Tag Archives: history

Really suffering for your art

Everyone says music is getting more physical again. We continue to get our daily sounds from ever more insubstantial sources, floating above us like those glittering landscapes in Neuromancer, but we’re going to more concerts and festivals than ever and buying more stuff while we’re at it (merch. fancy limited editions. Even musical instruments are booming).

Turns out we love schlepping around for some actual, physical experience of music in an actual physical place as much as we love the disembodied bits. But there’s twenty-first Century physical and there’s eighteenth Century physical.

I’m reading a terrific book called 1791: Mozart’s Last Year, by H.C. Robbins Landon (who died last year). And it’s essentially a catalogue of grim physical trials – of epic journeys (in horse-drawn carriages quite often bought specially for the trip), of intolerable living conditions and diabolical food provided by hateful grandees who never paid their bills, of mysterious debilitating illnesses and (of course) of lives cut short by service to art (and to miserable patrons). The book’s full of enervating phrases like the one at the top (which is from an account of a dinner performance by Mozart) and:

The mail-coach with four horses left Vienna at eight o’clock in the morning and took three days, with twenty-one post stations, to arrive at Prague in the morning

(a trip to Prague to perform at a coronation). And here’s a job ad from Vienna in the period:

A musician is wanted, who plays the piano well and can sing too, and is able to give lessons in both. The musician must also perform the duties of a valet-de-chambre…

(My italics). And then, of course, there was the final, ghastly physicality of his early death:

Suddenly he began to vomit – it spat out of him in an arch – it was brown, and he was dead.

(and that’s from a book based on his wife’s recollections, quoted by Landon).

What I’m left with is an image of the musician as grafter, as under-appreciated, barely-recognised labourer in the fields of art. Sacrifice, privation, hunger, physical collapse – evidently the necessary preconditions for creation in that golden age.

My inspiration

I’m not a geek. I missed the boat. When I left school they’d just acquired a computer. It was a mysterious, chattering presence in a room in the maths department – a teletype connected to a mainframe somewhere – and I never met it.

But when I first encountered a computer – in a roomful of brand new Macs at the Polytechnic of Central London in 1985 – and set about learning about them, I beetled off to one of those Soho newsagents that still set my heart racing, with their rows and rows of exotic imported glossies, and looked in the computer section. The magazine I settled on and made my bible was called Byte.

Byte was recklessly terminated in 1998. I still miss it. It was a quite awesome monthly crash course in IT – a kind of undergraduate degree in magazine form. Long, gripping articles about chip design, network architecture, software and AI. I honestly owe more to Byte than to any other source of knowledge about computers.

Byte, which for most of its life was published by McGraw Hill, was no web pioneer. In fact, for a while, during all the really early frenzy (during which I helped publish a magazine that was all about the web), Byte was almost a holiday from the Internet – a place you could go to read about VLSI chips and ethernet while the rest of the world was going web crazy. When they decided to have a go, they did it in a very Byte way, though.

They put a man called Jon Udell on the case – he was a staff writer and he was given the job of building the magazine’s web presence and documenting the process month-by-month for readers. He brought the whole thing to life with a really forensic attitude to the emerging tools – and invented a bunch of new ones along the way. These days he works at Microsoft and he’s an influential geek with an interest in all sorts of developing areas – and his ‘interviews with innovators’ are published as part of the IT Conversations podcast.

But this one’s a bit different – a rather modest, one-hour conference speech about ‘the architecture of context’, in which he lays out his own, partial history of the net and remembers some of the lessons he learnt in the Byte days. Fascinating and inspiring.

The MP3 is from the IT Conversations podcast. Definitely worth signing up.