TED talk — Creation in Reverse
I did a TED talk in Long Beach. TED stands for technology, entertainment and design and it’s a conference that was started some decades ago by Silicon Valley types to essentially bring part of the world to their doorstep.
From the TED website:
“TED was born in 1984 out of the observation by Richard Saul Wurman of a powerful convergence between Technology, Entertainment and Design. The first TED included demos of the newly released Macintosh computer and Sony compact disc, while mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot demonstrated how to map coastlines with his newly discovered fractals and AI guru Marvin Minsky outlined his powerful new model of the mind.”
(It was originally held in Monterey, a beautiful seaside escape just over the hills from Silicon Valley.) I suspect that the valley geeks and entrepreneurs didn’t usually get out much — they hardly ever even make it up to San Francisco! — so inviting innovators from around the world to come to them was a smart idea.
Here is Mandelbrot doing a return engagement this year, in reverse color.
It’s gone well beyond technology, entertainment and design by now, but still has a bit of a nerdy, techie vibe. I’d been watching their free video podcasts of various TED talks for years, and never really thought of attending until within the past year or two some other musicians who had been in the past all said, “You HAVE to go.”
Luckily, I got invited to do one of their talks this year, which saved me from worrying about the costs (this time, at least). The lineup is mind-boggling. TED talks are famously restricted to 18 minutes (or less — some folks are only given 3 minutes!... and some only got 1 minute!!) and they are very strict about it. I watched one elderly scientist almost get the hook as he exceeded his time allotment.
The time limit is a brilliant strategy — it forces us talkers to be concise, and the audience also knows that if they’re less than thrilled or stimulated, a new topic and speaker will be along in a few minutes. Being concise is one thing, but the time limit also conveniently means one has to stay “on message,” as the Cheney regime referred to it. In that time frame one can really just present one idea — and often it seems like just the inkling or introduction to a new idea was what was being presented.
Months ago I went to meet the TED folks at their New York offices after I was invited to participate. I was being vetted. I’ve done a few talks in the last few years — on bicycles and cities and Powerpoint — but they seemed to want something that pulled in my musical life. So, I mentioned to them that there was another talk, one about music in context, that I’d only done once — and I believed it could include musical examples and personal anecdotes. That seemed to satisfy them, though I said if they had doubts they could uninvite me, and that would be fine, no offense taken.
I practiced by talking on my subject over the last couple of months — at Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg, Bell House in Park Slope, and at Bowery Ballroom as part of the Stories in High Fidelity series. I never got it down to the requisite 18 minutes at those venues, but I did refine and re-order the thing quite a bit. I got some feedback and some beers.
I was terrified going in front of the TED crowd — they never boo, but they’re a pretty heavy-duty lot. Walking in I glimpsed Daniel Dennett, the author whose amazing talks I’ve seen on the podcasts. Later I caught sight of über geeks like Bill Gates (who talked about a new kind of nuclear reactor), Google founder Sergey Brin (who was interviewed about the China mess) and Temple Grandin (who wore old school Western wear all the time)… and while I was talking on the phone during a break Will Smith walked by, accosted by two nerds. Some of the major science speakers sported science fashion straight out of central casting, while others were beautifully surprising in the disconnect between their appearance and their deep skill sets. The attendees were predominantly male.
The conference has evolved, as I mentioned — and with all the money that is now connected to and surrounding the tech world, many talks almost seemed like pitches for support in developing the speaker’s new medical miracle, for example. Your potential funders are probably sitting right in front of you. Thankfully, not too much overt hustling was in evidence, but there was lots of business card exchanging. Many talks seemed to be about new medical or other technologies that can be of use in the developing world. One can see that the Gates Foundation and many many others would naturally emerge from this milieu.
It’s not all science. There are musical acts as well — they play a few songs interspersed between the talks on the wisdom of whores and mathematical models of alternate universes. Thomas Dolby is the one-man house band, and this year he was joined by NY string quartet Ethel. Other guest acts were Jake Shimabukuro, ukulele virtuoso; Andrew Bird; and Natalie Merchant, who appropriately integrated a slide show into her short set. I sat in with Thomas and Ethel for an edited version of “Nothing But Flowers,” a song well suited to the venue where Gore first did his climate change talk (he was there too).
Sarah Silverman’s shock comedy routine wasn’t exactly well received by all… but overall most attendees seemed to be enthralled by the majority of talks. Naturally there were a few high points and spontaneous standing ovations (I didn’t get one), and those tend to spread around the web very quickly. The Jamie Oliver rant about American eating habits is online already. (There’s an amazing video clip included in it of West Virginia school kids who can’t identify common vegetables.)
There wasn’t much time for biking around — there wasn’t much time for anything beyond listening — but I did manage to rent one and ride down the beach bike path. Really lovely, though not a very viable means of commuting. Long Beach has oil wells in the harbor; larger offshore drilling rigs can be seen in the distance. The ones close to the beach were disguised to look like skinny condos or office buildings, as if that would somehow be less offensive than looking at an oil derrick.
Anyway, here’s a slightly expanded version of my talk, minus the musical excerpts.
Creation in Reverse
What I'm going to talk about is an insight I've had about creation. That insight is that context largely determines what kind of music is written. Maybe the analogy applies to other forms of creation as well — painting, sculpture, programming or performance — or at least the shape of them.
That doesn't sound like such a big insight, but it's actually backwards from what I perceive to be conventional wisdom — which is that creation emerges out of some interior emotion or from an upwelling of passion that inevitably and must find an outlet. This is the romantic notion of how creative work comes to be. Here are the lyrics to a new song by the group One Republic: “I need another story/Something to get off my chest…When a situation rises/Just write it into an album.”
It doesn’t even rhyme, but more than that I think it’s based on a mistaken assumption.
I do think that despite the fact that this old notion of how creation comes into being is mistaken, passion is inevitably present in most work. Just because the form things take is self- or (in the case of my examples here) architecturally-restricted, and just because our response to a given context can be viewed as opportunistic, it doesn’t mean that creation is therefore cold and heartless. Those dark and emotional materials usually find a way in — and the tailoring process is largely unconscious. Emotional content is formed and shaped to fit the available context and circumstance instinctively. So, the order of the process is the reverse from what is often assumed: the consideration of the vessel comes first, and that which fills it comes afterwards. Most of the time we’re not even aware of this tailoring we do. Opportunity is often the mother of invention. The emotional story — “something to get off my chest” — still gets told, but its form is guided by contextual restrictions.
Paintings are created that fit and look incredibly good on the white walls of galleries. They might not look quite as good in your living room, filled with furniture and AV gear. Music is written that sounds good either in a dance club or a symphony hall (but probably not both). The architecture, the space, the platform, the software, in a sense “makes” the art. After art or music succeeds in a space, more similar venues are built to accommodate more production of similar sounding or looking pieces, but that happens later, after the form has been established. I sense that this mostly internalized tailoring process applies to everything, but I'll use music as my example, as people will believe I know something about that area.
Here is the room where some of the music I wrote as a young man was first heard.
The sound in there was remarkably good — the amount of crap everywhere, the furniture, the bar, the uneven walls and ceiling made for a great sound absorption. The sound system was decent as well — better than in many other clubs, which was great, for this music anyway. Because of the lack of reverberation one could be fairly certain that details of one’s music would be heard. The lyrics would probably be understood and the rhythms and bass would be punchy and clear. Given the size of the place, intimate gestures and expression would be appreciated as well, at least from the waist up — whatever went on below the waist was generally invisible, obscured by the audience.
This club was initially meant to be a bluegrass and country venue, sort of like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville.
The audience behavior was pretty much the same too — the musical differences between the two venues are less important than one might think. Structurally, the music emanating from both places was pretty much identical.
As both of these places are bars, people drink, shout and fall down, so, the music performed also has to be loud enough to be heard above that — and so it is. (The volume in Tootsie’s is MUCH louder than it was in CBGB.)
In years that followed I’ve performed in nicer halls — Disney Hall, Carnegie Hall and others — but I noticed that some of the music I’d written didn’t sound as good in those rooms. I began to ask myself if some of my music was written, maybe unconsciously, with specific kinds of rooms in mind.
There are many strains of music in the world, of course. One strain evolved in the context of being played and heard outdoors.
In this outdoor context, percussive music typical of West Africa carries well, and the extremely intricate and layered rhythms don’t all get sonically mashed together as they would in a reverberant hall. This music tends to be steady state — dynamically it doesn’t vary much, but rather maintains a constant volume.
Alan Lomax has argued that the structure of this music — essentially leaderless — emanates and mirrors egalitarian societies, but while that’s a whole other level of context one could argue that social context counts for as much as physical space and acoustics.
Some folks might say that the instruments used here — derived from easily available local materials — determined the nature of the music, and that this was the best they could do musically given what they had available. I would argue the opposite — that the instruments were carefully fashioned, tailored and played to best suit the physical, acoustic and social situation. They work perfectly in their context, and that’s no accident. Just as non-realistic art isn’t necessarily more primitive, this music is incredibly complex on its own terms. It works brilliantly.
It would turn into auditory mush in a place like this:
Western music in the medieval era — Gregorian chants and such — was performed in these stone-walled Gothic cathedrals, and in monasteries and cloisters, which had somewhat similar acoustics. The reverberation time in those spaces is very long — more than four seconds in most cases — so a notes hang in the air and become part of the present. Shifting keys would inevitably invite dissonances and a sonic pileup, as the previously sung or played notes would overlap with the new ones. So, what evolved is what sounds best — it is modal in structure. This music often uses very long notes and slowly evolving melodies with no key changes whatsoever. It works beautifully in these spaces — in fact, the space even improves the music… it gives it an otherworldly ambience.
It’s often assumed that this music was harmonically “simple” (having few key changes) because these composers hadn’t “progressed” to complex harmonies yet. I’d argue that in this context there would be no need or desire to include complex harmonies, as it would have sounded horrible. Creatively they did exactly the right thing.
Here’s the church where Bach did a lot of his playing and writing in the early 1700s:
As you can imagine, there was already an organ there and the sound would be less reverberant than in the Gothic cathedrals, but still echoey. The reverb was so much less that, famously, Bach and others could introduce key changes into their music.
Later on, young Mozart wrote for rooms like this in the late 1700s:
And sometimes for rooms like this:
They’re slightly smaller than Bach’s church, and when filled with royalty, patrons and furniture they allowed Mozart's music to be heard in all its frilly detail. People danced to it too. Imagine people dancing to classical music today!
My guess is that in order to be heard above a dancing mob who might also be gossiping, one might have had to increase the size of the orchestra, which is in fact what happened.
Meanwhile, some folks were going to hear operas. Here’s La Scala as it is now.
Built in 1776, the original orchestra section at that time was more a series of booths or stalls rather than the rows of seats that are typical of opera houses now. People would eat, drink, socialize and holler out to one another during the performances. They’d holler to the stage too, for encores of the popular arias. The vibe was more like CBGB than the typical opera house today.
La Scala and other opera venues of the time were fairly compact — not much deeper than a small theater or large club — so the sound turns out to be pretty tight. I’ve performed in some of these old opera venues and if you don’t crank the volume too high, pop music survives surprisingly well.
Here’s Bayreuth, the opera house Wagner built for his own music in the 1880s.
You can see it’s also not that huge. Not nearly as big as most opera halls today. What’s different about his hall isn’t the space itself, but the bandstand. The orchestra pit is larger and more accommodating of the more extensive orchestras that he required to conjure the requisite bombast. He had new and larger brass instruments created, and he also called for a larger bass section to create his big orchestral effects.
I believe that later, as symphonic music tended to be performed in larger and larger halls — the kind built in recent centuries — the music, originally conceived for rooms, palaces and modest-sized opera houses, was now being asked to accommodate ever larger and more reverberant spaces, which tended to be less musically dead.
*Correction: “The [above] image is the Bayreuth Markgraflisches Opera House. Completed in 1748, it seats 800 (approx. 550 at modern seating standards), and is a small wooden opera house (decorated to look like gilded plaster) built inside a stone castle structure. It has amazing opera acoustics and some unique features not seen elsewhere.
The text/commentary refers to the space that Wagner had built for the Ring Cycle (actually embodying his views on how opera should be seen and heard). That is the Bayreuth Festspielhaus [below] completed 1876. It seats 1800 people (approx. 1250 at modern seating standards). It has a fan shape, with steep rake allowing a single row sightline (i.e. you can see directly over the head of the person in front of you). The idea was to draw people into the dramatic scene avoiding distractions of ornate room architecture and views of other people, common in the opera houses that preceded it. The orchestra pit is deep under the stage in comparison to houses that have preceded and followed it. This allows the orchestra to play loud without overpowering the signers. It also creates the effect of a “mystical abyss” that Wagner was looking for - with the sound emanating from an invisible source that lines up with the stage. Many conductors feel the pit allows the sound to blend better, so when it emerges from the pit, is sounds more like the conductor intended. There are many parallels to the great Odeum at Agrippa in Athens that was built during the Roman period. In many ways the experience is a precursor to the modern movie theatre.” -Raj Patel, Principal, Arup Acoustics
Around 1900, according to Alex Ross in a New Yorker piece (“Why So Serious?”), another development occurred which would affect the music that composers wrote. Classical audiences were no longer allowed to shout, eat and chat during the performances. One was expected to sit frozen, immobile, and listen with rapt attention. Ross hints that this was a way of keeping the hoi polloi out of the new symphony halls and opera houses. Music that sometimes used to be for all was now for an elite — something to be enjoyed without showing it or shouting about it. Audiences were intended to be “respectful,” which meant hiding their emotions until the very, very end.
This policy obviously affected composition — it meant that since no one was talking, eating or dancing anymore the music could now have extreme dynamics, and very quiet passages, as the composers knew they’d be heard, and harmonically complex passages could be appreciated. Combined with the increased reverberation of the larger symphony halls, these factors transformed music. All 20th century classical music could only work in (and was written for) these socially and acoustically restrictive spaces.
Although the quietest details and complexities could be heard, these larger halls meant that rhythmically things got less distinct and fuzzier. Late 19th and 20th century composers like Mahler therefore wrote music that took those emerging qualities into account. They emphasized texture, and sometimes audio shock and awe, as the back row was further away — and if you wanted to reach them, you needed to adapt. And adapt they did.
Here’s one of those rooms — Carnegie Hall:
Groove music — percussive music featuring drums, for example, like what I do — has a very hard time here. I’ve played Carnegie Hall a couple of times, and it can work, but it is far from ideal. I wouldn’t play that music there again.
Even the jazz now occasionally played in these rooms becomes a kind of chamber music. No one dances or drinks — at least not in the hall. (Although I’ve gotten audiences up and dancing in many of these places.) Jazz clubs followed suit — no one dances at the Blue Note or Village Vanguard. Great music resulted, but folks often forgot that jazz was once music for dancing — that spiritual uplift and dancing were never mutually exclusive.
Looping back to the early part of the 20th century to pick up jazz, it was originally played in bars, riverboats, funerals and joints where lots of dancing and drinking were going on. There was little reverberation in those spaces so the groove could be strong, precise and clear.
It’s been pointed out — by Scott Joplin and others — that the origin of jazz solos and improvisations was a way of stretching out whatever section of the tune the dancers were getting into. During a performance the dancers might really be getting off on one part, and if the “written” melody of that section ran out, the musicians would be required to extend it. So, in order to keep the dancers going, the players would jam on those chord changes over the groove rather than simply playing the same melody over and over again. The improvisations evolved out of necessity, and a new kind of music was born.
If anyone’s been to a juke joint or seen the Rebirth or Dirty Dozen brass bands at a place like The Glass House in New Orleans, then you’ve seen lots of dancing to jazz. Its roots are as spiritual dance music.
Not only the form but also the instrumentation of jazz was modified so that the music could be heard over the sound of the dancers and the bar. Banjos were louder than acoustic guitars, trumpets were louder than fiddles, and this tendency repeated until amplification and microphones came in (which I’ll get to later).
Like West African music this is texturally steady state music. The volume doesn’t vary much, for to do so would risk getting lost amongst dancing and jabbering.
Likewise, country music, blues, Latin music and rock and roll were all (originally) music to dance to, and they too had to both be loud enough to be heard above the chatter and also work for the dancers. They were all performed in similarly sized rooms as well — so rhythmically they were sustainable.
Around the first third of the 20th century a new music venue emerged. People were now listening to music on the radio or on home stereos through one of these things.
People probably heard more music on them than they would ever hear face to face. This technology, this appliance, became the concert hall. In some ways music was now free of any live context — or more properly, the context became the living room and the jukebox, as well as the still ongoing ballrooms and concert halls.
The microphones that brought music to radios also changed the way we sang as well as how we played instruments.
One no longer had to have great lungs to be a singer. Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby innovatively sang “to the microphone” — they adjusted their vocal dynamics in ways that would have been unheard of and unsuccessful earlier.
Others went even further. Chet Baker sang in a whisper, as did João Gilberto, and millions followed. These guys were whispering in your ear, getting right inside your head. Needless to say, without microphones, this intimacy wouldn’t have been heard at all. And mostly it wouldn’t have been heard that well either, except in the privacy of a living room.
Recorded music emerged around this time too. Technology had turned the living room or any small bar with a jukebox into a concert hall. It seems to me that music composition and the whole situation for musicians had now come upon a forking path. The performing musician was now expected to write and create for two very different venues — for the live venue and for a recording — and the compositions were expected to be the same, as one medium was thought to promote the other. It seems unfair. The performing skills, not to mention the writing needs, the instrumentation, and the acoustic properties for each medium, are completely different.
Recorded music allowed music venues to now come into existence that didn’t even have performers. Bars with jukeboxes became venues without any live musicians at all.
For example, music written for contemporary discos, in my opinion, usually ONLY works in those social and physical spaces. Not only that, it works perfectly on their incredible sound systems. It feels stupid to listen to club music at its intended volume at home — though people do it. And, once again, it’s for dancing, as was early hip hop, which emerged out of dance clubs in the same way that jazz did — by extending sections of the music so the dancers could show off and improvise.
Live performance didn’t go away — the social attraction was too important. The most successful pop music acts ended up performing in the largest man-made indoor spaces available. Basketball arenas and hockey rinks have terrible acoustics — so only a narrow range of music really works at all. The music that arena rock groups composed was, like the sounds written for Bayreuth, Wagnerian… tending to medium tempos and fairly simple harmonic structures. Otherwise, despite advances in technology, it turns to mush.
Here the masses gather in an architectural space that demands that the music not only sonically but socially perform a different function than what it does on record or in a club. Arena rock works pretty well in arenas, but if you’ve ever heard a band who’s spent decades playing in sports arenas do an “intimate” club date, you might hear that they’ve often evolved into an animal that doesn’t fit outside their contextual element. The outsized gestures and the music itself are a fish out of water.
Contemporary music venues
What’s new? One of the newer musical venue is the car. I’d argue that contemporary hip-hop is written, musically at least, to be heard in cars with systems like this one.
Or maybe this one?
I’d say the audio space in a car with these speakers forces a very different kind of composition. Full spectrum. Bass heavy. The vocal is often allocated a space where not much else lives. Although this music may have emerged from dance-oriented early hip hop, it’s morphed into something else entirely — music that sounds best in cars.
One other new music venue has arrived.
Presumably this MP3 player plays mainly Christian music.
Beginning with the Walkman portable cassette player, private listening is musically and socially partly an extension of the “sitting very still in a concert hall” experience, combined with the pristine virtual space that studio recording allows. You can hear and appreciate extreme detail and subtlety when the earbuds are in your ears, which is similar to concerts that demand silence — but as opposed to most concert halls, the lack of reverb means that rhythmic material survives beautifully and completely intact.
That said, extreme dynamic changes can be painful on a personal music player. If there’s a quiet passage then we turn the thing up, only to have our ears assaulted when the loud bit comes along. I never listen to traditional classical music on one of these, for example. As with dance music 100 years ago, it’s better to write steady state music for these.
Interestingly, it seems we’ve come full circle in many ways. The musical techniques of the African Diaspora, the foundation of much of the world’s contemporary popular music, with its wealth of interlocking and layered beats, works acoustically incredibly well as both a private listening experience and as a framework for much contemporary recorded music.
African music that might have been originally created based on being played in the open — steady state music loud enough to be heard outdoors above dancing and singing — turns out to also work well in the most intimate of spaces, our inner ears.
Yes, people do listen to Bach and Wagner on iPods, but not too many people are writing new music like that — except for film, where Wagnerian bombast works really well.
Birds do it
This adaptive tendency isn’t just limited to musicians and composers. It extends into the natural world as well. David Attenborough and others have claimed that bird calls have evolved to fit the environment. In dense jungle foliage, constant, repetitive and brief signals within a narrow frequency work best. The repetition is like an error-correcting device — if you didn’t hear the song/signal clearly the first time, here it is again.
Birds that live on the forest floor, however, have evolved lower-pitched calls — sounds that don’t bounce off or become distorted by the ground. Meanwhile, birds in the plains and grasslands have buzz-like calls that carry longer distances, like the Savannah sparrow:
Water birds have calls that cut through the ambient sounds of water, and Eyal Shy of Wayne State University says that there are even variations within the same species. Scarlet tanagers vary the pitch of their songs in the east, where the woods are denser than in the west.
There’s more: birds of the same species in the same place adjust their singing as their habitat changes. Birds in San Francisco were found to have raised the pitch of their songs over 40 years, in order to be better heard above the increased traffic.
So it’s not just composers who do this — who adapt to the context and to venues — it’s an interspecies phenomena.
Music composition being shaped by the venue in which it will be heard is an easy example for me to use. I also have a feeling that this somewhat reverse view of creation happens a lot, maybe in many very different areas of creativity.
What’s interesting to me is not that these practical adaptations happen — that seems predictable and even obvious — but what it means for our perception of the creative process.
It seems that creativity is adaptive, like anything else. When a space becomes available, work emerges to fill it. The genius, the emergence of a truly remarkable and memorable work, happens when the thing is perfectly suited to its context and is also surprising. And when something works, it strikes us as not just being clever — a good adaptation — but as strongly and emotionally resonant. When the right thing is in the right place we are moved.
What seems obvious by now is that emotion, passion and personal expression can be poured into whatever form or vessel becomes available. And that form and those structures are determined primarily by the available venues — be they a club or an arena in music, a blog entry, a forest, or a white gallery wall.
Sometimes if I say things like this I get accused of being cold and calculating — the implication being that by adapting, work is somehow spineless, without integrity, inauthentic. The old idea that true creativity explodes into existence out of the heart and soul, and somehow emerges and insists on the form it wants to take, still lingers.
This romantic attitude applies to politics too. Thomas Frank wrote on one possible reason why voters often vote against their own best interest:
“Authenticity has replaced economics as the driving force of modern politics. The authentic politicians are the ones who sound like they are speaking from the gut, not the cerebral cortex. Of course, they might be faking it, but it is no joke to say that in contemporary politics, if you can fake sincerity, you have got it made.” [Link]
That’s where the danger lies. We need to accept that our evolutionary connection to the birds is not just physical, as a member of a similar branch of the evolutionary tree, but our expressions are like birdsong as well. Whoever writes the songs for One Republic, it’s true we do “get things off our chests,” but the way we do that, the art of it, is to put them into proscribed forms. That’s part of the creative process, and we do it instinctively — we internalize the process, like the birds do — and it continues to be a joy to sing, like the birds do.