Sunday, October 14, 2012

Two Voices, One Family

We went to see Clannad - an Irish folk, rock and jazz group - in the Carolina Theatre in Durham on Friday.

The group is made up of siblings Moya , Ciarán and Pól Brennan, and their twin uncles Noel and Pádraig Duggan.  The uncles are a couple of months my junior, born in January 1949.  They look a bit older and play far younger.  The siblings, born in the 1950s, are not much younger than their uncles and in their music you hear the rich tapestry of sound that can grow only out of decades of making music together - really together, sitting in pubs, and church basements, and in the kitchen or around the fire. Family making music together for the sheer love of it.

So this was old school pre-Internet, pre-synthesizer, Irish music.  It traveled well to the Carolina Theater.  That sort of makes sense since the acoustics in the venerable old structure do have a distinct pub/kitchen ring to them.  And a couple of numbers into the evening, we ditched the seats we had been sold directly behind the speaker tower in the front corner of the theater and made our way to some unoccupied seats from which we could both see and hear the performers.  Things were much better from that point on.  Every member of the family moved smoothly from instrument to instrument on a pleasantly under-produced stage that allowed  us - in the comparatively intimate venue - to see real smiles flashing between real people who loved making music together and who had swapped songs and instruments all their lives.

My Gaeilge being nonexistent, the first half of the concert was a pure, text-independent, musical experience; traditional music we shared with them without synthesized tracks, jumbo-trons, flashing lights, Twitter streams, or any other overt digital augmentation. Though I must admit, the keyboard guy hired for the tour was great, and Ciarán's electric, body-less, stand-up base did allow him to grab older acoustic and wind instruments far more easily than would the traditional version.  The second set was even better when they shifted to both songs and a language I understood. Come the end of the concert, exhausted from clapping and singing along, we managed to drag these folks - our age and no doubt far more tired - back out for a couple of encores, before we tromped, nicely spent, through a cool Fall evening back to our car and home.

OK, so? Well, you see I am an unabashed Enya fan.  And again, so?  Ah, OK, Enya is the Brennan's baby sister - not the "baby-ist," but the sixth of the nine Brennan children. And Enya is about as teched-up as a performer gets.  She uses as many as 80 different layers of her own voice to create a final version of a song. And then messes with the purely synthesized tracks that provide the instrumental bed for the vocals. An inclination that may explain her only brief affiliation with family Clannad. You can see how her approach to "making music" would not work in the Carolina Theatre - her electronics would probably blow out the entire circuitry of the aging building.  And would we really be willing to wait for her to lay down 80 tracks? So, how did Enya Brennan come to this seemingly anti-Brennan type of music making?

Finding "truth" about any celebrity these days is probably a futile undertaking.  Even if one can discern a "fact" or series of "facts" about someone in the public eye, those swiftly become data points to be woven into a tapestry for public consumption that may or may not bear at all upon the inner life of the individual.  There are rumors that Enya suffers from extreme stage fright, and that drove her to her studio-bound oeuvre.  It is a charge that she denies and is largely unsupported by her early touring work.  More likely is the idea that she simply discovered a way of best manifesting her "voice" that largely precludes "concerts" or "performances."

From our side of the speakers the issue is also selective, but need not be exclusive.  I do not find Clannad all that interesting as recorded music.  It is not something I would just sit and listen to as part of the constructed sound track of my life, the soundtrack that resides in my various digital devices, and that I call up to meet my almost continual need for music.  It, like Cajun music, is magic in live performance, almost demanding that you get up and participate.  There were very few "still bodies" in the theater last night. But the same genres are somehow flattened and repetitive when it is just me and the speakers.  With Enya, performance never even enters consideration.  Her work lives completely within the head, as though instead of the body trying to physically engage the music, the music penetrates the body - the experience is completely internalized, holding the body in a dream-trance.  Our body freezes during dreaming so we do not injure ourselves as we take flight in the course of our dreams.  For me Enya's music lives in that space - demanding frozen attention. I cannot play it as "background" music.

So where does this ramble take us?  Just as a walk through any rose garden worth its name puts the lie to the old adage that "a rose, is a rose, is a rose," the Clannad concert, considered in the context of their younger sister's music, reveals the truth in the assertion that music is perhaps the most varied of art forms.  And as with all modes of human expression that contain a message - carved stone, paint on a surface, text on a page, or a screen, movement and music on a stage, music through standing speakers or headphones - each container shapes and influences that which it contains. The same musical inclination, tradition, even the same musical family may enter the container, but it comes out the other side into our ears transformed by its journey through the medium.  And we, if we listen closely, are similarly transformed.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Working Without a Net[work].

We expect it, even demand it of The Flying Wallendas, the legendary circus act that, having lost its safety net in a luggage snafu just prior to a 1928 performance at Madison Square Gardens, opted to perform without it.  They never strung it up again.  In 1978, the troupe's 73 year-old founder, Karl Wallenda fell to his death from a wire stretched between the 10-stories high towers of Condado Plaza Hotel, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In 2011, his great-grandson Nik Wallenda, completed the walk accompanied by his mother. I mean these folks make NASCAR, the NFL and pro hockey look like "girlie games." We expect them to work without a net.

On the other hand, I have come to expect one. So imagine my surprise then, when last week I walked into class, fired up the digital projector, hooked up all the various inputs and outlets, hit start and got nothing. Turned out that the wireless network that seamlessly stitches together the 40,000-some faculty, staff and students that comprise this technology rich, research-1 university had stepped out for a latte.  Well, that wasn't the reason given over on SYSNEWS, the website that tells us what is happening with All Things Tech on campus. Their message was:

Although the wireless system appears to stabilized, ComTech engineers will continue to troubleshoot the wireless issues on campus to determine root cause of these issues. We appreciate your patience as we work towards a resolution to these ongoing problems.

It hadn't "stabilized" and we went quietly nuts.  We had grown accustomed to our net.  Sure, many of us still have a computer wired to the wall in our offices, but it is sort of like the telephone on the desk.  It's there, but how often do you use it?  Far more often we tote our laptop or our tablet into the classroom, plug into the projector and wing our way wirelessly into our lectures and discussions. I can't remember the last faculty meeting when there weren't as many mobile devices around the table as warm bodies. We were wireless, and then we weren't. So we scurried madly finding "workarounds" shifting courses and lectures onto thumb drives, reacquainting themselves with those big clunky things that were tethered to the wall with ethernet cables, and running across the street to coffee shops to check email.

Well, the system did eventually stabilize, but not for several days, and with little or no explanation.  It was very much a "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.  .  .  .  I am the great and powerful Wizard of Oz!" kind of experience.

It all reminded me of Grandfather Schrag and the horses. You see, my Grandfather Schrag was a Mennonite minister who farmed and preached out on the wide prairies of Southeastern South Dakota just as the 19th century was turning into the 20th.  There was a thriving Mennonite community in the area, but Granddad's immediate neighbors were Catholics and Protestants of varying stripes - perhaps a Lutheran or two.  In short, there were more than a few folk who were "nicht von unsere" - not one of ours.  You see, our family was Mennonite - not Amish.  No beards, no bonnets, - buttons and zippers were fine, modern folk in may ways. But Granddaddy was the minister and a bit of a theological conservative. "Earn your bread by the sweat of your brow," in his mind, eliminated a lot of "new fancy clap-trap."  So while the neighbors were un-crating the noisy John Deeres, my father and his brothers were still hitching their horses to the four-bottom plow and heading out to turn the sod the old-fashioned way.

It seemed terribly unfair, until the "chug, chug, chug" of the John Deere went "chug, chug, chug .  .  .  clunk." And stopped. You see this was before any self-respecting farmer could fix any machine on the place with a pair of pliers and some bailing wire - heck it was even before bailing wire.  But the neighbors had bought the idea of the mechanized farm. Sold off the horses and brought in the tractors - not realizing that they were working without a net. Much of farming is time dependent, time and weather. When there is rain coming in and hay is lying cut in the field - you can't wait for the John Deere guy to come out and fix the tractor. You bail right now or you lose the hay. It was times like that when the horses seemed a real good bet.

Sure, time moved on, and as I said, pretty soon my cousins could jury-rig any piece of machinery on the place.  But there was that span of "in-between" time when the tractor-types were working without a net. When they had trusted their livelihood to a technology that had no support system, and a potential for disaster from which they had no real recourse.

As I repeatedly stood before my classes last week scrambling for ways to make "the normal" work, 50 or 60 faces peering curiously at my machinations, I wondered if we hadn't made some of those same errors in our current love affair with all things mobile and wireless. I switched madly from keyboard to keyboard, browser to browser, application to application. And all the while the rain was coming in, there was hay lying in the field, and the damn tractor wouldn't start.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Saving Face[book]?

I had to sit down and take a deep breath when I realized that I was feeling sorry for Mark Zuckerberg. On the surface he's sitting in the catbird seat. I mean the kid has more money than he'll ever be able to spend.  He'll never have to worry about paying for health care. He doesn't care what his tax rate is, because it will never affect his lifestyle.  He'll be first in line for the newest Tesla. He can fly to Florence for the weekend whenever he wants.  Why feel sorry for him?

I guess I feel sorry for him because they stole his company.

When Facebook launched in February of 2004 it announced that its mission was simple: to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.  

Between February of 2004 and May of 2012 Facebook remade much of the world in pursuit of that mission. 900 million people rambling online, sharing thoughts, posting pictures - OK mainly cats and babies - but still sharing something. A new social norm evolves, a reconstruction of the notion of "friend"ship. Heady stuff for a kid still shy of 30.

And then social went public. Facebook pulled up a chair to the adults' table, and the stock market pulled the chair out from under Zuckerberg. Picture Charlie Brown and Lucy jerking the football away: Splat!!

How does a company go from being the darling of the world one day to being a punchline the next? It's really not all that hard to understand: you change the rules - you evaluate the company using criteria that have nothing to do with Facebook's original mission statement. Facebook's new mission statement, whether it wants it or not, is to generate revenue for its shareholders by selling advertising to Facebook users on cell phones and tablet computers.  In short, Facebook's new mission is to make money.

I understand that it is sophisticated in these "working out of recession" days to assert that the bottom line is the bottom line.  We grow quickly blind to the notion that the whole "greed is good" mentality of bankers and hedge-funders is what got us into trouble in the first place.  And I suppose that it would be naive to take exception to that "belief in the bottom line" assertion, to posit instead that product, not simply profit, could be the driving force behind a business endeavor.  That someone might actually be motivated by a desire to build a better mousetrap.  Instead we assume that one should start a company designed to build mousetraps, but keep a firm eye on the exit strategy of selling the company to one of the "le"s - Apple or Google.  Then you take your megabucks and buy an island. The island turns out to have a severe mouse problem. "Damn," you think, "somebody ought to . . . ."

The point is that as businesses converge around the Internet, they seem to morph into the same business - the advertising business.  Even stranger is the fact that many of the ads that are pushed onto our cell phones and tablets are ads for businesses that are themselves businesses in the business of pushing more ads, and so on and so on.  Pretty soon we find ourselves trapped in a cybercycle, haunted by the realization that there is no "there" there - just another link to another ad.  Whoa. Digital vertigo.

And that's why I feel sorry for Zuckerberg.  I mean the guy just wanted to meet girls.  So he built this website.  He met girls.  Got married.  Got rich. But now the bankers and the beancounters control the site.  Oh, not up front.  Mark is still the man.  But unless the stock turns around, the guy in the hoodie will eventually bow to the dudes in suits.