Monday, May 29, 2006

Making things

We were driving home from dinner at Raju and Sangini's last night, and talking in the car about things we did as kids that were half-baked, projects we started into with all the confidence of kids that have no idea of what it actually takes to make something, then realize they can't really do what they wanted. Once in fourth grade or so, me and Robert Grundman designed an underground lair we were going to dig in the woods behind my house, with rooms and furniture and passageways, and actually started to dig it. After about three hours of sweaty, leaf- and dirt-filled labor, we had nothing but sore arms, a hole about four feet deep and were hitting rocks and roots and realized there was no way we were going to be able to do it.

Another time I went into our wood shop in the basement and started to make a new kind of musical instrument. I was probably about 12. My idea was a V-shaped intersection of two boards around a hinge, with strings made out of fishing line attached to nails on both boards, and when you brought the boards closer together or pulled them farther apart it would change the pitch of the strings. I actually made the thing, but of course bringing the boards closer together just made for slack strings, and there was only so far apart you could pull the two halves of the V so there was really no variation in pitch at all. I was sorely disappointed, I should've been able to just sail in and make the thing, instead of realizing I had no idea what I was doing.

This morning I had a dream where there was a radio talk show about Compendium, put on in a cafe in Philadelphia skyscraper by Chuck and Beth. It was the last day of the show -- low listenership -- and none of the content was actually about Compendium. They had run out of ideas for it. In the dream, I realized that Compendium was now "over." I had a sad feeling of loss, mourning that we had come to the end without ever quite fulfilling the promise. Someone in the dream (not Chuck or Beth) told me, though, that there would be something else, to begin again with something new. (There was a semi-sexual aspect to that last interchange, but describing that will not fit into the family nature of this blog).

Both of the above, the memories and the dream, said something to me about this journey I have been on for the last 14 years. On the one hand, unlike my musical instrument, Compendium is something that I was successfully able to make. It is not finished or perfected, but there is a solid core of practicality and usefulness there, as well as good implementation and a tool that not only does what we intended but that people are taking in new directions. Of course I did not make it all by myself, and knowing the many levels of deep collaboration and co-creativity that have gone into it with my good friends over the years is one of the great pleasures of my life. But it really was like the instrument in another way. I went into the "shop" with nothing more than a vague idea of what I wanted to produce. In the early years that was mostly my dining room table and conversations with Maarten in the car on our commutes to the office. There were a lot of nails crookedly pounded into scraps of wood. But ultimately the thing worked and still does.

On the other hand, there is still that unfinishedness, and despite all we are able to do with the tool now, I still have the feeling that this has been just the first attempt. It goes very far along the path but not, in some ways, far enough. There is something there that doesn't quite cohere, some aspect of the basic approach that ultimately doesn't hang together. I have actually had this feeling since at least 1999 and have tried to talk about it at times, like at our first Compendium gathering at NASA Ames. Like other things that I have written about here, I don't put this forward in our more public writings about Compendium; you have to be upbeat and positive there (why would someone take the trouble to install and learn software that ultimately doesn't fulfill its stated objective)? It is possible that the "next step" will not occur to me, and of course we are still playing out the many threads started and suggested by the work over the last decade.

Driving home from LaGuardia the other night, I heard an interview of Bill Frisell, the guitarist, on WFUV-FM. One thing he said that I loved was that as a musician you are never finished, there is always some level you want to get to that you are never quite at. For him to say that after all his achievements made me feel that what I tried to write about above is OK, that just because Compendium in its current form is not perfected doesn't mean that we, or I, have failed. Feeling like there is another level to reach might just be the nature of the beast.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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