Twitter, jazz and moving music forward into the stone age

So the other night my friend Jesse played at the Shorty Awards with his Tin Pan Blues Band. Because it was an awards ceremony dedicated to the best of Twitter, they were projecting people’s tweets about the event itself onto a screen in real time. Some of those tweets were comments about the band. The musicians, in turn, were reading and responding during the performance. Jesse wrote a blog post about the experience that’s so fascinating to me, I repost it here almost in full:

Imagine us sitting on stage left at Galapagos Art Space. Behind us is a huge screen. On the screen is a steadily updating feed of tweets from all over the world. People are text messaging twitter with the word #shorty in their text and is getting posted to the screen. It’s almost the main attraction. Some of the comments are about the band, that is to say, comments about us. Some texts are quite favorable, some others not-so-much! Gradually a real-time debate develops on the screen behind us about the merits of what we were doing. It was totally surreal. The brainstorm hits to begin incorporating the text from the screen behind us into the lyrics. It has an immediate impact on the screen behind us. “Did he just sing that woman’s comment?” One woman said that she was so bored she was going to slit her wrists! Clifton tells the band that he wants the next break. We give it to him. He whispers into the mike, “Please don’t slit your wrists.” In seconds, she posts again: “Sorry.” This happened over and over again creating a very different form of dialogue. There was a flurry of comments about us behind us that I would read back and put some spin on.

When I wasn’t singing or playing trumpet, I was encouraged to tweet from my iPhone from the stage! I posted things like, “The band needs beer” and “Clifton is going to start preaching. Listen now.” It appeared on the stage behind us. The world was watching and responding.

When I saw the first negative comment I had the obvious sinking emotional reaction. This was a pretty basic comment that was really the first piece of harsh criticism we had received — and in writing — and in front of an audience of the three hundred people — and in front of all the tens of thousands of people watching on line. Oh yeah, receiving written criticism about your performance while in the middle of that very same performance is a first and weird too. So, when I saw the line “This band Sux!” it kind of took the wind out of my sails a bit.

About thirty seconds later though I was excited and amused when I had a flash of insight. We had suddenly been thrust to the level where people with no personal connection to us were moved to appreciate, judge, talk about, defend, protect, haze, fall in love with, and diss . . . It felt suddenly like an enormous step in the right direction. I started to beam. And people were rallying to say great things about us too. No matter what it just started to make me happy. For the record: the positive responses to the band far far outweighed the disses. The negative stuff was good feedback too and often very funny. The positive stuff was very encouraging and we have many many more fans than we did before the event.

I’m finding myself totally intrigued by this experience. I’m especially intrigued by the idea of working people’s comments into the lyrics improvisationally. I’m sensing some big possibilities here in bringing audience participation back into music.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of music, what its evolutionary purpose is, and the awkward fit it sometimes makes with our present social circumstances. The most useful thing I’ve read on the subject is a book by Stephen Mithen called The Singing Neanderthals. This guy is a paleontologist, not a musician, but I think he hits the nail squarely on the head. He thinks, and I agree, that music predates language in humans, that it’s the bridge between the calls and body language of monkeys and modern human speech.

Monkeys communicate basic emotional states: contentment, fear, aggression. Music communicates those states in a more nuanced way — simple pitch ratios and repetitive rhythms convey pleasurable feelings, while irrational ratios and jagged rhythms convey anxiety and aggression. Language came about when the sounds and gestures of music detached themselves from specific and immediate feeling states and took on an abstract symbolic life of their own.

I devote a lot of my downtime trying to imagine what social life was like in the stone age. I learned in school like everyone else about the time scale of human evolution, but it didn’t sink in for me until recently just how brief and unusual modern civilization is in the broader context of our history. Let’s say that anatomically modern humans emerged a million years ago — that number is arbitrary, but it’s conveniently round. Agriculture and town life is ten thousand years old. That means that 99% of our history has been spent living as foragers in essentially chimpanzee-like conditions, and that our present circumstances are a bizarre little eyeblink.

Our bodies evolve a lot slower than our culture, and our emotional systems are still mostly equipped for stone age conditions. That means we expect to spend our entire lives with the small, closely-knit band of mostly blood relatives, very rarely encountering strangers. My guess is that music-making in this context mostly took place around the campfire at night, and was a group activity involving the entire tribe’s participation. I’m also guessing that it was mostly improvised. This idea of specialist musicians performing preset works for a passive audience seems to me to be a peculiar and unnatural aberration, a quirk of our present circumstances very much at odds with our emotional needs.

I care about jazz way more than I care about European classical, and I lately care more about hip-hop than jazz. For me, it’s a simple matter of audience participation. In classical music, the audience doesn’t even get to applaud at the end of a movement. In jazz, there’s more interaction, but the audience is still mostly a passive recipient of information from the band. Hip-hop is all about group participation. I’m not talking about big stadium shows or TV here; I mean hip-hop as practiced on street corners and in clubs, where the mic gets passed around the circle and anyone who has the nerve takes a turn rhyming. I think the hip-hop cypher is as close as Americans get to the group improvisation of the stone age campfire.

So when I read about Tin Pan responding in real time to messages from the audience, I get excited. For all the high-tech trappings, the Shorty Awards show feels to me like moving closer to the natural state of music-making. The big difference from the stone age is that the Shorty’s audience was mostly comprised of strangers. There’s a big yawning emotional distance there, it’s what presumably emboldened that woman to post that the band made her “want to slit her wrists.” Not the kind of thing she’d probably say to the face of her relatives, although who knows, maybe her family is that messed up. But so in the present world we’re doomed to mostly interact with strangers, or shallow acquaintances at best. At least Twitter is moving us in the direction of greater intimacy and emotional connection. That, to me, can only be a good thing.

Turning the concert experience into a literal dialog between the band and the audience feels like a big step forwards. I’m imagining a near future where concerts, karaoke, Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revoution and hip-hop cyphers converge back to the group interaction that music should fundamentally be all about.