San Jose Mercury News music critic Richard Scheinin has a piece about tweeting during concerts:
Earlier this month, I attended a concert by jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who is something of a legend. Yet his twilight performance in a Los Gatos park turned out to be one of the strangest events I've attended in my nearly 10 years as a music reviewer -- almost no one appeared to be listening.
The man to my left stared at his iPhone, idly flipping through his Twitter feed as Blanchard played his heart out on "Autumn Leaves." The woman in front of me -- when she wasn't fishing through a bag of goodies from Whole Foods -- also spent much time flipping through Twitter.
I would guess there were about 1,000 people packed into the little park, almost all of them immersed in conversation, sipping chilled wine or gazing at their smartphones, monitoring their email and Twitter accounts.
As the crowd relegated Blanchard and his band to background entertainment, I felt as if I were witnessing the downfall of civilization -- the triumph of mindless technology over art.
So far, so good.
But here is the worst part: I was tweeting. Every 15 minutes or so, I was fashioning a news burst of 140 characters (maximum; that's the rule), describing the music and the event to my followers on Twitter.
Part of me was wracked with guilt. I'm a lifelong jazz fanatic, and I believe that music deserves full attention and emotional commitment. Still, I had my professional obligation to tweet; we've entered a new digital age in journalism, with newspapers reaching out to new audiences via social media.
Okay, let's take a break and review. My first thought here was, yes, we are witnessing the downfall of civilization, in the form of the people who should be paying the most attention to a concert self-distracting themselves, and implicitly giving others permission to do so.
I don't want to just declare that live tweeting is always mind-numbing for the author, distracting to neighbors, and insulting to a performer. Let's leave aside slow, boring events that leave lots of time for checking email, going to the bathroom, running some chores, etc. (I'm looking at you, golf and professional cycling); let's focus on events that are supposed to require a viewer's full attention, like a musical performance. Can you tweet in a way that improves the experience?
If criticism has any purpose in today's crowdsourced five-star "Like" world, it isn't to instruct the rest of us about what to think about books or records or performances. Critics show us how to listen critically, to read critically, to look critically. (Anyone who still has their dog-eared copies of Adler and Van Doren's How to Read a Book will remember this.) This is not "critically" in the sense of looking for flaws, but critically in the sense of carefully, closely engaging with a text or play, with an understanding of what the performer is trying to do, and how their work fits in a bigger artistic tradition.
In other words, paying attention. Paying a specialized, well-informed kind attention, but paying attention.
Live tweeting, it seems to me, is very hard to do critically, or hard to balance with the work of criticism. It olds great potential to be disruptive. It's difficult to split your attention between the event, and as Scheinin puts it, "swiftly crafting an impression of an event, touching the "send" button, and watching your tweet fly out into the big world." It would be incredibly hard to explain in real time, and in 140 characters, who Blanchard's version of "Autumn Leaves" comares with any of the hundred other great versions of that standard (I'm not a big jazz guy, but my iPhone has versions by Bill Evans, Wynton Marsalis, Eva Cassidy, and Edith Paif), to describe what Blanchard brings out in the song that others don't, or even to just note the interesting subtleties of the performance.
In fact, here's what Scheinin tweets about "Autumn Leaves:"
Oakland-bred Justin Brown is on drums with Terence Blanchard who's giving Autumn Leaves a '60s Miles treatment. @mercnews @cct @sanjosejazz
Now, you can get a sense of what it was like from "60s Miles treatment," but I'll bet there's a lot more one could say with more time-- with the sort of time you spend when writing a longer review, for example. Indeed, with the sort of time of take to write something like this:
Blanchard was in a Miles Davis-y mood -- playing lonely, piercing cries on the trumpet during "Nocturna," a moody ballad by Brazilian songwriter Ivan Lins.
"Wandering Wonder," a Blanchard original, started at a simmer and became a wild, Miles-y electric stew, with thick swirls of percolating patter from young drummer Justin Brown, who's from Oakland and now is a first-call player in New York; lush acoustic piano jabs and synth-keyboard scrambles from Fabian Almazan, who grew up in Havana, accompanied the piece. Blanchard, plugged in by a foot pedal, became many Blanchards, throwing clutches of high notes at the crowd.
So can you tweet and be a critic? In essence, can you incorporate those 140 characters into your focus on, and appreciation of, a performance?
Maybe, if you approach it as a form of note-taking, dashing off impressions of moments that you'll elaborate on later in greater detail. As a medium for expressing the excitement of a good performance, or noting something distinctive, Twitter could be useful. In this way, you stand a chance both of giving people who care a sense of the moment, and in so doing become more attuned to the moment yourself.
If you try to write a tiny review, though, you're going to fail: you don't have enough space, and the effort you spend trying to construct something pithy and witty will distract you from the performance.
Arguably, a great real time critic would give you a sense of what the experience of watching Terence Blanchard was like: not just cataloging the event, but choosing those few details and seconds that readers could use to reconstruct the event for themselves. This would be a different kind of demanding than traditional criticism, but the two aren't mutually exclusive: the later could build on the former.
Finally, you couldn't do it in an environment where it would cause a disturbance. At the concert, Blanchard
was battling an ever-stronger, 21st century connection: that between Silicon Valley concertgoers and their iPhones. Wow, were there ever a lot of people flipping through their email and Twitter accounts as Blanchard's quintet began its twilight performance.... a line of well-dressed young women moved through the eastern side of the park, shouting greetings to friends, trading hugs. You could see the response of the jazz hounds sprinkled through the audience: they clapped dutifully for Winston's solo, intent on maintaining protocol and buoying the band.
I this kind of environment, one more smartphone isn't going to make much of a difference. But try doing this in Carnegie Hall, or Yoshis.
A while ago I decided that I would not try to blog or tweet conferences or talks in real time, that I could be more useful writing longer reflections later (like this reflection on the d.compress show and this note on the Being Human conference). Lots of other people live tweet events, and my typing "Person X takes the stage #conference-tag" doesn't add as much as writing something more thoughtful later. It also lets me focus on my own notes, and listen more carefully.
So I think it's possible in theory to use twitter in an interesting critical way, in a manner that brings of more into the moment; but it would be very difficult, and require a kind of Zen archery level of effortless engagement with the medium that's hard to achieve.