Technology is no substitute for melody

C and I watched a brilliant singer-songwriter at work-and-play this week

I have no idea whether she classes herself in the "singer-songwriter" tradition or not.  But she writes her own songs, and sings them, and accompanies herself, brilliantly. 

And — this may or may not be required, depending on whose definition you're using — the songs are intensely personal and heartfelt.

As many artists do, she uses a lot of high-tech elements in her work.   I've read she has a degree in audio-engineering, actually, and she certainly uses them deeply and well. When you see her do it, these elements are organically mixed into many other elements of her performance, including her personal mannerisms and crafted with vintage visual style.  

It's "organic" in the sense that the elements all grow out of each other, regardless of where they come from. I call it a "vintage" style because you have a sense of found objects and serendipity, in what she samples, what she wears, how her lyrics fall out of overheard conversations, but it's also "vintage" in that some of her techniques are certainly not new, from the gong to the lighting effects. 

All this is gathered together into a harmonius whole, regardless of each object's degree of tech, place in musical history or seasons of style. You can see that she is alive to the world around her and responds to it by making art from what touches her.

The show opened with sets by the two guys who are supporting her on this tour, each of whom used some similar techniques.  She called them "geniuses", and I know that at least some people in the audience agreed, but I thought they were dreadful.

I have been trying to figure out what felt wrong in these other performances.  

Only connect… but they don't

Each of these guys sampled the audience, their own voices, and ambient sounds, looped them, and wove the result into some sort of improvisational presentation.  One of them was theoretically "totally improvisational" and the other put the loops into the framework of his songs.

In both performances, I saw/heard and felt a use and arrangement of content, without true orchestration of the content.  I saw/heard and felt the audience contributing sounds and meaning, and a use of the sounds but no real sharing of meaning and no connection between the performer and the audience.

I had no sense that something was being built in front of our very-own-eyes, with or even for us. 

How is it that a performer like Liberace could get by without ever incorporating a single sampled sound from the audience, without even varying his set according to the response of his audience, and yet make such an undeniable connection with his audience?  Why did they "thrill to the same chord", why and how were people in tune with what he played?

I could have used Pete Seeger or Chopin as an example. I say "Liberace" because I couldn't stand him personally, but people who liked him were regularly overcome by his performances.  How did he do it, and what was he doing?   I don't pretend to know.

Clear?  No.  I'll try to explain again.

In these performances, I saw attention to details of tech (and some deer-in-the-headlights moments when the tech didn't work exactly as expected) without any delight in the tech. I saw no joy of any kind, in fact. I saw two men sampling from the audience and other sounds, without connecting to the audience, and without connecting the sounds together in a meaningful way.

I heard no themes, no active creativity, no synergy of the musical elements… no melody.

There's a software-analogy-pony in here somewhere.  

You didn't see this coming?

A musician's performance is an act of connection with the audience.  An act of faith that they're in something together. 

For software development, this act of faith is the point at which users trust us to come together with them and perform requirements analysis.  We gather, we coalesce, we take our found objects and our samples. We give back by constructing a little miracle called an application design.

So, tell me.  When you gather information from users, as part of requirements analysis, how do you do it, and what do you do with it?

  • When we reproduce a paper form, we can't do it properly without considering its place in the business workflow.
  • When we think about appropriate prompts, captions, and placement, we can't do it properly without some empathetic effort.
  • Even when we are told to faithfully imitate a paper report or an Excel spreadsheet we have to consider its intended audience.  What do they really need and want?

It's easy to go through the motions of designing, and creating, something when writing a spec for an interface, whether human or application.  You can do it by working off a checklist, sticking to one or more respected methodologies, and using the latest technological aids.

But it's really hard to design and create an application. 

We have to put ourselves into it, we have to reach out, we have to use our imaginations to ask the right questions and we have to listen hard and thoughtfully, to the answers.  We have to see: how is this answer connected to the last one, what is the action's historical context?  How does it connect with what we know, outside this user's experience?  How do we put all that together organically?

We can't just sample the sounds and emulate the activities.  There has to be creative synergy, cohesiveness, theme and melody.