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.

It’s Our Fault

If the world was better in your youth,
and kids had much more sense;
if things once great have gone to shit,
and nothing makes much sense,

you only have yourself to blame:
your parenting did this.
How damned convenient it must be,
what ignorance and bliss,

to vainly praise your parents’ ways
and how well you turned out.
Explain to me the reason why,
because I have some doubt,

why nothing that you learned so well
you passed on to your kids,
and how, despite your efforts,
our whole future’s on the skids.

2 APR 2014

Life requires art: a cento

Watch out! Art has been called a frill
by governments and citizens,
who balance budgets, cutting art
without a care. They’ve lost their souls,
and separate their heads from hearts.

Wake up! You tutors pass these laws,
yet forget young folk all start out
enthusiastic creatives;
yank their structured outlets
and they try to fly, but without wings.

Their frustration turns to rage,
which they have no means to contain;
just one fine art could hold it in:
distill it into dance, or paint,
from vitriol, make songs and shapes.

Good teachers know exactly what
it takes to form restraining walls
with strength enough to last until
emotions transmute into art.
That is culture; nothing less.

Poor tutors pass destructive laws
that cut the arts, and will destroy
millenia of work and strife,
civilization grown enough
to dare contain its own vision.

Without the arts, we have no plays
where Caesar is beat down with sticks,
school principals are gunned down instead;
raw instinct, rampant in the street,
turns artists into violent apes.

The spiritual? Morality?
They cease to be, and in their place,
we take the millions stripped from art
and build boot camps
to rehabilitate thugs.

07 DEC 2010

From a passage in “The Maiden King: The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine” by Robert Bly and Marion Woodman

Teach Your Children: canzone

Canto I.

To educate for revolution’s sake
requires a willingness for martyrdom,
the sense to learn from every small mistake,
and fortitude enough to take what comes
when nay-saying begins; and start it will,
the moment you step from the comfort zone
where history and status quo lie still.
The one who makes the change, makes it alone.

To teach in such a way, one draws from life;
here, leading by example is a must.
Without at least some evidence of strife
you’ll never gain a single student’s trust.
Each lesson is a battle for the will,
to gain an inch of ground against a world
that teaches, at its core, how best to kill
the oyster, for the sake of some small pearl.

If you would learn from teachers such as these,
first empty out the vessel that you bear;
relinquish all desire or need to please,
and first and foremost, decide that you care.
Once that commitment’s made, the lesson starts:
no homework, no “pop” essays are required,
no slogans or mnemonics learned by heart,
except “to be inspiring, be inspired.”

Canto II.

The truth is never taught to us in schools;
what good is knowing why a thing is so?
Much better to accept the way it is,
than to upset the known, the status quo,
in vain attempts to try and understand
some purpose beyond doing what you’re told.
Shut up, keep to yourself, and mind your tongue:
the best way to survive and to grow old.

Beyond the simple texts we learn by rote,
the facts we’re told are sacred and pristine,
we fall and yet imagine that we float
above a ground far down below, unseen.
There is no golden parachute, my friends;
believe in what you will, to no avail:
no paradise lies up beyond the bend,
the gears will stop, the power will soon fail.

When learning stops, who still admits to teach?
Who, once they know it all, says “I don’t know”?
What good to grasp in space beyond your reach
if what is underfoot you can’t let go?
The time spent cultivating self-esteem,
instead of just performing worthy acts
can never be returned; you can’t reclaim
a pointless life by coloring the facts.

Canto III.

Break down the doors, release these fettered minds!
Let love of beauty rule each student’s heart.
Who knows what new advances they may find,
when nurtured with some kindness from the start?
For truth, though sometimes bitter, does not kill;
reality is harsh, but bears no ill.

Break down the walls of that familiar box
we reinforce with history and fear.
Let go of petty cowardice; unlock
the upper reaches of the atmosphere,
where muffled by a misspent sense of pride
the dreams of humankind are waiting still;
the future can be ours, if we decide
to say, not can’t or won’t, but shout, “I will!”

Break off these chains that bind us to the past,
to staid traditions of no further use;
in truth, they were not ever meant to last.
Let stale ideas suffer disabuse!

Commiato.

Disruption and upheaval cannot be
the means by which the world is made anew.
By violence, nothing ever is made free;
it simply tilts the scales, always askew,
toward a slightly different fulcrum point.
No measure of success is ever found
in wanton, mad destruction. We annoint
new martyrs when each century comes round,

and sacrifice to progress our ideals.
We spend long hours in pointless, wild debate,
believing that reform, a fresh appeal,
will somehow, save us from ourselves, our fate.

What would you teach, if you no longer learn?
What would you learn, if you know everything?
The tune that Nero played on, as Rome burned?
Together, or apart, we all will swing.

26 NOV 2010

Real Fools’ Gold: a barzeletta

If you would be thought no one’s fool:
don’t drool – that’s first thing on the list;
and at all times retain your cool.
Please, try it sober; don’t start pissed.

The key is to keep mostly still.
You will at times be dared to speak
but fight that urge; your language skills
will just betray you as a geek.

For god’s sake, don’t let that truth leak
if you would be thought no one’s fool.
Remember, stick to simple tools:
don’t drool – that’s first thing on the list.

14 NOV 2010

Art is required

If you would this sad world improve: a battle cease, a mountain move, or seek to build up or destroy a single thought of fear or joy, there is one place alone to start. You must teach all your children art.

Imagination is the key.

By thoughts alone there come to be great mysteries, faith and belief in gods and demons, kings and chiefs; in justice and equality, in separating I and Thee.

So teach the arts, and music, too, in your religion, path or school. To have adherents worth a damn, they must imagine what “I AM” you would propose designed the world, created life, or wrote the rules.

Imagination is required.

Without it, none can be inspired to see beyond their own small selves, or care for something else that dwells beyond the sight and smell and touch; and such a life is not worth much. It does not toil, nor hope nor try, imagining no reason why, nor answer worth the seeking out.

Art teaches balance: faith and doubt; without it, gods are merely rules: like architecture without tools.

Teach art to all your children, then; for they must learn how to pretend if they would use your sacred texts for more than mindless genuflects or rote performance of some rite that without teeth, has lost its bite.

Imagination is the key.

Without it, all gods cease to be. Existence becomes drudge and trial, an endless chasm of denial where anything we do not see does not exist and can not be.

05 MAY 2010

The Failure of American Public Schools

The failure of the American public school system is that while we have emphasized the importance of those skills that “get things done” or that provide our children with the technological tool set to “compete” on a global scale, we have neglected to teach them the reasons WHY one should avail themselves of that technology. In addition, by eliminating the arts, we have removed the one source of study that provides insight into how all these technological skills fit together, how they construct a culture, how they inform an intelligent community, how they make life worth living.

When I look back at what I learned from the fine arts in school (back when they were part of the school curriculum), I wonder why they are not mandatory education.

From music (both instrumental and choral), I learned history, foreign language, mathematics, literature, geography, ratios, fractions, timing, physical and mental discipline, team dynamics and collaboration, listening, posture, breathing, improvisation, balance, poise, public speaking, and self-respect.

What I didn’t learn from music, I learned from art: proportions, composition, construction, optics, chemistry, preservation, creative visualization, theme, and color theory.

And what both gave me was a healthy introduction to religion, philosophy, anthropology, marketing, psychology, communications, politics, self-criticism, self-discipline and logic.

Only one or two of those things I learned in P.E. or playing sports. And while math and science as individual subjects may provide greater depth into some specifics, they certainly are pretty dry when you don’t have something meaningful to do with them.

The arts are not an elective.

Not for a culture or society that hopes to survive its technology. Not for a culture that wants to do better than just “survive”.

They are, and should always be, mandatory education.