Pat Gunn (dachte) wrote,
Pat Gunn

Some of these Days

Recently was curious about a song performed by the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo in the Richard Elfman film 「Forbidden Zone」. I've long suspected it wasn't an original (Danny or Richard) Elfman composition - Elfman (both of them) composes music like Richard Hitchcock makes movies, while this song has more of a Yiddish "we're in this for the long haul" sensibility to it, where one could imagine continuing to improv new elements within the theme indefinitely (there are some klez tunes where that's not the case, but they're an exception). While sorting through more music, I came across Panorama Jazz Band's rendition of the song, inspiring me to look into it some more - it was originally composed in 1910 by a Sheldon Brooks (never heard of him), and popularised by Sophie Tucker (whose name I've heard a few times). Her original recording is on youtube, but it's difficult to listen to it - it's as if it was written for a different type of musical sensibility. and the theme of the modern versions of the song is only kind-of recognisable. Another version by her 17 years later is kind of talk-y but listenable (1:18 starts the more sing-y part with the familiar theme). The modern versions seem to skip out on a good bit of the later parts of the song audible in this version.

I wonder how our musical tastes have shifted so much - there are a handful of old non-classical (and classical-esque genres, for this purpose including klez, flamenco, rag, and jazz) songs that sound fully modern (or at least not outdated because they carry their own standards of judgement (by the way, who here spells judgement this way? I think it might be a British-ism, but seeing the "official" American spelling of 「judgment」 looks terribly wrong to me) with them). Music made after the 40s or so seems to have undergone a shift (akin to the vowel shifts in languages that most languages seem to boast in their histories?) - while we might say that Spike Jones sounds modern, many of his contemporaries are almost unlistenable. I'm tempted to say that Frank Zappa charted out a lot of the area where music might've gone if it had kept modernising past what we've seen. The origins and shape of modernisation leave me a lot of questions - was it that one of the waves of music was so incredibly influential that it redefined most styles since? (Sex Pistols? no, too late.. Beatles? maybe also too late..) Is it that a lot of early popular music was not fully differentiated from low-end opera and classical music? Is it that proto-Jazz (or klezmer) managed to influence most music after a certain period? Should we consider it akin to the breakdown of formalisms and positivism in physics, maths, philosophy, and the like in the early 1900s?

Before now, I was reasonably sure that Klezmer or Flamenco/Romani music could've replaced the influence of Jazz on the American soul (sorry, I like the metaphor). This isn't because I wish either of them had done so (more influences = more interestingness, musicwise), but because while Jazz has probably had a deeper impact, the latter two are effectively (despite different origins) close cousins in the type of influence they provide (both in terms of the music itself, where rhythmic innovations are a big deal and in the social sphere). Caution: Everything I've written here may be utter BS or windbaggery, I won't vouch that it isn't even though it's not meant to be.

On the lighter side of this kind of thing, the youtube comments on Miles Davis playing 「So What」 are kind of hilarious. A British punk provides this gem: "Miles davis couldn't play his way out of a paper bag if his life depended on it! Go listen to some good music instead, like Iron Maiden". At least he's a real punk who knows who the Sex Pistols are.. people are good for providing laughter.

Also have been listening to Matisyahu a bit recently - one song in particularly simultaneously was likable for its music and subtly irritating for the going on about "the enemy" - it makes me wonder about some claims made in a debate I physically attended ages ago by Rabbi Schmuley about the historical role of Judaism in shaping western thought. My thought at the time - if we had the opportunity to alter history, would we be better off without having been exposed to the idea of moral absolutism? I believe that as of present, given the depth of philosophy we have now, we should be able to move beyond it while remaining decent people (even if a lot of the details of "what is decent" still are open for debate), but is it a stage we needed to pass through? Does a modern strong moral relativism with an active concern for the public good need the heritage of absolutism? It's interesting how we're living in a big enough world in modern times that a plurality of values and active forces with value differences are visible to everyone (apart from those that actively hide from them in daily life, like the Amish), but we also still easily speak the language of absolutism in daily life. Really understanding that plurality, seeing decent folk living inside a variety of weak containers for value (in the sense that we're still all in the same world and have the opportunity, should we be interested, to peer inside those of others) is there for the taking, but the effect of doing so is blunted because we don't have the implications for how we should talk about them worked out (except in a reversion to power politics - hey, maybe nothing else is really possible but value-persuasion, value-seduction, and in the end power).

Some of this may have been inspired by going to a "stump a catholic" event on campus a week or two ago - I don't generally feel that people like having me around, so curiosity tends to be what inspires me to go to things. This was kind of fun - free pizza, with each table having a mix of people of various beliefs politely challenging each other. I decided not to ask hard questions about the sacrifice in Christianity (as much as I'm generally tempted to - it tends to piss people off no matter how politely phrased. The very heart of most forms of Christianity (the figure of Jesus and the meaning of the crucifiction) doesn't really make sense, but to criticise it is too direct an attack on the chosen identity of Christians. Instead, this being Catholics, I made a question about truth claims in the faith, how the bible should be read, and the church's attitude towards science - yes, it's been done to death, but so has basically every argument - having done enough debates, participating in yet another one, no matter how gentle, is just traversing a well-known argument map, one where with rare exception I don't feel bad about telling someone from another perspective that they're understating their claims - the choose-your-own-adventurer script is already clear. The latter "why do you believe what you believe" asked of a few of the more talkative people at my table went pretty well too. I think it's really important when people go to these things that they try to be polite, first because otherwise things easily break down to insults and mockery, second because being a calm and sympathetic advocate of another system of thought is good in itself and makes "going over to the other side" more palettable, and third because planting seeds of doubt (mutually) is what people going into a debate/discussion without an audience naturally hope to do of each other, and that doesn't work well when emotions get in the way of thought. The last thing one needs is someone Godwinning their side (for those unfamiliar with Godwin's Law - it's the notion that eventually in internet discussions some schmuck will suggest their opponent is like the nazis in some way. By tradition, whomever does so automatically and instantly loses the discussion (with no fault to their position) just as much (and as shamefully) as if they had physically attacked someone else in the debate).

The right "way to be" in a disagreement is calm, collected, and aware of oneself. Have the facts, know your values, and know where you're not sure, lay down all your cards on the table, honestly and fairly discuss your conclusions, and ideally understand as much as you can about everyone else at the table's positions and reasoning. Don't argue things in private that you would not argue in public, don't take hard stands on things for the sake of an argument that you don't actually hold, and aim to keep the number of "spit words" as close to zero as possible. Also, when you have multiple places you can go in an argument, go for those most likely to convince your opponent and/or audience. Be both willing to venture onto their definitional frameworks and to tear them down, but be both sympathetic and careful. Also, be willing to drive wedges anywhere it's useful, and try to understand where people may differ from "official" versions of "their" philosophy - not every Roman Catholic will agree with (or be aware of) official church doctrine, so knowing the esoterics of those doctrines is not always useful. Be willing to teach people things (but don't insist they accept them on your word) - it's one of the best ways to build trust when you say something and they can go look it up.

Dealing with kooks and conspiracy theorists doesn't always work with this, because they typically have tons of made-up stuff memorised that they'll attempt to flood you with. With them, you can wade into that if they're an important person to you for some reason (relative, close friend, etc), but it can take a lot of effort. The alternative is to:

  • Point out that the mainstream media don't usually provide "the whole picture" and occasionally are downright deceptive, but academic journals often provide the little-read deeper understandings of events and sciences. Give them samples of appropriate journals and read them together, discussing how and why they differ from mainstream accounts (it's possible to restore conspiracy theorists to sanity with this sometimes)
  • Ask them to lay out some predictions for the near future based on their understanding of the world, and then keep score. Empirical inferiority eventually slaps stupid-but-interesting frameworks away (OMG BushJr will declare a dictatorship and won't leave office when his term limit comes up! ... well?). In this case, the deeper problem is a lack of empiricism where one's theories don't have to have predictive power and are never properly evaluated when they fail.
So... yes, that's Jazz.

More pushing of cars: more falling down into freezing puddles. Doing that a few times suggests "Damnit, I want a cupcake!" - I wonder how much business Dozens made from that precise kind of thing today.

Been playing a bit more with some stories I've been tempted to make webcomics/fantasyblogs out of. The most recent story I've been fleshing out is set a few hundred years before the setting of one of my experiments in fiction-blogging, in the near future. Although I sketched the "history" for this in 2005, with all this recent Tea Party rubbish it feels like it was almost prescient. The basic idea is that about 20 years from now, anti-intellectualism in America has reached a fever pitch, leading intellectuals, by-and-large, to depart for other countries. Russia, seeking to counterbalance Chinese influence in its eastern regions as well as to take advantage of newfound wealth, entices major American universities and intellectuals to entirely pick up shop and settle in Eastern Russia in newly-build campuses, while some other countries take in some as well. The story is seen through the eyes of a college student who makes the move with her University to Amur Oblast, leaving her family behind. It might be fun to make this universe slightly and occasionally fantastical (in contrast with the world for which it's an ancient history) to slightly lighten the "serious times" vibe - I have the general themes worth exploring down reasonably well and a backstory for the main character (haven't named her yet). If anyone wanted to take this stuff and run with it, more power to them.

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CMU fans might find this kind of neat.

Tags: music, philosophy

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