TEDActive 2012: Billy Collins, Michael Tilson Thomas

Though I was a bit distracted by the Hackathon, I still managed to listen to and watch several talks from TED while out in Palm Springs.  Here are a couple of brief notes and opinions, and links to the talks themselves from TED.com when available.

Billy Collins: It wasn’t shocking when Collins got a standing ovation – you don’t get to be the American Poet Laureate for two years because people hate what you do.  Like most good poets, Collins was good at getting in touch with his own feelings and then sharing them with the audience in a pithy way.  For those who hadn’t seen him before, I think it was a revelation that poetry could be funny and still insightful.  For me, it was a) a reaffirmation that yep, I still like his poetry and b) we agree on a surprising amount of what poetry is and does and should be.

For example, Collin’s spoke about how badly attempts to put his poetry to music had gone (I remember an incident in which someone tried to arrange one of my poems for a chorus and just designed to change the words wherever she saw fit) and his resistance to putting visuals to his poetry, because isn’t the whole point of being a poem that it isn’t a picture?  He showed off some animations that he finally consented to and enjoyed, but for my part, I watched the talk entirely with my eyes closed.

Michael Tilson Thomas: I may be fairly naive for having not paid attention to this before, but classical musical is highly recognizable, without ever having been consciously paid attention to.  Tilson Thomas told the story of an old man who was futilely trying to tap out on the piano something he had heard and his joy when Tilson Thomas recognized it and played a bit of it.  A lovely moment, certainly, but also I think a wider truth about the place that classical music occupies in our minds.  Entirely without paying any attention to classical music, and probably professing to hating it, almost every 10-year-old in America could hum the 1812 Overture for you with near perfection.  Indeed, you could likely get the same effect in most countries in the world.  What other form of music has that kind of penetration, that entirely without liking it or wanting to have it in your life, it still manages to be a part of the dominant consciousness of pretty much everyone?

I’m sure there is other music that has done this: The Beatles, Bob Marley.  But most people would say they like The Beatles and Bob Marley – the interesting part about classical music is that it has had this effect entirely without people liking it or even caring enough to form an opinion.  It just…invades.  And it has its own unspoken language; as Tilson Thomas puts it, the difference between happy and sad (major and minor) is just 37 vibrations.  Sometimes I think we forget the subtlety of our musical palate and our complex relationship with sound: in a world of “interactive”, it is sight that gets most the attention.  I may be wandering a bit here from Tilson Thomas’ examples, but seriously, how often have you actually sat and thought about the two tones that play when you plug in and remove a USB device?  They so clearly say “plugged in” and “removed” without ever saying a word…two notes, either in rising or falling, are simple enough to convey the entire message.

Bravo, sound.