June 2010


Wrong directions

I nearly had an upsetting experience the other day. I was poised to get on a bus, but an Indian lady, of late middle age, somewhat older than myself, was having trouble communicating to a not-very-helpful lady bus driver.

“Can you take me please to Oxford Terrace, Newtown,” said the Indian lady, with that the lovely exaggerated vowels so common of Indian people. She was looking for an English School in Oxford Terrace.

“I don’t know, dear. I go through Newtown. Are you getting on?”

“Oxford Terrace I need.”

“I don’t know that, dear. I just drive the bus”

Being new in the city I was carrying a map and half the bus timetables of the city, and since the bus did pass through Newtown I was sure I could help her; so I suggested to her that she get on and we’d find it on the map together.

I looked at the map, it didn’t seem to be in the index (“typical she’ll-be-right Kiwi map, eh”); but Newtown isn’t very big, might as well just find it. Ah! Here it is, just off this main street. ‘xford, You can’t see the ‘O’ very well, there’s a big circle printed on top of it. I went forward to talk to the driver.

“Oh, what is it now?” she said. With a sing-song voice and rising inflection, she almost sounded polite!

OK, the driver’s no use (I’ll help you madam). I pointed out some obvious landmarks on the way, and told her about bus passes.

We’re nearly there, let’s just double check where we are…. oh no!! It doesn’t read ‘Oxford’ it says ‘Luxford’! The circle made me think it was an ‘O’, but underneath is printed ‘Lu’. We’re going to the wrong place!

“Madam we must get off!”

At his point I think I startled her, but she did as I suggested. We got off together. “Where is Oxford Terrace can you tell me?”

“Ummm, I’m not quite sure…” I was a little flustered, “you see, it says Luxford, not Oxford, I made a mistake, I’ll just text a friend, she’ll be next to her computer,” (texting nervously) “she’ll find it, madam… madam….”

The old lady was walking down the street, “I must find someone to ask directions. Can you tell Oxford Terrace?” (no, sorry, don’t know that one) “Oxford Terrace, please, can you tell me?” (No, I’m sorry I can’t help you).

“Please madam, I’m sure my friend can help us,” I called after her.

I followed after her. She quickened her pace away from me, apparently scared of me now. “I must ask for directions…”

OK, I’ve upset her. She thinks I’m strange. That’s fine. I’ll just find out where this street is, and I can sort all this out. (texting: “RU by internet, urgent, need 2 find oxford terrace newtown”). Oh dear… where did the lady go? She’s gone!

I received a text with directions, but I had lost the lost lady.

OK, I’m not in a hurry. I’ll find the place, come back, if I find her still hanging around asking for directions I’ll know where it is. Feeling rather guilty. Images of a dear old Indian woman wandering off lost and distressed in a foreign city.

It was a bit of a walk down the road, and not really in ‘Newtown’ according to my map, but in one of the neighbouring suburbs as far as I could tell, but I eventually found the place – thought, OK, I’ll head back the other way and see how the Indian lady got on, turned around. There she was, 50 metres away, asking people, “Oxford Terrace please, can you tell me?” (Yes, it’s just over there.)

Sigh of relief, she found the place herself without my unhelpful interference.

Bus stop.

Waiting at a bus-stop again. The bus was late.

A man pulled up in a ute, got out, walked over to the phone booths. He had cowboy-type boots on. He looked over the phone booths quickly, checking them for something; then loudly said, “F###! ….F###, F###!”.

He turned to me, “D’you know this area at all?”

“I know it a little,” I said, trying to sound helpful. I had actually walked up and down this street at least three times in the last week.

“Is there an escort agency near here?”

“I don’t know… Sorry,” I said timidly.

He strode back to his ute, angrily, “F###! F### this place is f###ing dump!” and drove off, to my relief.

The bus was still late. Right by the bus stop some interior decorators were pulling apart the inside of a Post Shop. A lady of early old age was talking to one of them through the glass.

“Is the Post Shop closing?”

A mumbled reply through the thick glass.

“Is it moving? Are you moving?”

The reply was clearer this time, “nah, it’s stayin’ here”. (down and up New Zealand inflection.)

The lady walked away, then came back, “I didn’t really hear you before. Is this post shop moving?”

Clearly this time, “no, it’s gonna stay here.”

Then she got angry. “I don’t believe you. I know when people are not telling the truth. You’re lying!”

Then she expressed what sounded like curse words or an angry expression in a Slavic language, perhaps Polish, which was unusual since she previously been speaking English with a very pronounced New Zealand accent.

During this time I had been checking the photos on my camera, through the viewfinder (it saves battery power).

“I hope you aren’t taking photos of me!” she said, somewhat threateningly for a woman of early old age, “you better not be taking photos of me.”

“No.” I said, a little too defiantly considering she was only an old lady.

And to my relief, she went away, too.

The bus was still late.


Extract: from Chapter 44, ‘Spring Snow’, Yukio Mishima

The circumstances that had led so rapidly to her renunciation of the world were as follows. When the Abbess had heard the entire story from Satoko that first morning, she had known at once that she must allow the girl to become a nun. Keenly aware that each of her predecessors at Gesshu had been an imperial princess, she felt bound to revere the Emperor above all else. And so she had come to the decision that she had to allow Satoko to enter even if this involved a temporary thwarting of the imperial will. She had concluded that, given the circumstances, there was no other way to discharge her loyalty to the Emperor. She had happened to uncover a plot directed at him, and she could not allow it to proceed unchecked. She was not one to countenance a breach of loyalty, no matter how elegant the cunning that disguised it.

Thus it was that the normally so discreet and gentle Abbess of Gesshu made up her mind, determined to give in neither to the force of authority nor to the threat of coercion. Even if all the world should be ranged against her, even if she were forced to ignore a particular imperial decree, she would persist in what she had to do — to be a silent guard of the sacred person of His Majesty.

Her resolve had a profound effect on Satoko, who became all the more determined to turn her back on the world. She had not expected the Abbess to grant her request so readily. She had had an encounter with the Lord Buddha, and the Abbess, her eye as keen as a crane’s, had immediately discerned the firmness of the girl’s decision.

Although it was customary for a novice to undergo a year of ascetic discipline before her formal induction as a nun, both Satoko and the Abbess felt that in the present circumstances this period should be dispensed with. But the Abbess could not bring herself to disregard the Ayakuras so completely as to allow Satoko to take the tonsure before the Countess returned from Tokyo. Moreover, there was the matter of Kiyoaki. Would it not be wise, she thought, to allow him and Satoko to bid each other a long farewell before she sacrificed what hair she had spared so far?

Satoko could hardly endure the delay. She came to the Abbess every day and, like a child teasing her mother to give her some candy, begged her to be allowed to take the tonsure. Finally, the Abbess found herself prepared to yield.

“If I were to allow you to take the tonsure.” she asked Atoko, “you would never be allowed to see Kiyoaki again. That wouldn’t trouble you?”

“No.”

“Well, once you make the decision not to see him ever again in this world and so advance to initiation, any later regrets would indeed be bitter ones.”

“I will have no regrets. In this world I shall never set eyes on him again. As for parting, we’ve had farewells enough. So please . . .”

Her voice as she replied was clear and firm.

“Very well. Tomorrow morning, then, I will preside at the tonsure ceremony,” the Abbess replied, allowing one more day of grace.

Countess Ayakura did not return in the interval.

From that first morning at Gesshu, Satoko had plunged herself, of her own volition, into the disciplined routine of convent life. The distinctive character of Hosso Buddhism was in placing greater emphasis on the cultivation of the mind than the practice of religious austerities. Gesshu Temple, futhermore, was traditionally dedicated to praying for the households registered with it as parishoners. Sometimes the Abbess would observe with gentle humour that the “Grace of tears” was something never encountered in Hosso Buddhism, thus underlining the contrast with the more recently arisen Amida cult of Pure Land Buddhism, with its great stress on ecstatic prayers of gratitude.

Then, too, in Mahayana Buddhism in general, there were no precepts to speak of. But for the rules of its monastic life the precepts of Hinayana Buddhism were often borrowed. In convents such as Gesshu, however, the rule was the “Precepts of a Bodhisattva” contained in the Brahamajala Sutra. Its forty-eight prohibitions began with ten major injunctions against such sins as the taking of life, stealing, excess of any sort, and lying, and it concluded with an admonishment against destroying Buddhist teachings.

Far more severe than any commandment, however, was the monastic training. In the brief time she had been at Gesshu, Satoko had already memorized both the “Sutra of the Enlightened Heart” and the “Thirty Verses” expounding the doctrine of Yuishiki, Each morning she got up early to sweep and dust the main hall of worship before the Abbess came for her morning devotions, in the course of which she then had an opportunity to practice the chanting of the sutras. She was no longer treated as a guest, and the senior nun, whom the Abbess had placed in charge of her, was now a changed woman in her severity of manner.

On the morning of the initiation ceremony, she carefully performed the prescribed ablutions before putting on the black robes of a nun. In the hall of worship, she sat with her string of beads wrapped around her hands, which she held clasped together in front of her. After the Abbess herself had first taken the razor and begun the tonsuring, the old nun in charge took over. And as she shaved steadily with a skilled hand, the Abbess began to chant the “Sutra of the Enlightened Heart,” accompanied by the junior nun.

When she had consummated the works of perfection,
The Five Aggregates of living being became as
Things void before the Bodhisattva Kannon’s eyes,
And stricken from her was the yoke of human suffering.

Satoko, too, took up the chant, her eyes closed. And as she did so, her body became like a boat that is gradually lightened of all its cargo and freed of its anchor, and she felt herself being swept along on the deep swelling wave of chanting voices.

She kept her eyes shut. The main hall had the penetrating chill of an ice house, and so, although she herself was floating free, she imagined a vast expanse of pure ice gripping all the world around her. Suddenly the cry of a shrike came from the garden outside, and a crack raced across this icy plane with the swiftness of a jagged streak of lightning. But it sealed itself almost at once, and the ice became whole once more.

She felt the razor working its way with scrupulous care across her scalp. Sometimes she imagined the frenetic gnawing of a mouse’s tiny white incisors, sometimes the placid grinding of the molars of a horse or cow.

As lock after lock fell away, she felt her scalp begin to tingle with a refreshing coolness that was quite new to her. The razor was shearing off the black hair that had separated her from the world for so long, sultry and heavy with its sorry burden of desire; but her scalp was now being laid bare to a realm of purity whose chill freshness had not been violated by any man’s hand. As the expanse of shaved head broadened, she began to feel the skin coming more and more alive, just as if a cool solution of menthol was spreading over it.

She imagined that the chill must be like the surface of the moon, directly exposed to the vastness of the universe. The world she had known was falling away with each strand. And as it did so, she became infinitely removed from it.

In one sense, it seemed as though her hair were being harvested. Shorn black clumps, still saturated with the stifling brilliance of the summer sun, piled up on the floor around her. But it was a worthless crop, for the very instant that the luxuriant handfuls ceased to be hers, the beauty of life went out of them, leaving only an ugly remnant. Something that had once been an intimate part of her, and aesthetic element of her innermost being, was now being relentlessly thrown aside. As irrevocable as the amputation of a limb, the ties that bound her to the world of transience were being severed.

When her scalp at last shone with a bluish glint, the Abbess addressed her gently.

“The most crucial renunciation is the one that comes after formal renunciation. I have the utmost trust in your present resolution. From this day on, if you seek to purify your heart in the austerities of our life, I have no doubt that you will one day become the glory of our sisterhood.”

*

This was how Satoko’s premature tonsuring came about.

1: The harmonic series.

Music is an art, but it isn’t artificial. The reason melodies and harmonies sound sweet or harsh is completely scientific. For this reason, different human cultures independently developed similar musical systems.

The basis of melody and harmony is the ‘harmonic series’. When a vibrating body with a musical tone (like the string on a guitar or the column of air in a trumpet) vibrates, it does so ‘harmonically’. It vibrates along its whole length, but it also divides and vibrates with harmonic overtones.

To use an analogy of a guitar string…. The most important harmonic is the ‘fundamental’, the vibration of the whole length of the string. The string also vibrates in two halves, this is called the ‘first harmonic’; and in three thirds, the ‘second harmonic’ and so on. These vibrations all occur simultaneously.

The first 6 tones – the fundamental and the first 5 harmonics – are the most important. And it’s from these tones that the notes and harmonies of Western music, and most of the world’s musical systems, are derived. You will see that (in the key of C, for example) there are 3 Cs, 2 Gs and 1 E.

The notes of the scale.

The harmonic series gives us the notes C (‘tonic’ or root note, which appears at the fundamental and octave), G (the ‘fifth’) and E (the major third).

Transposed down to within the range of a single octave, G (produced by the string vibrating in 3 parts) has the ratio of 3/2 and E the ratio of (the string vibrating in 5 parts) the ratio of 5/4.

Placed on a diagram showing the equal semi-tones of the western chromatic scale, you notice that the pure harmonically derived notes are not an exact match to their ‘equal tempered’ notes used in modern Western music.

The ‘Blue Note’.

I’ve also included the 6th harmonic (7/8 the string in 7 equal parts). This note is quite flat by Western standards, and wasn’t included in the theoretical systems of Europe, India or China, but that tone, and notes derived from it are used all the time in music – it’s the ‘blue note’, the very beautiful and rather flat minor seventh or minor third used in jazz and blues.

The ‘just’ scale.

Simple extrapolations from these primary tones give us all the notes of the major scale. A note is included midway between the tonic (C) and third (E): this is produced by playing a fifth on top of a fifth 3/2 x 3/2 = 9/4 (transposed down to 9/8). A fifth below the tonic gives us the fourth (4/3, or 3/2 inverted). A major third above the fourth gives us the major sixth (4/3 x 5/4 = 20/12 -> 5/3), and a major third above the fifth gives us the major seventh (3/2 x 5/4 = 15/8).

Now we have all the notes of the major scale, plus the three major chords of the scale (C, G and F), all derived simply from the mathematical ratios of the harmonics. It’s not surprising that the major cultures of the world all discovered this scale independently.

The major third sits naturally between the tonic and the fifth, if you invert this interval, and extend the major third below the fifth, you get the minor third (3/2 x 4/5 = 6/5), and extending this interval from the fourth and fifth gives the minor sixth (4/3 x 6/5 = 8/5) and minor seventh (3/2 x 6/5 = 9/5).

Here are some other intervals. The semitone, or minor second (an inversion of the major seventh, although there are other ways to derive this interval that are slightly different); the blue notes (the blue third is fifth below the pure blue seventh: 7/8 x 2/3 = 7/12), and the ‘pythagorian third’. The pythagorian third is interesting – it’s somewhat dissonant when played in a chord, but sounds sweet and bright when played alone in a melody, and is the addition of two major seconds (9/8 x 9/8 = 81/64).

Have a look at where the blue note is. It’s a very natural thing, and sounds sad and pretty, to play a minor third or minor seventh about a third of a semitone flat. Singers often do this naturally without realising they are singing outside the traditional scale.

The modes.

Although the minor scale can be derived harmonically as above, there’s an easier way to derive it, you simply play the major scale starting at a different note! For example, the most famous and popular of the modes, the Dorian mode or ‘D’ mode, is simply the same notes as the major scale, played from the second (or D in the key of C).

And by the same process, the other modes can be derived. Note that in modal music, the original names for the major and minor scales were the Ionian mode and the Aeolian mode.

I’ve highlighted the tonic and fifth in these diagrams to show how the tones and semitones relate to these, the most important, notes.

In theory, there’s also another mode you could play, starting on ‘B’. It does have a name, it’s called the ‘Locrian’ mode, but because it doesn’t have a natural fifth (instead it has a flattened or ‘diminished’ fifth), it lacks a strong tonal centre and is rarely used, so I didn’t include it.

  • Ionian Mode (C)

    The same as the major scale. In C, it uses the I, IV, V chords C, F, G

  • Dorian Mode (D)

    In medieval times, this was the most popular mode, and it is now very popular again, being the basis of the blues scale, and is the most-used scale in modal jazz and jazz-fusion. It uses the I, IV, V chords Dm, G and Am

  • Aeolian mode (A)

    The natural minor scale. With all minor chords, it uses the I, IV, V chords Am, Dm and Em.

  • Lydian mode (F)

    Hugely popular in Indian music, like the major scale but with a sharp IV, which acts as a ‘leading tone’ to the fifth which gives it a brightness and playfulness jazz musicians also love. It doesn’t have a IV chord, but uses the I, V chords C and G.

  • Phrygian mode (E)

    An all-minor mode with a flat second, this popular mode has an exotic Middle-Eastern or Eastern European sound to Western ears. The flat second interferes with the V chord, so it doesn’t have a simple V chord, but uses the I, IV chords Em and Am.

  • Mixolydian mode (G)

    Despite its odd name, this is a common mode in modern music. It’s like the major mode with a minor seventh and uses the I, IV, V chords G, C and Dm.

Counterpoint and Harmony

The tonic-fifth relationship is a naturally occurring one, the most important in all music and one which exists in all the musics of the world. All music to some degree makes use the feeling of psychological resolution of melody and harmony away from and then back to the tonic or ‘home’ key. A multitude of songs and pieces from all cultures and eras begin in their home key, then move around somewhat, before returning, with a feeling of finality and resolution, to their home key at the end. There’s nothing unusual about this.

What we call ‘harmony’, in the medieval modal period was referred as ‘polyphony’. They saw their music more as multiple melodies playing together and, while aware of the chords, were not as concerned with chordal-based harmony.

But the resolution or ‘cadence’ of certain chords was important; in particular the V-I or ‘perfect cadence’. In the most emphatic form of a perfect cadence, the fifth will fall to tonic (V-I or g -> c) and the major third of the V chord will rise a semitone to the tonic (b -> c). Composers came to feel these notes, in particular the major seventh (‘b’), which is not normally present in the minor modes, because it was so important in cadence, was a necessary part of minor scales.

The other common cadence is the IV-I or Plagal cadence. This is the ‘amen’ cadence in church music.

With this new emphasis on cadence, the medieval modes were replaced with the major and minor scales. In fact the major scale is simply the Ionian mode, but the minor scale became something very different.

The minor scale

The need to incorporate the major seventh into the minor scale led to a curious hybrid scale. In Classical music musicians practice two minor scales, the harmonic minor – the scale which outlines the harmonies of the minor scale with a V-major / V-7 chord, and the melodic minor, which has a different descending and ascending form.

With these departures, Western music was becoming less tied to a particular key. Composers were experimenting with using cadence to move or ‘modulate’ from one key to another (at first usually from I to V and back again). The scales of music were becoming more flexible and chromatic.

Resolution and Tonality

J.S. Bach was famous for his masterful modulations within small-scale pieces. However, Western music, in the time of C.P.E. Bach (one of sons of J.S. Bach), developed a new compositional technique based on moving a piece of music away from its home key and then resolving it back, in a very specific, formal way. C.P.E. Bach is actually credited with inventing this; it’s sometimes called ‘tonalism’ or ‘tonality’ or ‘Classical harmony’, and it underpins the Sonata and Symphony forms in Classical music.

These large-scale musical forms depend upon a sense of key (or ‘tonal centre). Compositions are given a strong sense of structure or ‘form’ (hence the term ‘Classical’ – like the structure of Classical Greek architecture), by moving themes away from the tonal centre and then back again. This is why parts of Sonatas and Symphonies are called ‘Movements’.

The use of tonality was hugely exciting development in Western music. It added a completely new dimension of semantic meaning to phrases and sections.

Naturally enough, Mozart was a wonderful exponent; and it isn’t just on a large scale – from movement to movement – that he makes use of it. On the smaller scale, of musical phrasing, he plays with our sense of key very subtly and expertly. In this way he adds a new level of context to his phrasing. Melodies are not just harmonised for colour, they take on a kind of abstract meaning depending on their relationship to the tonal centre. The effect is difficult to describe, but very powerful to the listener.

Someone might say of Mozart, ‘it feels so balanced’ – what they’re experiencing is the feeling of the balance and tensions of the melodic phrases moving around the tonal centre.

‘Two-Five-One’

The usual pattern in early Sonata form (prior to Beethoven who began an era of much more adventurous use of tonality) was to move from I to V and back to I again. The resolution from V to I is a natural one; but in order to rest on the V for a while, the music must first cadence or resolve to it. So cadence will begin on the fifth of the fifth, which is II, and cadence to the V, then from the V cadence to the I.

From that we get the II-V-I (‘two-five-one’) progression.

This became a very important progression in Jazz. If you have a look at the long chorus in the Jazz standard ‘That Old Devil Called Love’ you can see that, as well as a lot of chromaticism, it’s full of II-V-I progressions based on different tonal centres.

Fm-Bb-Eb (II-V-I to Eb) … Cm7-Fm-Bb (II-V-I to Bb) … D7-(Ab in passing)-Gm7-C7 (II-V-I to C) … C7-F9-Bb7 (II-V-I to Bb) …

The Circle of Fifths

It’s possible to extend the II-V-I further, starting at a fifth above each chord and resolving, so you you get VI-II-V-I, or III-VI-II-V-I … or further: in theory you can go all the way round the ‘circle of fifths’ and back to the starting point. Although few songs extend that far, Classic Jazz is full of such segments of the Circle of Fifths.

The cadencing of the resolving fifths gives a satisfying feeling of forward movement, and the changes in key (or ‘tonality’) give the player melodic material to work from.

Modern modalism

During the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, adventurous Classical composers felt they had extended tonalism as far as it would go; some began to use new techniques of ‘atonalism’, but others began to explore earlier music, including medieval modalism.

In avante-garde Jazz during the 60s, the II-V-I pattern common to Jazz standards started to many musicians to feel like a cliche – the same chord patterns again and again, the same repeating key changes like gear changes in a car. It was predictable and boring. It was probably in part the influence of 20th Century classical music, and also partly the influence of blues and rock, which have always naturally used a lot of Dorian mode; but Jazz musicians during this time also returned to modalism as a freer, simpler, spacier basis for their compositions.

This a track I just recorded:

zero.enmity
‘Extemporised melodies based on Itsukushimi Fukaki’

mp3 download available here.

I call it ” think of this one as ‘post-modern retro’ – it’s an improv/extemporisation based on the popular Japanese ‘sambika’ (hymn/song of praise). You might recognise the theme, it’s well known by its English name.

The song ‘Itsukushimi Fukaki’ is usually translated as ‘Deep Affection’, but the word Itsukushimu (itsukushimi is sort of a participle form of the verb) means so much more – especially in it’s ‘sun’ form, it’s one of those Chinese-derived words with a meaning that’s sort of very subtle and specific, but also – in English terms – very broad.

Itsukushimu (that’s the native Japanese or ‘kun’ form), means to be affectionate, loving or to treat tenderly.

‘Ji’ also means those things, and also ‘universal love, compassion, benevolence and loving kindness.
According to my kanji dictionary, it forms a part of the compound words ‘jihi’ (慈悲 mercy/compassion); jiai (慈愛 loving affection); jizen (慈善 charity); jibo (慈母 an affectionate, loving mother); and ‘jiu’ (慈雨 welcome rain).

(more kanji info here)