Saturday, January 10, 2009

May 2006: Relatively Speaking

There is something in science, actually physics, called frame of reference. It is about knowing where you are, a beginning state, a point of view, from which all further measurements are made and evaluated. I learned about this in high school physics. It immediately fascinated me. The application of this concept seemed both important and obvious not only in physics but in the social realm as well. Yet, while easy to conceptualize in a social or philosophic sense, it is much harder to put to good practice. I first started toying with this concept of social relativity in 1969-1970. This was the height of whatever the late sixties and early seventies social upheaval was all about. The Vietnam War, Black Liberation, Women’s Liberation, Sexual Liberation mainly due to "the pill," the Generation Gap, and drug abuse were all on our minds and wreaking havoc with our frames of reference.

We all wanted to be different. We all wanted to create a better world. We believed it. TV told us we could do it. We believed the TV. We were the first generation to have grown up with the boob tube or idiot box. In a half-hour, an hour at the most, things would resolve themselves most positively. Why not solve world hunger? Why not fix all the social problems everywhere? Why not buy the world a Coke? Here... enjoy. My work here is done.

We all wanted to be different. So, we all grew our hair and wore blue jeans... like all the time. We were so different, we were all the same. I found that a bit humorous then and totally hilarious now. When piercing and tattoos were all the rage, I just smiled. I think I know what they all were going through and thinking. But, I must say, it was easier for me to get a haircut and lose the jeans than it is to reverse tattoos. I can only conclude is that kids today are more committed to their expression of individualism. But, they may just be more desperate. It really depends on your frame of your reference.

Somehow marketing is intertwined with this basic need to assert our individuality by conforming. The rock anthems that set us part, filled us with passion for a better world are now used to sell Mercedes, beer, and whatever else is aimed at my demographic of erectily dysfunctional baby boomers. We have, for that matter moved away from recreational drugs to pills that help us make love, cope, sleep, and lose weight. All this makes me think about "Mothers Little Helper," "One Pill Makes you Smaller," and "Letting my Freak Flag Fly." Ah, to have been truly independent then. To be truly independent now. This is certainly a bit of relativity.

A more official definition, in this case from is in two parts:

1. A set of coordinate axes in terms of which position or movement may be specified or with reference to which physical laws may be mathematically stated. Also called reference frame.

2. A set of ideas, as of philosophical or religious doctrine, in terms of which other ideas are interpreted or assigned meaning.

Athletic endeavors are a perfect venue to experience social relativity. There is always someone faster or slower, someone more agile or less adept. Even Michael Jordan experienced this. Certainly, the greatest basketball player of the past twenty years and maybe ever had to realize he didn't have what it took when he attempted to play professional baseball.
I notice it when I am cycling. By myself, at times I feel like I am flying, the leader of my own two hour Tour de France. While at other times, I feel like I am slogging through molasses. Meanwhile, the speedometer registers about the same. I participated in a group ride, like the May 7th New York Bike Tour. It was just me and 35,000 other cyclists. I passed thousands of bikers, effortlessly, like they were standing still. But, thousands more passed me, effortlessly, like I was standing still. It is a totally relative environment.

In the world of relativity, music may be, at least for me, where the principle is best noticed in human interactions. I am speaking of musical performance here, specifically Armenian folk and party music which is my experience. The best musicians I have known and played with are conservatory trained and thus most knowledgeable in music theory and quite proficient at playing. The best even understand and have mastered the Middle Eastern scales or maqams. On the other end of the spectrum I have seen a full array of people who can barely walk and chew gum at the same time, musically speaking. There is always someone better, there is always someone worse.

Relativity in music, as in many aspects of life, is multi-dimensional. There are education, talent and knowledge of which I have spoken but there are independent variables of ego, the reason you are playing music, and the ability to meld into a group. By independent variables, I mean in the statistical sense. Basically, there is no correlation between talent/knowledge and how much ego one brings to the band stand. There is no correlation between ones talent level and whether one plays gigs for the love and joy of the music or simply for supplemental income.
One of the greatest duduk players is Djivan Gasparyan ( ). The duduk is a double reeded woodwind ( The short instrument is made from apricot wood with a reed that seems disproportionately large. It is uniquely Armenian and the national instrument of country. It has a haunting soulful sound that is like a mellow or muted saxophone. But this explanation or any other I could come up with falls short. Since the independence of Armenia from the Soviet Union, the duduk has entered the mainstream with Djivan leading the way. Since he was featured in Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ, Djivan has had plenty of film and TV work. You can hear the duduk anytime a director wants to convey the ethereal, the mysterious in a cosmic sense, or sadness, especially man’s inhumanity to man.

I performed once with Djivan. It was a surprise fiftieth birthday party for an Armenian fellow, a most successful entrepreneur. My friend David, an accordionist, arranged the job. Joining us was another good friend and percussionist, Johno. Having listened to Djivan’s recordings, I knew I was in for a challenging evening. His repetorie was so different from mine. My trepidation proved correct. I was hanging on for dear life as the master took us on tour, soaring into the aerie heights of Mt. Arakadz, down into the scenic dzors (canyons), and through the ancient churches of the country. What song was he playing? What key is he in now? Yikes! I felt like I had ten thumbs and was drenched in perspiration.

But I slogged on. David, Johno and I did our best to keep up with the master. He neither gave us any direction nor any of the looks the best of the best can give you when you clearly mess up. Once he started, he just kept on playing. People listened, danced and had a great time. When it was all over and we were packing up, Djivan came to each of us, shook our hand, gave us each a personal compliment and added “It was a pleasure playing with you.” I will never ever forget that.

On the other extreme, there is an equally talented conservatory trained clarinet player. I have had the chance to play with him on several occasions. He could be a very nice guy… at times. But, he could also be one surly SOB lording his talent and knowledge over the likes of me. He would always try to play songs he thought I wouldn’t know. He quickly understood that he could not leave me in dust with repertoire alon. So, he began playing complicated melodies in the most awkward keys for my instrument essentially making me all thumbs. I will always admire his talent and musical dexterity but not his musical bullying and rudeness. I really did not like the glimpse I got of his personality either.

There is another clarinet player, Souren Baronian. I only played with him once. I always admired his playing. He had great training and experience. He really knows his stuff. But, in our little pantheon of musicians he is not as highly regarded as Djivan or the aforementioned dolt. I realized his genius and gift only when I played with him. Souren is the consummate ensemble player. He has the innate ability to make a group sound better than its component parts. He adapts his style, or rather his style is adaptive to whomever he is playing with. In corporate training, team work and team building is something that is emphasized all the time. The message is that a well organized and managed team can yield better results than the members acting alone. It is even truer for bands. Souren leads without leading. He raises the entire level of the group. He helps create a groove in which everyone can excel and soar. It happened when I played with him. We cooked and I never so relaxed playing so well.

My last band story is about a friend of mine, a reader of this letter, on the other side of the talent spectrum. He loves the music and really enjoyes playing. But the last few times we played together, I had to tune his guitar. We used to laugh about it. I don’t know how many chords he actually knows. Some people used to call him “One Chord.” It didn’t matter. I loved playing gigs with this guy. His heart was into it, he could sing pretty well, and we always took our collective enthusiasm and made pretty good music so that the folks at the wedding, party or dance had a great time. We could have played songs he didn’t know. We could have played in keys for which he didn’t know the chords. But, what would have been the point? I actually miss making music with my old friend.

The classic vaudeville frame of reference gag is from the Three Stooges. They were movers and were told to set a piece of furniture on the “right wall.” Moe was facing Larry with Curly perpendicular to them. They were arguing over which wall the client meant. Moe decided to settle it by having everyone point to the right. They did and were further confused by the three choices they had. Good thing there wasn’t a fourth Stooge.

After so many years, seeing frame of reference clashes or disagreements is both humorous and painful. It can be like watching a car crash in slow motion. You can see it coming, watch it happening, and can do nothing to alter the heated outcome. At best, you might be able to find some common ground. At worst, you simply become the common enemy.

Religion is a tough area. People are really set in their beliefs. We call them beliefs rather than facts, but we hold and protect our frames of reference quite ferociously. In December 2004, I wrote about monotheistic religions and conjectured whether they could be referring to the same God. The fact that three of these religions who now seem to be at war with each other all began with the visions and divine inspirations of one Abraham kind of supports this. Yet, the frame of reference of the most devout in each camp only highlights differences and not similarities. Pity.

Personally, with the recent debate about same sex marriages in the US, I was leaning toward the heterosexual and procreative status quo. It is easy to adopt a point of view, in abstraction, especially the point of view that happens to align with ones own lifestyle. Then I began to think about a male couple I know. They have been together for years, clearly in love, compatible and comfortable. They are wonderful people. This in itself, while nice, is not the story. Several years ago they adopted an orphan from China. This little girl, their daughter, about two years old then, was doomed to a horrible existence. She had never really left her crib. My friends were concerned about her development because besides feeding and basic hygiene there was no caring, teaching or nurturing. My friends are lovingly raising her. She has an infinitely better life and opportunities than had she remained in the orphanage. I changed my frame of reference… relatively speaking.

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