Sunday, 18 March 2018 20:38

Reflections on truth and what it means to a musical artist (March 18, 2018)

At first blush, the concept of truth is a simple idea. In the most basic understanding of the word, truth is that which we can define as real and more over prove is real.

This might be the definition of the word, but words mean more than their face value. As humans, we assign subtext to everything we say and we communicate not only with our word choice but also our vocal inflections. Indeed, everything we do from what music we listen to to how we style our hair speaks about what we mean. We are social creatures that constantly communicate even when we aren't aware that we are doing so.

So, truth becomes more layered and nuanced as we take into account these extra layers of subtext.

In addition, while we might strive to be impartial, and we should, it isn't really an achievable goal. At some point, what is truth for us will be co-opted by our lens which is shaped from the day we are born and reflects the life lessons we learn. Life can be very different from one person to another so how we perceive the same events, ideas or truth will also be different.

Here, things get interesting as we obviously have things that separate us from one another, but we also have a great deal more that should bring us together. Therefore, being an artist is just as important as being a police officer, doctor or lawyer.

Why? Because through art, we can act as historians, philosophers and healers. Put another way, we can remind people of things they have forgotten, imagine the future and bring people together to form communities where understanding and love are at the forefront of the group consciousness!

So, we have established that truth is at once complex and simple.

There are, what I would call, universal truths that can't be redefined (eg, I need air to breathe). Yet, there are some truths that are up for debate and interpretation. Like concepts of moralities, those that support the death penalty and those who oppose it. Both sides have compelling arguments and it is here where we should look back to the ancient Greeks for guidance as we have for so much of our modern western civilization and democratic ideals!

The ancient Greek concept of retore, the idea that if there are two opposing view points, honest debate with civility will bring the truth forth is laudable and I would like to think even possible. I love the idea and in a more perfect society this would indeed be the case. This is where we get the idea of legal counsel from but in modern life the idea of reason and measure and honest debate without personal animosity has been mostly lost to history. Not that I belive in a golden age, there probably never was one and opining for one is counterproductive. Rather let's aspire to these nobler ideals and help people find a more perfect existence using art to bring forth our race's better nature!

We must at this point tackle a few things that those Greeks of old passed down through the ages.

First, regarding the rather limited ideas that Tolstoy sets forth regarding what makes good art, or put another way how we share our truth. The reason for this is simple, his definition of what is good or worthwhile art is much too limited and this impacts our ability to get at the truth with art, which is one of art's primary functions.

The evidence is incontrovertible that man is driven to create art. This desire is the spark of divinity that each man possesses. From the moment that mankind became self-aware, evolved beyond simple instincts for survival, and became possessed of the need to communicate and explore what it is to be human, art was conceived and born. The timeless need to explore the questions of who we are, where we come from and our purpose drives art in the modern world as it did in the ancient. Part of the human condition is to fall prey to the trap of feeling that we are alone and that no one can truly understand our journey in life and the good and the bad elements of that journey. The reason that art is so crucial and has equal value to mere survival is that it puts the lie to this feeling of isolation and even though it is not possible to fully understand another person's journey, art allows us to empathize. Art also fulfills the roles of preserving history, fueling philosophical concepts so that we might explore them together and allowing us to imagine new states of being and to share the spark of imagination with others.

Tolstoy's comments regarding the way art can be infections, such as one man laughing and another becomes merry, is an obvious truth and one that I do not dispute. However, Tolstoy's obsession with art being infection and that being a primary attribute of good art, at least from our modern perspective, seems overly simplistic. He speaks of "good art" as a virus. It is no coincidence that we speak of popular music in the same terms using marketing concepts like "viral videos". But these viral transmissions of thoughts are not art. We know that people are obsessed with cat videos on YouTube, that some of these videos have millions of views, and are "viral". But a cat playing with a ball of yarn, while adorable, is not art. Similarly, if we are to take art into the realm of business, a necessary step so that artists can continue to create compelling art, we find that the viral/infectious nature of popular art is not a moniker of quality but rather simply an idea with simple, universal concepts that is easily consumed. The consumption gives us temporary pleasure but does not leave us with any profound change in thought or awaken in us new vistas of spiritual or intellectual exploration.

To be sure, hit songs like "The Macarena" are catchy but have no substantive value and over time become disposable with no true emotional connection or permanent impression given to the consumer. So, Tolstoy's concept of infection equating good art does not stand up in the modern era. One of the ways that we can disprove this concept of infectiousness equating to good art is understanding that a "hit record" requires playing to the lowest common denominator—or put another way, the more simply the art is expressed, the more readily it is consumed. This is easily proven by looking at song content and noting that most top albums or singles use simple, universal themes like love gone wrong. Therefore, the unique quality that Tolstoy espouses is counterproductive if one wishes to have a viral piece of art. Rather than a unique perspective, one must adopt a universal perspective. The more unique the art, the smaller the market for its consumption, so the less infective or viral it becomes. One might argue that for truly powerful art that is transcendent in nature, a unique perspective is key, but that path leads us to what we might call "real art" only being appreciated by those that are initiated into more complex aesthetics.

In the case of music, if we attend a university to become versed in the understanding, application and creation of music, we surrender part of our individuality and are taught, in some ways, to conform to a preconceived aesthetic. For example, most students in the early phases of their musical education are taught not to combine sharps or flats in the key of C as its key signature is 0, meaning that all notes are natural. And yet, as we grow as artists and move from basic concepts to more complex harmonic relationships, we find ways of bringing notes that fall outside the key into play, creating art that is more richly complex and compelling. This is especially true in genres such as jazz or 20th -century classical. But these markets for expression have a much smaller audience and the audience has a fuller exposure to complicated harmonic ideas. If one tried to bring more complicated harmonic structure into the realm of country or pop music, the consumers of these genres would find it difficult to absorb the dissonance created. So, the question of what makes great art and what is consumable, surface-level art is more complicated than Tolstoy's definitions can encompass.

The final problem with Tolstoy's definitions, besides the fact that he could not imagine the modern world in which we live and the way in which we are so interconnected through social media, is what would appear to be an obvious oversight. Simply stated, the way he imagines communication of art from the artist to the consumer is flawed because we perceive the world in which we live and the art that is the mirror of that world through our own experiences and bias. The vision that I have when I create a piece of art will only be interpreted and understood by the consumer based on their experience, their philosophy, their passions, and their education. Studying of any kind certainly broadens the mind and opens one up to being able to understand more complex concepts but educations also requires the partial surrendering of individuality.

Tolstoy is correct as far as his thesis goes but it fails to account for the complexity of transmission from the artist and interpolation by the consumer. His concept also is limited by the imagination of a man in his era who could not possibly conceive of the myriad ways in which the modern world transmits thoughts.

What this practically means for someone who wants to dedicate themselves to the most noble pursuit of creating art in the hopes of bettering mankind and the experience of living itself is encapsulated in a concept that Tolstoy got right. The concept is universal and, at least from my 21st-century perspective, seems immutable and timeless—it is Tolstoy's concept extrapolated and rephrased as the core artistic principle that all artists instinctually understand, and that is to be genuine and create art because ones spirit demands it. Only an artist that is truly obsessed with the need to create and communicate can remain genuine, and therefore compelling, raising art to the high bar set by the great thinkers of old like Tolstoy and Aristotle. Art that is disingenuous, gimmicky, or purely created from intellect rather than emotion, will not stand the test of time and will become irrelevant and disposable. It is a foregone conclusion that much truly great art will fall on deaf ears and not be infectious while other great art may find universal appeal. The struggle to balance art that is truly remarkable while at the same time make a living as an artist is an age-old balancing act and the reason that artists such as myself have chosen to study their craft when ever and where ever they can. The struggle between the need to survive and the compulsion to create is part of the beauty of being an artist, as the struggle elevates art to the status of the profound, because it is not easy and requires intellect, refining of intellect through training (i.e., the science of art), and true inspiration and creativity in the purely spiritual realm as described by Plato as the world of ideas, where inspiration lives.

So, the above is the truth as I see it. No doubt there are others that might choose to rebut my hypothesis, but who is right? What is the truth? Does it matter?

Sharing truth in the context of being a musical performer is the best way I know to both teach and learn and forge a more perfect reality. I believe Bobby McFerrin expresses this concept well when he says "true artists do more than entertain. They have a positive effect on you."

Some of what Tolstoy said is certainly true and in the words of Obi Won Kenobi, "from a certain point of view", however the truth I find in making art, which gets at the question of understanding truth, both my own and other beings, is better reflected with Plato's concepts of decay and the world of ideas. To understand why Plato's "truth" speaks to me more than Tolstoy's or other great thinkers and philosophers, I will briefly over-simplify Plato's cave allegory and concept of decay or as I see it entropy.

Plato asks us to imagine a cave where we are facing the back wall and seeing shadows dancing on that cave wall. All we can see from our perspective of facing that wall are the shadows of people and things as they are poorly projected on to that canvas that is our reality, the back-cave wall. Now, we imagine that somehow we have been freed from this limited perspective and are free to turn around and see that behind us this entire time has been a bond fire where people are eating, dancing, living. We can now perceive that what we saw before and took to be truth, was just a poor and distorted reflection of what was real. This allegory goes on for some time taking us farther up the rabbit whole rather than down it eventually getting us to being outside the cave looking up at the sun and stars and then moving us from that to the "world of ideas", which for Plato is analogous to heaven or another plane of existence where the most perfect version of our reality dwells. Interestingly, physicists are now postulating that the edges of our universe might contain holographic information and our entire universe that we perceive is just a reflection broadcast from the edges of our existence and we are all holograms—sounds like Plato's world of ideas to me.

There is a lot to unpack here but the basic point is that as we grow and learn, what is truth undergoes a similar evolution!

Moving on to Plato's belief of entropy, which he calls decay, we can understand that there is a natural wax and wane to life and correspondingly to thoughts and complex belief structures. Once people thought it was perfectly normal and even correct to own slaves. That idea to everyone I know is abhorrent and evil. But at one time that wasn't the prevailing truth of our society and it took artists and activists, sometimes embodied in the same person, to bravely advocate for a better tomorrow! What many miss with Plato's belief of decay or entropy is that while it is sad for some ideas to die and for us to lose loved ones to entropy, it is a function of being human for things to be born, grow, procreate and the leave this plane. Sad as it is, this cycle of life is needed. For without decay and the passing away of the old, we can't give birth to the new and hopefully more evolved expression of human kind.

I for one cherish life and have fought for every day of it that I can as a brain tumor survivor. I am a fighter and want every second of life I can grab. I belive I have a purpose in this mortal coil and that art is that purpose. That being said, I will gladly leave when it is my time knowing that it wasn't enough for all my dreams and aspirations, but that is why our time now is so precious and we must make the most of it!

One thing is for sure, only by presenting our truth and sharing truth with others can we grapple our way to a more perfect understanding of who we are and how we wish to evolve.

Our second task gets back to the problem of life not being, by and large, black and white but rather some gradation of many colors and textures. There is room for many points of view in a healthy society.

It is trite, but we have evolved many sayings to explain this need to hold several concepts of what truth is in our minds at the same time. Sayings like "one man's trash is another man's treasure" and you "say potato I say potato" have been over used but still have a core of their own truth and that truth is that we can only describe what we have experienced.

Therefore art is a great force for good because through our art we can find common ground but also express new ideas. If we start from a basic place that all can agree upon as true, then we can evolve our understanding of our neighbor's truth and start to incorporate at least some of that new perspective into our personal lives and that of our community.

This makes this poor reflection of the world of ideas that much clearer and better for all!

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Select favorites from some of Joey's top albums, plus a bonus tribute to Joey.
"When I was about 12 years old, I became a fan of public radio and the classic and modern radio shows they broadcast, not to mention the amazing music and news programs that are at the heart of public radio. I was very sick as a child as the result of a brain tumor which is also the reason I am blind. One of my favorite shows was made by the company ZPPR out of New York. George Zar one of the founders and I became friends. I called George once, at the age of 12 or 13 and told him I was a fan. I got letters from the cast of the ZPPR productions wishing me well and to get better and then they even named a character of the show after me. Here is a clip where that character was featured." —Joey
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Still Me, Sane And Free
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Take A Walk In The Shadows
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Truth Is A Misty Mountain
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We'll See
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ZPPR Tribute to Joey