Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Using Hypermedia to Write about Music Performances

This morning I found myself allowed to observe an exchange between a colleague and one of his readers. The reader had expressed a desire that my colleague could have augmented his text with sound files, which is a question dear to my own heart. How can any of us do a satisfactory job of writing about a listening experience without providing the reader with appropriate listening matter?

To be fair, technology is not on the side of those of us doing the writing. The authoring tool I had at my disposal when I was writing for Examiner.com basically allowed me to incorporate one image and embed one video from YouTube. These would be placed at the top of the article, and that was that. The tool I use to write this particular article is a bit better. I can embed both images and video at the most appropriate location in the text, but the only way I can incorporate audio is if it happens to be the soundtrack of a video.

Charles Rosen was in a somewhat more advantageous position when he was writing for The New York Review of Books. The editors created what amounted to a blogging site for their authors; and on December 28, 2011, Rosen contributed an article entitled “Elliott Carter’s Music of Time.” This amounted to a review of a recital given in honor of Carter’s 103rd birthday at the 92nd Street Y in New York. Rosen embedded four audio excerpts from the concert into this article. However, he could only do this because the 92nd Street Y had opened an account of SoundCloud, where audio files may be shared in a manner similar to the sharing of video on YouTube. Unfortunately, the hyperlinks that Rosen created for his article no longer work (although there is a link to an MP3 file taken from another recital at the very end of the article, which, as of this writing, is still functional). The good news, however, is that the Web page of the excerpts that Rosen cited are still on the SoundCloud site. Thus, while this is a step in the right direction, it also demonstrates that we have a long way to go in using real-time media to make a case when writing about a performance.

Most important is the question of intellectual property. The resource that Rosen used had been created by the producers of the recital, which reinforces the announcement most of us know by heart prior to any concert, making it clear that we should not be using our personal devices to capture any portion of the performance. (I rather like the kind explanation that Kathy Barr gives before every Old First Concerts recital, in which she explains that holding up a video capture device blocks the view of others.) The fact is that those of us charged with writing about a performance do not have the right to create examples with media capture technology, nor should we. After all, time spent fussing with equipment takes away from paying attention to the performance!

However, even when a third party provides “authorized” media, there are still problems in how those media can be used effectively. Once again I must raise the issue that what we are doing as writers is tightly coupled to an experience that depends heavily, if not entirely, on the flow of time; and what we commit to any document can never be anything but static. The best way to appreciate this distinction is to consider what happens when the static medium is not present. Having had to sit through more lectures about music than I can enumerate, first in classrooms and later at conferences, I am struck by how often it is the case that the lecturer will play a recording and then talk over it, saying things like “Now!” just before the particular moment in which (s)he wants us to pay attention to that recording. (Even with all that support, there will still be cases in which listener may not be sure what was brought to his/her attention.)

The point is that capture and reproduction will never be enough. If one wishes to explain a time-based experience, then one must do it by creating another time-based experience. This means that we have to stop typing at our keyboards and learn the craft of audio and video editing suites. Writing as an old dog that is willing to learn new tricks, I must still confess that all this turns the effort of documenting into a substantial project, My work habits are such that I want to do my writing about an experience while that experience is still fresh in my mind. If I spend too much time assembling my media support, that freshness may wear off; and I may find myself losing my grip on the argument I wished to make in the first place.

This leads to the conclusion that, flawed as they may be, words are still the preferred medium, even when we are charged with accounting for a time-based experience. There is no “method” that serves all of us. After all, there is as much diversity in the “experiencing” as there is in the experience itself. The bottom line is that our own memories are the most valuable resource when it comes to documenting a time-based experience. For my own part I have my own techniques for trying to “reconstruct the past” before I begin writing; but I have no reason to assume that any of my colleagues have techniques that are even remotely similar to my own. Nevertheless, we all do what we can, always well aware that some of those experiences are much harder to document than others!

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