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Five Years in the Pit

Dear J.E.,

I’ve been thinking a lot about a comment you made in an email a few months ago. Right before signing off, and after some typically ear-opening remarks about music, you wrote (ahem): “Am I blogging now? Just wanted to share some of what goes on in my head while I listen to music. It would be nice to blog on jazz, but there are so many far more knowledgeable folks out there writing with more depth on the subject.”

I must have suggested to you at some point that you start a blog, and I took the above to be your answer. But—perhaps unjustly—I read something else in those words … something that left me with a strong desire to respond, and in responding, to clarify a little what I’ve been trying to do here. This year’s end-of-year reflection seemed like a good place to do it, especially since this one marks half a decade of activity, and some seventy-five posts about music.

“Why blog?” was the question I asked myself back in 2010, in the Pit Stop’s inaugural post. Some of what I wrote then anticipates what I am thinking now. Here is the most relevant passage: “Why should I [emphasis added] write about music? I’m not a musician, at least not a very good one. Nor am I a music historian or musicologist, so my ability to analyze music and put it into any sort of meaningful context is severely limited. With whom, then, beyond a small circle of friends, would I share my thoughts? […] Enter the blog. The blog seems like an ideal space, to borrow Gunther Schuller’s pun, for musing. In many ways, the blog seems not so different from writing for a circle of friends, even as that circle is necessarily much wider. In a blog I don’t feel like I have the pressure to craft something finished, to speak as an academic from a fortress of authority, to contribute anything to a field. I don’t feel that I have to account for what has already been said about (say) Miles Davis, or Bela Bartok, or Tool. Hell, I don’t even have to have a goddamn thesis if I don’t want to (though I will certainly try, good little academic writer that I am). In fact, a more questioning, probing, personal, intuitive approach might be welcome in such a context, and even more likely to elicit comments and suggestions from the combination of idle browsers and occasional experts who cruise these blogs (this being the CUNY Academic Commons). It might even be that such an approach is warranted for writing about as slippery a fish as music.”

Clearly, I intended to have my cake and eat it too. On the one hand, I would do my best to take this project seriously—and so I have. On the other, the blog would allow me a leeway not granted to academic writing—and so it has. Even more, the last sentence dares to suggest that a lack of expertise, a looseness and multi-prongedness of approach, a somewhat different set of assumptions and expectations, might actually be an advantage for finding ways to speak about what is generally regarded as unspeakable. Alas, precious few experts have braved The Pit to chastise me for such a thought. But more on this presently.

At my orientation in graduate school, the poet Jackie Osherow said something that has stuck with me ever since: grad school was the place where we had the opportunity to test our ideas—you know, the ones we always have flitting around inside our heads, but that often disappear before we can communicate them, or even grasp them. Writing forces us to try to articulate, fail, try again, re-think, re-process, revise. More than recording thought, writing helps create thought in and through the process of articulation. The blog has been wonderful for precisely this reason: it has allowed me the opportunity to work out—to test, in Osherow’s words—ideas about music. The more I write and revise, the more the ideas evolve, resolve themselves, deepen; I am forced to rethink, and re-listen; I become a better thinker and listener in the process.

And yet, we both suggest that blogging is somewhat different from mere writing, because it implies sharing with a broader community. Whatever ideas I am working out, I am working them out before some ill-defined public. Two comments. First, developing a “public” voice has always been part of writing. Writing implies audience and distance, even of the self to the self between two points in time. Second—and this follows from the first: that public, however hazily-imagined or however much a mirage, does serve to raise the bar. Osherow’s words imply as much, for the place where our ideas were to be tested was the graduate-school community. If I’m not crafting something finished, it still has to be finished enough; I have to be prepared to own it, to account for it. I have found that, immediately after I hit the “publish” button on the blog, I go back and edit a piece one last time. It’s that moment you step out of doors and, suddenly, find yourself reflected in the gazes of passers-by. A public, imaginary or no, forces us to perform, to meet expectations, the way any social activity does. Language is one of the chief places that happens.

A blog, then, is the place where you “share what’s going on in your head while [or before, or after] you listen to music,” just like Gary Giddins, or Charles Rosen, or Lester Bangs share what’s going on in theirs.* Yet, the fact that you don’t have Rosen’s or Giddins’s or Bangs’s heads, ears, or words seems to have stopped you from wanting to share what you do have, at least outside of the occasional email. Now is probably a good time to address in greater depth the question of “knowledge,” or expertise, which I take to mean a combination of the technical (harmony, theory) and the historical, combined with either a broad awareness of music, or a deep engagement with one or a few genres.

I don’t mean to sound either glib or arrogant. Or perhaps I do. But … what makes my observations equally valid to Giddins’s, or Rosen’s, or Bangs’s, or yours, is that I had them, and Giddins and Rosen and Bangs (oh my) and you did not. (Or, sometimes, did: e.g., it was thrilling for me to discover that Giddins, too, had something to say about the incredible swing of the second movement of Beethoven’s Opus 111 sonata. Sometimes, the pleasure is in seeing our own thoughts reflected back at us.) Perhaps “equally” is too strong a word, too full of bravado. Or perhaps not. Giddins has doubtless heard much more music than I have—at least, much more jazz. But Giddins’s archaeology of tastes—a term I have used several times over the history of this blog—is utterly different from mine. Ergo, I bring a very different ear to, say, Ornette Coleman than he does. I do not hear Coleman the same way; I would venture to say that we hardly hear the same musician. Not that I don’t have much to learn from his Coleman; I do. Might he have something to learn from mine? And then I bring my Coleman to music Giddins would likely never care to listen to, much less write about. If I can articulate—try to articulate—my Coleman, the way Coleman reverberates not just with the music I have heard, but with my entire cultural formation … who is to say that won’t touch off, in the deep magic of language, reverberations in some other listener, like me, unlike me, about what makes Coleman their Coleman?**

What did the poet who said that Lester Young “plays melodies as if they were dreaming about themselves” know about jazz? Perhaps he knew a great deal. Perhaps he knew next to nothing. Can you tell me how much Lester Young he had heard, or whether he could tell a Texas tenor from a Windy City one, or whether he could spell a B-flat diminished chord? And yet, this line tells me more about Young’s playing than any harmonic analysis I could muddle my way through. It works because it touches off an almost obscene number of cords in my brain; it changes the way I hear Lester Young, and other jazz musicians besides him. The point here is absolutely not to write off theory (about which the little I know, I love), or replace knowledge with some half-baked ideas about poetry. It is rather to expand and diversify and honor the languages we have for touching, for thinking about, for processing music. It’s for phrases, thoughts, sentences like that one—sometimes theoretical (if I can grasp them), sometimes cultural-historical, sometimes metaphorical—that I search in my reading, sifting through hundreds of pages for those nuggets of gold.

And you, my friend? How many jazzheads in their forties listened to Manowar when they were fourteen, and then went on to became acid-addled prog-fusion freaks, and then got into Latin American and Afro-pop, etc., etc.? “Archaeology of tastes” is actually too static a term for the way we listen. I like the image of layering; but since my contention is that all the music from our past continues to influence the way we listen to the music of the present, something more dynamic is called for. Suggestions?

Am I blogging now? Yes, quite clearly I am. I’m never not blogging, in the broadest sense of thinking in words with the intention to revise and share them, and using the internet, when appropriate, as a medium to do so. So, my friend: Listen to the words in your head as much as to the music. Share them. Test them. Remember that our generation, the monstrous afterbirth of the rock-‘n’-roll one, was supposed to be predicated on the idea that we’ve all got something to share. And then along came the internet, one big intellectual mosh pit. Hallelujah! So what are you waiting for?

To the death,

Helldriver

*

As per usual, a few thoughts about the last year’s output, which, like year four’s, was a little scant. No reason to seek forgiveness from the blog-god; blogging has its rhythm, and it appears to mirror that of the Bx19 bus on 145th Street: three or four in rapid succession, then like forty-five minutes without. Might as well walk. No use complaining, either. It is what it is.

I find myself saying that more the more I age: it is what it is. One thing that does strike me as I look over the last year’s work is how references to aging have come with increasing frequency. I’m not sure what to make of this. Oh, yeah: I’m getting old. That must be it. It is probably also due to my hearing loss/distortion, which has confined my listening for almost two years now to certain genres, instruments, and ranges, and forced me to process other music in new ways, when I can process it at all. My first year out of the city I kept up a blistering schedule of concert-going. But the distance, combined with the hearing problems, put an end to that. Live music has become something I do occasionally instead of twice weekly; I am confined mostly to recordings, or to retrospection and reflection. Locked away like Beethoven in my head, but without the gift of his mental ear, etc., music has become more reminiscence, more language. But then that has been one contention of this blog since its inception: that writing, far from simply being parasitic upon the music, enjoys a certain autonomy. Anyway, I think this is one reason the idea of an archaeology of tastes has remained so attractive: as music becomes more and more a matter of memory, so the different genres and concerts and recordings and listening experiences compact against each other, blend with each other, speak to each other, like the bodies in adjacent graves in Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo.

Before I sign off from what is already an overlong fifth-year reflection (but hey, five years, woo-hoo, cohetes and pitos), one that threatens to overwhelm rather than supplement the year’s production (it is, after all, a reflection built on top of a reflection, and with only seven or so posts in the interim), I should throw out a line to the other half of this blog, that strange beast entitled The Payphone Project, which, half-asleep and probably a little hungover, I thought up one morning at some city café. I’m coming to feel that, post- the original couple of theoretical posts, the shorter the text, the better; I have even gone back and pruned the later ones; they might need more pruning yet. I do not know what the future of this project is, or whether it has already exhausted itself. I just know that, although it does have a use-by date, it needs a rounder number to feel complete, and, when that number is reached, and the theoretical and aesthetic ends do seem exhausted, I will abandon it to float in cyberspace, blissful, Buddha-like, and return entirely to music, at least until such point as some other fetid idea occurs to me, in some fetid café, on some fetid morning in the fetid, fetid future.

 

* It seems to me that one hallmark of internet communication has been an evolution toward increasing brevity, informality, and quasi-communality. Maybe the best thing about the advent of social media, just as the movies were maybe the best thing that happened to the novel, is that they allowed blogs to evolve for purposes other than mere news-sharing. For those of us who grew up with and (more important) cling to print media, or to the practices and mindsets of print culture, a blog can be what it was originally marketed to be, i.e., a mechanism for self-publishing … albeit one still hobbled by the habits begotten by the on-line environment.

** And anyway, knowledge and depth come from years of experimentation in the crucible of language. How much of his earlier writing does Giddins disdain? Did you know that Rollins disowns, or at least claims to be disappointed by, almost every solo he’s ever recorded? I’d love to believe that every post, every bit of writing, is a stop along the pilgrimmage toward a mecca of understanding—this no matter how flawed is each bit, no matter how jagged or roundabout the trajectory, and no matter how endlessly deferred the goal. Thought isn’t static; we keep revising it, hopefully, toward some greater depth over the course of our lives, or abandoning it for something else, with that same stupid faith that appears every time the words start flowing, and disappears every time they stop.

2 thoughts on “Five Years in the Pit

  1. JE

    Your careful consideration of my words humbles me, my friend. I am, perhaps, far too casual with the words and phrases I cast out — in verbose emails, garrulous moments of out loud reflection, criticisms never solicited, coffee-induced ranting, and even the occasional inspired response to a thoughtful argument. I am grateful that anyone would have been paying attention.

    You are correct that you are the only person who can reflect your viewpoint with consistency and accuracy. As to whether this validates the viewpoint, I would think there are greater criteria than uniqueness in determining the value of an individual voice. Yet I will gladly endorse your interpretation for the strictly selfish reason that it provides justification for said ramblings.

  2. helldriver

    I’m thrilled that you believe I can reflect my own viewpoint consistently and accurately … I wouldn’t give myself that much credit!!

    I picked the Titans to do battle with, of course, a few of those whose work I most admire (and I’m knee-deep in reading Giddins for a new post). Do I really believe my opinion is equally valid to Gary Giddins’s? Of course not. Perhaps. Yes. (But only when I’m writing.)

    Uniqueness, though the most contentious (and hence rhetorically loaded, hedged and re-hedged) point of my argument, is hardly the only one–necessary, but not sufficient. The question of language is key–the example from poetry–something which you, as a writer, can certainly relate to. And then there is that old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Scribble, re-do, test, crumple, uncrumple, re-do, test, move on … fail better, as Beckett said.

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