Monday, July 20, 2009

Reinventing the...?

One of the most clich├ęd pieces of advice given to someone who is starting a new business is “don’t reinvent the wheel”. This is so obviously true that it is not a very useful suggestion. While I don’t know much about wheels, I have worked with the tire industry for a long time, as a supplier and advisor to research and quality control labs. Tires are products that in the 21rst century we tend to not think of much. The reason we don’t think of them much however, is that even in recent years the tire has been reinvented. Billions of dollars are spent every year for research in order to make tires more efficient, cheaper, higher quality and more environmentally friendly. Much of this research has been successful, or at least in the process of succeeding, as most of us drive long distances without ever worrying about flat tires. At the same time, while better, there are still issues with tires, especially with the environmental impact of them. So research continues, and without most of us knowing, the tire will be reinvented.
Last night we went with friends to a Baroque concert which was a part of the Saintes festival near Cognac in France. The friends who invited us I respect very much for their taste in music, so despite the fact that it was very old music, in a very old Romanesque abbey, I looked forward to it. This old Church was completely packed, people having bought tickets over a year in advance. All of this was in a small town, to see and hear a lute player, and conter tenor perform songs of the 16th century. As soon as the concert started I forgot that what I was listening to was such an old creation. By the time the performance was over my immediate thought was “this was beautiful”. Why do we keep re-inventing the wheel by trying to create new music?” I don’t believe this of course, but I am know there are certainly many people who would still say the Bach achieved a perfection that has not been rivaled to this day.
I have spent much of my life in music in the same way I have with tire labs. I sometimes participate in a small way to improve things, and in most cases I happily and curiously observe others doing it. Music of course is subjective and creative in a way that industry is not. It will always be disputable whether John Cage is as important of a figure as Schoenberg, or Beethoven as Mozart. Still, when I listened to the Baroque performance I realized that the change is much more subtle, especially consider the hundreds of years that separate the music I was hearing from the music we now create, that I do think reinvention happens not as a grand revolution, but quietly in the labs of composers.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


When I was 23 years old, which was quite a long time ago, I spent a few weeks alone in Paris, at a friend’s apartment in Le Marais. I spoke no French, and my soon to be wife Marine was running a summer camp in the country in the south of France. Looking back this was a unique time which couldn’t happen now. We didn’t have cell phones, so we only spoke when we both could get to pay phones at the same time. This was complicated, but it gave me an enormous amount of freedom to explore the city, and myself. I was, at the time, directing and producing plays in New York, having already given up on acting due to lack of talent (it would take a while longer to do the same for directing), and though the pieces I was involved with in New York were certainly edgy, and experimental in nature, what I wanted most was to create something completely natural and organic. This is to be distinguished from a theatrically naturalistic, which usually means a turn of the century style in which acting is very much meant to be like real life. Conversations around dinner tables kind of thing. When I mean natural, I mean a connection between body and mind, which is what attracted me about so much art from the poetry of Walt Whitman, to the painting of Picasso. This is one reason I always liked dance so much, having taken classes for years, even though I had no ability for it. So, one day in front of the Pompidou Center I saw some street performers dancing in a way which truly did seem modern to me. They were physically so involved with each other. A kind of Pilobolus thing, but which looked completely animalistic. Like dogs or lions rolling together, biting a bit, but all the while physically entangled. I watched this for a long time, and when they took a break to pass around the hat, I tried to talk to some, who luckily spoke better English than I spoke French. The man I spoke with could tell that I was in complete admiration of what they were doing, so he invited me to a class for the next day. I went to the store, and bought some dance clothes, as any I still had were left in New York, and went to the class. As soon as I entered, the instructor said, (after having to repeat for me in English) “you may now get undressed”. The class was to be completely in the nude. This really was naturalistic! Much more so than a dinner table conversation in a Eugene O’Neill play. I, to my embarrassment, and later regret, was too insecure to take the class, and walked out, only to torture myself over this missed opportunity.
Why did I think this was a missed opportunity? Why was I so attracted to what these dancers were doing? I think it has taken me many years to realize that what I admired most, and what attracted me most, was that I wanted to participate in a kind of conversation that I couldn’t have with words alone. This is especially urgent when in a country that you can’t speak the language. Even though in real life, there are times not only when the language of books and plays fails to be adequate to express yourself, but where normal discussions and language itself seems to fall short. Part of this is the social convention that surrounds what we choose to talk about, and the rest is something that is more philosophical. It is the full breakdown of Descartes body mind duality, where somehow we know that we cannot really express ourselves emotionally or intellectually with the conventions we are given, or from the brain (intellect) alone. These dancers certainly realized this.
Now many years later I am deeply involved in Jazz improvisation, which is an ongoing conversation between other musicians, and with myself. Wynton Marsalis said in this book “Moving to Higher Ground” that jazz improvisation requires such quick decisions to be made, that you don’t have the time to lie. There is something liberating about being forced to be honest with myself, my colleagues and an audience. There is also something about this experience which speaks to communication in general. I wonder if everyone is, like me, looking for a way to be forced to honesty. Also we may all have a desire to be forced to listen, and to entangle ourselves in someone else’s naked grasp. With our instruments tuned, and no words spoken, we are naked musicians, who are rolling around together in a profound human experience. It makes me feel like an early human who sang, drew and spoke for the first time.