Making Music with Others

The Tuning Meditation is a “text score” by American composer Pauline Oliveros. It has no musical notes. Instead, written instructions explain how participants should create tones from their imagination, sing them out loud, and then alternate between singing new tones and matching the tones being made by others.

Being familiar with the way conference A/V usually works, when I planned to lead SRECon23 Americas in The Tuning Meditation for my talk Human Observability of Incident Response, I knew this audience participation bit was something the video recording would not be able to capture.

For a long time this thinking prevented me from trying this out in my other talks, but for whatever reason I decided this was the time to do it. I have come to some personal revelations in my life since I last gave a talk, and it was time to really be myself.  So in fact, this was the time for me to double-down on it.

First and foremost I wanted to give all of you, who journeyed to the "hotel desert" to join us, the opportunity to enhance a memorable experience at the conference.

Secondly, I wanted to provide an opportunity to learn with something more meaningful than metaphor alone. If I could share the experience of Joint Activity with everyone first, and then not only point at it and say "that's a Joint Activity" but explain why, my message might help soften the blow of how complex this stuff really is.

I didn't know if this would work as well as it did. I was apprehensive. I have conducted everything from large wind orchestras to small choirs and chamber ensembles, I have performed in a marching band of over 300 people, in operas in front of hundreds more, at The Kennedy Center for thousands. I have improvised with groups numbering between two and two hundred plus, and solo for decades. But none of that prepared me for the experience of not knowing what would happen trying to conduct an unsuspecting audience that led to an experience I wasn't expecting to hear: a mesmerizing interaction of human song murmuring from floor to ceiling. Our Joint Activity was a great success. The energy I was able to collect to propel our time together forward was all from your voices.

So what gave me the courage to do it? Was it all that experience? Partly. Was it my undying love of performing music? For sure. Was it Amy Tobey's rollicking RPG portal into a fantastic view of where we are going as SRE? She sealed the deal, for I am joining her there.

Ultimately, I was leaning on my adaptive expertise. If my approach turned out to be a dud and nobody sang, or people laughed, or ducks dropped through the ceiling tiles... it didn't really matter to me, I wasn't preparing for an outcome. I was preparing to make music. I would do it alone if I had to.

Surprises in our systems can feel like this experience. We cannot sit around coming up with all the ways our systems can fail and then beat ourselves up when The Big One has nothing to do with any of them. The ways we learn to adapt for the small ensembles and chamber accidents will become emergent and rise to the occasion when symphonic sized challenges push at the envelope of our safety.

In the preface of Sonic Meditations, Pauline Oliveros writes that we seek a balance of "steady attention and steady awareness". She goes on to describe the two: "Attention is narrow, pointed, and selective. Awareness is broad, diffuse, and inclusive. [...] Attention can intensify awareness. Awareness can support attention. There is attention to awareness; there is awareness of attention."

What she means is that we have to maintain this balance as situations emerge. While we're playing our instrument, we are attentive to how we play. When we are making music with others, we balance that attention with the awareness of each other. While we're coordinating around an incident, we are playing with this same balance. Not only are we attentive to different points of action, we gain awareness by supporting common ground.

This is symbolized by the mandala in my talk, which Pauline uses to illustrate the concept in her writings. I'm really happy I ended up using her example as the corner piece. Balancing Attention and Awareness is essential to the music we make as an integrated socio-technical team, and experiencing that delicate pull together has no better teacher.