A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to hear the David Sanchez Quartet with Stefon Harris in concert. It was, by any reasonable jazz standard, a beautiful performance. The music, for the most part originals, was compelling and nicely designed. The group worked like a chamber ensemble, eschewing look-at-me posturing to actually listen to each other and maintain the music front and center. And when the players did solo, they did it with imagination and eloquence.
What troubled me about the performance had to do with technology, the Internet and my brain.
As a music journalist/critic, I am a sort of professional listener. Moreover, I was educated as a musician. I was once a professional player and composer. And yet that Saturday evening, at times, I found myself lost. Worse yet, I found myself getting impatient with the length of a piece or a particular solo. The concert had a break (at the request of the promoter, explained Sanchez) and yet it felt to me like a marathon.
The audience — I’d estimate the average age in the mid-50s — listened politely and applauded at the expected moments, neither particularly engaged, nor actively disapproving.
Perhaps most, if not all, of my issues that night might be chalked up to my own deficiencies and that’s that. Then again, if it didn’t engage me, well, it didn’t engage me. Perhaps the concert was not as good as I thought. Perhaps.
But the experience was also a personal reminder of how technology is re-wiring our brains.
“We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us,” wrote Marshall McLuhan in his seminal Understanding Media.
Instruments such as Google, tablets and smart phones are profoundly affecting the way we read, look, listen, think and even use our memory. And they do it in ways we are not even aware of. (Quick, write down the phone numbers of three close friends or family members. I thought so.)
“I can’t read War and Peace anymore. I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even blog posts of more than three or four paragraphs are too much to absorb. I skim it,” says a pathologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School and blogger on Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, a book on the effects of the internet on our brains.
What similar impact might our new tools might have upon our listening habits and, inevitably as a result, on the creation, performance, presentation and consuming of music?
Because, after all, as much as many look at the development of jazz with a Great Man Theory of history (say Armstrong to Ellington to Parker to Miles to Coltrane….), other, more mundane factors have played significant roles in shaping the music.
The advent of the long playing disc granted composers, arrangers and improvisers possibilities up to then unthinkable. The size of the clubs in 52nd St. might have played a greater role in the music going from big bands to small groups (and thus spurring on the development of bebop) than the talent of any one particular musician.
We should anticipate that the changes that technology continues to make to the way we process information will also have consequences.
I am not saying anything startlingly new or particularly astute here. In fact others have said it better. (The subject is brilliantly addressed by Carr in The Shallows.)
If there is a (modest) contribution to the discussion here, it is in asking how these changes are affecting our listening to music in general and jazz in particular – and how, in turn, this will shape the way music is created, designed and presented.
After all, music is an art form that happens in time and depends on memory. In the specific case of jazz, even in its most conventional format, to appreciate the reinterpretation and commentary suggested by the improvisation, the listener must be able to have some recall of the original material. Otherwise, it’s gibberish or some form of musical gymnastics.
In other words, as our memory withers, replaced by gadgets, and our attention span gets shorter and shorter, will there be in a few years an audience capable of remembering an eight-bar-theme that happened five, 10 minutes earlier? And if the listeners are not able to recall even the most basic theme, or lack the patience and discipline to connect the dots over a simple musical form, what could they then make of an improvisation? (Or in classical music: What happens with Bruckner or Mahler?)
And as audiences inevitably get increasingly lost and frustrated and impatient, go looking for something shorter and simpler, what can the composers, improvisers and presenters do? In all fairness, is there anything they should do?
On that Saturday night, a couple of weeks ago, David Sanchez and his group played a concert that at times had me baffled and irritated because, well, it had no hyperlinks, no keywords, no way to skim over and get faster to the good parts.
What did they expect?
Come to think of it, what do we expect?
May 2012, The International Review of Music / Jazz With An Accent