The Half-life of Tools

A few years ago, passing through Eugene, Oregon, where there are many hippies and no sales tax, I bought a used flute -- a thoroughly manly instrument, I’ll have you know -- which, after a brief flurry of investigative tootling, rapidly became an unused flute. (That is not a sexual metaphor, by the way.) This wonderful silvery contraption of levers and axles and perfectly fit pads, the culmination of millennia of ever-evolving flute technology, lay dismembered in its case, put away on a shelf, forgotten but not gone -- like the box of paints, the Ab-thingy, the Five Weeks to Perfect Classical Greek cassettes, the cold-fusion reactor not even half finished. (It‘s the old story: I couldn’t keep the film from cracking on the quartz substrate during electrolysis.) Life can sometimes seem an accumulation of accusing clutter, of closets full not of skeletons but of the serially abandoned means of self-improvement: They take up a lot of space eventually, those failed good intentions, they can really hem you in.

A not insubstantial portion of the room in which I write is taken up by an old eight-track tape recordermixing deck, the handsome-in-a-mid-‘80s-kind-of-way Tascam 388 Studio 8 -- love the wood-grain laminate -- that I bought several years ago on a whim from a friend who was leaving town. (Perhaps to get away from the Tascam 388.) I definitely thought we could get something good going, the Tascam and I, and here again was an initial flurry of use; but for a long time now it has served only as a surface, upon which I have piled other things I can’t quite get around to. (Lloyd‘s First Law of Stasis: Anything that can be used as a table will be.) But old dreams die hard, and two weeks ago I purchased, for the price of about 20 trips to the cappuccino house, its contemporary equivalent, a software program called the Cakewalk Home Studio 2002™, which takes up no room at all except on the hard drive of my computer, and which though it is not a particularly new kind of program, is nonetheless fomenting revolution in my brain. I am always a little late to the party, but party no less hard for that.

Every little thing it does is magic. I won’t bore you -- and believe me, I could -- with a full rehearsal of its capabilities, but the best part is the little orchestra that lives in there: You feed it notes and it spits back music. You can be as random or as careful about it as you like, and the Cakewalk players follow your lead without comment or complaint. It can‘t, of course, replicate the special experience of playing with living musicians, each of whom brings to the mix his own style, schedule and aroma, and if I could afford to keep an orchestra on call, lodged perhaps in a palatial countryside manor with heliport and grotto and fire pole, I can see how that might be better than the Cakewalk Home Studio 2002™. But this will do.

There is a carpenter bee at work outside my window. It is -- according to its reputation -- busy, though its job (not carpentry) is, after all, just to have sex with flowers. They are making beautiful music together, the bee and the blooms. I am taking flute lessons.

Making music seems to me not so different from sex with flowers (now I am speaking metaphorically), part industry, part luxury, part bumbling around, part aiming to score. Yet notwithstanding the carpenter bee’s easy way with a dahlia, the best-known bug fable is that of the sober, hardworking ants and the improvident fiddler grasshopper, which, having played the summer away, is caught out when winter comes. I have never been able to see music as an altogether respectable activity; it is too much fun, and insufficiently profitable, in the usual sense. Time spent on it seems not exactly wasted or misspent, but stolen from the time I might spend instead producing actual goods (though I would first have to learn how to produce some actual goods) or trying to resolve the film-cracking-on-the-quartz-substrate problem. Practicing the flute or action-composing abstract tunes on the Cakewalk Home Studio 2002™ MIDI grid are not without value -- value to me -- but it‘s not a social value; it’s possibly even an anti-social value, given that I work alone in a room with the door shut.

But I am doing it anyway.

I happened -- accidentally is the only word -- to be watching This Old House the other day, and a couple of guys were going on about some sander with a suction pump like it was, I don‘t know, the Cakewalk Home Studio 2002™. (And I must say it really did a job evening out the dry wall.) We love our toys, childishly, but we love and respect our tools, we revere the beautifully useful. Somewhere there are people getting serious, and maybe a little stupid, about shovels and rakes and food processors, band saws and copy machines, are discussing 18-wheelers like fine wine. If it’s in the natural way of things to always grow bored with toys, whose nature is to be outgrown, used up, tossed aside, when you tire of your tools, you drift toward existential crisis, if you believe at all that what you make is in some way who you are. And that what you don‘t get around to finishing is who you’ll never be. (Come with me to my closet of accusing clutter.)

At the same time, there is a kind of mortal danger with tools, and I don‘t just mean amputation. (Though no sensible musician practices carpentry.) Once you’ve got the hang of something, once you‘ve crested the learning curve, you are thrown back on yourself, your own resources. You can spend years learning the tools of self-expression only to find you have nothing to say. Now that you can drive that nail, what are you going to build? Having mastered the hammer, you might find yourself putting the hammer down for good. This is why initial results are often the most delightful: the first driven nail, the first saved file on the Cakewalk Home Studio 2002™ (a little piece I like to call “project1.wrk”). The first decent note I got out of the flute seemed like a miracle; then came the work of getting the second decent note.

If you’re lucky in life, your tools will stay toys. Orson Welles once likened a movie studio to an electric-train set, though it‘s worth noting that when he said it he hadn’t completed a picture yet, and that he wound up the patron saint of squandered promise; the films he didn‘t finish are almost as famous as the ones he did. Still, he kept starting them, and he never blamed his tools.

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