Play Along Culture: “Cathedral,” Rec Room, Home Studio

rec room r.i.p. Do rumpus rooms even exist anymore? Been awhile since I was hanging suburban basements, but I wonder if the once popular rec room (or rumpus room) has gone the way of the dodo, usurped by the home office or studio and a whole new set of expectation about how and why we recreate. Frequenting online music sites, as I sometimes do, I notice numerous references to the "home studio"—as in for sale: mint condition Les Paul, only ever used in the "home studio."  Following the links back to YouTube, there is evidence that new hybrid, prosumer (blended consumption and production) spaces are flourishing. The rec rooms of yesteryear seem to be giving way to these "studios"—spare bedrooms and basement living spaces that are fitted out with all the gear (instruments, amps, mics, mixers, recorders, and cameras wired up to a laptop or PC) needed to play along with your favourite performers, and in so doing, to produce DIY audio-video recordings as you do. These home office/studio spaces offer haphazard collections of gear and furniture that are reminiscent of older rec rooms; yet, they are designed to function in a categorically different way. These studios are not the spaces of active consumption we grew up with: they do not seem to be well equipped for rowdy TV watching, loud partying, or general rough housing. Instead, these spaces seem to favour relatively passive forms of production: individualized recording rehearsal sessions in which one plays along with a favourite track. Rock and roll, it seems, has left the garage for the youtube channel. play along In this week's ENGL 100 lecture, I talked about "play along culture." I lit on the idea as was looking for a way of unpacking Raymond Carver's "Cathedral," and thinking about the text in relation a chapter from John Seabrook's Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, The Marketing of Culture. Surfing the web, I was looking for video clips for Thelonius Monk and Glenn Gould, two artists who exemplify a productive approach to the tension between performance and recording. To me, their very different mystiques rest on an uncanny ability to flout the grid, to produce recordings that seem to fly beyond it. In the process, I stumbled across the video of the young man playing bass along with Third World's "Reggae Ambassador." Initially, I was struck by the uncool way this performer uses his t-shirt or pillow case as a buffer between his naked torso and bass. As I listened, however, I was taken by his ability to more or less insert himself into the groove. He's not bad, I found myself thinking. I started to enjoy the track, almost in spite of myself. The other aspect of the video that struck me was the number of associated videos linked to it. I have seen hours of instructional videos on youtube, and am aware of numerous amateur players uploading videos. Usually, however, these videos mingle with those of the "real performers"—the amateurs' DIY recordings intermingle with live footage and music videos from the pros. Next to this, this play-along artist's offering, there was a full stream of amateur bass player sharing their own interpretations, or rather recreations, of famous reggae bass lines. In the context of thinking about my lecture and Carver and Seabrook texts, the notion of playing along took on new meaning. "Cathedral" Carver's now canonical  "Cathedral," the title story of his 1983 collection, offers an exquisite representation of late 20th century life, which culminates in a trenchant critique of the hyper-mediation North American culture. The story revolves around the relationship between an unnamed narrator and a "blind man," Robert.  Robert is a friend of the narrator's (also unnamed) wife, and he comes to visit the couple for an evening. After dinner and copious amounts of alcohol, the narrator and Robert retire to the living room where they watch television and share "some cannabis" (104). The wife joins the two men on the sofa, but soon falls asleep.  When she goes to bed, the men stay up watching TV: "Something about the church and the Middle Ages" (105). In the silence between voice overs, Robert asks the narrator to describe the documentary and what he sees on screen. It is apparent that the narrator understand little about what he is watching. When asked, he is unable to relate anything more than the information provided in the voice over. He confesses, "I'm not doing so good, am I." And when Robert encourages him, the narrator relates that "he tried to think of what else to say.'They are really big,' I said. 'They're massive. They're built of stone. Marble, too, sometimes.'" The narrator is frustrated that he can't do much better than this: "'The Truth is, cathedrals don't mean anything special to me. Nothing. Catherdrals. They're something to look at on late-night TV. That's all they are.'" Robert responds, "I get it, bub. It's okay. It happens. Don't worry about it." And then he asks the narrator to get a heavy piece of paper and a pen and the two work together to draw a cathedral. Getting down onto the carpet the "blind man . . . found my hand, the had with the pen. He closed his had over my hand. 'Go ahead, bub, draw."Hand in hand on the carpet the two men work toward a deeper (spiritual?) understanding of their subject matter. Carver's narrative ends on a deeply ambivalent note, and yet in so doing, it sets out a paradigm that seems to be increasingly familiar and relevant today. Making the shift from passive consumers to active producers, the narrator and Robert effectively transform the living room. Off the sofa, they play together; sharing the controls, they redraw the catherdral's sacred seat in the midst of the narrator's mundane, deeply secular living space. Deep Ambiguity, Serious Play Trying to make sense of this play along paradigm and its potentially applicability to Carver "Cathedral," I came across the work of Kiri Miller, an ethnomusicologist whose research looks at new forms of game play: Guitar Hero and Grand Theft Auto. Miller's blog playing along and recent Oxford UP publication Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance trace a link been multi-user games and online music lessons as important forms of embodied learning. As a gloss on Carver's wonderfully ironic, erotically charged ending, Miller's work seems to add an interesting angle on thinking about the transformation of literary studies. If Carver's narrative encapsulates the demise of literary culture, it does so in a way that foregrounds reading as a physical, material, embodied practice. Superseded by television, and perhaps Robert's audio books, the printed literary text may have ceased to play a vital roll in the social or personal lives of these characters. Like the cathedral, the printed word has come to take on historical, rather than immediate relevance. And yet, it is as writer and reader that the two men embrace. In the glow of this late night documentary, their awkward connection hangs. Uncertain of the different meanings each character might take from the event, uncertain who will remember what in the morning, Carver's readers are taken to the un/comfortable edge of voyeurism, to this place between watching and doing. Seeing their shared pen as a prototypical joy stick (phallic pun intact), I'm tempted to say the story takes us up to the historical beginnings of video gaming. Working together, the efforts of narrator and Robert in someways prefigure the radical transformation of living room or rumpus room into new kind of play space—in which the consumption and production of culture converge. The trick is to enter this space with a kind of critical openness. To this end, Miller throws herself into her research, playing along with the millions of gamers and performers she seeks to study and learn from. In this way, she finds personal meaning in what might seem on first blush to be fairly lowbrow culture. In  a blog post from her fieldwork as student of the nextlevelguitar.com online program, Miller writes that
the total absence of performance anxiety is one major difference between this learning experience and the private piano and voice lessons of my teenage years: after all, I'm alone in my living room. Except that I'm also not alone, because at any moment I can click over to the NextLevelGuitar forum and seek advice and encouragement from other students, or send David a question, or do a YouTube search to see how other guitarists hold the instrument or the pick. And if I want an audience, I can post a video of my playing to the NextLevelGuitar "Audio/Video Showcase"
At the time she posted this blog, Miller tells us that there are "1,894 posts in that section so far, and a wealth of crowd-sourced feedback." I could get to like this "real guitar" thing.  

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