Monday, January 18, 2010

Unfinished Business?

There is a wonderful scene in the film “Six Degrees of Separation”, which as a parent I think about nearly every day. The Kittredge family, who provide the bourgeois Upper East side backdrop of the film, also provide a number of insights into excesses and ambition in contrast to natural instincts. As modern art dealers, they academically understand that the textural and prospective flattening of images represents not merely a shift in aesthetics. It also characterizes a reduction of experience, emotion and philosophy to a two dimension painting. In this particular scene Flan Kittredge, as played by Donald Sutherland, reminisces about his daughter’s second grade class. He remembers how when visiting the classroom, he was stunned, as if entering a gallery at MoMa. All of the paintings of the children struck him as spectacular. He asked the teacher how she managed to get such profound art from every student. Each piece was like a Matisse, a Cezanne, a Kandinsky or a Picasso. The teacher replied that she did nothing. Only that she knew when to take them away. In other words all children are modern masters, but by leaving them to continue work on a painting, that masterpiece may be disguised and colored over.

Children are experimenting with paints and drawings, as we continue to with blogs, with lovers, with restaurants, with financial instruments, and with scientific experimentation. What we often lack however is the equivalent of the teacher who tells us when the experiment is over. For anyone who has played free jazz with a group of musicians for the first time, they will know that it is nearly impossible to bring a piece to its conclusion. This is one of the things that I love about improvisational music, but also one thing that separates those initial experiments from a band that is fully connected. At the heart of free jazz is an assumption that there is nothing a musician can play that is inherently wrong. If a dissonant interval from one instrument is played against a consonant interval from another, it may not be planned, but becomes an idea that requires exploration. During those first meetings of a group, every second of playing is packed with these micro experiments, all of which are of interest to the musicians. Resolving those tonal and rhythmic variations without discussion or pause is an infinite process, which leads to long sessions. For me this is often where jazz starts and ends, as I often don’t have time to rehearse or perform regularly with one particular group. I am often the sit-in pianist who comes into a session with a group who understands each other in such a metaphysically intense way that they instinctually know the movements of the others. It is still a process of experiment for these musicians, but one where a hypothesis has already been stated, and the theory is being tested. I then become a dependant variable in this equation. When it works, the process becomes a calculus, or more metaphorically accurate, a quantum wave function. When listening to the recording the results can be heard, but only as an approximation. Like a subatomic particle whose position and velocity cannot both be measured with complete certainty, neither can any one moment in the cacophony of the sound scape be isolated and understood. It is an evolving process, which as a whole can be experienced. Like the second graders, it takes discipline or a leader to know when to remove your hands from the keyboard.

A science lab can be much the same as this, and like the examples of the children’s art and the free jazz session, it is not completely clear to me that a solution to an experiment ever truly represents a completion. Perhaps it is merely a disciplined end point, chosen aesthetically, artistically or randomly somewhere in the middle for any number of reasons. A corporate research project must have a point at which a conclusion is made, or a product would never be released. We know that the results are rarely perfect, as all products have some degree of uncertainty built into them. A drug is effective in a percentage, hopefully high, of the users, but not 100%. A Ph.d dissertation also must have a completion date, or the student would never get the diploma. American innovation is actually tied to this ability to wrap up an experiment. The first personal computers, IPODS, cell phones and MRI machines weren’t perfect when released, and the scientists who worked on them knew it. But an entrepreneur or manager knew that the product needed to be released.

There is a dilemma for me in this question of creation and completion, which I also think about when watching my daughter paint. It is not whether a painting will look better if it is taken away from her at a certain time. It will certainly be more understandable if it is. We could all be like the second grade teacher in “Six Degrees of Separation”. The big question is rather by taking it away I am stopping a process which for psychological and even artistic reasons should continue to play itself out as long as she wants it too. For my daughter I would want her to continue, as the goal is not for her be a Matisse (at least not yet), but rather to have fun, and express herself. Who I am I to say that she is finished? As we consider ourselves more mature when playing in a band or on nuclear physics experiments, we start to want to be master something rather than just express it. Is that mastering or compromising? Of course it is necessary, and in the cases I mentioned it is important. I wouldn’t want a cure for HIV or cancer to be in a lab somewhere with a scientist saying, “I am not satisfied yet. It only works on 99% of test patients”. I also wouldn’t want every recording to be like most pop albums, where every moment is produced, and planned. This may all seem very trivial and obvious, but it is a question I face every day, as a professor, as a musician, as a scientist, and as a father.