Of course television isn’t what it used to be. Nothing is, that’s how it goes with “time” and its “it was”. The number of channels has expanded from three to infinity. With weekly magazines Life, Look, Time, Newsweek no longer consolidate a view for the entire country. There were some very bad things about such a narrow window. A lot of voices couldn’t find a national platform or any platform. But when something strange happened, everyone knew about it.
There was a very interesting moment in the late 60s and early 70s when rock music started to break through on national television. It started showing up in our living rooms pretty much full strength. Not the pre-fabricated kind, the stuff that was constructed as a simulation of rock — music but without the rebellion, sex and drugs. The simulation had to be revolutionary and at the same time not threaten consumers. They needed to feel hip when they made their next purchase. But this was the real stuff coming through the tube; the stuff that seemed to actually threaten the status quo. It’s hard to imagine a popular music that could do that these days.
Rock music was a mode of communication among the youth culture. Coded messages, visions and entire ways of life were transmitted through short pop songs. The disruption was starting to take hold when the whole thing was shut down. Any number of events could serve as the signal of the backlash, the one that struck me was the firing of the Smother’s Brothers and the cancellation of their television show by CBS in 1969.
Some technologists like to think the torch was passed from the rock generation of the 60s to the computerists of recent days. They point to technology as a force for radical disruption. When we use the word ‘disruption’ to describe a new monopoly taking over for an old monopoly, we really miss the ‘rupture’ in disruption. In the technology business some like to talk about disrupting things and changing the world. But really they’re just talking about market share, revenue and stock price. It’s disruption that doesn’t overturn the apple cart. It just moves some apples from the bottom to the top. The world isn’t really changed at all.
In a television interview with Dick Cavett, Janis Joplin talks about getting to the bottom of the music. It’s the same shock that Elvis generated with his first television appearance. The bottom of the music was suddenly being broadcast directly into the living rooms of middle class families — and without filters into the minds and dreams of the children watching those shows.
These days those moments are rare. But I had a small shiver of recognition watching Brittany Howard play electric guitar on television the other night. Even if you were to turn the sound off, you could see that she was getting to the bottom of the music. In that image, worlds of possibility were transmitted.
There’s a story that movie stars often tell about the trajectory of a popular actor’s career. It goes like this:
“Who’s Hugh O’Brian?”
“Get me Hugh O’Brian.”
“Get me a Hugh O’Brian type.”
“Get me a young Hugh O’Brian.”
“Who’s Hugh O’Brian?”
The “Mad Men” television episode was called “Lady Lazarus” after a poem by Sylvia Plath. In this episode the ongoing theme of the emergence of 60s rock and roll and its relationship with advertising is explored. In earlier episodes, the ad men had tried to sign the Rolling Stones to do music for a commercial. In this episode, a client wants the Beatles, or something that sounds like the Beatles. In the trajectory of the movie star’s career this is the “Get me a Beatles type” phase.
The client wants the Beatles-type sound for his ad because he feels that the Beatles are in touch with, and even driving, what’s going on in current culture. Those lovable mop-tops running from adoring fans in “A Hard Day’s Night” have really struck a chord. And if you can’t get the real thing, then a close copy will do. This is when the counter-culture was being sterilized and injected into the mainline culture. In the moment depicted, the two cultural streams are quite far apart. In fact that’s the conceit of the episode. The 60s, as a cultural phenomenon, is about to explode into the world of Mad Men. As viewers, we know something that Don Draper doesn’t know about what popular music will mean to this generation.
In the end, getting a Beatles-type sound turned out to be both possible and profitable. Bob Rafaelson and Bert Schneider were able to construct “The Monkees” with the help of Don Kirshner, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond and Harry Nilsson. Advertising no longer needed to appropriate popular culture, it produced popular culture.
With the advent of social media, we’re in a very similar place. The means of production are in everyone’s hands—including corporations. The paper towel you use to wipe a spill on the counter now wants to be your friend. Won’t you “like” it with a public gesture so that all your other friends will know about your new relationship? One thing was “like” another thing. Now the two things swim together in the same stream.
With this story, Mad Men had painted itself into a corner. The song the ad executives come up with, the one that’s supposed to sound like the Beatles, sounds nothing like the Beatles. Now the show itself had to deliver, not for the client, but for the audience. And not something that sounded like the Beatles, or some other artist doing a Beatles song. Here we become highly attuned to the difference between the original and the copy. The series creator, and writer of this episode, Matthew Weiner, working on multiple levels of signification, does a beautiful thing . The Beatles song he delivers is “Tomorrow Never Knows.” The song plays as Don Draper sits back in a chair in his perfectly-designed Manhattan apartment.
Instead of a song that perfectly captures that moment in the culture, we hear a song that is utterly alien. No client of an ad agency would want this song playing over an image of their product. This song explores the vast internal landscape inside every person. The material world of products and social status is dissolved, but don’t be afraid the song says, “it is not dying.” Even the title of the song tells us that things are changing and the future is uncertain. The overlay of the song on the image of a sitting Don Draper doesn’t create the feeling of harmony. Instead we feel a profound dissonance. This song isn’t just out of sync with the image, it wants to blow up the whole material world and release the listener into the infinite interior in all of us. Sometimes music can be dynamite.
In the spirit of things that are like other things, here’s my favorite version of the song “Tomorrow Never Knows” in a live rendition by a band called 801.
A Sweetwater Stream: Evolution of the Aesthetic Container
It might be a signal of the end of the industrial age. Of course, industrial-style production in factories will continue, but just as powerful efficiencies were created that radically changed the economics of manufactured goods, digital production is continuing its rampage of creative destruction. The politics and economics of the copying and sharing of digital files should be the subject of deep thinking and dialogue. But instead, on the one hand we have an industrial argument that mechanically reproduces itself; and on the other we have a digital argument that copies and pastes itself into a seemingly infinite number of online fora.
To start this exploration, we must trace the evolution of the product of industrial output. However, the focus here is specifically on the container used to deliver aesthetic product. For a certain generation there’s a well-known complaint. It seems like I’m buying the same music over and over again. Every time the music industry changes the standard format, I have to replace my collection. I had the vinyl, the cassette, the CD, the remastered CD and now the digital file. I’ve got the MP3, but what I really want is the high quality FLAC. It turns out that I’m not buying the music after all. I buy the container, the delivery method, and I buy one container after another. Each new standard container format makes some improvement in the audio quality and more importantly lowers production costs and increases margins. All manufactured aesthetic (and rhetorical) containers are moving along this path in an attempt to increase productivity and efficiency. All of these container formats are converging on the digital file as the lowest possible cost delivery mechanism.
Prior to the widespread distribution of the Network, the digital file seemed to be an innovation of the same kind as its predecessors. Slavoj Zizek, in his essay “The Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie” exposes the mechanics of the incredibly high margins made possible by the combination of digital production and worker compensation through stock options (prior to 2005, stock options did not need to be recognized as an expense on a corporate income statement).
How did Bill Gates become the richest man in America? His wealth has nothing to do with Microsoft producing good software at lower prices than its competitors, or ‘exploiting’ its workers more successfully (Microsoft pays its intellectual workers a relatively high salary). Millions of people still buy Microsoft software because Microsoft has imposed itself as an almost universal standard, practically monopolizing the field, as one embodiment of what Marx called the ‘general intellect’, by which he meant collective knowledge in all its forms, from science to practical knowhow. Gates effectively privatized part of the general intellect and became rich by appropriating the rent that followed.
The possibility of the privatization of the general intellect was something Marx never envisaged in his writings about capitalism (largely because he overlooked its social dimension). Yet this is at the core of today’s struggles over intellectual property: as the role of the general intellect – based on collective knowledge and social co-operation – increases in post-industrial capitalism, so wealth accumulates out of all proportion to the labour expended in its production. The result is not, as Marx seems to have expected, the self-dissolution of capitalism, but the gradual transformation of the profit generated by the exploitation of labour into rent appropriated through the privatization of knowledge.
The digitally-produced object is different than its industrially-produced predecessors in an fundamental way—the container is now a digital text. Owning a vinyl record did allow me the ability to create mix tapes, but it didn’t contain a method of spawning more vinyl records from the one I’d purchased. In the digital format, the aesthetic product is transformed into a quoted text written in an alphabet of 1s and 0s. Every personal computer has the capability to read, quote and re-quote digital texts—and this is the crux of the digital container crisis. If you can sell a digital file as though it were the analog output of an industrial process, outsized rents can be generated when large scales are achieved.
The problem is that when the digital file player is also capable of reading and re-quoting the text (code) and then sending a copy to any other node on the Network, the commercial distribution network is quickly dwarfed by the potential social sharing Network. What was a physical container produced through industrial manufacturing has become speech / text / code. The free circulation of speech and the protection of intellectual property rights collide in what Zizek calls the “privatization of knowledge.”
The Network utopians take the view that the free circulation of texts is essential to the nature of the Network. Attempting to impose limits on sharing is striking at the very heart of the Network. And while this approach easily solves the free speech issue, it doesn’t do much for the intellectual property side of the equation. Some say that intellectual property should be eliminated. Some industries, like fashion, for instance, operates without those kind of restrictions. Copying is part of the culture. Top designers even copy themselves, producing low-cost knock offs for the discount stores. But here we’re still dealing with analog manufacturing. If fashion were to become digital and buying new clothes simply involved selecting a style and printing out an outfit. There would be no difference between haut couture and pirate couture.
Other approaches to the problem depend on the good-heartedness, or laziness, of the consumer. Gabe Newell, co-founder of videogame company ‘Valve,’ is quoted as saying:
“One thing we have learned is that piracy is not a pricing issue. It’s a service issue. The easiest way to stop piracy is not by putting anti-piracy technology to work. It’s by giving those people a service that’s better than what they’re receiving from pirates.”
To some extent this is what happened with Apple’s iTunes store and the P2P file sharing network Napster. This approach works until your service technology is also primarily constructed of code. Once that’s true, what’s to stop a pirate from simply copying and pasting your service technology onto their servers. Each improvement you make is replicated to the pirate server as fast as bits can travel over wires. Is this the point that you put “anti-piracy technology to work”?
Moving back to the evolution of the container, there are some who say the “file” has had its day. Once you’ve got all those files locally stored and backed up on a series of hard disks, you look at the mess of hardware you’ve accumulated and cry out for a better solution. Here’s where the cloud (remote storage lockers) comes into the picture. All those files can be moved to a service that remotely stores them for a small fee. Alternatively you have the Netflix / Spotify model of charging the consumer rent for access to the company’s collection of digital files via an authorized stream.
Instead of moving big digital files over the Network, a stream sends just enough of the file to create a local cache which facilitates smooth playback on your viewing device. The stream attempts to recapture the qualities of the analog container—you can’t copy and share your stream. The stream is a part of a file, the streaming service never intentionally exposes the complete file. With some added pirating technology, you can convert the full set of streamed bits into a file and share that file. Potentially, you could even set up a server to stream the copied file to someone else.
Generally, streaming services attempt to control both ends of the transmission. If the streaming transmitter owns and operates the receiver sitting on the audience’s local device, the odds of preventing unauthorized copying and sharing are higher. The talk about “Apps” vs. the “Web” boils down to the control of data (text) streamed from centralized APIs. The cable television companies with their “cable boxes” were the first to employ this architecture. Netflix, Spotify, Pandora, Kindle, iPad, iCloud, HBOgo, CNN, the New York Times and many others have extended the strategy.
The record and the record player are becoming a single unit. They’re an updated form of the jukebox with a very large central digital catalog. All the big players are employing the same technical and architectural approach; the competitive difference is the size and quality of the library. As Zizek observes about Microsoft, the goal is to become a universal standard; a de facto monopoly. If any of these services can achieve that size, they manage to eliminate the “outside.” There’s no longer a need to copy and share through the greater external Network, because there is no outside of Netflix or Spotify. Sharing within the private network is both good for business and means that you’ve converted the people you want to share with into members of the private network. The large scale of the custom infrastructure required for a universal jukebox sets a very high barrier to entry for potential competitors. Facebook has been masterful at this.
Going universal is a zero-sum game. In order for you to win, somebody else has to lose. But there is another approach to the problem of intellectual/artistic property and the Network and it looks very promising. The universal jukebox strategy treats aesthetic product as a commodity. It’s unconcerned with artists or the actual aesthetic content of a work of art. It’s the quality of the delivery system, the player, that matters. Finding stuff, getting good suggestions for stuff and an easy “play” mechanism are the keys. A big catalog with a long tail allows the universal jukebox to punt on issues of aesthetic judgement.
There are two examples of artist-centered streams that offer some hope outside of the industrial streaming complex. The first example is a stream produced by New York’s Metropolitan Opera. They’ve created a national audience for their live HD opera broadcasts. The “player” is the network of movie theaters around the country set up to receive live HD streams and project them on to big screens with state-of-the-art sound systems. I attended a recent performance of the Baroque pastiche “The Enchanted Island” at a local movie theater. Here there’s no option to capture the stream with local computing power and store it in a file. And because you’re watching a live performance, not a replay of a file, there’s a very attractive element of danger. The technology serves the art, and the artistry is of a very high level. This delivery system has been expanded to include live symphony and theater performances and has the potential to establish a new art form where film evolves by retrieving something from the performing arts.
The second example is a little company in the north bay called the Tamalpais Research Institute. Here’s the mission statement from the About Us page:
Tamalpais Research Institute is the vision of Bob Weir, a founding member of the Grateful Dead. Weir and his team have built a state-of-the-art performance studio for broadcasting live HD video and audio streams directly to the Internet.
TRI is a virtual venue where fans can gather and enjoy the performances in the comfort of their own homes, or anywhere they have Internet access.
The main performance space at TRI houses a Meyer Sound Constellation System – a revolutionary acoustic modeling technology which has the ability to dramatically change the acoustical properties of the room. With the touch of a button, an artist can instantly change the sonic environment from that of a small intimate club to sounding like a theater, an arena or even a cathedral.
Each show will be directed, filmed, and mixed live in real time. Every care will be taken to provide the highest possible upstream bandwidth to transmit high quality HD video and audio to the end user. The live stream will be accessible by and tailored to a variety of viewing equipment such as mobile devices, streaming players, game consoles, computers, Internet ready HDTV’s as well as home theaters.
All of this will take place in a small intimate setting in front of a live studio audience. The musicians may be playing in the domain of Mount Tamalpais, but their music will be beaming out to the entire free world.
Bob Weir and the Grateful Dead have had a very different relationship with pirates over the years. There’s a sense in which they harnessed the power of the pirates to create a marketing network for their live performance business. And despite the fact that you can find a large number of free bootleg recordings of Grateful Dead shows on Archive.org, the band has a thriving business with their Dick’s Picks series. They continue to mine their catalog of live performance recording with a new series of limited edition releases called Dave’s Picks.
But that was then. This is now. In addition to establishing the TRI studio, Weir has reopened Sweetwater, the historic Mill Valley nightclub. And Sweetwater streams too:
Sweetwater’s new location in the Masonic Hall allowed for the complete renovation of a space that has hosted live music and events for more than a century. The remodeled interior is modern sleek, boasting state-of-the-art sound and streaming video technology, with clean sight lines and cozy hangout spots. It also features a gourmet cafe offering locally-sourced, organic fare.
There are a couple of directions you can explore if you’re interested in the future of the stream. You can look toward the battle of the giants attempting to establish a network-powered universal jukebox; or, you can look at what the artists are doing and check out the little nightclub that Bob Weir is building on his node of the Network.
It was Aron Michalski who turned me on to David Byrne’s thoughts on the effect of architecture on music. The gist of the idea is that popular music is composed to be performed in certain kinds of venues. When rock music moved from clubs and theaters to arenas and stadiums the music had to change to accommodate the space.
My first real experience of this phenomenon was hearing The Who perform at one of Bill Graham’s Day on the Green concerts at the stadium in Oakland. Pete Townsend’s windmill electric guitar chords rang out filling and shaking the stadium. It was shock and awe, a form of the Burkean sublime. In my memory, the figures on the stage seemed like giants.
At the same time there was a withdrawal of music from physical space exemplified by The Beatles retreating to the studio to create music they would never perform in an arena, stadium or any where else for that matter. This direction was solidified by Brian Eno in his writings about the recording studio as compositional tool. Eno compares the advent of purely recorded music to the split between theater and film into separate art forms. Film, like constructed and recorded music, can create an experience in playback that can’t be produced in live performance. The medium shifts from the room to the playback of music in some domestic space or perhaps even in the mental space of headphones. The new medium for music becomes its transmission over wires and broadcast to an endpoint.
And just as with popular music’s adaptation to the vast open spaces of the sports stadium, music changes to accommodate the contours of the Network. A higher percentage of music becomes music for playback. The number of bands that can fill a stadium with both music and fans—always a small number, shrinks even further. And among the new acts climbing the charts, fewer set their sites on the stadium as the ultimate venue.
When I saw the headline about Best Buy slowing going out of business, I didn’t immediately make the connection to arena rock. But there’s a sense in which the progress of retail mirrors that of popular music; moving to larger and larger venues—packing in both the people and the product. And just as with music, there’s a virtual channel that has been able to treat the retail space as an endlessly plastic medium that can be mixed and remixed into a seemingly infinite variety of shopping experiences. Here also the medium changed from a physical space to bits coming over a wire and broadcast on to a screen. And just as with arena and stadium rock, the number of acts who can fill those big boxes is shrinking in number.
The movie “You’ve Got Mail” is a interesting artifact of the rise of the big box bookstore. The film lifts its love story from Ernst Lubitch’s “The Shop Around the Corner.” In the zeitgeist of the time, it was all too clear that the small independent bookstore was doomed and would be driven out of existence by the book superstore with its huge inventory, low prices, cozy chairs and access to legal stimulants in the form of hot beverages. It wasn’t something to get mad about, it was just the way of the world—not personal, just business. So Meg Ryan’s carefully curated children’s bookstore ‘The Shop Around The Corner (named in tribute to its predecessor) is put out of business by Tom Hanks’s giant Fox Books. Now if we look at the landscape of booksellers today, we see a much different picture. The arena rock bookstores can’t sell enough tickets and are shutting down—their role is being filled by the plastic virtual bookseller. We’re sort of in the era of the headphone retailer.
I’ve always loved browsing in used book stores. The combination of lower price and serendipity is wonderfully entertaining. I don’t expect to find a complete set of books in print, instead the experience is more like a performance in a small space. I take in and appreciate the set of books that are here in the space right now. I know that next week, or the week after, I’ll see a largely new set of books. The used book store is an incredibly efficient filter for discovering what might be worth reading and what people in general are reading. These books have already experienced ‘use.’ It’s an interesting example of how a small space can provide much more value than a large space.
This rehabilitation of the small space is a trend that seems to working its way through music, retailing and even social networks. It may signal a return to intimacy. Kinda makes you wonder what it’d be like to shop at “The Shop Around the Corner’s” Matuschek and Company.
I’ve always thought the phrase ‘full-throated endorsement’ a bit odd. It pulls human physicality into the conversation as a kind of speaking done with the whole body. The ‘throat’ is called out, but as a metonym for the speaking body situated in a political-historical-ecological space. The speaker throws herself into the words, come what may.
The phrase also has a resonance with ‘singing in full voice.’ In rehearsal, opera singers will often sing in ‘half voice’ to spare themselves for the performance. When the curtain goes up, the singer must throw himself into the music, come what may. It’s in this sense that opera is a full-throated art form, the opera itself must also sing in full voice. It must match and fill the grand space of the opera house. As new operas are produced, they give voice to the deep currents flowing through our culture. And to make their mark, they mustn’t sing in half voice.
Mounting a production of a new opera is no small task, they are literally years in the making. Here’s San Francisco Opera’s General Director David Gockley on creating “Heart of a Soldier”:
But popular subjects and heroic characters alone do not make good operas. In the end, is the music any good in its own right? In opera, music tells the story. The text provides the skeleton, music the flesh and blood. Twenty-five years after Adams’s ‘Nixon in China’ told the ‘back story’ of the Nixon/Kissinger visit to China in 1972, the opera has legs because of the composer’s brilliant score. Will ‘Heart of a Soldier’ be this successful? Who knows. The important thing is to get these pieces launched with fanfare and good attendance, and then they are on their own! For better or worse, my career as an opera producer has been punctuated with many of these launches. My work will be judged by the quality of the pieces I have midwifed, and in most cases I will be long gone before the jury renders its verdict
Reading Gockley’s note in the ‘Heart of a Soldier’ program earlier this year brought to mind Shelley’s ‘Defense of Poetry.’ Gockley clearly has the sense that these operas he midwifes are objects situated perennially in the future. We must create operas in the here-and-now, but with their initial performance we only see the tip of the shadow cast from their location in the future. Each time an opera is performed, we open that door to the future and attempt to apprehend the broadcast of new signals as they occupy and resonate with the present moment.
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote the book on the temporal state of the work of art. Here’s the conclusion of his ‘Defense of Poetry”:
Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present, the words which express what they understand not, the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire: the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.
At a recent performance of Philip Glass’s opera ‘Satyagraha’ at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, a door was opened and the music filled the opera house and then overflowed into the plaza outside of the building. There it received another performance through the full-throated chorus of the human microphone. The composer, Philip Glass, lead the chorus in the closing lines of the opera which come from the ‘Bhagavad Gita’:
“When righteousness withers away and evil rules the land, we come into being, age after age, and take visible shape, and move, a man among men, for the protection of good, thrusting back evil and setting virtue on her seat again.”
For the longest time, the tone of our public voice has been tinged with irony. But there seems to be a change in the weather. As Tim Morton is fond of to saying, ‘the Sincerity Fish ate the Irony Fish on the bumper sticker on the back of my car.’ Somehow the full-throated voice is more in tune with sincerity. But the reason irony came to rule the day is that there’s a real danger in sincerity. As Jean Giraudoux once said:
The secret to success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
How do we tune ourselves to listen to full-throated sincerity? Heidegger addresses the issue in his translation of the poet Holderlin’s ‘Patmos’, saying:
But where danger is, grows the saving power also.
In the new operas we have given to the future, we allow both the danger and the saving power to cast their shadows. A door opens…
Listening to Terry Gross talk with Joe Henry about his new album, Reverie, I was struck by an aspect of his recording technique. As the price of recording technology has plummeted, many musicians have home studios. At one time that meant a custom facility similar in construction to a professional recording studio. Nowadays a recording studio might be an extra room in the house, the basement or the garage.
Even though it’s well known that every room has its own sound, the professional recording studio attempts to isolate musician-produced sound from its surroundings. As much as possible, the room should be invisible to the recording. And of course, we’re referring here to building a digital recording rather than the documentation of a live performance taking place in a particular room.
In the sessions for Reverie, Joe Henry recorded in his home studio. Rather than build a wall between the recording studio and the world outside, Henry decided to literally open the window. The world was invited on to the tracks. Cars might drive by, dogs might bark, perhaps that’s a freeway you can hear off in the distance. The kicker for me was this, Henry didn’t just open the window on to his recording session, he put a microphone at the window so that world would have its own track on the recordings. This also allowed the musicians to hear the world outside the window and respond to it in their playing. Think of it as a kind of playing live without a human audience.
The takeaway is an instruction that can be added to a personal set of oblique strategies: open the window and give it a dedicated microphone. In Joe Henry’s case, the result sounds real good.
We set up not only in the same room, but as close together as we could physically manage; the noise we each made spilling heavily into the space of the others, committing us to full performances and blurring the lines between us. Additionally, and perhaps in response to the frequent anxiety I shoulder regarding noise in the ‘hood when producing other artists in my own studio, I left all the windows open –inviting barking dogs, fighting birds and postal deliveries all to stand and be counted, to be heard as part of the fabric of the music –the way I always hear it around here. Though rarely autobiographical in nature, none of these songs, in fact, exist apart from my day-to-day life that allows them; and as such, there is no silence to be found on this record, only the outer world rising to speak as the songs descend.
The elegies for Steven Paul Jobs come pouring forth. The traditional elements of an elegy correspond to the stages of loss. Grief and sorrow are expressed through a lament; the life of the departed is idealized through admiration and praise; and then comes solace and consolation. As we find ourselves more than midway on life’s journey, the poetic form of the elegy reveals itself as a palpable presence. It’s not a form whose outlines are traced from a recipe extracted from a book, there’s a direct physical encounter with its contours as we stop for a moment, and look across the grain of time.
Businessmen, technologists, and tech bloggers have focused on different aspects of the Jobs legacy. I’d like to turn the spotlight to some of the language used to talk about what made Jobs different: visionary, genius, magic, and of course, crazy. These are words we use to describe something on the other side of the line, something well beyond ordinary grasp. From the stance of the technologist, the business person or the engineer, these are not qualities that can be captured in an algorithm, a spreadsheet or a mechanical device. Jobs appears to be an anomaly, the impossible exception—we shake our heads and say, ” we won’t see his like again.”
Steven P. Jobs wasn’t a hardware engineer, he didn’t write software code, he wasn’t an industrial designer. He didn’t finish college, given his qualifications, he wouldn’t even be considered for the position he held. The common wisdom in the technology community is that great companies start with great engineers—then eventually the suits come in and ruin everything. The technology industry’s utopia is a world run by engineers. Yet, Jobs, who was not an engineer, is acknowledged as the industry’s great visionary.
If we were listening, Jobs told us what he was doing. He explicitly stated that “Apple’s goal is to stand at the intersection of technology and the humanities.” This maxim hasn’t been given due consideration. Jobs restated this idea many times and in different formulations. At the iPad2 launch, he said it this way:
“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields the results that makes our hearts sing.”
To the engineers in the crowd, this talk of “singing hearts” must seem like a lot of sentimental hogwash. It’s the nuts and bolts that really make the difference. Technology stands alone, it doesn’t need to marry anyone, or anything, to win the day. Talk of ‘singing hearts’ is just Jobs as salesman, some of that ‘reality distortion field’ stuff.
We strip rhetoric from logic, we limit design to the surface, we consider the humanities to be the frothy nonsense floating at the top of an education that should be devoted to hardcore business and science. It’s the ‘nice-to-have,’ but inessential item on the to-do list. As the center of thought moves further and further in that direction, we lose even the language to describe the kinds of things Jobs accomplished. And while we can’t articulate it, there’s no question that we hear its music.
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d;
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Ode on a Grecian Urn
Here’s Jobs talking about his approach in a Fortune magazine interview in 2000:
“We don’t have good language to talk about this kind of thing,” Mr. Jobs replied. “In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains and the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service. The iMac is not just the color or translucence or the shape of the shell. The essence of the iMac is to be the finest possible consumer computer in which each element plays together. … That is the furthest thing from veneer. It was at the core of the product the day we started.”
Here the humanities aren’t the thin layer of frosting spread on top of the core of technology to make it look nice. In a sense, technology is medium through which a fundamentally humanistic vision is expressed. Where the common wisdom is to start with the engineering and the technology, Jobs and the team at Apple start with an act of poetic imagination. The slogan “think different” encapsulates this idea. The ‘difference’ in this kind of thinking is that it starts with the humanities and technology as equal partners in the eventual expression of the product or service. Or as Jobs eloquently describes it, the kernel of the idea “expressing itself in successive outer layers.”
Of all the commentary, it was James B. Stewart’s piece in the New York Times that captured some of the unheard melody, the poetic thinking emanating from the office of the CEO.
“Most people underestimate his grandeur and his greatness,” Gadi Amit, founder and principal designer of New Deal Design in San Francisco, told me. “They think it’s about design. It’s beyond design. It’s completely holistic, and it’s dogmatic. Things need to be high quality; they have to have poetry and culture in each step. Steve was cut from completely different cloth from most business leaders. He was not a number-crunching guy; he was not a technologist. He was a cultural leader, and he drove Apple from that perspective. He started with culture; then followed with technology and design. No one seems to get that.”
It’s hard to find parallels. Braun and Olivetti in Europe had beautiful designs, but never had Apple’s success. Mr. Amit mentioned Italy’s Enzo Ferrari, the racecar driver and founder of the Ferrari sports car manufacturer. “Apple has the status that Ferrari has in Italy,” Ms. Antonelli said. “It’s a source of national pride and of pride for every employee. You get to that stature only if you created something so fundamental that everyone loves.”
Mr. Amit says he believes Mr. Jobs’s legacy will be “the blending of technology and poetry. It’s not about design per se; it’s the poetic aspect of the entire enterprise. Compared to Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, he’s in a different class. I think this is a revolutionary shift. Jobs is a revolutionary character. He shifted the industry and changed our lives through this amalgamation of culture and technology. If you’re looking for C.E.O.’s of this caliber, you have to look outside the engineering and business schools. That is truly revolutionary.”
When we lament that we won’t see another like Steven P. Jobs again, we need to acknowledge the cold, hard facts of the situation. We aren’t looking for people like Jobs to lead our greatest companies. In fact, we’re probably doing everything in our power to make sure that people like him don’t get anywhere near a leadership role. We’ve de-valued and de-funded the humanities, we’ve relegated poetic thinking to third class status.
In 1821 Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote “A Defense of Poetry.” Although he never wrote one, the work of Steven P. Jobs was a modern defense of poetry.
The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry. At such periods there is an accumulation of the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature. The person in whom this power resides, may often, as far as regards many portions of their nature, have little apparent correspondence with that spirit of good of which they are the ministers. But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled to serve, that power which is seated on the throne of their own soul. It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
This past week I attended the San Francisco Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. For those unfamiliar with this ritual, the work is comprised of four operas: Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdamerung. They tell the story of the twilight of the gods. When presented as The Ring, the four operas are presented within a single week and the total running time of the work is about 17 hours. It’s a massive work consisting of 2,092 pages of orchestra music, and this production requires the participation of 415 people and 12 animals. Mounting a production of the Ring Cycle is one of the most challenging things an opera company can attempt. Generally, three full cycles are performed. When a company with the stature of San Francisco Opera performs The Ring, it draws an audience from around the world. This was my third Ring Cycle. The Ring is too vast to address fully in a blog post, so instead I’ve decided to just string together some notes, some moments that stood out to me this time through. This was an American Ring, the tale begins with the California gold rush and ends in the near future.
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The characters and narrative of The Ring are loosely derived from Norse mythology. But as new productions are mounted through the years, The Ring attracts the major threads of modern thought. The unconscious, capital, class, gender, power, sexuality, and race have all surfaced in one production or another. In director Francesca Zambello’s American Ring, ecology and the interconnectedness of things provides the environment in which the story unfolds. Here the canvas of the story isn’t a neutral backdrop, it’s affected by the actions and decisions of the characters. I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of Timothy Morton, so the idea that The Ring should address the ecological thought seems completely natural.
Alberich steals the gold from the Rhinemaidens and forsaking love, he fashions it into a ring of power. Wielding that power, he begins a massive gold mining operation, delving deep into the earth, he turns the magic power of the ring into the material power of gold. The stage pictures bring to mind Sebastiao Salgado’s photographs of gold mining in Brazil. Meanwhile in the world of the gods, Wotan has flipped the structure of the gold mine upwards toward the heavens and created a Valhalla of skyscrapers. But like so many in the recent mortgage crises, he’s purchased a Valhalla that he can’t afford. In order to avoid default on the fortress of the gods, Wotan resorts to crime. He must steal the gold from the thief Alberich—a little money laundering to cover up the stains on the foundation of the godhead.
In Zambello’s Ring, the concentration and exercise of power drains the earth of its life. Power is drawn from the environment, but the earth isn’t an infinite resource. As the operas unfold, the environment has been turned into a standing reserve– a battery, or a gas tank, to power the regime. At the beginning of the third act of Gotterdamerung, the Rhinemaidens are destitute, collecting trash in big garbage bags as their river has been choked with the flotsam and jetsam of the industrial wasteland surrounding them. The struggle for the Ring taking place in the foreground is interrupted by the background of the story. The river would like its gold back.
At the end of the Ring Cycle, Brunhilde has understood that the Ring must be returned to the river and that this will mean the end of the gods. The music registers the cataclysm of the fall of Valhalla and the cleansing power of the river to wash the sins from our hands. The end of the Cycle points to an ending as beginning. One door closes and another opens. Zambello is an optimist, the return of the Ring represents the possibility of renewal. Throughout the story we’ve seen the earth’s finitude, the director’s gesture in the very last stage picture indicates the damage is not beyond repair.
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The Ring Cycle is so large that there’s no vantage point from which to take it all in. Well before the first notes, the experience begins to engulf you. There’s a review of the motifs with Deryck Cooke. Listening to favorite recordings, trying to get the sequence of events in the story lined up. Thinking about the singers cast in various roles and whether they’ll be up to the daunting task ahead.
Believe me, nobody has every composed in this manner. I think my music must be frightening. It is a morass of horrors and sublimities.
—Wagner to Liszt, January 1854
Once the performance begins you’re well into the middle of it. The opera is broadcasting on all frequencies and flooding the senses. In this experience of the Ring Cycle, I had the distinct impression that the music continued between performances of the individual operas. While there aren’t hummable tunes in the Ring, the motifs of the music seemed to detach themselves from the opera and emerge from the America that exists outside of the opera.
Even after the final end, the music continues to play, the cycle begins again. Once inside, there may be no outside.
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Several years ago, the San Francisco Opera commissioned a work by John Adams called ‘Doctor Atomic.’ It’s the story of the creation of the atom bomb. The director of the premiere was Peter Sellars. In a talk he gave about the opera, he noted that the stage of the War Memorial Opera House directly faces City Hall, the seat of power for local government. The relationship between the buildings provided an avenue for art to speak to government.
Perhaps we no longer think that art has anything useful to say to government. But the two buildings sit across from each other, waiting for the moment when the conversation begins to flow in both directions. Like ‘Doctor Atomic,’ the Ring Cycle had something to say to government.
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The curtain came down after the final act of Gotterdamerung and applause erupted. Then the curtain rose for Nina Stemme, the Brunehilde of this Cycle. A solo bow, in acknowledgement of her achievement. The crowd leapt to its feet applauding, shouting, whistling, in a unanimous ovation. It was a thrilling moment.
And an unusual moment between the second and third acts as Donald Runnicles, the conductor, took his place. A spontaneous standing ovation for the orchestra. As a friend said during that intermission, “man, they’re just wailing.”?
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Leafing through The Ring’s program, I noticed the names of the individual and corporate sponsors. Opera is an expensive business, and David Gockley, the general director of SF Opera, has made it clear that the company is in financial straights. The big donors to the opera are small in number and advanced in age. He openly wonders where the next generation of patrons will come from.
“In the late nineteenth century, as industrialization transformed the United States into a world power, artists and writers decried the nation’s meager collections of art. “I cannot tell you what I suffer for want of seeing a good picture,” Mary Cassatt complained from the confines of Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, in June 1871. The twenty-seven year old artist had spent five years painting in Europe and longed to return. The novelist Henry James view the problem more broadly. Americans, he told his mother in 1869, seem to have “the elements of the modern man with with culture quite left out.” Ten years later, in writing about Hawthorne and famously listing the cultural assets missing from the United States in the early part of the century, James, who had himself decamped for England in the mid-1870s, conveyed his own sense of deprivation: “no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches, no great Universities nor public schools—no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures.” Later, in 1906, when the British critic Roger Fry served as curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he tallied the museum’s pictorial shortfall: “no Byzantine paintings, no Giotto, no Giottoesque, no Mantegna, no Botticelli, no Leonardo, no Rafael, no Michelangelo.”
The giants of industry, Henry Clay Frick, J. Pierpont Morgan, H.O. Havermeyer and Henry Gurdon Marquand, took an interest in redressing the imbalance of culture in the new world. The great fortunes amassed during this period were put into service for one of “history’s great migrations of art.”? It was an event that fundamentally changed the character of this country.
In this day and age, it’s something we take for granted. The museums are filled with pictures, the symphony hall with music, and the opera house with divas. Perhaps we think this high art is the province of the upper classes, the restricted playground for old money. It’s a living legacy and if the next generation doesn’t take it up, it could very easily disappear. The performing arts are in particular danger.
Donald Fisher, founder of The Gap, collected more than 1,000 contemporary paintings and eventually donated them to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. But could it be that his is the last generation to have a real connection to the arts? The new generation of technology billionaires seems more interested in popular culture, sports and science. As I leafed through the program of the Ring Cycle, I didn’t see the names Google, Apple, Intel, Oracle, Cisco, Facebook or Microsoft. Rich technologist seem to prefer to put their money back into technology through venture capital investing.
I’m not sure what it would take to connect the Silicon Valley’s Techno-Elite to Opera. But if it were to happen the possibilities would be immense. San Francisco has a long history with opera. The gold rush of 1849 brought masses of people to Northern California. San Francisco’s first opera production was in 1851, Bellini’s ‘La Sonnambula.’ Morosco’s Grand Opera House held an audience of 4,000, including standees. A signal event in the rebirth of the City after the 1906 earthquake was the concert by the soprano Luisa Tettrazini in front of Lotta’s Fountain. It’s said that as many as 250,000 people attended. More recently the annual Opera in the Park and Opera in the Ballpark events draw enthusiastic crowds from all walks of life.
In the era of the 140-character communique it may seem counter-intuitive to yearn for the total theater of the opera, but opera performance actually delivers on what 3D HD movies promise. And strangely, at this moment in history with music, singers, musicians, technology and composers we could be at the cusp a of great new era of opera. Here are two examples of new operas that take up the current of our times. This Fall, San Francisco Opera will debut ‘Heart of a Soldier’ by Christopher Theofanidis, with libretto by Donna Di Novelli. It tells the story of Rick Rescorla, a man trained to be a consummate solider who gave up his life saving thousands during the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001.
And perhaps closer to the pulse of technology flowing through the Bay Area, the English National Opera recently debuted Nico Muhly’s ’Two Boys’ with libretto by Craig Lucas. Here’s a description from a Wall Street Journal review:
A prepubescent boy is stabbed, and a teenaged boy is caught leaving the scene on CCTV. But the middle-aged female detective in charge of the investigation, caught up in the intricacies of chat-rooms, user-names, apparent espionage and cybersex, comes to realize that she has to change her own mind-set if she is to understand the behavior of these children and the morality of the internet age.
We say that this technology we’re creating here in the Bay Area is changing everything. I wonder if we’ll every take it seriously enough to engage technology in a deep conversation with art and culture? The War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco could be the site of one of the great historical conversations about the times we live in. If only the right connections could be made…
Last night without any intention on my part, the 1938 Howard Hawks film Bringing Up Baby settled into the television set. It was meant to be a brief stop on the way from this signal to that one, but somehow it stuck. The rapid-fire non-stop dialogue never left a pause, not a single moment, for me to consider moving on. And then there was the song: I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby. Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant wandering through the woods singing this song at the top of their voices, looking for a fox terrier, a leopard and a dinosaur bone. When the speed of change hits a certain velocity, nothing makes as much sense as a screwball comedy.
“There’s a pitch in baseball called a screwball, which was perfected by a pitcher named Carl Hubbell back in the 1930s. It’s a pitch with a particular spin that sort of flutters and drops, goes in different directions, and behaves in very unexpected ways… Screwball comedy was unconventional, went in different directions, and behaved in unexpected ways…”
Andrew Bergman We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films
The song was written in 1927 by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, and finally broke through in 1928. It’s been an enduring classic of American popular song. Looking back at the list of songs Fields provided lyrics for, you can hardly believe your eyes: The Way You Look Tonight, I’m In The Mood For Love, On The Sunny Side of the Street, A Fine Romance, Big Spender and more.
The stock market crash of 1929 occurred in October of that year, which means that I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby was written in the middle of a market bubble. In the midst of a surging material world, the song stakes a claim for love and romance. Fields tells the story of overhearing the conversation of a poor black couple gazing at the stylish and expensive jewelry on offer in Tiffany’s display window. Apparently the man said “Gee honey, I can’t give you anything but love.” What might have turned into Breakfast at Tiffany’s, instead became a standard in the American songbook. Love seems to need a medium to pass from one person to another. While it might pass through diamond jewelry, wall street millions, real estate or a family crest—McHugh and Fields make the case for the impossible thing that we’ve all got plenty of, baby.
Through the cultural history DVR provided by YouTube, we can get a sense of how this song has resonated with artists and audiences over the years.
I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields
Gee, but it’s tough to be broke, kid.
It’s not a joke, kid–it’s a curse.
My luck is changing–it’s gotten
from simply rotten to something worse.
Who knows someday I will win too
I’ll begin to reach my prime.
Now that I see what our end is
All can spend is just my time.
I can’t give you anything but love, baby.
That’s the only thing I’ve plenty of, baby.
Dream a while, scheme a while,
You’re sure to find
Happiness and, I guess,
All those things you’ve always pined for.
Gee, it’s great to see you looking swell, baby.
Diamond bracelets Woolworth doesn’t sell, baby.
Till that lucky day you know darn well, baby,
I can’t give you anything but love.
Abraham Maslow is perhaps better known for the Hierarchy of Needs. When we think about human motivation—what a person might want or do in any given situation—we run the scenario through the Hierarchy of Needs to gauge its relative importance. But Maslow developed another analytical tool that’s also in widespread use. It’s called Maslow’s Law of the Instrument and has to do with over-reliance on a familiar tool.
In conversations about business or technical strategy, it will often emerge in the following formulation:
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
Once this incantation is uttered, all around the table nod in agreement. The tool has defined the solution instead of going to the extra effort of finding for the right tool for the job. The job is calling out for the right tool, and you’ve only brought a hammer to the table.
One might imagine that jobs and tools had been split in half by Zeus, and each wandered the earth looking for its perfect other half. Tools, it seems, operate under a well-understood set of modes and rules. If those rules-of-use don’t match up with the job, then the tool is imposing an alien structure on to a job. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve occasionally used a wrench as a hammer to good effect.
When we employ the tactic of the Law of the Instrument, we silence the instrument in favor of the job. The job dictates the dialogue and determines the rules of engagement. Yet when used thoughtlessly, the tactic itself becomes an instrument subject to the Law of the Instrument. Tools, and hammers in particular, often have more to say than our rules of thumb would suggest. For instance there’s a common joke among carpenters:
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a thumb.
When Nietzsche talks about philosophizing with a hammer, he isn’t thinking about nails. He uses the hammer to test idols by tapping them lightly with a hammer, he sounds them out. The hammer is used to determine whether the idols are hollow or intact.
In the Law of the Instrument, it’s not the hammer that creates the limitations. It’s the familiarity, the habit of using a hammer in a particular way. If we approach the hammer with a beginner’s mind and allow its strangeness to surface, we may find our toolbox populated with a whole new set of instruments:
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a mole popping out of one of an immense field of holes.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a rock to be broken on a chain gang.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a carnival game where you have to prove your strength by making a bell ring.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like something to be heated to a red hot temperature and fashioned on an anvil.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a sculpture waiting to be released from a hunk of marble.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem inspires you to hammer out justice, hammer out freedom, hammer out love between your brothers and your sisters all over this land.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a coconut that has yet to give up its meat and milk.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like rice on its way to becoming mochi.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks as though it could be solved by the god of thunder.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem can be solved by tossing the hammer farther than the other guy.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a low-budget, British horror movie.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like one of eighty eight strings on a piano.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like it needs its reflexes tested.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem sounds as though it’s related to the parts of the ear.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like you can’t touch it.