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Monthly Archives: December 2010

Week 1.42857… Digest

Posts from December 13 – 23. Just a quick three.

  1. Earning a Quick Buck – Some Thoughts on MLM by David, Dec 13

    Having recently become jobless, I was called up by a friend of mine, saying he wanted to introduce me to a company he was working at so that I could earn a little bit of extra cash. BIG BONANZA! You might say, but a combination of several things made me more than a little skeptical about this “job offer”. …

  2. Capitalism and You (and I) by Derrick, Dec 13

    … To say that the mall is crowded would be an understatement. It is busier than a dockside bordello when the fleet’s at anchor. All sorts of people fill the halls- the young, the old, the handicapped. If Death would glimpse of all who danced with him, he need but gaze about. …

  3. What is Existentialism? (A Popperian Exposition) by Kenneth, Dec 23

    … Existentialism is an unique epistemological method. Since we cannot refute existentialism, then what was the problem-situation that prompted epistemological irrationalism? Kant’s discovery of the unknowability of the thing-in-itself led to irrationalism as an epistemology. Where does irrationalism come from in rational philosophy? …


What is Existentialism? (A Popperian Exposition)

If a philosophical theory can never be refuted, then how can we abandon philosophical theories? The answer is that we must compare them to the problems they were intended to solve.

What is existentialism? I believe that it is epistemological irrationalism. From Kant we know that we cannot ever know the things in themselves from pure reason, since our mind must necessarily impose our own distinctions. We must either give up hope of knowing things in themselves, or try to know the things-in-themselves by irrational means. It is provoked by the question: can we know things as they are (things-in-themselves)?

Existentialists claim that we can know things-in-themselves, because we are inwardly things-in-themselves. Since Kant also held that things-in-themselves were only apparently separate, existentialists conclude that things-in-themselves are unity or oneness. Hence our own inward self-knowledge of what we are as things-in-itself can be generalised as an understanding of all things-in-themselves, which are fundamentally one.

P1. We are inwardly things in themselves.

P2. Things in themselves are only apparently separate

LEM1 (from P2) Things in themselves are really one.

CCL. The knowable content of what we are as things in themselves can be understood as the content of all things in themselves.

Two problems occur with this reasoning.

  1. The step from P2 to LEM1 is of questionable validity, since if separateness is only an apparent imposition of the mind then oneness could also be an apparent imposition of the mind. Oneness in the sense of a similarity of determinate content of what things in themselves are like, in fact seems likely to be an apparent imposition. This step can be dealt away with, and oracular pronouncements of the thing in itself may be considered sufficient for understanding ALL things in themselves by the irrationalist. The search for a fundamental character of things in themselves relies on this rational step of Oneness in Schopenhauer. He attributes his fundamental principle of will to all things (in the plural).
  2. The principle of inner life (what it’s like-ness) showing what we are as things in themselves must not involve any sense-data (phenomenon), but rather pure thought itself. It is questionable whether the general (misleadingly-termed) phenomenology of higher-order thought structures is [Will in Schopenhauer, the fact that we are always in the present in Heidegger’s completely unreadable Being and Time, and the fact we are self-conscious in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness] can really be said to be independent from sense-data altogether. In other words, is what we introspect really the Thing in Itself or is it coloured by sense-data? The existentialist here wants to make one leap and call EVERYTHING INTROSPECTED the thing-in-itself. Irrational/suprarational introspection is the sole criteria for knowing the thing-in-itself, ex cathedra.

Both problems highlighted above can be debated to no-end. There is no solution to this conundrum if we do not know the problem-situation for introducing epistemological irrationalism. The reason there is no solution is that the thing-in-itself is unknowable by pure reason. Existentialists claim that our inner life shows us what things-in-themselves are like. This must be assumed. No rationalist critique can bridge this fundamental assertion.

Existentialism is an unique epistemological method. Since we cannot refute existentialism, then what was the problem-situation that prompted epistemological irrationalism? Kant’s discovery of the unknowability of the thing-in-itself led to irrationalism as an epistemology. Where does irrationalism come from in rational philosophy? [Irrationalist ideas have been around in non-rationalists since Plato, especially in the Republic and the allegory of the Cave, where philosopher-kings alone have the intuition to guide the populace in Truth. The (pseudo-)problem-situation there was “Who Should Rule? The Man Who Sees the Truth”. It is clear that Schopenhauer, if not other existentialists, is a rationalist in his philosophical method].

Since I do not know much about rationalist philosophy, I shall rely on Karl Popper’s exposition – “It first entered rational philosophy with Hume – and those who have eread Hume, that calm analyst, cannot doubt that this was not what he intended. Irraitionalism was the unintended cosneuqnce of Hume’s conviction that we do in fact learn by Baconian induction coupled with Hume’s logical proof that it is impossible to justify induction rationally’. ‘So much the worse for rational justification’ was a conclusion which Hume, of necessity, was compelled to draw form this situation. He accepted this irrational conclusion with the integrity characteristic of the real rationalist who does not shrink from an unpleasant conclusion if it seems to him unavoidable.”

This essay is heavily indebted to Karl Popper’s essay “On the Status of Science and of Metaphysics”, Conjectures and Refutations – a fantastic book. All misunderstandings mine. If you disagree, please tell me why and where I have got it wrong.

Capitalism and You (and I)

The district of Serangoon is abuzz with activity. A new shopping mall, pretentiously named NEX, has opened, and is drawing its virginal crowds like a sprinter draws breath. Situated at the unholy intersection of two ley lines- or what pass for ley lines in the minds of Singaporeans- it is no wonder lunchtime on Monday sees it as crowded as other malls on Saturday evening, something which the latter are (perhaps rightfully) envious of.

The mall itself isn’t much to look at. A giant of steel and glass, the greenery seems gratuitous, like the articles in a lad mag. It is unapologetically blocky, with corners and joints jutting and elbowing their way into your field of vision. And then there are the trappings of modernity- pipes, glass, girders, seemingly-purposeless constructions littering its facade, as though the profession of architecture has become as every bit as arcane and ritualistic as religion, and the weird walls and columns are oblations to their deity.

Its guts, on the other hand, are minimalistic. There is a token landscaped area, but that is the extent of its inner beauty. Every few hundred steps, there is a Frankensteinian fusion of wire and lights in the image of the mall’s logo, and in the spirit of Christmas. On one of the higher floors, there is a ceiling studded with lights (caveat epilepticus), presumably as some artistic statement, and which will no doubt play host to nothing more than advertisements. The rest of the mall is simply whitewashed wall, storefront, and dusty floor. It is unfailingly bare, save where the agency of Man has added to it bells and whistles- literally, as you may find when they ring with a clinical cheeriness when somebody strays into a store. Such are the angel choirs welcoming us into a twenty-first century heaven.

To say that the mall is crowded would be an understatement. It is busier than a dockside bordello when the fleet’s at anchor. All sorts of people fill the halls- the young, the old, the handicapped. If Death would glimpse of all who danced with him, he need but gaze about. There are the giggling girls, the laughing couples, the quiet foreign workers, the boisterous schoolboys; then there are the smiling families, the hobbling old folk, and the occasional prams, presumably infant-filled. Occasionally, there is me, but I can gaze at the floor- and then I am no more. There is only the crowd, which I am a part of.

What is the purpose of such a thing?- its grey bones and clear skin, and its squirming blood?- and there is no answer other than “to sell”. There is no higher meaning to a structure designed to be built as cheaply as possible, maximize the floor area available to stores, and draw the crowds in their teeming thousands. Profit is the god, and NEX is the temple. Its priests ply their wares along its halls, and at the end of every month, its Pope counts the rent.

And we the worshippers. Sometimes, there is really nothing more pleasurable in life than to indulge in spending unabashedly. Stroll and gaze long enough, and the storefronts merge into a blur of colour, such that after you leave, you will struggle to remember anything other than the lights, the whites, and the throngs on throngs of eager shoppers. Time becomes as much a commodity as money, to be spent wandering and wondering. Like any good narcotic, you remember little of what went by, save that it was Good. We say that we go there to buy this, eat that, but we all know we are there because of It Itself, those three totemic letters.

Indeed, Capitalism concerns us in only two ways- money, and time. When we work, we give our time in exchange for money. When we relax, we spend our money on ways to take our time away. In its true form, it is a zero-sum game, and a vicious cycle which we cannot break out of. Really now, should every event in our lives be filled with depth and meaning? Perhaps there are some who can brave that sort of mental fight, but for the rest of us, we just want to while the time away.

Thankfully, we are human, and such economic concepts fail to describe us by dint of their purity. We value things other than time and money. We relish our food and cherish our friends. When we step into that seven-floored sensory-inundation enclosure, we are dimly aware that we are not there as slack-jawed, rubber-necked supplicants. We are there as ourselves, for ourselves, not by the call of Capitalism. Some Odysseuses we are!- but we stroll with our ears open, bodies lashed to the mast. So unlike the crowd we describe- for if we broke it up into the individuals making it up, they would be as human as ourselves- but as a crowd, we are a part of it, yet apart from it.

Well at least, I hope all of us are.

Earning a Quick Buck – Some Thoughts on MLM

Note to editors: I’d originally written this for a separate project I was involved with targeted at ‘A’ Level students in particular so if you think this piece doesn’t really work with the objective of merfl then feel free to get rid of it =)

Earning a Quick Buck

Having recently become jobless, I was called up by a friend of mine, saying he wanted to introduce me to a company he was working at so that I could earn a little bit of extra cash. BIG BONANZA! You might say, but a combination of several things made me more than a little skeptical about this “job offer”.

Firstly, this friend of mine (whom I still count as a friend and so won’t be naming here) was very vague about what the job entailed (“You have to come down and see to understand, too complicated to explain in person”). Secondly and slightly more obviously, he was rather insistent that I drop by his workplace to ‘see what was going on’. If alarm bells rang for you too, give yourself a pat on the back.

Turns out, he was running a Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) scheme for a company peddling TCM, fuel additives, slimming pills and diamonds.

Now I know many of us students find ourselves constantly strapped for cash, and the chance to earn a quick buck is always a welcome prospect and engaging in MLM schemes may be a tantalizing opportunity, but before you launch headlong into one with the hope of striking it rich, I think some understanding of the way MLM works and the risks involved should be properly laid out.

So How Does MLM Work?

MLM comes in several guises. At different times, it has been called Network Marketing or Direct Selling, though they all mean the same thing (for the purposes of this post, I’ll be referring to this phenomenon as MLM).

MLM schemes work by charging promoters an upfront “membership fee” in exchange for the license to sell the company’s products, which will have to be purchased at additional cost. In turn, these promoters (also known as Associates, MLMers, Partners or Investors) are rewarded for recruiting more promoters to the company. These rewards range from commissions on sales made by recruited promoters to elevated status. Examples of these include being appointed as a Director or gaining access to executive facilities. These serve as incentives to encourage promoters to recruit more and more people into their marketing network. The end result is a multi-layered network of marketers in the shape of a pyramid, with many marketers at the bottom level, and few at the top.

For the more visually inclined, this is what an MLM scheme looks like:

Bear in mind, though, that while MLM is commonly associated with a similar marketing tactic called Pyramid Schemes, the two differ on one fundamental point. While MLM participants earn money through the product sales of both themselves and the people they recruit, pyramid schemes merely deal with the exchange of money for introducing more people into the scheme. As such, the likelihood of a pyramid scheme actually having a product or service to sell is highly unlikely and is thus an illegal practice in Singapore (and in many other countries). For a similar kind of scam, you might be interested in looking up Bernie Madoff and Ponzi Schemes.

But Isn’t MLM Illegal in Singapore?

No it isn’t. Although pyramid schemes (see above) are banned by the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), MLM schemes are legally permissible in Singapore so long as they conform to certain rules and regulations. You can find the terms and conditions here on the MTI webpage.

So Is MLM Bad?

Although MLM schemes have generally garnered a bad reputation in Singapore (after a brief craze in the early 2000s during which many fingers got burned), it’s not really entirely possible to judge MLM schemes as either fundamentally ‘good’ or ‘bad’. To be fair, there are successful companies that run highly effective MLM campaigns such as Tupperware and Amway and if you’ve ever been to a ‘Tupperware Party’, that’s MLM at work right there. Instead, it would be more beneficial if we look at the weaknesses and strengths inherent MLM as a marketing strategy.

Ok, So What Are The Weaknesses Of MLM?

As mentioned earlier, MLM as a marketing practice is generally frowned upon in Singapore, and all for a good reason. Although MLM schemes have the incredible potential to produce remarkable results when applied creatively, Multi-level Marketing has a great many inherent weaknesses and limitations that make it incredibly risky, especially for the uninformed.

  1. Supply without the demand – The main problem of MLM is that it messes around with the rules of Supply and Demand. While I may not be an economics student, it is quite plain to see that MLM creates a system which ignores consumer demand in favour of a situation where supply remains well in excess of any kind of projected demand. By requiring individual promoters to buy stock directly from the company and having these promoters recruit more and more promoters, the number of promoters and by extension the supply of products will increase exponentially. What you will eventually find is a market entirely saturated with that particular product since it is not consumers that shape the demand, but rather the number of promoters at any one time. In a situation where a product is fairly unique and popular, this might not pose so much of a problem because natural demand is already very high (as is with Tupperware). However, if the company’s product fails to draw a sustained amount of interest to drive a continuously high level of demand, then sales per promoter will eventually plunge as the numbers of promoters grow. Although promoters do have the option of selling stock back to the company for a refund, bear in mind that by the time promoters realise that the product isn’t selling; the market has probably already reached its saturation point. At that point, the product would be worth less than it originally did and the promoter would end up selling the product back to the company at a loss, and the company earning just enough to cover overheads with minimal risk.
  2. Potential impact on personal relationships – Although many consider this to be a trivial issue, the reality is that being part of an MLM scheme can deeply affect your personal relationships with others and has a high likelihood of causing strained relationships with both family and friends. While much of the problem stems from the already tarnished name that MLM has among Singaporeans, part of it is also due to the nature of MLM and its target audience. By selling through referrals and networking, MLMs rely on an individual’s ability to use his or her own circle of family and friends to not only advertise but also recruit new promoters. All this, with the sole aim of generating revenue through direct sales and downstream commissions. The reason why this is ripe opportunity for friction to develop is because MLM breaches the boundary between work and friendship, thus exploiting personal relationships for the sake of profit. It creates a situation the breaking point will come when either the promoter runs out of friends or when his/her friends run out of patience, and neither of these are desirable consequences.
  3. What’s my motivation? – The third problem with MLM lies not so much with the system, but the kind of people the system attracts. For what reason will someone join an MLM scheme? Although companies involved in MLM are prohibited by law from advertising MLM as a get-rich-quick scheme, it is implicit in many MLM pitches that MLM offers an easy way to earn a quick buck, and many (if not most) MLMers sign up simply because of the money. At its very core, MLM schemes hinge on tapping an individual’s desire to earn more money, also known as Greed. It’s a moral question, without doubt, and one that you will have to ask yourself before taking part in any MLM scheme; do I care about what I’m selling? Or is it just about earning as much money in as little time as possible? Add the fact that family and friends are usually the ones on the receiving end of MLM, and you have a situation where MLM promoters are essentially earning money at the expense of the very people they care for. Be mindful though, that while this issue is one of grave importance, it is a generalisation and is by no means true for every single MLMer. There are those who genuinely believe in the product they are selling and are incredibly passionate about what they do, though they are more often than not viewed as exceptions to the norm.

The points mentioned above are but a fraction of the inherent weaknesses of MLM as a marketing strategy, and from the ones raised it is quite clear that there are some serious deficiencies associated with the practice of MLM. While this doesn’t mean MLM is evil or bad (value judgements we should seek to avoid), it means that anyone who wishes to be part of an MLM scheme must be aware of the potential problems that MLM can cause in order to take steps to prevent unwanted consequences.

So What Are MLM’s Strengths?

Although I’ve just painted a rather grim picture, MLM is not without its redeeming features. Flawed though it may be, MLM does have several properties that make it an excellent learning opportunity for young people and could possibly, under the right circumstances, make for a rewarding and meaningful job experience.

  1. An excellent opportunity to gain sales experience – An important transferable skill, knowing how to market a product is something that is highly likely to come in useful later in life and MLM offers a good opportunity for people to pick up such skills. In selling a particular product or service for a company, you will learn how to craft a proper pitch and deal with the inevitable cases of rejection. But more than that, since MLM usually entails selling the product/service to family and friends, it will also be possible to get constructive feedback from these people on how best to refine your sales techniques, something that would not be so readily available were you to be selling to complete strangers.
  2. Plenty of opportunity for self-enrichment – Another reason why MLM can prove to be incredibly useful is because many of them offer training courses and seminars for MLM participants. While these courses are unlikely to be professionally accredited by external bodies, they present a valuable opportunity to learn something new or at least engage in some form of self-enrichment. Although these course are more geared toward improving sales and recruitment numbers, do approach them with an open mind and who knows, maybe you might acquire a new skill, learn something about yourself and come out of it a better person.
  3. Autonomy over how you work – For those who prize job flexibility as a very important point, MLM can also be attractive because it allows participants to work in any way they want. In an MLM scheme, you set your own working style and you work whenever you want. Obviously the harder you work, the more rewards you are likely to reap but if you already have academic commitments and still want to earn some money on the side, MLM does offer a potential way of earning some much-needed cash. However, whether or not that cash is earned through morally justified means or whether the amount earned is significant enough to matter is up to you to decide.

So as you can see, MLM isn’t all bad. In fact, when approached with the right attitude and a proper understanding of the risks involved, MLM can potentially be a very rewarding learning experience and you might even earn some money through it.

If you’ve done some background reading, however, you will notice that I’ve left out many of the traditional plus points commonly cited in MLM’s favour. Very often you will hear these points being raised when a company representative is trying to convince you to join an MLM scheme, a ritual which I call ‘The Pitch’, and more often than not, these points are half-truths, fabrications or outright lies. As such, I’ll be going through some of the most popular points cited by MLM companies to convince people to join their little scheme.

The Top 10 MLM Misrepresentations

When you sit in for an MLM Pitch, you’ll usually be facing a very proficient smooth-talker, someone who can go on and on for 2 hours without losing your attention. During his/her speech, he/she’ll try to convince you why you should join their MLM scheme, and much of these will be fallacious or quite simply untrue. In this section, I’ll briefly run through some of the common misrepresentations bandied about by MLMers to convince people to sign up and why they might not be entirely true.

  1. MLM offers a cheap way of running your own business –Many MLMers will tell you that joining an MLM scheme is a cheap and easy way of running your own business; you don’t have to pay taxes or settle bills or handle any of the administrative matters, just sit back and let the money roll in. While running an MLM operation does emulate a business-like setting in many ways, all that the MLM company has essentially done is to outsource the sales and HR aspect of the company to you, along with all the risk of running a company. You will be responsible for making your own sales, recruiting your own people, and when you fail it will all be your own fault and not because the product is unpopular – the company doesn’t lose anything at all except for a rubbish salesperson. You’re not running your own business; you’re just purchasing all the risk of running one.
  2. Having a pyramid-structure doesn’t make MLM bad, all corporations are pyramid-shaped too – When the company rep said this to me with a straight face, I couldn’t believe my ears. He cited the example of a school having only one principal, many teachers and even more students, and this is a typical example of a false analogy. The only parallel between a school and an MLM scheme is the shape of the structure. Teachers do not have to recruit students, and neither do they have to pay a portion of their salary to the principal for recruiting more students. Just because other things are pyramid-shaped doesn’t make the structure of an MLM right or wrong, good or bad. Likewise for corporations, each employee works for the company and as such each company has a vested interest in the welfare of the employee (the employee is paid directly by the company too). In an MLM scheme, the flow is inverted. Instead, it is the employee that invests in the company and the company is not obliged to care about the employee or his/her productivity. Because of this there is no basis on which to say that an MLM’s pyramid structure can in any way be compared with that of other “conventional” companies.
  3. Our product is very respectable and reliable because celebrities endorse it – This is a good example of another common fallacy, the appeal to authority. Companies that resort to celebrity endorsements (regardless of whether or not they are MLM companies) rely on the supposed authority and influence that celebrities command in order to sell their product, and not on the salient qualities of the product itself. Whether or not a celebrity endorses a product rarely has anything to do with the effectiveness of the product or even whether the celebrity actually uses the product. Their only incentive is getting paid a buttload of money in return for plastering their pretty little faces all over the company’s advertisements. In some cases, even if the celebrity does use the product being advertised, he or she might not be aware of the effectiveness or potential side effects of the products. Probably the best known local example (for our Singaporean readers) would be the infamous Slim 10 saga, where Andrea de Cruz fell violently ill after taking the slimming pills, resulting in her husband having to donate part of his liver to rescue her failing one. Never assume that celebrities know better; after all, they’re human too.
  4. By selling this health product you’re helping your customers too – You will often hear this during pitches, especially if the company in question markets some form of health, slimming or ‘wellness’ product. The logic behind this is that, assuming the product works as advertised, not only will you be earning money from your friends and family, you can do it without guilt because hey, you’re making their lives better. However, with health being the sensitive topic that it is, it is always important to verify that the product you are selling has been adequately and rigorously tested in compliance with America’s Food and Drug Authority (FDA) standards. Very often if you ask to see some form of clinical documentation, you’ll be shown some vague lab reports, often from individual success cases and not as a result of comprehensive and methodical tests of the drug with adequate controls. Just because a treatment works for one person doesn’t mean it works for everyone else. And even if the treatment does work, are you confident enough or qualified enough to be prescribing any form of therapeutic treatments? And what if there are unknown or long term side effects? I hardly think it is necessary for me to point back to the Slim 10 case to illustrate this point.
  5. Our product can’t possibly fail because of its mass market appeal – If you look at MLM companies very closely, you’ll realise that most, if not all of their products are targeted at mass market consumption. Slimming pills; “Wellness” treatments; Traditional Chinese Medicine, these aren’t niche market goods, these are aimed at appealing to a very large and very broad customer base. However, if you’ve read the bit earlier about MLM and market saturation, you’ll realise that no matter how massive your market may be, MLM is designed to ensure that the market is so flooded that it eventually kills itself. This statement is only true from the viewpoint of the company. While a goodly amount of product will end up getting sold, the chances of you being a significant contributor to overall sales is low.
  6. Look at our top earner; he’s driving a Mercedes Benz! – I think it goes without saying that this argument very simply appeals to what has been discussed before, the greed impulse. You’re supposed to go “Hrmm, if he can earn enough to get a Mercedes Benz, I can too!” and this is clearly not going to be the case. Why? It’s simple. When you sign up for an MLM scheme, you are led to believe that you’ll end up like this:Whereas in reality, this is more likely to be the case:What MLM companies try to mislead people into thinking is that there is an equal chance of success. However, following from the market saturation argument, the further away you are from the top (i.e. the later you join), the less chance you have of even running a substantial network of salespeople and subsequently, the lower your chances of even coming close to even considering buying a Nissan Sunny.
  7. Many people from your school participate in MLM too – Another popular technique often employed by advertisers is very much evident here as well: the Bandwagon. Other people are doing it, and so should you. No you don’t. Other people in your school are failing their promos and getting retained. Should you follow suit? I’ll leave that decision entirely up to you.
  8. You can make money with minimal effort just by having a wide customer base! – The main problem with this argument is that it assumes your customer base/sales force is either growing or unchanging. However, remember that people come and go, and not everyone will find your product interesting over the long term or wish to continue with MLM and as numbers fluctuate, your revenue will also fluctuate. I’m not being cynical here, just realistic.
  9. Friends and family are easier to sell to than complete strangers –Just because people know you doesn’t mean they’re them more gullible or susceptible to your charms or wiles. Your family and friends are (hopefully) thinking people too and if the product you are selling one of questionable quality or relevance, then no amount of personal relationship or cajoling will convince anyone to buy your product, family member or not.
  10. Look at all these newspaper articles showing how effective MLM is – When the MLM rep starts pulling out all these newspaper articles, very rarely will you have the time to read the article in full. In fact, they’ll helpfully highlight a sentence or two to draw your attention to a line saying that MLM is good. If you actually take the time to read them in detail (and take note of the publication date), you’ll realise that many of these articles are quoted out of context or are completely outdated. Don’t be fooled by a misleading headline or a misquoted sentence.

So Should I Or Should I Not Participate In An MLM Scheme?

That, unfortunately, is a decision only you can make. While I personally disapprove of MLM and discourage most students from taking part, I can only go so far as to tell you what the weaknesses and strengths of MLM  are and ultimately, whether or not you actually join an MLM depends on a combination of factors unique to you. Do take your time to evaluate the pros and cons and if you feel MLM is a viable option, then be sure to take the necessary precautions to avoid getting cheated and go in with the right learning attitude.

If you wish to learn more about MLMs, here is a list of sources that I’ve consulted in the process of writing this much extended article. While everything you see here is (to my knowledge) written in my own voice, do let me know if I have inadvertently lifted or plagiarised any particular author’s work in any way. Also, if you should have any comments you would like to make or any inconsistencies with my arguments that you would like to point out, I strongly encourage you to post them here.

Week 0 Digest

Contained within Digest 0 are all posts before December 13 2010- eight of them for your reading pleasure.

  1. The Beauty of Language by Derrick, Nov 28

    … It is a testament to the power of society that a language can evolve so much over time, with little more than its current state known to the vast majority of people, who are themselves nevertheless bringing about the next evolutions. Indeed, the meaning and significance of language is contained almost solely within the minds of people who live but threescore and ten years, yet it has survived so much of Time, and come out none the worse for it.

  2. From Lyrics to Music: Inaugural Post by Zhaohan, Dec 2

    … In a generation where ‘good’, commercially viable music is often defined by heavy electronic beats and ready-made hooks and riffs, we run the risk of forgoing good music in our ignorance of good lyrics – or, should I say, good songwriting. …

  3. That post-quiz procrastination by Rayner, Dec 7

    … And as my mind flits and roams on, I think now – my opinion might still flip around, but for what it’s worth, I do actually think now – that this fat payslip fantasy is all illusory, and I want nothing but a possibility of capturing that flavour of that instant, idly gazing out my window at my first vision of snowfall.

  4. Essay Exchange by Adam/Rayner, Dec 9

    About a month ago Rayner sent me an essay of his to read about the decline of classical music. I had time on my hands so I wrote a response to it – here are both essays for your edification and discussion. …

  5. On Studying Abroad by Elizabeth, Dec 9

    … Feelings of alienhood are not always congruent with actual continents. I probably have nothing on the legions of diaspora and displaced people in the world, but my first day feeling as alien in my class of Singaporeans as in an all-British class having to take a patient history in a put-on accent, was quite eye-opening. …

  6. In defence of poetry by Zhaohan, Dec 10

    … The fact remains that human life has to be nourished with some further beauty, some meaningful insight which stands out against the drabness of the ordinary. In this respect, poetry is no different from the fine arts. It is, however, distinguishable and more immediately relevant to us, being a manifestation of the primary means by which we communicate – language. …

  7. Medical Examinations by Elizabeth, Dec 11

    … People often ask: what is the meaning of life? I don’t know, but the meaning of that day was that we all remembered to not miss that step in the exam. In the exam itself, and in the future, where the test is someone’s life hanging in the balance, and not just that of depressed medical students. The thought that the trade-off of my momentary pain will potentially be able to allieviate someone else’s in the future makes me, at least, feel relieved. …

  8. On Rage by Adam, Dec 12

    …I think that the acceptance of reason as a guide to living necessitates accepting the plurality of experience. No One Thing is true – if it is we are incapable of understanding...

On Rage

There is much cause for anger for an atheist. Everyday I am confronted with new evidence of the unbelievable stupidity and ignorance (not to say violence) that religion causes. People around the world are suffering from the effects of religion, not just because religion is misappropriated by Bad People, which it is, but because religion and its texts are engines of extremism, in the words of Sam Harris. No religion that professes a text that supports slavery and capital punishment to be the Word of God will ever be free of extremism. It is not Bad People that are solely to blame: religion is inherently to blame.

The causes for rage are many – not always a personal rage, I must admit. These are things that are to some degree removed from my personal experiences. But isn’t the idea of sociopolitical and humanistic awareness basically the expansion of one’s own experience to include the happenings of wider society? The concern (and indignance) is valid, I feel.

Yet there is, from another point of view, little cause for rage for one such as myself. I have religious friends who are as much human beings as anybody I know. The ideological hatefulness of religion shouldn’t negate my mostly-positive personal experience of religious people and religion in general.

What I’m saying I guess is that as an atheist I should be on my guard against the sort of dogmatic hate-mongering that is the mark of extremism. Which is not to say that I should not be highly outraged whenever a human being’s dignity is compromised over some laughable point of theology. However, the quality of outrage is not personal, if it doesn’t happen to me. It is a specific outrage directed at injustice, not a spiteful and personal vengeance. It is too easy to be monolithic about morality and blindly apply narratives across the spectrum of my experiences.

I think that the acceptance of reason as a guide to living necessitates accepting the plurality of experience. No One Thing is true – if it is we are incapable of understanding. This might mean that I find religion reprehensible on one hand and deeply love my religious friends on the other. It doesn’t make much sense, but at times the reality of feelings and experience don’t make sense. It is only human to make the best we can of it.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
-Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’

Medical Examinations

“To cure sometimes, to relieve often, to comfort always”

Medical exams come in two types. The first type, which involves over two hundred people exhibiting tachycardia (increased heart rate), shortness of breath, cold clammy hands, shivering, and signs of rabies (impending doom) – all clearly systemic, alarming symptoms, is not particularly comforting nor curative. The only thing they manage to cure would be delusions of grandeur.

The second class would be the physical examination. This usually involves a set sequence of things to observe, starting from the hands, then the face, neck, and then the abdomen/ chest, depending on the system examined. The actual order of things is not too complicated, but having to perform it on a stranger (or an actual human being, really), in front of an eagle-eyed audience, really sets on an attack of the nerves.

The neurological examination is rather endearing. It involves raising your eyebrows, puffing out your cheeks, and showing your teeth. If you can do that, you must be neurologically intact!

A friend was excited about the per rectal training today. “The breast exam is on Friday!” I told him. “Nah, too clinical” Was his response. And truly, we need to be professional about these things. No-one wants to imagine a bunch of giggling university students, as they sit, shivering on the doctor’s couch. My first experience with the breast examination was something I will never forget. After being drilled not to say “I want to feel your breasts”, I duly went into the cubicle, introduced myself, and said “I want to do an examination of your breasts”. The elderly lady regarded me dubiously, demanding “And what will you do to them?” “Errr… I will…. Feel them…”. After the ensuing shouting, the tutor actually ran after me to check that I was not traumatised for life.

I have heard interesting tales from seniors. One actually fell asleep in the middle of taking a patient’s history (of narcolepsy, perhaps?). Another, after expertly reassuring the mock patient that his chest pain was perfectly normal, thinking it was a communication skills station, realised to his horror after the bell had rung that he was supposed to have had diagnosed peritonitis – quite a serious condition.

Nervousness aside, it isn’t all fun and games. A classmate, being the sixth person to examine the simulated patient, asked to skip the vocal resonance part of the respiratory exam to save time. The tutor replied “that may save you time now, but if you miss a sign, the patient will waste lots of time later”. In that moment, I realised that our bumbling through this learning process now has some Greater Meaning, somewhere else. The disjunct of watching myself and my classmates, who usually spend our days like slugs sleeping in the lecture theatres, or parasitizing off the wise words of professors, dressed up like mini-doctors, voices trembling mildly as we ask patients for their kind co-operation, is far from comforting. But in a way, everyone has to grow up. We can’t be Peter Pan forever.

People often ask: what is the meaning of life? I don’t know, but the meaning of that day was that we all remembered to not miss that step in the exam. In the exam itself, and in the future, where the test is someone’s life hanging in the balance, and not just that of depressed medical students. The thought that the trade-off of my momentary pain will potentially be able to allieviate someone else’s in the future makes me, at least, feel relieved.

In defence of poetry

Poetry is for everyone. This is something I feel very strongly about.

What makes poetry? To me, poetry is a simple affair. Poetry is about seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary, or describing the ordinary in extraordinary ways. It is a moment of extraordinary insight, and simple in that it may only be delivered from what is immediately real and familiar to us. Perhaps this is what W.S. Merwin meant when he contended that poetry “is something before it is about something”.

Consider Bashō’s celebrated “Old Pond”:

old pond
a frog jumps in
water’s sound.

— Matsuo Bashō / Translated by William J. Higginson

What the poem describes is ordinary: the mundane act of a frog jumping into an old pond. Yet it has been transformed into something other. It has become a subtle, yet powerful sequence of events in the mind’s eye. There are two sources of tension – between imagery and sound, and tranquility and disturbance. By observing the ordinary act of a frog jumping into an old pond and by revealing the extraordinary qualities within in an extraordinary way, Bashō has created poetry.

Poetry is also an affair with language. It may begin with substance, yet it is form, defined by the use of language, which helps reveal this substance, be it abstract or strictly formalistic. This may amount to “describing the ordinary in extraordinary ways”. Furthermore, it may well be that in the process of writing, poetry may begin with form. Merwin again states that “a poem begins out of what you don’t know, and you begin not by having a good idea but by hearing something in the language.”

I concede that my definition of what makes poetry faces difficulties. What of poetry which emphasises form over substance? What of types of poetry which aim to achieve different goals other than the revelation of the extraordinary, such as the setting forth lengthy narratives, say for instance in epic poetry? It would be intellectually dishonest not to address such problems. However, poetry is profoundly personal; as it is, the short answer would be that I do not consider these ‘poetry’ in the true sense. It may be that they are only poetry for having adopted recognised and aesthetically viable forms of verse and rhyme.

So it has been contended that poetry is a moment of extraordinary insight. But what use of this moment of beauty? Why does poetry matter? Consider the following poem, “Learning by Heart”, by Abbas Raza (founding editor of 3quarksdaily):

He recited a short poem to me
Which he had learned by heart
Not to impress or intimidate
Me, or anyone else,

But just in case one year
Spring might be late in coming
And he need cheer his friends
Saddened by the dearth of birdsong.

Or perhaps for that moment in love
When he would be struck speechless,
When he knew that he would need
To borrow another man’s tongue.

Or maybe just so that if he wanted
He could tie a brightly colored cravat
On the neck of an autumn crepuscule
Too-soberly dressed in a charcoal suit.

— S. Abbas Raza (for Robin Varghese, April 8, 2010)

The fact remains that human life has to be nourished with some further beauty, some meaningful insight which stands out against the drabness of the ordinary. In this respect, poetry is no different from the fine arts. It is, however, distinguishable and more immediately relevant to us, being a manifestation of the primary means by which we communicate – language.

Moreover, much has been written and said about how one of the redeeming features of humanity is its capacity to be astonished. This is accompanied by humanity’s need to be astonished, in order for humanity to transcend itself. I opine that to be exposed to the extraordinary within the ordinary, in an extraordinary fashion, one necessarily experiences the frisson of astonishment.

In conclusion, there is much to be said about poetry. Poetry is more accessible than it seems, and is of direct relevance to our very beings: Poetry is simpler than what it delivers. Poetry allows us to transcend the grind of humanity by astonishing us with the beauty of the extraordinary. Poetry is but one amongst the many vital sugars which a life lived to its fullest must be sustained upon.

With its relevance and its oft-overlooked accessibility, poetry is for everyone.

A caveat: Raza suggests that we ought to share poetry, whilst Yeats cynically observes in the third verse of “Adam’s Curse” that this has become desperately unfashionable:

I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.’

— W.B. Yeats

This is perhaps a matter best left to good taste and discretion.


On Studying Abroad

I know a place where the grass is really greener –  Katy Perry, California Gurls

Despite having never visited California, it is quite true that the grass really is always greener on the other side. Many students spend their formative years dreaming of going overseas and being free as a bird. Well, as Margaret Atwood said in the Handmaid’s Tale, there is freedom to, and freedom from.

There is definitely more freedom to do what you like in a foreign country; you don’t need to let a soul know when you go out, you can walk on the streets without being recognized by someone you knew in primary school, you can explore new territory, and most of all, there is this feeling I can’t quite put a finger on – of buoyancy, of independence and adventure. But freedom from – that is less easily achieved. Everyone has their own issues, and strangely enough these tend to stick with you wherever you go.

Of those who study overseas, many make the conscious choice to mingle more with non-Singaporeans, whilst many others simply stick to the familiar bubble of the Singaporean Society. There are pros and cons to both, but who’s to judge the decisions of someone flying the coop for the first time?  Furthermore, some manage to straddle both cultures nicely, by joining in societies where the differences are mitigated by a shared interest, for instance in sports or music. No doubt, those who are able to mix more capably have a different, and perhaps more interesting set of experiences.

Whichever it is though, most people will eventually find themselves missing Singaporean food, looking forward to flying home for the holidays, and finding they have some sort of common history with random Singaporeans they meet. This usually manifests itself in the questioning about which JC and secondary school you came from, and so on. People usually say that people overseas are more friendly, which one may assume to refer to the Caucasians. This is true, but you might find that Singaporeans overseas tend to be more friendly too.

Some even pay exorbitant amounts for Singaporean food, for instance 6 pounds, which is around $12 for nasi lemak. Those more culinarily-disposed can even go to great lengths to replicate the food, down to the perfect chicken rice chilli sauce. All this may seem silly in light of the fact that there are probably juniors still in Junior College dreaming of fish and chips, and there are definitely exchange students who are probably currently exploring every nook and cranny of Europe that they can.

However, my opinion is that there’s  nothing wrong in finding that you treasure something more than you’d expected. In fact, to have something worth missing, in fact, is a beautiful thing in itself.  I found myself making an extra trip to the supermarket for oranges near the Chinese New Year season, and eating yusheng as a forfeit during games, where I had felt mutinous about all the spring cleaning and preparations for the past 18 years. I even acquired an accent. In short, becoming more Singaporean just by studying abroad. You can take the girl out of Singapore, but…

I returned to Singapore some time ago. After some time, I began to miss the UK. Rustic cobblestoned streets, majestic castles and waking up to the whole world turned white, breakfast with a hodgepodge of people. The one ceilidh (Scottish dance) which I went for, which fit my mental image of Pride and Prejudice-type dances quite neatly. Coming home to find my friends standing on top of the bed, jabbing at a pair of jeans with a broom in order to find an errant rat. Fire alarms taking on a whole new meaning at 5am, when you forget to bring the winter coat out with you.

Feelings of alienhood are not always congruent with actual continents. I probably have nothing on the legions of diaspora and displaced people in the world, but my first day feeling as alien in my class of Singaporeans as in an all-British class having to take a patient history in a put-on accent, was quite eye-opening.

Perhaps no matter where one is, things will always be better somewhere else. Freedom isn’t really about the physical location you are at, barring jail cells.  It’s about whether you can ignore naysayers and gossipers, and whether you can live with the voice in your head. Or voices, in case of schizophrenia. And finally – that in order to know where you belong, perhaps you need to go someplace else first.  It’s only then that, not belonging anywhere and to anyone, will you be truly free.

Essay Exchange

About a month ago Rayner sent me an essay of his to read about the decline of classical music. I had time on my hands so I wrote a response to it – here are both essays for your edification and discussion.

The Decline of Classical Music

by Rayner Teo

Classical music, or Western art music, is in general decline. Concert attendance and CD sales, never high to begin with, are decreasing every year. Audiences are greying; turnouts at classical music concerts are a demographer’s wild fantasy. Newspapers’ arts sections carry doom-and-gloom commentaries next to reviews of the latest pop acts and record releases. If you are at all interested in music, this is old news.

Watching the Emerson String Quartet perform in Sprague Hall last week drove this point home to me. The Emerson Quartet is reportedly one of America’s best groups, but other than myself I saw only a couple of music majors and School of Music students; we were the notable exceptions, and the average age was in the region of sixty. I believe a bus from a local nursing home pulled up outside Sprague Hall as I was approaching. If classical music is indeed “old-people music”, that certainly hints at a reason for its decline: it isn’t attracting a new audience.

Why should we care? Commentaries on the subject often start by passionately arguing against the view that art music, like Latin, should be allowed to die a natural death. They speak gushingly of how it is timeless, transcends boundaries and speaks to people of all cultures. Often, the writer’s personal experience is mixed in; they often write about the magical moment of first contact in their early childhood.

All this to me is too ingenuous: if classical music is timeless, why does it bear its age so badly? The argument ignores the fact that people respond to music differently, and that context matters a great deal – Beethoven in a Toyota ad is very differently received from Beethoven in a film about senseless mob violence. A handful of people will treat both instances of Beethoven as background noise, not make the link to the wider world of art music, and continue to feel little or no emotional connection to Beethoven’s work. On the other hand, a select few will prick their ears up and recognise immediately the phrases and inflections of the (to make up an example at random) Martha Argerich recording of 1972.

Most people’s reactions lie in between these two extremes; they do have some conception, however nebulous, of classical music and own emotional response to it. They might not remember their first time hearing Beethoven, but they do know vaguely how they feel, or should feel. They might want to find out more about classical music, a self-improvement project just like reading Shakespeare or learning another language. Or they might not care a great deal, but it is recognisable and familiar to them as a cultural signpost. Talking at them about fond childhood memories is treating them as homunculi with opinions yet to be formed – it won’t make them want to go to a concert or buy a CD.

Big names make people want to go to concerts and buy CDs. Orchestras fly in a brand-name soloist at immense expense, do a quick rehearsal and put up a concert. Or maybe the soloist does the concert herself – these are often pianists. Occasionally the orchestras themselves fly in. The performance is spotless, technically assured, and devoid of heart and spirit. There are Chinese and Korean opera singers out there who learn their Italian or German phonetically, who only have a general idea of the gist of the words they sing. Studio recordings are worse – technical shenanigans abound, and by the time records are released they are often homogenised mixes of snippets over several days’ work.

Other transgressions are worse yet. At the Emerson String Quartet concert, they performed Debussy’s String Quartet, and by chance I have listened closely to their recording of it. The recording and performance were uncannily similar to each other, right down to the moment where Eugene Drucker makes an annoyingly show-offish slide to a particular high note – a cheap trick to heighten the emotional tension. The entire recital was two hours long, with music by four composers who bore next to no relation to each other – spatial, temporal or indeed musical. It was carefully choreographed, right down to the five-foot distance between them as they strode on stage, instruments held upright, bows at thirty-degree angles. Everything was perfect as far as I could tell; I could equally well have bought a CD to listen to.

We focus so much on the statistics (poor album sales, halls at half capacity) and nifty tricks to try and reverse the decline (marketing strategies, educational outreach, classical crossover) that we neglect the essential. Classical music is in decline because it increasingly does not speak to the public. If art music is the conversation between composer, performer and audience, each must shoulder some of the blame.

A general trend in new art music is toward the obscure, the absurd, and the theatrical – some works are all of these three. The common argument is that audiences are not sophisticated enough to understand, for instance, the Helicopter String Quartet by Stockhausen. But it is beyond my comprehension (and probably that of any reasonable person) how four helicopters going up and down for twenty minutes, each carrying a member of a string quartet hooked up to a microphone, is more music than spectacle. Similarly, Tan Dun’s Water Concerto – involving a percussionist hitting a specially-constructed gourd and slapping the surfaces of water-filled bowls, among other things, accompanied by squeals and slides from the orchestra – fails to make much of a point, other than that Tan Dun must have been really bored at some time. We should be comfortable with the notion that some music does not deserve a second hearing. Just as we only know Salieri from the movie Amadeus, if the music of today’s composers doesn’t speak to the audience, it should die a natural death.

Performers, too, are becoming more removed from the audiences they play for, but in a different way. In perfecting their art, they diminish the space left for the human drama of a performance. One of the great excitements in watching a concert is the delightful sense of knife-edge tension that comes from amateur musicians (like me) teetering on catastrophic breakdown, or from professionals offering something new and insightful to our understanding of a hoary old piece. This doesn’t happen anymore; they are being granted ever-more-generous contracts, and in return they produce impersonal, CD-like, middle-of-the-road recitals which are technically competent but impossible to relate to. Watching a Chopin performance by a pianist like Artur Rubinstein provokes a very different emotional response than a performance of the same piece by one of the new rising stars, like Lang Lang. Speed is mistaken for virtuosity, ostentatious display for flair.

At the same time, while conservatories the world over are churning out increasing numbers of technically proficient graduates, composers feel liberated to take their music to new levels of complexity. Pieces by the old masters, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, are these days the training grounds for youth orchestras and amateur groups, when in their time they were denounced as unplayable. These days Shostakovich and Bartok are staples, when fifty years ago they were new and avant-garde. As each generation’s ‘unplayable’ music becomes the meat and potatoes of the next generation’s concert programmes, increasingly complex and obscure works are receiving more airtime, establishing a trend. It is not ipso facto a bad thing that performers should become better-skilled, or indeed, that they support new composers by playing their work. But as art music especially in the last sixty years has become more of a back-patting exercise between composer and performer, it is no surprise that audiences feel left out. Declining attendances are a natural response to this.

Meanwhile, critics measure new musicians and groups against the standards of the last big name that swept through town, and they mould the public’s opinion accordingly. And because the critic’s response has become the proxy for the audience’s response, critics wield inordinate power over performers. Meanwhile, audiences gravitate towards established names as an assurance of ‘quality’, just like in any other market. With all this, it’s not surprising that classical music is in trouble.

Nor is it undesirable for classical music to be in trouble. Classical music has, in recent decades, attempted to organise itself on the lines of pop music, with headlining acts, crossover artists and the increasing power of the recording industry and the music critic. For a time, record companies proliferated and produced ever more albums – Martin Kettle, a writer for the Guardian, counts 435 different recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Almost as if by natural selection, some of these will go out of print. Providing for diverse tastes is all well and good, but four hundred performances probably can’t all offer new insight into Beethoven’s musical intent. Neither will the listening public be unduly bothered by the diminution of classical CD shelves in music stores. As Jay Gabler writes on his blog for Twin Cities Daily Planet, “great art takes care of itself” – I would not be too worried about classical music going the way of Latin.

And with the professionals in trouble, it’s a good time for amateur musicians. Possibly one of the biggest classical music news stories of the decade was when the Venezuelan youth orchestra, Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar, premiered at the 2007 BBC Proms festival in London. Here was a feel-good story everyone could relate to; a youth orchestra with members drawn from some of the poorest and most disadvantaged barrios in Caracas and all over the country. Their playing was polished and professional but it was also shot through with infectious South American zeal. Besides the human interest angle, they succeeded immensely in communicating their passion to the audience.

Where the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar succeeded, the Emerson String Quartet failed. Watching their recital, I inevitably compared it to all the times I played chamber music with friends as a pianist and bassist. We had hours of behind-the-scenes fun; pushing the tempo to mess with the violinist’s tough solos, switching back and forth from waltz rhythm, even playing each others’ juvenile compositions. Chamber music, or music in small groups, is essentially a conversation between musicians. Unlike solo music, the focus isn’t on individual virtuosity; neither is it about timbral or sound colour, as in the case of some orchestral music. With only three to five players to deal with, it rarely makes a grand statement about anything too highfalutin. And lots of chamber music has clear artistic merit while remaining eminently playable by rank amateurs. Joseph Wechsberg, the Czech-American writer, called it the “music of friends”. Nothing in the Emerson Quartet’s performance suggested this; I felt like I was watching a studio recording session. I would have felt more at home in a jazz bar or a jam session; that too is the “music of friends” that makes for the highest art.

In one single evening, the Emerson Quartet’s concert brought together all the elements that make classical music as dull and moribund as it is today: a headline act, sweeping into town for one night only, plays, perfectly but soullessly, an incoherent selection of works, pleasant enough on their own but bearing no relation to each other, that occasionally goes over the heads of the audience. As I left the recital hall, I overheard a middle-aged lady telling her companions, “After this, there are no words. There are no words” (her italics, I swear). I should hope that the aim of great art is not the wordless stupefaction of the audience; for if so, there would be nothing left for it to say, and nothing for us to say to it.

In Defence of the Avant Garde

by Adam Adhiyatma

Rayner speaks of a certain disjunct in his essay between the work of modern composers and their audiences. I wish to address this particular point about the ‘the obscure, the absurd, and the theatrical’ nature of modern composition.

The fact that modern music in general – not to talk about classical music about which I have virtually no knowledge, but about popular music and jazz in particular – is becoming increasingly abstract and complex is a given. Today a performance of the old 1930s standard ‘Cheek to Cheek’ – of which the great Louis Armstrong once did a rousing, lively version – would seem incomplete if not riddled with harmonic substitutions and strange polyrhythms. The world of jazz has become involved in some kind of music arms race, with each performer seeking to outdo the last in his ability to overlay increasingly complex harmonic progressions and multiple time-signature rhythm over simple beats. A great example demonstrating what I consider a mild form of this would Branford Marsalis’s recording of that same song in the 90s. Once he gets into the solo, the original chord progression (which has been the touchstone of jazz soloists since forever) is basically unrecognizable unless one has prior knowledge of the tune. Part of the interest in jazz is the relationship between the ‘original’, well-known standard and the performer’s interpretation. I suspect that this proliferation of harmonic complexity parallels the proliferation of experimentation in modern art music.

Despite this, I would hesitate to say that Branford Marsalis’s version is inferior despite its intentional obscurity. There is a genuinely intelligent commentary contained within his harmonic substitutions and a genuine joy in his phrasing. In fact, Branford Marsalis’s work and advocacy has placed him deep within a movement considered to be musically conservative, and if asked I am sure the man would talk about the debt he owes the to the music of the 1950s and 1960s.

Let us examine another more left-wing example. Ornette Coleman released the album ‘Sound Grammar’ in the early 2000s. Ornette himself emerged in the 1960s as a premier voice of the avant-garde, and has been controversial ever since for making music that appears to have no harmonic, or rhythmic system. Several people, including the great Miles Davis, have suggested that he is a charlatan (Miles later rescinded this opinion at least implicitly by making music almost as staunchly weird). Nevertheless, for an avant-garde performer he is astonishingly popular. Popular acts as diverse as the Grateful Dead, John Lennon and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have cited his work as an influence. His concerts frequently sell out. He has received a MacArthur Foundation Genius grant and a Pulitzer prize, as well as numerous inductions into jazz halls of fame. I think that Sound Grammar represents music that is as modern as it gets – deeply abstract, harmonically and rhythmically dense, devoid of traditional structure – but which fulfills what Rayner calls the ‘element of human drama’. I hear in his performance the breadth and depth, the intensity and inconstancy of human feeling. I find his music genuinely compelling, and I am not alone in this.

Hence, I would argue that the proliferation of complexity in modern music isn’t itself what drives audiences away, and isn’t the reason why jazz and classical music are in decline. Ornette Coleman is an outlier in the world of jazz, where audiences have been shrinking at an alarming rate, but clearly his example demonstrates that it is possible for difficult music to achieve at least some semblance of popularity.

I think the truth of the matter is closer to the fact that only a tiny percentage of any given audience is really committed intellectually to appreciation of the music. The presence of the rest of the audience unfortunately depends largely on extra-musical matters such as marketing, public image, or other intractable issues of culture and perception. In this sense, all of art music is subsidized. So it would be incorrect to say that all unpopular music has been found to be inferior and should be left to die out – although there is certainly unpopular music that is inferior and should be left to die. Ornette Coleman’s success could be more accurately attributed to the marketing, the strong start he achieved in the avant-garde-friendly 60s, the prestige of the numerous awards he has received, and the support of other artists. The work of a discerning critic is to create situations in which these deserving artists (and composers) can be subsidized.

The catastrophe approaching art musics today I think is more attributable to the proliferation of opinion due to the internet and other forms of media. The undiscerning multitudes no longer have a single voice to listen to but a cacophony of websites and partisan critics each promoting their own niche, and no longer throw their weight behind what is critically acceptable, because nothing is critically acceptable. Hence the subsidy provided by critics has been diluted.

Furthermore, the proliferation of erstwhile ‘critics’ on the internet and on newspapers has destroyed public faith in the veracity of critical opinion, even when it is valid. I think that there is no such thing as real aesthetic relativism. Music can and should be judged as good and bad, and I believe that its quality has little to do with its truck with audiences.

What needs to be done now, instead of marketing campaigns, is that critics need to do their jobs. They need to evaluate sincerely and above all publicly the merit of our art. Arguments must be made and refuted and consensus achieved so that the public can once more concentrate its support behind art that is deserving.

That post-quiz procrastination

It’s that post-quiz glow again. This last quiz was math – but it’s always similar, always insidious, always brutal. Hours pass in a flash. Productivity is out, procrastination is in – that’s how it works. Instants of distraction add up, build up into stacks and mountains of work, rising on and on. As it is I turn away in mortification from my clock. Oh clock (I think inwardly): thank gawd you can’t talk or I’d go nuts toting up all hours I’d thrown away.

And all this for what? On occasion (commonly now) I think of all this as foolish futility: nothing but that crass pursuit of a fancy qualification and a straight road to a fat-cat high-paying job. It’s all about dollops of dosh, bright big-city lights (and a fast car’s cool too). And my ocular faculty turns all misty and starry as my mind roams in a fantasy world: a world of payslips almost too big to hold in a hand, gallivanting globally airport to airport (first class, imaginably?) – what wouldn’t I do for that?

And I think of all that as this world turns, on and on, and out my window I might watch all kinds of flora changing colour, turning ruddy and dry, moulting in cold air – if only I had that luxury of looking.

Four days ago it was snowing. I think back on that instant–

waking up

hardly conscious of my limbs flailing about trying to shut off my alarm

groping about for my customary ocular aids

stopping to look – what’s this – what’s that stuff on Calhoun’s rooftop – why’s all that ground sparkling in this dim dawn light? First a spray of raindrops, now light fluff-balls glowing in a morning’s half-dark, tumbling and falling all softly on a diagonal –

And as my mind flits and roams on, I think now – my opinion might still flip around, but for what it’s worth, I do actually think now – that this fat payslip fantasy is all illusory, and I want nothing but a possibility of capturing that flavour of that instant, idly gazing out my window at my first vision of snowfall.

– Rayn-r, 11/11, thrown out onto this blog 12/1

From Lyrics to Music: Inaugural Post

Songs are more than the sum of their parts, and to judge them on the merit of their individual components would be to do them a disservice.

All too often, however, before we even begin making sense of lyrics, it is the music which gives us our first impression of a song. The impression invariably stays, and we are often tempted to judge a song entirely on its immediate appeal. I don’t set much store for that. Is there, and should there be a justification for assessing songs, and even entire genres on such a basis? Even if there were, the greater injustice would be that in doing so, we risk precluding songs which require an appreciation that begins with the lyrics.

In a generation where ‘good’, commercially viable music is often defined by heavy electronic beats and ready-made hooks and riffs, we run the risk of forgoing good music in our ignorance of good lyrics – or, should I say, good songwriting.

“From Lyrics to Music” is a series on good songwriting which begins with an appreciation of well-written lyrics.

Do stay tuned.