The Explore/Exploit Dilemma

I am currently reading a particularly excellent book entitled Algorithms to Live By (by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths) which attempts to take some of the insights learned by producing algorithms in mathematics, and especially for computers, and applying them to real life.  Expect me to be using the principles of “interrupt coalescence” and the “tail drop” in my everyday life from now on!  The book also provided a simple explanation of a technique I have been using (albeit within a “black box”) at work for almost twenty years without (as it now transpires) understanding it at all.

Like all the best books, be they fiction or non-fiction (which is a terrible name for the written form of  a huge swathe of human knowledge), this book has introduced me to new ideas and forced adjustment (or abandonment) of existing ones.  The title – and the content – of this post refers to one of these.  For a human, the dilemma might be whether to re-visit a tried and tested restaurant (“exploit”) or to try somewhere new (“explore”).  For humans, we tend towards greater exploitation and less exploration as we grow older: if for no other reason that that there is less time to exploit any new discoveries found while exploring.  In my general raging against the dying of the light (which is, frankly, a tad too bright at the moment and could usefully die a little), I am trying to resist this tendency, though my innate laziness does – all too often – favour exploitation.

For this post, I will be exploring the dilemma in terms of my musical gig going using three examples from recent weeks.  In these antics, my decision-making is also influenced by a desire to support (as well as exploit) favourite artists – some of whom also count as friends – and to support the local music scene and its unusually large number and range of venues: something that, my travels have taught me, we would be unwise to take for granted.

A few weeks back, I found myself in local basement bar Belgium and Blues to watch Bad Cat.  This trip falls firmly into the exploitation camp, as I have been to the bar several times before as its wide range of, often alarming strong, ales and handy location on my way home from several other venues making it a tempting location for a nightcap whilst continuing a conversation (or several).  On this occasion, for the first time, I delved slightly deeper into Belgian culture and partook of one of their excellent sweet waffles – a Thursday evening activity which threatens to become a habit (but I do associate Belgian bars with monks, so this may be entirely proper).  In fact, this waffle acted as a dessert to the main course of another Thursday tradition, the splendid Thai curry on offer at The Guide Dog earlier on that evening.  The Thursday curries at The Guide Dog seem leagues ahead of those I put up with in London back in the 90s: as so often in my life, a twenty year gap in an activity pays off!  Bad Cat are a local swing band, containing several friends, who have graced these pages before.  Their music is perfectly suited to the basement vibe and the evening was an absolute hoot with all the elements of a perfect night-out coming together: good beer, food, company and a nonpareil conjunction of music and venue.

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Sassy fun incarnate!

As an aside. every time I see Bad Cat perform I want to take up the trumpet: mostly to use the mutes.  So far the cheek-by-jowl (I provide the cheeks) presence of neighbours to my tiny dwelling has enabled me to resist but I can’t help feeling that time is running out for my embouchure…  In the interests of full disclosure, I have just searched for “electric trumpet” on-line and I’m finding the results rather exciting: you can obtain a silencer for your trumpet!

The following night was much more of an exploration: the venue – Turner Sims – is an old favourite – but it was my first time with a Gambian singer and kora player.  Turner Sims can be quite an austere space for music, hosting as it often does chamber music, but Sona Jaborteh was having no truck with that: I have never been so heavily involved in a gig at Turner Sims before!  She had the whole audience joining in with many of the songs, both new and traditional, so I briefly new several words in at least one Gambian tongue (i believe I can still remember “musow” means “mother”).  Sona and her band were clearly having so much fun with the music and audience members would have needed a heart of particularly icy stone not to be transported by the joyous atmosphere in the hall.  It is amazing how an artist can transform even a well-known space so that you see and feel it anew.  I can’t help pondering whether there is something classical music needs to learn here: so many classical music gigs contain glorious music and musicianship but a very one-way, pedagogic, relationship twist performer(s) and audience.  I can’t help wondering if the young are used to a more involving relationship twixt stage and stalls…

Still, shallow reflection aside, over a pair of consecutive days I navigated a glorious path between the Scylla and Charybdis of exploitation and exploration: beating even cunning Odysseus by losing no seamen at all!  However, it was this last Saturday evening that my delicate balancing act may have reached its apotheosis.  I have for a year or so, been exposing myself, through the good offices of Playlist and the Out-take Ensemble, to an extraordinary range of contemporary and experimental music.  I finally decided to take my interest and curiosity by travelling all the way to London for a whole evening of experimental music – my only safety nets was that one of the percussionists was Sam Wilson who I’d heard performing a piece by Anna Meredith (who was also the composer of the one of the pieces on the bill) at a recent Playlist gig.  Making my decision easier was the fact that it was held in King’s Place and that the cost of the ticket was only £9.50, though there was still the cost of getting to, and eating, in the capital.  I  think King’s Place has become my favourite place for music in London: it is a lovely space and it has such an interesting programme.  If I lived closer, I suspect that I would be there a lot more often.

The gig was performed by Icebreaker who are an unusual ensemble of instruments – a range of saxes (from bass to soprano), flutes, pan pipes, guitar, bass, violin, cello and a whole bunch of keyboards and percussion – played with amplification and tackling a diverse range of contemporary repertoire.  The stage was packed with gear, even before the players arrived, which created a keen sense of anticipation in me: what had I let myself in for?  I needn’t have worried, this was exploration at its very best: the gig had the most entrancing, exciting and unexpected range of musical offerings.  It was entitled Velocity and was part of the same Time Unwrapped series I visited earlier in the year, to enjoy Manu Delago and Friends from my beanbag throne, and so also unpacked time (though didn’t stray into the depths of quantum loop gravity).  The temporal exploration varied from a piece almost without time, to a hypnotic piece that moved almost glacially slowly to the final piece which kept doubling in speed long after I thought it was impossible for Sam to strike the wood blocks any faster.  The whole programme was a tour de force on so many instruments and I suspect required a specialist ensemble like Icebreaker to do it justice.  I found that the different pieces required different ways of listening which was also fascinating.  The gig was being recorded, and as we left Recomposed (who I think are a duo of composers) had recomposed elements of it into a new piece which served as aide-memoire, highlights reel and a way to deepen and expand the whole musical experience. I hing around for a while to enjoy their work before having to head for a train back home.

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Travelling in time without a TARDIS

I think I can say that Icebreaker: Velocity was my favourite of all the gigs I have ever been to: it was a programme full of wonder that I would never have attended or, probably, enjoyed at any earlier stage in my life.  While it didn’t take place in Southampton, it was only my local exposure to new music that brought me to go and have that amazing experience.  Thanks to that gig, building on earlier local work, I now want to see more contemporary music: I just need to find out when and where it happens!  I also discovered a hitherto unsuspected love for at least some EDM (electronic dance music), at least when performed live by such an outstanding ensemble: I have so far resisted purchasing any glow sticks…

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