January 1st 2009 02:59 pm
Copyright © 2009 Lyn Horton
Pervasive in the literature whose subject is music that originates from the black experience is a stream of thought that is anti-critic, anti-criticism, anti-putting into words any interpretation of the music.
Just as one cannot begin the universe with one molecule of hydrogen, so can one not analyze, philosophize, criticize and proselytize on the music when viewing from any one position. Because the music loses something. It loses the impact with which and for which it was and is created from the beginning. The music itself is the result of assimilated experience for the musicians. Why does it need to be explained? And why does it need to be compared to anything else?
This music of the black experience, the music of the slaves, is only itself. Because it does not exist in a vacuum, the shape of the music has changed. It is no less pure than it ever was, simply different. What ruins its shape… of how it really changes, how it truly evolves, how it continues to speak, how it might influence …is the result often of the interpretation assigned to it. Interpretation leaves behind wreckage, instead of elucidation. Assuming that the music is a certain way, because someone who is not the musician says so, gives off bad vibrations. The question becomes, in response to music that has been called jazz, and which became simply improvised/world and endlessly revolutionary music, what else can we say?
Nothing. We need to listen to the musicians who make the music. We need to hear what they have to say. We need to listen to the music.
For the writer about music, it is challenging to transcend the story-telling guise which this music carries. Because it is in human nature to step forward to be curious and try to understand what is going on outside of the self.
Perhaps, an approach to the music is to witness it. To pretend that it is from outer space and has never been heard before in any context. And then put it in context. To see the music for itself, recognize that it is already a summation, product of history, and simply a temporal conclusion that will change, allows that it rise to its purpose which is to express the feelings of the musicians. Countless times has it been said by musicians who perform in types of music, originating from Africa and penetrating many cultures, that they are communicating their feelings.
The debate about purity of the source of the improvisatory ethic could not be more clearly explained and substantiated than in A Power Stronger Than Itself by George E. Lewis.
This book, within its comprehensive self, reveals the essentials of how music can be formally promoted to enrich culture, bearing a message beneficial to all, but which surprisingly was looked down upon or disregarded by many, even those people of the same ethnic origins. The detailed and in depth descriptions of the migration of the members of the AACM from Chicago to Europe to New York only and necessarily to return to Chicago is evidence that walls are built where they have nothing but ideational foundations and that artistic expression in its richest form can become an object of tolerance as opposed to a jewel of expression and spirituality. The “power” of the AACM was invested in not only the music but in the way in which it leveled the cultural playing field literally. It is not a wonder that its members re-inhabited Chicago as a safe zone.
Despite the Pulitzer Prize winning attributes that Lewis’s information-filled, gloriously unfolding book possesses, Lewis, himself, knocks his open declarative viewpoint for a loop. In the epilog, his accreditation of those music “groups” which had grown coincidentally with the AACM is paltry and narrow and undereducated. It would have been better for his conclusions to have been left unspoken. As if compared to a piece of music, this epilog was an ill-conceived coda.
Lewis’s conclusion is similar to the emptiness of the phrase assigned to a record review of “recommended highly” when no basis of recommendation has been provided, except that the sound is similar to the sound of that comes from another musician. Who needs to read that a trumpeter who has issued his debut album is playing in the tradition of Miles? Even if the musician is showing no sign of inventiveness, it is ultimately up to the listener to determine that. But it is up to a writer to give a response in terms of something other than vacuous ungrammatical prose. There has to be as much poetry and guts in the writing in the writing as in the music.
Equally as upending is an academic analysis of the art of improvisation. Paul Berliner dedicated a tome on the subject. To introduce Chapter Six, “The More Ways You Have For Thinking,” pianist Barry Harris is quoted: “The more ways you have of thinking about the music, the more things you have to play in your solos.” How well-put is this? Does this sentence point to how to fill in the blanks? Just listen. Find the musical ideas. But Berliner goes on in this chapter, as happens also in the remainder of the book, to pile layer upon layer of “to do” on the reader. Granted this book is probably meant for musicians alone. They are the only people who could understand it. But I read it and I am not a musician. I want to understand the music, but not from the standpoint of theory.
Then there is the more recent publication by Paul Rinzler. How is it useful to begin a book called The Contradictions of Jazz with a chapter utilizing pseudo-set theory to explain the concept of opposites within the structure of improvisation? His assignations of the fundamentals for this structure are stunning in terms of their outlandishness. Not that the concepts (Individualism, Assertion, Interconnectedness, Creativity, etc.) cannot be used to describe the music, but to be concretized to the point of becoming monuments of principle and axiom boggles the mind, at least, mine.
To reinforce the thread of this article, that is, to listen to the music and the musicians and respond directly to both, is an excerpt from an interview of Joe McPhee by Michael Anton Parker from 2002. In the following, reed and brass player McPhee tells the story of working with children in Switzerland in the early 80’s.
“So I went in this school, and I took my pocket trumpet and my tenor saxophone, and an orange- painted conch shell, some bells and whistles and so on like that, and I put them in the middle of the floor – it was in a gymnasium. And then the first class was unleashed upon me and in came all these kids. First they were startled because I didn’t look like any of them; they saw all of these instruments in the middle of the floor, and so that’s when they all came in making a lot of noise, and then they came to a screeching halt, and like ‘what is this about?’ They didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Swiss German, but there were teachers there who were translators.
“So the first thing I did was a few rhythmic exercises, pounding the floor, clapping hands and so on like that, and trying to get their attention, and then I sent them all to the far corners of the room and asked them to listen, and they giggled and so forth, and they came back, and then I asked them what they heard, through these translators, of course. And they would say they heard the person next to them laughing or shuffling feet or making rude noises and so on like that. So we did some more exercises and what I was trying to do was get them to follow directions, and so on like that, in a real organized kind of way. And then I sent them away again, and I asked them to listen very carefully and come back and tell me what they heard. Now the first time they not only heard the people next to them, but they heard trucks passing outside, an airplane, a guy on a bicycle – I remember a bell and so on, but the second time they came back, and they had listened very carefully, they began to hear the breathing of the person next to them; they could hear their own heartbeat, and a high-pitched sound in their ear – it was kind of like from their own nervous systems, and they were really beginning to listen very carefully, and they were interested.
“So then I asked them if they wanted to try and play my instruments – of course they didn’t really want to … So they were all in a circle, and they tried to play the pocket trumpet and couldn’t, and they’d puff out their cheeks and so on like that. And there was one little boy who was like the class clown, I guess, and they were always making fun of him and saying ‘Let him do it.’ So he did it, of course, and he really eventually could play the trumpet – not play it, but I mean he’d make sounds on it, and then he became kind of like a hero because he was adventurous enough to try it, and then he was able to make a sound, you know. And then there was one little girl who – she was very shy, and I said ‘you try it,’ and she tried it, and I said ‘Do any of you play any other instruments?’ and she said she played the piano, so she played some little things she had learned on the piano, and no one knew she played piano – she was very shy, and all of a sudden she became sort of like, you know, very interesting, and people wanted to know her…
“And then we made some more rhythm things … we sat around and asked what they thought about it, if they knew anything about jazz – of course they didn’t really have any experience with that, except I think they heard of Louis Armstrong at one point, and they all said that they were gonna write me because they had, you know, such a good time… And then, that class was finished, and the second class came in. But between the first and second class I found out that there was a closet full of instruments there in that school that the teachers never let the children play with because they thought they would break them. I said, ‘Oh really? [said not with the common rising intonation that indicates surprise, but with the special intonation that indicates he is about to set them straight]. Take every instrument out of the closet and bring it here. They just played my saxophone and my trumpet and I wasn’t worrying about them breaking them, cause I didn’t think they were gonna do that. Take them all out and put them in the middle of the floor.’
“So the next class comes out, similar to the first one – they ran into the room, screaming and yelling, and they screeched to a halt when they saw me, and all of that pile of wonderful devices all over the place, you know. Same thing – we repeated the same thing, and the same result happened: they listened more intently. And then I gave them instruments and I created sections – music sections – and I had them play following my direction. Within 10 to 15 minutes I had an orchestra, organized, following directions and the teachers were sitting there with their mouths hanging open: ‘How can you do that? They never listen to anything. They never do what we tell them to do.’ So they played and so on; I let them play my instruments, and the same thing: I spoke to them and… we had a wonderful time. And that happened three times in a row. And in the end we had a little meeting, and they said ‘What did you do? How could you do that to them?’ and I said ‘I didn’t do anything. I just let them, you know, free, to do what they wanted to do, and they were not going to break the instruments,’ and I said, ‘You know, it’s ridiculous that they’re all there in the closet.’ They said, ‘Oh, we’ll have to try that.’ So maybe something changed at that school.”
Something certainly changed at that school because McPhee lifted all the boundaries that were imposed on creation. He listened to the students who in turn listened to themselves. He imparted his own early experiences with sound to the kids. There was no great academic enforcement of rules or imposition of analysis or the physical separation of groups. The process was open, direct and about communication.
Emotions have nowhere to go without some channel for shaping them. Music is a channel, visual art is a channel and words are channels. Prior to the coalescence of music, art and writing comes clarity of purpose within the creator. The simplicity derived from clarity comes with a certain state of mind. In this state of mind, there is nothing to prove. There is only the sobering rawness and unparalleled beauty of emotion and the free will to honestly share it.
Therefore, writing about the music, whatever its origin and identity, records perceptions of the instinctual drive behind the music. The writing completes the communication the musician initiated through the music to the listener. All the more reason for whoever writes about it to respond in kind… in the form of words rather that of sound.