Updated: Jan 25, 2019
My wife Erin and I went to the Fresh Grass Music festival over the weekend and an interesting thing happened. I had an epiphany about technology. And then I didn’t.
We are not regular music festival attendees so when we met up with a couple of old friends from New York we heeded their advice and went to hear a band they raved about called Twisted Pine. The raised stage was in a courtyard of an old electronics factory at MASS MOCA. I’d guess about 400 people milled about waiting for the start. Some sat in the shade of one building and others on chairs in the sun, most stood. The band was a wholesome foursome that would play acoustic bass, guitar, fiddle and mandolin.
They started their set but it was readily apparent that the sound system was failing. They could barely be heard. After a few minutes my attention shifted to watching the urgent theater of mime and mystery between the sound operators left of the stage and behind us. These usually stalwart and anonymous roadies dressed entirely in black and sporting long grey ponytails were clearly flummoxed. They turned every dial and checked every meter and when that didn’t work they raised their arms in frustration, or maybe supplication to the guitar gods, only to have their cries go unanswered. Then something really cool happened.
The band came down off the stage with their instruments and huddled into a shady corner of the courtyard. The audience quickly followed, encircling them. They played as loud as they could, occasionally turning as they did so that another side of the audience might see and perhaps hear them. The bass player spun as if on a Lazy Susan. We, in the audience went completely silent. We leaned into the band straining to hear, as we did we got closer, closer than normally comfortable.
The band admitted to having to change their set list due to the sound system failure.
They went into a cover version of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. They asked us to and we sang the chorus with them. We lifted up our voices together. We listened harder. We on the edges inched further in, getting even closer together. We were all in the act now. Now I know where the phrase tight-knit group comes from.
After twenty minutes or so the sound operators finally appeased the guitar gods and the sound system came on with an ominous rumble. The audience and players shared a laugh. There was raucous applause as they finished their shortened set and returned to the stage. The fiddler thanked us for our patience and through the microphone said, “It’s great to be connected again.”
I thought, we were connected when there was no technology between us. We shared breath, sweat, and voice. We were together.
This is not an anti-technology rant. I’m not writing about hearing crickets only to discover that the sound was coming from someone’s phone. I’m not suggesting that we chuck our devices in the dumpster and return to the forest.
After the sound was restored I could hear the band’s music better, without any extra effort. Their harmonies and plucking musicianship came through with more clarity, about that there could be no dispute. But the attention that had been required of us in the audience was no longer needed.
Maybe that is why the cell phones came out as people checked messages or sent them. Is that what technology does? Give us too many choices in the moment? Like going to one of those diners where the menu is fifteen laminated pages and you just know they can’t do it any of it well. We lost our single minded focus. We lost our unity in purpose and action. We lost that intimate feeling that was created when a group of people discover their music. When they were back on the stage the band didn’t need us as much. And we didn’t want them as much. We in the audience stopped working, stopped trying. With technology to aid (or distract us) us we could take the music or leave it. Side conversations ensued between audience members.
When Twisted Pine returned to the stage they offered a very professional set but the band stopped creating the music with us and started playing the music for us.
As the set ended we all stood to applaud each other.