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FleshFactor: Re: virtuosity

A E C  F O R U M - "F L E S H F A C T O R"

"-j." wrote interestingly about virtuosity, but started with this quote:

> Back in the pre-techno days of industrial dance music, Al Jorgenson (sp?)
> of Ministry (and many other WaxTrax projects) repeatedly told interviewers
> that "[his was the future of music.]"  He envisioned a day when anyone,
> including the most old-fashioned of schoolmarms, liberated by samplers and
> the personal computer, could and would be making (industrial) music.  My
> formal art education which followed reinforced these notions of
> democratization of the creative arts.

I am assuming that you disagree with the pronouncements of our enlightened
(Ministry) friend. Weren't Etch-a-Sketch and Paint-by-Numbers supposed to
do the same for the visual arts? What our friend failed to realize is that
by the time the citizens were cranking out industrial music, it would have
become largely irrelevant as an expression of the times, beyond the sale
of second-hand technology. Void of any creativity, democratic or not. 

Onto the question of virtuosity, which I find quite urgent in this
debate. I am also surprised that it has not been brought up before.

Practicing artists mediate their ideas through tools and the latitude of
expression permitted by these tools. Whether the tools are a paint brush,
an electric guitar, a video camera or the latest workstation is largely
beside the point. When a technological shift occurs, the only thing that
changes is the bar moves, laterally or vertically, to a different
position. Transcendence occupies a different plane. After a short time on
the technological hit parade, the facile ways of the gizmo emerge and join
the trash heap of "engineered" tricks of the trade.  From there, it is on
to other hopefully more insteresting things. And, as you said, much of
this comes back to virtuosity. Not as in "pyrotechnics" but as in
"transcendence". The ultimate, and for me desirable, absence of technical

I have experienced this connundrum quite frequently, in both my
professional life and my teaching life. The last time was when we
developed a sound-processing program that placed value on productivity
for experimental music (as defined by yours truly). The software was
unleashed on unsuspecting students and the relative "quality" of the
productions jumped by an order of magnitude in 12 months. Experience has
shown that artists will initially *always* espouse the
path-of-least-resistance when using new tools. This is true of the banjo,
the editing suite and the computer program. What we did with this program
was make the path-of-least-resistance a more divergent one. What came out,
obviously, was a different music, or at least a differently-mediated

One of the predictable side-effects of this tool was that practitioners
were left with an inflated sense of what they had actually accomplished. 
This became clear on concert night when an alert ear (again yours truly) 
could easily discern which buttons had been hit and when. I suppose this
could be dismissed as just another example of the pervasiveness of the
"novelty" factor. Nevertheless, I am quite convinced that next year's
music output will be quite different, as expertise/virtuosity honed with
many hours in the studio takes its toll on what is/is not acceptable as
well-formed output. Lest this theory get out of hand, it seems practice,
after all, still makes good.

I agree with j.'s assessment of virtuosity as the thin edge of the knife
where perception makes an unsuspected leap into a different/intuitive
territory. Mechanical inspiration, such as encountered when drawing and
improvising on the piano, belongs in the realm of reflexivity. Some sort
of semi-conscious brain stem short-circuitry. But, up to now, the path
through the woods was trampled by hard work and personal investment. 
Transposing this to the computer is problematic since physicality of
effort is once removed. Resistance is in the mind. Puzzling, that. 
Specially for musicians, who have presumably grown with the inevitability
of fighting the laws of physics. 

Brings the idea of technological cutting-edge to a new light. The music
industry's modus vivendi in the late 20th has been: Just in case you get
too comfortable and start sweating on the music, allow us to distract you
with a new gizmo. Virtuosity is an economic threat. Do not aspire to it. 

Which leads us to the impossible quandary of the electronic media artist
lost in constant tool-building and tool-learning; tools that benignly
impose ways of making. As problems get sorted out in the art world's
research labs, the artist becomes slave to a kind of permanent
apprenticeship. Like a swarm of unpaid debuggers for the idea of a
generalized art machine that one day will allow you to walk away from the
details and yet still claim the whole as your own. A kind of
air-conditionned ego mind-bath that has just the right amount of daring-do
and cool stances to sustain the illusion that something is actually being
> Ironically, it is not art which has inspired me to contemplate virtuosity
> today.  Instead, it is my golf game.  This is my first season golfing.
> Only now, after a couple months, am I beginning to physically understand
> the sport.  When I make a good drive ("good" for me is still just over 200
> yards and straight), I now feel it before it happens.  The moment is
> difficult to describe because it is without words.  My head is clear.
> Though I am not exactly "one" with the golf club, I do feel in my arms, my
> hips, my calves and wrists when the club will strike the turf.  I know its
> reach.  I know its weight.  There is a familiar grove for each club being
> worn into my motions.  I visually know where to line up the head of the
> club with the ball to counter inaccuracies in my swing.  I know all this
> and much much more--but I know it only with my body--not with my verbal
> mind.  In fact, the minute I think a word--any word--I lose it all.

I can attest to the veracity of the above. Golf has made me a fine
connoisseur of the flora and fauna in the world's bushy undergrowths. I
have therefore given up on the practice but do remember the "icy" vapours
of virtuosity in the occasional 200 yarder. In my case, serendipity. In
more talented people/athletes, brain stem stuff.

> Virtuosity is not a transparency or an invisibility of technology.  Nor is
> it a "smart" device that does the entire job for you at the push of a
> couple buttons.  Rather it is a state of simultaneously active and
> meditative physical awareness during which one responds in real-time to
> sensory input that exists at or below the threshold of conscious
> perception.  I think one of the stumbling blocks toward achieving this
> sort of relationship with a device is when one remains focused on its
> nature as a machine rather than its use as a tool.  (There may be an
> inverse proportion at play here.  The more complex and "out of our hands"
> the workings of a tool are, perhaps the harder it is to achieve virtuosity
> with the device.)

Yes. Yet it seems this does little for off-line art making, studio
practices. I am also ambivalent about this. Simple tools that are easier
to transcend? Perhaps. Or complex tools where virtuosity is itself
redefined? The difficulty with the latter is we have to perpetually
reinvent the barometer of virtuosity without the benefit of intellectual
pause. When effort-inducing processes are unveiled, a software-upgrade
is in the works.

Are artists/musicians not aware of this? Just yesterday on the national
news, this story on a "new" invention that, according to the
self-satisfied CEO, will revolutionize music-making for the masses because
it allows the control of musical textures with your hand moving through
the air (never mind that Leon Theremin did this in 1927, but that theremin
was too hard to master). Besides the preposterous notion of this kind of
"democratic" music making, most distressing was the awed look of the
journalist when 10,000 notes were unleashed screaming with a swift (and
irrelevant) flourish of the attending musician's hand. Absolute removal of
effort, hence virtuosity, towards Disney's imperial sense of power and
control. Nothing new. Even worse, nothing old. And 5,000,000 people went
to bed thinking that they too, finally, have a way of expressing their
inner thoughts about life, death and taxation levels. 

Well, I don't want to seem too cynical since I do rely on technology for
my practice. But it seems the more it goes the less of a primary concern
technology becomes. My students now know much more about the tech than I
do. I just hope some day they will also fall behind. 

Jean Piche   <pichej@ERE.UMontreal.CA>

Universite de Montreal

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