ADC Open Mic 2023 : Where the ideas come from

When an artist produces a work about an artist producing a work, it’s hard not to detect a cry for help.

My dearest cousin Geoffrey,

I have run out of the food of inspiration, and am now digesting myself. Am going quite spare. Any crumb of an idea that you might spare me, might spare me.

It occurs to me that this postmodern fad for self-reference in literature might be getting rather stale.

Yours etc.,
my dearest cousin Geoffrey.

The question ‘Where do your ideas come from?’ is an inside joke among writers. An oyster can’t tell you how to make a pearl. The grit gets in, who knows how, and the rest is nature.

But a creative endeavour needs an irritant or stimulus of some kind: the thing that gets you to the point where gradually revealing the work is enough to propel you forward.

Chuck Close was (until recently) a painter, but he might be just as famous for giving the world an aphorism: ‘Inspiration is for amateurs: the rest of us just show up and get to work’. It suggests, if you’re suitably attuned, that you can just pluck a starting point out of background noise.

Here’s one starting point:

A couple of years ago, people couldn’t go on holiday, so they spent their holiday money on guitars and microphones and plug-ins. And all was well, as long as our loved ones stayed alive, and we didn’t need microchips to build hardware with.

This year, the music tech budget is right back on holidays. Or it’s blown on something frivolous and stupid, like not freezing to death in winter. Everybody here is working hard to get back to where we were. And we’ll probably end up there anyway, but not by being complacent or losing ground.

A big consequence of having a slow year is that it makes public companies cheaper to invest in. Year by year, it’s getting more probable that any given person in this room has spent part of their waking life in the service of a private equity company, who have decided, in their own language, to go long.

These companies are like buy-to-let landlords in London, who convert every cubic foot of enclosed air into a mezzanine with a mattress on it. Like landlords, there are many exceptions, but not enough to soften the stereotype.

Inside a PLC, everything long-term, everything commercially risky, every corridor and stationery cupboard, and all but the most predictable project with the nearest horizon is under pressure to deliver a rapid return, or else be dissolved and absorbed into a more immediate hit.

Quarterly growth targets. They’re what inspired so many of us to get into audio.

The pressure towards banal uniformity in everything, everywhere, is well documented. This is just one of many causes, and ought to make us a bit angry. But I’m done as an employee, and I’m done being angry about things I can’t change, and experimental data suggests that being able to sit on a stage and whine about banal uniformity is a hard-won and delicate privilege.

Besides, when short-sightedness and inertia overtake a competitor it’s a great day for me.

But, as deadly sins go, anger is a powerful creative force. There’s always been money in anger, as demagogues and journalists know, and now there’s a whole corner of the tech world that exploits it to the extent that it’s called the rage economy.

Especially there, though, we end up with banal uniformity. For all the buttons it pushes in our brain stems, social media is flatly unsatisfying and becoming more so. A restaurant where all the meals are free because someone’s chewed them already. And then taken a cocktail stick and written ‘Try Grammarly’ in the dribble.

Who else here has deactivated a social media account in the last few weeks?

[hard to tell with the lights shining in my face and the auditorium unlit, but perhaps 10-15% of hands go up]

I’m left with LinkedIn and my God.

‘My company has a new product out. In case you missed my previous fifteen posts over the last two weeks, here’s another silent video of me playing with it in my home studio.’

‘Do you want a solution that’s truly unique and crafted to your business? We’ve got a warehouse full of the bastards.’

Is there a word for grudging capitalism? An acceptance of our fate in a bigger machine, like a stoned Karl Marx? A bearded Victorian bellowing ‘Workers of the world! Could we just keep money but, like, stop being such dicks about it?’

The second big trend that’s changing our world is jumping out of every surface here so enthusiastically that I barely need to introduce it. In common with the other innovations that have turned our industry inside out since the last time I laced a tape, machine learning changes the nature of inspiration, expression, and the art itself.

The tools for wielding it are getting so accessible that we’re running out of excuses not to play with them.

Computers aren’t creative in the same way we are, and may never be. But it doesn’t matter. Crafters romanticise the process, but success is mostly about the product. Other animals display whimsical creativity; we’re just the only primate that can hold a paintbrush properly. There’s no reason why creativity has to be the sole preserve of organic chemicals either.

So I’m going to leave you with this. I asked a friend what I should say tonight, and she then asked ChatGPT for ‘a short closing speech on the theme “keeping your enemies closer”. Intended for an audience of audio engineers who are very intelligent. Make it funny.’

For some reason, ChatGPT responded in the voice of P T Barnum on crack, getting hung up on alliteration. I’m going to spare you most of the words. Rest assured that writers are safe for a couple more months at least. It seems weird to give the final say to a large language model, but the closing words deserve centre stage, and we should probably get used to this.

May our mixes be clear,
and our enemies near
— but not too near: we don’t want feedback.

Thank you.

ADC Open Mic 2022: It’s About Time

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

In works of labour or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

Isaac Watts (1674–1748)

Few subjects are as universal, or as ancient, as the desire to take control of time.

Stoic philosophy is two millennia old, and one of its obsessions is to juxtapose the grand arc of time against the human miniature. This is a major theme of the earliest chapters of the Bible, too: we are encouraged to make our stay here really count for something. Even if 15% of it is supposed to be kept fallow, and the purpose of the remaining 85% isn‘t particularly clear.

For the last three hundred years, ever more gigantic systems of productivity and habitation have transformed the way we live. There are plenty of good books about that too. Five minutes isn’t long, so let’s pretend I’ve cited them.

Productivity, anyway, has become a science. Ideally, the more value you produce, the higher your reward.

Kind of. Hike across the landscape of anybody’s waking life, and you’ll find a few seams of riches and vast plains of desert. Salary reviews are a propaganda minister’s idea of a guided tour. A person’s most marketable skills can often turn out to be entitlement and suspicion.

Anyway, Productivity As Science! It’s also why, ever since this world required us to work alongside machines, we’ve been comparing ourselves unfavourably and unhappily with them.

We grasp at ways to be more mechanical. And measure and tinker to maximise speed. We Bullet Journal and step-count and Pomodoro and Asana and Huel and hack our sleep cycles in a quest to become ever leaner and more deterministic.

And all because time is precious and non-renewable. But the balancing side is equally important and we’ll —

This minute is sponsored by Grammarly. Suppose you want to send an all-important email. Can you feel that rising anxiety? Yeah. That’s how keeping you away from your content is meant to feel. Snap! goes a little neuron. Now every time you feel powerless, we’ll be here! A corner of your brain that is forever Grammarly.

These squalid little businesses, bullying and cajoling their ways into your mind and wallet. Your lizard brain, knowing it’s being gamed, literally soaking in its own fury until you‘re completely beside yourself and wallop! You fill an important email with elementary grammatical errors.

So buy Grammarly today! Embrace the drip-drip privatisation of your insecurity. The erosion of your human agency. The certainty that your cold, dead computer will one day write better prose without your help, and become the chief editor of your every waking thought.

Grammarly.

— The other is equally important and we’ll get to it now. It is the cry for unstructured time; for slowness and chaos and intentional waste.

A whole other cluster of books dive more deeply into this seam of philosophy. That promise to break us out of the battery farm. Books like In Praise of Slow, and Four Thousand Weeks. Best to read those on company time. And Samuel Beckett’s absurdist masterpiece, Waiting for MIDI 2.0.

But everybody will at some point feel the urge to rebel against order before it becomes a prison.

Because you can train your self-discipline to ever-greater feats of endurance. You can lighten its burden by doing things you actually enjoy. But you can’t drown out the countermanding voices forever.

When you have expended your reserves of self-control — and you will — what remains is pure id: the need to rebel, to slack off, and to reclaim whatever you’ve denied yourself. The roads not taken will burst forth in unrestrained song, and there you’ll be in the glass office again listening to the lecture about the importance of ‘attitude’ and ‘culture being a two-way street’ that comprises one very long uninterrupted sentence.

Aah, you can leave ROLI, but it never leaves you.

Elsewhere, headquarters of big tech companies now look like kindergartens, full of whimsical interior design and toys and sugary food. The idea is to tug us back from the grindstone, and into the proper middle-distance.

You cannot both floor the pedal and appreciate the scenic route, or daydream on the same afternoon when you’re shipping a beta, or form memories and nurture friendships while the world outside passes in a dark blur. Imagination is fragile, but it’s probably why we’re here.

My grandfather was more successful than I am. He used to urge me that rest is just as important as work. I wondered why he thought I’d need that advice as a twenty-year-old undergraduate. But, if you end up self-employed, there is nobody to insist that you take leave, and nobody to cover the cost. It turns out to be a failure of character if you don’t reach into your own pocket occasionally, and buy yourself some stillness.

To battle hard for marginal gains is a fool’s errand. Ekeing 20% more code from a working day isn’t going to throw you into the next orbit of wealth or wisdom. But widening your social circle and deepening your well of experience might.

So, note to self: words like ‘harder’ and ‘faster’ can be left to Daft Punk. Better days and better people often begin with ‘no’.

And Paul, I’m sorry I haven’t finished that demo yet, but I wrote this monologue for ADC. It’s not what you asked for but you might like it anyway.

Thanks and apologies as always,

Ben.

Passover 5781

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

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.