Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Eric Lewis as an Example of the New Media Cultural Landscape

The other day I was poking around on and I stumbled upon this stunning video of Eric Lewis playing the piano:

Not only did Lews' performance send my mind to another world of sonic capabilities, I recognized that Inside this whirlwind of sounds, textures and melodies at Lewis' fingertips lay a polyphonic illustration of the contemporary cultural production landscape proliferated by the digital revolution.

First, Lewis, a skilled Jazz musician who studied at The Manhattan School of Music in 1995, has upended the traditional use of the piano, one of the most traditional instruments in western music history. Lewis reaches inside to the guts of the piano where he plucks strings, mutes hammers, and touches sounds. He totally re-evalutates how one is "supposed" to play the piano and treats the entire instrument, rather than just the black and white keys, as something that can be played. This skill of thinking creatively outside the norms that society lays on us is important in a globalized society that relies on innovation and outside-the-box-ness to create new ideas and generate new industries. Without brains like Lewis,' I'd still be mining coal and typing on a typewriter.

Lewis also patches together a pastiche of different styles and genres, from Jazz and Rock, to fringe avant-garde. The organized chaos of this piece is clearly preconceived and moves between traditional harmonies to wild dissonance, often at the same time, while staying inside the framework that Lewis has created. Digital information in the computer age similarly coexists with different kinds of information and also must be arranged from the chaos of information overload into some kind of structure that we can make sense of. Peer reviewed essays and journalistic features exist beside blogs and amateur websites, evening news next to user uploads on YouTube, and we are challenged to organize these, sometimes simultaneously, in a way that allows us to connect the dots and participate meaningfully.

This piece is also a cover of Evanescence's "Going Under," a hard rock song re-arranged by Lewis on the piano. Repurposing content is not new, but, with the rise of Girl Talk and YouTube mash-ups, the early 2000s will be remembered as the decade of re-appropriation. Remix culture is a huge part of contemporary Web scene and it is a unique way for participants to make sense of an increasingly mediated world which, unfortunately, is sometimes in direct opposition to how media corporations want us to experience cultural artifacts. Regardless of what the culture industry thinks, re-appropriation will not go away. Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, an African-American playwrite and director who has written a modern, multiracial interpretation of Herman Melville's Moby Dick wrote this about the politics and ethics of remixing, reprinted in Henry Jenkins' blog:
"The first step in remixing novels is to stay honest to the original text. Put a value on that, understand it, appreciate it, and then start the remixing process. Edit down to the big questions. Why? What? Why is it important now? And then take the reins off, take the leash off, take the bit out of the mouth and let imaginations run wild, and be careful not to censor too harshly."
In this way, remixing is an important tool for the 21st century mind that allows us to dive deeper into the essence of culture.

Finally, the production and distribution of this performance on the TED website, an organization "devoted to ideas worth spreading," is one of the most significant aspects of this piece in regard to the contemporary cultural landscape. Unlike other performance exhibitions such as America's Got Talent, or American Idol, this video is available to anyone with an Internet connection, at any time, on demand, just...because. It is not judged or scrutinized by a celebrity panel. Its quality will never be voted on by a live studio audience. It doesn't need to qualify to move on to the next round, nor does it need to be marketed and sold as an economic commodity. As cliché and banal as it may seem, it can Licensed under Creative Commons, the video can be embedded anywhere and will spread on its own merit outside of the profit motive without being restricted under proprietary conventions, allowing a cycle of active consumption and innovation to ride on its back (such as this very blog entry).

Eric Lewis' barrage of sound waves fed from the World Wide Web, through my computer speakers and into my ears sonifies what the Internet and the Information Age can accomplish. It creates new forms, explores old ones, distributes them outside the gatekeeping mediums of yesterday, and returns cultural production and consumption back into the hands the general public- something we all can be a part of.

Here are some more clips of Eric Lewis' performances that are definitely worth watching:

Playing on the "Tavis Smiley" show

Performing "Mr. Brightside" at the White House

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