Friday, October 31, 2008

Simply Complex

There's a quote by Don Norman that I often reference:

Most technology goes through cycles of development and change in both internal and external complexity. As the technology matures… devices become easier to use, although usually by becoming more complex inside.
(from The Invisible Computer)

This provides a succinct description of technology evolution in general, from NASA space modules to hand-held devices. It also applies to enterprise IT infrastructure and applications. Driven by the needs of users who demand smoother experiences and better access to data, enterprise systems are wired together in new ways to accomplish sleight of hand. The problem is the result: messy, ad-hoc solutions without holistic architectural vision. Norman's "easier to use" should apply not only to the end user, but also to the designers, architects, and developers who manage the system.

Ease of use - simplicity - is an illusion. Simplicity is managed complexity. In enterprise IT systems, simplicity results from effective management of architectural layers that interact but remain independent. This allows complexity to be encapsulated where it belongs and reduces the dependencies that result from ad-hoc solutions. The same theory applies to organizational structures, too. Specialists in specific domains (like HR, marketing, IT, sales) combine their functions into a whole system that, when functioning correctly, appears simpler than it is.

Those wishing to make their IT departments and systems simpler need to keep this in mind. Idealized simplicity will never be possible. Certainly, eliminating redundancies and streamlining processes will reduce complexity directly. True simplicity, however, is accomplished when architecture steps in to manage dependencies and identify opportunities for improved design/engineering. If we acknowledge that increased internal complexity is a feature of technology evolution, then we will shift our energies away from elimination of complexity and towards improved management.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Listening to Jazz Efterratt

I was in Prague last week, attending our annual European Catalyst conference. It followed the typical pattern of a long overseas flight followed by bleary eyed city walking. Once acclimated, we spent hours interacting with clients, presenting, and "being on". By the end of the week, we are all ready to escape the confines of the conference venue and explore the town. For some, this means finding a chain of clubs that take them from 9pm to breakfast the next morning. For others, it means finding a couple good places to camp out, eat, drink, and listen to live music. For us this year, that place was the Reduta Jazz Club. The first band we heard was Jazz Efterratt (aka jazzef), a collective of studio musicians and alumni from the Prague Conservatory. The style: funk/fusion: not an old standard in sight (unless you consider Corea's "Spain" to be an old standard).

So, there we were. Mike Rollings, Anne Thomas Manes, Richard Watson, and Phil Schacter (our divining rod for all things musical while on the road). Following a smoking first set, Mike turns to me and (with Bowmore breath) asks: "How do you hear this?"

Wow. That's a question I have never been asked, except by myself.

It was hard to put it into words right away. I stumbled over an answer while we could still hear each other, but otherwise tucked it away for pondering. How did I hear this music?

First of all, it had typical elements of jazz: intro, head, variations masquerading as solos, head, extro. But that fundamental form is just the beginning. When applied to "I Remember Clifford", the result is very different from "One for Vaya" (sp?), an orginal tune played that night. The textures of traditional jazz tend to be more compartmentalized: drums do drum things, pianos do piano things, etc. With notable exceptions (e.g., Joe Morello's melodic tom work), players observed boundaries. With jazzef, these boundaries are sometimes observed, other times crossed with a vengeance.

Jazzef embraced fusion/funk with gusto. It is complicated music, characterized by energetic, angular, quirky, quasi-unison heads with strong grooves and lots of syncopated shots tossed in. It requires absolute synchronization among players or else the entire illusion falls apart. These heads come back in the midst of the solos as structural scaffolding. Occasionally, for example in an ABA-form head, the B section features more heterophonic texture with carefully orchestrated polyrhythms. The tension of these B's set up a forceful return to the repeat of A, often with players unconsciously choreographing the release of tension.

The solos were a hybrid of variations over the harmonic and rhythmic structure of the head, extended with longer vamps and free sections. Rather than just plowing through the solos and flashing chops, jazzef crafted the entire texture with shifts in dynamics and timbre. Often, energy was built up to a peak out of which a subtle, static solo emerged on the other end of the dynamic spectrum. The ears don't tire when music has this give and take. The vacuum created by the shift in texture draws the listener in.

Rhythmic complexity abounds in this music, but not complexity for its own sake. It is related (distantly) to the layered rhythmic structure of medieval motets, with considerable independence among players. As a whole, however, the rhythms combine into a strong gestural pulse (macrorhythm) which serves to organize them. This allows the microrhythms to increase in complexity, especially in the solos, without having the whole edifice come crashing down. While watching jazzef, the macrorhythm was present in the head movements of bassist Tomáš Uhlík: despite the surface rhythmic complexities, Tomas bobbed his head to the larger rhythm. I'm sure he had no idea. As it should be. The play of polyrhythms at the micro level creates considerable tension, especially at the climax of solos. For example, the keyboardist would often accelerate or decellerate independently from the primary pulse. Impossible to notate. He and the drummer would often perform metric modulations or shift into odd groupings (5:4, 7:8). These micro complexities appear daunting to the classically trained musician, but are simplified by letting the macrorhythm dominate. Within the gestural span of the macrorhythm, anything can happen and things usually line up correctly.

The tension between underlying form and overlying surface is a larger version of the same phenomenon. It is gestural tension. The further away from the head the solo gets, the freer the player is to move "outside". S/He can rely on the others to keep the macroform in play. For the listener, the delta between the underlying form and the surface created by the soloist creates interest, even though they may be mostly unaware of the mechanics. The same is true for a Beethoven sonata: after clear statement of the themes, Beethoven moves farther and farther away harmonically and motivically. Eventually, he returns the listener to the themes in (mostly) original form. The listener has been taken on a journey. The music of jazzef continues this tradition, albeit with a different harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic language. But Beethoven would not have been shocked...he would hear himself in it. So would Bach, Mahler, Stravinksy, Messiaen, Boulez, Miles, Bird, etc, etc.

At one point, I laughed out loud at something that happened as jazzef was playing. This prompted a quizzical look from Mike at the time, and a barrage of questions from him over the next 24 hours. In the midst of this driving funk, the players acted simultaneously to shift into swing for an odd number of bars, then back again. Once. Didn't happen again. That unexpected turn was what caught my ear and made me laugh. Good music does this. Shake me out of my complacency. It is alive. This gets at the other magic of players that trust each other. At times, they act like a flock of birds: they move in a certain direction at the same time. When that happens spontaneously, it is gripping. With jazzef, it happened throughout the evening.

That's a bit of insight into how I listen. More later.

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