Can we still expect a Renaissance?

Friday, May 03 2013 @ 12:32 PM JST

Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto


The moon descended
And I found with the break of dawn
You and the song had gone
But the melody lingers on

From the lyrics of the 1927 song by Irving Berlin

AKB48 - Japan's most popular group of supposedly
cute girls

Members of The Hot Club of Cowtown - From left:
Whit Smith, Elana James and Jake Irwin
I owe him my life. As I told my audience in the fall of 2011, DK offered me a donation of 700,000 yen over a ten-month period, when I was about to have to hang myself. Then, two months ago, he lent me 140,000 yen when I was on the verge of going homeless because of the absurd Japanese custom that requires the lessee of an apartment to pay a "renewal fee" to the real estate agent every second year.

Now I am repaying the debt in two or three installments because I know DK is not deep-pocketed enough to save two lives for two years in a row. He is an IT engineer who is 6, 7 years younger than my biological sons.

We are in the middle of the holiday-studded Golden Week. Yesterday morning, he called me up to invite me to lunch. He had just returned from Seoul where he spent his well-deserved vacation with his wife and 6-year-old son. The moment DK saw me at the restaurant, he grinned and said, "Now your beard is so bushy that you can pass as Marx." He knows I respect Karl Marx as a non-Marxist. I said, "Thanks, but I think I look more like Johannes Brahms." He had brought me a lot of souvenirs from South Korea - packs of cigarettes, a dozen paper bags containing "corn tea," etc. The last item he took out of the bottom of the grocery bag was a big nail-clipper shaped like a pair of pliers. He explained: "This is from Tokyo, not Seoul." He knows how hard I have to struggle when trimming my toenails because of the rigidity of the body particular to a sufferer of Parkinsonism. He had done the work for me a couple of times before.

For the first 30 minutes or so, he told me how his family had enjoyed the vacation. Then we switched the subject to our favorite topic: music. For the subsequent two hours, we discussed how William Byrd, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Johann Jacob Froberger, Christopher Gibbons, Johann Pachelbel, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Johann Krieger, Henry Purcell, et al. possibly influenced Johann Sebastian Bach, and how Bach, in turn, influenced the likes of Paul Hindemith and Dmitri Shostakovich. DK didn't receive any formal education in a higher-learning institute, either in music or any other discipline, because of his unfortunate upbringing. It's all the more remarkable that he is so conversant with the history of classical music. He added that his son is currently learning a canon by Bach from his piano teacher while his dad is practicing Pachelbel's fugue all by himself.

Then we moved over to the nearby Yokohama Park, where a ballpark named Yokohama Stadium is located. As soon as we sat down at the edge of a flowerbed, DK produced a smartphone manufactured by Samsung under an OEM agreement with NTT Docomo. He wanted to let me hear some of the musical pieces he had mentioned at the restaurant. Every YouTube video he showed me was very interesting, but especially it was a pleasant surprise when I heard an unmistakable seed of bebop improvisation in Sweelinck's Fantasia played by Glenn Gould. The Dutch composer wrote the piece almost 400 years ago, I guess.

As I wrote in my previous post under the title of What art is - and isn't, music made my life really worth living and is now making the last days of my life more tolerable than without it. Now I've grown too old to play, dance or sing. And yet, listening to good music always brings me back the memories of the finest moments of my life. But when it comes to exchanging views with someone, DK is practically the only male friend who can tell music or any other form of art from its excrement. Immanuel Kant said art is something that is purposive in itself. But the Japanese have always dealt with art as something that serves other purposes in the last one and a half century. Now everything Japanese "musicians" do is Gebrauchsmusik. You can't remove impurities from Japanese art because there's nothing else in it. This inversion of the end and the means has turned this country into a cultural wasteland with its music scenes looking more and more like a junkyard.

Take AKB48, for example. It's amazing that people talk about the group like they talk about musicians, while it has absolutely nothing to do with music or any other art form. Each member of the group belongs to one of those Geino Purodakushon (talent agencies) affiliated, overtly or covertly, and in one way or the other, with yakuza syndicates. She is a cash cow for her Purodakushon not because she has an irreplaceable talent but because she is capable of arousing sexual desire in Rorikon (pedophilic) audience. As you may already know, most Japanese men have a strong bent for sexual perversion, such as lingerie theft, voyeurism and sexual abuse of children.

The Anti-prostitution Act of 1956 has made subtly legitimized and highly institutionalized prostitution the most lucrative business for yakuza. And that is why they are focusing more and more on exploitation of these poor kids with the help of NHK and other media organizations. Unlike in South Korea's show business, these girls may not be selling sex in the open, but they are substitutes for prostitutes, at best, if you can see what I mean. As a French journalist once observed, "they are prostitutes who don't think they are prostitutes."

Unfortunately, more or less the same thing is happening in the U.S. I think it all started around the time the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted. At least we can trace the decline of music as an art form to the Woodstock concert of 1969. A conspiracy theorist named Dave McGowan theorizes that music started to serve other purposes in Laurel Canyon several years before Woodstock. McGowam says: "Hippies came out of nowhere and sort of co-opted it. I think it was quite deliberate...they wanted to give the anti-war movement a face that would be completely unacceptable to mainstream America." But I don't think chronological or geographical accuracy is that important. Those who politicize everything like him always insist things such as Alice Cooper said this and Frank Zappa did that make a lot of difference. But I don't think so. It's not these apes, but ordinary people that have destroyed the American culture.

McGowan should have seen Carol Reed's The Third Man if he had enough time to waste delving into the Laurel Canyon conspiracy. In the 1949 film, Orson Welles acting as Harry Lime ridicules the Swiss people at large in the famous cuckoo clock speech that goes: "You know what the fellow said - in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace - and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." The lesson to be learned here is that the cultural climate of a politically corrupt nation is not that sterile, although the opposite can never be true. In a cultural wasteland, the dead-end situation facing the political regime is inevitably perpetuated.

I'd thought the decline of the American culture was unstoppable and irreversible until I came across the Hot Club of Cowtown, a Western swing band based in Austin, Texas. (See videos embedded below.) As I wrote, I'm inclined to call it a "zero-impurity" music because genuine spontaneity is what their music is all about. But don't take me wrong. I'm not talking about the undisciplined, raw "spontaneity" these noble savages have been demonstrating since the '60s. In an interview, Elana James, the fiddler and singer, names some of the artists who have influenced her, that include Anne-Sophie Mutter, Bob Wills, Johnny Gimble, Billie Holiday, Lester Young and Stephane Grappelli. This tells that she had to study very hard the techniques and the idioms of every genre of traditional music before acquiring her breathtakingly thrilling virtuosity and inventiveness. That's what I mean by the words genuine spontaneity.

Time and again I have quoted the 1988 NYT article written by Wynton Marsalis, who is known as a "purist." But it should be noted that the purist has never underplayed the significance of the traditions of other cultural spheres such as Latin America. In another paragraph of the article, he wrote: "It's like a great French chef lending his name, not his skills, to a a fast-food restaurant because he knows it's a popular place to eat. His concern is for quantity, not quality. Those who are duped say 'This greasy hamburger sure is good; I know it's good, because Pierre says it's good, and people named Pierre know what the deal is.' Pierre then becomes known as a man of the people, when he actually is exploiting the people." All in all, Marsalis wanted to say the ''they all can sing, they all have rhythm'' syndrome and the "why should I subject myself to the pain of study?" kind of attitude widespread in America's music scenes are what's going to devour jazz. The same applies to every genre of art.

Against this backdrop, it looks like a miracle that the Hot Club of Cowtown still shows both spontaneity and discipline. None of their videos, except those of country classics presented in the traditional format, have been viewed more than 10 thousand times. But it should come as no surprise if we see the Renaissance of the American music started in Austin. I'm not sure, though, if this will come true. How can I know when even Elana James, et al. can't tell what comes out of their own music? To begin with, you won't notice it right away when a Great Cultural Revolution breaks out.

If you carefully listen to good music like theirs, you can visualize how the civilization of apes branched out into man's civilization, like when you carefully look at the paintings in the Altamira Cave. A sea change is only caused by man's innate spontaneity, which is what French philosopher Henri Bergson called Free Will. It's ridiculous to believe someone deliberately changed America as McGowan insists, because almost by definition, man is an un-manipulatable creature. I suspect that the conspiracy theorist is talking about his fellow apes.

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