By Robert Castle
The following is not a biographic piece, it is a personal reflection partially inspired by a meeting with St. John’s tutor, Andy Kingston. If you’re interested in getting some explicit bio-type stuff, you can go to andykingston.com. There you can find recordings of him playing piano. Also on that website is an interview he made a few years back, which I drew from in writing this Tutor Spotlight piece. I express personal opinions here, and they shouldn’t be understood as affiliated directly with Mr. Kingston. A lot of what I say here came directly from a conversation we shared, but if I don’t attribute it to him, it’s my opinion, point-blank. A lot of the ideas here are also directly or indirectly inspired by ideas presented in Stomping the Blues by Albert Murray, which is studied at the end of Sophomore Music. It is a cultural and philosophical examination of American, ‘Blues’ music, and it’s pretty darn good, if not Great. But, anyway―
Andy Kingston is cool―not as in too cool for school, or too cool for you, but rather in the sense of at ease. When I met up with him for this write-up, there was a lot in my head that I wanted to talk to him about: I was preparing at the time to perform for the college’s Spring Collegium (Latin for talent show) and so I wanted to get his two cents worth as a musician; I was also interested in talking to him about the readings we had been doing in our Sophomore music class, because they are the culmination of a profound, year’s worth of study that has deeply affected how I think about music and performance; and, I was also being paid to ask him a standard set of interview-type questions, What brought you to St. John’s? etc.
So needless to say, I had a lot on my mind as I waited in the coffee shop for him to show up. I was wondering how the conversation would start, how I’d manage to get him to talk about all the things I was interested in. When he arrived at 1:30 sharp, he pulled a chair around caddy-corner to mine, seeming to prefer conversational juxtaposition over pedantic opposition. He nods his head energetically when you say something that makes sense to him, and squints and tilts his head when he is perplexed: There are constantly signs of electric buzzing going on in his brain as you speak to him, because he’s really listening. This is something that I have found to be true of most tutors at St. John’s, but he brings a unique and contagious excitement to conversations, and therefore to the classroom.
His family has been associated with the college since he was a youngster: He grew up playing with the children of the college’s president. So he “always sort of knew about the college.” He has been a musician for about as much of his life as is possible, having started piano lessons when he was five. His father raised him to understand music as literature (much like how the college studies operatic scores as if they were books), and so from a young age he developed an ability to look at a sheet of music and understand its syntax, its grammar. As a teenager he played in a band, covering mostly rock bands, like Queen. It was around that time that he saw Miles Davis live, in 1991. He described the experience like being thrown against a wall; this music was attractive to him in a way that no other music had been up to that point.
It wasn’t until college that he began seriously studying jazz piano. It was also this time when he learned that the musical idiom of jazz is more than simply playing whatever you want whenever you want―an impression you might likely get, listening to someone like Thelonious Monk, for example―but rather that improvisation involves a rich and complex study which is constrained as much as it’s free. A philosopher describes the beautiful as arising from the combination of law and freedom. If you replace law and freedom with constraint and whim the idiom of jazz exemplifies this idea nicely.
College was when he realized that he had a poor ear, in spite of his strong ‘grammatical’ understanding of music from childhood. This meant that where fellow students could easily and quickly go through entire ear training exercise programs, he had to go very slowly and learn from scratch how to really listen to the notes that he was producing on the piano. He is still working through some of these ear training programs now, with a little app on his smartphone. And claims he’s still pretty bad at it, although to hear him play you wouldn’t guess it.
This ability to listen closely is central to what makes music especially important to him, its unique inter-subjectivity. When five people are together making music, each individual counts their own time, has their own instrument’s special techniques absorbed and ready to be actualized, has their own aesthetic judgement; you name it, and the individual’s perspective on it will be internal and unique. But each instrument (each individual) needs the others for its fullest aesthetic realization, like how a horn player needs a rhythm section to play the best melody. Each individual there needs to listen and to be listened to equally.
This active process of listening and being listened to is creative, and healthfully pleasurable when it’s done right, and for that reason it is an important philosophical analogy for a way of being in the world.
Once you start thinking about it, there aren’t many human activities that demand such a serious and living sort of cooperation. A rival is competitive sports, which requires a similar presence and interconnection. But sports differ in that their end is goal-oriented: The baseman waits with highly precise attention because if the outfielder manages to get the ball to him, it will be matter of milliseconds whether or not they successfully out the person running the bases. But the ends of making a goal and making music seem to me (in spite of their similarities) to be entirely different sorts of completion; the cooperation of competitive sports is ultimately one of group triumph over opposition, whereas the triumph of musical cooperation must be over something else entirely: over the constraint of the idiom, or over the limitations of the body or of the mind. Of course a band or player might likely wish to be the best in their genre or town. But, nevertheless, this ultimate will toward greatness does not require that another musician lose, only that the ‘best’ (whatever that might even mean) succeeds most.
Throughout our conversation Mr. Kingston repeatedly drew a connection between the intersubjectivity of music performance and that of the seminar classroom model: The necessity of presence and dedicated individual preparation being the two main similarities. But these two main similarities are only parts of a fundamental likeness, which is that each of these ‘competitive cooperations’ (i.e., music performance and Seminar) transcend zero-sum victory. In both, when everyone’s at their best―most prepared and most present―cooperation becomes the ultimate end; because when someone reaches insight on something true or beautiful and manages to articulate this vision lucidly, the entire group benefits from the excellence with which the individual performs. Where sometimes the absolute quality of each person’s individuation seemed like an insurmountable boundary, it may actually be a lens which gives its unique refraction, but only to those with eyes to see, or rather, with ears to listen.
When he was in graduate school, he would tell his musician friends that he wasn’t playing his best because he was up late writing papers, and he’d tell his fellow grad students that he wasn’t writing his best because he was up late playing at bars. Of course this light-hearted self-deprecation let slip that he actually was comfortable with the quality of his performances in each of these modes, generally speaking. But specialization does limit possibilities, and every hour that he spent studying philosophy, or quantum mechanics, or whatever, in graduate school, was an hour that he didn’t spend on the piano. (Ed. Note: Mr. Kingston holds a PhD in Philosophy and Music from Boston University)
And over the years, when he has given himself over wholly to one type of study, it’s always been musical. And although it would be too simple to say that he primarily understands himself as a musician, this statement, however much it misses the mark, does communicate something essential about his musical personality. This something is communicated also in the way he flamboyantly swings his arms as he speaks, or chuckles rhythmically and inwardly in his throat after saying something he thought was funny, or literally slaps his hand over his mouth when he thinks he needs to stop speaking.
A lot of this might seem to amount to a sort of fan-boyish infatuation, but it isn’t. What I’ve tried to portray is how everyone’s unique way of being in the world is influenced by their choice of activity. I am not so naive as to pedestalize any individual or activity, and say that “This is correct.” (Again, whatever that might even mean.) Rather, a sensitivity that is developed by an open-minded, honest-hearted interaction with the St. John’s Program involves looking at the people around you as if they were books, and trying to read them. It involves asking yourself constantly and courageously, How does this person (or this book) teach me something about how to live my life?
Photo from andykingston.com, used with permission.