Monday, September 19, 2005

Internet 2 and a brave New World

Recently the New World Symphony has become increasingly involved in the technology of "Internet 2" - the new website features it prominently. The way I understand it, Internet 2 is mostly just like Internet 1, except faster, better, with lots more gizmos and much bigger screens. It's a shame, because I was just starting to get the hang of Internet 1. I'm not sure if I'll be able to produce enough content so that hella frisch will survive the changeover - it might end up with a lot of live footage of flossing and D major scales.

various Internet 2 gizmos which I'm not allowed to touch Posted by Picasa

Today I got to play over Internet 2 for the first time. They were doing a sound check for some cello lesson tomorrow, and the sound engineer asked if anyone would come and help them test the set-up. Most people here seem to affect an air of indifference, but I've secretly been an Internet 2 wanna-be for some time now, so I sort of leaped at the chance.

We were connected to Northwestern University in Evanston and some place in Wichita - apparently three-ways are the trendy thing to do on Internet 2. I set up facing two big screen monitors, each of which had a guy sitting around. It was kind of nerve-racking to realize that both of those guys were staring at me, though, and hearing me in digital sound! I went to school at Northwestern, so I found myself worrying that my old teacher would wander past while I was playing. I played the exposition of a concerto by Vanhal, and it did feel pretty weird. The engineer, Jacques, told me that later in the week they'd be connecting to 8,000 people at a conference in Philadelphia, in case I wanted to come back and play for that. I'm kind of thrilled, but at the same time horrified at what an internet exhibitionist I'm threatening to become.

Last week I sat in on a cello masterclass that was being taught over Internet 2 by Steven Doane, a professor at Eastman in Rochester. It was pretty much like any masterclass with a live and present teacher, except there were some speeches beforehand and an occasional thwack when a microphone got attacked by a cello bow. Once they got going, it was easy to forget about all those gigabits of data racing through the ether and concentrate on what Mr. Doane was communicating, which was a lot of great stuff: the beginning of the fugue in the 5th Suite Prelude by Bach should sound "like Rumplestiltskin walking around", he said, while in Don Quixote the bow arm should be "the marriage of a 100-lb. jellyfish and an eagle, or maybe some seaweed". It might sound like a bunch of non-sequiturs, but it made perfect sense if you were there - wherever 'there' was!

I was particularly impressed how Mr. Doane was able to help a cellist working on the Schumann concerto to open up his gestures and his sound. Playing a string instrument is such a physical act, and no matter how crisp the audio and video I wondered if an internet broadcast would capture the pure kinesthetic sense of a performer. Mr. Doane seemed to hone right in on what was constricting this cellist's playing, though, asking him to lean back and expand his lungs all the way from the diaphragm at the high point of a phrase. He also had some nuanced ideas about bow speed and distribution which were very helpful.

The idea I was left with, though, was that no matter how vast the distances we can propel our gigabits, the most meaningful and challenging span will always be those two inches between the ear and the part of the mind where habits are formed. Some of the things Mr. Doane was demonstrating and talking about seemed so clear and achievable - and yet the cellist just couldn't seem to change his habit, and adapt under pressure. I don't mean to slight his talent, since being adaptable and flexible to new ideas is one of the most difficult things in music. I guess it's a reminder that we still carry some of the most sophisticated and most mysterious technology around in our skulls every day. No Internet 2 breakthroughs are likely to change that.

If there's anything you've always wanted to tell 8,000 people in Philadelphia, though, please let me know before Wednesday.

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