"Portals" by Tim Fain

A recent multimedia concert in Carmel has me thinking about art, connection, intimacy, distance, and what may be in store for our species.

I do not own an iPhone.  I do not text.  I have never Skyped.  I have barely dipped my toes into the waters of Twitter or Facebook; what little I have done has been in an effort to share this blog and website with a wider readership.  So my participation in this rapidly expanding “Age of Information” feels fairly tenuous.  I recognize the professional and perhaps personal value of social media for others, but am not sure my nervous system is organized in such a way to negotiate its wild swings of stimulation.  I remain open, however, to discovery and change, so we shall see.

The concert, presented by Chamber Music Monterey Bay and held at Sunset Center last Friday, was called “Portals: A Multimedia Exploration of Longing in the Digital Age.”  It featured one live musician, the brilliant violinist Tim Fain, who performed in front of a movie screen.  Offstage, technicians projected recorded footage of a pianist, three dancers, a speaker, and Fain himself.  All the music was by living composers.  To some, the rituals of classical music and the traditional recital or concert may appear a bit stuffy, antiquated; everything about “Portals” was completely up-to-date.  The intermissionless event was never anything less than compelling, and occasionally even mesmerizing.  I would happily see it again.

Yet there was something undeniably strange about seeing a live person perform along with a digital copy of a person, about being so seduced by the excellence of the playing and the superior technical aspects of the show that we could almost forget how, amidst all the sound and movement our minds and bodies were taking in, only one part of it—the Tim Fain part—was “real.”  The rest was just a movie.  And so I worry, as time passes and the reach of digital technology extends further and further into our lives and our hearts, that this undeniable strangeness will begin to feel less strange.  As we turn our gazes, and our attention, ever more toward our screens, will we turn less toward each other?

In fact, this question was at the very heart of “Portals.”  What is longing, after all, but the desire to connect with another across some kind of divide?  In this case, the divide was the still mysterious terrain of cyberspace.  For when we “connect” with someone we may never see in person, whom—or what—are we connecting to?  Perhaps to acknowledge this question, Fain chose to intersperse the musical performances with readings, spoken by NPR’s Fred Child, of song lyrics by Leonard Cohen, whose inimitable work is a vast catalogue of longing and regret traversed by brief moments of clarity and the rich ambiguity of being human.

There were a couple technical glitches in this presentation of “Portals,” and though Fain was clearly frustrated by these moments, and though the errors did disrupt the seemingly seamless flow of music and images, I found myself a bit grateful for them, for their reminder that despite the lure of digital perfection, we are still human.  It is when we touch and share our flawed humanity that we acknowledge our vulnerability.  Fain was not supposed to speak during the concert, but he did, both to the audience and to the offstage technicians.  The digital dream soon resumed, but to me these unplanned interruptions were a beautiful illustration of some of my favorite lines of Cohen, spoken by Child on the screen:

                                   Ring the bells that still can ring

                                   Forget your perfect offering

                                   There is a crack in everything

                                   That’s how the light gets in.