June 17, 2009

Textual response

A Cessna T-37 Tweet, just to liven up the place.

I don't have a Twitter account, and I probably never will, for two reasons:
  1. 140 characters is a sound bite, and I don't like sound bites; and
  2. even such brevity for comic effect, for me, is only really funny in a forum (like, say, this one) where comparative logorrhea is the norm.
My own idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, Twittering has been turning up more and more in concert situations, with a particularly expansive example being the play-by-play of their marathon concert that Bang on a Can sponsored on their Twitter account.

Amanda Ameer later reflected on her own Tweeting/texting experience during the marathon:
Reading the reviews of the marathon later, I had a few moments of "wait— when was that piece?". It seems I had missed a few things whilst clicking. I did stop texting during Julia Wolfe's Thirst because that was the new work I was most looking forward to—wait, looking through my phone now it seems I did send one text to Greg to say it was fantastic—but the rest of that hour was kind of hazy. Whoops.
This is why I, personally, would never Tweet during a performance, and why I've trained myself to take reviewing notes between pieces rather than during them. Writing and listening are two different things for me, and they don't overlap well. (This is why I record interviews, too, instead of keeping notes on the fly. I stop listening to the other person, even if I'm writing down their words verbatim.) You might be able to make the argument that there is now a generation of concertgoers who have grown up with texting, &c., and can so multitask with ease. Honestly, though, I doubt it.

Still, if Tweeting a concert makes the Tweeter feel more fulfilled, it's certainly an unobtrusive add-on. But then the question is this: why is a non-Tweeted concert experience less fulfilling? Amanda asked David Lang about the practice, and he said this:
It could be that the ability to stay in constant touch may make listeners come to feel that they themselves are not having a valid experience unless they are letting someone know about it. And if the action of music is some kind of mystic direct communication between the person making it and the person receiving it that is a big loss.
That's a pretty sharp observation right there. It's close to something I've ranted about before, the idea that suggestions to alter classical-music performance formats almost always are in the direction of increased audience validation, in assuring a particular range of audience reactions while simultaneously sending signals that confirm that a reaction within that range is, indeed, a "correct" one. I hate performances like that—not because they adopt a certain viewpoint about the repertoire (all performances do that on some level), but because they're so intent on congratulating an audience member for ascribing to that viewpoint.

Kyle Gann had a post this past week on the idea of "eventfulness," riffing on interviews he's been doing with Robert Ashley. Here's Ashley's words:
"The only thing that's interesting to me right now is that, up to me and a couple of other guys, music had always been about the eventfulness: like, when things happened, and if they happened, whether they would be a surprise, or an enjoyment, or something like that... It's about eventfulness. And I was never interested in eventfulness. I was only interested in sound. I mean, just literally, sound in the Morton Feldman sense....
"For some of us, eventfulness is boring, contrast is unnecessary, and we're interested in the aspects of music that don't relate to time," Gann comments. I found this fascinating, because my own experience of a lot of minimalist music (especially Feldman, who's addictively good at it) is almost the opposite: I sense things happening more acutely because the events' relationship to a steady passage of time gets dissolved. I'm aware of what's happening in the piece, but not how long it's taking to happen. That interplay between eventfulness and time is what I love about it. (It's why Feldman and Carter are related composers to me: Carter does the same thing via density, making the clock tick with such torrential energy that I stop trying to keep track and just hold on for the ride.)

Is that the "right" way to listen to Feldman? Who cares? Not me, anyway—and I'm not much concerned if I'm the only person in the audience listening in that way. But, to circle around, it seems to me that a big part of Tweeting a concert is hedging against that very possibility—feeling some sort of confirmation that how one is experiencing the music is congruent with the way others are experiencing the music. In other words, a reassurance that one is experiencing the proper level of eventfulness.

I've been to concerts where it was pretty clear that everyone was experiencing more or less the same thing, and that sense can be quite thrilling, but I've also been to concerts where my own, solitary experience was plenty thrilling enough. And for me, the former would be a lot less thrilling if I had someone figuratively nudging me every few minutes, making sure I was noticing what everybody else was noticing. I hope I've included enough variations on "for me" in this ramble to ensure that I'm not advocating my own tastes as a universal prescription; tastes vary, and change over time, and all that. But if the design and efficacy of live performance becomes inextricably bound up with the need to confirm one's conformity, to echo David Lang, that would be a big loss indeed.



I agree that Twitter doesn't seem well-suited to the live concert experience, partly because it's likely to become more monologue than multi-party conversation, and conversation is what Twitter does best, whatever you might think of it. For example, your blog is fantastic and widely read, and yet it's pretty rare that a really good, sustained conversation gets going in the comments, mainly because the blog medium doesn't enable that very well. There are certain kinds of conversation that work really well on Twitter, and it's especially valuable as a place for exchanging information.

Conversation during performances can be interesting, but for practical reasons, I think the conversation needs to take place off-site. For example, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed following the live blog comments during the live webcast performances from the recent Cliburn competition. Obviously, it helps that the rep is familiar to most of the participants. It's not the only way I'd ever want to listen, and there were times when I just couldn't take it any more (some of the commenting was pretty inane); however, it can be quite interesting to have a reaction to something in performance and then check in to see if others had the same reaction.

By the way, I hope you're aware that: "140 characters is a sound bite, and I don't like sound bites" is a great example of what's wrong with sound bites. You're dismissing an entire experience by using a particularly loaded term to define it as simply as possible. It seems to me that most of the critiques of Twitter I've read have come from people who haven't used it, and so they usually resort to some sort of strawman attack. Actually, the classic Twitter "critique" is to say, "why do I care what someone's cooking for breakfast?" Twitter has perhaps caused this perceptual problem by suggesting that Tweets are answers to the question, "What are you doing?" However, just about anyone who's used Twitter for long comes to realize that's only one narrow way of thinking about how to use the medium. Describing what's actually valuable about it is more complicated, so it is easy to dismiss it as just a bunch of "sound bites." All I'm saying is that you should try it for awhile before dismissing it. I only joined up reluctantly as a way to participate in the operaplot contest, but have been surprised at how lively and useful the community can be.

Yes, I do note the irony that it took way more than 140 characters to say all that, and will add that I've found Twitter to be a poor medium for working out any sort of disagreements. There are other problems as well, especially when it comes to citing or commenting on tweets, and it would work much better if html tags could be used. Still, I think it has more potential that you suggest - after all, artificially imposed constraints can stimulate wonderfully creative responses. Just check with Bach.

Lane Savant said...

Then there is the challenge of Twit-ku, making poetry with no other constraint than using exactly 140 keystrokes

Lisa Hirsch said...

Michael, I think Twitter has lots of uses, and I can think of circumstances under which I'd use it. None of them involve describing music while it's happening, though they might involve concert promotion.

Matthew, I'm with you all the way. If I ever see someone tweeting during the Tristan prelude or any work by Feldman, I will sandbag the person immediately and stow him under my seat.

Mr. Shrimp said...

Very interesting post... I've definitely found that I have an annoying habit (annoying to myself) of checking the reactions of whoever I'm with at a concert, rather than just settling in and listening (I'm not a twitterer, Tweeter, whatever). It isn't all bad - part of the impulse is simply sharing the experience. But there is also a seeking of validation, and that's not good, and takes away from the music.

Eh well. Thanks for a thoughtful post.

By the way, Mr. Monroe (first commenter), some blogs develop really great conversations in the comments. Check out Ta-Nehisi Coates on The Atlantic for an example (not a music blog, but great commenters).