Back on the 19th February 2008 I (rather badly) wrote this on my Sharawadji blog …
Searching for imperfection.
Some thoughts from my train journey today… Are we losing our individualism in a search for perfection?
Computers have, in no small way, contributed to this as, as an example, they offer us all the same fonts and spell-checker facilities. Anyone in the world could write these sentences in Arial 12pt. Apart from my choice of words and the order I decided to place them in, what singles out this piece of writing from anyone else’s, where is my individual stamp? How do you even know that I’ve written this? My handwriting is a left handed dyslexic scrawl, often difficult to read, so Arial 12pt at least gives me some hope of being understood. But it’s exactly this, my scrawl, that separates me and identifies me, along with the crossed out, wrongly spelt words and doodles in the margin. Who is to blame? William Caxton? Henry Mill? Gates and Jobs? How can you be an individual when your writing looks like everyone else’s? Handwritten songs and music from Lennon to Bach sell for thousands of pounds at auctions, but what now? If a lyric or piece of music is written using a word processor where is the interest and soul in that? The mistakes and rewrites are deleted the spelling is usually correct and it’ll be cut, copied and pasted to perfection, the anguish, struggles and mistakes, which any great artist goes through when creating are lost and with it also, possibly our understanding of the work itself.
As I’m writing this my (poor) grammar is being highlighted, how dare this software offer an opinion in such a way. Is your choice of font about as much of a symbol of your individuality as it now gets?
I use computers everyday, I compose and create, I write, I edit my photographs, but how am I really able to keep the processes I go through which, in years to come, will validate the decisions I make/made.
Have we become just too obsessed with this neatness and common form? What can we do to maintain any individualism (red underlined check spelling) when creating on our computers?
I think I’m searching for a way to highlight the many imperfections which single me out and make me, me.
I suppose it’s quite natural for us all to want the finished ‘product’ to be as good as it can be, but I also think we should not shy away from sharing the mistakes which we all make achieving this. This is where I fell asleep, somewhere around Three Bridges…no doubt to be continued…
What I find interesting about re-reading these thoughts is how much these concerns can be translated to certain other aspects of my life, not only with respect to my sound design, but also with regards to how my designs are realised by the sound operator.
In Praise of the Sound Operator!
In my early days whilst operating shows for the cream of British sound designers there was nothing more satisfying than a ‘clean’ show, a faultless performance. In those days (which actually wasn’t so long ago) the operator was responsible for firing any number of playback machines, fading up, fading down, cross fading, routing both sound effects and music (sometimes live, sometimes recorded) to any one or combination of loudspeakers, resetting EQ and auxiliaries, changing reverb settings etc. etc, all whilst keeping one eye firmly on the stage and the other firmly on a cue light. Complex and often very quick sequences of events where practised and rehearsed until they were right, if a mistake was made you had to have a plan up your sleeve to get things back on track with little, or no, disruption to the performance you were in no small way contributing to. It was often nerve wracking, flying by the seat of your pants experience, and not really a job for the feint-hearted. It was often a wonderful adrenalin fuelled rush. It was your live real-time contribution to a live real-time performance.
However things change, [good] sound operators are expensive, producers often want to cut costs and increase profits and computers have become an important part of our design process. I used to play the drums (insert drummer joke of your choice here) and I was also around when drum machines first became usable and, of course, everyone bought one in the hope that they too would become Depeche Mode. For a few years every hit record had a drum machine of one sort or another strictly keeping the tempo (interestingly so many of the good sound designers I know were also drummers). Soon it became obvious to music producers and audiences that (certainly in live situations) something was missing, performances were becoming just too automated and lacking any real soul…drummers started getting work again and music returned to sounding like music…once more it began to reflect our human emotions in the way songwriters and musicians intended us to appreciate and respond to their compositions. Sure, drum machines are still around, but are used far more sparingly and appropriately than when they first became prominent. For your information barely a week passes when I don’t spend at least a little time programming one myself for some project or another.
The point I’m trying to make is that the music industry rightly embraced an item of technology before returning to what is actually more beneficial to the art of music making, and in doing so giving a particular skill and responsibility back to the specialist. The question I’m asking is this, as sound designers isn’t this something we should also consider? Have we become so obsessed with our designs that human interaction (and along with that the risk of the operator making mistakes) has become something we’re no longer willing to accept?
Sure sound systems have become more complex but along with that we’re losing the human interaction in what will always be a live performance situation. Some of the things we now require are often impossible to do unless we breed a regiment of multi-armed operators, but other things haven’t changed and we’ve taken the responsibility of also doing these away from a person. In doing so are we losing the connection between the operator, performer and audience member?
Every aspect of my design work has been in some way influenced by the vast array of sound design talent I was lucky enough to work with as an operator, I understood exactly what they were trying to achieve, I had to in order to realise those requests on a nightly basis, now when an operator presses GO or NEXT is there any real understanding about the sequence of often complex events they are setting in motion and will this lack of knowledge affect the sound designs of the future?
Shouldn’t we just be more trusting, more often? Shouldn’t we insist that our work is realised and looked after by a fully trained, briefed, rehearsed and trusted human being? Isn’t what we do after all, ‘live’ performance? Isn’t live performance, whether that is music, dance, or drama, a group of human beings sharing the same space to present and experience something together, an interaction? Shouldn’t we be giving at least some of our sound design contribution back to a person to ‘perform’ on our behalf eight times a week? Have we lost confidence and trust in people to such an extent that we’re taking the responsibility for our work away from them and perhaps by doing so actually compromising our contribution to live performance? A live event. The benefits of show control are undoubtedly enormous but my feeling is that it is dangerous to completely lose all of the human element from our work.
So many questions!
Much like a composer watching an accomplished musician playing their music nothing gives me greater joy than watching a good operator play my sound and interacting not only with my design but also, and most importantly, with the performers whose work they’re supporting by doing so.
My feeling is that we need to at least start the conversation about how we create human interfaces which still allow us to program complex sequences into our preferred show control/playback software but which also allow more human interaction with how these actions can be realised in a real-time, live, situation.
I have nothing but praise for good sound operators and long may they continue (despite the economic pressures often imposed on us) to flourish. The benefits, not only for a production, but also the future of our art, is firmly in their hands.
Finally…what I’m listening to tonight…