E4. My God have you ever watched E4 for any length of time? There are characters on soap operas on E4 that I know better than my own family. My kids like to watch them over and over again, an endless cycle of quick, neat tales populated by ever cheerful American People. The more you look at them the more they start to appear somehow greasy, oiled, lubricated for ease of passage through one sanitised vignette after another. There are the boisterous ones, the quiet ones, the hopelessly afraid of women ones, the hopelessly drawn to geeky men ones, the get things done ones, the autistic ones, geeks, sporty types, the bookish and the bespectacled. These characteristics are cosmetic, they are secure in themselves, they know who they are. Various transactions are undertaken, life lessons are learnt, nothing too heavy, comedies of errors merge into infidelities and painful revelations, it all bobs along lightly, a guy lives with his mother with ambiguous implications, there is an argument about pizza toppings. There are funny lines and there are witty retorts. There is only one rule; that everything, and everyone, can start again come the next episode. There are no…consequences to anything.
An episode of “Big Bang Theory”, a charming little setup involving three geeky nuclear scientists and their attempts to deal with life outside “the lab”, may serve as an example. One of the characters sleeps with a woman. This is something of a shock, as they are all hopeless at dealing with the opposite sex, which in American sitcoms comes with being good at anything that isn’t sport or making money. The woman is blonde, which both signifies that she likes sleeping with men in a casual way, and secondly that she knows nothing at all about nuclear physics, traits that make her down to earth and more in touch with reality. He then finds out she is only using him to get some other man out of her head. He is crestfallen, and for about five seconds is inconsolable. At this point some zany friends come in, they ask him what’s up, he tells them immediately in some detail, they bring him a beer. He shrugs his shoulders, laughs, and he’s back, back as himself, the version of himself that existed before he slept with the daft but wise on a deep level blonde woman. There’s another guy who can’t talk to women (often he has scenes with the same blonde woman) without stuttering. And yet his stuttering is so confident and assured, he is happy with his social phobia. It is like some High School sports team putting on a farce. In “How I Met Your Mother”, the characters combine and recombine with a sexually dizzying frequency, and yet emerge from these trysts unscathed and equipped to move the action along at any time with new storylines. Marriage, promiscuity, terminal illness, family rifts and heartfelt love affairs speed by as characters learn about themselves in the shortest time possible, whilst ensuring that they don’t learn anything that reduces them to irrational fits of rage, tears or violence.
If this sounds like I don’t like these programmes, that’s not quite true. They are funny. They are real enough, in the way that Aesop’s Fables are real. This is a post about being introverted, about how television robs introverts of the space that they thrive on. The endless moment just after the earthy blonde dumps the bookish man; how do they separate? How does she leave the room? How does he say goodbye to her? How long do they sit in the uncomfortable and overwhelming noise of that endless pause?
In answer to the old question “If you could do anything, what would your superpower be?”, we all think of flying first, or mind reading, turning everything into gold, or Nutella. I think I would like the power to skip the awkward pauses that come after a difficult conversation. In real life, Jack Bauer sits looking into the middle distance for at least one hour out of twenty four, bewildered by the sheer bravado of the scriptwriter’s pen. Provided you don’t think too hard about it, anything is possible. It’s when you stop the trouble starts, people work like dogs and then get ill on holiday, doubts creep into the mind of the protagonist who jumps between the roofs of buildings if he looks down. People feel safe without self reflection, they have a thing to do and they must do it. A clear way forward, a sense of purpose, of design to life.
In his seminal book “Games People Play”, psychiatrist Eric Berne talks about the various ways human beings structure what he calls “intervals of time”. Listening to music structures time in a way that often detracts from its passing, that structures its endless continuum into manageable pieces. We are “moved” by music, poetry, sitcoms even; that can sometimes feel almost like a physical movement, we are elsewhere. And playing music feels sometimes like being in an empty space. Maybe not so much moved as removed. Removed from that place where people are allowed to say to your face what they think. Playing music, I am in that same place. The stage is a designated performance area, a protected environment where it is OK to do create music. All the world is not a stage, it is a lawless and chaotic place, things are moving forward with or without you, speak now or disappear. A stage requires that whoever is on it, quiet or not, introvert or extrovert, be listened to, watched, given space. A stage is not a place for “showing off”, there is plenty of room for that in Costa Coffee.
Efforts to bring the stage into the world itself are painful for the typical introvert. The current trend for pianos in public places such as St Pancras station can only be a good thing for music, and for people’s enjoyment of it. Let’s face it, the demise of the expert, the democratisation of everything, the idea that no one should be oppressed into thinking they can’t do something; it all has its good side. The dishevelled tramp who, in Susan Boyle-esque fashion, emerges heartwarmingly as a Gilbert and Sullivan savant, the city slicker who plays Brahms just slightly better than you might think, kids simply pressing on the keys and finding things out . This is all to be welcomed; but in my case, it’s from a safe distance. I would not touch one of those public pianos. That would be unsolicited performance and I don’t do it, I can’t do it. That is like going up to someone I don’t know and just, well, talking to them. And telling them how good I am. Don’t make me do that. I am envious of those that can, but would feel ever so slightly soiled were I to do it myself.
Crowdfunding is an interesting development in the continuing expansion of the Extrovert Project. People can’t afford to go to college, make a film, develop a talking dog. Funding is scarce. Make a video. In the video, say why you believe you should get the money. Why you believe you should get the money. Your word against that mine. The point is here that people who say they are good often are, and they are often not, and the same is true of people who are unable to say it for themselves. Personally, I got into music to avoid selling myself. I don’t lack self belief. I lack belief in other people’s belief in me. I don’t like the awkward silence between saying how good I am, and the music itself. I don’t see any particular reason why people should like what I do, so i don’t like to tell them to like it. Like toddlers clawing at paper under a Christmas tree, we are more fascinated by the packaging than by the presents themselves, and we risk spending all our time and energy wrapping stuff up and not enough experiencing what’s inside. I admire crowdfunding and the people that can do it, and am happy to note the success stories it generates. How hard can it be? It’s you, standing in front of a virtual crowd of people and trying to convince them you can do something well and that they should support you, they should make it possible, bask in the glory of the thing you subsequently create.
I hate it.
I hate the thought I have to sell myself in order that I can then, exhausted and full of self conscious embarrassment, retreat to the comfort and privacy of the stage or the recording studio, go back to the “me” that plays music. It’s a paradox. People will often say “So how do you do that? Is that written, or do you just think it and it comes out?” Well, the conditions have to be right. I’m not doing it in the middle of St Pancras station unless there’s one of those red rope things around the piano and somebody has invited me. I don’t mean i won’t on principle, or because I’m famous or think I am. It won’t. It won’t come out. Not that different to being on the loo.
Another answer to that question might be that, whilst it’s not true for everyone, I’ve spent a long time sitting in the awkward silences, thinking about music, or just thinking music, watching notes go through my head, making choices that might be useful on the next gig, in the next composition. Sometimes I feel I should be doing something constructive. At such times a ranting blog can be very therapeutic; it combines the uninhibited of the “public” pianist with the sermonising of a crowdfunding film. But it has the magic ingredient; the luxury of my being absent, invisible, at the moment you read it. An introvert’s dream.