Tag Archives: analysis

css.php

Pressure Begets Grace

Alex Lifeson and Grace Under Pressure

[One of the first posts I wrote for this blog (a decade ago) was a defense of Rush, prompted by the premiere of the documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage at the TriBeCa film festival (“Not an Apology,” 6.8.10). “Epicness” (1.15.11) followed shortly after. As I begin to look into the sunset of this blog—that is, as I watch Helldriver ride into the evening redness in the west on his fire-breathing mare, and my eyeballs, following him, begin to steam, and bubble, and melt down my cheeks in bloody, vitreous tears—I think it high time to add one more. Don’t imagine it’s the last Rush post. But future ones will have to await the Resurrection.]

 

During the first decade and a half of their history, Rush released three live records, one after every four studio albums. The live records were intended as both milestones and measures of growth—pencil-marks on the wall of their development: that year we were THIS tall

Somewhere along the way, these live-album milestones came to signify moments of transformation in their sound. There is some sense to this. Since the band has invited us to see each set of four studio albums as a chapter (e.g., the liner notes to All the World’s a Stage (1976) claim this first live record “mark[s] the close of chapter one in the annals of Rush”), they enter fan discourse as a shorthand way of referring to different periods in the band’s history, and to fans’ individual taste preferences.

The problem with the “chapter” idea is that it tends to overemphasize similarities among the four albums grouped together, and to obscure cross-chapter affinities. There is simply too much transformation within these chapters, and too many affinities across live-record milestones, to warrant a cohesive view of the band’s sound over any four records, however we try to group them. Caress of Steel, for example, has more in common with A Farewell to Kings than with Rush; the transformation from Hemispheres to Permanent Waves is at least as stark as anything the band did across live records; and so on.

That last comment might raise some eyebrows in the fan community. As every fan knows, 1982 was a watershed year. There is (the story goes) no chasm so wide as that between pre- and post-Signals Rush, which is supposed to denote the moment that keyboards overwhelmed the band’s sound, transforming them from a proggish power trio into something that sounded more like the New Wave. Word choice says everything: what to some ears sounds suffused in keyboards to others sounds smothered. But whether suffused or smothered, awash or overwhelmed, so stark is this purported division that the fan community is generally understood as being divided into two irreconcilable camps: “old Rush” fans (i.e., pre-1982, with Moving Pictures as the culminating record, and covering almost the entire range of songs still played ad nauseum on classic rock radio); and those more ecumenical “Rush fans,” whose interest in the band has remained consistent up through their most recent efforts.* This tendency to see Signals as game-changer is further buttressed by the band’s subsequent decision to split with longtime producer Terry Brown, with whom they butted heads during the making of that record.

Conventional narratives have a seductive explanatory power. Given, however, that the meridian of objectivity is ever a dream, their illuminating light always casts shadows. Clarity comes at the expense of distortion; distance sacrifices details that only resolve on a closer view. Consider: keyboards were an integral part of Rush’s sound beginning with A Farewell to Kings (1977), when the Moog started to make its appearance in songs like “Xanadu” and “Madrigal.” Nor was the band a complete stranger to synths before this, as the spaced-out noises that open “2112” attest. Nor, given the bands that inspired them in 1975-6, like Floyd and Yes, would there have been much of an aesthetic hurdle to expanding the use of keys. (Interestingly, keyboards only began to form the contested border of Rush’s root genres of hard rock and heavy metal in the early ‘80s, and that likely in response to the very genres Rush embraced.) That said, keyboards in the four records pre-Signals were mostly ornamental, providing color and atmosphere for particular sections of songs (e.g., “Xanadu”), or texture to round out and enrich the trio’s overall sound (as happens throughout much of Permanent Wavesand, to a somewhat lesser extent, Moving Pictures). We get hints of the broader role keyboards would come to play in “Jacob’s Ladder” (Permanent Waves), and then in “Camera Eye” and “Vital Signs” (Moving Pictures). Signals’s coup was to have the keys migrate out of bridges and transitional passages, into verses and choruses, though seldom both in the same song (see below); and much of the rest of the band’s eighties output would continue this trajectory toward a more expansive, central role for keyboards and synthesizers, with the guitar more and more settling for the keyboards’ original role of providing ornament and color. Thus, rather than keying in on Signals as a moment of rupture, we might instead see the dozen years between Kings and 1988’s Hold Your Fire as a bumpy continuum, with the balance tilting ever more stage left.

Another reason Signals gets singled out as the band’s fall from grace is the well-documented infighting about the role of keyboards that clearly came to a head around this record. While Geddy Lee (bass, keys, vocals) spoke admiringly of Trevor Horn and Ultravox, and of the importance of the keyboards to create textures and “emotional colors,” and Neil Peart (drums) pointed to Peter Gabriel as an example of a musician “finding [his] feet” in the new musical moment (qtd. in Martin Popoff, Contents Under Pressure, ps. 102-3), Alex Lifeson—himself an admirer of many of the same bands and artists—seemed to be wondering what had happened to his guitar. He might even have been wondering what had happened to Lee, esconced behind his wall of keyboards like a castled king, Lifeson himself a superannuated knight, tilting at sonic windmills. Signals also marked the beginning of Peart’s use of drum machines, though at this stage still behind the scenes; in the “diary” included in the Signals tour book, he writes about the humbling experience of having the Roland teach him new rhythmic patterns—shades of the chess master playing the computer. The electronic drums would only arrive with the next album, Grace Under Pressure (1984), and then only marginally; by Power Windows (1986), Peart’s kit was spinning around during performance, to reveal (quite literally) a whole other side of his playing, whose new sounds he incorporated into his through-composed drum solo. It was a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation in reverse … though, despite his moniker as “the professor on the drum kit,” some fans clearly wished Peart would play a little less Jekyll, a little more Hyde.

In stressing continuity over rupture, I don’t wish to be understood as engaging in some teleological fantasy about the band’s evolution.† As every biologist knows, evolution is a lot messier and more complicated than the slow accretion of traits on a cladogram would seem to suggest. But I do think evolutionary change is a useful lens through which to view Rush’s music. It is perhaps the most curious feature of their history: on the one hand they are viewed as paragons of musical integrity, enshrined in their anthem “The Spirit of Radio”; on the other hand, there is perhaps no band in the history of rock that responded more completely to the currents of their cultural moment. (Indeed, I remember visiting the radio station at my sister’s college, pulling out their copy of Signals, and finding some DJ or other had left a nasty note (imagine!) taped to the cover, to the effect that the band had no identity at all.) Were they any other band, their fans would have labeled them sell-outs. The tension is generally resolved by the idea that their change was based on free aesthetic choice rather than on market expectations, an idea which the band promoted in ancillary materials (“somehow we became popular!” they exclaim in the liner notes to Exit … Stage Left) and encoded in their lyrics (e.g., “Tom Sawyer”’s “Changes aren’t permanent/ But change is,” or “Digital Man”’s “Constant change is here to stay”). It is also resolved by a tendency among fans to view the band in a sort of vacuum, fandom encouraging a certain deafness to context, and particularly unjust where Rush is concerned. Thus, the band’s penchant for leaving fans behind only confirms their integrity, as does their favoring of newer material in concert over “jukeboxing” (though the ubiquitous medleys of their later years complicate matters). Whether we choose to place the emphasis on outside influences or the band’s morphing these influences into their own sound, Rush were clearly involved in a continuous dynamic exchange with a changing environment—musical, cultural, technological. Viewed in this light, we might say that their first dozen years were marked by constant rupture, and thus a paradoxical continuity.

If conventional narratives shape our understanding, they do so by shaping how—and even what—we hear. Once the standard narrative is accepted, it becomes part of our framework for listening, and even whether we choose to listen at all. Anything that bumps up against this intellectual construct of the band’s history is essentially muted by the assumptions we bring to our listening. This is a particular injustice to Alex Lifeson. For what is generally lost in the narrative of the sacrificing of the power trio on the altar of pop and the guitar’s asphyxiation under pillows of synths—and what is muted as well when we imagine the band’s history as a continuum of slowly-accreting traits—is the mighty bump that was 1984’s Grace Under Pressure. Two years after Rush was supposed to have “smothered” their guitar in keyboards, the band released what I like to think of as their last great guitar album. Rather than a knee-jerk reaction to the sound the band had adopted with Signals—rather, that is, than break out the Gibson doubleneck and ES-355—Lifeson evolved—in fact, had already begun evolving on Signals—to accommodate the evolving sonic matrix of his bandmates, itself an adaptation to changes afoot in the broader environment of popular music. All these pressures, and all this close listening to the musical moment, combined to nudge him into some of the most graceful guitarwork of his career

*

I’ve often wondered about the extent to which Rush’s identity as a power trio and their ethos of trying to reproduce studio albums live (without hiring extra musicians to tour) impacted their aesthetic decisions about how to incorporate keyboards. Given that Lee was never quite able to do three things at once, oscillation between the bass and keys was a given; and this oscillation had the effect of creating a split between “newer” (prog-cum-New Wave) and “older” (hard rock/heavy metal) sounds.‡ On Signals, the split runs right down the middle of the songs, between verses and choruses, amplifying what Peart called their “dynamic contrast.” “Analog Kid” is a good example: rockin’, riff-dominated verses yield to (for all intents and purposes) guitarless choruses of church-organ synth and delay-heavy vocals. “Chemistry” operates in much the same way; “Subdivisions” does the reverse.

“Analog Kid” is also notable for being the last bona fide burner of a solo Lifeson recorded. There are a few shreds of this left on the second side of Pressure, but nothing like the extended scramble that had defined many a Lifeson solo up to this point. That guitarist was laid to rest on Signals. Perhaps the competition from Van Halen clones and Yngwie wannabes had simply become too stiff; if so, then this was yet another evolutionary pressure to which Lifeson responded. What comes to the fore on Signals, and even moreso on Grace Under Pressure, is another side of his playing—the one that had given us such gorgeously different solos as “Bacchus Plateau” and “Limelight,” “Different Strings” and “Cinderella Man,” “No One at the Bridge” and “Camera Eye,” all of which are distinguished less by technical skill than an ear for melody and structure, timbre and texture. In some cases—“Cinderella Man,” “Limelight”—the bass is busier than the guitar: Lifeson seems more interested in milking the life out every note he plays (and “note” is rather stretching it … like he does).

Lifeson has cited the solo on Signals’s “Chemistry” as a personal favorite, and with good reason: the oblique approach to the song’s progression and melody, the highly gestural sound, the searching phrases he uses to build tension as he finds his way back to and then embellishes upon the song’s chief melody, all speak to a master soloist at work. But there are a number of other tracks on this record which, both as accompaniest and soloist, demonstrate more clearly the emerging style that would come to dominate Grace Under Pressure. Listen to him, for example, on the bridge of “The Weapon”: his guitar surfaces from a cataclysm of electronica, first matching its noise, then slowly finding its voice with a bugle-call arpeggio that morphs into an accelerating phrase—every element of the music heightening every other—; and then holding center stage alone for a breathtaking moment before the band picks up around him and carries the song back into its groove, its main progression, and its final chorus. Here, the solo no longer stands apart from the song in traditional front-of-the-stage, above-the music virtuosity; nor is it a “break” for an all-band jam (e.g., “Freewill”): it is an integral part of a developing composition. One could remove the guitar solos from, say, “Natural Science” and little would be lost (it sounds like blasphemy to my ears, but it’s true). Not so with “The Weapon.” The solo is too tightly wedded to the song.

Even the solo on “Subdivisions,” which almost seems an afterthought, bears the marks of an emerging sound: it hardly departs from the melody; all its rather limp energy seems geared toward ushering in the closing chorus. What I would most point to in this solo, however, is the brief, concluding chord progression. It seems so innocuous in the context of this song; but viewed from the vantage of Grace Under Pressure, it is nothing short of revolutionary. (NB: Is it the embedded solos, the truncated stage for virtuosity, more than the oft-cited production or abiding presence of keys, that led to the feeling the guitar is somehow “absent” on Signals? Or does the negative guitar judgment of Signals largely rest on “Subdivisions,” which, together with the solo-less “New World Man,” are the only tracks casual listeners seem to know, the only ones occasionally played on the radio? “Subdivisions” is the song that most lives up to those keyboard pejoratives. Even a synths-heavy song like “The Weapon” has a lot more guitar; the synths are there more for backdrop and texture. By turns, at least, the sound on this record is a lot more balanced than “Subdivisions” (or a miffed Lifeson) would suggest.)

And then there’s “Digital Man.” It’s not the solo I want to call attention to here, filled with Lifesonian noise and wah, the interplay with the bass and drums closer to a “Limelight,” with which it favorably compares. It’s the guitar sound as a whole. You can hear it most clearly on the section leading into the solo: twangy, vibrato-enhanced chords that settle and fade over Lee’s walking bassline and Peart’s fickle ride. We hear something similar in the powerful introduction to “Countdown” (much the best part of that song). If that burner of a solo on “Analog Kid” was a swansong for the Lifeson of old, “Digital Man” is the grown-up Lifeson, and the grown-up Rush: the one whose rebellion Terry Brown couldn’t put down.**

The overall approach to the guitar for color and texture rather than riffs and blistering solos; the heightened attention to dynamics and effects; the use of chords in solos, from which single note phrases emerge, or vice-versa; and the integration of these solos into the overall composition: these are the chief ways Lifeson’s sound began to transform on Signals, a transformation that would come to startling fruition on Grace Under Pressure. Many years ago on this blog I made the somewhat exaggerated claim that some of Voivod guitarist Denis “Piggy” L’amour’s best work sounds like “one long chordal solo” (see “Deulogy,” 1.4.11). One could make a similarly exaggerated claim about Lifeson on this record. Once again, it’s difficult not to view these shifts in terms of evolutionary pressures: Lifeson, now competing with a more obviously polyphonic instrument, began to think of his guitar more like a second keyboard, and to investigate more seriously its polyphonic possibilities. In his atrociously-titled Contents Under Pressure, Martin Popoff writes disparagingly about “guitar-emulating keyboards,” but the reverse is at least as true: Lifeson’s becomes a keyboard-emulating guitar. “Emulating” is really too strong a word, though. Grace is a guitar record to boot; the instrument simply asserts itself in a way to which Rush fans, at least at the time, were not accustomed.

One of the ways the guitar asserts itself on Grace is simply a matter of pitch: Lifeson spends a lot more time playing in the upper register, the skinny frets, the unwrapped strings. Many years ago I heard a beautiful lecture at Julliard by the great Gunther Schuller, about Duke Ellington. (Julliard was always having free music-oriented events, which, as a chronically-broke part-time teacher working just a few blocks away, I tried to take full advantage of.) Schuller noted that, in some Ellington compositions, the clarinet, trumpet, and trombone played in opposite registers to a traditional Dixieland arrangement. In other words, Ellington had purposely reversed the ranges in which we expect to hear these instruments, in order to arrive at something new to the ear. A similar thing happens, I think, on Grace Under Pressure. Rather than the guitar’s heavy power chords undergirding Lee’s achingly high voice, on Grace Lee’s voice, which (as Chris McDonald notes) from Permanent Waves forward had come more and more to occupy a middle register, the guitar floats over the top with high triads, squealing noise, and harmonics. It fills the range Lee’s voice used to occupy.

“Red Sector A” is perhaps Lifeson’s chief accomplishment on this record. The song has keys galore, true. But it’s impossible to imagine “Red Sector A” without the reefs of high triads Lifeson builds atop the throbbing electronic pulse and steady hi-hat beat. They dominate the choruses, extended versions of which appear in the song’s introduction and conclusion, and with which the mid-range arpeggios of the pre-choruses contrast. Even the verses, where the keys are most prevalent, work in call-and-response with the guitar (and, in turn, the drums). As for the solo—even the word sounds funny, what with the way the guitar participates in the movement through the song’s bridge—it is exemplary of Lifeson’s new sound. After the second chorus the song is almost driven to a halt—mostly by contrast; it is the first time the motoric electronic pulse drops out—and this in itself fills the moment with tension, which Lifeson capitalizes on with a series of chiming, widely-spaced harmonics. The solo develops into a sort of fanfare; drums up the ante, though without losing the tom-focused spareness that itself contrasts with the hi-hat-and-snare pattern that had dominated the song up to the break. Lifeson answers Peart with parallel chordal passages. And then the break returns, though the guitar’s approach shifts, mixing notes with delicately-strummed chords and arpeggios, alternating poignancy and anger, feeling out each moment, until a full bar of assertive strumming calls back the beat. In good pop form, the song climaxes here, and transitions back into the pre-chorus, but with a new urgency: Lifeson’s heavier attack, Peart’s fills, and above all Lee’s voice. The nuanced emotional tableau—the mix of horror, despair, resignation, and hope of life in the camps—is carried by Lifeson’s rich and evocative playing, and the way he both responds to and participates in creating the overall composition. Again, there are inklings of all this on Signals, but no real precedents. It was what needed to happen in the musical context of Grace Under Pressure.

Other songs on this record show a similar shift in approach, if a little less dramatically. In “Afterimage,” an upbeat rocker about loss, Lifeson’s solo emerges piecemeally from an extended bass-and-drum crescendo, which, for a time, the guitar does little more than rupture with splashing, reverberating chords that fade, as per “Digital Man,” inflected with vibrato. Whistling synths slowly rise in pitch and volume; Peart doubles up on the snare; the listener waits for the guitar to arrive and fill out the sonic space it has repeatedly approached and abandoned. When it does, it is almost anticlimactic: a rather resigned chord progression, played over a more fully fleshed-out beat. The second time through the chord voicings change, ornamented with added notes and rhythmic flourishes, slowly climbing the neck into “Red Sector A” territory until, on the third and final chorus (to borrow the jazz term) the guitar emits one strangled, descending phrase—the only single notes in this “solo”—before a final chordal scream. The whole is little more than an embellishment of the underlying progression, a recycling of the musical materials at hand; and yet, its power is its restraint, its refusal to abandon the song’s modest framework.  “Distant Early Warning” follows a similar pattern. In fact, both songs alternate between repeat-note riffs and traditional hard-rock chording, though “Warning” moves the reverberating chords into its reggae-infused verses. The bridge opens with a transitional passage of ornamented chordwork much like “Afterimage”’s that, after one repetition, gives way to an eight-bar “break,” Lifeson playing a descending five-note, minor-key phrase punctuated by the bass and drums, repeated, transposed up the neck—and then another eight-bar section, cool to the former’s hot, where the full band “cruises” over the music of the verses, now driven along by a steady rock beat, the guitar playing a combination of single-note phrases and high triads. Much like “Red Sector A,” the section flows naturally into climactic pre-chorus, chorus, and finale.

There’s often a playfulness about Lifeson’s guitar that, in the midst of all this high seriousness—a high seriousness that often overcomes me when I try to write about music—I would be remiss not to mention. The wonderfully raucous solo of “The Body Electric,” for example, reminiscent of Jeff Beck’s second excursus on “Blue Wind”; “Kid Gloves”’s 5:4 campfire-song main riff, and solo as manic as anything Lifeson ever put on record—a running game of tag between self-comping and free-association-riffing; the moment where he leaps from a squiggle false-harmonics to a series of open-string harmonics that he lets ring together before stamping on the whammy bar is like the ethos of the whole song, condensed into a single bar. It’s miraculous, in part, for the way it manages to both do justice to and transcend the inherent limits of the material. For almost alone on this record, “Kid Gloves” has a stunted, preserved-in-amber feel. As much as “Subdivisions,” it is about the alienation and struggles of suburban teens. But how stark the difference in tone, and effect. “Subdivisions”’s power comes from simultaneously embedding us in the teen outcast’s drama and rising above it, to encompass the broader, suffocating Levittown pattern and “you are here” (and nowhere else) mall map: middle-class alientation as tragic fate. Despite “Kid Gloves”’s dark themes of scrums and bullying, the air of schoolyard naivete it captures so well never quite gives it space to breathe—except, that is, when Lifeson takes the gloves off to solo. Then again, maybe like “Analog Kid,” a more riff-centric rocker like “Kid Gloves” wants to take us back in another way: it feels weirdly nostalgic for “old Rush.” Maybe Peart’s warning here was at least partly self-referential, about the bare-knuckle infighting that had left the band producerless, and unsure about where to put the new fulcrum for their sound.

The importance of The Police to the band’s sound at this time can’t be overstated; it comes out particularly strong in the Police-inspired—almost Police-pastiche—“The Enemy Within.” But the whole record bears The Police’s fingerprints, and so it might be worth thinking a little about Lifeson’s style on Grace in relation to Andy Summers. It’s actually a pretty short step from “Vital Signs” to (leaping over Signals) the ska-infused “Enemy”: the staccato wank-wank-wank “Roxanne” chords punctuating a frenetic bass line and tight, static, Stewart Copeland-style beat. With Signals and GraceLifeson had definitely moved in Summers’s direction of muted mid-range ostinatos, arpeggios, repeat-note phrases, and a combination of shimmering/sustained and stacatto chords. And yet, there is nothing in The Police’s ouevre that sounds anything like “Red Sector A,” or the bridges and solos of any of the songs discussed—let alone the power-chord rocking that dominates sections of much of the material on Grace. Lifeson, more accustomed to playing a leading role (like everyone in this band), continued to give himself more liberty to move around; he was much more prone than Summers to announce his presence by altering his chord voicings and rhythmic patterns, to inflect his sustained chords with wah and flange, and, of course, to solo. (Even on the verses of “The Enemy Within,” each first chord Lifeson lets ring out; the other three he clips like a ska player. Would Summers have clipped all four chords? I think so.) In a 1984 interview with Free Music’s Andrew McNaughtan (retrieved from the website Power Windows), Lifeson cited Summers together with Midge and the Edge as guitarists he admired. His reason: “I think he [Summers] plays a really good role in that band. The guitar is just where it should be.” Fitting words to close with, this sense of Lifeson trying to find the place “where the guitar should be.” Perhaps that is what makes this period of his playing, and this period in the band’s history, so rich: as he (and really the whole band) retreated from the shoulder-jostling virtuosity on which they had cut their teeth and made their name, they were all working to find where they should be relative to each other; and this tension—this pressure—in Lifeson’s case between soloing and accompanying, and what that would sound like circa 1982-4, created a sort of musical estuary: the border between river and sea that teems with creation.

*

There is a wonderfully comic moment in Beyond the Lighted Stage where a woman recognizes Geddy Lee in a diner and asks him for his autograph. Lifeson is with him at the table; Lee stammers something like, “He’s in the band, too.” But the woman keeps gushing about Lee. The exchange speaks to something every fan sort of knows: Lifeson is the underdog. He is the least recognized, and (arguably) the least accomplished member of the band—the least likely to be voted onto one of those rock “best” lists. The competition was always stiffer in the guitar category. For bass and drums, the pantheons remained relatively stable, even stagnant. But rock, a guitar-driven genre for at least its first few decades, used to squeeze out a bushel of new guitar virtuosos every year, with every year marking new milestones in speed and technique. As a professor of mine once memorably imagined it, riffing on Emerson’s critique of talent: they pushed their elephantine testicles around in a wheelbarrow.

Lifeson was thus pressured to play the role of jester among kings; and, happily for him, it suited his personality. He may indeed be (as the band notes) the funniest man alive; he certainly comes across that way in interviews. It may be a reason the band’s chemistry worked for as long as it did. Another dour Peart, another workaholic Lee, would surely have broken them—never mind some testicles-in-the-wheelbarrow, arpeggio-perspiring Yngwieite. But from a technical standpoint, it also means that Lifeson was never taken as seriously as a musician. He’s written some marvelous songs, some wonderful chord progressions, some indelible riffs. But because it’s Rush, he’s expected to excel as a soloist as well, to be a putative virtuoso in his own right. It’s part of the band’s image and mystique, which McDonald suggestively compares to the integrated competitiveness of a string quartet. Of course, one can be a great guitarist without being a virtuoso in the narrow, classical sense.†† But not in a band like Rush.

Maybe a year or two after I started taking private guitar lessons, I brought A Farewell to Kings to my lesson and played my teacher the solo from the title track. The lessons were always structured so that third first two-thirds or so we worked on sight reading, theory, chords, and so on, and the last ten minutes or so were dedicated to stuff we brought in—the sugar to the help the medicine go down. And so these poor martyrs to the Vanhalenization of the suburbs were reduced to trying to figure out crappy rock riffs and solos for their teenage would-be jukebox heroes, so that the parents paying for the lessons wouldn’t come in and give the studio’s proprietor an earful about how disappointed their kid was, the studio would remain solvent, and the teachers would remain gainfully employed, or at least as gainfully employed as was possible for those dedicated to pursuing a career in music. Sad but true: when my original teacher left, my new teacher proved uninterested in helping me figure out the latest Iron Maiden solo, and I didn’t last very long after that. I thought he was sort of an asshole, but I probably should have spent more time looking in the mirror.

Anyway, I can’t say that Matt, my first teacher, had it all bad. He was the guy who introduced me to DiMeola and Holdsworth and McLaughlin (“You want fast?”). He introduced me to Jeff Beck, too, and he wrote out the chord progression to McLaughlin’s “Thousand Island Park.” We learned Steve Howe’s “The Clap” together—I can’t imagine that wasn’t fun for him—and DiMeola’s “Vertigo Shadow,” one of the master’s finest early-eighties acoustic compositions. He planted in me the seed of Wes Montgomery. He was the guy who pushed me, chided me, when I brought stuff in that I should be able to figure out myself. And he was right: it was easy, if I just leaned in and listened.

And when I played him the solo from “A Farewell to Kings,” he said just one word under his breath: “Sloppy.” I asked him what he had said. He said he hadn’t said anything. But we were both pretending. It’s what Mako says to Chuck Norris in An Eye for an Eye, after he knocks out some Bad Guy with a telephone. Sloppy.

If I’ve never forgotten that sotto voce takedown, it’s probably because I’ve always wondered if my lionizing of Lifeson was warranted; if what I really liked was the band, and my liking for the band prompted me to inflate his ability. And then maybe the fact that I liked the band so much prompted me to inflate all of them. And if it’s easy enough to harbor such doubts about our greatest infatuations, it is particularly easy with a band like Rush, about whom so many rock writers, and later so many of my peers, would tell me over and over that they (Rush) were among such childish things it would be best for me to put away. Of course, as Deena Weinstein wrote long ago about metal, the idea of being part of a beset minority is just the sort of thing that nurtures hardcore fandom. (Come to think of it, it might be this as much as musical affinities—the idea of being part of an oppressed, frenziedly devout minority—that accounts for the significant overlaps between the audiences for Rush and heavy metal.) If Rush is already a cultural underdog—and the band certainly cultivated this image with a virtuosity that outpaced even their musicianship—then Lifeson is the underdogs’ underdog, about whom I must double down on my devotion.

And so the constant argument with myself. No, Helldriver, Lifeson never quite reached the level of maturity as a composer that Summers did on that haunting, ethereal accompaniment to “Spirits in the Material World.” (But neither did Summers, before or again. Sometimes one song, like a short story, has an incandescence the author never touches again. This is cause for celebration, not despair.) Lifeson’s chording was never as sophisticated as Jimmy Page’s, nor was he so adventurous about exploring different styles and sounds. (But then why should that be the marker of greatness. I do not ask this of many of my favorite writers, like Genet or (Flannery) O’Connor or (Cormac) McCarthy. Their own voices are enough.) Lifeson never quite constructed a solo as beautiful as some of David Gilmour’s. (But then

It’s little silly, isn’t it, these who-is-greater rankings? Like browser clickbait creeping into the workings of our aesthetic consciousness. Maybe this paean to the underdogs’ underdog is just another attempt to shore up my faith. But let me be at least a little charitable, with both Mr. Lifeson and myself: an attempt to give the underdog his due, by shedding a little light (I hope) on a moment in his career that, to my mind at least, has been inadequately considered, and too-scantly praised. There’s a lot more going on here than “he’s louder in the mix”; rather, there is a full-scale reinvention of his playing. The distance Lifeson traveled, the ways he responded to the currents of his time and his fellow musicians, his bandmates first and foremost: these things seems to me like the essence of conscious musicianship, of conscious artistry.

Anyway, if I can’t speak about this in aesthetic terms, I have little desire to speak about it at all. The frustrating thing about the social-science turn in the humanities is that it has constricted and even eroded our language for talking about aesthetic experience, or at least for doing so in ways that are not immediately judged as naïve, often in the mind of the very person going out on a linguistic limb to say them. It’s a good thing, of course, to be conscious of the limits and blindnesses of our ingrained language. Then again, as Scott Burnham as noted, we may simply not have a language adequate to really say what music does; the social sciences have simply rushed in to fill the discursive vacuum. In doing so they have tended to disenchant the experience. We second guess our response to everything; the very language we would use to try to describe it is continually pulled away from us; and all the while, the music remains that something “out there” our academic writing can’t touch. Somehow, our language to speak about music must re-enchant the experience. It cannot be the language of besotted fandom. But it has to, through a trick of consciousness, double back on that experience if we are to have any hope of understanding it, not in terms of the arid language of ever-proliferating mediation, but as the soul-enriching and transcendent experience of contact. There is a poetry out there somewhere that can do this; there is a language awaiting invention. Maybe this is why the language on this blog tends to go on and on, a continuing thrust and parry with—and perhaps dodging of—truth. I admire Coltrane for this very reason: he goes on and on and on because he can’t quite get there. I always listen to him with a slight but nagging disappointment which, in hindsight, becomes a weirdly hollow satisfaction. Then I want to listen again.

I never particularly resented the sound Rush adopted over the course of the ‘80s—I say this as a guitarist—though I do think their compositions lost quality toward the end of that decade. To my mind, as they tried so hard to color within the lines of the standard pop song (a worthy, though perhaps not noble, goal), the colors themselves lost vibrancy; the eccentricity of their sound, its rougher edges in all senses—time, timbre, melody—slowly disappeared. As their songwriting focus shifted from riff and instrumental counterpoint to vocal melodies and texture, the juxtapositions of their three voices, so much the meat of what I’d listened for—what, that is, I’d been culturally prepared to listen for—and the bizarre and wonderful vocal lines as Lee tried to wrap himself around Peart’s cerebralisms, mostly vanished. If I am an “old Rush” fan, I am so with this difference: I think some of the material on their poppiest, synth-heavy records stands comfortably with their best music up through Moving Pictures; it’s just fewer and farther between, a case of diminishing returns.

Such an assessment leads me back to the uncomfortable questions asked above. After all, one way to manage one’s fandom is to periodize it. I am the most statistically average Rush fan: a white, middle-class, male professional, and an amateur musician, born circa 1970 (1969, in my case). I was fifteen when Grace Under Pressure appeared. This steady disenchantment and sunsetting of my fandom over the latter half of the eighties: was it a coping mechanism? We seldom stop to think about the way our feelings for artists are caught up with our emotional responses at certain ages, let alone the way these responses are mediated, not just by the juggernaut of the pop-music industry, but by a variety of other cultural factors. This band, which for a time was everything to me, has shrunk over the years to occupy a small but significant place in my musical pantheon. Sometimes I listen to them the way I might look at a Disneyworld ride: less swept up in the world than admiring the craftsmanship. Other times I am caught off guard. (A strange expression to use about listening to music; for what is music for, if not to catch us off guard?) A song that never spoke to me thirty years ago might take on an unexpected resonance based on the way my taste has shifted since, and vice-versa with those songs that become the equivalents of things we wrap in gauze and put in the back of a dresser drawer, the ones I can only view through the lens of craft or the haze of nostalgia. I suppose we look at all youthful loves in a similar way. Maybe all human endeavor looks paltry in the pitiless gaze of hindsight. I am comfortable with the illusion of contact, if illusion it is—and I can’t know—and nobody can—and this is a terrible thing, isn’t it, this—if we are to be honest with ourselves, I mean—absolute and total lack of certainty. I am on the one hand unable to convince myself that my continuing love is just nostalgia, and on the other equally unable to convince myself that it is not; and this is true, to a greater or lesser degree, of all the music from that period in my life, an uncertainty exacerbated by the changing attitudes of the surrounding culture. “He can neither believe,” Hawthorne once wrote about Melville, “nor be comfortable in his unbelief.” I wonder if it has a name, this suspension between two equally-inaccessible peaks, both natural, inevitable, and yet unable to be joined, any more than two moments in time.

Maybe we each give it our own secret name. By writing it, I have decided to make mine public.

 

*  See Chris McDonald, Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class, p. 182. McDonald himself focuses less on keyboards than on “Rush’s [declining] emphasis on its original heavy metal and progressive influences,” noting that, so long as “Lee was actually playing chords and melodic figures on synthesizers with his own fingers, fans generally accepted the instrument’s role”; he contrasts this with the rise of “pre-sequenced patterns” beginning with Power Windows (1986), which clashed with fans’ “conservative” definition of musicianship. I think McDonald would agree that it is difficult to separate the infusion of keyboards from the bands and genres that influenced Rush at the time. Anyway, his point is well-taken.

†  That said, it is tempting to think teleologically: the band’s own well-publicized perception of its evolution, as well as Peart’s comments about their records working in cycles between “experimental” and “definitive” records, the “chapter” idea, with the fourth record in ever set serving as a coalescing statement for the period (2112, Moving PicturesHold Your Fire?). Then again, while Peart saw Grace Under Pressure as definitive, at least at the time, Popoff sees it as preparatory, the first glimmerings of their later ‘80s sound. It’s difficult in hindsight to see any record as definitive; they feel more like functions in Vladimir Propp’s morphology of folktales, each fitting into the next, logical only from the vantage point of the future links in the chain. (N.B.: I’m aware that “evolution” is a fan buzz-word, or “discursive mantra.” The term belongs to Matt Hills, from Fan Cultures; McDonald adopts it for his monograph on Rush. Where Rush is concerned, these “well-worn discursive mantras” (158) cite “the band’s integrity, its willingness to change and evolve” and their “down-to-earth attitudes” (159). More on the last of these below.)

‡  John J. Scheinbaum once observed that, for all its classical pretensions, progressive rock “is still a subgenre of rock,” one that “highlight[s] the tensions, frictions, and incompatibilities among these very different musical value systems [i.e., of classical and rock music]. The progressive rock repertory does not construct a synthesis at all, but instead occupies the spaces between the value systems” (in Progressive Rock Reconsidered, ed. Kevin Holm-Hudson, ps. 29-30). His observation might be applied to Rush’s incorporation of keys in the 80s, less synthesis than “occupying the spaces between the value systems,” in this case mediating their roots in prog- and hard rock with the accretion (and perhaps layering) of later influences and styles.

**  According to band history, or legend, inasmuch as we can distinguish one from the other, this is the song over which the band broke with longtime producer Terry Brown. It couldn’t have been the keys per se that got up Brown’s nose; “Digital Man” is one of the least keys-infused songs on the record. Was it the growing tendency toward a groove, which, for this band, had always been a bumpy, angular proposition? If it was the groove that threw Brown from the pommels of Rush’s horse, then why wasn’t the deal-breaker the eminently danceable “Weapon”? As Peart tells it, the band had been struggling with the song’s chorus, which they eventually resolved by hitting on a sequencer pattern everybody but Brown liked. Clearly the straw that broke the camel’s back, even if, as a rebellion against the band’s use of pre-recording, it can be seen as symbolic of a break with the whole direction the music was tending. Just as it is revealing to contrast Lifeson’s guitar on “Digital Man” with “Analog Kid,” so with sequencers as well: that wub-wub-wub moved from a brief transitional passage and outro to the very heart of the song.

Clearly the loss of their long-time producer after Signals, and then the trials of trying to find someone who would fit, was one of the “pressures” to which Grace Under Pressure alludes. From Lifeson’s perspective, we might say the band was looking for someone to restore the balance he felt had been lost—and “balance” is a term that weighs heavily in the band’s mythology (cf. the climactic lyric from “Hemispheres”: “We will call you Cygnus/ The god of balance you shall be”: who would this new Cygnus be?). It’s funny to contrast Peart’s writeup for the Grace Under Pressure tour book—in which Peter Henderson is lauded as the right man for the job—with later revelations that he was actually a disaster. The band was clearly used to a strong-willed producer, one who acted as a sort of fourth member; the long-term relationship with Brown had clearly enabled him to play that role. Henderson turned out to be a fine engineer but terrible producer, at least by these criteria, and the band was very much set adrift to make their own decisions. Lee was apparently as disappointed with Pressure and Lifeson was with Signals; he felt the guitar was too prevalent in the mix, which “smothered the record’s melodies” (qtd. in Popoff 112; my emphasis); and it may have been their experience with the singularly unhelpful Henderson that led to Lee’s long-range assessment of the band’s changing in the ‘80s from “players” to “producers.” (Somebody’s always smothering somebody; isn’t that the way of the world? Segue the lyrics to “The Trees.”) But if Henderson was a non-starter, I can’t help but thank him for the producerly vacuum that allowed Lifeson to come back to the fore, and blossom there. It reminds me a little of the production on P.J. Harvey’s first record, Dry: super bass-heavy; the drums sound like rattled cans; I can’t help but think some producers listen to it and think it sounds like shit. I mean, none of her later albums sound anything like that. But to my ear, it is absolutely, daringly perfect. Only such rare sonic catastrophes become masterpieces! By God, if it’s ever “remastered” I’ll storm the winter palace of Island Records. Fair warning.

††  I mean, isn’t that what those romantics-in-cynics’-clothes, the illuminati of the Rock Critical-Industrial Complex, are always telling us—that technique is a liability, a gag on the barbaric yawp? As has probably been clear from many a post on this blog, I have a bone to pick with the Rousseauvian school of rock criticism that equates authenticity and expressive capability with an absence of technique. I will desist from listing the Four Chief Fallacies of this position; this post has already gone on far, far, far, far, far too long. (Really, Helldriver? You? Really?) If you want to hear ‘em, post a comment that says, “Helldriver, DO share,” and I’ll be happy to oblige. Then we can argue about it. Or not.

By the way: “mantra” or no, I always found it refreshing that, in the teeth of an industry that valorizes self-promotion above all else, Rush always came across as pretty humble about their musicianship. I remember reading an interview with Lee many years ago where he said that if I wanted to hear a real bass player, I should listen to Jaco Pastorius. It wasn’t hard to take my guitar teacher’s advice about listening to fusion when he was echoing the bass player for my favorite band. It may leave a funny taste, coming from a rock star whose catalog is replete with look-at-me soloing. But at least it’s a positive message, one befitting the overall wholesomeness of the band’s image, so well captured in the controversial photo on the back of Grace Under Pressure: the conventional middle-class appeal, the themes of integrity and honesty and romantic individualism, the Protestant-work-ethic musicianship, the intellectual airs, the relative restraint of their proverbially rock-and-roll lifestyle. Maybe being a fan means an inability to fully divide that feeling of kinship from the rational understanding that it is part of a constructed public persona, the ability, that is, to bear that cognitive dissonance. The music should be enough, and yet it comes entangled in all these accessory media. Maybe this should be the goal of writing about music: to disentangle the one from the other, to undo this Gordian knot. No one has yet convinced me that, if we could undo the knot, there would be nothing else. And no one has yet convinced me the knot cannot be undone. The question is finding a language to help us cut through it, to the hidden heart.

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.

“Footprints”

Jazz music thrives on the tension between composition and improvisation, the planned and the spontaneous. As a listener, depending on the song, or on my mood, or on just about anything, really, I might find myself listing away from the latter and toward the former, impatient with whomever happens to be soloing, anticipating the ever-prodigal melody. There are a few albums that stand out in this regard—albums where the tunes are so strong, or their arrangements are so interesting, that the solos become an extended tease. Jackie McLean’s Jackie’s Bag immediately jumps to mind; so does Wayne Shorter’s Adam’s Apple.

Shorter is a well-recognized composer, and “Footprints” is among his best-known compositions, so I’m hardly going out on a limb by singling it out. But I want to focus here not on the song as a whole, but on the way each section of the melody resolves, or rather fails to resolve, and attempt to analyze how this feeling of suspension is achieved.

The key word here is attempt. Because, honey, I don’t do this sort of thing very often. But “Footprints” is low-hanging fruit, and as Shorter’s album title suggests, I am a victim of temptation. True, I don’t approach the Tree of Shorter entirely naked … but nearly so, armed only with my Harry Dexter’s Harmony-Theory Pocket Book (in which I never made it to the harmony section), and the tatters of know-how that still cling to me from my years of guitar lessons.

In an effort to commit as few glaring errors as possible, I also did some cursory internet research and read the album liner notes. Was that a muffled scream I heard from the librarians? Well, some of the finest writing about music can still be found on the fungusy backs of records, and in those little booklets you get with the now-vanishing media called compact discs. This time, though, the notes didn’t help much. They label “Footprints” a blues in 6:8; one of my internet sources calls it 3:4; to me, that’s six of one and a half-dozen of the other. (Actually, I agree with the liner notes.) They also note that the version Shorter recorded with Miles a year later (on Miles Smiles), actually the first version I heard, “recast the rhythmic terrain.” Then they compare Herbie Hancock’s playing on Adam’s Apple to the John Coltrane quartet. But nothing about that beautiful, tantalizing, troubling cluster of notes and times that haunts me on each listen, and that I am desperate to understand. So let me do what I can, stepping as carefully as I can, making sure to overcomplicate matters wherever I can, as all academics have a duty to do, particularly when one is outside one’s field, or when one doesn’t have a field, as is my case, creative writing being less a discipline than an excuse.

*

“Footprints” begins with four bars for the rhythm section, in each of which the bass and left hand of the piano (that is, Reggie Workman’s two hands and Herbie Hancock’s left one) play an ascending C minor arpeggio: four evenly-spaced notes ending on the minor third (C-G-C-E flat). After holding the E flat for two beats, the piano repeats the tonic on the last beat of the measure, although higher up on the keyboard. The fact that the third (the E flat) lands on the accented fourth beat brings it into relief, as does the time lavished upon it. In this regard, the tonic feels almost like an afterthought, or a foretaste of the next go-round: that clipped high C is really the first note in a skip down to the opening low C of the arpeggio (C-G-C). In addition, Hancock anticipates the E flat by half a beat with a chord, which, although not entirely penetrable to my ear, seems to include a B flat and a D. It is the D which most interests me: a half-step from that heavily-accented E flat, and arriving a half-beat before it, lodged between the tonic and third of the C minor, the D sets up a sort of oscillation in pitch and rhythm that Shorter’s horn will shortly (sorry) recapitulate, and extrapolate upon. Drummer Joe Chambers also has a role in creating this tension: he sometimes accents the fourth beat, sometimes the half-beat before it, with a strike to the high hat or a cymbal.

Shorter comes in at the beginning of the fifth bar. The A natural in the melody flavors the C minor with a major sixth (which, if I remember correctly, is a legit note in the so-called “jazz minor” scale, and according to Mr Dexter, in the ascending melodic minor … which may be the same thing). Or, if you prefer the relative major, the A natural is a sharped fourth—surely what lends the melody its air of loafing intrigue. The rather insistent A natural, however, suggests that the tune is not in C minor (or E flat major), but rather G minor (or B flat major). Again, what strikes me here is the D, which is where the horn pauses, like Hancock’s chord, before coming to rest on another clipped C. The D-C figure is repeated three times in the first part of the melody, twice in the more extended (and A natural-heavy) second, always with the accent on the sustained D. Rhythmically, Shorter also fiddles with the half-beat discrepancy. The first time he plays the figure, he tends to reach the D at the same time as the bass reaches the E flat, and then anticipates the beat on each repetition. And he loiters there, as if to idly threaten the harmonic terrain around the bass’s E flat. Perhaps the combined tension-resolution I hear is a war of thirds: the D is the third of B flat major, the key of the melody, and the E flat is the third of C minor (the second chord in the harmonized B flat major scale), where the bass remains for six of the opening eight bars of the melody. Interestingly, had Shorter chosen an E flat instead of a D, the melody would sound much more like a traditional blues, clearly walking down a well-trodden C minor pentatonic. But the A natural throws a wrench into this; the D becomes a natural pausing place.

The third part of the melody is interesting for the way it flirts with a new key (although I guess no moreso than the bridge of “Rhythm” changes): a G major triad precedes the reintroduction of the B flat; and, after an exhilirating perfect-fourth leap, the melody slinks down chromatically to an F, which fades from the horn without returning to the D … at least, until the head is played through a second time.

Things get a lot weirder this second time around. First, Shorter adds a trill—one YouTube guitarist who demonstrates the tune nicely calls it a “flutter”—at the end of each of the three parts of the melody. The horn, then, takes up that oscillation between the E flat and D, between bass and piano, between Hancock’s left and right hands, reinforcing the half-step quiver in the melody. Second, and even more thrilling, is the appearance of another trill at the same moment, but lower, quieter. It can only be the piano, but sounds more like a phantom string section. It creates a sort of aura around Shorter’s trill. But it is too entangled with the concurrent sounds for me to fully distinguish it; to the best of my ability, it sounds like a trill between B flat and B natural. Whatever it is, it reinforces and multiplies the overall feeling of hazy suspension.

Finally, in the second time through the third part of the melody, Shorter does not let the F fade, but returns, as if compulsively, to the D-C figure.

*

I didn’t take my school’s equivalent of Philosophy 101 until my senior year, and when I remember this I can’t help but sympathize with those students of mine who manage to avoid taking Expository Writing until their graduating semester. In my case it was partly because I spent two years as a physics major, and after making the switch to the humanities, I found myself with all sorts of new requirements to fulfill. In philosophy we read Plato, and Spinoza, and Hume, and William James’s Pragmatism. I remember running into the professor on the upper quad one day and walking with him, telling him that had I taken his class in my first year rather than my last, I might have ended up a philosophy major. He took this in good humor, though I doubt he believed me.

In one class, the professor said something to the effect that, while neurochemists could tell us that “love” is what happens when neuron A is excited, and in turn excites neuron B, etc., from a philosopher’s standpoint they would have told us absolutely nothing about love. In hindsight it seems like a somewhat facile point. But it is also a point I probably needed to hear, and hear when I did. And not just me: Here was a university stuffed full of proto-scientists and engineers. We were besotted with the scientific worldview; I doubt that many of us ever raised our heads from our textbooks to consider the ramifications of what we were studying, or the alternatives. By my senior year, my humanistic consciousness, that radically different armature for coming to terms with the world, was just beginning to develop. Probably this is why the idea stayed with me, why I chewed it over for years after that lecture, resisted it, came to terms with it, repressed it, resisted it anew, and on and on.

The connection to this post is probably obvious. I can analyze the music, or attempt to analyze it. Quite possibly what is happening at this moment of “Footprints” is not so theoretically marvelous as I take it to be. But were I to be enlightened, I doubt it would change the way my ear perceives that cluster of notes, timbres and rhythms, all of them slightly off from each other, vibrating in ecstatic equipoise. The transcribed notes, and the card-house of intervals they momentarily erect, cannot reproduce the act of listening (although I am aware that many trained musicians can “hear” a piece by reading a score), any more than these ridiculous little grey marks on the screen in front of you can resurrect that experience.

A colleague of mine likes to goad me by saying that writing about music is impossible. Impossible it’s not, but pointless it may well be. One feels that “about” very keenly: the words circle the music, never landing. By the time I finish a post, the music has receded, the words have risen like a tide to swallow it, and all I can do is close the lid of my computer and go put on a record.