My Life as the Music Department Digital Archivist

Snowball

The performing arts are made of fleeting moments of genius.

Whether on nights under the lights on the school stage, or transcendent travels among musicians from different places and cultures, I’ve been fortunate to spend time basking in the magic created by our school’s musicians for a few years now. As a newly minted member of the fine arts department when I started teaching guitar five years ago, I often found myself in awe dropping in on choir rehearsals and jazz workshops, and forging connections with student-performers who in many cases served as musical inspiration, if not outright mentors.

Percussion

Having begun blogging with the TALONS a few years earlier, the prospect of documenting and sharing the performing arts struck me as a unique application of social media and digital storytelling that continues to be a joyful part of my educational life online. In 2010 I started a Music Department Blog, Twitter account, and Flickr page (later adding a SoundCloud account), which I have maintained in the years since with photos, recordings and videos collected from organized concerts, tours, and classroom learning, as well as local concerts and more informal performances beyond the curriculum.

In the course of five years, these artifacts have collected to serve as the musical traditions of our school community, which incoming students are greeted with and will continue to contribute to with their voices and instruments. Our experiences Practice Room Cwith broadcasting concerts live on distributed web radio have also grown from an experiment on the fringes of learning with technology to a commonplace occurrence several students volunteer to DJ/host and can handle with minimal teacher support.

Which has all come a long way from the spring of 2011, when we were only learning how to wield the software, and Twitter was still the new kid on the block. The day when parents, local schools, and students would each be conducting a good part of their public lives on social media hadn’t quite come to pass, and I’m proud of the work our Gleneagle community has been willing to share with the world beyond our hallway.

Throughout, I’ve considered it part of my job to anticipate and be nearby when interesting music is being made at or around the school.

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Like when the choir sneaks into the Cathedral of Havana to sing a Spanish hymn. Or when a group of guitar students hang around for the first few minutes of lunchtime to cover Bob Marley, or the Beatles, or Broken Social Scene, or Dan Mangan.

Or our flight to California is delayed, and there’s time to kill at the gate.

Or a few grade twelves pile into a horsedrawn carriage in Cuba with a guitar and clave, and sing what they see on their way to the market.

As with anything that leaves a digital tail, these recordings, videos and pictures tell the story of people who have passed through our musical community. They document our choir’s verse along with Chris Hadfield’s “Is Someone Singing?” on a nationwide Music Monday. And when our new principal dropped by guitar class.

And that time the Bears played the last day of school.

Throughout, my process in documenting these momentary feats has moved away from the more ambitious, to favour the quick and dirty. When I started doing this, I collected reams of Garageband files, GBs of HD videos and pictures, always with the intention of editing down sleek documents of radio or podcast perfection: suites of songs interspersed with interviews with kids. Mini-documentaries of our travels, or the behind-the-curtain mania of concert night.

But this generally creates a backlog of material to log and edit, and my best intentions while shooting and collecting material haven’t often seen the light of day in an ideal form.

So I’ve taken to grabbing what I can in bite-sized records and documents that I can upload, tag and add to playlists quickly, then move on.Rhythm Man

When we travel, and there’s ready access to wifi, I’ll interview kids briefly about what they’ve been enjoying, how they think the tour is going, and post it on a service like Audioboom, or Soundcloud. I’ll post pictures on Twitter, or Instagram.

And collect an array of performance videos.

I also try to collect photos of the more ‘official’ aspects of the tour or concert, as the personal narratives of the students are handily shared and selfie’d across different media when we travel. Sometimes I try to keep track of some of these postings, and collect them in Storify, Flickr or other places; but in truth there are a lot of music students, and I don’t follow many of them unless they’ve made a point of interacting and engaging with the school or my own account. If I notice that they’ve shared a particularly good photo of a memorable moment, I’ll ask for them to email it to me or if I might Retweet their post.

But the key remains organization, and to maintain a vigilance toward tagging, sorting, and archiving the ephemera of these magical moments. While they are each preserved momentarily within a picture or a Twitter update, after a few weeks – let alone five years – the artifacts themselves are lost with the melodies long-since sung or performed on stages wherever we go. Because these videos and pictures and posts all serve the immediate need to relive a trip just passed – our weeks old trip to Cuba this year, for instance – but also now reside among the playlists and albums of trips, concerts, and rehearsals going back to 2010.

In its entirety, it is a grand monument to the talent and community at Gleneagle, a song composed one note at a time and fixed into its proper place among its ancestors.

With Hemingway

Ambos Mundos

Italy, Spain, Cuba – half the world is filled with the places that he appropriated simply by mentioning them. In Cojimar, a little village near Havana where the solitary fisherman of ”The Old Man and the Sea” lived, there is a plaque commemorating his heroic exploits, with a gilded bust of Hemingway. In Finca de la Vigia, his Cuban refuge, where he lived until shortly before his death, the house remains intact amid the shady trees, with his diverse collection of books, his hunting trophies, his writing lectern, his enormous dead man’s shoes, the countless trinkets of life from all over the world that were his until his death, and that go on living without him, with the soul he gave them by the mere magic of his owning them.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez Meets Ernest Hemingway

Last week I was fortunate once again to travel to the island of Cuba and visit the Ambos Mundos hotel and bar that once housed Ernest Hemingway before he purchased and moved to his estate Finca de la Vigia. His first Cuban home, Hemingway began writing For Whom the Bell Tolls in room 511 at the hotel in the heart of Old Havana.

Havana Daytrip

When I graduated from university, my sister and I spent the following summer working at a Boy Scout camp in the Ozark foothills, and made a pact to read nothing but Hemingway for the balance of our time at the camp and en route back to Vancouver. He and I shared a birthday (July 21), and as a creative writing student I had learned from professors with deep affections for authors I hadn’t yet digested: among them Hemingway, William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. At the outset of my life beyond school and what promised to be an adventurous summer – my sister and I would leave the summer camp after six weeks in the woods to fly north and road trip across Canada – we seemed to have been presented a fitting venue to finally set teeth to Papa’s ouvre.

I had started For Whom the Bell Tolls before M. got off the plane with her copy to To Have and to Have Notand we marched forward from there:

I finished For Whom in a tent in Molena, Georgia, at a National Certification School for the Boy Scouts.

A Farewell to Arms, and Green Hills of Africa were read mostly near the scout camp pool in Damascus, Arkansas.

I read To Have and to Have Not in the tent that was my home that summer.

Islands in the Stream went down riding the train from Montreal to Toronto.

There were others, of course: The Sun Also Rises, Old Man and the SeaA handful of short stories: “The Killers,” “Hills like White Elephants,” “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” and others. And by the time we crossed the continental divide, Hemingway’s protagonists and prose had enveloped the colour and tenor of our adventure.

View from Ambos Mundos

At twenty two years old, and newly graduated with a degree in creative writing, our summer in the woods and the ensuing journey home represented the discovery of an all-too-enourmous canvas upon which to paint my sister’s and my lives. Saying goodbye to intense and short-lived friendships, taking on the struggles of life outdoors, travel, not to mention fears about what lie ahead in terms of what I would do with my college education, Hemingway’s plots and conflicts provided a matter-of-fact commitment to the rough, sad, beauty of life.

In Niagra Falls, on the first afternoon of our trip, we found just more than $117 in our shared savings account, and more than 3000 kilometers between us and home.

Outside of Thunder Bay we drove into the darkening night and creepy dirt-road northern towns looking for a place to pitch our tent.

And upon arriving home, we learned that our mother had been diagnosed with cancer (which she would eventually beat).

Each of these difficulties was embraced with Hemingway’s words ringing in our ears: “The world breaks everyone, and afterwards many are strong at the broken places.” And as we crested the rocky mountains and entered again the lush and coastal climes of British Columbia, we had come to see ourselves as characters as large in life as the continent we had just crossed. There was little need to express this grandeur in hyperbole or poetry, however; the stark terms of Hemingway’s words created a notion of quiet heorism that was somehow the least any of us could do with our minute lives.

Papa's CornerYears before I would begin teaching a high school course in philosophy, Ernest offered a view on the good life I could embrace: “So far, about morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.”

In the years since I’ve been guided by other artists, and other authors: Bob Dylan, Garcia Marquez. Springsteen. But in the spirit of Dylan, “I remember every face, of every man that’s brought me here,” and to stand in Hemingway’s lobby, and turn the knob on the door that he slept behind, is to touch something intangible that has profoundly shaped my life as an adult.

Last fall, I read The Dangerous Summera disappointing visit with an aging author in which his lesser qualities run too close to the surface: his infatuation with the brutal “beauty” of bullfighting, chief among them, perfectly representative of the shortcomings in his work around his own image, as well as masculinity and misogyny. But even while acknowledging these shortcomings, the ripples that he made with his mind in the world demand to be reckoned with, if only for me personally as someone who his work  has profoundly touched and influenced.

Sipping an icy lemonade in the lobby bar surrounded by pictures of a formal idol, a depressed man (along with fellow 21st’er Robin Williams) with whom I share a birthday, what he had created in his mind’s eye and invoked in my own imagination became real once more.

I was able to breathe its air, and touch its humid surfaces. To know that it and the life I had conceived in my mind as a young man are in fact still real.