My relationship with the express train of technology has been utilitarian: not passionate, but appreciative. I board from time to time for a few stops, then get off where I need to be and let it rush on.
One of my misgivings about enrolling at Juilliard in 1981 was the fact that they had, at that time, no facilities for electronic music. The little work I had done with electronics in the 70s had me mad to do more, to explore all the possibilities of this exciting new medium. My first summer in New York, I enrolled in a course in electronic music led by Charles Dodge, a composer whose work I admired, at Brooklyn College.
By the end of that session, I had produced one bad composition and developed a deep appreciation for expertise. I found that the work I had done in electronic music a few years earlier was by then hopelessly outdated, and the current technology (again, this was 1981) demanded a dedication of time and an access to resources that I couldn’t manage, and that I wasn’t sure I would want to invest if I had it available. Instead, I devoted my time to developing other compositional skills.
One of the things I focused on was received notions of form: the meanings of traditional musical forms, how those meanings resonate today, and how they don’t. That focus allows people to easily peg me as backward looking, and I don’t deny that I enjoy the view over my shoulder, but I also like looking straight ahead, without flinching.
I remember men, proud corporate types, sipping scotches and grumbling about the death of the traveling salesman when I was a child. “People today think you can just get on the phone and make a sale,” they’d moan. “You just can’t do that. You’ve got to go there, meet people, form relationships.”
Of course, as it turned out, you could do that – the phone has become myriad communication devices and platforms, all substituting speed for presence. Some things are lost in the process, and others are gained. But, as much as one might wish to lament the losses, this is the nature of doing business as human beings: we have, as a species, an unappeasable itch to move on to new things. Assessing what we’ve left behind is important, but obsessing over the past is tiresome, at best. Every advance we make leaves something behind, and eventually we will be left behind ourselves.
That shouldn’t be news, though one hardly dares to raise the topic. The human race won’t last forever, and when it is gone much will be lost. Who is to say what will be gained?
So the train rumbles on, and I imagine it will continue making stops for me for some time to come. When it doesn’t, I’ll be happy to get a deep familiarity with the surrounding (hopefully quiet) terrain. Moving quickly has its advantages, and its drawbacks.