Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Pardon me while I punch that up on my abacus

You might be surprised how many organists are posting their performances on Youtube these days, the stereotype being that we are all cave dwelling technophobes who think that Bach was the last guy to write music that was any good and we thumb our noses at any electronically enhanced instrument in favor or purely mechanical workings.

I have to admit to being a little surprised about this phenomenon myself when I found out about it a couple of years ago. Organists also use the internet to gripe about their jobs, try to find music and resources, and ask colleagues for advice.

Pianists, a tribe of which I am also a member, also have a strong online presence, which, somehow, I would expect more readily (is this because the piano is a technological newcomer?). Still, a classically trained musician spends a considerable portion of his or her time with technology from the 18th and 19th centuries in the case of the piano, and largely from the Middle Ages in the case of the organ, which is probably not something that can be said about too many other professions, unless you think baseball players are just using clubs to hit rocks, in which case I will grudgingly award them the prize instead. But how many of you spend any portion of your day, work or leisure, using a device that has roots that go back before the 20th century? Even your office chair has been technologically improved, though I'll grant that the concept of sitting on your butt (and trying to avoid work) has been around for a long time. The rest of your equipment is probably much newer.

It is a strange thing, as a musical artist, to be surrounded by this multi-century inheritance. It keeps expanding, and I keep trying to keep up with it, though with a bit of annoyance, sometimes.

Earlier this week I started a Twitter account. That means, just like CNN, I am now one of those cool people with both Facebook and Twitter accounts. I don't use Facebook very much, and it's not because I don't use the latest technology. I run a website, which, unlike a blog, requires me to make many formatting and cataloging decisions as well and contains hundreds of sound and video files. This blog, by comparison, is a piece of cake to run. You just write stuff and hit the publish button.

Suppose I want to post a recording of a piece of music I wrote on pianonoise (the website). First I write the thing, possibly using pencil and paper (although sometimes I prop my laptop on the piano and just enter the notes directly), then I put it into a music software program so that it looks legible (and professional). That used to be the job of the editor and the publisher. Next I learn how to play the bleedin' thing. Then I get out my recording equipment, make a recording, then upload the results onto my laptop, then do all of the processing required to make a finished product, import it into my web site software, do a lot of housekeeping with the file name, the cataloging, the uploading and lots of other details, hit some buttons, and walla! That only took a few years.

The piece makes its journey from composer to publisher to pianist to recording engineer to website administrator, and they are all me. And yet I don't have a smartphone.

So when I spent most of yesterday sitting on the tarmac at SFO, trying to get home from San Francisco, I couldn't Tweet all my snarky remarks in real time. Instead you'll have to wait until tomorrow.

I know, it makes me look like a real troglodyte, having a phone that only makes phone calls.  I'm pretty lucky: I suspect that I am one of the few people who graduated in my class who is actually making a living as a musician. Added to the fact that this way I am pretty well inoculated against wealth and power. Combine that with a conservative sense of spending, and you can see why I spent a few years fending off the latest and greatest of mankind's technological achievements. But I know I'm going to have to buckle soon, and it looks like the time is near. It's hard to have a Twitter feed on your website if you have to get to a computer every time you want to tweet something.

It would have also been useful for taking pictures if I had had one when I was jogging across the Golden Gate bridge the other day. I didn't feel like stuffing a camera into my running shorts; maybe a smart phone wouldn't have been such an imposition.

Is there a takeaway from all this? Not really, except that I do sympathize with people and their struggle with technology, from people who try semi-successfully to own the latest greatest thing as soon as it comes out to people who don't even know how to use email. The avalanche of new ideas from the last two centuries is overwhelming: even San Francisco's storied Cable Cars were the latest thing from about 1890 to 1910, a mere twenty years. It reminded me of how long CDs were king. Every format, every invention, has its very short day in the sun--that is, the few that have one at all.

I'll get that phone. It will be the cheap version, but it will take pictures and get online, even if it won't make me coffee (don't drink the stuff anyway). And soon I'll be able to blog from my phone, snap pictures without remembering a camera, check my email 700 times a day like everybody expects--the question is, how much is that going to improve my life? Because the last part of the equation, and the last reason I haven't gotten one of these things earlier, is that I'm trying to control the amount of daily trivia that vies for my attention. Twitter has already sent me a dozen emails trying to get me to follow all kinds of people. Apparently I just don't make enough "friends" every day to suit them. And, try as I might to keep up with my friends on Facebook--boy, there are a lot of them--I'm just not able to. I've only got about 150 at the moment, which is small potatoes for most of you. And I have a strict rule: in order to be your friend on Facebook, I actually have to know who you are in real life. That puts a limit on things, except that I estimate that I have about 150 relatives, and meet or in some way connect with (through choirs, church, concerts, and the like) between 500 and 600 people a week. It's hard to have real conversations with more than a handful of them.

It's hard enough to have real conversations with anybody. And that reveals another prejudice of mine, a preference for less quantity and more quality. For thoughtful transmissions rather than ephemeral tweets about whatever happens to annoy you at the moment. I'm going to try some of that and see if it expends my outlook on life. But I don't want to lose the reflection, the solitude, the time to think and be and create that practically defines the life of a creative artist. Maybe I'm caught in between them right now and a smartphone would help me take care of the short and the quick shorter and quicker and leave more time for the reflective and the deep.

We'll find out.

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