Afghanistan

I had trouble sleeping last night and turned on a movie to fall asleep to and was riveted instead by Charlie Wilson’s War. I found out too late in the ending credits that I should have known better than to try falling asleep to Aaron Sorkin’s poignant and astute dialogue. Towards the end Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character tells a proverbial tale about the law of unintended consequences – it goes like this. “There’s a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse… and everybody in the village says, “how wonderful. The boy got a horse” And the Zen master says, “we’ll see.” Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, “How terrible.” And the Zen master says, “We’ll see.” Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight… except the boy can’t cause his legs all messed up. and everybody in the village says, “How wonderful.” To which Tom Hank’s character replies, “Now the Zen master says, “We’ll see.”

With the recent Taliban takeover of Kabul, the 2007 film set in cold war 1980 has had a prophetic foresight – the proxy wars America funded to contain Soviet communist expansion in Afghanistan during the cold war had weapons and training going into the predecessors of present day Taliban – talk about unintended consequences. The film goes further to expose the relative indifference of American politicians to provide post conflict restorations – implying that if left without nurture in the rubble, Afghani sentiments would grow resentful towards the west. As the titular Texan congressman Wilson remarks perhaps the best way to help illiterate children who were mostly agricultural and refugees from falling into to vengeful fanaticism is to educate them, by building schools.

Such efforts have been happening over the last twenty years but maybe it has been too little too late. A tragedy in the midst of the current event is the threat to the voices of women. If educators in privileged places around the world were to raise awareness of the dire need for safe spaces for women to express themselves vocally and musically, and that this may be the most effective way to counteract tyrannical ideologies in the long term, we should strap ourselves in hopes for the late game and say with zen-like prescience, “We’ll see.”

From consuming to imitating, then creating

It’s been a blast to recreate Dua Lipa’s Don’t stop now. It’s such a danceable song with a wicked bass line. During my process of recreating the song in Ableton Live I’ve noticed that there is a difference in my response to and my relation towards the song as I delved deeper into the mechanics of the work. As a classical pianist my interactions with pieces are always limited in the sense I am consuming it, interpreting it but not altering it – I stand as the beholder or its mouthpiece. Imagine changing a bar here and there in a Chopin Ballade to make it more in line with today’s musical styles, maybe adding a beat drop? It would be unthinkable. But why don’t we?

Even though I’ve merely been transcribing Dua Lipa but there has been a noticeable difference in being a consumer to a co-creator. By trying to engineer the sounds of the original song in my own way, I have been imbuing my creativity and discoveries into the reproduction and subsequently made it my own. I think there is something special about playing God and making something out of nothing, and we feel a sense of filial affection to the things we create.

That’s why I still remember the HSC composition piece that I did more than a decade ago whereas music exams, not so. The composition was heavily influenced by other songs to a point where you could argue that it was a rip-off but I remember it vividly because it was mine – I birthed it. To that end, now that I think about it, I can remember many details about the creations that I made at school – the short stories, paintings and drawings, even that stop motion animation of ‘Where the wild things are’ that I did in primary in NZ – that’s twenty years ago (we used Smashmouth Allstars for the background music.)

Maybe we should be using imitation and reproduction as a starting point to develop existing ideas into our own image, jazz artists and sampling musicians do it all the time, maybe we should stop worrying so much about desecrating masterpieces. The memorability and fun aspect of these kinds of teaching methods have may be profound for students.

How we attach meaning

The benefit of a lockdown is having so much time to wander where your curiosities lead you. In an ever increasingly busy lifestyle you end up giving up pursuing those musings for lack of time and stamina – I encountered Sir Ken Robinson’s talks on Youtube for the first time and fell down that rabbit hole today, what a shame I had not heard of him and what a shame to find out he passed away only a year ago. Here we have a Educational revolutionist whose background was in theater and drama advocating for the arts and creativity and how standardised systems are stifling creativity. To quote him, “We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it, or rather we get educated out of it.”

I agree with his statement that life and creativity is not linear, but rather organic – and this takes time. We need time to make ‘happy mistakes,’ stumbling upon talents and interests that never occurred to us or better still, had not even existed in this world until we created it.

True to Sir Robinson’s claim education as we know it is shifting under our feet. In a post internet society, in just the last couple of decades we have seen an explosion of educational potential like the video above where anybody can choose to learn and discover new things. This falls under the umbrella of informal learning and what better way is there for a student than to direct their own learning like I did for the past twelve hours or so?

Another thing I learned today is a concept called reification – having its origin in Marxist theory, it has been divorced from thence and we now apply it in many ways including music philosophy and aesthetics. It comes from the latin word res which means ‘thing’ and the idea is that we attach simplistic meanings to complex origins, in other words a cliche or generalisation of sorts. Youtuber Tantacrul is an amazing educator and a comic and does a fantastic job capturing this in this video.

Watching the two videos in the span of one day made me realise that by insisting on reiterating dead white composers, as musicians and teachers we may be unconsciously contributing to a reification of those great artists in a negative way. By bringing these pinnacles of creative achievement into the classroom to be dissected and laboured over may have had a more detrimental effect than we realised. Imagine a student’s response to a typical study of Shakespeare and we have a similar case. We know that these artists were producing groundbreaking material at their conception but by a process of reification we associate symphonies and tragedies with boring, anachronistic lessons – it’s lamentable.

Another danger is by tokenising cultural music – this too is another form of reification. As Tentacrul’s video suggests there is a real danger to limiting a musical trope to a specific culture as it suggests that Indigenous music must contain Indigenous instruments or sounds. As teachers despite our well meaning intentions we may fall into those traps if we are not careful and discerning.

In conclusion, I want to teach in a way that piques student curiosity and interest, encourages self guided exploration and informal learning from there, and an helping students to have informed consumption of creative medias. It would be wonderful if students were to stumble upon Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos or Goldberg variations outside the classroom, anywhere but the classroom. It would be a happy accident indeed.

Representation in media

With the release of Shang Chi people are seeing the benefit of diverse representations in media. In recent times we had the Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians proving by their box office profits how much they resonated with consumers and satisfied their desires to be portrayed and included in general media as equals. This hegemonic shift has been long in the making and we have movements to be thankful for.

As an Asian musician I am also thankful and proud of the proliferation of K-pop in the western music scene. I’ve been hooked on Black Pink’s ddu-du ddu-du (that’s the actual title) and right now its sitting pretty at 1.6 billion views on Youtube. I remember having debates about equal representation in media, what it means and how to achieve it. It was a complex debate with many moving parts but what I want to focus on now is the idea of blue chip vs red chip, the new-kid-on-the-block syndrome, the exclusive establishment(old boys club) and the Fitzgeraldian old money vs new money. I still maintain that the establishment calls the shots and the new kids have to offer appeasements that conform and profit the former. In other words, it is incumbent on the new kids to ‘fit in’ to the crowd. As a critical musician I see this in the K-pop offerings whose genetic makeup is decidedly western. But I don’t mean to cast that in a bad light as so much as inevitable since we are in a globalised post-internet society that has sped up this process of cultural homogenisation. I just finished reading the third book of the Dune series, and the protagonist evolves through reconciling the host of inner lives rather than by competition to a point where he says,”I am a community.”

I feel a great sense of liberty to know that when I compose a piece music it is in fact, Australian music – no qualifier. It follows then a student who composes a piece of music in class or for their HSC is composing a piece of Australian music – I think this may have powerful implications for the students’ compositional process if communicated properly. As a musician who has gone through that period of impostor syndrome we are well situated to help aspiring musicians to break through those moments of doubt. The conformity that I wrote of above is a starting point, but it does evolve. We eventually start forming our own unique voices: it is the combination our accumulated knowledge and experiences but it bears the distinction of being combinations peculiar only to the individual themselves.

The outstanding moments in my secondary schooling music classes are those times spent making music – ‘making’ music – composing as well as performing. I think they’ve left such lasting impressions because what I was doing was special – it was an imprint of myself, my voice, trying to capture the essence of my being to put it poetically. Now that I put it like that, it makes me realise what an important, critical and formative activity that was and the excitement to know that I will facilitate such sacred activities in the future. An opportunity for students to examine ‘who we be.’

Racism and music education

Ever since George Floyd died last year, BLM, systemic racism, white privilege, CRT have been an obsession of mine and I’ve read histories of the civil rights movement in the USA, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcom X. I read novels by Alice Walker – The Color Purple, Toni Morrison – Beloved, Colson Whitehead – Nickle Boys, Harriet Beecher Stowe – Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird side by side to understand perspectives from both white and black writers.

Everyone needs to know about the Zong massacre – which I read about in William Wilberforce’s biography by Eric Metaxas. Forgive my humble and terse retelling of this event:

Zong- a British slave ship on the Middle Passage (a triangular route that largely concealed slave trade from public eyes under agricultural commerce) became caught in a storm under an incompetent captain. GET THIS: it dawned on the officers that it would be more profitable to claim insurance on lost cargo than to run the risk of dead slaves (read the appalling account by ship surgeon Alexander Faulconbridge) effectively incentivising the jettison (a euphemism for murder) of 130 slaves – 30 pounds per murder. IT GETS WORSE: the sensational media attention the court case against the crew indicted by abolitionist members was overturned in the favour of the crew awarding them the insurance payout revealed to me that the juries, judge and aristocrats who participated in the case sincerely believed the slaves to be mere ‘property’ able to be ‘jettisoned.’

When I read this I broke deeply and cataclysmically. I cried and cried – and the reason was guilt. Now you have to understand that I’m Asian – I can claim innocence – but the reason I felt so guilty at that formative point was because I felt vicarious guilt as like genus species – the same human being of similar genetic makeup. I remember the horror as I exclaimed internally, “What have WE done.”

If aliens or some higher life form looked at ME and saw what MY KIND had done they’d spit in my face and I would have felt it well deserved. I encourage you to really scrape the bottom of the barrel of human atrocities such as the Jewish holocaust or communist-ideologically fueled genocides because what that reveals is our propensity for evil. We cannot feign innocence – we are culpable.

When we talk about equity and fairness from this historical background things become very complex. There’s a lot to be learned in the study of schisms and CRT is perhaps the most divisive ideology in modern times and I love that feeling in polemics where you have a rake in your stomach and your blood boils because both sides have valid arguments and valuable contributions but can’t seem to get along and there’s so much vitriol. I listen to Dave Chapelle talk about George Floyd and police brutality and Candice Owens, Ben Shapiro, Noam Chomsky, left and right – I try to read between the lines.

Now I’m a Korean who grew up in NZ in the 90s who has experienced their fair share of racism – candid, ignorant or intentional – and as a Korean once removed from a generation affected by Japanese annexation I grew up in a culture of anti Japanese sentiments. I remember harbouring some of those racist feelings even though I wasn’t directly oppressed but through a shared sense of enmity or self-preservation. In maturing I was able to understand the reasons behind my irrational racism and racism in others. Therein lies my reason for racism – in a state of innocence and naivety we are inherently biased towards evil and subsequently racism and xenophobia. Only by maturing and growing large enough to encompass all these complex causes and human condition do we reconcile this within ourselves.

How does this link with music education? The idea is that there is an inherent bias towards white music. And although I believe that Bach and Shakespeare are endlessly rich and deep in substance the meat of the matter is in our educational dispositions – do we seek to address deficits, tacits, marginalisation in cultural content? Do we hold succinct values, worldviews and beliefs about equity and equal representations that lead and shape our students’ beliefs? As a person who has struggled through such questions and have matured to understand some but not all, I think that this places me in a unique and obligatory position to educate young students in really important matters.

Baby stepping project- Sampling on Ableton

This educational series is intended for high school students with developing aural skills to sample music and lay a drum line on top using Ableton live and the push. It will be a first step into the world of electronic music production, with a spin towards mash-ups and groove making.

Learning while teaching

Teachers teach as they are taught (Blume 1971.) Teachers are active learners who construct their own understandings (Putnam & Borko 1991.) At any given time there is a need to be learning what is being taught while at the same time questioning, examining and learning about the nature of teaching (Hoban 1997.)

I think part of being a musician is to train the brain to make connections and see patterns- maybe it has to do with us constantly having to create meaning in expressive and artistic decisions. I love it when I can connect two seemingly distant disciplines like bodybuilding and classical piano to argue that things like self discipline, and self control, body and muscular awareness cross over into the other, and has the potential to complement each other. I’ve heard anecdotal sayings that the game of poker is analogous to many real life interpersonal decisions, and it would seem so as Kenny Rogers sings, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, Know when to fold ’em.” This is why I love theology- the queen of sciences, which for me is a confluence of history, philology, philosophy, psychology and epistemology. Stephen Hawking spent his life looking for the unified theory and Daniel Barenboim (2008) writes an autobiography titled, “Everything is Connected – the Power of Music” in which he argues that “Music teaches us, in short, that everything is connected.” It gives me a joyful satisfaction to know that the cosmos is in a state of harmony – a hopeful sentiment among all this chaos surrounding us.

My project is to teach students how to compose using technology. To sample music or audio clips and warp, set to a beat, arrange and structure it into a musical composition. The baby stepping and video producing techniques that I learned in my UoS will come in handy and I have done two test runs of my own compositions which I will use as a model. This is my second model based on two wonderful videos – Herbie Hancock recounting his experience recording with Miles Davis who taught the former that ‘mistakes’ are a paradigmatic concept – that Miles didn’t see Herbie’s mistake as a ‘mistake’ but an even that he felt responsible to respond to musically, and as Herbie says, was like turning “poison into medicine, take whatever situation you have and make something constructive happen.”

The second video is about sampling and how Jazz is the father of Hip Hop.

Tech Project – Baby stepping producing

The word always baffled me: Producer I was always assumed directors directed cinema and composers composed pieces of music – nevertheless, producing music is so FUN! Having been a very low tech classical pianist before starting my Masters at the Con, and very fortunate to meet technological whizzes like James Humberstone and Brad Fuller, I have lost myself hours on end in the world of electronic music production. Playing with sounds, setting up drum patterns, combining and permuting musical ideas is an endlessly fun activity that I am certain teenage students will love, and my tech project will serve a dual purpose: to get me skilled up as well as to teach students how to do so, as seasoned music teachers have told me, “You just need to be one lesson ahead of the students.” What I should emphasise and remember is the feeling of excitement of the process which is the essence that I would like my future students to experience rather than the mechanics of the job.

This is the wonderfully endearing video that I sampled into a track.

And my unfinished track titled -“who made the train”

Rubik’s Cube and Ableton

A couple of years ago I wanted to learn how to solve a Rubik’s Cube without help. It took me about 40 hours. 5 days, 8 hours a day and my fingers were raw because it was trial and error, process of elimination and memorising how faces moved when I input an algorithm. It was a painful, tedious, and often frustrating endeavour akin to torture but I got that thrilling sensation once I got it.

Today I fiddled around with Ableton trying to do some sampling. I’m going to detail my process because I think my attitude throughout was significant. I tried giving Poulenc’s Melancolie a beat, and given Ableton Live’s complexity I was pushing buttons for most of the time trying to figure out what did what – trial and error. When I finally found out how to turn off and on one output (big number button) and crop and split audio clips, I layered the drum beat on top of the clip. Obviously the legato of the pianist wouldn’t conform to the drum beat even with Ableton’s automated warp function (plus my selection had an upbeat.) This is the important bit – when I first heard the combination, I thought it sounded cliche, pretentious, unoriginal, blasphemous, embarrassed and incompetent that I wanted to just stop and go on instagram or something.

I started to question, is this worth the grind? Can’t I use my time to do better and more productive things – over prioritisation. No, I’ve come to realise that all that we do creates a net gain in one way or another – this was just me trying to avoid pain using excuses and self-compromise; it was the same attitude that I would tend to when I was fatigued and frustrated solving that Rubik’s cube.

I discovered that double clicking created an orange warp box with which I could manipulate where the beats fell. It took me a while to interpret Poulenc in waveform and aligning spikes, listening, then re-adjusting them was very tedious but in the end, I got that thrill when upon hearing it, it didn’t sound too bad.

It’s a running joke with my gym buddy,

“Why are we doing this when it’s so hard and unpleasant?”

“Because it’s good for us.”

“Why do things that are good tend to be difficult or unpleasant?”

In the words of Dr. Kelso from Scrubs, “Nothing in this world that’s worth having comes easy.”