Supper’s Digests: Grand Theft Audio

In much the same way that a distinction exists between somebody who likes to go to the cinema and a cineaste, there is a distinction between people who play computer games and those who consider themselves ‘gamers’. It’s a question of degree of attention, dedication, and discernment. Aficionados in any realm form a relationship with their subject. They cultivate a critical appreciation of the craft: a curiosity that leads them behind the shiny facade of a finished product, informing and rarifying their tastes.

I never considered myself a computer gamer. What held me back was the realisation, when games had achieved a certain level of sophistication, that they were mocking me. Several years ago I completed Grand Theft Auto IV. I conducted its unmemorable Serbian protagonist through the tortuous stations of a biblically violent morality tale. In a handful of simulated weeks, he transformed himself from a penniless immigrant with a blood-soaked past into a dead-eyed, materially successful, violent mercenary.

For hours I watched this Faustian avatar tearing up a miniature New York: stealing and driving sports cars, earning money through organised crime, at once befriending and then executing gangsters, and acquiring piles of possessions. He achieved all this, even had some simulated fun, but failed to locate his soul. The on-screen existence clanged with the emptiness it was supposed to. Here’s the actual moral, though: to make this investment in the story required my real-world time and my real-world money. The game entertained and delighted enough to keep it fresh, but after fifteen hours of pillage, the protagonist had become a millionaire who had extricated himself from his past with all the freedom that this entailed. All I’d achieved was a few mouse miles and a stiff back. I didn’t play the sequel.

What rankled is that my working life at that point was a microcosm of the experience I had just played. At work, too, I was stabbing at a keyboard and pushing a mouse all day while my boss rolled between the office and a country estate in a fleet of huge cars, wining and dining his successful friends. A self-made man, he was absolutely entitled this success, and for his part was as magnanimous as any businessman I’ve known. Nevertheless, it was hard for me to distinguish life from Grand Theft Auto IV. I co-piloted a CEO to measurable achievements, to greater wealth, and to bigger and bigger projects. The better I worked, the larger and shinier his car. I realised that I’d invest my time far better if I worked out how to ‘+1′ my own story.

Fixing this is the tricky part. Life is famously and lamentably short: at most, we get about three attempts at a big change of course before the game’s up. It’s also very hard to measure success, so it’s not always clear if a particular course is the right one. Steve Jobs picked over this dilemma in a talk he gave to Stanford students, in which he covered the problem of not being the protagonist in your own story or, as he put it, ‘living somebody else’s life’. While his conclusions might inspire us, we might not be happy to imitate him. He became a multimillionaire at the age of 26, but his biography portrays him as a psychopath. Those of us who want to take a more conventional orbit nevertheless face similar difficulties. It is hard and often tedious to work on oneself.

Most cultures create a dichotomy between a person’s obligations to the world, and those to themselves. In the East, they place the fulcrum between being and doing; in the West, we balance rest (or ‘life’with work. The idea is expressed just differently enough to convey that our two cultures tend to create different kinds of screw-ups. Westerners like to make leisure feel like work, by turning it into something measurable. Success can be quantified in wealth or children or Twitter followers, and validation pursued through a frenzy of acquisition and consumption. In the East, the line between being and doing is so intractable that some people cannot survive if they separate themselves from their duty. The Japanese language contains the words salaryman, a person who devotes their life to the corporation, and karoshi, a single word that means death through overwork.

Social networks abound with promised shortcuts to any goal you might have, and they’re not very good. Every professed ‘life hack’ I’ve seen falls into one of four categories:

  1. Transparent scams;
  2. Vacuous platitudes;
  3. How to use a privilege of birth to steal a temporary advantage, before leaving others to clean up the mess;
  4. Tips for turning up your treadmill.

A hack might truly accelerate your life, but nobody can tell you with certainty whether you’ve pointed it in a decent direction. Just as there is no quick path to enlightenment, and no single book can turn you into an instant expert, you cannot be told what to do with your time. In any case, passage of time and investment of labour is not an inconvenience: we’ve made it the entire point. People can trap themselves into believing that some poor life choice was all the more noble because it hurt. This is called the ‘sunk cost fallacy’, and books about business psychology contain warnings to detach yourself from it.

This just emphasises that, in some way, humans need a narrative. It feels better to struggle for what you desire than to be handed it for free. It isn’t sufficient to just learn and understand something: you have to grok it.

Being; doing; balancing the needs of the self against an obligation to serve the wider world. These are old problems with old answers, and here’s one of the best. Rabbi Hillel’s response has continued to resonate with poetic simplicity since the Talmud was written twenty-two centuries ago. ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I for? If not now, when?’

The greatest of teachers, when faced with such an important question, answers it with three more. And, in doing so, reveals his contempt for shortcuts.

Supper’s Digests: An outsider’s outsider

It’s time for a musical interlude. Not knowing what to expect, and at the behest of friends whose obsessions, like mine, intersect literature, nerdiness and everything musical, Michelle and I attended the UK filk convention last month.

Filk music eludes accurate description. It’s more of a mindset than a genre. Over a weekend steeped in its world, trying to identify what it is and why it exists, we were hurtled through a fairground of musical styles, and pondered the nature of people who keep filk alive.

Originally a misspelling of ‘folk’, filk assimilates as many interests and personalities as it’s able to touch. Practitioners are united by common loves that include music, beer and wordplay. An outsider art, performed by people who know they’re outsiders and don’t care, filk music was once rooted in English and American folk idioms, but today it ventures farther.

Fundamental to filk culture is the concept of the circle, a gathering where anything from four to thirty people elect just to listen, or to take it in turns to play music to one another. A democracy of nominating and volunteering evolves; listeners at once become backing singers or instrumentalists, trading songs and sharing harmonies. Fresh material is revealed, and shy newcomers are heard and honed. These circles sustain themselves through the night, pouring forth music and holding court until breakfast.

Starting in 1987, the annual convention now resembles a family reunion, but its atmosphere remains one of unconditional support and appreciation. Music is treated seriously enough for huge stores of material to be composed and practised over the year, but personal eccentricities are taken for granted. The quality of songwriting and professionalism varies hugely. A few hesitant bars of ukulele scraped from a chord chart by a novice may introduce a song performed by a professional chorister.

No matter what its influences, though, this remains folk art simply because it is not mainstream. Filk is weird, but the longer you stare at a subculture, the weirder it always seems. There are plenty of examples from the recent past: modern opera; psychedelic rock; disco; the New Romantics of the Eighties. As soon as they enter the mainstream, they seem less barmy. Rap music is a pertinent example. The self-aggrandising misogyny, violence and materialism that characterises much of rap is at once a billboard and a sticking plaster. Regardless of the salary earned, nothing is masculine about improvising rhyming couplets against a recorded drumbeat. For all the firearms and swagger, The Notorious B.I.G. was basically Percy Shelley, but with less privileged parents.

Where was I? Yes, filkers are absurd, but no more so than anybody else. Knowing this, they lovingly poke fun at most of the things they embrace. Songwriters may be science-fiction and fantasy enthusiasts, or irascible folkies belting out nasal renditions of protest songs in the Dorian mode. They may just as easily draw influence from the news, musical theatre, the Great American Songbook, or a trashy video box-set. Nothing is too cherished or too tacky for assimilation.

Much of the craft is in the performance, so filk music is best caught live. We beheld, for example, a marvellous arrangement of a Tweet about the theft of a Catholic relic, rendered as a doleful sea shanty. It was strongly reminiscent of Ivor Cutler. Another group shoehorned the theme of raising an adolescent boy into a Pete Seeger song (‘Where has all the Kleenex gone? Gone into the teenager’s room.’)

A novelty song about a German immigrant struggling to learn the delicate art of English understatement won a prize, as did a poignant ballad about what becomes of superheroes when they age. Given a room and time slot of her own, someone set the back-story of a computer game to a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. There’s a lot of effort in arranging, rehearsing and performing such a work, but considerable patience is demanded of an audience to bear the hour-long punchline. The jokes are not always apparent to a newcomer: with many hours of such programming, one can overdose on filk.

Would I recommend it? Only to some. Subcultures are subcultures because they don’t set out to please everybody. You have to be a geek, a good musician, or a collector of cultural curios to be a filker: preferably all three. Would I go back to the convention? Yes. I admire it for the same reason I enjoy my walks through Hackney: there’s so much of the Earth’s flavour crammed into such a small space, bumping together, that sparks of inspiration are cast in all directions. Most of these sparks do nothing useful, but occasionally there’s a glimpse of something transcendental.

I have been left with strong but abstract inspiration. Art always plunders art, and artists fall into spirals of self-regard in a frenzy for inspiration. Filk can do this too, but that doesn’t diminish it. What I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t matter what you’re into. Hang around and listen. No matter how impoverished or dirty or incomplete your contribution, add it to the world. Catch enough sparks and you’ll make some of your own. Who knows: you too could be Percy Shelley, but with less privileged parents.

Supper’s Digests: The Parable of the Caretaker

One of the most engaging classes at university was Recording Techniques. I credit the lecturer, Dave Fisher, for inculcating me with the science of audio engineering and, just as importantly, the culture of the industry. He provided an idea on which the following thought experiment is based.

As a music producer, you have been commissioned to record a few obscure pieces of orchestral music for a documentary series. You have hired the orchestra and engineer, and secured a local hall with excellent acoustics. When the day arrives, the morning goes as usual. The engineer sets up and tests her equipment. You both agree a schedule with the conductor. Later, the orchestra arrives to rehearse. This gets them used to the acoustics and seating arrangements while the engineer makes a few adjustments. Eventually, it sounds great in the control room, and all’s set for the recording to start in the afternoon. Everybody takes a break for lunch.

Suddenly, a white van pulls up. After a brief conversation with the caretaker, the driver lifts a pneumatic drill from the back, and starts cutting up the road outside. The building’s gas supply is being repaired. An air compressor emits a steady rumble while he rattles the building for minutes at a time, ripping up the tarmac to diagnose and fix the problem. Meanwhile, the caretaker has disappeared.

You talk to the contractor. He is not in charge of his work schedule, but tells you that local rules dictate that the noisy work has to finish by 5pm. He gives you a phone number, and you try to reason on the phone with the building’s owner. Apparently, they have been coping with a reduced gas supply, and have been waiting for a month to get it fixed. Without today’s repair, another month of dining functions will have to be cancelled. They assure you that they’ll have a word with the caretaker for not telling you about the situation when you booked, and they’re sorry. You cannot re-arrange the session, but the owner compromises by agreeing to rehouse a local society’s meeting tonight so that you can, at least, continue to record into the evening. Just one thing is in your favour: the orchestra and engineer have been paid an initial fee, but most of the money they’ll get depends on the completion of today’s recording.

Now there’s a choice. You could try persuade the orchestra to prolong their lunch break for the entire afternoon, cancel their social arrangements for the evening, and stay late to finish the session. Or you could arrange to record in infuriating piecemeal, brokering short truces throughout the day and stopping whenever the drilling has to recommence. This will drive everybody mad: you, engineer, orchestra, contractor. Or you could threaten to phone a solicitor unless the contractor is sent away, leaving the venue with an administrative headache, cancellations and fees, no gas supply, and a caretaker who’ll possibly lose his job. If they relent, none of this would be your problem, and the momentum of the session could continue to its original schedule. Happier musicians make better music.

This is all hypothetical, but the same kind of situation happens all the time: people you’ve just met will force you to make quick and unreasonable decisions with big implications. Live with the noisy drill and you’ll annoy the team you hired. They’ll feel that their contract has become a ransom note, and they might refuse to work with you again. Send away the driller with a threat of litigation, and you will seriously upset the caretaker.

Which answer were we given? Let the drilling continue. Tell the owner to go easy on the caretaker for your sake. Give the orchestra the final choice about which of the remaining unpalatable alternatives they’d prefer.

Here’s why: the professionalism of an orchestra will carry them through almost any adversity. No matter how difficult the session, their income and reputation depends on finishing the recording and doing a good job. Keep within the Musicians’ Union rules, or stretch them with consensus, and you’ll go home with a session master that will pay the mortgage. They’ll get their money and a useful anecdote about what a prat you are and how soul-destroying it is to work for the bourgeoisie. Upset the caretaker, though, and you have a powerful enemy with nothing to lose. He may now feel entitled to ruin your session, and can do so in a hundred ways. He’ll prevent the engineer from running her cables, will insist on seeing a council permit that you don’t need or you’ve never heard of, or find some excuse to cut off the electricity. Perhaps he’ll lock you out of the control room during a break and disappear for the rest of the day, impounding your equipment.

While Dave Fisher’s intended conclusion was ‘never piss off the caretaker’, there are some wider implications. One: no matter how gingerly we avoid burning bridges, life demands that occasionally one or two get chargrilled towards a nobler end. Two: the balance of power often lies in the most surprising places. Get used to this, and learn to enjoy sacrificing any pretensions to dignity.