Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Gifted Listener

The Washington Post ran an article recently about Joshua Bell and his experiment playing his 3-million dollar Stradivarius in the Washington metro, posing as a street musician. Except for a few passersby, he was generally ignored. He collected $32, of which $20 came from a single individual. The apparent point being that people were too busy, too unaware, or too self-absorbed to notice a world-class musician playing a world-class instrument.

Unfortunately, i think if you took most of the people on the metro and said "Hey, there's a top violinist playing a rare violin", you'd still get general indifference except maybe about the value of the fiddle. There are enough people in the world who listen to classical music that there can be "famous" violinists like Joshua Bell, who makes enough money performing that he can purchase a $3m violin. But the demand for this type of music is so small relative to popular music that most on-line music providers can't even be bothered to categorize it in a way that makes sense to classical music fans.

I'm not necessarily bemoaning the lack of interest in non-popular music. Whether or not the culture at large regards the music as valuable is irrelevant. However, the sort of music that Bell plays is, in fact, better music than even the best popular music; and it is available unlike most artifacts of the same time period. If somebody were going to offer you a Titian or a Turner to hang on your wall, you'd probably want at least to take a look at it before you declined, wouldn't you? So my problem is not that people don't listen to "art" music; my problem is that people don't try to listen to it.

What makes it worse is that i feel as if i am, in a very small way, a part of the problem. I've written here before that i think that music recommendations like those that i help generate for Yahoo! music steer the listener toward more of the same. In fact, that's essentially the way that the solution to the problem is stated: find out what i'm listening to and find more of the same that i'm not listening to. Like all problems solved by computers, the output is as good as the input. If i tell you i like baroque music and swing and hair metal and polka, then i'll get back a better variety, but still more of the same.

I've used my favorite Aaron Copeland quote before: "Nothing can possibly take the place of listening to music". It's quite OK to listen to a piece of music and decide that it does nothing for you, even if it is a historically admired work (for example, i love Beethoven, but i don't really care for the Missa Solemnis). However, the vast majority of music, even popular music, will not be heard on the radio or played in the park, so music has to be sought for (the weborati call this "discovery", but that term has negative connotations for me since it implies having a computer find things for you).

The culture of digital music promotes personalization, which is kind of like decorating your living room. Your goal is to be comfortable and surrounded by the familiar, with just a few touches of the exotic to allow you to express your personality. True musical discovery is more like a process of self-education: hard work, frustrating, potentially embarrassing, and occasionally tedious. It's also vastly more fulfilling, just like getting out of your living room in the real world. We don't build tools for this kind of discovery, because there doesn't seem to be a market for hard, frustrating, tedious processes, no matter how fulfilling they might ultimately be.

Copeland talked about composing for a "gifted listener", somebody who had no ambitions of being a professional musician but was still serious about listening for patterns, structure, even meaning in music. I don't think Copeland wanted to suck all the fun out of music, so that you're trying to discern the sonata form in the latest Linkin' Park single, but i think he'd be disappointed by the legions of IPod zombies who think that variety means turning "shuffle" on. If you think you like music, then try to find something that really doesn't sound like anything you've heard before.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

White Dragon Tournament

Yesterday was our annual martial arts tournament. I did just ok this year, winning a few events, but not doing well at all in my sash-level events where i've cleaned up the past couple of years. I did win my open form competition, which i was happy about since it's my hardest form by far (siu ba gua). I even managed the lotus position without falling over. I did a little better in combatives this year, losing a split decision in the championship match for my division. I thought i had won, but at the end of the regulation time, the judges called it a draw and made us fight another 30 seconds. I also won my first-ever tai chi event, which was a major surprise.

Our school was second again this year, although i think we had the most cumulative points (the place is based on points per student). Our kids division ruled again, winning the top 3 spots for a second straight year.

Tournament is a nerve-wracking, but worthwhile event. Doing a public performance of a familiar form or technique completely changes the psychological game. Your pace speeds up despite your best efforts to go slow. Your feet seem to have a mind of their own. You start thinking, and it takes away your instinctive movement. It's brutal, but like competitive fighting it gives you a good sense of how technique can go out the window in a pressure situation.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

New York, New York

Woohoo! My request for guaranteed entry into the 2007 New York City Marathon was accepted (based on my 3:02 at Carlsbad). Now i just have to make travel arrangements and train. Fortunately, it's not until November so i've got a bit of time to rest my legs and then start the cycle anew.