Last week I shared some thoughts on appreciating musical languages developed beyond the European music theory standard, and how it can be inappropriate to judge musical modalities using the vocabulary and standards of your cultural (musical) heritage. This isn’t to say that viewing art through different lenses can’t bring about interesting discoveries of the artform, but rather using one standard to pass a value-judgement of the merits of an artform can be fraught with problems.
Thanks to YouTube’s algorithm, the recommended videos feed provided some great gems appreciating the original. Through a drum cover, I learned the original was in 7/4 time (whereas I thought it might have been alternating 2/4-2/8 measures; sounds like I missed a 1/8 beat).
And here was another drum cover with some artistic interpretations on the beat.
I was able to learn a bit more about Konnakkol, and how it builds increasing complexity to the music.
And here was a great beatbox cover that got a shoutout from the male performer in the original video, Somashekar Jois.
Finally, I found that Somashekar Jois has a YouTube channel where he teaches lessons in Konnakkol. I was a little nervous about posting this since one of his past videos was an artist’s endorsement for Prime Minister Modi of India, but I still felt it important to provide the link here to learn more about the artform. If possible, I’m trying to focus on the art, rather than the artist (or his whatever his politics happens to be).
Oh, and a recent video from Adam Neely again touched on the problems with passing judgement on musical performance when you don’t critically engage with the sources of your musical taste. At best, you are falsely applying a single standard as a universal judge of taste, and at worst you are using music theory to justify sexist bullying of people just trying to have fun creating.
Tim Ferriss recently shared the following video in his newsletter. From the video’s description, we are treated to a short but wonderful performance “on the most traditional, classical and ancient vocal percussive art form of India; the mother of all percussive languages – Konnakkol.”
I found as I was watching the video, I was trying to discern the time signature being used (I suppose in the hope of finding the cadence to bob my head along with the rhythm). Most of the song sounds like it switches between some sort of 2/4 and 2/8 back to back rhythm, alternating one bar of each. For a brief moment, I was going to push this out to my network to see what my music theory friends would say, since I consider myself an amateur at best.
But then I realized that the folks who I thought would be better equipped to give me an answer were likely trained in classic music theory; that is to say, European music theory. But applying a European music theory framework would be wholly inappropriate for classical Indian music. I don’t mean inappropriate in a politically correct sense (quite the contrary, it would be a fun exercise to apply European music theory as an exercise to see where the similarities and differences are between the two music styles), but instead it would be inappropriate from a practical sense. The two musical styles share the common thread of using percussion and pitches to “tell a story” but the similarities end there. They are two styles with differing underlying grammar and syntax. Applying a different musical theory lens would be inadequate to capture the nuances of the performance, and possibly miss a richer historical context to give the performance more meaning.
It reminds me of a video Adam Neely put out almost a year ago that’s well worth a revisit because he raises important points about what we choose as our defaults – what “counts” as music. If we judge everything based on what’s been given primacy over the last few hundred years, we at best have an impoverished understanding of music and culture, and at worst continue to perpetuate a systemic bias (read: racist) in favour of some kinds of music to the exclusion of others that we deem inferior (coded as foreign, exotic, world, or worse).
This isn’t to say you have to like any one kind of music – let your tastes take you wherever and drink in the art of whomever speaks to you. It’s just important to remember that art extends far beyond the preferences we think of as universal, and that our taste should not be placed at the centre of culture.
This past weekend, I had the privilege of seeing Hamilton the musical on stage. As I noted in my Instagram post, I was blown away by the experience, and was moved to tears by the performance. My emotional reaction was due, in part, to my having completed the audiobook a few weeks back. Had I not already been familiar with the story of Alexander Hamilton, I think I would have struggled a bit with the fast paced delivery of the lyrics.
In my mind, the musical is perfect – it is a shining example of why art exists and what it is capable of. Hamilton the musical takes a 35-hour book, of which spans the nearly 50-year life of Hamilton, and distills it down into a powerful 2-hour performance.
There are so many fantastic elements of the play. I don’t want to spoil the experience, but I can’t not list some of my favourite parts.
For instance, in the second song, a throughline is set-up that spans Hamilton’s life where he ambitiously declares that he won’t throw his shot (waste an opportunity to advance himself). But, at the end of his life, when he is dueling Aaron Burr over a matter of honour, he chooses to “throw his shot” (raise one’s weapon in the air to waste your shot, signalling that you are not participating in the duel) as he becomes morally opposed to dueling. It was haunting to hear this theme get set up so early.
I loved the use of space on stage. The floor was set up with two circular discs that could rotate in different directions, which meant that the actors could allow the stage to carry them around the space to give the illusion of traversing great distances.
Speaking of those discs, there were a few moments in the play where things could freeze in time or rewind. The actors could halt in tableau, but the discs would rotate them around, giving the appearance that they were reversing in time. This was so cool to see – we were able to watch a scene play out twice: once from Hamilton’s perspective, and one from the narration of a side character who was singing her motivations while guiding the scene along.
I’m not normally a great fan of dancing, but even the bodily movements of the performers had me transfixed. The ways they moved around to evoke things like battlefield war, or Hamilton feeling at the centre of a hurricane made me forget I was watching a play on stage.
So many other elements came together in amazing ways – how they used space on the stage to signal travelling over vast distances, how costumes took on symbolic meanings, the politics of ceding from England through the Kings’ songs, and the incredible attention to detail of every word spoken, rapped, and sung by the cast. The last straw was Eliza getting the final word. So. Good!
The experience was so wonderful and memorable, I can’t put into words what it meant for me to see it. I simply don’t have the vocabulary developed to articulate how smart and charming the musical was. It was a pure masterclass of how to put together a modern piece of art to tell the story of one of the United State’s founding fathers – a man whose impact lasts through to today, but whose legacy is unknown to most everyday persons.
I’ll end with one final note. In the premiere week of the show in Toronto, the CBC news company ran a short piece about the show. Within the segment, they showed a clip of an interview with the musical’s writer and original-run star, Lin Manuel Miranda, where he gives advice to up and coming playwrites. Now, granted, his words are meant to speak to marginalized voices who fall outside of what is deemed normal or popular art. However, his words, more generally applied, can speak to the creative urge in all of us.
“Well, I’ll tell you the only advice I can give is: write what’s missing. Write what you don’t see on stage. I started writing in the Heights because I really wanted a life in musical theatre and so I wanted to write the kind of show I wasn’t seeing. So, don’t write the next Hamilton. Write what isn’t Hamilton. Write the story that only you can write.”
Last week, I gave a highlight of the best books I read in 2019. Below, I present what I read in 2019. By comparison to 2016, 2017, and 2018, last year was a paltry year in reading for me.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
The Bullet Journal Method
Trumpocracy – The Corruption of the American Republic
Daniel H. Pink
The Gift of Failure
Better – A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance
The Graveyard Book
Built to Last
Right Here Right Now
Stephen J. Harper
Complications – A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science
J. Michael Straczynski
A Game of Thrones
George R.R. Martin
Scott H. Young
Reader Come Home
Andrew G. McCabe
The Path Made Clear
I have a few thoughts as to why my reading rate dropped off significantly last year and what I can do about it in the year to come.
Last year had a few significant pressures on my life that might have affected my desire to read. We started basement renovations early in the year, only to discover our basement’s foundation was cracked, requiring us to source quotes and opinions for repairs. This delayed our basement renovation, which didn’t finish until the summer. The protracted project weighed heavily on our minds throughout the year as we questioned whether we were making the right decisions for our home repairs, or whether we would need to make additional fixes later down the line.
Another big change for me was a change of my job at work. While I wouldn’t say it affected me as strongly as the basement renos, it disrupted my routine enough to impact my desire to focus on reading when I came home from work. Couple that with another full year as Board Chair for the non-profit I head up, and it left me with less cognitive bandwidth for self-improvement.
Podcasts and Music
If 2016 was my year of purchasing books, 2017 saw me start to utilize Libby to access the library, and 2018 was an all-out race for me to go through as many audiobooks as my brain could absorb, I felt a greater push away from books in 2019. Instead of working my way through 8-15 hours of content for one piece of work, I found the shorter format of podcasts more satisfying on my commutes. I enjoyed the variety in topics, shows, and voices.
However I also found I was drawn back to listening to music instead of information. With the sheer volume of books I’ve consumed in the last three years, it was nice to go long stretches without a goal of getting through books (or trying to learn new things) and instead allow the melodies, riffs, percussion, and lyrics sweep me away.
Overall, my rate for the year was a bit varied. I started slow in January and February, then picked back up in March. April only saw one book completed, then I found my footing again through May onward. However, October is when my wife and I traveled abroad for our honeymoon, and I never recovered my reading habit for the rest of the year.
Given that I spent most of the last three years focusing on business, personal development, and productivity books, I didn’t feel a strong desire to read those books in 2019. Even among the books I did read from that area, I found looking back that I don’t remember anything of note from those books. Neither the book’s theses nor the examples they offered have stuck with me as I enter the new year.
I’ve mentioned a few time the concept of the animated bibliography on this blog, and I think I’ve hit peak saturation for the genre. I’ve read the canon, and find that reading new books in the genre is resulting in diminishing returns; that is, I’m not really seeing a lot of new insights being offered that leaves me wanting more.
In my list last week, I commented that the books that I’m drawn to now is starting to shift away from business and productivity and more towards moral lessons found in fiction, biography/memoir, and journalistic explorations of current events. That’s not to say I won’t continue to be tempted to pick up the latest book that promises to fix my life, but it does mean that I’m intending to be more selective in what I choose to prioritize.
Assuming I continue to live a somewhat healthy life that is free from accidents, I figure that I have around 45-50 more years of life left. If I read around 3 books consistently per month, I will get another 1,650 books in my lifetime (4 per month is 2,208 books, and 5 books per month is 2,760 more books before I die). While that sounds like a lot, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the number of books that come out each year and the books that have already been written. There is more to life and learning than being more productive or seeking more meaning in one’s life. I’ve grown to appreciate the value of storytelling this past year, and there are a lot of stories out there to sink into. If I only get access to a few thousand more stories, I should make sure they count.
A few months back, I published a post about one of my favourite visual metaphors captured from Killswitch Engage’s video for “In Due Time.” While my impressions from that post stand, I like to add the image above to moments that make me happy.
The image was taken from KSE’s latest music video “The Signal Fire” from their track released this month, “Atonement.”
The track features guest vocals from former KSE frontman Howard Jones, who replaced the original and current frontman Jesse Leach (confusing, I know) when Jesse stepped away from the mic for personal reasons prior to the band soaring to popularity in the mid-2000’s metalcore scene.
Howard fronted the band for nine years through it’s early commercial success before departing the band in January 2012, and Jesse returned later that year. While all parties involved remained friendly and supportive of each other’s projects since, this collaboration was a welcomed surprise and I thoroughly appreciate that this is a thing that exists.
I liked this image for two reasons. First, I love that despite the personal reasons for people to decide to end things (see last week), it doesn’t mean there needs to be hard feelings for it. In every interview on the topic, the remaining band members acknowledge that it sucks their friend had to leave, but that they understand and respect the decision, and they are supportive that the departing person leaves because it’s for their own wellbeing to walk away. It’s a very mature reaction to what is likely a very difficult decision.
Second, the fanboy in me loves that despite the changes, it’s a nod to my nostalgic recent-past. I stumbled across the band during the Howard years while I was in undergrad. I once had an opportunity to see the band play in town, but couldn’t justify paying for the ticket, so I didn’t see them. A few years later, Howard departed the band, and I felt that I had missed out on seeing something awesome. Don’t get me wrong, I like Jesse and have enjoyed the subsequent albums the band has released since his return. I have seen the band 7 or 8 times, at one point not missing their tours through Ontario over a 4 year period. Yet, this moment harkens back to many happy memories I had while a student, and seeing them fistbump on camera is a little nod to that idyllic time of my not-so-youthful youth.
And now for something lighter. The last few weeks, I’ve been discussing some pretty heavy topics, so I thought for Family Day, I’d share something a little on the lighter side that makes me happy.
Killswitch Engage (KSE) is a band that I really like. I think since 2012 I’ve seen them play every time they’ve swung through Ontario on tour with the exception of once, tallying around 7 or 8 shows. A friend who accompanies me to the shows joked that it’s getting to the point where we buy tickets to KSE shows for an excuse to see the other bands they are touring with.
Six years ago this month, they released their lead track and video from 2013’s Disarm the Descent, In Due Time.
The video kicks off with some behind the scenes footage of the band and crew, interspersed with footage of the band playing their instruments. While this is going on, the camera follows behind the band’s vocalist, Jesse, as he enters the space, walks up to grab the microphone, and launches into the song’s vocals.
If you know nothing about the band, you might not connect the visuals with the band’s history, but let me show you why this is such a cool visual metaphor. I’m not entirely sure that it was intentional (I haven’t read anything to support my idea), but even if it was deliberate it’s a really cool way of visualizing the band’s history up until that moment.
The band, while going through a few member changes in its early days since forming in 1999, was made up of guitarists Adam and Joel, bassist Mike, drummer Justin (who joined in 2003), and vocalist Jesse. In 2002, just as they released their sophmore album Alive or Just Breathing, Jesse announced abruptly that he had to quit the band for personal reasons. It was a sudden departure that left the band hanging. The band added Howard Jones to the lineup, and they broke it big with 2004’s The End of Heartache, which launched them into the charts and cemented them as one of the biggest bands in the genre.
Fastforward to 2012, and Howard announces his departure for the band. There was some uncertainty at the time as to whether the band would continue and under what conditions, but it was quickly announced that Jesse would return to the mic. Jesse was not a stranger to making music at the time, having worked on a side project with some of the members of KSE called Times of Grace in 2011. KSE toured and completed their album through the end of the year and released Disarm the Descent in early 2013.
Now, if you take the history of the band into account, go back and watch the video from the start through around the 34 second mark, and what you see is a visual representation of the band up until that point. You see the band playing, making music but without a vocalist to sing their lyrics. Then, from outside, you watch Jesse walk up to the group, rejoining them in time to begin the first verse. The band was an entity that was already out there, working hard, and Jesse gets welcomed back, fitting in naturally with the group. The group had continued on without him, and Jesse returned to help give voice to their music.
It’s a beautiful representation, and something of an easter egg for the fans.