Six Years in the Pit

Given the recent decline in production, is a year-end reflection warranted? It seems a tad self-indulgent. With so little to bite off—to riff on Shaw, about Henry James—one can become enamored by the sound of one’s own chewing. Should not proportion be considered above all? How can I not be a bit embarrassed, when I look at the “Recent Posts” widget and see “Five Years in the Pit” still on the list? A mere half-dozen new pieces about music; the full version of an already (half-)published piece in The Charnel House, because the journal where it had (half-)appeared kicked the bucket; some fun with site re-design: are these not the hallmarks of decline? The Romans must have been rearranging statues in the emperor’s palace just days before the fall.

I’ve toyed with the idea of making this blog seasonal. Since fall tends to be the heaviest teaching season, and hence the most difficult time to produce new work, it might make sense to do the planting then, and then cultivate and harvest from late winter through summer. A field must lay fallow a time for things to grow again, and that fallow time is deeply productive, even if what is happening isn’t yet visible. But—as my inverted agricultural year suggests—the seasons of the mind are insulated from the weather, and entirely independent of the tilt of the earth (though not of the ear). Better, I think, to let pieces straggle in as they appear, like travelers coming in from a storm, brushing off their coats, stamping their boots.

Not only has production slowed, but reflection comes a month late this year. April is the Pit Stop’s birthday, little as that means measured against eternity. I waited the extra month because I wanted to publish the most recent post, “Elastic,” before calling it a year. This for two reasons. First, since the year started with a longish piece on Ornette Coleman (“Ex Nihilo,” 6.3.15), the two profiles, Ornette and Miles, serve as nice bookends. But the Miles piece also bookends the history of the blog as a whole. Miles was the subject of the second piece I ever posted (not including the blog introduction) way back in 2010 (“Convalescing With Miles,” 4.14.10); and I think that considering these two pieces against each other gives a fair indication of where the blog has gone. This one is a hell of a lot longer—I’m almost embarrassed to say how much. (A note to myself, jotted among my first sketches for the piece: “This is just a tribute, so it doesn’t need to be long!”) “Convalescing With Miles” is impressionistic and personal; “Elastic” puts a greater emphasis on history and analysis. This is not to say that impression and personal narrative/response aren’t part of the new post; they’re still the bricks and mortar of how I approach writing about music. It’s just that they are folded into a piece with a broader scope … even if the seed of it was just to record new impressions of an old, beloved record.

I think the new Miles piece points to something else important, something I’ve mentioned before: that even though I’ve been listening to this album on and off for a quarter of a century, writing about it pushed me to think about it in a new way. It started on a hunch, something that happened in my ear; it turned into a quest, something that happened in language. The quest, in turn, forced me to go back and listen, and listen relentlessly, like I did to Ornette’s late ’50s and early ’60s albums last year. (It was also a great excuse to pick up some Miles records from the ’50s and ’60s I didn’t know.*) Is it silly to think that a music-lover and avocational music-writer needs to find an excuse to listen to Miles Davis? Perhaps. But such is the case. A brief anecdote by way of explanation. As a high school student (zzzzzzzz) I didn’t particularly enjoy English, this despite having had great teachers. I didn’t have the infatuation with Portrait of the Artist budding writers are supposed to (though I did really like the sermons on hell). The early American stuff we did was a painful slog. (“Billy Budd” still is—sorry, Herman, but I’ll take Redburn any day.) Poetry by and large left me cold. Oedipus was eh. Faulkner was just weird. But writing? I loved it. I was reading King, Poe, Barker, Lovecraft. It was only in late college that my eyes were opened to the broader terrain of literature—and this because of my desire to write. Ulysses ripped my head off—I had no idea you could do that with a novel. (I’ll stop there; you can wake up now.) The point is, writing back-doored me into English. And though my roots in music go deeper, I find that writing does the same thing here: it activates me, pushes me to listen more, and more closely, because I want to put my thoughts and impressions together in language. No surprise I added the Jacques Barzun epigraph to my front page (The Rotten Plank) this year. It has been a guiding star since I discovered it. For what I most want is to articulate this thing called music, so as to better understand and appreciate it; and my desire to articulate drives me to listen, annotate, write, and listen again.

In this way—I have argued this before, too—I find that writing about music takes on a life independent of the musical text in which it originated. More: I would argue that it should. There is a point at which listening ends, and revision begins, and through this the ideas begin to reshape themselves, and to coalesce around new ideas that depend, not on the music, but on the ideas themselves, and on the language in which they are enmeshed. Sometimes I do go back and listen to make sure I have not misstated, or gone too far afield, or outright invented—the music is still the text that the writing is ostensibly “about,” that the words are supposed to “reflect.” Other times I don’t bother … or perhaps don’t dare to. By the time the writing has finished creating itself, it must be able to justify itself as a text; it should not need the music to do so. I would rather believe there is something in those brave follies language steers me toward. And I would hardly be the first writer to founder on the shoals of ambition, that darkest of human desires (as the excellent recent horror movie Starry Nights illustrates), sailing my rickety little sloop of musical impressions foolishly onward into this mare ignotum. Such ends hardly matter, measured against the feeling of the wind on my face and the view of the crooked horizon.

I chopped a long footnote out of “Elastic” because it had no platform there, but it does serve as a good concluding example to the foregoing. The following remarkable passage about Miles comes from Whitney Balliett’s The Sound of Surprise (1958). With Davis’s legend secure by the end of the ‘50s, it’s easy to forget there was some ambivalence about his debut, as Balliett reminds us: “His approach consisted of an awkward blotting up of the work of Dizzy Gillespie. He had a shrill, mousy tone, he bungled more notes than not, and he always sounded as if he were playing in a monotone” (127). A decade later, Miles’s evolving technique and approach had gained Balliett’s qualified admiration: “In slow numbers, he often uses a tight, resonant mute and, by playing directly into the microphone, achieves a hollow but penetrating sound, like blowing into the neck of an empty bottle. At the same time, he employs economical, melodic phrases spattered with a good many off notes, which give the effect of his casually twisting the melody—as if it were soft metal—into lumpy, yet graceful, shapes. Davis frequently plays open horn in middle tempos, and the change is startling. Although his tone is still slightly sour, series of fat, delicate phrases seem to round it off. They are reminiscent of a man slowly and rhythmically beating a soft punching bag. Fast numbers appear to unsettle him, for he often relies on a fretwork of empty runs and unsteady spurts into the upper register. But in a medium-tempo blues, say, Davis is capable of creating a pushing, middle-of-the-road lyricism that is a remarkable distillation, rather than a one-two-three outlining of the melodic possibilities; indeed, what comes out of his horn miraculously seems the result of the instantaneous editing of a far more diffuse melodic line being carried on in his head” (127-8).

After six years in The Pit wrestling with all the demons entailed by the phrase writing about music, all I can really do with such a passage is stand back in awe. That last sentence nails something essential about Miles’s whole aesthetic; it is as though the lyricism that precedes it were clearing the brush for this realization. With the exception of Gary Giddins, I can’t think of a writer who even comes close to this. And Balliett and Giddins are as stylistically different as Rollins and Coltrane: one the consummate stylist, sharp, taut, lyrical; the other a polymath and volcano of ideas, his text a dense, allusive tissue. It is remarkable (and a little depressing) to consider the gap that separates them from the “merely” insightful—that is, from all the other great music writers out there. We hear the same thing in music—I’m sure you’ve witnessed this yourself, if you make a habit of going out—when mere talent has the misfortune to share the bandstand with genius. Their work transcends music criticism, as to constitute a wholly separate music. When I read a paragraph like the one above, Miles becomes vestigial, just as, say, Balzac becomes vestigial when I read the work of Roland Barthes. I mean, I could spin that Balliett paragraph on my turntable. I am happy to be excoriated for saying so, to die a martyr’s death for such an outlandish idea. I am sure Giddins would groan, and Balliett turn in his grave, to hear me suggest it. Clearly, it is impossible to conceive of the above passage without Miles—clearly! Impossible! But isn’t this the point of music writing: to create something that doesn’t simply live parasitically on the body of the music, but that can be read, listened to, with a pleasure all its own? That has its own integrity and life and identity and, like a bubble forming on the surface of the sea, eventually floats off, to shimmer in its own beautiful, radiant existence? In the contemplation of beauty we needn’t always scourge ourselves remembering what gave it birth. Just as in my most despairing moments I want to put down my pen and put on a record, so, when I come across a passage like that one, I wonder whether we need music at all, whether words aren’t enough.


I can’t end this Piteous reflection without the usual look ahead. As noted in the past, based on my hearing issues, memoir and book review would come to occupy a larger share of the themes on this blog, and so they have. Struggles aside—for that Waksman review (“Dr Heidegger’s Punks,” 4.16.16) there was so much I wanted to say that it became a hydra, and I am a poor substitute for Hercules—you, dear reader, can look forward to more reviews in the coming year.

On a broader scale, the contents of this blog are going to shift, much like those in your overhead bin do during travel. As I finish out my twelfth year at CUNY, I have been granted a sabbatical for lucky year 13. What could be more metal than that? Besides writing as much fiction as I can muster, my plan is to translate, working with my father, a classic Argentine study of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. While I’m engaged in the research and translation work, the blog will become a space to reflect. So, nestled among the usual commentaries and memoirs and strange offerings, expect a combination of personal reflections on Beethoven (under the working title “Letters to Ludwig”) and pieces about the joys and sorrows of translation (no working title as of yet).

Down … down …


* A friend recently asked me why on earth I still buy CDs. He doesn’t even have the technology to play them anymore, as I suspect is true of a lot of people. For a belated response, see the “addendum” I am posting, together with this end-of-year reflection, at the end of “Three-Legged Dogs” (8.21.15).

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