Taylor Ho Bynum

*Photo by Peter Gannushkin

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Technological Austerity Manifesto

I like to think of myself as an artist first, with my hybridized role as an arts organizer/administrator/producer a distant second, but the realities of how I spend the majority of my time belie that assumption. For me, it is so much easier to spend the day answering emails, drafting grant proposals, setting travel plans and rehearsal times, chasing down the fast dwindling resources of the music industry, than it is to leap off the cliff into the terrifying unknown of ‘artistic inspiration’. The work may be less enjoyable, less passionate, but unlike the creative process, it is clearly defined. So when I take a close look at the past few years, other than the daily regiment of technical practice necessary to maintain my basic skills as an improvising brass player, I see way too many hours in front of the computer, and far too little time spent in actual artistic engagement.

This is not to say that organizational/administrative/production activities (I’ll collectively call them OAP, to coin a new verbal contraction) are not important. I am very proud of what I’ve accomplished in the various endeavors I’ve been involved with, and I also recognize the need to complete these kinds of tasks in support of my own career. (The days of having active artist management are long over – 15% of next-to-nothing is not an attractive proposition for anyone.) The field desperately needs individuals who can combine perspectives as actual practitioners with OAP experience to cultivate grassroots artist activism and opportunity. So as long as I’m involved in the arts in any capacity, I’m sure that will remain part of my identity.

However, I am trying to restructure how and when I incorporate my OAP duties into my day-to-day life. Like many of my generation, I have a tendency towards attention-deficit multi-tasking. I’ll spend a day with eighteen windows open on my computer, tracking a dozen different email chains, engaged in simultaneously producing a recording, two tours, three festivals, and a grant report. But so much of that time is woefully inefficient: emails generating more emails like copulating rabbits; minor crises fueling themselves into emergencies through an artificial sense of urgency; small disagreements escalating into lasting enmity through misunderstood inflections.

Ultimately, I question whether the extraordinary technological advances of the past two decades actually help me, personally, accomplish my goals. Does being constantly ‘wired-in’ speed up necessary processes, or does it simply create its own busy work? I began my own small steps away from it over a year ago: I quit Facebook and traded in my Blackberry for an old-fashioned ‘stupid’ cell phone, lacking any advanced options. I don’t find out about friends’ birthdays and I miss the convenience of getting directions or checking if a restaurant is open on Mondays, but I no longer am sharing my personal information with a hodgepodge of strangers and corporations, and I’m no longer jerking towards my pocket every time an email arrives. For me, those little freedoms are more than worth it.

During the month of August, I attempted to take a self-imposed sabbatical, to try and extract myself from some of my OAP responsibilities to focus on composing. I even wrote an email auto response, declaring my desire to take “a respite from the yoke of electronic communication.” The attempt was moderately successful; I cut down my email dependency somewhat, but still spent too much time OAPing and only barely thawed out my composing brain. Then Mother Nature got her kicks in, and after Hurricane Irene, my house lost power for six days. At the same time, my laptop’s wireless connection temporarily went on the fritz, so even a coffee shop email hit was impossible. Though there were certainly frustrations to the experience (both our stove and our hot water are electric, and candle light loses a bit of its romance after several days), overall the experience was liberating. No electronic communication for almost a week, and the world didn’t end. In fact, so many of the issues I would have spent hours emailing about managed to resolve themselves. With nothing else to do, I wrestled my overgrown garden into a presentable shape; I chatted with neighbors and watched kids play in the street; I played my cornet and I worked on some music.

I am sure many others are disciplined enough to regiment their electronic usage in better balance with their artistic practices, but for me, the siren call of wasted computer time is too strong to resist without binding myself to the mast. The stark austerity presented by the power outage was what I needed. So I am attempting an experiment: I am going to limit my emailing to three times a week for specified periods of time. I am not going to abandon my OAP responsibilities, but I am not going to jump at their every command like a trained dog. The music I make exists within the niche of a niche; there is little am I involved with so urgent that it can’t wait 48 hours for a response, and in those rare instances of true emergency a phone call is surely more effective anyway.

Recently my wife and I decided to try something new at mealtimes. We agreed to eat a little slower, to finish each bite before shoveling in more food. (That description probably applies more to me than to her.) This simple step was somewhat revelatory. We taste the food more, we enjoy the meal more, while eating less. I want to apply a similar lesson in mindfulness to my use of technology. I am not a full-fledged Luddite, I just want to consider the need before embracing the new. I will happily maintain my website, and occasionally post something on my blog. Email offers its conveniences: I certainly never want to organize a ten-person rehearsal through phone calls or the post. But I refuse to let technological addictions dictate my time, or to blindly accept every social media construct foisted upon us. As a musician, I try to move away from standardized forms or an assumed sonic palate; my instincts as a composer and improviser lead me to explore what other options are out there. It is past time I apply the lessons of my creative practice to my work habits.

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