Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Human Beings, Jazz Musicians and Technology

Even though I am professor of jazz, I did spend a good chunk of time working in software development. During those years I thought quite a bit about interfaces -- how the living, breathing human beings on the other side of the screen physically interacted with my programs (apps, in modern parlance). I actually got started in software as a kid, during the budding personal computer era, way before the now-ubiquitous Graphical User Interface, when virtually all computer interaction was achieved by typing on the keyboard. The Apple II did have some other controls -- joysticks and the infamous game paddles -- but they were generally used in limited and specific ways. The primary device you used to use programs was the keyboard.

I distinctly remember the moment back in the early 80s when my dad came back from a trip to California with a new Lisa computer. It had a built-in screen, an external keyboard, and a thing he called a mouse.  

"A what?" I suppose it looked a bit like a mouse, with it's stringy little tail.

"It's the newest input device. The mouse will revolutionize the way people use computers," he said. 

Huh? You move the mouse around which then moved some "pointer" on the screen towards these little "icon" things and then you "click" on them?  But why?

"Exactly," he told me excitedly, "you get and incredible amount of precision and control."

I really didn't get it. The whole concept of clicking on things was driven by some esoteric analogy to a physical desktop. You created "files" and put them in "folders," and when you wanted to use one you pulled the folder out and put it onto your "desktop" where you "opened" it. It sounded very corporate and officey, and I was a teenaged kid who liked writing little BASIC game programs like "Super Tank Battle" and "Super Car Racer." The top of my desk was a utter mess and I sure didn't like doing work on it. The computer that sat atop it was an escape from homework. And I only encountered mice if I didn't clean up my Pringles crumbs.

Years later, in college, my dad gave me one of his old Macs. I found it useful. I wrote a few papers, and I even got hooked on Tetris for a while. But that Mac was surely not part of my day-to-day life as a musician.

But then one day dad handed me a big box marked Finale. "I bought this software package, but I'm never going to use it. Do you think you could get any use out of it?"

I told him I really didn't know if I would ever use it. It came with three thick manuals and bunch of floppy disks. I was supposed to write actual music with this? For live human beings to then perform?

Perhaps I was what you'd now call "old school." I wrote music with staff paper with pencils. I copied individual parts on card stock paper with a thick calligraphy sharpie. My buddy Dave Rivello would host part copying "parties" (I know, sounds fun, right?) with a bunch of us Eastman jazz writers where we'd sit around all night long copying parts for each other. Dave himself was really old school; he used an inkwell pen. Parts would often end up with coffee and tomato sauce stains.

But I tried Finale anyhow. And something in my brain clicked the moment I started clicking notes. I could get pitches into the staff really quickly and accurately. The computer would simultaneously play the pitches out of it's little speaker as I clicked them into the staff. Well, it sounded a little like "bink bonk beep," but that was OK; I could easily imagine how the tune might sound when real human being musicians would play it later.

In a very real way, this brain-to-computer connection is exactly the same skill a jazz musician needs to improvise on their instrument. We audiate the music -- "compose" it in our heads -- then get it to come out of our horns in real time. This is the aural version of the visual skill an interior designer needs: Visualize the space how you want it to be in your head, and then create it.

It has taken me many years to acquire this musical skill. I am absolutely not the greatest saxophonist in the world, but when I pick up my alto, it feels like a part of me. Yes, I fully know exactly how cliche that sounds, but I can usually play the notes I'm imagining, right when I hear them. In fact, I contend that the entire art of jazz improvisation could be distilled down to making this brain-to-horn connection. 

So, trying out Finale was my "a ha" moment with a computer mouse. This program allowed me to create a direct link between my musical thoughts and my computer. I immediately felt that Finales the program the mouse was really designed for. For people who liked drawing, perhaps that would have been MacPaint.

I would be several more years before Finale became the tool I used for all my written projects. I needed a faster computer and printer to create the parts, and a more powerful program that allowed for more professional score layout. But all those things would come eventually. 

I became a loyal customer, but I was also a proponent. I would tell my friends and colleagues about how much Finale sped up my workflow when I was writing arrangements and new compositions.

I paid for Finale upgrades early and often. With new versions came new ways of entering music. MakeMusic (née Coda Music Technology) came up with a way using the computer keyboard, in addition to another method that utilized a standard piano keyboard connected through a MIDI interface. These were interesting, but I'm a saxophonist, not a pianist. Neither of these methods made the immediate, visceral, direct connection from brain to computer the way that simple mouse entry did.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, they broke it. 

The company said the code base was old, and they were rewriting it from the ground up for the 2014 version. It came out with a whole bunch of new features, and I bought it.

I moment I started playing around with it I felt a horrible crack in my brain-to-computer link. Sometimes --- not every time, and not predictably --- the note I was trying to click was NOT the note that got entered into the score.

Huh?  Did I miss the staff line? Did I click in the wrong place?

No, they'd introduced some type of bug in this version with the new code.

Y'see folks, I'm just tryin' to enter my li'l melody into the score. I've got a little snippet running through my head. Let's say it's C-D-E-G. I click the first few notes, all is good. All of a sudden, I go to enter G, but F sounds and appears instead. Okay, okay, I gotta back up, hit "undo" and see if I can get the melody back in my head.  Uhhh, what was that tune again? Aarrgh, I forgot!

Coder and entrepreneur Joel Spolsky, of the blog "Joel on Software," once wrote a wonderful piece about how it's not the big problems with out computers that make us unhappy. Our joy is really killed by the mounting frustration of little interruptions that pile up us and stop us from accomplishing the very thing we originally sat down at our computer to do.

Am I able to get my projects done? Yes, I can. This is not a bug that completely prevents me from finishing my work.

But just how frustrating is this tiny little interruption? It feels equally as stupid to the popup window below, which just this morning popped up in Microsoft Outlook:

Oh, for the love of f&^ (*&$@^ &*^*@&^#$.

Really? I'm trying to save a photo of my house from an email into a folder, unsurprisingly called "House" if you really want to know. This little gem popped up only after I already tried the usual practice of dragging the photo from the email into the folder, which also didn't work. And boy, I'd really like to meet the software manager who OKd some programmers idea that the button "use both" appear in this dialog box.

And not for nuthin', because I did spend, oh I don't know, 8 years, working in web software development, I most certainly CAN save this document with the extension JPG at the end of the name!

But back to Finale: I want to be fair to the fine folks at MakeMusic. I know that it has taken an huge mountain of technological advances to make any desktop publishing like this possible at all. I have often written entire arrangements with my laptop and headphones, created PDF parts and demo recordings, and them Dropboxed the entire thing to an ensemble to practice, all from route 17 in the Catskills while sitting in the air conditioned comfort of the passenger seat of our minivan. Back in 1991, I could never have imagined this would have been possible.

Am I able to get my music printed without a constant interruption of broken brain/computer connections? Not anymore. If this bug were to hit me once an hour, perhaps I wouldn't mind so much. But when my concentration is broken every 30 seconds, I no longer feel comfortable expressing my musical voice. It's no longer me.