Letter to Stanford Taiko

Our categories arise from the fact that we are neural beings, from the nature of our bodily capacities, from our experience interacting in the world, and from our evolved capacity for basic-level categorization - a level at which we optimally interact with the world. Evolution has not required us to be as accurate above and below the basic level as at the basic level, and so we are not. 

George Lakoff

Letter to Stanford Taiko

On our last day of this intensive, I want to turn your attention to the future.  By habit I'm inclined to ask, Why do you play taiko?, and What do you want to do when you graduate?  As I imagine asking these questions, however, I recognize a subtle aversion to them.  They are annoying questions to be asked.  I think I see why: you both know the answers and can't know the answers.

I'm vegan... except for taiko.  The idea of veganism is to reduce our consumption of animal products, in an effort to reduce the suffering of animals.  Veganism is preceded by the sanskrit concept, "ahimsa"; to do no harm.  Religions like jainism, buddhism, and hinduism incorporate veganism into a larger concept of compassion for all living things.  When I learned this word, "ahimsa", I started searching for "ahimsa leather", hoping I could find a source of leather taken from cows allowed to live out their lives and die naturally.  It indeed exists.  But in talking to drum makers, it turns out that skin from older animals is not well suited to drum making.  This fact is painful for me.  It means my music requires cutting short the life a cow.  And this is true for every natural-skin drum, from every music, in every culture, through all time.  But this is an incorrectly pessimistic view.

There are apparently jainist monks who make a pilgrimage of many miles, crawling so as to not crush insects.  I don't know the details of this act but I'd like to think that while they make this sweet and heartfelt attempt at doing no harm, they are aware they are almost certainly still crushing insects.  There must be some creatures who elude detection and whose tiny bodies crush beneath the palm or knee.  I'd like to think these monks would say, "Of course I killed bugs. But I saw many bugs, and I did not kill the ones I saw.  And I loved seeing those bugs.  I loved watching them interact; giving a crumb to one and being attacked by another.  I enjoyed watching them change over the course of the journey, feeling like I was a part of this web of life."

I too want to be a part of a web of life.

Climate change poses a threat to that goal.  This year I will produce 8.5 tons of CO2 through travel alone.  That's more than four times a morally acceptable limit.  I am part of the problem and I am hurting others.  Fixing this problem means I can't pursue a future where my career is dependent on touring.  My art can't require air travel.

So for me, my pilgrimage is the study of taiko.  My insects are the skins of my drums.  And just like the monks, I can't find a way to be perfect.  But like the monks I'll keep trying, and I'll approach the things I consume with care and reverence.  I will try to get the most music, the most learning, the most good out of this iron, this wood, and this leather.  That is my connection to the web of life and the answer to, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"  It is the same for all of us.  I want to be a good person.

When I first became concerned about climate change, I tried to replace my local driving with biking.  This seemed an obvious and painless way to reduce my CO2.  But when faced with the watermelon shopping trip, or a rain storm, or simply being tired, I couldn't help but choose the car.  Then Maz' car died, so I took the plunge, and sold him mine.  Suddenly everything clicked.  I wanted to buy watermelons, so I welded a bike trailer, and it now makes me happy every week to snuggle my fruits and vegetables into that trailer and cart them along behind me.  I bought a rain suit, and I get excited the harder it rains. "Can the jacket handle it? Yes it can!".  And I realized that the discomfort of motivating myself to ride when I'm tired is all but eliminated when there is no car.  My life is noticeably better.

The answer to why we play taiko is that it "clicked" in the same way.  The challenges of percussion provide a vision of what it is to be a good human --- to be dextrous, sensitive, and creative --- and the culture of Stanford Taiko provides a vision of what it is to be a great community.  Taiko is the downward slope and we are water.  When the slope is good, when we are pointed toward becoming good people, it's easy.

This underlying greatness of you --- the wonderful individuals you are and the wonderful community that is Stanford Taiko --- is what I most want to see when Stanford Taiko performs.  The technique, the rhythms, and the music are the clay.  You are the art.

This is why I can't wear costumes in this phase of my career.  I'm not playing a taiko player on stage.  I'm not acting.  I'm trying to be a taiko player with every ounce of my life, including bachi pockets in my shorts and fitted shirts for choreography.  Like choosing the bike over the car, what I wear just got easier.

This is the answer to what you will do when you graduate.  At this point, we can't know for sure whether the slope will be provided by taiko or something else, but it doesn't matter so much.  When the slope is right, you'll wind your way like water, filling crevasses and happily shaping yourself to fit the terrain.  You'll enjoy the insects.  If, like me, taiko proves to be the right slope, then you and I will play together.  But if your slope is provided by some other enlightened occupation, that's okay too.  We'll have a vegan dinner and you'll share what your realm of expertise has taught you about goodness.  We're all trying to grow up to be good people.