THE BLOG
12/01/2014 09:48 am ET Updated Jan 31, 2015

Recording Is the Art of Forgetting - Enjoy Yourself

"Recording is the art of forgetting." I found the phrase written in my journal the other day. I suppose it's only fitting that I seem to have forgotten where I first heard it. If the phrase is true, then I've forgotten a lot -- I've made a career out of it even. I live in an age of digital media where all is recorded -- videos, selfies, closed circuit TV, Facebook and Twitter capture most of the human experience. If a tree falls in the forest and no one posts a picture on Instagram, did it make a sound? Maybe. Maybe not.

Our lives emulate the idols and heroes of our times. From an early age, we begin to imitate the folks we follow on our social networks. We too want to lead well-documented, well "liked" lives in the public sphere. I too am a participant -- I've posted more than a thousand photos. We can't go back in time: photography, recorded music and the Internet are more than just a passing craze. But as a recording artist, I'm well aware of the enormous difference between seeing a band live and listening to the record. I want to examine the difference between recording the event and living it.

Our urge to record is only natural. Time marches past us: we want to capture it, to preserve it. We want to acknowledge the worth of the present tense -- to take a picture, to write it down. But as I look out from stage night after night at a sea of cell phones, I wonder whether anyone could really capture a moment? How much of the joy of the present tense will be communicated through these blurry, distorted, pixilated videos?

In spite of our best attempts to capture these moments and save them for later, joy can only happen in the present tense. The euphoria of the now cannot be taken prisoner -- it is only available to us in this one instance alone and then it is gone. Certainly a digital video can help us remember the evening, but it's the memory that brings us joy, not the blown-out video, right? Ironically enough, our urge to capture the here-and-now in a recording can actually inhibit our joy. Our attempt to preserve the thrill of the moment can rob us of the moment itself. We become sidelined observers in the present tense, not participators on the field.

Turn a camera on and behavior begins to change on both sides of the lens. The "observer effect" in physics refers to the changes that any act of observation makes on the objects being observed. What this means is that the very act of observation fundamentally changes that which you are observing. It might be hard to understand the implications of the observer effect in particle physics, but the same thing happens when you pull a camera out: people make silly faces, or shy away from the lens, or maybe "Kodak courage" emboldens another not-so-bright idea destined for YouTube glory.

When we are observers rather than participants, our fundamental role in life has changed. Yes, our body is still in the room, but our role as observer is focused on lighting, composition, battery life and focus. We are ever so slightly sidelined from our role on the field of the present tense. Each and every moment of my life happens only once. Was I present? Fully embracing the moment? Or was I looking through the lens focused on my role of recording the moment, rather than on the playing field of the present tense?

Now don't get me wrong -- I love taking photos. And I am so glad that I've documented some of the moments in my life, especially the shots that I've taken of my little daughter. But the fact remains the same: No one else can experience joy for you. It's a remarkable quality of the human experience: you alone can occupy your own unique place in history. No one else can live in this moment quite like you -- not your sister, not your best friend and not your iPhone. Even in a crowd, you alone are responsible for embracing your own unique joy in the moment. Enjoy yourself; no one else can do it for you.

And yet, there are so many things that derail me from participating in the joy of the moment -- it's not just when I'm behind the lens. The hindrances in my life are those distractions that inhibit my joy. These diversions take me off the field of play, sidelining me from my own unique role in the present reality. For example, my fears take me to the possibility of a negative future. My regret and shame drag me into the past. Comparison focuses my attention on the people around me and the differences between their experience and my own. If comparison is the thief of joy, then our culture is being robbed blind. You'd be hard pressed to find a society that has a wider net for comparison than our own. Everyday, digital visions are delivered to us, where the grass really is greener -- photoshopped and color enhanced! These rob me of my own life when I am no longer fully present to the joy and pain of the moment.

What joys have I missed, occupied with my fears, my regret, my comparisons? Too many to count. Sometimes, when I'm busy with these distractions, my daughter reminds me of the simple bliss of the present tense: a couple ants on the playground, a dandelion, the wind in the trees. Certainly the camera and the microphone are not the enemy. Like a website, or a knife or subatomic theory -- these are just the tools at hand. We are responsible for our use of these powerful tools, our dangerous diversions from the playing field of the present tense.

Every moment is infinitely complex, wrought with context and color, smell and taste, the fears and hopes of perspective that cannot be captured by a microphone and a camera alone. Because of these limitations, every medium of art and story telling is only a limited version of the layers of truth that every moment holds. The painting, the movie, the song -- these may be incredible facsimiles of our experience here on earth. But how much richer still is the moment that these arts are attempting to capture. Every photograph, every recorded song, every movie -- these are fiction. They create their own worlds. Even in their best efforts to tell the truth, they are beautiful lies -- half-truths, partial stories.

That's why live music will always be better than the recording. Riding on the sound waves of every unique note, our own idiosyncratic experience here on the planet is ratified. Certainly all art takes time to enjoy, but music and the dances that accompany it are the only art forms that require a set amount of time for complete enjoyment. Music is time travel: to experience it you actually travel through time with the art itself. You and the musician are different people when you finish than when you began.

Not so long ago, in a town called Paris, a man dreamed of recording sound. He wanted to bottle up the things he heard and play them back later. What an incredible idea: to steal the sound waves right out of thin air! He lived in a time when the legacy of composers like Bach or Beethoven were preserved only on paper, brought to life in the hands of capable musicians. A resurrection every time! No microphones. No tape machines. No iPods. The symphony would strike the final note and the music would disappear. Gone. Living on only in the memory of the listener.

I was watching the ocean as the sun went down yesterday and I was struck by the unrepeatable elements of our world. Every sunset, every wave crashing on the shore, each of them is distinct; they happen only once and then they are gone forever. In the same way, our experience on this planet is infinitely unique. Each of us find ourselves passing through these seas of time without any way back, crashing on these final shores only once. Like a butterfly landing on your open hand, the moment flies away when you try to catch it with a fist.

Time lurches forward. Moment after moment passes; wave after wave washes over us, until even life itself departs from our bodies. We want to stop the clock, to hold on to the moment. Yes, the joys that we experience in the present are beautiful and certainly worth holding onto. But if recording is the art of forgetting, then maybe the art of life is found in your present attention to the moment. Maybe you and I are the painting, the poem, the tape machine. Waves of light and sound wash over us, and our canvas responds with actions of our own: Experiencing this joy and giving it away. So take pictures of the waves of color sweeping over you. Write it down. Record the moment as best you can. But know that these waves can never be fully tamed by the pen, or the lens or the tape machine. No, the waves that break on your shores cannot be captured by human hands, but they beckon us to come out to the deep waters and ride them.