The Stories of 2012

Odysseus and DemodocusSince the return of Story and Song Night last May, we’ve had  a lot of great nights of gathering ’round the fire (so to speak) to listen to stirring tales and enchanting music.  John Russon retold the story of the The Quest for the Holy Grail, Greg Recco from St. John’s College in Annapolis MD told us the story of the last stand of “the 300” Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae, Susan Bredlau from Emory University in Atlanta told the story of the Bacchae, Belinda Piercy told the classic modern tale of Batman, David French took us back to Coriolanus, and the early days of the Roman Republic, and Pouria Lotfi told the traditional Iranian tale of the tragedy of Sohrab and Rostam from the Shahnameh.  We witnessed a great deal of innovative and inspiring music: the debut performance of “Dirty 11th,” which is Michael Keith, Chris Banks and Nick Fraser, Ian Sinclair played piano along with Ben McConchie on trumpet and Michael Eckert on dobro, “Freedman,” (Justin Haynes, Ryan Driver and Jean Martin) performed with Mary Margaret O’Hara, Araz Salek improvised on the tar, Dan Fortin and Michael Davidson gave us a fantastic duo jazz performance, and The Chris Banks Trio (Tania Gill, Brodie West and Chris Banks) released their debut CD “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.”  It’s been a great season.

2013 will be our fourth year.  Please join us!  We’ll meet once a month at Cafe Pamenar, 307 Augusta Avenue in Toronto.

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The Toronto Seminar

I am deeply committed to the idea that philosophy is a cooperative activity and an inherently fulfilling one. For this reason, I encourage activities of philosophical study in which, through conversation, a community develops in which each participant experiences her or his thinking to be elevated beyond the level she or he could achieve alone, and in which study and social life are closely interwoven.

Since 2003, I have run an annual summer seminar in philosophy. Each year, roughly 25 invited participants-primarily faculty members and Ph.D. students from universities across North America-gather for roughly one week of intense, group study of a major text from the history of philosophy. Participants meet twice daily for sessions of highly focused discussion of the text and the issues it raises. When not studying in preparation for the meetings, seminar participants also socialize together, generally taking advantage of Toronto's outstanding, multicultural dining opportunities, and taking part in Toronto's vibrant and varied live music scene. Participants in these seminars consistently have the experience of growth in their conversation and conceptual abilities, and typically leave with a transformed sense of the nature and possibilities of philosophy.

Throughout the year, I also often lead smaller private seminars, specially oriented to graduate students, on various texts and topics in the history of philosophy.

Music, along with the other creative arts, is one of the most profound ways in which people express and define the distinctive character of human life. Composing, performing, and listening to music are some of the most fulfilling of our experiences. Listening offers us the opportunity for the sensuous pleasure of listening and moving (in dance), for emotional self-expression, and for bonding with others in shared enthusiasm. Performing brings with it the demands and rewards of communication and cooperation-with band-members and with audience-and supports the development and deployment of highly-refined bodily and expressive skills. Composing can be a powerful intellectual and cultural practice, offering one a route into participating in the rich historical and multicultural traditions of musical expression. Engaging with music, like engaging with philosophy, touches us in every dimension-bodily, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, cultural, spiritual-of our experience.

My own personal path into music has involved me in the study of jazz music in particular, and since 2005 I have performed regularly in Toronto as a guitarist with my own band, the John Russon Quartet. The band (with the outstanding musicians Nick Fraser, Mike Milligan, and Chris Gale on drums, bass, and saxophone respectively, and, on special occasions, with Tom Richards joining us on trombone) performs my original compositions, as well as interpreting the standard tunes of the jazz repertoire and experimenting with free improvisation. We have just (August 2011) gone into the studio to record our first CD, and it should be available in a few months. It has also been, and continues to be, a major project of mine to develop a community of jazz enthusiasts who will carry on the tradition of appreciating live musical performance in general and jazz music in particular in this age in which recording, downloading, and dj-ing have come to define "music" for most people.

I think of both philosophy and music as communal practices first and foremost, and I regularly try to design community activities involving either or both. Currently, I am organizing one series in downtown Toronto.

"Story and Song Night" is a once-a-month event in which a speaker narrates one of the great stories from the world's religious traditions. Stories are among the oldest and most basic of our ways of telling ourselves and each other who we are as people, and the ancient stories that have been handed down for generations remain powerful and provocative resources for thinking about ourselves and our lives. On the fourth Tuesday of each month, a speaker narrates a story she or he has found personally meaningful, and this is followed first by group discussion and then by a set of live music performed by some of the best of Toronto's musicians. The event is hosted by Naco Gallery Cafe (1665 Dundas St. W.).