Keith Jarrett and the Abstract Truth

Keith Jarrett once said that the more you know about the piano, about harmony, the harder it is to decide which note to play next. Because you’ve moved from thinking of seven possible notes (the ones right under your fingers, in the diatonic scale) into a world of chromatics, modes, extended chords and passing tones, you have a lot more choices in your palette.

Sometimes, it feels like this axiom applies to information. We have much data available, not just names, dates and places of historical or “newsworthy” events, but thanks to social media, we are exposed to a lot more information about a lot of people (only some of whom historically we would have called friends, the rest mere acquaintances, relatives, coworkers, and perfect strangers). It seems like we have more data with which to plan, justify and/or execute our next moves. But while browsing online may be an education of sorts, it’s not the kind of skill set expansion Jarrett is talking about.

First off, it’s unfocused. The breadth of available topics makes pointed study impractical. To take in all the news alone, compiled from dozens of sources worldwide, dictates a mere skim of the details, a sound byte or video clip’s worth to give us enough to form a quick opinion and reshape it into a 140-character tweet. Most of us aren’t actually delving deeper, doing the additional research and investing the time to appreciate the underlying issues.

Secondly, there is so much out there that either accidentally or blatantly isn’t accurate. Misquotations, news leads based on the popularity of someone (usually any random celebrity someone, but just as likely someone who by freak luck went viral), automatic knee jerk repostings, and hundreds of varying and often contradictory opinions (too often presumed as informed, educated and/or expert opinion without the benefit of credentials or evidence of wisdom).

Third, an education like Jarrett’s is based on an objective pedagogy. A thirteenth chord is a specific thing. Likewise, a Dorian mode is just that and nothing else. In other words, regardless of what you think or feel, although your choices may be subjective, the lessons are not. With information, however, particularly the data we obtain through social media, we tend to see first that which agrees with our worldview, second that which our friends believe or repeat, and only third that originated from our “enemies”, opposites or outside our comfort zones. That’s true of all information, I suppose, from the beginning of time. But the sheer volume of today’s “big data” means that many of us never get past the first set, never seeing the counterpoint, rebuttal, refutation or otherwise completely contrary information so essential to critical thinking, conscious decision making or evolution.

Finally, and not least importantly: not everyone has wherewithal to become truly educated. In fact, few people are educated about their world the way Keith Jarrett knows the piano and music. Becoming good at something, truly acquiring a skill or knowledge base, takes a lot of work. Most people would rather listen to music than do the work required to play it at least well. To reach Jarrett’s level requires a level of effort beyond most people’s comprehension.

Let’s face it. Most people are inherently lazy, at least when it comes to enlightenment (and truthfully, isn’t the purpose of education to lighten our load, our hearts, to see beyond the endless drudgery that can be daily living – or “making a living” – to something meaningful, joyous and in a suitable context for the pursuit of happiness?). Surfing, browsing, “liking” is easy. For most, there’s no need to do the research to validate or verify an opinion. There’s no time, after all, and what’s the point? It’s only idle conversation anyway, not an “approved” or traditional way of learning. If it were, perhaps it would be a lot less popular. After all, the modern trend is to disguise something nutritious as something fun (if your kids knew they were eating vegetables, they would be disgusted). In other words, eschew anything that even LOOKS hard. It’s so much more convenient just to parrot the party, church, national, racial or otherwise acceptable line. Like the Sufi story, in the end, everyone drinks the new water and there is peace. Well, homogeneity, at least. No one’s rocking the boat, judging the emperor’s wardrobe, or questioning the status quo. It’s like a warm bath. You can safely and quietly drift off to sleep.

But someone has to man the helm, right? If not you, then who? In this quagmire of essential diversity, freedom of speech, free enterprise, and information overload, if you can’t verify and validate for yourself, you’ve lost the foundation of liberty, of evolution, of actual personal growth.

When I was a kid in the 70s, there was a lot of focus on self-realization – figuring out what you were, what that was worth, and how to go about getting it. Yes, a lot of it was about material things. But it was personal effort, personal responsibility for your life’s outcome, personal solutions to personal issues. How else can a nation or world consider itself free, except as reflected in the achievement, responsibility, independence (and acknowledged interdependence) of its individuals? And being an individual has, and always will, required individual effort. Regardless of the amount of information available. Because Keith Jarrett didn’t learn how to play the piano using someone else’s hands or letting someone practice for him.

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