Memories of Immortality

Miles Davis’s tune “So What,” on his 1959 recording, Kind of Blue, has clearly won the designation as a jazz “classic.”  Indeed, I could easily have written, “his classic 1959 recording, Kind of Blue,” and virtually anyone at all familiar with jazz music would unhesitatingly recognize the truth of this.

The fact that this tune is a “classic” means, among other things, that the tune has near-universal appeal: it is quite a safe bet that virtually anyone hearing this song (anyone with a basic familiarity with Western music, anyway) will find it immediately appealing and expressive of a specific, and quite compelling, atmosphere.  The tune, in short, has captured something like a universal feeling, and listening to the tune is like visiting an identifiable place on the map of the human soul.

This, in general, is how the pieces we come to identify as important works of art operate.  Artwork—a single work of painting or architecture, or, more commonly, a movement realized through many works and many media—captures something about the experience of being a person, and, by expressing this, it allows us to see something essential about ourselves, typically for the first time.  Art is like mirror, but a creative mirror: creating the “reflection” that this mirror provides comes first, allowing us subsequently to recognize ourselves therein.  We feel, with the artwork, that we are finally able to see or say something important that was otherwise lying unacknowledged.  Having now been expressed, however, an essential aspect of our reality is permanently available to all.

When we relate to a great work, it is this universal appeal, this creative human mirroring, that we are most likely to notice.  This “eternal” message of the work, however, is not all there is to notice.

There is a date attached to the recording of Kind of Blue: 1959.  In fact, the date is even more precise: March 2, 1959.  We call this a musical recording, and what is recorded are the activities of 6 individuals in a particular room (at 207 E. 30th Street in Manhattan) at a particular time on that day.  When you listen to “So What,” you hear something universal and eternal, but you are also hearing a very specific historical event.  You are hearing what those guys did in that place on that day.

Family photographs record the activities of parents and children at the beach or at the Christmas party, and we typically rely upon them to be a kind of memory of the events of our past.  When we look at a family photograph, we typically do not look for a universal meaning, but instead look to them as memorials of human particularity, (though we can shift our perspective to find artistic worth in the personal photographs we otherwise look to only as record-keepers; see, for example,  Typically, attending to memory is not how we listen to musical recordings, but we can: we hear in these recordings their universal meaning, but they, too, are memorials to the long-past actions of particular individuals.

We can love the music of a great recording, but, it seems to me, the impact of the recording is even greater if we hear it as the memorial of a singular event.  If we hear “So What,” for example, as something 6 men did on that day, and we ask ourselves again, “What am I hearing?” we hear something amazing: we hear people, in the finite time of their mortal lives, (and, indeed, all but one of those 6 men, the drummer Jimmy Cobb, have since died), wrestling with the infinite, grasping and realizing for us all an immortal significance through their particular, temporal practice.

This is how the great Athenian historian, Thucydides, described his own project in writing his history of the Peloponnesian War: he sought to produce a “possession for all time.”  The size of his accomplishment is, in fact, staggering.  Recording military and political events in 5th-Century B.C. Hellas as they transpired, simultaneously he preserved for us the memory of particular actions, cast through his narrating into a meaningful form they would not otherwise have had, he provided a meaningful interpretation of human, political life that has the eternal capacity to educate us about our own condition, and he effectively invented the practice of writing history, thereby transforming forever the possibilities for human self-interpretation.

Whether in the “modal” revolution of 1959 recording session of Miles Davis’s sextet, in the shore temples of Mahabalipuram, in the history of Thucydides, or in the forgotten family photo, we have the memorial of the distinctive nature of humanity: in our mortality, we are the finite site for witnessing to the absolute.

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  1. Posted May 26, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    “we are the finite site for witnessing to the absolute”, or we are that whereby the Absolute catches sight of itself! ( ;

  2. Karen
    Posted May 26, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    This post made me think about how practices and traditions offer to us predetermined set of behavior that themselves set the stage for meaningful and spontaneous human interactions. It’s nice think about human practices as sites of meaningful human interaction, as well as sites for witnessing the absolute.

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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.).