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.

 

Watching La Boheme

This weekend I had the lucky opportunity to see La Boheme, of HeadFirst Productions. I saw the production at LOST Theatre in South London and was quite impressed. The composer was one Kelvin Lim and the Opera was Directed by Sophie GIlpin and designed by Jason Southgate.

 

The Opera was led by 4 musicians. At first I was concerned at how thin the textures might be musically given the acoustics. On the other hand it sort of reminded me of how this presented a very authentic and historically resonant challenge as a performer. At times the singers matched the fortes and fortissimos and the less said about a high latency digital piano against an acoustic one the better! The instrumentation was daring and scoring worked sufficiently well.

 

I was impressed at the power of the characters. Although I do not find the story of La Boheme as convincing as a tragedy and love story, the farcical nature of parts of it were excellently carried by the ensemble. I could tangibly grasp the 19th century cultural Italian humour of it and in some ways, even if I may critique or challenge it, I must say it does very much chime in with the blokey bravado and the men of our age and, perhaps many of us know a Musetta  in our own lives.

 

I was taken by the technical prowess of Mimi’s vibrato, which definitely moved the audience. Basses were very powerful too. I couldn’t help but consider this production more of an etude or technical study, of how to overcome space and time. In this regard of space, they succeeded in making a very small musical ensemble fill the acoustics of the physical space, I think that the doubling (in terms of scoring) role of the Clarinet worked spectacularly. The use of an Eb (sopranino) clarinet was masterful.

 

In trying to bridge a gap of time, however, between 19th Century Italy and today? I think the verdict of the audience was that of a success. In most of the press releases about this production, the ending is already given away: Mimi’s death is not of TB but of a drug related incident. As the story reaches its end, it begins to seem very dark and less like the 19th Century but more the malaise of our present day. I was not sure of the use of modern substance abuse as a supplanting theme to the 19th Century artist-hero archetypes that La Boheme explores, in doing so it tells a different but perhaps more important story. Furthermore, I was kind of thrown off a bit at the use of actual cigarettes on the stage! I initially thought they were vaping ones but there were actual roll ups! Not a good time to be given an inhaler for the first time this week I must say.

 

In praise of BoJack Horseman

In a recent post I wrote about Nostalgia television. I recently discovered a bit of advertising about a Netflix-only tv show called BoJack Horseman, which rings quite poignantly to what I wrote. Bojack Horseman is a show about a fictional television show in the 1990s which had the status of a long running and popular show, yet its stars had careers of differing success afterwards, and the director (spoiler ahead) suffered a career death after his sexuality was discovered and professional associations with him became toxic.

 

The protagonist, BoJack Horseman (whom I have a passing physical resemblance to), is a character who relives his life through continuously watching his show. There’s a certain amount of social commentary in the show, which interestingly reflects the  marketing of the show.

 

The show explores life in Hollywood as well as the very trend-setting nature of trying to find the next best thing. At one point in the season, the ‘D’ letter in the Hollywood sign is stolen and henceforth is referred to as Hollywoo. Likewise we see certain ridiculous trends mentioned and discussed and eventually become part of the furniture of life in LA.

 

The show was advertised heavily on Netflix (which I’m using to watch a lot of Highlander, much like Bojack watches his own ‘Horsin around’), and I am very impressed at how the whole season was released at once. I watched it in about 4-5 days and I quite like the model of releasing television (is it called television if I saw it mostly on my computer and tablet?) shows. It is kind of like the zeitgeist that Bojack Horseman captures as a show.

 

In one episode the ghostwriter character’s biography project is compared to a ‘journalist’ writing an article for Buzzfeed, and Buzzfeed is thoroughly trashed. There was much comparison between the 1990s and 2010s implicit in the show, and I love how television shows try to have their finger on the button of what it is to be in the 2010s.

 

When I was watching BoJack in between episodes of Highlander, I thought to myself, Bojack Horseman is a character reminiscent of his past career, the common phrase of the show is an onlooker saying ‘weren’t you on that show Horsin’ around??’, which often leads to a one night stand or confrontation, or both! In an age obsessed with both disposable trends and celebrities we are bound to leave characters as scarred as Bojack around.

 

Although perhaps unfair to say he is anything like BoJack. When I watch those 1990s episodes of Highlander I think of how some of the zeitgeist is captured of that time. In one episode an author is looking for an actor for an 18th century highland Scotsman, to which, Duncan Mcleod replies: why don’t you try Mel Gibson? It took me a moment to realise why that was funny as it was around 1995 when the film Braveheart came out.

 

I do sometimes wonder, as I love the Highlander show so much, what has happened to the actors. I know that Adrian Paul has had a lot of love from fans since the show ended and has continued to be known as Duncan McLeod from Highlander, even when the Highlander Francise did not have such a positive enduring reputation. One of the consequences of having nostalgia TV is that actors can be so heavily defined by their past work that their appearance has a certain kind of aura (in the Benjamin sense) as we cherish more of our memnories of that past show. A similar example of such fame comes from Matt LeBlanc’s character in Episodes, who plays a version of himself after his success as ‘Joey from Friends’.

 

Bojack is a character haunted by his success and as the show progresses, displays a sense of depth and redemption that the celebrity culture that made and destroyed him would not allow him to have on their terms. I loved the honesty of the show as well as the confrontation of his own demons. Here’s to you Bojack, you fictional anthropomorphic horse.

 

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.

 

Actor Robin Williams Dies at 63

NoumenalRealm:

Very sad to hear about this passing.

Originally posted on TIME:

The comedian and actor Robin Williams has died at 63, according to police in Marin County, Calif.

A statement from the assistant chief deputy coroner of Marin County announced on Monday that the Coroner Divisions of the Sheriff’s Office “suspects the death to be a suicide due to asphyxia, but a comprehensive investigation must be completed before a final determination is made.”

His publicist confirmed the news.

“Robin Williams passed away this morning. He has been battling severe depression of late,” read an official statement. “This is a tragic and sudden loss. The family respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time.”

His wife, Susan Schneider, released a statement saying she was “utterly heartbroken.”

“This morning I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings,” she said in the statement…

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