In praise of John Coltrane

For the past 6 months I’ve been trying to organise my music listening through some kind of ordered fashion. Sometimes I explore things through genres or sometimes I explore the complete corpus of a musician or composer’s work. This often requires said musician to be dead usually, and the hope that no new works or recordings are found.

 

Early on in the year I began to listen to the early Jazz musicians. At points Jelly Roll Morton is indistinguishable to Ragtime, not dissimilar to how the likes of the Rolling Stones were very much in the feet of Rhythm and Blues (as opposed to Rock), or Black Sabbath’s Black Sabbath could easily be seen as a Blues song.

 

I recently discovered John Coltrane and reading bits about him and I thought I would listen to contemporaries. Coltrane’s work has often been associated with Bebop or hard bop. I decided to check out the wikipedia page and find who were his contemporaries. I listened to the likes of Al Haig, Lee Konitz and Walter Davis Jnr and the only similarity they have to the eminence of Coltrane is that they happened to live at the same time as he.

 

Are they stylistically similar? There is an extent to which they are. But Al Haig and Walter Davis’s recordings are exceptionally pedestrian compared to the freedom and rule-breaking of John Coltrane’s tenor sax work.

 

Coltrane’s playing classifies as genius. I can hear how the saxophonist simultaneously invents new forms of expression, exploring modalities and at the same time smashing the new forms of jazz tonalities that he has invented, through the dissonances and tangentially related melodies to the background harmonies.

 

Coltrane elevated the potential for Jazz to heights that the contemporaneous classical art music would wish to aspire to at the time. With the mid-century movement of neo-classicism and the more simplistic forms such as minimalism, it could hardly be said that some classical music aimed to be daring or avant garde. Coltrane stands as the example, to me, of an eminent form of expression that a critical perspective on culture should acknowledge. If Adorno followed his own principled objections to mass culture consistently I would have thought that he was correct about the blandness of much of Jazz — except when the bright stars such as Coltrane appear.

 

Coltrane moves beyond the standard boredom of chord progressions and the formulaic character of Jazz that makes everything so samey. The experimental nature of using modes and improvising in what appears to be atonal is evocative of Schoenberg. But I have been insisted upon by many commentators that Coltrane’s style emerged independently from any influence from the second Viennese school.

 

In the hopelessness of Adorno’s cultural picture of the world, I would contend that Coltrane, and figures like him, provide cultural, and moral hope.

 

Reading: Peter Adamson’s ‘History of Philosophy (without any gaps)’

From time to time I have separate interests which converge. I remember when I was studying ancient history one of the key texts was Aristotle (although textually speaking, it probably wasn’t actually him but a student), and at the same time I was learning in another context about Aristotle’s Hylemorphism. Although from the same character it wasn’t so easy to put them together except they were attributable to the same person.

 

I’m having a similar moment recently. I’m going through Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and I’m on the andalusian period. I’ve also been listening to Peter Adamson’s podcast on the History of Philosophy (without any gaps). Both narratives give a similar story: the western story that the ‘Greeks and Romans were great, but then we went backwards until the Renaissance’ is simply false at best and cultural erasure at its worst.

 

When you read about the history of early Christianity, one finds the presence of vibrant African Christian communities in Christendom taking part in church-dividing disputes over theology. The so-called Dark Ages had a great cultural presence of Jewish and Arab thinkers, as well as a cross-fertilisation of Hellenic culture into what became modern Europe.

 

There’s a certain convenience to preserving the ‘dark age’ narrative: European history seems more…European. Early Christianity has the North African Augustine; Late Antiquity had the emergence of Islam which had a definite impact on European countries, especially Iberia (modern Portugal and Spain).

 

I am so utterly refreshed when I read Gibbon. I know that there has been a lot of scrutiny to the accuracy and sources of his work since the 18th Century but I am impressed of how worldly he was during the time. So worldly in fact, that we today have much to rediscover about the history of what we now call Europe, North Africa, Central and East Asia.

 

Similarly, having a good understanding of the history of philosophy will invariably affect the breadth of topics of contemporary philosophy and the histories we teach, and teach badly. I hate for example how mistaken it is to consider the Vienna Circle as Logical Positivists, and then when asked to define Logical Positivism, we turn to AJ Ayer. I also find it deeply uninformative to think of a history of philosophy so plotted that it starts with Plato’s Apology, then goes to Aristotle’s Eudaimonian Ethics and then jumps to Descartes on Epistemology.

 

It is true that historically, the philosophers of history have had a poor education in the history of philosophy they knew of. There’s a certain resonance of how Kant was so obsessively interested in the philosophy of his immediate geographical and historical contemporaries (ignoring for not the influence of Hume) that it reads as dry, technical and almost irrelevant…sort of like contemporary journals in philosophy?

 

Of course, there were historical philosophers who eventually became better and more worldly not only about their philosophical history, but also their cultural world. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche are arch examples of this!

 

Adamson’s narrative of philosophy shows me how important the impact of Christianity was, and is on philosophy today. Discussions on topics like mereology or haecceity and universals exist mostly because of religious oriented discussions on Christian theology. Adamson’s podcast also shows the inextricably close cousins of Arab, Islamic and Jewish philosophy and how they fed into the Medieval period and how they are part of the heritage of what became the European and Anglo-American tradition of philosophy. Re-viewing our history also allows us to re-view our self perceptions culturally and intellectually speaking.

 

On making a Zine, or ‘My use of collage’

About 10-12 years ago a friend of mine (who for now shall remain nameless, but lets call him Zane) used to make zines. Sometimes he made a single copy which had a few duplicates (by photocopy) and it was exceptionally low quality. They were folded pages cut in a certain way to allow for multiple pages of a smaller size and were taped together. Many of these zines were for a quick laugh and at first I ridiculed him very harshly about what I saw as the asinine nature of these zines.

 

Skip forward about 10 years and a friend of mine (not the same zine guy) told me that he was clearing through the house and saw one of the zines. Not just any of the zines, but the final one ever made Zane ever made. It was a swan song of zines in the sense that it was the best one he ever made but also consciously knowing it would be his last. It compiled many of the techniques and jokes and idioms of the previous zines but distilled into bottled lightning.

 

Zane used to do zines about the comedian Harry Hill, perhaps the real humour about it was that it evoked the low budget and DIY ethic that Harry Hill’s early comedy used to have. It was not an artistic statement to make this zine as he was just a teenager at the time and we would pass it around during French class and trying not to giggle and get caught with it. As it happens we did get caught with it a few times and the teacher was either impressed at the ingenuity of it or found it exceptionally funny that he simply gave it back to us.

 

When the ‘final issue’ of ‘Harry Hill Magazine’ was rediscovered, I felt as if it was a part of a collective memory among my friends. The zine was just scraps of paper taped together but the last edition contained newspaper cut outs. Cue to 2014.

 

Sometimes after I’ve done my ‘fundamentals’/pedagogical exercises in my piano practice or with the clarinet, I just play freely, I just think and play, or sometimes not think at all and follow a certain idea or feeling and see where it takes me. I kind of see it as a creativity, where I draw from things and make decisions about what allusions I’m making or which allusions I use too much (I focus too much on the mixolydian mode, for example).

 

As an exercise in improvisation, I sometimes just follow a hunch or instinct and see where it goes, to exercise creativity for its own sake if you will. I have recently taken an interest in notebooks (which I’ve written about recently) and the next progression of that was…Harry Hill Magazine?

 

Well…not Zane’s self-made publication, but the idea of making my own scrapbook from newspaper clippings or magazines or brochures and adverts. In an age where newspapers and magazines are so easily available in metropolitan London (Shortlist, Timeout, Evening Standard, Metro, Sport, Stylist…) and there are endless amounts of fliers and junk mail, I thought I would put them together somehow.

 

I could give the hack intellectualisation of how this is postmodern to cut things apart from modern culture and put it together in my own little way (bricolage, hyper-reality), but maybe I won’t. For me, it feels like the same intellectual practice that I do when I sit in front of my piano and do some improvising, or when I’m jamming with my friends.

 

When I look at newspapers I look to cut out things that say something about who we are as people in 2014. As people we are confused about whether we love celebrities, or whether we hate how much weight they’ve gained or whatever scandal they were recently in. We are confused about how we hate certain kinds of criminals and yet we love to hear stories about them to get riled up and angry. The Metro is only a few steps away from being 4Chan or Spacedicks (if you don’t know what spacedicks is, it’s not for you). We have stories about big scientific discoveries and at the back pages have horoscopes and adverts for culturally appropriate mystics.

 

I often feel like we do not say enough that the emperor has no clothes when it comes to our culture and fixations with the news today. I feel that the application of collage is a powerful way of expressing this, by hitting us on the head with a pillow, we transfix the things that we take for granted in our culture, physically cut them out and place them alongside the things we do not wish to acknowledge about ourselves.

 

There’s also a more mundane way in which I use collage. As well as juxtaposition and contradition, I put together stories and images of the same narratives so that they are emphasised and overblown, put to full volume so that its deafening to see all together. News stories such as House Prices, the disadvantages of women and ethnic minorities, I have a small yet growing selection of cutouts about trans* identity and gender nonconformity.

 

For me it is a bit of a craft hobby, especially because it helps me wind down and use my mind in a way I don’t normally do outside of sitting in front of a piano. I’ve started another scrapbook in honour of my friend Zane, I’ve begun to make my own zine from newspaper collage as both an art project and something for friends only. I’m surprised at myself at how much expression I have had through cutting things out of junk mail and outdated Metro issues.

 

Nostalgia Television

Recently I’ve gotten a Netflix subscription and one of the first things I did was try to finish watching Breaking Bad, as I’ve been trying to finish that series for a year but I find it as uncomfortable as chewing a lightbulb. I keep getting TV show recommendations about edgy and dark dramas which have foreign languages and murder stories or complex psychological profiles (I must admit I recommended Luther to a friend on that very basis). The one kind of show, however that is the complete antithesis of the modern edgy television show is what I call Nostalgia television.

 

Nostalgia television is of a time that is no longer immediately relevant. Nostalgia TV is something we like simply because we happened to grow up with it despite how naff the production values were, or how problematic its gender and racial politics were.This principle also relates to me love of the 1980s and 1990s action film.

 

When I watch X-Men, the animated series, I am taken back to the wonder of being 6-7 years old and getting up at 6am just to get the VHS tape recorder ready to record X-Men on BBC’s Going Live. I see how my nephew is always talking about things like Ben Ten and Ultimate Spiderman (I will never tell him that I actually watch that too). Nostalgia television is a comfort, a sense of familiarity, a nice bit of kitsch that doesn’t challenge you.

 

There’s something about reminiscing the past. The past to some degree is fixed (but not our perception of it), and being fixed there is a permanence to it. Watching old episodes of X-Men I will know how it ends as I’ve seen many of the episodes countless times. I know when the good bits are coming, and sometimes I notice new details that I didn’t notice before, within the context of what is familiar.

 

Another recent bit of nostalgia television that I’m watching is Highlander: the series. There’s a lot about the show that seems to have seeped into my adult psyche and its kind of obvious too. The ponytail on Duncan McLeod, the reverence of japanese bushido customs and sword play and those cape like long jackets.

 

Highlander is not a great show objectively speaking, but to me, it is an amazing show for reasons that I can only communicate through my own personal preferences (namely, how it has shaped mine).

 

Another thing that has become nostalgia television for me is Peep Show. As I am getting to the ages of the protagonist characters in the early seasons, I am starting to the banalities of Mark Corrigan’s mundane life, things such as deciding ‘socks before shirt’ when getting ready in the morning or obsessing over Alpen cereal. Because Peep Show is a series which has gone on from 2003 until recent years (said to have its final season this year) I can see a continuum of how the show has come from 2003 to the present day and in so doing I see the little idiosyncracies of a recent yesteryear as opposed to a distant one.

 

Peep show counts as nostalgia TV to me because as the seasons go on, the premise of the show wears thinner, but also there are aspects in which the show really shows its age, such as referring to politicans who are no longer in their referred offices today. Maybe nostalgia television happens too quickly. In watching recent episodes of Breaking Bad circa 2010-2011, or even episodes of House, MD. I can see things like flip-opening mobile phones and other pre-smartphones.

 

I am reminded of how quickly times change when I have reflected on certain views that I’ve had and blogged about around 2008-2009 and they are out of date. Even as I live in the present I am a dinosaur becoming slowly obsolescent. It’s so hard to capture the zeitgeist that I don’t even try when I enjoy nostalgia television. It is, I suppose, a part of my aesthetic character to enjoy ordinary garden variety things, despite the pretentions I otherwise purport to of more ‘challenging’ things.

 

‘Musical’ as an adjective

I remember when I did the ABRSM exams, and when reading an assessment of an old school friend (who is now a professional Clarinettist), one word that described a performance seemed exceptionally odd. That word is: musical. Sometimes musical performances are said to be ‘musical’. When I was younger that confused me. I would think to myself: surely all performances are musical, isn’t that a trivial description?

 

In more recent times I am starting to get an understanding of it, is a term of distinction. I’m reminded of people like WH Dray or RG Collingwood, who had the view that having an historical understanding meant really immersing yourself in the period of something. Perhaps people love period dramas because of the way that a certain zeitgeist or je ne sais quoi (literally ‘I don’t know what’), captures a period of history or culture. I laugh for example when I hear ragtime music being played in cowboy movies. Ragtime came about 15-30 years later from the old west periods that are usually the mid-late 19th Century. It’s like playing dubstep in a period drama set in the Thatcher Years.

 

A musical performance can have an appreciation of its period. Although not necessarily. My late piano teacher used to teach me that a piece of music should be treated as an internal unity, with its own spirit. You look at a piece of music and you see it as a living being, what you express is how you perceive that living being, and naturally people will have their own interpretations. I would often conflict with him about this, saying that period sensitivity and context were the crucial factor to interpretation, and not some inward-looking insight. What is the answer to this? Well that’s constantly an ongoing question when it comes to interpreting certain pieces of music.

 

Glenn Gould is often said to be an exemplar of one and both of these views to musical interpretation. Gould often spake of the importance of period and is said to be a fine interpreter of Baroque period pieces and the selected 20th century composers such as the Second Viennese camp, Paul Hindemith or Richard Strauss. On the other hand, many of his choices when performing pieces are not of the musical text. I have a bad habit of stealing a few of Glenn Gould’s quirks when sight reading the Well-Tempered Clavier, slightly adjusting speeds. In a recording of Mozart’s C-Minor Piano Sonata (No. 14 k. 467), Gould’s playing is notoriously off piste (perhaps the best way of describing bad performing for a pianist who is vastly superior to me), and perhaps an unhelpful guide for learning that piece. There are little quirks of Gould’s from the second movement that I sometimes adopt.

 

Sometimes reading a piece of music away from its literal text can be insightful. Sometimes I use sight-reading and going ‘off the tracks’ as a form of improvisation. I often among friends create a form of humour out of music this way. ‘Insert a Chopin reference here’ (C minor cadenza) my friend might request, or ‘how would Mozart have interpreted this?’ (alberti bass), or ‘give this a classical ending’ (V-I-I-I-I-I….I cadence). Communicating humour is one way of expressing musical sensitivity. I would think that a composer like Haydn would hate his music seen as ‘serious’. On the other hand, I think Joplin might consider the his rags played a Steinway as great respect to his music in an era where he did not get the respect he deserved.

 

A musical performance is one that has conviction. Some people I know that will remain nameless are sometimes a little bit more technical in their playing than I am capable of yet cannot carry conviction. This can be due to many reasons: playing-music-by-numbers; not having an appreciation of the musical text; failing to understand the construction of the music; following conventions of playing set by others.

 

To call a performance musical is the highest esteem. A musician takes the performance not as a text, but an organic unity. A musician takes the musical performance as an artist: this can mean a reaction to a piece of music in its context of performance, its cultural-historic location or some other factor which makes the actual physical performing of it irreducible to its mere sum of breathwork or body movements.

 

I think one of the problems I had in a music education is failing to understand the musical. Sure, one could learn chord progressions, fancy italian names for how to pluck a string or memorise key signatures, but where’s the musicality?

 

I take this question to be primitive and foundational. At the same time, it forms as a constituent in the background of more critical questions, such as the discussion whether to be sensitive to a musical text, or to take liberties at interpretation. Or whether to consider the appropriateness of use of instrument and acoustics for a venue in performance. Or specificities in the use of technique from embouchure to fingerings.

Which individual do they remember?

Hitchens, in an address of the notion of death, appeals to Shakespeare’s ‘seven ages of man’ notion. Throughout our life, we have transitions to different kinds of people. The person we were as a child may be unrecognisable to our selves of today. We are always going through different phases of life, and as one new phase begins, another dies. In that sense, many people have died many times over before our ultimate demise. Why is the physical death so ultimate and conclusive when we have died many times before? So the thought goes…

We have a habit of immortalising a single kind of person when an individual dies. Although we acknowledge their growth and change, we alays remember them in some singular, unitary kind of way. Michael Jackson escaped his negative press by his death, and became remembered for his career highs. Some, by contrast, will always be remembered for their death. This year, the actor David Carradine had died, few people remember him for his circumstances of his death (autoerotic asphyxiation), but more toward whatever production they remember him most fondly. Kill Bill, for example, or Kung Fu.

Sometimes people can be remembered as their youthful selves, perhaps those to whom it would benefit seeing them as the eternal young. Others, by contrast, may be seen in a moer sagely light as the elder. I recall a discussion about which picture of Brahms one should remember. While Brahms is most often remembered as the mature, bearded man; his career the highlights of his career span throughout his younger years as well. When we consider David Hume, we imagine his empiricist philosophy, and the man sporting a turban. It was a twenty-three year old Hume, however, who had written his Magnum Opus, the Treatise on Human Nature. Why should we not remember Hume in his glorious youth and at his most intellectually fierce.

The person we remember may tell us something of when we may talk of the ‘peak’ of their career. For many composers, we remember them for great works of music but ignore the horrid circumstances of their twilight years. Stephen Foster, composer of great American Folk tunes like Beautiful Dreamer died penilless. It may be seen as an appeal to remember those who had died young, considering how much more they could have done in their lives. The likes of Kurt Cobain, Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin may have been saved of a life of mediocrity. There are many who age well, some who died agelessly young, and those who, by manner of their own poor dispositions, age terribly. Ironically, it is those who try to hark back to a past self.

Michael

Education Today

I’ve been pondering about making some posts about the recent changes in UK education, but I think I shall give pass that over for the time being. There seems to be a change in the landscape regarding education.

Let us go into the current situation to set out the ideologue:

1. The standards of post-16 qualification, AGCE’s (‘A’ levels), are being undermined by the increased numbers of pupils getting A grades.
2. The standards of ‘A’ levels are being undermined by the percieved lowered standards, and the teaching methods that undermine independence in favour of memorising a syllabus and learning to answer exams in the fashion that they know it will be asked. In other words, there is less surprise, or test of skill and creativity in exams and more strategy involved.
3. Universities have for a long time been concerned with funding deficits: this is due to a whole variety of factors, some are general  and some are specific to the university and their research culture.
4. For the past few decades, many have pointed out the ‘professionalisation’ of academia; this includes the many buzzwords like ‘business model’, ‘schoolification’, interdisciplinary network initiatives, public engagement, ‘research’ and so on. While some aspects of the contemporary academy are positive (increased contact with the public; commissions for documentaries and television series and other wider media), there are some aspects in which academia has lost something of a better past.

i. The ‘lone-scholar’ archetype: academia, particularly the arts and humanities, used to be less ‘research’ based and less interdisciplinary, but engaged with more hard hitting and in-depth systematic studies, this is not to say that this kind of study does not occur, but is becoming more epheemeral in departments and less the norm.

ii. The ‘old’ notion of interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinarity is inherently a weak idea; it is like, how, I consider the concept of someone calling themselves eclectic: Jack of all trades, master of none. There used to be a time when people were masters of many things. Physicists like Descartes and Newton have particular resonances to many fields beyond physics because of the way in which their philosophical thinking engaged and melded with their mathematics and natural philosophy.

Few physicists from the mid-20th Century really know much about philosophy beyond basic philosophy of science (or skeptics 101, if one were to be American about the whole thing). A similar thing should be said of philosophers today; many, excepting those few on the real cutting edge of philosophy of psychology and mathematics, are not themselves scientists or mathematicians. Interdisciplinarity is a response in a way, to the death of the polymath, and the increasingly ‘professsional’ status of academia. In a sense, a certain kind of concession should be made to the ‘dryness’ objection of the continental philosopher to analytic philosophy today.

I’ve a bit of time before I can elicit some more responses in terms of the underlying political responses. For now I shall just sketch out the landscape

Sinistre