The world does not need another fanboy post about Radiohead. I get it.
But my recent experience with 1997’s OK Computer has me thinking about some pretty trenchant education topics, so here I go. (Plus, many of my students were six years old – six! – when it dropped, so I wonder if some might find this heads-up as useful as I found Greil Marcus‘ stuff on Elvis’ “Sun Sessions,” Gang of Four, and The Band. Trying to raise all the boats here).
When OK Computer came out, much was made of its icy technicality. Many reviewers, up against deadline, called it “Punk Floyd” or something in that vein, reaching for the last record that drew heavily on “spacey sound” veranacular and spacious tempos to try to evoke what they were hearing. Fair enough, on first pass: there’s a lot of tech in this record for sure, a lot of crafted sounds that use obscure technologies, digital and analog.
But other aspects of the record are obscured by this characterization: namely, its raging humanness, under all of the bleeps and bloops. Revisiting it (as a drummer, granted), I can’t get over how much rattling and jangling goes on in the background. Claves, tambourines, jingle bells, cowbells: there is always an ancient, percussive technology clanging alongside the electric stuff, giving the tracks aural space and presence and reminding us that there are hands attached to these voices and instruments.
There’s also the fact that 80% of the record was recorded live – if Wikipedia is to be believed – partly in a converted shed, and partly in Jane Seymour’s famous mansion where so much sonic shenanigan has gone down. I have played on enough recordings to know how easy it is for a record to get made at the mixing table; how the way a lick gets played once in a take can be copied and pasted throughout the track, resulting in a carefully crafted exquisite corpse of a song that is, alas, still a corpse. This record wasn’t like that: it went for the energy of people playing together, finding the technical and mystical synergies that always come from sharing time and space, attentively, with people who also share your goals.
Maybe that’s the humanness I hear in the most powerful moments of the record. When the bottom drops out three minutes into Climbing Up The Walls, for example, our vertigo is due as much to the chord changes as to the sonic devastation of guitars and drums. That’s a simple, simple progression – my seven year-old son, with a working musical vocabulary of ten pop songs, has worked out as much on the piano – but it sucker-punches us for the same reason that Amazing Grace does. Ones, Fours, and Fives are the language we all speak emotionally in this culture, regardless of the technologies used to articulate them. This record gets that.
So , where’s the education in all this? I guess it’s in how the record helps me understand what Roland Tharp would call “intersubjectivity,” and its related concept “propinquity.” The first I take to mean the unique pedagogical power evoked by being joined with others in a shared pursuit. The second, the actual energy created by physical and temporal proximity: sharing time and space with people, right here, right now. Technology in education is often decried as a force that will separate us from our students and each other, or heralded as the silver bullet that well help us draw closer. In fact, I think “technologies” have always been a powerful part of learning; books are technologies too, after all, and chalkboards, as surely as tambourines and Humbuckers are.
What seems more important to me is attending to how we use those technologies. As long as we sit in a circle, joining our energies around common goals, it doesn’t much matter whether we are banging on rocks with sticks or reading off our iPads or hobnobbing in SecondLife. We need a purpose, and a text in common, and we need each other to help find our way through what happens next.
That’s all I got right now. I have discovered that blogging is seductive – it FEELS like actual work, when there is so much else to do! So going forward I am trying to limit my posts to 30 minutes. Seeking the liberating power of constraint, as my beloved poetry professor Tony Connor once called it.
What do you think?