Noise, mastery and all that jazz


The notes from the jazz piano tinkled out as the lights sparkled over the water. I was suspended in the moment. Quite literally. I was actually sitting in my car in the middle of the international bridge waiting to clear customs, the exhaust noise of my car thrumming annoyingly with the jazz. I turned off the motor.

Without the engine noise the music came through instantly, soothing me into a better mood. I was listening to some piano jazz show hosted by an older woman on NPR. She slurs her words as if she’s been drinking or high on something, which makes her altogether endearing, drawing my attention hypnotically.

After listening to her guest sing, he turned the tables and asked her to play something. She played a composition of her own, a lovely piece full of small twists and turns and subtle emotional shifts. The piece ended with a single, deep bass note sustain, nearly inaudible. The effect of the mastery of her playing—and her composition was sublime. And then I twisted the key. The engine came to life, and I moved ahead in line.

It occurred to me that how we receive our world has a lot to do with context. Context is a world architects love to use when rationalizing why they chose a particular style of building for a particular location. For example, they might use a forest setting to justify the use of logs in a structure to fit into the environmental context, or they could just as easily promote the use of corrugated steel in the same setting as an appropriate contextual contrast, and then perhaps rationalizing that the steel will eventually rust and, over time, blend into the environment to create an organic whole.

I see that Barack and Michelle Obama have just been criticized for their contextual error this week. Apparently, they jetted off to New York City for a romantic dinner and a Broadway show. However their impromptu trip had security shutting down several city blocks, inconveniencing the local traffic. But that wasn’t the actual bad news. The Obamas were pilloried in the media for using taxpayers’ money for a frivolous holiday—while GM is headed into bankruptcy and hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans are out of work. The context of the day is economic hardship, and the Obamas violated that contextual sensibility.

As I write my youngest son is interrupting me with word sounds. He’s spelling out words in the crossword… and now the lightbulb over the computer has just burned out. I’ll have to get up and change it.

Back again. You get how it is. Writing a column is not as seamless as reading one, at least theoretically. Couldn’t find a bulb. Without my reading light my environmental context has changed and now I’m having difficulty writing. But I will persist.

Reading the column is dependent on context, too. Since I write for this weekly paper, and my piece appears at the top of page 5 every week, I have some sense of the other writing styles surrounding my column, and also the kind of readers reading the column. I imagine them putting on a pot of tea and spreading open the paper on the kitchen table, or sitting down in a comfy easy chair and slowly browsing through the paper.

On the other hand I put the previous week’s column up on a blog. But the column, at least to me, makes no contextual sense at all on the blog. In the context of the blogosphere the column doesn’t work. The writing is too soft. As a blog the column is too long. It doesn’t have the bite-sized, easy-to-read opinion-rant that a blog audience likes. And it’s too darned reflective. The Web audience has a much shorter attention span. The media context is entirely different.

Mastery comes from understanding the importance of context. This intimate interdependence on context is why mastery is so difficult to transfer from one discipline to another. A senior accountant constructs reality in a very different way than, say, a jazz flautist. They both riff, but in very different operating contexts.

As a local columnist I operate, whether I like it or not, in a local context. Often I’m encouraged to take a position within that context. For example, my editor just sent me an email clip about our town manager taking a new position on the other coast. I suppose he wanted me to rise to the bait; perhaps I have some views I’d like to air about the man. Okay…

The fact is, I’ve never met him. So I have no personal context whatsoever. I have read a couple of his pieces on the editorial page, and didn’t learn much from those. All I know about the man is what I see as the result of his work. That is, the operation of the town. In that context I do have an opinion.

The roads in St. Stephen are deplorable. For as many times in two years the main street is being repaved. The deteriorating downtown has no new businesses. The town hall is now abandoned with no plan for future use in sight. Two town councilors quit their terms early citing problems between council and town management. There is still no plan (as far as I know) for increasing the town’s tax base, although town councilors’ salaries were increased and the tax rate has gone up. And as far as a town development safety net goes, if Ganong or Flakeboard pulled out there’d be no town.

I did, however, check out the town manager’s new gig on Bowen Island. From their website it’s a island paradise with beaches and scenery and genteel family living. To find it just go to Vancouver and take a 20-minute ferry ride. And in that context I’m sure our former town manager will be very effective.

Don’t get me wrong. I AM envious. Who wouldn’t love a relatively easy, well-paid gig in the warmest, safest and maybe even prettiest part of Canada? The real mastery, no kidding, is finding the right context for your particular talents.

Trouble is, paradise on earth doesn’t exactly suit all of us. The real fun—the pure jazz—comes from improving our local context, not migrating to somebody else’s pre-fab version. In that regard, you have to hand it to Danny Williams, Rick Mercer and all those crazy Newfoundlanders who’ve managed to turn The Rock into kind of quirky Canadian cultural mecca. Now that’s mastery of context.


Popular Posts