Canadian Musician Column

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Hello Folks.

My latest woodwind column for Canadian Musician magazine is up and online. For those of you without a subscription, here is a longer version posted here at the blog from June 2017.

Hope you like it!


Digital Signatures: Review

In case you all are interested, the University of Göttingen has published my review of Digital Signatures: The Impact of Digitization on Popular Music Sound in their musicology journal the world of music (new series). Here is a little taste:

Digital Signatures: The Impact of Digitization on Popular Music Sound
Ragnhild Brøvig-Hanssen and Anne Danielsen
Cambridge: The MIT Press
ISBN: 978-0-28-203414-2
RRP: US$27.00

Gazing out at the landscape beyond through a clean windowpane, it is both present and absent; it exists, but not necessarily as an object of our attention. We perceive it as transparent, unless scratches or imperfections draw our attention away from the landscape and towards the pane itself. The pane, therein, is both transparent and opaque, conditions discussed by French philosopher Louis Marin (1991, 57). This apparent contradiction provides an excellent conceptual foundation on which Ragnhild Brøvig-Hanssen and Anne Danielsen build their work Digital Signatures: The Impact of Digitization on Popular Music Sound. Quoting Marin’s example, the book explores the many ways in which newly developed techniques and technologies of digital sound have transformed and most importantly, mediated the sound of popular music. That is, they examine how these techniques influence how we hear sound (“transparent mediation”) and how we perceive what is done to it (“opaque mediation”). In the process, the authors give insights into the impact of the digitization of technology on the aesthetics of popular music. Specifically, through the technologies and ideas made possible by computer-based digital audio workstations…

For a general overview of the issue, click here.



Happy New Year and 解決!



As you all know, for the past three years on every January 1st I have revealed a new Japanese word to summarize the overall theme of my upcoming activities for the year. I have been doing this in my head for years, but only in the last three years have been blogging about it. December 31st is a reflective rather than wildly celebratory day for me. I had spent many years performing as a jazz musician on New Year’s Eve, and was tired of having to spend January 1st recuperating from the night before. So I decided to begin each how I truly wanted to spend it: refreshed and mentally organized, prepared to put a full year’s worth of strategies and effort into effect. This meant spending the day thinking (Jap: 考え, kangae) about who I was and where I was headed in Life; not making New Year’s resolutions, but rather choosing ways in which I would hone and improve my life. So the day of New Year’s Eve has now become my “day of kangae”, my day to choose and strategize around a word/theme for the coming year.

This means the evening of January 1st itself (rather than December 31st) is my New Year’s Eve: eat a good meal, watch a favorite movie, and so on. I don’t drink alcohol, so that saves me both money and a hangover! So in 2016 I decided to start sharing with you my yearly word/theme. First (in 2016) I chose kakan (果敢: かかん): to be bold, determined, and/or resolute. There was much I wanted to create and achieve in 2016, so I became bolder in order to do so. Then in 2017 I chose henkō (変更): change, or alteration: assessing what being bold in 2016 achieved, and how I could improve on the results. This of course means understanding failures, correcting mistakes and re-strategizing successful ventures to be even more successful. Thus, in 2018 I chose the verb naru (なる), “to become”. If we change ourselves we then obviously become something else: something better, something worse, but at least there is a becoming. So I chose to analyze all the things I had become and see what strengths and weaknesses were present in my career, health, financial dealings, etc.

This year’s theme will be the word kaiketsu (解決), a verb meaning “to solve” or “to go from dissonance to consonance” (in music). If I want to continue to act on the lessons I have learnt from considering the previous three words, I must renew my focus on solving problems as part of my changing and becoming, streamline the process of solving itself as the year continues forward. As a veteran musician, I especially like the idea that I can repurpose this word as a metaphor for my personal life, health, career, and such, turning the noise of Life into the music of solution oriented living. This requires specific steps that can be applies to all such areas:

1). Describe the problem to yourself.

2). Study up on the facts to make sure you solve the right problem scenario.

3). Identify your goal (your solution).

4). Consider as many solutions as you can.

5). Choose a solution that fits your goal.

6). Put the solution into action.

7). Evaluate the results, then return to Step 5 if they are not satisfactory.

What I love about this basic system/outline is that you can use it anytime and anywhere, for: regulating emotions, shopping for the right light bulb for a lamp, saving money, choosing between two business opportunities, planning a vacation, and the list goes on. Constantly Incorporating this activity into one’s daily activities makes the mundane aspects of living fun, a type of puzzle solving that can make good things better, and bad things a lot less bad. I actually have on my desk a sheet with these various steps written upon it so I can reference them at any time. I have the basic form memorized, but the sheet has a more detailed version so I can get more out of each step as I progress in my problem solving.

So Happy New Year, and Good Luck in 2019! Be bold in your pursuits, improve on the results, become something better, and continue to solve the bigger issues that come along with being a newer, better, stronger you.



The Architecture of Improvisation

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It is rather amazing how musicians these have the means and resources to gain more information about musical technique and theory than ever before through private lessons, educational DVDs, Skype, YouTube, and so on. But as it was before, many musicians still just have more technique and knowledge than they have actual good ideas, merely running the “right” scales over chords that they were taught automatically go together. But how a musician conceptualizes theory in their heads can make a huge difference in their playing, and that is where a more “architectural” approach to music theory comes into play.

Improvisation that is based on architecture (theoretical structures) differs from regular scales and arpeggios in that they incorporate shifting chord shapes over a base harmony without the listener getting lost in the resulting pattern. That is because there is an internal logic to the overlaid structures that keep them stable so that they don’t sound random. No matter how dissonant they may get, their cohesion and logic make them seem “right”.

There are many advantages of studying and using this kind of improvisation in one’s career. First, it helps open up many new and more sophisticated ways of composing melodies and chord changes, etc., which will certainly bolster your career. The modern woodwind musician has to play so many styles of music, compose for many types of media, teach, play multiple winds in Broadway-style shows and so on, being more advanced conceptually does nothing but help your career. Second, thinking structurally in this manner prepares one for transitioning into types of music from other countries who have radically different ways of thinking about rhythm, modulation, and so on. Moving from ”X must follow Y” to “X can be overlaid over Y” certainly helps one prepare for the radical shift in thinking one must make when moving from Western styles of music to various Eastern or African styles.

The first concept we will look at is overlaying one type of chord over the same type while varying the root from which we begin, which gives us a special kind of sonic shape that is somewhere in between. For example, if you overlay an E♭7 chord over a C7 chord, they will not sound like two separate chords, but rather as a big C #9 ♭9 chord. If one does the same with a G♭7 chord over a C7 chord, the result is a C#11#5♭9 chord. Finally, if you overlay an A7 chord over C7, you get a C #11 6 #5 chord. There is a special quality that occurs when this happens. They do not sound like regular dominant chords. That is because you have played dominant chords starting on E♭, G♭, and A, which make up the structure of a diminished 7th chord: every time you move to a new diminished chord it is only a minor third away, consistently, which gives the overall sequence a logical combination of consonance and chromaticism. This technique is what is known as playing the diminished “axis”, building dominant and diminished qualities in the same space.

The second, increasingly advanced concept is memorizing a set of chord shapes that are unrelated to the shapes we are applying them to. For example, rather than merely arpeggiating a C7 chord as is, we can arpeggiate a major seven flat 5 chord starting on B♭, which creates a beautiful C13 sound. Playing an E major seven flat 5 over C creates another beautiful C dominant sound (a C#9#5). Even if you try something a little more adventurous like playing the major seven flat 5 a half step above C, you still get a lovely C suspended 4, flat ninth sound. Once having discovered and memorized a few places where you can utilize the major seven flat 5 over other bass notes or chords, you can then move on to another shape, such as the diminished natural seventh chord. This shape too can create some lovely dominant sounds, such as if we place on E over a C7 chord, resulting in a C#9 sound. Placing a G diminished natural seventh chord over C creates a C #11♭9 sound, which is a great for jazz saxophonists to use when playing Joe Henderson style improvisations.

Another more expansive, abstract example are what are know as “Coltrane Changes”. On many of John Coltrane’s classic late career compositions he utilized a set series of six chord changes all based on the interval of a minor third followed by a perfect fourth, e.g. C E♭ A♭ B E G C. Thus, no matter what note one may start on, if they move in this manner they will return to their original note. So if one is improvising on a C7 chord, playing the series as dominant chords will bring you back to C7. Since the interval of a minor third doesn’t change, this brings a feeling of logic and order that helps the listener not feel lost when the harmony gets abstract. Considering this, one can then experiment with this kind of logic and create chromatic chord changes that contain similar logic, i.e. moving the chord sequences up by a half step until they return to the original: C E♭ A♭, D♭ E A, D F B♭, E♭ G♭ B, and finally E G C. Thus, even though the harmony is not diatonic at all, the consistent intervallic movement is the structure to which one’s ear can attune.

These techniques will certainly expand your ability to improvise, compose, and organize your musical thoughts, so good luck exploring them.




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!


The Art Of The Jazz Set: Part One



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…



How To Philosophize: Part Two



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).