Category Archives: What I’m Listening To

Attention! (A Dirge)

A bit of kibble that grew too big for its britches …

 

In Thinking About Music (Massachusetts UP, 1983), Lewis Rowell offers the following about the aesthetic experience: “The single most vital precondition for the aesthetic experience is a special type of attitude, a state in which one is most receptive to intense artistic experience, characterized by critical attention. This attitude,” Rowell continues, “is likely to be present in but a small fraction of our encounters with art objects—other intentions, interests, or attitudes get in our way” (6). He cites an apparently well-known passage from Aesthetics and History, in which Bernard Berenson describes said experience as “the moment […] when the spectator is at one with the work of art he is looking at […]. When he recovers workaday consciousness it is as if he had been initiated into illuminating, exalting, formative mysteries. In short, the aesthetic moment is a moment of mystic vision” (qtd. in Rowell 5). Rowell comments that “many readers may feel they have been cheated because they have not experienced the heights of exaltation described,” yet he notes that “everyone has recognized—perhaps to a lesser degree—the sensation of being caught up by a painting, musical composition, or play, and of being transformed by that experience” (5).

Aesthetics and History was first published in 1948, and the Berenson passage is certainly redolent of its time. Indeed, my first thought was of the moment in Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House, 2011) when the narrator witnesses a patron bursting into tears in front of a painting in the Prado, and then spends a fair chunk of the novel engaged in often hilarious hand-wringing about why he has not been visited by such a “transcendent experience of art.”

Although Rowell concedes that the mystical encounter Berenson describes is rare, he places the blame for this squarely on the shoulders of the listener: “intentions, interests, or attitudes” that “get in our way”; a lack of “receptiveness”; an inability to bring to the work the proper “critical attention.” Like Lerner’s narrator—and perhaps like the deeply religious person who either awaits the experience of grace, or from whom the deity suddenly and unexpectedly withdraws—we are apt to feel the fault is in ourselves. We must have done something to offend; we have “hardened our hearts.” Aesthetic receptiveness requires a similar posture of humility and submission.*

Rowell clearly situates aesthetic experience along a continuum, with transcendent, mystical connection at one end, and something like passive absorption at the other. Music scholar Anahid Kassabian makes a similar point when she notes that attention (Rowell’s “single most vital precondition”) includes “a wide spectrum of activities that range between two impossible extremes—fully attentive and fully inattentive,” and that “many kinds of listening take place over a wide range of degrees or kinds of consciousness and attention” (Ubiquitous Listening, California UP, 2013, ps. xxi-xxii). The passive end of the listening spectrum was perhaps best described by Aaron Copland in What to Listen for in Music as the “sensuous plane” of musical experience; as for the music itself, prime examples include Erik Satie’s “furniture music,” Brian Eno, and, of course, Muzak.

As Kassabian and others have persuasively argued, much of our listening today tends toward the sensuous end of the spectrum, as music has become a continuous, even inescapable part of our conditioning environment. Indeed, as Simon Frith noted a quarter century ago, silence, not music, had become “the mark of a special moment”: “Music can no longer be defined against the everyday as something unusual: music is now the everyday” (Performing Rites, Harvard UP, 1996, p. 237). Today, in a society of what Kassabian calls “ubiquitous music,” something like the “transcendent experience of art” must sound like Gulliver’s islands: objects of satire, too extravagantly ridiculous to be believed. (The catch, I think, is that Lerner’s send-up is only really funny if some vestigial belief in “the transcendent experience of art” persists.)

Kassabian’s (and others’) work suggests that it might be time to absolve the listener who has not enjoyed the transcendent experience of art of their guilt, and situate our aesthetic experiences more firmly within the possibilities of our historical moment. If Berenson (and possibly even Rowell) feels dated, and Lerner’s weeping patron seems risible, it probably has a lot to do with how we’ve been prepared (or not) to engage (or not) with art. In an age of casual and ubiquitous consumption—and consumption is the term we should prefer—our encounters with art are necessarily attenuated, occurring as they do in configurations that militate against “critical attention”; our “intentions, interests, and attitudes” are largely inculcated by social institutions, which at best underprepare us for aesthetic engagement, and at worst actively undermine its possibility.

Kassabian makes Daniel Barenboim her foil—and by extension, the classical music community he was addressing in his 2006 Reith Lectures. “What they are saying to the public,” Barenboim told his audience, “is that you don’t have to concentrate, you don’t have to listen, you don’t have to know anything about it, just come and you will find some association, and we will show you so many things that have nothing to do with the music and this way you will go into the music. And I ask you, ladies and gentlemen, is this the answer to the so-called crisis in classical music?” (qtd. in Kassabian xix). Kassabian counters that “declarations such as these negate in one fell swoop most of the listening most of us engage in every day” (xix).

The Barenboim snippet is frustratingly de-contextualized (to quote Primus: Who is “they”?). It’s also irrelevant, and as such it feels like a cheap shot. As a conductor and pianist, why wouldn’t Barenboim be concerned about a public whose attention has been so transformed that the art he has spent his life studying, performing, and proselytizing for can no longer be appreciated on its own terms? Barenboim is not concerned with “most of the listening most of us engage in every day”; he’s concerned with the listening some of us engage in some of the time—fewer and fewer of us, less and less frequently—mostly in the concert hall, the space history has bequeathed to us for listening to Barenboim’s kind music (it serves pretty well for a fair amount of other music as well), and which appears to my imagination more and more like a Mayan ruin. Within a few years, I expect I’ll have to hack my way through a thicket to reach the ivy-enshrouded doors of Carnegie Hall.

There’s no question that Kassabian and other scholars of sound are describing “most of the listening most of us do.” And without question, that listening is a fascinating subject of study. At issue, however, is what value we assign to this majority of listening. And here is where I break with Kassabian, and break quite strongly. It’s more than a debate between reactionary idealism and realism, as Kassabian frames her argument with Barenboim; for Kassabian’s text is no less idealizing than Barenboim’s is nostalgic for the cultural hegemony of classical music.

In Ubiquitous Listening, Kassabian explores the way music has moved from object of primary attention to background. We engage with it as “partially attentive listen[ers]” (xxiv), processing it at the level of affect, music felt more than heard. As “partially attentive” indicates, Kassabian rebuts the notion that such listening is purely passive (i.e., just “hearing”), and argues that the varying states or degrees of attention in which we engage need to be given them their scholarly due. Citing Katherine Hayles’s work on pedagogy and attention, she argues that “the deep, focused, long attention traditionally associated with the humanities is being replaced with a fragmented and multiple form of attention” (xix). That “long” or “structural” attention carries classist and partriarchal baggage: music is understood in linear, narrative terms, with the central theme as “masculine protagonist” (xxiii). If the “expert listening” cultivated by the academy produced the Western canon, then perhaps these new modes of listening, simultaneous and secondary (18), point the way toward new criteria for evaluating music—a new canon. Such appreciation would be more congruent with our contemporary reality, which has become, Kassabian asserts, distinctly nonlinear, non-narrative.

One quick step back before I shuffle forward again: Writing on the eve of an internet that would exponentialize music’s availability, Simon Frith was already noting that we “hear music as a fragmented and unstable object” (Performing Rites, p. 242; Frith’s emphases). “As we have taken power over music on records,” he writes, “as they have become ubiquitous […], so the musical work has ceased to command respectful, structural, attention. All music is more often heard now in fragments than completely.” Together with the advent of recording and broadcasting technology, Frith connects fragmentation to industrialization and urbanization, drawing on a lovely image from Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter of snippets of music heard during a parade. Like Kassabian, Frith connects this new way of experiencing music to “all our experiences of time,” which are “are now fragmented and multilinear”; as such, “fragmented music is also realistic music […]; it represents experience grasped in moments” (243).

Kassabian, then, is building out from Frith’s and other scholars’ passing observations in the ‘80s and ‘90s, to develop a fuller argument for an emerging form of listening and of subjectivity, which she labels distributed subjectivity. Listeners, she cautions, should neither be reduced to the social networks they inhabit nor privileged as individuals; she prefers the term “nodes” to describe at once our positioning inside the field of affective responses that shape us and our three-dimensional sense of selfhood. And yet, this three-dimensional self seems at best vestigial—a sort of Enlightenment afterglow, a fiction for those who cannot yet accept a two-dimensional reality. “Individual subjectivity,” she writes, “continues to appear to us to function”; and elsewhere, “The feeling, the apprehension, of individual subjectivity should not be belittled” (xxiv; my emphases). I’m not sure why Kassabian is so loath to rip off the Bandaid; if the individual is the Enlightenment Santa Claus, why not just tell the children and be done with it? Another passage suggests one possible answer: “We are nodes in a massive, widespread field of distribution, it is true, but nonetheless nodes with, potentially, an agglomeration of experiences and accretions of affect that are uncommon, or perhaps even unique” (xxiv). That hedge, “perhaps,” seems to me the beam on which her argument balances. I would argue there is no “perhaps” here; it’s only the ideology of the moment, the ascendant corporate-technocratic-capitalist hegemony and the academic theorizing it has spawned, that makes us feel or appear other than unique. “Agglomeration” and “accretion” suggest a sort of random pile-up of affect and memory—a weirdly Protestant vision for a theory that would dismantle the individual—as though we were piggy banks into which the coins of experience drop, and then sit all in a jumble, rather than an active force combining, rearranging, and ordering these traces of affect and memory. Even if my field-positioning were identical to another’s—an impossibility—the resulting “I” would be radically different. If every node is indeed unique, and uniquely active, how can a theory of distributed anything do justice to the depth of our being, including our aesthetic experiences?

I’m not denying we’re creatures of culture, our identities built up over time by responses to stimuli. I’m simply arguing that the entity doing the “agglomerating” has a lot more agency (and idiosyncracy) than is generally allowed, and that the end-product, while always to a degree provisional, mortal, time-bound creatures that we are, is pretty damn solid—certainly more than a feeling, as Boston sings with nauseating ubiquity on the radio. It has inertia. Or, if we prefer to think of it as fluid—fluidity seems to be the academic flavor of the month—that fluid is a lot more viscous than much contemporary theory would have us believe.† And if I’m getting on my high horse, and I stay there for the rest of this post, it’s because I think we pay a steep social price for underestimating the level of viscocity, the reality of inertia. Theories of subjectivity fragmented, distributed, or otherwise destabilized seem to me tailored to those elements of contemporary reality that most diminish us: our possibility for deep attention, for rational action, and for understanding of ourselves and the world as processes in time. With time so mangled and our sense of history so impaired, it’s no wonder the forces shaping what are after all fields of power disappear from the radar, and with that the benefit accrued to corporations from what has come to be called, without apparent irony, the attention economy. Thus, while Kassabian sketches the history of ambient music, she is strangely reluctant to interrogate the broader economic and social forces that have shaped its social function—to ask, with The Talking Heads, “Well, how did [we] get here?” (Or, for that matter: Is “here” good? And if not, how do we resist, reverse, dismantle what is most harmful?) Ubiquitous music may appear “sourceless” (10), but Kassabian surely knows it’s anything but.

This reluctance comes through with distressing clarity in her treatment of Muzak. Muzak’s mission has always been environmental conditioning, and Kassabian clearly sees the mood-altering effects of the musical wallpaper we encounter throughout our daily lives—music as accompaniment, anchor, something to help us focus our attention elsewhere—as the broader social inheritance of that company’s vision. Kassabian quotes her babysitter, for whom music “fills the house, makes the emptiness less frightening,”—and glosses this with Muzak adspeak: “Muzak fills the deadly silence” (9). As a Muzak spokesperson notes, “If you were pushing a cart through a grocery story and all you hear is wheels creaking and crying babies—it would be like a mausoleum” (qtd. in Kassabian 9).

I know I shouldn’t expect Kassabian to engage in Marxist editorializing, or any editorializing at all—I mean, this is California UP, not Verso. But nowhere does she raise an eyebrow (or both) that a musical commodity invented to make the drudgery of the workday palatable and productive, and to guide us toward complacent consumption, has now become the social norm, and what this might say about our mental and emotional lives. Nowhere does she question why shopping (or anything, really) should be a gravelike experience, or why silence should be “deadly,” a void to be filled, rather than something to be enjoyed, a positive quantity.**

And it only gets more dispiriting from here, as she spends the rest of the chapter waxing exicted about ambient intelligence and pervasive computing. Something was voted “third-best app by the readers of Laptop magazine.” Eno generative music apps “have appeared on many ‘best of’ lists” (14-5). Sensors that respond to our emotional needs (?) and physical distress (12) she finds “appealing” and “full of possibilities.” These apps and gadgets, she concludes, “offer us worlds of possibilities, figuratively and literally, for somewhere between no cost and twelve euros” (17). Reading this, I thought about how much the world already resembles a Cronenberg movie.†† I remembered that scene in Robocop where Murphy (i.e., Robocop) walks through his old house, now for sale, and a virtual salesman appears in every room, flogging all the great appliances with brand names like “Food Concepts.” Great satire, and more relevant by the day. Because all this stuff that enables music to ooze Bloblike from the walls of our ever-more-Jetsony homes and spring from our underwear and iCrap—it already looked looked cheap and tawdry ten years ago, and ten years down the road, all the stuff we’re oohing and aahing about today will look just as cheap and tawdry. Ubiquitous Listening was written at the dawn of the smart phone revolution, and parts already feels as dated as Berenson. Perhaps there’s a lesson here.

The idea that these bits of software with very limited choices—none of which, of course, “bear up to […] long, focused listening” (16)—present opportunities for “creativity” also strikes me as vastly overstated (see below). But then I guess when we get tired of them—a different sort of planned obsolescence—someone else will come up with something else at a similarly reasonable subscription price (or paid for through constantly-bombarding ads to which we helplessly lend our partial attention), which we will once again play with until we’re tired, and so on, through distraction after distraction, cradle to grave. If that’s not the image of a mausoleum, I don’t know what is. I’ll take the creaky shopping cart wheels and crying babies, thanks.

You know what has more staying power? Music. Poetry. Art. It may not last a thousand years, as Petrarch wished, but who among us is Methusaleh? I’m happy if it lasts my three score and ten. Hell, I’m happy if I can get ten years out of it. Some of it does turn to vinegar, sure. But then some of it ages beautifully.

So. Insofar as ubiquitous listening “modulates our attentional capacities, […] tunes our affective relationships to categories of identity, [and] conditions our participation in fields of subjectivity” (Kassabian 18), I offer the following, at once substitute, gloss, and exercise in neo-Luddite curmudgeonry: “ubiquitous listening degrades our capacity to pay attention, impinges on our ability to relate to others and to ourselves, and conditions our participation as worker-consumer drones in fields of exploited labor and ubiquitous consumption.” For if we know ourselves “in and through musical engagement,” in our current reality that happens 99% through the tightly-controlled, ad-sodden musical environments we paddle around in, one corporate fen sluicing us to another, brought to us by Google Amazon Starbucks enter your union-busting company name here. We come to know ourselves according to the mediation of algorithms we will never have access to, in the bulldozed, well-measured image of corporations in whose fields of power we operate, all the better to monetize every aspect of our existence.

Whew! I need to take a deep breath, or a few. Maybe get another coffee … Okay, better. Let me talk briefly about Frith, by which I mean at some length, and then I’ll wrap it up, which will likely take another several paragraphs, before appending a self-indulgent number of endnotes.

While Frith succumbs much less to Kassabian’s boosterism—the brave new world still a bit too far over the horizon a quarter century ago—a passing quote from Jonathan D. Kramer did draw my attention, and, me being Helldriver, my ire. “Technology,” Kramer wrote in The Time of Music) (Schirmer, 1988), “has liberated listeners from the completeness of musical form” (qtd. in Frith 243). I’m a little wary about taking on this sentence without its original context, and I’m aware that I may simply be falling into nostalgia for a Lost World of coherence, but … I want to unpack that word “liberation” a little. Let me start with an analogy to literature. I was never persuaded that the “advances” in the novel of the mid-twentieth century, exhilirating as some of them were, represented “liberation” from an “oppresive” linearity or coherence. How did anyone—novelists, critics, the public—ever manage to convince themselves that the carefully-arranged fragments of a “fragmented” or “incoherent” novel were anything but a surrogate act of control, made all the more insidious by the disingenuousness of the paratextual materials that announced it as “revolutionary”? How did readers, who presumably still purchased the novel as a commodity at a book stall, or borrowed it from a library, and then proceeded to give it at least a few moments of their undivided attention, ever imagine that they were not subjecting themselves to the will of the author?***

The performing arts allow artists to involve audiences to a somewhat greater degree in the shape of an unfolding event. But even this occurs within a matrix of (usually paying) patron and artist, in venues that reinforce this structure, according to pre-written rules of engagement. And if possibilities for audiences at performances to be “co-creators”—that fetish term of active-audience theorists—is limited, how much moreso when the art object in question is pre-fabricated: a painting, book, film, or record. Again, we have some limited ability to modify the manner and context of our engagement with these works … but nothing close to what would earn us such a vaunted title (unless, that is, we incorporate said works in artworks of our own, i.e., become artists in our own right; and we should all be encouraged to do so). (I treat this question at someone greater length in my review of Jazzing; see “Vasudeva on the Hudson,” 11.11.18.)

This discomfort on the part of active-audience theorists seems to stem from the inherently anti-democratic nature of art. Art asks, often quite nicely, for our submission, what Rowell termed our receptivity and attention. Maybe our ideal relationship to art objects can be most usefully understood as an act of consent: I, reader, listener, viewer, consent to give myself, temporarily but wholly, or at least to the greatest extent possible, to the art object I have chosen to engage with. I do so because I recognize the intellectual and emotional sustenance to be gained from making the time to immerse myself in the form and structure another thinking, feeling being has sought to impose upon the raw materials of existence. Doing so strikes me as much more democratic than unwittingly wandering into fields (public and private) where I am hailed unconsciously by whatever element of the power structure’s gravity I happen to be nearest to, for whatever end they deem best, which generally involves driving me toward the lowest level of mental and emotional activity possible without actually expiring, the more easily to shape me as a consumer- and worker-drone. If I’m going to be “liberated” from anything, let it be that. (N.B.: It could be argued that audiences today make a similar choice to pay artworks partial, intermittent, or near-absent attention; that some art merits it; and that some—indeed more and more—has been deliberately created with such listening practices in mind. My argument is at once social (the choice has been made for us) and value-driven (what is being lost by this “choice” of listening and the art objects made to accommodate it). (One possible rebuttal: the system in which art objects are made by individuals and groups and distributed to other individuals and groups for their consensual submission is not the only system possible for the creation and dissemination of art. True; but if my points above about the individual have any merit, it’s a good one, though one that would be much better if we could wrest a larger share of it away from publishing and other conglomerates (see below). Another possible rebuttal: we were as shaped to thinking in narrative, linear terms in preceding generations as the opposite appears to be true today; perhaps said “liberation” has had the salutary effect of making us realize that linearity is not a fetish to be worshipped, but a tool for understanding. Point taken. The problem is I haven’t seen anything viable to replace it yet. Maybe I should be more optimistic, and wait with Kassabian for the (technological) Godot coming down the (linear) road.)

Cage, whom Kassabian cites as one of the progenitors of our listening moment, makes for some interesting caveats to the above, so let me try to position him in my ongoing argument. If Cage invited the listener to broaden their palette to include sounds not traditionally considered music—the difference, as Rowell puts it, between forest tree and bonsai (4)—this still presupposed attention: an attention that wandered away from the concert hall to aestheticize our sonic experiences in and of themselves, and, in fact, created them as aesthetic experiences through our attention. Once the clock starts—4’13”—that sonic vignette becomes the art object. But once we have been nudged to shift our attention to sounds traditionally regarded as non-musical, and to find music in them, the quality of our attention likely changes; structural/long attention, i.e., listening for continuity and form, will yield fewer dividends in the rustle of an auditorium, or a forest. Such listening necessitates a different kind—what Kassabian refers to as a mode—of attention, one perhaps closer to the flitting, alighting-now-and-then, here-and-there attention of what Ola Stockfelt calls “snapshot listening” (Kassabian 4). And yet, not the same. I can close my eyes and listen to the woods outside my home, and my attention will be drawn in a variety of directions, and this does seem a necessarily different act than listening for development over time (although there is an element of that, too). But it is also very different from, say, reading on the porch, and having my attention occasionally wrested away from the text by the chickens making a fuss, or the cry of a hawk, or a clap of thunder. Attention doesn’t need to be structural to contain elements of immersion, focus, continuity, and holism (i.e., consideration of sounds in combination with other sounds and in their totality). (And we can split hairs yet finer: the attention I lend to a jazz solo is not the same kind of attention I lend to a symphony. I tried to articulate this once upon a time in a paper for a graduate seminar as the difference between “this, then this, then this” (narrative, structural attention) and “this, now this, now this.” Moment trumps continuity, but immersion, here in each ever-new moment, remains.) I’m afraid that the force of the thirty or so years, however, has been not to expand our attention but to diminish it; and, like a wave hitting a barrier, that attitude has washed back into the concert hall and private listening practice, so that passive, fragmented, intermittent listening has now become the norm for objects traditionally defined as musical and the world around us. How much better it would have been if some aspect of listening to a soundscape had washed back into listening to a symphony! (Did it? Perhaps it did. Perhaps that’s what Minimalism was.) Of course, Cage was right to hand the stopwatch to the audience. How could he have predicted that, a half century later, four minutes and thirteen seconds would seem like an eternity? (How many people can listen to 4’13” today without fidgeting with their phones?)

Would it help if we thought about our relationship to art objects according to the same principle as our relationships with people? It’s hard to take theories of the murder of the author too seriously, what with the way they barely resonated outside of academic circles. The wholesale slaughter of the individual, however, is another matter. And while I know it’s good for me to theorize about all this, bring it to consciousness, patch holes in my arguments; and while I understand that my feeling of what should be basic common sense is influenced by some combination of hegemonies residual, current, or emerging; all this acknowledged, from my particular and very peculiar perch in the field, I can only say that … a little respect would go a long way. You know, actually listening to people. Letting folks take their turn. Why would I want to treat anyone, Beethoven or Bird, Kassabian or Frith, any other way? I’m not sure how this came to sound so old-fashioned. Or, as in that most perfectly-fashioned of all novel endings, just old. (I won’t tell you what novel, so as to avoid spoiling it.)

I can’t help but connect much of the above to the en masse defection of teachers, exacerbated, of course, by the ongoing pandemic. More than a shame, it’s a tragedy. Education and scholarly inquiry seem to me some of the only possible counterweights to the attention-deficit economy. I still have this romantic image of Humanities teachers standing on the smoke-enveloped battlements waving their ordnance-tattered flags (emblazoned with barely-legible lines of poetry, music staves, details from paintings), “blasting the cannons of truth,” as Judas Priest once sang, to the oncoming generations. The fragmented attention, the inability to focus, the terror of silence and aloneness: these seem to be givens for so many of the students we now teach. No wonder trauma has become a buzzword, coming to us as they do emotionally and intellectually crippled from their media-addled isolation tanks. The Humanities is the place where we can say, Slow down. Take a breath. Let’s think about this for a moment. This thing we’ve always taken for granted, what happens when we raise it to conscious scrutiny? What else do you see in these two lines? What is the force of this word, of this particular syntax? We can—and I obviously think we should—cultivate “critical attention” and “receptiveness,” rather than celebrating a degraded status quo. We can and should help students cultivate the sort of consciousness required for deep listening, structural attention, aesthetic experience, or whatever we want to call it. We can and should create classrooms that are spaces for reflection, critical thought, and aesthetic appreciation. We can and should agitate for our schools and other public resources to create spaces and times for such aesthetic engagement, to help students find a balance between navigating the crisis of abundance (the term is Keith Kahn-Harris’s) and opportunities for recursivity and reflection. We can and should lobby for a Marshall Plan for our souls: a massive cultural investment in cultivating opportunities for aesthetic pleasure, as a means to re-centering ourselves. We can and should write idealistic sentences like these, and then get on with the reality of our lives.

Of course, it’s hard to make any argument for aesthetic engagement today without sounding like a snob, sort of the way Kassabian positions Barenboim—he’s for rich people, those snooty classical music lovers; I’m on the side of the people.In fact, I probably sound like I’m resurrecting Allan Bloom and his unanticipated 1987 bestseller The Closing of the American Mind. (Why unanticipated? Americans love their apocalypses, whether it’s straggling survivors during the zombie apocalypse, theological prophecies about the last true believers, or we’re-falling-behind-the-Russkies warnings about national-technological-moral demise.) I wrote a great paper in college—I think it was the only great paper I wrote in college, except maybe that one about “Natural Science” for my Writing About Music class—comparing Bloom’s comments on rock ‘n’ roll to Stephen King’s comment in Danse Macabre that all monsters are variations of three basic types: the vampire, the werewolf, and the thing that should not be. I can’t remember the nuances of Bloom’s argument, or King’s, for that matter, and I’m not going to dig back into those texts (even though Danse Macabre is literally an arm’s length away). But I do remember one thing Bloom decried was the way his students live their lives immersed in music, largely through their headphones, with the suggestion that (a) it was crowding out any other mental life—a factor both of the kind of music (rock, played at high volume) and its constant presence, and (b) they were so glutted with music they no longer valued it (cf. small plastic American flags & ubiquitous anthems). Whatever Bloom’s feelings about rock, morality, and Walkmans, like Frith he seems to have forecasted the crisis of abundance, and the way that abundance and constancy tend to de-sacralize the aesthetic object and potentially de-value aesthetic experience.

Interestingly, rather than the peril of a divided attention, Bloom clearly feels that headphones made it impossible to find the proper distance from a work of art. Headphones, after all, give us an opportunity for immersive listening and deep engagement par excellence. They needn’t, of course, since the subsequent portability of music also created opportunities for other stimuli to impinge upon the aesthetics ones, and as such they can be seen as another precursor of today’s fragmented attention. Then again, these stimuli can become adjuncts to the aesthetic experience, which remains primary. I have a vivid recollection of walking around in Morningside Park listening to Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, and how ravishing the scenery was, surrounding the music like an aura, heightening it, a sort of visual condiment, or drug. Another of driving through the mountains of British Columbia listening to Brahms’s First Piano Concerto. I know, that’s a little too tourist-kitsch, too Kultur: sublime mountains, sublime music. But I can’t deny the effect. In both cases the landscape, beautiful (MP) or sublime (BC), deepened the aesthetic experience. Somehow, in the last couple of generations, this has gotten inverted: art has become the adjunct, the orbiting satellite around … well, what, exactly? If it were the landscape, that might be a fair tradeoff. Unlike the Copernican one, this inversion has positioned us further from ourselves and from reality. The center has become a void; the star has collapsed. We’ve forgotten the strength to be gained from making art a sun.

Rowell, too, notes that immersion can be a danger to the piece as a whole, causing us to fall Invisible-Man style into a tone, and so lose sight of the whole, as some non-Western musics invite us to do; and if Frith is correct, fragmentation was beginning to have a similar effect on Western listening practices at least by the eighties, drawing listeners to the immediacy of sound rather than the placement of notes within the total structure of a work (243). But, pace my argument about Cage above, I would argue that this, too, is a form of attention, different in kind from the structural, linear attention promulgated by Adorno and the Western academy, but also different from the relative indifference of what Kassabian calls ubiquitous listening. (It might even better describe Berenson’s “mystical union” than the colder distance presupposed by structural attention. I think Kassabian is suggesting as much when she describes attention occuring in degrees andmodes; and it may be the case, and would be my comeuppance, that there are only modes—that is, that attention or focus cannot be described as a quantity meted out by degrees, but rather only as a grouping of mutually-exclusive kinds.) As listeners, I think we often shuttle between kinds of listening (Rowell: “one can both think music and think about music” (15)). We oscillate between immersion and stepping back to think consciously about what we are listening to, compare, take stock … and then dive in again. Interestingly, this “dangerously” immersive listening seems—or seemed—to be experienced most often in groups: the rave, the yoga-class Om, the hippie drum circle. I say “seemed” because these public forms of listening which encouraged loss-of-self immersion seem to be increasingly replaced by private ones that, in many cases, inhibit immersion. My ability to immerse myself in a film, for example, is different in the public venue of a movie theater, where I have largely ceded control to the overwhelming spectacle of the screen and my behavior to the public expectation for such spectacles and the camaraderie of my fellow audience members, than on a small screen at home, computer or phone, where I can stop and start, toggle between pages, check how much time is left, get up to grab the cat, and so on. (Simon Reynolds writes about this with his usual brilliant eloquence in Retromania.) These public opportunities for aesthetic immersion are also disappearing, now more than ever, and they seem just as necessary and valuable to maintaining psychic wholeness and balance. We need opportunities and contexts for both public and private immersion: not just more concert halls, but more parties with blasting music, more be-ins, more drum circles—more opportunities, that is, for direct, overwhelming, thrilling engagement. (N.B.: It’s a bit quaint to believe that the walls of our home defend us against the aural onslaught; our private lives and our homes have become so porous. Anyway, who needs a home chapel, a music room, when your whole house is wired? Music ends up following you through every activity. In time, one thing bleeds into another. Attention becomes intermittent. It’s logical that this should happen. And so, simply as a matter of practice, habit, and cultural preparation, the idea of sacred time, sacred space, for engagement with art, slips away, and the most-of-the-time listening we do in our disenchanted technopolis erodes the possibility for any other kind.)

Let me sound like even more of a reactionary fuddy-duddy. To the words “attitude” and “intentions” in the introductory passage by Rowell I would add commitment. More than anything, aesthetic experience asks for our commitment. I know, I sound like I’m preaching monogamy in an age of ubiquitous sex. Just bear in mind the commitment I’m advocating for here is to an attitude, not a particular work, artist, or genre. Every hedonist is married to their hedonism, and art is insatiable.

So, to sum up: the diminishment and/or absence of deep aesthetic encounters, in the multiple kinds we can imagine, both public and private, insofar as the two can still be distinguished, is causing us to become more neurotic, more fragile, more unstable, and more violent. The fact that the institutions once entrusted with vouchsafing the public interest have instead decided that said interest is a chimera, remade themselves as businesses, and thrown in their lot with capital, has tilted the balance quite decisively toward our social malaise of fractured, attenuated attention, emotional fragility, and psychic instability. The resulting violence is neither repressive nor revolutionary, but contingent and seemingly random, because, like the music, the ailment seems to have no identifiable source. We lash out more generally: against our communities, against ourselves, against some easily-identifiable scapegoat.††† As educators, it’s incumbent upon us to open spaces for engagement, to foster sacred time, space, and pace. And no, I don’t have any bar graphs or pie charts to back any of this up. But don’t worry: personal blogs are places where assholes loudly espouse their opinions. They are not credible sources for your research paper. Personal blogs affiliated with educational institutions (like CUNY) are a greyer area; they should be treated with caution; yellow light, not red. This post is kind of orange. (Some others are sort of lemon-lime, though. I hope.)

And if you’re surprised to find Helldriver cross-dressing as Cassandra, don’t be: her garb is seductive, particularly when the world’s falling apart. (“Moscow in flames, missiles headed toward New York: film at eleven.”)

Here’s the good news: if you make an effort and actively unplug from the matrix, there are actually life-affirming fields your can immerse yourself in. College radio is alive and well; there, well-educated humans sit somewhere near an antenna, and you, the listener, let yourself be schooled for a while by their eclectic tastes and prodigious archives. Film Forum has thus far survived the pandemic, in case you haven’t wandered down to Houston Street lately. There are more literary journals, independent and university-affiliated, than there have been at probably any time in history, cranking out truly remarkable assortments of stories, poems, graphics, etc. New York is still a hothouse of music discoverable for the intrepid and pure of heart. The tourists step around the street drummers, even if they don’t look up from their phones or take out their Airpods. Some of them throw money. If you stop and listen for four minutes and thirteen seconds, you’ll walk away a better person, I swear.

 

*  I’ve often wondered if moments of transcendent connection with the artwork are necessarily fleeting, and might even be best defined by their fleetingness: moments of dumb luck and serendipity and surprise, best captured in a passage from Jean Genet’s Miracle of the Rose I have often had occasion to cite, where a bouquet materializes in the corner of the narrator’s eye. Perhaps, more than the transcendent exaltation Berenson describes and Lerner pokes fun at, the aesthetic experience is a state of continual longing for exalted states that never quite arrive: yearning as such, punctuated by occasional, distant glimmers of the Celestial City. This is somewhat closer to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s famous argument about Beethoven, but (mostly) shorn of presence: the artwork opens (us) out to the infinite, but only to withhold it.

†  Kassabian uses the example of her “Armenianness” to buttress arguments about the way identity shifts according to context, noting that she feels “more or less Armenian” depending on the situation in which she finds herself (xxvii). But it is the boundaries of a contested term like Armenianness that shift according to social context, not the identity of the individual Armenians who contest it. The mistake here is to assume that “Armenian” is a static thing, universally defined, rather than a bric-a-brac construct in which the self will more or less feel at home depending on which facet is emphasized. The fact, as she relates, that she feels “written out” when she is in a group of “nationalist, patriarchal, heteronormative” Armenians is case in point. If identity really were so susceptible to context, one would never feel alienated or exiled; one would simply put on the mantle of the moment—say, by comfortably mouthing ethno-nationalist platitudes—and be done with it. The fact that she recoils from some construct called “Armenianness” in such moments implies some basic “I” with an Armenian identity that is not only more or less expressed at certain moments, but also felt in a highly idiosyncratic way.

**  How can we judge silence, from which music takes its value, if we no longer know how to experience it, if it has become an object of terror? Today, there is only silence … or rather a white noise that serves as a new silence: the hum, the drone of the machine, the flat line, as R. Murray Schafer once described it. Like the denizens of E.M. Forster’s future earth in “The Machine Stops,” we no longer know what silence sounds like; we live in the constant hum of the machine. (See “Archeaology of Noise” (1.8.22), note O.)

††  I can’t do an in-depth discussion of Cronenberg here—maybe some future post for the Charnel House. Suffice to say that, for all that Cronenberg has said that the technology human beings create are natural extensions of human biology, and for all he may be right, he is, after all, a horror director; his vision is pervasively dark. Of course, Cronenberg has also advocated for the liberation of the unconscious in the artwork—with which I wholeheartedly agree—so there’s no reason we should expect what Cronenberg says to be congruent with what he does as an artist. (It is, in fact, part of the way he participates in the economy of selling his films, and himself.) I’m also reminded of one of Robin Wood’s arguments about horror: that the genre’s revolutionary potential is one that can only be realized by overthrowing the genre itself.

***  I’m somewhat less persuaded by this argument, but since a blog is always at least partly about throwing things against the wall to see what sticks, in that spirit I append it here, for all you fans of the art of splats, smears, and dribbles: The idea that linearity, structure, coherence, and the like can no longer do “justice” to contemporary experience, no longer reflect our contemporary “reality,” also strikes me as deluded, assuming as it does that that a form as conventional and removed from reality as a novel or symphony (as theorists of realism have persuasively argued in the last few decades) ever did something called “justice” to something called “reality.” Manipulating form exposes aspects of reality not present in earlier forms, and historical (and technological) progress makes it possible to imagine forms previous periods could not—and this is all wonderful. But these forms are no more or less adequate to that ineffable something called “reality,” which is always multiple, fragmentary, and (I would argue) only made accessible to us through such conventional forms. Narrative, which in varying forms stretches back to the birth of language, is still one of the best tools we have for trying to make sense of it.

†††  I’m reminded as well of the Chomsky/Hermann argument in Manufacturing Consent, about the way liberal societies employ “filters” to limit and control information flow, and so effectively censor information without heavy-handed government repression. One needn’t be the Taliban to quash music; turning it into aural wallpaper is just as effective. A population actively denied something takes a great deal of effort to contain; a population kept sedated through the IV drip of ringtones, jingles, and algorithmically-repeated hits from one’s youth, each exposure carrying a low-level affective charge, forgets to care about what it lacks.

Kibble

An abecedarium of unfinished posts, fledgling thoughts, broadsides, aphorisms, quotations, addenda, notes, interludes, promenades, speculations, vignettes, & other kitchen sinks; 32 in all, all newly revised & edited into easily-digestible, individually-wrapped tidbits; artfully arrang’d & illuminated by yrs. truely, HELLDRIVER.

A

Analogies. Musical models have always guided and inspired the way I think about form in fiction and creative nonfiction. Codas, for example: short, closing sections, generally following a line break, that serve as an oblique comment, sometimes in gesture, sometimes in image, on what came before. (A mentor of mine: “End on an image and don’t explain it.” He was quoting a mentor of his.) I think about the climax of Strauss’s Don Quixote: contending, shouting horns; sudden silence; and then a series of quiet, descending trills from the violins. The abrupt about-face in mood signals the hero’s approaching death. The closing move of my story “The Stability of Floating Bodies,” for example, is indebted to this. And that story’s final image, of geese crossing the sky, has an even more specific source: it was an attempt to do in language what Rush does in the closing seconds of “The Fountain of Lamneth”: a few-second crescendo-diminuendo with a light “whump” at the peak. Of course, these musical models are themselves stories; the circuit goes in both directions. But it matters, I think, that the narrative has been filtered through music, perhaps because it serves to highlight form, strain out the muck of substance.

Sometimes it’s the oeuvre of a composer I admire that inspires an analogy, such as that between two stories I wrote back-to-back several years ago and Bartók’s fourth and fifth string quartets: one a tweaked romance, the other strident and abrasive (though they were written in the opposite order, the older of the two being my quartet #5). Or perhaps this is an attempt to inflate them well beyond their actual worth, and so inspire myself to fail again, fail better.

B

Birdsongs & cadences. Musicologist Peter Manuel’s article “From Scarlatti to Guantanamera” (see “Domenico in the Heart,” 3.28.21, note G), argues that what people hear as a satisfactory ending is at least partly culturally determined, so that, for example, the Spanish/Latin American practice of ending on IV, which a listener whose ear is conditioned to Western music may hear as somewhat irresolute, sounds perfectly fine to someone raised listening to flamenco, or to some Caribbean musics. Cultures, that is, produce their own sense of an ending. Now, is it possible there is a deeper conditioning, something we might look for in nature? I’m thinking of the animal noises in the locations where different cultures emerged, and above all, of birdsongs.

Birdsongs don’t sound like they resolve at all. Rather, they cycle; Messiaen captured this so beautifully in the fragmented, repeating texture of his Small Sketches of Birds, one of my very favorite pieces of music. In birdsongs, movement pitchwise is hard to parse, if it’s present at all. Perhaps they resolve rhythmically? What if rhythmic cadences originally underlay melodic ones, quanta where pitches naturally fit, not because of frequency ratios, because of the ratios in temporal “spacing”? What Rosetta-stone algorithm might match these ratios?

One day, maybe we’ll understand that, when composers imitate birdsongs, be it Rameau, Dolphy, or Messiaen, they are simply paying the birds back a debt owed. I can even imagine the migratory paths of birds linking the musics found along their trajectories. And maybe it’s even deeper than this, with the soundmarks of inanimate, always animated nature shaping a particular community’s sense of form. (For more on soundmarks, see “Archaeology of Noise,” 1.8.22, note D.)

C

Cheese. When I teach the captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson, I like to mention Michael Pollan’s comments about the role of food in cultural identity. As the reader may remember, Rowlandson starts out calling the Indians’ food “filthy trash.” That is, until she starts starving; then it becomes “sweet” (thanks, of course, to the Lord). By the end she’s pulling boiled hooves out of little kids’ hands and gobbling them down herself. Anyway, Pollan uses cheese and the French as a shorthand example for the way food speaks cultural identity: the stinkier and rankier the cheese—that is, the less palatable to anyone who isn’t French—the better. In other words: cultural identity depends as much, and perhaps more, on unpalatability for those it excludes as the palatability for those it includes. This is how cultures develop an inedible rind, as it were, as well as protecting their native pungency from bleeding out. The concept works as well for music, of course: the music most unpalatable to others is what most clearly demarcates your identity; the bond of adherents to a particular genre is at least as much a product of the unpalatability of said genre’s music to those outside the circle. The distaste of the uninitiated may even be one source of aesthetic pleasure. What free-jazz lover hasn’t enjoyed the crinkled nose, the expression of incomprehension and patronizing disbelief, of some more straitlaced audience member who somehow managed to stumble into a free-jazz set—who was perhaps invited there for that very reason: to become a pillar, a sacrifice, an emblem of the outside around whose immolation we revel? (See “Torch Songs for LES,” 12.7.12.)

When we call something an acquired taste, we’re calling attention to the labor involved in retraining our receptors (and our minds) to engage with, rather than reject, an unfamiliar stimulus, as well as signaling a particular pleasure that is gained by making that effort—an effort, I should say, that is an act of free choice, not Rowlandsonian desperation. (If I were stuck on a desert island and all I had was NSYNC, would I start to like it? I want to say no, but like Rowlandson, I think after a few weeks I’d start to find it sweet, and I’d thank the Lord, too. Hell, I’d probably eat the kid along with the hoof, and thank the Lord for that, too.) As with cheese, so with cheesy: one person’s cheese is another’s fine fare. Tolstoy thought Wagner was cheesy, and many find the histrionics of flamenco (or metal) cheesy as well. Of course, genre is an imperfect boundary. I find Iced Earth unpalatable, for example—the Limburger of metal—but I have friends who absolutely wallow in the stuff.

Nothing risked, nothing gained, I always say. A certain amount of bombast, or sentiment, and you’re going to risk stinking a little. Not enough, and you’re dead boring. Me, I’ll take the cave-aged, and work backwards from there.

D

Damned by faint praise. Metallica: best cover band ever.

*

Deviance: a screed. The relationship between heavy metal and the broader culture—academic, elite, and mainstream—has always been pretty fucking weird. Take the academic: as I mentioned in “T-shirts and Wittgenstein” (5.24.13), in the ‘80s heavy metal wasn’t a style of music; it was a case study in social deviance. Academics—generally social scientists—approached the genre through so-called content analysis, i.e. “interpretation” of lyrics for clues as to the connection between metal and antisocial/sociopathic behavior. If you wanted to read anything peer-reviewed about metal in a CUNY library, you had to go to John Jay, the College of Criminal Justice. (The exception to this might be some early work on gender play in hair metal, stressing the subgenre’s indebtedness to glam rock.) Of course, the study of pop music more generally was firmly locked in content analysis, too; metal was just a particularly aggrieved version of this. Rap seems to have suffered the same indignity. Maybe it was their joint pariah status that drove the genres into each other’s arms in the late ‘80s? At least, that is, until hip hop became the darling of academy and critics alike—it’s increasingly difficult to tell the difference—and metal blew itself to pieces, and the pieces were buried in a warm place to germinate while a debauched frat-metal surfed the airwaves for a mercifully brief moment. But I’m getting sidetracked. The first full-length academic studies of the early ‘90s started to do more complex justice to to the music (Walser) and the scene (Weinstein). A decade later, thrash was revived; retro culture, which had started by gobbling up the sixties and seveties, finally made it to the eighties; monsters became misunderstood victims with whom it was cool to identify, and theorized to the point that one truly couldn’t help but pity them; metal found a new home in Brooklyn neighborhoods you couldn’t see or even train to from L’amour’s; and the genre was soon as fetishized as tattoos and black nailpolish and the X-treme Ballsiness of Facial Hair, together with a veganism more lifestyle choice than commitment to end the untold, endless suffering of our animal brethren.

I could go on—so many cultural factors help explain the mutations that have allowed metal to flourish in odd new forms in the tidal pools of the twenty-first century. But what most interests me here is metal’s acceptance by a broader mainstream culture. This seems to be recent enough, and so contrary to where we were in the eighties, as to merit special comment. (Well. Ahem. I should acknowledge that even People magazine had come around to thrash by the late eighties. I remember reading this in a doctor’s waiting room and feeling all warm & fuzzy. With one exception, of course. Can you guess? Slayer, of course. There should be a Slayer shirt that says something like “People magazine always hated us.” Maybe the roots of the genre’s downfall should be sought, not in the Black album or the death of Cliff Burton, but People’s endorsement of Master of Puppets.) Thirty-five years later, the buzzword isn’t deviance anymore. It’s empowerment. Everyone, it seems, wants to jump on the bandwagon of this once-discredited genre, to come out of some fantastical closet and reveal that, you know, they always did like metal, appearances and habits and comments to the contrary notwithstanding.

Why are people falling all over themselves to associate themselves with a genre that was once the province of pimply math nerds and shop kids, and the shop kids’ black-eyeshadowed girlfriends the pimply nerds fantasized about? Possibly because this genre, over the last decade and a half or so, has come to be recognized as a language of the disenfranchised. There is a longstanding appreciation for heavy metal in the Islamic world, as Mark LeVine documented in Heavy Metal Islam more than ten years ago. Slayer grafitti befouls billboards in Iran as much as the Bible belt. And there are micro-scenes all over the globe, as contributors to the anthology Metal Rules the Globe (Duke UP, 2011) explored and analyzed. Iron Maiden’s rabid worldwide fanbase is the envy of none other than Lady Gaga. I keep getting emails in my school inbox from some educational documentary film company advertising a movie about the Navajo metal scene and a band there that ended up recording with Flemming Rasmussen. The Sundance Film Festival this year featured a documentary, Sirens, about an all-female thrash metal band from Beirut called Slave to Sirens. In the after-film convo, one of the producers claimed that they were all metalheads there. I mean, she was wearing black, so, yeah, anything’s possible. But I admit I was a teensy bit skeptical. The filmmakers also went out of their way to stress the incredible musical talent of the young women, who are, after all, playing the sort thing that was once labeled caveman music. And so metal is no longer the knuckle-dragging Neanderthal genre of yesteryear. Today, it is the very contemporary music of vanguardist freedom-fighters, a common vocabulary of riffs, growls, shrieks and ostinatos through which they articulate their disenchantment with the status quo and their desire for liberation. The one-time dinosaurs have become velociraptors.

Well, that sounds pretty cool, right? So why the fuck am I so annoyed? I mean, empowerment beats the shit out of delinquency, doesn’t it?

I’ll tell you why the fuck I’m so annoyed. In a word: it’s patronizing, it’s hypocritical, and it once again runs roughshod over the music that, for most of the people I know who listen to it, is the only thing that matters. It’s clearly what matters to the young women in Slave for Sirens, whatever other interests the filmmakers might have.

I wonder if this shift says something about America’s inability to countenance the congenital injustice of capitalism. Lebanese fighting corruption and gender oppression is all well and good, and that young women in Beirut, for example, have found in thrash metal a voice for their anger is patronizingly endearing (i.e., their choice of means for vocalizing their anger is accepted because of their distance from American culture, rather like the way we laugh when non-English speakers swear). Navajo metalheads can be safely infantilized, too. But the idea that white working-class and rural Americans have a bone to pick is a lot harder for the (white) dominant capitalist culture to swallow, because it points to an ongoing economic violence which, while deeply inflected by and entangled with race, is not in itself racial. (To note that anger is misplaced onto scapegoats and manipulated by jingoistic politicians is not the same as saying it’s unjustified. Not for nothing King paired racism and capitalism in his later speeches.) If white working-class anger is unjustifiable, its musical expression must therefore be aesthetically flawed. But the same musical vocabulary, taken up by marginalized others, confers on the music dignity, and critics hear it differently. Funny, it still sounds like metal to me. (N.B. Sorry to ignore the middle-class metalheads here. Shit’s complicated enough; I’m just scratching the surface, and am fully aware the noise I’m making is uncomfortably grating. Anyway, this is a screed. Want nuance? Move on to letter E, and/or check out “Dr. Heidegger’s Punks” (4.16.16), which has a bit more about class and metal.)

So, yeah, all this acceptance, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I console myself with the idea that the fawning over metal will pass like all fads; critics will find something else once disparaged to fawn over, and they and the documentary filmmakers &c. will just leave us the fuck alone with our music. I’ll be able to find those old thrash records I missed out on collecting in the used bins again, and buy them for a reasonable price, no less valuable for having passed through the hands hipsters—hell, they probably took better care of them than the plumber who listened to them in the eighties. And then I’ll be able to listen to Slave to Sirens and all these other bands not as inspiring examples of struggles against oppression, but simply because they play good fucking metal.

O, to let deviance be deviance again!

[Addendum: I recommend Sirens, by the way. It’s a very good doc. I just felt like putting on my asshole cap for a minute. The problem with the cap is it fits so good that, after a while, it’s hard to get off.]

E

Essence. When a band or artist achieves their essence it’s always a beautiful thing. They become allegory, a transparent thing flooded with light. They achieve the form of whatever they were intended to be, which only comes into being at the moment of its achievement, but then casts a retroactive glow over their career, which we are now invited to view teleologically. As though perfection of form were so incandescent as to blind us to substance, or to make it transparent, reveal it as (mere) form itself. As though substance were no more than a frame through which perfection of form was meant to be apprehended. While these moments seem stable and permanent, this is an illusion brought about by their perfection. They are inherently unstable, like a skateboarder poised at the edge of a ramp, or those acrobatic families who form themselves into muscular houses of cards.

All this is true even for the most wretched bands.

Application: I’ve never cared for Van Halen. I’ve recently somewhat reconciled myself to David Lee Roth, but that’s between me and my conscience. I also had to distance myself from growing up in the era of Eddie Van Halen to really take stock of his genius. Anyway, if I ask, “At what moment, in what song, did Van Halen transcend their own crass misogyny and achieve the perfection of Vanhalenness?” that moment, that song, would have to be “Hot for Teacher”: the most perfect expression of the Van Halen essence. The paradox is that they do this—and it might be the only way to do this—by going full-throttle into what makes them what they are; as though identity flipped into overdrive rattled off everything that was ephemeral and contingent, like shaking dirt through a sieve to find, not nuggets of gold, but that the sieve itself is a golden mesh. The very excess of Van Halen’s puerility and narcissism and vulgarity in this song is what enables them to pull past it (N.B.: theory-heads, I’m thinking of George Bataille here). DLR was never more gross—he was on the cusp of making self-parody a career, if he hadn’t already—and Alex never more rote. But then listen again to that opening drum riff, doubled up like Zeppelin’s “Four Sticks”; listen to Roth actually acting out his pubescent mental and emotional age; listen to the boogie-woogie rhythm the band had fiddled with before but never otherwise adequately brought to the fore; listen, listen above all to Eddie, on the intro, and the way he phrases and accents the main chord progression, both clean and full-on distorted, and that main solo, of course, a master who plays with his whole body, the way Jimi did. In the video, EVH struts down a bar like I once saw the great blues guitarist Bill Wolf do at the Red Belle Saloon in Salt Lake City. But all this is just rationalization larded with nostalgia. You can’t analyze essence into its constituent parts any more that you can parse God. It’s the way the parts fit together, the way they coalesce in those four minutes, the way they capture the unselfconscious exuberance of being Van Halen, the band, that matters.

I swear, when that song comes on the radio I can almost smell it.

I remember a colleague of mine once commenting that when you watch AC/DC you see a band that believes utterly in what they’re doing, and that makes all the difference. Think “Dirty Deeds.” Think “TNT.” Think “Girls Got Rhythm.” Brainless to boot; all the clumsy bravado of toddlers. And so, so perfect. Maybe that’s all it is: an absolute, unwavering belief in one’s genius, or sexiness, or whatever, that spills over the edges of its container. And why not? They’re rock stars.

F

Fecundity. One thing that has always attracted me in art is the sense—call it an illusion—of inexhaustible fecundity of the creator. The number of gorgeous melodies Brahms crowds into a symphony; the feeling of absolute newness Sonny Rollins imparts to a solo with every chorus; the number of quirky, perfectly-drawn minor characters who populate a Dickens novel. It can provoke laughter, a sort of giddinness, like the gag with clowns getting out of a car: Where are they pulling this shit from? It’s like being tickled. It must be related to the sublime; only our consciousness of it as art, or here, the figure of the artist, provokes delight rather than terror.

G

Gravy. Metallica didn’t evolve; they congealed.

 H

Hooks. Over the decade of blogging I’ve grown attached to the idea that writing about music should inhabit something of the style of the music it speaks/about; that it should attempt to be at once mimetic and critical; that, to be adequate to the task of writing about music, there should be something in the language that embodies it, however that is imagined; and that the difficulty of doing this might help articulate something of the difficulty of music criticism. (See, for example, the first endnote of “Flesh and Steel,” 4.12.17.) It’s an oblique answer to the Burnham epigraph on the main page of this blog: a vision of criticism that rubs shoulders with the form, that attempts to occupy a fruitful border without falling into either the arid objectivity of the specialist or the besotted ecstacy of the fan (or what Burnham calls “be-here-now laziness” and “emotional groping”).

A corollary to the above is that criticism should develop discourses commensurate to the styles of music it seeks to articulate. The genre should determine the discourse, not the other way around. To presume otherwise is to miss its essence, to impoverish rather than enrich the reader’s perception.

Part of my beef with the latter-day acceptance of metal by rock critics et al. (see “Deviance” above) is that the old critical language, intended to find a way to valorize three-chord pop songs, simply can’t do justice to this genre. As rock critics have attempted to describe their strange and possibly guilty new infatuation, the critical vocabulary has not been updated to register that shift. Example: in the pop-critical lexicon, “hook” means an ear-catching melody, a word of great praise, ensuring as it does lots of clicks and sing-alongs. (I’ve probably used it myself.) But is this term of critical endearment really applicable to metal? Does metal give a fuck about hooks? Only, I assume, insofar as it bows to the dictates of pop. Which, of course, some metal does, quite effectively. But then a whole lot doesn’t.

Worst-case scenario: I fear a music that is subjected to and therefore tamed by a discourse that evolved to exclude it. To judge a genre by an inappropriate standard is to be deaf to that genre’s ethos and objectives, its unique contribution to music. It’s like saying Carl Dreyer’s films have problems with pacing and could learn something from watching Fast & Furious. Or Cronenberg movies are fine, except for all the latex critters. Or Moby-Dick shows that Melville could have used an editor. At what point do you clap someone on the shoulder and say, “You know? Maybe this just isn’t for you.”

Using a word like “hooks” to describe a metal song is like trying to eat a T-bone steak with a plastic spoon. No, metal needs a critical discourse analogous to its sound. That’s what so many amateur reviewers have done with their penchant for metaphor piled on metaphor: try to capture metal’s excess through an analogous excess of language, often through mixed, clashing, and Gongoristic metaphors. (See my article“Heavy Melville” for a fuller discussion.)

More broadly, if you like metal and want to write about it, here’s my advice: fuck rock criticism. Write against the grain by consciously undermining its shibboleths. Undermine the mainstream discourse of music criticism by coloring at its edges until the edges, not the picture, are all the reader sees. Write at great length, and then yet-greater length; become the behemoth you hear. Purge the critical vocabulary about metal of all but what can really speak it. Fill it again with a vocabulary consistent to the genre, a language of metal as much as for metal. A metallic language. You want hooks? Fine. Make them bloody, dripping meathooks. Coat them in tattered flesh. Grappling hooks for pulling carcasses down a slaughterhouse chute. The creak of the chains from the half-dismembered bodies swinging from them. The whine of Leatherface’s saw. Can you hear the music yet? Can you?

I

Instrumental. In one of his New York Notes, the great jazz critic Whitney Balliett wrote this about Charlie Christian: “In the manner of all great jazz musicians, what he played became more important than the instrument itself.” A doubly contentious point, given (a) Christian’s synonymousness with the foundation of jazz guitar as a lead instrument, and (b) the guitar’s status as an instrument where devotion to the idea of virtuosity is cross-generic; for many guitarists, the instrument has acted as a sort of wedge for expanding their taste into other genres that use the guitar, and dabbling in a number of styles (as I have, with astonishing lack of aptitude). My point is that the guitar, perhaps more than any other instrument, inverts Balliett’s formula: what Christian played—the handware in his hands—has been, for many a guitarist, more important than his contribution to that genre called jazz.

From the standpoint of composition, spontaneous or otherwise, I think Balliett underemphasizes the role instruments play in shaping what comes out of them. Great music doesn’t necessarily transcend the instrument or instruments on/for which it was conceived; it may, in fact, make the instrument glaringly present in the listener’s mind. Leo Brouwer’s sonata for guitar, for example: I can’t imagine it being composed on any another instrument; the guitar itself, its droning open strings, the arrangement of its fretboard, clearly shaped the notes on the page. And what a wonderful piece of music it is! Sometimes, what sounds like harmonically-advanced composition may simply be a path of least resistance. Like: are those transposed sustained-second chords really an example of quartal harmony … or just what came out from noodling with sus-2 chords up and down the neck?

I was thinking about all this one day while watching the great fusion guitarist Wayne Krantz at one of his (what used to be) semi-regular Thursday-night gigs at the 55 Bar. His style is so guitar-focused that it’s difficult to imagine on any other instrument; like Brouwer’s sonata, one gets the impression that it could not have come into being on anything but a guitar, nor could it be successfully reproduced one another instrument—and none of this diminishes its brilliance in any way. It’s a style partly dictated by sheer economy: he stakes out one part of the neck, often beginning with just one string, four or five notes in a line, exploiting half-steps and half-bends—his left hand stays put; his fingers seem to barely move—while his right explores rhythmic possibilities and different phrasings. He builds outwards from there: notes are added atop notes in half-bars, half steps above half steps, augmented with fuller bends and note clusters, each expansion itself augmented by increasing volume and tempo as his solos wend toward a climax. The guitar does have the advantage of having more than two full octaves within easy reach, and is particularly comfortable for this sort of minimalist exploration between the seventh and twelfth frets, where Krantz bears down. (There might even be something about an instrument that complements a venue and audience: I think of patrons, myself included, ducking under the neck of Krantz’s Stratocaster on our way to and from the 55’s bathroom.)

In a broader sense, I think we should take more care to consider the role of the evolution of instruments—that once-primary technology in the creation of musical sounds—in the evolution of music, and re-imagine “greatness” not as something abstract floating above the technology of musical production, but intimately connected with it, the god in the machine. The instrument—its shape and sonority, and the relationship between it and the body that plays it, hands feet lips tongue fingers—both inspires and delimits creation. Composition is never fully divided from performance, but part of a musician’s relationship to their instrument; improvisation isn’t something that happens in the brain prior to the note, but something that flows dialectically between mind and wandering muscles, which ideally collapse into a single entity.

Does the clear bifurcation of Prokofiev’s string quartet no. 1, revealing of the pianist’s two-handed mindset, weaken or invigorate that composition? Was Bartók able to push the string quartet in new directions because, as a pianist, he heard the quartet differently, and was less familiar with the limitations of the instruments at hand? (I think of him working with the great violinists of his day to expand the possibilities of the quartet; I think, too, of the sonorities, rhythms, and melodies of the gypsy violins he recorded that also shaped those quartets … and all his music, piano included.) What happens when musicians compose at the piano, and then take those melodic sketches to their own instruments, and begin to expand them in new directions, as, say, Coltrane describes doing with Giant Steps? The currents run in multiple directions: between instruments, between cultures, cross-composing and transcription, collaborative composition and virtuoso performance, all pushing instrumental music in new directions, and the possibilities of instruments into new ranges, which, for the following generations, simply become part of that instrument’s expressive palette. No instrument is ever “pure”; it exists within a matrix of other instruments, and composers and audiences write and listen in that context: the orchestra in a Beethoven piano sonata, the cello in Sam Newsome’s horn.

And so Christian: it may be that what he played—the guitar—had a strong influence on what he played—the notes—and that it was his outre (at the time) choice of instruments—a rhythm instrument he was dragging into the front line—more than any abstract thoughtfulness about notes and chords that exerted the pressure on advancing jazz as a style of expression.

J

Jazz inversion. Listening to Mastodon’s “Mother Puncher” the other day (Remission, 2002), it occurred to me that some extreme metal music inverts the traditional rock instrumental hierarchy dividing the rhythm section (drums and bass) from the lead (guitar, voice). It’s a code writ larger than rock, though which instrument occupies what position will depend on the genre and its development. But the repetitiveness of riff-based rock, and the ostinatos of metal, have morphed the guitars into the chief vehicles of a song’s rhythmic drive. Melody is pared back to the essentials; the listener’s attention is displaced onto timbre. And then, in much the way the walking bass in jazz frees the drums to participate more fully in the constantly-changing surface of improvisation, punctuating and emphasizing rather than carrying the backbeat, so the drums in some of these early Mastodon songs are liberated to become a solo instrument that stands over and above the rest of the music: the riffs and ostinatos become a backbeat against which the drums improvise. (Of course, you need a drummer like Brann Dailor to make it work … and make it work he does. See also Gunther Schuller’s point about Duke Ellington’s orchestration in “Pressure Begets Grace,” 9.13.20.)

K

Kiev’s Gate & Old Castle. In 2009 I was present for the finals of the Van Cliburn piano competition (held in Fort Worth, Texas) when the blind Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii (or “Nobu,” as he came to be known) shared the gold medal with Haochen Zhang. When he sat to play, he would measure from both ends of the keyboard back to its middle. Then he would begin. It’s not that he never missed a note; it’s how quickly he recuperated himself in the rare instances that he did. I was fortunate to be able to hear him again a year or so later, when he played Carnegie Hall—not Zankel or the Met, where other Cliburn medalists had performed, but Stern. At that time, maybe a decade ago, he had become something of a celebrity freak, as well as a national icon. Stern was filled that night with Japanese fans, a large number of whom, I would guess, had never been to Carnegie Hall.

Nobu’s gold-medal recital at the Cliburn culminated in a powerful rendition of Beethoven’s sonata Op. 57 (“Appassionata”). The climax of the Carnegie Hall recital was Mussorgsky’s great, underperformed piano suite “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

The irony, which the Times et al. likely considered too obvious to point out, leaving it to vulgates like me to ponder: that a blind man should play a piece whose purpose is to make us see things he himself has never seen. He occupies one part of a circuit: Mussorgsky, the composer, transformed the old castle, the hut on fowl’s legs, and the great gate at Kiev, into music, apparently from paintings, some of which have been discovered; the music, when it is performed, “reconstructs” these images in the listener’s mind; the performer’s ears and fingers become the prisms through which the images are re-integrated as sound.

This is all well and good. And yet, as I listened, I couldn’t help (silently) protesting: He has never seen the castle! He has never seen any castle at all! He has never seen, will never see, the Great Gate at Kiev! (Idiot. Have you? He’s never seen a keyboard, either.) What does he see when he plays these things? What appears in his mind? What spatial clues? Does he need to, to play them magnificently? Have they been described to him? Has he run his fingers over pictures in relief, as he did the keyboard? Has he been guided to the walls of gates and castles, touched them, walked through and under them? Is it better that he not know them as image, in order to become the emotional conduit of the notes, of pure sound, with the imagistic labor meant to be performed, never by the musician, but by the listener, and perhaps not even by them? The composer, after all, is “describing” an emotion arising from the picture, not the picture itself: the grandeur of the gate; the melancholy of the castle.

Anyway, he made the great gate present. A miracle, indeed.

A series of other things occurred to me, after listening to Nobu that night. Was imagism a Trojan horse for modernism? Some parts of the “Pictures,” like “Gnomus,” and even parts of “Kiev,” sound quite tonally advanced to my ear. Like the late Romantics grasping for the nuances and ambiguities of emotion, and twisting the rules of harmony to achieve them: might the same be true for those composers attempting to musically grasp a visual text? To what extent did the lure of the image serve as an excuse for breaking traditional tonal and structural boundaries—as though running music through the circuit of another artistic medium, or by the sheer force of attraction to some other medium, bends the rules of the original medium, forces it to rethink some of its assumptions? (Not, that is, by some internal pressure—i.e., the composer feeling that the compositional rules of the time are exhausted/overly restrictive—but outside: the composer trying to “adequate” music to the pressures of another medium.) And then, once this has happened, the program element becomes vestigial, is sloughed like old skin, and this new tonal or structural thing becomes enshrined as abstract music. I think of the way some of the most bizarre experiments in music happening toward the end of the nineteenth century—not Mussorgsky, but Richard Strauss—and then Debussy, of course—were programmatic in intent. Rather than say, “I broke the rules because I wanted to”—as Debussy happily did—the composer can say, “I broke the rules because the object I was describing demanded it.” (I could probably add Wagner here: the psychological state of a character becomes the “object” whose description demands an updated harmonic language.)

Some years after jotting down the notes for the above in a journal, I encountered this passage in Lewis Rowell’s Thinking About Music: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Music (Massachusetts UP, 1983): “The episode of the herd of sheep in Strauss’s Don Quixote, which was originally criticized for being blatantly overpictorial, now takes on a new significance because of the manner in which Strauss anticipates some of the trends in musical style since the 1950s” (156).

This also seems pertinent: the avant-jazz saxophonist and composer John Zorn has remarked on the way growing up with TV—particularly cartoons—reshaped his (and other composers’) sense of continuity and compositional integrity. (The comment is from Put Blood in the Music; I probably encountered it in the book Jazzing; see “Vasudeva on the Hudson,” 11.11.18.) Music used incidentally, to express something in the action, in a disjointed, perhaps episodic form, influenced the way composers of his generation conceived of musical structure (amply on display in Naked City, for example: Zorn music for a cartoon yet to be drawn). I discussed this briefly in the post “Silent Movie” (3.25.11), where the music of silent cinema, like cartoon music, “mimes” (the word I used there) the action on screen, following and amplifying the emotional character of the moment, punctuating or highlighting bits of action, even attempting to onomatopoeaically imitate non-present diegetic noise.

Today, the logic of narrative and the image have shredded old concepts of organic unity in music. Indeed, we seem to have come full circle: image and narrative have so overtaken music as to create a new constraint; what was once an impetus for transgression (if the causal argument above holds any water) has become the stultifying norm. Here’s hoping that some maverick of abstract music finds a way out for us … some blind savior of the future …

L

Light poles & paint cans. God bless New York, right? So many musicians, in the parks, on the street corners, in the subway stations. So poorly compensated. But this one, a drummer from a little more than a decade ago, clearly knocked me out, because I jotted down some notes in my journal. (You might even remember him; you might have encountered him elsewhere, or a handful of others like him.) He set up around the corner from MOMA, a block up 6th Ave. A portly middle-aged black man with a short grey beard and wearing—the day I recorded—a green shirt. He used thick, sawed-off wooden dowels for sticks. With his left hand he played the equivalents of bass and snare: the bass was the traditional overturned plastic paint can; the snare was a metal grate trapped under his stocking foot. He also played rolls against the edge of the bucket’s bottom. His other sneaker sat on the sidewalk, his socked foot hidden inside an aluminum cannister, with the sides dented, partly so that it would lay flat, partly to have clear surfaces to beat on, like a Jamaican steel drum. He played it inside as well as out; inside, he would produce a roll by fluttering his stick, bouncing it between the sides. There was a smaller grate on the sidewalk that he played with his right hand, and an empty propane cannister, also dented in places, for flourishes. A kit as baroque as any prog rock drummer’s, and the sort of thing that must have inspired avant-jazz drummers like Mark Giuliana when they started putting together their own DIY kits. And that’s not even all: he was set up next to a lightpost, which he would occasionally use as a ride cymbal; whacking his stick against it gave out a clattering ring-tone; the whole pole hummed. And he would just as readily play the sidewalk, the cement of which gave a dry, almost woodblock sound. There were only two things he didn’t play: the shopping cart in which he carried his equipment, and the plastic tub, just out of his reach, the bottom full of crumpled bills, like dried flowers in a wastebasket. I figured that, if I stood close enough, he would try to play me, too.

There are so many. In the parks, on the street corners, in the subway stations. You’d think the city would offer some sort of dedicated housing, just for itinerant percussionists like this. You wouldn’t want to live there, maybe. But you dream about what visiting would sound like.

*

Living. The jazz composer Maria Schneider, in conversation with Ben Ratliff: “Flamenco—it makes living possible. Blues and early jazz—it made living possible.” It makes living possible. Just keep saying that to yourself about music.

M

Metal w/o metal. VH1 once did a special on the most non-metal metal moments: moments, that is, where the cock rock codpiece dropped off, and the most beloved practitioners of the genre reveal themselves as the divas, whiners, and poseurs they really are. I wonder: What about the opposite: where ostensibly non-metal artists—and non-artists—suddenly reveal themselves to be, like, so fucking metal? I’m thinking about a moment from The Enigma, a documentary about the pianist Svatoslav Richter, where he is performing with a Russian singer in some isolated cabin. Watching that singer, my first thought was: Holy shit. That dude is SO fucking metal! But what exactly did I mean by that? What is metal, if it can be identified in moments that have nothing to do with the genre of music it purports to name? The sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris asked this question a number of years ago: can there can be metal without metal? (See “T-Shirts and Wittgenstein,” 5.24.13.) Is Robert Eggers’s new movie The Northman, like, totally fucking metal? (Indeed! (Is it good? An open question!)) Is it, then, more than just a genre, a culture that has grown up around the genre, which the music fed, and feeds, and sustains? Or perhaps just an attitude toward life and living? A full-throttle way of being present in and to the world? A presence that is the opposite of mindfulness? A marrow-sucking that never keeps us at peace? Moments of transport and sublimity, where one is at one and the same time Lovecraft’s blind, idiot god and the puny being cowering under him, threatened with his own annihilation?

*

Morning concerts: a resolution. Whereas, not all music lovers are night owls; and / Whereas, listening to music in the morning, even to jazz or metal, is neither lurid nor indulgent; and / Whereas, the metal breakfast, like the jazz breakfast, should be no more a thing of shame than the 6 a.m. Brandenburg concerto; and / Whereas, lunchtime concerts have found appreciative audiences around the city, and in no way equate to midday cocktails or pints, and are indeed often held in churches, possibly to make the patrons feel better about indulging themselves, and to give churches something to do on weekdays; and / Whereas, currently the earliest concerts seem to be at 11 a.m., and these generally on Sundays, as though they were surrogate services; and / Whereas, people have long used music, usually the radio, thas an alarm for waking, like farmers use roosters, like platoons use bugle-players; and / Whereas, a significant minority of jazz fans are so-called morning people; and / Whereas, many of us take our music as seriously as our coffee, which is to say, very seriously indeed; therefore be it / Resolved, that cities and towns around the country will make an earnest effort to offer concerts in the mornings, particularly on weekdays, between 6 and 9 a.m.; and be it futher / Resolved, that said cities and towns will revise zoning and noise-ordinance laws to accommodate said concerts; and be it finally / Resolved, that said cities and towns will foster a culture of morning musical appreciation and of combating prejudices against enjoying live music, particularly that of certain genres, before noon.

N

Nostalgias. As a child of the eighties—by which I mean my teenage years, those crucial years for the formation of musical taste—I get tired of hearing about the previous generation’s disappointment with post-sixties music. I’ve started to wonder if it’s not misdirected bitterness at that generation’s sense of their own failure. The revolution fizzled; the purported inferiority of the next generation’s music becomes a vehicle for feeling good about one’s own. I’m with Jello here: I loathe sixties nostalgia. I also hate this sort of editorializing periodization, and the vulgar Marxism and flawed isomorphism that assumes periods of conservative ascendancy couldn’t possibly produce anything of cultural value. As though the Zeitgeist was margarine, evenly spread throughout society, and hence either uniformly oppressive or uniformly liberating. Great music has always been around; genius, as somebody once said, is common as dirt. Scratch a little and you’ll find it.

The annoyance goes both ways: I get just as tired hearing my friends talk about how the eighties were the greatest period of rock bar none. I tell them how bad a drug nostalgia is, how they need to expand their horizons, buy some new records, go to a club, drink a glass of milk for fuck’s sake. Then I’ll sit down with some geriatric flower child telling me about how everything after the ‘60s sucked and how the ‘80s were the worst period ever, and I find myself defending the ‘80s tooth and nail—I mean, not hair metal or The Thompson Twins or anything, but you know. Ideally, I shouldn’t have to do either. Ideally, everybody would just shut the fuck up and listen to everybody else’s music.

But here’s a caveat in favor of the geriatric flower child. There’s something to be said for the way a greater or lesser degree of liberation in a society as a whole enables an across-the-board flourishing in the arts. A cultural rift like the one the U.S. saw in the ‘60s allows certain things to percolate up into consciousness that couldn’t otherwise. It has to. I get that. I could point to a lot of things from that era, but for some reason the text that always jumps to mind is Marat/Sade.

It has a transgressively weird quality that feels like a litmus test for an era. Could anyone make a Marat/Sade today? I sort of doubt it. As those weird-city bumper stickers suggest, we might be a bit too self-conscious, a bit too desperate, about our desire to be weird.

I’m still wary of writing off any period, or, for that matter, equating the art of any one period with the dominant culture. There’s always too much variation, too much going on. Anyway, as artists, we can’t sit around wringing our hands because asshole #143 is in the White House, and we can’t be looking around waiting for someone to start the revolution. The revolution starts one word, one note at a time. Grab the typewriter and go, man.

O

Overheard at Overkill. Circa 2014: “I was a hundred pounds lighter the last time I saw Overkill.”

P

Praised by faint blame. Megadeth: worst cover band ever.

*

Purloined clave. The clave, or key, in Latin music can refer to one of two things: a basic rhythm undergirding the music, its backbeat; or the percussion instrument (generally two thick wooden sticks) on which that rhythm is carried. If I remember my conga teachers correctly, different cultures have different claves—the clave in Brazilian music, for example, is not the same as in Puerto Rico. The clave in Puerto Rican music also comes in different times, 6:8 and 4:4. Same basic pattern—5 notes spread 2-3 over two measures—very different feel. When we think clave, though, we usually think of the 4:4 version of a basic salsa tune; anyone familiar with zydeco music, or its popularization in songs like George Thoroughgood’s “Who Do You Love,” knows the rhythm I’m talking about: BAM, BAM, BAM: BAM BAM! (N.B. If you want to hear the 6:8 clave at its awesomest, listen to Jerry Gonzalez’s Obatalá.)

But the Thoroughgood example also calls our attention to just how ubiquitous this rhythm is. It pops up in places where you least expect it, places much further afield than zydeco-infused rock. Once I learned the clave, I’d put on songs I’d been listening to for years, decades even, and it would suddenly occur to me: “Oh, wait, that’s clave rhythm!” A beat might be dropped in one of the two measures, but the rhythm was unmistakable. It’s particularly interesting when the clave appears in songs that are not making an obvious nod to Caribbean or “island” rhythms, the way The Who’s “Magic Bus” does, for example, or the beach-punk vibe of a song like “I Want Candy” by Bow Wow Wow. Primus’s “John the Fisherman,” The Beastie Boys’s “Paul Revere,” NWA’s “Gangsta Gangsta,” Carcass’s “Captive Bolt Pistol,” are all clave-based. From death metal to alt rock to gangsta rap, once you hear that clave, you can’t unhear it. Hence my choice of the word “purloined,” recalling Poe’s great detective story about a letter hidden in plain sight: the clave will often be there, staring us right in the face, but we won’t see it, because the genre in which it appears, so far flung from the clave’s natural environment, has rendered it inaudible.

(A fun experiment: try clapping the clave over songs where it absolutely does not fit!)

Q

Quiet. It’s easy enough to count rock songs that are paeans to the loudness that, at least once upon a time, was a defining trait of the genre. I remember the great violinist and worldwide musical ambassador Yehudi Menuhin noting that a Rolling Stones concert was the first live musical experience that had actually caused him pain. Stones aside, AC/DC’s “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” is my go-to loudness-themed anthem. (AC/DC may have more loudness-themed songs than any other band.) The slogan of WSOU, Seton Hall University’s metal-dedicated college station: the loudest rock. There was even a Japanese hair-metal band from the ‘80s called Loudness. Remember them?

That acknowledged, I’d like to put in a word for those rock songs that retain—and perhaps even gain—power when they are played softly. Judas Priest’s “Headin’ Out to the Highway,” for example: the lower the volume, the more power it has. I’m not sure why; maybe something to do with the song’s feeling of restraint, of anticipation. I’m reminded of what Miles once said about Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, which he recorded a version of (arranged by Gil Evans) on Sketches of Spain, that anomalously-perfect meshing of Spanish music and jazz: “That melody is so strong that the softer you play it, the stronger it gets, and the stronger you play it, the weaker it gets.”

R

Reciprocity. One day when I was visiting my parents, my mother told me that the Prokofiev piano sonatas I’d burned for her and my father hadn’t left the boombox in the kitchen. They were on heavy rotation, so to speak. I was moved by her comment; I owe so much of my musical education to my parents, and giving some of that back was a small way to repay them. (And it wasn’t easy. They’re picky as hell.) It’s just one example of the circulation of musical gifts that has occupied so many of us throughout our lives, cementing friendships, creating bonds between and among generations, inside and outside families. The Charles Mingus and Steve Bernstein I mailed to Annapolis, and the Radiohead and Minutemen I got in return. The Anthology of Tom Waits, the title written in purple cursive by an old crush, on the flipside of a cassette label where her Japanese students had written the names of the Vanilla Ice songs they’d gifted her. I first heard Domeniconi’s “Koyunbaba” because a woman I went to grad school with who also played classical guitar taped it for me; I think I replied with Barrios; I’m no longer sure. And it’s not always music, is it. When my crazy Russian punk-rock comp student whose father taught physics at the University of Utah and whose punk rock boyfriend was a brick shithouse gave me Never Mind the Bollocks, I gifted her my library first edition of Brighton Rock (as I learned from her, Johnny Rotten’s persona was based on the thug in that book). I think of the mixes my partner made for me when I went abroad, and that my oldest friend made for me while we were all away at college, and even a tape the guitarist from my high school metal band and I sent back and forth, recording bits of songs we were working on; at the end of each recorded but we would say, “Your turn, [name]”—we recorded after, not over. Music to measure and ease and shorten distance. Handholds for long-distance relationships. I have so many cassettes with other people’s handwriting on them, and doodles, too. They’re as good as old letters, maybe better.

It’s not the same today, whatever people say. Old emails saved to a file aren’t letters. Circulation without objects isn’t circulation. The financialization of music is complete; the value of music itself has depreciated.

*

Rondo. I love the complete abandon of early thrash records to what might be called the logic of the riff. Listening to “Voracious Souls” the other day (Death Angel, The Ultraviolence), I thought about the musical form called a rondo. Instead of traditional verse-chorus-bridge structure, “Voracious Souls” uses every chorus as an excuse to strike out into new musical territory: not one but a slew of bridges, each of them landing us back at a verse, and reinvigorating the song’s basic material by doing so. I’m not making a case for conscious modeling here; I think there’s just something perennially attractive about this as a structure. It’s more coherent than the kitchen-sink approach of many a metal instrumental—including the 10-minute album-titler “The Ultraviolence”—which often seem to be agglomerations of awesome riffs that could not find a home elsewhere (see “Burnt-over,” 8.3.11). That excursion-and-return, les-adieux model undergirds allmusic, however we figure home—tonic, main riff, chorus—and the rondo, in both the multiplicity of allowable excursions and the mounting power of each return, makes it transparent. (Listen to pretty much any classical concerto third movement for an example; the third movement of Beethoven’s first piano concerto is running through my head as I write this.) It’s never, as they say, the same river twice. Each excursion finds a changed home; each journey brings the traveler back to shore with new eyes and ears.

S

Slayer, Hitchens, Sade. Slayer is to metal what the Marquis de Sade is to literature: a limit case in transgression (Slayer : metal :: Sade : literature). Other bands have taken this or that element—tempo, lyrical grotesqueness, abrasiveness of timbre—and pushed it to one or another extreme. But in no other band has the overall ethos been one of transgression in its simplest, rawest form. An awfulness that radiates out from the music and seems to infect everything around it. No other band is so at home in their vileness, and so willing to wallow in it. They have no peers, few aspirants, and millions of acolytes. Is there any other band that so convincingly revels in hatred, mayhem, and death? There should be a recognized musical condition. Slayerism: disease as style.

In Christopher Hitchens’s anti-religious screed God Is Not Great there is a wonderful moment where Hitchens describes the power of Mozart’s music. (I’m sympathetic to Hitchens’s argument, don’t get me wrong; I just found the tone of the book to be overly strident, as was true of Hitchens’s later columns for The Nation, really all of his writing after 9-11.) You don’t need God, Hitchens writes, to explain great art; but—with a wink—Mozart does make you wonder. It’s not a moment of doubt, but rather a nod to the seemingly superhuman beauty of Mozart’s music, intended to reinforce our wonder at human creativity. Certainly, many of us have felt this, listening to music, staring at a painting, or reading a great novel: that there are some artists so volcanic in their imaginations, so perfect in their productions, that we are at a loss to explain them without resorting to an argument for divine intervention.

A simple substitution, a revision of Hitchens’s formula: exchange the word “Slayer” for “Mozart,” and “Devil” for “God,” and you have as good an appraisal of the force and power of Slayer’s music as I’ve ever read anywhere. I mean, you don’t need the Devil to explain Slayer … but they do make you wonder! (We might call this a theological argument for the existence of Slayer.) Perhaps Slayer forces us to contemplate a troubling possibilty: that, far from evil being the absence of God, the deity (It)self might be malign. (This pace a comment at an ALA panel on Blood Meridian I heard a number of years ago; you can see the way this book keeps coming back.) In which case, why not call it the Devil and be done with it? Slayer, an argument for the absence of God.

I’ve never found the crackpot theater of black metal particularly affecting, though I like some of the music well enough. I mean, if you need to run around burning churches and shooting your fellow band members to make me hear the darkness in your music, then your music probably sucks. I should be able to hear those churches burning in your music. Really, if your music isn’t making going to church vestigial, try again. Try harder.

*

Subdiculous. If the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step, as Napoleon or someone close to him or maybe just someone somewhat like him famously said, then the reverse must also be true; and the way we imagine art will determine which step we believe to be higher, i.e., which direction goes against the force of gravity. Unless, that is, we imagine Napoleon’s step—surely a little step; he was a little man—to be along even pavement, perhaps without even a crack in it, let alone the abyss Armstrong spanned, bouncing along the lunar surface, holding the Earth between his thumb and forefinger, humans at last able to put our puny existence in something like a true perspective.

We’re intended—I think—to imagine a step down: the embarrassing failure when what is meant to be sublime falls short; the rocket, once proudly on course, drops flaccidly back to Earth; the moon remains intact, the stars vestal virgins. Things great are balanced precariously on their greatness; their pedestals come to a point; there are no wires; the equinox happens only two days a year; one easy push, and all the apparent grandeur disappears. Time can do this, of course; Time is merciless with Art. Falling short of the sublime, a work of art reveals itself as ostentatious, desperate to impress, and the experience of aesthetic rapture is deflated. The sublime is aloof to its audience; it does not ask for our rapture; it is self-sufficient; appreciation is unnecessary. The sublime, what makes us feel tiny, ephemeral, a speck in the cosmos, against the vastness and longevity of the thing contemplated; the ridiculous, what we belittle, what we pity, what we annihilate with our derisive laughter.

I wonder if we might hang Napoleon, or at least his idea, by the boots. The point, after all, is that these two aesthetic responses are really more kindred than they appear. If we consider, not direction, a tendency to fall from a higher to a lower state, but rather a matter of simple proximity, why can’t the circuit can run both ways, oscillate, alternate, one always on the point of shading into the other? Instead of a step, why not a switch, or a coin, or a mirror? (Isn’t the figure of Napoleon himself a good indication? Was he thinking of himself when he said this? Was Marx, when tragedy became farce? Can we run Marx’s teleological class-struggle engine in reverse? Has history already done so?) An experience that provokes laughter suddenly takes on an impressive clarity: our laughter becomes giddy, we open ourselves, and suddenly we are fully present to the aesthetic experience. Or something happens in the sublime experience that suddenly pushes us away, and make us see the representation from the outside, as in a miniature diorama, and we even see ourselves, tiny, staring at the diorama, through the wrong end of the telescope.

Can a failure to be ridiculous turn sublime? Or perhaps an exceedingly successful ridiculous? (Think of Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” routine in Singin’ in the Rain.)

We have all had these experiences, where music we love—as an insider—appears ridiculous to an outsider—or to ourselves, trying to re-engage with an aesthetic experience that had so impressed us, so moved us when we were younger. What was it, about the time, the crowd we hung with, the people we were in love with, that made it seem so? And then we can’t help but feel sorry for ourselves as we are now, resistant, unable to succumb. All the pleasure is inside; the ones outside are always unhappy, desperate. Outside is a deflated, ironized, dead world. A fallen, a disenchanted world. A moonscape.

The step is a matter of perspective. As in outer space, there is no privileged position from which one can actually tell up from down. Like an Escher engraving, the steps go in both directions. Art is always a gesture toward ridicule redeemed by faith. Surprise matters, too. The shock of the new. Again, time. We strive to lose the double consciousness of the knowing listener. (I was trying to get at something of this with my comments on a performance by Exhumed; see “Wintry Mix,” 3.20.15. And clearly, I still am.)

*

Sweat lodge. Remember The Stone? Son of Tonic. Remember Tonic? Son of The Knitting Factory. Remember the Knit? (Wait. I think it’s still there.) But about The Stone. I always admired its asceticism: devotion in brick and mortar. Like bullfights before stadiums, where the contest was carried on inside a circle of onlookers that shifted, expanded or contracted according to the movements of the spectacle it purported to contain. The Stone always felt shaped in this way by the music, by the people gathered to listen. You’ll hear other stories about how it got its name, but it was really to give it the illusion of some fixed existence beyond the essence of the music. (See “Master/class,” 11.23.12.)

The problem with a space so dedicated to listening was that they did things like turn off the AC when the music started, so that the sound of the fan wouldn’t interfere. By the end of a set—particularly when the place was full—you felt like you’d been abandoned in a container truck. Fanning yourself didn’t help much—and be careful not to crinkle your magazine when you do! Wiping yourself with your sleeve only made things worse; your shirt was soaked; you could feel the sweat trickled down your spine. You felt bad for the person who was going to take your chair for the next set; you should have brought a towel, like for an exercise bike at the gym. One night, I could clearly see the beads of sweat reflected on the arms and face of a guy leaning against the wall, who was no doubt leaving an enormous stain on the photo of Henry Grimes. (It was a Matthew Shipp set, in case that matters; he was toying with standards: “On Green Dolphin Street,” “Take the A Train,” etc.) Needless to say there weren’t any windows.

Indeed, the great trombonist Ray Anderson once called The Stone a sweat lodge, and it was considerably better the night I saw him there than some others I experienced. The term is really perfect for the sort of vision-questy feeling so many of us (adherents) have for this music. And Anderson did comment, appropriately enough, about all of us being martyrs for the music, about achieving transcendence through purification. He was playing with Bob Stewart (tuba) that night, the so-called Heavy Metal Duo. How could I let the heat hold me back?

Some years later, I saw Stewart again in the basement of the Cornelia Street Café (R.I.P., another great music space gone), and was he ever sweating—you’ve never seen a musician sweat till you’ve seen a tuba player playing New Orleans-style jazz in a hot NYC club in July. During the set, a woman threw her scarf to him to wipe the perspiration off his face. Like it was a bouquet. Stewart refused to wipe his face with it. It was all quite lovely—the scarf, the gesture, his demurring. (She told him it could be washed; he said something to the effect that they all say that.) Anyway, in the break he got a napkin from the bar instead, and he hung it on an unused music stand, right where he’d hung the scarf during the remainder of the previous set.

Just try seeing something like that at the Blue Note, or even the Vanguard. Try seeing it in the new New York. The Stone has since moved operations to the Glass Box theater at the New School, a beautiful little space, with a wall of windows looking out on 13th Street. Climate-controlled. Outside and around it, the ghosts of so many clubs. You can’t help but feel their presence when you walk around the Village. (See “Torch Songs for LES,” 12.7.12.)

T

Tabano. Every Coltrane should have his Dolphy. Consider those Vanguard recordings from 1961: whenever Coltrane’s playing gets lackluster, Dolphy’s on him like a horsefly. In one standout moment, Dolphy ends his solo with a series of cartwheeling trills on the bass clarinet—and then Coltrane enters on the soprano, trilling for what must be a good half-minute, all over the register, until Dolphy is absolutely annihilated. The imprint of Dolphy’s idea is still there, though, the raw material for Coltrane to worry.

You could call it cutting or one-upmanship, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels more like two explorers taking turns goading each other up a mountain they’d never dare scale alone.

*

Todo tiene su final. When most people think of salsa they think of uptempo, brash, joyous dance music. This is not wrong per se, but it is limiting and somewhat patronizing, and suggestive of a legacy of racism and colonialism. Salsa is “fun” music; island people are perennially happy; they still live in the Edenic gardens Columbus described half a millennium ago; they know not the Germanic depths of tragedy, the heights of the sublime, etc.

And yet, salsa—itself a contested name—was music created by Puerto Rican immigrants during times of great hardship. If some of the upbeat joy of the music was meant as a way to escape, or, perhaps better, transmute that hardship, then something of the pain must be deeply inscribed in the music; the heights of its pleasure may simply be the negative impression of the pain it attempts to exorcise. As much as the blues, it seems to be a public working-out of a culture’s pain and angst. Wiggling your hips is not a bad way to transcend pain, and happily there’s a lot of salsa about wiggling your hips. There is also, in good pop fashion, a lot of broken hearts and sentiment. I always find myself returning to the quote from “Sonny’s Blues,” when Sonny looks out the window at a woman joyously singing at a revival meeting and tells his brother that it’s “disgusting” to think how much she must have suffered to be able to sing that way. I think, too, of Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, where the Hollywood director of popular comedies, in an effort to make a “meaningful” film, goes undercover as a hobo, winds up in prison … and eventually comes to realize the power of comedy to transcend pain, in this case of the Great Depression. Comedy is simply another form of catharsis, laughter no less dignified than tears. There is, in fact, something more deeply human about it: rather than kowtow to Fate and the gods, we disarm them, belittle them.

That tragedy is a more elevated genre than comedy; that, in order to make salsa “serious” music, I have to reveal some hint of tragedy about it; that this requires me, the ersatz (at best avocational) music critic, to dignify it: these are longstanding prejudices, pitfalls to be avoided. So when I say that there’s a fair amount of salsa about political oppression, about the trials of being an immigrant, and about death, I don’t want to be misunderstood as somehow arguing this grants the genre a dignity it otherwise lacks. Sometimes, these themes are addressed with a sneering humor meant to balk at their power. Sometimes, what comes through is an eerie fatalism that elements of salsa as a form seem to emphasize.

Consider the classic Willie Colón record Lo mato. It appeared at a time when, as Will Hermes reminds us, “Salsa wanted to travel beyond the barrio—to be seen, and to see itself, as more than just a ghetto dancehall soundtrack. It was a virtuoso music with deep history and international pedigree; it wanted respect” (24)—this with regard to Larry Harlow’s Hommy, a salsa remake of Tommy that premiered at Carnegie Hall the same year as Lo mato. Colón was salsa’s bad boy, whose album titles and covers (e.g., his debut El Malo; Cosa Nuestra, where Colón is pictured “holding his trombone like a tommy gun” (Hermes 35); on the cover of Lo mato it’s an actual pistol he holds to an old man’s head—an image, perhaps, of the assassination of the Cruz-Puente era?) figure him as el barrio’s capo de tutti capi. After Hector Lavoe’s death, in ‘77 Colón would team up with Ruben Blades, whose socially-conscious lyrics were rooted in Nueva Cancion, and he himself produce records that seemed to scream for respect and artistic recognition (Hermes: “It was not usual ‘Baile!’ business” (223)).

But—much as I love Blades, with and without Colón—one hardly needs so-called symphonic salsa to hear the so-called Germanic darkness, tragedy and fatalism undergirding Colón’s phenomenal work with Lavoe on Lo mato. The album is about the harsh realities of el barrio, about toughs and street crime, machismo and bravado and stolen lovers, grim, sassy, and sometimes very funny (e.g., “Lola, please advise your boyfriend that, while he may have a machete … I have a machine gun.”). For me, though, “El dia de suerte” is the standout track for demonstrating how this upbeat dance music can tilt into something darker. The story of a hard-luck case who can’t seem to give up hope, its message is rendered all the more persistent both by the song’s stepladder melody and by its cycling over and over through the chorus: “Pronto llegará/ El día de mi suerte/ Se que antes de mi muerte/Seguro que my suerte cambiará” (Soon my lucky day will come; I’m sure that, before I die, my luck is going to change”) The chorus opens the song, and punctuates the six verses used to tell our hero’s life. Is this grit and perseverence, or just plain delusion? But then this is the reality of el barrio: if you don’t think things are going to get better, no matter how slim your chances—if you stop fighting—you won’t survive. It’s the chorus—the voice of the community—that reminds him of this, that bucks him up. But our hero remains uncertain; while Lavoe leads into two choruses with affirmation (e.g., “Y ya lo verá”: you’ll see), four times he asks the question that lingers over the chorus’s certainty: “Pero cuándo será?” (But when?) Even Lavoe’s teletype-style delivery suggests the broader, implacable engine of a malign fate that “betrays” him, over and over and over. This tension between hope and despair, will and fatalism, is inscribed in the form of salsa itself: the trading between chorus and sonero, chorós and tragic hero (though their roles in classical tragedy are inverted), community and striving individual trying to make it in America. Taken together with songs like “Todo tiene su final” and “Calle luna calle sol,” the tension rises above el barrio itself to become a broader statement of the human predicament, something closer to Ruben Dario’s great poem “El fatalismo.” (I know, I’m not supposed to say shit is universal anymore. But there it is.) No surprise that “Suerte” ends without resolving, the horns cut off in mid-phrase; the record absolutely needs the seven-minute “Junio ‘73” descarga at the end to bring about true catharsis.

U

Unity. One summer day in Central Park I found myself staring at a particularly beautiful tree, perhaps forty feet tall; I was just far enough away from it to be able to take it in in one view, though close enough for it to still appear majestic. I thought about one of Aristotle’s requirements for drama: the action should not last longer than a day. I wondered what was the musical equivalent to this. A tree, a tragedy, a symphony, artworks whose aesthetic pleasure results in part from an ability to consider them in the comprehensible grandeur of their totality. (NB: I misremembered unity of time as being about the spectator’s attention, not the diegesis. This is my comeuppance for artfully minimizing drama over the years so’s to have more time to teach fiction and poetry. (Sometimes I teach film instead.) I clearly need to go back to the Poetics;I could have sworn there was something in there about audience. Anyway, my apologies to Aristotle.)

V

Valentine. Chuck Billy: “You either left your old lady at home, or you drug her out to a metal show, right?” (Testament show at B.B. King’s, Valentine’s Day, 2013.) Helldriver: “Guilty as charged. I left my old lady at home. After the show, I headed up to the Broadway Dive at 101st Street and drank cocktails with a record producer while folks took turns singing songs about heartbreak from that little balcony alcove over the bar. I can’t remember where I slept; probably Metro North.”

W

Wrong guy. Think about all those records you listened to for years and years before you realized you were listening to the wrong musician. For me, it was Lenny White on those early ‘70s Al DiMeola and Return to Forever records, like Land of the Midnight Sun and Romantic Warrior. As a guitarist—as a teen—I couldn’t help but gravitate toward DiMeola’s shameless exuberance. (Okay: I still do.) Even when the jazz drummer who lived down the hall from me in college pointed out his favorite fill on “Elegant Gypsy,” I could sympathize with his passion, but I couldn’t pull my ear away from DiMeola long enough to appreciate the glittering rails White was laying down underneath him. Maybe it was the years post-college I spent listening to Max Roach and “Philly” Joe Jones, Lewis Nash and Jeff Watts, and Tony Williams, Tony Williams above all, that would make White so startlingly present to me when I put those records on again later in life. The malleability of the ear, the way what we hear changes over the course of years, as the matrix of our taste and our musical experiences shift, causes us to hear even the most familiar music differently. I’ve written about that a lot on this blog. Wisdom, perhaps: keep nostalgia and novelty in balance; use the one as a check on the other; temper the mad dash for the new with cyclical return to the old. Remember, again: it’s never the same river.

X, Y, Z

You. Thought I was going to say something else snide about Metallica. C’est fini. Ils sont morts.

 

Archaeology of Noise

This essay about listening to Bushwick, written back in 2004-5, was originally supposed to see light through a grad school friend’s small press, Elik, now defunct. More than a decade later, a colleague turned me on to R. Murray Schafer’s The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (1977). I must have known the word from somewhere—it appears in the first sentences of the essay—but I have no recollection where. Certainly I had no idea in ‘04 that sound studies was an established field. Anyway, I fell hard for Schafer. The Soundscape is a witty, angry, erudite, and above all beautifully-written book; it reminded me of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death in perfectly wedding jeremiadic fervor and sardonic humor (e.g., jets are “the wounds of a crippled imagination made audible”; Muzak could only be produced in the U.S.A., “with its highly idealistic Constitution and the cruddy realities of its modern life styles”; in the factory towns of Victorian England, “workmen who experience the crucifixion of human culture then sang Messiah at Christmas in thousand-voice choirs”; or this: “The great high-rise towers of the world stand on tiptoes, looking out across the fires of the city”). But Schafer doesn’t just decry our cacophonous, tone-deaf society; his is a quixotic mission to heal society through a heightened awareness (and consequent reformation) of sound. As he explains in his introduction, The Soundscape “is about sounds that matter. In order to reveal them it may be necessary to rage against those which don’t” (12).

In posting this essay, my original idea was to completely re-do the introduction to take into account some of the theory, terminology, and analytical tools of Schafer’s foundational text, as well as a few other soundworks classic and contemporary: Jacques Attali’s Noise, published the same year as The Soundscape; recent work by Lawrence Kramer, David Rothenberg, and Anahid Kassabian. But as with the (much more recent) post about Scarlatti (“Domenico in the Heart,” 3.28.21), it made more sense to do a relatively gentle edit of the original, and use ideas from the essay as springboards for annotations that draw connections with these other texts. It might help to read keeping a wide margin in mind. (One difference with the Scarlatti: since the essay intersects multiple times with certain key ideas, several of the letters connecting passages to notes appear more than once.) In the above I am following the advice of an old writing teacher, who once said something to the effect that whatever avatar was guiding me at the time a work was completed should be respected. Put differently: I can’t go back and inhabit the self that produced this essay. In posting it, I am thus not only resurrecting Bushwick as it was at that time (2002-4), but also this younger self. Even though I find some of the theorizing about cities, art, and social class exasperating, it seemed only fair to let that self—the self who took the trouble to listen closely and put all these observations and thoughts in writing—have its say.

The essay saw a number of different titles. I think “Bushwick” was in the original; then it became “Sonic Thumbprint,” and then “Archaeology of Noise.” The final one doesn’t encompass everything the essay is trying to do, but it will have to be good enough. Two other notes: (1) I have posted the essay on both of the blog’s pages—Material/Music and The Charnel House. It is thematically at home in either space, and given its length, it deserves to bestride the Pit like the colossus it is. (2) As you read, please remember that the NOW of the essay is 2002-4, the period I lived in Bushwick, NOT2021-2!

*****

Sound buildings and sound bridges and sound streets and sound avenues. Sound parks and sound rivers and sound people people people. A city is a soundscape.A A place in soundspace. Palpable as brick and mortar, girder and rivet, asphalt, grass, stone. Stands in the same relation to you as. A city: a sonic cluster, a noise-clusterfuck. Space shapes sound, sound shapes space. Spaceshapes sound. A city. Sounds like this. Ten million souls breathing together. The sound of our blood. Wait. Leave the city. Wait for the wind to die down. Hold your breath. Now, multiply that by ten million. An artery wider than the Hudson. Then, a hurricane-breath …. This, lost beneath the clangor of the industrial and communications novae, the white-noise residue of our Big Bang ….O

As a child of the suburbs, coming into the city for a day used to exhaust me. It had nothing to do with the exertion of walking up and down the steps to the train and up and down city blocks. It was the noise. Just the noise.

Now my partner and I live in the city. In Brooklyn. To be exact—it behooves us to be exact—we live in Bushwick, a working-class Puerto Rican neighborhood in Brooklyn, with pockets of Dominicans and Mexicans, who replaced the Poles and Italians, who settled across the border in Ridgewood, Queens. The city: an archipelago held together cat’s-cradle by bridges and tunnels, each neighborhood insulated from the next—by cultural and linguistic barriers, boundaries more real and better-drawn than any official geography—and within itself, stratified according to the rhythms of settlement of different ethnicities.

To be exact: we live at 239 Stanhope Street, two blocks south of Wyckoff hospital, a few blocks from the place where the M train (elevated) crosses the L train (subway), four blocks from Queens, east of Williamsburg, north of Bed-Stuy. We live on the righthand side of the second floor of a three-floor walk-up, above a beauty parlor which used to be a salsa dance studio, in what is commonly referred to as a floor-through, meaning the apartment runs the depth of the building, from front (street, parked cars, facing buildings) to back (yard, shrubs, vacant lot, gutted and boarded-up buildings with their backs to ours, clotheslines, fire escapes).

We moved to Bushwick because we couldn’t afford the silence that the city bottles like water: the high rise, the $350-fine-for-honking sign, the zoning and traffic laws, the trees, thick walls and plate-glass windows—the insulation that is money, shredded and stuffed in your walls and ears, so you can hear your own blood-sound, not everyone else’s. We moved to Bushwick because we could afford the floor-through, dishwasher, exposed brick, hardwood floors, new bathroom—all the accoutrements of suburbohemian whiteness used to lure members of our class and our color into the dark, cacophonous hearts of the eastern boroughs.

We made the back room the bedroom, partly for security (the fire escape), partly for the noise. And though we haven’t been burgaled, we were never able to stop the noise from coming in, always uninvited, always unannounced. There wasn’t much we could do to fight it. And we didn’t fight it, not really. We got used to it. Eventually, we stopped listening.

But then one day I started listening again, to this residue, this excess, these misplaced sounds they call noise pollution. Sound as waste; sound misplaced by the strange proximity the city affords between strangers crushed into adjacent stalls, or by a volume that carries it far beyond its intended audience. Useless sound. Unwanted sound.B

And yet, whole civilizations have been described by the contents of their wastebaskets.C

If working-class neighborhoods carry the same unfair burden of noise pollution as they do pollution of other kinds, then we should make something of these riches, what city artists have always done: scavenge to create.

Every building, every block, every neighborhood—every space in this city, in all cities, and indeed every space, has a unique sonic identity, a sort of thumbprint, composed of all the audible sounds produced there over a given period of time. Some of these sounds are shared with the rest of the streets and buildings and neighborhoods, and as such are representative of the city as a whole, and perhaps cities in the abstract: a sonic fractal. Other sounds, however, are like those rare beasts found only in island ecosystems, appearing only in my building, or on my block, or in my barrio (239 Stanhope Street, 2R, Bushwick, Brooklyn). Like strange evolutionary puzzles, these purely indigenous sounds tell us the most about a place; they are the core of its identity, since they distinguish it from all other places within the city, and from all other cities … although they, too, may speak something of this city, of my city, and of all cities.D

Sounds form one cross-section of our perception, and we can use that cross-section to study the organism as a whole. That said, because New York is (like all cities) a place of wells and burrows—because you can always hear more than you can see—the sounds of a city actually reveal more than its sights. Not that we should entirely ignore the visual. Rather, we will relegate it to the same position that sound usually occupies with respect to sight. Sight mitigates our impression of the city, forcing us to shut out its voice; and it’s the voice that allows us to glimpse vistas the sights of the city hide: the palimpsests of noises mechanical and human, of waves upon waves of migration, of multiple pasts enfolded one inside another; and of the way our desires, and the whole erotic substructure built of the millions of desires inhabiting millions of contiguous cells, coalesce into a city of dreams.

The Front WindowE

We live above a commercial space whose awning defends us from the immediate sidewalk. Our building has no stoop; this might have been a conscious decision on the part of the Polish realty company that gut-renovated the building. A stoop invites a neighborhood to transact its business there. A building with a stoop wears its character in its stoop-sitters. The absence of a stoop, together with the presence of the awning, means that there is nothing to see outside our front window.* But there is plenty to hear.

The sounds that enter through our front window are the sounds of the city streets and the life on those streets. In the early morning, if we’re up and around our office, the hiss of the street cleaner, the engine, brake, and hydraulics of the garbage truck (splintering wood, crumpling plastic), and the voices of the sanitation workers, and of our neighbors as the neighborhood prods itself awake.

These, the first sounds of the day, are the sounds that signify “city,” the myth of the city, to our national consciousness. What can I tell you about these city-myth sounds that you don’t know already—you, who once lived in a city, maybe after graduating college, before starting a family; you who see cities in movies, whose teenage sons and daughters ape the projects, whose suburbs are more and more penetrated by the fashions and features of city life? You, too, suffer with car alarms. You, too, have the neighbor with the lemon whose engine turns over and over like it has the croup. You have this neighbor, and the neighbor who plays his stereo too loud, and maybe you or your neighbor has a teenage son with access to the car keys, the car stereo, Nas, Tupac. These are your sounds, too. Ours are just louder, and more intimate.

Oh, the shame of cities, if they were to be unmasked as nothing more than overgrown suburbs, like teenagers who never left their parents’ basements! If all the exoticism that drew small-towners to their bright lights were revealed to be only a difference in degree! Bigger! Taller! Faster! Is that all that makes a city a city? Or does any organism induced to grow, and to grow, and to grow, change constitutionally, radically? Do new species arise from combination, like new particles forced into existence by the speed and intensity of their parents’ collisions? Then the city would be more than the sum of its recognizable sounds, as the proximity of sound to sound would create a genuinely new organism which a catalogue of city-myth sounds could only hint at. Though writing compels me to catalogue sounds as if they happened in series, your task, reader, is to square them, so that they appear, as they do to my consciousness, as a single, dissonant chord.F

*

When it’s summer, or late spring, or early fall, or a mild day in late fall—or a cold day in late spring with a few moments of sunshine in the late afternoon—the ice cream trucks begin their relentless assault. They start at noon, or just after noon, and can carry on, wave after wave, until ten, sometimes eleven at night. Nothing else in the neighborhood, not car alarms, not firecrackers, not domestic disputes carried out on stoops, can compare to their outrageous violence against peace and sanity. They are—they must be—the fiendish invention of a totalitarian mind. Their numbers are beyond reckoning; they must have hives hidden across the city; I have dreamed of torching these nests, finding their queen. Our neighbor simply call them the enemy. On hot nights she is tempted; she takes a soldier’s pride in resisting.

They lure their prey with … songs: “The Entertainer,” “Pop Goes the Weasel” (which ends with a gratuitous and blood-chilling “Hello!”), and “It’s a Grand Old Flag.” The songs all have the same flutey, Jack-in-the-box timbre, and this together with the slow revolution of the trucks’ wheels suggest the steady turning of a crank by a giant, invisible, malevolent child. At the height of summer, when the trucks swarm like gnats, just as one sinister, inane, interminable song begins to doppler off toward Knickerbocker Avenue, another will be just beginning at the top of the street. And as one truck is replaced by the next, one song rises in pitch while the other falls, one melody becomes entangled in the next: an ice-cream avant-garde.

I’ve heard trucks drive by with loudspeakers booming for this or that local politico, and I’ve heard the police van loudspeaker asking residents to turn over any information anyone might have connected with the shooting at S&M Children’s Wear (real name, actual store). The difference is that the ice cream trucks stop. We have a fire hydrant in front of our building; the drivers pull over there. The loudspeakers are just above the level of the awning, just below the level of our windows. In the few seconds between melody loops, I hear the freezer motors pumping hot air into the hot evening.

I’ve often wondered how the drivers bear it, if they’re all lobotomized, drooling, or just deaf, trapped all day in these rolling sweatshops, test subjects of top-secret psy-ops against working-class communities. For the disparity between rich and poor neighborhoods can be summed up this way: a block or so after passing an ice cream truck on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I realized the loudspeaker was turned off. Then one day last fall I was walking home in a thunderstorm, and an ice-cream truck passed me going in the opposite direction. It was going much faster than its normal predatory speed, its Slow! Children speed. And instead of ice-cream music, there was salsa blaring inside the truck. (Why didn’t he play thatover the speakers?) And the driver—this is the most important thing—the driver had one arm extended, as to an imaginary band, and was singing along with the music at the top of his lungs. He was no longer an ice-cream vendor, he was Ismael Rivera, he was Hector Lavoe. I thought he must welcome the rain the way I used to when I lifeguarded at my local pool. When it stormed, we would don garbage bags and slide down the places where the surrounding hills had turned into sluices.

When evening falls in Bushwick, car alarms begin to compete with the ice cream trucks for sonic realty. This is another wholly novel combination, a rich cacophony of which the city, and only the city, is capable; a sonic landscape that appears most fully in the evenings, like craters on the moon do on a clear night. The car alarms go off for one of two reasons (neither, needless to say, having anything to do with theft): (1) the kids who play football in the street hit one of the cars; or (2) somebody cruises by with the stereo cranked. The second is the more common; I imagine the drivers as bombardiers, alarm after alarm exploding to life behind them as one shrieking target after another goes up. Three, four, sometimes five in a block; our windows rattle and buzz, boom, boom, boom, but our building stays standing. And then one after another the alarms turn off, though never in the same order they were tripped. I would call it the only real test of a car stereo … except that most of the alarms are so sensitive I could trip them by farting ten feet away. I’ve learned half the hit songs of the past two years listening to Hot 97 doppler down my block. Melodically, there isn’t much difference between 50 Cent and, say, “Pop Goes the Weasel”; and I can already imagine a day when he replaces “It’s a Grand Old Flag” on those loudspeakers. But it’s the bass that trips alarms and rattles windows, that finds the frequency at which the neighborhood vibrates, revealing its armature to us bystanders—hence, perhaps, that fleeting sense of vulnerability that always accompanies their passing.G

There’s also a hospital two blocks north, so once or twice a night an ambulance, and sometimes a fire truck, goes gangbusters down our street, siren on, horn blaring. And some nights the traffic gets backed up all the way to Irving, because the ice cream truck hasn’t quite pulled over far enough for the asshole in his SUV to get around it. Or maybe a gypsy-cab driver has arrived to take someone to the airport; they never pull over far enough, and they never get out of their sedans; they’ll lay on their horns for ten or fifteen seconds at a stretch, like their car has been front-ended. And then, of course, an ambulance will arrive. So you have the gypsy-cab driver’s horn and the SUV’s horn and the horns of all the traffic backed up to Irving, and then the ambulance’s siren and the fire truck’s siren; and when someone finally moves, here come the ice-cream trucks, and Hot 97 tripping alarm after alarm after alarm …. Good night, good night!

And the people? They’re here; they never stopped talking. They’re the ones sitting behind the wheels, laying on their horns, setting off alarms. Why shouldn’t they cruise the streets, their bodies pressed together inside the Church of General Motors, heads bobbing? Why should anyone have peace and quiet when they don’t? Later, they’ll stay on their stoops until two or three in the morning, shouting, laughing, arguing, as if they feared silence were a void that might swallow them. Only cities produce such voids, such silences that the noise rushes to fill—not actual but epistemological silences. Only in cities, among millions, could people fear silence as an emptiness, their own blood-sound masked from them, masked so long that it’s forgotten; and hence their understanding of themselves as beings apart from the great puling, pulsing mass of the city, is forgotten, too. Or maybe the opposite is true: a horror at their own blood-sound, at recognizing their separation from and powerlessness in the face of the city. A bit of krill in the maw of a behemoth—and so they shout, shout not to challenge but to fill, or at least mask, that silence, that gap—to become one with the beast of the city that threatens to swallow them.H

And so they shout, Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck, fuck you, nigga, fuck you nigga, the rest in Spanish. Even in the quietest moments they speak to one another as if they needed to be heard over the roar of a passing train. Broken bottles, firecrackers, radios, motorized scooters; the couples fight ruthlessly on, the teenagers giggle and shout, “Ah, shit!” and sometimes in the early early morning there is an episode of drunken bravado among young men. They’ll be up again with the birds,I at least some of them will, yelling up at the windows across the street (because only UPS and the Jehovah’s Witnesses use the buzzers), waiting for someone to come and lean over the sill (ours seems to be one of the few buildings with screens) so that they can carry on a conversation between two or three stories. I’ve seen people converse between the same story of adjacent buildings, and even across the street, between windows of facing buildings. We have our neighborhood crier, too; just the other day, he shouted, “Wake up wake up wake up!” beneath a nearby window, like he was calling to his lover to elope. Then he called out, sarcastically, “I said, Good morning!” (And then a child’s voice echoed his: “Wake up wake up wake up!”)

Sometimes I feel like the people of my neighborhood are on the point of being evicted from their own voices by the noise. And yet, the neighborhood lives in their voices. And not just in the profanity and bravado. Over the last thirty years, but particularly since the crack boom of Reagan’s ‘80s, contemporary culture has succeeded in doing to the “inner city” what high-school English has done to poor Jonathan Edwards. The children of the boroughs are left to hang over the flaming pit of God’s wrath, like Edwards’ sinner-spiders. Forgotten is the youthful Edwards’ fascination with spiders and spider-webs as evidence of a meticulous and beautiful divinity, or his desire for the “sweetness” of a quasi-erotic union with Christ. So little of the sweetness of the “inner city” finds a place in our national mythology anymore. Here are two exceptions: the squeals of children running through the open hydrants in the middle of July, the jet of water striking the cars across the street (without the awning, we might see an older boy straddling the hydrant, a two-foot crescent wrench held in his hands); and the shouts of teenagers playing football in the early evening, partly because the one miserable park in our neighborhood has been closed for more than a year, partly because they would play nowhere else. Maybe because these are the sounds of poor neighborhoods historically and citywide, they have translated to our consciousness through the movie screen. But there is so much more. In the fairy-tale quality of the people conversing between buildings, as if they lived in shoes; in the voice of the ice-cream-vendor-cum-Hector Lavoe barreling down Knickerbocker in a thunderstorm; in the voice of the female worshipper in the Pentecostal church belting our her raucous love for Jesus;† in the clack of the dominos striking a folding table, and the swears of the old men (and women) gathered around with their berets and cigars, their canes leaning up against the metal fence around the trash cans and the grandkids’ toys too big to fit in the apartment. One of our neighbors has a little dog named Princess (I’ve never seen her, but only little dogs are given such names), and every time the dog goes yap yap yapping down the street, their little girl follows it, yelling, “Princess! Princess!” like she’s looking for an enchanted castle. She’s sure she has seen it, here, in this neighborhood. And every night, around ten-thirty or eleven, sure as church bells, somebody drives by with a car horn that plays the first half of the melody of “La cucaracha.” I imagine La cucaracha is in love with a girl who lives somewhere on our street, and she leans out her window at night waiting for him to give a signal, like a queen waiting for those knights of old to lance her garland. Listening to all this, I sometimes get the sense that the world ends and begins at the beginning and end of our street.

I know that Princess is little enough to be eaten by the rats I hear scampering around inside the garbage cans, and that La cucaracha may be fingering a gun. I know that the kids playing football are some of the same ones who tear each other apart on the stoops in the middle of the night, or who press our buzzer five, six times (it makes a high, loud, tickling noise, like a robot mariachi), who we can hear laughing when we press the LISTEN button. I know that when I stop looking, I’m more prone to fantasize, and that I’m in danger of romanticizing poverty with all my castles and garlands. But at least my ear does not immediately reject our street’s often grim exterior the way my eye does. Of the two organs, it’s the more naïve, the more playful. It’s the one most adept at taking an ell from an inch, as Henry James once said. And who’s to say my fantasies don’t speak another truth about this neighborhood, about its hopes and fears and disillusionments and love of life, a truth not accessible to my eyes?

The Back Window

New York City is an amalgam of discrete worlds whose edges touch but whose inhabitants seldom range beyond them. Each world disbelieves in the adjacent ones. I remember feeling this, without really understanding it, many years ago, standing at 110th Street and looking north into Harlem. The people there—the ones sitting on their stoops and crossing streets and driving cars—seemed like denizens of another world, and I couldn’t help but think of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, where Martian and Earthling wave their hands through the place where the other’s body should be, and each declares the other the ghost. But worlds come in different shapes and sizes, and not all the boundary lines are evident, or simple, or permanent, or tangible. I walk home along my street every night, but would not walk home on Stockholm, one block over. Knickerbocker is not the same place in the daytime, with hundreds of families bovining between dollar stores and the traffic bumper to bumper, as it is at night, when the grates are all down, the trash rolls around like tumbleweeds, and the infrequent cars all seem to have been sent on unfriendly missions. And of course I can walk through Harlem and not be in Harlem, or of Harlem. New Yorkers carry their worlds around with them, like I do now, in Bushwick.

But for New Yorkers who have their roots in the city, these boundaries are reinforced by a strong sense of territoriality. Once on a shuttle bus (for subway repairs) I heard three teenagers from the neighborhood talking about how they couldn’t take the subway to Queens because they’d get lost. New Yorkers are like dogs chained up in backyards, intimating that there is a world beyond the fence because of the other dogs they can hear barking, but reconciled to the leash and the fence as facts of their existence. What lies beyond the fence exists only as blurts of noise.J

If the structure of the city is predicated upon these intimate yet eternally sundered worlds, then it’s little wonder that the back and front of my building seem to occupy radically different coordinates in space-time, so that the sounds I hear at the front of the building are wholly distinct from the ones I hear at the back. If the front window is the tympanum for everything mechanical and human that invades our personal space (the boundaries of which, in cities, are difficult to define)—ice cream truck, car alarm and car horn, fire truck and ambulance, loud music, loud conversation, argument, sport—the back window hears none of this. Instead, the back window seems to open out on some weird, nostalgic space, as if by crossing the floorthrough we were to step back decades in time; as if the city itself were just a façade banged up over a rural/small-town past which, but for constant vigilance, always threatens to irrupt back into the industrial landscape. This is all the more remarkable for the general lack of vegetation: our backyard is a bleak little concrete lot to which we do not have access; beyond the fence and the telephone poles are the buildings with their backs to ours, like duellists: one half-erected, one boarded up, one occupied. The “yard” behind the unfinished building is a mound of rubble and trash that couldn’t squirt out a blade of grass to save its life. The adjacent yards, with their few scraggly bushes and chain-link fences, are hardly better. But for all their ugliness, the buildings do mute the front-window sounds we would receive from Stockholm. Hidden from the streets, cut off from the city proper, these backyards become their own worlds, with their own narratives and their own sonic textures. And this makes sense, because generally we are by the back window late at night, when the things we barely hear in the daytime find their voice, speak out loud.K These are the sounds of the city’s dreams, when it remembers and reconfigures its pasts. The farm and small town were the land’s previous tenants; progress can never entirely evict them.

Old industrial neighborhoods like this one are particularly good at hiding spaces that seem to arise out of a distant past; or perhaps such spaces are simply more surprising because of the industrial façades that hide them. Walk down a row of small businesses in a mixed (industrial-residential) neighborhood—body shops, ironworks—and all of the sudden there will be a break in the row of garages, and you will glimpse the corner of a decrepit wood-frame house standing in the lot behind—maybe the house where the owner’s family lives—otherwise invisible from the street. The whole neighborhood is honeycombed in this way, as if, could you peel back the rough, toxic gilding, you would find something that looks like small-town America, all this soft wood at the heart of iron. Sometimes, I expect to look out the back window and see a white picket fence, rolling green hills, the nub of a silo. And if I can’t always find those wood-frame houses, I can still hear the sounds we associate with them.L

Here is another example: the wind sometimes picks up and slaps a wire running down the back of our building against the window. We have no idea what the wire is for, or any of the wires, for that matter, that run in a clump along the back fence, fastened, like the neighbor’s clothesline, to a short electrical tower at the limit of the property. We’re surrounded by such wires, and so entirely lost in the jungle of the visible that we never think to question what their function is. What does that wire do? Where does it go? If it does nothing, why hasn’t somebody torn it down? I imagine that half of the technological infrastructure of this city is obsolete, but no one has bothered to dismantle it. Instead, this skeleton of dead industry remains, like the wood-frame houses remain. The city is thus a museum of itself: it retains the shape it had a century before, is modernized in the interstices. Meanwhile, its inhabitants live and travel in a web of signs whose contexts have long since disappeared, inscrutable messages from a long-dead society. They echo, like that gargantuan rush of blood, in the noise of the city’s background radiation.

One night, we heard a loud ringing on the fire escape, and we looked out to see two or three kids picking up stones in the empty lot—this was before the new building started going up; at the time of this writing the lot had been vacant for almost a year—standing on top of the Caterpillar, trying to break our windows. Is the boredom of the boroughs any different from the boredom of, say, small-town Kansas? And do the kids respond differently? Don’t their grandmothers all live in the country, in the D.R. or Puerto Rico? And when my partner played Crazy White Lady out the back window and the kids scrambled, was she any different from the lady in the run-down, gabled house who, at the end of the movie, is discovered by one of those kids—the one who gets to grow up—to have been jilted, or bereaved, to be full of wisdom, and to bake great cookies?

And does the elevated train—which for some reason I can only hear out the back window, at night, even though it’s closer to the front—does it sound any different from the trains rolling through the countryside, the trains I’ve ridden from New York to New Orleans, from New Orleans to Tucson, from Salt Lake City to New York City, from Chicago to Longview, Texas? Aren’t they the same trains against which children test their wills, trains they dream about and imagine leaving on to get from there to here, from country to city? Maybe because the 99 cent stores on Knickerbocker pull down their grates, the street becomes a conduit for the sound. Because I only hear it at night (mind you, the train has been to us a lullaby ever since we lived half a block from the elevated N in Long Island City); and though I know it’s the M, I sometimes imagine it’s another train, a freight train carrying shipping containers across the heartland. Maybe there’s another track nearby for freight trains that I haven’t come across. But that seems unlikely; I’ve criss-crossed this neighborhood walking in every direction. I’ve since come to the conclusion that I will never see such a train in the daytime, I will only hear it at night. The only other evidence I have of this crypto-locomotive is the old tracks, laid bare like dinosaur bones in places where the asphalt has worn down to cobblestone. You might follow a set of these ghost rails for a block before they run straight into a three-story building, or a closed garage door.

Not surprisingly, this band of rural America folded into the fabric of the city is a veritable old MacDonald’s farm of animal-sounds. The most important is the rooster; indeed, that might be the essential sound of the back window, the one from which all other ideas of the city’s wild, rural past arise. It’s probably a fighting bird. All the same, it crows every morning. And this is a most surreal and lovely thing to hear in the early mornings in Brooklyn.§

By itself the rooster isn’t enough to wake us; maybe the white picket fence upon which it stands has receded too far into the city’s past, into the nooks of its echoing backyards. But the rooster sets off the first of two dogs chained up in separate yards; and then the first dog sets off the second, distinguishable from the first by the pattern, pitch, and stress of its bark. This dog goes on barking long after the rooster and the first dog have given up. I’ve never seen these animals; the only visible dog is the one let out onto the third-floor fire escape of the building beside the vacant lot, and that dog is as silent as a beaten child.

Walking home, I sometimes see stray cats slinking between the cars, giving wide berth to the garbage cans where we hear rats forage. But these cats are cowed, voiceless; in the backyards, at night, they fight with other cats, or with the rats—the preternatural meow, the lid of a garbage can upset—and set the dogs barking again.

There is one animal in our neighborhood that we have not identified. Like the rooster, we hear it at daybreak, but also sometimes at sunset. Like the rooster, it’s too quiet, or maybe too distant, to wake us. It makes a sound somewhere between a moo and a bray. Every farm needs a beast of burden, and this seemed like the capstone of an act of collective nostalgia for this bit of Jeffersonian America squirreled into backyard Brooklyn, the complement of the semirural domesticity of rooster, dog, and cat. But over time, we grew less sure about the beast-of-burden theory. And the longer we were unsure, the more we came to believe that this sound was the sound of something in pain. And because we could never pinpoint the animal that made it, the sound evolved to signify agony in the abstract: all the hunger and hurt of city life that had accumulated over the course of a day, bottled and released just before nightfall, and then again, in the morning, the sounds of the previous night.F

I never ventured to go out looking for this thing-in-agony, or even called 311, like I did when I heard what I thought was an injured dog. That time, I even got my shoes on before it stopped. But this sound, whatever it is, it’s too far away—maybe not even in our neighborhood. The labyrinth of buildings probably distorts its direction and quality: I’d never find it; it’s quite possible that I’ve misinterpreted it. And before I know it, the sound has disappeared, just as I think I’m arriving at the salve of conscience, the pot of gold. Is this monstrous sound the sound of what the city makes us, that the reason we don’t put on our shoes and go looking is because we’re afraid to step up to that mirror? It is it, not us, just another sound the city makes, its breath and circulation, like the gunshots and sirens and arguments. As to why the siren, why the gunshots, we don’t concern ourselves. We listen, watch. Write. Just yesterday a man sat down in the rightmost lane of Broadway at 138th Street. He sat closer to the middle lane than to the curb; the cabs honked and swerved to avoid him. He was shouting and waving and his arms were covered with sores. This is almost any yesterday.

This sound-of-agony is really just the other side of the coin of the farm, a lament for its passing, for all passings, and the pangs of a city in constant, ruthless rebirth.D We would hear the beast in the rooster, and vice-versa, if we could just properly calibrate our ears. It’s no wonder these are night-sounds and twilight-sounds; in the day, the city is alive with the sound of self-renovation, enthralled by its own ever-evolving modernity: ten hammers going at once and the grind of table-saws, men working to fill the gap on Stockholm with “luxury two-bedroom apartments” like ours. On some blocks a subway stop closer to Manhattan, five or six buildings in a row have been gutted: the usual slow bleed of evicted families carting their possessions to the next barrio of hope, while a few manage to duck the wrecking ball, and another few claw their way out beyond the semi-urban ring that has replaced the inner city. Then, like a crocus, the first Starbucks will push its way up out of the hard ground, and some multinational corporation or sports team will throw down a mat of wood-chips and a plastic slide and call it a playground. Eventually, from this unpromising chrysalis, a gentrified fantasyland will emerge. And then the wrecking ball will move on, leaving the new neighborhood to live on for years, perhaps decades, before recognizing that the economy that birthed and reared it no longer exists, perhaps never existed. And then, like Poe’s M. Valdemar, it will decay with the same fantastic and violent suddenness that marked its rise.

What language reveals about subjectivity is true of cities, and truest of New York: a present is never quite present because it is always already being enfolded into the yet-more-modern. Yet, as workers scramble to fill the gaps produced by the most recent guttings and demolitions, so they will re-seal the backyard worlds of pre-modern echoes, the voices of these hidden pasts, behind new facades; a forest within a farm within a town within a city within a city within a city will once again grow and multiply among the rubble and the weeds, the ghosts we hear in our backyards, the skeleton of industry on which the information-age city multiplies. So long as these tomblike spaces are opened, however, the past sounds and sounds-of-passing will seethe together with the sounds of modernity and modernization: the hammer and the table-saw, the rooster and the beast. It’s just easier to hear the latter late at night or early in the morning, when the saws have dulled to quiet, when the wind is right, coming as if from a great distance, or caught in the corners of our eyes, like the ubiquitous, miraculous bouquets in Jean Genet’s Miracle of the Rose.

There’s a girl who stands in the rubble and trash behind one of the buildings on Stockholm, earphones on, singing the latest pop songs at the top of her lungs, and choreographing a video in which she is the star. There’s the occasional loud barbecue, occasionally hosted by the downstairs neighbors, who sit out back and talk on their cell phones, and their voices rise with the smoke from their cigarettes. On the nights the neighbors upstairs were robbed, there must have been the pitter-patter of thieves’ shoes like pebbles on our fire escape. And once, in the dead of night, long after the last firecracker had popped, I woke up to a Boom, followed by a series of booms, maybe one per second: Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Just like that. Too evenly spaced. I didn’t hear shouts or sirens, but then again it had come from far away. Boom. What the economy was supposed to be doing thanks to the dot-commies in dotcomlandia. The quakes in the Bay Area rattled the windows of Giuliani’s New York: shutting down Fresh Kills and using the scowls to ship the homeless out of sight of commuters or tourists, christening Riker’s Island our sixth borough—the best kind, since no one can vote and the borough president’s a warden …. And then BOOM, the towers came down. Echoes like a million gunshots, in the night and in the early early morning. Sometimes I think it’s the sound of Giuliani coming back to haunt us, all rattling chains and 9-1-1. Two years later came the blackout, and there was near-absolute silence in my neighborhood that night: the silence of waiting for another BOOM. What we didn’t hear was that everyone else was waiting for the boom, too, and that silence was the sound of all of us together, waiting.

Inside

Just as every block has an exterior sonic identity, a combination of block-specific and neighborhood- (or even city-) wide sounds that enter through the back and front windows or exterior walls, and which vary depending on the vantage point of the perceiver; so each individual building has an interior sonic identity, composed of the amalgam of noises made in one part of the the edifice—the automatic functions of the building, the natural forces acting upon it, the sounds made by the tenants, their pets, and their appliances—and heard in another, measured, as always, over a given length of time. The fact that our building is so small, and the interior walls are so thin, gives me a false sense of completeness about my perception—the sense that I am a “transparent ear” (“I am nothing; I hear all”). I am actually limited in several important ways: by the location of the apartment (second-floor floor-through), by the arrangement and selection of its rooms (bedroom in the rear), and by the difficulty of where and whether to include myself, whose presence, negligible among the sounds of the block or neighborhood, now becomes significant.

As with the mix of Spanish and English we hear out the front window, there is a linguistic dimension to the sonic profile of our building which, when we first moved in, and in the context of the neighborhood as a whole, suggested neatly-inverted geological strata: young, hip Euro-Americans lived on the first floor; a Hispanic couple with a baby lived next door to us on the second floor; and an old Italian couple lived with their grown son on the top floor. Unfortunately, this schematic, representing three waves of migrants to Bushwick, is muddled once we’re forced to include the Indian woman who lived upstairs, next door to the Italians, and who had a white boyfriend, who lived there off and on and parked his motorcycle in front of the fire hydrant. And then the Hispanic couple moved out, and young, hip white people—a punk rocker and a political activist—moved in next door, as per the general trend. And then the Indian woman moved out and two young Hispanic men moved into their apartment. So much for geology. (I should note that I haven’t included myself, either, since I, too, would muddle it.)

The Spanish-speaking couple argued from opposite ends of the apartment. The old couple yell at each other in Italian, though not belligerently, or only when what we presume are their grandkids pay a visit. They could be the son’s kids from an earlier marriage, though that seems unlikely. He is a perfect recluse. His manner is halting, and his glasses make his eyes appear enormous. He fiddles with the garbage and recycling in front of our building for what seems like hours, sometimes removing a stray item from one bag and putting it into another. Sometimes, when I think I hear a rat in the trash, it’s really him. And sometimes I see him coming up out of the basement, although none of us is supposed to have a key. I don’t ask. Anyway, the grandkids are boys, fat, maybe twelve; they clomp clomp clomp up and down the stairs, like they’re trying to make as much noise as possible, and they always jump the last few steps, like I do. They also yell, and then the recluse or their mother will yell at them to be quiet, and they’ll yell back up at her that they will be quiet. This all in English. The new Hispanic men and the ladies they bring home at night are more cheerful, and the Anglos across the hall are also cheerful, and occasionally drunken, as they carry on conversations with each other from opposite ends of the floor-through. He is a punk rocker; we suspect he lives in an entirely different sonic dimension from the rest of us.

When the doors close, the voices are muffled by walls, as is the case with almost all the noises we hear inside the building. We know the language being spoken more from the cadences than the words, and again we have that sense of being the focal point in a field of sounds, a sense augmented by the thin walls, which act more like membranes than barriers. It is this general radiation of voices, and not actual narratives or individual signs carried on their currents, that make the city: a sea, formed of all the registers of human voices blended into one another, in which we float, half-submerged.F There is another, perhaps a greater, intimacy in them, too, than in the confessions about sex and family dysfunction whispered into our ears or overheard in cafes, because this murmur of the mass of humanity is apprehended less consciously. There is an erotic life to the city that is this constant friction of vibrations of people against each other, and that is the helpless and constant penetration of others’ lives into your own, of your life into theirs.M Our walls are like windows of semitransparent bricks, silhouettes move mysteriously and seductively behind them. I am awash in my neighbors’ muted sounds, just as they are awash, perhaps, in mine. I didn’t choose to have them meddling in my life, just as they didn’t choose to have me meddling in theirs. The people around me are my secret sharers; yet, if I saw them on the street, I might not recognize them, and they might not recognize me.

An example: I know the people who live in the apartment upstairs walk around in their shoes. From the whine of the pipes, when our neighbors use their shower and toilet, and generally, from the sounds of their coming and going, we know what hours they keep. Their alarms wake us up, as if they were sleeping beside us, with us; the punk rocker, whose bedroom is adjacent to ours, can hit his SNOOZE button for an hour before finally shutting off the alarm. My brother-in-law does the same thing; I know because I lived at my partner’s mother’s house for three months, and he had the room directly below mine. But the punk rocker is hardly my brother-in-law; in fact, for the first three months after he moved in, I never laid eyes on him. One of the Indian women upstairs had a clock-radio that went off every nine minutes, Led Zeppelin or The Doors, two or three different songs (after all, even that magnum opus “Stairway to Heaven” only lasts seven minutes and fifteen seconds). And when the political activist is out of town, or gets lucky, she doesn’t turn off her alarm, so it might go off all morning through the wall, loud enough that, the first time it happened, I thought it might be the fire alarm, and so I went out to investigate, rang the doorbell and knocked—I thought she might have a cat, you see, I had heard cat-sounds, that clumsy sound cats make jumping down off of something tall. Where was the punk rocker? On tour? And if it took him an hour to wake up to his alarm, how would ringing the doorbell make any difference? Anyway, had it not been for that alarm we might never have left a note on the door to please turn off your alarm when you’re not home, might have gone another three months without meeting them, without ever inviting them to dinner, without ever sitting down to dinner in our apartment and talking, imagine, about sounds.

There is thus an intimacy that the walls between us seem to enhance rather than impede, the same kind that must develop between prisoners in adjacent cells. While some of the qualities we associate with intimacy are lost (I have not yet seen the new people upstairs, except through the peephole, from behind), others, which go well beyond that veneer New Yorkers call intimacy, are magnified. It must be the atomic quality of city life that causes this surrogate intimacy to develop (I have not yet seen the new people upstairs, except through the peephole, from behind). What’s more, I suspect the absence of the first, commonly understood, or “natural” intimacy intensifies the second to the point of pathology. Or maybe it only seems pathological, because it is the particular intimacy of the city, and we are not city dwellers, we humans, not yet. It is the powerful aphrodisiac of anonymity, where, in the absence of any other signifier, the body becomes all.

And this is apt, since what we overhear most often is the sound of people fucking. I might hear somone fucking for six months to a year before meeting them face to face, and I have to refrain from saying, “You know, from the noises you make when you’re fucking, I imagined you entirely different.” Already devoid of all but the most obvious significance, these sounds of intercourse—the ersatz bedsprings;** the gasps, grunts, groans, yelps, shouts, and sighs; the occasional forays into language in the form of shouted exclamations and demands—reveal how our possible responses to “overhearing” fall into two diametrically opposed categories. By and large, as meaning is evacuated (as it must be in this sea of unintelligible sounds), emotional content, as if in a rush to fill the meaning-vacuum, is enhanced.

But then one night, while I was grading papers in the living room, I heard the political activist fucking her boyfriend, which amounted to nothing more than a few squeaking bedsprings (yes, bedsprings) and a gasp. A heartfelt gasp, possibly, but with gasps it’s difficult to tell. Hardly a primal gush of emotion, a window into my neighbor’s soul. Instead, I was left trying to decipher its meaning. And this problem of meaning became even more poignant in hindsight. Because, you see, the political activist’s boyfriend later started stalking her, and she had to show everyone in the building his picture so that they wouldn’t let him in. After he left New York he violated his parole and started back here with a gun, but was apprehended en route, somewhere in Pennsylvania, I think. Was that gasp a gasp of foreshadowed humiliation? I now believe that, had I been able to interpret that gasp correctly, I could have foreseen my neighbor’s whole calamity with her boyfriend.

The Indian women upstairs I never heard fucking, but the political activist said she heard them having sex all the time, and loud and raucous sex at that, to the point that, over dinner with us, and right next to the open window of the air shaft, she remarked that they were so loud that half the time she figured they were fucking in the stairwell. I didn’t hear the women’s shoes, so I guessed they weren’t home. But I always wondered if they heard her say that. Because later, when their apartment was robbed, and the political activist went upstairs to sympathize, they shut the door in her face. That was the night we heard the cops’ shoes in the stairwell, loud as gunshots, and their cop radios, and they giggled like they were stoned. Between the girls and the cops treading back and forth in their shoes it sounded like a stampede. Plus the robbery happened while my parents were visiting, and to this day my parents still believe the cops’ shoes were the shoes of the women who lived upstairs.

But I was talking about fucking. How come the political activist could hear the Indian women fucking when they lived directly above us? I never heard them fucking, and I would have liked to, if only for the sake of completeness, excluding the old Italian couple, who can’t possibly fuck anymore, and their son, who I try not to imagine fucking at all. But those girls were real nightcrawlers, their schedules more likely matched the political activist’s.†† Moreover, this third-floor fucking must have occurred in the front part of the apartment, and, as I mentioned, our bedroom is in the back. When the beauty parlor beneath the front part of our apartment got robbed, we slept right through the alarm. That the political activist, who lived in the front room, could hear the women upstairs fucking, even though their apartment is directly above ours, supports two related assertions: (1) in small buildings, adjacent floors are more “intimate” with each other than the front and back of the same floor-through apartment, with the surrounding apartments functioning as auditoriums; and a corollary, (2) one is less “intimate” with one’s roommate in a floor-through (that is, the person who sleeps in the other room of the same apartment) than one is with ones’ neighbors living above or beside, even those to whom one has never been formally introduced.

The punk rocker is case in point; as I mentioned, our bedroom shares a wall with his. He’s often away on tour; but when he’s home, watch out. His then-girlfriend (and current wife) is a dominatrix—a professional title, I think, as well as a personal preference—and now and again, between tours, they wake up my partner and I with an unruly combination of surf-punk music and fucking. The wall is a hymen; their ecstacy punctures it. And this is always in the wee hours, the desperate hours, when our defenses are down … and close enough that, if she or he reached out to grab the headboard (except we don’t have headboards), and the wall disappeared, they would grab our hair, our wrists. We become the passive half of a foursome.

But there is also the pleasure of nostalgia for our own sexual pasts, and our sexual subjunctives. Punk rockers are particularly helpful here, since they still listen to music on cassette or vinyl—I think it’s part of their image—and so it’s legitimate to measure the time they spend fucking by album sides. According to this system, and after adjusting for the fact that punk albums are about half the length of most pop albums, I placed him, incorrectly, in his early twenties. I wonder if the old Italian couple upstairs could hear them, too. I imagine them listening in concert with their son, like in one of those Rockwellian images of the nuclear family gathered around a tombstone-shaped radio.

On one remarkable night we were awakened at two or three in the morning; the dominatrix was engaged in some lascivious moaning, which turned into brief, high shouts as the punk rocker built toward what turned out to be one of several climaxes, the report of the bedframe as it struck the wall or the floor, ka-chunk ka-chunk ka-chunk. But the remarkable part was that, for a while, there was a sound like one of them was collapsing onto the floor, or being dropped onto the floor, or jumping off the bureau onto the floor, or just dumping a whole bunch of shit onto the floor. This sound was repeated every ten to fifteen seconds, and every repetition was followed by a guttural grunt on the dominatrix’s part. Lying there, I couldn’t help but think of Burke’s definition of the sublime in Milton: words tumble upon the reader in such a way that, rather than appealing to the imagination, they strike directly at the emotions. Try as I might, I couldn’t imagine how those sounds were being produced. None of the elaborate machinery I concocted in my brain—pulleys and swings and mechanical massagers and penetrators worthy of the most perversely fervid eighteenth-century mind—none of it sufficed. And it couldn’t possibly fit in that tiny room the punk rocker lived in anyway; nor could he have afforded such a machine on his certainly meager earnings opening for opening bands’ opening bands; nor could the dominatrix possibly have sufficient capital to invest in the means of production I envisioned. Anyway, I had a hard-on. My partner woke up briefly, said, “Fuck me, punk rock boy!” and fell back asleep. Or did she lie there, awake, aroused, like me?

I’ve imagined a story where the protagonist, a middle-aged recluse like the son upstairs, hears a couple in the apartment next door having sex. The couple is new to the building; he has lived there his whole life. He has never met them or seen them (“except through the peephole, from behind”); he believes they deliberately avoid him. The noise wakes him, keeps him up. He imagines himself as a liquid, filling up the space of his apartment, so that his boundaries and the apartment’s boundaries are contiguous. He is fully contained by his space; why is the same not true of his neighbors? Why must they nightly violate his space, his body? So he grumbles at breakfast, groggy, he complains at the nearby park to his few friends, who tease him. He is secretly aroused. He grows to expect the sound of the couple’s lovemaking. He participates in it vicariously. Then, near the end of the story, he confronts the guilty couple. He might ring their bell; he might run into them in the hallway, outside their apartment, at last; he might gather the nerve to invite them to dinner, where his own conversation is drawn, helplessly, toward the forbidden subject. He would say something, dramatic, ambiguous, totally ridiculous, through which his participation in the couple’s sexual life would be revealed … or, at least, he would fear that it had been revealed. Or, he might record the sound of the couple having sex, and then, the following night, move his small stereo so that the speakers abut the offending wall, and play the recording at full volume. But in the following moments he would become convinced that it is not the sound of the couple’s lovemaking, but himself masturbating. So, rather than punishing the neighbors for keeping him awake, he makes a spectacle of himself; and at the moment he tries to assert his power—deliberately penetrates the boundaries of their apartment/body—he humiliates himself most abjectly. One more thing: listening to that recording, listening to himself, he might come to recognize something about himself, something ugly, something violent in the sound of his pleasure. Maybe he already noticed this in the sound of their lovemaking; maybe part of his obsession was that he imagined interposing himself as her chivalric avenger. Whatever the case, at the end he understands that what he believed about the other was actually about himself.

The first fear is the fear that every sound is simply a reflection of you, that the walls are mirrors, that you are alone, inviolate and impenetrable in a city of millions. You may feign annoyance, but your sanity and your sense of self depend upon the constant penetration of others’ lives into your own. The second fear is that, for all your supposed voyeurism, or eavesdropping, you are helpless but to reveal secrets about yourself. Chief among them is your eavesdropping, because around it all of your other secrets orbit. You crave these revelations in spite of your fear: this quid pro quo the city demands for all it has already revealed to you. Of course, the secrets most in danger of being revealed are those you have hidden from yourself. In the city, there can be no self-knowledge without prior public revelation (though it may not be understood as such at the time). The city becomes the bearer of these unknown secrets, the as-yet-unplumbed core of your being (inner city, indeed). Knowing the city hence becomes a precondition for knowing yourself. In the standard formulation of the urban uncanny, the city is particularly self-alienating. Here, however, those things from which you have estranged yourself are not simply packed away in some mental cellar, awaiting the proper stimulus to surface. They have been picked up by the stray antennae next door, beamed down the cable crossing your back window, and on through all those seemingly useless wires that make up the circulation of your neighborhood. If they return, when they return, they will be as The City, the great Other, the amalgam of ten million sweating, groaning bodies who have been listening to you, too, who know you more intimately than you do, who have abolished secrecy as such. And then The City will say: I know you! I have your secret, your soul! You are not alone in this; you are entirely alone in this, and so you will remain, until the walls come down and you plunge into the erotic spectacle of yourself.

You expect to hear the essence, the distillate, the monstrous secret of that thing behind the wall. But it is your own desire you listen to, just like it is for my protagonist. Maybe that’s why there is never anything particularly revealing in the noises that I hear—at least, not the revelation I expect. And maybe that’s why, unlike the noises from outside the building, which are meant to enter our much-contested personal space, the meaning of these indiscreet noises remains less clear. As voyeurs, we want to believe they are the sounds of people’s most private moments. But if people are so reckless, sowing their essences like dandelion seeds, without the fear of being overheard or the humiliation of self-revelation, then what separates these moments from public performance? Where is the private self? What has been bared, and what remains hidden? Earlier, I postulated that one effect of filtering sounds through a wall was an increase in their emotional charge. The wall makes all human sounds primal, and, in the dual act of separating us and keeping us in close proximity to each other, the wall, and in the broader sense the city, makes us aware of ourselves as constituents of the body of humanity. But that doesn’t imply a conduit into another’s secrets, another’s essence, except insofar as it is a shared human essence, as much a part of the listener as of the subject. The weight of this revelation falls (again) on the listener, who (again) takes his place at center stage: such sounds are the substrate on which he constructs and performs his own fantasies, his own meanings, according to his own desires. So it happened with the political activist and the stalker: because I couldn’t hope to discern the meaning of that gasp, it became my own. The wall is a blank page upon which the stories of the city are written—written by the listener on the other side of the wall.

*

I have no desire to perform.N I close the bedroom door and the back windows on sweltering days, close the blinds, turn my bedroom into a perfect sounding-box for the audience of the city, my stern parent-substitutes shoving me out among the footlights. That the walls are mirrors, that the audience only sees itself—this is little consolation, though it does help me to forget that I am performing. It is folly to believe that the simple fact of my being “the listener” removes me from the sonic fingerprint of this building. Besides, my absence would only more fully reveal me. My anonymity, my un-observability—my camouflage—depend upon my doing the exact same thing everyone else does, riding along the same sonic pathway as the rest of the city. I, too, shower and shit and fry food and laugh and fuck and listen to and play music and type and slide my chair in and out. But maybe I slide my chair more frequently than the people who live in the apartments around mine. Maybe my laughter is higher and more maniacal than theirs. My fucking might be quieter, or louder, or longer, or shorter, and I might shit thrice on Sundays and only once before work. There must be a hundred such tics that give my own sonic profile its singular curve.

In the morning, the kettle and the coffee grinder: forty-five shakes, nineteen less since we started using the French press, which takes a coarser grind: from eight sets of eight shakes to five sets of eight plus five at the end. The tap, tap, tap on the bottom of the grinder when I turn it over to dump the milled coffee into the lid. The electronic kettle doesn’t whistle, though the clack of the switch turning off is pretty well audible throughout the apartment, and, I imagine, beyond. Same with the switch on the toaster. The chink of spoons and knives on glassware and porcelain, the sugarbowl. Chairs sliding in and out. Knives scraping butter onto toast. The refrigerator door. The oven door, maybe: a metallic yawn, Godzilla-like. A blob of dough beaten against the counter if I’m making bread (weekends, usually). Footsteps, hushed, because we don’t wear shoes. The wheels of the office chair—anything rolling sounds like a bowling ball to the people in the apartment downstairs. The keyboard of the computer, though I’ve only ever heard them in libraries and offices. (Scratch the keyboard.) Years ago, in Queens, I used to work on a manual typewriter. I always wondered how it sounded to the family below.

Anyway, voices. The toilet. The sink. The diligence of toothbrushes. From nine until ten, “Democracy Now” on WBAI. After, maybe “Morning Classical” and “Out to Lunch” on WKCR. No commercials. Never any jingles in our place. One day we turned off the radio and could still hear “Democracy Now,” unmistakably Amy Goodman’s voice. (This probably happens all the time if you listen to a popular music station, like Hot 97 or La Nueva Mega.) It was coming through the wall. We used the alarm issue as an excuse to invite the activist to dinner. By and large, though, the radio and TV stations I hear through the walls and ceiling tell me very little about my neighbors’ quirks and proclivities.§§ Music collections are somewhat more revealing: Downstairs, for example, they listen to Lightning Bolt and other hyper-new and arty stuff that exhausts itself moments after being produced, like elementary particles in accelerators. I learn infinitely more from my neighbors’ occasional artistic squirks and chortles than from the brand identity of the music Clear Channel has focus-grouped them into. You would expect the punk rocker to be the most musically obnoxious element in the building. But the most I ever hear from him is the James Bondish twanging of an electric guitar played without amplification. And this, perhaps, tells me more about him than if he played loud, raucous guitar in the apartment, like punk rockers are supposed to. One of the women upstairs, or maybe one of their boyfriends, had an amp, and strummed a guitar for five or ten minutes every night around midnight, bar chords with a little bit of reverb and no distortion, really digging in, like a folksinger with a borrowed Strat. And sometimes, also right around midnight, we will hear a flanged-out noise—exactly the 1950s Hollywood noise signifying flying saucer. We have never been able to pinpoint the source of this sound, though we believe it comes from the Lightning-Bolters downstairs.

Let it be known that I am the most musically obnoxious element in this building. I play the guitar, for two hours if I can spare it, classical and flamenco, or mock-flamenco, since I play flamenco like someone imitating the sounds of a language he doesn’t speak. The political activist says she can hear me, she sometimes wakes up to the guitar, though not because of it, she says. I don’t mean her to. I play in the middle of the apartment on weekdays, in the middle of the day, when people are most likely to be working. I know the recluse hears me, too, he came to my door once on a pretext and commented on it. Their bird hears me, too—did I mention the old Italian couple has a bird?—and I’m convinced it starts singing when I play, because that’s the only time I ever hear it. Even the stalker said he could hear me through the wall. He played too, majored in music in college, I can’t remember where, someplace upstate. I never heard him play. Thin, thin walls.

The activist has also told me that, sometimes, in the middle of a piece, she hears me cough up a wad of phlegm. Now that’s something you wouldn’t hear in most live performances. Imagine living next door to Thelonious Monk, say, and hearing him cough up a wad of phlegm in the middle of “Straight, No Chaser.” Imagine hearing him lose his temper. Imagine hearing him improvising alone in his apartment; imagine what the first doodles the antic melodies his songs grew out of sounded like. Imagine him stumbling into uncharted rhythmic and harmonic alleyways, alleys only he, and now you, know exist. Imagine Monk practicing. (Would he sound just like he does live?)

It always seemed a bit unfair to me, in the artistic juggernaut that is New York, that none of us lives with, or next door to, or down the hall from, or even in the same building as, a young Thelonious Monk, or a young Tito Puente. Maybe they’re busking on subway platforms … only there they belong to everybody. Half their genius lies in our discovering them. No: we live across from a ten-year-old whose parents flog him into wanking out scales on the trumpet,*** and guitarists who haven’t yet learned that watershed fourth chord. The city is overrun by artistic hopefuls and hopelesses; like rats, we grow fat and multiply in the working-class neighborhoods of the boroughs. There must be one among us pioneers, blazing the borough trails for other white people, who will stand out, rise above. (That I am one among so many helps ensure my anonymity.) Where’s our reward for being too poor or too desperate for Manhattan, for being traitors to our race and class, for having boarded steamboats up the Gowanus canal? Exposed brick? Dishwashers? Who could be inspired by a dishwasher? One, two stops closer to Manhattan, artists have started nesting like pigeons in the abandoned factories, in the detritus of the globalizing economy, in the emptied pockets of the Superfunds. They live on clouds of silver nitrate, bathe in pools of lead, play kickball in the brownfields, while their friends surf the pissing foam of the tech boom, picking through the trash for the next million-dollar startup. Just as we’re too rich for Bushwick but too poor for Manhattan, so we’re too hip for Sunset Park but too bourgeois for Williamsburg. Like virtuous pagans, we inhabit this between-place, floating at the borders of communities without ever touching down. The punk rocker and the political activist are two paving-stones in our bridge to bohemia; I know a third in Williamsburg, a programmer. They know brilliant slide guitarists, Juilliard-trained violinists who improvise on subway platforms, downtown musicians in mid-eviction who steal their books from the dollar carts outside the Strand, anarchists who carve their names into the bones of heavy machinery. So we befriend them. We’ll settle for a degree or two of separation if it means not having to get our hands dirty. Swaddled in exposed brick (it speaks “wall” more powerfully than any other material) and hardwood floors and the hum of new appliances, we can just barely hear the pain, just enough to know it’s there, and to magnify it. The wall. It does everything for us, to us. On the other side lives the next great artist, soaking up all manner of tragedy and turning it into poetry. But who’s to say it’s not your tragedy, the tragedy of your sad life of listening, that inspires him? Or that, by listening to him, it isn’t you who will cast the beauty and terror of his life in bronze? Through the wall, the tragedies of proximate lives are given form: the wall becomes the screen through which the artist gives form to a world in which he would otherwise lose himself. And this is so important: it may be his life, but it will carry your name on it, just like his work will carry yours. A city of people who spend all day listening to one another: what on earth will they write about, paint about, sing about, if not you?

This artist, he looks like you. Like you, he’s come here to touch the soul of the city. He’s busy honing his nostalgia for that sense of neighborhood he never experienced, but knows must have existed, and must still exist, must be around here somewhere, if he just looks hard enough. (Princess! Princess!) It grows dearer and dearer in that corporate theme park still called Manhattan, soon to be branded (an island, a sports stadium, merely a difference of scale), and in its borderlands at the edges of the boroughs, where the mouse-eared monorails whisk you off to Fantasyland. He’s fled all this, the most appropriate reflection of his class, his identity. But in his conscious seeking—in all his acts of renunciation—he has already commodified his experience. Brands are the true flags of his country, whether he rejects them or wraps himself in them. At base, he still believes he can buy cheaply in the boroughs what he can’t afford in Manhattan. Because Manhattan runs on the energy provided by a collective nostalgia for its myths. And nostalgia is the easiest emotion to market, even more when it was learned through a previous generation’s collective self-representation. But he (this artist) has the privilege of losing sight of such distinctions. And he can’t understand why these people don’t feel his righteous anger, why they spend their Sundays sleepwalking down Knickerbocker from 99 cent store to 99 cent store, each with its sharp little plastic knob where it’s been twisted off from the moulding. Why they hunch their shoulders and pull up their hoods and let themselves be walked on. Anyway, they don’t speak to him. His building, a converted factory or gut-renovated walk-up, has no stoop. He’s younger, less self-conscious, less neurotic than you, but because of these things he feels his displacement all the more keenly. He’s eager to throw himself in, to swim in the body of the city, to feel whole by becoming part of it. But immediately he tries, a wall goes up. He’ll reach his hand (he says) into the cacophony of ice cream trucks and alarms and sirens and table-saws, hammers, hawkers, pushers, roosters, cats, dogs, outbursts sacred and profane. He’ll make (he says) something beautiful out of it, something that speaks the city. But he wounds himself trying—that wall again—and as he draws his hand back, the wound fixes all his attention.

Water your neuroses, Freud said. Let them grow. Fine, except it’s become our only model for artistic creation. What about those artists who walk through walls? A simple act of faith.

When we first moved in, the front half of the first floor of our building was occupied by a salsa dance studio. Our living room and office were right above it. They ran classes from five to nine on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings, and then on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Every lesson would begin with just the conga and clave. The teacher would count, sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in English (SE-ven eight). Then, the sound of her voice together with ten or fifteen pairs of shoes imperfectly synchronized, a riddle of claps to accent a beat or two. Then, together with the music, the bass buzzing the floor and windows, stampeding feet and hands, horns, joined by the sonero’s voice. Like with the ice cream truck melodies, it was impossible not to memorize these songs, the bass lines in particular—I can still sing a decent salsa bass line—but also the breaks, the melodies, the refrains. They danced the same three or four songs over and over, three times a week for a year and a half. The first class was kids, all girls, ten- or twelve-year-olds. At seven, teenagers, a smaller class, almost all girls, the few boys very pituco. If we came home in the middle of the first class, we’d see parents milling in the light of the doorway, watching, waiting to walk their kids home, and always a few random people from the neighborhood holding shopping bags.

On Tuesday and Thursday evenings they gave karate classes instead, and parents and neighbors would again gather to walk their kids home, all sons this time. The instructor, male, would count with them. Compared to the salsa, everything was so square. Ten times, everything ten, counted out in Japanese, each number punctuated by a pre-pubescent kia! … the flutter of gee-sleeves? No, I must have imagined this, it couldn’t possibly carry through the floor. Ten is the number of diligent repetition, each number valued equally. But eight is a measure; when syncopated (SE-ven-eight), five might weigh twice as much as four. The kids didn’t wear shoes, so there was no stampede, just the sound of the studio creaking like a boat while the boys hopped from side to side on the balls of their feet. At the end of class they would repeat something along with their instructor, their voices low. I could see them: the kids all kneel in rows, their hands palms-down on their thighs. I remembered the roughness of the mat against the balls of my feet. I remembered counting to ten in Japanese (I can still make it to seven), thrusting my hand or foot against an imaginary opponent. I remembered the mat was coffee-colored in places from old blood, and there were mirrors on one wall, too. I remembered the smell, and wondered if the dance studio smelled that way on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

To be honest, we were relieved if we came home to find the studio lights off and classes cancelled for the evening. But even so, and for all the occasional annoyances (like the half-hour before classes started, when the teens would turn up the hip-hop way loud)—or maybe because of them—it gave us, this odd settlement of white people, a foundation, a sense of belonging, of being rooted in this neighborhood where, every time I stepped outside, I felt like an intruder. The bass came up through the floor, yes; but more important, it drove roots down. Sometimes, like the stereos in the roving cars, the bass found the note that made our whole building quake, took hold of it and shook it like a sapling, while someone waited, I imagine, to see how many of us would fall out. But for a brief moment, all of us in the building, including the dancers, especially the dancers, hung together, plump, black, whole notes, like olives ready to drop. I imagine this even though we were the ones living directly above the studio, catching the brunt of the bass. I needed to imagine that it brought the place we were living home to us; like, if they could just turn up the bass a little louder, and the building could vibrate just a little bit harder, we would all jump out of our skins.G

Before Monday night classes we would see tables set up in the studio, and adults helping the neighborhood kids with their homework. We talked about going down there on Monday nights. And we talked, though never really seriously, about taking dance classes. There was always an excuse: money, time. It felt … it would have been like walking into another faith’s church (another? I have none) during a service. Patronizing at best. As if putting on a mask gave us the power to walk through walls. Much simpler, and more honest, just to lay on the couch and let ourselves be absorbed by the sounds that spoke the heart of our neighborhood, those rhythms forced on us from below. Over time, as we grew accustomed to the way our neighborhood buzzed and hummed, didn’t we start hearing things we hadn’t before, things our culture raised us not to hear? Beneath the beats of the building, the beats of the city. The clave, for example. It’s just part of the ensemble of the city, until you know what it sounds like, and can pick it out. Soon, you start recognizing all the colors in the whiteness, just as your neighbors do. And because you, of all your friends, recognize the colors in that whiteness, you think that colors you, too. You start to share, or to believe you share, secrets with your neighbors, things a visitor wouldn’t know, because of that ocean of sound that washes through you, lying on that couch upstairs. Pinned to it. Listening. You might wear those colors when you step outside. You might come to believe that wearing their secret, their essence, conceals you among them. You might even forget you’re wearing it. More likely, you just won’t get up. And like my fictional recluse, the more intimate you become with the sounds around you, the more secrets you share with your neighbors, the thicker the walls between they and you will grow. That intimacy is its brick and mortar; that wall thickens your desire, and vice-versa. An adoration of walls, which come to stand for the wailing and panting and humming emanating from beyond them.

I don’t mean to imply that there existed privacy or intimacy in some originary or naïve form prior to the growth of cities. No: the architecture of cities is simply the latest incarnation of our desire for an originary, naïve intimacy, which never quite existed, but is advertised to have preceded cities, and to have been extinguished by them. But then neither did cities degrade intimacy into desire-for-lost-intimacy; rather, intimacy was always a kind of desire-for-the-lost. Nor did cities provide us with an awareness of our estrangement, since that awareness is what estranged us in the first place. Rather, the architecture of the city attempts to do what the grand narratives of peoples and nations once did (I imagine) far more successfully: to construct a fantasy of home, of belonging, of desire satisfied. If anything, what’s degraded in the modern city are the (quotidian, atomized) ways in which we go about trying to find ourselves, and the mean, artificial, and thoroughly marketed objects which we believe will fulfill us. They’ve lost even the pretense of being objects; they’re spectres, wayward recollections; they exist only as absences, as things beyond the wall. Their only power is that granted by our alienation. But what power! As cities grow, so our awareness of our fundamental estrangement also grows. And as we recede further into our mediated lives, so that naïve intimacy we believe we have lost also recedes from us, perhaps into “history,” perhaps into some other metaphor of distance. And as its features become less and less defined, so it comes to seem to us more and more pure, more ideal. And as it diminishes to a point on our horizon, it grows in another way. The thing behind the wall grows to becomes monstrous—and the wall grows, too, just to be able to keep it “in” … or “out.”  And as the wall thickens, so does the distance between our selves and the ever-more fetishized, irrecoverable, and indecipherable object of our desire; alienation and desire feed one another, grow up alongside one another, eternally sundered, accelerating apart. The wall, the desire that “replaced,” that is the only true object, grows up in that space; the city grows up in that space; and our “surrogate intimacy” reveals the nature of any and all intimacy. Perhaps we always were city dwellers after all.

But many citygoers take the path opposite my recluse—in fact, of the two types, this one is by far the more visible. We may, indeed, “get up off the couch,” binge on the fetishized objects of desire. As we search more and more desperately for the satisfaction these objects fail to bring us, we grow to embrace the performativity of city life—we become more “public,” both “in private” and “in public.” If what we fear is loss of privacy, then we will strive to enclose ourselves within ourselves, to hold onto a presumed essential identity beyond the flux of the city whose great, pulsing ear always circumscribes us. That is: if the listener on the other side of the wall, the city, is indeed fated to be our secret-sharer, then we can “fool” it by always performing, until our hollowness comes to seem natural. We forget our alienation by embracing, and then by becoming, by forgetting (that is, repressing), our masks. Our most intimate moments are performed in the footlights, and our every gesture is a well-rehearsed improvisation. Even humiliation can be a triumph, so long as it is convincingly performed, because we remain in control. It works the same “in public”: sounding off all day like car alarms, desperate to present a particular version of ourselves for consumption. Conversely, if what we fear is the loss of intimacy (as the term is commonly understood), then we will flit from person to person, group to group, seeking in each other what we have lost in ourselves, doomed to find the same thing there as here. Not neurosis, but a suffocating emptiness, a loneliness, a desire for momentary, anonymous community against the wishes of every bystander (conscious, anyway: he desires your secrets in order to fill his own emptiness, to reacquaint him with what he believes he has lost of himself), as against the intimacy of secrets and walls. A community knit fleetingly by sound, or by necessary confinement (an elevator, a subway car, a café), an instant community that dissolves at the next stop or the next floor, the moment elaborated in the month-long traffic jam of Julio Cortazar’s “Southern Thruway.” Perhaps if a hundred people know about your appendectomy, or the pain in your hip, or your failure to pay alimony, it will make up for the one person who should care, but doesn’t, the one person you can’t find, the one person you’re supposed to have found, but who is eternally and forever beyond your universe, you think, as you march head-down to your apartment, a bag of groceries in your arms, the sidewalk unswept, the sound of a jet passing overhead. Instead, all these nobodies become the unwitting repositories of your life—the ones who are always overhearing you, who you will force to share your secrets, will riddle with your life, just as they have riddled you with theirs. Like the children of Bushwick, who shout, perhaps, to fill that defeaning void, so maybe this monstrous wall, the abiding image of our lives, is our only protection against that great and threatening beast in whose maw we, too, must swim. No wonder the cell phones, portable video games, books, headphones, information prophylactics, the cultivated thousand-yard stares. No wonder the unsurpassed loneliness. For we are just as petrified by the psychic energy it would take to destroy that wall, to overthrow the order upon which our alienation is founded; afraid what it would mean for our souls and our selves if we shrugged off our confessionals and stepped forward out of that great, silent continent.

Coda

I sometimes fantasize about losing my sight. I believe, or at least I tell people, that I would rather lose my sight than my hearing, just as I believe, or tell people, that I would rather lose the use of my legs than my arms. I used to imagine that I would be forced to choose—either in fantasies of punishment for some obscure guilt, or fantasies of martyrdom for some obscure feelings of persecution. Which finger would I sacrifice? Legs or arms? Eye or ear? Sometimes in the subway I pretend that I’m blind, and try to disassociate all the different noises from each other, beginning with the simultaneous conversations in different languages, then on to the hum of the wheels and motors of the train as it accelerates or decelerates, the squeal of the brakes, the conductor’s announcements, the doors, the bell, the echo on the platform. But I hardly ever make it more than three or four stops. I console myself with the idea that there’s something I’m missing. Maybe I’ve only peeled away a first layer of what must be hundreds, even thousands, of unnoticed sounds. I listen harder. If, as I’ve suggested, sight mitigates our impression of the city, then perhaps blindness would force me into the present, overcome my resistance, calm my wandering mind.

The other day I saw a blind man get on the subway, and I meticulously observed each of his actions. It was one of those trains with sets of three seats beside the doors, and then pairs of seats back-to-back facing the front and rear of the train. He used his cane to find the edge of one of the sets of three directly across from me; then, with his free hand, he grabbed the rail above (the one commuters hang onto when the car is full) and swung, or rather eased, himself around into sitting position. Then he took his cane and folded it deftly into four segments, and secured it behind him. He folded his big hands on his lap and sat placidly, wearing, in fact, the same expression the whole time, the kind of empty peace, his chin turned slightly up. As if he were listening for the faintest sound; and behind that calm expression there was an attention so complete I couldn’t fathom it. I imagined he heard me watching him.

I could be reconciled with that peace, that readiness. Sight is too pure, too taken for granted. Too reasonable. Besides, it wouldn’t be just a world of darkness, implying nothingness, but a world of sound. And that seems to me infinitely more palatable than silence. I don’t think of death as metaphorized darkness—we’re spelunking every time we shut our eyes. Nor do I imagine that death is “nothing but sound,” as a character hypothesizes in DeLillo’s White Noise. Would that it were. I’m afraid it’s an enduring silence, such as we never have in life. I know it’s there, in my core, an emptiness, the blind spot in my hearing, and that one day it will grow and spread outwards, until the cyclone of noise in whose eye I squat grows fainter and fainter and finally rubs shoulders with infinity. Not sound-as-touch, either. A complete absence of vibration. Zero Kelvin. If death is a drum, then it’s a ruse, a calling to a silent ceremony. The Great Composers will not be there, scribbling away each on his own cloud. Neither will Eric Dolphy. Instead, I imagine everyone will be opening and closing their mouths in the most strained fashion, as if trying and failing to hear themselves, and each other, endlessly.O

For a while in my early twenties, I had a ringing in my ears. It either stopped, or it receded to a point that my hearing no longer detects it, or my hearing receded to a point that it fell beyond my range, or my brain just grew used to it. I don’t know. My mother started with the same problem later in life, and her hearing in one ear has continued to degenerate. In time, she agreed to be fitted for a hearing aid. The problem was that my mother’s ear canal is too small for any of the factory kinds, and the custom-fit ones were more than my parents could afford. She tried a bunch of mass-market kinds, including one made for children’s ears. None fit. I can still see them trying: My father stands over her, her head is turned to one side, as if before a barber for shaving. He has to lubricate the hearing aid before trying to press it into her ear. It doesn’t hurt or anything, but they can’t get it to work. Watching them, I felt like I was witnessing a failed primal scene—my own. I suppose it will be like this when my mother can no longer hear me: as if I had never been born.

 

*  But the awning is also an excuse, our version of the Puritans’ hedge. I am a so-called pioneer. My presence asserts my class’s right to live anywhere. I say that the lines between neighborhoods, the class and race divides, are imaginary for those who can afford to cross them. This fundamental aggression, gloved in the market, is no less violent than the settler’s axe. Feigning blindness becomes a survival tactic.

†  I can’t neglect to mention the murder of white Christians at the head of the block; if I don’t know quite where they fit in, maybe that’s because they don’t know, either. Sect unknown, origin unknown, evangelical certainly; most of them are blonde and blue-eyed and look more like Mormons than most Mormons do. On some Sunday mornings they make hymns out of club hits (e.g., “Everybody Pray Now!”) which we can hear inside our bedroom half a block away.

§ Perhaps because it’s the place where we confront nature, or perhaps because it is the place where we sleep, it always rains harder out our back window than out the front. But it must be admitted that it rains hardest of all on the skylight in the stairwell, a sound like someone dropping money or pebbles on our building.

**  I feel a powerful nostalgia for the bedspring. When I was growing up, squeaking bedsprings were the sound of sex, to the point that any rhythmic or repetitive squeaking noise provoked giggles from schoolrooms full of boys and girls. While the rise of the futon hasn’t come close to replacing the bedspring, I don’t imagine the latter enjoys the same pre-eminence as a sexual signifier anymore. The humble bedspring of motel room and 16-millimeter pornography has been largely supplanted by the gallop of the bed frame; or by the sounds of the synthetic stuffings used in many new mattresses (e.g., fucking on the mattress at my parents’ house makes a sound like walking through packed snow); or by any other of a myriad of noises which compete against the bedspring for cultural significance.

††  I can’t possibly draw a complete sonic portrait of the building: I can’t be everywhere at once, and I can’t be awake and listening twenty-four hours a day, can I, so I must depend partly on second-hand information, which must be relegated to the margins of the portrait (were I to abandon my listening-post, the portrait would fall to pieces).

§§ They do, however, reveal quite a bit about the state of American society and culture (homogenized, authoritarian, fetishistic), and write a daily obituary for radio, be it the three or four worn-out Who tunes the Indian girls SNOOZEd through, or the Michael Jackson or Spanish pop or football announcers we hear from their replacements.

***  Not that there isn’t something endearing about him; I might have included him under the rubric of “sweetness.” He stands right by the window, so that, if I look across the street, I can see the shiny bell of the trumpet. He imparts to the melodies of “Frere Jacques” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” a palpable agony, desperately looking for handholds on the way up before the notes come tumbling down like a pile of cats on a slide.

 

*****

A  [Soundscape] A working definition might be useful. Here is the excellent one from Grove Music Online (Megan E. Hill, 2013): “A term generally referring to the entire mosaic of sounds heard in a specific area. […] Not all approaches to or definitions of soundscape are identical, but most tend to address the perceptual experience of a given environment by those living within it, rather than any scientifically gauging an objective acoustic reality. Furthermore, since the sonic environment (or soundscape) reflects the social, technological, and natural conditions of a space, soundscape scholars and artists tend to recognize that human beings’ presence and activities in an environment will have an indisputable effect on its soundscape. While the sounds of an environment give its inhabitants a socially defined, meaningful ‘sense of place,’ the place’s audible features also promote certain kinds of behavior by the inhabitants, whose activities then help shape the place’s sonic identity. For these reasons, a soundscape can be seen as both the acoustic manifestation of ‘place,’ and a medium through which a place’s social meaning is reconfirmed.” I like how this definition points to the dialectic between people producing sounds and sounds influencing people, as well as to the relationship between soundscape and meaning. The question to what extent a soundscape can be considered an “objective acoustic reality” (implying some entity removed from the soundscape measuring and recording) or the “perceptual experience … of those living within a given environment” is more fraught, as it brings up a host of issues about the relationship between listener and place—a key theme of the essay (see also note D).

B  [Noise] Based on my comments about the noisiness of Bushwick, my infatuation with The Soundscape (Destiny Books, 1994 [1977]) was predictable; and, just as it behooves us to be exact about place, it behooves us to examine how a key term like noise has been understood.

Schafer considers a variety of definitions: (a) unwanted or unmusical sounds, each of which he attempts to define; (b) excessively loud sounds; and (c) in electronics, anything that disturbs a signal (“what is listened to”) (182). Noise can thus be understood both qualitatively and quantitatively. The qualitative has an irreducible social dimension (noise disturbs “a significant portion of the public”) and needn’t be connected to the quantitative (i.e., not all annoying noises need be loud); the quantitative is abstract and measurable (in decibels). Schafer believes both are important, and as such he laments the historical turn in noise abatement legislation, and hence how we conceptualize noise, from quality (proscribing certain noises at certain times) to quantity (setting decibel thresholds). He also traces the general rise in ambient noise in cities, which is linked to a variety of maladies, including, but not limited to, hearing loss.

Jacque Attali’s Noise (Minnesota UP, 1985 [1977]) is more narrowly ideological in focus, but more expansive in what it terms noise. For Attali, noise reveals “the codes of life, the relations among men.” His analysis is thus qualitative; his primary definition aligns with Schafer’s (c), i.e., anything that interrupts a signal, although (a) (unwanted or unmusical sounds) is implied. Attali also contends that this “noise” is another signal interrupting the main signal. This begs a number of questions ignored by Schafer: Who is emitting the signal? I.e., who doesn’t want this other signal to interfere? Who is the intended recipient? (And: Who says it’s not music? Isn’t that one way music is disparaged: by being called just noise?) Similarly, Schafer’s “significant” in the “significant portion of the population” disturbed by noise can be read as an indicator of quality rather than quantity: those who are significant, i.e., those who wield power. Noise, then, is a signal that contends with and potentially jams the dominant message emitted by the powers-that-be. Attali’s list of negatives associated with noise—“destruction, disorder, dirt, pollution, an aggression against the code-structuring messages” (27)—would seem to have an embedded causality: noise is the first four because it is the last; it is defined as such by power. (I am reminded of the work of the group Adbusters; they called it culture-jamming, i.e., interfering with and underming the “code-structuring messages” presented to us by corporate advertising.) Hence Attali’s ambivalent, but ultimately optimistic, understanding of noise (“musical” or not) as a herald of future social orders—optimistic because noise always signifies the potential of some way past the current order, even as there remains the possibility that the future will be even more repressive than the present.

Schafer would no doubt agree with Attali that “the world is not for the beholding. It is for hearing. It is not legible, but audible” (3): a reorienting of the senses to give the ear its proper status. What divides them—one thing—is the meaning of what it heard: whether, as for Schafer, noise today is primarily causal and reflective (something is being done to us, partly by noise itself; something must be done about it); or, as for Attali, annunciatory, “foreshadowing new social formations,” as Frederic Jameson phrases it in his introduction: something will come to pass. And yet, for each the same question: Reflective of what? Annunciatory of what?

For Schafer, there is a direct correlation between the soundscape and the health of a society. “As the intensity of the modern soundscape or of modern music increases,” he writes, “tranquility diminishes.” Noise is at once cause and symptom of the illness. Contemporary society is also marked by a loss of rhythm (words like “sludge” and “slurry” punctuate his descriptions of the urban environment), which he attributes, pace Margaret Mead, to the loss of ritual. A “confused, erratic soundscape” is the mark of “a slovenly, imperiled society”; society must come to understand sound (and silence) or it “ultimately consumes itself in cacophony” (237). Given this, I have to imagine Schafer would have listened to Bushwick and heard all the evidence of a sick, anxious, restless society, devoid of ritual, and in desperate need of harmonizing.

And Attali—would he have approved of the noisiness, the restlessness of Bushwick, as indicative of the birth throes of a new social order? Perhaps. (Would he have deigned to live there? Perhaps not.) It would at very least have intrigued him; I doubt he’d have been as quick to diagnose. That the noise of Bushwick was an attempt by its residents to assert power and a sense of identity is a given. But to what extent was it successful? When is noise subversive, and when does it simply extend the mechanisms of domination and power, reproducing the “code-structuring message” on another, more intimate level? In other words: when is it an expression of hegemony, the rat race of capitalism, assimilated and made audible? To what extent does inhabiting the power of noise simply turn its centripetal tendencies back upon its makers? (For a discussion of centripetal sounds, see note J.) To what extent was the neighborhood making (and enjoying) noise only within the narrow confines in which power allowed it to flourish? When does “shout[ing one’s] suffering” represent actual political potential, when the safety valve, the slaves’ holiday? (Or was Frederick Douglass the teetotaler wrong, the holiday really an opportunity for the slaves to come together to sharpen their knives—the ones they kept hidden in their Bibles, the sound of the sharpening masked by the drone of their hymns?) (One problem in trying to answer the above questions is that the field of sound is never static: power will always attempt to appropriate and control noise, and, happily, noise will always find a way around power.) Given that the character of potential new orders cannot be audible at the moment the signal (or noise) is emitted—prophecy being by definition an utterance without proper context, since that context is withheld from us in time—how does one capitalize on the potential represented by noise and drive it in a more egalitarian direction? (Or, as David Rothenberg, who plays his clarinet with nightingales, asks: How does one really distinguish interruption from sharing—that is, when is the bird trying to cut you, and when is it a duet? See Nightingales in Berlin: Searching for the Perfect Sound, Chicago UP, 2019.) If music, as Attali believes, operates like power—and his definition is so broad, encompassing any art, practically any human endeavor, as to be meaningless—what possibility is there for a music that doesn’t, or that can’t be appropriated? What on earth does utopia sound like? (I can assure you, Monsieur Attali, that it did not sound like Bushwick in 2003.)

While Schafer is surely the more nostalgic of the two, interested as he is in preserving sounds in danger of extinction (see note L), and restoring some semblance of serenity and the possibility of concentration and contemplation, both clearly hear in sound the potential salvation of an impoverished, dehumanized society. Schafer gives to sound itself the more active, regenerative role—“tuning” or “harmonizing” the world; he also puts a premium on learning how to listen. Attali would probably be suspicious of Schafer’s tuning project, seeing it as too easily aligned with power. The music of the spheres descends from the heavens, from eternals; the noise of the masses is historically conditioned and rises from below. Attali’s utopia would seem to be something like the boisterous, inharmonious public square depicted in the Brueghel painting on the cover of the University of Minnesota edition of Noise; Schafer’s, a serene space of meditation, also captured in that book’s cosmic-mystical cover art, and even more, in its frontispiece, the 1617 woodcut by Robert Fludd from which the book takes its original title, The Tuning of the World. (No surprise The Soundscape was reissued by a press that publishes books with titles like Seed Sounds for Tuning the Chakras and The World Is Sound: Nada Brahma.)

As my questions probably suggest, I think I’m more pessimistic than Attali about noise’s potential and more ambivalent than Shafer about noise’s impact. Pleasures of the jeremiad notwithstanding, the essay decries noise and the alienation it both signifies and produces—and calls noise the life of the neighborhood, the energy and vitality which was part and parcel of the energy and vitality of the City. Then again, the life I point to is not the “slurry” of techno-industrial noise, but the voices of residents, so in danger of being drowned out (see note I). Clearly class and race play a role in both Schafer’s and my apprehensions, i.e., there must be something missing because of the volume at which “these people” live(d) their lives; perhaps the difference is that I was conscious of this attitude, and made questioning it part of my analysis (see also note J). I can’t help but believe that Schafer would have been attuned to the pockets of beauty my listening uncovered, when the tender shoots poked through the neighborhood’s quieter moments. There is also a strong possibility that I am more amenable to Schafer’s arguments now that I have moved out of the City (as I already had when I first encountered The Soundscape) than I might have been living in Bushwick. I am almost certainly more intolerant of noise.

C  [Waste] “The only framework inclusive enough to embrace all man’s undertakings with equal objectivity is the garbage dump” (Schafer 137).

D  [Keynote, Signal & Soundmark] According to Schafer, keynotes are ubiquitous or frequently- recurring sounds in a particular area/population; as a result, they are often not heard consciously; they are background noise. In Bushwick, these would have included the regular hum of traffic and the rituals of sanitation. Keynote is distinguished from signal as figure is from ground; the latter are heard consciously. Soundmarks are unique to a community, part of a culture’s or area’s (sonic) heritage, and thus the chief sounds about whose extinction Schafer frets (see note L). He mentions a much-cherished cannon and a traditional foghorn in the vicinity of Vancouver as examples.

Schafer admits that the division between keynotes and signals is not a hard and fast one; one person’s keynote may be another’s signal, depending on acculturation (which Schafer defines as “trained habits”), mood, and “the individual’s relation to the field (native/outsider),” with “field” here standing for the totality of a soundscape. As David Lowenthal puts it, “Perception of scenery is only open to those who have no real part to play in the landscape” (qtd. in Schafer 212). Natives’ keynotes thus stand out as signals for the tourist; Schafer himself mentions the scrape of chairs on Parisian terrazas. As important, the distinction “has nothing to do with the physical dimensions of the sound”—meaning that even those obnoxious ensembles of horns, alarms, sirens, and ice-cream music might have been keynotes to the “natives,” audible to them only when they stopped.

Although I say in the essay that I stopped and then started listening again, I don’t think I lived in Bushwick long enough for its keynotes to ever really escape my consciousness; and this is quite possibly why I heard so much. I was not a tourist, but I’m not sure I was ever a resident either, seeing it, like so many of my class, as a way-station to a better job, more money, a “nicer” neighborhood. And yet, isn’t that exactly what defines the communities in neighborhoods like Bushwick—in all immigrant communities, if not for themselves, then for their children, their grandchildren? If cities really are defined by an intensification of the rate of change (and concominant noise), this begs the question whether cities, particularly working-class/immigrant neighborhoods, are defined by an absence of keynotes, or at least an inability of keynotes to leave consciousness and form the sonic substratum on whose unknowing knowing community is founded. Maybe this is one secret of the alienation of the modern urban environment. Or maybe the sole keynote is the rat race, the ever-intensifying sound of destruction and creation, “the neighborhood Blitzkrieg” (185), as Schafer calls it: the BOOM I mention at the end of the “Back Window” section of the essay.

It can’t be quite that simple. Puerto Ricans, like the other ethnic groups that settled previously in Bushwick, brought their own rituals and behaviors with them: a tropical, outdoor culture resettled in a temperate megalopolis. (As Schafer reminds us, people naturally speak more loudly outdoors.) So there must have been keynotes that connected this community to their original communities and culture back on the island (e.g., P.R.-inflected Spanish spoken between buildings); and keynotes of the city that were probably transposed versions of the same, at least from those who came from places like San Juan (e.g., some level of traffic noise, sirens, car alarms, and commercial jingles); and, of course, New York keynotes for the many families that had lived in the City for generations: a mix of signals more or less heard, more or less listened to, keynotes rising to the level of signal, signals sinking to keynote, depending on a variety of factors linked to what Schafer terms “relation to the field”: exact place of origin, length of residence in New York, etc.

Interestingly, Schafer says that soundmarks are “specially regarded or noticed by the people of that community.” But must they be? Are all communities conscious of their own soundmarks? Does an outsider ever make a community aware of their imperiled sonic heritage—something familiar enough to be a keynote to them, but existing nowhere else, and so striking to the ear of a newcomer? Would they have the right to advocate for its persistence? (Imagine, for example, a sound associated with a particular kind of manual labor about to be replaced by a labor-saving machine.) Conversely, if a community does not specially regard a sound … is it worth saving? What about an extraordinary natural sound over which a community has jurisdiction, but which it has never regarded as “special”? These questions obviously touch on much broader ones about local autonomy, world heritage, and so on. Anyway: Had I asked community members in Bushwick in 2002, could they point to a sound worth saving? Or would they have looked at me like I was crazy? (Would that be Schafer’s case in point? He mentions at least once being regarded as nuts when he mentions his “tuning” project to public officials.)

When I try to come up with a soundmark for Bushwick in 2002, the sound that comes to mind is the clack of dominos against a tabletop. And yet, that was probably a summer-night keynote for any Puerto Rican community. Schafer’s examples are somewhat more permanent; unlike cannons and forghorns, dominos and folding tables easily move with a community; their extinction would be local, not general. And yet, one can easily imagine the sound disappearing, whether drowned by the homogenizing NYC traffic sludge or lost to the powers of cultural assimilation. The other precious sounds I catalogued from that time, like “Princess!” and La cucaracha, were even more transitory: the girl has grown up, Princess is long dead, La cucaracha surely moved on to some other lover, some other block, or, God forbid, some other horn tone. They are too specific and time-bound to save, and anyway, I have no idea what others thought about them, or if they even registered. (Perhaps persons as well as communities can have soundmarks?) (See note E.)

The native/outsider dynamic and the way it affects our perception of signals and keynotes also bears mentioning because the essay is so marked by an angst about alienation and displacement—both feeling displaced and participating in the displacement of others—and what it meant to be an artist living in a community to which one does not “belong”; and, more broadly, alienation as a constituting factor of city life. As the nod to Freud indicates, that’s one place—perhaps not the only place—the art comes from. With this in mind, I love Rothenberg’s point that maybe, just maybe, the nightingales who are the “best” singers (however we interpret nightingale aesthetics: we are not female nightingales!) are not characterized by the most successful mating habits, but rather the opposite—that they are singing their frustration, their desperation; their failure is in fact what produces the most ornate, beautiful songs: bird as neurotic artist. Why, he asks, should we imagine them to be so different from us?

E  [Sights, Sounds, Maps]  Schafer writes, “No silent projection of a soundscape can ever be adequate. The first rule must always be: if you can’t hear it, be suspicious” (132). Elsewhere he uses the terms “arbitrary,” “fictitious,” and “spurious” to describe visual representations of a soundscape. Sound must be answered with sound. But then there is no real sonic equivalent to aerial photography for taking a single broad “snapshot”; any adequate audio representation of a soundscape would require a mosaic of recordings taken at different points. Caveats aside, Schafer suggests a variety of ways for “mapping” soundscapes via different kinds of “aerial sonography.” An isobel contour map is one (purely quantitative) example. Another is an events map; for example, a person walks around a city block at a specific time and records what they hear, and then compares that to other like spaces; in this way “the more persistent and characteristic sounds would be conspicuously revealed” (132). That Schafer posits this as a preliminary discussion—a soundscape “notation” yet to be developed for a proper “score”—makes me curious whether and how the field has progressed in this regard.

Given these limitations (and Schafer’s warning to treat any maps as “hints,” lest we fall back into ocularcentric bad habits), language—being an earwitness, as Schafer terms it, by reporting what you hear—together with disciplining oneself to practice clairaudience (literally “clear hearing”), are probably the best surrogates to recording for capturing a soundscape. One of the most enjoyable aspects of The Soundscape is the way Schafer liberally raids the history of literature for revealing descriptions in the vast majority of human history that preceded the invention of recording technology. (I’ll add one I dearly love: in Maupassant’s “Boul de Suif,” the sound of carriage horses in a stable stamping their hooves against packed snow and jingling their bridles.) One might argue that, as a written text, The Soundscape is essentially just the sort of “silent projection” Schafer warns against—or rather a series of them, some quoted, some written by Schafer himself, interpolated throughout a text that is also theory, polemic, and analytical guide. And yet, language—written language—does sound, if only in our minds; one might even speculate that the writers we most love are the ones who find the fundamental resonance of our skull, and set our whole craniosphere a-humming. If Schafer exhibits none of the misgivings of his colleague Rothenberg (“Why do I keep writing books about something that communicates so much more poignantly through sound?”), that may be because, as I noted in my introduction, his linguistic gifts are nothing short of musical. But then Rothenberg is less suspicious than Schafer about visual representations. While Schafer looks forward to a time when the ear and eye are recalibrated and put on equal terms, Rothenberg concedes that the human species is visually oriented: visual representations are not simply for “the inexperienced,” but for all of us. Rothenberg even asks whether, at the dawn of the computer age, we are just beginning to understand data in aesthetic terms. (It’s true: the complex graphs of nightingales songs reproduced on the color plates of Nightingales are lovely.)

In light of some of Schafer’s suggestions for analyzing soundscapes, it’s interesting that I decided to remain almost entirely stationary, and to organize what I heard by listening station. I try to account for this in the essay by noting that the sounds I heard from the front and back windows were totally different; regardless, by staying put, I suggest the idea of a listening perspective. And yet, unlike landscapes, soundscapes unfold in time. Lawrence Kramer elaborates on this in The Hum of the World: A Philosophy of Listening (California UP, 2018): even the term “soundscape” is paradoxical—it “affirms the independence of the auditory with a visual metaphor” (86)—and as such it re-inscribes the “traditional tyranny of the eye.” (He prefers “auditory worlds” or “the heard world.”) In fact, the visual idea of a landscape has contaminated the way soundscape is theorized: landscapes presuppose a gaze, action in the foreground against a static background. But “sound does not act this way. It fills space audibly with action, change, or motion but with nothing in the background except the promise of more sound, which is to say, nothing but the audiable.” (For more on “the audiable,” see note O).

While I acknowledge Kramer’s criticism, I don’t think he quite does justice to the term, at least as Schafer conceived it. First, Schafer suggests that the proper materials for a soundscape are recurring, characteristic sounds that, Kramer concedes, come closest to the concept of landscape. In order to discover something of the identity or character of a place via its sound, you have to attend to constant, repeated, or cyclical sounds. (Conversely, even in a landscape, figure and ground are not always entirely separable. In a painting of a field, for example, a group of reapers would ostensibly be “figures,” yet the event portrayed is a cyclical one closely tied to the landscape represented; if they are figures, they are very different figures from, say, a solitary traveler, or a battle scene.) Second, Schafer notes that one feature of modernity is exactly the transformation of sonic diversity into a monotonous, mechanical drone: the flat line. We might take this one step further and ask whether the “sickness” Schafer hears is indeed a dissolution of that changeability of sound Kramer emphasizes into something approaching the visual drone of landscape. Finally, one thing I like about the Oxford definition is its emphasis on the spatial quality of hearing. Like vision, sound orients us in our environment. Just as we stop to gaze at something, we stop and listen—partly, one assumes, in order not to confuse the sounds of our movement with the sounds we want to take account of, and to properly shift our attention. We perform some equivalent to gazing with the ear, as I clearly tried to do in Bushwick.

And then the poet in me wants to ask: Given the synaesthetic imagination—and given the importance of mental processing to what we often mistakenly regard as “raw” perception—is it possible we’re making too much of the hegemony of vision, the differences between the senses? Maybe they are less competitors than conspirators.

That said, Kramer is right to point to flux as the essence of sound. Just as Schafer cautions us to be “suspicious” of “silent projections,” so it is good to be reminded that the “scape” in “soundscape” is metaphor, and not let it distort or even replace the “picture.” I think Schafer hints at this in his comments about the way keynotes and signals can flip-flop, like one of those perspectival puzzles, depending on an individual’s relationship to a field; “figure” can never become “ground” in quite the same way, or to the same degree, it can in painting (see note D). Kramer’s attention to the changeability of sound also points to a difficulty that confronts any soundscape analyst: to what extent does one foreground (there it is again!) constant, regular, or cyclical sounds, to what extent one-time events? How often, how regular, how widely heard must a sound be to “make the cut”? If I leave point A to walk around a block, as Schafer suggests, and hear a dog bark at point B, do I know whether the dog at point B is a regular occurrence? What sonic information am I now missing at point A? Was the dog audible there? I could have left recording equipment at point A, and listened later; I could leave recording equipment throughout the neighborhood and set it to turn on and off at a certain time, thus capturing the “mosaic” of a certain sonic envelope. But at how many points? Dispersed how widely? What would a “total” soundscape sound like? Is such a thing even possible? Schafer suggests not, and I suggest as much as well in one of the endnotes; we are back at the problem articulated in the Oxford definition between subjective perception and objective measurement. (Two quick notes. First, a “total” landscape is also an impossibility, since detail depends on distance, resolution, medium, etc.; the difference seems to be that landscape already presupposes distance, an “outside” perspective. Second, we should be careful to distinguish here between landscape, which, like my stationary listener, however knottily, implies perspective, and map (sonic or otherwise), which is aerial, and tends toward pure abstraction—hence that need for a mosaic of recordings … which could only form the substance of some more abstract sonic representation, a “map” at which we can only guess …)

Even for relatively ephemeral sounds, when we subsume specifics into a more general category (“Princess!” would be something like “Children and animals in the street,” La cucaracha “personalized car horns”), we lose some of the most salient aspects of a soundscape, the ones that best define its character—and capture its beauty. Maybe this is the rub of answering sound with sound, or least recognizing the limits of abstraction.

F  [Referents & Music] Schafer notes that context is essential to understand the meaning of sounds; removed from their contexts, sound objects “may quickly lose their identities” (150). It is one reason he prefers the term “sound event” to “sound object”: event implies context, and context yields meaning. One of my favorite examples he cites is the sound of a coffee grinder, a (literally) grating, terrifying sound people were unable to place as an everyday household item when they heard it on a recording. I have long used the analogy of an experimental film a professor once described to me—the camera slowly pulls back from a red, bubbling liquid, widening the frame to reveal … a pot of sauce boiling on the stove—to help students understand the importance of proper framing.

The danger here is that once we connect something to its referent—once we recognize its name—we stop really listening: the coffee grinder is a morning keynote, a half-waking sound. For the sonic tourist (see note D), the shock of the new activates the senses; we try to discern what we are hearing, and give it is proper place; we become like a “primitive man” whose “whole body was an ear” (Schafer 24). “Hearing,” Rothenberg writes, “can be forgetting the name of the things one hears” (12): we listen to these sounds the way we listen to music, less for what each sound is than for the overall blend. “No sound,” Rothenberg warns us, “is ever safe from being considered music” (91).

In this sense, context isn’t important for understanding the meanings of individual sounds, but rather the opposite: the soundscape must be understood as a totality, “a field of interactions” (Schafer 131) in which sounds affect and change each other: a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It turns out that Zeno has at least one other paradox: What do we hear when we hear a bushelful of corn dumped onto the floor? Not the sum of the aggregrate grains, but the sound of the bushel, which is an entirely different thing (Schafer 159). In Bushwick, the horn, the ambulance siren, the ice cream truck song, and the car alarm did indeed all come together into something where the identity of each individual emitter was forgotten for the whole: a seething, shifting chord progression, modulation without possible resolution, similar to patterns across the city, yet indigenous to 239 Stanhope Street, like individual leaves on the same tree. The shame, as I say in the essay, if cities were revealed to be no more than additive, rather than transformative: here, it is just this confluence that is transformative, the individual notes lost in the chord. (While it’s true that Schafer considers noise in both its quantitative and qualitative dimensions, one wonders whether his anxiety about intensification misses the point: the city soundscape is an entirely different organism.)

G  [Community] “Today the world suffers from an overpopulation of sounds; there is so much acoustic information that little of it can emerge with clarity. In the ultimate lo-fi soundscape the signal-to-noise ratio is one-to-one and it is no longer possible to know what, if anything, is being listened to” (Schafer 71). Yet, as per Marshall McLuhan’s belief that we may be returning to a mode of perception closer to medieval times (which faded with the rise of print culture), some aspects of city life make the ear the pre-eminent organ of perception (as noted in the introductory section of the essay). Schafer argues that the eye is an organ of distance, of perspective, and of outwardness; the ear draws inward (11). In the noise of the city, perspective is lost: “On a downtown street corner […] there is no distance; there is only presence” (43). We may indeed have a signal-to-noise problem … but might the “slurry” in which we are all embedded position us differently with respect to community? In place of lost solitude and contemplation, we have the buzz of the hive, the complex interconnectedness of the web.

This idea reappears in Schafer’s discussion of bass. Bass sounds carry further, and their direction is more difficult to determine; they fill space, much in the way that Gregorian chant suffused the reverberant spaces of cathedrals. Without any way to localise the sound, we become immersed in it; the effect, at least in medieval times, was to submerge individuality and strengthen the bond between individual and community. In the essay, that reverberation appears in the volume of the bass, the way it seeks out the frequency of our spaces and buzzes our windows and walls: neighborhood-as-cathedral. Pace Attali, we may be emerging into a new order, one where noise is no longer a means or expression power uses to define and conquer territory, but of social presence through noise (see notes J and M.)

Of course, we may be emerging (have emerged?) into an anaesthetized, brutalized new order where walls of sounds isolate rather than connect us. Schafer certainly seemed to think so: a world of drone and white noise that puts us to sleep and dulls or distracts us from the pain and alienation of modern life: audioanalgesia. Attali can be similarly jaundiced about the ubiquity of some kinds of noise: it is “as if, in a world now devoid of meaning, a background noise were increasingly necessary to give people a sense of security” (4); Muzak, he reminds us, billed itself as the “security system of 1970s” (8). Schafer’s project at least is one of sonic awakening, of becoming conscious of the sonic world we inhabit: “The way to defeat Moozak [“schizophonic musical drool” of which Muzak is just one example] is quite simple: listen to it” (98). (Cf. the words of artist Taras Mashtalir: “Sound art is made to sensitize people to the sounds of their surrounding world” (qtd. in Rothenberg 102; my emphasis). This indeed seems to be the goal of the ear-cleaning and close-listening exercises Schafer would have us all do, and the goal of soundscape analysis more generally. At least, that’s what I’ve always told my writing students. In their reflective writing, many of them do note that they end up hearing many, many things they hadn’t heard before.

H  [Silence 1] Kramer notes that one effect of the invention of recording technology was to reveal the absence of sound: “The photograph was always silent; the phonograph makes it seem moot” (123). This is most clear from film history, as the silents quickly became unpalatable for the audiences of garrulous thirties talkies. The rub: “The more possible sound reproduction becomes, the more necessary sound in itself is revealed to be.” In the essay, city silence is figured as a void, an absence. I come back to this point at the end of the essay, and in note O.

I  [Nature] The absence of birdsong from this essay is absolutely deafening.

I remember my mother’s sadness when her high school students in Elizabeth, New Jersey complained about the birdsongs outside their classroom window. It’s clear why a keynote sound of suburban and rural areas might be disruptive to someone who has spent their whole life in an urban environment. But how could they find something so beautiful unpleasant—the nails-on-a-chalkboard sound that, Schafer tells us, is universally reviled, even though precisely what makes it so escapes analysis?

I understand why Schafer, like my mother, lamented citygoers’ loss of connection to natural sounds, to natural sound symbolism, and the latter’s connection to myth and mystery. I’m sure many readers of Schafer become impatient with his jaundiced view of modernity, and that others seethe at his white Canadian environmentalism, Ludditism, and New-Agey project of Ohm-ing the world back to sanity. Caveats aside (e.g., notes B and J), I find the jeremiad endearing, the utopianism moving, and both even more necessary today than they were forty-five years ago. I share with Schafer a loathing for all the “sonic jabberware” that destroys our opportunities for concentration and contemplation. (“The real depreciation of concentration began after the advent of the telephone” (89): how could such a statement not be music to my ears? (Confirmation bias, anyone?) The book’s most ironic moment: when he suggests fixing this through the development of musical ring tones!) His comments on the sonic toll of loss of wild spaces prefigures the work of Bernie Krause: loss of species diversity is paralleled by a loss of acoustic diversity and a general impoverishment of the audible world (see Rothenberg, p. 67, and also Krause, The Great Animal Orchestra, Little, Brown, 2012).

The difficulty, of course, is articulating all this without sounding like a guru or a missionary (i.e., a patronizing asshole). Before going all Jane Jacobs on Schafer’s (or my) ass (cities are for people; the idea that city parks are “lungs” is nonsense, etc.—she was right, of course, and I swear she was standing on my other shoulder in those moments where Schafer arguments got too seductive), we should be careful not to strawman his argument. He was as concerned with the loss of cultural diversity as natural, and his arguments resonate with arguments about the homogenizing and impoverishing effects of cultural imperialism. Wouldn’t lost languages, many of them not written, have their own wing in the Museum of Lost Sounds (note L)? They absolutely would.

Schafer’s call to re-center social experience on a human scale also resonated with me. He makes an analogy with Le Corbusier’s architecture: the image of a man with upstretched arms to denote the proper relation between edifice and person. Why shouldn’t the same hold true for sound? “When, as today, environmental sound reaches such proportions that human vocal sounds are masked or overwhelmed, we have produced an inhuman environment” (Schafer 207): the human ear, the human voice, must be the measure. In this Schafer echoes E.M. Forster, another great technophobe with a similarly low opinion of the automobile. Indeed, “Man is the measure” is the sentence Kuno, the rebel in Forster’s prescient early sci fi tale “The Machine Stops,” repeats to himself as he struggles to rediscover the human in a world ruled by one giant Machine. In advocating for a human-scale environment, Schafer also reminds me of E.F. Schumacher—Small Is Beautiful (the title of Schumacher’s best-known work) might not perfectly fit Schafer, but the two are kindred in terms of their perception of the impact of scale on humanity and their questioning the orthodoxy of “progress.”

To bring this back to Bushwick: yes, the arguments on the stoops were annoying. But Schafer is right to point out that, when they disappear, well, there goes the neighborhood. It wasn’t the football hitting the car, but the car alarm that went off as a result; not the couples fighting on the stoops or even the recluse sifting through the trash, but the sirens and horns and blaring jingles of ice cream trucks. (Camus remembers the ice cream vendors’ tin horns. If only!) I can only hope the thirty-five-year-old author of the essay comes across as bigger than just a disgruntled child of the suburbs who happened to find himself in a working-class neighborhood for a couple of years. Navigating between the Skylla of disparagement and Kharybdis of romanticizing isn’t easy, and consciousness of the danger—a map, a compass, an explicit note—only gets one so far. One still has to sail. Am I imposing my assumptions about the examined life being the good life, about the need to have the space and opportunity to reflect, onto people who have their own lives to live, their own dreams to pursue? Or am I affirming them, by asserting that all people, irrespective of class or race, should have the opportunity to cultivate their inner lives? (Isn’t that the fucking point of public higher education?) Regardless of how I come across here—and at a distance of almost two decades it hardly seems to matter—it might be worth noting that I attempted to define the problem as broader than just class and race; it is about social evolution and the trend toward urbanization more generally. (I think it was Mike Davis in City of Slums who noted that we only recently passed the point where more than half of humanity now lives in urban environments.) Maybe the bigger question for today is whether continued evolution in this direction is even possible, given the dire state of the inhabitable planet.

J  [Territory] Schafer: “The definition of space by acoustic means is much more ancient than the establishment of property lines and fences” (33). As such, the extension of sonic capability by technology enables what Schafer calls sound imperialism: the subjugation of others by noise. He writes, “When sound power is sufficient to create a large acoustic profile, we may speak of it, too, as imperialistic” (77). For Schafer, as for Attali, the development of the technological capability to make noise is closely linked to the ability to wield it as a form of power; one effect has been the destruction of local cultures and the disappearance of indigenous sounds (see note I).

Of course, the power to dominate space through noisemaking has become, if not quite democratized, at least widely available, in the form of souped-up engines, boomboxes, and so on; these are gleefully seized upon as means of asserting sonic power; and this “enthusiasm for technological noise” is aligned with feelings of prosperity and progress (Schafer 179). Whether encouraging territoriality and the fetishizing technology as “progress” can be imbued with some sort of progressive political potential is, once again, an open question (see note B). To improvise on Audre Lorde: the master’s tools are still the master’s; they are made for building masters’ houses. I’m also reminded of Jurgis, the protagonist in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, who is initially enamored of the meatpacking factories in Chicago because he imagines that his association with the great industrial machine somehow empowers him, too.

I’m drawn as well to Schafer’s distinction between what he calls centripetal and centrifugal sounds. Church bells, for example, pull the community toward a central point, to worship; sirens announce a disharmony within the community and push people away. (Never mind the crowds that gather at accident scenes!) Perhaps one way to evaluate a neighborhood would be by calcuating the proportion between the dominance (frequency, intensity, character) of centripetal and centrifugal sounds; one could then assign a number range to signify a relative bill of health, or the opposite. Where Bushwick was concerned, one problem was that volume most definitely made erstwhile centripetal sounds (such as radios and ice cream trucks) less inviting. (In fact, Schafer himself notes the irony of the decreasing number of church bells—once the ne plus ultra of centripetal soundmakers—in an increasingly secular world: more often than not, they are removed because of noise complaints! (177)) Once again, what is inviting is complicated by the relationship between listener and community: the kids in the neighborhood ran to the ice cream truck; my neighbor was tempted; I shut the office window (see note D). Anyway, perhaps this is one way to read my comment that people are “evicted from their own voices by the noise”: the aggregation of centripetal sounds forces them from their sonic home, themselves.

K  [Night] The sense that nighttime allows us to hear hidden aspects of the city that are not audible at other times, and so reveal something, finds an echo in Schafer, who tells us that, in the low-fi world of the modern city (cf. note G), night is the most hi-fi time. Tellingly, Schafer compares night in the city with the country, and with “primitive man,” whose enchanted (and printless) world necessitated that he live more by sound (note F). My analysis in the essay literalizes this analogy: at night, I didn’t just hear like I was in country; I actually heard the country. Did I hear the country because it was more hi fi? In other words, did my ear/mind foreground those associations because night in the city sounds more “rural”?

L  [Museums] Remarking the pace of change of the modern world, Schafer asks, “Where are the museums for disappearing sounds?” It’s something with which this essay grapples on a number of levels. On a personal level, reading it more than fifteen years later brought the neighborhood back to me—sounds I had forgotten, and memories and aspects of the neighborhood associated with the sound events I had “recorded.” More broadly, Bushwick today is utterly different from Bushwick in 2002. Would I even recognize my block, my building? The essay is thus a catalog of sounds that have most likely disappeared, not from history per se, but from this particular neighborhood—local rather than general extinction. On yet another level, the essay takes the restless pace of change of the city as one of its key themes: the noise of cities is the noise of this constant revamping, of “progress” (see note D). But these pasts, I argue, are nostalgically enfolded inside the city’s successive presents, like nesting dolls. Thus, the city is a museum of its own pasts, though they only become audible at certain times, from certain vantages, and according to certain modes of listening (see notes E & K).

M  [Erotics] Noting the close connection between hearing and touch—the one becomes the other at frequencies below 20 Hz.—Schafer calls the ear “an erotic orifice.” “Hearing is a way of touching at a distance,” he writes, “and the intimacy of the first sense is fused with sociability whenever people gather together to hear something special” (11). This suggests that an erotics of listening is broader than cities; maybe the difference is that, as the essay notes, in cities people are helplessly “gathered together,” and the vibrational keynote, as it were, makes city life a fundamentally erotic experience.

Hearing is a haptic activity, to borrow the term affect theorist Laura Marks borrows from Deleuze and Guattari to describe a kind of (in her case) looking where “the eyes themselves function like organs of touch” (qtd. in Anahid Kassabian, Ubiquitous Listening, California UP, 2013). Kassabian adds that haptics “are closely tied to erotics, to the dissolution of boundaries, to an erosion of self-other distinctions. […] This is a shift from positioning and identification toward a more dynamic account of the relationship between us and the things with which we interact” (xvii). There are multiple crossover points here, though I am particularly drawn to the way the shifting power dynamics between self and other are reflected in the essay.

One more note: Schafer’s comment that “primitive man’s whole body was an ear” reminds me of Roland Barthes’s comment about the idiocy of the concept of erogenous zones: Schafer’s “primitive man” has a Barthian flavor, one whose arousal is not limited to those areas of the body sanctioned by a culture (which does not yet exist). It is a state to which both thinkers would have us return (e.g., “Through the practice of contemplation, little by little, the muscles and the mind will relax and the whole body opens out to become an ear” (262).).

N  [Performance] In his description of “soundwalk” activities for encouraging clairaudience, Schafer invites researchers to listen to the sounds they themselves make—for example, the sound of their footsteps as they walk on different surfaces. The audience thus becomes part of the composition/performance; the listener/recorder is also a participant, embedded in the soundscape they set out to study (see notes A, D, and G). This echoes the inward turn at the end of the essay, where I try to account for myself and my own contributions to the soundscape. At the same time, I try to extend this observation to questions about art, race, and class: the power differential between acoustic voyeur and subject, the former of whom has the means to publicize (publish, record) the sounds of the neighborhood, and whose role as part-tourist, part-resident—“a tourist with a typewriter,” as the John Goodman character calls the Arthur Miller figure in Barton Fink—means they are differently embedded: we are all participants, but not in the same way, or to the same degree. The “auditorium,” as it were, is a complex and multifaceted social edifice.

O  [Silence 2] Given that I took some time to flesh out the meaning of noise, it seems only right to do the same with a concept so often figures as its opposite: silence. If Schafer doesn’t treat it with the same sort of analytical rigor he does noise, this may be because the mystical importance he ascribes to it makes it more difficult to define.

Stillness, Schafer notes, “at one time […] a precious article in an unwritten code of human rights” (254), has come to figure negatively in the modern Western mind: “solemn, oppressive, deathlike, numb, weird, awful, gloomy, brooding, eternal, painful, lonely […]. It is not the silence of contentment and fulfillment. It is not the silence toward which this book is modulating” (146). (Indeed, the title of his last chapter of The Soundscape is “Silence.”) “Stillness” here forms a nice antipode to restlessness, that Western disease which finds its most degraded expression in American culture (productivity as an end in itself, boundless ambition and status-seeking, hyperconsumption, etc.) Schafer relates restlessness to “Western man’s” fear of death, which causes us to “avoid silence to nourish his fantasy of perpetual life. […] If one has nothing to say, the other will speak; hence the garrulity of modern life which is extended by all kinds of sonic jabberware” (256). (Cf. Attali’s comment that “life is full of noise and … death alone is silent” … though for Attali, the fear of noise is only a fear of death insofar as power fears its own dissolution.) “A recovery of contemplation,” Schafer continues, “would teach us how to regard silence as a positive and felicitous state in itself, as the great and beautiful backdrop over which our actions are sketched and without which they would be incomprehensible, indeed could not even exist” (258). He approvingly quotes the Indian mystic Kirpal Singh: “When there is no sound, it is said that there is no hearing, but that does not mean that hearing has lost its preparedness. Indeed, when there is no sound, hearing is most alert, and when there is sound the hearing nature is least developed” (259).

This point, which (almost) concludes The Soundscape, can be understood as a springboard for the series of meditations that constitute Kramer’s beautiful The Hum of the World, which attempts to delineate the elusive concept of the audiable: a sort of anticipatory hearing on which the possibility of hearing is predicated, and whose liminal presence Hum attempts to tease out. The half-heard, the overheard, the heard-at-a-distance—all are potential moments when the audiable appears; the concept finds its corollary in the essay in the moments of silent anticipation of noise-to-come (BOOM); in those of distant listening at night, at the back window; and in the analogy to the miraculous bouquets seen always out of the corner of the eye. Note that Kramer’s “listening into the future” is not Attali’s listening. Indeed, “Listening into the future is just—listening”: the act of hearing is embedded in time, connecting sound to “the sense of life,” not opposed to but continuous with silence. Rothenberg quotes sounds artist Gordon Hempton on listening to the (near-)silence of the Heleakala Crater; listening to a recording he made, he recalls “the revelation of how peaceful a natural place can sound in sustained anticipation of the rising sun” (93; my emphasis). This is precisely where The Soundscape ends, and an “audiable” moment that would fit perfectly into The Hum of the World.

Silence is thus much more than the absence of sound, or noise—a purely negative category—but rather a subjective apprehension of the world and consciousness. Schafer recalls that John Cage’s revelation (“there’s no such thing as silence”) came to him in an anechoic (noise-suppressing) chamber, when he realized he could still hear the sounds of his own body. This seems to be the way silence is most often understood as a positive term: not zero noise, but a state of extreme quiet and stillness, when sounds are on the threshold of the audible—perhaps even when the sounds of our body are confused with the sounds of the elements around us. Hempton calls these states of near-inaudibility quietudes(Rothenberg 92) and specializes in finding and recording them.

At the same time that these thinkers and artists covet and try to make audi(a)ble (lost) silence, Rothenberg points out that we are a “noise-seeking species,” at home first and foremost in the noise of our stream of consciousness, the chatter of our own minds. There is a direct correlation between this idea and Schafer’s about the fear of death: that chatter is the sound of self-consciousness, the I-think-therefore-I-am noise that tells us we’re alive. For Schafer, this, too, must be emptied for us to achieve a felicitious, contemplative silence: “still the mind […] then everything else will follow in time” (259; my emphasis).

The “Front Window” section of the essay confronts the question: What is left of the chatter of the mind when it has been replaced by “sonic jabberware” and wallpaper “musical drool”? When the tide of city-noise retreats, does it leave a vacuum, which people, terrified rather than elated, rush to fill with some other noise, as Schafer contends, and as Kramer’s note about photography (note H) suggests? Does the city turn people inside out? There are also moments of revelatory quietude, particularly in the “Back Window” section; there are considerations of the social rather than existential meaning of silence, as in the image of money stuffed in the ears: avoidance, deliberate deafness, thick walls. But the fact that the essay ends with an image of death as negative silence, as void—an inability to make oneself heard—is inescapable: silence not as a “positive, felicitous state,” but as an absence, a felt absence, and death as a state in which it cannot be filled. This is a reasonable enough reading; I can’t pretend to be any closer to escaping “Western man’s fear of death” now than I was two decades ago. My mind is a chatterbox; unlike Schafer, I am at home in its noise and see no reason to quiet it; I have a tendency to spill it out in page after page of prose, as the reader has by now surely noticed. And if you haven’t, no worries; here comes the silence. Wait for it:

Rubies & Resurrections

In Jhumpa Lahiri’s charming short story “This Blessed House,” one of the finest in her prizewinning debut collection Interpreter of Maladies, a mismatched Indian American couple wrangles over what to do with the Christian tchotchkes that begin turning up all over their new home. Husband Sanjeev is an engineer; wife Twinkle is “finishing” her Masters in English. Sanjeev puts Post-its in places where the paint on the baseboard needs to be touched up. Twinkle reads sonnets in the tub. Sanjeev prepares chutneys according to elaborate family recipes. Twinkle buys roast chickens at the supermarket. At one point, Twinkle, who has discovered a bottle of malt vinegar in a kitchen cabinet, uses it to whip up an impromptu stew. Sanjeev wants to know how she did it; he is flummoxed that she didn’t write it down. “What if you want to do it again?” he asks her, as if such a thing were possible.

And so with the tchotchkes, left behind like the vinegar: Twinkle wants to display them prominently, including on their lawn. Sanjeev demurs, calling them “idiotic.” “We’re not Christian,” he reminds her. “No,” she answers, “we’re good little Hindus.” At the climactic housewarming party, Twinkle tells the story of how the relics were discovered. The party turns into a scavenger hunt; a silver bust of Christ is discovered in the attic. Sanjeev refuses to participate. At one point, as Twinkle and their guests roam the attic, he fantasizes about folding up the staircase, trapping them there, and going back to his solitary, carefully ordered, predictable life.

Like many Lahiri stories, “This Blessed House” examines issues of immigration, cultural identity, and assimilation: Sanjeev’s scrupulous and deferential attention to tradition and his carefully-plotted Westernization versus Twinkle’s bricoleur approach to their Americanized identity (her Bollywood name; her doting on kitsch Christian iconography); Sanjeev’s feeling that the house should express something authentic about them versus Twinkle’s desire to deck it out it in the gaudy regalia of the land they have inherited. But at base it is still very much the story of a mismatched couple, one bubbly, frivolous, and spontaneous, the other STEM-serious, trying to accommodate—if not assimilate—to one another.

Among the many details Lahiri mobilizes to express this tension are musical ones. Sanjeev listens to Mahler. Not to say he is steeped in the European classical tradition—no, he subscribes to a mail-order CD service so that he can fully educate himself about the Western canon. He reads the liner notes, but is unable to correlate the words he reads with the music he hears. Twinkle cautions him not to put on Mahler at the housewarming because—in that most clichéd American comment about classical music—it will put everyone to sleep.

And Twinkle? She supervises the “hectic jazz records” played at the party. Of course she does. Spontaneous, gregarious, frivolous, disordered, “hectic” … American: Twinkle is, to quote the title of a popular jazz record, the spirit of the moment.*

A scattering of rubies

I read “This Blessed House” and a number of other Lahiri stories with my sophomore Studies in Fiction students a couple of years ago, together with stories by Guy de Maupassant, Isaac Babel, Katherine Anne Porter, and Italo Calvino. Jazz made another brief, suggestive appearance in Calvino’s story “Crystals” (from the second Cosmicomics collection t zero), which ends with the narrator listening to a record by Thelonious Monk. The serendipity prompted me to reflect with my class on the way authors use music in fiction, the cultural meaning of jazz, and, of course, Monk’s artistry.

Thelonious Monk, 1955. Photo by Roy DeCarava

Monk. The name is redolent in a way few other jazz musicians’ names are. Monk and jazz are virtually synonymous. It’s partly time and place: New York in the couple of decades post-WWII. It’s partly the style, bebop, with deep roots in stride and blues, still the bricks and mortar of mainstream jazz, the sort casual listeners seek out at one of the city’s upscale clubs as part of a night on the town. It’s partly image: shades, strut, sartorial eccentricity. But more than anything it’s feel: swinging, spontaneous, upbeat, unpredictable …. It’s hard not to imagine Twinkle spinning at least one Monk record at that housewarming party.†

At first glance Calvino’s Monk would seem to fit the same bill. “Crystals” tells, once again, the story of a mismatched couple, here the eternal Cosmicomics narrator Qfwfq and his hottie, Vug, wandering around an earth without a settled crust, witnessing the birth of the first crystals. This part of the story is told in a series of flashbacks; in modern times, Qfwfq lives in suburban New Jersey, is married to a woman named Dorothy, and commutes to work in Manhattan. Late in story, staring at a window display of diamonds outside Tiffany’s, Qfwfq sees the reflection of a woman he immediately recognizes as Vug, that mercurial beauty he lost amid the crystalizing earth long ago. The modern Vug is a photographer, and—after Qfwfq follows her to her SoHo apartment—his presumptive mistress.

So a rift again, between the narrator’s modern, ordered, domesticated world, and the disorder he craves, figured in his bohemian mistress. But “Crystals” is more complicated than the simple contrast between order and chaos, the planned and the spontaneous, Mars and Venus, that Lahiri mobilizes in her lovely story. Rather, it’s about the instability of the order-chaos binary itself (hey, this was 1967). It’s the story’s willingness to interrogate the nature of this instability that gives us, I think, a richer sense of Monk’s music, and of jazz.

Glass, Qfwfq remarks early in the story, looks like crystal but isn’t: modern society “mak[es] me run among smooth transparent walls and between symmetrical angles so I’ll believe I’m inside a crystal,” but the world is really “amorphous and crumbling and gummy” (29). “Base” glass is not a crystal but a “paste of haphazard molecules.” The city, with its gridded streets and skyscrapers, does not reflect true order, one inherent in substances themselves, but a simulacrum of order—disorder disguised as order. Qfwfq, “imprisoned” in glass like most everyone else (at least everyone square—hey, this was 1967!), “play[s] the game […] of pretending there’s an order in the dust” (30).

Qfwfq loves order, but he’s no Sanjeev. He rejects the cultural binary that assigns eros to disorder, erupting through a dull, repressive order. “In me,” Qfwfq says, “the idea of an absolutely regular world […] is associated with that first impulse and burgeoning of nature, that amorous tension—what you call eros—while all the rest of your images, those that according to you associate passion with disorder, love with intemperate overflow—river fire whirlpool volcano—for me are memories of nothingness and listlessness and boredom” (31). Or, as he puts it elsewhere: eros is a diamond. For Qfwfq, order is erotically charged by its friction against the formless chaos that preceded it. But in the listless order of the city (and even more, the suburbs), there is no real tension, because there is no true order: eros, like rebellion, is simulation.

This inversion of the erotic associations of order and chaos is only part of the story. In the old earth, traveling through a valley of beryllium crystals, Qfwfq experiences “a vague fear that this triumph of order in such various fashions might reproduce on another scale the disorder we had barely left behind us” (33). Anyone who has seen the jumble of crystals in a geode can relate to Qfwfq’s vision, if not his “vague fear.” Our response is probably more like Vug’s: she likes the criss-crossing of many different crystalline patterns; she likes variety, brilliance, “order in such various fashions [that it] might reproduce on another scale […] disorder.” She likes, in other words, precisely what makes Qfwfq anxious: variegated order on the micro-level that becomes disorder when considered at a higher order of magnitude, threatening the stability of the order/disorder binary.§

Vug herself is a site of conflict for Qfwfq, at once a figure of his nostalgia for the eros of a vanished world that never finished coming into being, and an intimation of that world’s impossibility. Qfwfq wants—or claims to want—a single, gigantic, stable world-crystal that incorporates him and Vug in its unity, and in which the flaws here and there will diminish to nothing amidst the perfection of the whole—the inverse of the perfect crystals in the valley of beryllium whose exuberant agglutination submerges order in a new, vaster disorder. But the singular crystalline ideal Qfwfq desires is impossible, for it contains the seeds of its own destruction; nature is not stability but flux, growth and collapse and regrowth (the story’s image of the sea “kneading” the fragments of the “shattered” world is perfect).

Here’s the rub: beauty (and hence art, and hence literature) arises from disorder; as Vug says, there would be no rubies without the “chance scatter[ing] some chrome atoms” in an aluminum crystal (35). Vug, Qfwfq says, “wants to make me admit that real order carries impurity within itself […] Vug’s world was in the fissures, the cracks” (36). For our narrator, beauty is order, but it exists only potentially, as an ideal; for Vug, beauty is the imperishable, undeniable, and very real disorder dispersed within order, fissuring it with abysses over which order teeters … and into which it plunges. There can be no eros without it, no consummation without desire, without some yearning for an order that never quite arrives.**

Like Lahiri’s couple, there is a “fissure” between Qfwfq and Vug that makes them incomprehensible to one another (or rather, that makes the woman so to the man; there is no sense of any such angst from either Twinkle or Vug). But in “Crystals” the fissure itself is the mark of the flaw—fissure within and without. Qfwfq rationalizes, as contemporary society demands of him—the flaws are just apparent—and clings to his nostalgia for a time when a crystal world still seemed possible. Even as he is reflective enough to know that he is rationalizing, he imagines a Borgesian higher order above the scale where crystals shade back into disorder, a “hypercrystal that included within itself crystals and non-crystals” (37). (Vug is not interested in such abstractions; she wants brilliance, incarnation, stimulation.) Qfwfq is as imprisoned in his desperate yearning and imagined nostalgia for order as he is in the glass simulacrum of the modern city. He is also caught in the fissure between that yearning and his desire for Vug.

As noted, Monk appears in the story’s last sentence, deus ex machina. But what kind of a deus? Here is the end: “The crystal which has succeeded in becoming the world, in making the world transparent to itself, in refracting it into infinite spectral images, is not mine: it is a corroded crystal, stained, mixed. The victory of the crystals (and of Vug) has been the same thing as their defeat (and mine). I’ll wait now till the Thelonious Monk record ends, then I’ll tell her” (38).

The story’s crowning irony is that this world, the crystal world, turns out to be not the world Qfwfq desired, because the crystals themselves are flawed: the “perturbations” in atoms that produce light, the transistors in the radio, even the ice in their drinks. Not to say that he abandons either dream or nostalgia: these crystals are not his, he says; there are by implication “other” crystals, his crystals, from which the ur-crystal world he imagines could be built. He will go back to his simulated life of simulated order, his listless marriage in the suburbs, his glass prison in the city; he will embark on a futile affair with Vug, continue his endless argument with her across the fissure of their difference, across the grooves in the vinyl. But only when the music stops.

Monk’s music keeps Qfwfq suspended in that fissure between thinking and saying, the ordering of inchoate thought as language. Perhaps it has helped him to work out his position, what he is about to announce, when the music ends, where the story leaves us. Monk’s world, Vug’s world, Qfwfq’s silence. Monk’s music is not disorder, but—thinking back to the many images in the story of the interplay between order and disorder—the presence of an abiding disorder within apparent order; or the collision of a number of different orders which achieves a sort of divine meta-disorder; or the continuous feint toward order crumbling back into disorder. The flux of the present in which the story leaves us, and in which Monk’s music moves, against an order we can only assemble in immediate hindsight. It’s not the beauty of disorder, which can be boring (was Calvino thinking about free jazz here, born less than a decade before this collection was published, the year Coltrane died?), but of the flaws within order that create the contrasts by which alone beauty can be apprehended. Monk’s clinkers and his splashing around on the keyboard and his perfectly-timed “late” entries are indeed “the rubies that flower beneath our footsteps.” The tension between an order constantly emerging from and seething back into disorder, like the imperfect crystals of the forming earth—an earth that is after all still forming, even if we cannot sense that change under the apparent stability that reigns during our very short lives (although we seem to be doing our darndest to feel it—perhaps that is what drives our suicidal behavior vis-à-vis climate change, the desire to feel the earth as an organic, living entity, irrupting through our once glass, now plastic, built environments?). That tension is a fair description of what makes jazz a living, breathing art form: between composition and improvisation, between individual and ensemble, and, as in all art, between tradition and innovation.

Lahiri’s story, too, ends with the protagonist suspended. Sanjeev will remain with Twinkle, dutifully following her with the bust of Christ he hates “because he knew that Twinkle loved it”; we never get the sense that he has grown, that he is mature enough to imagine crossing the fissure between them. He is trapped in the amber of his upbringing and personality; he fears to admit to himself what he craves. Qfwfq is at least more dynamic, more angst-ridden. When the record ends—and only when the record ends—he will present his concession—and then the argument will continue (e.g., “Your crystals, Qfwfq? And where exactly are your crystals, love?”). Argument, too, is amorous tension; agreement, concession, whatever, are momentary consummations.

By the way, who put on that record: Qfwfq or Vug? Calvino, the scamp, never tells us.

Lord, there’s Thelonious

As I prepared to teach jazz poetry (and then a broader unit on jazz) for my Writing About Music class in the early twenty-teens, I was surprised by the number of poetic elegies written for jazz musicians. Granted, I drew my selections entirely from the 1991 Jazz Poetry Anthology (eds. Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa, Indiana UP), so this observation might be a reflection of the biases of the editors, or of the handful of poems I selected about a few key figures (Coltrane, Monk, Holiday), or of the lives of the figures I chose to examine. Still, there do seem to be a disproportionate number of elegies in the genre, going at least as far back as Frank O’Hara’s classic one for Lady Day.

As I wrote in the last “Postmortem” installment: “Why does jazz poetry have a tendency to be so elegaic, so heavy? So much jazz poetry seems to miss the breath and hop and light beauty of the music—and what Art Blakey called ‘goofin’.’ It intones rather than sings.” (For further reflections on the philosophy and pedagogy of this class, see the “Postmortem” trilogy: 03.13.11, 08.24.12, and 08.07.19). Why, that is, does jazz poetry spend so much time mourning the often short and tragic lives of the artists rather than celebrating the gift that is their music—their ability to transmute that pain, as Sonny notes in “Sonny’s Blues,” into joy? (“Listening to that woman sing, it struck me all of a sudden how much suffering she must have had to go through—to sing like that. It’s repulsive to think you have to suffer that much.” Amen.) Why doesn’t it seek the tone of those jazz funerals at Riverside Church (and surely elsewhere), where musicians come to engage in a sort of spiritual pallbearing, to carry forward a legacy as much as mourn a passing? Wasn’t poetry, which foregrounds the musicality of language, the timbre of voice, meant to sing, too?

But then maybe all poetry written within the last fifty or sixty years is tinged with mourning: elegies for presence, laments for its lack. Writers, and particularly writers with a background in academia (almost a given today), are trained to be hyperconscious of the ostensible failure of language, to distrust the very medium in which we work. The literary text is an always-already- fallen world; words, in Qfwfq’s terms, are “base glass.” (Today, they might be plastic.)

What are the consequences of this constant reminder to mind the gap? Why are we so afraid to trip? Is there anything so surprising, so unexpected, so life-affirming, as falling flat on one’s face? Has poetry become so self-conscious it can’t swing?

Maybe. Or maybe elegy simply imagines a different kind of presence. For one near-constant of the elegaic strand of jazz poetry is manifestation: be it as ghostly sensation or embodied appearance, the musician returns from beyond.

Such resurrections are only as convincing as the language that performs them, and so the strength of our faith in that language: in the ecstatic pronouncement that closes the gap between presence and representation, or at least enables us to forget it, even momentarily; to suspend it, like eternal Qfwfq with that Monk record left spinning, or the coin at the end of the film Inception.

Amiri Baraka’s, for example, taking a page from Victor Frankenstein’s book at the end of the mighty explosion that is “AM/TRAK”: “Live! You crazy mother / fucker! / Live!” Even John Stillman’s serene “In Memoriam John Coltrane,” which (despite its title) is about listening, is carried entirely by the music of its language and its cyclically-repeated imagery. It is a memorial that swings, an elegy that commands us to “listen,” that restores the music rather than the musician. (I suppose that’s why it’s my favorite poem about Coltrane.)

At least initially, Yusef Komunyakaa’s approach to the jazz elegy couldn’t be more different. Consider the first eleven lines of his “Elegy for Thelonious” (1984): “Damn the snow. / Its senseless beauty / pours a hard light / through the hemlock. / Thelonious is dead. Winter / drifts in the hourglass; / notes pour from the brain cup. / Damn the alley cat / wailing a muted dirge / off Lenox Ave. / Thelonious is dead …”

Yes, Thelonious is dead. And from the glimpse of the funeral we see in the documentary Straight No Chaser, it was a traditional affair: folks filing by the casket to pay their respects, rather like Komunyakaa’s austere, ceremonial lines do. It is a poem more about the speaker’s grief than about the man who has passed, let alone his music.

Monk (left) et al. outside Minton’s, 1947. Roy Eldridge is second from the right. Photo by William Gottlieb.

In the second half of the poem, however, the speaker rouses himself from his grief. It turns out they are a musician as well; we might have intuited it from the musical attention to the cat’s wail. And the only way out of mourning is music: “Let’s go to Minton’s / & play ‘modern malice’ / Till daybreak” (28-30). There is a noticeable shift in diction and tone here, signaled by the ampersand and contractions. And then: “Lord, / There’s Thelonious / Wearing that funky old hat / Pulled down over his eyes” (30-33). The expletive completes the shift. Monk’s appearance is prefigured in lines 24-6: “The ghost of bebop / from 52nd Street, / Footprints in the snow.” It’s notable that the hat, not the eyes (which are covered), becomes the identifying mark, almost a synechdoche, like Prez’s porkpie. A case of mistaken identity, in the blear of near-dawn? Perhaps. But the most important thing is not the truth of the (ghostly) presence—is “Thelonious” on the bandstand? at a table? standing in the back? did the speaker ever even leave their apartment (or wherever) in the full stop between lines 27 and 28?—but that the speaker’s grief has impelled them (actually or imaginatively) into a musical space, Monk’s space, where a collective (“let’s”) marathon session conjures Monk’s musical avatar.

It might be said that John Sinclair’s “humph” (1988) also features a Monkian resurrection … except that this poem never quite says that Monk died in the first place. The first two quatrains: “they say monk / couldn’t play the music. they say, / monk, he limited / by his own vision // & just can’t play right. monk, / he too weird. his music / don’t sound right, and he gets up / & dances …”

“humph”’s slightly later publication date may help explain the absence of the raw immediacy of grief that characterizes Komunyakaa’s “Elegy,” which that poem labors to transcend. But everything else about Sinclair’s poem is immediate, most notably Monk himself. By the second stanza the tense has shifted from past to present (from “monk couldn’t play” (2) to “he just can’t play right” (5)), the shift anticipated by the vernacular elision of “to be” in line 3 (“he limited”). And there the poem emphatically remains. If at first we’re unsure whether it is only the detractors’ comments that revive Monk by speaking ill of him—an act of conjuring within the poem—at the end, Monk, very much alive, “shoots a grin / from behind the piano.” What surprises Komunyakaa’s speaker (“Lord, there’s Thelonious”) Sinclair’s takes for granted.

The poem’s diction and tone reinforce the feeling of presence and immediacy. “humph” is vernacular, agrammatical, casual, and expletive-enriched; it is strung through with ampersands and, despite the full-stops, no capitals. The language is clearly intended to mirror the space in which the speaker locates Monk’s “genius” (29): jazz’s mythical origins in the brothel and speakeasy, those spaces furthest removed from concert hall and academia. Monk may have been a New York jazz artist, but for “humph”’s speaker (and the interpolated voices of his detractors) he was an import, “pre-harlem” (15), rooted in the “booglaloo” (32) of the North Carolina of his birth.

The identities of both the speaker and the “they” whose opinions dominate the poem are ambiguous. Clearly the speaker is a partisan and “they” are critics, but what else can we tell about them? Part of the difficulty is placing the poem in time. We know that Monk’s music was initially disparaged, and then slowly gained acceptance over the ‘50s and early ‘60s; by the ‘80s, of course, Monk’s “genius” had long since been recognized. The detail about Monk getting up and dancing would seem to place us in the sixties … but by then Monk was already mainstream (to the point, as Gary Giddins reminds us, that he was eventually criticized for “not being out enough”; see “Rhythm-a-ning,” Visions of Jazz, Oxford UP, 1998). Based on the idiom, the “they” who disparage Monk would seem not to be the (white) critical establishment that panned him early on, but rather other African Americans—perhaps musicians who were seeking high-culture recognition for jazz (e.g., “America’s classical music”). But if so, why the vernacular? Or perhaps it is simply how the speaker reports them, translating their criticisms, and figuring jazz as quintessentially Black American music. (White critics occasionally strained to sound “hip,” but that does not seem to be the case here.) Perhaps, rather than seek too much historical specificity, we should simply accept that the poem is figuring Monk as an eternal outsider, timeless as his music, and understand the speaker as a representative spirit of the tradition of Black American music: a listener who has not lost their roots.

Whoever “they” are, they demand of the music a respectability that both distances it from saloon, ghetto, and revival tent (and the charlantry, grandstanding, and sheer bullshit that are part of that tradition), and fits within the norms of the music as it has evolved—norms that Monk is bent on defying. The emphasis is on Monk’s adherence to a musical tradition with which “they” have either lost touch or remain ignorant. Monk’s serene ignoring of “them” in the penultimate stanzas (“& monk, / in his infinite knowledge // & wisdom, shoots a grin / from behind the piano, / wiggles his ass on the stool, / lays down another few bars // of utter genius …” (23-29)) gives us a strong sense of the artist living in his own world, “ke[eping] his own counsel,” as Giddins put it (“no voice in American music was more autonomous and secure than Monk’s”). The poem’s title says as much. And yet, ironically, the moment when the speaker attempts to plead Monk’s case is also the poem’s least convincing. Sinclair is at pains to remind us of the rural roots of jazz: the music Miles remembers hearing as a child walking back from his grandmother’s house in the country, the culture which fed the music and to which, Miles and others have argued, it must retain some connection if it is to live and breathe. Monk was clearly indebted as player and composer to the blues and to stride piano. But Giddins is correct when he calls Monk the “quintessential New York jazzman.” It’s notable that the poem actually moves in the opposite direction at the end from Komunyakaa’s: while the “Elegy” loosens once it arrives at Minton’s, in “humph” the diction shifts upward (“infinite knowledge & wisdom,” “utter genius”)—not just respectable (and respectful) language, but grand, empty pronouncements, in an effort to raise Monk godlike above his detractors.†† Ultimately, Sinclair’s Monk is more convincing when he blithely plays what his detractors say he plays. One suspects Monk would have responded the same way to one as to the other, as he does in that marvelous opening exchange of Straight, No Chaser: “You’re famous, Monk.” Monk: “Ain’t that a bitch?”

In all this I can’t help think of the resurrection that ends Carl Theodor Dryer’s film Ordet, to my mind the most perfect moment in the history of cinema, the moment the film becomes about the possibilities of its own medium. It is a possibility still open to poetry, as much as ever enmeshed in its origins in song. Hybrid forms like spoken word and rap/hip hop have gone a long way toward marrying them again; such forms might be the natural place to find an ecstatic re-presentation of (other) music, something closer to Baraka, whose poetry was always much the finest in performance (as I had the great privilege to see and hear him do at a couple of Vision Festivals, accompanied by horns). Like Baraka’s, like Stillman’s, “humph” deserves to be performed, preferably at a bar where musicians gather, with a half-redeemed whorehouse piano by the bathroom, and an unredeemed pianist banging out clinkers on the keys.

Feet & hands

I watched Straight, No Chaser again the other night; I hadn’t seen it in probably twenty years. Watching Monk brought to mind Ralph Kirkpatrick’s comments about playing the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (see “Domenico in the Heart,” 03.28.21): proper execution demands that keyboardists think of themselves as dancers, and that the sonata itself be “imaginatively coreographed.” So it must have been for Scarlatti himself when he composed them; so it was centuries later for Cecil Taylor, who once remarked that he “tr[ies] to imitate on the piano the leaps that a dancer’s body makes it space” (qtd. in Val Wilmer, As Serious As Your Life, p. 60; Taylor, Wilmer notes, studied dance and played for modern dancers; he was also criticized for making music that was too far from “humph”’s boogaloo).

Much is made of Monk’s dancing, particularly in his later years, but his music was already vividly translated through his body long before that. The right foot, occasionally on the pedal, but mostly pumping like he’s inflating something, or playing an invisible sock cymbal; or skidding across the floor, like a brush on a snare. As the famous title of Whitney Balliett’s piece about Pee Wee Russell tells us, you can learn a lot about a musician just from watching their feet: Lang Lang’s, skipping around crazily underneath the piano while he played Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3 at a concert in Houston; Ravi Coltrane’s, a foot away from me on the stage at Blue Note, tapping out some rhythm not quite on the beat. Monk’s feet may look homeless, but they’re anything but sad. Even his feet _________________: if you can finish that sentence, say the last word—I mean really get it right—you’ll have his music, right there.

Thelonious Monk performs in London in 1970 (courtesy Getty Images).

And his hands. I imagine my father watching his hands, or any pianist schooled in the classical tradition watching his hands, emitting little gasps of despair. Like caltrops. Rictus fingers. And those rings! He wouldn’t play the same without them; they are the equivalents of the blocks and other random objects musicians place across the cables of a prepared piano. Monk, a pianist of prepared hands. A musical bricoleur, he grabbed whatever was handy—dabbing his brow with a handkerchief, for example, and then playing with it for a bar or two. Or with an elbow. All these contingencies of movement, all things within his grasp, become part of the music.

It’s hardly an exaggeration to say a deaf person could come closer to hearing Monk’s music by watching him play than perhaps any other jazz musician.

Alex Ross once wrote about Debussy’s “The Girl With Flaxen Hair” that one is surprised to hear it was “written” at all; it seems as though it had always been there, waiting to be discovered. Some of Monk’s melodies have this feel about them; they’re so redolent of the traditions that shaped them that they seem handed down rather than composed. But their rooted feel, their apparent ease and affability, always carries a jagged edge. It might be a contrast between the symmetrical character of the melody and the asymmetry of the phrasing, as though a worksong had been laid the wrong way across the bar lines, or a blues had been embellished at its rests and cadences in such a way as to turn it into something entirely new. They remind me a little of paintings by Pierre Bonnard: the way he cropped his images, framed his familiar domestic spaces in such a way as to make them unfamiliar, and led the viewer to desire to know what is directly outside the edge. Monk suggests that same irresolution: melodies trail off or end in unexpected places, pleasingly failed attempts at something else. We wait in vain for fuller resolution; instead, he starts over again. (He was finished; he is not sure what you wanted.)

As for his approach to rhythm, so much has been said it’s hard to know where to begin. Maybe here, English teacher that I am: “sprung rhythm,” a term associated with the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poems do not follow typical metrical patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables we associate with other formal English poetry, even as he observes the other rules of the forms in which he writes (such as syllable counts and rhyme schemes). Hopkins heaped stresses on stresses, and the result was rhythmic fireworks. In some ways it’s the furthest thing from Monk, for whom, as Gene Santoro wrote, the concept of space is absolutely crucial, as it was for Miles (see “Master of Space,” Stir It Up, Oxford UP, 1997). (For me, the best example of this is his gorgeously minimalist solo on “Bags’s Groove,” on the Miles album of the same name; the slurred, accenting notes he comps with on many versions of “Epistrophy” are also a great example.) And yet the name has a charm to it: think early industrial machines going to seed, coming apart cartoon-like, a traffic pile-up of snarled belts and gears, endearingly spastic, noise stacatto and irregular. County fair meets Times Square.

Maybe what I hear is second-order syncopation, i.e., syncopating with syncopatation, which does not mean Monk returns to the original downbeat, but rather creates a new pattern of stresses that matches neither. The old cliché about hearing the notes a musician’s not playing, a ghostly cultural soundtrack against which a soloist’s more outré choices can be understood, finds in Monk its rhythmic correlate. Or we might say that he plays second-order polyrhythms (e.g., in “Nutty,” where he works against the three-against-four rhythm), second-order swing. And then he’ll come back and play squarely on the beat, letting an unswung phrase plod down the piano while the rest of the band is swinging. It’s not self-consciousness we hear, but advanced play; he is not removed from music, but embedded in it in his own way. Monk swings like crazy because he refuses to get entirely caught up in the wave carrying the rest of the band. He paddles against it, across it. Dives under.

I love his solos, but they’re not strictly necessary. I could listen to him comp all day.

 

*  One of the beauties of the use of the third-person focalizer—“This Blessed House” is told through Sanjeev’s eyes—is that it helps create ironic distance. Twinkle is a mystery to Sanjeev, and to us as well: we can’t get inside her head. But she’s not a mystery in the same way, since most readers will not share Sanjeev’s near-caricatured rigidity. Lahiri’s choice of perspective allows us to see around Sanjeev, and understand there is more to Twinkle than Sanjeev can understand. Might the same be said for jazz in the story?

†  Here is a thought experiment: A character in a story puts on a jazz record, and the narrator tells us the name of the artist. For how many jazz musicians would the average reader (understood as having a casual familiarity with the genre) be able to translate a meaning more specific than that of the genre as a whole? In other words: How many jazz musicians have percolated out into the popular consciousness to the point that their names conjure, not just what the average reader associates with jazz as a genre, but a distinct persona—something where the reader would exclaim, “Ah, now I understand something about character X,” or, “This detail matches / doesn’t match others details about character X”? I can think of only three: Miles, Trane, and Monk. Mingus? He may bestride the genre like the colossus he was, but would his colossal temper, or some other aspect of his musical persona, signify, translate into some sort of meaning, for a character in a story? Chet Baker? Maybe fifty years ago, but not today. Ellington? Perhaps. Satchmo, possibly. And possibly Wynton Marsalis, after Ken Burns’s documentary, as a recognizable cultural figure associated with jazz. But to my mind, only the aforementioned three would be dead reckonings, on a level with Beethoven (“irrascible nonconformist,” “triumph over disability,” etc.). Coltrane: saint and restless seeker; Miles: cool, urbane, protean, ostentatious, tortured; and Monk. Then again, even these names are conflicted enough as signifiers that they could mean radically different things in different contexts. One character for whom Coltrane signifies “restless seeker” could for another signify “borderline obsessive woodshedder” (Rollins would work there, too) and, for a third, “pretentious asshole.” And of course there’s nothing to stop us from Googling a musician’s name, like any other cultural allusion, to try to figure out more exactly the reason for the author’s name-dropping.

§  This is a running theme in the Cosmicomics, as in the brilliant fable of the origins of the universe “All at One Point.” Calvino is clearly making a broader argument about mediation and communication here as well—the modern crystal as “making the world transparent to itself”; some of the best Cosmicomics are as steeped in semiotics as an Eco essay, often with very humorous results (“The Chase” and “The Night Driver” are great examples).

**  Vug is also flighty and possessive and fickle—that is, stereotypically female. (My favorite line in the story, when Qfwfq and his wife have dinner at his boss’s house: “The men talked of production, the women of consumption.”) The “fissure” that is Vug’s world and that threatens order is clearly feminine. Representations of femininity here opens up another area for analysis, though I think Calvino, like Lahiri, is consciously interrogating these associations as he employs them. Regardless, it does suggest that jazz, associated as it is with spontaneity, intuition, collectivity, and frivolousness, is feminized; DWM Mahler keeps the phallus.

One other note: writer and reader are also embedded in the production-consumption dynamic: Qfwfq inventing his ideal imaginary worlds, Vug “consuming” them … and by doing so threatening their order, whether by the threat of failed communication (the writer’s intention is not understood) or consumption as digestion. The crystal “ma[kes] the world transparent to itself” only in Qfwfq’s mind; the economy of images is always partly opaque (see previous endnote).

††  By transcending (or eliding) jazz history, Sinclair turns Monk into a romantic rebel, though that is perhaps a little unfair, given the insistence on tradition here; the speaker does not disagree with what “they” hear, only about its value. Even during Monk’s life the currents of acceptance and detraction were complicated. Giddins does a nice breakdown of this in “Rhythm-a-ning,” noting that Monk was first revered as a teacher by younger musicians when he was unable to perform due to having his cabaret card revoked over a drug conviction; acceptance of him as a composer followed, and, finally, as a player. (Giddins ends up wondering whether unquestioning acceptance is any better than incomprehension.) It’s also worth putting this poem in the jazz historical context of its publication year, though I think it was a tad early to figure as an expression of neoconservatism. The question of Monk’s relation to tradition also interestingly echoes how Geoff Dyer described Mingus in his magisterial fictional jazz portraits in But Beautiful: that of moving the music forward by digging deep into its history and tradition.

Celebrating Vio-lence

If hindsight is 20/20, then Vio-lence was the greatest thrash metal band, period: the band in which the subgenre climaxed, and in particular the Bay Area sound that was its epicenter and still, I think, its purest expression. They were the meridian of the subgenre’s day, to put it in the terms of Judge Holden from Blood Meridian, whose discourses should be compiled into a pamphlet titled How to Listen to Heavy Metal. San Andres be damned: it was that northern tribe, the Cascadians, who would shake the thrashers into the sea. Would that those San Franners had built grunge-resistant edifices …

Today, on their Facebook page, fans call Vio-lence “criminally underrated” and “virtually unknown.” I suppose that, compared to Machinehead, the band guitarists Rob Flynn and Phil Demmel went on to found after the scene crumbled, that is true. But they forget, or perhaps never knew, these whippersnappers, the hype that surrounded Eternal Nightmare, Vio-lence’s maiden effort, when it was released in ‘88. I remember at least one genre ‘zine balking at the hoopla, claiming band and album were overrated. Be that as it may, Vio-lence quickly jumped onto a tour opening for Voivod and Testament; and when Voivod had to withdraw due to Piggy’s illness, they moved up to the second slot; at L’amours at least, Blood Feast filled in as openers. With the release of their second album, 1990’s Oppressing the Masses, the band found themselves headlining the national club circuit. I caught them at Baltimore’s Network. The date was mis-advertised; there was almost nobody there.

I explained this to Demmel after the show; I remember him claiming that the band had been outdrawing Voivod on that tour. I guess this was important to him, and is maybe part of the reason, aesthetic ones aside, he and Flynn moved on to bigger things. As did our conversation: we talked about the awesomeness of the guitar leads on Masses, which, like a true gentleman, and in a comment that reminded me of something Glenn Tipton once said about the guitar solos in Judas Priest—that people tended to throw “Beyond the Realms of Death” at him (with very good reason: it may be the most perfect guitar solo in the history of the genre), forgetting that some of the best Priest solos were the ones where he and Downing traded off—I say, like a true gentleman, Demmel emphasized the same with Flynn, highlighting “Engulfed by Flames,” where the solos are linked by way of an ascending series of trills played in harmony, and which he was good enough to both sing and half-air for me, there in the parking lot of the Network.*

In the thirty-plus years between that show and today, those two Vio-lence records have never left my rotation. If I focus on Nightmare for the remainder of this post,† it’s only because I want to highlight something about it that no other thrash record does, or does to the same degree: it captures the pandemonium of a great live metal show. It sounds like what Demolition Hammer called, in one of their finest song titles, an orgy of destruction. It is the sonic correlative to what Exodus expressed so admirably in the words of the chorus to “Bonded by Blood,” and which comes closer than anything to articulating the ethos of the scene as a whole: “Murder in the front row/ The crowd starts to bang/ There’s blood upon the stage// Bang your head against the stage/ And metal takes its price/ Bonded by blood.”§

So many things about Nightmare contribute to the “live” feel. The near-impossible tempos, of course; and even more, the way the rawness of this record—a rawness that characterizes the first records of so many thrash bands—allows us to hear the musicians straining against the limits of their collective ability. Nightmare is a record that drives all over the road, swerving from guardrail to shoulder and back: we listen for the anticipated collision. That’s not to say the band isn’t tight; they could never play like this if they weren’t tight as hell. But great thrash bands like Vio-lence never made it sound easy; they made you hear the blood and sweat that went into the music. More than athletic, it was downright gladiatorial, and Vio-lence were the Conans of the pit. Alas, that scraping along the guardrail of chaos, of the abyss: it’s something you don’t hear in metal anymore. Maybe this is one reason thrash still finds listeners today, listeners who miss the sound of the body in metal.**

To speed we must add endurance; for Nightmare is also an absolutely relentless record, one that sustains its ludicrous tempos for far longer than seems humanly possible. Genre critics sometimes speak of “withstanding” the sonic onslaught of metal, as though the listener was proving their mettle / they’re metal by willingly putting themselves in the way of the music’s Shermanic march to the sea. According to this formulation, the longer the songs—provided they sustain a certain level of intensity—the more valiant the listener. Had Slayer written “Serial Killer,” it would have been a minute and a half long, maybe two. But “Serial Killer” clocks in at three full minutes, and the longer songs on Nightmare max out at six and a half. When, like Vio-lence, you carry on tempos like these that much longer than the typical hardcore blurt, or keep stopping and starting that motor, returning over and over to that same blistering tempo, zero to 120 in no-time flat; and when, like Vio-lence, you forego, together with your subgeneric compatriots, the (then-nascent) doubled-up tempos of death metal, which blur into a drone, for the jackhammer pounding of thrash; and when, again like Vio-lence, you sustain tempos to the point of the body going into failure, the lactic acid searing holes in muscle tissue—when you do all these things, you don’t hear the tempos so much as feel them. The music becomes brutally, pitilessly tactile.

This is a record where literally everything is done to excess. It’s not just the tempos or song lengths, or even the boxcar appearance of riff after riff, but the fact that, on some of the longer tracks, every riff gets repeated in three or four different variations before the song pauses, finds a new riff … and proceeds to squeeze out the same amount of blood out of it. Good riffs, Nightmare tells us, are built for just this sort of wear and tear.

And then a something slightly muddled about the mix adds to the stumbling near-catastrophe that is this record: the good sort of muddle that allows the guitars and bass to surge together in a singe sonic tsunami. The guitars have a fat, crunchy sound—every chord sounds like stepping on a very large beetle—and Deen Dell’s bass, booming and farty, is well up in the mix. Sometimes guitars and bass operate together in a juggernaut, as in the riff that dominates “T.D.S. (Take It As You Will),” all three instruments trilling in tandem, triply heavy for charging abreast.

Listen to the surprise coda of “Bodies on Bodies,” maybe the moment on this record that best captures that feeling of centrifugality. The closing section of Metallica’s “One” makes a good foil here. The two-on-three cross-accents between chugging rhythm guitar and harmonized lead; the lockstep synchronization of rhythm guitar and snare roll at each turn: it’s brilliant, and exhilirating, and it’s what total control sounds like. The coda of “Bodies on Bodies” is the exact opposite: the turns (four hammered beats to announce a repeat) sound like afterthoughts; the accents of the rhythm guitar fall on and off the beat of the drums; the four-note phrases that climax the solo don’t match any of what the rhythm section is doing. Everybody sounds like they’re jumping in too late or too early. It’s a miracle they all manage to hit the final chord at the same time.

And what “Bodies on Bodies” does on the local level, album-ender “Kill on Command” does for the record as a whole. The last progression is repeated a half dozen times, transposed a half-step higher each time, the tempo pushed up a notch with each iteration, until—cued by a pick slide—it returns to its original register, but at the fastest tempo yet. Drummer Perry Strickland gives up at this point, he’s just whacking on his snare, and on the opposite beat (1-3 instead of 2-4); you can almost see him throwing away his sticks, throwing up his hands. It’s a perfect way to close the record, climaxed and abandoned in the same gesture. Thirty-five minutes since the Nightmare started, and no one, including the listener, is quite sure how we made it.

The madness is there for all to hear in Sean Killian’s maniacally distinctive voice, too, a voice that couldn’t be more perfectly suited to Vio-lence’s music. A friend of mine once described it as the voice of a demented carnival barker. I myself am sometimes reminded of a street vendor’s pregón, the way it rises and falls rhythmically within the same narrow range. During uptempo passages Killian’s delivery is clipped and breathless, sometimes dead center on the beat, sometimes slipping and sliding over it, not quite able to match beat to breath, once again adding to the feeling of narrowly-averted disaster. But the barker’s voice is also a matter of timbre, and tone: it’s the sneer that makes the voice, and that once again perfectly expresses the ethos of scene and subgenre: the mocking camaraderie of skate culture. We hear it most clearly in the closing words of “T.D.S.” (“No need for ties/ No ties to life/ The life you’ve left to linger/ It was your choice/ So hold your voice/ And don’t … point … your … fin-ger ….”); in the gallows humor that gives us moments like the bridge of “Calling in the Coroner (“Distorted features/ As I picked him off the road/ His body, mangled,/ Took ten hours for me to sew together …”); and in the anthemic closing lines of “Kill on Command,” where Killian, assuming the voice of a hired assassin, snarls, “Stand still, and make my job easier!”

My hardcore friends loved Killian’s voice because it was a punk voice; and so this record is, like all the best thrash, deeply hardcore-inflected as well, though more obviously and more on the surface than other non-crossover bands. Killian was a little like what Paul D’ianno was to Maiden, before Dickinson stabilized their NWOBHM identity. Vio-lence needed not to stabilize.

The dizzying back-and-forth between Killian and the riot vocals on songs like “T.D.S.” ups the ante even further, with Killian’s lines sometimes leading into or out of riot vocals (“Coroner” and “Bodies”), sometimes overlapping and sharing lyrics with them (“Kill on Command”’s “paycheck/ bloodshed/ your head” and “money, money, money, money, MONEY!”).

And then there’s the drums. Jesus. I used to chat about Strickland’s drumming with Adam Kieffer, a great drummer from my hometown and one-time member of Headlock, guitarist Adam Tranquilli’s post-Blood Feast effort. A sort of quiet awe reigned; there was a lot of head-shaking, and helpless little puffs of air.†† Thirty years down the road, I’m still looking for the words.

I’ve stressed tempo and timbre quite a bit above, but there’s a whole other side to this record, and to thrash metal, that warrants discussion: the mosh parts. Nightmare has some of the best. At shows, Killian would move his finger like he was winding a See-n’-Say, and few had the will to resist the circle that formed as naturally as a cyclone from the swirling patterns on a satellite map. When I speak about this band as the culmination of a half-decade of musical growth in a subgenre that was soon to be grunged out of existence, the idea that comes to mind is something backward-looking, traditional, the sort of band in which the finest elements coalesce and find their purest expression, rather than something that challenges the tenets of a genre and pushes its boundaries—a difference to which sociologist and metal scholar Keith Kahn-Harris has given the names mundane and transgressive cultural capital (see “T-shirts and Wittgenstein,” 05.24.13). The truth here is both-and. I could point to a dozen other bands with great grooves and amazing pits, from traditional Bay-Area stalwarts like Testament, to bands that were leaking/had leaked out in other directions/into neighboring genres, like the Tendencies, or Anthrax. The balance between speed and groove, circle and line (or many crossing lines), is what thrash evolved to perfection. But in Vio-lence, the combination of the power of their grooves and Killian’s half-spoken, highly-rhythmic vocals, as well as the interplay between his and the backing vocals, also reveals that moment when elements of rap were irrepressibly beginning to find their way into thrash metal, as these two underground musics of the ‘80s merged and mixed, into what would eventually become, post-thrash, the sound of bands like Pantera and Rage Against the Machine (and some of the later regrettable shit that smeared itself onto their coattails). While bands like Faith No More were beginning their rather dull and unconvincing experiments with crossover (now we sound like a rap band! now comes the metal part! now the pretty part, with piano! but somehow all exactly the same!!), the genre was already feeling the pull of rap on a much deeper level, inflecting the music of bands that weren’t necessarily thinking in that direction, and in ways that many fans probably couldn’t hear. A song like Slayer’s “Read Between the Lies,” on South of Heaven (1988), is inconceivable without rap (not for nothing they had moved from Metal Blade to Def Jam records in 1986). And those currents were washing back into rap, too (e.g., Public Enemy’s sample of “Angel of Death” on “Channel Zero” (from 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions)). Vio-lence’s 1988 compatriots Forbidden make another good reference point here: I’ve sometimes thought that Forbidden expressed the culminating fusion of thrash and the NWOBHM, but that would be to ignore a song like “Feel No Pain,” as rap-imbued a thrash metal song as ever there was.§§

I have a great memory of driving upstate to a friend’s place in Bolton Landing, by Lake George, where his parents had a cabin. Two skaters, friends of my friend’s brother, maybe three years younger than me, piled into the back of my car with their boards; my friend (also a skater) rode shotgun. One of the younger skaters in the back asked me if I liked rap. I remember being taken aback by his question. Rap was still up there with the Dead in terms of music metalheads weren’t supposed to like. (Thank goodness this still seems to be true of the Dead.) The two genres had been kept culturally so far apart that, even when I was hearing rap-inflected metal—outside the klutzy attempts at crossover like FNM, or Anthrax’s “I’m the Man” parody—I didn’t hear it, or maybe better, didn’t admit to myself I heard it. My answer must have been something like “of course not.” It’s so obvious in hindsight, as it must have been to them, those three years that separated us an eternity, at least where the ear is concerned. We listened to Vio-lence on the way up to the lake, I can’t remember what else. Not rap. I can still see the one, with his struggling beard and long, stringy hair, his board settled across his lap. Nice kids. Quiet. Almost reserved.

Anyway, if this makes Vio-lence as much a bridge band as a culmination, so be it. Probably all culminations are bridges of sorts. Listeners who are too mired in the genre simply can’t hear that, except, again, in hindsight. Others, who listened just as closely, but a little differently, and a little more openly: they just kept walking, even though they couldn’t quite see what was coming next. They’re the ones who got places.

*

I know the proclivity for ending with an(other) anecdote must be getting old, at least for the habitual reader of this blog, if I can imagine such a beast, which, hypothetically speaking, has the head of a chicken, the body of an ostrich, the legs of a capybara, and the tail of an ankylosaurus. But this is a good one, I promise, it’s worth finishing out the rest of this post, if for nothing else than to prove me wrong.

One day when I was a sophomore in college I saw these hippie kids in the cafeteria, and one of them was a girl I had a huge crush on. They were all sitting at the same table, of course, the hippie table, the one by the window, you know, the open window, and I, somewhat intrepidly, like a half-scuttled aircraft carrier, approached them, with my ratty sneakers festooned with band names and my ripped jeans and my Captain Caveman hair. (That was my nickname, or one of them; Plant Head was another.) Of course my notebook, and likely my sneakers, said VIO-LENCE in large letters. And one of them asked me, with self-righteous smugness, whether I was a fan of violence, whether I liked violence, whether I thought violence was cool or something. I mean, he didn’t say all these things, I can’t remember his exact words, but if you put these three italicized statements together you get the picture.

That look! That tone! I was being condemned, there in front of my crush.

She was the one who had attempted a second piercing of my ear a week or two before, at a party in my apartment, in the kitchen. (This might have happened after the cafeteria episode, I’m not sure, but for the sake of the anecdote let’s pretend it came first, I mean, c’mon, this was like thirty years ago.) I’m sure I initiated the whole thing. She put a cork behind my ear and started to shove the needle through the lobe. But she couldn’t finish. She was too squeamish. She sort of squealed and shook her hands in disgust. She left me there, half-penetrated. Some other unfortunate female had to finish the job, I can no longer remember who.

So there I was, in the cafeteria, standing by the hippie table, across from the girl who had been unable to finish penetrating me. I looked at her; I looked at my notebook; I looked at my sneakers. I thought of all my parents had taught me, taking me and my friends to see movies like Scanners and Humanoids from the Deep and Evil Dead and all that vile good stuff when I was a tween, and then a teen, but still too young to attend R-rated films by myself.

I was damned before I’d even made my way over to that table.

I said, Yes, of course I am a fan of violence, and walked away.

 

*  In terms of show epiphenomena, besides this conversation, I remember Killian laughing at my hair, a huge frizzy Eye-tie fro (note aborted attempt to dignify) that had already begun to thin in the middle. But then it seems Killian himself was already well on his way to boarding the Rogaine train. Revenge, a dish best served cold. Ha! Ha! saith he-who-laughs-last. (Killian was right to laugh, of course: my hair was ridiculous.) When Vio-lence re-banded and toured for the thirtieth anniversary of Nightmare—I had the pleasure of seeing them at the Brooklyn Bazaar; I’d have much rather seen them at St Vitus—I was disappointed to find that Killian had gone the way of so many middle-aged men and shaved his head. It seemed like a particular affront given that, back in the day, skins were beating up longhairs like him at shows.

†  I’m sorry to give Masses the short shrift here. Some of Vio-lence’s best songs are on it (I’m a huge fan of “Liquid Courage” myself, a personal fave), and Demmel was right to be proud of his and Flynn’s work: the leads are consistently top-notch, better than Nightmare’s; some of the work for the rhythm section (like the opening to the title track) is also standout. My only disappointment: given some of the song titles (such as the title track, and the opener “I Profit”), I always expected the lyrics to be a little more … Marxist?

Which reminds me: there’s a great article (or perhaps a great post) still to be written about progressive politics and metal. The genre tends to be pigeonholed as conservative, and while there is some truth to that, metal’s politics are much more complex and many-sided, partly a result of the longevity and diversity of the music people have called (heavy) metal, and partly a product of ideological crossover from neighboring genres. Thrash, and the extent to which it incorporated hardcore’s politics together with its pared-back sound and furious tempos, would make for a particularly interesting discussion.

§  Exodus guitarist Gary Holt explains the genesis of the song in a show at Ruthie’s Inn, the club which was the epicenter of the epicenter of the scene. (I love the irony of the name!) See Murder in the Front Row (Bazillion Points, 2012), p. 173. If you want to see this ethos translated into moving image, there’s a great performance available on YouTube of Vio-lence playing San Francisco’s Stone in 1989, which better than anything else I’ve seen captures the energy of a live show, the circuit between stage and pit.

By the way, there’s an interesting tension here between so-called album-quality live music (i.e., the band judged by how well they reproduce their sound on their records) and live-sounding recorded music (i.e., studio (as opposed to “live,” an oxymoron anyway) records judged according to whether they capture something of the experience of seeing the band live). As someone who deeply loves some bands known for playing album-quality live, I’m not really one to throw stones at the first, though I do find it a silly ideal. But I also don’t want to jump on the authenticity bandwagon here. I don’t think Nightmare is more “authentic” (or whatever) just because it captures something of the energy of live thrash metal. There are plenty of great thrash metal records that don’t do that. Nor is there any reason studio records shouldn’t take advantage of recording technology to produce the sound a band wants. I wouldn’t particularly care if every song on Eternal Nightmare took a hundred takes, was filled with overdubs, all the guitars quadruple-tracked. What matters is the sound they achieve on the final product, not how they got there. Anyway, if you want live music, go out and hear some, for fuck’s sake. At least, after we’re all vaccinated.

** In an endnote to “T-shirts and Wittgenstein” I tried to capture this shift; and, as I noted in a later post about Carcass, maybe the evolution to a more technocratic form of metal is simply an indication of cultural evolution around the way we imagine and perceive of the body. See “Flesh Against Steel,” 04.12.17.

As for embodied metal: I think I’m riffing on Linda Williams here—think, because I didn’t make the connection until later. In a germinal film studies essay, Williams aligned melodrama, horror, and pornography as the three “body genres,” all of which are to one degree or another unseemly to the mainstream because of their body-associated excess, whether sexual, emotional, or violent. Critics have tended to emphasize the transgressive sexuality of rock and other pop music … but have always seemed less comfortable with the unleashed aggression of louder, heavier rock, at least when it is not channeled in a safely progressive/ “revolutionary” direction. In music, metal is the “body genre” that rounds out the junta, together with weepie love ballads and sex-infused pop and rock. You could even argue that the existence of the latter two impulses in popular music makes the appearance of metal inevitable: there could be no thrash without hair metal, and vice-versa.

†† In this context, we shouldn’t forget that death metal tempos evolved when drummers stopped doubling up on the hi-hat for every beat on the snare: if you alternated, you could double the fastest thrash tempos. The drummer in my high school thrash band called this “cheating.” Such was the view from 1986. So, in the endnote to “T-shirts and Wittgenstein” mentioned above, I described Strickland’s drumming as having an (inadvertent) swing because his stick bounces on the ride as it tries to match the tempos, yet another chaos-courting imperfection, if it can be called that.

In an illuminating discussion in her founding book on the subject, Deena Weinstein compares metal musicians’ instrumental prowess to blue-collar pride in skilled labor, and the custom in performance of demostrating mastery of their “tools,” not just sonically, but through gesture (facial expressions, arm motions, etc.). I’m making a somewhat different point here. I don’t think Vio-lence is so much interested in dramatizing virtuosity as they are in courting failure. We’re still hearing and feeling and applauding exertion, but the point isn’t to admire or even vicariously participate in the thrill of mastery, but rather in the exhiliration of mere exertion, and the attendant risk. In the sort of metal Weinstein writes about, success is a given. In Vio-lence, we careen along the abyss without guarantees.

§§ There’s another great article (or post) still to be written (if it hasn’t been already; honestly, I’m always at least five years behind the scholarship, maybe 10), this one about the impact of rap and hip hop on thrash metal: one that looks beyond the usual proto-groove suspects, and instead examines the way the genre’s supposedly most “pure,” traditional expressions had already been inflected across the racial-culture divide of their fanbases. It’s a necessary complement to the nexus between punk and metal, which has already been beautifully explored by Steve Waksman in This Ain’t the Summer of Love (see my review, “Dr Heidegger’s Punks,” 04.17.16).

Domenico in the Heart

I probably started working on this post 7or 8 years ago, as a response to Ralph Kirkpatrick’s Domenico Scarlatti, and abandoned it after becoming lost in a sea of notes on more recent scholarship. Much of the labor to “finish” it involved shaping, collating, and editing the post-Kirkpatrick material. After a lot of upstream swimming trying to get the newer material to work with the older, I realized (would that I had sooner!) that the form of the original—the response to a single text—too strongly resisted any attempt to morph it into a synthesis, and as such it made more sense to present the work in discrete sections. What follows, then, is a single post composed of two strata: the first is an edited version of the original draft (with a new section on dance, and a new conclusion, mostly cobbled together from the old materials); the second, almost twice the length of the original, and keyed to it via alphabetized endnotes, comments on and updates the Kirkpatrick. When I described this structure to my partner, she suggested the two sections might be imagined as working in counterpoint. Alas, that is a bit too charitable. Given the total length, you are more than welcome, reader, to consider it the Pit Stop’s greatest folly yet: Helldriver’s Heaven’s Gate, if you will. (And you will. Fastway said so.) And yet, even if I have lost my way along the road to the palace of wisdom—even if Xanadu proves to be a tomb—it was a folly that had to be seen to its ultimate conclusion, in order for the remainder of the work of this blog to get done, and its endlessly-receding end to be reached.

*

 In search of the Spanish Scarlatti, the true Scarlatti, or, for that matter, ANY Scarlatti at all.

 Quasi una fantasia, por favore

In 1991, after being accepted to the University of Utah for graduate work in English, I deferred for a year, took half of it to work and save money, and in February of ’92 lit out for Spain. I spent most of my remaining six months in Madrid, teaching English, and taking day and weekend trips around Castile y Leon and La Mancha. One rainy weekend in March, I toured El Escorial, the great gloomy old monastery about an hour east of the city, and then hiked up into the hills, until I found an overlook and a comfortable rock to sit on. There, I popped a cassette into my Walkman and listened to three sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti.

The Scarlatti was filler at the end of one of maybe a dozen cassettes, to which I had devoted one side pocket of the travel backpack I had bought at Bill’s, the local Army-Navy surplus a week or so before going abroad. (The other side pocket was for underwear and socks.) Prog, metal, grunge, Hendrix, classical. I know that one had Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste on one side, and Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote on the other. I know this because I had been dividing my days into Bartók days—the dark, cold, wet, lonely days of the Madrid winter—and Scarlatti days: those gem-cut days flooded with the light of a rapidly-approaching spring. This is the Spanish light Ralph Kirkpatrick decribes so admirably in his classic study of the composer: “the hard, brilliant, blinding light of Velazquez and of Goya’s tapestry cartoons, a light that emphasizes less form, as in Italy, than space, the surrounding spaces of the Castilian plain” (92).

Spain became less Bartók and more Scarlatti the longer I stayed, as the seasons changed and I settled in and made friends and started spending my afternoons at pools and playing pickup soccer and the long Madrid evenings in its perpetually-bustling cafes. Looking down on El Escorial and the surrounding hills some time in early March, though, I was still caught between homesickness and a budding romance with all things Spanish. I’m pretty sure I knew that Scarlatti had lived in Spain, and had served a Spanish Queen, Maria Barbara—Kirkpatrick calls Scarlatti her “musical dowry”—as Scarlatti had previously served her father, the Portuguese King Joao V, in the idyllic (at least from a few centuries’ distance, and to a young writer) post of music instructor to the royal family. What I’m sure I did not know was that Scarlatti went on a seasonal calvary in tow of said family. Every autumn they stayed—first Felipe and Isabel, and then Maria Barbara and Fernando—much to their displeasure, but in deference to custom, where the bones of the Spanish kings lay: the very El Escorial I looked down upon. And so, for all I knew, Domenico himself might have sat upon my rock, dreaming up the endlessly inventive music I listened to three and a half centuries later.

I couldn’t hear the Spanish in Scarlatti then. I didn’t know Spanish music at all, outside Paco de Lucia’s forays into fusion, which I also could not yet hear in the context of Spanish music. But perhaps it was the Spanishness of Scarlatti that captured me, and that has held me ever since, Spain being the country in which I have spent the most time abroad, and Scarlatti the eighteenth-century composer with whom I have always felt the deepest connection.

 “La que sigue se debe tañer primero”

Twenty years and two extended Spanish sojourns later, on an Amtrak to Louisville, I finally got around to reading Kirkpatrick’s Domenico Scarlatti, first published in 1953. Kirkpatrick’s was a name was familiar to me from the “K.” next to the Scarlatti sonatas: he catalogued 555 of them, correcting and revising the Longo edition of 1906-8, and selecting and editing 60 sonatas for publication. The book itself is part biography, part analysis, and part discussion of Scarlatti in performance (Kirkpatrick himself was an eminent harpsichordist).

My immediate reaction to the biographical section of Kirkpatrick’s study was how much it spoke to the challenge of writing about music per se. So little is known about Scarlatti’s life that Kirkpatrick had little choice but to write aroundhis subject. Unlike Domenico’s father Alessandro, who lived a rich public life, Domenico never gave a single public performance. Scarlatti’s time in Portugal and Spain, where he lived with the royal families from 1722 until his death in 1757, is particularly bereft of documentation: there is no correspondence, and little mention of Domenico by his contemporaries. Nor is there a single surviving autograph of the keyboard works, rather only those of the Queen’s copyists, and subsequent copies. As Kirkpatrick seethes, Scarlatti’s descendants “allow[ed] all of his musical manuscripts to disappear,” while “jealously preserv[ing] the records of [the family’s] honorary nobility” (100). Even the painting after which the two known lithographs of Scarlatti were made had disappeared, making it impossible to authenticate them. (The portrait was rediscovered in 1956.) No one even knows where the body is buried.

Writes Kirkpatrick: “Domenico Scarlatti’s private sentiments, other than those expressed in his music, remain completely unknown to us throughout his entire life. No letters or anecdotes survived to give us more than a pale indication of his personality, and the years of his youth and early manhood pass with a particularly mysterious anonymity. Of Domenico’s adventures, attractions, and involvements in the forty-two years preceding his marriage we know absolutely nothing” (19). Scarlatti the man is thus a historical cipher who can only be assembled via his music. Reading the biography section of Kirkpatrick’s study is a bit like looking at a landscape painting with a Magritte-ish silhouette of a human figure in the foreground, speckled with notes.A

Given all of this, it is almost too perfect that the queen’s best harpsichords and the manuscripts of Scarlatti’s sonatas should have fallen into the possession of Domenico’s friend and fellow beneficiary, the great castrato Farinelli: from the keeper of the phallus to the mad king’s favorite eunuch, it is the sort of metonymic jump that makes of history a fantasy based on a theme by Derrida. (It gets even better: Late in his life, the king, madder by the year, would grotesquely imitate Farinelli’s singing: royal authority is “restored” … in the form of a poor imitation of a eunuch!) And so Kirkpatrick’s biography spins around that missing member, the absent center. Mimicking the sonatas’ love of ornament, here the man, the life, become an ornament of the music. And not just the man: the royal family itself, the king and queen Scarlatti faithfully served, become ornaments of Scarlatti’s musical legacy, the displaced center—the copies of the copies of the 555 sonatas. Spain, it was remarked at the time, “was being ruled by musicians and the Portuguese” (Kirkpatrick 109). Is it not fitting that the artists should be remembered, their royal patrons forgotten?B

Kirkpatrick is well aware of the twin problems here—that is, both the problem of writing a biography of a man about whom there is almost no historical record, and of writing about a medium for which words always seem inadequate. He has an easier time reconciling himself to the former problem than to the latter. “I realized that what I have written about a piece distorts or limits what as a performer I feel its content to be” (vii), Kirkpatrick frets in his preface—this despite some really marvelous tilting at the windmills of Scarlatti’s sound throughout the book. Whatever the performer or teacher suggests “to heighten a sense of the character of a piece … must be forgotten in favor of the real music. When perpetuated on paper they become sad and dangerously misleading caricatures”; the sonatas “ridicule translation into words.” Kirkpatrick the musician wishes he could use words the way he uses his fingers on the keys. Kirkpatrick the writer, however, understands that distortion and limitation are the essence of his medium.

And yet, words are only really distortion and limitation when considered against that something which cannot be grasped. So let us give to language, as to music, the autonomy it so richly deserves, rather than make it the subject of some ostensible “outside” object whose patronage it requires. The words will be remembered, the patrons forgotten. The manuscripts, and the harpsichords, will never find their way back to the king. Or Farinelli. Or anybody.

As the ParmaC manuscript notes about the copying of the K. 516 and 517 sonatas in the wrong order, “La que sigue se debe tañer primero” (the one that follows should be played first). Indeed, the score is never the music. The words on the page are never the notes. Or, for that matter, the life.D

The Ceilings of the Alcázar

In order to fill in, or at least supplement, how little is known about Scarlatti’s life—in order, that is, to generate 150 pages of biography—Kirkpatrick turns to history—the landscape in the painting—and speculates about the relationship between the composer and his place and time. Spain, Kirkpatrick asserts, “has always had a pronounced effect on foreigners; it both fascinates and unsettles them … For some it is a stimulant; for others it is utter destruction” (81). It was in Spain, where he lived most of his adult life, that Scarlatti “rediscover[ed] certain eastern strains of his Sicilian ancestry and the Saracen traces that had remained in the surroundings of his early childhood” (67), and where he encountered the “violent rhythms” of Iberian music.

“It is by no means difficult to imagine”—beware the giant hedge!—“D.S. strolling under the Moorish arcades of the Alcázar or listening at night in the streets of Seville to the intoxicating rhythms of the castanets and the half oriental melodies of Andalusian chant … As he listened to Spanish popular music and ‘imitated the melody of tunes sungs by carriers, muleteers, and common people,’ his real destiny was unfolding. Thenceforth Scarlatti was to become a Spanish musician” (82; the interpolated quote is from Charles A. Burney, from The Present State of Music in Germany, 1773; Kirkpatrick draws on Burney’s works both liberally and skeptically). Elsewhere, Kirkpatrick compares the ornament of the sonatas to “the Moorish ceilings of the Alcázar” and the “elaborate surface decorations” of Sevillian architecture (87).E

“There is hardly an aspect of Spanish life,” he continues—you get the point by now, but you can also see how beautifully Kirkpatrick writes—“of Spanish popular music and dance, that has not found itself a place in the microcosm that Scarlatti created with his sonatas. No Spanish composer, not even Manuel de Falla, has expressed the essence of his native land as completely as did the foreigner Scarlatti. He has captured the click of castanets, the strumming of guitars, the thud of muffled drums, the harsh bitter wail of gypsy lament, the overwhelming gaiety of the village band, and above all the wiry tension of the Spanish dance” (114-5).

These passages call to mind a line of Gibbon’s, which I actually know through an early essay of Jorge Luis Borges’s called “The Argentinian Writer and Tradition” (from 1932’s Discusión, it is actually a transcribed lecture): “I believe that if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, the absence of camels would be enough to prove that it is Arabic” (qtd. in Borges 103; my translation [!]). It would be like a New Yorker pointing at yellow cabs and tall buildings. Only foreigners see cabs, or camels; and possibly only foreigners see “Spain” as it is commonly, and now globally, understood: flamenco-fiesta-guitarra-cerveza. Or, if you prefer, here is the mierda on the label of a bottle of wine that once sat on my kitchen table, “Tempra Tantrum”: “Go ahead and throw a Tempra Tantrum tonight by drinking in the passion, flavor, style and emotion that embodies [sic] modern Spain.”

I confess I don’t hear “the bitter wail of gypsy lament” or “the click of castanets.” That is what I hear in other, inferior composers (at least in terms of their “Spanish” compositions; e.g., I adore Ravel, but dislike his “Spanish Rhapsody”). Classical music that simply tries to reproduce the folk idiom, to display it like an artifact in a glass-doored cabinet, sounds artificial and impoverished. Like Ravel, Scarlatti was a foreigner; but what is remarkable about his music is the level at which he incorporates the Spanish idiom. Like Bartók’s, Scarlatti’s music does not have to be openly imitative of surface features in order to be (in his case) “Spanish.” Perhaps Scarlatti struck a perfect balance: he heard Spanish music neither as a native nor as a tourist; like the relationship of any artist to their art, Spain was at once him and not-him. At one point at least, Kirkpatrick seems to realize he has gone too far, and recuperates himself admirably: “All of this does not find expression merely in loosely-knit impressionistic program music, but is assimilated and distilled with all the rigor that Scarlatti had learned from his sixteenth-century ecclesiastical masters, and is given forth again in a pure musical language that extends far beyond the domain of mere harpsichord virtuosity” (115; my emphasis). Aye, there’s the rub, and a good indication that Kirkpatrick understands the limits of his own impressionistic musings on Scarlatti-in-the-landscape.F

All of this to say that, while it may be interesting and even instructive to listen for what is “Spanish” in Scarlatti, it may also distort how we hear the music, which transformed the idiom of the country into something entirely other. Of course, in the mashed-up, ahistorical, anachronistic world of listening today, the vector can just as easily be reversed. Listening to Paco Peña’s ensemble play a solea the other day, the trills embedded in the strummed chords reminded me, not of other flamenco, but of Scarlatti’s sonata K. 516. It seems as natural that a contemporary flamenco artist could find inspiration from listening to Scarlatti as they could from Miles Davis, or Eddie Palmieri.G

Appoggiatura

In the places where Kirkpatrick turns to describe Scarlatti’s music, the similes come hot and heavy: “like a fencer jockeying for position,” “like a quivering cat about to spring,” “like a dancer maintaining movement in limited space.” All three figures emphasize the physicality of the music. But it’s the image of the dancer to which Kirkpatrick returns most often, both to help the reader hear the sonatas, and to coach the keyboardist as to their proper performance.H

Given the “rhythmic polyphony of the Spanish dance” (303) that defines so many of Scarlatti’s sonatas, the keyboardist must respond in kind, first by feeling the dance in the music, and then by activating it in their performance. “The imaginary coreographing of Scarlatti sonatas cannot be overdone,” Kirkpatrick writes. “Many of them, especially the Spanish dance pieces, are ruled far more by the sense of bodily movement than by vocal feeling […] All counting should be done in dancer’s terms, in terms of the duration of a breath or a gesture.” A good example of this “counting done in dancer’s terms” is the felt difference between the third and fourth notes of a four-beat phrase: a “thing known to every dancer, but [… which] frequently escape[s] the keyboard player who is rooted to his chair in imagination as well as in physical fact” (311-2). Handcrossings are said to “aspire to the dancer’s bodily freedom” (192); elsewhere, the right hand becomes “the gestures of a dancer,” the left “the steady beat of a percussion band” (304). Performers, then, must supplement the score with a sort of embodied musicality, lengthening and shortening pauses, phrases, and passages, and subtly accenting offbeat notes, in order for the “rhythmic balance” of the piece to be maintained. And rhythm is just one example: realizing the sonatas’ sense of proportion depends, not on mathematical accuracy, but perspective. The good performer is one who can feel these proportions and make them explicit in their playing.

We might legitimately question Kirkpatrick’s mapping of Bach/Scarlatti onto the mind/body dualism, smacking as it does of an antiquated orientalizing of Italy and Spain. It’s worth noting, however, that “body” here does not connote “mere” virtuosity and showiness, of which Scarlatti has historically been accused, but rather spontaneity and movement. “The Scarlatti sonata is an organism that developed at the keyboard,” Kirkpatrick writes, “not on paper … The prodigality of material often gives the impression that a Scarlatti sonata is being made in the presence of the beholder” (260). (One has to admire Kirkpatrick’s choice of words in prodigal, given what we know of the composer’s life.) Not surprisingly, Kirkpatrick suggests that Scarlatti was probably a fabulous improviser.I

An original & happy freak

One of the most fascinating elements of Kirkpatrick’s study is his attempt to trace the evolution of Scarlatti the composer, from the Essercizi, the first (and among the only) 30 sonatas published during his lifetime, which Domenico himself famously called “an ingenious jesting with art” (104), and Burney “original and happy freaks,” to the slower, more lyrical late sonatas. Notes Kirkpatrick, “The virtuosity of the keyboard player tends to become more and more absorbed in the virtuosity of the composer” (165)—all the more regrettable, then, that most 18th– and 19th-century composers only knew the Essercizi.

Using the range of the harpsichord required to play the sonatas as well as stylistic analysis, Kirkpatrick makes a daring assertion: the vast majority of the sonatas were not only copied out during the last half-decade of Scarlatti’s life (1752-7), but actually composed then. Even the Essercizi are fairly late, having appeared when Scarlatti was in his early fifties. Why this late blossoming? As with everything about Scarlatti’s life, much speculation, no answers. Illness, perhaps, absented him from court duties, allowing him time to write. Maria Barbara, his “talented pupil” (78), and her developed taste, might have pushed Scarlatti to develop as a composer; all the later sonatas were apparently composed for her. Or the fact that Scarlatti was an inveterate gambler, and the Queen “extorted” the sonatas in return for paying his debts. (I’m still trying to figure out why no one has made a movie out of that.) Then there is Burney’s speculation that Scarlatti had grown too corpulent in his later years to execute the sort of difficult handcrossings one finds in the flashy earlier sonatas. But Kirkpatrick puts the fat finger firmly on the queen’s bottom: apparently, even the attempts at flattering portraiture cannot conceal that Maria B. was rather rotund in her later years.J

Another conundrum of Scarlatti scholarship is whether the sonatas were deliberately composed in pairs, and intended to be performed this way. In revising the earlier Longo edition, Kirkpatrick corrected the order of the sonatas, “restoring” them to pairs, as at least 400 of the sonatas appear to be in the manuscripts, generally sharing a tonic, the first often lyrical and slow, the second sprightly. Some are so closely bonded that “the last measure of the first overlap[s] the first of the second.” (Interestingly, some of the sonatas are arranged in threes—a wonderful parallel with the poetry of eighteenth-century England, the country in which the “cult of Scarlatti” flourished. The vast majority is written in heroic couplets, but with the occasional rhymed tercet (often indicated by a bracket, at least in my editions) for variety. To borrow Kirkpatrick’s liberal imagination: one imagines ladies fanning themselves and the men barking their dismay at a thirdsuccessively rhymed line!) Kirkpatrick argues that Longo did violence to the sonatas by trying to arrange them into longer “suites” a la Bach, in order to give these “flash sonatas”—if I may be permitted yet another liberty—greater tonal coherence, and persuade listeners of their gravitas.L

Whether they were meant to be performed together or not, there is something seductive about the argument for pairing, since it can be understood as yet another facet of the symmetry that Scarlatti clearly delighted in: just as the sonatas are bifurcated, and each of the two parts intended to be repeated—although this, too, is very much up to the performer; I have seen performances where the repeat is observed and ones where it is ignored—so the sonatas as a whole are paired: doubles of doubles, wheels within wheels. Perhaps, if we look at them more closely, we will find that the pairs themselves have pairs, and so on, and so on, until every sonata has been engulfed in a pyramid of doubles, each layer reflecting the ones above and below. We are back with Borges, though not his camels, but his mirrors.

That said, I think that much of the energy of the sonatas comes from the way the asymmetries Scarlatti indulges in, most often in his second movements, grate against that otherwise crystalline perfection of structure. Was Scarlatti playing with our desire for symmetry—the very things that editors like Longo “cleaned up”—to create that palpable tension that makes his music so appealing? And while it is impossible for me to judge the composer’s contribution to the evolution of keyboard music, there is much to be said about the appeal of his music to a modern sensibility: the dissonances and note clusters which Longo scrubbed and Kirkpatrick restored; those “violent rhythms,” which retain their personable violence in our violently rhythmic cultural moment; and above all, the way the melody and rhythm are wedded into short, attractive lines that are utterly unlike any other composer of his time, and perhaps unlike any other composer in the “classical” canon.M

There is one particularly beautiful anecdote mentioned in the Kirkpatrick which I think illuminates the way an innovative composer works dialectically with the “rules” of their time. The story once again comes by way of Burney’s General History of Music. “Scarlatti frequently told M. L’Augier that he was sensible he had broken through all the rules of composition in his lessons;N but asked if his deviations from these rules offended the ear? and, upon being answered in the negative, he said, that he thought there was scarce any other rule, worth the attention of a man of genius, than that of not displeasing the sense of which music is the object” (qtd. in Kirkpatrick 104). A century later, Beethoven would say something remarkably similar. And again, a hundred years after that, the pianist Marguerite Long would recount a similar exchange between Claude Debussy and one of his teachers, Ernest Guirard. Discussing the resolution of chords: “But how do you get out of that?” Guirard asks. “I don’t deny that what you do there is pleasing. But it is theoretically absurd.” Debussy: “There is no such thing as theory. If something pleases the ear then that’s all that matters” (qtd. in Long 18.)  And then again, half a century later, Down Beat asked Eric Dolphy, “Are bird imitations valid in jazz?” (Did anyone ever dare ask Olivier Messiaen a similar question? And doesn’t the word “imitation” already suggest how the interviewer feels about it?) Dolphy’s response: “I don’t know if it’s valid in jazz, but I enjoy it” (qtd. in Lewis 48).O

Here endeth the lesson!

Krell music?

 As noted, Kirkpatrick was an eminent harpsichordist, and nowhere is he more compelling—and contentious—than on the subject of Scarlatti in performance. In an age when most people listen to keyboard music, including Scarlatti’s, on piano, the harpsichordist’s bias is at once refreshing and problematic.

Kirkpatrick argues that the color of Scarlatti’s music is in the melody, harmony and ornamentation, and that too much imposition of color from without, whether from changing registers at the harpsichord or excessive use of the pedal at the piano, distorts rather than reinforces the composer’s intention. “Scarlatti’s harpsichord writing is so idiomatic, so intimately connected with the essential fabric of his music, that the relation of his music to harpsichord sound very much needs to be borne in mind by those who play the sonatas on a modern piano” (288). For Kirkpatrick, the piano has a tendency to hamper Scarlatti’s music from “speak[ing] for itself”: if the sonatas conceal, by their “brilliant and imaginative writing,” a “flatness” that is part of the limitations of the instrument for which they were composed, then the piano, by its far-greater dynamism, threatens “Scarlatti’s entire proportion of sound effects.” Phrasing is thus more important than a legato style which, after all, was alien to Scarlatti’s instrument. Kirkpatrick also warns against “thick washes of color” and the “danger” of the pedal being used “to sustain notes that cannot be sustained with the fingers” (319).P

I am not sure what to make of these caveats. Part of what troubles me is the phrase “letting the music speak for itself.” Perhaps every performer has experienced the delusion of deciphering the composer’s intention (just as every literary critic once did) and becoming an empty vessel in performance. But I would point to the opposite danger: of turning Scarlatti’s sonatas into curiosities, bits of pottery in a museum, unable to speak in any direct way to a contemporary audience. I think the sonatas live today in the piano in a way they cannot anymore in the harpsichord, an instrument that sounds to most listeners like it belongs to some long-dead alien civilization. I cannot make the imaginative leap to inhabit the sound of the harpsichord emotionally the way I can the piano; it’s even difficult to accommodate my ear to hearing music performed on a period piano. (I imagine I feel about the harpsichord a little like the way my parents feel about the Moog.) The point remains that most listeners—middling classical listeners like me, whose exposure has been primarily to the music of the long nineteenth century—will more likely be able to relate to Scarlatti on the piano, or even on the guitar, than on the harpsichord. If the upshot of this is that a certain nineteenth-century idiom is overlaid or even imposed on Scarlatti’s, then so be it, if this is how performers can best animate the sonatas, and listeners hear them breathe. Is this surrender? Perhaps. But to believe that such anachronisms do not contaminate every performance of “classical” music—to believe that period instruments somehow resurrect a period unwashed in the renovated Alice Tully Hall—seems to me a delusion on a par with “letting the music speak for itself.”Q

That said, Kirkpatrick’s comments on performance do raise a fascinating question: What happens to music composed for an instrument that, over time, falls out of use? Must the music therefore die? I am actually of Kirkpatrick’s mind that there is music so deeply rooted in the instrument on which it was composed that something essential is lost in transcription. But to say that great music is deeply rooted in and shaped by the instrument on or for which it was composed is not to say that it can’t gain something, and touch new, modern audiences, through sensitive transcription and adaptation. Granados and Albéniz are my big guns here: two composers I fell in love with as a guitarist, though they wrote for piano; and to this day, even knowing this, I much prefer to hear their music in transcription. It might be argued that part of the appeal of the Assad duo’s wonderful retro-fitting of Scarlatti for two guitars stems from the guitar’s ability to mirror a harpsichord’s sonority, its pluck and contrast and thinner timbre, better than a piano. But then one considers that the Assads were themselves inspired by Vladimir Horowitz’s recordings of Scarlatti’s sonatas—Horowitz a pianist more associated with nineteenth-century Romanticism—and the whole knotty issue of where the music “speaks for itself” comes full circle.R

Or has it? Kirkpatrick notes that, as with the Spanish dance, Scarlatti was always using the harpsichord to invoke and approximate extra-harpsichord sounds—most prominently the guitar, under whose “spell” he believed Scarlatti fell. “Scarlatti’s harpsichord, while supremely itself, is continually menacing a transformation into something else” (292). Indeed, perhaps Scarlatti sounds right on guitar because, as with Albéniz and Granados, he was thinking and imagining the guitar anyway. The guitarist who plays Scarlatti today was perhaps first attracted to Scarlatti after hearing the sonatas played on a modern piano, in “imitation” of the harpsichord, in “imitation” of the guitar. And now we have indeed come full-circle, with the sonatas finding their home on the guitar, but only after passing through the circuit of Scarlatti’s genius, like a current gaining power by passing through a magnetic field. Krell music, indeed!

Hors d’oeuvres with your Alban Burger

Perhaps my favorite comments about performance address Scarlatti and other 18th-century composers in the context of the twentieth-century concert stage. “The age is fortunately nearly past,” Kirkpatrick writes, “when eighteenth-century composers were subject in concert programs to a kind of ‘type casting’ in which a few Scarlatti pieces, or a little Couperin on the part of the more adventurous, a Mozart sonata or a Bach organ fugue were served up as well-styled appetizers to be unregretted by late-comers and to act as finger warmers and curtain raisers to the ‘really expressive’ music of the nineteenth century” (280). Kirkpatrick goes on to note that despite modernism’s fickle love affair with the baroque, such “type casting” had only gotten worse, with baroque and classical music placed “in a kind of strait jacket created by the newer notion of a profound and impassable gulf between eighteenth-century and ‘romantic’ music.” The result was that performers tended to exaggerate the contrast between the two eras: if Romantic music was deeply expressive, “eighteenth-century music was forced to be pure and abstract; humanity was permitted it only in the most limited form.” In a memorable analogy, Kirkpatrick imagines eighteenth-century composers “defil[ing] [!] before the public like the traditional character types personified in the Italian comedy,” with Scarlatti “play[ing] the role of the buffoon” (281). Kirkpatrick even wonders whether the role descends from the composer’s function at the court—music teacher one step removed from jester, perhaps?—and his having to hide or disguise his more personal and expressive sonatas—those that suggest he was more than a “happy freak.”S

This is an enormously rich passage. First, it makes me wonder why Kirkpatrick thought the age was ending when eighteenth-century music was served up as an appetizer; in my concertgoing experience, which ended about five years ago, the rule seemed to be very much in effect, the only exception being when a pianist decided to focus on the work of a single baroque or classical composer. So far as I can tell, that only happens with Bach and, less often, Mozart; I have neither heard nor seen an entire concert of Rameau, or Couperin, or Scarlatti, or Handel (except the Messiah); the first time I ever noticed an all-Haydn program was at most a decade ago. And as Kirkpatrick suggests, when any of these composers is played in a mixed program, it is almost invariably the first selection. Concerts of all-Schumann, Chopin, or Beethoven, on the other hand, are pretty common. And as I noted in a previous post, modern and contemporary music are an even harder-luck case, always sandwiched between the double prophylactic of the romantic and the classical … or quarantined in series all their own. One gets the sense that the latter has also happened with much eighteenth-century music, as it has become a specialty focus with its own series and niche audiences. All told, we do still seem to be very much denizens of Kirkpatrick’s age.

I am also fascinated by the idea of the nineteenth century as an artistic climax from which the previous century can only be understood teleologically, and the next as apostasy. An interesting contradiction: on the one hand, the Baroque and Classical periods must be understood to pave the way for the Romantic, via the begats of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. The very idea of a “classical” tradition or canon of Great Music imposes unity and likeness on the whole, and a vector that stretches from Bach to Stravinsky (or thereabouts). On the other hand, the Romantic era is understood as a rupture with the previous, just as Modernism is perceived as a rupture, with the Eroica and The Rite of Spring (as well as Schoenberg’s first dodecaphonic pieces) as representative works. As deconstructionists are fond of saying, binaries always decay into hierarchies. But where music is concerned, performance gives this an interesting twist: once the hierarchy has been promulgated, it must be reified through repeated public performance. Or perhaps the opposite is true, and the repeated performance retroactively creates the binary?

Domenico in the heart

Kirkpatrick’s complaint about performers draining the emotion from eighteenth-century music in order to distinguish it from music of the Romantic era resonated deeply with me. My introduction to Scarlatti was via a 1989 recording by András Schiff; the sonatas on the cassette I carried with me to Spain, and listened to above El Escorial, were from the Schiff recording. Given Kirkpatrick’s caveats about the dangers of performing Scarlatti on the piano, I wonder: Would he have judged Schiff’s interpretations to be anachronistically romantic, relying too heavily on what the piano can accomplish (if not to the point of the “undisciplined expressivity” he warns against, which I do not believe Schiff could ever be accused of)? Or would he have championed the poetry of Schiff’s playing against the overly mechanical, abstract approach that has been imposed on baroque music? I find many of the sonatas on Schiff’s disc as lyrical and moving as many a late Beethoven sonata or Chopin ballade, balancing nicely the crystalline perfection of form (the light of those Scarlatti days) and a meditative emotionality that threatens to tear through its surface—what Kirkpatrick calls the “closed” and “open” forms of Scarlatti sonatas, and which I am trying to express through contrasting metaphors organic and inorganic. I should add that my sensitivity to the expressivity of eighteenth-century music was probably aided by my father, an accomplished pianist. One of the cornerstones of his repertoire was Bach’s C minor fantasy, a piece I listened to every night for many years alongside the first movement of Beethoven’s “Tempest,” the first movement of his First Piano Concerto, and Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude and Prelude No. 22—all played with my father’s particularly sensitive use of the pedal. Both the choice of Bach piece and the context in which I heard it likely predisposed me to hear Bach—and later, the addition of the K. 9 (“Pastorale”) sonata by Scarlatti, and even the presto K. 517, to my father’s repertoire—as no less expressive than the so-called “really expressive music” of the music of the century that followed.

Of all my recordings of Scarlatti sonatas—which, taken together, encompass about 100 out of the 555 sonatas, some on piano, some on harpsichord, some transcribed for one or two guitars, and several in more than one format—the Schiff disc contains by far the highest proportion of “late” sonatas. It’s probably a combination of the particular sonatas Schiff chose to record and his performance of them that make them sound so “romantic” to me. Quibbles over proper interpretation aside, Schiff’s is the recording that opened up the world of the composer’s music to me, and against which I have tended to measure other interpretations of Scarlatti’s music. For my Scarlatti must be trying to rise above the gloom and fog of a Spanish monastery at the end of a Spanish winter, seeking those endless ray-filled arcades of summer.

As for Kirkpatrick’s Scarlatti: it probably helps that he speaks as a convert, one who went from hearing Scarlatti as ingenious jester to a deeper appreciation of his music. And while I was in no need of conversion, his book did have something of that effect on me: enriching my own appreciation, prompting me to hear the music in new ways, and reminding me of the transformative power of encounters with great music.T

Here ends my grotesque imitation of Farinelli.

 

A  Nor have the few book-length studies published since Kirkpatrick’s added much … except more questions! What were the rules for copying? Who was the scribe? So asks W. Dean Sutcliffe in his 2003 study The Keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti and Eighteenth-Century Musical Style. Sutcliffe also reports that the autographs were destroyed in a fire at El Escorial—those of Seixas and Soler suffered the same fate—i.e., they are irretrievably lost, and with them any other knowledge we might have hoped to gain by their possible discovery. As to the question of public performance: a single letter has emerged suggesting that Scarlatti “performed publicly at the court in Madrid” (73). As Sutcliffe memorably puts it, “What might be crumbs with other composers make meals for the Scarlatti scholar” (69).

For Sutcliffe, the paucity of biographical material is not just a challenge, but an opportunity. “Music,” he writes, “has long invested more capital in biographical portraiture than have the other arts” (2); the assumption being that, since “music is primarily an expression of personality, of emotion, in order to understand the music we must understand the man and his private circumstances” (3). Without the life, we are forced to confront the music, if not on its own terms, then on terms different than the traditional bio-centric approach. The answer is not simply to invert the life/work binary—as Malcolm Boyd does in his Domenico Scarlatti—Master of Music (1986) when he asks, “Can it be doubted that the coruscant textures of Scarlatti’s harpsichord music, its unpredictable turns of phrase and its inexhaustible invention came from a composer with an unusual zest for life and with a genial disposition?” (207) (um … yes, actually, it can be doubted … and that’s the problem!)—but to position the composer more fully in the context of eighteenth-century history and style. Indeed, as Sutcliffe notes, “while the type of contexts sought may have changed [i.e., shifted from biography to culture], there is now a stronger sense that music may not be approached in the raw” (7; my emphasis).

B  Sutcliffe adds that there was a hierarchy of appreciation, with vocal music (Farinelli) on top, and instrumental music (Scarlatti) at bottom. So Scarlatti would have lived in Farinelli’s shadow, just as he would have lived in the shadow of the royal family. Living in so many shadows, how can we possibly hope to see the man?

C  Parma is the name given to one of two most important manuscript copies of Scarlatti’s sonatas. The other is the Venice manuscript. (They are named, as you might have guessed, after the cities where they reside.) While Kirkpatrick surmised that Venice preceded Parma, Malcolm Boyd comes to a different conclusion: with the exception of the Venice volumes copied out in the 1740s, Parma is antecedent, and hence the closest thing to an autograph we have. Sutcliffe contends that between Parma and Venice no one really knows which to privilege.

D  Despite this clear self-consciousness about the difficulties of both his subject and his craft, Kirkpatrick has been taken to task both for being too speculative as a biographer—particularly for overinterpreting the father-son relationship (Sutcliffe 35)—and for “tak[ing] refuge in evocation” (Sutcliffe 8), though this is a broader charge Sutcliffe makes against the entire corpus of Scarlatti criticism, as a response to the dearth of available material. Of course, when there is nothing but space—that Castilian plain!—there are only liberties for the taking. See notes E and T for further discussion.

E  Massimo Bogianckino also shows a predilection for architectural metaphors. What he calls the “arabesque line” of invention recalls “Moorish influence” (The Harpsichord Music of Domenico Scarlatti, 1967 [1956], p. 81). Contrast between the sonatas’ straightfoward beginnings and their more whimsical, inventive later sections Bogianckino compares to the austere steps of some Baroque churches that draw us to explore their animated facades and their flourishes within (82). He connects this to “Arabic taste” and the Spanish Baroque more broadly: a love of ornament and flamboyance that contrasts with the “bare landscape, squalid architecture, social backwardness and poverty” (84).

With this in mind, it’s probably worth taking a moment to ponder Massimo Bogianckino warning against “overindulgence in metaphorical criticism” (131). At one point, Sutcliffe actually blames Kirkpatrick for the “pictorialism” that has sullied writing about Scarlatti (34)—or, more accurately, he blames an “understandable biographical desperation” that therefore seeks a “like” in the composer’s immediate environs. It’s actually not entirely clear whether Sutcliffe blames Kirkpatrick or Scarlatti, whose sonatas’ “supercharged syntax,” Sutcliffe asserts elsewhere, “attract … [a] superlative, straining prose” (38). Whichever the case, it seems rather a lot of lay at the feet of either the writer (no matter how influential—and influence seems to be Sutcliffe’s chief concern) or the composer. Even a glancing familiarity with the history of writing about music would suggest image and metaphor are tried, if perhaps not always true, practices. That said, it is true—and this is the force of Bogianckino’s comment—that they are not always used judiciously.

F  Gino Roncaglia’s observation that “nothing [in Scarlatti] is programmatic, but everything is intensely evocative” (qtd. in Sutcliffe 82) nicely encapsulates the distinction between “Spanish” elements (however we perceive them) laid on cosmetically, and those informing the composing process at the level of conception. (May I lard in one more lovely quotation? “Because his sonatas absorb and transfigure so many of the sounds and sights of the world, and because he treats texture and harmony freely with a view to sonorous effect, Scarlatti’s music may be termed ‘impressionistic’; but it has none of the vagueness of outline that we are apt to associate with that word” (Donald Jay Grout, qtd. in Sutcliffe 81).) Scarlatti, as Sutcliffe puts it, had “a power of imitation unknown to the most refined of programme-music composers.” Bogianckino makes a similar point when he hears in the conclusion one of Scarlatti’s “pastorali” a combination of joy and nostalgia, a “subjective participation” that transmutes program into “genuinely musical terms” (110). (See also note H.)

These statements are worth bearing in mind when reading the extended discussion in the next note (G) about the Spanish elements of Scarlatti’s music. Spanish-music clichés—what Sutcliffe calls “stereotyped local color”—are easy enough for a composer to apply cosmetically, and hence easy enough for an analyst to lift away from the whole. Deep influence—the feeling that the whole of music is so inflected, its “spirit”—is perhaps partly responsible for what Sutcliffe calls “a mode of superlative evocation” (8) in the writing about Scarlatti: the critic is attempting to grasp something that cannot simply be picked off the music’s surface.

G  Malcolm Boyd mentions in passing how little work has been done to explore the assertions, beginning with Burney and his pregones, that Scarlatti’s sonatas are filled with borrowings from Spanish folk music. Even Kirkpatrick, Boyd notes, “makes few attempts to relate the sonatas more precisely to specific types of Spanish folk-songs and dance music.” He was doubtful that new sonatas would be discovered, with the exception of a recently (in 1986) unearthed fandango, which “represents one of the earliest attempts (perhaps the very first) to transfer this particular folk-dance to the aristocratic salon; possibly the composer considered it too ‘raw’ to be included in the queen’s library of harpsichord music” (192).

Boyd does mention a brief article by Jane Clark, “Domenico Scarlatti and Spanish Folk Music,” published in Early Musicin 1976. Approaching Scarlatti from the perspective of a performer in a Spanish folk group, Clark remarks that she does not find the sonatas original or “freakish,” but rather amazingly like the folk music she plays. The sonatas, she asserts, can be better studied and understood in the context of Spanish folk music, and themselves might be of interest to folklorists. Manuel De Falla, she notes, considered Scarlatti “the classic Spanish composer”: while Bizet and Rimsky-Korsakov’s made “Spanish gestures” in rhythm and cadence, De Falla claimed that only Scarlatti had recognized Spanish (and specifically Andalusian) harmony. In fact, what is specific to Scarlatti is Andalucia: not just seguidillas, fandangos, and canarios, which are present in other composers’ oeuvres, but saetas, peteneras, and bulerías. Scarlatti “wrote Andalusian music in the raw,” as Clark beautifully puts it, and was alone among his contemporaries to do so. “I think it is fairly easy,” Clark writes, “for anyone with some knowledge of Spanish folk music to feel the spirit of this music in Scarlatti, but to try and define the letter is more difficult” (19).

A quarter-century later, Peter Manuel would go a long way to “defin[ing] the letter” of the Spanishness of Scarlatti in a brilliant analysis published in the Journal of the American Musicological Society. His article focuses largely on “Phrygian-type cadences on the dominant” in sonatas such as K. 221 and K. 235-6, also apparent in the music of Soler and Santiago de Murcia. Boyd believed the “apparent lack of final cadence” meant the score was incomplete; Kirkpatrick believed the tonic chord was simply left unstated. But Manuel argues these were clearly intentional endings; one Soler manuscript ends with conventional L.D., Laus Deo or Glory to God—to assert anything was missing would be blasphemous! Instead, Manuel, like Clark, suggests studying Scarlatti from the perspective of Andalusian folk music, which exhibits “a distinct type of dual tonicity wherein simple Western polarities of tonic and dominant do not apply” (318). “The pieces cannot be regarded as ending on the dominant, since such an analysis assumes that they are tonal, which they are not […] The D minor and A major chords are best understood as having their own kind of strength and stability, with the A major by convention being slightly more conclusive and stable … ostinatos are better seen as swinging, pendulum-like, between two competing tonal centers” (319). Like the Andalusians, Soler and his contemporaries had a sense of “bimusicality” shared by many Americans who listen to Spanish folkloric music today, based on “the geographical and chronological margins of common-practice tonality” (331). “Gringo” is thus (also) a way of hearing; analysts need to account for the “perceptual habits of listeners experienced in a style system.” Manuel traces this dual tonicity back to the use of IV as “secondary tonal center” in Hijaz and Bayati. He notes that, in Andalusian harmony, even the flat II can be considered a dominant, since it seeks resolution to the tonic. This is not, he emphasizes, akin to the dissolution of harmony by chromatically-inclined composers toward the end of the 19th century, but rather something from the formative period of tonality, “vernacular and guitar-derived,” which followed its own independent trajectory.

Sutcliffe lists a number of features adapted from folk music, and particularly from flamenco, in his analysis of sonatas K. 548 and K. 107: melismatic style, heavy ornamentation, decorated repetition, limited melodic range, portamento vocal effects, privileging of minor keys and Phrygian harmony, “teeth-grinding dissonances” (114), the ninth above the dominant bass, and “narrow clashes in tonal texture” suggesting quarter steps and microtones. He is surprised by Scarlatti’s capacity to incorporate these elements into courtly music. But he also emphasizes that these elements appear in contrasting contexts, to the point that they sound parodic of the “exotic” style, a style which Scarlatti also stylizes in his adaptation. Maybe, Sutcliffe speculates, the interest in folk music operated beyond individual appropriation and “encouraged a sense of the contingency of musical style altogether” (120)? (For more on this last point, see note K.)

The question of the influence of folk music on Scarlatti’s style becomes more complex when we consider that he was not simply a court composer with an ear attuned to the music of the streets, but an Italian immigrant who made Iberia his adopted home. Boyd believed that it is “possible to exaggerate the relevance of the Spanish experience” (180), noting that some progressions critics have labeled “Spanish” might actually have their origins in Italian music Scarlatti would have been familiar with from earlier in his life. As such, he suggested expanding the range of study to include Neapolitan, rather than solely Spanish, popular music. Bogianckino, too, argued for expanding the range of Scarlatti’s folk influences to include Italy, noting that some elements scholars have associated with Spanish guitar, particularly tremolo and an effect like the lowering of a closed hand upon the strings, he believes find a closer analog in the “persistent, querulous and transparent sound quality typical of the mandoline”: “Neapolitan transparency, rather than agitated Spanish restlessness” (103-4), characterizes these effects. Bogianckino also hears nostalgia for Italy in Scarlatti’s pastorales, and approvingly cites Longo’s observation connecting one such sonata to a Neapolitan or Abruzzi pastoral of the Christmas novena (109). Finally, he compares some of the sonatas to commedia dell’Arte—both the music and the acrobatics required of the keyboardist—performed in public squares (85). (All these Italian echoes make one wonder why there wasn’t an Argentinian Scarlatti cult instead of an English one!)

Questions of influence are yet further complicated by interference between courtly and popular styles and instruments. Sutcliffe, for example, notes that Scarlatti may have responded to courtly guitar (e.g., Santiago de Murcia) as much as to popular … and—just in case we need to muddle the geographical vectors yet more—courtly guitar was particularly popular in France (81). There is also some question as to whether the Andalusian cadences mentioned in Manuel’s article might descend from modal, a capella church music and the slow movements of Italian concertos. Add to all this that Naples was under Spanish rule (Sutcliffe), and the whole very fraught question of how Scarlatti’s Italian heritage, Spanish environs, and the broader European courtly context interact becomes a tangled morass.

But wait! There’s more! For even within Spanish music there are myriad complexities, as Clark suggests when she points to the specifically Andalusian elements of Scarlatti’s sonatas. Nor—despite a global tendency to conflate the two—is Andalusian folk music flamenco, which Sutcliffe notes is more “more introverted, tense and highly ornamented than traditional popular forms” (110). (Never mind that, as Sutcliffe also reminds us, the music wouldn’t be referred to as “flamenco” until after Scarlatti’s death.). And of course, even were we able to untangle all the skeins of influence—Andalusian, Iberian, Italian, courtly, and popular—we would still not know why Scarlatti’s folk borrowings are so much more “intense” than the “idealized folk styles that were acceptable enough for court consumption” (Sutcliffe 112). Was it, Sutcliffe asks, because the queen loved to dance? Could the royals even tell? (For an illuminating discussion of this question with regard to social class, see Sutcliffe, p. 112.)

(N.B.: This “why,” to which Sutcliffe returns several times in his text, ended up grating on me. It seemed more intended to unsettle any and all received wisdom than to be taken at face value. Isolation, for example, seems like a perfectly good reason for Scarlatti’s originality. But for Sutcliffe this does not “explain” Scarlatti any more than it does Haydn. “Other composers placed in similar circumstances would not have been able to react in the alleged manner” (33). Well, of course. How high does Sutcliffe really want to set the biographer’s bar? With these sorts of questions, any biographer might as well give up in “desperation.”)

With all this Spanishness in mind, it seems important to conclude this extended note with a caveat (pace Sutcliffe) about essentializing nationhood. Leonard Meyer: “A composer’s representation of [folk or national] sounds is always partly dependent upon prevalent cultural traditions for ‘hearing’ and conceptualizing the phenomenon in question […] We are in no position to assess the form taken by folk idioms well over two hundred years ago and should not extrapolate back on the basis of knowledge of later examples” (qtd. in Sutcliffe 107). Sutcliffe adds that “folk elements cannot really be heard at all until they are brought into a high-cultural context and thus given a basis for comparison.” In this way, the objection that we don’t “know enough” about the actual folk music of Scarlatti’s time is rendered moot; you can’t remove “later accretions” to uncover some original folk style; such a style is always a product of the way these elements are heard, translated, and integrated into a “high-cultural context”; and as such, “authenticity is not essential to the experience of such music in the sphere of high art” (108). Elements that we come to hear as expressions of folk nationalism are constructs, whatever their relationship to some imagined, unrecoverable folk/national essence. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the rest of Europe’s Orientalist attitude toward Spain—and likely my own as well!—has played into the desire to find a Spanish “essence.” The Spanish, not surprisingly, have been defensive about the issue of “Spanishness” in Scarlatti’s music, and about his influence in Iberia. Sutcliffe even accuses Spanish musicologists of retreating into an essentialism that is not easily distinguishable from the Black Legend, an example of the way “the members of a marginalized culture collude in its essentialization” (67).

Sutcliffe includes a provocative quote from Linton Powell about the music of Joaquin Rodriguez, who, for Powell, “tends to carry on figurations and sequences much too long and to wander harmonically with no clear sense of a tonal goal. Anyone who has examined Spanish keyboard music of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries will find these ‘faults’ […] They appear to be native Spanish traits, endemic to the music”—traits that, Powell speculates, are a holdover from “centuries of intimate exposure to an alien Near Eastern culture” (qtd. in Sutcliffe 120). Sutcliffe’s gloss is revealing: “If this seems to collude too easily with the essentializing of the land of mañana, one simply has to have played through some of the figures of Albero and Soler […] To this Westerner at least, the gigantic sequences one finds may be exotically enticing, but they can equally be infuritating and upsetting, so implacably do they continue on their way” (121). For a discussion of this putative Spanish “passive attitude to time,” see note M.

H  The distinction between a cosmetic and a germinal interaction with Spanish folk music is nowhere better expressed than with regard to dance. Sutcliffe’s observation that very few of the sonatas are identified with a particular dance, despite eighteenth-century custom—think of any Bach suite—is illuminating. Dance, he asserts, is “an impulse” rather than a form; not a template or rhythm for the composer to imitate, but rather something that permeates every aspect of the music. Kirkpatrick’s note that the sonatas are “ruled … by the sense of bodily movement” is echoed by what Sutcliffe calls the music’s “transcendent physicality.” At the same time, Sutcliffe is careful not to “sentimentalize wildness”; instead, sonatas like K. 305 and K. 262 “are idealistically irregular, expressing the blur of activity, the frenzy, the exhiliration of bodily movement.” As with Kirkpatrick, this sense informs Sutcliffe’s comments on proper performance. “The performer should not hold back,” he writes. There is an “anxiety” that “‘the music’ may be swallowed up by physical gesture and, in being so, somehow lose its integrity; yet in Scarlatti’s particular case, the novelty lies particularly in the way in which dance gesture can be foregrounded and become ‘the music’” (286; my emphasis).

Bogianckino, too, consistently connects the sonatas to the “frenzied dance rhythms of folk-music colour”; even the pauses are “choreographic,” like a dancer holding a pose. He writes, “It almost seems possible to add the attribute ‘rhythmic’ to every single element going into the making of a Scarlatti sonata, so great is the rhythmic fancy running through the whole texture of it, with its light palpitation or its frenzied pulse” (79). Boyd adds that the “transcendent physicality” of the sonatas may help explain why keyboardists are overrepresented as fans of Scarlatti’s music. (See notes P and S for further discussion of Scarlatti in performance.)

N.B.: It is somewhat unclear to me to what extent high and late Romantics were familiar with Scarlatti’s music, except for Brahms, into whose hands the Vienna manuscript (containing 308 sonatas) came. This historical aside has made me wonder to what extent Brahms’s incredible rhythmic sense is attributable to his contact with the “violent [Iberian] rhythms” of Scarlatti’s oeuvre. I found myself crying out in agreement with Malcolm Boyd, who praises Scarlatti’s “rhythmic wit […] as well as passages of cross-rhythm almost worthy of Brahms” (188).

I  There is a certain discomfort, Sutcliffe suggests, with Scarlatti’s prolificness, and one way it has been justified is by claiming the sonatas were improvised. (That they were merely to be used for instruction is another; see note N). Sutcliffe, however, notes that keyboard music of the time was “looser,” and the “sonatas may have been dictated improvisations” (41). As Charles Rosen noted, improvisation was everywhere in the 18th century, not just the keyboard (Sutcliffe).

J  It is the quixotic assertion of late composition that has been most attacked and discredited. Malcolm Boyd, for example, agrees with what he calls Kirkpatrick’s “general theory,” i.e., that the order of sonatas in the two main manuscripts (Parma and Venice) is largely chronological. But he is not convinced by the “special theory” of late flowering, finding it incredible that Scarlatti would not have been composing in the fifteen years between the publication of the Essercizi and the beginning of copying out of the sonatas. Stylistic analysis, Boyd suggests, is a double-edged sword. (It can be illuminating, though, if carefully applied; he notes that certain ranges of the sonatas employ a particular stylistic feature, which then disappears; stylistic features can also be compared with other music for which dates of composition are secure.) Bogianckino similarly finds the special theory “incredible,” citing, among other things, a letter that suggests Scarlatti’s fame had already begun to spread across Europe as early as 1703, and Burney’s claim that Scarlatti was already known for his “freakish” sonatas half a century his 1773 publication of The Present State of Music in Germany (135). He too finds the stylistic evidence contradictory. Unlike Boyd, however, he refuses to endorse even the special theory, or to weigh in on the “thorny” matter of the sonatas’ chronology.

Interestingly, Jane Clark swings the pendulum of the special theory all the way to the other side. She suggests that the chronology of composition was disordered in the copying out of the sonatas, because Scarlatti left Seville in 1733, and many of the “Spanish” sonatas she mentions appear later in the chronology. “What seems more probable,” she writes, “is that he wrote a great many of them, and I would almost dare say most of them [but then you just did], during his first four years in Spain, the years he spent under the spell of the music of Andalucia” (21). I am flummoxed by Clark’s logic here. What is there to suggest that the impressions of Andalucia did not remain in Scarlatti’s memory after he left that region? Had Scarlatti gone to Andalucia only later in his life, then we might have a good benchmark for periodizing. But given that the composer began his Spanish sojourn in the south, there is little we can extrapolate. Either Seville made him belt out sonatas flamencas like mad, or the sound stayed with him after he left. More likely it was both. Clark’s comment that more “timid” and more “confident” attempts at Spanish music stand next to each other is so subjective as to be meaningless. (Assuming her feeling is correct—however one would assert this—it could simply be that the composer was able to more fully realize an idea on a second attempt  … or a first one. Hence one problem with stylistic analysis. We might ask for the same consistency from the stories of Maupassant, or the songs of Schubert (see note I). (Cf. Sanford Friedman’s beautiful realization of that composer’s visit to the dying Beethoven, criticizing his own earlier songs for being “longwinded,” and asking the maestro, “You didn’t find the ringing of the convent bells [in ‘The Young Nun’] overdone?” (Conversations with Beethoven, p. 245)—a wonderful irony, as Beethoven would have no more been able to actually hear Schubert’s works than his own later ones. I love to imagine Scarlatti asking the same question of … who? “Don’t you think that guitar-strumming effect at the beginning of K. whatever is a little … heavy?”)

Sutcliffe puts Kirkpatrick’s theories in the context of the history of music criticism. For Sutcliffe, Kirkpatrick falls prey to a master narrative—one that subscribes to what Warren Dwight Allen called “the ideology of progress,” where “individual works are made to tell a story [about the composer’s development] in which they function merely as pieces of evidence” (Sutcliffe 4): the arc of a composer’s (and really any artist’s) life beginning with flashy, youthful works, moving on to a rich middle period, and concluding with a “digested maturity,” where “everything is at once thinner and richer” (the phrases are Kirkpatrick’s). (See also p. 279 for a fascinating discussion of “liberation” from virtuosity, which involves a movement away “not just from the physical body, but from sonority itself” (280). Indeed, the shadow of Beethoven’s genius is a long one, and cast both backward and forward in time!) (N.B.: I confess that this model has always appealed to me; see, for example, “Arcless; or, Pure Dirt” (12.29.13).) It almost goes without saying that Sutcliffe finds Kirkpatrick’s “special theory” ludicrous. But like Clark, he also questions the chronology of the manuscripts, finding little or no stylistic evidence for pairing: the pairs are a product of compilation, not composition. Perhaps the compilers consciously created the “periods” which would-be biographers then retroactively project onto the composer’s life? While there is a “middle period” that seems different (V 5-7), Sutcliffe suggests these works might have been written for a new pupil. In other words, Scarlatti was not undergoing an organic process of maturation, but rather adapting to the external circumstances of his profession. (To be fair, we should recall that some of Kirkpatrick’s theories about Scarlatti’s “evolution” as a composer are also keyed to (speculated) external circumstances.) Sutcliffe is also unconvinced that Kirkpatrick’s other yardstick, keyboard size, can help date Scarlatti’s compositions.

K  I’m taking yet another page from Borges’s book here—one of the countless I’ve torn from the author’s Babelian library—by creating an apocryphal section, an endnote without a parent. Here, the source is one of my favorite stories: “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” And it has to be K! The first letter of Kirkpatrick’s name; the letter that accompanies the best-known and most-used of the four (count ‘em) different catalogs of sonatas; the letter that symbolizes the scholarly legacy Sutcliffe and so many others have grappled with. If I must give it a name, I will call the ghost parent-section “Scarlatti,” the quotes signifying not title, but euphemism.

For Sutcliffe, Scarlatti lends himself particularly well to contemporary musicological study because of his self-reflexive style, a style birthed in part by his ever-changing life circumstances and environs, which made him “conscious of styles, of various options for musical conduct.” Scarlatti, he writes, “ma[d]e a virtue out of not belonging, or not wanting to belong” (8). While Sutcliffe notes that self-consciousness is not unique to Scarlatti, in Scarlatti “none of the styles or modes of utterance of which he avails himself seems to be called home” (8).

Malcolm Boyd believed that Scarlatti’s more “intimate, refined and even soul-searching” sonatas have been overlooked because the fast, dynamic ones tend to be more popular. Sutcliffe argues that this has led performers to over-emphasize the slower sonatas, and to slow down their tempos, “invest[ing] their performances with what seems to me a false gravitas” to “make the composer sound more serious” (10). To be fair, Sutcliffe blames this on a cultural propensity to equate slow with serious, and vice-versa; and he goes on to distance Scarlatti from such discursive models, proposing bodily expression—dance—in its place, and suggesting as well that there is no reason for bodily expression to occupy the subordinate position in the binary.

Be that as it may, the comment about “false gravitas” rankles. Sutcliffe, it seems, cannot allow the possibility “true” gravitas if he wants to paint Scarlatti as a self-reflexive proto-postmodernist. But why shouldn’t the realities of exile and homelessness, of the seasonal calvary in tow of the royal family, allow for actual pathos? Why remove from Scarlatti the possibility of tragedy—or, for that matter, what Bogianckino called “genuine, not baroque, laughter”? In attempting to rescue Scarlatti from the clown-image that has pursued him through history, even by calling into question cultural biases about tempo and bodily expression, Sutcliffe seems to want to substitute the jester who is making fun of us. Given the madness of the king, this is admittedly appealing … but also sadly limiting.

In Scarlatti’s “mixed style” (109) Sutcliffe, like others before him, hears wit, distance, and self-reflexive practice; it explains why Sutcliffe, rather than wanting to smooth out differences, militates for emphasizing the clash and clang between court and street, galant and baroque, mannered Italian and “violent Iberian rhythms,” and a kitchen sink’s worth of other binaries, all of which “encourag[ed] … [a] sort of fruitful creative schizophrenia” (15; my emphasis). In K. 277, for example, Sutcliffe hears “the brutal interruption of the galant melodic style” (15). In another, K. 398, rather than subordinating the drones, parallel melodic intervals, repetition, and simple keys typical of the pastorale, Scarlatti calls the listener’s attention to them (87). In all cases, Sutcliffe focuses on how Scarlatti contextualizes elements “to exaggerate [their] difference,” or inserts them into “contexts that suggest the impossibility of [their] artistic presence” (109). Scarlatti is thus the consummate self-reflexive composer, consciously playing with and undermining generic form; Longo, by editing out all the musical smut (“harmonic asperities, as Boyd terms them), “attempt[ed] to provide the sort of generic security that most of the sonatas conspicuously deny” (85).

Sutcliffe makes a similar argument about Scarlatti and counterpoint: not that the composer did not know how to follow the rules, but that he deliberately flouted them. Sutcliffe’s broadside on K. 254 is memorable: a kind of “skit on counterpoint,” he calls it “an invention gone wrong,” “lame,” “much messier than it sounds,”  “unsuccessful,” “pompous,” “uncertain,” “inconsequential,” “going around in circles,” with a tendency (this well beyond K. 254) to “embarrass … the contemporary performer”; “nonsense,” “annoy[ing],” “exhausting,” and exhibiting “intermittent ugliness and sprawl”—all this in the space of about a page. All in all, it asks the question “what we [?] are prepared to accept in the name of art music” (18). But all this is recuperated as “satire” and “mock ineptitude”—in other words, conscious rebellion: again, a Scarlatti who did not want to belong. (To be fair, we should bear in mind the context for this discussion: a letter to the Duke of Huescar in which Scarlatti argues for a decline in “compositional standards” and paints himself as the standard-bearer of the “rules of counterpoint.” Sutcliffe reads this letter as ironic; it is against this letter that he analyzes sonata K. 254.) It’s also probably also worth noting here that Bogianckino called the composer a “contrapuntal master,” and suggests that his style is wrongly viewed “through the distorting lens of the Fugues of Bach” (124); Scarlatti’s teacher, as he tongue-in-cheekly puts it, was “unable to fill him with the reverential fear” of parallel fifths (123). Where Sutcliffe hears irony, Bogianckino hears contrarian innovation. See note O.)

It’s no wonder Mark Kroll, in his review of Sutcliffe’s book for Notes, got the impression Sutcliffe doesn’t like Scarlatti much (e.g., “He considers Scarlatti’s music to be crude, ugly, compulsive, and perhaps even mentally unbalanced” (146)), even as he points to the irony that such characterizations are offset by “numblingly thorough note-by-note” analyses that rather suggest deep appreciation. But I think Kroll misses the point here. Sutcliffe may not like Scarlatti, but he clearly loves the “Scarlatti” he fabricates from his analyses and sets to a sort of mechanical laughter at his harpsichord, at his own oeuvre and the history of its reception. Is this not very much the Scarlatti for our (sneering) historical moment? It suggests that those of us who have been moved by Scarlatti’s music are, in essence, deaf to its real meaning: while we weep in the front row, Scarlatti is winking over our heads at Sutcliffe, sitting behind and (of course) a little above us.

That Sutcliffe also claims to hear in the sonatas a “democratic openness” to “any and all sounds” (37), “a carnivalesque inclusion of the whole (musical) world” (123)—indeed, one section of the book is titled “Heteroglossia”—seems to contradict his other assertion, that “none of these styles … seemed to be called home” (my emphasis). Why not say instead that he considered all of these styles home? Why not, that is, emphasize the open, expansive, world-embracing Scarlatti instead of, or at least as much as, the witty, sneering, world-destroying Scarlatti? Perhaps the problem is a false dichotomy between self-reflexivity and “stereotyped local color,” as though a third option—recognition of the expressive potential of his musical surroundings, and a predisposition to allow them to infuse his composing process at a germinal level—did not exist.

Sutcliffe treads gingerly around the question of Scarlatti’s personality, noting the difficulty of drawing conclusions from the few shards of the life and the quicksand foundation of his music; the composer’s putative shyness, for example, is a “way of making positive sense of the absence of information we are faced with” (35). And yet, even cautiously, he is not averse to making negative sense of Scarlatti from his music, such as when he imagines the man to have been “unstable or even schizophrenic.” (See note M.) Is Sutcliffe mocking the “biographical desperation” (34) of those who seek to psychologize the man from a few notes, and hence emulating the postmodern mockery of the Scarlatti he creates for us? In the same way he notes that the music promotes a “superlative, straining prose” in many critics, perhaps only the ur-self-reflexive critic can come to grips with the ur-self-reflexive composer …

One last thought: one also finds in Sutcliffe a certain ambivalence about binaries; he gleefully dismantles them, and just as quickly re-erects them, or erects new ones in their place. As a scholar, one is helpless but to keep invoking binaries as one writes; they are the hydra of all intellectual activity, always staying one step ahead of the critic’s Heraclean blade—the (admittedly fascinating, and occasionally even fruitful) cul-de-sac of deconstruction. One gets the sense—and this is much broader than Sutcliffe—that, after the ritual obsequities to postmodern limitations and handle-with-care labels on all invoked binaries and master narratives, it’s business as usual; we’re just neurotic about it.

L  Until Sutcliffe, the idea that Scarlatti composed the sonatas in pairs seems to have been accepted wisdom—and may be still, since, beyond Kroll’s laudatory but also somewhat jaundiced review, I have not explored how his monograph was received by the community of eighteenth-century music scholars. Now, for those keyboardists today who are still persuaded that the pairs are a product of the composer’s intention, another question arises: were they intended to be performed as pairs as well? Like so much about Scarlatti, it remains an open question. Maybe best to follow Boyd here, who believed the composer took a hands-off approach; we might be happy enough to do the same today. But Boyd is also right to interrogate the nature and context of the sonatas’ performance in Scarlatti’s time, particularly since the vast majority of the sonatas were not published (according to him, a total of 73 sonatas were published during the composer’s lifetime, and only in France and England; they were unpublished in Italy or Spain). Who, besides the composer, might have performed them? In front of what sort of audience, in what setting, and with what expectations?

In both recitals and recordings, keyboardists have tended to follow Boyd’s advice. Pairings are rare, and almost unheard in performance. On my own recordings, only Schiff’s 1992 disc privileges them: 12 of the 15 sonatas on this recording are paired. Of my dozen or so other recordings of Scarlatti’s music, there are only two examples of paired sonatas—and one is on another Schiff recording (I could not find a date on it). The fact that Schiff’s disc was my initiation into Scarlatti’s music may explain why I tend to think of the pairs as natural.

In all, maybe we would do best to make lemonade from the lemons of the historical vacuum, as Kathleen Dale does: “Playing all the Scarlatti sonatas is ‘like journeying in a land where it is always spring’” (qtd. in Sutcliffe 45). It is liberating to imagine we don’t need to know the grand arc of the composer’s life, or the context in which the sonatas were meant to be performed—including the context of Scarlatti’s own oeuvre—to appreciate them. Each is luminous, self-sufficient, always fresh. Why subject them to the vicissitudes of monastical fires, careless or inventive scribes, etc.?

M  Much of the critical debate around Scarlatti’s compositions centers on his predilection for short, repetitive, highly rhythmic passages. In an unpublished dissertation from which Sutcliffe draws, Joel Sheveloff coined the term “vamp” to describe them. Sutcliffe defines them this way: “those apparently non-thematic, obsessively repetitive passages that occur frequently in the sonatas” (23). Kroll calls the term “unfortunate.”

Haters contend that these phrases are overrepetitive and disconnected from the sonata. Sutcliffe, in fact, unites these two criticisms, speculating that the “vamps” “may […] be conceived of as an effort to overcome the sectionalized syntax of the work” (23), echoing a point of Bogianckino’s (“a tiny rhythmic or melodic idea recurs to knit together the scattered fragments” (126; see also p. 60)). He similarly argues that the sonatas’ openings are “offhand” and have little to do with “the creative ‘idea’ of the work” (19). When Glenn Gould describes the sonatas as “scampering from one scintillating sequence to the next” and full of “predictable discontinuit[ies]”(14), he is voicing a similar criticism about dis-integration; and one hears a faint echo of the same point in Sheveloff’s comment that “Scarlatti’s style is composed of ‘an abundance of tiny, special details’” (qtd. in Sutcliffe 39). As noted, editors have shortened or otherwise “finessed” these passages; Sutcliffe, not surprisingly, “argue[s] for naked insistence” (24; see note K). This is a point with which Kroll’s review takes issue, finding these passages “active” and “vital,” and certainly not “non-thematic” (147).

(There is an interesting converse to this: critics tend to look at the sonatas according to what Sutcliffe dubs “the panorama tradition”: Scarlatti’s work “suggest[s] a more or less deliberately coordinated whole,” “a controlling world view behind the entire production of the sonatas” (36); Giorgio Pestelli called them “a single continuous poem with more than five hundred verses” (qtd. in Sutcliffe 27). Individual dis-integration is thus subsumed under a more general totality; the author-function, not “rhythmic pedals” or “vamps,” seals the cracks. Sutcliffe’s contention here is that this “tradition” tends to avoid close attention to and analysis of individual sonatas, a lacuna his book studiously attempts to fill.)

On the question of dis/integration we would do well to remember the examples of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 29 (Op. 106, “Hammerklavier”) and String Quartet in B-flat (Op. 133), about which Maynard Solomon writes in “The Sense of an Ending,” one of the best essays in his Late Beethoven (California UP, 2003). In both cases, Beethoven either volunteered or acquiesced to the dismantling of his own compositions: the “Hammerklavier” was published in London as a 3-movement sonata, the last movement published as a separate work; the quartet originally featured the Grosse Fugue as its finale, but on the request of a publisher Beethoven wrote a new closing movement, eventually publishing the Grosse Fugue separately (Op. 133). Writes Solomon, “To take Beethoven seriously”—that is, to not rationalize these as evidence of the composer’s eccentricity, hypersensitivity, need for cash, etc.—“would suggest that he may have held a different view from our own concerning the formal integrity of his music. […] Can an aesthetic object like the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata or the Missa solemnis be subdivided or rearranged and still survive as a work of art? […] Certainly these revisions—if that is what they ought to be called—undermine notions of the organic perfection of Beethoven’s greater works. After all, the replacement of the Gross Fugue may be circumstantial evidence of the noninevitability of Beethoven’s structures” (214-5). Overall, “The question of what constitutes a finished work is thrown open” (215). I am taking liberties with Solomon’s argument, since his intention here is to closely analyze these issues in Beethoven’s later works, by examining the composer’s process, among other things. Yet, it’s difficult to read this essay without wanting to apply the analysis much more broadly. Fiction writers are fond of saying the task of a story is to make the possible seem inevitable. Is music any different? To what extent are “formal integrity,” “organic perfection,” and “inevitability” constructions of critical reception? Does anyone really believe that Beethoven’s works could have been thus, and no other, as a dashing young Leonard Bernstein once claimed for his TV audience? To what extent does canonization function as one giant appeal to ethos (for Aristotle the most important argumentative appeal), welding together not just all the works with each other, but within themselves as well?

As for the second criticism, repetition: the whole discourse around vamps (or whatever), and even around calling them vamps, suggests there remains an enormous discomfort with repetition in classical music, as well as with classical’s relationship to jazz and pop music. This dis-ease about repetition has very deep philosophical and cultural roots. The language of the debate here is suggestive: Sutcliffe’s comment about the flamenco-inspired “intoxicating monotony” (120) of K. 404 suggests the activation of unruly pleasure centers in the brain that subvert the reasoning faculty. When Sutcliffe asserts that the vamp in this sonata “cannot sustain the listener’s attention,” so that “we may find ourselves listening to the passing of time and becoming lost in the mechanics of the pattern” (120), he is giving voice to this same art-music assumption about repetition. A key word here is attention: Sutcliffe means the structural attention one is supposed to bring to classical music, did not the “idiot repetitions” (283) threaten to overthrow our reason. Similarly, the idea that the listener becomes “lost in the mechanics of the pattern” suggests at once a bewildered listener and a superficial listening practice. Indeed, the terror here seems to be that we might actually take pleasure in things our enlightened minds tell us are grotesque or idiotic; and that pleasure, simple pleasure, may prompt up to ask for it again … more often than is seemly. Indeed, the minimalists and the tape-loop experimenters of postwar America were radical in a way those of us who grew up listening even partly to riff-based rock and samples-based pop can’t even begin to imagine.

It is also suggestive that this terror (I don’t think the term is too strong) of repetition folds back onto a terror of representation—that is, art music’s inability to represent, to contain, folk music, and to what extent said representation might destabilize or even dismantle the closely-guarded generic boundaries of art music. In K. 502, for example, Sutcliffe hears “a straining toward something that cannot be expressed in the notation, that is quite beyond the comprehension of the world of high art” (119); among other things, Scarlatti is trying to capture “the metrical complexity of flamenco rhythms.” Is the terror here the ultimate failure of art music to represent the living idiom—the fear that classical music is, like El Escorial, a giant tomb? Is it the terror of allowing folk “irrationality” into art music’s ornamented symmetry, of bathing in the waters of the unconscious without drowning? (Sutcliffe notes that folk music is actually more regular and ordered than art music.) Or is it rather that, as Sutcliffe contends about national essences, there is no essence there to represent? Just like we look to the composer’s life for a stable reference point—a reference point denied us with Scarlatti—so we look to folk “essence” as another yardstick against which to measure Scarlatti’s music, an essence that exist only as posterior constructions that can point to nothing beyond themselves. (See note G.)

When Sutcliffe asks whether “the compulsive, repetitive, unstable behavior of the vamp sections [might] owe something to such royal example?” (33)—that is, the example of a king who believed he had been turned into a frog, and would shit his bed and then wallow in it (Sutcliffe 33)—it leaves me little to wonder what he makes of much contemporary music and musical culture. We of course live in a time of not just repetitive music, but repetitive listening, promoted by the abundance of recorded music and technology that allows us to easily skip backward and forward. What “royal example” do we follow?

N  Boyd prefers the term “Lessons” (“Essercizi”) to “sonatas,” as he believes the latter term gives the mistaken impression that Scarlatti’s works are somehow classical sonatas in embryo, rather than something of Scarlatti’s own invention, and much closer to the dance pieces that form the suites of his baroque contemporaries. In fact, both Kirkpatrick and Boyd are careful to back away from teleology: in discussing the similarities between Scarlatti’s binary form and, say, a Beethoven sonata, Kirkpatrick notes that the comparison is not intended to suggest that the former paved the way for the latter. Boyd is even more adamant about the discontinuity.

Bogianckino adds an important caveat here: “Essercizi” was used to describe many pieces not intended for instruction (116). (Such a misunderstanding of their purpose has hampered their appreciation: if one believes they are primarily for “training,” the implication is that they lack “inner content” (Sutcliffe 43).) Their publication suggests he composed not just for Maria Barbara, but also for a wider public. “Either the term is a standard one expressing humbleness,” Bogianckino writes, “or is intended to mean the pleasing exercise of an art that can only bring delight through skill and the understanding of it” (116). Nor are the sonatas intentional about addressing technical problems, in the way that, say, Chopin’s etudes are. In other words: they are neither “lessons” nor “sonatas,” as we tend to conceive of these terms today. They are Scarlatti!

O  According to Bogianckino, Scarlatti’s attitude was by no means aberrant: a “hedonistic esthetics,” the idea that the best art was “the one that most delighted the ear” (13), was common in Italy during the first half of the eighteenth century, as evidenced by many composers’ prefaces and dedications. “Art,” Bogianckino writes, “fulfilled its moral mission by pursuing pleasure” (18), and the composer “claim[ed] his right to express himself according to a new freedom in composition and not keeping to abstract rules that had become oppressive and irksome” (106). While Scarlatti’s innovations could only be justified if they gave pleasure, this clearly did not rule out the bold dissonances in which the composer delighted (41). (Cf. another lovely tidbit from the Burney: “As nature had given him ten fingers, and as his instrument had employment for them all, he saw no reason why he should not use them” (qtd. in Bogianckino 41).

Sutcliffe, too, puts Scarlatti’s “militant creative disdain” in historical context, arguing that the sixty-year interregnum between the “unraveling” of the Baroque and the establishment of a Classical style would have presented something of an opportunity for Scarlatti to “dare to … give way to his fancy,” as Burney put it. He also cautions scholars against taking the famous preface to the Essercizi—or any such document by a composer—too much at its word: “It is fatally easy to allow composers’ pronouncements to dictate the terms for the reception of their music” (74); such documents should be understood as attempts at “public ‘staging’,” not “artistic creed” (75). To read the Scarlatti’s preface as a “unique declaration of his art” is thus to ignore its context. And while it was common, Sutcliffe notes, for composers to engage in such epistolary groveling, it was also common for them to emphasize the referenced work’s gravity. The preface even seems to contradict the occasion of its publication: the conferring of knighthood. Recent interpretations of the preface are divided between those who have been “culturally conditioned” by the composer’s historical reception to take his display of modesty at face value on the one hand (i.e., Scarlatti is admitting that, unlike Bach, his compositions lack depth … and so he has been received), and those who see it as a “modernist refutation of traditional techniques and aesthetic attitudes” a la Burney on the other (76). Instead, Sutcliffe contends that the preface is a decoy; like the title Essercizi, it is “mock-ingenuous,” paralleling the “ironic gap between the claimed modesty and the arrogant fluency […] of the technical-musical contents” (77).

Whether Romantic paean to artistic freedom or one more example of Scarlatti’s nimble fencing with public perception, for me the most tantalizingly ambiguous word in the Burney anecdote that spawned this endnote is pleasing. What Bogianckino calls “overtones of heart-rending melancholy” (97) Sutcliffe calls “teeth-grinding dissonances.” Hence the problem: one listener’s rent heart is another’s ground teeth. For his part, Boyd claims that Scarlatti “clearly relish[es] the discords [in this case, 5-4 suspensions] for their percussive effect” (183; my emphasis). And don’t we? Perhaps we need to be reminded that tension, musical or otherwise, is not necessarily unpleasant. Anyway, the metaphorically polarized reactions to Scarlatti’s dissonances remind us the extent to which the aesthetics of listening is at once culturally constructed and deeply personal. Bogianckino’s historical gloss on the term “mordent” forms a nice coda to this discussion: it’s called a mordent “because it is like the bite of a tiny animal which, as soon as it has bitten, leaves, and does not hurt …” (Gasparini, qtd. in Bogianckino 124; my emphasis). Why not say, “… and is actually quite pleasing”?

P Harpsichord, clavichord, and piano all coexisted throughout the eighteenth century, and they sounded more alike than they do today (Sutcliffe). As such, the question of whether and to what extent harpsichord actually was Scarlatti’s instrument of choice has become—like pretty much everything else—unsettled. Was Scarlatti’s oeuvre really the “final flowering of harpsichord,” Sutcliffe asks? Or were the sonatas regularly played on one of Maria Barbara’s fortepianos? (Bogianckino notes that pianos were sent to the Spanish court from Florence; some of these were converted into harpsichords.) Sutcliffe tells us that “there is strong circumstantial evidence linking Scarlatti with the history and promulgation of the early fortepiano” (4); some have even called Scarlatti “the piano’s first greatest advocate.” Others think piano was used only for accompaniment. Again, the fact that Scarlatti was composing in a transitional moment—here not between ascendant schools but ascendant keyboard instruments—helps explain why he has fallen between the cracks of both performance and scholarship. Sadly, both pianists and harpsichordists have shied away from Scarlatti, each for their own reasons. As Hermann Keller laments: “If only both sides would play him at all!” (qtd. in Sutcliffe 49). (Sutcliffe adds another “crack”: Scarlatti’s bi-nationality. National consciousness about a composer goes hand-in-hand with institutional support; Scarlatti, as he puts it, “lacks the weight of an entire culture industry behind him” (5).)

As to why so many harpsichordists have ignored Scarlatti: Sutcliffe believes it is because they tend to be too proper to grasp Scarlatti’s witty style—a “spiritual antiquarianism” (29) he associates with the early music movement, and that drains the sonatas of performative presence. It is a point that echoes nicely the rigidity Kirkpatrick decries in the performance of eighteenth-century music, but here under the new guise of militant authenticity. (N.B.: Sutcliffe does note that Wanda Landowska was an admirer. It’s hard for me not to hear Landowska as the obvious choice for Scarlatti; I only know her via my parents’ record of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, a piece whose openness and playfulness perfectly mirrors the “ever-changing free musical fantasy” (66) Bogianckino and others hear in the “free” sections of Scarlatti’s sonatas. With the exception of the Brandenburg Concertos, Landowska’s was the only harpsichord I ever heard until I tried to find harpsichord recordings of Scarlatti.)

About those harpsichordists who do play Scarlatti, Sutcliffe can be quite withering, particularly about their rhythmic liberties; in his review, Mark Kroll strikes back that “rubato and individual interpretation” contribute much to the pleasure of listening to the sonatas. I would tend to agree with Kroll. Why shouldn’t the performance of Scarlatti’s sonatas mirror what Sutcliffe called the “democratic openness” of his compositions?  Or at least, given the unsettledness of the debate about Scarlatti’s primary instrument, the equanimity that Horowitz displayed in his liner notes to the record that led the Assad brothers to their sublime two-guitar transcriptions? The pianist, Horowitz writes, “should not attempt to imitate a harpsichord too much, neither should he use all the resources of the piano which would destroy the style of the music.” Come to think of it, that’s not so different from what Kirkpatrick said, though spoken from the shore of the other keyboard.

For someone who was introduced to Scarlatti on the piano, and has listened to his music almost exclusively on the piano, the unsettledness is heartening. But why should it be? Why should the contemporary listener breathe a sigh of relief just because scholars now say, “Don’t worry. They were probably composed for the piano”? Again, it partakes of that strange fantasy that the harpsichord allows us more direct, “authentic” contact with Scarlatti’s music, rather than coming to us “encrusted” (the word is Justin Davidson’s; see note Q below) with the same centuries’ worth of associations and veiled by the same centuries’ worth of cultural scrims. Any “original” sound is unrecoverable. And yet, we cling to this idea of contact with the site of composition, just as we do to some essence of the composer discoverable to the biographer, and to a folk essence distillable from the music (see note G, particularly the quotation from Leonard Meyer).

Q  Justin Davidson, writing on the eve of a 2010 festival that was to pair the same Beethoven symphonies performed by both period and modern orchestras, noted the impossibility of hearing musical works—particularly revolutionary works like Beethoven’s Eroica—with the freshness and rawness of their debuts, no matter how we try to recreate their unruly births into our sonic universe. Interestingly, he held out hope for contemporary listeners, whose ignorance of the classical tradition might allow them to hear some semblance of the shock of discovery. It strikes me as overly optimistic—and my Writing About Music students, with whom I have shared this article, have generally agreed with my skepticism. Then again, Davidson doesn’t seem entirely convinced, either. “We can’t unravel a history of listening,” he writes, “and the work can’t easily slough off its encrustations of meaning.” Many of the “encrustations” he mentions, filtered as they are through popular culture, are as familiar to the seasoned classical-music listener as to the novice. For the first group, such associations cannot simply be scrubbed away by the restoration of period instruments or the theme-parkish resurrection of so-called period ambience; that’s concert as Civil War battle re-enactment. For the second—and returning to Scarlatti—we might ask what “encrusted meanings” and new sets of expectations the harpsichord brings. In what contexts has it been used, or sampled, in this era of “democratic openness” to any and all sounds—many more than Scarlatti could have imagined? The harpsichord’s timbre, after all, positions it closer to the luxuriant decadence of Lady Gaga’s goth-pop. Second cousin to the organ, it might partake of the Gothic intrigue of Phantom of the Opera. Maybe there is a second life for the superannuated instruments of the West … although “life” might be stretching it; it’s more like a flickering image, a ghost in the machine.

R  Kirkpatrick won’t let that go without giving a parting shot for the harpsichord: “Many composers most noted for an idiomatic command over their instrument […] make the most frequent borrowings from other mediums [….] Instead of diminishing the effect of the instrument, Scarlatti’s borrowings heighten its character and augment its range of expression to such an extent that his music must be regarded as much in extra-harpsichord terms as in terms of the harpsichord itself” (199). If this is so, then does it follow that the works of composers with the most “idiomatic command” are also the ones that most flourish in transcription … and hence perhaps the ones who survive the vicissitudes of history, the constant evolution of technologies of musical production and consumption? Or is it true that the re-positioning of all other sonorities on their chosen instrument means the most is lost in transcription? (Can the answer to both these questions be yes?)

S  Not surpisingly, this kvetch of Kirkpatrick’s is echoed by a number of other writers, from Bogianckino (“Scarlatti’s harpsichord art has … alternately been classed as contaminated or infantile, according to whether it was seen in that light [i.e., degraded by the vogue for Italian opera and thus made ‘impure’] or through classical-romantic eyes” (102)) to Jane Clark (the sonatas are only good for warm-ups or encores; they are “superficial miniatures”). The source of Kirkpatrick’s “appetizers” comment may be Kathleen Dale; see Sutcliffe, p. 58, n. 156.

Glenn Gould, whose position as the scion of Bach interpreters “necessarily” put him in the anti-Scarlatti camp, gives a nice nutshell description of Scarlatti-as-buffoon. In a radio broadcast almost two decades after the publication of Kirkpatricks’ biography, Gould remarked that the composer “is at his happiest, and best, glibly scampering from one scintillating sequence to the next … and as a result his music possesses a higher quirk quotient than that of any comparable figure” (14). The sonatas are full of “offbeat gimmicks” and “predictable discontinuit[ies]”; “vivacity and goodwill” are their most felicitous attributes. Backhanded compliments at best, coming as they do after a list—glib, scampering, predictable, quirky, gimmicky—that oscillates between patronizing and insulting. Gould’s Scarlatti is childish and phony, his music’s ideal venue a children’s birthday party. (The fact that Sutcliffe sometimes emulates Gould’s rhetoric, peppering his analyses with expressions like “three-card trick” and “unarty” (284), helps further explain why he raised Kroll’s hackles … and occasionally mine as well.)

Horowitz once again serves as an interesting foil, in part because he is much more associated with Romantic than eighteenth-century music, suggesting that “classical-romantic eyes” may be more forgiving than Bogianckino believed. “More are slow than fast,” he writes in the liner notes to his recording of Scarlatti sonatas, “and many are quite poetic, nostalgic, and even dreamy, very much in the bel canto style.” Horowitz also praises the composer’s originality and his folksy, accessible style. Of course, all of these are tropes that would appeal to the Romantic imagination, and suggest why Scarlatti might have been taken up by some Romantics, not just Brahms (whose praise was somewhat reserved), but also that greatest of keyboard Romantics, Chopin. (Not all, of course; Schumann wasn’t impressed. But then Chopin wasn’t impressed by Schumann. There are limits to what we can glean from these merry-go-rounds of composers’ tastes.) All of which underscores Kirkpatrick’s point that the “impassable gulf” between eighteenth- and nineteeth-century music is indeed a product of twentieth-century canonization and periodization; while other “gulfs, ” geographical and cultural rather then temporal, such as that dividing Germany, Bach, and the high Baroque from orientalized Spain and Italy, are perhaps even more pertinent to the performance (or lack thereof) and reception of Scarlatti today.

T  Most post-Kirkpatrick scholars have been evenhanded in their criticisms of Domenico Scarlatti. Bogianckino, for example, praised the book’s “brilliant and effective formal and stylistic analysis of the sonatas,” but noted that the text lacks a “thorough, convincing historical background.” He also notes the book does not “strike the [proper] balance […] between the enlightened performer’s conversation and the profound analytical approach” (134). Thirty years later, Boyd was still calling the book “pre-eminent,” citing in particular the revised edition of 1984, and noting that later scholars have “reviewed and built on Kirkpatrick’s work” (223). If, of all the studies discussed in this post, Sutcliffe’s is the least charitable, it may be because of a backhistory Kroll alludes to in his review: apparently Kirkpatrick attacked Joel Sheveloff’s as-yet-unpublished (1970) dissertation; and Sutcliffe, who draws heavily on Sheveloff, seems to see his monograph partly as payback time. (The misspelling of Sheveloff’s name in Kroll’s review speaks volumes.) Kroll also comments on the irony that, for all Sutcliffe’s disparaging of Kirkpatrick, he echoes many of his ideas. (Even I, lay reader that I am, noticed Kirkpatrick’s observation about rhythmic figures carried across bar lines in Sutcliffe (see p. 84). I believe it was Kirkpatrick who suggested that Scarlatti’s early a cappella music, which did without bar lines, might explain why the composer felt so comfortable ignoring them.)

All this reminds me of something Sacvan Bercovitch once said about Perry Miller, the putative father of American Studies, whose death was followed by a “partricidal totem feast […] when a swarm of social and literary historians rushed to pick apart the corpus of his work” (xv). Such seems to be the case with many a founding study. I am obviously in no way qualified to mount a defense of Kirkpatrick’s book, and it’s certainly not the goal of this post to attempt it. Nor is it really necessary. I only hope I have sufficiently communicated my appreciation for his work, as well as the many virtues of the subsequent studies discussed. It makes sense that those parts of the book Bogianckino called the “enlightened performer’s conversation” would bear the most fruit for the lay reader, as well as providing some breathing room between the excursions into analysis, which many of us with a smattering of theory in our backgrounds actually enjoy slogging through, in limited doses.

I’m also reminded of the classic arguments about literary translation, some of which I mentioned in “Eight Years in the Pit” (12.7.18), as a way to make some analogous points about writing about music as a form. Several years ago I taught Chekhov in one unit of my Studies in Fiction sophomore-level English class, and among the texts I scouted was the newest Norton Critical anthology, which takes translation as its theme. It is an impressive, imposing volume, comprising many more stories than the previous edition (or any one-volume anthology I am aware of), and the voices of many translators, as opposed to the standard Constance Garnett translations of the early twentieth century, which introduced Chekhov to an English-speaking audience. It was partly the sheer size of the volume that made me avoid it—Chekhov was one of five authors we were reading that semester. (N.B.: I ended up settling on The Essential Chekhov, a very good, accessible anthology of twenty stories selected by Richard Ford.) But the varying quality of the translations was also a factor in my decision. Do I want the translator who can perfectly encapsulate every nuance of Chekhov’s Russian, with the “mountains of footnotes” Nabokov vitriolically argued for when the English itself is inadequate? Or do I want a readable literary work in its own right? As a scholar I might prefer the former; certainly I would welcome its addition to the Chekhov canon. But as a teacher, and, frankly, as a reader, I much prefer the latter: the work of literature Nabokov decried. Anything else is a dead letter—one of Nabokov’s poisoned and pinned butterflies. I don’t want a specimen; I want something that breathes.

And so with writing about music. Obviously the meticulous, exhaustive, and exhaustingly self-reflexive work of a Sutcliffe is a welcome addition to the world of Scarlatti scholarship. But as a lay listener, seeking to hear and understand the beauty and power of Scarlatti’s music in a deeper way, the erudite, evocative, poetic, and deeply insightful words of a Kirkpatrick are preferable. Come to think of it, this is not very different from literary criticism today, widely lamented for its inaccessibility to the lay reader. (Actually, there is no reason it should be. But nor is there any reason older, more accessible criticism cannot still be enormously illuminating for the curious layperson … and for the scholar as well. I’ve often wondered—to embed digression within digression—if our field hasn’t lost something in its disparaging of older methodologies. We emulate the sciences to our peril—and I mean this existentially, given the state of the Humanities today. Our field does not progress by revolutions; newer methodologies and interpretations often extend and “subtilize,” rather than supplant, older ones.) Now, if I knew Russian, would I hate Garnett? Perhaps. I do not and will never know Russian. Must the pleasure of Chekhov forever be withheld from me? Yes and no. My Chekhov is part Garnett; my Jean Genet is part Bernard Frechtman; it is their voices, as much as the authors’, I fall in love with. I am comfortable with this—at least, I am resigned to it. Not to be would suggest (to me) an unhealthy obsession with “authenticity”; the sort of thing that drove my partner’s friend’s ex-husband to hire a chemist to analyze the water he brought back from his hometown in Italy, and then reproduce the balance of minerals in Phoenix, so that his espresso would taste right. (Maybe this explains the divorce?)

I will never know Scarlatti the way Kirkpatrick or Sutcliffe do; but then they will never know Scarlatti, not really. They will certainly never know Scarlatti quite the way I do, thirty years after sitting on that rock above El Escorial, in the always-unsettled landscape of musical memory, where Scarlatti, ever the world’s composer, and now history’s as well, rubs shoulders with foreigners and non-contemporaries of all stripes.

 

Acknowledgments

In an on-line world, particularly since the lockdown, I wanted to take a moment to tip my hat to that alternative universe, the brick-and-mortar one that existed up until about a year ago, and that I am convinced will soon exist again, and in very much the same way it did before, despite the ongoing obnoxious black-swan rhetoric from the Wired crowd. I discovered Bogianckino’s and Sutcliffe’s texts in the stacks of the City College music library, one of favorite places in the world (see “Goodbye, Music Library!” (12.31.12)). I’m pretty sure I found Kirkpatrick’s book at Alabaster books, that beautiful and venerable used bookstore on 4th Avenue just south of 14th Street. Boyd’s was also a used-bookstore find, though I can’t remember which; maybe East Village. The Horowitz record is in my father’s collection. I know this is not the way of the scholar—that, had I done my due diligence, I would have discovered Kirkpatrick’s study had been revised and re-published in 1984, and I might have preferred it.

I was also unable to go through all my extensive marginal annotations in Sutcliffe’s monumental study—one has to stop at some point, post the damn post, and move on—hence my terror of straw-manning him. (I am already having nightmares about my twelfth-grade English teacher, who justifiably C’d my own monumental research paper on H.P. Lovecraft for not having a thesis, rising from her grave over my dumping this enormous blob of thesisless commentary onto an already well-larded blogosphere. I’m sorry, Miss Boyle! I’m sorry!) Once upon a time I imagined this blog’s address on the CUNY Academic Commons might invite the occasional wandering scholar to stop, lean on my gargoyle-and-nail-studded fence, and scourge me for my overindulgence in metaphorical criticism, for taking refuge in evocation, for my foul mouth, my sloth, and my vanity. But apparently Helldriver lives beneath a stone labeled “contempt,” and so is likely safe from those who would defend Sutcliffe’s virtue. (I do not imagine his reputation will suffer one way or another.) It is the way of this blog, which makes no claim to serious scholarship, but rather only to pleasure. After all, it is called a mordent “because it is like the bite of a tiny animal which, as soon as it has bitten, leaves, and does not hurt.”

 

Bercovitch, Sacvan. The American Jeremiad, Wisconsin UP, 1978.

Bogianckino, Massimo. The Harpsichord Music of Domenico Scarlatti, Trans. John Tickner, Edizioni de Santis, 1967 [1956].

Borges, Jorge Luis. “El escritor argentino y la tradicíon,” Prosa, Circulo de Lectores, 1975.

Boyd, Malcolm. Domenico Scarlatti—Master of Music, Schirmer, 1986.

Clark, Jane. “Domenico Scarlatti and Spanish Folk Music,” Early Music 4:1 (Jan. 1976), 19-21.

Davidson, Justin. “Beethoven’s Kapow,” Best Music Writing 2011, Ed. Alex Ross, Da Capo, 2012. [The article originally appeared in New York Magazine on March 21, 2010.]

Friedman, Sanford. Conversations With Beethoven, NYRB, 2014.

Gould, Glenn. “Domenico Scarlatti,” The Glenn Gould Reader, Ed. Tim Page, Vintage, 1984.

Kroll, Mark. Review of The Keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti and Eighteenth-Century Musical Style, Notes 61:1 (Sept. 2004), 145-7.

Kirkpatrick, Ralph. Domenico Scarlatti, Thomas Y. Crowell/Apollo Editions, 1968. [Originally published by Princeton UP in 1953.]

Lewis, George E. A Power Stronger Than Itself: the AACM and American Experimental Music, Chicago UP, 2008.

Long, Marguerite. At the Piano with Claude Debussy, Dent, 1972 [1960].

Manuel, Peter. “From Scarlatti to ‘Guantanamera’: Dual Tonicity in Spanish and Latin American Musics.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 55:2 (Summer 2002), 311-336.

Solomon, Maynard. Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination, California UP, 2003.

Sutcliffe, W. Dean. The Keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti and Eighteenth-Century Musical Style, Cambridge UP, 2003.

Also cited in this essay are the liner notes to the recording of Scarlatti sonatas by Vladimir Horowitz (likely the recording from the early ‘60s, but I don’t currently have access to it), as well as recordings by András Schiff (1989) and Sergio and Odair Assad (1993).

Two Saints

After the uncollected diptychs of Herman Melville.

I. Saint Nick’s

It lay not far from the northwest entrance to the 145th Street station of the A-B-C-D trains.

A nondescript brown door, open dusk to gloam, a few up from the fish-n-chips place, Devlin’s, I think it was called. You heard it before you saw it. Then the light coming from inside. A few steps down. Always down.

The whole place blinked like a jukebox. Smelled like a warmed-up tube amp. (I also smelled: gasoline, perfume, leather, piss, cigarettes.) People, rubbing against you like starving cats. Nobody could help it; the place was too small; there were too many of us; there was no fire code to speak of.

There was no no-talking policy. There was an anti-no-talking policy. The music had to fight its way into the here and now or it wasn’t heard at all. It was never given carte blanche, the way it is in the shrines to the south. The legendary toughness of the Harlem crowd: Show me. Prove it.

The tables between the bar and the band were mostly (though never entirely) occupied by tourists. The foremost tables were pushed right up against the musicians. There was no bandstand, of course.

Oh, hell, I give up. I have no coherent memory of this place anymore. Only bits and pieces. And I can’t go back. It must be almost a decade since they shut the door of the St. Nick’s Pub. Maybe I should abandon Melville and write more like Joe Brainerd, even if that means the memories are mixed up with other memories from the eight years I lived in Harlem. Like this:

I remember the talking drummer dancing while he played, one hand fluttering against the drumhead. The bass player had a small gap between his front teeth, and hair I envied.

I remember the paunchy geek dancing by the bar, all sharp elbows and sharp chin and Fabio hair. When the percussionist headed for the door between sets, the geek gave him such a good-natured whack on the arm you’d have thought they were old friends. I only heard the last words the percussionist said: “Just don’t hit me again.”

I remember the bandleader walking around with a collection plate, people talking into his ear.

I remember the harmonica player in the D.R. wifebeater pumping his arm like he was blowing a train whistle, the women shimmying at the table in front of him.

I remember the drunk airline pilot trying to pick up a woman by the door.

I remember the bartender made me a special whiskey sour one night. It took him a good five minutes, walking from one end of the bar to the other, for this and that. I have no idea what he put in there. Maybe he was taking me for a ride. It tasted good.

I remember the Japanese barmaid. And wondering what the connection was between the Japanese and Harlem. There was a Japanese sax player one night, too.

I remember my neighbor, telling me the dresser we were thinking of buying in one of the other apartments in our building had belonged to the Japanese woman seen cradling Malcolm X’s head in the famous photo from his assassination. Possible, but I wish my neighbor’s wife had been there; she was good at calling him on his bullshit.*

I remember standing at the bar hearing Greg Porter sing “1960what?” for the first time over the PA, and somebody saying he was a St. Nick’s regular made good.

I remember the jazz pictures tacked or taped up around the pipes and such. Bird next to the fire extinguisher. Lady Day over the payphone. There was a picture of Lionel Ritchie, too, and a painting, “The Man,” though I’ve forgotten who The Man was, or what He looked like. Just that He was present.

I remember the cutout H-A-P-P-Y  B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y on a string behind the bar. The bibs made of napkins they tied around the neck of your Sugar Hill beer. And Christmas lights, of course.

I remember the food, on a table just past the bar. Paper plates and a checkered plastic tablecloth. You can only really hear the music if you know there were paper plates and a checkered plastic tablecloth.

I remember a horn solo. A broken diva. And a keyboard player who moved his body like a marionette, rolling his shoulders, flattening his hands against the keys …

I have no coherent memory of this place. But I do have the distinct impression I heard better music here than anyplace else in the City. Maybe anyplace else period. That this place was closer to the spirit of music, closer to the essence of what music is. Even with Sugar Hill turning to salt, the bitter taste of highrises going up over bulldozed lots, the gut-renovated brownstones, the lives cast into dumpsters up and down 145th Street (“you can fit a whole neighborhood in a dumpster,/ if you really try”), all the real-estate bullshit that throttled and continues to throttle the spirit of music (and pretty much everything else) in the City, there was still this little unvanquishable mecca.

I’m know, I’m romanticizing. I don’t care.

It may be history now, but it was so adamantly not historical—not a place interested in preserving some PBS image of jazz, but present and vital, there in the African diaspora community that I have now been away from for as long as I lived there.

I was holding these notes for a celebration, a reopening. Instead, they have become a piecemeal elegy. I had to dig them out of old journals. Some of them were no longer legible. They’re not enough. They’re all I have. They don’t add up to anything. They ease my longing, a little.

 

* E.g.: “Jimmy Baldwin! Jimmy! Honey, remember when I introduced you to Jimmy?” “I remember you pointing him out to me from across the room.”

 

*****

 

II. Saint Vitus

It lies not far from Gowanus Canal. But that is immaterial.

“Meet Me at St. Vitus.” An anthem, & a bit of Satanic doggerel, in honor of St. Vitus Bar’s successful Kickstarter campaign and impending not-really-post-pandemic resurrection. Sung, obviously enough, to the tune of “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Music by Kerry Mills. Lyrics by Helldriver, who would like to acknowledge the assistance of Profs. Hafen S. Bergius and Baciyelmo in preparing this authoritative edition.

Ahem.

 

When Vitus got home from the pub

To dismember the corpse in his tub

He called Apollyon

But his wifey was gone

Without leaving him one shred of grub.

 

A note had been stuck by his wifey

To the door with an old butcher knifey

It ran, “Vitus, my dear, a demon growled in my ear,

Said he would buy me a shot and a beer,

So I’m off now to start my new lifey.”

 

“Meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the show

Don’t tell me there’s a darker place

A hundred miles below

 

“We’ll dance the selfsame Vitus

Till our feet swell with elephantitus

the blood runs from our eyes

and our flesh liquefies

If you meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the show.”

 

Vitus grabbed his spikes and his leather

And an umbrella for the balmy weather

Abbath drove the train

Through the gaslit subterrane

Of the region referred to as nether.

 

Some hell-wench was working the door

her forearms all slathered with gore

She said, “What’s that? The show?

It’s as sold as my soul,

And don’t try that I’m-on-the-guest-list shit, either.”

 

So he showed her three sixes branded

To the top of his behornéd head

Said she with a grin,

“Why didn’tcha say so? C’mon in!

Elevator’s on the left. Push nine.”

 

He’d gone four, five, six circles down

When he cried, “What on earth is that sound?

Like a Cerebus-pound

Or some cursed Injun mound

Where the infants are ground

Where the demons are crowned

And the fire’s kept stoked all year round, all year round,

And the fire’s kept stoked all year round.

(And what’d she write on that note that I found?)”

 

“Meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the pub

Don’t tell me there’s a finer partner

For drinking than ol’ Beelzebub

 

He’s got a hollow leg—or three—

And cheeks as red as a cherub

So meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the pub.”

 

Then opened the door on a scene

From a nightmare well-leavened with spleen

The sludge-stench of unguents

Crotchless-Todd-Rundgren pungent

And the nuts of Ted Nugent

Roasted more than was prudent

By enslaved, undead culinary students

Told the presence of all things unclean.

 

In a booth was his dear wifey pressed

In a bodice of leather was she dressed

Asmodeus to her left

His hoofage all cleft

With Jaeger her invertedly blessed.

 

Took Vitus his Jaeger sans chaser

When the music hit him like a Taser

The bartenders all carved

“SLAYER” into their arms

With the blade of a dull, rusty razor.

 

Said he, “Well, it’s not what I’d planned …

But can you beat that motherfucking band?

I’m shutting my Bible

For if I don’t, I’m liable

To wind up worse off than the damned.”

 

Now he’s stuck in this place all eternity

For the devil has proved his paternity

And the music’s sure fine

be it punk, thrash, or grind

Or sui generis a-reek with slatternity.

 

Soooooooooo … [everybody!!]

 

“Meet me at St Vitus, Vitus,

meet me at the show

Don’t tell me there’s a darker place

A hundred miles below

 

“We’ll dance the selfsame Vitus

till the angels all spite us

the demons be-(k)night us

to acts of violence incite us

like Andronicus Titus

to executions invite us

rabid mambas to bite us

pestilence to blight us

If you’ll meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the show.”

 

[de rigeur blistering electric something-or-other solo; then, climactic reprise:]

 

“Meet me at St Vitus, Vitus,

meet me for a beer

don’t tell me bangers are banging

thrashers are thrashing

moshers are moshing

eyeballs a-popping

bunnies a-hopping

Azathoth a-flopping

anyplace but here, but here,

anyplace but heeeeeeeeeere!”

 

[Clap. Clap. Clap.]

 

[follows a list of variants from previously published versions]

 

1-5] VX(+((0))): When Vitus awoke all hungover/ Looking like death unwarmedover/ He rolled over in bed/ Kissed a severed head/ And cried out, “Who bisected my lover?”

8-9] R!sq&i: Vitus, by goll,/ Quart’ring corpses is dull,

54-60] ^^^ugh^^^: Here be rituals dominated by victuals/ Unidentifiable meat-substitutes on the griddles/ While Norman Castavets/ Plays his bone castanets/ To a tune on thirteen out-of-tune fiddles.

92-95] sNogg?eeeeee: Call up the demons/ And theorems by Riemann/ Pour out our libations/ With baskets of crustaceans

 

[follows a comment box for suggested new verses, as per the original. don’t be shy, now. and don’t be f—-d, either, writing doggerel is d—-d hard!]

[In fact, here is a little story perfect for a new verse, open to the first versifier who dares: “It was the frontispiece of an old, smoked, snuff-stained pamphlet, the property of an elderly lady (who had a fine collection of similar wonders wherewith she was kind enough to edify her young visitors), containing a solemn account of the fate of a wicked dancing party in New Jersey, whose irreverent declaration that they would have a fiddler even if they had to send to the lower regions for him, called up the fiend himself, who forthwith commenced playing, while the company danced to the music incessantly, without the power to suspend their exercise until their feet and legs were worn off to the knees! The rude woodcut represented the Demon Fiddler and his agonized companions literally stumping it up and down in ‘cotillions, jigs, strathspeys and reels.’” (John Greenleaf Whittier, The Supernaturalism of New England, 1847 (Oklahoma UP, 1969), p. 50; Whittier’s emphasis)]

Audience

a repurposing*

 

Keep your ticket in your pocket, that way you won’t lose it. Take it out before you get to the door so you don’t hold up the whole line. The elevators are for the elderly and handicapped, take the stairs. If you get out of breath, rest on the landings, nobody likes to have to sit next to someone sweaty and panting. Use the restroom before the concert, not during. Wash your hands with soap, and for God’s sake don’t dry them on your nice clothes. We may not go to church, but your concert clothes are what your friends would call your Sunday best. Don’t forget to take a handful of lozenges from the bin in the lobby. Show your ticket to the ushers, and let them direct you to your seat, even if you think you know where it is. Nobody likes arrogance, particularly in the young. Get here early enough you don’t have to ask people to stand up. If you’re late, tell them not to stand up, even though you don’t really mean it. Say excuse me, never pardon, and for God’s sake don’t try to step over anybody’s bag, ask them politely to move it. This is how to get down the aisle without sticking your rear end in the faces of the philistines who refuse to stand up for you. This is how to fold your good coat behind you so that the sleeves don’t get stepped on. You have plenty of time to look at your clothes at home, I didn’t buy you that ticket to stare at your clothes. Don’t fidget. Are you listening? Then stop fidgeting. Nobody wants to listen to your chair. Or the paper in your program. The program is for before the concert and during the intermission, nobody likes to sit next to somebody reading during a performance. But I’m not fidgeting. Don’t rustle the paper like that, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Put your program in your bag when the lights go down, not on your lap, it can fall off and ruin the concert for everybody. Put your phone in your bag. Make sure it’s turned off first. On second thought, give it to me. This is how to stow your umbrella under your seat so that it doesn’t fall over and ruin the concert for everybody. This is how to sit with your elbows in, so you don’t usurp your neighbor’s armrest. This is how to cross your legs without kicking the seat in front of you. Don’t uncross your legs during the concert, nobody likes to listen to your pants crinkle in the middle of the Adagio. If you absolutely have to move, do it during the noisy parts, and for God’s sake don’t try to do anything during the Adagio. This is how to sit so the people behind you can see without having to lean to one side. This is how to politely snub your neighbor if they talk to you during the performance. This is how to sit so that others around you know you’re listening attentively. This is how to fold your hands on your lap so you won’t be tempted to drum your fingers. Nobody paid good money to listen to your fingers. Or your feet. But what if my leg falls asleep during the Adagio? Don’t look around at the balconies or the ceiling, the concert is on the stage, I didn’t buy you that ticket to gawk at the auditorium. You can think about boys at school, here you should be thinking about the music. Don’t yawn. If you’re paying attention you won’t get bored. If you have to yawn, do it with your mouth closed, into your fist, like you’re suppressing a cough. Don’t cough. If you have to cough, cough in the rests between movements. But for God’s sake, cough discreetly, not like your father, he sounds like he should be in the hospital. Didn’t I tell you to take some lozenges? If you can’t finish unwrapping a lozenge in the rest between movements, wait until the end of the next movement. If you want the binoculars, tap once lightly on my shoulder. If I don’t hand them to you, I’m telling you I’ve been swept up in the performance, like you could be, if only you stopped thinking about your clothes and boys and stopped gawking at the ceiling and really paid attention. But I did take lozenges. See? Put the strap around your neck so you don’t drop them and ruin the concert for everybody. Don’t hog them, it’s one of your sister’s least-attractive qualities. One pair of binoculars is enough for a family, if we all understand how to share. Don’t applaud between movements, and for God’s sake don’t get up until the intermission. These are just the sorts of things that will announce you as the rock-and-roll fan I can’t seem to stop you from becoming. This is how to applaud with a combination of enthusiasm and discreetness. This is how to applaud with your coat over your arm. This is when to stop. This is how to sit for the encore if you’ve already gathered your things. Don’t stand up unless everyone around you does, and for God’s sake don’t stamp your feet. This isn’t Madison Square Garden. Never shout encore. Never shout bravo. Never shout anything. Are you listening?

 

* of “Girl,” by Jamaica Kincaid, The New Yorker, 26 June 1978. Maybe because I just finished posting about pedagogy, in hindsight it struck me that this might make an interesting exercise for students to do with another genre of music.

Postmortem III

Here it is, the much-unanticipated and long-overdue third installment in the postmortem franchise. The main reason for the wait? My five-year break from teaching Writing About Music. While I might not have felt compelled to write a third postmortem after the odd experience of teaching the course back-to-back semesters before the gap, I was supposed to write something about the variety of research projects I had tried. Alas, as so much in the Pit Stop, plans went up in a puff of smoke. I may get around to writing about research here; if not, expect a Postmortem IV … someday.

But what am I doing, envisioning sequels of sequels before the present post has even been written? What is this, a summer blockbuster? A bestselling young-adult dystopian “novel”?

The reason for the hiatus, by the way, is that other faculty members expressed interest in teaching the course. Needless to say, this is a wonderful thing; you really feel like you’ve contributed to a department’s culture when you design (or co-design, in this case) a course that other faculty want to teach. These faculty then go on to create their own versions of the course, which may in turn influence the shape and direction of one’s own version, &c. So, for examples: Prof. Elyse Zucker structured the course entirely around jazz; Prof. Anne Rounds used the course to explore issues of music and culture (exercise, consumption, education, social space more generally). I’ll have a bit more to say about Prof. Rounds’s syllabus later on.

Anyway, it was good to have fresh bodies to work on, or at least the ears and the parts of the brains connected to them, the rest hardly concerns me, except insofar as it enables them to talk, walk in and out of my classroom, etc. A lot of water has passed under the bridge vis-à-vis reading and listening between Fall ‘12 and Spring ’18 (yes, it has been a year since I taught the course—again, puffs of smoke), much of it during my sabbatical over the 2016-17 academic year, and this meant a flood of new ideas for teaching—new texts to read, new assignments to write, new possible approaches to the material. In fact, I originally had in mind to do something quite different from what I’d done before. Part of the reason for this was my deteriorating hearing: I thought it might be impossible to teach the course with the sort of close attention to listening that I had in the past, and as such that it might be easier to structure the course more like I do my other electives (such as my historically-organized short fiction curriculum for Studies in Fiction), with students investigating a few longer texts that raise a variety of issues about music. I thought about using Geoff Dyer’s jazz book But Beautiful, and Carl Wilson’s contribution to the 33.3 series Let’s Talk About Love, both of which I read on sabbatical, and perhaps one or two others (David Byrne’s How Music Worksoccurred to me as well, but I’ve only read a piece of it thus far). But I wasn’t sure what framework I could use to bring them together—it’s easier to do with a genre course like Studies in Fiction, or even Latin American Literature in Translation, the other two sophomore-level English electives I regularly teach.

Maybe it was laziness. Maybe it was nostalgia. Or maybe it was some last hurrah before the ship of my hearing careens over the horizon of the audible. But it was also at least partly a result of looking over the reams of material I’d already created, and all the other work I’d done for the class over its three previous incarnations, and deciding there was quite a bit worth holding onto. I ultimately opted to keep the original framework of the course, update and expand the materials in the first three units, and replace the last two units with new materials and assignments, including excerpts from But Beautiful, the sole required text. What follows, then, is a tour through these changes, what seemed to work and what didn’t, and what I think is still left to be done, should I have the opportunity to teach the course again. One more time would do my heart good.

Now, if you’re new to this blog or these quasi-public teaching journals, you’ll probably want to go back and read the first two installments, “Postmortem I” (3.13.11) and “Postmortem II” (2.24.12), since the groundwork for the philosophy of the course, its general shape, and the assignments I’ve used are all discussed there, and I’ll be alluding to these throughout, hurdling most repetition to focus on new stuff. (Or, as the Japanese softcore producers say to Max Renn (in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome) when he asks to see just the climactic episode: “But Max! You won’t understand a thing! It’s all set up in the first two!”)

Words to listen by

To introduce the course, I went back to using excerpts from My Music (Wesleyan UP, 1990), the book composed of transcribed interviews from the Music in Everyday Life Project, for an icebreaker, and for the first, ungraded “My Music” essay. I’d tried a couple of other things the previous two times I taught the course, but I think this works best as a general introduction, allowing students to access music on a personal level before they are asked—as they will be for the remainder of the semester—to do more. The only problem was that I also threw them a couple of quotes by Jacques Barzun and Leonard Bernstein from longer pieces I’d used in previous semesters (as the Spanish say, me fue la mano, i.e., I got carried away), and these opened up some very large and muddy cans of worms I hadn’t intended to open until later in the semester. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to preview some knottier Big Concepts with the promise of returning to them later. The caveat, for me as much as for all teachers working to (gently) prod students out of their comfort zones: when we overload our syllabi (and overloading has been a perennial problem for me, as I’m sure it is for other teachers: our community college students need so much in the way of background knowledge, and we want to give them so much), there is a point after which the returns diminish; the more we try to do, the less we actually accomplish.

As in previous semesters, from here the course moved into a listening-focused unit, with a description of a piece of music as the capstone assignment. With some minor tweaks, I used to same assignment as before. What I expanded, however, was the manner in which I approached listening. Here I was inspired by Prof. Rounds’s syllabus (which she was gracious enough to share with me) to break down the listening unit into the elements of music. I’d always been rather scattershot before: an in-class exercise where I fired random bits of unfamiliar music at them, and had them work in groups to think about how they would describe it to someone who hadn’t heard it before; a class on basic song structure, cropped from the first of two music theory courses I audited at City College, to help them think about organization; and a few standout examples of musical description for models and strategies. Back during my last semester teaching the course (that is, in Fall 2012), I’d begun to move in the direction of formalizing this unit, and had even gone so far as drafting a multi-page handout on the elements. I hadn’t made it past melody and timbre, but I did share what I had with a Writing Fellow at the time, who gave me useful feedback and—perhaps most important—did not seem to think what I had thus far was entirely ridiculous. (I think I’ve had three different opportunities to kidnap CUNY grad center music doctoral student Writing Fellows, and every time they’ve given me great feedback and support. A thank-you to them and to our WAC coordinators for their generosity.) As I belatedly turned myself back to this work for Spring ‘18, that original four-page draft ballooned into a ten-page behemoth (twelve if you include the last part, “Other Strategies, Advice, and Caveats”), a bona fidepacket of listening exercises that formed the core of the classwork and homework for the three weeks leading up to the assignment … and only about two-thirds of which we were able to complete in any depth before moving forward.

There are a few questions buried here. The first is how much one can hope to achieve in five or six classes for students most of whom haven’t the faintest idea how to analyze music. It is, as I’ve noted in previous Postmortems, at once a central element and a quixotic fantasy, at least without some sort of music pre- or co-requisite for the course, which does not seem to be forthcoming. At the same time, frontloading the course with formal listening exercises is also an opportunity for them get a toehold in concepts and language they will continue exploring and potentially applying for the rest of the semester, as every succeeding assignment either mandates or invites them to do. Hence, what may seem impossible to do in a few weeks may actually form a substrate on which they (hopefully) grow for the ten or so weeks that follow, drawing on these nascent skills, and further developing them through application. Indeed, the goal of the course has always been to build outward from this “raw” approach to listening, so that describing becomes one element in a bigger toolkit for apprehending music in language.* As for this mini listening boot-camp, the goals were to (a) give students enough to work with, which in the context of the class means enough that they feel like they can approach writing a description of a piece of music they like, try to apply some basic vocabulary, and feel that developing 600-900 words is challenging, but not impossible; and (b) make doing so accessible, and potentially even enjoyable. In the end, I want them to think about the music they love but take for granted in a more formal way; to become more conscious about how it works, and why.

It was very much a feeling-out process, as can probably be imagined. I actually stole Rounds’s opening gambit: “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and the assignment that students come to class with a song they could hum—a really wonderful idea. After reflecting on how best to approach this, I remembered earworms, which I first encountered reading Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia a number of years ago; I thought it might be a good topic of discussion for introducing melody: a song that they not only could hum, but that insists on being hummed! In hindsight, I think the Sacks chapter on earworms, which is only about ten pages long, would have made for better reading than the CNN and NPR pieces I ended up finding on-line. That said, there was something instructive about these articles. Researchers’ attempts to describe what makes an earworm are so vague as to lose any explanatory power: simple, but not too simple; should go up, but also go down; contains an interesting (??) interval …. one ends up with the impression that psychologists really have no clue what makes a melody an earworm. As one of my students quipped, if they ever did manage to figure out a formula, they’d be millionaires. (N.B.: Also potentially useful here is Mark Twain’s entertaining earworm story “Punch, Brothers, Punch,” which I posted on Blackboard but did not require students to read.)

“Twinkle” was indeed a great melody to begin with; I even found an instructional video on YouTube with Space Invaders-like blobs landing on the appropriate keys of an animated keyboard, the tempo at a wounded crawl. (What I wouldn’t give to have an actual, physical keyboard in the classroom for even just a few days … ah well. As my union puts it, our teaching conditions are our students’ learning conditions.) I ended up pairing “Twinkle” with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”; the two worked beautifully together to think about similarities and differences between how melodies are shaped (ascent and descent, leaps and steps, range, repetition, question and answer, and so on). My coda was Eric Dolphy’s “Hat and Beard.” As I wrote many moons ago on this blog (see “Underground Man,” 5.27.10), Dolphy’s melodies sound like they should be hummable … but reproducing them when they’re gone, even after you’ve heard them a number of times, is enormously difficult. Dolphy’s melodies recall what the man himself (and others before and after him) said about music more generally: “You hear it, and it’s gone.”

In the process of constructing the packet, I also realized (or perhaps better resolved on) something else: given in part that this is an English course, making analogies—even sometimes rather strained ones—between the sorts of things students would have encountered in the writing-sequence courses and music could be a viable way for them to make potentially enlightening connections. Every art can serve as an analogical reference-point for any other, with music perhaps the one that most depends on such analogies. So, for example, I compared melodies to summaries—the “gist” of a song; the thing we can abstract from the broader sonic information. I used the relationship between dependent and independent clauses (which at least some of them suffered through, particularly if they started the writing sequence at the developmental level) to try to elucidate the role of tension and resolution in melody.† I also tried to illustrate tension-resolution by applying a technique we sometimes use in teaching poetry and description to highlight the importance of a writer’s word choice: How would the meaning change if word Xwere replaced by word Y? The same might be asked of a melody. I sang the first part of “Rainbow” and, on the “high,” the unresolved ending of the antecedent phrase, I replaced it with the octave (“way … up … high!”). I’m not sure it helped, but the idea seems right: they could compare a clearly resolving note with one that suspends, that expects an answer, in the context of a single melody. (It also (hilariously) made the song sound like a TV jingle selling, I don’t know, sofas—which is probably right, since a jingle, as opposed to a song, seeks immediate resolution.)

At the same time, developing students’ music-writing skills is a matter not just of more careful and analytical listening, but linguistic precision. After suffering through a few semesters of the blandest and most generic language to describe music’s affective character, parts of the packet forced them to expand their vocabulary in the pedagogically-dreaded abstract: to create a palette like a painter’s, but of words; to find stronger, more specific, more evocative terms for describing the shades and complexities of emotional states to which music can give us access. That’s right: I actually asked them to make lists of synonyms, and we discussed shades of difference between, say, angry and enraged (quantity), or chipper and pleased (quality), and then how these words might be applied to different music selections. Compare, for example, Peter’s theme in Peter and the Wolf to the beginning of the Pastorale symphony. If we agree both of these are “happy,” how can we distinguish the quality and intensity of happiness? We also discussed adjective-adverb combos, Roland Barthes be damned (e.g., “resignedly happy,” which may describe how I feel reading Barthes). I was taking off here from a moment in the opening chapter of Aaron Copland’s What To Listen For in Music, plane #2 of his planes of listening, the expressive plane. I should add that it was also a fine opportunity to undercut such approaches, and to make students wary of clichés. In case you don’t know or remember them, Simpsons creator Matt Groenig’s ‘80s Life In Hell comics featured the “Feisty Film Critic” and “So You Wanna Be a Rock Critic,” both extremely funny parodies of the critical enterprise. One includes a matching exercise where the critic selects an adjective from column one and an adverb from column two, and ends up with a ridiculously clichéd pair (e.g., “hauntingly evocative”). Touchee, Copland!

Now, is there something too rote, even pedagocally unsound, about this approach? Are you sure? How sure are you? I have the feeling many of my students have never been asked to think consciously about the way language parses emotional experiences, not even in poetry.

From melody we moved into timbre. I think this section of the packet also had much that worked well. I still follow the advice of an intro-to-music syllabus I found on-line a number of years ago: start with voice. Not only, as has been much written about, because the voice (together with the beat of the heart) is the basis of all music, but also because it’s what students feel most comfortable talking about. Voice, together with the words sung or rapped, allowed us to focus on three things: the story or emotion being communicated by the words; the physical qualities of the singer’s voice and the words we might use to describe them (breathy, raspy, gruff, that sort of thing); and the attitude (as part of their artistic persona) they projected, the last of which again draws on a concept they should be familiar with from their earlier English classes, tone. Thus, voice forms an entry-point for thinking about timbre more broadly; tone becomes a bridge to tone quality, something we use to distinguish one person’s speaking voice from another’s; and considering the voice as an instrument becomes a bridge to the timbre of instruments. For the latter, I confess—I have already obliquely done so—I used “Peter in the Wolf,” and another lovely educational video I found on YouTube. (I’m only rhetorically ashamed; I listened to this piece growing up and have always loved it, and I can’t think of a composer with a more robust and evocative melodic imagination than Prokofiev.) The focus on voice also allowed me to re-use several of the tracks I had used in my previous “scattershot” semesters (2010 and 12) for opening listening exercises, including Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday,” Tom Waits’s barroom “Innocent When You Dream,” Alberta Hunter, Nina Simone, Johnny Cash, Perla de Cadiz, and Pantera.

Any attempt to try to explain music’s affective meaning raises a host of issues. For example: how to speak about any one element in isolation from the others? Of course, this is true of any analysis. (Given that I have largely abandoned a formal approach to the elements of fiction and poetry, I should ask myself here, publicly, why am I attempting it with music. Naivete?) In giving students, say, the opening section of the Pastorale symphony, or Peter’s theme, one can’t help but notice that the affective character of the music is as much a product of instrumentation and arrangement as of melody—and before long the whole kit and caboodle is dragged into the discussion. (We were actually able to capitalize on this by listening to a selection from Swan Lake, in which the central theme radically changes its character when it re-appears in a new arrangement.) In hindsight, it makes me wonder if this formalized listening unit might be turned ninety degrees, so that, rather than foregrounding the elements, it foregrounded instead the physical aspects of timbre and melody on the one hand, and its affective character on the other. In this way, one might begin with emotional response—what the music makes us feel, often the first impression of a piece—before asking students whatthey are hearing in the music that provokes this response. This would allow the elements to emerge more naturally from a discussion of the way we respond to the music we hear. Something to think about.

Something else worth considering: as noted, by the time they take this course, students will have completed the foundational courses in the English sequence (Comp 1 and 2); they will have been trained throughout those two semesters to find main ideas, paragraph topics, and (God forbid) that elusive-reductive something called the meaning of a poem or story. But in this course, students are pushed up against texts where they’re asked to think less about meaning than texture: to describe what it is they hear, and from this to consider how and why it provokes certain responses in a listener. Of course, we try to do this in Comp as well, particularly in the second semester, which, at Hostos, is literature-based. But we know, as per Billy Collins’s hilarious “Introduction to Poetry,” that resisting this desire to ferret out meaning is an uphill battle (cf. “They begin beating it with a hose/ to find out what it really means”). I know that my students have always had a wretched time with prosody—ironic, given that prosody fills their lives in the form of the music most of them listen to (or maybe not so ironic; see below). But if they have so much difficulty parsing the music of a poetic line or stanza, why would I imagine they could do it with melodies, with sound? Of course, resisting this trampling the text in the quest for meaning, the violence of it, the consumer mentality behind it, and teaching students to luxuriate in the sensual thereness of the text, might itself be a justification for a class like Writing About Music: without the ability to jump right to meaning, students are forced to confront the physicality of the musical “text” … and this might have a payoff for their ability to appreciate the sensual there-ness of any text: linguistic, visual, etc.

Speaking of texture … I won’t, not very much, because I didn’t, not very much. It is in some ways the most difficult element to teach to non-music students, so it was somewhat fortuituous that we ran out of time to really do it justice. A couple of years back, Prof. Rounds introduced me to a Steve Reich piece called “Clapping Hands.” It begins with a synchronized 12-beat pattern, repeated eight times; after each set of eight, one person begins the pattern a beat ahead of the other, and, as in a classic Reich tape-loop composition (e.g., “It’s Gonna Rain” or “Come Out”), the two clappers fall further and further out of phase with each other, until they wrap around again. As “the rhythmic corollary to the harmonic idea of imitative polyphony” (as I have called it elsewhere on this blog), the piece seemed like a perfect way to introduce the concept of texture. And so long as we were singing and/or listening to “Happy Birthday” (Monroe) and “Twinkle, Twinkle” (Space Invaders), we simply hadto try “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” which was actually the piece cited in my first-semester music theory textbook to introduce the concept of polyphony.

But I also realized that a rigorous, formal understanding of polyphony wasn’t necessary for students working at this level of music appreciation. Non-musicians (a category which would include many, if not most, music writers/critics) tend to use the concept much more generally—not to say vaguely/sloppily—to mean something more like the overall sonic density of a piece, with an ear toward the way voices and timbres bleed together as well as stand apart. In this way, texture becomes a variant of signal-to-noise: To what extent do the various sonic components of a piece of music blend into a single mass of sound? To what extent can we hear individual voices braiding together, or pulling apart? To what extent does a single voice predominate? To illustrate, I used the very New York analogy (which I think I might’ve read somewhere) of sitting in a noisy public place—a park, a bar, whatever. I wanted students to be able to think about the overall ambient quality of a piece, the way the combination of sounds, of timbres and melodies and rhythms, sometimes pull away from each other, sometimes bleed into each other, to create music’s Gestalt effect. The problem: it’s difficult to articulate this without entering into a basic discussion of harmony, of consonance and dissonance, without exploring a few basic intervals … and given the overall trajectory of the course, where I want students to be for their first graded assignment, opening this Pandora’s box might be the straw that … broke … opening this straw camel might be the box … shit. Let me come back to this a little later.

Of all the elements we explored, it was rhythm that snookered me. I was very much a victim of my own assumptions here. As an amateur musician who always felt more comfortable with rhythm than melody or harmony, I thought I had some intuitive grasp of the topic; perhaps I even thought that rhythm was somehow “easier” to explain than the other elements; and that these two things together meant I already had the resources to make it clear. An embarrassing admission for a veteran teacher, but there it is. These assumptions led to a number of confusions as we tried to parse the rhythms of the various assigned pieces. It was most an issue when we listened to a baroque piece together: without percussion or bass to provide a clear backbeat, and what with all the fluctuations in dynamics and tempo that accompany classical performance, students had difficulty finding the regular pulse (so-called “motoric rhythm”); tempo, meter, and texture (in the shape of other voices ornamenting the melodic line without changing the pulse) ended up all balled together, and were only partly untangled by taking a few steps back. The upshot here is that I need to rethink my lesson on rhythm to find the sorts of handholds I’ve found for melody and timbre. Perhaps, given how beautifully “Clapping Hands” introduces the idea of polyphony, re-ordering the elements—even putting rhythm first—would make sense.

I did have at least one idea worth revisiting and revising: dance as a means of imagining rhythm (and to be sure, music more generally). Even just by tapping a foot or hand, or clapping along, rhythm becomes visible, tangible: we see/feel the way the body translates it. Unlike my mostly failed attempts to get students to hum their hummable melodies, a couple of students did get up and dance a merengue to Joseito Mateo. (The humming was very early in the semester … so maybe they were just beginning to feel more comfortable in the oddballness that is this class, and more importantly, with each other.) My epiphany here for future semesters was to ask students to find/watch a video of the dance associated with the rhythm in question (the two may be synonymous), and write. What does the way in which the body (and perhaps pairs or groups of bodies) translate rhythm reveal about the characteristics of that particular rhythm? And perhaps, though more carefully: What elements of the associated culture might this rhythm/dance express?

As noted above, for song structure I partly reduxed the adapted lesson on Cake’s “Stickshifts and Safety Belts”; I thought it worked better this semester with the addition of Beyonce’s “Halo” for comparison and contrast. Structure is a great example of something students “know” from listening to so much popular music, but aren’t necessarily conscious of knowing. It was a good opportunity for me to take basic verse-chorus-bridge song structure and algebraically boil it down to 32-bar structure, allowing me to make a connection back to “Rainbow” and forward to the jazz we would listen to later in the semester, and hence maximize the recursive use of the assigned listenings. It was a similarly good opportunity to again make connections to both the English sequence and the just-studied elements, here by thinking of a song as a story independent of its lyrical content: Does it have a climax? If so, where? And how do you know?

Ending the unit with structure makes for a nice segue into the formal assignment, since it provides one possible model for how to structure the description essay. But this semester I also provided a second, more direct model: a model description essay using the Judas Priest song “Fever,” which I posted and annotated to show the different techniques I had used to organize and develop. Making models for the graded assignments was actually a big overall upgrade in the course as a whole this semester. I had good a student performance review from a previous semester which I also annotated and posted; I also linked to a couple of performance reviews on the Pit Stop. For the photo-bio assignment (see below), I annotated and posted a current student’s “A” paper, for those who needed or wanted to revise. And for the final assignment, which asked students to analyze song lyrics in terms of their musical components (below, below), I again wrote and annotated a model, this one using Dr Octagon’s “Earth People.”

Given all of the above, and the new ideas that occurred to me during the semester about how to approach some of this material, I did begin to wonder whether the time devoted to introducing the elements of music should be extended to seven classes, that is, fully one-quarter of the semester. But at what point does this “close listening” component begin to take over the course, and turn it away from the writing that is its ostensible focus? At what point, given that I am not a music instructor but rather play one on CUNY-TV, am I doing students a disservice by not transitioning more quickly into reading and writing? Re-organizing this unit, as per the notes above, might help me re-think how much time I want to devote to the elements/analytical listening next time I teach the course. Perhaps the goal here should be—particularly since this is a writing-intensive course—to make sure each element has a language/writing payoff in the way the description of timbre does (and, prospectively, rhythm). These are the sorts of questions raised by interdisciplinarity, particularly when one is trying to build a bridge from one’s own discipline to the mare ignotum of another. There are other possibilities: continuing to explore the “other” discipline via reading, auditing classes, and talking with teachers; co-teaching or co-developing materials with music professors, as I have done with WAC fellows. (Unfortunately, the pecuniary environment (austerity) doesn’t reward educators who want to team-teach.)

One constant of music appreciation textbooks is that students should get a broad range of things to listen to—sort of a no-brainer, but it bears mentioning. We want them to open their ears to different sounds and forms of expression. We want them to create new synaptic connections, push their brains to fire in new ways—I can’t think of a better way to describe what happened to me when I first heard Bartok’s string quartets, or Ligeti’s etudes, or Messiaen’s Catalog of Birds, or John Zorn with Milford Graves, and so on, and so on. That said, there is a fine line between opening and overwhelming; and, when the task at hand is analysis, focus might be more important than breadth. All this is to say that I most definitely overkilled on the number musical examples I assigned. It is part of the seduction of having so much available. As I write this, I wonder if there might be a way to synthesize what I tried this semester with what I have done before: spend that first day firing a bunch of random, broadly-selected pieces of music at them; in the subsequent classes, turn to parsing the elements, focusing mostly on pieces they were exposed to in that first class. This way, studying the elements would become in part an investigation of why they wrote some of the things they did on that first day … and how they might use the elements to approach listening on a different level.

That said, as I’ve noted several times above, recursivity was indeed something I have tried to build into the course since teaching it for the first time; the issue is continuing to find moreopportunities to make connections, while at the same time not allowing the evolution of the course to stagnate (via the possibility that each element becomes so essential to every other that one is loathe to change absolutely anything). For example, giving students “The Augurs of Spring” to listen to when we examined rhythm, and “Free Jazz” for texture, means that, when we got to the question of the importance of historical context for determining the meaning of performance (see “Postmortem II”), together with the excellent reading “Beethoven’s Kapow” (about the first performance of the Eroica symphony), we will look at similar historical responses to the first performance of the Stravinsky (excerpted from Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise) and—in our modern context—the rift in the jazz community created by the arrival of Ornette Coleman, and again with the release of Free Jazz (captured in the divergent reviews the greeted the album’s arrival in Down Beat) as other examples of ruptures—moments when audiences were (at least in some versions of the events) unprepared for the sonic experiences that awaited them … when, just like my students encountering some of the strange music assigned in this class, they, too, were overwhelmed, confused, frustrated, shocked … enraptured.

Where’s that confounded bridge?

I admit it: I didn’t get the joke of Led Zeppelin’s “The Crunge” until a couple of years ago. Now I’m hip enough to use it as a section title. I’ve come a long way, baby! My “bridge” here will consist of a few notes on the units of the class that changed the least—comparison-contrast and performance review—and maybe even a fourth chord.

The more formal listening unit made it possible to treat my old lesson on “Born in the USA” (see “Postmortem II”) as at once capstone and step forward. The unit, which segues nicely into the comparison-contrast assignment between covers and “originals,” didn’t change too too much: a few new choices for song pairs, and some new readings. I never much cared for the old ones, but had never been able to find anything better. I had already assembled a handout of provocative quotes for in-class writing from those two articles, and realized this semester they’d actually work fine without the articles themselves. Together with these quotes, I assigned new material from a critical anthology about cover songs, Play It Again: a short excerpt from the introduction, and a longer, denser one from an article by pioneering metal theoretician Deena Weinstein. In “Stereophony,” Weinstein introduces the title concept to explain how we listen to covers, and the way that this listening practice differs from the romantic assumptions that accompanied the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. Overall, the combination of excerpts gave a much fuller set of ideas to play with, and helped pave the way for a richer discussion of today’s musical landscape of samples, mash-ups, and plunderphonics. Again, I’m embarrassed by the sheer quantity of the riches of YouTubeLandia I mined for my class: from Will Smith’s recasting of “Just the Two of Us” and Puff Daddy rapping over a loop from The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” to Evolution Control Committee’s seminal mash-up of Herb Alpert and Public Enemy, etc., etc.§

Something else happened in this “covers” unit that is worth mentioning, in this case because it strikes me as so indicative of the musical-cultural moment our students inhabit. One song pair I wanted to assign was Hendrix’s “You Got Me Floatin’” and PM Dawn’s wonderful re-invention (on the Hendrix tribute album Stone Free). The problem? I couldn’t find Hendrix’s “You Got Me Floatin’” on YouTube. WTF? I wasn’t aware we had entered a new era of YouTube: the combination of listener reviews (I believe they’re called “vlogs”) and amateur covers buries the originals so deep that they become unrecoverable. (I have the feeling this is also a matter of copyright protection: as songs are continuously removed and re-posted, they do not generate the number of views to compete with popular vlogs and covers, and so grow increasingly invisible as viewings of the latter, “parasitic” texts increase.) Annoying? You betcha! Here I was, nervous that we had moved beyond the age of covers, into an age when only samples and mash-ups make sense anymore … and what I discovered was quite the opposite: we have never been more in an age of covers than we are now. And then the teacher in me started to wonder if this might be an opportunity, a platform for a new assignment. Thus far, the four times I have taught the course, the song pairs have been assigned by me. (In fact, in this last semester, it was the only one of the five graded assignments where students didn’t get to choose their own piece. My reasoning: the cover and original have to “work” together to produce a successful assignment; the added variable makes it that much less likely that students will choose viable material.) Instead, what if students picked a song they liked, and then a variety of amateur covers, listening for what changes between them, and judged which cover version was “best” based on criteria developed through class discussion of the assigned reading—the most creative re-invention, the truest to the original’s “essence,” or whatever? This would have the added virtue of giving students the opportunity to push the “evaluation” button they’re so desperate to push with everything they listen to (see “Postmortem”) … but only after doing the initial legwork of close listening, analysis, and comparison.

As for the performance unit, very little changed in terms of reading selections or assignments. That said, as noted in my introduction, my ability to speak to and organize discussions about some of this and other topics was deepened by the reading I have done over the last half-decade, most of all during my sabbatical; the example that pops to mind is Steve Waksman’s discussion of the contrasting significance of stadiums and festivals, which helped inform our discussion of Hendrix at Woodstock versus Houston at the Superbowl.

Pictures worth a thousand notes

In the last two units of the semester I departed entirely, or almost entirely, from what I’d done in the course before. The fourth unit, focused around jazz and Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful, built nicely from the gallery walk lesson (see “Postmortem II”), for reasons to be explored in a moment. As it turned out, the bridge between the two African American musical forms that were the focus of these last two units, jazz and hip hop, was created by the students themselves, since hip hop came up in the initial discussion of jazz, and allowed students to use a contemporary context as a way to help them make sense of the earlier form, with which they had little if any direct contact.

Before jumping into the Dyer, it made sense to take a week to give students a brief historical and cultural grounding in jazz. Many of the short reading selections were taken from Robert Walser’s excellent anthology Keeping Time, with a couple of other tidbits thrown in (from the introductions to Nat Hentoff’s Jazz Is and Ted Gioia’s brand-new (at the time) How To Listen To Jazz, and Bill Evans’s justly famous liner notes to Kind of Blue). Musical selections were paired with the Walser readings: Satchmo and Gershwin and Duke; Bird and Diz; and two examples of the contemporary moment, the more provocative of which was Esperanza Spalding’s “Jazz Is Soul”—so great to see a contemporary performer whose range spans jazz and a variety of popular forms defining what jazz is, in performance! We then spent two weeks on the introduction plus four chapters of the Dyer, each about a different musician—Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Charles Mingus, and each of which was paired with a couple of musical selections. We discussed what these different chapters said about jazz, about art and the perils and beauties of its creation, about African American history and musical forms … and, of course, about how we approach that elusive thing called music in words.

If anything, I think I was blinded to the possibilities for this unit—and this text—by the fact that I was suddenly holding a book in my hand, and was able to look around the room and see students (most of them, anyway) holding books in their hands, too! How comforting for an English teacher! I was suddenly back in a literature class, and breathed deeply the familiar air. As a result, the text’s potential for this class remained untapped, in at least two ways. First, as Dyer says in his introductory note, what was most inspiring to him as a writer—more than biographies or even the music—were photographs. He goes on to make a number of (highly debatable) points as to why. Dyer includes a few such photos in the text, and mentions a few others in the bibliography, some of which I posted; we took some time to examine them in class. But how much more we could have done! In hindsight, I realized that each of the four classes about each of the four musicians should begin with a much more extensive analysis of a photograph—or, better yet, the students could write about those photographs, either before coming to class or in the first ten minutes. Doing so would help (a) once again weld elements of the class together, in this case by drawing forward insights and practices from the just-completed gallery walk; (b) give students a visual foothold for discussing the fictive aspects of the text, i.e., the details and scenes via which Dyer brings the musicians to life as characters; and (c) create a much firmer segue into the graded assignment.

Connection between the reading and writing: that’s what was most missing from the jazz unit. Students had a choice between writing an essay on jazz based on a couple of prompts, drawing in But Beautiful and/or the introductory readings; or writing a photo analysis based on an artist of their choice. Not surprisingly for this one—as opposed to the other assignments—literally no one chose the straight essay. This was my second revelation-in-hindsight for this unit, one that applies equally to the next unit (see below), and possibly to other assignments where the text serves as generating point rather than sole focus. The key here is to work the introductory material, in which Dyer discusses the use of photographs in his own creative work, into the instructions for the assignment. The assignment would thus ask them to begin with a discussion of Dyer’s preface, probably with some suggested questions to help develop; they would go on to analyze their own photographs of their own artists, drawing in part on the ideas from Dyer they had presented and discussed in the first part of their essay.

Words ARE music

As noted, for the final unit, Sounds, Words … Voices, we turned our attention to poetry and lyrics, and the way poets, singers and rappers encourage us to hear words not just as empty nodes of meaning, but as musical objects in themselves. We segued into the unit by examining poetry that gives particular attention to the sounds of words. Some of these poems I’d taught in Writing About Music before, though without thinking of them as a segue into considering lyrics. This semester, the idea was to make a transition from poetry that foregrounds sound (whether over & above/in lieu of sense, or as an emphatic adjunct to it) to song lyrics, with a particular focus on hip hop. I allowed myself a day-plus to once again try to bridge back to the terminology for analyzing rhyme and meter they would have at least touched on in their second semester writing classes. Although the packet also contained poems by Poe, Hopkins, Carroll, Hughes, Roethke, cummings, and Lorca, I ended up focusing on Frances Conford’s “The Watch,” John Updike’s “Winter Ocean,” and Michael Stillman’s “In Memorium, John Coltrane” for our full-class discussion. The Conford made a nice departure point for the way regular rhyme, meter, and onomatapeia help to create a poem’s meaning and tone. The Updike and Stillman made their own perfect pair: each is a flash musical composition, but with antithetical feels: Updike’s is indeed a winter ocean, all clashing stresses and jumbled images, whereas Stillman’s is pure flow—the relentless drive of a Coltrane solo.** Reciting—really performing these poems was indeed key; and I think that in the future a more formal performance component might be woven into this lesson—perhaps even as a competition? (By the way, if “poetry slam” just popped into your mind, or more broadly the way that spoken-word poetry might fit with this unit, rest assured it has occurred to me as well. It is so much the poetic ambience in which our students live today. Doing so would mean expanding and/or revamping this unit, as well as delving into the culture and practice of spoken-word poetry, about which I am largely ignorant.)

The articles about rap, John McWhorter’s “Americans Have Never Loved Poetry More … They Just Call It Rap” and Kelefa Sanneh’s “Word,” a review of Jay-Z’s Decoded and the Yale Anthology of Hip Hop Lyrics, nestled together beautifully. McWhorter, like the Yale editors, makes the case that rap is poetry. But Sanneh points out—correctly, in my opinion—not only that such claims are more than anything about cachet, but also—and this is really the crux of it—that such a claim ignores hip hop’s actual contribution, its “genius”: “to make us hear words as music.” In this way, the McWhorter-Sanneh “debate” also dovetails beautifully with the jazz unit, which included an excerpt from Billy Taylor’s “Jazz: America’s Classical Music.” What is gained by asserting such equivalencies, Walser asks in his intro blurb, and what is sacrificed? In effect, Sanneh asks—and answers—precisely this question about rap: When rap is equated with poetry, is not something—in fact, its very essence—lost—even in its translation to the printed page, where “literature” is supposed to exist? (What a long way we’ve come since Newsweek’s notorious 1990 attack on rap, which, sadly, does not seem to be available on-line; it might have made a nice counterpoint.) In this context, it was also useful to recall the kerfuffle around the Dylan Nobel Prize a couple of years back—though the connection occurred to me too late to try to find/work in an article; such an article might work well with the McWhorter and Sanneh, demonstrating the way hip hop and folk music are both reference points in broader cultural conversations about and anxieties over art and value: what is literature, who gets to say so, whether lyrics should be valorized as such, and whether what works on the page works orally, and vice-versa.

As always, the sound-based poetry, and then the discussion of the rap articles that followed, was partly intended to serve as a platform for the assignment to come, which asked them to analyze a snippet of hip hop lyrics (or other lyrics, in the case they didn’t listen to hip hop) both “on the page” and in performance, in terms of their sound—rhyme, rhythm, and vocal quality (timbre, delivery, etc.). One of the best things that came out of this—the best things are always unanticipated—was a discussion of the concept of “flow,” which Sanneh raises in his article, quoting Jay-Z. It’s one of the few moments I can remember that I was able to capitalize on a “teaching moment”: I told students to go find the definition in a credible source. It became an extra credit paper-chase. Two sent me personal definitions—they clearly believed themselves authoritative!—although one of them added three wonderful links to freestyle rappers that I was then able to turn around and use in our next class. Interestingly, one student found a blog associated with Oregon State University, but it turned out to be by a student—not strictly authoritative, but with some worthwhile ideas, and good fodder for a discussion of .edu sites and credibility. Finally, one hit the goldmine: Oxford Music Online, the same source they were supposed to visit for the research project, and whose entry on rap from 2013 contained a lovely and very academic definition of “flow.” It also presented a great opportunity to consider why the 2001 OMO entry for rap did not contain “flow” at all, and why the term was not itself an entry … though, as one student rightly noted, it might become one in the future.

Though students had the option to write an original verse in someone else’s style (together with an analysis) or an annotation, the vast majority chose the college essay analyzing lyrics (according to the model provided about “Earth People,” noted above). In this regard, the discussion of “flow,” together with the assigned articles, should allow me to do for this assignment what I intend to do with the Dyer text in the jazz unit: students would draw on concepts and ideas presented in the readings in their introductions, and potentially to help them develop their analyses. This will help (once again) balance the reading and literary element of the class (using expository writing to discuss a text) and the creative and listening element (selecting their own musical text to work with and applying ideas from the class to help parse it).

One bonus of this final unit was that it provided an opportunity to flesh out an idea I had unwittingly raised at the very beginning of the semester, by introducing those quotes from Barzun and Bernstein: music as a circuit that bypasses representation, seeming to appeal to the emotions without recourse to image or concept. In this light I thought to bring in some concrete poetry, though the cummings served well enough to show how the page, as a visual artifact, also communicates outside the meaning structure of grammar. In this regard, it might be nice to also bring back the broader question about how listeners relate to their music—a question that also arises at the very beginning of the semester around My Music. How do they, as listeners, weigh the relationship between words and music? To what extent do, say, racist, or misogynist, or politically-obnoxious lyrics change our relationship to a song?

Conclusioning-a-ning

Well, here I am at the end of another extensive postmortem—the most extensive yet: the organs all in their proper little trays, the body splayed & evacuated … but there, just under where the gallbladder once was, the research project, once again left behind. Like Gary Larsen’s cows, who sit there without opposable thumbs, unable to answer the phone: so I sit. This semester I actually used Prof. Rounds’s research project—I mean wholesale, just took it and jimmied the damn thing into my course, with hardly an edit—I shouted, “There ye are; and make the best of it!”—and so maybe, in my above-threatened Postmortem IV: The Revenge, I will have an opportunity to talk about in what ways it kicks the crap out of the research assignments I’ve tried in the past. As it is, I’d rather spend the remainder of this post(mortem, ha ha, punny punny) discussing what IS here, and what might be.

What IS it, man? A sort of chimera, a hybrid between a very writing-intensive music appreciation course and an advanced composition course that takes music as its semester-long theme. And that is, I think, the right interdisciplinary space for it. The question for me moving forward, then, is not how to change the identity of the course, but how to fully capitalize on this interdisciplinary niche, in such a way that students find and keep their bearings through the semester-long ride.

One way, as noted, is to rein in the assigned listenings (see above). The increasingly extensive use I’ve made of the Blackboard site is obviously a good thing—particularly as this is one of the few courses I teach that I could imagine in an asynchronous environment. But after preparing a hybrid course last year (for second-semester comp), my weaknesseses with Blackboard became that much more apparent. And it’s not just the sheer quantity of material. Why, for example, did I keep the oldest stuff on top, burying the new at the bottom of a Course Content page deep as a well? Scroll, scroll, scroll … So the hybrid training helped me become conscious of stuff like this. But I’m still going to have to start with a judicious pruning of the amount of material; only then will the recursive elements of the course really stand out to the students.

In terms of developing the course further, as I look back particularly on my attempts to make the listening portion more robust, I have started to fantasize about auditing another class—but this time, rather than theory (which, I admit, I partly did for my own pleasure), music education. I actually got this idea by way of my niece, who, as a euphonium player studying music at Northwestern, with an eye toward possibly becoming a music educator, was assigned to visit music classrooms in area high schools. I think a similar endeavor would help me to consolidate the changes I’ve made in the “elements” portion of the class. The trick will be finding a place where I can do it, as I am longer blessed to be living a five-minute walk from City College’s Shepard Hall (cf. “Goodbye, Music Library!” 12.31.12)!

At the end of the semester I gave my students my own evaluation. In addition to asking them about the best, worst, and most difficult readings, listenings, and assignments, and memorable lessons, all of which I’ve done in the past, this semester I asked a series of true-or-false questions: (1) This class exposed me to music with which I was not familiar; (2) This class enabled me to notice things about music I hadn’t before; (3) This class helped me think about the music I like in a new way; (4) I’m now sort of interested in exploring jazz; (5) I’m going to stop listening to everything I used to listen to and, from this point forward, listen only to death metal.

My reasoning was as follows: #1 has to be true; anyone who answers “no” is clearly doing so from either ill will or lack of attention; an “F” answer would would help me rule out corrupt surveys. #5 is obviously facetious. The core questions, then, are #2-4; #2 and #3 are broad goals for the course, while with #4 I just wanted to know if the jazz unit had piqued any interest. I can’t, of course, put too much stock in such a survey; even though I kept them turned over and asked for anoynymity, it does not have the sort of safeguards of a regular evaluation. Still, I thought whatever information I might glean could be useful.

As it turned out, I was wrong about question #1: the only student who marked “F” actually wrote a thoughtful closing note (in a space I had marked for “closing thoughts”); how he or she already knew all this music I can’t say. The only survey I discounted was the one marked “T” for every question … including listening to death metal for the rest of his (or her) life. (Someone else wrote in the closing comment box, “I will never listen to death metal.”) Discounting the all-T survey, the answers were as follows, T’s first: 1, 12-1; 2, 12-1; 3, 9-4; 4, 7-6; and 5, 0-13. Obviously, I’m happy with #2, and moderately so with #3; I really like the idea of students turning a new sort of attention on “their” music. There might be cause for a tiny celebration about #4; some students even marked But Beautifulas their favorite reading, and expressed the wish that the jazz unit had been longer.

And finally. In the academic-political context of our time, it’s hard not to see this long-ass post as a bit of a protest. Perhaps the most dispiriting transformation in academia since I began teaching has been the move to outsource curriculum. Faculty become content-delivery machines, education allocators. Chevron writes my curriculum; I just stick the nozzle in my students’ ears and pump that good ol’ Chevron-knowledge in. I become a glorified TA, really just there to do the grunt work of grading papers, and of course AI is slowly catching up with us there (hilariously, at least for the time being). Frankly, I think we’re in danger of outsourcing ourselves out of a profession. To me, the two most exciting things about teaching are developing curricula and being in the classroom, and my hearing issues are rapidly making the latter a thing of the past. Why on earth would we allow a network of increasingly-corporatized schools and for-profit companies to rob us of the best part of our profession? I love that little feature on Blackboard called “teaching style,” which enables you to select a course theme (rocket! legal pad! ocean!), and the shapes of the buttons. Pretty soon that’s what we’ll be reduced to—what we’ll reduce ourselves to. See ya, birthright! Hello, mess o’ pottage! Every such platform shapes the way we teach, and “education corporations” (an oxymoron if ever there was one) clearly want to control this, in the same way textbook publishers want their products to get adopted, and database companies want to gouge colleges (and use faculty for free labor too boot). Curriculum is the hard-fought product of the reading and study and teaching teachers do, and the dialogue and sharing they engage in: the collective creativity of the professoriate. Why teach otherwise? When I developed my first hybrid course earlier this year, as noted above (to help mitigate my hearing problems), I was given the opportunity (but not mandated—please don’t misunderstand me here) to look at the products offered by one such company; I could, like, link to their dude giving his American lit survey lecture. And then I wouldn’t have to do all that work myself, would I? I, or rather my institution, could just buy it instead. It’s seductive, isn’t it? Being a kept man. Colleges maximize the number of classes we teach, and the number of students in our classrooms; the grind takes away from the time we have for developing course materials; we all went to get our scholarship done, or write insanely long blog posts … and voila, like a little wish-granting fairy, Edukation-R-Us appears to sell us the stuff we need, so colleges can keep stuffing more students into our classrooms, more classes into our schedule. But why would I use that when I’ve already made my own? I like my lectures. I keep refining them as I keep reading and learning. I’m not against the cornucopia of wonderful material available on the web; in my American-themed Literature and Composition course, I always post several of the Annenberg “American Promise” videos and encourage students to watch them. I also post several links about every author I teach, generally ones created by colleagues at other colleges, some by government organizations doing state history, some by independent scholars. That’s a creative commons, like the smaller one we have here at CUNY, onto which, when I am done writing, I will upload this, in the hopes that someone may find it as useful as me, and for the karmic responsibility to others doing the same. But a ready-made template provided by some poor underpaid sop probably burned out from adjuncting, unable to secure tenure-track work in our current academic inferno? Really?

Oh, Henry David! H.D.! Help me! (Thoreau appears from a wisp in the air, dressed as a shrub oak, knocks out the Edukation-R-Us fairy with a two-by-four, and says:) “It is no worse than a thousand other practices which custom [i.e., capitalism] has sanctioned; but that is the worst of it, for it suggests how bad the rest are and to what result our civilization and division of labor naturally tend.”††

 

* Cadences aren’t always easy for students to hear, particularly if they don’t have a musical background. Then again, if Peter Manuel is correct in his analysis of fandangos as heard by audiences with different cultural backgrounds, what counts as resolution is at least partly culturally specific (see Peter Manuel, “From Scarlatti to ‘Guantanamera’: Dual Tonicity in Spanish and Latin American Musics.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 55:2 (Summer 2002), 311-336). I wonder: If one plays the leading tone (in the proper harmonic context), will all people, irrespective of their origins, and based solely on the cognition of hearing, expect resolution on the tonic? It does seem like the academic pendulum is swinging back toward neurobiology. Those last three notes of the antedent phrase of “Rainbow” (“way up high”) are actually the same last three notes of the old six-note jingle in National Brand Outlets commercial (“N, B, O!”). (Is the jingle in a different key? I think so.)

† I realize this is ass-backwards to the way music is thought about today, i.e., not in terms of its elements, but in terms of cultural contexts; there is no such thing as “raw listening.” This is me nodding; this is you waiting for me to say something intelligent in response. This is me going on and talking anyway. This is you, sighing and reading on.

§ The old song pairs I used can be found in the original “Postmortem” post. This semester, I deleted the Beatles Cubanos and the Stones/Devo “Satisfaction” and added three new pairs: “Take Me To the River” by Al Green/The Talking Heads; “Me and Bobby McGee” by Roger Miller/Janis Joplin, and “Crazy in Love” by Beyonce/Antony and the Johnsons. Not surprisingly, the Beyonce had several takers, though I got better work out of “Me and Bobby McGee.”

** Together with John Sinclair’s brilliant Monk poem “humphf,” Stillman’s is my favorite jazz poem. Why does jazz poetry have a tendency to be so elegaic, so heavy? So much jazz poetry seems to miss the breath and hop and light beauty of the music—and what Art Blakey called “goofin’.” They intone rather than sing. Not that there aren’t a number of other poets whose jazz-themed poetry I admire: Baraka’s, much of Komunyakaa’s, O’Hara’s beautiful elegy for Billie Holiday …

†† From “Black Huckleberries,” an excerpt from Wild Fruits, left unfinished at the time of Thoreau’s death, published by W.W. Norton in 2000. The excerpt appeared in Harper’s.

Eight Years in the Pit

Maybe I’m still hungover from my last posting binge, or maybe it’s just gotten to the point that my posts are so ungodly long I have to break them in two. Whatever the case, the two books I “reviewed” in my last post (“Vasudeva on the Hudson,” 11.11.18), and particularly Travis Jackson’s Blowin’ the Blues Away, raised for me some questions about who music writers write for—that is, questions of audience—which is just the sort of meta-critical stuff I like to ponder in these year-end roundups. So, with your permission.

According to Jackson, jazz musicians don’t think much of jazz criticism, with one exception: Albert Murray’s Stomping the Blues (131). If and when musicians do read about jazz, they tend toward biographies of major figures—and even here, the text’s credibility may be questioned. These observations form part of a broader discussion about the channels through which musicians gain knowledge about their craft; by and large, jazz criticism, and writing about jazz more generally, ain’t one of them. Instead, Jackson writes, “other musicians and performers” are regarded as “the most trustworthy repository of knowledge” (131).

Given the above, two questions: Do music writers write for musicians? And: Is music writing somehow vindicated when it carries the imprimatur of a musician? My answers: No; and God, I hope not.

There is much musicians can add to the discussion of music, just as there is much writers can add to the discussion of literature. Writers and critics approach texts from different ends, so to speak. It makes sense that writers would most want to know what other writers have to say, and musicians other musicians. Artists’ comments tend to address craft first and foremost. But discussions of texts, literary or musical, are hardly limited to the how; beyond this, there is no reason to assume a musician’s words are any more valid or illuminating than those of a critic with a sharp ear and sharper pen. In fact, the opposite is often true. And so it should be: a musician’s job is to play music, not write about it, although he or she may occasionally be paid to do the latter, and may occasionally do it very well. I should add that this is true whether the music in question is their own or another’s. In literary studies, we have long since acknowledged that the author is not the final arbiter of meaning.* Rather, he or she is one of a number of frames that can be put around the text; others include the culture from which the text emerged (as per Jackson’s “blues aesthetic,” and which may be partly approached through the artist) and the interpretative community (as per Greenland’s arguments about the criteria of jazz audiences; see Chapter 1 of Jazzing). With this in mind, and particularly given the different medium in which musicians work, it’s not entirely clear to me why musicians’ words would be valued above those of other careful, knowledgeable, and passionate listeners, above all those who have worked to hone their craft within their own profession.

All this is not to say there aren’t errors in music criticism or bad music writing—read around my blog, I’m sure you’ll find examples of both. Where the profession is concerned, Jackson notes that this is sometimes due to things like space constraints, looming deadlines, the absence of clear criteria (a problem Ted Gioia takes head-on in his latest book, How to Listen to Jazz), and the question of what credentials, if any, are required (cf. the long-standing question of how much theory a critic should know). Greenland adds competition from amateurs on the web (!), and problems of oversaturation, burnout, and critics’ positions with respect to the scene (i.e., the thin line between review and promotion, and the potential disinclination to lose “access” because one writes bad reviews). Jackson actually mentions a few scuffles: between Joshua Redman and New York Times jazz writer Ben Watrous (for whom Jackson worked for a time) over a Vanguard performance where Watrous felt Redman was pandering, and between Wynton Marsalis and Village Voice writer Kevin Whitehead over a bad review the former received. (Marsalis’s reply is telling: “Who has this writer studied or played with, and what is the source of his authority other than poor editorial decisions?” (100)). We also learn, via an interview with Redman, that Sonny Rollins disliked Gunther Schuller’s seminal essay about him (Jackson 131)—that is, a laudatory essay written by a fellow musician.

Rollins, Marsalis, Redman … Were I a professional critic, rather than a homely blogger, such a junta would be enough to scare the bejeezus out of me. I would bury my pen in the same place as the bullets once meant for the workers’ uprising, and the ashes of old pets.

Scuffles and disagreements like these also put on the table the question of how much power critics actually have. Gary Giddins, who I would agree to call the dean of American jazz criticism if I had a higher opinion of deans, believes his words have the power to help but not hinder, since those musicians jazz critics tend to dislike generally have careers and audiences that care not a whit about their opinions (Greenland 127). But does this really mean a poor review can’t harm an up-and-coming musician, particularly from someone of Giddins’s stature? Or is it the case that, as I noted in a recent post, Giddins has to feel inspired by a musician—and inspired as a writer—to write about him or her, so that he tends not to write broadsides? The latter is probably true, and certainly resonates with me. Regardless, in a competitive environment like New York, where a prominent critic’s pick in a widely-read news source can make the difference between a sold-out engagement and an audience of crickets (Jackson 101), any musician who receives good press has to be stealing from another. Silence can kill as effectively as words.

Anyway, if it were true that critics had no capacity to hurt, why did Marsalis bother to respond to Whitehead in the first place? The power dynamic would seem to run the other direction, since Marsalis could surely do much more to hurt Whitehead’s career than vice-versa. (Did he do the same to Giddins, another Voice writer and Wynton skeptic? If not, why not?) But I guess hurt feelings isn’t quite the same thing as a hurt career.

The question of who we write for might be partly illuminated by trying to answer the related question of why we write. For me, in its highest incarnation, music writing is an attempt to translate something important, even something essential, about one’s experience of listening to music for a reader. (I love how Carl Wilson puts it about an imagined better music criticism: “What it is like for me to like it.”) This is obviously not the only thing we do. But even when we are synthesizing factual information about the culture and musicians and history (and I want to emphasize synthesis here, that is, orchestrating these facts and ideas in a novel way, which depends much on the analytical and creative powers of the writer—most non-writers tend not to realize both the labor and creativity involved), it should be with that goal in mind.

Among other things, this means valuing the language for what it is. And here I need to return to Blowin’ the Blues Away. In his discussion of the critical reception of jazz criticism, Jackson writes the following: “Critics […] display a great deal of passion and erudition, though their engagement with or understanding of the music is not always apparent. As many of the commentators on jazz criticism have acknowledged, many of these individuals are first and foremost writers, capable of devising elaborate metaphors and choosing piquant adjectives, but few are adept at sustained argument” (100). “First and foremost writers,” indeed. And again, so it should be. Because in the end, “elaborate metaphors” and “piquant adjectives” are our instrument; to fault music criticism for this is like blaming a musician, not for their particular phrasing or sense of harmony, but for picking up the horn in the first place. If the emphasis here is on the word “elaborate,” then point taken: any critic can let the language run away from them. But the force of the quote seems to be on metaphors and adjectives per se. These things—along with all the other parts of speech, down to the lowliest preposition, and every other tool in the rhetorician’s well-stocked arsenal—are what we’ve got to work with, what do all the work. They’re the only things than can possibly make anyone understand what Jackson’s “taking it to the next level” means (see “Vasudeva”).**

Given Jackson’s focus on a “blues aesthetic,” this is somewhat ironic. For if the African American elements according to which jazz “needs” to be understood are precisely those which harmony and theory can’t parse, they are also, not surprisingly, the things most difficult to express in language. Greenland notes as much, though with other issues in mind: “Musical elements that resist analysis and classification include timbre (the “color” of sound), nonstandard pitches and tunings, and rhythmic flexibility […] [timbre] is usually defined in metaphorical terms that are, by definition, imprecise and highly subjective” (22). Imprecise and subjective, yes … and so, so rich. It is, of course, the reason “color” is in quotes. All music writing belongs in quotes; it’s the force of that first “like” in the Wilson quote above. That is at once its greatest strength and the signature of its eternal failure. As for the other two elements Greenland lists, the ability to “objectively measure” them tells us little to nothing about them. And so, particularly with musics that don’t fit squarely into the Western canon, we are forced more than ever into elaborate and not-so-elaborate metaphors, piquant and not-so-piquant adjectives, and the whole kit and caboodle of nouns, verbs, synechdoches, parataxes, &c., &c.

A useful analogy might be made to the art of literary translation. When I teach Latin American Literature, I spend a week or two looking at excerpts from seminal writings on the philosophy of translation, and the different approaches to translating they imply. On one end of the spectrum is Vladimir Nabokov, who much preferred word-by-word accuracy to any attempt to remake the original as literature in the new language; he calls for mountains of footnotes, not (specious) beauty. Such a Nabokovian translator is a little like a traditional musicologist: he or she can parse all the technical parameters of a piece, explain what is happening harmonically very clearly, but will not able to move past this, at least in this discourse; his or her writing will be read by other experts, but very few laypersons will gain much from it. Little to none of the pleasure or beauty of the musical experience will be communicated, except perhaps to that narrow community of scholars (although the analysis may take on a logical beauty of its own). It’s a bit like having a joke explained: clever, but not funny. If jazz is the sound of surprise, then in such writing jazz disappears.

The other side of the coin might be best exemplified by John Dryden, for whom the goal of the translator is not to capture the original word for word in a literal or “servile” (Spanish servil; Octavio Paz makes much of this) translation, but its “spirit” or “essence.” Nabokov complains that too many such “literary” translators are inadequate in the original language, and so make botches. He was also pretty displeased with the “literary” quality of the results.*** For Nabokov, literary translation is an oxymoron. It should be noted that even the most liberal of writers about translation are not far behind him in terms of throwing up their hands at the challenges faced by translators. But when they consider the rewards of even a moderate failure—that translation enriches the literature of the world by bringing vast new audiences to works in other languages—even such a quixotic task seems worthwhile.

As for writers translating, Paz argues that, while this is seductive in theory, “poets are rarely good translators.” Why? Because “they almost invariably use the foreign poem as a point of departure toward their own. A good translator moves in the opposite direction. […] Poetic translation […] is a procedure analogous to poetic creation, but it unfolds in the opposite direction.”

And so with music writing. An impossible task, to be sure. A worthwhile one? I’m not sure. We certainly can’t make the grand claims made for translation, since the gift of music is precisely that translation isn’t necessary, that it crosses borders without needing a passport, and so on. Or so we are told. But in those instances music writing really works, I think it does enrich the musical experience, opening doors to what we hear and the way we understand. For whom, I don’t know. For me, certainly, both by reading great writing about music and by attempting it myself. I’m content to fall flat on my face if I’ve gotten a few steps closer. Why would I bother to write about music if I wasn’t seeking to understand and appreciate it better? But then that’s a given. The author is his or her own best audience … and as such, worst enemy.

I know the analogy to literary translation is far from perfect, but the echoes are highly suggestive. If it is supposed to be a cliché that the best music criticism reproduces what it writes about, why is it so often forgotten? If Dyer, a jazz writer who disparages jazz writing in his closing essay to But Beautiful (which also serves as his case in point, since the rest of the book, his fictionalized portraits of jazz artists, is so much better), believes, as Bernstein did before him, that only art can answer art, and that indeed the music of jazz is a history of critical commentary, and hence that jazz criticism is superfluous (which I guess is the point of his conclusion: an essay to end all essays), then clearly criticism must aspire to art, and music criticism above all. Which means, again, “piquant adjectives” etc. are indeed the stuff and the only stuff of music writing—the very stuff that makes reading music writing worth our while.

But then that Paz quotation calls me back, admonishes me, builds the walls of the little room where I can dance. Clearly, if the goal is literary translation, we need to have translators at once sensitive to the original language (music) and the translated one (words). It isn’t only Paz who speaks to the dangers of a translator getting too far from the original, projecting their own ideas onto the text—precisely what a fan Jackson interviewed felt about music reviewers. Obviously, we want writers who “understand” the music and can use words in such a way as to enrich our understanding of it. But where music is concerned, “understand” is a fraught term. Does it mean being able to hear a chord substitution? To be able to hear the music in the fullness of its historical, generic, and/or cultural context? To be able to feel the music on a deep level (other fraught terms: feeldeep)? All or some combination of the above? Is any one more important than the others? Can a strength in one make up for deficiencies in the others? To what extent can cross-generic and even cross-disciplinary observations result in meaningful writing? Feeling certainly opens us up to projection and nonsense … but it’s also difficult to imagine really good music criticism without it. It does tilt the balance decidedly toward the reflection of the musical experience in language. If we all experience music differently, and music resonates with each of us differently, in a way a literary text does as well, but in a much more limited sense (because language still signifies), then what matters is not whether Rollins liked it, or who so-and-so studied with, or whether, God forbid, they have a bunch of little letters after their names, but whether that writer can explore the musical experience sensitively in language.

I’ll conclude this discussion with a paean to nonfiction. I’ve been really blown away by the quality of some of the nonfiction I’ve read in the last couple of years, some of which I’ve mentioned on this blog (The New Jim Crow, for example, and Between the World and Me), and some of which I haven’t (The Sixth Extinction and Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon spring to mind). It shouldn’t surprise me, being such a James Baldwin fan, and always believing his nonfiction was a yet-greater achievement than his fiction. But we do, as a culture, tend to value fiction and poetry over nonfiction, imagining the latter to be a servil translation of facts, except when we attach the prefix “creative” to it, as if the imagination played no role in the former. I think this is a mistake. I’m not arguing for the collapse of distinctions, but rather for equal recognition of achievement in both categories, and perhaps as well that all genres of writing should aspire to transcend their categories and be called literature, music criticism among them. We—music writers; all writers—should be so bold as to make these claims, and to have these aspirations. (You can call them pretensions if you like; I am happy to acknowledge them as such.) As readers, too, we should have these expectations. And we should all lament the constraints of space, time, and attention span on music critics who would be best left alone to develop their skills, and their tastes, at their leisure.

So. Giddins or Rollins? Gary might demure, even scold me, but I wouldn’t want to do without either.

*

As always, a look back at the year in words.

Besides simply wanting to have more content to make it feel like a year, I think the reason I waited until November (now December) to write a reflection is because I needed to convince myself this blog hadn’t entered The Ironic Zone, decadence and exhaustion: the Fall of the Pit of Helldriver. (A cartoon I used to have up over my desk showed a guy at a hot dog cart telling his customer, “Sorry, we’re out of everything but irony.” I think it was by Gahan Wilson.) I seemed to be writing nothing but satirical pieces (“The Unwearable Leatherness of Loverboy,” “Classic Rock Radio,” “Crash Course in Auto-Drumming”), and that after a half-year without blogging at all. Now that I’ve managed to produce a couple of posts as long and torturous as anything on this blog, with “Refined” serving as a sort of transition, I feel like I can close the “year” on a higher note. But as long as I’m on the subject of eschatologies, I will take this opportunity to mention that I have a year left in this blog—year again in quotation marks—at which point I will take a more extended break … perhaps a permanent one. I have much work to do to make it to that imaginary finish line.

Before painting over this mirror, I want to go back to a somewhat earlier post, “Un/coiffed” (12.8.16), which reading Blowin’ the Blues Away did much to thrust back into the forefront of my conscousness. In his history of the debate over jazz’s racial identity (see, again, “Vasudeva”), Jackson recounts a particularly ugly moment in the neoconservative ‘80s. Young African American players were coming to the music newly enthused about its tradition, and one of the ways this manifested itself was in their very formal attire. Apparently, there was a backlash against these new young sophisticates for being too traditional, and too fashion-conscious (and hence superficial): a “sneering, hostile” jazz press baptized them “young black men in suits” (Tom Piazza, qtd. in Jackson 31).

Reading this, I wondered if the “odd racial overtones” of these “sneering, hostile” critics were also present in my post; I did, after all, make much of the sartorial decorousness of the young mixed-race band that played at the Jazz Gallery that evening, and compared them, somewhat unfavorably, to the frumpy old white guys at The Stone later the same night. It was all a bit glib. I hope that my closing discussion in that post is more nuanced than that, and my criticisms of the younger band more generous, more about age than anything else. I was, after all, innocent of this episode in the annals of jazz criticism. But “innocent” is a relative term when one was born and raised in a country where racism is so deeply enmeshed in its history and culture. Anyway, the reader can judge for him- or herself. I am grateful to Jackson for calling the whole thing to my attention; knowing the history of one’s craft makes one, I hope, more conscious of one’s words and opinions, and a more reflective writer overall.

It’s funny, I’ve seen creative writers talk about the blogging they do as a time suck, the way Facebook posting is: a way to avoid doing other, more important work. I’ve never felt that way about this blog. Frankly, I think that if you’re seeing blogging as a time-suck, that means it’s a time-suck for your readers as well. I have no interest in writing time-sucks, just as I have no interest in reading them, though I do occasionally succumb in the minutes before bedtime to that sort of attentionless browsing. I do regard making time to write stories and creative nonfiction as more important, which is one of the reasons keeping up with the blog has been challenging, and the hiatuses have occasionally been extended. Music criticism is a genre I enjoy writing (and reading), but it obviously falls somewhere on the outskirts of my professional background and abilities, whatever they might be. I occasionally write poetry, too; blogging is a little like that: working in a genre that I’m not entirely comfortable with, but that I sometimes find necessary and pleasurable to write in, and where I feel like I can sometimes do valuable work—posit a good idea, or capture something in sound with the right word or phrase. So I like to think these things fall along a continuum, rather than the either-or “serious work” and “time suck.” Some days I feel just that way about writing fiction, anyway: there I am, up in my office, building my ridiculous model airplanes as though they’d already crashed. How can I really call it anything different from what I do here on my blog?

And what the fuck else is there to do? My partner is out digging holes in frozen ground. My dogs are tearing an old sock apart between them. The days pass. I sleep better for it.

 

* I wonder to what extent this is still true. Grad school in English is a bit like one’s musical adolescence, in the sense that the theory one learns there tends to become the lens one reads through for the rest of one’s professional life, because, I think, one’s first contact with the power of theory, of raw ideas, their ability to describe the world and problematize things we had taken for granted, creates a powerful impression that serves as an intellectual analogue to our early encounters with music, and the deep furrows our first musical loves make on our lives. I don’t think the analogy is farfetched; graduate school is a sort of intellectual adolescence, a first enamoring with ideas, so that they almost become hormone-charged. Anyway, it is true that, like the record shelves of many people which remain stranded in the music of their adolescence, so the bookshelves of those with higher education and their books. I understand that today in English grad programs people are studying brains, and animals, and perhaps the brains of animals; and were I teaching in a school with a graduate program, or even a serious senior-level seminar or theory class, rather than at a community college, I suppose it would be my professional responsibility to keep up with such things (hence the shudder-making difference between my profs in grad school who did and those who didn’t; whether or not they accepted the current paradigms, they were at least conversant with them). Since I don’t, I’m much more comfortable going back to reading all the Barthes et al. I haven’t read. Anyway, we may or may not have resurrected the author, but I hope we still know better than to trust him or her; and I don’t see why that should be any different when the author is a musician, speaking a language that comes to us as through the bubble of another dimension.

** A few other thoughts here. First, I’m bewildered here by the implied antithesis between “writer” and “sustained argument.” I thought one of the things writers did was write arguments. Is the issue here creative writers? That poets can’t write arguments? I have no clue. Second: To what extent does the teaching of music unfold a capability with language about music that didn’t necessarily exist when school was primarily or entirely the bandstand? I know, there was always high school—but those teachers were teachers first, musicians second (Cannonball notwithstanding), unlike those employed by music conservatories and departments today.

Finally, an anecdote. I was reminded by all this of a wonderful poet I went to graduate school with. I think he might have dropped out—I wasn’t close with him—but I did take a class in Medieval Literature with him. I remember, when he had to present on a poem about a rose, he claimed that he liked the poem’s “delicacy” … but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, go further than that. Here’s the punch line: I was never in his apartment, but a friend of mine who was says he had almost no books. Instead, his apartment was filled, wall to wall, with jazz records.

*** It’s a pity Nabokov was such a pedant and cynic when it came to translation. I can only imagine what his cross-linguistic genius could have done had he applied himself to writing literary translations. I remember seeing an exhibit of his papers once at the New York Public Library; the edits he had made on the manuscripts of his own son’s translations of his early novels into English were revelatory. By the way, my sources for the philosophy of translation come from the excellent anthology Theories of Translation (Chicago UP, 1992). There is also a companion volume, The Craft of Translation, which I have not read.