The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

The jazz standard and the stone tablet

This is mostly a pointer to Frank Chimero’s new post that connects jazz and design thinking to web platforms and APIs in a neat way. Frank is, unsurprisingly, actually walking the walk when it comes to designed content; his approach is simple and very effective. Look at a previous post to pick up on the pattern.

The illustrations remind me of some of the best sections of Watchmen—the graphic novel, not the movie—where whole scenes play out “silently” behind the main action. It’s visual counterpoint—the illustrations not simply, er, illustrating the text, but actually riffing on it. Maybe even satirizing it a tiny bit. It’s just great.

Anyway! I say “mostly” because I also want to tag on a question. Frank builds his argument on the great virtues of jazz. I think this graf sums it up best:

You know what I love about jazz and improvisation? It’s all process. One-hundred percent. The essence of it is the process, every time is different, and to truly partake in it, you have to visit a place to see it in progress. Every jazz club or improv comedy theater is a temple to the process of production. It’s a factory, and the art is the assembly, not the product. Jazz is more verb than noun. And in a world riddled with a feeling of inertia, I want to find a verb and hold on to it for dear life.

Here’s the question. Let’s change our time-scale from years or decades to hundreds of years or more. Does process-based work endure? Does pure process endure?

This might be a boring or moot to a lot of people. It’s not to me. For whatever reason, I find myself preoccupied with durability. It’s the Long Now; it’s the bat-glyph.

Will people still be riffing on jazz standards in a hundred years?

This is totally not a rhetorical question! I can imagine a whole line of thinking that goes: Oh yeah, actually, this is the secret weapon. Encode your work as pure process, and it will get made and remade over and over. It’s immaterial and therefore indestructible. This is the trick that every religion has figured out.

But I can also imagine the other line: Actually, process is fragile. It doesn’t survive the fallow periods. It depends too much on an unbroken series of practitioners—of champions. To reliably make it between generations, you need a canonical text or a finished canvas. You need to print on paper or etch in stone. Process is fine, but the finished product is the thing. Materiality is the ultimate ark. Hello, Renaissance?

But, this is pretty abstract, so let’s focus on the simpler question:

Jazz is young—really young. But the jazz icons and jazz standards that Frank invokes actually feel quite old to me. It feels like they’re on the wane, and have been for quite a while. Tell me if I’m wrong. And tell me: Do you think jazz—jazz as process, jazz as platform—is around for the long haul?


This is the trick that every reli gion has fig­ured out.

Did you write that knowing that if you didn’t I would come in and say it?

I can’t say anything about Jazz b/c I’m pretty damn ignorant of it despite a long-standing desire not to be. In fact, I’d say its emphasis on process has made it particularly opaque to me: more than most things in American Culture, there’s not much for to grasp onto and tackle in the safety of my home, and thus it makes me feel like a stranger. I feel like all my many friends who are Jazz enthusiasts played in band as kids and grew up with old jazz records playing. Without an instrumental ticket, I’m never quite sure how to get in the door.

But I do know a little bit more about Hindustani and Carnatic classical music, both of which are somewhat similar to Jazz in their focus on improvisation. They’ve survived pretty darn well, for much longer, and look like they are going strong. Same with classical Indian dance, whose final choreography is not quite as locked-in as Classical Ballet can be. And what about Martial Arts? It evolves and sprouts new schools, but all the major ones stick around, and one could draw a continuous line through the East Asian schools back to Shaolin Kung Fu.

The other thing that comes to mind is cooking and cuisine. When all is said and done, it comes down to the act of eating.

I think you pose a really great question, Robin. And you’re going to force me to backtrack on my statement. (And so close to publication too!)

On one hand, jazz is completely process. On the other, the only reason I can enjoy Kind of Blue is because there’s an artifact: a record I can put on my turntable. If it was completely formless and abstracted, I wouldn’t love it as much as I do. Sure, others play So What, but not like Miles. Miles playing it is what makes me love it.

On the other hand, will we be singing Happy Birthday in 300 years? I bet we will, and there’s no artifact there. Does that song stick around because it doesn’t have ownership? I mean, I don’t hear Happy Birthday and think “Oh, that’s sung by Ella Fitzgerald” or any other performer. I get to own it because no one else does, or because we all do. In this case it’s an asset (same with the religion).

I think the idea of continuing process over a long span of time is deeply indebted to the idea of oral traditions. How long will those books in Fahrenheit 451 last? The answer to that is directly linked to how much we care, I suppose. Abstract things only last as long as we care about them. It’s an asset and a short-coming. I like that the crap can disappear quicker. But it’s saddening to think that a piece of art that doesn’t have an audience from the get-go can’t be rediscovered later on.

I think we need to release ideas, allow others to share and partake, and every once in a while capture the exceptional results, either on film, on tape or on canvas, much in the same way Disney worked with several fairy tales that were part of the oral tradition. Disney’s Pinnochio is not THE Pinnochio, it’s A Pinnochio. (Although you could say that the Disney version is the version most people know.) Dylan’s recording is not THE Man of Constant Sorrow, but it’s a version of Man of Constant Sorrow. So on. Even the same with the bat glyphs.

Regardless, as a kid who once wanted to be Indiana Jones, artifacts are really important to me and I think about how ephemeral things can become if we don’t have objects to document the process. I worry about that in the context of things having to prove themselves into “objectness.” (For example, I bet most music consumers in a few years will only have digital files, with only their favorites taking form as a CD or in vinyl.)

With that said, you’re about 2 steps ahead of me. I just picked up a copy of The Shape of Time by George Kubler to think about the history of things and how it relates to this thought path.

I suppose that there’s solace in the fact that most of this conversation has been about music, and music is a limited example. It’s fleeting in it’s very nature because there’s no physical form. If you go through the process with painting, of course you’ll end up with an artifact.

Oh god. That’s longer than your blog post. Sorry.

No no — that’s what we do around here. Every post is essentially a request for better/smarter comments, which you & Saheli have both provided!

I think this is an absolutely KEY point: “I think we need to release ideas, allow others to share and par­take, and every once in a while capture the exceptional results, either on film, on tape or on canvas, much in the same way Dis­ney worked with several fairy tales that were part of the oral tradition. Disney’s Pinnochio is not THE Pinnochio, it’s A Pinnochio.”

One of the things I’m thinking hard about is: How do you make a Pinnochio? Either an original, or a Disney-caliber reimagining. (No answers yet. I mean, no answers beyond “do really good work!” which is necessarily but, I think, not sufficient.)

Oh man, just the other day, I saw a video in some sad store of someone else’s animated version Snow White, and I was like, wow, why would you even bother? Walt’s is so canonical. I don’t even remember it very well, but I wouldn’t think of trying to watch someone else’s. But I don’t feel that way about Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast—all Disney Films I love, but all just versions, more hopefully coming.

So sometimes, I think Frank’s release and capture process creates a tame version that can’t be released again, basically, but usually you gotta rerelease the the spirit again.

You’ve gotta leave room for genius, right? As a person that makes stuff, I’d like to wisely choose where to put my time. Covering The Times They Are A-Changing for friends is one thing. But to record it and put it on an album… is that really worth anyone’s time? Certain times an idea or concept or whatever fits just right. It’s bespoke clothing where it’s tailored before we know who it fits. Just like Cinderella’s glass slipper.

Cer­tain times an idea or con­cept or what­ever fits just right.

Saheli mentioned the centuries-old tradition of musical improvisation in south Asia, and I thought of the contemporary tradition in Europe — differences, folias, chaconnes, etc. — which went out of circulation entirely for a long time, while even the instruments (viol, recorder, etc.) were rendered obsolete by supposedly improved versions, louder and easier to play.

In the 20th century there arose this urge to revive “ancient” or “early” music, the instruments, and the authentic manner of playing both. In the ’30s you could say it was an obscure antiquarian impulse, maybe an escape from the deplorable present. It took some time (I think) for musicians to really improvise freely in this music, as its past performers had done (as we know only through the deaf medium of paper).

By the end of the century I think “early music” had taken on a more artistic mission, trying to express something about being human, and not only in the long sixteenth century. The musicians now freely transform the materials, even as they become more confident about how it was played four and five centuries ago. Many are willing to play the music in ways that they are sure it was never heard in the past, but that are powerfully revealing, both of the musical ideas and of something else. Artisans again spend their lives perfecting the viola da gamba or the Flemish harpsichord, and composers write for these instruments.

It’s as if these dead riffs were patiently waiting to be played again when the time was right.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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