Matthew T Grant


Tall Guy. Glasses.

Lionel Loueke, Regattabar, Cambridge, MA, 10.11.12

Lionel Loueke is an astonishing guitar player and I would like to call the performance I saw last night at the Regattabar “virtuosic,” but that wouldn’t quite cover it.

It woudn’t cover it because, while Loueke is undeniably a virtuoso, the music I heard last night, really, the act of continuous, protean, phenomenal creation to which I bore witness, seemed less a testament to or the pinnacle of human achievement, as virtuosity often is, and more like the act of a god.

And yet, of course, Loueke and his accompanists—the ecstaticly focused Michael Olatuja and the nerdily spectactular Mark Giuliana—are mortals. For this reason, their performance reminded me instead of the infinite possibilities of music, the unending invention of which the musical mind is capable, and not simply that in music there are, on the one hand, the gods, to which these gentlemen would be unquestionably numbered, and on the other, everybody else.

The scope of the music they played was very broad, encompassing everything from jazz and blues to mathy prog to funk to Juju and other west African traditions. At times, it sounded like a more melodically and harmonically rich version of James “Blood” Ulmer’s early 80s work, with the bass and drums tumbling over each other while Loueke showed just how many sounds a guitar could make and how varied a Klangwelt one could conjure with electricity, wire and wood.

At other times, the music was perplexing in its vorticism, its unbridled chaoticism, a maelstrom which caused the bewildered listener to wonder at the apparently telepathic connection between the players (an overused trope in jazz criticism, I know) and, ultimately, to question all assumptions about what music and, in fact, the world could be.

And, at other times, the music was simply beautiful, joyous and entrancing.

I love seeing music that is amazing, surprising and inspiring and last night I was amazed, surprised and inspired not only by the incredible, overwhelming musicality of what these mortals, if that’s what they were, played, but also by the sheer, visible delight with which they played it.

If you like music, you have to see and hear Lionel Loueke.

What Do You Want to Do with Your Life?

My posts on Aquent’s blog sometimes got kind of philosophical. Here’s an example which should help you dodge the question, “What do you want to do with your life?” It first appeared on September 20, 2008. – Matt

2783320265_8fd07858a1_mAbout twenty years ago, after I had stopped out of grad school, quit my job at SuperShuttle, and was so broke that I made all my family members collages as Christmas presents, my father sat me down for a fireside chat. The gist was: Dude, you got to get it together, figure out what you want to do with your life, and just do it. The problem was, as he put it, “You don’t seem to do anything.”

Was I a lost soul at that point? I suppose I was. My band (Spanking Machine) wasn’t going anywhere, I was unemployed, and, frankly, very depressed. When I returned to San Francisco from that demoralizing holiday in Los Angeles, I got a temp job (thus launching my current career, oddly enough) and wrote my father a letter.

Aside from the fact that the main point of the letter was to ask him for money so I could fix my car (yes, I did that), I also took issue with his criticism of my do-nothing lifestyle. On the one hand, as I pointed out, I did actually do stuff like write page after page of mad-cap, beatnik musings, play music, and hang out with my friends. I also reminded him that there were quite a few cultural and spiritual traditions that emphasized doing nothing over doing something as the true goal of life and enlightenment and that I was not unsympathetic to such views. Moreover, the idea that our lives and the world at large were there as a resource for us to do something with was symptomatic of the Zeitgeist, as Martin Heidegger explained in his essay concerning the question of technology.

Here’s where it gets deep (so watch out). To this very day I bristle at the existential imperative, whether in secular or religious garb, that says you have to do something with your life. There are so many things that are wrong-headed about this notion that I don’t know where to start (or finish), so I’ll just highlight two logical inconsistencies that dog this everyday ethical commonplace.

First of all, “your life.” Aside from the fact that even scientists struggle to define life, what exactly about the life you live is yours? You are, after all, 90% water, which, if I understand it properly, is made of hydrogen and oxygen that has been part of this earth for some billions of years. Add to that the carbon, nitrogen, and other trace elements comprising you as physical entity, you quickly realize that none of them are “yours” strictly speaking. Indeed, your genetic peculiarities are a melange of your father’s and mother’s, as their’s were of their’s, and, in any event, consist of amino acids that are of rather ancient provenance. Etc.

So, the living matter provisionally associated with your life is freely borrowed from the environment and the vast surrounding universe to which it will inevitably return (yes, I’m referring to “your” death). But what about this “you” that is supposed to “do” something with this “life.” First of all, your “you-ness” is inextricably linked to this particular physical entity that perpetually changes (replacing itself every seven years or something like that). Not only that, your sense of yourself, your personality quirks, and your interests are totally contingent on your genetic makeup, your lived experience, and your physical condition. If you doubt this, please experiment with severe brain trauma and review the results.

But turning away from the impermanence and ineffability of your you-ness, how could you do anything with your life in the first place? Usually, in order to do something with anything, you need to distinguish between you and that something. But how can you stand outside your own life which, as we know, is not a thing in the first place? And if people mean, “Create an interesting story or artwork from the events and experiences of your life,” when they say, “Do something with your life,” why don’t they just say that?

Because, frankly, they don’t mean that. They mean, “Do things as part of your life that, retroactively, will have made your life a meaningful something instead of a meaningless nothing.” But, as everyone knows, “meaning” is entirely contextual. Nothing means anything in isolation. Which means that you can never be the judge of whether or not your own life is or was meaningful. That can only be decided by deciders who stand outside of your life and understand all its ramifications, not just in your little world, but in the history of the universe. And the number of deciders who are in a position to do that are either zero, one, or three, depending on your persuasion, none of whom are you, or even human, for that matter.

If you’ve read this far, you get the picture. From here on out, whenever anyone tells you to do something with your life, and you don’t have the time or wherewithal to explain to them what’s wrong with that statement, please have them contact me, and I’ll do the dirty work.

Image Courtesy of mohammadali.

More Thoughts on Design Thinking

Pull a thread on the Web and it unravels the universe. Having accidentally stumbled across the concept of “design thinking,” I found that there was a whole, thriving discourse on the subject. Who knew? I wrote a brief series of posts on my discoveries. This was the third and was originally published on March 14, 2007.

design thinking and the evolution of creative work according to David ArmanoI’m a latecomer and a slow learner.

My thoughts on design thinking began as a reaction to something written by Dan Saffer of Adaptive Path. Little did I know as I was penning my post entitled, “Thinking about ‘Design Thinking,'” that that self-same Dan Saffer had written a post with the exact same title almost exactly two years ago! That article includes a helpful stab at defining the characteristics of design thinking, “if there is such a thing,” as he wrote way back then.

One characteristic is “Ideation and Prototyping” – “The way we find … solutions is through brainstorming and then, importantly, building models to test the solutions out.” Actually making things to see if they work or solve the problem at hand is key to designing anything – hence his lament as he sees design schools move to an overly conceptual notion of design thinking, one that neglects craft and making and, ultimately, produces designers that can’t.

Oddly enough, I found Saffer’s earlier post in a rather roundabout fashion. The first event in this twisted chain came in the form of an email from David Armano, whom I had name-checked in my previous post. He pointed me to a post on his blog concerning the evolution of creativity in a decidedly inter-disciplinary and multi-dimensional direction. As an example of someone who embodies this emergent creativity, Armano referred to the site of one Zachary Jean Paradis, who graduated from the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

What did I find on Mr. Paradis’ blog? You guessed it, a long, thoughtful essay on none other than “Design Thinking.” In fact, it was via this essay that I “discovered” Mr. Saffer’s earlier thoughts and my own intellectual tardiness.

Before I leave the topic of design thinking and return once again to more familiar ground, like Second Life, I will mention what I found most illuminating about Paradis’ perspective. First, he conceives of design thinking as an approach to “developing new offerings” which should not, to Mr. Saffer’s point, be equated with “professional design as it is taught.”

Secondly, because this approach is “purposeful,” he sees it as inherently integrative. He writes, “When developing some new offering with a team, members share the common goal of producing something contextually relevant.” The complexity of product/offering development, and the fact that the process must result in something that works in the world and meets definable needs of end-users/consumers, imposes the dual need for multiple disciplinary perspectives and their successful integration.

Finally, and as he says, “most importantly,” design thinking provides guidelines for collaborative work rather than prescribing a specific process for executing it. This kind of collaboration requires individuals who possess “a certain breadth and depth of knowledge of complementary disciplines,” precisely the new kind of “Creative” David Armano describes on his blog. Paradis ends his essay by insisting that, “… organizations must begin to recognize that moderately deep breadth is as important if not more so than deep specialization in addressing complex problems.”

To bring things more or less full circle, I think it bears stating that only by doing work on a series of increasingly complex and diverse projects, and not through schooling of any sort, can one acquire this “moderately deep breadth.”

Image Courtesy of dbostrom.

Just a Moment

3044226914_b639b96df9_mWent to see a jazz trio called “Fly” last night: Mark Turner (saxophone), Larry Grenadier (bass), Jeff Ballard ) drums. Their performance reminded me how much I love improvised music played by intuitive and gifted people who know how to spontaneously combine harmonic complexity and dynamic subtlety with a searching and startling lyricism.

Just as we’re taught that a line contains an infinite series of points; music, for it’s part, shows us the infinite divisibility of time. The limits of this division are set, on the one hand,  by the frequency of tonal or rhythmic variation attainable by the musicians and, on the other, by the patience, attentiveness, and perceptual acuity of the audience.

Events apparently never exhaust the between of instants, which always allows for ever more vanishingly brief happenings. By contrast, a moment is not a measure of time, but a state of consciousness. Music, like the music I heard that night, ebbs and crashes around this moment of awareness causing us to ask not how soon is now, but how long?

Image Courtesy of overdrive_cz.