Tuesday, 23 October 2012

New Old Music: A backlog

 Stand by for some tunes for your listening displeasure!

All works composed, performed and produced by Horns of the Bayou.


Monday, 22 October 2012

Isn't it Expensive? Part 1

Last night, watching the news, I learned that the Australian Labor Party will balance the budget using the usual routine of slashing services, raising "tax x" to fund a cut to "tax y" and as well do some clever predictions against commodity markets and invest accordingly. Nothing new there.

What did strike me was one of the new revenue raising strategies is to raise the cost of visas. A partner visa lodged in Australia costs $3060 at the moment. On reporting this news to my ever-suffering better half, she replied: but what exactly does that buy? This is a good question. After a period of reflection, I decided to make a simple but largely fair comparison of certain key living costs that an immigrant faces in both Japan and Australia. Are you, dear reader, Australian? If so you might want to shield your eyes and gird your loins. Or maybe move to another country, because you are getting g-g-g-gouged! All Japanese prices below converted to AUD rate current at time of writing.

Round One: Getting Settled in your new home.
Partner visa:

AU: (Lodged withing Australia/From Abroad): $3060/$2060
JP:  (Lodged wherever you want) $73

Document Translation

AU: Police check ($66), Family register ($66). Total $132+ Depends on individual
JP: $0

Health Check

AU: $250 per person, must be performed at designated examiner
JP: $100 (if required), varies according to provider.

AU: $3442

JP: $173

Verdict: Move to Australia and get g-g-g-gouged!

Round Two: Moving into a new home.

Please note for this round I have used Nagoya and Brisbane as benchmark cities as these are places I have knowledge of.

Inner City Monthly Rent: 3 Bedroom apartment/house
AU: Average ($2520)
JP: Average ($1650)

Suburban Monthly Rent 3 Bedroom Apartment/house
AU: Average ($1600)
JP: Average ($1038)

It must be noted here that not only are most suburbs relatively crime free in Japan they are also better linked in terms of public transport including buses, light rail and subway lines. Australian suburbs can be terrifying, isolated and frequently lack not only essential services  but have virtually no commercial diversity, populated by the exact same retailers as neighbouring areas. 

Verdict: Move to Australia and get g-g-g-gouged!

Round Three: Fresh Food

People say fresh food in Japan is expensive. This is as true as it is not. For example, if you choose to eat as the locals do, that is buying fruit, vegetables, fish and meat that is in season at the local supermarket and not department stores your food bill will be drastically reduced. However, should you hunger for mangoes in winter and apples in summer, you will have to pay accordingly. 

Further in my personal experience, quality control in Japan is much higher in Japan than it is in Australia. The produce and the diversity of suppliers from where it comes from that makes it to market makes Australia look very dodgy. Sure, an apple in season might cost $1.50 in Japan but that apple will be 3-4 times bigger than the Australian apple, taste better and if it is rotten, you can take it back to the store for an exchange! Just try that in Australia.

Finally as a vegetarian, my food bill is considerably different/specialised and is in many ways inherently cheaper than most omnivores. 

Verdict: Pretty much even, however, lack of brand power and commercial diversity in Australia makes certain commodities (detergent, soft drinks) extremely expensive.

Coming next time: Medical costs, utilities and welfare

Sunday, 21 October 2012

One thing at a time I – Go Back to the Start.

Home is a concept with special meaning for us all. I say “concept” and not “reality” (though the two are not always so easily divided) because it is important to draw attention to the cognitive, imagined dimension. To focus on the imagined dimension of home is to foreground the fact that home is equally made in the spaces of the mind as it is in physical spaces. However, this narrowing must come with a qualification: even while the individual (whether alone or as a member of a family or other community unit) is responsible for an individual concept of home his/her acts of imagination are as within a matrix of social and cultural influences. The home ideas of others, especially those with the privileges of dominant representation overlap and resonate on each other and on our own. Our concepts, of home or otherwise, are rarely wholly original and free from the fragments of others. We make our homes in the shadows of ideas cast by others as they make theirs in ours.

Home has always felt like an act for me. Perhaps this is because I moved away from my original domicile at the relatively early age of sixteen. I metaphorically wandered for several years until I stumbled on an academic path that would equip me with the intellectual tools necessary for apprehending my immediate reality. I gained home making narratives of others, particularly those of local Bundjalung Aborigines. They taught me that the places on which social and cultural institutions had been placed had a longer history and the very soil itself possessed memories of a belonging based on something other than colonization and empire building. Another concept of significant resonance to me was a Koori sense of time in which the past persists into the present. Anglo-sphere colonial narratives, rooted in traditions of documented lineage, force time into a narrow, linear, consecutive idea giving primacy to the knowledges that came before. Thus allowing an inhabited land to be declared terra nullius.

Being in a space, performing life over time creates place. The rhythm and repetition of the familiar and the strange to the point that it becomes familiar are the actions of making home. Where we place ourselves is where we make home. A concept of self is performed constantly always becoming in the milieu of space, place and people. Rarely do we have the opportunity to properly reflect on this process and it is unusual for many to perform explicitly, with purpose and consciousness. Which is not to devalue unconscious participation, since to do so merely buys into the oppressive language of binaries established by others for specific colonizing purposes. Perhaps it is more accurate to say we all possess differing degrees to which we feel “at home” so that the experience for some appears entirely natural and unquestioned (although it is not, it has in fact become that way through performances executed without friction from institutions of authority.) For others, such as myself, being at home is a deliberate act based on calculation and analysis.

This latter type of becoming at home faces the criticism, usually in the form of anti-intellectual interjection, as a kind of cynical artifice. To be obstinate, one could rightly claim that “natural” belonging is equally calculated as a person in possession of such feeling has been created and creates him/herself in a context conducive to prosperity. This is a position arrived at in order to perpetuate certain types of social and cultural hegemony, again not inherently negative yet nevertheless real. For those not positioned within this center, belonging and home must be constructed along different lines and so we return to the explicit performativity mentioned above.

Relocating to Japan required a sacrifice of the home cache that I had created over time in Australia. On a molecular level, it is unquestionable that the space of my former home and I are interconnected. Yet distance, both temporal and spatial, combined with other resonances such as relationship, food and ceremony in a different space have changed the quality of that feeling to such an extent that the place to which I refer to above persists only as memory. Even as I reside within the same cartographical coordinates, time, people and the world have moved on. The place has changed as much as I have and I was not there to see it.

It took considerable time for me to send out tender shoots of belonging into the social and cultural of earth of my new home in Japan. Naturally, I experienced various symptoms of culture shock. More accurately, I experienced cultural dislocation. The key strategy for opening up a dialectics of becoming between personal identity and a new landscape was that of language acquisition. Each new word, inflection and exchange between me and the locals was a branching out, a fixing of me in this new place. As my proficiency increased so did my sense of belonging. What had simply been unfiltered linguistic noise was now a tapestry of words defining place, time and the flavour of the place I lived. I no longer required the cognitive constructs of gaijin that I had naively relied on in the past, since I possessed the power of language. I became able to deconstruct in real time, based on experiences in the every day present the internal construction of Japan based on foreign knowledges and compounded by those gaijin unable, unwilling and uninterested in learning how to belong.

This resulted in a profound life change. After all, as I daily became more of this place in terms of a feeling of belonging, so too was I in a sense, becoming Japanese. Before proceeding, a cautionary note. This is a complex topic and I speak only from my own personal experience. I want to make it explicit that I am originally of the post-Imperial Anglosphere, that is, I am originally a monolingual, white Australian. This is important and although I only touch on it here I will write about it in an upcoming piece on the problematics of “authenticity”. When I say, “becoming Japanese” I do not intend the phrase to mean that I deliberately adopt behaviours and practices in order to be perceived as authentically Japanese. Instead, I refer to an ongoing process in which daily life, lived with reflexivity and curiosity produces countless opportunities to apprehend and comprehend cultural complexities of a host nation as an immigrant. As I undo my preconceptions of the world and myself so too do I create a field of belonging, a Japanese version of myself.

In this regard, my Japanese-ness does not require legitimation or validation. It may be judged and evaluated but the aim is and was never to slide myself into a popular or accepted, local or foreign construct of being Japanese. It is an intimate, subtle and reflexive personal expression. It is not, however, free from moments of awkwardness, shame and misunderstanding. But then again, life was like that before I ever came to Japan.

One of my greatest disappointments in Japan is the way that the majority of voices have constructed the interstitial migrant-becoming-Japanese in such limited terms. There remains an undercurrent of transience and distrust relating to issues of authenticity. A linguistic divide functions as a cognitive divide. Within the parameters of this construct, Japan can only ever be negatively deconstructed. The irony being that the deconstructers frequently rely on fixed, romanticized constructs of distant, pseudo perfect homelands. In other words, they render the complexity of the original home to the same sort of fixed, fetishised knowledge that they possess on Japan and engage in a lopsided version of the glass bead game whereby the odds are stacked against the society they chose to be in and choose not to belong to.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Deconstructing Anglo-centric Knowledges of Japan

Currently tossing around the idea of putting together a collection of critical essays which disrupt existing knowledges of Japan available to non-Japanese speakers.

The idea arose from the now defunct Tepido.org website, a location for critical (and not always amicable) engagement with the self-made activist cum academic Arudo Debito (debito.org).

Previous to reading Tepido, I had personally taken on board many of the knowledges available to me through print and the internet about Japan. I uncritically perpetuated stereotypes and bought into the fanfare of one-sided critique of Japanese culture, customs, economics and  politics. However, as I gained Japanese linguistic and literary capability (which I have written about elsewhere on this blog) many of these stereotypes and knowledges revealed themselves to be largely untrue and frequently based on the sole experiences of a jaded minority sharing similar cultural backgrounds.

Linguistic capability enabled me to enter into Japanese society in a way, I believe, unimaginable to many of these original knowledge producers. This leads to the present: a desire to create new knowledge on Japan, in English, to counter the increasingly fixed knowledges that continue to circulate and get reproduced in world media. I am interested in multiple voices even where those voices are critical of my own opinion. The point is to assemble a group of people to speak on Japan in a critical and engaged way and to have their work critiqued by their peers. And then let the reader decide.

Sound academic? Not really, though the tone might be formal, the only academic qualifications required are solid essay writing skills and the ability to properly source where the information is coming from. Also, a bit of a thick skin. First time writers should not be put off by criticism, editorial or theoretical.

Ideally, I'd like to create a hard copy, but online only is no problem and less expensive. Authors' works would remain their own property, however, I would be interested in exclusive hosting of the final product to contributors' own sites/blogs or even a purpose built site. We have to write it first. 

Ideas? Questions? Let me know in the comments and we can get this started.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Jazz for Metal: Part 2 – Allan Holdsworth

The contributions of Allan Holdsworth to the possibilities of metal fell like two stones separated by more than a decade into the same pond. The first little pebble was articulated during the rise of early to mid nineties technical death metal (particularly Cynic and Pestilence and to a more limited extent Atheist and Death). The ripples of this first drop washed over a young Fredrik Thordendal (Meshuggah). Thordendal would go onto elegantly extrapolate Holdsworth via Meshuggah leading to a second stone – the rise of djent (some of my favourites include Tesseract, Viljdharta, Monuments and the singular Contortionist along with the Faceless and Veil of Maya) and a re-conceptualisation of metal in the twenty first century.

What is it though about Holdsworth that makes his work so integral to metal? On first listen of a classic such as Metal Fatigue the listener with little knowledge of electric guitar technique or harmony generally simply hears some pretty jazz fusion with a few odd noises not un-entirely unexpected for the genre. However, digging deeper when armed with a smattering of musicological knowledge there are two key aspects to Holdsworth’s playing which make him stand out within his chosen field and come to influence metal.

The first technique is his use of non-standard and extended range chording. Holdsworth frequently extended some of the more complex chords of the jazz vocabulary across multiple octaves and achieved their sounding via quite unique, non-standard playing. Holdsworth plucked as well as tapped out his chords to create ethereal, shimmering angels of harmony.

The second technique and perhaps the hardest to grasp for a novice listener is Holdsworth’s use of slurs, glissando and note bending. Rarely did he proceed in “proper” in diatonic harmony from A to B, he would create slippery, fluid lines that snaked in and across octaves and arrive at quite unexpected intervals yet always sound musical and accessible. Indeed such is the extent that Holdsworth’s melodies frequently defied conventional melodic tropes the result is that they can easily sneak past the listener unnoticed with their unfamiliar cadences.

The effects of these two techniques and their relevance to metal are threefold. The first two are somewhat oblivious. Non-standard chord voicing equips the metal guitarist with a new harmonic vocabulary, an opportunity to expand the metallic sonic palette without compromising on the aesthetic values of the genre. The second technique was perhaps always inherent in metal anyway, particular after the advent of thrash metal, particularly evident in the soloing techniques of Slayer where melodic progression is eschewed in favour of noisy, dangerous sounding dive bombs, outlandish vibrato and deliberate dissonance. In other words, Holdsworth’s playing, committed to modal exploration and fluidity acts as an explicit engagement with the same principles of (dis)harmony played intuitively or “from the gut” so to speak of the non-musically-schooled.

The third effect is more abstract and theoretical and can be seen to be characteristic of djent. The deconstruction and critical analysis of Holdsworth technique. Following on from non-standard melodic articulation it is performed with a kind of hyper-attention to detail with every interval specifically mapped out very much the opposite of the Slayer “gut” approach. Interesting, however, is that this form of hyper-technicality is being passed onto a new generation of guitarists as a standard technique. It will be fascinating to see where this leads as we approach the 2020s. So hats off to you Mr Holdsworth, we stand a world apart from your original creations and intentions. Your electric guitar revolution was not as loud or bombastic as that of Hendrix but for those who heard it was as equally profound.   

The danger of anthropomorphism

I have been meaning to write a book (yes, a whole book) on a contemporary, pragmatic approach to Buddhism for some time now. I turn it over and over in my head: whenever I walk, when in the bath and in the subtly splendid quiet of morning’s twilight. The book remains unwritten but each day I get better at understanding how and why I want to write. Perhaps this is all mere vain cleverness substituting for procrastination?

One of the cerebral off-shoots of this running internal monologue is an issue which chimes in a semi-regular rhythm: anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism presently refers to the process of attributing human qualities/properties to the non human. Curiously the etymology of anthropomorphism traces its definition to the attribution of human properties to deities. This earlier use predates the current by over half a century.

Most of us anthropomorphize somewhat frequently. It is all too easy to bestow human motives on a pet cat, invest a treasured possession with memorial and emotional significance as the object is somehow magically special and not merely our relationship with it. Before you cry out, read a little further. I am not saying that pets do not have “personalities”. They certainly do have some sort of cerebral landscape and are capable of feeling pain, pleasure, satisfaction and fear like (better than?) us bipeds. The fact is that they do not do what they do because they want to be human (perhaps they do but this equally is unknowable) they do what they do simply because they are.

The same applies for plants. Many conservationists perhaps rightly lament the introduction of certain species into an ecosphere. They speak of nature going out of balance and talk about loss of species and diversity etc. But these are all human concerns. Certainly, it is humans who perform the majority of intercontinental redistribution of biological matter by means of cognitive will and motivations linked to cultural outcomes but once their labour is performed the result is only an imbalance in so far as it balance is represented within a particular social, cultural and historical context.

In Australia, as introduced “pests” lantana, privet and camphor “infest” large areas. People have worked hard to eradicate and control them. And yet to echo Masanobu Fukuoka, if the conditions were not set for their flourish then these species would not flourish. Decades, centuries of indiscriminate land clearing and over farming created landscapes where gaps for frontier species appeared. Nature has not motive but life: where there is space there can be life. Where there is life there can be life. Perhaps the greater pests in these landscapes were the grains and livestock which created the conditions for humans of one sort from another continent to flourish. And nature is just taking back what is hers… (see what I did there? Not easy not to do).

In other words, those pests, the weeds in the garden are not out to make life more difficult. What they are doing is filling a vacuum created by human taxonomy whereby one species is valued over another and whole ecosystems are organized according to this principle. Similarly, it pays us to remember that modification of the environment by humans is natural because humans are nature. The poisons we produce and pump out are all possible because they are possible and they in turn produce new types of environments in which we have to live. Are they necessarily favourable or pleasant? The answer is not always so clear cut. One thing is, however: our current approach to nature leaves a lot to be desired.