Screens Apart

These are strange times. There is a late 19th century pump organ half-assembled in my living room. It needed a few leaks repaired, but I primarily took it apart in the early days of the “Great Lockdown” to see how it worked. They are miraculous little instruments. Who knew? Today, after several months, I finally re-assembled the jumble of parts to allow it to function in skeleton translucence. It was marvelous to feel the music resonating from the keyboard, to see the stops lifting and falling, to know that the bellows I had repaired were thrusting air through the tiny brass reeds I had cleaned, resulting in that piercing and shrill celeste above the deep reverberations of the low diapason. Over the last few months, we had formed a relationship of mutual trust and vulnerability. Today, we both felt satisfied with the other.

A few minutes walk from my living room, a similar musical relationship is nurtured among the handful of singers that chant the daily services on the kliros or music stand of the monastery where I reside. Often, there is achieved that sense of flow in which the energy of the four singers is so harmonious that we feel to be floating effortlessly through the music. Time loses all value. Intonation, rhythm, and diction—the elements with which a singer is continually preoccupied—lose their grip on the mind. We relax into one another’s sound with mutual respect. Who is present on a Tuesday afternoon to notice? No one but ourselves, though we hope that God is well-pleased with this sacrifice of praise. But, really, it is for ourselves that we sing. “Is anyone cheerful?, let him sing” (James 5:13).

Probing my earliest memories of music, I find myself sitting at the feet of my dad with a pair of drumsticks, vibrating to the kick bass on my dad’s drum kit that he played for our church’s worship team. Music has always been, for me, a subjective experience. It has always been something to do, and to do with other people.

Shortly after I got married, I played for an 80’s band. No, I don’t mean that we played covers of Public Enemy, but that I was the only member of the band not over the age of 80. We played 1940’s dance music at a local nursing home. Sure, the nursing home could have just played the same numbers over the Bose® surround sound. What was important to the residents was that people were making the music. And, naturally, they danced as hard as anyone in a nursing home can.

This way of experiencing music is being endangered. Not by technology, but by the objectification of music in a process that began long before the record player and the iPod. Music is no longer something that we do. For an overwhelming majority of humans, music is something that is manufactured behind  a series of screens for the purpose of passive consumption. I will not tire my reader by repeating the litany of statistics about how Western culture no longer sings or makes music together. I will only caution against the false conclusion that such a state of affairs is the direct result of technology.

In Matthew Crawford’s latest volume, Why We Drive, he examines the ideological shift that has given rise to such technological phenomena as Tesla’s Autosteer. The increase of opaque interfaces between agent and consequence, Crawford argues, has made drivers passive spectators, spectators that are easily distracted. Isolated behind steel and glass, mesmerized by touchscreens, info-entertainment, and text messages, drivers require bells and flashing lights to warn them as they drift across the median. But, the warning and the consequence are not tangibly connected and thus often ignored, that is, until an unambiguous consequence slams into their vehicle at 80 m.p.h. Viewing such a state of human inattention, a tempting solution is to remove all agency from the human driver. Crawford explores such a solution in which researchers designed a traffic circle for autonomous cars which required dozens of cameras, sensors, and mega computers. Crawford humorously observes that such a traffic circle, ideally, would achieve the same level of marvelous traffic-flow efficiency seen in Bangladesh or Rome. 

Crawford’s point is neither to bemoan the multiplicity of technologies nor to blame its insufficiencies. Technology is but the step-child of an impoverished anthropology. Nascent in medieval nominalism and reaching its maturity in the philosophy of Kant, reality came to be conceived as a projection of the rational mind. Reality was positioned “inside one’s head,” as Crawford puts it. All external authority and reference points were to be doubted. Humans were cast in the mold of computational machines, in which external stimuli were internally processed, resulting in decisions and actions. As it turns out, humans are terrible computers: we react very slowly to data and are easily distracted. However, anyone watching a motorcyclist lean into a curve at 100 m.p.h or a violinist fly over the strings of a Paganini caprice would hardly doubt our competency for incredibly complex actions. Crawford observes in these highly skilled activities an anthropology that suggests an embodied cognition, one that hardly resembles a computer. Reality, he argues, is something outside our heads, a reality that cannot be captured by “data,” a reality that cannot appear on a screen, a reality in which the human being is remarkably well equipped by the simple fact that he is possessed of a body, a body that does things.

Among the many transformations that the year 2020 has wrought, humans as audience looms large among them. Much of the world has been forced to become passive spectators—of work, of worship, of news, of entertainment, of song, of dance—in a word: of life. An anthropology that frames reality in terms of input and projection set the stage, a morality in which the safety of the autonomous individual is paramount determined the plot, technology simply supplied the actors for a script written long before. By the third act, there were no survivors.

The worship of the Byzantine-rite Orthodox Church has changed little since the 4th century—her priests still wear the garb of patrician Romans. To witness these same priests frantically setting up cameras, microphones, and Facebook Live would appear as odd as to see Amish erecting a car wash. But, that is precisely what happened. 2020 has been a strange year, indeed. 

To recognize the full weight of this transformation of the Byzantine Liturgy into livestream theatrics, Andrew White offers an exhaustive survey of the liturgy as the anti-type of the stage in his 2006 dissertation: The Artifice of Eternity: A Study of Liturgical and Theatrical Practices in Byzantium. In this study of first-rate scholarship, White efficiently dismantles the misconception that the Liturgy was ever conceived as drama. The elaborate choreography, the gorgeous vestments, the florid chants are all so fetching to the eye and ear, it is easy to settle into an attitude of an audience gazing upon a stage. There is, no doubt, a great attraction to capture such a rare degree of vivid ceremony into an exportable commodity for consumption. Nonetheless, White convincingly contends that such an attitude is opposite to the original purpose of the Divine Liturgy which, he argues, was to make present the people gathered (the synaxis) in the Kingdom of Heaven as a living, breathing Body. Nothing could be further from the original intent of the Liturgy than to gawked at by the idle curiosity of FaceBook users or consumed as a visual aid for private religious devotion. The Liturgy live streamed ceases to be the thing itself and becomes rather the performance of a few to make another thing: the digital capture and transmission of visual and aural stimuli for a larger audience.

Churches are not the only institutions being transformed by the “projected reality” of the screen. The performing arts have been among the hardest hit by the lockdown and subsequent digitization of the stage. Even as theatres and concert halls begin to pick up the pieces, a question lingers in the air: Why live? 

My brother, a jazz pianist on his way to Berklee, recently played for me a piece he had put together with a virtual orchestra. Expecting a slight improvement over a Finale’s MIDI synth, I was shocked at the authenticity of the sound. Just think, a guy in his Downtown loft, a laptop, and some software can replicate with alarming accuracy the NY Phil on 65th! Grammy-winning producers, like Finneas O’Connell, are more sound engineers and Ableton wizards than crafters of recorded performances. Film composers are routinely using virtual orchestras. The popular Youtuber, Adam Neely, recently released a video about Google’s A.I. App, Tone Transfer, that promises to “transform everyday sounds into musical instruments. Record and upload audio directly into the browser and hear our machine learning models re-render it into saxophones, flutes and more!” 

This year, the prestigious NYC new music event, Bang on a Can, was “convened” over Youtube, like virtually all other concerts in the back-lit twilight we called 2020. There was Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordan, appearing in their respective “squares,” acting as master of ceremonies to the musicians as they streamed from their bedrooms, kitchens, and basements. Yet, what intrigued me the most was the abundance of electro-acoustical works in which a lone performer squealed and squawked to either the accompaniment of a recorded track or a loop. Maybe 2020 was a good year to beef up one’s solo repertoire. However, there is something deeply troubling, a premonition that the Great Lockdown only exacerbated: We are forgetting how to make music together.

Could our willing acceptance of A.I. orchestras, virtual concerts, and lone saxophonists serenading to sine waves be due to a cultural shift that sees human life as primarily conceptual and objective rather than personal and subjective? In Crawford’s terms, could our fascination with the virtual be related to an anthropology that situates reality inside our head versus a reality that is situated in relation to other people and other things outside our head? Are we fast approaching the day that living music dies? I don’t think so. And here’s why:

Hetzel Pond

Another short walk from my house, past a lovely pond, brings me to the home of one of my dear friends, the music director of the monastery, a talented composer and acclaimed conductor. I have sung many a concert under his direction, but what I most enjoy are the evenings we gather at his house, sometimes formally, sometimes informally, to make music. The “purpose” of these evenings of haus musik is not the creation of digital content, a screen or a mic are not to be seen. The “purpose,” however unconscious, is simply to enjoy and share music with each other— the real people in the real room around us. We use the instruments of our bodies, i.e. our voices to join with the analog sounds of their grand piano, my cello, someone’s guitar or flute. Together, we encounter tangible challenges: the strings on my cello need tuned, the vocalist miscounts the measure, the pianist plays the wrong chord. There is no digital audio workstation to airbrush these mistakes away, only laughter and a call, “from the top.”

There is a persistent temptation to capture these moments of spontaneous enjoyment in order to share them with a virtual “community.” There is an undertow to package and mass produce these “moments of meaning.” (if it didn’t go viral, did it happen?) Such is the spirit of our age. However, I believe it is precisely the immediacy of our little haus musik that lends to its value. It is first and foremost a conversation among friends, situated in a real place, for no other purpose than our own refreshment.

The year 2020 could certainly spell the end of music as we know it: music as object—to be isolated upon a stage, a screen, an earbud, and appreciated in the abstract by a static audience. But, I believe it could be the dawn of a flourishing subject-oriented musical culture. I have often remarked on the sharp divide between music written for performers and those written for the ears of an objective audience. A gnarly string quartet is performer-oriented whereas John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, while it might be attractive for its audience, is doubtless excruciating for its performers. I believe now is the time for us to re-discover the joy of making music with our hands and bodies with other people in our homes and local communities. It is high-time for us to abandon the audience-performer dynamic that has shaped our musical culture since Beethoven and Liszt. It is time to take a stand against the monsters we have made and remove the electronics, lenses, and screens that form an oblique wall between us and authentic living. It is time for us to relish once more the thrill of driving, of singing, of producing music with our own two feet. It is time that we cease watching and start doing.

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