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Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Information V. Knowledge

A few weeks ago a commenter brought up the notion of a dichotomy between information and knowledge.  This goes far beyond jazz education and indeed touches on what it means for us as individuals to navigate through this man-made “information age” that we live in.  In relation to jazz education we can characterize this dichotomy as the difference between learning something new about music and the use of that new information to create music. In layman’s terms we can say something like “the difference between playing notes and making those notes mean something”. 

This is obviously a complex topic because it brings up a paradox, one that could give Buddhists a run for their money!  In any discussion about or analysis of music (whether it is a composition or an improvised jazz solo) one must necessarily reduce the music to its barest elements often using academically derived terminology.  For example upon listening to Sonny Rollins’ great solo on “St. Thomas” a young saxophone student might be drawn to Rollins’ exploitation of the low range of the tenor saxophone. An analysis of the upper and lower most limit of a melody is sometimes referred to as “Tessitura” and it makes a useful point of discussion in jazz education when a teacher wants to point out the “drama” of the extreme ranges of the different instruments.  What can a student do with that information? They could try to explore the extreme upper and lower range on their instrument and that would be and academically logical exercise to pursue. However whether or not they could use that information to make music (here I mean music as something artistically satisfying….well you come up with a better definition of music!) is really up to them. In other words the student must find a way of taking “information” and turning it into “knowledge”.  These two things are very separate human activities and there is a paradox implicit in this statement.  Because what is knowledge but the internalization of information? And yet could any analysis of Rollins’ solo, filled to the brim with information, ever completely relay the “meaning” of those notes? Could we take all those notes and information about how to play those notes and give it to a computer and would that computer then be able to convincingly reproduce the music?  I believe that how we answer these questions have a lot to do with how we generate culture.

Culturally speaking it’s pretty easy to look around, at the media, the internet, tv and notice that we are constantly bombarding ourselves with information. We do it as a form of entertainment but we also do it as a way of life.  Yesterday a student showed me a file he downloaded from a Bit Torrent site that contained every recording by Miles Davis.  I mean EVERY record ever made by Miles even as a sideman! I was floored mostly because I realized that I hadn’t even listened to half of these records. “Which one’s your favorite?” I asked. “I don’t know I haven’t listened to them all”. Maybe this is good to have on your computer for reference.  Maybe one could get to listening to all this music (some of it arguably better than the rest).  But the fact is that this student also had every South Park episode, every Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, every Seinfeld episode and 1.2 gigs of jazz related literature (from fakebooks to jazz piano transciptions) also downloaded from the torrent site. This gathering of information is a sort of pass-time. It’s relevant to our lives in every way but there is so much out there that the best any of us can do is ammass it on our hard drives. 

If you read interviews with our current generation of jazz elders they say things like they listened to Art Tatum on 78s when they were young. The long-playing record was just out in the later ‘50s so I assume this development in technology allowed the young jazz student to listen to up to 25 minutes of music at one time (assuming they were willing to take the disc out of the sleeve and place it carefully on the player and gently put the needle down…that took a good minute and a half!) And yet I’ve never heard Chick Corea lament that he could only find a certain limited number of Art Tatum recordings or that this was somehow an obstacle to his development as a musician.  Talk about a generation gap. Even when I was a student in the ‘90s the internet was basically for email and stealing pop music. I had to put on vinyl records of music that was not yet re-released on cd. 

I can’t help but feel that the net result from this kind of passive gathering of information is that we can obtain and capture more information than ever however the state of mind with which we gather that information posses a major obstacle to us ever knowing anything.  We become fixated on more, more, more…

The greater significance to us is that we perhaps think less about what we read, hear, or see.  In the case of becoming a jazz musician nobody will ever get hurt if you own all the Miles Davis records without knowing who played on them or what year they were recorded.  But in other facets of our lives this mentality becomes potentially dangerous to our health.

Take for example the inundation of seemingly conflicting information spewed at us by the media regarding the H1N1 Vaccine.  I am a parent of a 2 year-old so I’ve had to recently decide whether this would be potentially harmful or not for my son to receive his vaccine. Turns out that all of the information that I could passively get from the media without doing any research of my own (on Yahoo when I open my email, the tv when its on around the home) doesn’t really solve the problem. In fact I’m left with the overwhelming feeling of “oh shit, this is not good….or is it?” It seemed to me that the more I tried to pay attention to what was already out there the more confused and overwhelmed I got on the subject. And yet I became somehow addicted to hearing everything I could whenever it presented itself to me even after I knew that I wouldn’t get all the information I needed.  After a while I just got run down and tired. I felt like I knew a lot about the issues involved without really knowing what was best for me or my family.  Learning to play jazz is way easier than deciding whether or not to get the flu shot. 
So in the end isn’t it much better to have listened to “Kind of Blue” a gazillion times rather than every Miles record once or twice? Isn’t it better to enjoy and remember the great writing of Seinfeld one episode at a time rather than 10 seasons in one weekend?  What do we want to have on our hard drives and what do we want to have as a part of us?  Why does it bother us that all we probably need is one book on jazz piano that we actually study? I referred back to the “Jazz Piano Book” by Mark Levine for about 7 or 8 years and even then I never fully practiced all of his exercises. But what I did check out became a part of me forever.  This “knowledge” that takes information and makes it a part of us is ultimately our source of stability and grounding in a confusing world. 

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