Reasons to Learn a New Language

10 October 2016

John McWhorter’s TED Talk

Although, I have to say I don’t completely agree with some of his assertions, I completely agree that the more languages one knows, the better we all are.

I think there are a lot of reasons, but I first want to address the one that you’re probably most likely to have heard of, because actually it’s more dangerous than you might think. And that is the idea that a language channels your thoughts, that the vocabulary and the grammar of different languages gives everybody a different kind of acid trip, so to speak. That is a marvelously enticing idea, but it’s kind of fraught.

He uses the word “fraught”  a couple of times to describe the scenario, but I’m not entirely clear on what he means. I’m not convinced by his dismissal of the influence that different languages have on our way of experiencing the world. In Russian (IIRC), there are two separate words for hues of colour that English would refer to as green. As a result of the linguistic distinction, speakers of the language have a better developed visual means of discerning between shades of green that speakers of languages that made no such distinction.

In many languages, there are singular words for a large number of relatives, such that it would be impossible to speak the language in any natural way without knowing where the interlocutor fits in their family, and into larger society. This is something else we don’t do in English. Cousin, Aunt, Uncle cover a lot of relations that would have numerous terms to discern maternal or paternal relatives, their generation, and such like.

I’m discovering more and more how languages such as Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) are mostly made up of verbs that are altered using prefixes, suffixes, affixes and such. It makes for a much more dynamic and engaged world when one can only refer to it in terms of verbs.

And languages, in the end, are ultimately about the sound that is produced, whether through listening to a speaker, or hearing the inner narration of printed words, or imagined conversation, and the sound of each language carries something different with it. I heard a conversation in passing between two gentlemen. They spoke in English with very different accents. One spoke very nasally with clipped vowels, the other spoke with deep rich vowels. They were having a laugh about something.

McWhorter goes on to list his four reasons:

One [reason] is that if you want to imbibe a culture, if you want to drink it in, if you want to become part of it, …you have to control to some degree the language that the culture happens to be conducted in.

He further points out that learning to express oneself in a second language requires a means of mastering a certain level of versatility. If you only know the rudiments, then you come off sounding wooden, and your expression is very limited. To learn a language, really learn it.

Second reason: it’s been shown that if you speak two languages, dementia is less likely to set in…

Addressed in an earlier post the Golden Age of Golden Years

And then, third — languages are just an awful lot of fun.

Yes. Yes they are.

[Fourth,] we live in an era when it’s never been easier to teach yourself another language… Couldn’t have done it 20 years ago when the idea of having any language you wanted in your pocket, coming from your phone, would have sounded like science fiction

While this is true, he makes the assumption that we all have easy access to smart phones, apps, etc. I’ve found a great language learning method in the book Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner. It’s a flashcard system that schedules practice to get the words/grammar/etc into long term memory without spending a lot of time doing repetitious exercises that play in the short-term. There’s a Fluent Forever web site with some resources. And check out anki, the digital scheduled recall system (ie a flashcard tool).

Unravelling the Weave of Time – Part 1

16 November 2014

How this whole thing got started.

Think of the world without any quantification of time. Where you are right now, standing, sitting, lying down, whatever. Imagine no seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years. No generations. No moments, just a seamless flow of now-ness, of timey-whimey.

How did we come up with such disparate and imaginative definitions of time out of this undifferentiated experience? How do we define it now? What do you think about when you think about what time means?

My way of exploring this question was through calendars. In retrospect, they interested me because of how tied they were to particular cultures, which informed both so much more. I learned more about Chinese culture by discovering how their calendar is devised, how it is used and how widespread it is. The investigation took me through the history of different parts of the world of course, but also belief systems and cultures, failed reforms and clever proposals, psychology, symbolism, mythology, storytelling, chronobiology, seasons, tides, plant, fungi, animal life. If you see life as an interconnected whole, you can find any of it through any other part. It’s the path that changes.

First Jose Arguelles.

I can’t recall when I first heard about the calendar of the Maya, but the first book I read on the subject was Jose Arguelles‘ “Mayan Factor”. At the time, I had a background in literature, the only civilization I’d studied outside of Europe was that of the Inca, so the material was all new, and I found much of it confusing.

What I got out of it was the mathematical basis of certain parts of the Maya’s calendar, and how intricately the calendar’s cycles drew on their mythology, history, daily lives, and sacred events. Then I compared it to the Gregorian calendar, and found it lacked much of these features.

Jose Arguelles proposed a 13-month calendar in combination with certain modifications of parts of the Maya’s calendar. I’d always taken our calendar for granted, and had never been asked to consider alternatives. How many others were there?

maya calendar featureThe Glut of Information

I began with the Gregorian calendar, and how we ended up with January 1st to December 31st, Saturday to Friday, and a leap year?

This research began pre-Wikipedia, so I spent a lot of time in the library. Most of what I found dealt with Roman holidays, and I derived what I could from references to months and time of the year. Like any story, it’s long and meandering with unanswered questions, however, I’m simplifying it here to the elements I found most significant, and which parallel the development of other calendars.

  1. Origins out of Myth: Romulus, the son of Mars, the Roman god of War/Vitality/Maleness, raised by wolves with his twin brother Remus, founded the city of Rome. They used a 10-month lunar calendar.
  2. Kingdom out of Legend: King Numa added the months of Ianudarius (January) and Februarius (February).
  3. Empire out of History: Pontifex Maximus Julius Caesar reformed the calendar to account for errors that had accumulated through misapplication of calendar rules.
  4. The dating system of AD and BC were implemented at different times.
  5. Pope Gregory XIII tweaks the leap year rule.

That’s where the Gregorian Calendar – a Roman and Roman Catholic timepiece.

What Else is There?

Lots as it turns out. Lunar calendars abound, and I hope to populate a database with names of the moons in as many languages as possible.

There are calendars, or components of calendars, that follow strict rules (leap year day every 4 years), others that follow observed phenomena (crescent moon, sunrise). Some follow the moon, some the sun, some both, some neither. Some periods were named like months and weekdays, others numbered like years. But not all people named and numbered things in the same way.

Hijra, the Islamic Calendar, follows 12 lunar months per calendar year without exception. This calendar does not align itself with the solar year. It begins 11 days earlier on the Gregorian calendar every new year.

Hebrew, Chinese, Hindu, Buddhist, and plenty of others are solilunar – they observe the cycles of the moon, and tie them to the solar year – 12 or 13 lunar months per year.

the Gregorian, Julian, Coptic/Ethiopean, Persian, Baha’i, Zoroastrian calendars, among others, divide up the solar year without the lunar month.

the Pawukon Indonesia or the long count of the Maya are tied to neither the moon nor the sun, and run according to other cultural norms.

There are fictitious calendars, reformed version of existing calendars, proposed replacements of existing calendars, and speculative calendars (martian calendar). How can such a diversity of ways of framing the day ever come to a consensus?

It can’t.


I’d settled on the 13-month calendar model as the basis for the one I was making. And I just kept finding new ways it could be used.

I drew it late one night in 2005, and have spent the last decade trying to figure out what the drawing was about.

I set up this blog in 2006 as a place to keep track of the information I was gathering – from library books, online articles, blogs, websites, etc.

I launched the calendar on Dec 21 2012, and here we are. And in case you were wondering, here is the part of the calendar that I drew in 2005 that I’m still figuring out.


Another Abysmal Holiday Suggestion

27 September 2014

John Davis had a corking good idea, back in, what one would have referred to as, “the day.”

I came across an anecdote about  John Davys, who explored through the Arctic. He did get a straight named after him, which is something I suppose. John Davys was an accomplished navigator and explorer, who concerned himself with less with politics and more with navigation, cartography, exploration.

Overexposure in 16th Century wood prints.

Excerpt from Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

“Voyages of a very different sort were undertaken eight years later by John Davis, perhaps the most highly skilled of all the Elizabethan navigators, a man of a more seren disposition than the volatile Frobisher, much less the disciplinarian among his men, less acquisitive and less self-promoting of his achievements – part of the reason that he, of all the West Country mariners, was the one never knighted.

“With the backing of Adrian Gilbert, a prominent Devonshire physician, and William Sanderson, a London merchant-adventurer, and under the patronage of the Duke of Walsingham, Davis outfitted two small ships, the Sunneshine and the Mooneshine, the former with a four-piece orchestra, and sailed from Dartmouth on the Devon coast on June 7, 1585.

“Their first landfall was near present day [mid-1980s) Cape Walløe on the southeast coast of Greenland, but fog and the ice stream in the East Greenland Current held them off. “[T]he irksome noyse of the yse was such, that it bred strange conceites among us, so that we supposed the place to be vast and voyd of any sensible or vegitable creatures, whereupon I called the same Desolation.” The two ships stood out from Cape Farewell (Davis would so name it on his second voyage) and came to shore, finally, near th eold Norse settlement at Godthåb on July 29. And here took place one of the most memorable of meetings between cultures in all of arctic literature.

“Davis and several others were reconnoitering from the top of an island in what Davis had named Gilbert Sound when they were spotted by a group of [Inuit] on the shore, some of whom launched kayaks. They made “a lamentable noyse,” wrote John Jane, “… with great outcryes and skreechings: wee hearing them thought it had bene the howling of wolves.” Davis called on the orchestra to play and directed his officers and men to dance. The Eskimos cautiously approached in kayaks, two of them pulling very close to the beach. “Their pronunciation,” wrote Jane,” was very hollow through the throate, and their speach such as we could not understand: onely we allured them by friendly imbracings and signes of curtesie. At length one of them poynting up to the sunne with his hande, would presently strike his brest so hard, that we might hear the blowe.” John Ellis, master of the Mooneshine, began to imitate, pointing to the sun and striking his breast. One [Inuk} came ashore. They handed him pieces of their clothing, having nothing else to offer, and kept up their dancing, the orchestra playing the while.

“The following morning the ships’ commpanies were awakened by the very same people, standing on the same hill the officers hand stood on the day before. The [Inuit] were playing on a drum, dancing and beckoning to them.

“(Davis’s courteous regard for the [Inuit] is unique in early arctic narratives He found them “a very tractable people, voyde of craft or double dealing….” He returned to the same spot on his second voyage; the moment of mutual recognition, and his reception, were tumultuous.)”


“Davis’s accomplishments on these trips are stunning. He laid down most of the Labrador coast on sailing charts, some 700 miles of the west coast of Greenland, and most of southwest Baffin Island. Hi notes on ice conditions, plants, animals, currents, and the interior of Greenland, as well as his ethnographic descriptions of [Inuit], were the first of their kind. He brought these lands not only onto the maps but into the realms of science. The “Traverse-Booke” he developed on the voyrages became the model for a standard ship’s log. The backstaff he developed anticipated the reflecting quadrant and the modern sextant. And The Seaman’s Secret (1594), much of it based on these thre voyages, became a seventeenth-century bible for English mariners.

I propose that July 29th be the holiday to meet one another with music and dance, smiles and acts of “curtesie.” I maintain that dancing and feasting together is one of the best ways of getting to know one another.

I’ll put this in the works – we can always use another excuse to dance (nobody needs a reason).

Human Sexual Identity

27 October 2012

More than whether you’re an innie or an outie.

I’ve come across two videos recently that help to define human sexuality in a way that’s all inclusive. they both go well beyond the predominant binary, and manage to present models that include any variation you care to think about. I believe this is a healthier way of seeing one another, as it doesn’t try to cram the huge variety into two limiting and inaccurate definitions.

re: the angy inch

Tommy Speck: “What’s that?”
Hedwig: “It’s what I’ve got to work with.”

Hope from Abroad

7 June 2012

Where ours is hopeless.

this isn’t to say that there is no hope here in the Great White North. Simply to say that where we have no hope (we call it the current government, which is hopeless, and its stranglehold on every institution that the people of this country have come to take for granted), other countries have risen to show us where it is possible. and how.

dare I consider optimism?

Iceland’s Constitution Council hands over the Bill for a New Constitution.

Article 33.
Nature and environment of Iceland
Iceland’s nature constitutes the basis for life in the country. All shall respect and
protect it.
All shall by law be accorded the right to a healthy environment, fresh water,
unpolluted air and unspoiled nature. This means that the diversity of life and land must be
maintained and nature’s objects of value, uninhabited areas, vegetation and soil shall enjoy
protection. Earlier damages shall be repaired as possible.
The use of natural resources shall be such that their depletion will be minimised in the
long term and that the right of nature and coming generations be respected…

And Iceland considering using the Canadian Dollar is the best thing to happen to our currency since we started calling it loony.

Happiness Quotient in a Himalayan Kingdom

THIMPHU, Bhutan  If the rest of the world cannot get it right in these unhappy times, this tiny Buddhist kingdom high in the Himalayan mountains says it is working on an answer.

“Greed, insatiable human greed,” said Prime Minister Jigme Thinley of Bhutan, describing what he sees as the cause of today’s economic catastrophe in the world beyond the snow-topped mountains. “What we need is change,” he said in the whitewashed fortress where he works. “We need to think gross national happiness.”

The notion of gross national happiness was the inspiration of the former king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in the 1970s as an alternative to the gross national product. Now, the Bhutanese are refining the country’s guiding philosophy into what they see as a new political science, and it has ripened into government policy just when the world may need it, said Kinley Dorji, secretary of information and communications.

“You see what a complete dedication to economic development ends up in,” he said, referring to the global economic crisis. “Industrialized societies have decided now that G.N.P. is a broken promise.”

Under a new Constitution adopted last year, government programs “from agriculture to transportation to foreign trade” must be judged not by the economic benefits they may offer but by the happiness they produce.

Bolivia Enshrines Natural World’s Rights with Equal Status for Mother Earth

Bolivia is set to pass the world’s first laws granting all nature equal rights to humans. The Law of Mother Earth, now agreed by politicians and grassroots social groups, redefines the country’s rich mineral deposits as “blessings” and is expected to lead to radical new conservation and social measures to reduce pollution and control industry.

The country, which has been pilloried by the US and Britain in the UN climate talks for demanding steep carbon emission cuts, will establish 11 new rights for nature. They include: the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered.

Controversially, it will also enshrine the right of nature “to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities”.

“It makes world history. Earth is the mother of all”, said Vice-President Alvaro García Linera. “It establishes a new relationship between man and nature, the harmony of which must be preserved as a guarantee of its regeneration.”

I don’t mean to paint this all with a glass of rose-coloured shellack. These are initial steps, and I don’t want to get ahead of myself.


Some days, I’m pretty impressed by what we can accomplish. Here I don’t mean raising environmental and societal concerns to the uppermost places in our national priorities, but to overcome the forces in place that denigrate them to something less than an afterthought. the environment is where we live. We have lived in an ecology without an economy, but never in an economy without an ecology. This is why our current government is hopeless. And those protesting them, standing up for a better world are necessarily hopeful.

and that makes today a good day.

Cheers Iceland, Bhutan & Bolivia. We are learning from your examples, and will join you as soon as we get our shit together.

197 Days to Dec 21st 2012



The Death and Life of Language

12 April 2012

Globalization and the extinction of half the world’s languages.

I have a degree in English Language and Literature (although to be honest, we never studied English as a language), have taught ESL overseas and in Canada, I’ve tutored high school students, instructed government employees and edited documents, web content and fiction.  I read a lot and have been known to flip through the dictionary. English is my maternal tongue, French is my paternal. I took German for two years in high school, picked up a smidgen of Japanese while working overseas, have a little bit of Spanish floating around in my head somewhere, and am currently learning Inuktitut. I can’t say I have a gift for language, but I certainly do find them interesting (yet, I find linguistics beyond me).

Here’s a roundabout anecdote: I went to the local library to find a novel to read, and couldn’t settle on anything. A little voice in my head told me to check out the new fiction, which I did. There was Embassytown by China Mieville. It seems like Kraken had just come out, and here was a new novel already. It’s set in a fictitious future (I suppose), where travel between alien worlds is commonplace. The ambassadors to various worlds have to negotiate alien languages. I suppose Mieville was tired of using something as simple as English, and so invented his own worlds of language to frolick in. His inventiveness and imagination are truly a delight to behold (if confusing). I did snicker at the references to the verb tenses the past discontinuous and elided past-present.

So, when I read Wade Davis’ Massey Lecture the Wayfinders, there’s one passage that struck me. Hard (sticks and stones my ass).

…just as the biosphere, the biological matrix of life, is being severely eroded by the destruction of habitat and the resultant loss of plant and animal species, so too is the ethnosphere, only at a far greater rate. No biologist, for example, would suggest that 50 percent of all species are moribund. Yet this, the most apocalyptic scenario in the realm of biological diversity, scarcely approaches what we know to be the most optimistic scenario in the realm of cultural diversity.

The key indicator, the canary in the coal mine if you will, is language loss. A language, of course, is not merely a set of grammatical rules or a vocabulary. It is a flash of the human spirit, the vehicle by which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.

Of the 7,000 languages spoken today, fully half are not being taught to children. Effectively, unless something changes, they will disappear within our lifetimes. Half of the languages of the world are teetering on the brink of extinction. Just think about it. What could be more lonely than to be enveloped in silence, to be the last of your people to speak your native tongue, to have no way to pass on the wisdom of your ancestors or anticipate the promise of your descendants. This tragic fate is indeed the plight of someone somewhere on earth roughly every two weeks. On average, every fortnight an elder dies and carries with him or her into the grave the last syllables of an ancient tongue. What this really eans is that within a generation or two, we will be witnessing the loss of fully half of humanity’s social, cultural and intellectual legacy. This is the hidden backdrop of our age.

There are those who quite innocently ask, “Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all spoke the same language? Would not communication be facilitated, making it easier for us to get along?” My answer is always to say, “A wonderful idea, but let’s make that universal language Haida or Yoruba, Lakota, Inuktitut or San.” Suddenly people get a sense of what it would mean to be unable to speak their mother tongue. i cannot imagine a world in which I could not speak English, for not only is it a beautiful language, it’s my language, the full expression of who I am. But at the same time I don’t want it to sweep away the other voices of humanity, the other languages of the world, like some kind of cultural nerve gas.

Languages in Canada

Hishuk Ish Tsawalk: Everything is One

from the article (follow the link)

Kathy Robinson is a language warrior. Now 81 years old, she is one of the last two fluent native speakers of Tseshaht (pronounced “tsi-sha-aht”), a language once popularly spoken on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

Tseshaht is not the only language indigenous to Canada that is at risk of disappearing.

Altogether there are 50 indigenous tongues in Canada and most of them are in danger of becoming extinct. Globally, the last speaker of a language dies every two weeks. There are at least 2,500 endangered languages and dialects destined for extinction in the next 100 years, according to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.

One of the reasons I decided to study Inuktitut is that it’s a native Canadian language, and I don’t know any of them. I lived in France and learned French there (I can’t speak Quebecois French convincingly), lived in Japan and learned some of it, travelled through Germany and Mexico, and used what smidgen of German and Spanish I could. Yet, here I’ve been living in Canada for the better part of my life, and I don’t know diddly about the languages that evolved with the people in this particular landscape. Also, in Arctic Dreams Barry Lopez mentions that Inuktitut is a language better suited to the discussion of quantum physics than English. Maybe this is all I needed to be able to understand quantum. More locally, the language is Alonquian, however, I’ve long been fascinated with the far north, and it’s the opportunity that presented itself.

As many a newcomer to Canada has discovered, the country isn’t as bilingual as it’s cracked up to be. New Brunswick is the only bilingual province. Most Francophones live in Quebec, or close its borders. The French population in Manitoba is growing again, after it was legislated out. You’d be better off learning Mandarin in Vancouver than French, and whatever dialect of English it is they speak in Newfoundland.

I was having a discussion with a coworker about the singer who flubbed the French part of the Canadian national anthem. Here she is (note the forgiving crowd).

Personally, I don’t much care for national anthems. I think they would be greatly improved if they didn’t use lyrics at all (one way of eliminating the language issues, but then it gets into the cultural significance of different types of music). At any rate, I didn’t think much of it, but my coworker, a Francophone, was put out. He feels that French in Canada is under constant threat, and this type of incident is an indication of how little Anglo-Canadians care about it.

He has a point. A lawyer I spoke with (not related to any legal matters – honest), predicts that French will vanish from Canada within a few generations. It could be, however, with an increase in immigration from Francophones from Haiti, North and Central Africa, it could yet thrive, although under risk of losing its distinctly Quebecois flavour.

Meanwhile, the Chinese community is growing, as are the Native peoples. This indicates that in the long term, maybe even English may well vanish from Canada. If the Spanish-speaking populations moving up from the South are any indication, it may disappear from the US as well. Time will tell.

Global Languages

I am in favor of a standardized calendar for the whole world, Just as I am in favor of a universal coinage for all countries, and a supplementary artificial language (like Esperanto, for example) for all peoples…I am always ready to endorse any honest movement which will help unify the  peoples of the world. — Mahatma Gandhi, Journal of Calendar Reform,1931

I only knew of one of these, Esperanto, and actually saw Incubus, a 1965 film in Esperanto starring William Shatner. Another person (or people) who is/are working on coding theAbysmal Calendar (how much do I love him/her/them for that?) is using Lojban for some of their day names.

Here’s a list of Constructed Languages, which are designed to be used globally. They have had limited success, as most of them may simplify grammar  and so forth, but they necessarily have a cultural bias that will exclude someone or other.

There’s also Chinook, which is a trading language pidgin of the Pacific Northwest. I think that this is a better example of how an International Language is going to develop – as a mix of widespread and local languages. I think institutions like the Académie Française are keeping languages from cross-pollinating in the interest of linguistic purity. Where would French be if Latin were treated with such rectitude?

In the end, I think that an effective global language should act as the binding agent between languages, such that speakers of any two languages could find common elements through which to communicate at a simple level, and develop a more refined means to communicating by learning each other’s language. Or hiring a good translator.

the Internet and Language

I don’t mean LOL, OMG, WTF. Although I think that emoticons are a little better at communicating across language barriers. And although they can’t be trusted, I find translation web sites can be helpful tools.

I think that our textual languages are making more and more use of visual elements, such as emoticons and other symbols. The tri-colour traffic signal is the same world over (whereas even gestures differ culturally. For example, you don’t want to give someone the thumbs up in Iran). The increase in publication in graphic novels in North America is an indication that we’re catching up with the visual accompaniment to our text (we’re already well versed in interpreting moving images).

Pictures are as culturally relative as written or spoken languages, however, if the system is developed internationally, then it may work better as such, as with the Olympic sport symbols.

Maybe we should just create a language using the Voynich Manuscript and just use that.

People who speak a variety of languages, especially diaspora communities, can connect via the Internet and keep their language alive. My hope is that the technological requirements won’t be a serious impediment. In Canada, we’ve got First Voices. Globally there’s the Terra Lingua site, which seeks to keep indigenous languages thriving.

Another site I found interesting is Live Mocha, which I gather is a social network for language learners. Granted, most people are learning one of the most spoken languages, however, the potential for others is there (I have yet to find anyone else learning Inuktitut, but I will continue to keep hope alive). It’s only as good as its community, and I hope that if it doesn’t serve this purpose, something similar will.

253 Days to Dec 21st 2012

Culture’s Vultures

16 March 2012

Picking over the bones of the moribund commercial interference with the business of culture.

The above video is a promotion for Airborne which seems like a good idea (although I have no idea – I’m not endorsing it as anything more than an idea). The cost is $1/month. There’s also Sound Cloud which is pretty much the same thing (maybe the interactivity differs), however, it doesn’t cost anything as far as I can tell. There is a premium service which you can pay for.

What these services do is cut out the middle man. At one point, it was useful to have someone who were a node to the greater industrial network. However, as the Internet is the global network (and as a friend often asserted, we should just call it the Network), we require far fewer of these middle men. They can be replaced with web interfaces. Granted, these also have their drawbacks, as they require technology (which is far from green or sustainable – look at all the plastic – shiny), and ISPs and other service providers, however, they do cut out the chaff. The unnecessary middle men who insert themselves in the equation as obstacles that demand a toll where one is otherwise unnecessary.

I think part of what the video above doesn’t address is that although we are producing more music than ever, how much of it is music we will want to hear again in ten years. Or a hundred. Or tomorrow? How much of it has the staying power of Bach or Armstrong? I hope that such artist-to-fan networks will keep me from ever being inundated by music I hope to never hear again. I can hum hundreds of songs from artists whose albums I have never owned. So, for today, I want to skim over the history of music, in the technological playground that is 20th Century North America.

see also: this is your brain on music, and light, health, rhythm

Banksy does it again

I couldn’t agree more (maybe if I tried I could):

I’m thinking of this particular rant of Banksy’s in the context of what music has become in our supersaturated, overstimulating commercial-consumer environment. There are melodies that have been deemed to make people spend more money, and so they play it in shopping centres, malls what-have-you. Elevator music, canned music, muzak (as repugnant to hear as it is to see misspelled so atrociously deliberately – thank the gods that the original company that bore the name is dead – may Pluto use you to torture the Kenny Gs in the afterlife).

We are inundated with this, via radio, video, television programming – you can opt out by not watching or listening – yet still, I cannot escape it. At several workplaces I have had to listen to commercial radio. At my house, I have been assaulted by neighbours and workers listening to it. In friends cars, they choose the music. In the store. In the coffee shop. It’s pervasive. I don’t mind it most of the time. I don’t notice it a lot of the time, and that is the tragedy of the thing. Music is playing, and I can’t even hear it. Reminds me of this:

I like to think I would have stopped to listen, but maybe not, if I had promises to keep. But I’ve stopped to listen to birds singing (or cawing). Plus any busker who’s not playing Neil Young or Simon & Garfunkel gets my attention.

Music and Us

I try to think of things in terms of first principles. How did music first start? With us listening to birds? The calls of animals? Maybe. I often think of it as a later development, something that came from hunting.

The knowledge of the animals by which he was surrounded, which threatened him and which he hunted, was man’s oldest knowledge. He learnt to know animals by the rhythm of their movement. The earliest writing he learnt to read was that of their tracks; it was a kind of rhythmic notation imprinted in the soft ground and, as he read it, he connected it with the sound of its formation –Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power

Imagine seeing the tracks of numerous animals heading towards another clan. One could play the drums to indicate the rhythm and number of the animals, and the direction they had taken, and so share in the hunt.

Regardless of the origins, music used to be something in which we participated – all of us did, as a communal activity whether it was playing or dancing. We were all involved. However, as our cultures progressed, and specialist classes emerged, so did the musician – that particular class of person who dedicated great amounts of time and energy to the development of their craft. And as they developed, so did the professional dancer, and the audience. Those who did not participate actively, but passively. In live performances, the audience contributes to the energy of the event, to which the musicians and dancers respond. If the audience is energetic, so too the musicians, or they will be booed offstage.

Then, as the new forms of North American music (blues and jazz) were developing and setting their roots in the same earth as relativity, a strange new technology emerged: the record. This recorded music allowed songs and musicians to be heard by a much broader audience. The musicians wouldn’t have to endure the same rigorous touring to be heard (although the rigorous touring continued, to be sure).

The drawbacks of course, is that the recording simulated the live experience. Musicians played in the absence of the audience, and the audience listened (or danced) in the absence of the musician. The record (and radio stations) became the middle men. The commercialization of radio was seen with the same vehemence as the commercialization of the Internet is today. Some see it as inevitable, others as undesireable. Either way, all this technology had to be paid for, not to mention the middle men.

In the world of jazz (which I am only slightly more familiar with than blues and even at that, not all that familiar), there are songs which are standards. They are the means to measure one’s ability. And one was expected to add one’s own personal touch to it (what Frank Zappa called “putting the eyebrows on it”)

Where do these standards fit in with the current draconian legislation around copyright? I can sympathise with those who want credit for their creativity, and wish to make a living from their craft. However, the whole mess has been left to lawyers and legislators, who, for the most part, can’t play an instrument or dance.

We’ll come back to that.

Now, we’ve progressed from musicians and dancers to audiences, and from live to recorded. Listening to live music was an immersive process. You attended a concert or recital to participate in the performance (clapping, calling and responding, singing along, yelling ‘encore’). However, with the recording, it became possible to do other things while the music played. If you missed something, you could always play it again. And again. And the performace was always the same, note for note. This is never the case with a live performance.

Further, we stopped listening to the music. Instead of monotasking, sitting and listening to the music to the exclusion of all else. Now we have dinner music, cleaning music, workout music, elevator music, and commercial music. There’s nothing wrong with listening to music that suits a particular mood or activity. What I find distressing is music that plays and isn’t heard (and I’m talking about quality music, like one of the worlds greatest violinists, not half-assed cover songs).

It has degenerated to the point where we have months of music on tiny devices, and we listen to it constantly. It is the shuffle of our lives. At what point does it become like living next to a waterfall, and we tune it out?

Personally, I like to sit in the dark with headphones on and listen, to the exclusion of all else. The longer the piece, the better.

Can you feel what Strauss did when he wrote this? He was looking over the destroyed opera houses after they were bombed in WWII.

Lowest Common Denominator

Profit motive.

I don’t mind if an artist makes a living from their craft. I would prefer if more of us developed a modicum of artistic talent, and supported the truly masterful in exploring its boundaries. Miles Davis. Frank Zappa. Tom Waits. Absolutely. Justin Bieber? He may be popular. He may have sold more albums, but his music is eminently forgettable, and he has contributed little to our culture other than a source of dated derivative jokes.

When a company owns the rights to the music, then what? The source of the music loses control, even if it is used to sell sneakers (you say you want  a revolution?). This is a travesty. Music is broadcast to the public, and yet we are restricted from participating. Our culture has been coopted by those who don’t know how to share with others. If you want to keep your music private, keep it off the radio. Play it at your house. Once it enters public airwaves, it is ours, and it is disingenous to not allow us to play it, or play with it. Especially once that artist dies. Why doesn’t the copyright enter the public domain immediately? The creator has no more say, as they have no more breath.

At any rate, I’m glad to see the Internet subverting business interests, as business interests have been subverting our culture pretty much from the get go.

And I will gladly vote for the first political figure who is a better dancer than rhetoritician.

280 Days to Dec 21st 2012