Blog

Book 15: Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions – James Ryan

James Ryan is the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He gave an inspirational graduation speech a few years back and it went viral. Publishers approached him and he turned the speech into a book.

It’s a quick read at about 150 pages. It’s organised around five essential questions.

Ryan believes that asking better questions is a fundamental way to connect with the most important things in all our lives:

Questions are like keys. The right question, asked at the right time, will open a door to something you don’t yet know, something you haven’t yet realized, or something you haven’t even considered—about others and about yourself. What I am suggesting is that the five questions that follow are like five crucial keys on a key ring. While you’ll certainly need other keys from time to time, you’ll never want to be without these five.

Wait, What? – James Ryan

Each chapter outlines one of the questions with examples and anecdotes from Ryan’s own varied life. Here’s the sequence of 5 questions with a comment from the author:

After all, the questions cover a lot of important territory:         

“Wait, what?” is at the root of all understanding.         

“I wonder . . . ?” is at the heart of all curiosity.        

 “Couldn’t we at least . . . ?” is the beginning of all progress.         

“How can I help?” is at the base of all good relationships.        

 And “What truly matters?” helps get you to the heart of life.

Wait, What? – James Ryan

Everything here makes a lot of sense and Ryan makes for a sensitive and intelligent guide. Some may say that there’s not too much new here but it’s a hard book not to like — and certainly all of us can benefit from asking better questions, more often. Especially given the small time investment required to read the book, I personally got a lot out of this one.

Recommended.

John Lennon’s Last Recording

The last time Lennon recorded his music in a studio was on September 2nd, 1980. Three short months later, he was dead.

What I didn’t know was that he made some demos in his New York apartment on November 14th 1980. It seems there were three ‘songs’.

The first, ‘You saved my soul’ gets two takes. It’s developed and improved as we listen. And what a cool, catchy track it is— completely ready to take into the studio. The other two are just fragments, so it’s really just this one track, frozen in time.

Have a listen and notice that moment at around 4:10….when he switches the tape off. Never to press record again….

Quite bittersweet finding this — great to hear it but heart-breaking to reflect on the loss.

Book 14: Killing Commendatore – Haruki Murakami

Murakami is probably my favourite writer so to say that I’d been looking forward to reading this would be an understatement.

‘Killing Commendatore’ is another Murakami epic — coming in at nearly 700 pages. I chose to read it on Kindle and I’m pleased I did, the hard copy would have needed its own bookshelf.

I won’t put any spoilers here, just a few impressions from a Murakami fan.

First, I don’t think ‘Killing Commendatore’ is one of Murakami’s best. It just isn’t. It doesn’t have that sense of effortless brilliance that his best books have. I found myself questioning a few of the plot turns, including the way he lined up the moving parts at the end— some of the characters were hard to account for and lacked depth/development as well. I normally find his novels completely and absolutely immersive but this one couldn’t quite maintain the spell.

There was still a lot I enjoyed — I flew through the 700 pages in a few days after all.

The aspects you come to expect from Murakami are all here viz. the focus on unremarkable daily events; the magical realism; the flawed isolated characters; the food & recipes; the parallel worlds — not to mention the music — which I wrote a little about here.

The unnamed narrator of the story is an artist and one of the most pleasant surprises of the novel was how well Murakami was able to capture the world of an artist and his process. I loved all the art descriptions and by the end I was scratching around for a 2B pencil:

I picked up a thick pencil and used it as a kind of ruler to measure the various elements of her facial features. Different from a croquis, when drawing a dessan you need to take time and make sure you have an accurate grasp of the model’s features. No matter what kind of painting it ends up being.

Killing Commendatore – Haruki Murakami P. 321

Fans of Murakami will enjoy this one, first-time readers might be better off starting with one of the classics (Kafka on the Shore, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, 1Q84 etc) just in case…

I’d give ‘Killing Commendatore’ 3.5/5 — perhaps 4/5 on account of how well he depicted the life of an artist.

Looking forward to Murakami’s next offering. He’s 72 years old now so I guess you’ve got to wonder how many more of these huge novels he is going to be able to produce — fingers crossed for the next.

The Soundtrack to Murakami’s ‘Killing Commendatore’

Each of Murakami novels has a strong musical character, reflecting the author’s own life-long love of music. If you want to find just how deep this love affair runs, check out his wonderful ‘Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa’ — where Ozawa observes in the introduction: “I have lots of friends who love music, but Haruki takes it way beyond the bounds of sanity.”

Murakami puts a great deal of thought into selecting just the right music for his novels. As a fellow music lover, I like the way the music he chooses colours his writing so if I don’t know any of it, I’ll track the albums down and listen to them.

Murakami looks through his collection of 10,000+ LPs…

The soundtrack to ‘Killing Commendatore’ is build around Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Springsteen’s The River, amongst others — with Der Rosenkavalier being the star of the show.

The Der Rosenkavalier boxed set of LPs becomes like a recurring character. This passage introduces the music into the story and sent me directly to Spotify:

“Why don’t you choose something from the shelf in the living room.” He spent about five minutes perusing the selection of records and returned with a four-disc boxed set of LPs of Georg Solti conducting a performance of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. The orchestra was the Vienna Philharmonic, the singers Régine Crespin and Yvonne Minton. “Do you like Der Rosenkavalier?” he asked me. “I’ve never heard it.” “It’s an unusual opera. The plot’s critical, of course, like with all operas, but with this one even if you don’t know the plot it’s easy to give yourself over to the music and be completely enveloped by that world. The world of supreme bliss Strauss achieved at the peak of his powers. When it was first performed, people criticized it as nostalgic, unadventurous even, where in reality the music is quite progressive and uninhibited. He was influenced by Wagner, but Strauss creates his own strange, unique musical realm. Once you get into this music you can’t get enough of it. I usually prefer Karajan’s or Erich Kleiber’s version, and have never heard Solti’s. If it’s all right with you, I’d like to take this opportunity to hear it.” “Of course. Let’s listen to it.”

Murakami, Killing Commendatore. P. 103

Part of the backstory for Killing Commendatore links to Germany/Austria in the late 1930s — a time when Richard Strauss (himself German) was alive and composing. The music’s reappearance strengthens the connection:

When I finished, I placed Richard Strauss’s Rosenkavalier on the turntable, stretched out on the sofa, and listened. Der Rosenkavalier had become my fallback when I had nothing else to do. A habit implanted in me by Menshiki. The music was somehow addictive, as he had warned. An uninterrupted stream of emotion.

Murakami, Killing Commendatore. P. 411

Then, for some reason, I thought of the opera Der Rosenkavalier. I would listen to it as I sipped my coffee and nibbled my grilled cheese sandwich. That jet-black vinyl disk, released by Decca Records in Great Britain. I placed the heavy record on the turntable and gently lowered the needle.

Murakami, Killing Commendatore. P. 555

No other author that I know, writes music into their novels in such a fascinating way. Can’t you almost smell those old vinyl albums?

So here’s a taste of the opera, Der Rosenkavalier — with Pavarotti absolutely nailing ‘Di Rigori Armato’ in 1980. It’s not the actual performance described in the novel but Solti is again the conductor. I’ve enjoyed getting to know this opera in the past week so I really hope you give it a spin:

Incredible Scientific Breakthrough in Acoustics

A team at Boston university has created a ring structure made of ‘acoustic meta-material’ that blocks nearly all sound.

Just how does it work? Who know! They thankfully left the maths out this article in ‘Science Daily’ —but work it does. Have a look here as the ring blocks 94% of sound:

In our noise-polluted times, the application of this incredible material would be far-reaching. The shape can be adapted into hexagons for example, potential giving us sound-proof walls that allow fresh air and sunshine to pass through. Simply amazing…

Artist Profile – Melanie Faye

Melanie Faye is another one of these social media musicians — making simple self-recorded videos of beautiful music.

The artist I talked about the other day, Mateus Asato is a fan of this lady, as is John Mayer.

Faye has done some promotion work with Fender guitars but like Asato does not even have an album out yet. If you search for her on Spotify, you’ll find one single track.

It’s a strange thing in a way, if you want to listen to Faye – you’re sort of stuck with short minute clips that look like they were shuffled from a phone to instagram to youtube. There’s not much attention put into post-production with tracks like the one below being cut off mid-note.

Still both these guitarists are young with silky skills and great feel. Apparently both are working on albums of material as well, though it seems there’s no rush these days. I look forward to seeing what sort of music they finally deliver through traditional channels.

Here’s a partial clip from youtube.

99% Practice, 1% Theory

‘99% Practice, 1% Theory’ is another thought provoking shot of wisdom from our friends at Ashtanga yoga. I loved their ‘Practice…All is coming’ and noticed this second one painted on the wall when peeling myself off the floor the other day.

The founder of Ashtanga yoga, K. Pattabhi Jois, came up with the phrase for yoga but it’s transferable to other life pursuits.

The 99/1 split seems extreme but the leverage to improve at anything skill-based comes from not thinking or reading but from practice.

Bearing this in mind over the past couple of days has helped steer me away from ‘research’ and other endlessly creative forms of procrastination. Instead I have been practicing — for hours, on piano.

Practice is where we get better at the things we want to improve — nearer to reaching our goals. We all need reminding of this. Practice is not comfortable but it’s essential. It’s how we build the unique set of skills necessary to create the lives we actually want to live.