Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Editing reality


Last August, Julie and I would drive over Galena Summit, park our car west of Elkhorn Road, and lay out lawn chairs on a blanket outside the Sun Valley Pavilion. We'd get to each concert a couple of hours early to have time enough for a pre-concert feast of wine, cheese and chocolate. By the time applause sounded at the entrance of conductor Alasdair Neale, we'd be well-fed and happy. We'd lie back, stare at the blue sky and golden clouds above us, close our eyes and wait for the music, which when it came made us even happier.

This year we did it again. And when we arrived for the first concert, we found a spot on the lawn above the amphitheater that allowed us a view of the stage. Not that we needed it. A jumbo-sized TV was hanging from a crane to our left, and when the music began, we were treated to giant close-ups of the symphony musicians, Alasdair Neale and Itzhak Perlman.

Watching those people on the screen was an intimate, if one-way, experience. At my presbyopic age, I couldn't have gotten nearly that close to the people I now call Alasdair and Itzhak and still kept them in focus. I decided the big TV made the pavilion lawn better than a front-row seat down in the hole.

Then I began thinking that Julie and I need a jumbo TV, too. If we knocked out an exterior wall of our house, we could get one that size inside. Install a few communications towers on Galena Summit, and we wouldn't even have to leave our living room. If we could have the concert's digits beamed into a dish atop our house, the experience could be the same, except we'd have it on a comfortable couch and with less wind.

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Back in 1985, the writer Michael Ventura noted that Americans spent huge portions of their time focused on screens that showed other people living more intensely than they did. It's a small step from Ventura's observation to the idea that in the last 25 years, reality itself has shifted not only its intensity but even its location from everyday living to the screen. As audio equipment and cameras get better and screens get larger, and as editing techniques become more powerful, everyday life loses substance and becomes the raw material for electronically framed experience.

I didn't think of Ventura's essay until our second concert. The weather report had promised rain, so we put our picnic in a backpack and sat inside. We found seats high up, almost at ground level. We could see Emanuel Ax's piano and its keyboard from our seats, and we counted ourselves luckily situated until Emanuel began playing. Then people around us began craning their necks and looking outside. My first thought was that lightning had set Ruud Mountain on fire, but everyone's attention was simply focused on the big hanging screen.

On that screen were Emanuel's hands. They were 6 feet long, dancing on a keyboard that looked like a black-and-white sidewalk. The music didn't seem at all loud enough until I stared back down at the flesh-and-blood Emanuel at his grand piano. Both of them were substantially built, but still within human scale.

Back on the lawn for our third concert, we sat closer to the big screen than we had before. In order to balance our own experience with what we anticipated seeing, we had brought a serious Bordeaux, changed our usual Costco cambozola to a hand-crafted Stilton, and jacked up the cocoa content of our chocolate to 90 percent. Nathan Gunn was singing that night and we looked forward to getting to know him as Big Nate.

That night, driving back, Julie and I wondered at the good fortune we'd partaken of. We had just been treated to superb music and detailed close-up LED images. We had one memory of watching a smiling father taking a video of his family as they watched the Sun Valley Symphony on a TV, and another of a young girl texting on an iPhone while Big Nate's face rose like a great full moon behind her. These things made it seem as if all the names in the world had come loose from what had given rise to them, had become strings of ones and zeroes, and a beneficent God was editing them into the best of all possible stories.

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