Stage Fark

In many human cultures down through history, music was something that lots of people did. In the United States, prior to the invention of the phonograph and the radio, families would gather around the piano in the evening and sing songs together.

Today, that tradition has pretty much died. Making music is a job for experts — and mostly, for the experts living in L.A., New York, Nashville, and London. Most people are content to listen. If you enjoy making music yourself, you’ll find that you’re competing against those very experts.

Why would a restaurant manager hire a local guitar duo, when it’s so much less hassle to pipe in recorded background music? No worries about the duo showing up, no worries that they’ll fumble around and do a poor job or play repertoire that’s inappropriate for the venue, no worries about auditioning a new act when the current act moves on. That’s the essence of the problem facing local musicians.

I play cello in two community orchestras. We play concerts. People buy tickets. Yes, local music still exists. It’s not exactly thriving, though. And playing a stringed instrument in an orchestra is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a creative act. Worse, it has begun to feel like a charming anachronism — rather like insisting on playing harpsichord in the mid-19th century, when the piano had taken center stage. (There are people, even today, who like the harpsichord. And if you go to a street fair or an amusement park, you may have an opportunity to ride in a horse-drawn buggy. Other than the fact that you don’t have to have a guy with a bucket and a shovel follow the harpsichord down the street, the two technologies are not dissimilar.)

In the past 20 years, computer technology has completely revolutionized the music-making process. But that fact is not well reflected in local music performance. If you turn left coming out of symphony hall, you’ll probably find a bar where some sweaty middle-aged guys are playing blues on guitar and drums. Whatever its devotees may think, the guitar is, likewise, a charming anachronism.

Modern music technology is used in dance clubs and in avant-garde concerts on college campuses, but nowhere else. I’d like to be using this amazing new technology to do some creative music-making. The trouble is, I don’t play dance music. The beat is real boring, and it’s too darn loud. Also, I’m not affiliated with a university, and avant-garde music sets my teeth on edge.

What to do?

It would be entirely practical, in a technical sense, for me to create a complete set of computer-based music that I could perform by myself. You don’t need a whole band to make a big, full sound! I’m sure I could rustle up a few gigs here and there. But as I play the movie in my mind, I don’t like what I’m seeing. I don’t like it at all.

Let’s suppose I have a two-hour gig in Palo Alto, from 8 to 10 pm. So at 5:30, I pack up my gear and put it in the car. At 6:00, I head out on the freeway. From 7:00 to 7:30 or so, I’m setting up the gear in the venue. I play the gig. At 10:00 I start packing up and putting the gear back in the car. I get home around 11:30, and have to unload the car. At midnight I’m done.

That’s six and a half hours of hard work, including carrying heavy items (possibly up and down flights of stairs, or half a block down the sidewalk from the loading zone). And I’m doing it all alone. I have nobody to help carry the heavy stuff if my back goes out. I have nobody to watch the expensive gear in the club while I go down the hall to the restroom. I have nobody to sit at the card table and sell a few CDs during intermission, or encourage people to scribble their email address in the fan book, or talk to the manager while I’m busy troubleshooting a problem with the wiring. If the gig goes well, I have nobody to celebrate with. If it goes badly, I have nobody to commiserate with.

Does that sound like fun? No, it does not.

The alternative is, I try to put together some sort of band. This would be even messier, though for entirely different reasons. Finding someone whose musical tastes, level of commitment, and schedule are similar to mine is likely to be worse than tricky. If the other guy plays guitar, that takes the music in an entirely different direction from what I have in mind. (How many guitar players do you know who are ready to read written-out charts in 7/4 time?) If the other guy is, like me, a computer jockey, that would be better, but then you have some interesting issues with syncing the two computers together … and why do you need two computers, anyway, when one computer will make all the sound you need?

Yeah, I’m strongly in favor of live local music. But how do I put it together? Color me baffled.

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