Five Things To Heal With…

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Hi Everyone!

I have been sick for the last week or so, so I am staying in to recuperate and try to take my mind off my cold/sinusitis with some of my favorite things. See you soon!

Afro-Peruvian Cajón (Percussion Instrument)

The cajón, a Peruvian percussion instrument, is usually the size of banker’s box or larger, with snare rattles inside that vibrate when you tap the front surface. It is also unique in that one sits on top of the box itself and leans forward to play it, like some kind of square musical stool. In this case, my cajón is the mini desktop version I like to hold in my lap like a pet, casually rapping on the surface with my fingers. Cajóns, like so many other percussion instrument scattered around the world, are diasporic African innovations on everyday objects: Afro-Cuban, Afro-Peruvian, and so on, “disguised” by their original form (boxes, oil drums, Catholic statues, and so on) so as not to attract attention and invite further persecution and punishment for secretly retaining the cultural from which they were torn.

 The Twilight Zone: Complete Series on DVD

This TV series, which ran from 1959 to 1964, is a 156-episode marvel of television excellence. Created, executive produced, hosted, narrated, and often written by Rod Serling (not Sterling as it is often mispronounced), it is amazing to think that this show was the creative result of essentially one person, setting the standard for television to come.

Many of the TZ episodes are now cultural touchstones, quintessential episodes of science fiction/mystery or teleplay writing, many including early on-screen efforts by William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Burt Reynolds, and the legendary character actor Burgess Meredith. TZ is also notable for its constant use of used and unused props from the film The Forbidden Planet, and even the movie’s female protagonist (Anne Francis) makes two appearances in the series (as a witch and a department store mannequin). (The Forbidden Planet itself is also notable for being the first movie to ever use and entirely electronic musical score). 

I highly recommend buying the series on Blu-ray or DVD, they completely worth the money (approx. $80.00 for 25 DVD discs!), especially if you are a writer and are looking for inspiration and reinvigoration in your craft.

Zen Buddhist Meditation

Though there is often little difference between the basic techniques of Soto Zen Buddhist meditation and therapeutic meditation, I spent a lot of years focusing on Soto Zen-style meditation in South Korea and Japan, thus it is my default when breathing deep and clearing my mind. Rejuvenating body and mind with silence and oxygen is actually kind of painful when one has a cold, as pain drives one to breathe shallow and make noise. But (a) stretching one’s neck, (b) taking a couple of slow, deep breaths, and (c) clearing one’s mind of images does wonders for the soul. 

Khublai Khan Biography

As 50% of my academic specialty is East Asia, I often go over various books and articles to continue keep my knowledge base fresh. And what better way than read general histories of China as there is so much to keep track of chronologically? In this case I don’t know as much about Khublai Khan as I used to or even should, so back to the books I go.

Khublai Khan is a fascinating figure in Chinese history. Though he was Mongolian, he eventually become Emperor of China (the Yuan Dynasty), and was the ruler who attempted the two failed conquests of Japan via maritime warfare, both of which were turned back by a ferocious Japanese defense and violent storms that destroyed the Chinese fleets. This led to the Japanese belief that the violent weather was sent by the gods to protect Japan, what they called a kamikaze (god [kami], wind [kaze]).Though this meteorological routing of Khan’s fleet is legendary, there is some geological evidence in sedimentary deposits in the adjoining lake regions (the southern island of Kyushu) that support the occurrence of such typhoons at that specific time (13th century), which were also very uncommon for the area.

Tom Waits – Big Time (Live Concert CD)

As a sideman (a musician that makes much of their living accompanying others) I have been extremely lucky to have been exposed to eclectic musicians onstage or through the grape vine, and Tom Waits is no exception. Having worked with several artists who themselves do cover versions of Waits’ songs I have been able to enjoy years of great gigs or great evenings sitting and listening to such albums as Bone Machine, Swordfishtrombones, Frank’s Wild Years, and others. Big Time, the soundtrack to a Tom Waits concert film/stage drama, includes many of the songs I have come to know and love, and an evening with Big Time always puts me in a good mood: stand out tracks include “Clap Hands”, “Telephone Call From Istanbul”, and “16 Shells From a 30.6”. It is amazing how nostalgia can put one in a good mood, which can help helping occur to some extent (psycho-somatically). I have so many good memories of performing Waits’ “Step Right Up”, “Going Out West”, or “She’s Such A Scream”, it is hard to focus on being ill, or even imagine trading my career as a sideman for being a “star”. From what I have seen in decades of music making, it is not fun to be under a spotlight 24/7. It is not good for humans to get separated from one another. That is what predators do to prey on a savannah, and the results are not pretty. 

Be forewarned. Tom Waits often sings in the voice/character of “Frank O’Brien” and in general uses a raspy growl as his vocal style, though he can sing in a “normal” way. So part of the charm/mystery of Waits (to his fans) is his on again/off again stage persona, which is certainly not for everyone.

 

 

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The Art Of The Jazz Set: Part Two

As I mentioned in Part One, being a professional musician these days is a challenge, especially if you are a woodwind specialist. We study the finest details of theory, composition, improvisation, and so on, but there is little discussion of the art of creating an interesting series of songs for a jazz concert, divided into two sets of 7 or 8 songs. Thus, I discussed the overarching structure of how a jazz set should be approached. Now, in Part Two of this series, I want to share with you my thoughts on which individual songs to choose, or at least which songs might to help make the set as much of a representative “jazz” set as possible.

Jazz music truly is the art of bringing out the flavor of a song as much as it is improvising with it, so it is important to fill your set with songs that have and possible will stand the test of time: harmonically, melodically, and rhythmically pleasing music your audience will be edified as much as entertained by. Thus, there are certain song types that will guarantee this, all of them sharing a common feature: they will surprise your audience due to their uncommonness.

Royal Garden Blues, written by Clarence Williams in 1919, is a jaunty two-part blues with an irresistibly entertaining melody. Though many versions of the melody and form have been recorded, it is saxophonist Branford Marsalis’ (LP) version that will have the maximum impact on your audience, especially if played on soprano saxophone. Marsalis both captures the original flavor of the song and adds a modern, chromatic twist in his improvisations the lift the song into the modern era.

Two excellent songs from the mid twentieth century, Chronology by saxophonist Ornette Coleman and Passion Dance by pianist McCoy Tyner, are always a wise choice for inclusion in any jazz set. Chronology for example is not only a joy to listen to but extremely fun to play as well. With a wonderfully careening melody and no set chords to solo over, it is both an easy and challenging song to perform: easy to learn the melody and rhythmic feel, but rather difficult to improvise on. So to avoid any complications or harmonic mishaps a common solution is to improvise around a single center: a note or a chord that the band can agree on beforehand which provides context and unity.

Passion Dance too is a minimalistic in its solo section, a single suspended dominant chord over which you can create a wide variety of musical colours. It is also an excellent choice for your sets in that it is not played as often as similar works by saxophonist John Coltrane (Impressions, Afro Blue, etc.) which your audience(s) may have grown tired of through overexposure at jam sessions and concerts wherein musicians take exhaustively long solos that lack the musical cohesion of Coltrane’s own extended improvisations. Thus, including a medium length version of Passion Dance in your set could be just the right way to distinguish your self from the average jazz musician.

Another way to (greatly) distinguish your set is to perform either the original or your own arrangement of the song Tutu by Miles Davis. It is extremely rare to hear this song performed in a jazz group lacking synthesizers and electric bass, let alone one that includes them, so finding a way to arrange it will definitely get the attention of jazz connoisseurs. It also provides an excellent opportunity to use any electronics you run your woodwind instruments through, especially ones that contain some kind of harmonizer or envelope filter. Done tastefully and timed properly, the addition of these effects is a wonderful and entertaining surprise, thus I have an old vocal processor on hand, set and ready to go in case I feel inspired. Using a harmonizer, which is set to create the interval of a fifth above whatever you play, adds a “medieval” quality to the sound, which creates a very stark and dramatic quality. Such a digital enhancement can also provide an interesting option on another 80s jazz standard, Nothing Personal by Don Grolnick, made famous by its various live performances by saxophonist Michael Brecker. Usually played between medium to high speed, this twisting minor blues is an excellent song through which a performer can demonstrate how comfortable they are with using space in their improvisation; a mark of their musical maturity as a jazz musician. It is tempting to fill up all the “silence” that is possible in the song, so using this opportunity to play with reticence and grace is to your advantage.

Moving your set into the 21st century is a fun way to be both relevant and innovative at the same time. For my generation it was jazz versions of songs by Bjork, RUSH, Pink Floyd, the relatively unknown B-side I Burn For You by The Police, or especially, Yothu Yindi’s transcendental Gapu. Now, Pyramid Song by Radiohead for example has an overall feel and melody that would make for a great jazz waltz. Grip by Tessa Thompson is also an excellent example of a song that could be translated into jazz, and even something as musically extreme as Rational Gaze or Born Into Dissonance by Meshuggah has the potential to be converted into a fascinating odd time signature jazz song, if done carefully. Currently there are many artists in styles such as dark dubstep, etc. creating bass and drum rhythms that would be very interesting constructs for jazz songs.

Wisely choosing songs for a jazz set is a practiced, learn as you go process. But with a little thought and work, you will be able to entertain and inspire your audiences wherever you go. So work hard and good luck!

Ω

The Art Of The Jazz Set: Part One

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Being a professional musician these days is a challenge, especially if you are a woodwind specialist. We study and practice the finest details of theory, composition, improvisation, and so on. But there is little discussion, especially amongst young players, of the art of creating an interesting series of songs (a set). Thus, strategically choosing songs and their sequence for a performance can make a major difference in your career both artistically and economically. To illustrate how, I will discuss the general overall structuring of music written or arranged for a jazz quartet (in this case consisting of trumpet, saxophone, bass and drums). In Part Two I will discuss specific songs and eras to include.

There are many benefits of well-planned set, especially how it can help deliver a decent performance when you are not at your best: jet lagged, dehydrated, coming down with a cold, hungry, and/or whatever else happens when you tour and perform. An organized set is also very useful when there are last minute personnel changes, and you have little to no time to rehearse before a performance. A well built set also leaves room for flexibility and spontaneity if you decide, for example, to alter the set mid-performance to fit the mood of the room. The most important aspect of a well-planned set, though, is that you have in mind a target performance, a standard to which you aspire. Hitting this significant target requires the intense focus typical of a traditional Japanese archer, or legendary violinist Nicolo Paganini when he wrote difficult pieces to be played on a single string. So let’s look at a few key points that will help you build a great set.

A very effective way to begin a set is with an opening solo number. It may be freely improvised, but I have found that having a pre-planned, original solo arrangement of a standard song is most useful as a whet, an effective way to engage with the audience immediately. And though many saxophonists will use an excellent ballad like John Coltrane’s “Naima”, choosing a song  such as Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” or Dave Brubeck’s “Three To Get Ready” instead is a more surprising and entertaining show opener to jazz audiences (while also being a fun challenge for the soloist). With proper planning and preparation then, the solo intro will engage both you and the audience right from the start. Personal favorites of mine include the Miles Davis classics “Pfrancing” and “Milestones”, a rubato version of Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation”, “Kozo’s Waltz” by Art Blakey, and/or the classic early 20th century composition “Royal Garden Blues”. 

Having too many mid-tempo songs in a set is a mistake many young saxophonists make. Not being able to play artistically at faster tempos, they tend to stick to a comfortable, medium speed overall, with little variation in form and tempo. So when choosing songs, it is particularly effective to strategize towards your stylistic rather than technical strengths, until they are equal. This is where you may compensate by showcasing original arrangements of up-tempo songs, as is often the case with John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, or the classic standard Cherokee. Thelonious Monk ‘s composition Well You Needn’t is also useful as a stylistic vehicle, as its bridge section is difficult at high speeds, for saxophonists especially. Altering both harmonic and metronomic speed thus provides both artistic and technical solutions to up-tempo songs.

Another pitfall in set building is reflexively arranging a standard 4/4 song in other time signatures like 3/4 or 5/4. Although in theory it is a good idea, young saxophonists almost invariably just try and fit the melody into another time signature verbatim, without exploring any of the myriad possibilities of form and texture. The key to arrangement then is to find creative ways to maintain the essence of the original while featuring it in an unexpected context. So rather than re-arranging an entire song into 5/4 for example, simply alter a single bar of the melody into 5/4, which creates a surprising “hiccup” effect in the song, before returning to the standard time signature and chords for improvisation. You can also play the song in its original time signature and then arrange the solo section to be in 5/4, before returning back to the original form. Both methods provide an opportunity to create fresh arrangements without overcomplicating both the music and the overall set.

As I am using a piano-less quartet as an example, the lack of a chording instrument can be either an advantage or weakness, depending on the quality of the set. Though a piano might add more musical colors and possibilities, the space created in a piano-less quartet is an opportunity to demand more of yourself and the ensemble texturally. Thus, including a traditional song, or original arrangement of a song that does not require chordal accompaniment gives you the opportunity to explore more textural and improvisational elements, which are then played equally amongst the entire quartet in a contrapuntal rather than harmonic approach.

An example of this would be arranging songs that use various ostinato patterns, such as traditional African balafon songs, or your own compositions based on South Indian drumming patterns arranged into complimentary parts for the entire group. Using this method is not only enjoyable for the audience but also prevents you from staying rooted in your comfort zone. And when you add space to these arrangements to create freer forms of improvisation you create moments of chance and uncertainty, which simultaneously makes great art possible, and keeps the set from being over organized and predictable.

Ultimately, strategic set building helps bridge the gap between our goals and abilities, while creating a memorable experience for your audience. So make sure you enjoy the process, and good luck!

continued in Part Two…

Ω

 

How To Philosophize: Part Two

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φιλοσοφία

Continuing on from Part One in which we left off discussing fallacious thinking (and speaking of jazz a few paragraphs earlier)… some ignorant musicians often used to commit Ad Hominem fallacies against each other: accusing the other of not being able to play jazz or classical music because of their race. White musicians couldn’t “swing,” – and black musicians couldn’t play “serious” music – were the most common versions of this fallacy. But you will most often see ad hominem attacks used in public debates. One person will say the other’s point is wrong because that person is an idiot. But even if that person is actually an idiot this does not automatically prove their point wrong. Ad Hominem attacks are almost invariably a sign that a person using one has lost the debate, and needs to resort to name-calling to distract you or everyone else from realizing they themselves have been proven wrong. Ad Hominem attacks are often used in politics against women, as their gender is made to look as if it disqualifies them from being an effective administrator or leader.

Another fallacy that common is the Post Hoc fallacy, also known as a non-sequitur (which is Latin for “it does not follow…”). For example, I am committing a Post Hoc fallacy if I say “ I listened to Miles Davis today on my stereo and then it started raining. Therefors, Miles Davis’ music causes the rain to fall!” The Post Hoc fallacy is the basis of much of human mythology: ancient people experienced natural events and felt them to be the work of various gods of rain, thunder, harvests, etc. The Post Hoc fallacy, if committed by enough people simultaneously, becomes an Ad Populum fallacy –  “It can’t be wrong if thousands or millions of people believe it” – National Socialism, and/or the enslavement of Africans are two particularly scathing indictments of this fallacy.

Fallacies of this sort often rely on some form of syllogism: a logical argument consisting of two premises and a conclusion, which in these cases is faulty. For example, we may “argue” the following:

1. Milk is food.
2. Rice Krispies are food.
3. Therefore milk is Rice Krispies!

Clearly, milk is not “Rice Krispies” in that milk is a liquid (singular) and Rice Krispies are solids (plural), etc. Plus, milk and Rice Krispies are not made the same way nor are they foods of the same category, thus they do not share at least three of the many (major) properties that distinguish them! This syllogism is rather silly, but indeed reveals fallacious thinking quite clearly.

The Slippery Slope fallacy is also a rather popular rhetorical device used by some to prove an imaginary point. “If people do X they will start doing Y.” This fallacy was often applied to jazz in the early part of the twentieth century. Dozens of self-appointed moral guardians saw jazz as the gateway to countless social ills and great moral lapses. As a 1921 Ladies Home Journal article asked “Does Jazz Put the Sin in “Syn”-copation?” Swing music and especially dancing to it, was “known” to cause insanity amongst white teenagers coming under the influence of what were referred to as “crazy Negro rhythms” This fallacy also “benefitted” from another fallacy to justify it…the Appeal To Authority. “Our moral leaders know what’s best for us…so what they say must be true. Watch out for those intoxicating drum beats! “

Politicians are also notorious for using fallacious Straw Man arguments: misrepresenting the point made by their opponent and then trying to get them to defend this misrepresentation, like it was the original point their opponent made. For example, I might say that I would love it if everyone listened to jazz. Then someone might say ”Jazz musicians are always trying to get everyone to listen to jazz, why are they such fascists?!!” Notice I didn’t say I wanted to “get” everyone listening to jazz, like I wanted to force him or her to listen to it against their will! By now raising the question of why jazz musicians are such fascists, the conversation has been misdirected and I might end up having to defend my position against being fascist, which has nothing to do with my original statement. The Straw Man Argument is similar to the Red Herring fallacy, another way of leading people away from one topic to another and to a false conclusion. For example, jazz musicians work extremely hard and go through rigorous, expensive university training nowadays to become good at their craft. But the working conditions and pay in clubs are still way below the working standards for many other jobs. So naturally, jazz musicians are concerned with better working conditions and trying to find ways to create income stability. A Red Herring response to this would be: “Jazz musicians want better working conditions. But our economy is in trouble. So how can jazz musicians pitch in to help fix our economy?”  This leads the topic away from the issue of working conditions to jazz musicians contributing to the economy in general. But jazz musicians do contribute to the economy through paying tax, working music union jobs, paying union dues, paying federal taxes and often working a “regular” day job. So what jazz musicians do is not the point, it is what they are or are not able to do about how they are treated. Often the Red Herring fallacy is tied in with what is known as Begging The Question.

This term – “begging the question” – is the most misused phrase out of all the fallacies. Most people use the term in the following manner: “I saw Steve in the bar this afternoon…which begs the question why was he not at work?” What the person means is that it raises the question…it does not “beg” it. “Begging The Question” is a term used to describe a question that contains or assumes the answer in the question itself. Someone might say “Jazz is stupid because it is weird.” The term “weird” does not answer how and why jazz is stupid: it does not address the reason jazz is supposedly stupid. Thus, the question just reinforces the premise, and does nothing to answer it. It is the equivalent of saying “Steve is dumb because he is dumb…”

Now that you are aware of what philosophy and logic actually is, now you are ready to sit down, have a cup of coffee, and ask yourself a question. Any question: Who are you? What do you think? Why do you think it? and so on. This involves getting to know what else has been written or discussed in the history of philosophy, so at this point reading the classic texts is (arguably) considered vital.

There are so many works of philosophy in so many categories it can seem pretty intimidating to even try to begin reading all of them. But I have good news for you… you don’t have to. The reason I say this is that the deep and long-term study of philosophy is like any other pursuit: it contains many people with many different goals and abilities. Some people pursue philosophy for fun; others pursue it to solve a difficult moral dilemma within themselves, while a further, select group are in a position of authority and must be fluent in philosophical thought to do their job. No matter what level of philosophy you choose, the only requirement is that you be honest about it. Don’t pass yourself off as a serious thinker if you are an enthusiast – there is a huge difference between musing and serious, analytical thought. Alternately, don’t be intimidated by serious analytical thought either. It has its place, and you have yours. Just know which is which, and be clear about it (see Part One). That being said, let’s look at a few philosophical works and see what they hold.

The Greek philosopher Plato is fundamental to Western philosophy, so one must get to know his work and ideas. In fact, he is so important that the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said “the safest general characterization of the philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Whitehead himself was an important thinker in the “school” of Process Philosophy – a line of philosophical inquiry beginning with the Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus that considered reality from the standpoint of change or “changing.” Plato wrote a series of famous Dialogues in which various characters (most often his teacher Socrates) discuss moral philosophy. In Eurthyphro, for example, Socrates and the mantic figure Eurthyphro discuss the nature of holiness, and when Socrates reveals how Eurthyphro’s definition/definitions of holiness are all flawed, Eurthyphro dismisses himself to avoid having to deal with it! This Platonic dialogue, like so many others, reveals how Socrates would pretend to be ignorant on a subject and then, by means of questioning, catch the other person in their own true ignorance. This is known as Socratic Irony, and is one of the major techniques used in Plato’s work.

Another interesting thing to read might be Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics – a series of scrolls that discuss what is ethical or good from the standpoint of what creates eudaimonia – happiness and welfare for all people. Part of this is how Nature is thought by Aristotle to be teleological – working towards a specific end (telos), and what role animals, plants, and humans have in this process. This does not mean, however, that works of philosophy from non-Western countries are not as important. What is known as “Eastern” thought to us is often much older.

By the time Plato was born (circa. 428 BCE) The Vedic scriptures (known as the Upanishads) had already been written and compiled from 1500 to 500 BCE. During this time the ‘Six Schools Of Indian Philosophy’ had already been systemized and recorded. As previously mentioned, Heraclitus (b. 535 BCE) was the first known Western thinker to discuss Process philosophy. But the idea of what is permanent vs. what changes in the Universe was a topic much discussed in the Upanishads, in terms of the Universal Spirit (Brahman) and the Individual Self (Atman). Seen from this standpoint, the Upanishads essentially proclaim that change is an illusion, because it doesn’t “fit” with a permanent Reality. So it is possible that Heraclitus was exposed to the ideas in the Upanishads, and discussed process philosophy because of it. One such Upanishad – the Brahma Sutra – for example, is an attempt to systematize and explain the various ideas presented in the other Upanishads (such as the Bhagavad Gita) as a unified doctrine. Though this is a theological work, and not an empirical philosophical work, it still should not be discounted in light of the Western tradition. Whether it is religious or metaphysical philosophy, both assume a rather mystical quality when discussing what is the fundamental nature of Reality, whether it is OM, the fundamental vibration of the Universe, or the Logos (to Stoic philosophers). But even if you have read a few works, it still doesn’t mean you have actually philosophized. That takes action, and this is where thought experiments are a fun way to actually begin the activity of philosophizing.

 Thought Experiments

We all have heard of at least one or two philosophical thought experiments (known in Greek as deiknymi) in our lives, the classic one being “if a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Though the answer is common sense, it raises the question of what the nature of reality is. We know the tree makes vibrations in the air – vibrations which can be picked up by ears and turned into “sound” in our brains – but if we are not there to perceive the tree’s sound, does that make a “difference” of some sort?  Another thought experiment we have all heard of is “what would happen if an immovable object was hit by an unstoppable object?” Though a question such as that might seem unanswerable or even silly, it reveals how we humans like to engage in puzzles and riddles, even when those puzzles are serious e.g. what is moral vs. what is legal, etc. In yet another rather famous late 20th century thought experiment concerning the mind (“what is it like to be a bat?”), philosopher Thomas Nagel argued that even if a person had webbing on their arms, were able to fly around at dusk, and perceive the world through echolocation, the experience only lets you know what it is like for you to behave like a bat, not what it is like for a bat to be a bat.

For fun I suggest that you sit down and think up a few thought experiments of your own.  If, for example, you like video games, you might want to think about the concept of free will vs. predetermination.

The Case of Princess Peach

Imagine you are playing the old Nintendo 64 console game SuperMario Kart. You pick Princess Peach as the driver you will be controlling. The game begins and you are racing around the first track. Now imagine, as Princes Peach is driving around the track, she asks herself, ”Do I have free will?” or “I wonder if my life is predetermined…” As her controller, you function essentially as the master of her fate, in a sense her “God.” You can’t actually talk to her, so do you use the game controller to somehow send her a message that she is not in control of her fate? If she prayed to you for a sign, how would you show it to her? Might she think any/all actions you take from that point on were her idea in the first place? How would you make your ‘presence’ known to her?

Another question might be ‘Is her use of the game’s various weapons to knock others temporarily out of the race ethical?’ Though they are rather benign, are they moral? They are built into the game – it is just a game to us. But what if the racers decided that it was immoral to use them? Would you, as “God,” keep on doing so? Should you not set an example for the racers and make them moral through deciding to take them up on their moral beliefs? You may say to yourself, “it is just a game, it has no real world consequences.” But what if in actual reality our God(s) approached our lives in the same way – war and sin were just part of a cosmic game we are characters in, and we are being “played” by divine beings in a video game called “Earth.” Would we call that God moral or immoral? Would we even be responsible for our sins if we have no control over our destiny? If you are interested in other cultures and/or languages you might enjoy thinking about The Case of the (Neko).

The Case of The Neko

Let’s take the Japanese word “neko,” (猫) which means ‘cat.’ To English speakers, a cat is a “cat.” The word cat is so evocative of all our ideas and feelings about the animal with that name that we take for granted that the word ‘neko’ to the Japanese has that same ubiquitous “cat-ness” to it. To them, the animal we call a cat is fundamentally a ‘neko,’ it is “thoroughly neko,” and thus the word cat does not really convey the same feeling when describing it. This raises the question, is language truly capable of conveying an accurate or “correct” understanding of what it signifies? Also, is there a language that best describes Reality? What if it is not English? What if Japanese is the language that, after scientific analysis, is the most accurate in conveying the true feeling of what exists in the world? Would you feel like you missed out on some part of life because English was not the most accurate?

As someone who speaks English, Japanese, and Vietnamese, I can attest to the fact that some words, at least to me, feel more potent in languages other than English.  Philosophy itself – from Greek meaning “the love of wisdom” – is described in Japanese as tetsugaku – “wisdom learning.” This raises the question as to what philosophy both ‘is’ and ‘can do.’ One can love wisdom, but does that mean they will actually learn to be wise and act accordingly? Even if I did learn ‘wisdom’ would I use what I know wisely in every instance? Does philosophical study actually make people wise, or especially, moral?

One word that I particularly like in Japanese is sabishi-sa, usually translated as “loneliness.” The word sabishi (lonely) is common, but adding the suffix  -sa gives it a feeling deeper than adding a -ness to the English word. It makes the word a lot more like sadness (setsuna-sa: せつなさ) mixed with kodoku (孤独), an “isolated, desolate” loneliness. You are not depressingly lonely, but deep in your soul somewhere there is an unspoken loneliness of some sort – loneliness related to mono no aware – an awareness of/the emotional quality of the impermanence of life. Thus, sabishi-sa is almost more appropriately translated as a form of “loneliness-ness.” It is one of the reasons the word appears in Japanese enka (folk pop) so much. Saying “Osaka no sabishi-sa” – the loneliness of Osaka – doesn’t refer to being lonely in Osaka or that Osaka itself is lonely. The term speaks to the idea that “being lonely in Osaka” has its own added dimension of loneliness – one who has loved and lost in Osaka has something within them that another city does not evoke… something that, unlike English, does not need extra words added onto ‘loneliness’ to describe. Japanese is a gorgeous and profound language, and I encourage anyone/everyone to learn more about it, if not learn to speak it.

大阪 (Osaka)

Another example would be the word music – which comes from the Greek mousikē meaning an art presided over by the Muses – ethereal daughters of Zeus* who imbue individuals in various arts with divine inspiration. “Music” (mousikos – “of the Muses”) is described in Japanese as ongaku (音楽) – “comfortable sounds.” ‘Comfortable sounds,’ though, is the English translation, and doesn’t capture the feeling of the word, which is ‘elegant/beautiful sounds’ – pleasing sounds. One definition describes a divine nature of sound – the other an effect. As a musician myself, I feel the English word music more accurately captures how I feel when I am affected by great music – that it has a quasi-divine quality or source, and is much more than “pleasing.”

The music of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis for example, has always deeply affected me, especially the music made by his Quintet in the mid to late 60s. There is something about that music that is inexplicably terse yet expansive – dark yet illuminating, the compositions on Miles Smiles in particular. Another example is the music of the Canadian progressive rock band RUSH – of whom I have been a life-long fan. No matter what phase the band goes through, the music is always well thought out and brilliantly created – the rhythmic guitar parts of Alex Lifeson in particular.

These thought experiments are only a couple of basic examples, and surely there are many things in your own life that are more interesting to think about. So why not sit down with a cup of coffee and see what thoughts matter to you the most? The act of philosophy is both challenging and fun. Why not try it today?

* Clio (History), Urania (Astronomy), Melpomene (Tragedy), Thalia (Comedy), Terpsichore (Dance), Calliope (Epic Poetry), Erato (Love Poetry), Polyhymnia (Songs to the Gods), Euterpe (Lyric Poetry).

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How To Philosophize: Part One

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φιλοσοφία

One of the tragedies of life is how seemingly few people are interested in philosophy as an active pursuit, as a way of being in the everyday world as opposed to academia where sweatered undergrads and bearded professors gather to drink coffee and say grand things about a bunch of 18th and 19th century Germans…who themselves sat around drinking coffee and saying things like weltanschauung, and Wir müssen die richtige Art und Weise kennen zu denken!! But philosophy is a grand adventure and just as relevant in Walmart as it is in Symbolic Logic classes.

So I have decided to use my blog to encourage you all to be philosophical, to see yourself and the world anew– no matter what race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, age, or religion. You can even be a philosopher if you are Toronto Maple Leafs fan…especially if you are a Leafs fan (trying to explain to the world why we Leafs Nation members love them so much considering their annual win-loss ratio). But first… a (very) general summary of what happened in Western philosophy up to now.

Philosophy can be thought of as the consideration of three main lines of thought in Greek, Roman, and Western European history: (1) Metaphysics – what is the nature of our existence, (2) Epistemology – what is the nature of knowledge, and (3) Axiology – what is the nature of the values that we hold or aspire to. The way I see it, we have gone through Ten General Periods of philosophy so far. These have been:

  1. The Classical Mythologists(Hesiod and Homer) collected and wrote of the Greek myths.
  2. The philosophers after them and before Socrates (the Pre-Socratics) tried to figure how the world could be understood apart from the myths. What if the myths are indeed myths, how can we then explain how things are made and work…without referring to the gods?
  3. The Classical Philosophers(Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and others) wanted to know how we can define virtue, and become virtuous. What is the right way, or at least the bestway, to live?
  4. The Roman, Jewish, and Christian thinkers influenced by Greek culture (Hellenism) tried to analyze theology in terms of the Logos– the creative principle(s) organizing the Universe. Was God behind it, or part of the Logos itself? Also, how could one define virtue and be virtuous when the Roman state was in a constant state of war and trivial disputes?
  5. The Medieval philosophers in Europe and the Near East looked anew at the ideas of Plato in terms of the (possibly) mystical nature of the universe (NeoPLatonism). The rise of Catholic philosopher St. Augustine and Boethius, and Alcuin the Latinist brought scholarship to Europe through theological thinking and Latin study. Also, medieval Islamic philosophers (Al-Kindi, Al Farabi, Ibn Sina) contemplated Platonic thought and science in terms of their faith. The classic Greek works were saved from Christian and barbarian sacking though their translation into and transmission in Arabic and Persian by Islamic scholars – much of what we know of Plato would have been lost without it. When Petrarch (1304-1374) revived the study of the ancient Roman thinker Cicero, this is considered to be the start of the Renaissance.
  6. The Renaissance philosophers started developing scientific methods, principles, and ideas about human government. Rene Descartes became known as the “Father” of what would become Modern Philosophy by his study of morals as a science and what he saw as the separateness of the mind and one’s body (Cartesian Dualism). He thought the mind/body were separated by the pineal gland. He is known for saying “I think, therefore I am…”
  7. After Descartes, philosophers entered a so-called “Age of Reason” (the Enlightenment), and thinkers such as Baruch Spinoza and others saw truth as rational and deductive. Also the modern concepts of identity, the Self, and morality became important subjects, as well as the idea that Reality exists fundamentally in the mind. Mankind now attacked and questioned the authority of the Church (and Christianity in general), many rejecting the theological rationales for the existence of God.
  8. Late Enlightenment (and/or Pre-Modern) philosophers such as Immanuel Kant thought that truth had to be independent from experience, while Georg Hegel theorized that the properties we perceive in objects depend on how they appear, and are not inherent to the objects themselves – things have no properties independent of the mind. Hegel and others (after Kant) were considered to be part of a new German Idealism: a rejection of the aristocratic thinking and politics of the day. Later, Arthur Schopenhauer introduced a new sense of pessimism into philosophy, arguing in his essay On the Vanity of Existence that “Time is that by virtue of which everything becomes nothingness in our hands and loses all real value.” The nineteenth century saw the arrival of Charles Darwin (Evolution), Søren Kierkegaard (Existentialism), and Karl Marx’s writing on the economic status of the working class (Marxism). Kierkegaard’s ideas on how the individual and his experiences are the starting point of philosophy – and how moral/scientific thinking alone cannot explain human existence – were and are a huge influence on modern philosophy.
  9. Though it is hard to say exactly when one philosophical age ends and another begins, the late 19th and early 20th century marks what is generally known as the Modern Era, arguably beginning with Frederick Nietzsche and his view that Life is without intrinsic value. His book The Will to Power and other works argue that though Christianity is a backward, anti-human religion, science has no inherent moral value and meaning either. Modern philosophy saw the rise and ongoing development of psychoanalysis (Freud), the study of signs and symbols (Semiotics), sociology, psychology, anthropology, linguistics, and Logical Positivism – philosophy as the logical clarification of thought (there are no specifically philosophical truths).
  10. The late 20th century saw the rise of what is known as PostModernism– a complicated set of ideas revolving around questions of authorship, and the idea that there is no such things as objective knowledge. Postmodern philosophy is also highly critical of the effects of mass media, capitalism, and commodity fetishism. The decade we are currently in (the 2010s) is considered by some to be part of a Post-Postmodern Era, also called Metamodernism or (µ-Modernism, and some consider it vacuous and narcissistic (the supposed vacuity of Internet users is creating the meaning of the content within it).  Others call this new era PostConceptualism –  a time marked by a “New Sincerity” defined by a rejection of Postmodern cynicism or irony, and the return to sincerity, enthusiasm, and sentiment in music, art, literature, etc. 

So, now that we know where we are and what has happened…how do we actually become philosophers ourselves? 

First of all, we can start by considering ourselves philosophers. How is it that we can say this without having read Plato, or maybe taking a Philosophy 101 class? This is because what philosophy is, and always was, was something that starts from life – your life. The search for questions and answers starts within your life – within the situation of living, right now, where you sit. No need for a toga, or a fancy suit – your life is a rich vein of living no matter what it is. You are “in” your Life 24/7, and thus you don’t need to think thoughts irrelevant to your life and its relationship to other lives. But that raises the question of what are the relevant questions to your life?

In my case I looked into what I was passionate and curious about – jazz improvisation, Zen Buddhism, and so on and found the things that I really wanted to philosophize about: things that were really important to me, things that I really wanted to know. This is really important as it makes our life exciting and filled with passion. In fact, I was (and am) so passionate about it I travelled to monasteries in Western Japan and South Korea to study Zen meditation, as well as played freely improvised music in numerous clubs and halls throughout South Korea, Japan, China, and Vietnam, then wrote a book about free form jazz and Zen Buddhism (my doctoral dissertation).

My desire to philosophize led me to travel the world and enjoy amazing experiences. This something anyone can do if they plan and strategize their life around the pursuit of knowledge, you don’t even have to travel any further than your own local library. The world opens up in your mind and heart when you ‘seek to know.’ In fact there are so many fantastic, factual books about Zen and East Asian culture you don’t have to spend the thousands of dollars it takes or suffer through the negative aspects of world travel (disease, jet lag, cancelled flights, etc). The German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers said in his book Way To Wisdom that:

“The ascent of philosophical life is the ascent of the individual man. He must accomplish it as an individual in communication and cannot shift responsibility to others. We achieve this ascent in the historically concrete elective acts of our life, not by electing any so-called world view (weltanschauung) laid down in propositions.”

“Let us not heap up philosophical possessions, but apprehend philosophical thought as movement and seek to deepen it…Let each of us as an individual immerse himself in his own historicity, in his origin, in what he has done; let him possess himself of what he was, of what he has become, and of what has been given to him.”

So why don’t we take him at his word and begin our philosophical journey? First we find somewhere to live, food, money, a good night’s sleep, love and so on. These questions of daily living may not be very philosophical, but we still must then carry on with logic and/or common sense – although sometimes what we think is common sense actually turns out to be illogical. So to begin we must know a few things about philosophical or analytical thinking.

There are definable standards for the foundation of both our daily and philosophical thinking. We can look at our thoughts and see if we are objectively thinking clearly. These standards are:

  1. CLARITY: What we say is clear and completely understandable. It always amazes me how undergrad philosophy students of all people fail on this first point so often. But most are young – victims of their own (commendable) enthusiasm – and are so excited about their first real analysis of the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche, for example, that they can’t wait to tell all their friends about what they know and spout it out for everyone to hear at parties. But complete clarity is the top priority and any philosopher worth the name can make a subject clear to anyone at any level through the use of the appropriate language level. Clarity means you could explain Immanuel Kant’s view(s) on morality to your 7-year-old niece and turn around and defend your understanding of it to a tenured philosopher professor at Harvard. This is the golden rule, but it is not that hard to live up to. Be clear and you will always be on the right track, even if you don’t use fancy words.
  2. ACCURACY: What you say should be correct. Thus make sure you know what you are saying, know it to be true. What you think and say should be free from error, and be changed the instant you discover an error. Philosophy means leaving your ego at the door and be ready to argue, contemplate and grow.  Philosophy is NOT finding the right answer to something or everything, Philosophy is a set of tools to help you think and understand the world. NO philosopher has ever found the one right answer that solves morality for all people at all times for every situation. This enters the realm of the religious, so make sure you are clear if you are speaking philosophically or theologically. Nothing wrong with either but there is often a fine line between stating what is good, and what your God says is good. Just be clear which is which, and why.
  3. PRECISION:What you say must be exact to the appropriate level of detail. You don’t have to solve the great questions of life every time you consider the nature of what is good behaviour in your life. Make the level of your argument clear and you won’t get sidetracked into defending a universal position on morality when you are just trying to get your kids to be quiet in the car!
  4. RELEVANCE:This too is another major problem in many philosophical discussions – the topic gets sidetracked into something else. This is usually how fights get started. Discussions about the legacy of the Montreal Canadiens vs. the Maple Leafs often de-evolve quickly in Toronto bars on a Saturday night and soon someone is questioning the marital fidelity of the other’s mother, and fists start flying. Thankfully this happens very rarely in philosophy, although I once attended a composer’s conference where one of the attendees was so incensed that my work was included in the proceedings that she vigorously insisted I was a “charlatan” whose graphic scoreswere a mockery to “serious” music and then proceeded to leave the room in a fuming rage! Strangely enough, word got out around Athens (Greece) about the happening and it almost tripled the expected attendance of my concert the following evening! No such thing as bad press…I was performing in Paris three days later and even had a couple of curious audience members ask me Êtes-vous le charlatan?!
  5. DEPTH:Your precise, accurate statements and ideas should also contain the appropriate amount of depth. Those big fancy words have their right place in philosophical discussions, so make sure you know exactly what they mean and use them to add the appropriate nuance and subtle meaning to your thinking. These big words are nuanced because they have interrelationships with other big words and knowing one means you will have considered the others that play into its overall meaning. Once again you don’t have to be fancy, just know what you are saying and know the exact meaning of what you say. Make sure you are clear if you are using a word like Communism, because what Karl Marx meant by ‘Communism’ and what Soviet Communismbecame were two very different things.
  6. BREADTH:This ties in with Depth, as you need to know what others before you thought about the things you are thinking about. You don’t have to memorize a long list of philosophers and read every single book on philosophy. But if you think about morality a lot, look up moral philosophy and find out who thought about it most often. You will find much to think about in the present, and in the past – including Aristotle’s ideas about ethics, medieval philosopher St. Anselm’s thoughts about how ‘just by thinking about God we can know he exists,’ and why Thomas Aquinas thought that “all that is good is God.” You don’t have to agree or disagree with any of it, but knowing as much as you can about other thinkers will always help you towards finding your own (unique) thoughts.
  7. FAIRNESS:This is one aspect of thinking that many media outlets and public “intellectuals” completely fail at.  What we think must never be self-serving, or contain a vested interest in thinking a certain thought for our own gain. IF we are wrong about something, and it can be proven we are wrong we mustadmit it, and re-think our position. It is the ONLY way we can have a true discussion about anything. Trying to be right about everything all the time is arrogant, narcissistic, and not philosophical. Having a philosophical position does not make “us” right, it makes what we hold to to be correct, no matter who we are. Facts are facts, so we must make sure we are humble in this regard. Also, it is not philosophical (or nice) to take a “I told you so” approach to philosophy. We are not philosophers to be better than others or to be “right.” We are philosophers to be philosophers. This ties in to how we use logic.
  8. LOGIC:What we think and say must make sense. Our ideas must begin correct and end correct as best we can manage. Thus we must avoid certain fallacies, or illogical ways of thinking. Many fallacies are common, and people use them in the false belief they are ‘right’ when in fact they are wrong about what they think. This is where what some see as common sense is actually closer to nonsense. But thankfully most fallacies are rather easily spotted if you know where to look. Once again, in philosophical fairness, the first place we look for fallacies should be in our own thoughts. As a very famous “theologian” once said, “First remove the plank from your own eye to more clearly see the speck in your brother’s eye…”

So that means we must know (what I call) the Big Eleven: the eleven most common fallacies (mistaken beliefs based on faulty arguments) people use. We are all guilty at one point or another of accidentally allowing one or two to slip in to our everyday thinking, especially when we are passionate about an opinion. But an opinion is not an argument, thus we must keep fallacies out of our best thinking. We must be dedicated to the avoidance of fallacies, especially the following eleven.

The first is the Hasty Generalization. We all use this occasionally. A young heavy metal drummer might say: “Jazz is stupid!” Clearly, it is not a universal truth that jazz is (or is not) stupid, or based on stupidity. It is a difficult art to perform properly and takes years of intensive study to improvise in a profound manner. Clearly our young drummer is making a hasty generalization based on his love of what he thinks is not stupid: heavy metal. Jazz, by comparison, is stupid to him. The Hasty Generalization is often preceded or followed by a Weak Analogy: for example, both saxophones and fully automatic assault rifles are made of metal so we should ban both! So does this mean my AK-47 and my vintage Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone should go in the garbage? Very weak analogy! Clearly I am using a very silly example, but often Weak Analogies are at least a little silly.

Both fallacies are often part of an Argument Ad Ignorantium, arguing from ‘ignorance’ of what is actually true.  Theists will often argue that since God has not been proven to not exist, their beliefs are justified. Alternately one might argue that since it has yet to be proven true, God doesn’t exist. No matter which “side” you are on though, both arguments are fallacies. This is why true atheism is actually not “a-theism” at all. True atheism is a rejection of the evidence presented by theists as proof of their god(s) existence. Thus everyone is an atheist when it comes to not believing another’s supposed evidence. Christians for example accept Christ, and reject Hinduism, as it is a “false” religion with what they consider to be imaginary gods. They reject the Bhagavad Gita, the Brahma Sutra, and other books as sources of truth. To use a rather awkward term, they are “Hindu a-theists.” Thus, there are no true atheists who reject the idea that there could be a god or gods of some sort in some form in this Reality, or Universe, or in another. There is no proof to the contrary, so it remains a possibility. But this also is not “agnosticism” either, as science has proved so many facts about physical reality that negate a significant number of the claims of various religious texts (a kind of literary atheism). Either way, to claim theism or atheism on the basis of this fallacy is an error in thought.

I will continue this subject in Part Two of this series.

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1000 Plus Days…

oc and i

It has now been 1096 days since my beloved teacher Ornette Coleman had his last living birthday. I wish I had something profound or poignant to say but I just don’t. I can only reflect on the joy of our time together and the loneliness in the wake of his passing. So I thought I would take a moment of blog silence for him…

(two minutes)

the world is lonely and we make it happy by loving others.”

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The Bones of Time…

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The Bones of Time

Upon reading poet Robert Okaji’s poem Ritual, I was reminded of a recent experience.

Recently I had the privilege of examining up close (touching) the right foot bones of an Ornithomimid dinosaur, dated to 75 million years old. I overlaid my hand on the bones, and felt a rather profound kinship through touch, examining each for minutes at a time. I wish I were a true poet like Robert who could put into literary colors what the passing of 75 million years into my soul felt like. This 6 foot 5 inch dinosaur spent its life prowling and eating, then lay in the ground for millions of years before being unearthed by paleontologists and preserved for study. Think about it. Mankind came onto the scene millions of years after its death. The ancient Sumerians, the pyramids, ancient China, Jesus Christ, the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, Van Gogh, the airplane, the car, computers, the Internet… all the while this Ornithomimid laid in the ground, a 75 million year journey into my hands.

These bones are all that remain of this one creature, and yet they are the bones of life, of our understanding (paleontology). They teach us, enlighten us, and hopefully humble us as we consider how short the life of a man is when compared to all time preceding it. This one right foot took me out of my Self and put me into its time, into the bones of time itself.

Life is short; spend it writing poems, making music, blogging, painting and so on. Cover time’s bones with your Life…

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