Thursday, January 28, 2010
There were moments in Monterey last Saturday when a room of hundreds held its breath with shared lungs. It happened as Marc-André Hamelin’s hands flew over keys of ivory like supernatural tarantulas, summoning thunder, then whispering silk – before he deployed the power of Tchaikovsky’s “The Lullaby” with just five fingers.
It happened when an elementary school kid from the inner-city L.A. program Hobart Shakespeareans – for whom English is a second language – stood before the heady audience saturated with captains of industry and divas of creativity and, trembling with the force of the moment, boomed: “And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?!”
It happened when Grammy winner Joshua Bell tore into a revolutionized rendering of “Yankee Doodle” on a 300-year-old Stradivarius that sent singed horsehair popping from the bow and the crowd leaping to its feet.
“‘P.S. YOU EVER REALIZE PETER O’TOOLE HAS A DOUBLE PHALLIC NAME?’”
Yet these were but tiny fractions of the three-day equation that was the Entertainment Gathering – the TED-style imaginarium arranged to stack brief presentations and precocious performances that generate moments, as the website says, “kaleidoscopic in their patterns of innovation.” They are also “breeder reactor[s] for talents, technologies and ideas that inspire many of the boldest trends in our culture” – which inspire 400 well-off attendees to happily spoon out $4,000. (It sold out early.)
The organizers’ claim that EG can’t be described, only experienced, now makes a little more sense. Attempting to articulate just one short film that bridged segments, Synthesia, in which a kid plugs his ear phones into meats, fruits and foodstuffs, while doves, cats and bouncy balls spill from family-room speakers – let alone the collective crunch of the conference on attendee consciousness – feels like folly.
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An intimate atmosphere reigned: Hosts and presenters hugged, imagination-igniting innovations were relayed with a humility as casual as the clothing.
There was art. There was music. There was in between. Father-son savants Eric and Marty Demaine unfolded how math spawns computational origami that makes both airbags and MoMa-magnitude art possible. Grammy-nominated organ genius Cameron Carpenter negotiated five tiers of keys, 300 knobs and a phalanx of foot pedals with a whirling-dervish dexterity that required eye rubbing. An “oracle” appeared to pluck questions from a hopper filled with inquiries from the audience. (“What are my favorite animal noises?” “In what language? The word for ‘oink oink’ in Greek is ‘goi goi.’”)
Legends forwarded causes and took the audience back. Galloping Gourmet Graham Kerr decried “Alka-Seltzer giving.” Dick Cavett shared a letter from Groucho Marx.
“‘Dear Dick, and this is the dirtiest opening for a letter I ever wrote,’” he read, “‘I received your insincere one-page missive and will respond in kind… Can’t write more because the girl taking dictation has a great pair of legs and it’s getting distracting… P.S. You ever realize Peter O’Toole has a double phallic name?’”
Game-changers described their improbable plays. Creative Commons chief Esther Wojcicki explored how she turned Palo Alto High’s journalism class into a 500-student juggernaut with broadcast, radio, web and magazine organs. Pixar co-founder Ed Catmill said the key thing for a creative team is to “try to make others look good.” Filmmaker-diver-musician Henry Kaiser rolled reels of under-Antarctic-ice scuba exploring while plucking away at an electric guitar. Uncanny composer-inventor Todd Macover introduced revolutions like Hyperscore, which gives kids with no musical training a radical tool to pen original scores and slide-showed a concert-hall barge he wants to float from port to port.
As the topics sprawled across a wide acreage of inspiration, they remained in a place best described by a participant as on “the edge of something, because that’s where interesting things happen.” And while the action rarely strayed from spellbinding, intended outcomes seemed intentionally off limits. Maybe concrete aims are uncomely with such an accomplished cross-section. More likely, they are impractical, limiting the free creative-artistic-intellectual cross-pollination that brings the brightest blooms.
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Before the Hobart Shakespeareans stole the air from the audience a final time, pianist-organizer-emcee Michael Hawley asked the crowd if EG should come again, acknowledging he was in agony on whether to take on the effort again.
Cheers flew. “Do it!” came a shout.
He took a moment to marvel at what he’d seen in Monterey over three days.
“It’s never as magical as this,” he said, “but it always has to be.”