Constrained But Not Constricted Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-03-10 14:00:00 No comments

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In Howard Massey's Behind the Glass -- a really fine compilation of discussions and practical advice from a whole slew of music producers -- there is a great conversion with Nile Rodgers, he of Chic and later producer of everyone from Madonna to David Bowie. At one point he's asked "For all the technological advances of the last 20 years, do you think records today sound better than they did 20 years ago?" ("Today" here meaning 2000.) Rodgers's answer:

No, absolutely not. Because for whatever we've gained in technical superiority, it makes us not necessarily work as hard. ... The fact was that we had to overcome all of those problems that the equipment gave us, and the net benefit of overcoming all of those variables was an artistic statement in and of itself. ... The old restrictions in technology forced us to do things right. It forced us to have to make decisions. It forced us to spiritually be so in tune with the other people that magic had to happen. It made you step up to the plate .... [I]n the old days, when a person hired me to work on a record, I had to get it right, right there. You had to play great, you had to be smokin', and there was no way that they could fix it and make it better .... When I played on Michael Jackson's last record ... I didn't have to give them the definitive, perfect, guitar part; I gave them lots of definitive, perfect guitar parts, and they decided which ones to use. That's weird to me. Once you're unlimited, you'll never play that same way -- you'll just go on and on .... It's like the ultimate jazz person's fantasy: "You mean to tell me I'm going to solo for the rest of my life, and and you guys will think it's great?"

Emphasis mine. This was in the days right when Protools was just becoming a consumer commodity, and every desktop PC could become a DAW that rivalled $50,000 workstations from only a few years back.

Technology expands our choices as much as it limits them, with visible and invisible aspects to both of those things. With a word processor vs. a typewriter -- something I've talked about beforeseveral times -- you gain so much at a stroke and in so many ways. But you also lose the discipline that a typewriter imposed on you, and you have to make a conscious effort to bring back that discipline or cultivate it from scratch. You are no longer forced to do things right when you can do things any old way, and let the pieces sort themselves out after the fact. You can write thousands of pages, hundreds of thousands of words, and have it feel only marginally more difficult than if you wrote tens of thousands.

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I doubt the word processor alone is to blame for the number of insufferably big fat novels we've had dumped into our laps, a statement which would force me to ignore everything from Vanity Fair to The Count of Monte Cristo, serialization notwithstanding. George R. R. Martin's interminable Game of Thrones cycle (ahem, A Song of Ice and Fire) doesn't owe its interminability to technology alone; I have the feeling it would have been just as overlong and unwieldy if it had been bashed out on an IBM Selectric, or an Olivetti manual for that matter. For better or worse, his vision appears to have motivated him more than any specific mode or methodology of expression could constrain him. But I do have to wonder whether or not it would have been all the more concisely expressed if Martin had been forced to deal with it on paper instead of a screen.¹

What about those of us who never started with a typewriter -- or, for that matter, writing longhand? My guess is that they have a different set point of awareness for limits, and again that can get in the way. If you've never not had a car, you have a hard time appreciating what it's like to bike, walk, or ride the bus everywhere. Likewise, if you've never worked with anything less powerful than a word processor, it becomes hard to see why you would need to discipline your writing. The lessons can be had other ways, I'm sure, but the most direct way to acquire them is to know the constraints firsthand. The more practice you have at having no choice but to pick the right words the first time, the better you become at picking the right words any time, and the less you find yourself groping five or six times in a row.

Now, there's a reason I didn't type this post on my Remington manual typewriter, which sits only a couple of feet to the right of the keyboard on which I'm composing this. I have the PC; it works; it's what I'm comfortable with and familiar with; and using a typewriter to compose a blog post would just add that many more needless layers of effort. But every now and then I sit down at the Remington and fill a page, and pay attention to how it focuses me. I cannot correct my mistakes -- at least in part because to do so means a massive interruption of the writing process (hello, Liquid Paper, so nice to see you all over my ribbon and platen!). I have to think all the way to the end of the sentence, not just to the next comma. I have to look at the typewriter as a tool that I am using, not simply an invisible extension of the nervous system.

The more invisible the tools, the less we pay attention to their very tool-ness, and the less we consider how many opportunies we have to make choices are being quietly hidden from us.

There's a lot more to be said about this, which I'll be saving for future installments.

¹ By all accounts Martin uses a DOS-era word processor (I think WordStar?), running in emulation.

Tags: Nile Rodgers technology writers writing