This Time

Maybe they have always been there and I just wasn’t noticing them, but there seem to be more large advertisements on the streets and subway trains of New York City these days about new television programs, both network and cable. Even though I’ve paid a monthly cable fee to Time Warner for years (since that fee also includes payment for how I access the internet at home), I don’t think I’ve turned on the TV once in 2010 and have yet to do so in 2011 other than to use the TV set as a video monitor for watching DVDs that I’ve collected. We also have a Netflix subscription and there’s a film that’s been sitting unopened in the Netflix mailer on a shelf since July. Don’t ask.

There’s never enough time to process input I have personally chosen (books, recordings, films, art works, etc.), so it’s hard to imagine having time to spare to pay attention to things that are not personally chosen, e.g. watching television programs that seem to have very little take away value (at least based on the ads that have caught my eye while running from one place to another). Yet, according to a survey I recently saw on the Captivate Network (a video monitor that broadcasts in office elevators which I do sometimes pay attention to, whether I want to or not), the number one pastime of Americans is still watching television. I find this completely baffling, which probably means I’m still totally out of touch with the mainstream. I thought there wasn’t such a thing as a mainstream in the age of the internet!

Anyway, the reason I bring this all up is because of the struggles I have had composing music over the past couple of years. A light at the end of the tunnel emerged six hours before midnight on New Year’s Eve when I completed a movement of a brass quintet which is a mere 90 seconds of music but which I have been working on since 2008 and which I had originally conceptualized in 2006. Now, at only the beginning of the second week of the New Year, I already have significantly fleshed out ideas for two additional movements for that same work, since those 90 seconds proved to be a cipher for much, much more. One of those movements is looking like it will last approximately 20 minutes; I’m not sure yet about the other one, but it’s bound to be significantly longer than 90 seconds as well.

But I still feel the need to keep up with all the music that’s out there (even though I know I ultimately can’t) and books and art and cinema; yet all those things take a tremendous amount of time, time that perhaps should be spent composing instead—the new piece is occupying my thoughts more and more each day. However, I doubt I could ever cut down all that much on these other activities; after all, they are fuel for creative projects as well. But at least I know that I’ll never have to worry about being tempted to go home and turn on the TV for the rest of the evening, an activity that seems to eat up even more hours out of one’s life with almost no payback. Yet I’ve had conversations with some composers who are somehow able to work on pieces while watching their favorite sitcom. I can’t help thinking how much more creative people in this country might be if everyone stopped watching this stuff all the time.

6 thoughts on “This Time

  1. dB

    …an activity that seems to eat up even more hours out of one’s life with almost no payback.

    I’m curious about this statement. Why does it eat up more time than the other media you’ve mentioned? Certainly, a half-hour or hour program doesn’t consume more time than a movie, novel, or even a particularly long article. Is it just that time is also spent watching commercials? In the age of DVRs, this no longer strikes me as a problem, but maybe that’s just me.

    What I find even more curious is the assertion that television offers no “payback”, which given the context, I’m taking to mean artistic merit. Television has gotten a bad rap over the years as populist pandering, but there honestly is a lot of quality stuff worth checking out. Television has an ability to tell long, sustained narratives that movies (and indeed many novels) can’t, and is a medium that’s just starting to enter its renaissance. I’ll spare you my lauding my favorites, and just suggest you check out some of the best television of 2010 lists that have come out in the past month.

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  2. Frank J. Oteri

    Why does it eat up more time than the other media you’ve mentioned?

    According to a December 15, 2010 blog on eMarketer, Americans on average watch “about four and a half hours per day watching television—or 30 hours per week.” That’s a lot more time than it takes to see a single film or read most novels. I’m a relatively slow reader, reading on average only about 30 pages per hour. Most novels are around 300 pages which means that I could read three novels in those same 30 hours that people are glued to their TV sets. But the fact of the matter is that I don’t devote that much time to reading per week, nor would I think it healthy if I did. The point is that as a result of watching so much television, time is being spent that could be spent on doing many other more active activities, including composing music but indeed much more than that.

    But nevertheless I actually would be curious about dB’s list of life-transforming TV shows. I’m actually a huge fan of The Prisoner, the original 1967 British TV program conceptualized and starring Partick McGoohan which consisted of a total of 17 hour-long episodes. I’ve watched the entire thing more than once and don’t regret any of the time I spent watching it. In fact, it even inspired me to travel to Portmeirion, Wales, to visit “The Village.” Knowing what to watch and then choosing it is certainly a very different phenomenon from coming home and turning on the tube and just watching whatever is on to pass the time away. In a world where there is so much to do, it’s difficult to be convinced that doing that just wastes time—time that I don’t have and that ultimately none of us has.

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  3. dB

    Americans on average watch “about four and a half hours per day watching television—or 30 hours per week.”

    The average is a statistic, not a requirement. I suspect the average American drinks a great deal more coffee than I do, but it doesn’t prevent me from occasionally enjoying a cup. If you only picked one show to follow, you’d only spend one hour per week watching it (or 42 minutes, if you watch it on DVD or DVR). That hardly seems daunting, especially since being that selective will surely ake it worth the time.

    It’s kind of a cliche to mention this show on the internet, it’s such a critical darling, but Mad Men really is a fantastic show. It’s acting, directing, and set appointments are truly cinematic, but the long-term scope of it’s narrative really more closely resembles a novel. It’s an incredibly drawn world filed with incredibly drawn characters.

    I’m a little more embarrassed to mention this one, as it became less consistently good as the show progressed, but the first two seasons of Lost were some of the most entertaining television I’ve ever seen. Even if the character development and plot twists don’t draw you in, the fantastic score by Michael Giaccino, featuring a particularly evocative use of leitmotifs, will.

    Those are the only shows I’ve followed religiously in the past few years, but there are a few others I’ve been meaning to check out. Breaking Bad is hailed by many as the best show on television, similar to Mad Men in it’s use of the form to explore character development and long form narratives. I’ve also been meaning to check out The Sopranos, which is regarded as the father of the modern television drama. Again, I haven’t seen those two, so I can’t vouch for their quality, but their reputations give me confidence that they are worth the time.

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  4. Seth Gordon

    The idea that simply because of something’s delivery form – say, pictures that move on a box versus pictures that move on a screen – it has any different inherent value than any other media to be hard to swallow. You can say there’s a lot of crap on TV and you’ll get no disagreement from me – but there are a lot of crap movies, a lot of crap books, a lot of crap pieces of music, and a lot of crap paintings as well. I would suspect the percentage is about the same for any form.

    So, why the hate on TV, in particular? Because the nature of television – so many channels – is it simply too much to sift through? But that’s nothing compared to the internet, whose wheat:chaff ratio is easily the lowest of any form, and we all use that on a regular basis.

    Music and drama are, on many levels, very similar – they both take place in a specifically bordered period of time. They both have ebb and flow. Characters, plots and subplots appear and disappear, much the same way a motif or theme might in a musical work. Both keep the audience engaged by the ebb and flow of dynamics – in the same way that a movie that was, say, nothing but non-stop killing for 90 minutes would grow tiresome, so would a piece of music that didn’t change its dynamics for the same period.

    There are differences, of course – (instrumental) music is purely abstract, our touchstones based on our previous musical exposure, whereas drama can directly relate to the universals of everyday life in a non-abstract way. But I think they share more than they differ.

    I think there’s a lot to be learned from “artistic crosstraining” so to speak. There are films that have had great influence on me, inspired me, given me ideas, that share that particular sense of dynamics and flow that informs my own work. I don’t think there are many who would disagree that we can all – regardless the particular ouevre we work in – take something valuable from exposure to other forms.

    So, getting back to the main question – why should a particular form – drama – be viewed differently simply because it is delivered to the audience on a box in their living room, rather than paying $7/hr (give or take) to view it in a larger room on a bigger screen with more people?

    It would be one thing if there were modifiers: “I don’t watch Reality TV” or “I don’t care for most sitcoms” or whatever, the way one might not care for Free Jazz or Country Music. But that isn’t the case here.

    I think it stems from a fear of addiction. Most artists are entertainment sponges – the danger of watching one episode of, say, Curb Your Enthusiam is not that you’ll have wasted 30 minutes of your life on piffle, but that it will engage you, that you will, in fact, find it not just entertaining on a base level but well-crafted and smart. And you’ll want to see next episode. And catch up on the ones you’ve missed. And then it’s not just a half hour, but 30 hours.

    But is that any different than finding a new composer or band you like? Some years ago I heard my first album by Otomo Yoshihide, and I was blown away. I checked out a couple more well-regarded albums from him, and wasn’t disappointed. At this point, I might own nearly every recording he’s ever made – some are brilliant, some merely good, some a bit flawed in conception. But the point is, even had I experienced each album only once (as one tends to do with TV shows) I’ll have spent far more time listening to Otomo Yoshihide than I have watching Curb Your Enthusiasm.

    I don’t value one over the other, though. Both have their moments of brilliance – and given the nature of TV production, where everything is curated, there’s probably a bit more wheat on the average (good) TV show than there is in the catalog of the average (good) artist, simply because the nature of music distribution (and the low cost of production) makes it quite easy for anyone to release every little noodle they record. I’m lookin’ at you, Otomo-san.

    But one thing TV provides that other forms don’t is – as someone pointed out above – a long-form art, where a single work might take 60+ hours to conclude. Now, of course one could write a 60 hour piece of music or make a 60 hour movie or whatever, but television is the only medium in which it is done with regularlity.

    The example most people would bring up – it’s almost cliche to – would be The Wire. The five seasons are each like a movement in a grand symphony. Yet there isn’t an excess word or wasted moment in its entirety. As many who played catch-up after the fact will attest, it’s entirely possible to watch eight hours of it in one stretch, and still want more only you have to work the next day and it’s time for bed, so you’ll have to continue tomorrow.

    Is that a bad thing? I’d say the opposite – I’d say anything that can have that effect – and not by catering to the lowest common denominator, but by engaging the emotions and intellect – is at or near the pinnacle of what Art can do. It’s incorrect to think that something must be base to do that. For something to truly engage for that length of time, there needs to be subtlety, variety, subtext, challenge.

    The mistake is to merely dismiss it as keeping a cheap high going – as anyone who’s done cocaine for eight hours will tell you, there isn’t much in the way of dynamic variation there. (In fact, given the monotony of the drug, I’d more likely compare a coke binge to watching Einstein On The Beach. Har-de-har-har…)

    And I like being in tune with the world at large. It’s like how – again, this is so common an example as to be cliche – references to Seinfeld (a smart show by any standard, and as much a great postmoderinst work as John Zorn’s Naked City) can be tossed out around the water cooler with the assurance that, no explanation needed, the person you’re talking you will “get” it. But every now and then you come across someone who doesn’t get it and it’s strangely disconcerting. And to be that person would leave me feeling disconnected. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    Television, for better or worse, is the center of American shared culture. And engaging with it doesn’t devalue any of the Otomos in my life.

    I’m not trying to convince you to buckle down and spend 60 hours watching The Wire, mind you, let alone start watching The Jersey Shore – our personal tastes are our tastes. But you are, in a very real sense, writing off the contents for the packaging, which I find a very odd thing for any artist to do. Is that any more logical than, say, refusing to use toothpaste that comes in red boxes? As artists, we engage, comment on, and reflect our world. Why would we want to set arbitrary limits on what we can experience? To be willfully ignorant of the most prevalent cultural force in the world, whether it be simple disinterest or merely an affectation, is to disengage from our potential audience as well.

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  5. Frank J. Oteri

    Michael Giacchino
    Your point is taken. Thanks for keeping me on my toes. I will try to find time for some of this stuff at some point. It would be particularly worth it just to hear more music by Michael Giacchino, who was so eloquent on a panel I attended at the ASCAP I Create Music Expo in Hollywood in April 2006. Although during his comments he stated, “If you do your job right no one will notice the music.” Which means I would be missing his point. He also described composing music for TV as a “composer’s bootcamp” where no rewrites are ever allowed. Something many of us could learn a great deal from, myself included (especially after I confessed to laboring on a few measures for a couple of years in the essay that started this thread).

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  6. Frank J. Oteri

    Seth, it’s great to have you back on the site. Allow me to respond…

    why the hate on TV, in particular? Because the nature of television – so many channels – is it simply too much to sift through? But that’s nothing compared to the internet, whose wheat:chaff ratio is easily the lowest of any form, and we all use that on a regular basis.

    I guess I was tired of constantly seeing all those ads for shows like Big Love, Bad Girls Club, and Hot in Cleveland. I agree that on some levels spending time watching TV, seeing a film, reading a book, and listening to music are similar activities if you give them your full and undivided attention and can derive aesthetic fulfillment from doing so. But they’re definitely not on a parallel scale when it comes to promotion. When’s the last time you saw a billboard ad for Otomo Yoshihide, John Zorn, or anyone else who has been mentioned herein?

    nothing but non-stop killing for 90 minutes would grow tiresome, so would a piece of music that didn’t change its dynamics for the same period.

    I dunno. I’m one of those freaks who loves relentlessly monotonous pieces with extreme durations. I have and have listened to both recordings of Morton Feldman’s unmitigatingly quiet 6-hour String Quartet No. 2 more than once and one of my favorite compositions of all time is La Monte Young’s X for Henry Flynt which is an octave tone cluster smashed on a piano at a regular interval and at the same volume for as long as a performer desires to do so. You mentioned Einstein on the Beach. I’ve listened to the complete recording (both the original Tomato LPs, the Sony CD re-issue and the Nonesuch re-recording) countless times, have seen it live twice, and still can’t wait for the revival that rumor has it is happening in Canada next year. As soon as I know the details, I’m saving up for a plane ticket and hotel room. If someone were to do anything aesthetically analogous to Feldman, Young, or early Glass on TV, I’d drop everything I’m doing and sit in front of the screen for as long as it takes. I mentioned The Prisoner. The penultimate episode, “Once Upon a Time,” comes closer than most things I’ve seen although it seems perhaps more analogous to the work of Richard Foreman, which I also treasure and deeply miss now that he has decided not to stage a new work every year any more.

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