Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah: Stretch Music

Stretch Music (Introducing Elena Pinderhughes)

Stretch Music is the third album that the 32-year-old bandleader has composed using his “forecasting cells” technique. Framed by its creator as a means of structuring musical conversations by providing better context for improvisation, this method is the practical means Scott has used to further his goal of stretching the boundaries of jazz to cover as wide a spectrum of musical traditions and dialects as possible. Most immediately, that means that though his core training and vantage point is tied to jazz, his music strives to incorporate R&B, hip hop, and modern pop music into its vocabulary.

Such eclecticism is common to an entire array of artists in contemporary black music. Those who, like Scott, have approached the question of integrating music from different genres include Robert Glasper, Nicholas Payton, and newer players like Kamasi Washington––not even mentioning Badbadnotgood and more traditional jazz bands with a knack for pop interpretation like Mehldau and The Bad Plus. Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat form a complementary pole within pop music, and it’s no surprise that almost all of the men I’ve listed have all collaborated or at least covered each other’s work. What distinguishes Scott from these others, besides his love of engineering his own instruments, is the fact that he’s given his approach a systematic treatment.

At the core of this fairly loose and accommodating system is the concept of communication. Scott defines his music’s success or failure by the clarity with which it communicates emotions and ideas. Forecasting cells, the technical framework through which he works out collective improvisations, are supposedly meant to aid his bands in communicating specific sentiments through sound. In essence, they’re a way for Scott and his band members to engage in mutual criticism, forcing each other to reshape their playing to establish a more disciplined and rigorous form of mutual “discussion” during performances. The same spirit extends to Scott’s feelings on written or verbal criticism. He writes, in a manifesto of sorts for stretch music:

“In my view, a necessary step in the maturation of any artist is the development of the ability to be objective about someone else’s reaction to their work. I feel a wider vision and understanding of music, and oneself, can be gained if artists allow this concept to become part of their artistic process.”

Essentially, in order for a form of music to avoid stagnation, it has to keep a lively critical dialogue going, inclusive of artists and listeners. Incorporating lessons learned from what others feel about your music, Scott suggests, is an important step in self-improvement and in avoiding empty repetition. If music is about communication above all else, it makes sense to gauge the reactions of the people listening. Combined with Scott’s outreach efforts like an app designed to help people break his album apart, make remixes, and learn to hear and play music better and his work in high school music programs and tutoring work, and it looks like at least the outlines of a comprehensive project. It’s not making music and just responding to the decisions of the market as if they’re actually honouring the needs of real people, and it’s not music-as-academic-gesture that could make some important breakthrough but fail to communicate to anyone outside a tiny sphere.

It’s this dedication to working with and through other people and introducing new elements into his music and his band––note the young age of most of his collaborators here––that tempers his voracious eclecticism and makes it something more substantive than merely playing trumpet over a hip hop beat and calling it a new synthesis. This is not to say (at all) that those who have been less vocal or systematic about their approach have not achieved some significant successes, but just that it is useful to have a rough outline of a greater project where music, education, and thoughtful reflection can all be mutually reinforcing.

With all that said, there is not much to add in the way of a traditional review. Scott’s own playing has not advanced considerably past his work in 2012’s Christian aTunde Adjuah, which is to say that it remains excellent. On “Tantric,” he projects strikingly clear tones into space over snare-heavy drums. It’s certainly reminiscent of hip hop in its rhythms, but what marks this track as a standout is the way it evokes a vast space, mysterious without being alienating. Its the polar opposite of “West of the West,” which explores much knottier terrain, particularly with the aid of bassist Kris Funn. It might fit best into a “fusion” category, integrating electric guitars and a recognizable melody with a very dense beat laid down by the rhythm sections.

The person I noticed the most in the first ten listens or so is Elena Pinderhughes, a flautist who gets an “introducing” credit in the title of the album on iTunes. Though she’s been fairly well known for a flautist for long enough that that she’s hardly being introduced here, she makes a powerful impression. The first track, “Sunrise in Beijing,” sees her working a duet with Scott, and her playing certainly distinguishes Stretch Music from its predecessors more strongly than it would have. She fits in well, though I have difficulty describing precisely how, and I hope to gain more insight with further listens.

To conclude, I would only say that the rhythm section here is magnificent, especially the two drummers who are able to inject fascinating contrasts into the base of the rhythm itself, particularly on songs like “Tantric.” I’m not sure that this album will occupy as much of a place in my life as Christian aTunde Adjuah, especially since I have less time to listen to music, but I feel that this is a quality addition to Scott’s body of work and another exciting confirmation that he’s onto something significant in jazz. I hope he and his collaborators benefits from the recent surge of interest in the space between jazz and pop music.

Bizarro Textbooks From the Front Lines

Hatred of textbook extortion is probably the one thing that could unite all North American university students. Copyright being what it is, there is often a disconnect between the size of the books we buy and the prices we are expected to pay. I’ve been up close and personal with the textbook buying process in the last couple of weeks, and have a few tidbits I thought were worth a late-night article. A little dip into the twilight zone of textbooks, we’ll say.

Human beings, especially human beings at a retail establishment, rely on their eyes to a disproportionate degree. It’s how we judge most food, meaning companies spend much of their time grooming food to look sexier rather than, you know, taste more delicious. Our visual impulses when buying books tell us that the larger and heavier the book, the more it should cost. A book the size of a pamphlet, in our minds, probably shouldn’t set us back more than ten dollars. But if it’s a collection of readings published in academic journals, that wafer-thin book is going to inflict punishment to the tune of over fifty dollars, at least. In this case, knowledge of publishing market dynamics is more useful than a visual impression. It still leaves many students with their jaws on the floor, dragging sadly as they walk out of the store with their newly purchased millstones.

But when it comes to textbooks and visual discrepancies, I’m interested in juicier material. Namely, the weird mismatch between what a book’s contents might be and the cover the publisher chose to wrap their product in. In a whirlwind of both direct experience and quick web searches, I discovered a few books that range from head-scratching to truly beyond the pale of reasonable design. In fact, attempting to rationalize these covers is probably much more fun than reading the words.

As an unrelated first example, I cannot begin to tell you why Monthly Review Press published a book on the financial crisis and put Samir Amin's mug on the cover. Haymarket would never pull this stunt.
As an unrelated first example, I cannot begin to tell you why Monthly Review Press published a book on the financial crisis and put Samir Amin’s mug on the cover. Haymarket would never pull this stunt.

Let’s ease into it. First, we have a textbook called Psychology: Themes and Variations, written by a trio of authors and published by Nelson. For comparison, let’s take a look at a version of this venerable text from the late 1990s:


It looks dated now, but the abstract approach to the cover graphic has kept it relatively appealing and you could make a strong case for why this picture is on the front of a psychology textbook. Sure, it could also adorn a geometry textbook or a half dozen other subjects, but, unlike the new version, it does not actively disguise itself as another subject. Behold:


I don’t recall noticing the Stephen Hawking quotation on the physical copies I’ve seen, but even with it removed, the first thought anyone would have upon seeing this book is “space.” In a more just alternate universe, this is an astronomy textbook. It’s true that you could argue that we perceive space with our minds or that the stars and the sky can function as a visual metaphor for psychology in some way. But it’s so much of a stretch that it utterly fails to communicate itself visually. Adding that Hawking quotation just makes me all the more suspicious that these covers were printed with the wrong title and author’s name and the publishing firm just shrugged and sent them out to unsuspecting psych students who are going to learn much more about Jupiter’s moons than they bargained for.

Our next specimen also upsets my expectations, but in a much less bemusing way. When you think of Plato’s Republic, or, for that matter, Plato at all, you probably visualize something like this:


Or this


Both are sensible, no-nonsense covers that accurately convey the fact that this is a book written by a Greek philosopher named Plato who probably had a beard of some luxuriousness. They’re staid and predictable, but that is almost comforting to the average first-year student in an intro to philosophy class. What follows is a cover that makes a modicum of sense but still made me do a double take when I saw it:


True, The Republic/Republic does at times concern a vaguely utopian civilization that acts as a detailed metaphor for Plato’s ideal society of virtue. I would argue that the blinding sunset in 1980s Dystopia does not accurately convey this information. As a matter of fact, this design reminds me of nothing as much as airport novel books where the author’s name is printed so gigantically that the background could be anything and still pass stealthily by. It’s not baffling like the psych book, but it’s still a puzzling choice when “pasty statue” and “that one painting” are such obvious alternatives. I understand the need for a distinctive cover, but this is actually less distinctive than the stereotypical Plato covers, sublimating into something that is just truly bland.

From here we cross into uncharted territory, where respectable publishing houses produce material that actively confounds perception. These need less comment if only because their strange inappropriate design is much more blatant. Example:


Oxford, as many might know, is a university complex in England, quite some distance away from Canada. I state this obvious geographical fact only because it’s the only straw I can grasp at to explain why the usually astute design team at Oxford decided to publish MacIvor’s book sheathed in a cover that does not even try to evoke its own subject matter. It appears to be depicting droplets of water and a meniscus or the top edge of some water in a container. A few of these drops are wayward, perhaps more free-willed than the others, drifting toward the bottom of the cover while leaving enough wiggle room to put the title and author’s name in there. I would love a cogent explanation of this, but I’m not holding my breath. What’s next?


Well, I…


Not sure…


Just a second!

For a brief and magic moment I thought the chicken was nesting on sheet music, but it was just my brain trying to trick me into thinking this makes sense.

Not really anywhere else to go. I suppose I would be able to write this off as “following tradition” if it weren’t for the fact that the book used to look like this:


Which means the chicken was without a doubt intentionally introduced as a theme. Good night, everyone.

The Japanese Communists’ Cuteness Campaign

Translation: Member in charge of “employment” Youkou Yoko (Employment Yoko)

Leftists in Japan have never had an easy time. State repression and one-party dominance of the legislature have worked to squeeze out most forms of official opposition. The Japanese Communist Party (JCP) has been no exception. Despite being one of the leading social forces in Japan after the fall of the military government and the end of the Second World War, the party’s own failures to maintain a politics independent from the Soviet Union led it into a spiral of splitting and marginalization.

Of course, the Chinese Revolution in 1949 also provoked the Americans occupying Japan to reverse their attempts at democratizing Japan and led them to enact a policy of clamping down on labour and left movements and returning power to bureaucrats and monopolies. Rapid economic development, represented in the postwar era by rising GDP, became seemingly the only national priority, with the legacy today of a Japan with limited sovereignty that is dependent on American military protection and the colossal exploitation of its own increasingly precarious population, not to mention imperialist rents drawn from abroad.

But the JCP still exists and remains one of the most powerful old-guard communist parties in Asia to have never taken power. Putting aside questions of its political line or its relevance to politics today, it has produced some rather unique propaganda materials in recent years. While most communist and other left movements adhere to more traditional poster art styles, the JCP has adopted the aesthetics of “cute” manga, which are widely used even by governments and official organizations in Japan. Police departments, for example, often adopt cute manga-style mascots. Cuteness, or kawaii in Japan is, even more than in the West, an all-embracing aesthetic that is fairly gender-neutral, communicating softness and a non-threatening affect.

The poster seen below is representative of the JCP’s campaign:

Translation of the white text: “Japan will turn into a warlike state!” The dogs are labeled “Self-Defence Dogs.”

This poster protesting the ruling Liberal Democrats’ attempts to rearm Japan in the name of “collective self-defence,” in the tradition of political cartoons, personifies so-called “self-defence” as a pack of grinning attack dogs while the bookish character of the right, a personification of the Japanese constitution called Pouken (a pun on the Japanese word for constitution, “Kenpou”) calls for us to recognize the dangers. Note that the constitution is portrayed as an older gentleman, and his speech on the accompanying web page is written in the exaggerated style of a senior citizen. The JCP is thus positioning this new modification of the constitution as being against postwar Japanese pacifist traditions and values.

Another part of the web campaign is a series of videos outlining party policies––mostly defined in opposition to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government––in broad and humourous fashion. This one is a good example:

This video shows the JCP as a crusader against “Black Industry” and “Black Part-time Work,” which are terms used for highly exploitative workplaces, including sweatshops and offices that push workers into unpaid overtime. “Black Industry” perches atop a pyramid of overworked men in Japanese-style business attire, groaning under the weight. The JCP bursts in, represented as a woman in sharp glasses. At the end of each video, all of which can be found here, the party’s policy is summed up in a small slogan. A video discouraging the restarting of Japan’s nuclear power plants, for example, features a breakdancing sun shouting “protect our non-nuclear society!”

These graphics and videos might or might not be effective, and I have no way of judging that except on a subjective basis all the way out here in North America. But they do present a fascinating case of a left-wing party adapting its style of presentation to its home country. There’s nothing wrong with old-fashioned constructivist posters or other more traditional styles, but I have to say that I appreciate this campaign for its attempt to add levity to serious political matters, even if it can be cheesy.

Reference Archive of Note: Wilson Centre Digital Archive

Thanks to a post by fellow blogger Workers’ Dreadnought, I stumbled onto the online collections of the Wilson Centre Digital Archive, which appears to contain conversations about and by communists of many stripes and nationalities. All those who are interested in the history of global communism, particularly in Asia in the middle of the 20th century, ought to take a look at its holdings. I’ve linked to some of the more fascinating sections below. Enjoy.

Bandung Conference

Cultural Revolution in China

Conversations with Mao Zedong

Iran-Soviet Relations

Japan and the Korean Peninsula

Public History Journal Part 7: Conclusion

Screenshot 2015-09-06 17.05.37

Save for a possible third round of edits, my summer public history project is now complete. As I’ve been working remotely for more than a month, I’m unfortunately not able to share in the joys of finishing a good endeavour with my collaborators, but I want to take this moment to extend my thanks for their encouragement, editorial oversight, and general commitment to the project. Everyone carried out their work professionally and I believe the work benefited.

I’ll attempt to use this post to express final reactions to the project and use that as a base to ask questions about the role walking tours can serve in the area. Inevitably, shortcomings will arise alongside discussion of our accomplishments, but I hope that my previous words will indicate that the general weight of my feelings is in a positive direction.

The Bad News: I Start With a List of My and Our Failures and Limitations

As noted in the last post in this series, one of the core stories about the neighbourhood was also the most difficult to research and write about. Unfortunately, the breadth and depth of sources about the Latin@ population in the neighbourhood proved difficult to probe. What I did not say in the last post was that part of the reason for that was my lack of any personal contacts in the area itself. Since most of the Latin@ population in the area is a generation or two old, personal stories collected from oral interviews would have greatly fortified that part of the project. Partly because of the divide between academia and the rest of society, partly because of my own shyness and discomfort with knocking on doors or approaching strangers––and my lack of secondary connections to the people there––I was not able to conduct any in-depth interviews with locals who might be able to illuminate the recent past of the area.

Of course, in the process of combing the archives, I did unearth a series of oral interviews with Grand Rapids Latin@ people, but this happened so late in the summer that I lacked the time to sift through the audio or transcripts for something that might be relevant to the walking tour. Had I realized the existence of this oral history archive earlier, there may have been one or two stories to add to the mix. Instead, I had to restrict my investigation to general trends. It highlights the importance of thoroughly assessing the available resources before doing any work, because after beginning a task in earnest the minutiae in front of you can narrow your vision to an unacceptable degree, leaving a broad swathe of helpful sources obscured.

My Preparatory Work: An Evaluation

On the topic of preparation, I should note that I did try to do a comprehensive inventory of the academic and personal resources at my disposal. Accounting for both internal and external sources of energy and insight, I included personal skills, relevant friends and acquaintances, library archives, mapping software, census reports, and more. The resulting document was forbiddingly long, however, and I did not consult it as often as I originally planned. Again, the narrowness of each individual task has to be put into a broader context, and it wasn’t until the writing and editing stage that those considerations arose in my mind.

When researching the ecology of the neighbourhood, for example, there were no obvious links to the history of the rest of the neighbourhood––sadly reflected in the final written script, I’m afraid––but it was imperative to include the ecological aspect regardless of that difficulty. It remains and unsolved problem, largely because ecology had been written out of the more obvious histories of the region. Presenting it in a more natural and integrated fashion would have require making the watershed and its local impacts not only more visible but also reconnected to the body of the neighbourhood in a way that was unprecedented. Previous histories of the area, including other walking tours, have focused on the built environment without looking at what it was built on top of, or what was thereby obscured. At the very least, I hope that my tour will provoke some other enterprising commenters to continue the work I started and left largely incomplete.

Writing a History for the Residents

Most of the “readymade” secondary sources about the neighbourhood were heroic stories about prime citizens and wealthy patrons. These stories, being somewhat novelistic or even reminiscent of the tall tales that sprang up around Founding Fathers, make for both dry reading and bad history despite their initial usefulness. My hope was to get closer to writing a history of the neighbourhood that its own residents would both recognize and be able to learn from. It would 1.) affirm residents’ own status as part of the area in past and present and 2.) challenge the assumptions of both insiders and outsiders. Part of the first aspect is the physical work of the walking tour itself. What I mean is that the walking tour, unlike a book, is site-specific. It’s theoretically possible to listen to the walking tour on your audio player and ingest the entire text without being present in the area, but much of the text relies on links to locations and other sensory information, mostly visual.

Residents and visitors who participate in a walking tour therefore have to be present at a specific site in order for the text to convey the appropriate information. Every artwork or writing is, as Raymond Williams likes to say, a notation from a social process rather than a fixed “text” or artifact, but the process aspect of the historical walking tour is palpable in that it involves exercising muscles other than optical orbits and brow furrowing––maybe smiling?––to comprehend.

The tour is a force, in that those who consent to the rules that it lays down move from location to location not according to their own whims but according to specific directions laid out in the script. Ideally, this breaks down barriers of ignorance or indifference that wall off specific paths in the neighbourhood like invisible walls in a video game. It takes the neighbourhood and layers or codes a certain path into it, one that is both always present and always leading the listener into the near or remote past. Every tangible sight has a representational purpose, serving as a symbol or a relic of the events described in the script.

Sometimes this connection is fairly direct, as with a large park and nature centre. Other times, the stop is a street corner, and the directions ask the walker to contemplate the history of an entire group while seeing the built environment as a product of those peoples’ unique agency. The walking tour is an aid for sight as well as a good way to get out on a weekend and exercise.

All of this leads to the following conclusion: residents who are literally walking their own streets with the aid that I’ve written should be able to recognize themselves within the story, to understand themselves as rooted, at least partly, in this history. Does knowing that a particular bespectacled grandfatherly notable donated a strip of land for the park you visit with your children enhance that sense of connection? Or does it sound like another soundbite embedded in a plaque you never cared to look at? I felt and still feel that the history of a neighbourhood’s development through history as a history of people moving, settling, fearing, desiring, and rising up as a collective or assembly of different collectives is much more immediate and understandable to a resident. Who reads the donation plaques on museum walls except those who need a jolt of self-satisfaction?

“Great hero” narratives can work in history books for popular audiences because they are able to imbue subjects with mythical qualities, Promethean abilities. A walking tour, however, undercuts all of this because it exposes the limited and human scale of that person and their accomplishments. At least, in this neighbourhood it does. I feel no compulsion to perpetuate myths about first citizens. If there must be myths, and maybe they sprout like cobwebs in the corners of all histories, they should at least be made useful for bending the participant’s vision and helping to ground them in a particular place and time.

Finally, the second aspect of the walking tour is to take the person who feels like a part of the neighbourhood and daring to challenge them to some extent. Challenging the person at the onset of a walking tour might be dangerous because at that point there is no milieu or ground rules established for the area. Orientate first, then disorient. I’m not sure I accomplished this, but on reflection it seems like a good rule for the general structure of a walking tour.

Final Words:

As I put the walking tour behind me and look forward to a new set of historical challenges and projects, there is a sense that this experience was more informative, in aggregate, than many other more academic projects I took on. Unhitched from the usual schedule of papers and exams, it managed to bring a sense of history as a project for the wider world rather than a concentrated elite. That is not to say that the walking tour is not thoroughly stamped with the spirit of the academy and a sprinkling of its elitism. Nevertheless, in guiding people down a particular physical path it can bring about a more informed and more historically attuned listener. I would recommend that all historians try to engage in public history at least once if it’s at all relevant to their interests and hope that residents and visitors to the neighbourhood can glean some benefits from my work.