Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Living in the moment

I am starting to become deeply concerned about how many couples walk into a bar when I am playing and immediately take out their smart phones instead of chatting or listening. Maybe they've run out of things to say but I think that it is more a case that we have been seduced by digital engagement as a way of validating our experiences.

Camera's are probably the most obvious example of this. Go to any concert and you will see hundreds of people avidly recording the event rather than experiencing the gig. Some years ago I watched a wonderful film called 2 Days in Paris. The gist of the film is that a French/American woman played by Julie Delpy has taken her boyfriend on a tour of Europe culminating in a 2 day visit to her parents in Paris. At the start of the film her voice can be heard explaining that she is a professional photographer but hasn't taken a single photograph during the whole holiday because she understands that taking photographs separates you from the experience. By contrast, she explains, her boyfriend has taken thousands of photographs and hated the whole experience of Europe. There then follows a montage of his photos which include everything from cups of coffee, gondoliers, meals and monuments.

I had a similar seminal experience of this some years ago when my wife and I visited Thailand. After an evening carousing with friends in their beach side hut we found ourselves staggering home closely followed by some very mangy stray dogs. Before long dawn appeared providing us, with what I think to this day, was the most epic sunrise I have every seen. Desperate to capture the moment on my new all singing and dancing camera I was frustrated because I couldn't work out how to turn off the auto focus and so couldn't get it to focus on the sunrise. Then I got the great idea that if I placed the dogs in focus in the foreground I might be able to capture the epic sunrise behind them. The result was that I have about half a dozen photos of rabid dogs licking their balls against a wall of blackness. Strangely enough these photos remain a tribute to that sunrise and a reminder that the best camera/recording device is the human mind and I since then I try to consciously capture memories by being aware of them when they are happening.

Young children now learn from an early age how to assume an on camera stance that will please the parents. They have now become the most photographed generation. Some time ago I had to help salvage a computer photo library for parents of delightful twins. I understand the pull to capture each stage of development but 20,000 photographs by the age of six might be a trifle excessive! On the other hand I have very few photos of my childhood apart from those first day at school pics and one of me stretching my legs to touch the floor on my new bicycle. I don't feel deprived.

Recently Shazam (the smart phone app which allows you to discover details of a piece of music) has tied up with Beatport, one of the largest DJ music web stores which means that many more of the obscure mixes we DJ's play are immediately searchable. The result of this is that I have seen people spending much of their time Shazaming my set. Maybe they don't want to bother me but actually I would much rather have a brief conversation sharing our enthusiasm for a track than being silent pillaged with their smart phone. However, I do understand how seductive collecting can be. Remember years ago when video and then dvd's first came on the scene. Remember how many of us set out to build our own personal libraries. Years later most of these many libraries, often containing unwatched brand new films, simply gathered dust and were then discarded as we downsized or moved homes. I realised sometime ago that thanks to You Tube much of the stuff that I wanted to save is now communally available and if not then it is great fun to try and explain the premise of a film or tv programme to friends.

It can be the same with music too. I have often sat listening to a DJ set by one of the master music explorers and wanted to run up to them every few minutes to ask what that track was. The truth though, in my experience, is that even if I had everything they played its joy might never be repeated outside the situation I first heard it. I experience this recently when a friend of mine played a wonderfully strange arabic techno track. I had never heard anything quite like it and wanted to own it for myself. Yet each time I've played since then it it has never excited me the way it did when I first heard it because it wasn't just a piece of music it was also a time and a place and a state of mind.

Obviously I am not calling for an end to the digital age, as I'm a willing participant myself, its just that I think we should stop and question whether the capturing and collecting of images and music actually adds to our appreciation. Next time you want to reach for your digital device maybe you will find it a useful to stop and think what you are experiencing. Why does this music resonate with you? What tone is it? What other tracks does it remind you of? What is it about your friends smile that you want to remember, because it probably isn't the posed version that you will get when you point a camera at them. What could you say or do to encourage it more frequently? I recently saw a young girl playing taking photos with her new iPad. She was pointing it at everyone she could and each person readily adopted the pose - which now always seems to include ubiquitous hand expressions or fingers pointed at the person next to them - this is most common when the person next to them is deemed as more famous or important. I suggested to her that if she really wanted to capture some good photos she should try to do it without people knowing. A while later she returned with a fabulous selection of secretly grabbed spontaneous shots of people just being themselves. Maybe that is the challenge. Just being, whether we are listening, talking, eating or whatever. The joy is in the experience and not as the manufacturers of these devices would have us think, in capturing the experience because experiences are ephemeral but when captured in our aware mind they will last much longer than their digital counterpart.