Category Archives: What I’m Listening To

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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.

Vasudeva on the Hudson

The first or maybe second time I read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, I became enamored of the character of Vasudeva, the ferryman. The ferryman, as you may remember, has learned from the river how to listen. “Without his saying a word,” Hesse writes, “the speaker felt that Vasudeva took in every word, quietly, expectantly, that he missed nothing. He did not await anything with impatience and gave neither praise nor blame—he only listened […] with a still heart, with a waiting, open soul, without passion, without desire, without judgment, without opinions” (ps. 85, 87). I wanted to emulate Vasudeva: I, too, wanted to master the art of listening. Whenever my students tell me, as they have occasionally, that they liked my class because they felt I was invested in the conversations and truly interested in what they had to say—and whatever my reservations today about the novel’s philosophy—I feel that I owe a debt of gratitude to Hesse and Siddhartha.

There is no music in Siddhartha, at least that I recall. Others of Hesse’s novels—Steppenwolf, The Glass-Bead Game—are steeped in music. But Siddhartha comes to me from the farther reaches of memory as a silent book, or no more aural than the soundscape of, say, the river itself. The ferryman has mastered the art of listening to others speak. Would the same hold true for music? If so, would it not be lovely for a fiddler to bring his fiddle onto that ferry, a guitarist her guitar? There he would be, the one true listener, a sufficient audience unto himself.

Hesse’s ferryman came back to me as I was reading Thomas Greenland’s Jazzing: New York City’s Unseen Scene (Illinois UP, 2016), one of two ethnographies of jazz I read this year; the second, which I read first, was Travis Jackson’s Blowin’ the Blues Away: Performance and Meaning on the New York Jazz Scene (California UP, 2012). Both studies examine New York jazz in the ‘90s and ‘00s, with Jackson’s concentrating on traditional (“WBGO”) jazz, and Greenland’s on a combination of “trad” and “downtown,” or avant-garde. Both authors stress the need to understand jazz by looking beyond the music itself, to the contexts of its production and consumption. For Jackson, this context mostly means African American culture as it is revealed through attending performances and recording sessions, and interviewing musicians. For Greenland, it mostly means the way different actors—musicians, fans, club owners, journalists, and so on—interact to make New York jazz possible and meaningful. (I say “mostly” because Jackson does consider the different actors in the scene, and Greenland does cite some interviews with musicians; but the bulk of their attention, respectively, lies elsewhere.) It was Greenland’s attention to jazz fans, whom he compares to sammi’ahs (of tarab music) and cabales (of flamenco), “dedicated connossieurs who think and feel music on a deep level” (48; Greenland’s emphasis), and who inspire others, including the musicians who perform for them, that recalled the ferryman to me. I like the colloquial term for these Vasudevian listeners, too: they have “big ears.”

Before going any further, I should admit a narcissistic attraction to these texts. I was active on the scene during the periods Jackson and Greenland study. As a fan, I was eager to see myself in the mirror of these texts, to imagine the authors as phantom patrons who might once have sat at the table next to mine, and to nostalgically identify with the places described—to murmur to myself, “I was there.” Indeed, by Scott DeVeaux’s definition (cited in Greenland), I was, for almost two decades of my life, a hard-core fan, one among only about half a per cent of jazz listeners who attend at least one set per month (more like one or two sets a week). I was—to use another lovely colloquialism from Greenland—“chasing the dog.” (A colleague of mine, who is still chasing the dog in his early seventies, describes himself as “a geriatric club-rat.”)*

What this means is that, in gleaning what I could from these books, I also had the expectation that I would learn something about myself. Not just, that is, how scenes function to create meaning, which would have repercussions for the way I understand other popular musics that I think and write about on this blog, or any other nuggets of wisdom I might acquire about jazz history or the recording industry or music per se (and there were plenty); but also about the musical history and context of the city in which I came of artistic age. I can’t help but see music through the lens of New York; and, musically speaking, I can’t help but see myself through that same lens. What might these studies reveal to me about the lens itself?

*

The goal of Jackson’s project is to understand “how participants in the jazz scene, and especially musicians, construct and construe meaning in musical events” (6-7; Jackson’s emphasis). As noted, for Jackson you get the most out of analyzing jazz in the context of the scene and, more broadly, the culture from which it arises. In fact, trying to examine the music outside of its cultural context reflects a bias imported from the study of Western (classical) music; and this bias has historically hampered our understanding of jazz. White critics who have told the story of jazz have tended to “whitewash”—Dizzy’s term, which Jackson uses as a chapter epigraph; they have “molded what they saw as primarily African American musical practices in the image of Western literary and musical traditions” (28). But jazz, Jackson asserts, can’t be just “about itself”; it is inseparable from African American tradition; it comes out of, and feeds back into, African American culture (212). Part of Jackson’s project, then, is to bring to bear on the music the specifically African American cultural context of jazz that many earlier studies had erased.

Jackson calls jazz “a spiritually oriented ritualized activity” (22) governed by a “blues aesthetic,” an “African American approach to music-making” whose elements he begins to describe via the scholarly writing of composer Olly Wilson: “use of (overlapping) call-and-response techniques, off-beat phrasing of melodic accents, percussive approaches to performance, timbral heterogeneity, use of polymetric frameworks, and the integration of environmental factors into performance” (Jackson 47). Overall, if jazz music and performance are deeply rooted in African American experience, which itself feeds back into said culture, then to consider jazz from a traditional musicological framework not only misses all the subtleties that can’t be notated by Western scorekeeping and analysis, but the very thing that makes jazz jazz.

Among other things, the above conclusions mean that Jackson must grapple with the knotty and contentious relationship between jazz and race: between, that is, jazz as American music (e.g., “America’s classical music”) and jazz as African American music. He traces the history of this controversy back to the emergence of the neoclassicism of the ‘70s and ‘80s, through the eventual institutionalization of Wynton Marsalis et al. at Lincoln Center, and the predictable backlash—particularly predictable against the backdrop of concurrent debates over affirmative action. White critics lamented that whites’ contributions to jazz were being overlooked, and argued that jazz was “supposed” to be about integration, a point Jackson legitimately questions (32-3). For Marsalis, Albert Murray, and Stanley Crouch, jazz was all about “blues feeling, timbral nuance, and rhythmic swing” (34)— that is to say, elements it derived from African American musical tradition.

Jackson consistently emphasizes that this is a question culture, not color, even as he acknowledges how much race and culture share. “Musicians of varying backgrounds,” he writes, “have learned to perform the music. Each of them has had to marry whatever musical skills they had […] with the conventions and aesthetic priorities of jazz performance, which remain consistent with the aesthetic imperatives of other African American and African-derived musical forms” (48; Jackson’s emphasis). The same, one imagines, should hold true for audiences: listeners “of varying backgrounds” can learn to listen to jazz. But the way race and culture shade into each other in the popular imagination and discourse makes me wonder. For the Marsalis camp, it is far from clear that racial/cultural others are capable of mastering the requisite elements of African American tradition as players (cf. Crouch’s comments on trumpeter Dave Douglas; Jackson himself notes that Crouch is “harder to defend” than Marsalis or Murray, and treats him, I think, rather too gently). The same seems to be true for listeners, at least based on some of the interviews Jackson foregrounds in his study. Any music, Joshua Redman opines, can be played with soul; and anyone can connect with music on a spiritual level. But there’s soul and there’s soul, “a certain kind of emoting which is associated with the blues idiom and blues expression” (qtd. in Jackson 115). For saxophonist Sam Newsome, for example, a black audience member who is familiar with the music—and possibly one who isn’t—hears the “soulful” side of his playing; a black audience member hears and appreciates what white audiences can’t. Others might connect intellectually, and perhaps “spiritually,” but not on that “deeper” level (Jackson 118-9). Again, Jackson himself calls this “learned cultural knowledge.” But is the spiritual learned? Or perhaps it’s the appeal to the spirit, the path to it, that is learned? If so, is there a point at which this learning must start, if we’re to imagine a listener able to connect on that “deeper” level? Is “deeper” a question of quantity or quality, degree or kind? However we slice it, in Newsome’s formulation, culture—and again, it is difficult not to project race onto the term—does determine how near an audience member can get to a music’s essence. By this logic, Newsome would presumably never hear Beethoven’s “Tempest” piano sonata the way I do.† There is always a residue of culture/race that will prevent the Other from reaching the citadel of “deep” connection, from hearing the way a musician “work[s] through and re-present[s] that culture for the benefit of ritualized performers and listeners” (Jackson 140).

As I struggled with these questions, I couldn’t help but think of Henry Louis Gates’s Jefferson lecture on Phillis Wheatley, the revolutionary-era African American poet I mentioned in a recent post (“Refined,” 5.30.18). According to Gates, when news of her poetic capabilities reached Jefferson’s ears, he took it upon himself to review her work (just as earlier an august committee of white men had taken it upon themselves to cross-examine her, to determine whether she could possibly be its author). In a letter to a friend, Jefferson basically makes the case that, while hers might look like poetry, it isn’t really poetry. Wheatley, like a monkey or parrot, had learned to mimic poetic form, poetic speech—this much was true; but the essence of poetry, the thing that makes poetry poetry, was absent. And so with the (culturally?) “white” player of jazz: he or she can, like parrot or monkey, copy what is played—can do, in other words, all those things that Western music recognizes in jazz (harmony above all; melody, less so; rhythm, not sure); but “timbral nuance, swing, and blues feeling” remain the exclusive property of the cultural other. And so for the listener. What I myself love isn’t quite jazz, but rather some watered-down version of it. Like a virtuous pagan, I remain forever on the outside of the circle of the elect, full of desire but without hope, as Dante had it. As the night of Wheatley’s blackness forever blots out the sun of true Poetry, so the suburban middle-class whiteness I carry with me like the mark of Cain forever sequesters from me true Jazz. No matter how much I learn or how deeply I listen, I am condemned to listen impoverishedly.

Miles touches on this whole issue of cultural learning beautifully in his autobiography. Visiting his grandfather in Arkansas, walking country roads at night, hearing music out of nowhere: he was the middle-class son of a dentist; but his skin color, and his contact with earlier generations, made it possible for him to be exposed to something that forever inflected his musical voice: “that blues, church, back-road funk kind of thing, that southern, midwestern, rural sound and rhythm” (Autobiography, p. 29; shades of “Sonny’s Blues” here, no?). A similar point was made in one of the roundtables Down Beat devoted to the question of jazz and race in the early ‘60s. Needless to say I don’t have any good answers here, and I’m wary of going on so long about a point which, after all, Jackson works mightily to contextualize. But I will throw out what are hopefully a few useful questions. If it’s true that African American culture has, through the agency of hip hop (one of the post-bebop Black popular musics Jackson notes have interacted with jazz in the last half-century), “become” American culture—or, perhaps better, white youth culture has more intimate contact with a particular strain of African American music-making than it ever has before—then to what extent does it still make sense to talk about a separate African American musical culture, as opposed to, say, a youth (urban?) musical culture deeply inflected by that of African America? (N.B.: This is not to say that we’re living in anything close to a post-racial society … which means I’m probably contradicting myself. Since it’s a question, I’ll let it stand and just move on.) Indeed, Jackson himself alludes to how much has changed in jazz over the last thirty years: the way the music has entrenched itself in conservatories;§ the way the scene, and the blues aesthetic itself, can change over history—indeed must, by his very definition of the music feeding back into and transforming Black culture. And then musicians today—like their audiences—are steeped in a wide variety of genres, some of them African American, from which they draw liberally, and which certainly impacts the way a listener hears jazz. “One might only guess,” Jackson writes, “what kind of impact such shifts will have” (213). But haven’t they already? And so what do these shifts mean vis-à-vis the “essence” of jazz and the relationship between “race”/culture and the music?

Conversely, if jazz has become, in the last half-century-plus, a music played and adored by European and Asian musicians and audiences—and if at least Europeans have remade jazz into something that blends their own tradition with African American music (see, for example, Northern Sun, Southern Moon, Yale UP, 2005)—not to mention the way jazz has inflected the music of other parts of the world, particularly (but not solely) those within the African diaspora—then to what extent does it still make sense to say that only those with cultural know-how about African American music-making can understand the “essence” of jazz, or to claim that the music’s essence is somehow restricted to “timbral nuance,” etc.? Should we give the music another name? Wouldn’t it sound as sweet? Or should we simply accept that this astonishingly brilliant cultural property (that word!) African Americans developed over the first half-plus of the twentieth century was a gift to world culture, and that part of giving this gift is the expectation that others will make it their own? Indeed, if the gift was anything, it was perhaps a recognition of possibilities, of a sheer openness about music-making. (I should probably remind readers that Jackson states at the outset that he is working with mainstream jazz, so the appeal to African American culture pace Crouch et al. makes sense. Then again, mainstream is an incredibly fraught term.)

Oh, you’re probably rankled now. African Americans already “gifted” their labor to the world—that is to say, it was stolen from them—and now they must gift their arts as well? Is what rankles the lack of recognition and recompense, the long history of appropriation and exploitation of black cultural forms by white artists and entrepreneurs? If it’s any consolation, jazz makes up an idiotically miniscule fraction of the music industry. It’s not like Led Zeppelin not paying royalties for “Bring It On Home,” or whatever. In fact, Jackson himself documents the economic insignificance of jazz: the way major labels’ jazz divisions, no longer profitable but once important for prestige purposes, folded and artists were dropped as these labels moved to a portfolio model (cf. the 1976 film Network).**

In all this hand-wringing, I find myself a little flummoxed about the source of my own anxiety. It seems disproportionate to the issue. On the face of it, the idea of a style of music being a group’s cultural property that others can neither appreciate fully nor perform sensitively, at least without enormous labor and attempted immersion into said culture (and perhaps not even then), seems like common sense. I learned the lesson well enough from living in Andalucia and dilettantishly “studying” flamenco (which really meant reading and watching vids at the wonderful Centro Andaluz de Flamenco, and taking some lessons in guitar and compas). The andaluces are weaned on it; I couldn’t even begin to comprehend the level to which the rhythms, the palos, the whole ethos of the music, had been absorbed. So why my hand-wringing at the idea that jazz belongs to a cultural other, and is a form for which my appreciation remains limited? Is it because, whatever I might mouth about jazz being African American music, I still believe in my gut that jazz is an authentically American expression, and thus belongs to me, too? Or, as I noted above, that it might have begun as African American music, but now belongs to all citizens of the world? Is it that I still want to believe, in my core, that music is indeed a universal language, that its cultural specificities are a surface feature beneath which lies the pan-human experience; that, as such, it creates bridges in deep places; and that this is true, not just of classical music, as its one-time missionaries believed, but all music? I might note that my flamenco example is somewhat extreme, if less so than thirty years ago, given the difficulty of successfully translating it into other contexts. Some musics are harder to adapt, and so have remained sheltered and rooted in one place, while others have spread around the globe. Of course, such globalization (and “art-ification”) may also dilute a music’s cultural essence (whatever that is), just as a classical composer’s use of folk tunes may. Or would it be more correct, or at least more hopeful, to say—depending on the particular pattern of diffusion a music undergoes—that globalization simply shifts the center of that music, finds new essences, that these losses are compensated for by other gains?

I am perhaps particularly sensitive to this question right now, living through a historical moment where certain elements of the literary culture take offense at fiction writers “writing about experiences not their own,” which seems to me the yet-more-pernicious obverse of that spurious old coin “write what you know.” (So much for Siddhartha’s ferryman!) Perhaps we need to consider—as I have argued on this blog before, but here with Vasudeva in mind—that every act of listening, like every act of reading, is an imaginative act, an opening to an Other; that, for example, when Hester Prynne, pleading with the authorities Hawthorne describes as wise but utterly incapable of sympathy, to keep her child, and she turns to the child’s unacknowledged father and basically loses her shit at him, a young black or Hispanic woman in my class who has ever had to deal with CPS, or who simply has had struggled to raise children, might be able to see across the wide swath of history and culture and feel her words as deeply as any reader ever has; just as I, white, male and childless, am somehow always moved to near-tears every time I read this passage; because, somehow, Hawthorne, in his intermittent and fickle genius, has managed to capture something of her rage and despair so perfectly that the screen of years and the stilted, antiquated language and the alien culture in which the events are set suddenly drops away, and I feel, somehow, that the text becomes utterly and magically transparent. Probably I’m just deluded—you know, one white guy foisting another white guy—a dead one—on my black female (and male) students, and asking them to weep with me. Ugh. (It’s not like I’m not problematizing Hawthorne’s own status as a male writer and his constructions of femininity, of the “mysteries of an erring woman’s heart” that he claims to be able to fathom. Maybe we should be asking Suzan-Lori Parks why she wrote In the Blood?)

Basta. For me, it always comes back to the same questions. Have I listened closely? Have I really listened? How do I construct myself as a listener so that I really hear? That is, it always comes back to that ferryman, just as the ferry does, crossing the river over and over again, and always landing in the same spot. It is always the same river and always a different one; it is always the same spot and always a different one.

*

To formulate what he calls the “blues aesthetic” that governs jazz performance, Jackson mines his interviews and comes up with the following elements: “having an individual voice; developing the ability to balance and play with a number of different musical parameters in performance; understanding the cultural foundations of the music; being able onself to ‘bring something to the music’; creating music that is ‘open enough’ to allow other musicians to bring something …; and being open for transcendence to ‘the next level’ of performance, the spiritual level” (110). There’s nothing wrong with lists per se … but after the rather lengthy theoretical discussions that precede it, it feels a little reductive.†† The problem may stem from an overreliance on musicians as his source. Ironic that Jackson, who, pace Amiri Baraka, questioned twentieth-century writing on jazz for being overly influenced by the New Critical idea of the centrality of the text (and, more broadly, for too many doltish literary types trying to write about something they don’t understand (101)), seems to have reacted by resurrecting the artist from the ashes of Romanticism. The problem—one problem—is that musicians, like most artists, have a tendency to speak in tongues. Music, their true language, is at once utterly candid and maddeningly oblique. Like Socrates’s poets, they speak according to the inspiration of their god; their knowledge, their consciousness about what they do, is as the haze on a horizon after sundown. (There are of course exceptions to this rule; Joshua Redman, one of Jackson’s sources, is preternaturally articulate.) Now, Jackson himself does call attention to this. Discussing musicians’ difficulties in trying to explain the role that tradition plays in their music, he writes, “The silence […] is perhaps an indicator not of the illegitimacy of the concept, but of the difficulty of verbalizing experiential and musical concepts that are deeply felt” (120). True enough; but it puts a bit of a dent in his methodology, and, I think, points to a broader weakness of this study. Jackson seems to regard language as a transparent means of communication that, unlike music, well, anyone can do, rather than a craft that, like music, attempts to unfold one’s feelings and ideas—including feelings about music—via the messy, gummy medium that is words. It helps account, I think, for a certain flatness in his writing, a certain obtuseness about his argument. It most impacts his book when he moves from competently synthesizing the materials of other scholars and his interviewees to trying to describe the aesthetics and interactions of performances and recording sessions. (I will return to this question of language more extensively in my “year”-end post.)

Reading Jackson’s take on the Greenwich Village of the ‘90s, I found myself wishing, page after page, that he had more to say. A “jazz-related understanding of the neighborhood” (52)—yes; that a venue isn’t just, as it’s often been understood, “a scrim in front of which [jazz musicians] marched on their way to making history” (52)—yes again. As per Jackson’s thesis, you need a scene to facilitate and create meaning, and scenes include musicians, venues, and record stores, as well as changes in things like zoning and rent laws. But beyond these generalizations, I get little sense of what changes made what differences in the ‘90s Greenwich Village that purports to be his subject. We get a general description of clubs, their importance to the scene, their typical layout, and the way that they can en- or discourage audience-musician interaction, and camaraderie among fans. But what about, say, Smalls, or Smalls versus the Vanguard, the Vanguard versus Sweet Basil, in terms of, well, pretty much everything: how they’re set up, the relationship between audience and performer, the pictures they have on their walls, etc.? Jackson also mentions the perennial problem of staying in business, the way rent hikes drive up cover charges, which also tends to make clubs risk-averse, and to favor big-name artists with major-label contracts rather than allowing such decisions to be made in the more intimate, autochthonous interaction between artists, club owners, and audiences. That’s great; but again, there’s ne’er an example to illustrate this, to engage the reader, or to probe the way that particular venues or particular changes participate in the creation of particular meanings. What is Jackson’s jazz-related understanding of the Village, based on all his footwork and interviews? Where’s Gaston Bachelard when you need him?

When he gets to music and the mechanics of performance, Jackson seems to have even less to say. He discusses how performances are framed and organized, and how jazz tunes work, perhaps on the assumption that another ethnographer reading this text will have little to no understanding of jazz, or that a musicologist coming from another genre will need a crash-course. Perhaps my own fan status—spiritual deficiencies aside—blinds me to what other readers would need to know. After reading Jackson’s clear and complex theoretical underpinning to jazz as a ritual activity, and ritual activities like jazz performances producing “ritualized bodies,” I wanted to see these ritualized bodies—isn’t that the point of ethnographic fieldwork, of attending jazz sets with one’s anthro-cap on? But I never get more than a hint of them—certainly no fleshed-out portraits. As a result, although Jackson argues that observing performance in terms of its visual, proxemic and kinesthetic dimensions is essential for understanding (and that, conversely, recordings are biased and partial representations of musical events),§§ I never got the sense from his study that the recording sessions or sets he observed added much of anything. He notes, for example, the significance of body movement, and of glances exchanged among and between musicians and audience members. But his descriptions are too rote to be in any way revealing. A typical example: “One of my table companions […] was moving her head up and down in time, entrained to the groove in the same way I was” (152). Another: “Teekens, Bolleman, and I were glancing at each other briefly during these interactions, as if to say, ‘Did you hear/see that?’” (176). Again: “[The music of Meldhau, Hutchinson, and McBride] pulled everyone in the control room … into the performance, leaving us mesmerized” (184). (If this were music journalism, rather than academic anthropology, that’s the sort of bland generalization that would never make it into a magazine or newspaper.) Yet again: “Audience members were shaking heads as if to say, Wow!” (195). The smiles recorded between different participants come so fast and furious that I began to wonder if “smile” would be an entry on the index. (It was not.) The upshot: either Jackson’s own lack of data torpedoes his thesis that these other dimensions of performance are essential (i.e., there is simply little to nothing to observe); or his field observations were not sufficiently detailed to lead to any persuasive conclusions; or he is unable (as a writer) to communicate the nuances of his data. If the last, it’s a fitting reminder that the words aren’t just something; they’re the only thing.***

My frustration fairly boiled over with the recurring phrase “taking it to the next level.” It’s a colloquialism he adopts from an interview with Steve Wilson, if I remember correctly; but after a number of iterations it began to sound just plain silly. It also moved in and out of quotes willy-nilly, as if Jackson himself were unsure how to consider it. He writes, “When performers successfully synthesize and work with all the materials of a performance (space, time, tune, form, other performers. and other participants)—when they exhibit ritual mastery—that is when a performance is most likely to proceed to the next level” (151). Later, the music of Meldhau, McBride and Hutchinson “made it clear that they indeed ‘took it to the next level’” (187). (Did they, indeed?) Later, “The tunes were well played but never really moved to the next level” (197). And so on. I can just hear an audience in postgame analysis: “Was it on the next level?” “I think it was on the next level.” “No, wait: maybe it was on the same level.”

And so with this study: it never “proceeds” to the next level. A shame, because Jackson is incredibly knowledgeable about the music; he is well-versed in theory and thoughtful about the issues of race, culture, and history, whatever my penchant for hand-wringing. Perhaps it’s a problem of autoethnography, or its obverse; that is, perhaps Jackson thought that too much description and reflection, too much a book written not just about but according to a blues aesthetic, would make it appear he had sacrificed objectivity on the altar of navel-gazing. Or perhaps it’s the perennial problem of the reticence of the social sciences, at least when the reader is from the humanities. What else did you see? What’s it all mean? Can’t you speculate? Where does the language take you? Where is your imagination in all of this? (Chomping at the bit to talk about the “Sokal squared” scandal, I restrain myself, even from a footnote.) If jazz is a “synechdoche for African American culture,” does that mean we stop or start hearing it as jazz? What is lost, and what is gained? Is there only an anthropology of music today? Am I just a victim of my own narcissism, wanting to see myself in a text that, finally, doesn’t let me see much of anything?

*

Greenland’s Jazzing suggests not. Of the two, it’s the more satisfying contribution to the ethnography of New York jazz. I don’t think it’s just because the book comes half a decade later, so that Greenland has the opportunity to build on the work of Jackson and others in what, after all, is still a sub-field under construction. I don’t think it’s because Greenland is a particularly better writer, either—in fact, his paragraph conclusions are so clunky they made me rethink the standard pedagogy on paragraph structure. Rather, I think it’s because (1) he narrows much of his work to the New York avant-garde scene, and this allows him to speak with greater specificity and density about how this scene is organized and operates; and (2) his mosaic of interviews with critics, club owners, jazz-inspired visual artists, and fans gives a more well-rounded and grounded sense of how scene creates meaning.

Some of my favorite stuff in this book comes from his interviews with club owners. It certainly gave me a new, more humble perspective on going out to hear jazz. God knows I’ve kvetched about prices, and I’ve thrown more than one crusty look at a loud talker or phone addict during a set. The irony had never quite dawned on me: were it not for liquor and assholes—and expanded and diversified musical offerings, something else that sets off hard-core fans—these clubs simply couldn’t survive. Not that I was ever the sort to nurse a soda or anything; but it does make me feel like a huge churl to have complained to a friend that Smalls was now charging sixteen dollars for a Brooklyn Lager (or was it eighteen?)—to recollect that I had in fact refused to order a drink in silent protest over such ridiculously inflated prices. And I cringe within myself to remember the night I stood at the door of Smoke and declined to take the last cramped bar seat because, in my mind, it was unreasonable to charge the same as for a table. I mean, I had every right not to go in—where the hell was I going to put my backpack overstuffed with NYC loot for starters? It’s the self-righteous anger of the oblivious consumer I cringe at, the one for whom jazz has become another fetishized commodity. Anyway, there are a number of great vignettes in his chapter, and one diatribe, by Smoke owner Frank Christopher, is so hiliariously dead-on that I was tempted to type the whole two pages into this post. (Conscious of the length to which this double review has grown, I demure.) It might be argued that cheap talent is the perennial New York problem. But that would be to ignore the elephant in the room, one that comes up over and over in this chapter, as it did in Jackson’s study: if it was always hard as hell to run a moderately profitable jazz club in New York, in the Trump era it’s become pretty much impossible. (Sometimes, when I look around at my beloved city, I can’t help but see the skyline wearing a cheesy yellow toupee, like a smog.) Smoke’s Christopher sums it up beautifully: “The musicians play for less than what they deserve and more than we can afford” (108).

It was also nice to get some horse’s-mouth downtown history, particularly the backstory of the kerfuffle around The Knitting Factory, the one-time center of avant-jazz in New York. Musicians who had performed regularly at “The Knit” up through the mid-‘90s ended up defecting over their perceived exploitation by owner Michael Dorf. Chief among them was John Zorn—apparently the whole thing finally blew up over taping a Zorn rehearsal—who then went on to open Tonic, in 1998; and, when Tonic fell victim to the Lower East Side real estate boom a decade later (and that big fugly blue hotel that opened up across the street), the spartan avant-gallery The Stone, now become a ward of academia via The New School. (I’ve written about both the latter venues in earlier posts: Tonic in “Two Free Jazz Epitaphs,” 12.7.12, and The Stone most specifically in “Master/Class” (11.23.12) and “Un/coiffed”). Nor did I know that The Stone was named after Irving and Stephanie Stone, godparents of the downtown scene. Like club owners, hard-core fans like the Stones were a rich vein for stories, observations, and commentary for Greenland, both in terms of the history of the scene and the philosophy of jazz-loving.

I similarly appreciated Greenland’s discussion of the phenomen of transcendence, which is enriched by the attention his study devotes to audience. Jackson’s, while also fascinating, is largely limited to musicians’ descriptions of the feeling, when a performance is going well, that he or she is in touch with a higher power, variously described as channeling, becoming a vessel, or the sense that “the instrument is playing itself.” Jackson also draws important cultural connections to the Black church, and the concominant role of venue and audience to creating the proper ambience. Greenland’s study takes off from here, drawing out the role his “big-eared” audiences play in facilitating transcendence. “The collective act of serious listening,” he writes, “generates palpable energy that galvanizes and guides the creative efforts of improvising musicians” (156); the audience members become “vessels for mediated transcendence” (155; my emphasis). He cites saxophonist Sedric Choukroun on the chemistry between performer and audience, “reflecting your music and surrounding you with its attention,” that allows the performer to forget him or herself, to surender the ego (165). This connection, Greenland notes, creates a “synergistic feedback loop” that “dissolves” the boundary between audience and musicians (165). (Or, as the saxophonist Joe Maneri put it, the audience becomes “another instrument” (Otumo, qtd. in Greenland 166).) The audience’s experience of transcendence similarly depends on the communal nature of the event, as Greenland sediments in a lovely quote from Matthew Somoroff: audience members “want to bring their interiority into contact with those of the musicians and other listeners, to experience an interiority that paradoxically gains intensity from its grounding in public and/or social situations of performance and audition that enable a shared feeling of ‘we-ness’” (62). There is something at once exhilirating and terrifying in this, as there is in all acts of ecstatic worship to which the practices of free jazz bring us closest (see, again, “Two Free Jazz Epitaphs”): the intensity of the tongue of flame and the bacchanal; the sacrifice, the blood ritual that lies just beneath the mask of institutionalized religion or art, straining at its boundaries, and which comes through quite clearly in the words of Irving Stone: “I’m for blood” (166).

*

For all I appreciated the depth and detail of Greenland’s work, and the space he gives to different scene members—and even as I find this mosaic view more compelling and satisfying than Jackson’s—I am not entirely persuaded, and perhaps even a little troubled, by his foregrounding of audience … which is to say, his thesis, into which I will now back the belching tractor-trailer that is this “review.” From the outset, Greenland refers to audience members as “offstage participants” who are “‘performing’ jazz”; “they constitute the unseen jazz scene, the silent and not-so-silent majority that forms an integral part of communal music-making” (34). His goal, like Jackson’s, is to broaden the musicological lens, here to the audience, who he feels has been marginalized, just as, for Jackson, African American culture has been in jazz studies. In doing so, I wonder whether he swings the pendulum too far away from the stage. It reminded me of—and perhaps my reservations are based on—the postmodern “active audience” tradition in popular music studies: the idea that the audience is not a passive vessel for whatever the culture industry wishes to pour into it, as per the Frankfurt School, but rather active creators of their own meanings from the bits and pieces said industry proffers. Admittedly, this analogy doesn’t work very well for jazz, and is particularly ill-suited to the downtown scene, where labels are tiny, musicians and venues hawk their wares after sets, and many musicians and hard-core fans are on a first-name basis. Here, industry mediation shrivels to almost nothing. Such a scene permits an intimacy and a sense of community impossible in the world of pop music.

It’s not just a question of the size of the scene. As improvised music, Greenland notes, jazz in performance is uniquely susceptible to audience influence; audience response, or merely the so-called “energy in the room” brought by a particular crowd, can shape how musicians perform, and with what sort of intensity, both of which find their way into musical parameters like duration, tempo, repetition and dynamics.

Based on these criteria, to say that the audience is part of the performance is warranted. Even in stadiums, audiences do shape performances; and both the intimacy of this scene and the nature of this music gives them an agency perhaps unparalleled in other genres of music. A musician needs sympathetic, knowledgeable, and well-trained (i.e., “big-eared”) audiences who “play their part” in the “ongoing performance” that is a music scene, just as the musicians (and club owners, and music critics, and so on) do. They (musicians) might even speak in inflated terms about the music not “being there” if not for the audience. And all this may help us to re-imagine audiences, and give them their due in a scene. It may even help us to understand more fully certain nuances of how scenes operate. But if we take such statements too literally, we end up with absurd propositions about notes falling silently because no one’s there to applaud. And to call audience members performers seems to me to speak in postmodern generalities that do more to muddle than to clarify. An audience’s role is, finally, subordinate to and tightly circumscribed by the musicians and the music. I found myself bristling at the term.

What is performance, beyond that postmodern urchin we find begging on the corner of every humanistic discipline? Jeff Schlager, the jazz “action painter” who paints two-handed during performances at the Vision Festival, and thus himself becomes an object of attention, is quite obviously performing in the traditional sense of the word, even as his product is different, its mode of consumption bifurcated. We might even extend the idea of performance to the music critic, if we want to think about writing-as-performance—though here we are getting into murkier territory. This isn’t, after all, Lester Bangs beating up his typewriter on stage at a rock concert, though my first drafts often make me feel that way. When we extend the circle wider, to people like me, who show up and put their coats on the back of their chairs, their backpacks on the floor, and open their ears … can I really claim to be performing? Yes, I am “performing” my role in the scene. I may applaud a solo I like vigorously. I may even muster a “whoo!” or “yeah!” if things are going particularly well. And I do hope the attention and energy I bring as a listener combines, in some metaphysical way, with other listeners’, and that it is captured, somehow, by the musicians. But the level of activity is at once so much less integral and so different from the music-making, that I fear lumping everything together under the rubric “performance” is to empty the word of meaning, and does a disservice to both audiences and musicians.

“When listeners perform,” Greenland writes, “and performers listen, the imaginary boundary between them dissolves, clearing the way for mutually mediated collective improvisations” (156). And, elsewhere: “Attending live concerts allows audiences to become coauthors of collective improvisations in a living jazz scene” (49). Collective improvisations? Co-authors? Really? It’s just this sort of hyperbole that makes me suspicious of the whole framework of audience agency. In other places, Greenland hedges: “By closely following artists for an extended period, fans feel they are part of history in the making, witnesses to and participants in a voyage of discovery” (52; my emphasis). Aye, there’s the rub: do we “feel” it, or are we? Are witnesses “part of history in the making,” and if so, to what degree? To what extent can witnesses be participants? How much, if at all, do we really matter?

As with the question of cultural learning, I shouldn’t leave this point without turning the analysis back on myself. I think part of what rankles me is that, as a literature person, I associate it with the rise of the “new novel” in the mid-twentieth century, a novel that was supposed to break down the wall between writer and reader, and make readers co-authors, or something like that. I always found such experiments in “breaking the wall” much more manipulative than classic fiction; instead of revolutionary, they seemed to reify the existing ideology, making audiences believe they had powers they do not. And so with music. Like certain elements of the punk scene, the downtown jazz scene may bring us closer to a differently-imagined society than any other; but we’re deluding ourselves if we think it doesn’t still largely operate according to the rules of said system, even as it tries to carve out a different niche from within. When I pick a night to go to Vision, I’m looking for Hamid Drake, and Rob Brown, and then anyone else I can fit in. Of course, the more music I want to go hear, the more I have to oil the gears of capitalism. The musicians, as Greenland quite viscerally reminds us, also need to eat.

Maybe, though, I’m blinded by the prejudices of my own discipline, and would do well to tread more lightly on the paradigms by which another organizes itself. Maybe music is something else. For what has often troubled me about all of this active-audience stuff is how it plays into the contemporary moment. It’s the disease of the internet, of the cell phone, of connectivity. Today, it seems a listener can only imagine him- or herself as a co-creator, an author, an actor … never just a listener, a reader. We have become even more the people we always were. We are bewildered by the things Siddhartha learned when he was a samana (ascetic): to think, to wait, and to fast. (Well … I’d drop fasting. For me, fasting means thinking about eating. Two out of three ain’t bad.) But if the musician, as Jackson heard from his sources, has to learn to abandon his or her own ego, and the audience, as Greenland also records, does as well—if both musician and audience are conceived as parabolic mirrors in which Music can find its perfect echo, then perhaps in music is a way out of our postmodern madness. The terms—active, agency, co-author—are illusive; it is actually an abandonment of agency by all involved. In a world almost devoid of ferrymen, everyone who gathers in such spaces to listen, including the musicians themselves, are hearing the great river of Music flowing out of Time and back into Time.

We have much to learn from that river, today more than ever!

 

* Another wonderfully resonant moment from Greenland: the old NYC dilemma of too much going on at once. Downtown stalwart Steve Dalachinsky’s quip that “it’s always the best show when you’re not there” (79) was hilariously resonant, as was Stephanie Stone’s chiding him: “He’s afraid to miss anything, so he misses a lot.” (80) My jazzhead friends have occasionally lauded me for the way I succeed in jigsawing together two sets in an evening, trying to figure out, say, if I can walk across the Village in the probable downtime between sets. But then I spent years working as a part-timer, cobbling together complex calendars of cheap and free music around the City, particularly in the summers. By the time I had a full-time job and disposable income, I was an old hand.

† Except, perhaps, by the idea that Beethoven was “black,” which a student was finally able to source for me, a documentary called Hidden Colors, which I have not found time to watch yet. It seems to imagine a Beethoven who lived in the antebellum South instead of Vienna, and who was hence subject to the one-drop rule—so much for the distinction between race and culture Jackson is so at pains to make—; this tainting of the hemoglobin presumably connects Beethoven to contemporary Black America. I understand a certain protectiveness about one’s cultural property when it has been robbed for generations. But this is a strange fantasy to be sure. It reminds me of those Mormons who find the ancestors of people who have converted to Mormonism, and then convert them (or rather, their remains) posthumously on their gravesites. I imagine these poor souls, who now have to pack up their harps and such, and move to another heavenly condo, are not terribly grateful, unless what the Mormons say is true, that their condos have all sorts of amenities the other ones don’t. I guess I would feel about the whole race-of-Beethoven argument the way at least some Jews feel about these posthumous conversions, if I didn’t find the whole thing so silly. (It also strikes me as too much beneath the spirit of Judaism for Jews to even bother kvetching about.) And anyway, what would happen to my poor Black Beethoven living in the antebellum South? I either have to imagine that he would have held his tongue when ol’ massa came by, and so was not Beethoven at all—that is, the Beethoven who told a prince there would be thousands of others like him, but only one Beethoven; who refused to bow to royalty when Goethe did, but rather pulled down his cap and kept walking; and who gave the world music as earth-shattering as the Eroica—that is, a Beethoven without ‘tude; or I have to imagine my Black Beethoven scourged to death before he published even his first piano sonatas; for he was no br’er rabbit. (He might, for all that, have passed, just as he apparently did in Vienna.) Or should I imagine my Black Beethoven as Frederick Douglass—the hair, the hair!—who, when he finally had enough, fought back against Mr Covey, and became, as Douglass puts it, a man?

I should backtrack a little and note this represents an interesting pendulum-swing. Once upon a time (and perhaps still, for some), it was presumed that Western classical music was the pinnacle of musical achievement, and the expectation was that anyone from any culture would appreciate its greatness (and, by extension, the relative inferiority of their “own” music) if they were properly educated. Today, the paradigm seems to be that musics can only be fully appreciated by members of the culture that produced them, and remain partly or wholly inaccessible to everyone else: a matter of degree, to a point; a matter of kind, possibly, beyond that point. By the old universalist idea, Newsome would have access to the “Tempest” to the degree that he abandoned (or ignored) the tenets of his own culture.

Another way to think about the same problem: As Western classical music aspires toward universalism, it sheds its cultural markers, and by doing so its essence (embedded, I presume, in some romantic notion of the European folk musics from which it evolved). Of course, aspiration is not reality. A conundrum: either classical music is as culturally specific as any other music, and hence as accessible or inaccessible as, say, jazz, or any other “art” music that draws on culturally-specific materials; or it is drained of any cultural specificity, and hence accessible to everyone, but only at the price of what it has lost, to become what Miles, in one of his stupider comments, called “robot shit” (and the people who play it “robots”), that is, the mechanical reproduction of a score. So: either Miles in his time at Julliard couldn’t grasp the essence of this music, which belonged to a culture to which he was incompletely assimilated or wholly unassimilated; or classical music is indeed universal or trans-cultural, but at the price of some cultural essence that gave it life.

Before leaving Newsome, I should relate a wonderful anecdote that speaks to this very question. The Jazz Museum of Harlem organized a series of performances-discussions at the Maysles Theater maybe a decade ago. For one of them, Newsome performed solo soprano sax, and then spoke and answered questions. A woman in the row in front of mine noted the variety of sounds he got out of his instrument, and that, at one point, he was mimicking the drawing of a bow across strings. I don’t remember Newsome’s words, but I do remember his smile. Was it that the woman, who was “white,” came to the music with a different cultural preparation, and this allowed her to hear something in Newsome’s playing that many African American audience members might not? (Even when the bow comes out in traditional jazz, it is used with much more pluck than draw; my ignorance about other/later Black American music prevents me from generalizing.) Suffice to say the more widely and deeply we have listened, the more resonant any music will become to us; and the more we listen to what each of us has to say about what we hear, more still.

One last note: my cultural familiarity with the “Tempest” comes via the circuitous route of the Europeanized Argentinian intellectualism of the mid-twentieth century in which my parents were acculturated, and my father’s training as a pianist. Does that get me any “closer” to early nineteenth-century Vienna than Newsome? If so, how much? And why do I presume, based on Newsome’s skin color, that he himself didn’t come from a household in which classical music was listened to and/or performed? If either of us wants to really hear Beethoven, we still have to open ourselves, to make the imaginative leap, to listen. (By the time you’ve read the end of this footnote, you’ve probably read the bit about Hawthorne above, so … I’m being redundant.)

Footnote to the footnote: While I’m capable of imagining an affinity with jazz based on cultural origins regardless of whether the listener is “familiar with the music,” as Newsome suggests, I do have to point to the irony captured so well in #116 of Stuff White People Like: “Black music that black people no longer listen to.”

§ Interestingly, many players noted you have to be apprenticed to a master musician to really “get” the music. I am unclear why this wouldn’t happen inside conservatories, where so many master musicians now reside, though it’s true some of Jackson’s interviewees argue that conservatories, like the scholarly writing on jazz, have downplayed the role of African Americans. That acknowledged, there seems to be a weird romantic holdover about jazz being about the road and the speakeasy, just like hip hop is supposed to be about the ghetto.

** Based on record sales, European jazz musicians should live as hand-to-mouth as their American jazz counterparts. The difference is that European countries are more generous about funding their arts. I remember seeing a depressing article in the Times about this some years ago, suggesting the Euro jazz artists are pampered by their governments. As usual, the mainstream of American thought can only imagine extending American austerity for arts and culture to other countries, rather than trying to adopt a more robust approach to funding our own—a perfect example of the blindness of ideology.

†† In this regard, it might be helpful if Jackson noted what elements of the “blues aesthetic” are shared by music more generally. Transcendence is a big one. I still remember a story told by my junior high school music teacher, Mr Babbitt. (My parents thought he was beneath us because he liked The Beatles, which is probably a better indicator than anything else I could ever say of the musical environment in which I was raised.) In the story, a conductor was using a cane or staff to beat time with the music. This man was so enraptured that he didn’t realize until after the symphony was over that he was driving the cane through his own foot. Apocryphal? Probably. But that such a story exists—and dozens, if not hundreds of poems, and philosophical treatises about the sublimity of the musical experience—makes me wonder how this particular aesthetic might overlap with aesthetics more broadly.

§§ It’s true that audio recordings are a partial and biased representation of musical events which leave out much of what is most central to the musical experience. But how much less mediated are live performances? How “authentic” are they, and how much that happens there is really spontaneous? There seems to be a festishization of spontaneity here, which is imagined to happen in live performance. It may be more likely to happen live than in a soundbooth, but …. As Miles once noted, it was rare that he came up with something entirely new when he played live.

*** I still remember a set I went to in the late ‘90s, during the year or two Ron Affif’s Monday night sets at the Zinc (when the Zinc was still on Houston) were the preferred venue for passing musicians to sit in with him and Essiet Essiet and Jeff “Tain” Watts. There was one night that was so insanely good—I can’t remember who else showed up, or if it was just the three of them, which was usually more than enough—that I walked up the stairs to Houston Street, and Essiet was pacing back and forth on the sidewalk saying, “That was a great set. That was a great set,” as if he hadn’t yet figured out a way to come back down to the quotidian reality of New York: the honking traffic, the groups of Jerseyites going from bar to bar, the night breeze swaying the branches of the few sidewalk trees. And we were only a few steps beneath him in feeling the un-reality of the New York night, compared to the intensity of what we had just experienced. We thanked him. He looked at us. I am not sure he even registered us. I think he did. It hardly matters. The point: Jackson went to zillions of shows in the nineties, and I’m sure was lucky enough to see more than a handful of sets like this one. Where are they? Where are the musicians and audience members whose experiences are written on their faces, in their bodies, in their gestures, imprinted on the city around them?

Punch, Annie

St VincentPhoto by Dana Distortion (https://www.instagram.com/danadistortion/)

It went down like this: a friend I was going to see in North Carolina happened to mention that Esperanza Spalding was playing in Asheville. I said, Esperanza who? I toggled over to YouTube, and before I knew it the night was old and I was on Amazon, ordering CDs. A few months later, seeing another friend in Baltimore, I played him my favorite track from Emily’s D+Evolution (2016), “Ebony and Ivy.” He noted that her voice, at least on this song, sounded like St Vincent’s. I said, Saint Who? (Cue “ignorance” leitmotif.) He put on “Black Rainbow,” from Actor (2009).*

One thing about friends: they know your taste. They know the chinks in your armor, your Achilles’ heels. They know the things that’ll make your cochlea sit up and beg. I could blame my friend here, either, or both, just as much as I could blame Esperanza, or St Vincent herself; but pretty soon we’d be having a philosophical debate about efficient and final causes, free will and determinism, and so on, rather than talking about music.

If you don’t know “Black Rainbow,” or Actor, or St Vincent, let me describe the first for you, and use it, as it was for me, as a gateway to the other two. The song is built around a single four-minute-long crescendo, but it feels more like a gigantic sucker punch. An innocuous beginning, led, as is so much of St Vincent’s music, by her musing, quietly seductive voice, accompanied by a sort of minstrel troupe of string players, and something that sounds like a carny organ. The troupe is only active when she’s not singing, that is, as commentary; when she is, the organ carries the harmony in a fretting ostinato. The chorus, again like much of St Vincent’s music (and many pop songs besides), comprises two parallel phrases and a tag, the whole repeated once. In hindsight at least, one recognizes it as a harbinger: the voice tumbling forward and pulling back, the tag pitched higher, unresolved. But then the whole song looks forward in this way; the sense of expectation has been building from the first note. New sounds appear, layer: in the second part of the first verse, a peep on every second pulse, tracking between channels before lodging itself in both; a fuzzbox dud on every fourth pulse of the first chorus, every second of the second chorus; something that sounds like a saw (a theremin, perhaps?) follows the melody through both choruses, and then pursues our heroine into the bridge. The minstrels introduce more and more shades of dissonance into their commentary. And all the while, the dynamic level has been rising, almost imperceptibly.

Thus, while the song cycles through a typical verse-chorus-bridge structure, all the other elements ignore it, pursuing their own linear objective. Whatever the garden in which things started, whatever clouds were there to begin with, the day has certainly gotten darker.

The bridge is a small masterpiece of rising tension. Still there is no resolution; the last word, fittingly enough, is “louder.” Had I been interrupted here, I probably would have ended up intrigued, and filed St Vincent away, to come back to at some later date (or not, as so often happens). But oh, that ending, or outro, or whatever. The word “louder” having rung out, the fuzzbox pulse suddenly (and noticeably) steps up in intensity, and the song never looks back. Pounding, ascending absurdly stepwise, the strings getting at once louder and more strident, the bass crunchier, heavier. An analogy I made a few years ago on this blog to try to describe the sound of High on Fire’s early records (see “Arcless,” 12.29.14), particularly Surrounded by Thieves, applies equally well here: that movie of the bridge being shaken apart that so many of us watched (gleefully, it must be said) in our high school science classes. And indeed, while it’s true that metal forms one lens through which I hear all my music, the feint to metal—the reason the sucker punch really connected with me—is hardly out of place: he (my friend) knew what he was doing, though he slunk around the kitchen as though he didn’t, just as much as she (St Vincent) did. To my ear, it sounded like the heavier parts of the bridge of Metallica’s “Phantom Lord,” or “Master of Puppets.” But it wasn’t just the incredibly overdriven sound that grabbed me, or the pounding of it; it was the relentlessness of the repetition, the daring of saying, We’re going to do this for like two fuckin’ minutes, longer than these little songs are supposed to do anything, longer than many pop songs themselves—it’s gonna feel a whole lot longer—and heavier than half my fans might care to hear; and then some, and then some, and then some. It sounded like heavy artillery against pop’s aesthetic logic, in particular that cliché of transposing the chorus up a step at fade-out. Sure, I’ll transpose, just like I’m supposed to; and then I’ll keep transposing, one step at a time, louder instead of softer, until you choke on it. And right when I’d begun asking myself those Burkean-sublime questions—when does it end? does it ever end? were the brownies “special”?—it ends, drops—no fade out—it has to; there’s nowhere else for it to go.

The best musicians, I’ve noticed, have an intuitive grasp of how to manage excess.

My love for St Vincent was born at that moment, the moment, that is, the song relinquished me. Not just because the first half of “Black Rainbow” is quite good in its own right, but because the second half—the black part, as in sabbath, as in fade to—rewrote my expectations about what this particular artist was willing to do with form and sound. When it works, it can make a pinhole in your carefully-groomed generic identity; and, if you fall through it, you find yourself in a wonderful new universe, like one of those sea caves under the ocean floor. All of this is not to say that St Vincent can do no wrong. Rather, because of this initiation, she becomes that rarest of artists: the sort to whom you always gives the benefit of the doubt, in whose darkest clouds you always look for the outline of a (black) rainbow.

*

It’s indicative of the strength of St Vincent’s catalog that I came to this post wanting to write about “The Party,” another song on Actor that I find remarkable, and ended up wanting to write about everything, at least everything I’ve made time to dig (into) so far.

I should begin, as she so often does, with her voice.

It’s a voice that achieves a paradoxical balance between distance and intimacy. Raw, naked, direct; it groans, cracks, gasps, drags; it’s breathy, gravelly, and sometimes sounds so lethargic that the music, with its usually static pulse, feels like the only thing pulling her along: she sings as if she’s just turned over in bed. It’s a voice firmly lodged in the body, like the slurs and smears of a jazzing horn. And yet, particularly as one moves forward from Actor through Strange Mercy (2011) to St Vincent (2014), it’s a voice that seems to be at its most confessional when it’s most produced. A processed intimacy. You can reach out and touch it … and then again you can’t. A voice that seems unable to exist except in extreme close-up, an intimacy that can only exist because of technology. Think those nature programs where the actions of flora and fauna, invisible to the naked eye, are slowed down and magnified. There is a J.G. Ballard story about a scientist who does what those nature cams do with the audio recording of a kiss: to the colleague for whom he plays it, it is unrecognizable, horrific. So the “intimacy” of St Vincent, the seductiveness of her voice, of her music: even as she invites us closer and closer, until we can hear every pore, she remains inaccessible; our contact with her is always mediated. We never quite feel the eros of the artist who has flayed herself for our delectation and catharsis. The power dynamic runs the other way. (Is this the paradox of pop stardom, of stardom period? Perhaps St Vincent has merely crystallized this.) “Rattlesnake,” the opening track on St. Vincent (2014), is a great example: at once so hooky, so sexy (almost the first thing she says is that she takes off her clothes), and so mocking (the post-verse/pre-chorus). When she says that the only sound she hears “out here” is her own breath, it’s hard not to think of her mocking even her own style—here, the choruses (“running, running, rattle behind me”) are half-gasped, or hiccoughed. And yet, for all the anxiety of this frenetic plena, and whatever the words she sings, she never loses her teasing poise, never allows herself the overwroughtness of a Kate Bush, whom she sometimes seems to emulate, or the tantrums of a PJ Harvey, who lets us hear the violence her emotions do to her (admittedly rougher) voice. Anyway, unlike PJ, St Vincent doesn’t bring her love to anyone: it’s you—all of us—who have to bring your “loves” to her, enthroned on the eponymous album’s cover.

At the same time there’s something girlish, something sweet and thin and too-pretty about her voice; like the intimacy, it verges on caricature, on the grotesque. This is where the guitar, in all its textures and timbres and odd phrasings, becomes so crucial. Because there’s a danger that such a voice—and sometimes such melodies, as I’ll discuss shortly—could become insipid. But then she’s holding that guitar behind her back like a fuggin’ lead pipe, ready to club the shit out of you. Just one more step. Right there. She keeps it always with her, shadowing her voice, or vice-versa, guitar and voice working in tandem to propel the music, though often running in opposite directions. In this way the guitar reinforces the fractures in the voice, exposing the rough, wounding edge of that “sweetness.” So “Dilettante,” perhaps my favorite track on Strange Mercy, shuttles back and forth between the enormous seductiveness of her voice, accompanied only by alternating bass drum and snare (and those words: “Don’t make me wait …”), and a heavily overdriven guitar riff, cluttering that space, and opening a canyon around her each time it pauses. The guitar follows, commenting, like the minstrels in “Black Rainbow,” and is eventually brought into sync with her voice. Perhaps she’s domesticated it, or perhaps she’s let its roughness possess her—or perhaps it’s a little of both. It’s not just the caricature of intimacy, then, but the danger of it. For the straight male listener, there may be something of the misogynist Rousseau here, the desire to be courted and resisted. And yet, hers is not the fait accompli of affected weakness stroking the male ego, but rather strength masquerading as / mocking weakness—the sucker punch again. I wonder if something of all this is intimated in the images on her record covers as well: the starkness of the photography on Actor, at the same time that the album title calls attention to a faux intimacy; the cover resembles a head shot, like she’s auditioning for our ear. Or the open (screaming? biting?) mouth teething the milk-white plastic (?) to which it is half-molded on the cover of Strange Mercy

That guitar, is it the violence of the bared soul, displaced from the voice? Or is it the force of recoil against us, the voyeurs who would presume to have access to that soul—presume that the role of the artist, above all the female artist, is just such an emotional disrobing? I think the latter. After all, the guitar is just as artfully crafted as the voice. An unlikely guitar hero to be sure, if only because of the way the label has been traditionally conceived.† There she is, thin as a flapper, coaxing this enormous sound out of her guitar—not to mention any number of bizarre, monstrous timbres, and gobs and gobs of Frisellish noise. A pixie riding a dragon; David with a Goliath strap-on. The list of guitarists bundled into her sound is eclectic and impressive: here Bill Frisell (and John Scofield), there Mark Knopfler (I’m thinking of the fourths and open strings on “Neutered Fruit” vis-à-vis “Money For Nothing”); she has cited Adrian Belew and Mark Ribot, fairly enough (what couldn’t she do with Tom Waits?); and of course Hendrix, Hendrix, Hendrix. For even more than the lovely riffs, St Vincent is about making the guitar sound like anything but a guitar. And yet, just as her voice manages a paradoxical combination of distance and intimacy, so in the guitar, no matter how drowned in effects, we can in all but a few cases (the very blue fuzzed-out distortion on “Rattlesnake,” reminiscent of Hendrix’s sound in some versions of “Red House,” and maybe “Bring Me Your Loves”—both of these on St Vincent), hear her, hear the contact between body and instrument. Her sound is all attack. It’s a perfect word: the violence inherent in sound-making; the rending of air. When she really unleashes it, when she goes all PJ on our asses, as she does, say, in the second half of “Huey Newton” … watch the fuck out.

It’s to the guitar we owe the dirtiest, heaviest textures; but it’s also just one element of her music’s overall density—although with the sounds she gets, and all the layering and processing, it’s not always easy to tell what’s guitar and what isn’t. Amazing, too, how much each brief little song packs in—not in terms of development or melodic fecundity, but in sheer quantity of sonic resources employed, serially and simultaneously; the breadth of her sonic palette, built from deep reconnaissance into music history’s musty warehouse: moogs and wurlitzers (that cheesy run filling out the absurd exotic on “Year of the Tiger”); sequences of tones like cassettes used to make at the end of the lead (“Digital Witness” … analog noise); clicks and beeps and whistles (think R2D2 going apeshit); pings and blurps, chimes, blocks, blips … I’ll stop before I end up sounding like a brawl in the old Batman TV series. As my discussion of “Dilettante” suggests, the perception of density also arises from contrast between moments of fullness and emptiness. What has been noted about tempo—that shifts are more effective than a steady pulse for creating an impression of speed or slowness—is as true of dynamics and texture. So, in “Strange Mercy,, at that beautiful “Ten Years Gone” iteration of the verse at its climax, the Page-inspired strums, already big, are rendered God-huge by contrast with what comes before and after. It’s just these sorts of contrasts that a “Black Rainbow” or “Huey Newton” capitalizes on; their second movements are rendered that much fuller by the relative thinness of their first. The same thing can happen between choruses and verses: “Save Me From What I Want”’s pause to all but the barest pulse (and a wonderfully unsettling chime) for the second chorus’s prayer; or conversely, “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood,” her voice alone in the midrange, like on “Mercy,” the keys providing intermittent splashes of color, before giving way to a heavy guitar in the chorus. And then in so many songs she appears alone—that is, her voice—wearing only a soft halo of noise: the choral synth accompaniment to her quiet torch-song crooning in “Prince Johnny”; or the ambient, reverberant ballad “I Prefer Your Love,” sung through a haze, her voice set off with pings: the contrast appears not within the songs, but between them.**

The heaviness and noisiness, amplified by contrast, do make a nice scratching-post for this old metalhead. But it’s also the eeriness of her sound that attracts me. In fact, like the guitar and voice, the two often work together to produce a dark ambience. If this is, as noted, pop with a (pleasantly) abrasive edge, created and perpetuated in no small part by her cat’s-tongue guitar sound, it’s also some of the most gothic damn dance music I’ve ever heard.§§ Sometimes it’s the synths alone that do it (“Champagne Year”); other times, the keys and guitar work together, even bleed into each other. In “Marrow,” for example, her dissonant, clanging guitar goes hand-in-hand with the grisly textures and overdriven production; a dry bass thuds along at mid-tempo, too heavy to lift your feet to. In “Cheerleader,” it’s the combined keys-guitar snarl of the choruses (but how do you really feel, Ms Vincent?). Her voice, too, can be enlisted in creating this eerie atmosphere, sometimes floating over the music like Miles’s horn, sometimes becoming absorbed in the overall texture. So “Chloe in the Afternoon,” where the throttled, metallic, percussive guitar line and wub-wubbing heartbeat, all the noise of the verses, empties out—that contrast again—in the choruses to just her ghostly voice and synth line … and this other, sludgy, trailing thing. Or “Save Me”: the aforementioned chime as a bass riptide pulls her away, and she cries, teasingly, her voice doubled, “Save me … save me … save me from what I want.” Those four words, like the whip-epigram at the end of a sonnet, may be another sucker punch, but they can’t dispel the unsettling feeling of that cry; even the top-down cruising of the verses seems infected by it. The whole thing starts to sound like a bad trip.

Although the shifting, sculpted textures contribute enormously to the appeal of the music, it’s worth noting that she almost never abandons herself to ambience as an end in itself; there’s always a groove, a pulse, just as she always fleshes out that groove with her arrangements. (The sole pulseless example that comes to mind, “The Sequel,” is more coda to Actor than stand-alone tune.) Sometimes it’s the mellow H-band groove and/or slow clop/loop beat/steady funk plus synths of a Portishead, though her range is greater, her voice, as noted, closer-up (“Save Me” jumps to mind, as do “Champagne Year” and “Surgeon”). Sometimes, though, it’s the floored accelerator of “Actor Out of Work,” a song that matches Radiohead’s “Bodysnatchers” for sheer forward momentum. But here, as with “Black Rainbow” and so many others, texture—the “Live and Let Die” feel of the strings—combines with pulse and dynamics to amp up the song. All the elements similarly work together in the crescendos, catastrophic endings, and edge-of-the-earth silences that form the predicates / apocalypses so many of her songs—songs that get thicker and thicker, heavier and heavier, meaner and meaner, before ultimately blowing themselves apart.

I promised to say something about melodies before moving on; particularly in the verses, they tend to be short, constrained in range, and repetitive: music boxes, children’s and campfire songs. But every melody, no matter how slight, is also an opportunity for excursion into noise, for her voice or axe or laptop or God-knows-what to hack it up into lit-tle pie-ces, to bleed some darkness from it we didn’t know was there. I’ve made much of contrast and tension as the motor of St. Vincent’s music, and this one—between melody and noise, earworm and Conqueror Worm, pop and anti-pop, nodded to in my initial discussion of “Black Rainbow”—seems to me the generative one, the one that sets her at odds with all the labels to which music critics and customers-also-bought algorithms might unhappily marry her (and that makes of the label “alternative” a sort of basin to catch everything that falls through the cracks). One last example should suffice, from “Cheerleader.” The title, not surprisingly, is undermined in the choruses: over the snarling keys-guitar combo, set off by four hard punches on a stuttered “I” to knock the verses flat, her pouting “I don’t wanna be a cheerleader no more.” I love the narcissistic high drama: the world is just as big as her room; her “no” is earth-shattering. This is St Vincent: “Hey, Mickey … go fuck yourself!”

*

Not a bad segue into “The Party,” if only because the two songs share melodic material in their verses, even as their choruses pull in opposite directions. “The Party” is like “Cheerleader” without the “go fuck yourself”; and, as I’ve noted, it’s the go-fuck-yourself that first grabbed me about St Vincent. “Black Rainbow” had to grab me because of the way it jives with what I already love. But I think that if an artist is to have sustaining power, it’s going to have to be because something about his or her music captures you that is different from what you traditionally listen to, something about his or her own identity as an artist. “The Party” is that song for me. It is comparatively quiet, comparatively spare—compared, that is, to the guitar-driven noisiness I usually covet—yet still very much within the idiom I’ve tried to outline above. Her voice is at the height of seductiveness, delightfully strained, tempo rubato, either dragging a fraction behind the beat, or entering on beat but sliding or cracking to the melody note (think bent guitar strings, false harmonics). How small that voice is, spare, half-spoken, for our ears only; and yet, how much sonic space it occupies, how much of our attention.

As for the melody itself, the verses, it’s in the slight, simple mold of so many others, though with an interesting twist. The 2 + 1 structure is based on a fulcrum note around which its two parts seesaw. The whole sequence is transposed down, and then this whole is repeated once, with the small but significant variation of a sharper leap, her voice cracking at the high note.†† The piano then repeats the vocal melody, though only the two higher parts. (I.e., if we describe the vocal melody as A-B-A’-B, the piano plays only A-A’. Interestingly, when this song first subjugated me, I would hum the piano melody, but hear her voice in my head; my brain elided the lower part.) The opening interval is the same as “This Old Man,” and in fact it’s the sort of thing that would sound lovely sung in imitative polyphony (“Row, Row, Row Your Boat”).

Unlike, say, “Black Rainbow,” where the chorus continues the work/walk of the verses, amping up the tension, “The Party”’s chorus provides the answer “Black Rainbow” never does; and the song as a whole is a beautiful example of antithetically-constructed parts joined in a magical synthesis. Where the cadence of the verses is half-spoken (aided by the talky lyrics), the choruses, sung in falsetto, abandon words entirely, and showcase the voice as an instrument; where the melody of the verse zig-zags around a fulcrum, repetitive and playful, the chorus is two long rolling sequences, much more complex and ornate than the verses. There is a parallel shift in the use of the piano: rather than repeat the A-A’ of the vocal melody, in the choruses the keys become a romantic background swirl that further ornaments the vocal melody. Finally, the rhythm of the chorus shifts radically, from an easy 4:4 into waltz time. It’s as if the voice had suddenly grown up between verse and chorus (and then regressed again at the next verse); or perhaps better, had dreamed of growing up. The choruses pull us out of the draggy lethargy of the verses, up, into an ideal haze … precisely the opposite of “Cheerleader,” whose similarly antithetical choruses drag us down into the grunge, negating the verses (“I don’t wanna …”) instead of sublimating them.

Given the myriad differences, how are the two parts made to fit together so well—again as opposed to “Cheerleader,” which quite deliberately leaves a gaping wound between its verse and chorus? I’m not sure, but a couple of possibilities. First, the opening note of the chorus resolves the sequence of high notes of the vocal melody, rising first a step (from A to A’), then a step and a half (from A’ to the first note of the chorus); we are thus primed for it by the logic of the melody in the verse. Second, even as the rhythm is completely altered, the tempo of verse and choruses is identical: the pulse, as so often in St Vincent, stays even.

After the second chorus the song pauses; a densely-layered arrangement of voice and instruments enters, reprising the chorus, over and over; they are soon joined by a stuttering snare and flubby bass drum, retarding, retarding. “The Party” ends like a carousel winding down, as though we were slowly moving away from it, or it from us; our vision of it seems to become more obscure, or blurred, as though we were looking at it through a mottled pane. This is the slow braking/ breaking of the night, St Vincent’s aurora. Rather than building to that “Rainbow” zero-point, here the density seems to weigh the song down, and then stop it entirely, releasing us from the retarding cycle of the choral melody on a lydian #4, a note that seems more to suspend (and does, in fact, only slowly fade) instead of resolve. For once, we’ve been brought gently down; the sun’s come gently up. But where are we? And how on earth do we get back?

*

With 2014’s St Vincent St Vincent seemed to arrive at a crossroads. As per the title, this should have been her coalescing moment, the record that brought together all the elements that make her her. But if my reading is correct, it actually does the reverse: it separates out those elements, foregrounding the dissonances between them; it is an anti-coalescing record, an exercise in self-analysis rather than the intuitive construction of a new whole … perhaps even the sonic equivalent of the sloughing of skin. That is: even as it veers more fully into pure dance/pop than its predecessors, it is also—as if in compensation—the most crunchy, dissonant, distorted, guitar- and riff-heavy of her records. When she is able to synthesize these competing drives, the result is some of her best material. “Rattlesnake,” unlike “The Strangers” or “Chloe in the Afternoon” (the opening tracks on the preceding records), is a dance tune through and through, though, as noted above, an awesomely mean one: frenetic, mocking, seductive, violent, and paranoid. “Bring Me Your Loves” is another dance-floor anthem, complete with breaks (“I took you off your leash”), synthed out, her voice quasi-autotuned on the choruses … yet once again, an eerie, gothic dance tune, with a hyper-distorted touchstone melody and a Phantom of the Opera synth track competing with the dance-floor feel; at its peak, it sounds like an overworked motor flying to pieces. There’s “Birth in Reverse,” with its strummed dissonances, and the much-discussed “Huey Newton,” which a little like “Black Rainbow” analyzes the (in this case) dance-funk and metal elements into separate movements. More generally, there’s an interesting new fracture between vocal melodies and music, which, on the earlier records, tended to work in lockstep, distinguished solely by rhythm and timbre (cf. “The Party” above; hear also “The Strangers”).

But then there are a number of songs that seem to delight in pure pop, with little else for the ear, at least mine, to crunch on: “Northern Lights,” “Every Tear Disappears”; “Hysterical Strength”’s Berlin-sounding 80s pastiche; “Psychopath”’s any-rock-song guitar sound and warm and fuzzy choruses, words notwithstanding. Well … okay. Maybe it’s time to move on, or go back and listen to Marry Me (2006). Maybe, as so often happens when artists move in directions we don’t care for, I’ll find someone to fill her shoes. She did this much for me, after all. PJ Harvey left a gaping hole in the early ‘00s. Is This Desire? (1998) was for me the end of her great period, the counterpart to (though so different from) the ineffably brilliant Dry (1992). (There are a few great tunes on Stories of the City and Uh Huh Her and White Chalk as well; after that I lost track.) As far back as Desire her trajectory was similar to St Vincent’s, into more electronica, dance, and ambient music. I admit it: STV is my long-awaited PJ surrogate, differences be damned. I’m only sad that, unlike with PJ, whose Dry I got on a tape from a friend the year after it came out, and whose career I was able to follow until we parted ways, with St Vincent I seem to have discovered her just as she began to drop over my aesthetic horizon.

Or perhaps not. After all, the eponymous record has grown on me. They all have. And I haven’t even delved into her new (2017) one … though what little I know (reports, a video) suggests the needle has moved in the direction of the less-Helldriver-friendly material on St Vincent. Now, I could have listed “Digital Witness” among those weak tracks … except that it’s not. It’s so perfectly pitched and grabby that I like it, quite helplessly; and who’s to say but that a track like this, like “Black Rainbow” did a couple of years ago, might be the next pinhole, the cave under the cave under the ocean, the song that pulls me so far outside of my original aesthetic universe that I never find my way back? When do I run out of air? I should add that this is partly a function of age: the older one gets, the more difficult it is to find the pulse of the present (or any pulse at all!); one compensates, I think, by being more reflective, which implies greater and more consistent retrospection. In this sense, the “wisdom” of age is less synthesized knowledge than something to fill the temporal lags created by a decelerating biology. Then again, this might also be a function of a historical moment (i.e., today) when the present seems to have lost all duration, and all reality, pace Faulkner, something we watch receding behind us from the window of a train. In such a time, at such a moment, the only way to construct a durable present is retrospectively.

A post like this one is a clear expression of love for a musician, and a labor of love it has been—more than any in recent memory, perhaps because I’m working in a genre with which I am largely unfamiliar, and perhaps because, the longer this blog goes on, the more I feel the need to account for absolutely everything. And so posts bloat like drowned corpses, until the body they once pretended to be effigies of becomes unidentifiable. Whatever the case, I bring my love(s) to these musicians by going through the excrutiating, and always ultimately dissatisfying (this one, once again, moreso than most), process of trying to find correlates in words for their personas in sound. It’s similar to a painter painting his or her beloved—trying to find the posture, color, expression, tone, etc. that will speak them—or a sonneteer writing the same. Or perhaps the opposite is true: I love musicians the most about whom I can, or desire to, find the words to speak; about whom, when I listen, something in my (linguistic) imagination is set going; and this sense, a sort of premonition, is what compels both my love for them, and for writing.***

I should probably touch on gender before calling it a day. I’ve written around 90 posts about music since this blog started, many of them idiotically long, with perhaps two-thirds of these about individual artists or bands, and precious few women among them. There’s one about Linda Oh somewhere back there, another about Kazzrie Jaxen; there are a few female classical pianists, such as Helene Grimaud, bundled into concert reviews, as well as mixed-gender ensembles, and one “hidden” woman (in “Dreaming American,” the unnamed jazz pianist is Mamiko Wantanabe). All in all, a negligible percentage of the whole. There’s notes for an extended piece on Irene Schweitzer, and a fantasized magnum opus on Dry … but these are two among myriad prospective pieces, many of which will never be written. And now that I’ve added another actual post about a female artist, it seems I can’t refrain from speaking the language of eros. Not that I’ve ever been shy about expressing love for music and musicians throughout the history of this blog; but I don’t generally resort to such language to do so. In fact, the only other time I can think of that I spoke in such unabashedly erotic terms about an artist, it was … Goatwhore.

Okay. I’m going to call my analyst now. Or a priest?

 

* My friend disputes this anecdote, claims he never plays individual songs, only whole albums. This sounds like him—the album as integral work. It’s possible he put the whole record on and “Black Rainbow” was simply the first song that caught my ear. Still, that’s not the way I remember it. And my version makes the better story.

§ Like St Vincent but moreso, Harvey tends to make herself the subject of her album covers, which tend to the grotesque and/or to Cindy Sherman-like stagings.

† But then she seems as radically unfit for the label of singer-songwriter, or, for that matter, pop diva, again, as these have been traditionally conceived. But then all such categories evolve. Have these sorts of mismatches become part of women’s alternative today? I’m thinking of Mitski, by the way, who I discovered poking about (me, I was the one poking) on Ben Ratliff’s 2016 top ten list.

** This is perhaps most clear on the eponymous record. Take, for example, the move from the end of “Huey Newton,” which achieves as heavy and distorted a climax as “Black Rainbow” does, to the bubbliness of “Digital Witness.” The feel of those guttural “faithless”‘s at the end of crunching “Newton” couldn’t be more different from the leap to falsetto and horns that opens “Witness.” “Newton” is rendered that much more heavy in hindsight, “Witness” that much more bubbly.

§ In case there’s any question about whether this is me projecting something onto her music, watch the horror anthology XX (2015), to which St Vincent contributed the second, and stand-out, segment—too snarky for my taste, but wonderfully dark, and with a memorably horrific ending.

†† I don’t know but that STV would disavow any interest in Pearl Jam, but I have to pause to note some melodic similarities: the A-A’ of “The Party” with “Better Man,” and “Strange Mercy,” less perfectly, with “No Way,” from Yield (1998).

*** I’m reminded of a wonderful moment in a Gary Giddins interview (recorded in the book Jazzing, by Thomas Greenland, which I should be reviewing presently): “Oh, I could really go to town on this!” Giddins is talking about how the decision to write about a particular artist or work presents itself to him. He doesn’t explicitly state that his love for an artist presupposes his ability to access them in language, but the excitement of finding an artist whose music makes the synapses start firing is palpable. His enthusiasm strongly resonates with me.

Refined

Some months ago, on my way home from the animal shelter where I volunteer, I was listening to Boris and Robyn, the morning DJs on my local classic rock station, WPDH. With the way I’ve paid out on classic rock radio in the Pit Stop recently (“Classic Rock Radio,” 1.27.18), and on classic rock more generally (e.g., “The Unwearable Leatherness of Loverboy,” 1.11.18; “Dry Hump,” 7.3.15), you’d think I could find something more congenial to listen to. But the truth is I like a fair amount of classic rock, and I like radio, too, and there’s precious little of it that’s even halfway decent once you move outside a certain radius of New York. There are actually two classic rock stations almost back to back on the dial, and a meh alternative rock station a little further down. In the upper-eighties ghetto there’s an excrutiatingly dull classical music station, and a “jazz” station that plays something that sounds more like adult contemporary. There are a few bright spots, of course, in the borderlands of the low nineties: 90.7 WFUV plays a decent assortment of pop, though it goes out the closer I get to the Hudson; and there’s Vassar College’s station, 91.3, whose eclecticism almost makes up for how mediocre-to-bad everything else is. [N.B.: For an addendum on area radio, see the end of this post.] One day, in the parking lot of the Adams Fairacre Farms store on Route 9, I tapped into a crackling signal playing … death metal. It was like a beacon from another world; I’ve never been able to find it again. WBAI actually comes in a few places, but the signal is more fickle than FUV’s, and anyway, BAI’s, political programming feels about as realistic in upstate New York as stories of kidnappings by space aliens. I love driving down the Taconic and, when I get past Peekskill Hollow, WKCR and WSOU and WFDU start to peek around the corners of the hills, their signals growing in strength with every mile covered.

Years ago, on a cross-country trip, I came up with the following formula for civilization:

FM/AM > 1

If the ratio of FM to AM is less than one, you know you’re in the middle of nowhere. If it equals one, well, proceed with caution: the barbarians may be at the gates, or the zombies at the sandbags, or the real estate tycoons in the White House, or whatever your preferred metaphor for the decline of empire happens to be. That said, with the hindsight of age and six years upstate, I must admit that any such attempt to quantify civilization, appealing as it might be to a budding young technocrat, ultimately falls short. Quantity may be a necessary precursor, but it’s hardly sufficient, at least for what I think of when I think of civilization.

Anyway, like I said, I was driving home that morning listening to The Boris and Robyn Show, which, if you’re reading this anywhere in the United States, sounds pretty much like every other morning DJ team on a classic rock station. They play juvenile call-in games with listeners for prizes, manage the local news and traffic reports and weather, quip about strange goings-on in the world (read: Hudson Valley), and take care not to be too controversial (this is New York). They also recite advertising jingles and make guest appearances at local events and businesses for charity. The show’s producer and sometime-game participant is called Meat Sandwich; he also “reviews” new movies by reading from the Rotten Tomatoes website. The traffic report is brought to me by some fabricator of chips, potato or micro. Believe it or not, all of this makes for good company during my near-daily twenty-minute jaunts to shelter, hike, café, supermarket, or train. What with my hearing going out like those NYC radio signals around Peekskill Hollow, and what with how loud my old Corolla is, particularly now that the bearings are shot—it sounds (and feels) like I’m driving a dryer with a cinder block in it—listening to human voices, however snarky, silly or reactionary, can be more tolerable than muddled music, at least until the commercials start pummeling. Oddly enough for someone with my politics, I’ll take The Boris and Robyn Show a million times over the nasal autotune of NPR; a mere five minutes of exposure and I feel like buying a pick-up truck with a gun rack, and flying a bedsheet-size American flag off the tailgate.

I know I’m going pretty far afield, but hey baby, I’m broadcasting.

On the thrice-mentioned morning in question I was (as noted) driving home listening to Boris and Robyn and the phone line was open for requests. The caller was a construction worker or day-laborer of some sort. Boris asked him where he was calling from. “Newburgh,” the man said. This is the town right across the Hudson from Beacon, where I volunteer; I believe it still has the distinction of having the highest per-capita murder rate in the state, though recent reports suggest crime is down somewhat. Following on the art-ification of Beacon (which now houses Dia), there has been some development around the Newburgh waterfront; but such gentrification projects, as all of us who have lived in New York know, do much more in the way of relocating poor people than solving issues related to poverty.

It turned out the caller wasn’t a Newburgh resident. He was working a job there. As he put it, he was “in the ‘hood” for the day. Boris asked him for his exact location, which the man gave—the corner of two streets. “Oooh,” Boris sympathized. “Not a good area.” And what did he want to hear? Def Leppard, “Pour Some Sugar On Me.”

A fascinating exchange, yes? And in so many ways. Music-oriented as it is, I thought this quasi-public venue a fit place to unpack it, or perhaps lance it, if I may borrow Martin Luther King, Jr.’s metaphor about Birmingham boils.

First, there is the quite obvious racial text—you can’t really call it subtext. The caller, like the vast majority of classic rock listeners, was quite obviously white. “The ‘hood,” the place where he was working and, apparently, taking his life in his hands, was not. If I could remember the names of the streets at whose dangerous crossroads he was meeting the devil that morning, I could verify this assertion … but do I really need to? That race was never explicitly mentioned in the conversation only made it more present.*

And so the purpose of the call, the request, during which conversation the caller felt the need to answer the question “Where are you calling from?” the way he did: What was Def Leppard (and by extension, “classic” rock) to this man but a shield, a magic circle of whiteness, that the dangerous blackness of the ‘hood could not penetrate? What was cranking Def Leppard there but an act of sonic flag-planting—the white standard borne by the army of an invading culture, an adjunct to the police siren? No wonder composer and soundscape studies-originator R. Murray Schafer called it sound imperialism. “A man with a loudspeaker,” he wrote in The Soundscape, “is more imperialistic than one without because he can dominate more acoustic space” (77). And so a man with a radio … not to mention a Caterpillar, a backhoe, a jackhammer, a concrete mixer, etc.

All, that is, the artillery of gentrification. How is a ghetto blaster (or whatever it’s called today, whatever its current incarnation) supposed to compete? I will not be forgiven, perhaps, for extending this scenario imaginatively. But like The Who, authors of the greatest classic rock song of all time, I don’t need to be forgiven. I think back to the gentrifying neighborhoods I have lived in or near—Bushwick ’02-‘04, the fringes of Sugar Hill ’04-‘12—and about the fledgling gentrification of Newburgh. It’s not hard to imagine the white construction worker engaged in just such a project. Blaring classic rock, the first sonic shockwave that razes some buildings, guts others, leaving just their shells standing. It is the pre-soundtrack of gentrification, the prow before the Tiny Desk Concerts of the genteel class arrives. It reminds me of those pioneer log cabins that precede the respectable middle-class farmers in Hector St John de Crevecoeur’s vision of the settlement of America: the underclass that logs, hunts, and moves on, pushing the Indians back and back as they go.

That this task, to be the prow of oncoming civilization, should fall to Def Leppard is … is … well, if you laughed when you read the title of the song requested, then we’re probably operating on the same wavelength. I mean, it couldn’t even be decent Def Leppard, could it—you know, the better hits on Pyromania, or “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak,” at least before they added that dud keyboard riff? No, it had to be the most sugar-pop cotton-candy shit Def Leppard.

I remember the bodybuilder who used to manage the community pool where I lifeguarded walking around singing this song; he looked like Hulk Hogan without the mustache. Today, “Pour Some Sugar on Me” makes me think of burly construction workers standing underneath dumptruck chutes pouring the sweet white stuff all over the streets and the people living there, all over themselves. My brain automatically toggles to that Simpsons where the Duff (Leppard?) workers douse protesting feminists with beer; when the spray vanishes they’re wearing bikinis and their signs say “Get me drunk.”

Need I add that this lunkheaded anthem finds its perfect architectural equivalent in the White House, as it is molded to fit its current occupant?

I digress, again. But I write to digress. In case no one’s ever told you, all writing, down to the tiniest metaphor, that vibrating quark of language, is controlled digression. The vehicle of a metaphor is a digression from its tenor. A sentence is a digression from its subject, a paragraph from its topic. Face it, without digression, we would live dull lives encased in substantives. There would be no movement. No music!

Okay. This is not a post about how the Leppard lost its spots. Or perhaps it is. Because in some ways, the whole dynamic of this call-in story simply recapitulates the history of rock, and of popular music in the twentieth century: the whitewashing of jazz for downtown audiences, the white “blues scholars” who made the blues palatable to white audiences as rock, not to mention profitable for themselves. All these are acts of cultural gentrification. And so with Def Leppard. We might call their devolution from hard rock/NWOBHM to pop metal to pop pure and simple a process of refinement. The irony is the way that, by the end of this process, the origins, even this band’s own origins in the blues-infused classic rock of the British ‘60s and ‘70s, had become so obscured, or so repressed, that the product can now be turned back like a firehose against the population whose culture birthed it.

At this juncture it’s impossible not to cite what Henry Louis Gates (I believe it was) called “the most reviled poem in the African American canon,” Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought From Africa to America.” Here is the closing couplet of this notorious octet: “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain/ May be refined, and join th’angelic train.”

The blackness of Cain; the blackness of cane. The raw stuff, the stuff the slaves picked. Mingus’s Wednesday night prayer meeting, Coltrane shrieking for God’s attention, work songs and spirituals and dirty brass.** It’s the stuff of rock, too, it has to be, the tether that makes even the most classical-inflected prog still worthy of the name. Some of us like our tethers longer, our orbits wider, comets instead of asteroids, Pluto not Mercury, the competing pull of other great masses, breathing their own unrefined life into our music. But that dark sun remains the same.

One wants to ask Wheatley, “But will there be anything left of these Negroes? What is the price of your refinement?” Perhaps the answer is in the poem. After all, to join th’angelic train, one must lose one’s life, the blood must all be drained. Those Christians to whom she appeals, they’re like Aylmer, Hawthorne’s mad scientist, trying to remove his wife’s birthmark, her only flaw, and finding out too late it’s called humanity. The mark of Cain: not a patina that contact with white civilization can buff out, but the core of one’s humanity. And not, finally, the beating wild heart of darkness, but one’s culture, one’s … civilization.

Considered this way, th’angelic train starts to look like a loaf of Wonder Bread, each tasteless slice a seraphim. Hark—aim your ear at the sky! What are they singing! Yes, it’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me”! The ultimate in processed music!

(Thank God rock is haunted by its origins. It’s always had the power to renew itself at any number of generic wells, whether it consciously acknowledges them (and pays them) or not. Something of it always manages to escape the corporate stranglehold.)

The problem is that I live in an area now where people don’t seem to understand that refinement isn’t bleaching. It’s a coloring process. And that means grabbing your radio dial and turning it, turning it and turning it, ever more finely, until you find the heart of the radio’s ‘hood.

 

* A few disclaimers are in order. (1) I don’t mean to minimize the problems of economically depressed neighborhoods, or the struggles such communities routinely face with drugs and violence and environmental quality. I simply question how we respond to these problems as a society. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow—a book I wish every American would read—puts it eloquently: “It is perfectly understandable that some African Americans would be complicit with [as opposed to supportive of] the system of mass incarceration, even as they oppose, as a matter of social policy, the creation of racially isolated ghettos and the subsequent transfer of black youth from underfunded, crumbling schools to brand-new, hi-tech prisons. In the era of mass incarceration, poor African Americans are not given the option of great schools, community investment, and job training. Instead, they are offered police and prisons” (210). (2) I understand, of course, that I am privileged to be volunteering on a Tuesday while this man is earning his bread and butter, and that my sneering tone in this post bespeaks a life of privilege and Sundays spent grading papers. I have no good answer for this. Oh, wait, I do: UNIONIZE. (3) I also understand that, at least initially, I am in danger of reifying the binaries through which black music has been understood, and what made it historically attractive to the white middle class: black music as wild, primitive, libidinal, authentic, etc., and white music as civilized, sophisticated, desexualized, corporate, etc. I’m even calling in the old gendered rock-pop binary. Though I draw on this binary to understand the role of race here, I do hope the end of my analysis manages to see beyond it. While I’m hoping, I’ll quote, at loving length, my beloved James Baldwin. This is from The Fire Next Time, another book every American should read (and that I would guess quite a few more have read since I Am Not Your Negro): “In all jazz, and especially in the blues, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged … White Americans do not understand the depths out of which [singer Big Bill Broonzy’s] ironic tenacity comes, but they suspect that the force is sensual, and they are terrified of sensuality and do not any longer understand it. The word ‘sensual’ is not intended to bring to mind quivering dusky maidens or priapic black studs. I am referring to something much simpler and much less fanciful. To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread … [Baldwin goes on about lousy bread, then:] Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become. It is this individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves as the fountains of their own lives, that makes the discussion, let alone the elucidation, of any conundrum—that is, any reality—so supremely difficult. The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality—for this touchstone can only be oneself” (55-7). You can say we’re living a half-century after Baldwin wrote these words. I would answer, yes, but we’ve just made America great again.

** I’m riffing on Geoff Dyer’s chapter on Charles Mingus here, from his beautiful But Beautiful (North Point Press, 1996), yet another book every American et cetera.

ADDENDUM, 8.1.18. There’s nothing like publicly staking a claim for inspiring one to do research. After kvetching about area radio, I’ve been spending a little more of my drive time digging in. FUV, it turns out, is not local at all; it’s Fordham University’s station. Maybe it’s the antenna on Montefiore that fooled me; it does come in a tad better than other New York stations. How surprising, too, that the only other halfway-decent station I’ve turned up should be (a) college-based/non-commercial and (b) not local. That still leaves WVKR, the Vassar station … and this one is turning out to be a real gem. Some of the music programming is spectacularly good (if only they’d interrupt a little more often to tell me what I was listening to!). They also play Democracy Now on weekday mornings (though this doesn’t much change my perception of area politics, or, for that matter, kidnapping space aliens). There’s even a lady who reads from books about labor history on Tuesday afternoons. This week, it was Kellogg’s 6-hour day; last week, the IWW. Finally, there’s a station at 106.3, WJZZ, that bills itself as “real jazz.” I can’t vouch for it yet, because my reception, once again, has been spotty. But it does seem promising, at least BGO-level promising; it would be churlish to ask for anything more up around here. Plus it’s only a few years old, a public station … the sort of thing that needs all the support we, the local folks, can give it. (If I’m going to write about radio, maybe I should invest in … an antenna?)