Five & a Half Reasons to Play the Ukulele

First things first, here’s a video John and I made this weekend (strong emphasis on John–he did all the camera work and editing):

And now that you’ve watched it, perhaps some explanation is in order.

Last week, I won a contest at work. My prize was a ukulele. It’s a peculiar sort of thing to win in a contest, but then, it was a peculiar sort of contest. We were all asked to submit prize ideas for a freshman open house in the fall–if your idea was chosen, the LRC would buy two and give you one. I suggested a baritone ukulele.

As to why I would suggest such a thing, well…the video sums it up pretty well. Above and beyond that, I had recently read this article about how ukuleles are becoming more popular in Boston. Also, I’ve been following Amanda Palmer on Twitter and was generally excited about her new album. In short, I’ve just had ukuleles on the brain.

Making the video was…an experience. I now know that there’s a very good reason I’m not a rock star. Playing an instrument in a public place is very awkward, and if my expression looks strained in any of the shots, it’s because I was highly aware of how many people’s walking paths we were obstructing.

It was quite the social experiment, in that regard. Some people will wait patiently for you to finish, some impatiently. Some will duck down in front of the camera, some will walk across anyway. Some will start down a path, see you, and then backtrack to change their path. The further I stood from the camera, the more obvious the effects were.

Adding an instrument into the mix changes the dynamic–as much as a camera makes people feel visibly self-conscious about intruding on someone else’s  social territory, an instrument seems to break those invisible barriers that we hold around ourselves as a defense against talking to other people. The first place we shot was in the subway, and I hadn’t even had my ukulele out of the case for two minutes before that guy in the first shot came over and started talking to us.  Doing the arch shot, another guy stopped to ask if we were doing an album cover and compliment our work. Walking towards the park, a couple of teenage boys with instruments on their backs hollered “Ukulele!!” and waved at us.

It was at once both one of the more awkward and one of the more uplifting experiences of my life.

Putting the video together from the clips was a different story entirely, and one that makes me impressed with people who do real and longer video production. To make that 1m:50s clip, we spent almost four hours walking around to shoot maybe twelve minutes worth of clips. Laying down the sound tracks and doing the sidewalk art took me maybe another two hours, and putting everything together took John something like eight hours to finesse (including researching and learning new software that could handle multiple audio tracks). Making a video, even a little silly one like this, is a lot of work. (Something I should have been more prepared for, given that it took us seven or eight hours to make Robot Riot.)

Anyway…I hope the video is enough to earn your forgiveness for this rambling post, and if anyone feels like swapping ukulele tales, I’d be delighted to hear them.

Ninjas and the Art of Webernet Busking

I like ninjas. I’m not saying they’ll win the internet battle against pirates, and it’s quite possible they could be taken down by velociraptors, but still…they’re sufficiently deadly to be cool and have a more complex moral profile than pirates. They can be mercenary agents of evil, but they can also be great champions of good. I suppose pirates have the same potential in theory, but you just don’t see as many depictions of pirates as highly-disciplined heroes who will put their convictions before a good bottle of rum. As far as I know, there have been no notable explorations of velociraptors as heroes or as being motivated by much other than the thought: “Kill. Eat. Repeat.”

If that paragraph made no sense to you, the links might help. Explaining internet memes to those who are unfamiliar is like trying to explain an inside joke…confusing, and not nearly as hilarious as I think they are. I won’t try. I’ll just abandon the whole thing, say what I mean to say about art and Amanda Palmer and hope that the thought process in that first paragraph will not be completely lost on every person who reads my blog. Since I usually walk away from writing with that same hope, I guess I won’t worry too much more about it.

Anywho….about face!

Yesterday, I went to see one of Amanda Palmer’s ninja gigs. For those of you who aren’t familiar with her, she’s a musician. I have no idea how to describe her music, mostly because I don’t actually listen to the Dresden Dolls or Evelyn, Evelyn. What I’ve heard is a little on the aggressive side for my tastes, musically speaking. And yet, when I found out that she was doing a spontaneous little session in Harvard Square yesterday, I hung around for three hours after work so I could go.

Here’s a picture, though her blog has better ones:

Why did I go to a gig for a musician whose music I don’t particularly adore?

Because Amanda Palmer is a ninja. One of the good ones. She’s a ninja for art, for freedom, and for the value of human interactions. The metaphor will fall apart very quickly if you look past the idea of a ninja as a champion for good, so don’t push it. If you recall the were-sheep incident, you know what happens when metaphors get overextended. This post is already confusing enough without adding a dangerously overextended metaphor into the mix.

The gig was everything I hoped it would be, though I went in not knowing what to expect. Worst case scenario, I imagined being surrounded by the intense odor of patchouli while she sang a ton of songs I didn’t know. Best case scenario, I imagined her spending a lot of time interacting with whoever showed up and getting into some of her interesting ideas about the art. The patchouli smell and the songs were there in a small but noticeable way, but her thoughts on art dominated the hour, especially since she used us as guinea pigs for a talk she may be giving in the near future.

The video of that ten-minute talk will eventually be on youtube, so I’ll post it for you when I see it, but in the meantime, I’ll share a bit of the ideas I took away from what she said. She spoke about the time she spent working as a living statue and her struggle to figure out if street performance can be considered a “real job.” It’s an interesting question to ask, because it gets at the root of how art should be defined and what it’s worth, either to society or an individual. Street performing also has interesting parallels to being an unknown artist of some sort on the internet, in that you hypothetically don’t need to be published or contracted to a record label to put out your hat and ask for change. The point that Palmer was making is that the tiny individual interaction between a street artist and the audience is positive and precious and that the internet allows us, in essence, to put out our hats and throw our change for art in a much broader way than has every been possible.

This has been on my own mind a lot lately as I’ve been getting more into writing and submitting stories for publication. I love having the ability to put stories up on Scribd, to see the little statistics that tell me I have x-number of readers. On the other hand…it drives me crazy. I can see that people read my stories and my silly little comics, but do they like them? Hate them? Feel utterly indifferent towards them? Stop reading after the first three sentences? I have almost no idea how people react outside of the minutely encouraging fact that I get slightly higher numbers more quickly as I continue to post things, which can be difficult because of something else that Palmer pointed out in her talk: unless you’re making art for therapeutic purposes and locking it in a closet, you’re not making it for yourself. You’re making it for other people.

Which is certainly why I write. Not so much for the hope of fame and fortune (though I probably won’t turn them down if they even get offered to me : ), but to share a story that matters to me…to make people chuckle or frown or smile or think or laugh until they cry. Or maybe cry until they laugh. My sisters have kindly kept me from having any illusions about how funny I am. The point is that art, be it music or writing or standing on a box in a silly costume, doesn’t mean anything if nobody reacts to it.

The idea that Palmer came around to is that if the internet is to be successful in bringing people together around art, artists have a responsibility to ask for that feedback and audiences have a responsibility to give it. She was speaking in terms of money, which I think is certainly relevant to driving the economic trends, but I think it applies equally (and for me, more relevantly) to giving feedback to art or music or writing that touches you in some way—whether is delights or annoys you.

So this is me putting out my feedback hat. Not as much for the blog: I am not so buried in delusions of grandeur that I think of my random ramblings as “art,” but I am asking for feedback for my stories if one has caught your attention. I’m also asking for the sake of other people’s internet-street art. Positive or negative, feedback is useful to the creative process and for finding motivation to keep going, so give it generously.

In my case, continued lack of feedback may eventually drive me to start busking with my stories. And talking emphatically to yourself in public is ticket for the short train to Happy Dale.