Much like a new computer — unboxed and freshly stripped of its factory shrink wrap — we humans arrive in this world with a basic operating system and a cavernous capacity of untapped potential.
With the installation of a few specialized programs, that new computer transforms into an accounting department, musical instrument, arcade, photo lab, library, broadcast facility or communication centre.
We fleshy creatures transform similarly, expanding upon our rudimentary abilities through the addition of new skills, information and techniques — many of which are influenced by the thoughts, achievements or encouragement of others. Those who influence us might be called mentors, heroes, idols, role models or teachers. Despite its Orwellian undertones, I’ll stick to the metaphor and call them “programmers.”
Programmers help shape our interests and guide our development. They’re how we discover the world and our potential within it. I’ve been programmed by the likes of Keith Emerson (who taught me that keyboardists could be showmen, and who introduced me to alternative time signatures); Isao Tomita (who taught me that sound design, tonality and orchestration were every bit as important to a song as rhythm and melody); and Bernie Worrell (who showed me that if you can’t adequately express yourself within the confines of convention, then you just gotta invent your own conventions). Paul Kantner programmed my idea of a “proper” guitar sound; George Martin, a “proper” recording.
That’s a rather varied ensemble of programmers. But beyond their respective contributions to my own musical education, there’s something else that connects them — and that’s the sad fact all of them have died this year.
Over the decades, I’ve loaded a widely diverse and expansive selection of applications from an equally diverse and expansive range of programmers. But as the years continue to accumulate in my rear view mirror, my number of living programmers dwindles.
Most of us are programmed by those born to generations preceding our own. The people from whom we learn are most often the ones who have already accomplished what we still hope to (albeit with our own spin).
As I write this, I’m looking at my bookcase full of photographer monographs. Were I to pile them all in a column, I’d be looking at a 4 meter tall stack of source code. That’s a lot of influence. But what’s most interesting is that this entire stack of books contains only a single volume — less than 2cm thick — from a photographer that’s younger than I. (Trent Parke’s “Minutes to Midnight” for those who might be curious).
I suppose it makes sense. Except, of course, it doesn’t.
And maybe this is where the metaphor ends. Because I’m rather certain that the majority of people programming my computer’s applications are younger than I am. So why must the people who program me all be older? Is it bias? Ignorance? Stupidity? Ageism?
In the case of music, I do actually listen to many artists younger than myself. And yet, even though I might enjoy their music, none of these younger musicians are actually exerting any influence on my own musical direction. None are programming me.
I’ve come to realize why that is. It’s because, when I listen to younger artists, I’m really “hearing through” them. Their music is a filter through which I hear their influences. Or perhaps — as is becoming increasingly frequent with the mounting years — their influence’s influences. Which makes me wonder: Is it these younger musicians that I like? Or is it the fact they’ve been influenced by the same programmers who influenced me? Perhaps listening to them is really just another way of listening to stuff I already like.
As youngsters, we can’t help but discover things that truly excite us. We have only to sit passively, watch the world spin, and snag those things that interest us as they go whizzing by. We learn almost by accident.
But as we age, those truly new experiences, ideas and realizations become increasingly rare. We can no longer sit idle and wait for new passions to come our way — we need to actively search for them. Discovery becomes less like a joy ride, and more like a job. But if we don’t do it, we stagnate. We become crotchety old grumps, bitchin’ about the good old days when the world was full of real musicians and real photographers.
Oil of Olay, a skin care product, tells us there are 7 signs of aging: fine lines & wrinkles; uneven tone; uneven texture; age spots; dryness; dullness; and pores. Personally, I think there’s only one sign: closed-mindedness. And my own inability to find younger programmers is certainly a troubling indicator.
If I’m going to wage war against aging, I’m going to have to find a new headspace. And the first step toward finding a new mental postal code is to recognize why I need to leave the old one behind.
It begins with recognizing my misplaced attachment to those who first influenced me. The people who open our eyes to magnificent new worlds are the ones we tend to idolize. Because of this, we often think of them as the originators of these worlds. But in reality, they’re just conduits. They’re simply practitioners and interpreters who, themselves, entered the world we love through their own set of idols.
Consider your first lover. He or she did not invent love — but they were your conduit to the world of romance. And while it’s natural to attach some special significance to their role, it’s rare that we ultimately marry them. They may have given us our first glimpse of another world, but they didn’t define exactly what the parameters of that world needed to be. Upon meeting them, we didn’t close our minds to the possibilities and offerings of those who followed.
So if I didn’t allow my first love to define my romantic life, why do I grant this privilege to those who’ve introduced me to a particular music or photographic world? The answer is “misplaced emotion.” It’s reminiscent of that old adage about shooting the messenger. Except, in this case, I’m loving the messenger. But the messenger isn’t the message.
So all these programmers I have who are older than me? That’s just me loving the messenger. It’s time I start loving the message. It’s time to start appreciating that younger generations are doing nothing different than what I do, or what my heroes did — they’re interpreting the message. And maybe, if I open my mind, I’ll discover that I’m better off being programmed by the best interpreters, and not necessarily the conduits.
Hopefully, by resetting my expectations, I’ll discover a whole host of new programmers to update my system software. Because if I don’t, then it means the number of real musicians and real photographers really is on the decline. And that would be a fate far worse than aging.
©2016 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THE PHOTOS:
“Conduit” and “Concatenated” were both shot with a Ricoh GR digital camera, and were selected for publication purely due to their metaphorical significance.
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