Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Wonder of Craft

Great if your interested in music!

The Wonder of Craft: "

I really enjoy watching people who are superb at their craft: I like watching them while they are practicing their craft, and I like hearing them talking about it. The various "How It's Made" type shows are one window into this for mass-manufactured items, but they are too depersonalized and miss the stories about the people doing the making; even on a manufacturing line, people are not robots, no matter how much that might be desirable from an efficiency standpoint. But often what you find is that a lot of mass manufacturing also requires a lot of skill and implicit knowledge, knowing how to make small adjustments and deal with unexpected contingencies on the fly, which can only be gained with experience over time. Finding out how skillful people do this and watching them do it with apparent ease is fantastic.

Activities with performance aspects lend themselves to this easily. Cooking for example: the final omelette-making scene in the movie Big Night, or watching Julia Child and Jacques P├ępin riff off each other in the PBS series Cooking with Jacques and Julia.

I also loved the opening scene in the Pierce Brosnan anti-hero movie The Tailor of Panama, in which Geoffrey Rush plays a tailor of men's clothing. The movie opens with him in his workshop marking and cutting a bolt of cloth for a suit, and he looks so natural at it that you immediately believe him as a tailor, and it's a great little vignette showing how a flat piece of cloth gets transformed into a full piece of clothing. More illustrative than anything on Project Runway.

Music has been a rich vein for how-its-made/behind the scenes examinations. Here are a few of my favorites available for viewing/listening:

Note by Note

Steinway pianos are probably the most complicated mass-produced (relatively) products still made entirely by hand. Note by Note is a documentary available on DVD that goes inside this process in a truly enthralling way, following the creation of a single grand piano (number L1037) through its whole year-long gestation period. Aside from things like casting of the metal frame, all the work is done by hand by craftspeople who've been at it for decades, using a formula passed down through the generations.

There are some revelations: each piano has its own personality despite being made "identically" and musicians will bond with one piano and hate the identical-looking one sitting right next to it; and the people making the pianos don't really understand why the construction process works. Therefore they can't change what they do (e.g. to make it cheaper, more efficient) because the process is an organic outgrowth of experimentation that is now lost in the mists of time. They can't change it because they don't know how it will break.

It Might Get Loud

From the instrument itself we now go to the playing of instruments. This documentary (available on Netflix and elsewhere) brings together U2's The Edge, Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, and The White Stripes' Jack White, three distinctive guitar heroes, to talk about their relationship with the electric guitar. If you can get past the obvious hero worship (to the movie's credit, not as heavy handed as it could have been) you get some really great insights and nuggets.

Jack White in particular is highly quotable. For example he says "Ease of use is a disease that you have to fight in every creative field," arguing that you need to have an antogonistic relationship with your tools. Your tools should push back against you, and you need to push them to do things that they weren't meant to. He's all about imposing limitations in order to focus and spur creativity. For example the White Stripes' minimalist palette of red, white and black both forces them to be inventive with how to use these colors, as well as keeping them focused by getting caught up in thinking about their identity too much. Even on stage, White is restless: "If it takes me three steps to get from the microphone to the keyboard, I'll move the keyboard further away so I have to take four steps." "I want it to be a struggle," he concludes.

The Making of Good Vibrations

For the last muscial example we have how instruments are turned into a song, specifically the making of Brian Wilson's iconic song Good Vibrations for The Beach Boys. (This page has the text of the story, but make sure to click on the "Listen to the Story" link at top left of page for the original broadcast piece so you get the voiceover and music together.) A dramatically different song from anything The Beach Boys had done before, and even more different from anything other pop artists were doing at the time, it also helped usher in a new approach to studio recording, with a producer (in this case Wilson) splicing together individual tracks and snippets recorded in different studios and different times with different musicians.

Listening to it you can tell it's a complex song, but listening to the history of the song and how it was constructed by Mike Boylan, of NPR's All Songs Considered, you don't really realize just how complicated it is. But, as is always true of the best craftsmanship, the end result appears effortless, seamless and uncontrived.

What comes through in all these examples is that craft requires obsessiveness: attention detail, never being satisfied, hard-earned time learning the craft.


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