seem small, but if it expands in your mind and occupies your thoughts for days or weeks, its import and impact could be enormous. Give yourself time to let a small idea grow in your mind.

The amount of our time and energy attracted to an idea is a much better measure of its size than word counts, duration, or physical measurements. The critical ingredients are time and the ability to focus.

Questions

  • How was this experience different from your typical day-to-day encounters with art and ideas?
  • Was it worth devoting the time to it?  Was it worth whatever hassle you had to go through to make the time in your schedule?
  • Will you do it again?  How often?

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Various Forms of Inertia

by Matt Blair on March 18, 2009

in Audience,Publishing

I went to see a film about Damien Hirst last night. Between interviews with Melvyn Bragg (host of the often-stimulating In Our Time radio show/podcast) the film showed Hirst at work: setting up a show of pieces from his collection at the Serpentine gallery, explaining his vision for Toddington Manor, and directing staff at several of his Factory-ish studios. Jeff Koons also weighed in from one of his own toy factories, his elves buzzing around in the background.

Seeing Hirst and Koons in those contexts got me thinking back to an interview I heard with Philip Glass in the mid-nineties.  I don’t remember all the details, but the general gist was that he had a few dozen employees working under him, and once you are the captain of such a ship, going back to a rowboat means tossing all those people overboard.

The moral obligation he felt to keep the organization afloat seemed like it could take precedent over any particular artistic directions he might have wanted to explore. Big ships have great difficulty navigating narrow channels, shallow bays or uncharted backwaters.

There is much to admire about this model: An artist reaches a point in their career in which they are able to support nascent and emerging artists, to provide apprenticeship opportunities for the next generation.

And such an enterprise not only supports the direct employees, it can become a cultural cornerstone, with enthusiastic fans and customers that desire and expect some level of stability and regularity in the results. In that way, it’s not so different from a story I heard this morning about Duarte’s Tavern, a multi-generational family restaurant in Pescadero, California.

But it’s important to remember how limiting a situation like that can become. I’ve always found the early works of Philip Glass the most engaging — the clarity of “Contrary Motion” and “Two Pages” much more compelling than his symphonic works, “Einstein on the Beach” so vastly superior to his later operas.

What if Glass woke up one morning and had a vision of a multi-year cycle of woodwind quartet pieces? One that could be his greatest artistic achievement, but that would only support a staff of two or three?

And what if the members of the fifth generation of the Duartes aspire to be archaeologists or geneticists rather than make asparagus soup? Do their obligations to family and the expectations of the restaurant’s customers outweigh such ambitions? After all, it’s probably the restaurant that’s putting them through college.

Of course, in our creative endeavours, not all of us are dealing with the pressures of meeting a payroll for dozens of people or keeping a business thriving well into its second century.

But what obligations — explicit or implicit — have we wandered into that limit our creative options? Are these obligations having a positive impact? Are they forcing us to be more creative? Or do they subconsciously constrict our choices and warp the creative decisions we make in undesirable ways?

Such challenges are not peculiar to multi-million dollar enterprises or 115-year old restaurants. In a letter from Robert Rich I pointed to on the scrapbook last week, he describes one of the snares that even modest success presents:

A further caveat: it’s easy to get trapped into the expectations of these True Fans, and with such a tenuous income stream, an artist risks poverty by pushing too far beyond the boundaries of style or preconceptions. I suppose I have a bit of a reputation for being one of those divergent – perhaps unpredictable – artists, and from that perspective I see a bit of a Catch 22 between ignoring those expectations or pandering to them.  If we play to the same 1000 people, and keep doing the same basic thing, eventually the Fans become sated and don’t feel a need to purchase this year’s model, when it’s almost identical to last year’s but in a slightly different shade of black. Yet when the Fans’ Favorite Artist starts pushing past the comfort zone of what made them True Fans to begin with, they are just as likely to move their attention onwards within the box that makes them comfortable. Damned if you do or don’t.

These are the kind of creative balances we must each strike for ourselves. I’m not suggesting that any set of choices is better than the other, just that we should make such choices deliberately, and approach the challenges of tradition, obligation, expectation and even appreciation with the same kind of creativity we bring to the work itself.

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