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TED@AllianzGI Video | November 2011

Robert Sirota: Finding the Lost Chord

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At the TED@AllianzGI conference at the Time Warner Center, New York, Robert Sirota, composer and president of the Manhattan School of Music, talks about how signs and signals affect the way we think and act – using music as the example. He discusses how creative people communicate, the choices they make, and the kind of outcomes they create.

Robert Sirota: Finding the Lost Chord

Introduction:

TED – Ideas Worth Spreading

Robert Sirota:

I lost my iPhone. It was a stressful and liberating experience, simultaneously. Yes, you understand that.

And it got me bemusing about how we communicate now, because I had to start changing up everything. Well, I couldn´t do text anymore and I wasn´t really getting many phone calls on my iPhone anyway, because nobody makes phone calls anymore. So I could use my landline for phone calls. So the texting then turned into email. But I did not want to do it all the time, because they were doing so much of the email that was going to be texting, are you with me so far? A lot of you have been through this, I think.

And then of course, well, I would use my home phone and then I was sending people emails saying ‘Don´t call me on my cell phone’ and then you got to think about the relationship between text and message, which is what composers actually do a lot of the time. So now we have all these modalities of communication: We have texting, we have email, we have phone calls, obviously. We have old fashioned snail mail. I am the president of a music school, so often I actually send letters to people, that’s a very charming thing. And they are are glad to get them and sometimes I even send hand-written notes to them in a way that, I think, is quite interesting to them. Usually they are older people, they are usually donors and I am thanking them. But everything got ratched up a different way and I began to think about this and I looked up Marshall McLuhan, because I thought: ok, this has been going on for quite a while you know. You may not be aware that Marshall McLuhan was born a hundred years ago. And fifty years ago, that´s when he said: The medium is the message. Well, we know that the medium isn´t exactly the message, but we know that the medium shapes the message and colors the message in various ways. I began to think about the fact that we have actually been texting each other for millennia. The evidence of those kinds of texts are in ancient caves, these wonderful paintings. They found a bone flute, that´s something like 40,000 years old. We´ve been sending messages to each other for a long time. And creative artists and particularly composers - because that´s what I know best - are quite adapted at messaging and we deal with it all the time.

If I write a ten minute piece for symphony orchestra, let´s say there are 25 different instrumental parts and a symphony orchestra could be 80 to 90 pieces. Remember there are lots of first violins and lots of second violins and they all play the same part usually. If I write a piece for symphony orchestra, ten minutes, I will be making something like a hundred thousand choices, discrete decisions. And what are some of those decisions? Well, first of all what notes do they play. What little pitches do they play. In what octave. What instruments plays those notes. Do they play them loud or soft? Who plays together? When do they not play? What is the phrasing? What is the breathing structure of the piece? How fast is it going to go? What is the tempo and on and on and on.

So, we become expert communicators and decision makers and what I thought I would do finally, was write a piece that is a text and literally has a certain neutrality to it.

And here is the piece. I am going to take you through it a couple of times. It´s very hard to write a piece that is emotionally and expressively neutral. But the idea was to write one that doesn´t knock your socks off, at least right away.

(music)

Not to harmful, but not particularly compelling either. It´s hard to write something that isn´t too compelling on purpose. I do it all the time unintentionally. So this piece is in two parts and it´s in two phrases. One phrase is four measures long and the other phrase is like the first phrase. It´s a little more extended, it´s six measures long. Because I want to take you through some changes, I wanted you to hear it a couple of times. Here is the first part, the “A” section, if you will.

(music)

Ok, it´s kind of open ended. You want something else to happen. Then it starts the same way, it´s the second section.

(music)

Then is goes up, instead of going down and then it kind of unwinds, it kind of pulls down. Ok, so that´s my little text message, if you will. It´s concise. It´s OMG, LOL and there it is. It´s all done. So, now I am going to give it some more of a message, if you will. Not just the pure text and I am going to make it a kind of little tweet that is not concise, but it has a bit of character to it. I decided to make it into a little hymn. It even has a little “Amen” ending. Exactly the same melody though, no changes.

(music)

So, hopefully that touches you a bit. It has a different kind of emotional impact. The point here is that the text isn´t any different. Now, what I´ve done is I´ve added some gradations that many human beings for one reason or another actually respond to. And if you don´t think that´s true, try listening to any Hollywood movie without the soundtrack. Most of the time nothing is going on, but you are feeling something. Why? Because here is the thing.

(music)

There is a pickup truck going down the road, but you are thinking ‘oh something is going to happen, this is terrific!’. Nothing is going to happen. That´s our job. Our job is to move you.

So here is a strong email, rather stringent, slightly angry and insistent – same melody.

(music)

You have got notes and the other ones that say `we haven’t gotten your report yet`. We know them. I have sent them actually. Now, since I am a romantic and this is a romantic world we live in, I decided to write a hand-written love letter. Very different. The other one I cheated a little bit. I played it in the minor key

(music)

instead of

(music)

which is why you had that kind of stringent reaction to it. This one is back in the major key, but it´s transposed. It actually goes higher.

(music)

Now, remember where we started.

(music)

Right? Ok. And I thought I would put one more in. This one is interesting, because it´s a matter of obscuring the message. I am sure you have all gotten those emails where all the code is in them. You know, because some firewall failed or something or you are going from your old Apple to somebody else´s old whatever. So, this is a kind of a tonal one, where I have stuck the melody in a lot of obscurity. …. try hear the melody.

(music)

Now, don´t be upset, if you could not hear that. That was the point. The point of all this is that we control the message. It does not matter what the text is, we control the message. What´s the take away for you? The take away is that first of all musicians, artists, composers are experts at nuanced communication. That’s what we do. Sometimes even those of us, who have taken on management roles figured out that music training has actually something to do with our management training. You know, I have always tried to bring the same sense of not only what I want to say, but whom I am talking to and why am I talking, how should I say it. So I try to compose my messages whether they are verbal or written or recorded or whatever. Number two: music and our training is something that I would urge all of you to have. You know fifty years ago we got this idea in this country that that was an extra thing and now what we are beginning to learn is if you really want to sell things and if you really want to get people interested in your products or in your point of view, you have to figure out, how to speak to them. So I would urge all of you to work in some creative field, if you haven´t done so already - even if it´s taking a pottery class. I am not kidding.

And the third thing is: Hire us. Musicians, dancers, painters, playwrights etc. are master communicators. We are all about the message and we can be very useful in the proper context. So make good choices, yes, but make choices.

Thank you very much.

(applause)
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