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A Year in the Pit

Amid the offal and carrion.

I can’t climb out of the pit, but I can climb high enough up the sides to get a pretty good sense of the lay of the land.

Some days I can’t find the sides, so I just jump up as high as I can, like I’m in a crowd watching a parade. Except that I’m alone, and so far as I can remember always have been.

By jumping, I can see for a moment above the perennial mist, around my dim environs. This combination of jumping and climbing allows me to take stock of where I am, what I’ve done; for with darkness, as with light, space is also time, a record, a history of space traversed.

Somewhere in the pit there’s another pit, a deep dark hole to which I find myself irresistibly drawn. There may be several such pits-within-pits; I’m never quite sure what direction I’m going, and so I’m never sure that I haven’t stumbled onto the same one. For all I know, these pits may have their own pits, and so on, mise-en-abyme, as the French say.

All over the pit—I mean my pit, the pit where I live—in every direction, are words, words, words. Piles of them. Warm, rotting heaps of them.

As I happen across them, with my pitchfork I pick up the words, carry them over to a hole, and dump them in.

I spend a lot of time—I spend most of my time—finding and dumping words. Or so it seems. Like space, time is difficult to judge here. But most days it seems like I do pretty much nothing else.

So the words are everywhere, and it seems like no matter how many of them I try to get rid of, there are always more. Sisyphus, you know what I mean, right? And Ixion, you too? (Pablo: thank you for these words; I do not plan on returning them.) Nor does it seem possible to fill the hole, or a hole, any hole, as was my intention when I started this project a year ago, believing (naively, so naively) that if I kept dumping words into them, I would eventually hear them hit bottom, and not long after see a sort of hillock nudging up toward the edge, until in time I could walk over the wordfill where the hole had been, and stamp it down with my feet, and clap my hands, and do a little dance, and clear my throat, and move on.

But the words all disappear without a trace. Sometimes I think I hear a bit of an echo, but probably I’m fooling myself.

And so a sound pines away after an image enamored of itself, the one never able to grasp the other—a myth that captures the essence of the absurdity of this project.

We’re all better off embracing the absurd. So I toil on. Holes must be filled.

*

I think it was some guest on Charlie Rose said, “How do I know what I think until I read what I write?” Writing is a means of coming to know ourselves … and perhaps even more, of creating and re-creating ourselves in the flux of experience. Writing about music is no different in this regard, since by attempting to discover, define, and describe the object, we inevitably loop back to the self. Writing these posts, as I noted at the very beginning of this project, is a means of personal and cultural as well as musical exploration. I’ve tried to keep a balance among the three, and to use each to illuminate the other.

A few themes jump out at me. A big one is music as vehicle for transcendent experience in the secular world. I know, that’s big, cheap, and old, but there it is. I mean, this blog is being written by someone who once asked his parents what the plus signs were on top of all those buildings. Or maybe that was my sister. Same diff. Not much religion going on in my house when I was growing up. Lots of art and music and science and technology. So, music as a way to get in touch with something larger than the self. Nothing supernatural here, just a personal/universal vibe: memory, emotion, community, biology, the intuition of deep structure—you name it.

Second, the idea of excavation, of an archaeology of tastes, is all over these posts. I’m interested in the way the different kinds of music we listen to at different periods of our lives, and then return to, intersect and end up speaking to each other.

If you’ve read more than few posts, you also might have noticed that I tend to write about stuff I really like. I’ve never really enjoyed the nasty broadside. Something about that if-you-don’t-have-something-nice-to-say injunction. Incredible, but even the savage atheist has a rudimentary concept of morality. The internet seems to cultivate the weird sadism behind public stonings. Yes, you’ll find criticism from time to time, always with caveats and qualifications and addenda. But like I said, I’d rather spend time thinking and talking about the music that excites me. If I want to stone something, I’ll bring a bag of rocks down to Trump Tower … or better yet, up to Albany. Now’s the time. Wanna come?

(Sorry about the questions; it occurred to me many months ago that the blog, the internet itself, has murdered rhetorical questions, but foolishly I keep asking them.)

As a relative novice to the blogosphere I am unsure about blog netiquette. I sort of assume it’s the height of rudeness to comment on one’s own post until someone else has done so. Instead, I thought to use this anniversary reflection (a neologism: metablognitive) to post a few addenda and corrections to the year’s work … with more sure to follow next year.

About “Convalescing With Miles” (4.14.10), I think Joshua Redman put something I was trying to say there about Miles better than I ever could: “It’s like you couldn’t have written it better, but you couldn’t have written it” (in The Jazz Ear, p. 131). Only … he said it about Rollins!

About “Bands, Very Large and Very Small” (8.5.10): Here is Whitney Balliett reviewing a big band performance (in New York Notes): “every instrument was essential, the massed sounds proved new melodic and harmonic points, and a majestic aura was achieved” (30). Ouch. That’s a comeuppance if ever there was one. Not the majestic aura so much, but “the massed sounds prov[ing] new melodic and harmonic points.” In case I tried to repress it, the wall of tenors at the recent Brad Meldhau concert really drove the point home.

Regarding “Modern American” (12.2.10): Where to begin with my cringing re-reading of those snotty assertions in the first paragraph of this post? That I went to hear Papo Vasquez a few months back and his decidedly Latin pianist blew me out of the club? That Bebo Valdez plays nothing like his son, and I could listen to him (Bebo) all day? That I put on “Autumn Leaves” on Somethin’ Else the other day for the first time in years, listened to Hank Jones’s patient, mysterious, singing right hand, and thought, “Who needs a left hand?”

I should acknowledge the recognition of the diabolus in musica in “Black Sabbath” (“Deulogy,” 1.4.11) came from a long-ago conversation with the old roommate of a friend of mine, a brilliant, reclusive black-metal fanatic named Ian. For a while I would call up looking for my friend, get Ian on the phone instead, and end up talking to him about All Thing Metal (ATM) for upwards of an hour. (And if you happen to find a stray word of yours worked into the piles around my pit … that means I was listening, note-taking, as Virginia Woolf put it, for some future revision.)

Finally, I am always moved by the spectacle of those deeply appreciating the music they hear, which finds its apotheosis in dance. Conversely, I am probably overly impatient with those who are bored or distracted. (I am probably overly impatient with bored and distracted people in general. I don’t get boredom; I don’t think I’ve ever been bored a moment in my life. I’m sure I’ve feigned it now and again, to fit in.) With regard to “Contrasts” (1.22.11), then, I have been meaning to apologize for some time now—not for the updated version, but for the initial one, which was available for a full week before I thought to edit it. Now, if you knew what the hell I was talking about, you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog at all anymore. Which makes this apology, like all apologies, pointless and self-serving. Ah well. All I can do is try to do better, though my moral learning curve always (or rather never) runs up against the asymptote of my ego, as big as the parabolic mirror on Mount Palomar. (Yeah, I know, an asymptote is a line. Whatever.)

I may be evil (after all, “I am man”), but I’m not a bad person, I don’t think. Not that bad, anyway. Like Twain said: Bigger than a breadbasket. Smaller than an elephant.

Some words apply to literally everything.

*

Much to come. Beethoven and Brahms and Bartok and Domenico Scarlatti, a roundup of the spring’s Town Hall concerts, Ornette and Monk, Irene Schweitzer and Branford Marsalis, Django Reinhardt, Evile and Judas Priest, flamenco and salsa. And all these interspersed with comments and reflections on whatever else musical the city happens to throw my way between now and next March in its constant cultural shock-and-awe campaign, some to get posted immediately, some deferred until I have nothing else immediate on my radar, and some to float in limbo …

And, of course, dozens, hundreds of new posts about Rush … but all of them hoarded until December, like every studio does with their Oscar contenders, when I can stand on the landing at the top of that winding staircase and say, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr Foote!” … and then come sashaying down those stairs, and into my second major Academic Commons award.

Hotels on Boardwalk! Champagne with Fay Wray! Right to organize, right to strike!

One thought on “A Year in the Pit

  1. Pingback: Footenotes » Blog Archive » Round-Up! 4/6- 4/13

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