Sunday, January 13, 2019

Performance vs. Composition

Hands at piano keyboard

I have taken lessons in playing the keyboard for about three years now.1 I started in order to fill a huge gap in my music education. While I love music and have been listening to classical as well as contemporary music my whole life, it was a one-sided affair. I loved music as a listener, an observer on the outside, but not as a practitioner on the inside. And for all that interest, there was still much I could not explain. For example, when a work was titled So-and-So’s Symphony in D-major or in E-minor, what did those letters mean? And what was the difference between “major” and “minor”? I knew it had something to do with the key signature, but I could not tell, just from listening, what that difference might be. And, anyway, I really was not sure what the keys meant or how they worked.

Although I took trombone lessons starting in fourth grade and actually played first chair in the junior high school band,2 my knowledge of music theory was rudimentary at best. I could play the notes as written on the page, provided we stayed in the bass clef, and I had been told the convention—and tried to follow it in practice—of sharping or flatting each of the notes that had a sharp or flat written on that line at the beginning of the piece. I knew enough to figure out that if, say, F was marked as sharp on the second line of the staff, then all the Fs, and not just the ones on that particular line, were also sharp. It was like a code for how to play the Fs in the piece. But beyond that, I didn’t know why the code existed.

And since the trombone, like all brass instruments and most of the woodwinds, plays just one note at a time—meaning it can’t play chords by itself,3 in the way a piano or guitar can—the trombone wasn’t going to teach me anything about harmony and why certain notes sounded better together than others. I knew from listening to music that when some chords are played in sequence they have a stunning, almost heartbreaking, emotional quality. But why?

So, to resolve all these questions, and rather than taking a dry course in music theory, I decided to study an instrument that was natural to harmony and the comparative treatment of sounds. After three years on a keyboard, I am beginning to understand the different keys, the circle of fifths, and harmony. But all this is only an introduction to my main topic.

What I also learned is that I am a lousy musician. Playing an instrument is directed not so much at inquiry as at performance. You practice scales, chord progressions, and fingering not for their own sake but to limber up both the fingers and the mind for playing a song, melody and harmony together, in tempo, for an audience. If you accompany a singer or join a band, you also have to learn which of the notes on the page—the melody, the harmony, or the bass line as timekeeper—fall to your role. A piano player does not play the melody over a singer. In a group, the keyboard player does not take the timekeeping function away from the actual bass player, if present. But still, you are practicing a particular song and your role in it with a view to performing for an audience.

This all requires what my teacher calls “pounding” on the individual piece and making it your “swan song.” You go over and over the notes in order until you can play all of them correctly, in time, without stumbles or hesitations. Along the way, you might also learn to play with expression and feeling, and then ultimately you might also adapt your own interpretation of what sounds and feels right. But first, you are tasked with becoming a meat robot that plays the whole piece through, in time and without error.

This, I found, was hard for me. For one thing, signal repetition without significant variation is boring. My inner sense is: if I managed to do it right—or at least ninety percent right—that one time, I should not have to do it again. Or again and again. For another thing, keeping time is difficult. Sure, I understand tempo and rhythm. But every so often my brain does it little reset twitch—think of it as a “brain fart”—and I lose my place. I can tap my fingers along to someone else’s music and hold the beat. But holding the beat by myself, even with the aid of a metronome, is difficult. Sooner or later—usually twenty to forty beats from the beginning—my brain does its little reset and my fingering falls apart.

Yes, I have practiced pieces until I can play them well enough, beginning to end, with a minimum of stumbles. But that effort goes against my grain.

This is not unusual or inexplicable. In everything else I do—mostly in writing articles and stories, but in other arts as well—I am not asked to function as a meat robot. Perfect replication of a prescribed sequence is not what I have been about. Just once, and only briefly, I worked as an administrative assistant, where a typing speed of so many words per minute, and accurate replication of someone else’s words, whether spoken or written, counted for anything. Truth to tell, I am a lousy typist. Oh, I can use all eight fingers and my right thumb on the keyboard, and ninety-five percent of the time I hit the right keys in order. But I make lots of typing mistakes. That was embarrassing when I worked with a typewriter, because then I would have to cover the errors with whiteout, or backspace with the correction ribbon on my IBM Selectric, and retype the wrong word and the following half a line. Now, with a computer screen and word processor, I fix typos and misspellings automatically, on the fly, as I write. Accuracy is not a big deal unless the error goes uncaught.

The difference is that my mind, my reflexes, and my previous practice have all been aligned with composition rather than performance. In composition, especially in my writing, I seek to have the first draft be “mostly right.” The goal is ninety-five percent. Get the story down in one long rush, just making corrections on the fly as I catch them, and move on. Later I will read through and correct (on the word processor) or retype (if I were doing a formal, second draft on a typewriter) not only any spelling and grammatical errors and misplaced punctuation, but also garbled or awkward sentences, checkable errors of fact, unfavorable elements of plot and foreshadowing, and otherwise just things that might be made better. This will improve the story by another ninety-five percent. And the next read-through and correction will improve it by a further ninety-five percent. Sooner or later, with the original forging of the first draft, then the hammer blows of a first edit, then subsequent taps, and finally the polishing strokes of succeeding read-throughs, I can arrive at a fixed structure and presentation that I am ready to have live as the finished story.4

Composition like this can reach a state of perfection, but not in real time. That’s okay, though, because your reader can’t tell which sentence was produced in the white heat of a first draft and survived intact in every read-through, and which sentences had to be painfully hammered and polished into their present state of elegance and meaning.

Performance has to put in all that hammering, too, entered into during the same kind of not-real time. But the goal is not a fixed string of words that sit comfortably inside a word processor or on a typewritten page. Instead, the goal is to train your eyes, nerves, muscles, and fingertips to reproduce that state of perfection one time, in a recital hall or on stage, before an audience. And then do it again each time thereafter for a gig or on a concert tour.

I am constitutionally and spiritually able to commit the hammer time for a work that I can then publish for posterity and go on to something else. I am less able to commit to an ephemeral event, a single performance or even a whole string of them. And when I know that I will never perform the music on stage anyway, all that effort seems—in my father’s favorite phrase, born of the Great Depression—“too much like work.”

1. I first thought of taking music lessons at my age because of a story I had heard at the biotech company, about a reporter interviewing a woman on her one-hundredth birthday. The reporter asked the old woman if she had any regrets, hoping to hear about missed chances and lost loves. The woman replied that she wished she had started taking violin lessons when she was sixty, because by now she would have been playing for forty years. This is a reminder that we are all living longer these days, and retirement is not a time for shutting down and wrapping up but for trying new things and making ourselves a new story.

2. Mostly because I was taller than the other trombone players, and on that side of the band the first chairs sat on the inside end, toward the back of the stage. Since we also played for parent appreciation, this gave some visibility to all the other chairs in the trombone section. If I had been where I belonged—third chair, at least—all the other trombonists would have been hidden from sight.

3. If a composer wants the trombones to play a chord, he assigns a different note to each chair in the section. But if you’re sitting in one of those chairs, and you don’t understand music to begin with, you know that the player next to you is sounding a different note, but you don’t know why.

4. But if that first draft—the “forge work”—is significantly off track, I can’t correct and polish it into shape. If I am not ready to write, if the story is not shaping comfortably in my mind, then I don’t bother to sit down to write at all. This is not “writer’s block” or some kind of laziness. I know it is a waste of my time to write something that is simply wrong, just for the sake of doing some writing.
       Think of this first draft as the beginning of a road trip: if you are going to drive from San Francisco to Portland, say, you can make the choice of following Highway 101 over the Golden Gate Bridge and north through Marin County and the Coastal Range, or you can take Interstate 80 over the Bay Bridge and Carquinez Strait to join Interstate 5 and go up the Central Valley. Either route will get you to Portland, but with different scenery. If, however, you find yourself going south through San Jose and the Salinas Valley, you need to stop right now and turn around because no amount of course correction can get you to Portland. A wrong turn in conceiving and executing a plot or the thread of an article can be like that trip through San Jose.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Hot Metal

Linotype machine

I’ve been involved with small computers since buying an Apple II in 1979. After I tired of drawing little horses and Christmas trees in colored blocks on the screen with its BASIC program and playing an early form of Star Trek video game, I quickly fitted the machine out with a CP/M card, WordStar word-processing software, and an NEC SpinWriter impact printer, which cost twice as much as the computer itself. Then I could use what was essentially a programmer’s toy to produce professionally typed manuscripts. I’ve been a digital geek ever since.

In the early 1990s we began hearing about a new type of computer programming, Hyper Text Markup Language, or HTML, that allowed one page of text to expand into other pages to display detailed descriptions, photographs and illustrations, and the introduction of other topics. I immediately conceived of this HTML editor as a new way of writing. The basic argument of an article or the story line in a novel would take place on the main page, but the reader could choose—or not—to take these side tracks to gain richer understanding, to have unfamiliar words and concepts explained, or perhaps, in the case of fiction, to explore alternate plot twists and endings. That was only my fertile brain at work, because readers at the time wanted—and still want today—a piece of writing to be linear, going from beginning to end, with the argument or story unfolding according to a single structure as conceived by the narrator-who-is-god.

But while HTML as a new way to write enriched articles and novels never got off the ground, it was a godsend to the budding internet, which was just taking off at about the same time. HTML coding and its more recent variants and implementations (e.g., XHTML, or Extended HTML) became the backbone of web-based structures. By using the embedded links, the web developer can land you on the home page of a website, and from there you can choose to branch to other landing pages or to individual entries. This structure is now so familiar that I hardly need to describe it, but in the early 1990s it was a miracle. Modern applications like Adobe Dreamweaver®, the one I use, let people with only a modest knowledge of coding create fully serviceable websites and pages almost as easily as a good word processor lets them format a printed page.

One of the early HTML-authoring software packages played upon the acronym and called itself HoTMetaL. But, of course, printing with “hot metal” has been around for a century or more. And therein lies my tale.

Right after I graduated from college and moved to California in the early 1970s, I took a job as an editor at Howell-North Books in Berkeley. This was an incredible experience for two reasons. First, the company published railroad histories, Western Americana, and Californiana. As a transplanted Easterner who knew very little about the area, it was a crash course in the history and heritage of this part of the country. Soon I learned as much about the West Coast as any native.1 Second, Howell-North was one of the few publishers in the country who handled every part of book production—editing, typesetting, page proofs, layout, plate making, printing, binding, warehousing, and shipping—under one roof. And they had been in business a long time, so that their equipment represented the prime of mechanical book production. As a young editor, I learned firsthand how the nuts and bolts of publishing worked.

Every manuscript I edited went straight from the front office into the hands of the Linotype® operators. And they brought back galley proofs, pulled from a tray of lead slugs still warm from the machine, for me to read and compare with the manuscript. That was real “hot metal” publishing.

The Linotype is a fabulous machine,2 about as complicated as a pipe organ and featuring a reservoir of molten lead as one of its components. At the top is a magazine holding hundreds of little molds, called “matrices,” for casting individual letters. The machine has a different magazine for each font style and in each type size. The operator works a keyboard that arranges all the letters, both upper and lower case, and punctuation according to their frequency in the English language, rather than the QWERTY pattern of a typewriter. There is no shift key, so that upper-case letters are on a different part of the keyboard from lower case. Each time the operator presses a key, the corresponding matrix drops out of the magazine into a rack in the middle of the machine. Spaces are held separately from the magazine, because they don’t cast any particular typeface or size, and they have the ability to expand sideways to fill out a line of justified type with equal spacing between words.3

The operator reads from the manuscript and types just one line at a time—but it is the line as it will appear in the book, not as it was typed on the manuscript page. So the operator has to mark his4 place as each line is set. Then he spaces out the line, locks it up, and casts it with hot metal from the reservoir. Hot lead solidifies quickly, and the operator can then eject the slug of type into the galley tray and release the matrices to drop by gravity into a holding area. The Linotype machine then—and here was its special genius—sorts the individual letters according to the pattern of teeth cut into the matrix and returns them to the appropriate slot in the magazine, ready to again be called out and drop into place as needed in the next line.

It’s a complicated process. The operator has much to be mindful about: typing the manuscript without losing his place; considering spacing and sometimes letterspacing to achieve a good-looking line; dealing with special type treatments like boldface and italic, as well as any foreign characters and symbols not in the matrix, such as letters with diacritic marks; changing the magazine as required; and working with hot lead without getting burned.

Howell-North was, of course, a union shop under the International Typographers Union. All of our printers and typographers were old and experienced hands, who commanded top wages. Their time was money—of which the company president, Mrs. North, continually reminded me.5 Because of the company’s origins in printing signs and documents for the local shipyards during World War II, the style guide I had to follow was the U.S. Government Printing Office, or GPO. It uses a stripped-down style and rejects the Oxford or serial comma, which is more common with publishers who follow the University of Chicago’s Manual of Style, on which I had previously trained. GPO style suited Mrs. North just fine, because she saw every stray piece of punctuation and fancy type variations like bold or italic print as a dollar sign. And with Linotype, every error I made or let pass in editing, and every change the author made in reading his or her set of proofs, meant the whole line had to be retyped, spaced, and cast. So the watchwords in our shop were simplicity and accuracy.

That was good training in many ways. My four years at Howell-North made me a better editor and gave me insight into the publishing world that I never would have gotten working in a New York office and sending manuscripts to be typeset in Japan or China—or working with computerized typesetting from the beginning and never quite understanding how easy the process is these days.

Hot metal—and little blocks of wood or lead with letter shapes carved in reverse on their faces—go back to the beginnings of the printing industry. And printing, perhaps more than the Reformation and the Enlightenment of the past millennium, shaped the modern world we have inherited from our grandfathers.6

1. I also met my wife of 41 years—and a proud San Francisco native herself—while researching photos for a book project at The Bancroft Library on the UC Berkeley campus. Ah, the amazing choices we make early in life!

2. Read a complete description of how a Linotype machine works.

3. If a line is really sparse, the operator can also to insert letterspaces between the characters of certain words, expanding them to even out the appearance of the text.

4. I’m dispensing with the usual “he or she” here, because all of our typographers were men. They were all older men, too, in their 60s, because even back then hot metal typesetting was a dying artform.

5. As fascinated as I might be with the workings of the machine, I was strongly discouraged from asking questions and pestering the operators.

6. See also Gutenberg and Automation from February 20, 2011.