Passover 5781

Here’s something a little different from my usual subject matter: an attempt at some Jewish philosophy.

This is our second year of video seders. While we’re enjoying religious freedom but our ability to move around and meet each other is curtailed, it seems fit to talk about freedom as one of the big themes of Pesach.

The first chapter of Exodus is a masterpiece of compact narration: a despot uses a spurious pretext to divide his nation and enslave a group of people in just six verses. Two more verses describe the unchanging scenery of oppression: cruel guards, demeaning labour, and the casual repression of what we would now call liberties.

This happens in a historical context when slavery is a part of life: it’s how a country would exploit its power. There is no mention of a struggle, because a conquest of people may be achieved by attrition instead of war. To modern readers, this too looks familiar.

The Hebrew word for ‘free’, chofshi, is used to express the dream of nationhood in the Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem. But it doesn’t get its first Biblical mention until Deuteronomy 15, concerning the liberation of slaves in the seventh year. Incidentally, the other expression we use in the seder, ‘free men’ (b’nei chorin) doesn’t appear in the Bible at all.

We are bound by laws concerning slavery that allowed us to participate — albeit in a way that our contemporaries, who maintained permanent slave castes, would not have recognised. Incidentally, the commandments relating to the seventh year serve as an ancient precaution against unchecked accumulation of wealth and debt, and of the abuse that follows. As the Israelites both acknowledged this eternal problem and presented an early mitigation strategy, we should not be surprised that Jews ended up taking the blame for both Capitalism and Communism.

Moses was not asking for absolute freedom for his people, but for permission for them to take a holiday to acknowledge a better master. In fact, the concept of absolute freedom has no meaning in our philosophy. Pharaoh, we are told, was given the strength to make his decision freely but, in the very next verse [Exodus 7:4], his answer is predicted before he utters it himself. A question clearly arises from this: if somebody is given an apparently free choice but their answer is assumed to be inevitable, is it actually a free choice? Modern philosophy will tell you that chaos is a cost of freedom: if you are truly free to choose, your decision, and humanity en masse, will be unpredictable. But the Plagues are seen to our commentators as an inevitable demonstration of supremacy, intended to be seen by every participant in the Exodus story. We express pity; our rabbis debate adding plagues in the Haggadah; but our text does not contemplate that some might have been subtracted.

The word avodim: avodim chayyinu — ‘we were slaves’, is always translated as slaves in this context, but simply means labourers. The work carried out in the Temple by priests is called avodah: the same word repurposed as a verb. Freedom in our religion was, and still is, the chance to bypass as much human bureaucracy, corruption, and tyranny as possible, and work directly for our boss’s boss. The inexorable power struggles play out over the next three books of the Bible: the Golden Calf, Yithro, Korach, Moses and the rock … Israelites are called a stiff-necked people with good reason. A redeemed slave has many reasons to distrust Moses and Aaron’s mediation even while witnessing God’s intercession on their behalf.

At the root of Judaism, then, is a philosophy of choosing your master, and living with the consequences. You might, for reasons of your own, elect to become a slave. Jewish law will let you, but only for a time. You may enslave yourself to your passions or to wealth, but we are warned of the many ways in which this will go badly. And when we live within any nation, however it values liberty, we are urged to pray for its peace and welfare, and to adopt their laws as closely as we keep our own: we must wear two yokes of servitude.

Stuck at home, preparing for a Zoom seder, one can become hyper-aware of the weight of these and other yokes: those of maintaining our own wellbeing; those of our employers; those that our country demands, and those we have borrowed from less fortunate people around us whose shoulders are not so broad. We carry more than usual, and risk the danger of fewer people around when we start to stumble.

Tonight, as in every seder, we acknowledge at both ends of the night that we cannot know where our next seder will be. In good times, our hope is a product of freedom and, in bad times, of servitude. It is as true this year as it has ever been, and it is never a consolation that Jews have proclaimed the same words in far darker times.

What I hope is a consolation, then, is to focus on the message of Jewish redemption. Life must be lived in servitude either to God or to Pharaoh; an authentic God or a despot; a merciful and understanding master or a manipulative tyrant.

This coming year, with so many voices calling for our attention, may we all be given the strength and wisdom to contemplate and choose whose yokes we will wear.

ADC 2020 : Spatial Audio : Showing you what you already know

Here’s this year’s talk, which lockdown allowed me to deliver as something between a lecture and a documentary:

And, as promised, here are some of the binaural bits and pieces in case you want to compare them or listen to them at your own pace.

(I am reminded why I haven’t played the clarinet in public for 20 years. But they’re good enough to prove the points I make in the talks.)

Malcolm Arnold, Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano. II. Andantino

Francis Poulenc, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. II. Romanza

In case you want to play with your own spatialiser:

The clarinet was spatialised at 30 degrees left; the piano at the centre and 30 degrees right. Keyboard noises were added at 30 degrees right.

The recording room is 13’6 wide by 34′ long by 10′ tall, with the recording taking place about 21′ forward from the wall behind the audience. Sorry about Imperial measurements, but the room was built in the Eighteenth Century so it seems appropriate.

ADC 2020 Lightning Talk : No man is an island. Except the Isle of Man.

When Sartre resolved that ‘Hell is other people’ he was probably trying to get Remo to connect to his microphone. This year’s running theme is definitely ‘imperfect replacements for human contact’. On the other hand, 2020 has highlighted our reliance on other people like nothing else could.

So this year, I’ve set my tone to consolation. Even while certain governments in Europe turn up the despotism, and we in the UK stupidly try to saw the Channel Tunnel in half, I’m not sufficiently angry to do narcissism for a third time.

My mission this year was to launch a hardware product, and my very own very flaky company. I won’t advertise it now: I’ve got a talk on Thursday evening and you’ll be there if you’re interested. Talk about it twice, and I’ll just jinx it.

Last year, I found myself explaining to a man in his eighties that I’d decided to start my own business. He fixed me with a glare. ‘You’ve just had your fortieth birthday, haven’t you?’ 

That he read me so transparently is worrying because I’d hate this talk to bore an octogenarian. On the other hand, this industry needs constant competition and experimentation, without which nothing can evolve. If the output of a thousand midlife crises bumping against a handful of spoilt rich kids can keep us all together, bring it on.

Designing, producing and selling electronics for a profit in a creative industry is deliciously hard. It’s in the category of things that are only just possible to do on your own, like circumnavigating the globe or reaching a human being at YouTube.

So I’m going to talk today about going it alone … Or not.

Many years ago, a commercial director at Focusrite explained that any business needs to optimise three different functions: sales, operations, and management. The message was if you looked after only two of those, you didn’t figuratively have a company, and would soon literally not have one. Managing the tension between sales, operations, and management, whilst looking after business as usual, is what keeps a decent company in a perpetual state of productive conflict. You have to argue to establish what’s most important, preferably with other people.

The thing is — and I’m about to blame the world for my own problems here — the way we are conditioned in early life impedes our ability to put a team together. As soon as you reach an unspecified age of adulthood, your future depends on unlearning most of your childhood conditioning as quickly as you can.

Don’t talk to strangers! becomes, ‘Work the room, build connections, maximise your luck.’

Copying is cheating! becomes … and I’d like to thank Maurice Ravel for the best advice I’ve read about making art … ‘Copy. And if, in copying, you remain yourself, it is because you have something to say.’ (Ravel died in 1937; Uli Behringer was born in 1961.)

Don’t talk back! becomes, ‘Consider, dear colleague, that your argument may benefit from reconciliation with the latest facts.’

Most of us emerge blinking from the same forest of infant conditioning so at least it’s somewhat fair. And adolescence, as long as you do it right, offers a gradual escape.

But as one-person companies, we have two problems with living in our own heads. The first is that our own expertise is lumpy. My Engineering Director is great, but I’d fire my Marketing Director if I could plug in a better one. So I have to ask an appropriate friend to second-guess.

Another former colleague of mine, with his own new company, is a natural at that stuff. His opening gambit was to mock up a make-believe product, collect pre-orders from Facebook, and wade waist-deep into a morass of emotion that would cause my jaw to clench. Which is smart: he is using the fact that he can’t build the physical product himself to his advantage.

But I built a prototype first, because that’s how I articulate myself, and from there my conversation with the market has been very different. No book would ever tell you to work that way, but books are usually written by marketers, not engineers.

So, your company will start as a shadow of your own prejudices and talents. Your engagement with the world must show you at your best, but it will also constrain what your business values.

When you’re an employee, your skills compensate for your weaknesses. Unfortunately, at the top of a business, your weaknesses drag down your skills. This is why you eventually have to hire people because they are not like you and, sometimes, because they do not like you.

I’ve watched a perfectionist kill a business because the product that would have saved it was never deemed ready. I’ve worked for disorganised people running disorganisations, wearing out their social capital by failing to maintain their products and stunting their later growth. A company run by a narcissist is just another limb of that individual: banal, reactionary, unempathetic.

And you have only one brain. (‘One brain’, incidentally, is an anagram of Brian Eno.) Self-discipline is a resource that some people possess in greater quantities than others, but it’s always expendable. Sometimes you need to close your eyes or watch a crappy video, and the entire operation has to shut down with you.

There is nobody else to pick over your internal caffeine-comedown monologue for logical fallacies. All your imaginary personnel get flooded by the same hormones, so are all angry or despondent at the same time.

That email to a supplier, for example, who has just cost you two months and £5000 has to wait until after the weekend, when your business’s endocrine system has settled down. (That was last week. Still a bit raw.)

But this is why we need other people. The most notorious casualty of a solo round-the-world yacht race, Donald Crowhurst, went mad and jumped overboard in 1969 and was never seen again. He left his log book behind, though, from which we learn that his biggest mistake was to turn his back on his family, switch off his two-way radio, and start getting seduced by his own dark thoughts.

Rarely in the adult world are there prizes for going it alone. And even if you want to, at least one opponent is somewhat like a restless, deep, and uncaring ocean.

If you’re having the same embryonic thoughts I was having back in 2018, please prepare yourself, be lucky, and take a risk that I promise you won’t regret. Even if you fail in the process, you will gain so much.

Finally, this is advice to myself, but it applies to any introvert: when in doubt, pick up the phone, and use the person at the other end with consideration. It will only strengthen a friendship.