National Student Survey, 1263

(…George Benson believed that the children are our future, and I guess only time will tell on that one. It’s great students can voice their opinion these days, but this is nothing new. Going through the bins in the library, I found this ancient manuscript of what appears to be a partially completed National Student Survey originating in a Medieval Kyoto monastery.  Cautiously unfolding the parchment,  I transcribed what I could, as it was written mostly in Chinese characters of which I have no knowledge at all; anyway I did my best.  Known for its rigorous enforcement of a strict master/student protocol, medieval Japanese monasteries nevertheless enthusiastically encouraged student feedback in questionnaires eerily similar to those today.  I have updated this account a bit in order to try and make it more relevant so now young people can understand it too…)

Date : April 4th, 1263

Subject : Enlightenment Foundation Module

National Student Survey


The teaching on my course1. Staff are good at explaining things.

2. Staff have made the subject interesting.

3. The course is intellectually stimulating.

4. My course has challenged me to achieve my best work.

I don’t like the way staff explain things at all actually.  First of all, it seems we have to do all the work, it’s all questions and no answers. He asked us what the sound of one hand clapping was. I did it, I clapped one hand and the teacher was like, but there’s no sound and I was like, I know but isn’t that just your opinion (which the teacher seems to think is important by the way). I tried it again. I watched a girl on YouTube try it, and her results were the same despite having fifty thousand likes on a video sharing platform that doesn’t exist yet. Not a whisper. Try it. Clap one hand, nothing comes out. It’s just lame.  Two hands clapping is apparently cheating, breaking the “***rules***“.  Rules are just a way of limiting our self expression, in my opinion.

Learning opportunities5. My course has provided me with opportunities to explore ideas or concepts in depth.

6. My course has provided me with opportunities to bring information and ideas together from different topics.

7. My course has provided me with opportunities to apply what I have learnt.

Look, I have a lot of ideas, and especially a lot of concepts, which are like ideas in that you don’t have to do anything.  My teacher said, that’s great, you should explore them, but this lesson isn’t the place.  I said isn’t that just your opinion.  He hit me with a large stick.

Assessment and feedback8. The criteria used in marking have been clear in advance.

9. Marking and assessment has been fair.

10. Feedback on my work has been timely.

11. I have received helpful comments on my work.

Marking is rubbish here.  I definitely don’t like being assessed.  Apparently there’s no guarantee that I will get a good mark although I paid a fortune to come to this place.  I get feedback but some of it is critical and that makes me sad, representing bad value for money.  My teacher said some of the best lessons he had made him sad, and the sadness enabled him to seek out what he needed in order to improve.  He also said that you wouldn’t feel like that if you didn’t have to pay for your education.  I said exactly, that’s why you should give me good marks. This time I saw the stick coming and got out of the way in time.  The teacher smiled.  He said I had at last learnt something.

Academic support12. I have been able to contact staff when I needed to.

13. I have received sufficient advice and guidance in relation to my course.

14. Good advice was available when I needed to make study choices on my course.

15. The course is well organised and running smoothly.

16. The timetable works efficiently for me.

17. Any changes in the course or teaching have been communicated effectively.

I must say things are pretty efficient here, there are lots of emails about doors working, then not working and then working again.  I know every detail of the well being of every entrance mechanism in the building.  This makes me feel empowered.  The timetable of getting up at 4am, eating rice and then meditating for twelve hours every day (until enlightenment comes) is quite simple to follow, except one day I missed it because it wasn’t in my calendar, so on that day it didn’t “work efficiently for me” as I wasn’t there. There is definitely room for improvement here.

Learning resources18. The IT resources and facilities provided have supported my learning well.

19. The library resources (e.g. books, online services and learning spaces) have supported my learning well.

20. I have been able to access course-specific resources (e.g. equipment, facilities, software, collections) when I needed to.

Libraries are so uncool, scrolls and all that shit are just not edgy enough for the way I like to do things.  I prefer my own vibe.  Other people have already done things, now it’s my turn.

Learning community21. I feel part of a community of staff and students.

22. I have had the right opportunities to work with other students as part of my course.

This is true, I get to sit in silence for twelve hours next to people I like who, like me, are silent.  Some days, we all get together and try, again, to clap with one hand, which is like silence but with aching arms.

Student voice23. I have had the right opportunities to provide feedback on my course.

24. Staff value students’ views and opinions about the course.

25. It is clear how students’ feedback on the course has been acted on.

26. The students’ union (association or guild) effectively represents students’ academic interests.

True feedback is found in the clear mirror of your quiet self, they tell me.  This is the kind of shit we have to put up with.  I tried to complain about the clapping thing. Apparently it’s kind of a riddle, and there’s no definitive answer, which means the mark is totally random.  I said, how long will it take me to work it out.  My teacher said, ten years.  And if I try really hard?  Twenty years, he said.  If I was allowed my stick in class, I calculate I could just about break his nose from here.

Overall satisfaction

27. Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of the course.

The course is a journey, life is a journey, life is suffering.  Satisfaction is superficial, coming only to those who do not embrace true and constant change.  Quality is an illusion, all is vanity.  I don’t know what is left of this question, or how to answer it.  Instead I sit, and I think what now.


Coffee cup

The time is 12.23, , and as my weary eyes catch sight of a rubbish bin I feel, somewhat prematurely, the surge of pleasure at the thought of having dropped the empty coffee cup (held precariously between thumb and forefinger as the three remaining fingers grip my reading glasses with hopeless optimism) into it.

In the other hand is a copy of Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens”, thick and solid. It has all the answers. Like a toddler’s drawing of a face, there’s a suspicion it’s not completely accurate, but its enthusiastic scrawl is bursting with enthusiasm. Everything has been, will be, and is, as ok as one could hope for in such a complex and fragile humanity, bound together as it is by fictions, folktales and trust in the future.

A kind of consensus of imagination, whether it be God, money, presidents or our inherent superiority to animals, holds this juddering juggernaut together. As the internet finally grants a voice to more people than ever, perhaps such agreements may fall apart, the human sprawl reveals itself, a mass of voices informed by everything from intense research to idle gossip. But more than ever, these voices demand results, to throw out history and start again, to take no shit from the old orders. Such demands have now spread to the human body itself, and a combination of computers and bio technology will offer us choice beyond our wildest dreams, if dreaming is still a possibility with all that machinery and bio mutation made flesh.

(Ok, his tone is a little more optimistic than mine, but it was a fun read.)

It was also a practical read; short chapters despite the weighty tome, easy to get one in between Facebook posts and other essential business. And, by definition, we all feel like characters in the book itself. By reading it, we somehow participate in an unfinished final chapter. As I multitask my way through a series of frivolous actions, I am paradoxically reminded of the freedom and the terror of being in a “foraging” society. The author certainly takes the nostalgia out of that little pipe dream. No time for selfies with a ravenous mammoth stampeding towards you and only a spear to catch it with. No time for much really. Pick the fruit and run. And no going back.

But in the present day drama of the coffee cup and the reading glasses, I emerge victorious, the cup making a soft landing between crisp packets, the glasses secured between my fingers. With a renewed sense of positivity, I go a-hunting and a-gathering into the jungles of Baker St.

Paul Motian

People outside of jazz won’t know Paul Motian I guess. But for me he’s come to encapsulate important qualities, many of which I find in short supply elsewhere. Brevity, detail, humility, emotion.

I have problems with writing music, everything comes out stumpy and brief, like an insult, a compacted mass of material that refuses to expand until played by improvisers. And so it is with Motian, but he had no problem with it. His bands could always stretch the music they were given to symphonic proportions, to the point where you would wonder why anyone bothers with all that through composed stuff.

The detail, the choice of up or down, or stay on the same note….such great choices, and yet always feeling like one of many he could have made. In this way, Motian’s music opens more doors than it closes, leaves a little bit for other musicians to follow up.

The humility to leave it to the musicians. His tunes are like those writing exercises, “wrote a poem on this one word: afterwards”. That word is carefully picked. It is not “sock”. “Sock” is too specific, and music is no different. Tunes with hardly anything in them require one to allow so much to whizz past in the mind, catching only a small clutch of choice pitches, intervals, rhythms….something to get ones teeth into. And this requires humility, because people do not generally heap praise on economy of touch in the arts. Where’s your “large scale work” Paul? The fact that he lived ’til 80 playing his own music, most of which goes on one page of A4 manuscript, is a huge inspiration. These pieces don’t look like much, but there are so many ways in which they can make the musicians sound good.

And emotion, maybe it’s like a deep well in the mind. I imagine some people trawling a net through it in order to get everything out. Motian is perched on the edge of the bank, of his consciousness, dropping a long line into that black water, waiting. I think he threw a lot of what he caught back in.

I played with him once, in a workshop in front of students. He played the drums exactly as they were set up by the student who had played previously. We played “Blue Skies”, a simple old tune by Irving Berlin, who wrote “White Christmas”. He counted it off, we started, I thought fuck he’s loud. I tried not to play like Monk or Keith Jarrett or anyone else he had played with. He’s so much louder than he is on recordings, I thought. In real life he’s loud. He’s pushing us to play. “We had fun” he said afterwards. I nodded and smiled, the smile of a fixed grin newscaster. I have since learned to redefine “fun” in music. A small word, like a short tune, that contains multitudes.

On discourse and debate

When I was at school, aged 12 I guess, I was in a kind of “sponsored” fight. There was a bully named Dave. He was bigger than everyone else, like a scarecrow in a field of overgrown wheat. He was picky with his friends. He decided he didn’t like me because of the shoes. His way of bullying was not to beat me up, but to force me to beat up another kid, whose name was Geoffrey. Geoffrey was kind of small and wimpy, and a bit annoying, according to a Dave the school bully. I was told if I didn’t fight him I would be beaten up, and then the rest of my year group were told to get to the orchard at break time, where they could watch me beating this guy up. It was a fight, a real bout, and it was sponsored by Dave the school bully, who would have sold tickets if he’d had the brains to organise it.

We are familiar, I’m sure, with the concept of going down and staying down. They hit you, you go down, you don’t get up until everyone leaves. I was planning this in reverse, that I would throw a left hook (gentle, made to look heavy) and this kid would go down, my contractual obligation would be over and I could get on with practising Scott Joplin in my fucking lunch hour.

Anyway, I did it, and he surely caught the strange brand of apologetic panic in my face as I landed the blow. His glasses fell off. I was then required to get on top of him and give him a stagey pasting.

The next day Geoffrey comes in and he’s black and blue down one side of his face. I felt pretty bad. I wished I hadn’t done it. He was simply an annoying kid in the wrong place at the wrong time. The look in his eyes, straining through broken glasses at me. The look. The eyes. If I hadn’t seen these things, I might have forgotten about it, wiped it from the mind and moved on. I couldn’t.

For some reason this is all coming back to me today, and it’s because of Facebook. There are a good few pastings dished out there these days. A few pompous claims and pointed barbs. When was the last time anyone looked into the eyes of a human being whilst sticking the boot in against people and groups, good or bad. That look that reminds us we are all human, the flicker of common humanity, that feeling reminds me I am part of a larger group of things much like myself. When that is gone, we are just a loose fitting sack of opinions, upbringings and fixed term prejudices which we let off from time to time. There’s rarely any change to the status quo. When was your mind last changed online?

Don’t get me wrong, I thought all this was a godsend at first. I am quite a shy person and happy to retreat into a cave and hurl rocks out of its entrance at whoever was passing. Eye contact is a major project at the best of times. But I would rather be reminded of that fact for every second that goes by than get sucked any further in to this blank, blinkered, rabble-rousing trend any further.

Go to the pub and talk it over. We are all doing our best. Whatever you may think. Change your mind, or see a new opinion and keep yours anyway. But see it at least, whoever you are.

Vertigo At The British Museum

So much is free, but you can’t hold it, can’t touch it, you don’t own it. Well, “you can’t take it with you” as they say.  Why hold on to something?  But when you get a digital something, you have the ghost of it, the music, the book, the film; it’s free but it’s gone. You are holding on to air.

I went to the British Museum recently, and there it’s different; old school.  You can walk past things, you can, in theory, touch them (signs saying “please do not touch the exhibits” only encourage it.  I have never seen a sign saying “do not touch the MP3s”, because, well, you can’t).  Egyptian gods stare down the aisles and ages, Greek bodies are held in split-second frozen marble.  And under glass, ancient thoughts written down are too far back in time to find or feel.

This stuff is old.  Really old.  The feeling is strangely vertiginous, as if looking back is like looking down, and the further you look the higher up is the precipice from which that past is viewed.  Looking into the strange, ossified eyes of an Egyptian mask, it seems every smile has behind it a thousand others, and in front of it many more to come.  Years ago, and years yet to live.  It seems impossible that this has happened.  I catch my present day grimace’s reflection and find it lacking.

Recurring dreams of childhood dreams left me with a kind of “fear of infinity”, and a quick google has identified this as apeirophobia.  For a long word, this strikes me as being too short, abrupt almost; it should have within it an impossible cycle of repeats that can never end.  It should be spelt up a kind of Escher staircase, or possibly down a spiral one.  Apeirophobeirophobeirophobeir…o…….

Faces smile back at me, perfect and timeless.  We assume that to create something timeless is a good thing – yes, Hotel California, what a timeless classic etc.  For me, timelessness is a nightmare of arrested activity, a trapped movement, invisible mucus wrapped around me like a coiled snake.  Air into vacuum.  Michelangelo’s David will always be youthful and virile, a snapshot (or sculpture, the only thing they had in those days, terribly time consuming) perhaps taken before his later decline into obesity and alcoholism.  Like Instagram, these are models of ourselves we cannot match.

But then we arrive in the Japanese Galleries, and this is why I came. They have the lights low here, to try and halt the inevitable decay of the treasures within.  It’s never busy.  Silk scrolls curl, woodblock prints fade, everything is fragile, is broken, ceramic pots are wonky and endearing.  It is not timeless, because the effects of time, the aesthetic benefits of time, are seen here everywhere.  It is full of time.

An iPhone 6s, for example, is exterminated well before its natural demise to make way for an upgrade, maybe one of these new ones with a screen that goes past the edge of the handset (to where?).  We don’t get to see it decompose, it’s corners fraying and worn, signs of use making it more beautiful, more personal, lived in, like an old book or wrinkled face.  The Japanese call this wabi sabi, the acceptance of transience and imperfection, where an object only really reaches its full glory as it begins to lose its shine.   Beauty as process.  Dropping your phone on the pavement or down a toilet doesn’t count.  The internet can document the passing of time (it is mainly about the passing of time) and yet nothing ages…’s merely information, a shared thought trapped in purgatory between the mind and the world of real things.

Back in the Japanese galleries, my phone’s message notification disturbs the murky light.  Must make some time to get back to them, just need to find my bank details and address and phone number, I don’t like to keep people waiting.

Raw War

Instagram puts our pictures in a box, meaning, a square. When you upload a photo, in a photo-type format, which is usually landscape or portrait, it appears as a square. In a box, a symmetrical box of picture. As if it were simply storing information, “content”, more efficiently, like a cake tin.

No one listens for longer than ten seconds to anything anymore, or will look at something long enough to see the details that the Instagram box leaves out. It puts our pictures in a box. It doesn’t ask us, how about a box for this picture, it would help us a lot of you could make it a box, we like everything to be the same format, despite the fact that a ratio closer to the Golden Section is well known to be more aesthetically pleasing. It does it because it makes no difference. To ask for a large and be handed a small. This is your size.

A box is symmetrical. It’s like a face isn’t. It’s like a painting isn’t. It’s like the dimensions of anything made by nature, prior to the long awaited arrival of the human race, isn’t. We learnt about the Golden Section from nature, and therefore, by implication, from ourselves. Our hidden selves. Our non-symmetrical gut feeling once told us that one long side and one short side is good, look at a tree, look at that animal, the ratio of head to body, look at my head and body for that matter. Animals do not have, broadly speaking, a head at each end.

Numbers are good for symmetry, a human tool for counting things. You can play games with numbers and symmetry comes out. They are not, however, good for the blues, which often is twelve bars long, and at other times is as long as the person singing the thing wants it to be. If you listen for longer than ten seconds to a blues track on YouTube you will hear this in action.

Symmetry reminds me of things that are “technically possible” but perhaps undesirable. In theory it could happen, in nature rare that it does.

On a typical week of train journeys, there are more people than there used to be talking loudly to themselves as if no one else was there.

Dance like nobody’s watching. They will only watch for ten seconds so make it quick.

Instagram puts my pictures in a box.

Perhaps I can change the settings.

Shrink wrap

Some jazz tunes can be strange little things. They are stumpy, seemingly lightly created, they are sometimes written on a napkin or rattled off from memory like a joke. Anyone could do them. Maybe in a year’s time, I might manage one more good one.

Imagine tin foil.  Imagine screwing it up into a ball, tight in the palm of one hand, and throwing it into a bin.  It’s vaguely satisfying if it goes in first time.  There are some people who, if it misses, will walk over and put it it the bin.  This is, of course, eminently practical, and these people have other things to do, and these are “group one” people.  Then there are the people who will sit back down, and try again from the same distance.  After five, ten, a hundred tries, maybe the ball goes in.  The apparent simplicity of a ball being thrown in the bin is thereby masked by the other ninety nine botched attempts.  Already this person is a perfectionist, the fact that they attempted something that they knew could be done better compelled them to do it.  The thing itself, and its usefulness, are irrelevant, the fact that it could be improved upon is like a nagging hammer in the back of the brain.  this is “group two” behaviour.

Now, going back to the tin foil.  How round is that ball?  With one hand, it’s not easy to get a spherical kind of situation happening.  And yet, something tells you that maybe it’s possible, and besides, won’t a rounder ball make a straighter trajectory?  Armed with this somewhat suspect and half-formed aerodynamic assertion, you try again with the rolling.  Again, you could cheat, two hands could make light work, but the one hand thing is the key to this challenge.  If this is you, you are in group number three and I feel your pain.

So, writing a jazz tune, of a certain pithy and epigrammatic type, is like this.  It’s like rolling a ball of foil into a sphere with one hand and casually throwing it into a bin ten feet away.  It takes practice, and it is taking practice.  And sometimes if you try too hard, the thing won’t go in, because despite what appear to be increasingly favourable odds, you somehow get further and further away from the target.  I still come up with ideas that sound like my ideas from twenty years ago.  I had more hair then, but still the same old shit in my head, foil balls scattered over old diaries and photos.

So it was that, after a day of trying to write a tune that would look as if I made it up on the spot, I sat at the piano, dejected, and made one up on the spot.  And like the foil, it’s like, don’t touch it or you’ll ruin it and have to start again.  That thing when you unpick a tightly wrapped piece of foil and it just breaks into chunks, and you think, all that work and its gone in an instant.  Don’t touch it.  And especially don’t start playing it over and over, trying to extend it, to make it into a bigger thing.

Of course, some jazz composers are not like this.  They can write long stuff, never look back, start typing and keep going (this is how I improvise, which seems a lot more successful in terms of hours spent versus notes produced), maybe they have a structure in mind and are filling it out.  The foil and the bin doesn’t work as an analogy here; there is no illusion, it’s long, detailed work and the listener knows it.  I have wanted to be one of these people, like George Russell, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Anthony Braxton, Tim Berne, Mingus…mostly when I sit down and try and write, I tell myself, today is when you get into that arena, the extended work.  I don’t know what makes these people able to do what they do.  I think it’s hard wired, the need to elaborate, as is the need to condense.  And maybe because I enjoy their music so much, it’s best for me to stay clear and stick to the bin stuff.

Because small things, if you look at them long enough, open out into worlds of complexity.  A small jazz tune, well crafted, is like a ZIP file, opening out on your desktop into something that is finally substantial.  Composing is like setting a ball at exactly the right height on a tee, then you pick the band (this is the club, I’m feeling a one wood driver) and, on stage performing, you swing the club.  (If I really wanted to extend this whimsical and flimsy analogy further, perhaps a standing ovation is the ball in the hole, but I have seen too many ovations where neither the right height nor the correct club was anywhere in evidence).

But then the way the foil rolls off your fingertips, maybe a touch of spin on the ball just for shits and giggles, will it still go in?…and that sound of a light projectile hitting its mark, the joy when it just rolls around a bit on its way in (just like a televised putt at Gleneagles), knowing that it’s down to the way you rolled it right at the beginning.  These are the details, this is why I’m doing it, this is why it’s important to me that in one of my tunes, half of a melody is actually the same as the other half played backwards, or that the highest note of a melody is two thirds of the way through its duration, or that it uses the absolute minimum number of notes possible.  It exists, and it exists better for these adjustments, obsessive and time consuming though they are.

And that’s why I’m trying to spend more time listening to less music, to use these sounds in the right way, to be a good consumer.  I know a well rolled tin foil missile when I see one, but you have to look.