Three Years in the Pit

Time again to wander through the well-stuffed graveyard of my literary ambitions, whistling as I go, bending now and again to re-read inscriptions, I, patriarch of this obscure family of stones, one such yard among many thousands, some long-ago abandoned, some barely able to keep up with their parade of dead, some of a rare gothic beauty, so that, like the Recoleta in Buenos Aires, they draw millions of visitors annually to leave flowers and pinwheels and scrawled messages for the departed. In these graveyards the stones never weather, even the most ancient engravings are still legible, and even the oldest flowers smell as though they had been picked this morning. The pinwheels never fade, though neither do they turn. And the stones cannot be overturned, and the ground neither heaves nor settles, and the graves will not be robbed. If a stone disappears, it takes the whole graveyard with it, and leaves not a trace—for what stone can claim the memory of the vanished yard itself, of a lineage, a house, a clan?

I am patriarch, but also gravedigger and stonecutter. I make memorials; this is my chief occupation. Custody may be shared with Mother Experience, but the stones are all mine. This arrangement pleases me. The children pass away so quickly, you see. But the stones, the stones remain. I find them very companionable. And if the graves are never robbed, there is good reason: there is nothing to steal. These stones are as much cenotaphs as the marble tablets in Whaleman’s Chapel. Says Ishmael to the reader, about the bereaved: “Oh! ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; who standing among flowers can say—here, HERE lies my beloved; ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these. What bitter blanks in those black-bordered marbles which cover no ashes! What despair in those immovable inscriptions! What deadly voids and unbidden infidelities in the lines that seem to gnaw upon all Faith, and refuse resurrections to the beings who have placelessly perished without a grave.”

The bodies—the music of experience behind each of these stones—are similarly lost at sea, in depthless Time; they survive only in the inscriptions, in the fantasy the latter create that a body is buried somewhere beneath. Dig as much as you like, your shovel-blade will never strike a coffin’s hull. If indeed Ishmael’s body was “but the lees of [his] better being,” then what price resurrection? Resurrection be d—-d! As for Faith, I’ll put mine in those marble tablets, or rather in the words cut in them. Aye, Helldriver, Ishmael’s happy fate is thine, as it is all of ours: “a stove boat,” says he, “will make me an immortal by brevet … [through] a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity.” Faith may be a jackal, but the poor creature starves here—the mere idea of death is not enough to sustain him. It is the inscriptions, only the inscriptions that sustain me; I hope and fear that they are my true substance; my eternity, dear Ishmael—like yours—is anything but speechless!


Wandering among the year’s stones, I suppose the first thing to note is that the Pit has diversified—not in theme or purpose, of course, but in style and form. Scott Burnham, in the marvelous final chapter of his 1995 book on Beethoven, calls for rethinking the way academics in particular talk about music.* While I can’t really blame Burnham for my own evolving approach to writing about music, his words do remain a touchstone and an inspiration. (Perhaps professors of music should be more careful what they wish for?) Overall, there is more in the way of creative dialogues with music—more fiction, pastiche, parody—more play—than in the previous two years, though these remain scattered among the more traditional reviews, cultural analyses, personal reflections, and thoughts on pedagogy.

I also wanted to take a moment to clarify one aspect of my process. I’ve noted that I sometimes revise and post older pieces. Now, if an event is involved—usually a concert—there is always a lag between experience and text, usually a few weeks, sometimes more. Sometimes, I work the lag into the piece, as in the year between the show and the post that became “Animistic” (5.18.12). Sometimes, a concert review becomes part of a longer reflection on a genre or band, or I’ll wait a few months and bundle some shorter reviews in a single post. Some pieces, like my by-now-mythical post about Scarlatti, have been in draft form for going on two years; I keep turning back to do more reading and listening; I dread the monstrosity it threatens to become. The point is that I only call attention to something as a revision if it was actually finished and drawer’d before this blog was launched back in 2010.

“Year of the Oh” (3.6.13): In an earlier draft of this post there was more about gender and ethnicity in jazz. A very interesting discussion a couple of weeks back about women in heavy metal prompted me to reflect. If one calls too much attention to an individual musician’s gender (or ethnicity, or whatever), it smacks of tokenism. If one overlooks it, one ignores the very real disparities that still exist, in jazz as much as in other genres. How then to balance drawing gee-whiz attention to (say) gender, and ignoring it entirely? Perhaps I was thinking about this catch-22 when I decided to cut (more likely I was just concerned about length). What makes Oh’s situation particularly interesting is that she is a threefold anomly: in terms of gender, ethnicity, and choice of instrument. I hardly had to face such a dilemma writing about Kazzrie Jaxen (“All That Is Solid,” 12.19.12): disparities notwithstanding, women have been a deep presence in jazz piano since the ‘30s, and Jaxen, bright and wandering star though she is, stands on the shoulders of that tradition, as well as the traditions of classical and avant-garde piano. Anyway, later at the same venue, though not during the same discussion, someone commented that in indie rock, the (electric) bass was one instrument it was “okay for girls to play.” Given Oh’s obvious and deep debt to rock, do we have this obscure rule of music/genre/culture to credit for her evolution into bass-playing bipedalism—and perhaps for the presence of other female bass players in jazz as well?

Reviewing some previous jottings, I actually came across a page of notes I had missed about the Soundscapes Vanguard show. The details are useless now, but the thoughts they prompt about the role of the bass in jazz and other musics might be worth mentioning. Because of its pitch and usual place among the rhythm instruments, the bass is always present, but not always heard—something I alluded to about William Parker’s playing in “Two Free Jazz Epitaphs” (12.7.12). It reminds me of something Tobin, the priest, says to the unnamed “kid” in Blood Meridian: that he’ll know the voice of God has always been present when he stops hearing it.** This is the bass: the Voice that keeps the stars aligned and the planets on their respective axes and orbits, though we only really notice it’s there when things go to hell. It’s the reason Hendrix played so much cleaner with Billy Cox than with Noel Redding: Cox, the Voice, keeps Jimi on the straight and narrow. Redding was but a slovenly demiurge. This is also why a great bass solo is such a show-stopper: if you’re actually going to hear the Voice, you need the quiet of the church; the rest of the music has to stop, or nearly stop, and this creates a space that doesn’t exist for the other soloists—even for a soloist who plays an unaccompanied set. A great bass player knows how to exploit that silence, to frame him or herself in the contours of the sound that precedes and follows.

From reading Charles Rosen’s companion to the Beethoven sonatas, I learned that the beginning of the Opus 2 No. 3, which I noted gave one of the young pianists at the Cincinnati World Piano Competition difficulties (“Closer Than They Appear,” 8.4.12), is “famously awkward to play”—which tells me a little something about the presumed hierarchy of virtuosities. And then just the other day I had the chance to see the marvelous 1998 film about Svatoslav Richter, The Engima, at the Walter Reade. There, Glenn Gould calls Richter “one of the age’s great musical communicators.” Unlike a Paganini or Liszt, who made the act of performing apparent to the listener, Richter used his “enormous personality … as a conduit” between the music and the audience, allowing them to focus on the music itself rather than the performance. This is fairly close to what I was trying to say about the Hungarian pianist Bogdan Dulu in the same post, using Emerson to do so. Emerson or not, I could hardly have said it with anything approaching Gould’s authority … or with that smarmy erudition, in what sounds suspiciously like a ‘30s Hollywood “British” accent.§

Finally, about an old, old post: I was listening to the Eric Dolphy/Booker Little Memorial Album the other day—this is the third installment in the Five Spot recordings, the quintet also featuring Mal Waldron and Eddie Blackwell. Listening to “Booker’s Waltz,” I realized something that had been a bit of a mystery for me when writing about Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” (7.26.10). There, I commented on the enjoyable effect produced when the accent from the drums comes a fraction of a beat before the bass. What I realized from “Booker’s Waltz”—and the same holds true for many if not all jazz waltzes—is that it’s a 2-against-3 rhythm with the two swung.§§ I guess this is what I meant when I said that some of the things that are fascinating and mysterious to a listener may be common practice to the musician.

It’s always fun to make such discoveries oneself, though I confess that, when I started this blog, I had rather hoped its place on the CUNY Commons would mean the occasional itinerant music scholar might wander by, sniff, squat, defecate, and pass on. (“A flatted fifth? Are you sure you don’t mean a flattened fifth? A squashed fifth—like a cockroach?”) Perhaps my good humor constipates them.

As long as we’re talking about graveyards, I should take this opportunity to chisel a line about two Commons yards abandoned or vanished: Footenotes and Librarianship in Lower Manhattan. The latter tossed the occasional asphodel into my Pit; many thanks for the recommendation of Chris McDonald’s book on Rush—it now occupies a happy place on my shelf between Will Hermes’ Love Goes to Buildings on Fire and Steve Waksman’s This Ain’t the Summer of Love. I hope the bibliographizing project goes well. As for Footenotes, obviously an enormous hole has opened in the Commons, like those gluttonous sinkholes swallowing homes all over Florida. I hope that with our collective hard work and goodwill we can manage to fill it. I promise to do my part, in the same manner I have always filled such holes: with prayers, slurs, cries, expletives, screams …


* “Rethinking music through the notion of presence and consciousness allows us to disturb the processual, cumulative standpoint to which we have grown so accustomed. If we can thus attenuate the valuation of process, we will be less inclined to read a composer like Schubert as the negative half of a binary opposition, as “process-minus,” or Beethoven simply as “process-plus.” Instead, we will ask why we value the presence of any given music and how we are present in the experience of that music. This is more difficult to do than it may seem, for the attempt to thwart current academic discourse is not to be construed as a refusal to think, in favor of some “be here now” haziness, a “dumbing down” in order to encourage emotional groping—it is rather the challenging business of talking about why music matters to us as something more than the occasion for a specialized branch of academic study. Indeed, this is the most difficult thing to do: although we all understand that music is vitally important to us, we do not yet possess a discourse equal to that understanding.” (Burnham, Scott. Beethoven Hero. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995.) Perhaps “discourse” could be pluralized?

** “When it stops,” said Tobin, “you’ll know you’ve heard it all your life. At night, when the horses are grazing and the company is asleep, who hears the grazing?” “Don’t nobody hear them if they’re asleep,” said the kid. “Aye. And if they cease their grazing who is it that wakes?” “Every man,” said the kid. “Aye,” replied Tobin. “Every man.” (Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian)

§ Or, as I have learned, a “cultivated Canadian accent of half a century ago.” See Mark Kingwell’s wonderful description of Gould’s voice in Extraordinary Canadians (the Gould chapter is currently available on line).

§§ If you tap out a 2-3 polyrhythm and then let your two-hand lag a little, you will hear this. You can work up to this by counting triplets for each three, and then, instead of tapping the two-hand directly between the second and third beats of the three-hand, tap two-thirds of the way through (on beat 3). In other words: ONE two three one two THREE one two three in the left hand, ONE two three ONE two three ONE two three in the right.

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