Computers are not instruments

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It is wonderful to have lived through the birth of the personal computer, and to be part of the computing industry. I have been a programmer and systems designer, and today everything I do has some computer aspect to it: professional work, photography, music, research, websites. With my background, they are not black boxes to me.

Computers are great machines, but they are bad tools at a very fundamental level.

I want to draw a distinction between a machine, which you set up and assign work to, and a tool, which you wield directly, as a human animal. What makes a tool great is its capacity to function as an extension of yourself, as though it were part of your body. Poking a hole with a stick is not importantly different from using a finger; the tactile and visual feedback is immediate in the same way. That stick is a tool.

Becoming adept at stick wielding (think: swordplay) is a matter of entraining muscle movements and responses to real-world feedback. If you have to think about the movement, it’s too slow. Animals like humans are well-equipped for this sort of learned skill. We learn how to walk, run, reach, throw, poke, and so forth as part of our repository of behaviors. Any tool we have that we can treat as a bodily extension is incorporated into our reactions in the same way, and we can become expert users.

In music, we speak of knowing a piece “in the fingers”. “The hands know how to play the tune”. We can add to that tacit skill our rational decisions, reacting to other musicians, to the emotions of the moment, to an experimental harmony, and so on. As beginners, we find that we have to “think too much” about what we’re trying to do. Music becomes a performance pleasure to the degree that our mastery is at our command to be directed as we will.

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Waving my hands in the air

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These days I play the fiddle.

It wasn’t always thus. I had classical piano training as a child, and taught myself guitar, both folk and classical, as a teenager. I can’t remember ever learning how to sing — I assumed everyone could (I still think that). My mother was trained as a classical pianist in Antwerp but she was diverted from that life by WWII and an American GI. She became interested in jazz theory when I was quite young, and I enjoyed learning what she was doing with basic music and harmony theory.

So there I was in my 30s, an experienced amateur singer in medieval-to-classical choral works and a variety of ethnic and traditional genres, and I still spoke string and keyboard a bit. Suddenly one day, listening to traditional Scandinavian multi-fiddle tunes, it occurred to me -– why couldn’t I do this? After all, how hard could it be? I got to the basic level of “village fiddler” after a while, and it’s all been a bonus from there.

Today, I play music for Scandinavian dancing. (I’ll speak more on that genre some other time, but if you like Irish music, I recommend the traditional fiddle music of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark.) What I want to talk about now is the psychology of playing the violin for this music, specifically how the physical movement of the playing impacts the overall communication.

I understood the principles of the strings and stops before I started, and I knew how the bow was used to produce the sound, but I was not prepared for the significance of the musical gestures imparted by bowing. Playing a guitar is an activity with small hand movements. But bowing… this is the land of big gestures.

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Little Musgrave

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The traditional ballads of the British Isles are renowned for their vivid, but objective, style. Descriptions are generally impersonal (in contrast to the lyric songs), and characters establish their motives via direct dialogue, as in a play.

One of the better ballads is Little Musgrave, number 81 in Francis James Child’s collection The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: 1882-1898. Child collected as many manuscript and printed versions as he could find, and also described related ballads in Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe. For Little Musgrave (familiar to Americans as Mattie Groves), he collected 15 versions, the earliest of which is dated 1658. Beaumont and Fletcher mention it in The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1613), the earliest known reference. 400 years have worked their usual transformation on the material, preserving what best pleases the singers.

Since we need a concrete example for discussion, I’ve selected a version recorded by Nic Jones, part of the English Folk Revival movement, on his album Ballads and Songs (1970). He heard or read more than one version, and in this recording collated elements of several around an American version. Like all such performances, this is a combination of traditional material and personal choices. He presents a very clean distillation of the story. Text.

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The path not taken

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Let’s start with something simple. What makes this photo so appealing?

This comes from a recent January meet with the Nantucket-Treweryn Beagles in the Shenandoah Valley of northern Virginia. It’s a view of an interior road of a largish farm in a rural area. Despite the timeless air to the place, I know these oaks are less than 100 years old, and that the path probably intersects a public road not far from where it vanishes here, but none of that matters to how the picture registers with me.

There are formal elements that are pleasing — the straight lines of the fences contrasted to the winding line of the lane, the various vertical angles, the flat lane against the low hillocks in the distance, the proportions of sky to land. But I find I have projected personalities and narrative into the scene, and that is the foundation of its appeal to me.

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What’s it all about

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I’m an author of fantasy and science fiction books, a minor performer in the musical arts, and a semi-pro photographer, with a keen interest in language, mathematics, and related crafts, such as textile production.

As a writer, I am fascinated by the way that language instantiates its historic roots, with rhetoric surviving across the centuries.

As a fiddler and singer, I encounter tunes that trigger my intellectual curiosity: why does it work that way, how did it return to that spot, what makes that effect possible, and so forth.

As a photographer, I stumble upon compositions that are surprisingly effective. Why and how do they work?

I am drawn to exploring what is happening in these situations, how my sense of delight is triggered. The analysis is just as interesting to me as the initial perceptive act.

My goal is to illuminate how my own mind works (and maybe yours, too), and to let you listen in. This will not be a platform for academic studies and broad conclusions in psychology and the arts. If you explore with me, you’ll be learning about traditional British and Scandinavian folk music, the field sports, dead languages, live crafts, and a variety of esoteric areas.