Saturday, December 08, 2007

When it doesn't go well

Making and shaping in a medium that you love, does not always go well. Sometimes it's a slog, or painful, or frustrating, or just doesn't seem to add up. You can see this with many kinds of making that involve some form of artistry, because these inherently involve some kind of vision (a desired outcome, level of perfection, or set of qualities to be brought about); a degree of sensitivity to nuance that can easily lead to oversensitivity; often a reliance and/or dependence on other people, whose vision, sensibilities, or capabilities may not align with yours; and sometimes a feeling that the whole enterprise is misguided, pointless, or futile.

While the above is widely acknowledged in what we conventionally think of as the arts (writing, painting, etc.), it is not usually applied in the software world, where there is often an underlying tone of necessary triumphalism (i.e., using this software/approach will bring about success almost by virtue of just using it). But it is just as true with software-based media as with any other.

In music, whether playing with a group or by oneself, there are so many levels where things can run off the rails. So many expectations, hopes, degrees of exertion, stylistic and expressive nuances, that it sometimes feels astounding that any convergence can happen at all. Choice of material (song/style/treatment) can seem too forced, "commercial", "arty", "folky", "emo"; the other musicians (or oneself) can feel too limited in skill, too loud or soft, too arrhythmic, too fast or slow. Someone can solo too long, hogging the spotlight, or conversely hold back too much. Why are they being like that? or conversely why aren't they being like that? Why can't I play that chord without damping the D string? Why am I never able to play that turnaround? Maybe I'm finally fluid enough in this style (after 15 years of practice) on the instrument, but I still can't sing. He plays too much on the high-hat when we need to feel his foot on the kick drum. This is supposed to be funk! She just does not get the groove for this song and never has....

And then there are other times when it all comes together, when the flailing and imperfections fall away, when you move, singly or collectively, in a kind of perfection and beauty and surge of joy, that shimmers and pulses and swings. Sometimes it is just a few moments, but they stand for the whole, and the aftereffects can last for years.

I remember a single night in college, playing bluegrass with three other guys in someone's frat room. The whole session had been pretty good, full of energy and fun, but a couple of minutes into playing Positively Fourth Street, everything seemed to kick up to another level. Every string of the two guitars, banjo, and fiddle vibrated together in some sort of earthly perfection. We had played privately and publicly for a few weeks before that without ever reaching that level, things had sometimes been enjoyable but never transcendent (and, with that particular group, they never would again). Even now, 26 years later, I can still feel the resonance of that night. It keeps me going, along with a few other peak musical moments, through the mundane and sloggy times.

I started thinking about this while analyzing one of the Ames sessions, where the group discussion veers into abstractions and there is no engagement with the map. The facilitators made some halting attempts to create some engagement but were not able to intervene effectively in the flood of discourse to get any group focus on the map (which was the one instruction for the sessions, that they had to involve engaging the group in making some kind of change to the map). It reminded me of many sessions that I facilitated back in the 1990s, especially for our immediate executive management, where the participants were so involved in their (partially productive, partially dysfunctional) mode of conversation that I could never get them to focus on the map, let alone engage with using it to help themselves get to a higher level of coherence and mutual understanding. These sessions felt crappy, and I did not come out of them feeling like this medium and this approach had tremendous potential. At those times it seemed more like a labor-intensive overlay onto a culture and process that was not amenable to intervention, at least from me.

Thankfully there were many other times where the opposite was the case, where we were able to help groups get to a level of shared they had never had before, as well as to produce models and analyses with a rapidity and effectiveness that no other approach could reach. Those were the transcendent times, and they kept me going through the non-triumphal sessions.

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