Friday, December 28, 2007

Some Good News on Species Preservation

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (an organization mostly in the news at the moment in relation to the Christmas tragedy at the San Francisco Zoo) has released its “Top Ten Wildlife Conservation Success Stories in 2007.”

Two of the stories were of particular interest to me. One caught my attention as an anthropologist, as it involves attempts to save a primate species, the black and white ruffed lemur, while a second was of special interest to me as it involved a species inhabiting in the wild only a single barrier island off Pensacola where I live and teach, the Perdido Key Beach Mouse.

The following paragraphs are from the AZA press release:

Black-and-white ruffed lemurs born in zoos are getting a feel for their new home at the Betampona Natural Reserve in eastern Madagascar. The Madagascar Fauna Group (MFG), and the Duke Lemur Center coordinated the plan to reintroduce zoo-bred lemurs to the wild, with the help of other MFG partners and institutions, including Salt Lake City's Hogle Zoo, the Los Angeles Zoo and the Santa Ana Zoo. The released individuals are being monitored and have fared well so far, with four offspring born from three reintroduced lemurs.

This summer, Santa Fe Community College Teaching Zoo, in Gainesville, Florida, began housing 52 Perdido Key beach mice to protect the species from extinction. The mice originated from the University of South Carolina, but needed to be relocated after damage from Hurricane Ivan. The Brevard Zoo, Florida Aquarium, and Palm Beach Zoo have since shared in the responsibility of caring for and studying the mice. There are only a few hundred individuals left in the wild, inhabiting just one barrier island off the coast of Pensacola. Researchers fear that a hurricane could be disastrous to the beach mice, potentially causing the species to become extinct in the wild. Breeding studies have commenced to safeguard their numbers.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Russia and Separatism in Europe

This morning I ran across an interesting article put out by the Russian News and Information Agency, “Hotbeds of Separatism in Modern Europe.”

It’s an interesting article for two reasons. First, it provides an interesting read as a catalogue of separatist sentiment and movements across Europe (though greater discussion of degree of seriousness or importance of separatism in each case would have been useful – but see discussion on subtext below), including the Basque region in Spain and France, Catalonia and Valencia, Corsica and Bretagne, Northern Italy, Belgium, the Faeroe Islands, the Swiss canton of Yura, Vojvodina, and Romanian Transylvania.

Perhaps more interesting are the areas not discussed. Kosovo isn’t particularly discussed in the article, though it is a primary motivation for the article – see below. In an article that delves into separatist politics in the Faeroe Islands or Swiss cantons, it’s striking, but perhaps not surprising, that none of the areas in which Russia supports separatist movements or governments, i.e. Trandsniestra, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, are mentioned, nor are any of Russia’s separatist regions, most obviously Chechnya. (Technically, depending on where you want to draw the arbitrary line between Europe and Asia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Chechnya might be out of Europe, but Trandsniestra is in Europe by any remotely conventional definition.)

The article has an overall editorial agenda that’s pretty clearly stated in the first paragraph:

“The Kosovo issue has been forwarded to the UN Security Council. The Russian Foreign Ministry suggests that Belgrade and Pristina should have another chance to come to terms. A decision on Kosovo's cessation from Serbia will create a precedent and violate international law.”

In addition to this brief editorializing against Kosovar independence, the subtext involved in cataloguing such a broad range of separatisms (except those involving Russia), as interesting as it is in its own right, seems to be a warning that much of Europe is only in need of the precedent of Kosovo for Spain, France, Belgium, the UK, Italy, etc., to come flying apart.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Two Items on Bolivia

For those following the news from Bolivia, you know that recently there has been heightened political tension within the country. This has to do with constitutional reforms associated with President Evo Morales. The tensions map onto a longstanding social and geographic divide between the mostly poor highland west, where most of the country’s population resides, and the lowland east, associated with agricultural production, the country’s oil and gas resources, and a small wealthy elite. The constitutional reforms would result in more wealth redistributed to the west, with many in the east calling for greater autonomy, or even independence, for the lowland eastern provinces. Simon Romero has published a good overview of the situation in the International Herald Tribune, “Little Middle Ground in Country of Extremes.”

On a related note is a post I recently encountered on the blog “Two Weeks Notice,” written by Greg Weeks, “Thoughts on Democratators.” Weeks addresses a term, “democratator” (and an ugly neologism it is), combining “democracy” with “dictator,” that has been used by some media commentators to imply that some popularly elected leaders (and especially Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa), once elected, act as de facto dictators. Weeks’ point is not to suggest that neither Chávez nor Morales nor Correa are lacking in authoritarian tendencies, but instead to go on to address a larger point, to point out the problematic tendency in much media commentary to conflate all variety of “leftists” and even to conflate all manner of leaders with authoritarian tendencies as if they are the same. Weeks writes, “No matter what you think of Correa, he is not Musharraf. Nor is Chávez the same as Hosni Mubarak.”

Frankly, Chávez probably contributes to this tendency through his cultivation of close ties not just with Cuba’s Fidel Castro (which makes sense) but also with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko. I would also give credit to the writers of most of the news stories and commentaries I’ve read recently pertaining to Latin America for increasingly differentiating between “leftists” of the Chávez/Morales/Correa variety and “leftists” like Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva or Chile’s Michelle Bachelet. When Lula and Bachelet first rose to prominence, they too were often associated if not conflated with Chávez, where now they are increasingly presented as “good” or “responsible” leftists to the bad leftism of Chávez, Morales, and Correa.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Leonard Bernstein and Meaning in Music

Leonard Bernstein has several pop culture faces. To some, including myself, who grew up in the 1980s, he was first off a name shouted out in an R.E.M. song, perhaps followed by the question, “Who the hell is Leonard Bernstein?” (I wonder how much of my liking of Bernstein’s music might be attributable to positive associations with the R.E.M. song.) To some (not mutually exclusive with the first group), he was an important mid-20th century American composer who bridged a gap between popular music and entertainment and the Western “high” art music tradition. To some, he was one of the greatest and/or most important conductors of the 20th century. He was also an important mid-century music educator, especially through the public television series of “Young People’s Concerts” he conducted with the New York Philharmonic.

I recently watched one of these “Young People’s Concerts” on DVD that focused on the theme of meaning in music, with Bernstein talking to the children in attendance at Carnegie Hall in between musical examples.

The issue of meaning in music is difficult. Music is capable of meaning – it affects us, which is the result of a semiotic experience, but what is communicated and what the effect of music is is not directly translateable into linguistic meaning. (Food and taste generally, as well as smells, present similar situations. Foods and smells are meaningful not just because of symbolic associations we might have with them, e.g. the Thanksgiving Turkey or the smell of a rose, but also because of the associations with the direct physical experiences of eating or smelling.)

Bernstein’s basic argument is something I agree with – the meaning of music, however hard it may be to define (precisely because it is non-linguistic) is intrinsic to the music and does not derive from anything extrinsic to it, such as a story or title associated with a piece. He argues that while we might associate stories or titles with music, such associations are essentially arbitrary.

He uses the example of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony, specifically the movement titled “By the Brook.” Bernstein agrees that the music is capable of evoking a mental image of a gently babbling brook, but argues that the music could equally evoke “Swaying in a hammock” if differently titled. I agree, even if I find Beethoven’s “Backyard” symphony with its “Swaying in a Hammock” movement amusing but difficult to imagine having been written, but also immediately reacted that the music could not evoke “Riding on a train” or “Falling off a cliff.” Those titles and mental images just wouldn’t fit the music.

He gives another example using the “Great Gate of Kiev” movement of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” He argues that the “strong chords” of the music fit that image, but could equally fit the flowing of the Mississippi river. In saying so, he’s almost making an argument that there is a necessary iconicity between musical elements and any non-musical elements potentially evoked by the music, but then undermines this by insisting that there’s no real connection between music and image. I agree that the “Great Gate of Kiev” music could evoke the Mississippi River, but I can’t imagine it evoking “By the Brook,” much less something like “Mowing the Lawn.”

The association between music and extra-musical meaning (if any) is arbitrary in the sense that any given piece of music could potentially be associated with a variety of images. “By the Brook” could evoke “Swaying in a hammock.” But association of music and extra-musical meaning is not purely arbitrary – the range of potential associations is defined in part by the range of phenomena that share some iconic relationship with one another, that is that have some clear and systematic relationship of similarity with one another.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Russia, China, and a New "Great Game"

The term “Great Game” usually refers to the 19th century contest for influence in Central Asia between Russia and the British Empire. A recent article, “New ‘Great Game’ for Central Asia Riches,” provides a good overview of the current contest for influence in Central Asia by outside powers.

As the article makes clear, after September 11, 2001, the U.S. became heavily invested in the region, though has now been relegated to a more marginal player. This is partly due to waning interest on the part of the U.S. government, and partly because of the heavy initiative and investment in the region shown by China and Russia, now the two main outside influences in the region.

China in particular has substantially increased its investment in the region, with this also helping fuel the economic development of western China, with the China-Kazakhstan border coming to resemble the U.S.-Mexico border as one of the few international borders where one much more developed country shares a long border with another much poorer and less developed country, and with investment from the richer country fueling asymmetrical but cross-border development.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Food and Biofuels

The world is currently experiencing tremendous inflation in food prices. As a report in a recent issue of The Economist (December 8, pp. 81 – 83) argues, there are two major causes of this global food inflation (not to deny the potential for other factors as well – and see my note below on the contribution of oil prices to food inflation).

One of these contributing factors is actually a side effect of a positive development. The level of affluence has risen dramatically in China and India and some other developing nations in recent years. As in already developed countries, affluence has some negative consequences, e.g. greater environmental impact from higher per capita energy consumption. Higher affluence has also led to a boom in meat eating in China and India – The Economist reports that meat-eating in China went from 20 kg of meat per capita per year in 1985 to more than 50 kg per capita per year now. More meat equals more grain grown for feed equals (unless tremendous, even stupendous, quantities of land were put into grain production – causing a whole new set of ecological problems) higher prices for grain.

The second major cause of current global food inflation is the diversion of enormous amounts of grain, especially maize, to subsidized biofuel production in places like the U.S. This has resulted in an increase in maize prices, which alone contributes to food inflation, but with the further result that many farmers have switched from cultivating other grains to maize, much for biofuel purposes, further contributing to food inflation.

An article, “Biofuels: Danger or New Opportunity for Africa?,” makes clear that the problem (to the extent that food inflation is a problem – The Economist report argues that with increased food prices, some farmers, including some in the developing world, will benefit, depending on how food inflation is managed by governments) is not the use of biofuels per se.

The “Biofuels” news article reports on a conference on biofuel and food held in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, where a number of perspectives on biofuels were presented. Many voices call for cautious development of biofuel production in Burkina Faso and other African nations.

Within this framework of caution, some individuals expressed hope for biofuel development in Africa for a variety of reasons. (1) In non-oil-producing countries, like Burkina Faso, biofuels could potentially provide a lower price source of fuel than oil imports, given the current astronomical price of oil. (It seems clear to me, and I was surprised that the report in The Economist didn’t deal with this, that global oil prices are a major contributor to food inflation in two ways: [a] increased transportation cost due to higher oil prices adds to the cost of all commodities; [b] the high price of oil is the main spur for biofuel development.) (2) Biofuel and food aren’t mutually exclusive. For example, biofuel byproducts can still be used for feed for livestock or for fertilizer. Further, biofuel need not be produced strictly from edible grains. Brazil’s sugar cane (edible, but not a grain) provides a far more efficient source for biofuel production than North America’s maize, and for countries like Burkina Faso, biofuel might be best produced from non-edible plants grown on land less well suited for direct food production purposes. (3) Biofuels don’t have to fuel everything in order to be useful – they can be used strategically. For example, in poor countries, diverting small proportions of crops to biofuel production specifically to fuel tractors and other agricultural equipment could be a way to simultaneously increase the scale of production and have agricultural production fuel itself.

Again, the problem isn’t biofuels per se, but the diversion of large portions of the world’s food supply (especially North American maize) into fuel production in a context of trade and other policies that stymies more efficient and sensible biofuel production.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Mixed News on Children’s Food Preferences

I recently encountered an interesting article on Medical News Today about research conducted by Kent State University scholars about children’s food preferences, “Strawberries, Watermelon, Grapes, Oh My! Study Finds Students Will Opt For Healthy Foods In The Lunch Line.” Despite the upbeat title, I find the news reported hopeful but mixed from the standpoint of healthy nutrition choices.

The fact that children rank fruits among their favorite foods is encouraging. This is balanced, though by the inclusion of preference for pizza and fast-food-style choices as also among their favorites. I’m also more ambivalent than the article’s author in seeing something like “string cheese” as a healthy food. At the same time, it is encouraging to hear that even as they offer lunch options of pizza and fast food style choices, more school districts are offering healthier versions of these items than in the past.

On a last note, while the researchers attribute preferences such as pizza, French fries, or chicken nuggets to cultural influence, I would tend to argue that preferences for things like fruits or for such fast food fare are all mediated by a combination of evolutionarily selected biological factors and cultural influences. A taste for certain food qualities, such as sweetness, the taste and texture of fats or proteins, saltiness, etc., seem to be a part of our evolutionary heritage, with this part of the reason that children (or adults) find fruits or chicken nuggets tasty. Patterns of consuming and acquiring a preference for specific food items are clearly also shaped by cultural context, though the precise influences shaping children’s desires for grapes or pizza differ.

The following is a selection from the article:

“Strawberries, grapes, and yogurt are just some of the healthier food items children prefer, researchers argue in a new study released this week. Kent State University researchers surveyed 1,818 students in grades 3 through 12, asking them what their favorite foods were. The study, included in the Winter 2007 issue of the Journal of Child Nutrition & Management, found that items such as strawberries, watermelon, white milk, and string cheese ranked among the "Top 20" foods, demonstrating that children will eat fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. “The researchers also found differences in taste between grade levels. Elementary school students were more likely to rank fruits much higher than older children, while "fast and familiar" foods such as chicken nuggets and hamburgers were less preferred by middle school and high school students.
“Although healthy items made the "Top 20" list, children still consider pizza, French fries, and chicken nuggets among their favorite foods. The researchers attribute this to the influence of culture on students. On average, approximately 30% of students consume fast food on any given day, making it more likely that students will eat these foods at school. To accommodate their tastes, school nutrition professionals offer these items, but use healthier ingredients such as whole grains, low-fat cheese, and lean meats and prepare the foods with healthier cooking techniques such as baking.
"School foodservice professionals and dietitians have been promoting the consumption of a wide variety of foods for a healthy diet," concluded researchers Natalie Caine-Bish, PhD, RD, LD and Barbara Scheule, PhD, RD. "Menu planners should consider the inclusion of these selections (favorite foods) in their menus as means to improve nutritional quality as well as satisfaction."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

B.J. and the Bear, Coolness and Essentiality

I present here a representation of a chain of associations that occurred to me recently. It’s not anything like stream of consciousness writing, but perhaps a representation of a stream of consciousness.

Lately, my partner and I have been truly enjoying the VH1 “reality” show “America’s Most Smartest Model.” It’s mindless entertainment, but unlike all but a handful of other television shows, it actually is entertaining, even if we can’t figure out exactly what it is about the show that makes it so while other shows just seem bad.

In any case, most television is just plain bad. That’s something that most everyone I know agrees with. We may disagree on which are the few shows that are entertaining or have some redeeming qualities, but most everyone can agree that most television shows are not worth watching.

But television has always been bad. Take, for example, the late 1970s program “B.J. and the Bear.” I was quite fond of the show at the time, but I have the excuse that I was eight or so years old when it first came on. Looking back, I wonder how such a show was ever made; I wonder who ever thought it was a good idea.

It’s a show about a man and a chimpanzee who drive an 18-wheeler (painted in the same red-with-an-angular-splash-of-white color scheme as the car in “Starsky and Hutch”) around the country and get into adventures. Just to confuse matters, the chimpanzee is named “The Bear.” And when ratings eventually flagged, the “Seven Lady Truckers” were waiting in the wings.

Actually, the existence of “B.J. and the Bear” is not so mysterious – it’s the product of the convergence of two of the more improbable pop culture phenomena, the man-ape buddy show (see also the highly successful and slightly earlier Clint Eastwood film Every Which Way But Loose, co-starring the orangutan Clyde) and trucker-chic.

As many might remember, there was a period of time in the late 1970s when truckers were in, e.g. the success of the Smokey and the Bandit movies, or Convoy.

Truckers may be many things. Most are honest and hard working – certainly anyone who manages to make a decent living driving trucks works hard.

Even more, truckers are essential. In any modernized society, we’d starve to death without truckers.

One thing truckers are not, though, and which makes the late ‘70s trucker-chic phenomenon so inexplicable, is cool. (I’ll grant that the combination of two components of American ideology were behind the trucker-chic thing – the allure of the open landscape and open road, and the idea of making one’s way in the world through one’s own individual labor. I can see where “trucking” could be almost cool, but I’ve also been to enough truck stops to see that truckers are not – with that not in any way intended as a slight. Again, truckers are essential. Further, some individual people who are truckers may be cool, but their coolness is separate from their “trucker-ness.”)

There are many other people who also perform occupations that are essential, at least essential to the functioning of modern society, e.g. sanitation workers, secretaries, factory workers, bus drivers, etc. One thing these essential occupations have in common is their lack of coolness.

(I’m resisting precisely defining coolness here; perhaps I’ll do that at some later point. What sorts of things or occupations are potentially cool? Some examples often thought cool: musicians, especially in some genres; some types of writers and artists; athletes; clothing styles associated with youth and/or social detachment.)

I suspect there are many qualities to coolness, but I’ll conjecture here that one component of coolness (in the sense of “hipness,” as opposed to the sort of coolness of being “cool under pressure”) is inessentiality.

Occupations, activities, or things that are cool are in some way inessential, even superfluous (though not to say useless, for some use can be found for anything).

The reverse doesn’t hold so clearly, though. That is, inessentiality doesn’t make you cool. (Put another way, inessentiality is a necessary but not sufficient condition for coolness.) Academics and scholarly types are generally neither essential nor cool. Jazz musicians are cool (or at least were in days when jazz was associated with youth dance halls in the swing era or with dank clubs in seedy parts of town in the bebop and hard bop periods – nowadays, with highly professionalized musicians often playing jazz as repertory [not necessarily bad things] which is increasingly thought of, like classical music, as music to be edified by, jazz musicians are less clearly cool.) Jazz critics, no matter how interesting their musings, are not cool. (Like truckers, some individual critics might be cool, but their coolness relates to personal factors other than their “critic-ness.”)

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Hope on Slavery

It’s rare to encounter encouraging news about contemporary slavery. Wherever unpaid forced labor arrangements occur, whether in Mauritania or the U.S., they usually occur as part of informal sectors of society and the economy that are difficult to observe, and with limited enforcement of laws and policies for a variety of reasons. The article “Mauritania: The Real Beginning of the End of Slavery?,” from, offers at least the hope of real change on this issue in that national context.

The following is from the article:

“Four months after the passing of a law criminalising slavery in Mauritania, anti-slavery activists hope newly-announced funding for the reintegration of former slaves will address the many problems they continue to face in Mauritanian society.
"Quite obviously, we're very pleased with the announcement," said Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, member of the anti-slavery organisation SOS Esclaves, which has been leading the fight against slavery in Mauritania for years. "The government is sending slaves a strong signal and it is also proof that the authorities have heard our calls."
When slavery was criminalised in August, human rights and anti-slavery organisations urged the government - as they had been doing for years - to adopt accompanying measures for the law to be effective.
Officially abolished in 1981, slavery continues to be practiced in all Mauritanian communities, mostly in rural areas, by upper-class lighter-skinned Moors (Berber Arabs) as well as black Africans. One estimate by the Open Society Justice Initiative places the number of slaves and former slaves at 20 percent of the population - or about 500,000 people - but the numbers are difficult to confirm.”

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Karlheinz Stockhausen, 1928 - 2007

The important German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen has died. Stockhausen, especially with his works of the 1950s through the 1970s, was one of the more influential composers of the past few decades, influencing music across multiple genres, including contemporary classical or art music, jazz, electronic musics and sampling of all sorts, rock and pop.

The following is from the New York Times:

“In “Song of the Youths” (1956), he used a multichannel montage of electronic sound with a recorded singing voice to create an image of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego staying alive in Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace. In “Groups” (1957), he divided an orchestra into three ensembles that often played in different tempos and called to one another. (My inserted note: As with any creative and original person, the sorts of things Stockhausen did were not completely without precedent. Much of what he did is anticipated, albeit with a decidedly different flavor by the earlier 20th century American composer Charles Ives, e.g. the use of musical montage, or the division of orchestra into different ensembles playing at different tempos but relating to one another in his “Universe Symphony.”)
Such works answered the need felt in postwar Europe for reconstruction and logic, the logic to forestall any recurrence of war and genocide. They made Mr. Stockhausen a beacon to younger composers. Along with a few other musicians of his generation, notably Pierre Boulez and Luigi Nono, he had an enormous influence. Though performances of his works were never plentiful, his music was promoted by radio stations in Germany and abroad as well as by the record company Deutsche Grammophon, and he gave lectures all over the world.
By the 1960s his influence had reached rock musicians, and he was an international subject of acclaim and denigration.”

The following excerpts are from

“Paul McCartney and John Lennon of the Beatles were Stockhausen fans, and the group honored the composer by using his image on the cover of its 1967 album, "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.'' The single "Strawberry Fields Forever'' showed Stockhausen's influence.
He inspired some of the music by Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, Miles Davis and Brian Eno. His groundbreaking electronic beats found echoes in long compositions by Can, Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream in the 1970s. Of classical composers, Igor Stravinsky was an admirer, though not an uncritical one. Stockhausen's music was compared to Arnold Schoenberg and Oliver Messiaen before him. He went on with Pierre Boulez to offer a vision of the future.
Stockhausen was seen by some as the greatest German composer since Wagner. To others, his music was empty and devoid of merit. Conductor Thomas Beecham was asked, ``Have you heard any Stockhausen,'' and said, ``No, but I believe I have trodden in some.''

“His breakthrough came in 1956, with the release of ``Gesang der Junglinge'' (Song of the Youths), which combined electronic sounds with the human voice, the Guardian newspaper said.
In 1960, he released "Kontakte'' (Contacts), one of the first compositions to mix live instrumentation with prerecorded material.”

For more on Stockhausen, see “Composer Karlheinz Stockhausen is Dead” from Yahoo News, “Karlheinz Stockhausen, Composer, Dies at 79” from the New York Times, and “Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pivotal German Composer, Dies at Age 79” From I recently wrote of Stockhausen, albeit briefly, in my post, “Mythic Music: Stockhausen, Davis and Macero, Dub, Hip Hop, and Lévi-Strauss.”

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Comments on Ben Ratliff’s Coltrane

I’ve been reading and enjoying the recent book by Ben Ratliff, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound. I’m currently about halfway through it and have already found a number of interesting points and had several interesting conversations with my partner, Reginald Shepherd, prompted by quotations from the book or points made by Ratliff.

I was both amused and “thought-provoked” (we often speak of something provoking thought without really have a conventional passive form construction to accompany it – and it was this that I experienced – whereas when we speak of being provoked by something, the implication is generally that it is irritation, and not thought, that has been so provoked) by the following passages from Ratliff’s book describing John Coltrane’s earliest recording session, an amateur session from 1946 while he was in the navy in Hawaii, with Coltrane alongside a few members of a navy band, the Melody Masters, almost ten years before Coltrane rose to any kind of serious prominence (or promise) in jazz circles. Ratliff writes:

“One tune from that amateur session was Tadd Dameron’s ‘Hot House,’ a song that later became known as one of the great compositions of early bebop. ‘Hot House’ is a 32-bar song that first borrows from the chord changes of the standard ‘What Is This Thing Called Love?’ before cleverly altering them. And the seamen try an effortful replication of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker’s version of the tune, cut a year earlier – except that the navy trumpeter doesn’t solo, as Gillespie did.
“Instead, Coltrane does. In fact, Coltrane, on alto saxophone, takes the only solo – a hideous, squeaking, lurching thing. But perhaps it didn’t matter to the thoroughly preprofessional Melody Masters, because Coltrane had met Bird.
“Some jazz musicians are off and running at nineteen – Charlie Christian, Johnny Griffin, Art Pepper, Clifford Brown, Sarah Vaughn. John Coltrane was not.”

Ratliff is not out here to denigrate Coltrane. On the contrary, Ratliff clearly (and correctly) sees Coltrane as a seminal figure in jazz and music history who was a sort of genius. (One of the things I like and respect about this book is that it’s neither got an ax to grind against Coltrane or any of his contemporaries – it’s not the sort of work that sees Coltrane’s entire oeuvre as one big hideous, squeaking, lurching thing [see “Vitriol and Jazz”], not is it hagiography – he’s critical and doesn’t count every note to have exited Coltrane’s horn equally golden.)

What Ratliff does here instead is clarify what sort of artistic development Coltrane underwent. Far from being a prodigy who burst onto the scene, Coltrane practiced prodigiously and gradually and organically over a long period. Importantly, this continual development of his talent, skill, and expression never stopped until his death, and as Ratliff argues, the development in Coltrane’s music from 1957 until his early death in 1967 is unparalleled by any completely analogous set of developments over a similar period in the creative expression of any other jazz musician. (Frankly, I draw a blank when trying to come up with any artist in any genre with a ten year period quite like Coltrane in 1957-1967.)

What Ratliff’s discussion prompted me to think about is the nature of talent, genius, and creative expression. In contrasting Coltrane’s gradual and organic development over long stretches of time with the sort of musician who is “off and running at nineteen,” Ratliff delineates two creative types (two types of geniuses in the case of those whose talent is great) with regard to the process of acquiring or having talent, those like Clifford Brown whose talent bloomed quite early, and those, like Coltrane, who only very slowly matured and emerged as a talent of great note. (Brown and Coltrane are clearly extreme cases here, with most creative talents falling somewhere on a continuum in between. I also don’t intend at all to imply that Brown’s genius sprung from nothing, as it clearly came from a lot of hard work on his part, but there’s also plenty of evidence to indicate Coltrane practiced about as hard as it would be possible to practice for a very long period before his promise began to emerge.)

Something I was prompted to think about by Ratliff’s discussion, but which is not the thrust of his arguments is that there are different sorts of talent (and genius) in terms of one’s approach to creative expression. There are also talents for different sorts of things (e.g. musical talent, talent for visual art, talent for thinking mathematically or verbally, etc.), but what I have in mind here are approaches to creative expression and ways of acquiring talent for expression that cut across the particular fields of creative expression, though I’ll use jazz examples to illustrate.

Two sorts of talent, two approaches to creative expression (without making any claim that these are by any means the only two sorts) correspond at least roughly to Lévi-Strauss’ distinction between bricoleur and engineer, between “mythic” and “scientific” thinking. (See also “Mythic Music.”)

The work of Miles Davis and Coltrane can illustrate.

Davis worked largely through assemblage. Over the course of his career as band leader, the nature of the music put out by his band continually changed, often heading in unexpected directions. (While probably no one could have predicted late Coltrane music like that found on albums such as Interstellar Space or Live in Japan from 1957’s Blue Train, from album to album, period to period, there was near continuous development in a direction unpredictable from the start but nonetheless in a direction. Davis’ music sometimes moved in startling directions after band changes; something like Bitches Brew was probably not just unpredictable from ten years earlier, but from just a couple years earlier in Davis’ career.) This is related to the way in which Davis often related to his bands over the years, choosing musicians who were on the cusp of new developments who might take the music in new directions and allowing them remarkable free reign, often offering his musicians little guidance. This is not to suggest Davis had no vision for his work, but that the vision consisted of assembling pieces that could create unpredictable results. As I discussed in the “Mythic Music” post, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, he took this creation through assemblage a step further (in the studio that is, not live where this would have been impossible), having the band create recordings of material that was used solely as raw material for he and producer Teo Macero to assemble a musical bricolage from.

Coltrane was much more concerned with musical theory and implementing music that expressed his concerns with harmony, rhythm, etc. (not that Davis was unaware of theory, but Coltrane was especially concerned with this as a component of expression). This is also not to suggest that Coltrane’s music was some sort of pure expression of some abstract idea either, nor that the music came solely from him. Far from it. Like Davis, or any artist, Coltrane drew ideas from all around himself, but much more so than someone like Davis, whose expression was working in a different sort of way, he tended to thoroughly assimilate all those influences, incorporate it thoroughly into a distinct “Coltrane sound.”

Ratliff writes (p. 119):

“… one of the most useful and overriding ways to comprehend the arc of Coltrane’s work, one that contains significance for jazz now, is to notice how much he could use of what was going on around him in music. He was hawklike toward arrivals to his world, immediately curious about how they could serve his own ends, and how he could serve theirs. Every time a jazz musician drifted into New York and began impressing people, every time he encountered a musician with a particular technique, system, or theory, every time a new kind of foreign music was being listened to by others in the scene, Coltrane wanted to know about it; he absorbed the foreign bodies, and tried to find a place for them in his own music. He learned as much as he could of the life around him and behind him, and retained only what best suited him, such that you usually couldn’t tell what he had been drinking up.”

Coltrane’s approach seems a bit like Star Trek’s Borg, assimilating all, gleaning what is unique and useful, but remaining fundamentally the Borg – except that in Coltrane’s case, that’s a good thing.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Amartya Sen on a "Clash of Civilizations"

Asia Times has published an interesting interview with economist Amartya Sen, “A language for the World,” conducted by Sanjay Suri of Inter Press Service.

The following is an excerpt from the interview, specifically Sen’s response to a question about the now popular notion of a “clash of civilizations”:

IPS: So is the idea of a clash of civilizations misplaced?

AS: It's a wholly wrong expression. For at least three different reasons.

One, that these divisions of civilization are done on grounds of religion. But we don't have only religious and civilizational identity. When I talk with a Muslim friend, I happen to come from a Hindu background ... whether in India or in Pakistan or in Bangladesh, or for that matter in Egypt or Britain, it's not a relation between a Hindu civilization and a Muslim civilization. It could be two Indians chatting, or two sub-continentals chatting. Or two South Asians chatting, or it could be two people from developing countries chatting. There are all kinds of ways in which we have things in common. So the civilizational division is a very impoverished way of understanding human beings. In fact, classifying the world population into civilization and seeing them in that form is a very quick and efficient way of misunderstanding absolutely everybody in the world.

Second, as these cultures have grown, they have had huge connections with each other. Indian food drew the use of chilli from the Portuguese conquerors. British food is deeply influenced by Indian cooking today. Similarly maths and science and architecture travel between regions. So does literature. So, civilizations have not grown into self-contained little boxes.

The third mistake is to assume that somehow they must be at loggerheads with each other. It is just one division among many. And there are others; there are men and there are women. The gender division. Now if that leads to hostility between them, that will be a different thing. And then one has to see what kind of rhetoric has made that possible. And if there is lack of justice to women, how both men and women may have a joint commitment in overcoming that quality.

It's the totality of neglect of these issues; the multiplicity of identities, the non-insular interactive emergence of world civilization which is increasingly a united one, and the absence of the reason for a battle just when a classification exists, these are the ways in which the rhetoric of a clash of civilizations is not only mistaken, but is doing an enormous amount of harm today.