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Celebrating Vio-lence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Domenico in the Heart

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

*

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

 Quasi una fantasia, por favore

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

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

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

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

 “La que sigue se debe tañer primero”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ceilings of the Alcázar

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appoggiatura

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

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

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

An original & happy freak

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here endeth the lesson!

Krell music?

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

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

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

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

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

Hors d’oeuvres with your Alban Burger

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

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

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

Domenico in the heart

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

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

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

Here ends my grotesque imitation of Farinelli.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Acknowledgments

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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 Waves and, 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, 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, ensconced 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 than the slow accretion of traits 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 the 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, 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, particularly unjust where Rush is concerned.) 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 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 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,” “The Trees” 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 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 the 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 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; 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 atmosphere. 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 developing 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 (in the jazz sense of the 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; 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. Here, 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 false-harmonics squiggle 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 Grace Lifeson 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 oeuvre 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. 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 claims) 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 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 the 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 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. Or was it Sting? 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 breadth 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? 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: it is 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.” 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 seem to me 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 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 famously 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. In fact, his whole book 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 every 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. (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.

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.

The Unwearable Leatherness of Loverboy

Consider, if you will, the heartbreaking immortality of Loverboy.

The catastrophic pathos of Loverboy.

Of being Loverboy in 2018. Of having been Loverboy for forty years.

Tennis thugs gesquozen into corsets of red leather, festooned with bandannas.

I set myself the absurd task of writing a thousand words about Loverboy. I quickly realized the only way to succeed was by negation.

Even brute Ajax had his fanboy in Ovid. But who will sing the praises of Loverboy? No one. So I will write the epic of Loverboy as an epic of negation, the only such record that can ever be made, adopting the voice of Odysseus taunting Polyphemus. (N.B.: Ovid distrusted sly Ulysses.)

I understand this mockery is directed at a monster who, even in his boulder-hurling tantrum, the high drama of his anguish, is really an actor only as big as the one playing Odysseus, which is why they can never appear together in the same frame, except via trick photography. Stardom works this way. We can only cut such monsters down to size via Odysseian wiles. Force them into the frame with us, as it were. Look them in the eye.

*

No thirteen-year-old’s infatuation with rock music will ever be predicated on first hearing Loverboy. Loverboy will never be anybody’s favorite band, not even their second- or third-favorite band, not even for a few weeks in early adolescence. No high schoolers past, present or future will ever cover their spiral-bound notebooks with Loverboy’s logo. No high-school senior will ever sum up their wonderful four years at Fort Something-or-Other High by quoting Loverboy under their yearbook picture. Nobody will ever come to a memorable climax in the backseat of their father’s car to a Loverboy song on the radio, etc. No girls will ever be knocked up to Loverboy; if they were, every baby so conceived would be aborted or miscarried; were any such child ever to be born, it would be left to die of exposure, or to be eaten by bears and/or jackals. No tobacco products will ever be consumed in post-coital lethargy to any ballads, power or otherwise, written by Loverboy. No one will play Loverboy at their wedding, not even for the strangely incestuous ritual of the Dance of the Father with the Bride; and no wedding band will ever include Loverboy in their repertoire. No groupies will reminisce about one-night stands with the members (ha!) of Loverboy, except as a blip between Darryl Hall and John Oates, or after sleeping with that really ugly dude from REO Speedwagon. Nobody will ever fondle him- or herself to frame-by-frame images from a Loverboy video. No animals will ever be harmed in the making of a Loverboy video, except those previously harmed in making their gratuitous leather wardrobes. No classic rock stations will endlessly loop Loverboy’s hits, except by some error in the algorithm according to which said rock station playlists are statistically constructed. No one will ever call in to request a Loverboy song; if they did, no DJ in their right mind will ever deign to play it. No rock stars will point to a Loverboy performance for the epiphany for their choice of careers. No rock stars will tearfully recount the importance of Loverboy to their artistic development during their induction ceremony into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, just as no bands will ever dress up as Loverboy to commemorate the latter’s induction. No rock critics will pause to recognize Loverboy. Nobody will go to the mat, so to speak, in defense of Loverboy’s contribution to the rock canon. There will never be a VH-1 retrospective devoted to Loverboy, nor a classic rock, leather apparel, or what-the-fuck-were-the-80s-anyway documentary that includes a clip from Loverboy, no matter how brief, or seeks an exclusive interview, unless said documentary is focused specifically on: Canada; Alberta; Calgary; or Uncle Fucker. No musicologists will find significance, musical, cultural, or other, in anything related to Loverboy. No one will call Loverboy the voice of the decade, except to deride the decade in question.  Millions of thumbs with flip by millions of Loverboy records in used record bins without pausing, first in the two-dollar bin, then in the dollar bin, the fifty-cent bin outside the store, the please-take-this-it’s-free bin, the dumpster. Yea, even at garage sales and flea markets, Loverboy’s albums will be passed over. No fashion designers will ever look to Loverboy for sartorial inspiration, not even those who devise the Halloween costumes sold at 99-cent stores, or the track suits for expensive Manhattan gyms whose clientele have an overdeveloped sense of irony. No one will proudly wear their old, torn, and/or faded Loverboy shirt to work, not even in jest. There will be no auctions in which Mike Reno’s nalgas-hugging red leather pants fetch obscene amounts of money, unless they are unearthed by a future civilization (cf. Belloq’s quip to Indiana Jones: “Who knows, in a thousand years even you might be worth something!”). No one will bid on a T-shirt from the band’s first headlining North American tour on Ebay, except ironically (cf. Eddie Murphy’s joke about white people voting for a black president). The singer and/or guitarist for Loverboy will never perform stool-bound acoustic versions of their hits at clubs founded by other washed-up rockers of their generation while their one-time fans munch pasta and drink Zinfandels and text their kids’ babysitters. No one will ever wish a Loverboy fan club had existed, or regret its demise. Loverboy will never appear in any rock festivals, except those driven and derided by nostalgia (e.g., the M3 festival, its “nine years of rock moments” suggesting said festival is already running on nostalgia about nostalgia, a perfect recycling of cultural energy), which is to say, all of them. None of Loverboy’s 232,000 Facebook followers will actually join them on the “80s Cruise,” for if even a tiny fraction of them did, the 70,000-ton vessel would explode, capsize, and then sink under the ballasted ordnance of their nostalgia. No charitable organizations will be founded by members or ex-members of Loverboy, not even anonymously; nor will members ever be included in telethons or pledge drives for public radio or TV stations. There will be no Loverboy tribute bands, except those from the most depressed neighborhoods of Tokyo: they will be villified by their own people; yea, their very neighbors will smite them. There will be no reality TV stints for members of Loverboy, except on satellite stations broadcasting from untraceable locations, encrypted to appear as though they emanated from Pittsburgh. No one will ghost-write Loverboy’s tell-all band biography, because no one would ever buy it, or could be imagined buying it; or, could they be imagined buying it, be imagined reading it, as all those who might be imagined reading it are functionally illiterate. Loverboy will never be the subject of scandals with superannuated supermodels, child pornographers killed in Amtrak derailments, grope-happy Hollywood producers, or on-line poker enthusiasts. The passing of Loverboy’s drummer will not be announced on Yahoo, etc., unless it involves mass shooting, white slavery, aspirated vomit, or all of the above. Loverboy’s Wikipedia page will contain no scholarly citations, rather it will be larded with warnings about a lack of credible sources: Loverboy will remain a spurious, apocryphal band. No one will ever understand how Loverboy came to have three multiplatinum albums, or to be one of the top five touring rock acts of all time, except when considered in the light of other absurd commercial phenomena, such as pet rocks and Beanie Babies. No one under forty-five will ever know who Loverboy is, except through a needle’s-eye afterlife of micro-cultural references on TV sitcoms and video games. No one will ever begin a discourse about Loverboy with the words, “Actually, they were pretty good.” As they will not die a natural death, and as their fans will continue to feast on the congealed blood of their own and each other’s nostalgia, they will have to be clubbed to death by nameless hordes of sadistic bloggers. No one will hum “Workin’ for the Weekend,” “Lucky Ones,” and “Turn Me Loose” endlessly as they blog about Loverboy, as I am doing right now, as I have been doing since I started writing this post, endlessly, helplessly, to the point of desperation and hampered sanity, writing, writing, trying to kill the Loverboy within me.

AIAI, Loverboy! And alas, Helldriver!

Flesh Against Steel

Carcass’s Surgical Steel is one of the best metal records of the century.

Man, it feels good to say that. So good, in fact, that I fret I am being too conservative. Instead, I should go the whole hog, and proclaim Surgical Steel one of the great metal albums of all time … ignoring the inconvenient fact that metal has only been around for the tiniest sliver of recorded time, let alone all time. In fact, were the entire history of the human species, represented by a hair’s breadth at the end of the 360-foot-long Cosmic Pathway at the American Museum of Natural History, expanded to cover the distance of the entire Cosmic Pathway, the history of rock music would amount to just ten times that—the breadth of ten hairs!*

Of course, this should hardly make rock feel small, or metal smaller, since Beethoven, Petrarch, and even Homer don’t do noticeably better measured against deep time. So let’s drop all time and get back to the quasi-human scale.

Once upon a time, in the latter days of the twentieth century, you were only allowed to speak in the arbitrary shorthand of decades—“the greatest albums of the nineties,” “the indispensible records of the seventies,” and so on. And in the first decade of the twenty-first, you couldn’t claim anything was the “best of the century” without tongue firmly in cheek. You could, of course, more circumspectly call something “the first great record of the twenty-first century,” as though you were starting a collection of the New Century’s Great Things, and you had just gotten to put your first shiny new Great Thing in your Great Things Box, while simultaneously jettisoning everything that came before.

We are, however, living in the latter half of the second decade of this new century. Why shrink back under the flaccid umbrella of decades, and, using the much-too-silly rubrics of the “oughties” or “teenies,” pick yet another list of best albums to match yours for the nineties et al.? Why, when you have a whole new century at your disposal, and sixteen years of it behind you? Indeed, what could be more sublimely brash, more brilliantly arrogant, than sweeping judgments about a century whose second half you will never even “see,” except maybe as a pickled head, or a microchip onto which your “brain” has been downloaded?

This is a golden window, my friends. An opportunity not to be missed. Think about it: in 2019, the fiftieth anniversary of Black Sabbath will poison any best-of-new-century claims regarding metal, because everything will have to be considered in terms of metal’s hemi-centennial. By 2030, everyone will have forgotten about Y2K (huh?) and how it felt when the millennial odometer switched from 1-9-9-9 to 2-0-0-0. Then, as the century rolls forward toward 2050 (gasp!), and we approach rock’s first centenary, all new records of whatever genre will be measured against Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, The Beatles, Stones and Who—not Judas Priest, not Metallica; certainly not Cradle of Filth.

Ergo. It’s of the utmost importance to squeeze in the most grandiose claims you can about your favorite new metal records in the next two years or so, before the inexorable march of generic time renders them obsolete.

*

Having placed Surgical Steel in one corner of my Great Things of the New Century box, the time has come to admire it. Go ahead, pick it up. Turn it in the light; run your thumb along its edge.

Ah, but Carcass is anything but a new band, or any sort of flagship for a rising genre in a new century. They’re old hat. Vintage. Okay, putrescent.§ We should talk about this.

Where metal is concerned, a few spots in my Great Things box must be reserved for so-called “comeback” records. Metal, after all, is a comeback genre. 1995, as Carcass frontman Jeff Walker declared at the band’s Gramercy Theater show last August, was “the year metal died.” (An exaggeration; but then such a tendency to mythologize is the very stuff of metal.) While emerging genres fed on its rejuvenating remains, metal was recouping its un-dead energies by feeding on the blood of those genres (how insidious, pilfering the necrophage graverobber!), as well as the flesh and bones of dead ones … including its own (how repulsive, this necrophagy-as-autophagy, this masturbatory cannibalism!). If Simon Reynolds is correct that popular culture in the new century has been played entirely in “the key of re-” (to use my old lit theory prof Henry Staten’s mnemonic for the postmodern), the re-surgence of metal was inevitable—not simply because everything comes back, but because the conservatism and tradition-worship for which the genre has been both lauded and criticized would, in the context of today’s cultural retro-faddism, suddenly seem dorkily avant-garde (or arriere-garde, as Reynolds quips).

Of course, valorizing the intrageneric past is only one part of the equation; the other parts—a scissors-and-paste attitude toward the past-as-text, and the ironic distance that accompanies it—have traditionally sat less easily with the genre. But then metal is a different genre today than it was twenty years ago, and the past is a different past: less a series of begats than an amorphous blob which, Reynolds cautions us, threatens to gobble up the present … and future.

Regardless, as a new generation of fans has taken advantage of the opportunity to explore metal’s back catalogs, so they have provided the opportunity for a number of older bands to reboot their careers. Metalographer Ian Christe traces metal’s return to the Black Sabbath reunion at the end of last century. The reappearance of some of the more successful extreme metal acts from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, however, probably owes more to the galvanic shock provided by the thrash revival that peaked in the mid-to-late oughts. That the window of the revival appears to be closed† (occasional drafts notwithstanding) has hardly deterred a resurgent old guard from continuing to release records and/or tour with a relentlessness reminiscent of their peak years.

Among comeback records, Surgical Steel is something of an anomaly, and not only because it arrived so late in the game, after much hemming and hawing on the band’s part. With few exceptions (e.g., Anthrax’s Worship Music), comeback records tend to carry a whiff of formaldehyde, some faint, some strong enough to knock you down. And the revival stuff, good as it sometimes gets (Municipal Waste’s Hazardous Mutation and Art of Partying are probably the most lasting), still can’t help smelling a bit like something just taken out of the shrinkwrap. But Steel is all fresh maggotry: evidence of flesh well-ripened, as though the band were waiting, like forensic entomologists, to see what exactly would crawl out of their putrid hearts and jellied brains after almost two decades of delicious decay.

As much a mystery is why it landed in my lap, because this old-fart metalhead/one-time Fangoria intern never listened to Carcass in their gorelicious heyday. Even though my interest in underground metal peaked just as Carcass were appearing, they never made it onto my radar. Then, when Metallica shat themselves and the genre blew itself into shrapnel, I—like so many of the faithless in that apostate time—moved on: greedily lapping up Pantera and the occasional strong offering from Slayer and Testament, but otherwise listening to grunge and Tool and other Lollapalooza-sanctioned alt-musics, when I was listening to new rock at all. The deathiest I ever got was “cusp” bands like Demolition Hammer, and a few Deicide songs on a mix.

“What is the sword compared to the hand that wields it?” James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom.

But such is the logic of the retro-century that Carcass and I would cross paths in our respective middle ages. I bought Steel on a whim, mostly because I saw it on somebody’s year-end best-of list (year, as opposed to decade, century, or planetary lifespan): somebody with more time, energy, new-music ADD, and/or record-industry freebies than I’ve ever had or wanted. And it was the great strength of Steel that hurtled me headlong into the flesh of early Carcass, as though to test Thulsa Doom’s great axiom, “Steel is strong; but flesh is stronger.” And if such a counter-temporal history feels twisted, I wonder how twisted it really is, in this age when so much old music is so readily available, when crowds at metal shows tend to run the gamut of generations, and when chronology, history, and to a certain extent community have been replaced by business-dominated algorithms of marketing and consumption. What follows, then, is partly about Carcass, yes; but it is as much about this Borgesian encounter with a parallel musical past, and what such retroactive discoveries mean for the way we hear and value music.

*

Seeing Carcass at the Gramercy last August was anything but a typical clubgoing experience for me. In general, for the much-loved older bands I go see in their various reunited and resurrected guises, I can put on the thousand-yard stare and talk with other old fans about having been in The Shit (= the pit at the old L’amours) back in The Eighties (= the decade which is to metal what the ‘60s is to rock as a whole; in the terms of the old Scholastic Aptitude Test, rock:’60s::metal:’80s). This is true even when part of the bill is occupied, as it so often is, and was, by a band or bands whose music I know/knew only tangentially—songs on a mixed tape someone made for me, or songs that got radio play on the college metal station WSOU (Jer-sey!), or even a video.

Given my age, then, I should have been the old Carcass fan getting his new live Carcass fix. This would have been the assumption made by most people seeing me, bald and Voivod-T’d. But by actual knowledge of the band, I was much closer to the people there half my age, whose contact with the older material would more likely be mediated by the “comeback” record. But then again, I would not hear Carcass like they did, since my formative experiences with the genre would have been much closer to those of the people there twice their age. A weird, twinned position to occupy, like I’d been split it two, but belonged nowhere: to both “halves” of the crowd, I was a fraud, a … poseur.

And yet. Still and all? It’s nice to see the good people of the kingdom of metal, even when you feel like something of an exile.

The Gramercy show was at least Carcass’s third time in the U.S. since Steel’s release. St. Vitus had sold out, as usual, and the second time around they had skipped New York. This tour, dubbed “One Foot in the Grave,” was supported by younger’uns Ghoul and Night Demon, and old-schoolers Crowbar. Jesus, Crowbar! Even they were closer to me than Carcass, if barely; I remembered a few sludgy tunes from back in the day, and pictures of a girthy man in big shorts and high-tops. And there he was! the girthy man of my youth, just grayer and maybe balder, with a second girthy man right beside him, as though from meiosis, both of them sporting Duck Dynasty beards (I know, too easy) and stomping around the stage like Japanese movie monsters. They played exactly the sort of plodding, pummeling, tuned-down music for which I vaguely remembered them; a sort of literalization of their name, so that name, look, performance, and music all cohere and flatten around the same blunt-force ethos.

At the merch tables after the set—what with four bands, there was merch spillover into the lounge—I noticed that Crowbar’s frontman (Kirk Windstein) actually has a Crowbar tattoo on the back of his neck. The placement suggests he understands the connection between the back of his neck and mortality; for it is true that I could have told his age by counting the rolls there, like tree-rings. But then on a tour of fogeys dubbed One Foot in the Grave, headlined by a dis- and (fondly) re-membered band named Carcass, mortality is by default a central theme. All those stale jokes about getting old, for example: as metal ages, and the retro-generation gives more and more old bands the opportunity to re-enter the circle, such comments are bound to become as much part of a show as headbanging. Of course, this being metal, bands tend to dramatize aging’s effects on the body in a way I just can’t imagine, say, the Stones do. Windstein, for example, bitched about (a) baldness and (b) shitting himself (not that he had shit himself, but he figured it was coming down the pike). Later, Carcass’s Walker, to goad the crowd louder, used the old saw that his hearing wasn’t so good anymore. And when, after steaming through a raft of great new material, he announced that they were going back to the early ‘90s, he dubbed it “granddad music.”Ω Again, such feints to the vicissitudes of the flesh are of a piece not just with Carcass’s music, but the genre as a whole: since bones are reverenced and tradition venerated in metal in a way that always set it apart from many other rock genres (at least, used to)—since “dinosaur” means not “passe” but “awesome”—all such comments, while apparently self-deprecating, serve as backhanded appeals to authority, just as much as Crowbar’s announcement that they had been on the road for thirty-six years.

For all the digestive angst and inverse-ironic nods to aging, Carcass were pure presence. A convincing metal act has to appear larger than life—to find a language of the body consummate with the sublimity the music aspires to—and Carcass does this with an effortlessness few bands can match. While Crowbar leveled imaginary skyscrapers, each member of Carcass stayed rooted in his particular quadrant; rather than moving, he expanded to fill it. Walker, front and center, encircled his mic in classic bassist/vocalist horse-stance (think Lemmy, or Ron Royce of the old Swedish thrashers Coroner), pointing his axe at us now and again in emulation of Father (Steve) Harris. He even turned it upside-down, like a pistol in a Tarrantino movie. I only wondered at the fan that blew on him for the duration of the show, occasionally turning him into a travesty of Fabio, or a transvestite Pippy Longstocking. From the sublime to …

I spent as much or more time watching Steer (Steer! what choice did the man have but to become the guitarist in a band that would one day sing the horrors of the abattoir?), Carcass’s other founding half, thrashing away to Walker’s left. A Perpetual Thrashing Machine he was, and the perfect complement to Walker’s Colossal Pyramid. It wasn’t regulation headbanging, but rather that horse-head-swinging that even better communicates the abandon of the music: face obscured by his blond hair, shirt half-open, skinny arms working away … it is older and deeper than thrash, older even than metal, though for me it finds its iconic representation in my memory of Ozzy’s Jake E. Lee.

At one point during the show, Walker informed security that it was okay for people to take pictures. “We don’t wear corpse paint or make-up,” he said. On the one hand, the typical metal appeal to authenticity. And yet, what was Walker saying but we look our age? He might as well have quoted that old quatrain, “Remember me now …” for those younger fans looking into the mirror of the music.‡ There was neither the urge to cheat death nor to represent it as a mask.

To be death: that is a different thing. That is Carcass.

*

But art defeats death, time’s handmaiden, does it not? I could, and probably should, write about Carcass’s career backwards, beginning with Steel, which, in my inverted listening history, acts as a template for everything that came before it, with every other Carcass record refracted through it. After all, a comeback record is only a comeback record if one comes to it with the expectations created by earlier fandom. Perhaps this helps explains why Carcass felt so present to me at the Gramercy, beyond, that is, simply the mechanics of putting on a great show, and despite the plethora of icons through which I was helpless but to see them.

With the exception of Steel, though, my impression of each individual Carcass record is contaminated as much by the ones that followed as the ones previous. Versus the one-to-two year wait between records that generally characterizes a band’s output in their historical moment, I heard Carcass’s entire early ouevre for the first time almost concurrently, and without consideration as to their historical order. To me, though they are differently dated, they are all contemporary with each other, embedded together in a spatial matrix, like coffins in a graveyard. Or, to use a better (if less Carcassian) figure: a wheel, with Steel at the hub, and the earlier records at the ends of the spokes. As such, while acknowledging that Steel acts as my hidden lens, I could, like a good historian, re-impose chronology, try to trace causes and effects, untangle threads of development, and so on. Thus:

Listening to Carcass’s early records in chronological order is a little like watching silt settle in a pool. At first you can barely make out the objects beneath the surface; little by little they resolve themselves, until, by Heartwork (1993), they have achieved a pristine clarity. No, wait: I’ve fallen out of genre again. What on the early records sounds like a mess of undifferentiated organs—a sound that finds its visual analog in the collage that adorns Symphonies of Sickness’s (1989) record sleeve (the collage, that staple of metal record sleeves, which usually features pix of the band on stage, hanging out with friends, etc., shows instead mangled flesh and body parts: flesh-as-collage), becomes, with Necrotism (1991), autopsy and anatomy lesson. By Heartwork, the technologies of the body and of death, the body-as-machine and machine-as-body, have replaced gore as the band’s overarching metaphor, a shift captured in both tighter music and scrubbed production. From charnel house and churchyard to the dis-assembly lines of the pathology lab and abattoir, Carcass’s breakneck evolution reads like a history of Western attitudes toward death and the body. This is also evident in the albums’ cover art: from the cartoonish flesh-orgies of Reek and Sickness to Heartwork’s eerily bloodless conflation of the surgical, prosthetic, and anatomical. In this regard, Steel’s abandonment of the body for an aesthetic of the instrument, captured in its disturbingly devotional cover (pic above left), completes the trajectory begun in the late ‘80s—one reason, perhaps, that Steel is sometimes regarded as the long-deferred “true” follow-up to Heartwork, with Swansong (1995) indicative of the band’s—and the genre’s—demise.

How to define Carcass’s early sound? On Reek through Necrotism, gruelly and tinny on the high end, sludgy on the low; more grate than crunch, more Exodus or Megadeth than Metallica, yet much more tuned-down and unpolished than American thrash had deigned to be. Reek stands on the cusp of impenetrability, and even Sickness is in constant danger of slipping into its own murk. These first two records actually sound filthy, like the aural equivalent of trying to look at something through dirty glass. The vocals, which split thrash’s mid-range into the extremes of high-end hiss and incantatory guttural accompaniment, sound unnervingly close to an imagined black liturgy; at other times, like somebody retching—an absolutely nauseating sound. But to lump the two together is a disservice to Sickness, which expands Reek’s one-to-two minute blurts into three-to-five minute statements—and highly unpredictable statements at that, with shifting tempos and riffs metastasizing from riffs. The overall murkiness of production probably abets Sickness’s unstructured, chaotic feel, like the effect of poor light on a pattern: part bleeds into part, and recapitulations become difficult to recognize.

The eeriness and brutality of Sickness remain largely intact on Necrotism—vocally, in the guttural voice that shadows Walker’s, and in the ranting of Walker’s own, which obeys less a song’s rhythms than its own rabid logic; musically, in an even greater reliance on riff-metastasis and rhythmic instability. But Necrotism is a much more musical album than Sickness, balancing excess with greater precision (both instrumental and in terms of production), and expanding song structures into rambling suites that sometimes top the seven minute mark. They are full of false doors and non-endings; songs seem to be rising to a conclusion, with the (unexpected) re-introduction of an earlier theme, say—and then another riff will appear, another lead—the rhythm will shift a few times under said riff—and then, boom, the whole thing abruptly collapses. Thematic inventiveness and quasi una fantasia (oscura!) organization are not the only ways Necrotism broadens Sickness’s palette; there is also greater attention to texture and color: (brief) passages of undistorted guitar and effects-massaged production, and guitar harmonies redolent of the NWOBHM that Carcass had written off in the late ‘80s.

The shift from Necrotism to Heartwork is generally regarded as the most dramatic in the band’s history: a reversal of aesthetic priorities, a right-angle turn from the linear development of the first three records. Many of the songs are whittled to traditional verse-chorus-bridge structure, with introductory themes returning to fill one or another role. They also have more (and more obvious) hooks; this is a Carcass album you walk around humming. The tendrils reaching back to NWOBHM and thrash are more obvious; the sound is crunchier; and the guttural vocal accompaniment has disappeared. But as the words “more” and “many” in much of the above signal, the difference is—like the difference between Sickness and Necrotism—more one of degree than of kind. While overall slower and more controlled, Heartwork shares with its predecessor rhythmic flux (less intense, but present), athletic musicianship, and melodic inventiveness. Conversely, it is possible to see in Necrotism (if perhaps only through the lens of Heartwork) the beginnings of both a tighter melodic imagination and a more disciplined compositional style, the latter directed toward the development of a central theme rather than the willy-nilly appearance of new ones. Lesser bands have been undone in the attempt, and some greater ones as well: many of the bridges on an album as canonical as And Justice For All, for example—like Heartwork, a fourth effort—are dull precisely because Metallica seemed unable to vary or extend their central riffs imaginatively.

As noted, Swansong, while another step in Carcass’s evolution, is mostly a step backwards: the sound of a band in retreat. The lyrical subjects, so much outside Carcass’s typical obsession, sound weirdly incongruous with Walker’s vocal style; and some of the titles, at least, suggest, rather than the reckless fun of children rioting in an open cadaver (intestinal sandbox?), a tired ironizing of their earlier themes (e.g., “Keep On Rotting in the Free World”). Right from the opening arena-rock drum break, and, a few minutes later, the interjection of a cowbell—yes, cowbell—one gets the impression that this is Carcass fiddling while the genre burns. (It’s true that drum breaks are no stranger to Carcass; they go all the way back to Sickness. Perhaps, by analyzing each in turn, they might serve as a microcosm of the band’s development? Some other time, perhaps.) And while the tracks that bookend this record sound most like capitulations to the major-label powers-that-be courting some of the more successful extreme metal acts at that time, it is difficult not to generalize this feeling to the whole. With few exceptions, the record ambles along at a genial mid-tempo clip; little remains of the rhythmic variety or structural openness that gave the early records so much of their punch; songwriting and arrangements suggest a bit less the ‘80s influences that had crept into the band’s music beginning with Necrotism, a bit more ‘90s parallel afterlives (such as Rob Halford’s Fight) and ‘70s hard rock (and, in one happy instance, Sabbath). Even Steer’s solos sound watered-down, though perhaps only because he is attempting to infuse a blues-rock feel that was muted on the previous albums, to go, I presume, with the more streamlined sound.

That Swansong is sometimes regarded as a bloodless version of Heartwork points, once again, to the general consistency of Carcass’s oeuvre amid the differences. The album is certainly not without the occasional inventive bridge, strong melody, or heavy break. I want to be able to say that, if Carcass’s decadence is symbolized by Swansong’s cowbell, Surgical Steel doesn’t just get rid of the cowbell: it dismembers the very steer that rung it. But such a baby-and-bathwater take on Steel is simply incorrect. If it is indeed the album that redeems Swansong, and so Carcass’s recording history, it does so, at least partly, through inspired imitation. Particularly for the listener time-warping back from the future, some of the best material on Swansong is highly “reminiscent” of Surgical Steel, as though drafts for ideas that would come to fruition on that record. Walker has noted that Swansong represents only part of the original seventeen tracks written at the time (seventeen tracks, seventeen years: numerologists, take note!), and has claimed that some of the material not recorded for Swansong was stronger than what ended up on that record. Given the clear parallels, I can’t help but wonder to what extent Steel represents a reworking of unrecorded material from that time … and so even more that true, missing fifth album that 1995, “the year metal died,” left Carcass fans craving.

*

Considered thus summarily, the pace at which Carcass evolved (or devolved, depending on your perspective) over their original seven-year run is startling. They are generally credited with helping found two sub-subgenres: goregrind (a subset of grindcore featuring gory lyrics, often replete with medical terminology; see my “Thesaurus Metal,” 9.4.10) with their debut and sophomore efforts, and the seemingly oxymoronic melodic death metal (an offshoot of death metal with more pared-back song structures and hookier themes reminiscent of the NWOBHM) with Heartwork. As such, for some goregrind purists, true Carcass ends with Sickness, while Necrotism represents the sort of bloated excess more appropriate to prog and classic metal. More commonly, Necrotism is regarded as the peak of the band’s discography—not just an early-career capstone or transitional record, but their magnum opus. According to this narrative, Heartwork is sometimes regarded as a “sell-out” record, an about-face into the more melodic, traditionally-structured, and slickly-produced music that would bottom out on Swansong. Conversely, for fans of melodic death metal, something like Sickness (let alone Reek) is beyond the pale: Heartwork is the masterpiece, the moment when Carcass managed to fuse death metal excess with tighter, grabbier songwriting. And for those fans who appreciate all phases of the band’s brief career, there is always the relatively disappointing Swansong to signal decline. Since it is partly posthumous—the band had broken up by the time it was released—it can be fairly easily dismissed from the “authentic” discography. Once again, this creates a wound that it is all the more necessary for thrusting, stabbing Steel to retroactively fill.

A certain factionalism about Carcass’s fanbase is only logical: since founding new subgenres is generally perceived as an act of violence by adherents of the parent genre (involving, as it does, the importation of elements foreign to said genre, whether instruments, rhythms, themes, etc.; hence my preoccupation with the cowbell above), at least Reek and Heartwork would have been a sort of coup d’genre in their day. And yet, browsing through fan reviews on the web (on Amazon.com and the Encyclopedia Metallum), what stands out is the general high regard in which the band’s whole catalog is held. This is also logical, once the dates of the reviews are taken into account: the earliest ones on Amazon only go back to the late ‘90s; in the Encyclopedia, the early ‘00s. What would have appeared as a rupture in its historical moment is, once the subgenre has established itself and the new sound has found its niche in broader generic history, reabsorbed into a narrative of development; hindsight blurs what was disruptive, or at least balances it with what remains constant—as should be apparent from my own rearview sketches above. On Amazon, for example, all of Carcass’s records rate above four stars (out of five); with the exception of Reek, more than 90% of reviewers give the albums four stars and above; and scathing reviews are very infrequent. The Encyclopedia’s reviews are a bit more fractious: out of a possible 100, Sickness and Necrotism rate in the 90th percentile, Heartwork eighty, and Swansong and Reek in the mid-seventies. I will consider this difference presently. For the moment, suffice to say that, in hindsight, all pre-Steel Carcass is canonical.

In some ways, the weird new-old hybrids called “comeback” albums are even more freighted with conflicting expectations than new ones—and all the more when a band’s aesthetic is as protean as Carcass’s. The reception of Steel bears this out; perhaps it even suggests the fractiousness with which the band’s earlier records were once received, the ruptures we can no longer fully hear. In the Encyclopedia, while by and large the album receives high marks, a significant minority respond with visceral dislike, pulling the overall rating down equivalent to Swansong and Reek. The key word here is visceral. Browsing reviews of all three poorer-polling Carcass records, one finds about a third of the ratings at 50% and below. But only Steel’s reviews dip down into the single digits; one person even gives it a 0%. At least today, then, Steel is the band’s most contentious album. Perhaps this is (once again) logical: just as time would have muted and smoothed over the dislike of the other records as fans reconciled themselves to generic shifts, Steel is fresh, is now. It is almost as though one function of the “comeback” record was to give an opportunity for the earlier factionalism, so long buried, to rear its head again.

Interestingly, this is not true on Amazon, where Steel’s overall rating is the highest of any Carcass record for which a statistically significant number of reviews exist. Obviously, there is an enormous margin of error: rating systems are without a standard rubric, and on Amazon it is hard to disentangle different editions and packagings, so that negative reviews sometimes wind up being about consumer expectations rather than the music. But they are suggestive. To explain the disparity, I would guess that the reviews on Amazon include more first-time, young, and casual listeners than the Encyclopedia, many of whom would be hearing Carcass’s oeuvre from a certain distance, and perhaps (like me) mediated through a first-time encounter with Steel.

The fan-reviewers on a site like the Encyclopedia, on the other hand, clearly position themselves as connoisseurs, a metal critical elite. (This is surely also true of a subset of Amazon reviewers; they are just more diluted. Put differently: there are no blurbs in the Encyclopedia, only more or less exhaustive analyses.) And the negative reviews of Steel published there are admittedly among the best-written and most thoughtful, while the strongly positive reviews occasionally tend toward the geysering one associates with amassed teenyboppers and/or severed major arteries.

So, what are the naysayers’ chief arguments against Steel? Lack of authenticity is the big one: they accuse Carcass of pandering to fans. Why, that is, didn’t Carcass surprise us with their new record, put out something entirely unpalatable, something we were going to respect but not love, at least for the next few years? Why didn’t they once again rewrite the generic playbook? Rather than trying so hard to sound like themselves—and the point of the critique is all contained in that word like—the most authentic Carcass would sound like anything but the Carcass of old. Of course, as some of the reviews also note, the entire genre of the comeback record is compromised in this regard. As usual, Simon Reynolds captures the dilemma brilliantly: “When fans buy new albums by reformed favorites of their youth, at heart they’re not really interested in what the band might have to say now, or where the band members’ separate musical journeys might have taken them in subsequent decades; they want the band to create ‘new’ songs in their vintage style”: they want them, that is, “to cover themselves” (Retromania, p. 39).

Ironically, then, what made early Carcass good is precisely what makes new Carcass bad. Well, sort of. Because if the answer is not simply that comeback records per se are a priori crap, then one must make distinctions, judgments that show the new material at a disadvantage compared to the old. In other words: Sure, it sounds like Heartwork, BUT … it’s unmemorable, unimaginative, clichéd, you can tell they’re just phoning it in, etc., etc. It lacks, that is, those three great intangibles: a heart, a brain, the nerve.**

It’s quite possible that the way the band marketed Steel influenced how both its proponents and detractors heard it. In an interview published on Invisible Oranges the day of Steel’s release, Walker was quite candid about their approach to both the new record and their fans. Deliberating about whether to record, they had decided to see if they would come up with something that “sounded like Carcass.” Walker goes on: “We know what people want […]. We’re not stupid. We went into the rehearsal room and the studio well aware that people would have been quick to put the boot in if we didn’t deliver, you know? And at the same time we don’t want to shit on the Carcass legacy. So it’s not a cash cow. We went in using our own money. So if we weren’t confident that we could deliver on that, we wouldn’t have bothered. We weren’t going to gamble all that money away.” And, regarding how to deliver: “Play to your strengths”; “try to avoid the dumb shit and clichés”; and “give a nod [to their early career] without plagiarizing.”

Plenty of ammunition there for the aspiring cynic, to be sure. To me, though, Walker sounds more pragmatic than pandering. No matter how many powers to which the “sub” in “subgenre” is raised, it’s naïve to think that a band’s aesthetic choices are innocent of their audience’s expectations. Why would Walker divide “giving people what they want” from “avoiding the dumb shit and clichés” when, as he suggests, Carcass fans are thoughtful and discerning? Or is this flattering of the audience’s powers of discernment meta-pandering? It’s hard to tell, so much of what Walker says is generic and vague, like an athlete cornered post-game (e.g., “We just played our hardest and tried to keep a positive attitude,” etc.). As for “sounding like Carcass”: it’s true, as Reynolds says, that (most) fans want their favorite old bands to “create ‘new’ songs in their vintage style.” I am just not sure this means the comeback record as a genre is innately depraved. Clearly, Carcass took the challenge of sounding like themselves seriously: the emphasis on distinguishing self-plagiarism, for example, from the overall style and sound which, regardless of the band members’ “individual journeys,” their collective identity (in this case, Walker and Steel) gave rise to. Perhaps the comeback record should be considered a genre unto itself, one that cuts across the standard popular music genres, and is judged according to its own rules of self-performance and pastiche.

Of course, part of the point of dismissing Steel as “inauthentic” is to create a sense of the reviewer’s authenticity (hence authority), and the inauthenticity (hence ignorance) of the album’s proponents: I knew and loved the band pre-Steel; all of you who actually like this record can’t hear that the true Carcass has been replaced by a brainless, heartless, nerveless forgery. Note the implied ethics: Steel isn’t just bad music; it is cynical, manipulative, ultimately dishonest.§§

I don’t fault Steel’s detractors for dealing in intangibles. Feel, swing, inspiration: words like these pepper this post, and other posts on this blog. Anyone who writes about art is damned to deal in intangibles all the time, while desperately trying to ground intuitive judgments about such things in sensory data and paratextual materials. That said, judging Steel comes back, if I may beat the horse carcass a bit more, not to questions of taste, but of time, personal history, and perspective. Were I an old Carcass fan, maybe I, too, would smell the formaldehyde I’ve smelled on many another comeback. I might even find myself joining the small chorus of naysayers on my blog: “Ah, it’s just warmed-over Heartwork! How disappointing! How cynical of them! And look at the sheer number of times Walker mentions money!” That I am, alas, only old; that, for me, Steel is not a comeback record; that I cannot hear Necrotism or Heartwork the way they sounded when they were released—and yet, paradoxically, cannot hear them the way someone half my age does, given my experience of the milieu from which Carcass emerged: all these elements converge to influence the way I hear Steel. As is likely obvious, to these old-new ears the riffs are just as memorable (and as copious), the songwriting as snare-tight, and the technical excursions at least as impressive as the best of Carcass’s early work.†† And if it sounds like Carcass “covering themselves,” this might be because Steel, more than any other Carcass album, reminds us that early ‘90s Carcass was forging ahead in part by forging together elements from generic history: from the open letters to NWOBHM stalwarts Priest and Maiden (“1985,” which opens the record, should have been called “1982,” after Judas Priest’s “The Hellion,” the opening instrumental on Screaming for Vengeance, which it mirrors, right down to the ending gong), to the heavy, structuring, dolefully beautiful harmonies of Testament and Megadeth.

One is never without reservations. The propensity to break for a new riff on one guitar, then harmonize it in thirds, for example: it’s the sort of thing that would get old fast, if the raw material wasn’t so strong. The album isn’t perfect. So what is? When it hits its stride—as it does on the middle five tracks, with additional high-points on the earlier and later tunes—I can’t think of any metal I’d rather be listening to. And that’s saying a lot.

*

In Retromania, Reynolds blames today’s instantaneous, unlimited access to recorded music for stunting listening habits and creativity, both of which which have tended more and more toward the archival and ironic. A confessed “futurist zealot,” Reynolds despairs for the pop-music future, a future which seems to have become “unimaginable”— though he does end the book on a note of wistful hope. There is much in Retromania with which I deeply sympathize (gushing review forthcoming, someday). And yet, for those of us whose ears are relatively conservative, whose processing speeds are stuck somewhere in the dial-up era, whose adaptability to changing trends is challenged at best, and whose habit of listening recursively is deeply engrained—in fact, is affirmed to be the very stuff of what it means to listen at all … for those of us, having easy access to the plenitude of recording history is an important part of how we make sense of a recent history that seems to go by in an always-accelerating whirlybird blur.ΩΩ

I lost touch with metal as a young adult, just as it began toward the noisiest of extremes on the one hand, and toward pop musics that mostly bored me on the other. Re-discovering said genre in my mid-thirties as a dynamic new form was thrilling. But just as thrilling was the ability to go back to that lost decade and try to connect the dots with the contemporary. Mastodon’s first few records, for example, at least one of which would most certainly go in my Great Things of the New Century box, are inconceivable without Carcass’s early ‘90s records. (N.B.: Having grown up in a household where everyone we listened to was dead, I am comfortable with the idea of listening as an act of exhumation.)

Just as thrilling, however, is finding retroactive merit in things I was not prepared for at the time they appeared. I never could have enjoyed Sickness, and perhaps even Necrotism, back when those albums were released. I probably couldn’t listen to them now, were it not for the decade-long sojourn I took through free jazz, modernist classical, the postwar avant-grade, and other things often labeled non- or anti-music. (And then there was salsa, which helped break down the barriers to at least some of the pop I had once dismissed as merely frivolous.) Even Metallica had initially been a tough sell for my classically-formed ear, more comfortable with the complexity, virtuosity, and melodicism of prog rock and classic metal. My taste would have been much too orthodox, and likely too America-centric, to be able to digest the noisy assaults of the early death & grind bands from Britain. Still today I find a good deal of it unpalatable. Which is to say that the aesthetic breach dividing me from other people my age at the Gramercy show was as real as the generational one dividing me from those who could have been my kids. I want to believe that I somehow “missed out” on hearing Carcass in their prime, and mine. The truth is I was not the person that I sometimes want to imagine myself to have been (cf. “Vinyl Pasts,” 2.6.11).‡‡

So: flesh or steel? Were the person I am today to travel back in time: flesh, Necrotism, the hand that wields. But how can I, who was born into Steel, see Necrotism but as it is reflected in Steel? And yet, to give Steel absolute primacy and stability—the hub of the wheel—that isn’t entirely correct, either, because my impression of it necessarily changed after my contact with the earlier records. I can’t simply impose the logic of history onto autobiography, and by doing so efface my initial emotional response to the music. Desire and understanding are never entirely congruent. I can superimpose one upon the other, as I have tried to do here … but I cannot join them into a single, cohesive image. I know, or think I know, that Steel is closer to Heartwork, and to Swansong, than to Necrotism. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting Steel to be what Walker says it is: a union of Heartwork’s tightness and Necrotism’s riff-mill; what Gary Giddins so beautifully called the “elusive grail” of music, a form that is at once open-ended and contained; the dialectic between chaos and order, spontaneity and composition, wildness and civilization, that gives music so much of its power.***

 

* De rigeur exclamation point for scientific fact meant to provoke awe and wonder. Italics optional. This thought experiment brought to you by the AMNH’s Powers of Ten exhibit.

§ Since this is an extended consideration of Carcass, it will be swollen, even to bursting, with analogies to/puns about violent death, decay, and exhumation. It is the chief rule of the microgenre (practically an idiogenre) to which Carcass commentary belongs: a sort of spinoff of the band’s lyrics, as though all comments about the band were already sewn up inside the band. It is not just that I have no intention of breaking said rules; I do not think it is possible to write about Carcass in any other way. I may believe I am being clever when I say Carcass is “putrescent”; but it is actually the inexorable tendency of the discourse to search out images of and language about evisceration, laceration, contusion, etc. as soon as one begins writing about Carcass.

† Invisible Oranges dates its end to 2012. See their excellent “Re-Thrash: a Postmortem.” Regarding the 1987-or-so fetish: “At its peak, thrash was not just crossing over [with hardcore punk], it was also producing arena rock ballads and progressive rock epics while mutating into death and black metal. Thrash moves forward, literally and figuratively. It was foolhardy to try and trap that lightning in a bottle by going backwards in time.” (See my “Glee Metal,” 3.17.12, as well as “Burnt-over,” 8.3.11, for some echoes.) And this, which I blathered about in “Two Quixotes” (5.11.14): “The re-thrashers dealt in escapism, not history. If everyone in Black Tide was 20 in 2007, there is no way the members themselves remember the ’80s. Their music recalls the ’80s the way those boys have been exposed to it: through the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and SOD records. It cannot authentically recall the cultural zeitgeist of that time.” Then again: “Fantasy’s been a part of metal since the beginning—I see no objective difference between romanticizing previous lives in the viking age or in the 1980s.”

Ω This comment recalled for me one of the most endearing moments at 2013’s Heavy Metal and Popular Culture conference. One participant, who had taught a class on heavy metal to undergraduates, said that one of his students had taken the class because he wanted to understand his father better! (Is one function of the growing number of geriatric rock acts that the window of time suggested by the adage “Too old to rock ‘n’ roll, too young to die” shrinks to the merest crack, until it is only at the moment of recognition (“My God, I am too old to rock ‘n’ roll. Am I—”) that death strikes?)

‡ “Remember me as you pass by / As you are now, so once was I / As I am now, so you must be / Prepare for death and follow me.” This quatrain, which is not uncommon to see on old gravestones, is quoted by Megadeth in “Mary Jane” (on 1988’s So Far, So Good … So What?).

** Critics of Steel also point to some “cringe-worthy” lyrics, with the chorus of “Thrasher’s Abattoir” held up for particular contempt: “Hipsters and poseurs I abhor / Welcome to the thrasher’s abattoir.” Yep, bad. But I am trying to decide how this is more cringe-worthy than any of the nonsensical (but often hilarious) gibberish (replete with misspellings) that makes up the grotesquerie of early Carcass lyrics. In his defense, Walker claims said lyrics were intended to be “lighthearted”: a Pythonesque playing with gore. I’m with it. But then the same could be said about the risible couplet from “Thrasher’s Abattoir”—Steel being (according to Walker) a return to the early lyrical style that was partly abandoned on Heartwork, and entirely on Swansong. At other times, however, Walker can’t seem to decide whether he wants his lyrics to be taken seriously or not. Too much, he claims, has been made of the band’s vegetarianism; they are not trying to proselytize anyone (for which he condemns Barney Greenway of Napalm Death, Carcass’s Oedipal rival). Then what precisely is “serious” about the lyrics of Heartwork or Swansong? It doesn’t help that he is utterly disinclined (at least, within limits) to stop anyone from reading their own meanings into the lyrics—such as the I.O. interviewer’s suggestion that Surgical Steel’s lyrics are “sad,” rather than horrifically “celebratory.” It goes back to metal’s fraught relationship with politics: most try to stay out of it (grindcore as a whole and a few other individual bands excepted), while politically-charged lyrics tend toward the ambivalent (see Robert Walser’s excellent analysis of Judas Priest’s “Electric Eye,” Running With the Devil (Wesleyan UP, 1993), ps. 163-4). Walker’s caginess is thus par for the course. And yet, sometimes that caginess can sound like irresponsibility. Perhaps better not to read interviews. Perhaps better to ignore lyrics altogether.

§§ For more about the relationship between ethics and aesthetics in judging popular music, see Simon Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Harvard UP, 1996) ps. 70-74. Perhaps most germane is his discussion of authenticity, which he defines as “a perceived quality of sincerity and commitment” (71). Judging sincerity, Frith notes, “is a human as well as a musical judgment. And it also reflects our extra-musical beliefs.”

†† A few picks, so as not to clutter the text. Memorable riffs: “Noncompliance to ASTM F 899-12 Standard,” “The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills,” “Unfit for Human Consumption.” Copious riffage: the outro to “Mount of Execution”: we added this on at the end, the band seems to say, because we could. Technical brilliance: the intro to “Noncompliance” and bridge of “Captive Bolt Pistol.”

ΩΩ I am not being quite square with Reynolds here. He is most concerned (as am I) with the sort of shallow and one-dimensional toggle-listening encouraged by the web, and so would likely second my call for recursive listening and slowed-down processing. (Hilariously, with the exception of Reek, all my back-catalog listening to Carcass was on compact disc!)

‡‡ There is something about metal that aligns it with extreme sports and horror movies, fight clubs and jackass movies, drug culture, and other boy-heavy endeavors: the question “how much can you take?” looms over them all. The metal devotee is expected to push himself to listen to less and less palatable music; the less palatable, the more “heavy,” the more authentic, and the more authentic an acolyte one proves oneself to be, with the genre ideal measured against a vanishing point of volume, speed, and/or weight. And so it has always been difficult, for the metal devotee, to admit to not liking extreme metal. As per food writer Michael Pollan, it is like a French person saying, “Well, I’m sorry, but I just don’t like really stinky cheese …” (And as long as I’m footnoting, here is Greil Marcus’s perfectly apropos definition of nostalgia: “the desire to reach back and touch the person you never were” (qtd. in John Street, Music and Politics, p. 156).)

*** The tendency away from the spontaneous in metal finds its expression in the overly processed, mechanically synchronized sound of too much of the music today. Against it, the metal of thirty years ago must sound either disappointing or exhilirating, depending upon one’s age, listening background, and orientation within the genre. To this older pair of ears, the relative looseness of much early metal—not the self-conscious amateurism of punk, but the desire to push tempo and musicianship to a breaking point, and to capture rather than correct that on recordings—is where much of the power of metal derives from. I think of Lombardo’s double-bass in early Slayer (e.g., the break in “Angel of Death”); the bouncing stick on Perry Strickland’s (of Vio-lence) ride, leaping a fraction ahead just to keep tempo, and so creating an inadvertent swing; the extra beat given to Away’s fill in the reprise introduction of Voivod’s “This Is Not an Exercise.” I wonder if the virtuoso double-bass/guitar synchronization that ends Slayer’s “Mind Control” in 1994 (on which you can hear veteran drummer Paul Bostaph and the rest of the band slip out of time with each other) marks one of the last such instances where failure-as-power was allowed to remain intact. In all of the above examples, it is as though trying to run the machine full-throttle overloads it. The ultimate demonstration of power, after all, is not decibels achieved, but amplification blown: pure overload, total distortion.

 

The therapeutic use of distortion, particularly of the infrasonic, Crowbarian variety, begs study. Who knows but, some day, a future Dr. McCoy will run his tri-corder over some sick soul’s thorax, and instead of that little machine chirping, what will come out is … Crowbar? – Baciyelmo

Elastic

milesSome years ago, while I was trawling YouTube for vids to show my Writing About Music class, I dug up a clip from one of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts from the early ’60s. These were educational programs presented and televised with the purpose of introducing the youth of the day to classical music. The youth could have asked for no better guide than the charismatic Bernstein. Somehow, though, whenever the camera deigns to look at the crowd, it finds the faces of sullen, pimpled preteens slouching dutifully next to their parents. Watching, all I could think was, “In a few years, these kids are going to be dropping acid and screwing in the mud at Woodstock.” In my mind, the black-and-white of TV’s childhood morphed into the meridianal colors of the summer of love. If you want to see an image of the end of an era in embryo, you can’t do better than these youthful faces in the crowd.

Alternatively, if you want to listen to the end of an era, put on Miles Davis’s near-concurrent (1964) concert recorded at New York’s Philharmonic (Avery Fisher) Hall. Originally released as two separate records that divided ballads (My Funny Valentine) from “burners” (Four & More) in 1965 and ’66, respectively, jazz yin and yang were eventually re-bundled, if not re-ordered—the integrity of recordings commanding a respect that the integrity of performance apparently does not—as The Complete Concert. It is something of an irony that the Concert is regarded as a good “gateway” record for budding jazzophiles. True that, unlike Kind of Blue, the Concert is not the jazz record everybody buys, and then never buys (or even hears) another. Also true that, like what Robinson Crusoe salvages for his lonely island, the Concert could serve as the cornerstone on which to build, if not a society, then at least a collection. (That it is a double album makes it even more like Crusoeian; a box set, or better yet an iPod, would really capture the spirit of that text.) It is, in fact, the first jazz recording I ever owned. The irony is that I—and apparently so many others—would begin at the end: with a record that was tearing up and rewriting the old rules, laying the foundation not just for a new phase in Miles’s protean career, but for jazz.

Of course, I didn’t hear that at the time. I couldn’t have. I’m sure what I admired was the energy and brilliance of the playing. Even if Collin Fleming’s characterization of the burners as “speed-metal, punk, thrash-jazz” (on NPR) is more than a bit of an overstatement, it’s probably a good indicator of why this record grabbed me so hard at the time. But without context, it would have been impossible for me to hear what makes it at once culmination and transition. What I have elsewhere called archaeologies of listening—the ways in which we access and interact with the sedimentary layers where a genre, work, or recorded artifact fits into our overall listening history—determines much, if not all, of what we are able to hear. In the same way I could not hear Paco de Lucia as a flamenco guitarist until I was familiar with the forms and history of that music—when I was a teenager, he was just another fusion monster—so there was no way I could hear the boldness of this record until the jazz firmament was clearer to me, the other stars in this and neighboring constellations visible. Even more, albums that we hear at certain times in our lives, particularly influential ones, become mired in the moment, trapped in the amber of emotional memory, so that it is difficult to hear our way outside of our original contact with them. And then, even after we have acquired the adequate contexts for listening, our own ossified associations discourage us from hearing them in these contexts. Whereas a Miles album that is new to me is fairly easily “placeable,” this one resists being tugged from the shell that nostalgia has secreted around it.

But then a few months ago, after a number of years without hearing it, I put this album on, and those old tunes suddenly sounded new to me. My ear unsettled them, and I heard it, for the first time: the cuspiness, the intimation of a break. It is in fact right there, always has been, in the brilliance and energy of the playing I originally admired. The Complete Concert is still a desert island disc for me, insofar as that old fantasy still has meaning in the age of Pandora and Spotify (asks Crusoe, “Can I get a signal here?”). It’s just a different island.*

Perhaps it was the particular nostalgia that developed around this record, a “first,” that made it so difficult to hear it as one of the most anti-nostalgic albums ever recorded. Listening to it now, it couldn’t be more obvious the way the playing is bursting at the seams, taking all the pillows from Miles’s career—his standard repertoire, his approach and his sound throughout the ‘50s—and pullin’ the stuffin’ out of them. The musicians, with the partial exception of George Coleman, play around and with the tunes rather than in them. There is so much room in the sound they create. It is as though, with the revolutions of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, whatever Miles might have thought of them—and he didn’t think much—the artificiality of the old language had been revealed. But what to the free jazz player appeared solid and breakable became, in the hands of this quintet, fluid, elastic. And so, everyone holding an end, they stretch, and pull, their impulse not to dismantle, but—standing from points beyond, outside—to speak in a new way. In this respect, I suppose the Concert could be called a dialogic record, as much as it is a prophetic one: the replacement of George Coleman by Wayne Shorter,§ the move (as Gary Giddins notes) to more open compositional forms, and to new instrumentation, including electronic keyboards, and then electronics more broadly, funk, and fusion.

*

The first thing you hear from Miles, after a brief piano introduction by Herbie Hancock, is the breathy 1-2-minor 3 figure announcing the melody of “My Funny Valentine.” It repeats, the notes pushed out, like the horn is a bellows; then it ascends, crescendo, to a peak that hangs wavering for what seems an impossibly long time, before disappearing. If you know the version of “Valentine” on Cookin’ from a little under a decade before, all you can think of is the difference in scale: how much thinner is the (muted) tone on the earlier recording, how much more spacious the horn here; the resolve, the confidence on which such a brazen, unaccompanied climb must be founded. It is an unforgettable entrance. And it tells us a few things: that melodies are to be pontificated, sidled into, pilfered; that dynamics are key. Timbre and ornamentation soon take their place beside dynamics: notes are crushed and bitten off, inflated until they explode, or deflated until they vanish. They are pushed off cliffs, or slid into oblivion. And it isn’t just his horn Miles controls this way, but his band. They can swing as hard at a whisper as at a shout; and when they all arrive together, as they do—once again, unforgettably, a few minutes into “My Funny Valentine”—and Miles peals that split note, man, they’re all there. Part of it, of course, is that they take their sweet time. Over the song’s thirteen minutes, the rhythm section will fall in and out, swing will turn to bossa and back to swing, but without ever losing their sense of center or direction, their Ariadnian thread.

As with the melodies, so with the solos. On “Valentine,” drunken guffawing; pokes and scoops that again emphasize dynamics; repeated bleats, sometimes even shrieks; hooked-down notes. On “All of You,” a bird-call will to play the same riffs a few times before tagging some note and moving forward; on “Stella by Starlight,” flight-of-the-bumblebee trills, clips and whines. Those forever-sustained notes, like Miles is balancing something on his nose—and then a popping staccato. It’s this oscillation between the sustained notes and the dropped ones, piercing runs and flat, deflated-sounding tones like a tuned-down guitar, that gives Miles’s solos their intense vibrancy. Through them, he asserts that one needn’t be thematic, or even melodic, but rather that variety of gesture and tone can (and should) carry the brunt of the musical expression.

“My Funny Valentine” is also the tune with what is perhaps Miles’s most famous gaffe, or “fluff,” as the jazz critics graciously call them. As Giddins reminds us, where Miles is concerned, these mistakes were generally taken as a sign that something greater than virtuosity was at stake in his playing. (Giddins calls him a “confessional poet,” Fleming an “emotional virtuoso.”) What strikes me is where this particular fluff appears: right after the tune plateaus on a tranquil bossa. It’s hard not to hear Miles and his horn recoiling from the sudden influx of schmaltz—as though he had laid a trap for himself, and barely made it out alive. If this is an unintentionally humorous moment, there are others that seem more deliberate: on “All of You,” for example, and again on “There Is No Greater Love” (this on Four), he wears his mute like a child’s party hat, bleating away more shrilly than Don Quixote’s wounded sheep. Sometimes, the mute sounds less like an expressive tool—ironic or no—than a blade for cutting. At such moments, I imagine that what I am hearing is the sound of Miles flaying his old skin, before hanging it on a pike for the audience to politely applaud. This is artistic self-remaking at its most brash and merciless.

George Coleman (Blue Note)

George Coleman (Blue Note)

The difference between Miles and George Coleman on this record has been much remarked, and is evident from the moment the latter first appears some five minutes into “My Funny Valentine.” With Coleman, you immediately want to sing his lines; Miles’s you don’t dare to (you’d hurt yourself trying). The same schmaltzy “Girl from Ipanema” moment that Miles falls apart on, Coleman hops through, or falls dreamily into. Coleman plays patterns, Miles shards. When Coleman trills, it is in clear places of resolution or climax; Miles no. When Coleman harps a single note, it has a melodic purpose in that place in his solo; when Miles does, it is pure effect. He can be more abstract—in parts of his solo on “Walkin’” and “Four,” for example, he seems infected by Miles’s playing. But overall, Coleman tends to fall back on the same sorts of figures that are either conventionally spectacular, tuneful, or bluesy. Indeed, his touchstone is the blues; his solos tend to move from lovely minor melodies, quadruplets a la Freddie Hubbard, and modal nods to Coltrane, to riffs with a bit more dirt under their nails, an effect like the epigram at the end of a Shakespeare sonnet. Not to say that Miles doesn’t play the blues here; it could even be argued that the gestural, effect-heavy sound that Miles was consolidating around this time is more blues-inspired than Coleman’s melodic flights. But only Coleman returns to the blues and its stock figures with a regularity that suggests retreat.

The burners on Four & More are as revolutionary as Valentine’s ballads, but they shred the old tunes/old language differently. If the ballads are inflated into behemoths that ramble their way into odd, beautiful corners, the burners are played at Ben Hur chariot-race velocity. At these tempos, melodies begins to disintegrate,† and the resulting roughness of the unisons between Miles and (George) Coleman recalls Ornette Coleman with Don Cherry—which, as Ekkhard Jost writes in Free Jazz, are themselves appropriately “reminiscent of early Parker-Davis records.” Nor is it possible to sustain the syncopated pulses that Miles favored on “So Near, So Far” and “Joshua” (on Seven Steps to Heaven), and now attempts to add to “Walkin’,” one horn leapfrogging the other at the tail of the head, only for them to tumble down together. Needless to say, there is no time for the yawning strut of the 1954 original, no room for the lovely blurps and hiccups and stuttering around the beat that gave that version its preternatural swing. Here, the melody comes in gasps. (Better to call it sprintin’ … even if the down-home apostrophe-n of hard bop no longer applies.) The upshot is that the band is so tight, their sense of time and each other’s place is so intuitive, that they don’t need to be unified to stay together. Time has to be intuited more than heard if they hope to be able to ride the curling edge of time in the almost impossibly nimble way that they do here.

As on the ballads, the burners’ melodies are expressively disarticulated and circumlocuted. (Is that a verb? It is now.) Listen, for example, to the way Miles walks backwards into the head of “So What,” or, for that matter, the way he runs around Coleman on “All Blues,” the closest thing to a burner on Valentine. The overall effect, however, is different. If the ballads can be described as pushing rubato to the point that the melodies collapse into timelessness, the burners are whatever rubato’s opposite is: not trying to humanize a theme by making it beat with heart instead of the metronome, but dismembering it, detaching it from its frame of reference. Solos break into the themes in odd places and at unfamiliar angles. Miles cultivates shorter, harsher, more angular phrases: snorting arpeggios, piercing shrieks, long, strident trills, slurs and brays, bumblebee chromatic runs that zigzag into the upper register. Even when the lines are not short, the melodicism of a few years earlier has begun to come apart. His attack is sometimes reminiscent of Django’s guitar; his timbre tends toward the hyperbright, like a wah-wah pedal pushed all the way down. The wailing flamenco style of this “Walkin’” would not have been imaginable a decade earlier, nor is it the same wail as on 1959’s Sketches of Spain. On “Joshua,” notes crowd out other notes; riffs start to go somewhere, then collapse back on themselves. We are left not craving the forward movement or the shape of a solo, but the rhythmic lilt around some unclear center and the plastic shapes of consecutively-clustered notes. Sometimes, Miles just rides one note for all it’s worth; he plays like he’s leaning into a wind.

There is an interesting paradox here in the way Miles and Coleman play with the rhythm section. As noted, the general perception of this album is that Coleman is distanced from the rest of the band—the “young lions” and Miles—by his more classic style, as though he were standing on shore playing his horn alone while the rest of the band rowed out to sea. The paradox is that, of the two, only Coleman mixes it up with the rhythm section, engaging in the sort of back-and-forth we expect from small-group jazz. You can hear Hancock’s left hand goading him forward, and clear call-and-response between the two on “All of You”; on “Seven Steps to Heaven,” Hancock selects the shuffle breakdown in Coleman’s solo for the introduction to his own. In some ways, it is actually Miles who sounds distant, treating the band more as a platform for his leaps than partners in conversation (they are invariably there for him—they better be!), and jumping them through hoops like trained fleas (they are just as quick—they better be!). On the melodies, Coleman, too, is often the stable base Miles jumps off from (again, “All Blues”). It may be typical of bandleaders in general, not just Miles, that they call and you respond; listen to Tony Williams’s bass drum answer Miles on “Walkin’,” or the stuttered notes on “I Thought About You”. On the other hand, perhaps it’s the very transparency of the dialogue between Coleman and the rhythm section that suggests the distance we hear: they have to hail each other to hear each other. Miles is integrated with them without his having to say anything, to do anything but play what he plays. And yet … sometimes Miles sounds like he’s in danger of floating away—“in the sky,” as his last recording with the Second Great Quintet (sans Coleman) put it, or just ready to walk out …

… which is, in fact, how he often ends his solos. Subdued, to say the least; with a shrug, or a stutter, or a chromatic leap to nowhere. His “Joshua” solo has the perfect walk-out end: it’s all body, all attitude—anything but melody. The audience almost forgets to applaud; they don’t quite realize it’s over. Following Miles, the band sometimes ends tunes that way: letting them run out of steam, depressing the swing, draining the sound away.

Herbie Hancock (Blue Note)

Herbie Hancock (Blue Note)

A few words about the rhythm section, or at least about Hancock and Tony Williams—I’ll reserve my comments about Carter for some loquacious eternity. In a way, Hancock’s playing splits the difference between Miles and Coleman. While his figures are closer to Coleman’s, their organization, progression and rhythmic features are more arresting. Rolling chromatic figures recall Monk, when he is not outright quoting (e.g., “So What”); his percussive drive is sometimes reminiscent of Mal Waldron. Listening to Hancock on “My Funny Valentine” yields some sense of the variety and beauty of his playing, and particularly the way he takes Coleman’s figures and turns them on their head. The solo begins as a duet between he and Carter that becomes more steadily rhythmic over its first couple of minutes. From a series of beautiful, Debussy-inspired chords (at 11’40”), Hancock moves into a three-note figure that he develops, crescendo, and (in appropriately modern response to the chords) against dissonant, contrary-motion figures in the left hand. A few bars later, six staccato notes played on the upbeat, and Carter swings in after him. The blues appear, as they do throughout Hancock’s playing, here in a group of rolling slurred/doubled notes. Then an ascending figure in triplets, with a heavy accent on the downbeat. What happens next is (to my ear) remarkable: descending quadruplets in the same time, but against a swung rhythm that puts a downbeat on every third note, so that he falls in and out of phase with the beat. Since the triplets were accented on their last notes, and the quadruplets on their first notes, the last note of the triplets becomes the first of the quadruplets, and the two motions are welded together. It’s not just me who’s enamored of this riff: Hancock repeats it in a yet-more rhythmically oblique way on “All of You,” and even feints a third time, on “Stella,” before a fast run that rather abruptly concludes his solo. Attractive as it is, it is really just one in a constantly-varying array of rhythmic invention. On “All of You,” for example: from hard-swinging half notes into rising sextuplets (around 10’), then a double-time descent, then quadruplets (briefly), then 2-note figures that work against the grain of the beat, ascending, descending, one note for every two in the left hand—and then the quadruplet idea from “Valentine” reappears, but inflected differently. This is Williams’s doing: after failing to comment on “Valentine,” here he accents the first two notes of each descent, mimicking Hancock’s pattern. Who knows but that the manic on/off-time of his drumming was its original inspiration?

Of course, it’s possible that Hancock got the idea from Williams—God only knows what are the true genealogies of these riffs, the back-and-forth pre-history of jamming and gigging that results in what we hear on any particular recording. As for Williams, that oft-cited ride cymbal on the wide-open burners, always changing, never losing the moment, is a recording unto itself. The feeling it creates is night-and-day different from the hi-hat of the ‘50s: from fast shuffle to pace-clock, the 1’s and 0’s of an endless stream of code. His breaks are actually more spare, less spectacular, than his accompaniment (a little like Monk in this regard: the best fireworks happen in the corners of our ears, when he is comping). But then Williams is well aware of that night and day. On “Seven Steps,” in the very last break, he inserts three traditional swing beats on the hi-hat, followed by two light taps on the snare—and then the rest of the band leaps back into the melody (6’32”-4”). It is the opposite of everything else he does on this record—it sounds like a sample from the 1954 “Walkin’”—and so, like Miles and his mute, hard not to hear as parody, as cutting—in this case, of the hip-cat, square-glasses Mort Fega introductions that serve as both bookends and intermission: “Wet your whistle in the lounge, stretch your legs a bit … Take five, boys!”

*

There is a backstory to this record that is as irresistible as the music, and that has helped vault the concert into the realm of myth. The quintet was still pretty new, the venue prestigious; the occasion—voter registration efforts in Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as an homage to JFK—noble … the stakes, high. Miles, who was rich and famous, had decided the quintet would waive their fee; the rest of the quintet, who were not, balked. Tickets were expensive; for a still-emerging musician, there was a fair bit to be lost in such a venture. By the time they got out on stage, everybody was pissed off. Afterwards, they figured the concert was a botch. But producer Teo Macero knew different, and when the band heard the tapes, they did, too. In Miles’s terms: “We just blew the top off the place that night. It was a motherfucker the way everybody played—and I mean everybody. […] That anger created a fire, a tension that got into everybody’s playing.” “Fire” is in fact the most oft-repeated term in the story of that night, the wine-dark sea of this particular legend, the spur of the Ben Hur burners and the sinker for the expressive depths of the ballads. With this, the idea of the Philharmonic concert as a singular event took off: a kiss good-bye to the standard repertoire (Giddins notes that Miles would not record a standard again until the ‘80s); “a summing up,” as the liner notes have it—what are liner notes for, but to create myths?—“of all Miles Davis had learned to this point.” The CD packaging, which includes the staid Philharmonic program for that night’s concert, only further sediments the idea of the concert-as-classic. And when you put on the disc, before you hear any music at all, there’s Mort Fega, talking about “young Tony Williams” and “Miles … Miles Davis.” This is the concert everybody wants, myself included; the voice that you hear at the end of every installment of Ken Burns’s Jazz documentary, intoning: Nothing would ever be the same again. No one had ever heard anything like it before.

In the end, it all has a bit of a tendency to obscure the fact that the tensions that might have moved the quintet to such a brilliant performance that evening were not always creative—in particular, Miles’s reputed unhappiness with Coleman, the likely subject of that “and I mean everybody” in the quote above. Clearly, the record catches the quintet on a stellar night, and does a fine job of representing an important transition in Miles’s career. But it also seems essential to deflate the notion that this concert, this night, was anything more than representative of what Miles was doing more generally at the time. Live at the 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival, recorded about five months earlier, is as astonishing as Philharmonic ’64 … but in ways that are less comfortable for the myth. Much of what has been said about the ’64 concert could be said about Monterey: the “blistering” tempos; the shrill pulses, shouts, and Bronx cheers that were coming to define Miles’s style; the jazz-morphing tugging-at-time of his new rhythm section. They were even there, though to a much lesser degree, on Seven Steps to Heaven, the album for which Miles re-recorded half of the tunes with his new band. “So Near So Far,” which features only Carter of the new quintet, has the dramatically sustained notes and pulsing ostinatos that are simply exaggerated within the space afforded by the concert stage. The band has a tendency to stretch out more for Monterey‘s crowd, too—Bob Belden’s liner notes to the CD do a superb job discussing the role of Monterey and California culture in jazz’s burgeoning, forward-looking respectability—than at the stuffier, cause-heavy Philharmonic show.

But that’s just the point: in ’63, one gets the impression Miles was still finding his way out of the box, and the Quintet as a whole was still trying to find their sweet spot. The performance of “Stella By Starlight” on that recording is weak, particularly compared to the majesty of the ‘64 version. Perhaps they hadn’t quite figured out how to inflate a ballad to the size they wanted without losing its coherence, or Miles didn’t yet know how to channel his young rhythm-mates to approach a ballad as confidently as a burner—they had, after all, only been playing together for a few months. But it isn’t just the band; Miles himself is simply not on on this record the way he is in the ’64 concert (compare, for example, his solos on “Walkin’”).

If there is an exception here, ironically enough, it’s George Coleman. He steals the show. Not only does he sound more integrated than Miles, he sounds more willing to step outside himself, to enter the fray with the rhythm section, to meet them head-on. What a change, five months later. Thus, between ’63 and ’64 we’re hearing not just the consolidation of Miles with his new rhythm section, but the progressive distancing of Coleman. Comparing Coleman to Miles here, I can’t help but wonder if the “and I mean everybody” comment was directed, not at Coleman, but at Miles himself.

All this acknowledged—myth debunked, center shifted, degree-versus-kind difference invoked—there is still an edge to this recording, the ’64 recording, a sharp, cutting edge you don’t hear at Monterey. Maybe it was the political context that had tilted in those five months, past the point of no return; the “fire” in the playing is the one James Baldwin mentioned in the title of his jeremiad, published the previous year, now licking at the country’s heels; that while Miles, whatever his claims to radicalism, was waiving his fee to register voters for Civil Rights, Tony Williams’s generation was listening to Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, as black militancy in the face of white intransigence morphed the movement inexorably toward Black Power. Maybe the aesthetic boredom with the old repertoire was not just about how to make a rote program exciting again, but the husk of a political kernel: the way those old tunes, not just the romances but all those tunes, masked something of the disharmony and violence of the country. Turning them upsidedown, shaking them, even gutting them—there’s a violence done here, the violence of violence unmasked. It is not, then, just the aesthetics of the music that is unmasked as artificial, but the entire political framework which made their creation and expression possible. It is the anger at the polite applause that appears when “All Blues” begins, ah, listen honey, this is a standard, a classic, before the band shreds it, almost in doubletime. An audience member’s shout, captured at one of Miles’s more inspired moments at the beginning of “Stella,” is its antithesis, a harbinger of the days of rage. Not that ruptures happen so cleanly, in a single night; but certain recordings more clearly and fully reveal the general tenor of the shift.

Hell, maybe it was about the money. But it was the young guys standing up for their money, refusing to be martyrs for a cause. You don’t sit down for the firehoses. You go get a gun.

 

* The “desert island disc” fantasy is the dystopia of an immutable taste and immutable identity. It strands us at a particular phase in our listening history. Although the idea is that these are albums we can’t grow tired of because they grow with us, the truth is that separating them from the surrounding ocean of music would cause them, and us, to stagnate. They become a static structure, only understandable in terms of each other, rather than dynamic points in our development.

§ Miles’s choice of tenor sidemen always tells us much about what he wants to achieve with a particular band, and what direction he is headed. Coleman’s situation in ’64 is a bit like Lucky Thompson’s on the ’54 recordings with Miles; he sometimes sounds like he stepped out of a  big band; I can almost see him standing up to take his solos. (Take that with a big grain of salt; it’s the only Thompson I know.) Miles clearly drew energy and ideas from tenors who pushed him in new directions, like Coltrane and Shorter. Shorter seems to have had a particularly pronounced impact on composition, as can be heard as early as E.S.P., which sounds more like a mid-‘60s Shorter record than anything Miles had done up to that point. (N.B.: each of the band members composed a tune for that record.) In a lovely piece comparing Shorter to Coleman, the saxophonist Bob Mintz places Shorter in the ‘60s turn to greater abstraction, which Miles picked up on: Shorter’s is “an almost free jazz approach to grooves” where “harmony and melody were very fluid, and secondary to rhythm,” an approach he refers to as “time-no changes.”

† It’s interesting to consider the place of tempo. In the hierarchy of musical elements that put us nearer to or further from the idea of composition, tempo would be at the bottom. Whether a musician plays a tune fast or slow is an interpretative choice that would hardly be labeled creative. What is remarkable about the burners on Four and More is that tempo is accelerated to the point that the compositions begin to come apart. These are tunes that seem to assert that tempo, humble tempo, if pushed to extremes, can yield a new identity. Speeded up, they are all but made new.

Ex Nihilo

OrnetteColemanI try to play a musical idea that is not being influenced by any previous thing I have played before […] The theme that you play at the start of the number is the territory, and what comes after, which may have very little to do with it, is the adventure. (Ornette Coleman, qtd. in Balliett 407).

 

More than the music of any other jazz artist, Ornette Coleman’s gives me the feeling of creation out of nothing. His is an art of relentless unspooling newness, endlessly self-generating. Structures crop up from moment to moment, stretch out, morph into something else, disappear. Melodies without memories, or only the barest traces of them; even when they repeat—because they repeat—each iteration seems unconscious of the last. Each idea asserts its separateness, its uniqueness, preening and beautiful—only to be abandoned, bumped out of the spotlight by the next, the next. They are wrought from nothing, or next to nothing, are next to nothing themselves, and create nothing except, perhaps, a notch, a space, for the idea that follows, just as perfectly ephemeral. Vignettes, they balk at larger wholes; they do not believe such things exist. They hardly believe in each other.

Gunther Schuller once described Coleman’s music as “uncluttered” by convention (qtd. in Williams 216), and it is this lack of clutter one feels in the deepest sense: an abundance of discardable melody, fostered but never owned; a principle of dispossession, or perhaps unpossession. Hence the other adjectives often associated with Coleman: pure, liberated, egalitarian, transparent, Zenlike.

*

In the literature on Coleman, one finds an interesting counter-tendency to the above: a desire to find some hidden coherence in the apparent unruliness, to assign him to one or another tradition, folk or elite. Trumpeter John Snyder, for example: Coleman’s music, “which is supposed to be so free, is closely organized” (qtd. in Balliett 405). Or Gary Giddins, who commends “the specificity with which [Coleman’s] improvisations elaborate his compositions … the solo eventually works through every facet of the theme, modifying colors and tempos and dynamics” (470-1). Ted Gioia roots Coleman in bebop, standard harmony, modal improvisation, and 32-bar structure (43). And Schuller himself lauds Coleman’s intuitive sense of structure: he “is fully aware of his place in the overall formal design at any given moment” (“Compositions” 83).

Of course, Coleman’s earliest boosters (like Schuller and Martin Williams) had to find a way to defend him against the vitriol that greeted his emergence. Though Gioia’s writing is from a time well after Coleman’s canonization, his goal is not so different: to rescue Coleman—and with him, all of jazz—from the debilitating myth of the primitive.α And Giddins, arguing for the lasting importance of Coleman’s Atlantic recordings, reminds us that “musical patterns will assert themselves no matter how unbridled the situation” (471). It is a point Coleman himself has echoed, though in a typically ex post facto way: “From realizing that I can make mistakes, I have come to realize there is an order in what I do” (qtd. in Williams 213).

For the sympathetic critic, what sounds like madness must be revealed as method—a method different from what had been heard up to that point, true, but method nonetheless. Regardless of whether Coleman is intuitive genius or harmolodic intellectual, regardless of whether his work is a neurotic symptom or the product of a conscious intention, close listening and careful analysis will reveal precedent, coherence, logic, unity.β

Asserting that Coleman’s solos are closely tied to his themes, or that he always knows just where he is, denies him—and us—the pleasure of getting lost. Considered in terms of the epigraph I’ve chosen for this post—Coleman’s binary between territory and adventure—it might be said that the job of the critic—with music as with any art—is to show how the adventure arises from, and is subservient to, the territory. This desire to tranquilize Coleman and drag him back to the territory—to assert that, after all, there is no adventure, or only very little, and that tightly circumscribed—is perhaps the best proof that he was, maybe even is, a dangerous artist. For to admit the existence of the adventure is to scandalize the critic: to undermine some of his most cherished myths, and as such, the role of criticism in relation to art and the artist; to force us to find some other way to speak the adventure without making of it the territory.

*

For my money, Ekkehard Jost has come the closest to synthesizing these opposing tendencies of freedom and constraint, to respecting the autonomy of the adventure without entirely severing it from the territory. In his 1974 book Free Jazz, he coined the term “motivic chain-association” to describe the stream-of-consciousness movement of a typical Coleman solo: “one idea grows from another, is reformulated, and leads to yet another new idea” (48). Schuller had come to a similar conclusion some years earlier. But notice how Schuller works to recuperate this idea in the name of wholeness: “Short motives tried in different ways … [act as a] motivic springboard for a new and contrasting idea … only to yield yet another link in the chain of musical thought, until the entire statement has been made” (Ornette!; my emphasis). Jost resists this impulse, highlighting instead the unfinishedness and non-teleology of Coleman’s soloing; it is precisely each idea’s lack of conclusion that allows it to serve as a link to the next—a feature of Coleman’s playing that Jost nicely metaphorizes as a dash instead of an exclamation mark.γ

This “cohesion,” such as it is, is purely horizontal, formed moment to moment; each footstep along the adventure takes us—potentially—further from the territory. Coleman, it might be said, doesn’t know the woods or quite where he is … but he has left himself a trail of breadcrumbs, and has even brought along a compass, or two; sometimes he even crosses over his own trail, but that doesn’t mean he’ll follow it back.

As the distance between territory and adventure increases, the connections between the two become ever-more tenuous; and the critic, ambivalent about what has been set in motion, must suggest ever-more-tenuous links between the two. Balliett, for example, lists scales, rhythmic clusters, pitch areas, and mood (406). Then he throws up his hands: Coleman’s solos “move melodically with such freedom and originality and surprise that they form an independent music” (407). In another representative ambivalence, Jost asserts emotional unity between theme and solo, territory and adventure … and then goes on to note that Coleman’s compositions are characterized by emotional ambiguity (58). The “thematic framework” is “non-obligatory” (Jost 57)—meaning Coleman can do whatever the hell he likes … and generally does. Making a garden of these woods, it seems, will be more difficult than anyone had anticipated.

Coleman’s “unclutteredness” extends well beyond his freedom from the vertical demands of harmony (the sort which, to use Williams’s memorable analogy, turns the soloist into a “rat in the harmonic maze” (213)), or the relationship (or lack thereof) between theme and solo, or the syntax of the solos themselves. Take, for example, his compositions, which, like his melodies, he “has a tendency to abandon” (Giddins 470). If composition does not dominate improvisation, is brother rather than father, then why should “standards,” personal or historical, dominate a career? Why should any theme command more attention than the time it takes to be played? True to form, Coleman’s compositions are often as whimsical and bizarrely un-cadenced as his solos.

Then there is the matter of temperament. Pitch, as Jost emphasizes, is subjective, and more important, historically and culturally relative.δ To extend Coleman’s analogy: the tempered scale, the tempered ear, the tempered man, are just other figures for the territory; the adventure is the place where the notes squeal and waggle and bend out of their culturally-sanctioned frequencies, get lost in the wild blue spaces between. As for rhythm, Schuller and other have called attention to the absence of a clear downbeat, the absence of clear bar lines supposed to guide us like regularly-spaced blazes on trees (Giddins’s “willy-nilly toe tapping”). And so the adventure is not just out there, not just the ever-extending line of the solo away from the theme, the composition away from the standard, but in the interstices of the every facet of the music.

Spend long enough with Coleman, and the territory disappears: it all starts to sound like adventure.

*

The horizontality of Coleman’s approach to improvisation, composition, and the relationship between the two, and to the jazz tradition, manifests itself in another interesting way: a flattening of the aural space, troubling (if never quite eradicating) the hierarchy between solo and accompaniment, lead and rhythm. As with any of the above, it is possible to overstate the case; just as Coleman can choose to be more or less thematic in his solos—and they run the gamut from enamored to indifferent—and just as he can choose whether to solo at all, so some tunes and recordings fit more squarely into the traditional hierarchies of small-group jazz recording than others. (The very fact that it is Coleman who is the subject of this post suggests the limits of this argument.) As Williams and others have noted, the ensemble of Coleman, Cherry, Haden and Blackwell (or Higgins), and later Izenzon and Moffat, moved the music in a more purely collaborative direction, although some of the old hierarchical markers remain (e.g., pitch ranges, dynamic levels, tune organization). The double ensemble recording Free Jazz is widely regarded as the ne plus ultra of collaborative music-making: here, all of the musicians are listening and responding to each other, complementing and contrasting with each other, “soloing” together—hence Williams’s well-known comparison to abstract painting.

And yet, saying that something has no background is no different from saying it is all background, or as easily background as foreground. Each term loses its meaning without the other; it depends on where you are sitting, where you position your ear in relation to the music … and perhaps, where the music positions itself in relation to you. And here is where I would quibble with Giddins—though it is a quibble that gets to the heart of my own perception of Coleman. Far from “mak[ing] terrible background music” or “commanding full attention” (Giddins 469), Coleman makes music that is just as lovely in the background as in the foreground. Often, I cannot tell which—how far away I am sitting. The “immense pleasure” Giddins cites comes at no “price,” for Coleman does not finally demand anything of us. It is part of the non-hierarchical nature of this music that it does not place such demands; for the musician-listener hierarchy must fall, or at least be troubled, with the rest of them, in order to for Coleman’s revolution to achieve its ultimate aim. The fact that I can listen to Coleman or not listen to Coleman; that I can soak in Coleman as in a warm bath as easily as ignore him, knowing that, when I start listening again, he will be there—the same there, a different there—because I am as good in this place as I would have been thirty seconds earlier, or later—that I don’t feel like I “missed” something—that I can start the record over again, and often do—is the “immense pleasure” of his music. Paradoxically, despite this music’s relentless forward drive, the combination of lack of teleology, freedom of movement, and near-total absence of benchmarks creates a feeling of stasis, like the water in a wave, which only appears to move forward, when what we are really witnessing is a transfer of energy. A sense of timelessness and there-ness—what Santoro calls Zen; perhaps what Jost calls relaxation, the balance of an achieved simplicity.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ve used Giddins’s line on Coleman plenty of times. To call something background music is to relegate it to the dentist’s office and the supermarket aisle. Except it’s one thing to reward close attention and another to solicit it. That Coleman does the former without the latter is, I think, the nature of his genius.

Just think what a supermarket it would be, anyway. I would spend hours and hours wandering up and down the aisles, and then come to the register with only a few items in my cart. Instead of purchasing them, I would throw them on the floor. There would be no express line.

*

Is it scandalous to suggest that the pleasure of listening to Ornette Coleman derives as much from not listening, from dipping in and out, skidding along the surface, from distraction as much as concentration, or from the oscillation between the two? In The Pleasure of the Text, exploring what Richard Howard calls “an erotics of reading” (viii; emphasis in original), Roland Barthes made a similarly scandalous case for the pleasure of reading—and not reading—classic novels. “A rhythm is established,” Barthes writes: “casual, unconcerned with the integrity of the text: our very avidity for knowledge impels us to skip or skim certain passages (anticipated as ‘boring’) in order to get more quickly to the warmer parts of the anecdote […] we boldly skip (no one is watching) descriptions, explanations, analyses, conversations; doing so, we resemble a spectator in a nightclub who climbs onto the stage and speeds up the dancer’s striptease, tearing off her clothing, but in the same order, that is: on the one hand respecting and on the other hastening the episodes of the ritual (like a priest gulping down his Mass). […] The author cannot predict tmesis; he cannot choose to write what will not be read. And yet, it is the very rhythm of what is read and what is not read that creates the pleasure of the great narratives: has anyone ever read Proust, Balzac, War and Peace, word for word? (Proust’s good fortune: from one reading to the next, we never skip the same passages). […] Thus, what I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon the fine surface: I read on, I look up, I skip, I dip in again” (10-11; emphases in original).

There may be something perverse about suggesting a Balzacian pleasure in listening to avant garde saxophone. With the classic novel, the edges—always the source of pleasure in Barthes—arise out of the conscious parsing of useless from useful; the text takes on a granulated surface whose “abrasion” gives us pleasure. With Coleman, such a distinction is meaningless; since the solos do not build toward a revelation or climax, since every idea is as useless or useful as every other, we don’t “gulp down” Coleman to get closer to some anticipated end. My distraction is not calculated; my body—which, as Barthes coyly notes, “pursues its own ideas” (17)—makes its own distinctions. And yet, the pleasureful friction created by this “rhythm” of listening/ not-listening is identical.

In other ways, listening to Coleman is more reminiscent of Barthes’s description of reading the text of bliss: one “grazes” “aristocratically” rather than skipping ahead. We can listen to Coleman in either direction, in pieces, here and there, without having to observe ritual. (The libertine listener escapes them; there may be as much pleasure in flaunting once-culturally-sanctioned listening practices—unidirectional, undistracted, complete—as in observing them.) Whether Coleman’s music can be equated to the “lacerating of language” Barthes attributes to the text of bliss is another matter. It strikes me that Coleman’s solos and compositions, like Barthes’s modern texts, are doubled: “dismantled” yet still readable; the sort of text that puts the listener between comfort and crisis (Barthes’s terms). It would help explain the ambivalence in the writing about him. Regardless, is there not also a rhythm—halting, measureless—to the way we encounter the text of bliss?ε

One of the pleasures of reading The Pleasure of the Text—a text with its own peculiar rhythm, riddled with tantalizing gaps and ruptures—is the way the pleasure-bliss binary is itself confused, dismantled, re-erected, and dissolved over the course of Barthes’s performance. In fact, one gets a good sense of this troubled boundary in the passage quoted, from the clear indication that one re-reads classical narratives. I suppose that, like the gentleman who jumps onstage to hurry the striptease, there is no reason not to watch the same thing night after night: the end may be known, but its revelation, as well as (once again) his participation—even more, his sudden assertion of agency—is pleasurable. At the same time, the source of pleasure for Barthes is never revelation. There must be a pleasure in re-reading that is distinct from (though never entirely separate from) ends; if one reads passages one had skipped the last time, clearly the use-value of what is read shifts on each reading, and can be only tangentially related to “finding out what happens.” Given the sort of listening Coleman provokes in me, there is a similar pleasure in re-listening: I hear the passages I “missed” (“heard,” but with half an ear; let slip by; forgot as soon as I heard them), skip others that I heard before. Ironically, our ability to listen recursively to this most spontaneous of musicians reminds us that listening itself is improvisatory: spontaneous, different from one act and the next. What Coleman calls our attention to is this un-finishedness of all listening.

*

The word “scandal,” repeated throughout this post; the idea that Coleman “frees” us from certain culturally-sanctioned behaviors: I have been writing around another element of listening to Coleman that I think gets at the heart of the pleasure—one pleasure—of listening to his music. It appears in the Barthes passage as the parenthetical “no one is looking.” For the implication of having to say as much—and to say it in parentheses—is that someone is looking. We feel guilty about skipping passages, at least in canonical works of literature. The whole of Western culture is reading over our shoulders; it must be, for it is what has given us the tools to decode the text.

A better musical analogy to War and Peace would be a Brahms symphony: expansive, dramatic, with a clear narrative thrust and clear peaks and troughs, “important” and “unimportant” parts. It’s during the latter that we reach for the cough drop. We can—we do—fall in and out of an hour-long symphony. Yet, there is the expectation of immersion. If, as Milan Kundera pejoratively concluded (in Immortality), the Romantics “raised feeling to the level of a value,” then when we fail to fully immerse ourselves, fail to feel, we feel guilty. Clearly, the failure cannot be Brahms’s (he listens over our shoulder); it must be our own. Sustained attention is the pledge we make; catharsis is the reward if and only if we give ourselves away to the musical godhead. The Romantic symphony makes terrible background music. It must have all of our attention or none of it.

Now that jazz has become “America’s classical music,” it’s easy to treat, say, a solo by Keith Jarrett like a Brahms symphony.ζ The wonder of Coleman is that, even as his work has entered the jazz canon, its every element resists the cult of guilt. It is what Giddins hears, I think, when he writes that Coleman’s solos “incarnate an eternal innocence” (469). In this sense, the territory is more than the musical strictures of convention and tradition; it is the whole past. When Coleman solos, every previous melodic fragment becomes the territory; the adventure is that state of continuous becoming that characterizes his improvising.

In a word, I don’t need to feel responsible to Coleman’s music, and he does not need to feel responsible to me. The ultimate freedom of Ornette Coleman is to write music that frees itself from the tyranny of the listener and frees the listener from the tyranny of the music. Didn’t you feel it as soon as the piano was jettisoned, that weightiest of instruments, and with it its geometrically-ordered harmony, leaving Coleman and us to float together? To be ex nihilo is above all to be guilt-free. A perfectly American music and musician, then, performing on the blank slate of an always-evolving present. How can he have committed parricide when he has managed to convince me that he has no father at all?

 

α I don’t want to be misunderstood as making a bid for Coleman as the intuitive, unconscious genius without a past, or for an art that is entirely without structure. The title of this post, which I settled on a year or so ago when I first thought to write about the way Coleman’s playing makes me feel, has an unhappy correspondence with the “primitivist myth” that greeted Coleman’s arrival; i.e., the pervasive idea that Coleman came out of nowhere, entirely untutored, with a simple, “natural” feel for the music (cf. Gioia, “Jazz and the Primitivist Myth”). Several of Coleman’s early supporters drew on this myth (e.g., Coleman was “spared a conventional music education”; his compositions are “intuitive creations whose genuineness is for this reason alone unassailable” (Schuller, “Coleman,” 80, 82)), as did Coleman himself, perhaps recognizing the myth’s potential (e.g., “I was so in tune to music that I picked it up as soon as I assembled it [the horn] and played the same thing I’m playing today—only I didn’t know music. I was just hearing music” (qtd. in Santoro 93)). (N.B.: the language of the epigraph I have chosen for this post does not sound like self-mythologizing to me; it is too tentative, too qualified: “I try”; “may have very little to do.”) Coleman also consistently links his playing to emotion and the body, using organic metaphors that tend to discount musical influences in favor of natural, experiential ones … although this, too, has a long history in the annals of artists’ mythmaking. Anyway, in using the term “ex nihilo” I am not referring to Coleman’s musical roots (in bebop, Afro American folk tradition, or what have you) or lack thereof, nor am I denying the activity of the intellect in what Gioia rightly calls “spontaneous composition.” As Jost argues, the “simple” elements of Coleman’s playing (absence of changes, structure, bar lines, etc.) are not an argument for primitivity; rather, Coleman achieves “complexity […] by simple means” (53). And this: “Simplicity does not mean a reduced creative capacity, and has nothing to do with primitivism or banality. It is the expression of an inner balance, a poise, which brings an element of relaxation to even the most hectic musical content” (Jost 64).

β That Coleman happened when he did is particularly interesting considered in jazz historical context. In his seminal essay “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation,” Gunther Schuller credits Rollins, and particularly the track “Blue 7” on Saxophone Colossus (1957), for bringing a sense of large-scale structure and “unifying force” to the jazz solo: “What Sonny Rollins has added conclusively to the scope of jazz improvisation is the idea of developing and varying a main theme, and not just a secondary motive or phrase which the player happens to hit upon in the course of his improvisation and which in itself is unrelated to the ‘head’ of the composition” (96). That Coleman appears to have arrived at the opposite conclusion at virtually the same moment—how to pry the jazz solo away from a sense of large-scale structure, based on a purely forward imperative and the privileging of melody over harmony—suggests the ideas of the literary critic M.M. Bakhtin.

γ Not to give the impression that Jost completely abandons the idea of harmonic organization: Gioia’s modal “flavor” (which is not the same thing as being modal) is replaced by a tonal center, “an imaginary pedal point” (48), itself sometimes replaced by secondary tonal centers. The regularity of where Coleman moves to secondary tonal centers suggests that he “knows just where he is,” as Schuller puts it, though he has abandoned the hierarchies of blues harmony. Nor do I want to overstate Giddins’s desire to hear deep structure in Coleman; his is rather a typical ambivalence, that edge between admiring the beauty of the adventure and claiming it for the territory.

δ When Coleman appeared on the scene (in L.A.), he was competing with a “sterilized” West Coast/“cool” sound, which certainly would have impacted the way he was heard (Jost 53; Santoro 94). To the contemporary ear, raised among a heterogeneity of timbres and musics, perceptions of pitch may be a little more forgiving. To me, Coleman always just sounded a little raucous, a little squawky, like Perry Farrell with a horn.

ε Coleman’s violin and trumpet playing, beautifully described by Jost (65), are another matter. Perhaps what distinguishes Coleman, to consider another concept out of Barthes, is the particular grain of his “voice.” Grain, more broadly applied, seems like it might be a useful concept for thinking about music—particularly a music like Coleman’s, whose horn has so often been compared to the human voice, and who claimed he wanted to do what words do with his horn—this all with an eye toward Scott Burnham’s call for an approach to music that tries to take account of its materiality. A third point, somewhere off the evocation-analysis axis … perhaps one that occupies the vaunted space of The Real as against the Imaginary (evocation) and Subjecthood (analysis)? If analysis and evocation form a binary, then materiality, the impossible dream of language, dismantles it. Interestingly, timbre is the one aspect of Coleman’s music that is hardly ever mentioned, except insofar as it folds into our perception of pitch. In what ways does it contribute to the “grain,” and to the listening sensation I am trying to explain? Another aspect this post cannot really consider are the vertical aspects of Coleman’s music, i.e., the “serendipitous harmonies” (Giddins) and occasional atonal complexes (Schuller) of particularly Free Jazz’s Dixieland mutations, the dissonant unisons, resting places (but never ends) created by collective, largely unscripted improvisation. In what way is this “vertical din” (Giddins again) related to grain? In what way related to the multilayering (Barthes) of the text of bliss? (Sorry, this is the trash-heap footnote for dumping all half-developed ideas, undeveloped ideas, and ideas-to-be!)

ζ Gioia, who himself invokes Barthes to argue for a pleasure-based approach to listening to jazz, reminds us that it is possible—even probable—that art will bore us: “Let us not neglect the pleasures of the text, but neither let us forget the pleasures of not finishing the text” (131). While I would tend to agree with Gioia’s concerns about the sacralization of jazz, I have a few issues with his argument. First, rather than understanding listening and taste formation as products of culture, Gioia seems to posit a mythological common or naïve listener, one who “knows what he likes,” so to speak. Ironically, even as Gioia rejects the primitive in the jazz musician, he erects the primitive in the audience, and so denies the audience the very things he argued for in the musician: the role of education and the intellect, in this case in hearing and processing music. Second, Gioia ignores the text of bliss—the text that risks everything—or perhaps disparages it, if one is to take his comments about post-Coleman free jazz this way. We can be bored or harried into bliss as much as brought there by excess of pleasure. Finally, Gioia seems to assume that the listening process is closed, rather than open and evolving. As I suggest above, there are many different ways of not “finishing” a text. Gioia’s comments suggest turning off a CD or leaving a concert halfway through because the music has “bored” us. What about coming in halfway through, or starting in the middle? Skipping places, zoning out, coming back, staying for another set of the “same,” putting on the record again? The unfinished text is not necessarily the text of boredom, but rather the grain of a particular pleasure.

 

ADDENDUM, 1.3.19: From John McDonough’s review of Free Jazz in Down Beat, 1992 (as reported by Robert Walser): “You can’t get any more open-minded or empty-headed than Bill Mathieu, who wrote this about Albert Ayler’s Ghost: ‘To an astonishing degree it commands the suspension of critical judgment and [presents] itself … to the listener on a level above quality, above personal like or dislike. It simply is what it is.’ He gave it five stars and never had the slightest idea why. Free jazz apparently meant freedom from critics as well.”

 

Citations in the post pertain to the following texts/editions: Balliett, Whitney, “Ornette,” in American Musicians (Oxford, 1986); Giddins, Gary, “Ornette Coleman (This Is Our Music),” in Visions of Jazz (Oxford, 2000); Gioia, Ted, “Jazz and the Primivist Myth” and “Boredom and Jazz,” in The Imperfect Art (Stanford UP, 1988); Jost, Ekkehard, “Ornette Coleman,” in Free Jazz (Da Capo, 1974); Williams, Martin, “Early Ornette” and “Free Jazz,” in Jazz in its Time (Oxford, 1991); Santoro, Gene, “Harmolodic Philosopher,” in Stir It Up (Oxford, 1997); Schuller, Gunther, “Ornette Coleman,” “Ornette Coleman’s Compositions,” and “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation,” in Musings (Oxford, 1986). The Williams and Schuller books are compilations of earlier writings, some of which are liner notes to Coleman’s early albums, which I also consulted, and which feature other texts by Schuller, Nat Hentoff, Ludvig Rasmusson, and John Litweiler. My discussion of Coleman’s music is shaped by (and limited to) his work as a saxophonist and composer on the following recordings: The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959); This Is Our Music (Atlantic, 1960); Free Jazz (Atlantic, 1960); Ornette! (Atlantic, 1961); Town Hall, 1962 (ESP, 1965); and Live at the Golden Circle, Volume One (Blue Note, 1965). Personnel on the first four discs include Don Cherry, trumpet; Charlie Haden or Scott LeFaro, bass; and Ed Blackwell or Billy Higgins, drums. On Free Jazz, add Eric Dolphy (sax) and Freddie Hubbard (trumpet). The last two discs feature Coleman with the trio of David Izenzon on bass and Charles Moffat on drums.

I Heart Goatwhore

 

Photograph by Stephanie Cabral (www.stephaniecabral.com)

Photograph by Stephanie Cabral (www.stephaniecabral.com)

Dear Goatwhore,

I love you.

I’ve loved you since I first clapped eyes and ears on you more than a year ago, at St. Vitus. Remember? Of course you do. You followed Three Inches of Blood. I was at the back of the club, watching Louis B., waist-length hair matted to his back and shoulders, harvest the unfortunate souls lined up in front of the stage. The venom, oh God! the absolute fucking venom that came out of that man’s mouth. Sammy’s, too, when it was his turn, holding his axe like the reaper his scythe.

I could have written you then. Or after that trip across Jersey a few months later, when I popped Carving Out the Eyes of God into the disc-changer, and my Toyota Corolla became a chariot of bones drawn by War-Death-Famine-Pestilence, razor hoofs all aflame, hurtling the bodies of the dead, and me behind the wheel screaming, “Eat your heart out, Judah Ben-Hur!”

But it was only after seeing you again this spring, on Easter, that I worked up the nerve to write you. I love that you came north for Easter, like a plague. (Never mind that you didn’t know it from Christmas, birth from resurrection, the nativity from the zombie-Christ.) And who was I to go a-courtin’ Satan, on Easter, of all days? But there I was, at St. Vitus, writing my St. Valentine’s to you in my head. I have made a habit of such trysts on the days of saints and martyrs, call me perverse! There wasn’t a spot of white in the whole club but that which made a word, a skull, an inverted cross, yes, St. Vitus himself was attired in black, and I just another spot—so how could you have noticed me? I was sick as a dog, too, of body, mind you, not of heart. But there I was, listening, watching.

Writing. Hence this missive, this confession.

Are you as promiscuous as your name, Goatwhore? I hope I’m not being too forward. I think you are. Just listen to that guitar! Rutting away, utterly abandoned to the flesh. I can’t think of a raunchier guitar sound in metal. (And that gatefold-cum-centerfold of you on A Haunting Curse: pin-up goat-girl, exquisite corpse!)

But raunchy’s not the half of it. No, you open it up, too—and not just those minor thirds in strummed tremolo, no, I’m talking about the way you let minor seconds in your riffs yang against each other (e.g., “Alchemy of the Black Sun Cult”), and even more, the way you’re not afraid to arpeggiate with heavy distortion, sometimes against a double-bass kick (yes, I’m thinking of “Carving,” and also “In Legions, I Am Wars of Wrath”). So many of your brothers and sisters forget what distortion imperfect can do. When you let those neighboring notes grate, those unhappy intervals sing, those filthy colors show—when you open up your blacken’d heart in this way—you impose upon me an eerie seduction.

But then you tease me, Goatwhore, and most mercilessly at that, one moment hissing in my ear, the next butting me with those proud horns. I’m an Ares—not quite a Capricorn, but I do know horns. From blast beats quick as a cook’s knife on a hibachi grill (sorry, but have you ever looked into the eyes of the children of the family gathered at the other end of the hibachi, watching the knife, the flames?), to incantatory triplets, to motoring four-square, to galloping warhorse, all with nary an “ugh” between—albeit a deep, bleeding “ugh” when it appears, as if to cast off all that had come before, like the residue of the unholy syllables you let fester on your tongue  … The words, yes, above all, the words! I knew from the moment I read your titles, many five or six words apiece, some as long as eight, songs that blast by sometimes in three minutes, stuffed full of words … at last, I thought, here is one who suffers possession like I do. We are possessed, you and I, by language, the rush when the words take control, overmaster us, pour out of us like from a cut vein. Even DCLXVI is a word, and unpronounceable as the name of God. Is not language the true father of lies? It is language that controls us, and this god admits of no repentance.

Oh, I know you build your motor out of parts from old Slayer, and Vio-lence, &c.—really, what is “Apocalyptic Havoc” but a slowed-down, re-tooled “Silent Scream”—but I wouldn’t dream of holding it against you. The way you polish it, and tune it, the love you clearly put into it, it hums like new. It is new. You’re traditional, but never holier-than-thou. I don’t hear irony, or a penchant for putting riffs in quotes; you’re the furthest thing from a revival band, and hallelujah for that. You play metal because you play metal, because you &c., period.

And yet, you play American black metal, or “blackened death metal,” as the internet has it. That has a fine Cajun ring to it. I hear elements of the great Scandinavians in your sound, of course, but none of that “in my kingdom cold” shit, no, the devil’s alive and well in rank, inscrutable, pestilential Louisana. Adders and alligators and who knows what crypto-beasties; squat, atavistic trees with branches like tentacles, draped in sacerdotal vines; the sucking death of the swamps themselves; the play of masks and travesty of our only American carnival; the voodoo and bloody crosses and sacked tombs, their gates creaking in the wind … and all this not even to mention (at least directly) the tortured, howling revenants of slavery … there’s dark, dark magic down there, all of us up here are sure of it, legacy and ambience enough to provision an army of ghouls.

Dear Goatwhore: come north again. Soon. We’ll go carving out the eyes of God together. And perhaps afterwards, in the wee hours, I’ll even try curing you of that medieval hangover called religion, but without any hair of the dog this time, even as we bathe together in the charnel waters of oblivion.

Smitten,

Helldriver

Arcless; or, Pure Dirt

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Really Like High On Fire

Fandom is the stuff of high drama. It demands a certain emotional immaturity, or a short-lived but full-throttle regression. We bond most closely with those bands and artists we discovered in our teens, follow them until the scales fall from our eyes, or they die, or break up, sometimes in the full noon of our love. If they don’t move on, we do. In either case, they become a yardstick for our development, allowing us to think of our lives in clearly-demarcated stages (“I used to be into x, now I like y”) and providing fodder for nostalgia (“Remember how great z was?”). Sometimes we move on because we think they’ve betrayed us, sold out. Growth is supposed to be organic, authentic, and artist-driven; selling out is artificial and market-driven. In fact, a band’s or artist’s growth is often figured as a sort of pilgrimage to authenticity, to the discovery of their “voice”; and this teleology allows us, the loyal fans, to map onto our own lives a similar sense of direction, purpose, and meaning under the aegis of art consumed. That said, the line between these two ostensible opposites can be blurry: one fan’s evolving artist is another’s sellout, and the latter fan may measure his or her own integrity by refusing the change. For those of us who stick with a band through their changes—and who, in that miracle of marketing, feel that a band has “stuck with us,” too—there are the purported rewards of growing old together.

The process of change over the course of a band’s career is often referred to as their arc. Career as fired projectile: trajectory and singularity, purpose and identity. Fractures and cobbles are smoothed into a seamless history. There is an implied normativity, too: the projectile is full of energy as it leaves the cannon’s mouth, reaches a peak—a state of equipoise between its native energy and the pull of the world against which it strives—and then falls. Bands run out of ideas, sell out. That sucking sound you hear is gravity.

But must the falling side of the arc be imagined as decay, as the projectile analogy implies? Let’s consider another career narrative, the traditional evolutionary model; perhaps it will give our projectile a little more life. Artists and bands—at least, first bands—often do begin full of naïve energy and unreflective passion, and follow with a period of expansion and experimentation, an adolescence full of straining and angst. The music becomes more and more complex, convoluted, self-conscious. In time, this reaches a breaking point, and from the break a new, simpler sound emerges: a sound, a voice that declares, finally, who this artist or band is. Simple, but no longer naïve or unreflective; the dynamic of complexity, gained from that period of experimentation, that journey to the self, is folded up inside it, like those extra dimensions in the string-theory universe. What appears simple is, for the careful—loyal, initiated?—listener, profound.

It’s probably no surprise to a habitual reader of this blog (?) that Rush is my template here. Consider the first decade or so of their 40-year career: from their beginning in the early ‘70s as a “Canadian Zeppelin” or Bad Company, to the Genesis/Yes-influenced period of 1975-78, to the British electro-pop/“world” music period between 1979 and the early ‘80s, at which point they (as the band tells it) “found their voice” and “became Rush.” For the purpose of illustration, the period from 1978 to 1981 is key. 1978’s Hemispheres was the most complex and Yes-ish in the band’s oeuvre. The first side is a six-part sci-fi rock-opera that actually continues a story begun on the previous album, A Farewell to Kings. There, the protagonist flew his rocket ship the Rocinante into the black hole Cygnus X-1. Here, he discovers the city of Olympus, and a society divided between mind (represented by the god Apollo) and heart (Dionysus). In the story’s climax, he brings balance to the world, figured in the sphere, and is re-christened Cygnus, god of balance. Now, a lot of people see Rush’s music as a whole as too much Apollo and too little Dionysus; Hemispheres is certainly their most Apollonian record, the peak of their Apollonian phase. It was, in fact, a breaking point, an odyssey of underworldly recording sessions. The Apollo-Dionysus conflict is a nice image for the band’s trajectory, and it might be said that their task post-1978 was to find that “perfect sphere” where the two impulses would be held in balance. Hemispheres is thus a prophetic record, charting a course for Permanent Waves (1980) and “The Spirit of Radio,” as these overly-regenerate Who fans found a way to bring the unregenerate three-chord brilliance of “Baba O’Riley” back into what was, after all, only rock ‘n’ roll.

One difficulty with using Rush as a template is separating pattern from history. Rush have always been a most protean and omnivorous band, and the shrinking and re-packaging of their sound at the turn of the ‘80s has as much to do with a response to the currents of the time as to their own maturing artistry. Other major progressive bands, like Yes and Pink Floyd and Genesis, similarly attempted to re-create themselves. But with the possible exception of Genesis, these bands’ heydays had come and gone—and Genesis did such an about-face by consolidating a poppier sound under the leadership of soon-to-be pop superstar Phil Collins that they seem only nominally equivalent, like Gilmour’s Floyd to Waters’. Yes split in two, one half combining with ELP to create something called Asia, a mildly embarrassing superproject, and very much the embalmed corpse of ‘70s prog rock. Then there was 90215: genial, radio-friendly, and about as much the Yes of Relayer as Asia. Only Waters’ Floyd succeeded in marrying the art-rock concept record to the radio single … then put out one more fraught record and promptly blew themselves to pieces. In sum, voices long-since discovered, these bands were on the falling sides of their arcs, pulled hither and thither by changing lineups, and working out of the crucible of punk reactionism. Rush, hidden away in the Great White North, listening to the signals of distant revolutions over their radios, the younger band by a little under a decade, were still on the restless upper climb when the ‘80s landed.

If we look after 1983 or so, to the parallel progressivism of underground ‘80s metal, for whom the classic and progressive rock bands of the ‘70s were as influential as NWOBHM, I think the evolutionary arc emerges more clearly from its historical circumstances. It is as though, once woven by history, a pattern becomes detachable, and able to be worn as a garment by future artists.* When Metallica moved from their magnum opus … And Justice for All (1988) to the more pared-back metal of the suggestively eponymous Metallica (1991), Lars Ulrich justified the change—which enraged so many loyal fans—with the words, “More than any other band, we are like Rush.” In fact, Ulrich described a breaking point not so different from the one Rush described with Hemispheres, in his case after playing the nine-minute title track live for the umpteenth time, and, if I remember correctly, stabbing his drumstick into one of the “lady justice” props on his way offstage (how symbolic!). This sort of piggybacking has more than a bit of self-promotion about it—we’re talking Ulrich here, after all. But then it wasn’t only Metallica. Many of the prog-metal bands I most admired from the ‘80s (Voivod, Queensryche; to a lesser extent, Iron Maiden) went through a similar evolutionary process, from a straight-ahead sound to a more experimental one, to a distilled, popular form.

This is all well and good for peaks. But the falling projectile still troubles me. The preceding discussion leads me to wonder whether a band’s achieving their voice really leaves them anywhere to go—whether the meridian isn’t also the onset of night, whether there is something vital and sustainable in that achievement, and whether other voices are possible, or at least other registers. Finding one’s voice might simply spell the end of something essential about a band’s life-cycle. This is precisely the case many have made about Rush: after the aesthetic and popular peak of Moving Pictures (1981), the band began a long downward slide, with a big dip at the end of the ‘80s and a spotty record since. Perhaps Floyd, or at least Roger Waters, did well to move on; perhaps Yes was right to continue re-configuring line-ups. Perhaps marriages, at least in rock ‘n’ roll, were never meant to last.

And yet, Rush has kept on changin’, whatever we might think of the quality of their output, and has managed to sustain and even expand their fanbase of 30 years ago. Clearly, a voice is a sound, not a style—Rush keeps dabbling in the latter despite the stability of the former.** If we imagine the peak as full maturity, or the achievement of identity, or self-understanding, is there something approaching wisdom, at least for some bands, when we look later in their careers? Perhaps we should ask a different question, one I suggested earlier: Does the listener have to be a fan, even a lapsed one, to really hear the later work? A year or two ago, a friend of mine who is a big Dylan fan floated me one of the bard’s more recent albums—I don’t remember which one—because he felt it had crystallized elements of Dylan’s art in a way that many weaker recent albums had not. I confess I couldn’t hear it; it sounded like bad Dylan to me. But my knowledge of Dylan ends with the major albums of the mid-‘60s and a few other well-known songs; my favorite of his records is still The Times They Are A-Changin’, for God’s sake. So how could I hope to understand what made this recent Dylan album different, special? In this way, consciousness of evolution—a sense of history—allows certain canons of knowledge to revolve around fan identities: what appears trite to the outsider is, in the context of an ouevre well-studied, profound; fidelity is rewarded by (presumed) insight, as the later works become runes interpretable only by the initiate.

It’s true that the evolutionary arc is a bit like Monty Python’s theory of dinosaurs: thin on both ends, thick at the middle. And from the emotional and intellectual gratification I receive, and from my vaunted academic training, it follows that I want to squeeze anything and everything I can into such a model … and when I can’t, to use the model to explain away anomalies. Even more, as the projectile implied, I want to use the model normatively, so I can judge the success or failure, authenticity or artificiality, completeness or incompleteness of a band’s career. It’s just so neat: the vulgar Hegelianism of it, simple-complex-“simple,” innocence-experience-wisdom, life-death-rebirth. And yet, for me, the neurotic fan, the reluctant follower, it begs the question of whether alternative models of evolution are possible, or desirable, and what it means as a listener to throw the template aside and embrace something completely different. And it begs the question whether it’s possible for a band not to evolve … and still remain vital.

*

HOF       I first read about High on Fire in the Village Voice, of all places. This was back in 2005 or so, shortly after I’d discovered Mastodon, and HOF was listed along with them and Shadows Fall and Lamb of God as bands that were remaking contemporary metal. Now, HOF had long been paired with Mastodon; the bands had some joint early releases and tours, and their big, lumbering sounds had yoked them together in the “stoner rock” or “doom metal” sub-genre.§ In 2006, when Relapse bundled new versions of the songs on Mastodon’s “Lifesblood” (2001) and “Mastodon” (2000) EPs with material from their original demo, they bundled that with a sampler that included two tracks from HOF’s Blessed Black Wings. Based on these tunes, my first impression was of warmed-over Kill ‘Em All-era Metallica, with some reconstituted Sabbath and Motorhead dumped in. And so, for the following several years, I wrote them off.

In hindsight at least, Mastodon and High on Fire make an odd pair. Like Metallica, Mastodon might claim they are “like Rush,” or maybe just “like Metallica”: from the punk-length, solo-less miniatures of the early work, through the crushing Remission, the proggy Leviathan and Blood Mountain and, to a certain extent, Crack the Skye, a title suggestive of that pinnacle/breaking point, and an album on which one can already hear the paring back to a more popular, anthemic, vocal-melodic style of The Hunter. Mastodon have clearly made the arc part of their identity, and, like the progressive rock bands of yore, expend a good part of their artistic energy in the self-reflective mapping of their career.

But High on Fire? They’ve been mired in a sound, the sound of sounds, since Matt Pike was roused from Sleep. They are the Neanderthals to Mastodon’s Homo sapiens. Evolution has never been the point. As with their career, so with their individual albums—two-speed bikes all of them—and songs, which work less through development than bludgeoning repetition. There’s no hiding here, either the band in their music or the listener from it. It has a single dimension, and it demands surrender.

Said surrender was never more apparent than at the Bowery Ballroom last winter, my sadly belated introduction to HOF live. I started out in the back, by the bar, a little skeptical, mildly disappointed. But the longer the show went on, the closer I got, wending my way song by song through the crowd; and the closer I got, the more my critical and rational faculties were beaten out of me, until, by the time the band ended with “Hung, Drawn and Quartered” and encored with “Snakes for the Divine,” I had no resistance left. The “stoner rock” and “doom” labels thus fit nicely, even mesh: music as inescapable as Fate, as the potsmoke-haze of distortion that envelops everything. At the Bowery, you could hear that distortion humming between songs; the amps sounded restless, twitchy, as if the music were a tiger hidden inside them, waiting to pounce.

Like his music, Pike is all of a piece—what you see is most certainly what you get. And what you get is ugly. It’s important, no, it’s essential that Pike be ugly. Pale, sweaty, bloated, tattooed, shirtless, snaggletoothed, strings of hair sticking to his face, guitar strapped to his body: he is metal’s answer to Stevie Ray Vaughan, and that dirty, sweaty, snaggletoothed sound he gets owes as much to his one-time Gibson Les Paul as SRV’s did to his Strat. (The other two, bassist Jeff Matz and drummer Des Kensel, are not bad stand-ins for Double Trouble; Matz even looks a little like a younger Tommy Shannon.) As for his voice, what would you expect it to sound like, coming out of that jagged hole of a mouth? It has that heart of a heart of a Gibson crunch, too, as if, by following each other so often, guitar and voice had come to be parts of a single instrument.

Pike. Even his name is a weapon.

The Bowery stage didn’t transform Matt Pike, or anyone in High On Fire. Or anyone in the crowd. At the Bowery, no one, nothing becomes beautiful. But then this is a music, a band, that tries with might and main to make a virtue of an aggressive ugliness. What’s amazing is how often it succeeds.

*

It was Snakes for the Divine (2010) that turned my ear to High on Fire, that made me want to turn back to the earlier records. There’s some sense in this. With the opening riff of the opening and title track, the album announces itself as more riff-oriented, more traditionally power-metal, than what I had heard previously. The songs as a whole are less chorus-averse, and sometimes even downright chorus-friendly, more invested in structure than droning repetition. The production on Snakes (and 2012’s De Vermis Mysteriis) is a little cleaner, too; the chord progressions are a tad less jagged and time-screwy than those on, say, Surrounded by Thieves (2002). These differences are probably what enabled Snakes to serve as a way “in” to the bands oeuvre. And yet, the idea that Snakes marks some new stage of growth, some new incarnation of High on Fire that more closely mirrors my taste, is impossible to sustain, since these differences are overwhelmed by the general sameness of a decade’s music. The pummeling, bludgeoning feel is as much in evidence on Vermis as on the debut Art of Self-Defense (2000) … to the point that any music critic who would grapple with writing about HOF has to dig deep into the Thesaurus to find new words meaning “to be hit with a blunt instrument.” The sound is still hugely oversaturated, with a humming layer of hyperdistorted bass, although, as noted, it has pulled back a little from the edges. Songs still regularly wander into the six-to-eight minute range, trading on a certain amount of droning monotony to get there, if (again) a little less relentlessly than a decade ago. Nor did the heavy riffing really start or stop at any particular moment; I can point to Snakes as having more of them, and “Snakes” as having the sort of über-riff that is worthy of video-game immortality; but Self-Defense is hardly riffless (cf. “Blood from Zion”). Even Death Is This Communion (2007), the band’s most “experimental” album (according to Pike), keeps experimentation firmly on the margins, as preludes, postludes, and interludes, hardly troubling either the typical bent of the songs or the overall sound. Thus, small differences of degree submerge occasional, tantalizing differences of kind.

I mentioned before that HOF is a two-speed band, either full ramming mode or smoke-clearing-after-the-battle rumination, menace, and self-regard. Of the two, I go for the lower gear, and a cross-section of such songs demonstrates both the essentally static nature of the band’s career and the subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, changes between records. “Thraft of Caanan” (2002) could be “Death is This Communion” (2007) could be “Through All Dark We Pray” (2010) could be “King of Days” (2012). All exhibit the doom sound in full regalia: the heaviness of Fate; the certainty of Death in the slow, tidelike motion of Time; or some other such statement ending with a capitalized, abstract Noun. It’s music that sounds smelted; you can hear iron and sweat, smoke and blood. Fuck, you can almost taste it. But within this essential continuity, differences: the jaggedness of “Thraft,” pared back to a near-hypnotic groove on “Communion”; the latter’s minimal riff extended on “Through All Dark” into something more Sabbath-flavored; while “King of Days” has the vibe of a heroin anthem from an old Alice in Chains record. Differences, yes; but never any sense that the band is building toward anything, that this series forms part of a growing edifice, where each album is a stone lain atop the last. With HOF, the edifice was there from the start; the band have just been exploring chambers within it, some a little more classical, some more modern.

Again, the contrast with Mastodon is illuminating. Mastodon build songs out of smaller parts, adding them together, and then trying to create bridges between parts, or just letting them jangle against each other, in either case hoping that they add up to something greater. This is seldom the case with High on Fire. They don’t build up and out; they dig down, mining the guts out of a single riff, burying themselves and us in their groove. With Mastodon, at least as late as Crack the Skye, you’re just getting a taste of a riff when they change it on you. HOF cram it down your throat until you choke on it. There are no sudden shifts, and sometimes no feeling that a chorus or bridge (insofar as they exist) is climaxing a song. Instead, what you feel is a vein exhausting itself: walls collapsing, oxygen giving out, tissue beginning to die. You can’t really like or dislike part of a HOF song—you either take it whole or don’t take it at all. It’s carved out of a single stone; its success or failure is integral, not additive.

That stone isn’t only the monotony of a single power-chord progression, or riff disguised as such, but of a sound: one that depends on voice and instruments all saturated and downbeat-pounding on that riff together. Listening in particular to the earlier albums, you sometimes get the feeling that the musicians have all found the same frequency, and that the recording is in the process of shaking itself to pieces. (Remember that movie we all had to watch in science class, of the suspension bridge coming apart, the roadway twisting like a sheet of cardboard, the cables snapping, the towers crumbling? Like that.) These are unfinished, half-emerged carvings in noise—noise feeding on itself, muddling everything into a hivelike, motoric drone.§§ Pike’s endearingly sloppy guitar playing only multiplies that overall noisiness: double-tracked solos a la Tony Iommi, big bends with a wavering semitone to grate against, speedy runs that feature a wildly-picking right hand.

Maybe one’s whole listening life isn’t about coming to terms with noise. Hell, maybe music is a way back to noise, and not the reverse …

Mastodon, then, are building a cathedral, crafting a legacy with a self-consciousness about and worshipfulness toward rock tradition befitting a prog-metal band. The idea of the quest, which has been with them through all their albums since 2004’s Leviathan, folds into the broader quest for a sound, a voice, and nicely into the Rushian arc. With Mastodon, one can’t really predict the next record from the last. Nothing could be less true for HOF. I’d as soon ask a record store clerk what the new High on Fire sounds like as ask a druggist how their latest shipment of aspirin is. Their career is a flat line, slope 0, with bumps and divots, hillocks and gullies. If we want to imagine anything like directional change—and I’m always looking for it, and making it up when I don’t find it—I would think not arc, but straight line with a negative slope. Let’s borrow a word from the band, redefined for our purposes: devilution. Here, perhaps, is the Cartesian equivalent of that mining I described earlier: a distilling, a purifying, an attempt to become yet more themselves, to dig down to the essence of something that has been present from the beginning, only in mixed form.*** That they seek this purity in dirt, in noise, is, I think, what makes them so interesting, and what keeps me listening.

 

* I don’t mean to imply that this template begins with Rush, or progressive rock more generally; it is clearly part of the way an artist’s career is measured against his or her life. But since a rather interesting idea has emerged, I’m going to let the discussion stand.

** It’s different for a band that reach their meridian and then stall, or for the band that achieve something toward the beginning of their career and then find they have nowhere else to go, no way to really build on that sound. In such cases, after a few iterations, we start to get the feeling that the band are performing themselves. Rage Against the Machine, Tool, maybe Living Color. Consider Tool: after they had fully achieved their sound with the brilliant Aenima, less by transformation than by organic expansion, the few subsequent albums—each longer-awaited and more elaborately packaged—added nothing to what they had done before. A few great tracks on Lateralus, and a couple of quite good ones on 10,000 Days. But those albums sound a little forced; the psychedelic, faux-Eastern, fractally-multiplying minimalist sound had already been perfectly realized; all they could do now was lard it. Of course, such an assessment is much influenced by the first album one hears by a particular band, as well as by the listening background that brings one to them. (By the way, that Rush were considering what it meant to be a band on the other side of a megahit like Moving Pictures (and their resilience in the face of this) is suggested by the chorus (and title) of “Marathon,” from Power Windows (1986): “From first to last/ The peak is never passed/ Something always fires the light that gets in your eyes/ One moment’s high/ And glory rolls on by/ Like a streak of lightning that flashes and fades in the summer sky.”)

§ For me, the pairing goes deeper. The Bowery Ballroom, the first place I saw High on Fire, is the same venue where I first saw Mastodon back in 2005, after waiting a very good hour in front of the sold-out club for the bouncer to grace me with a point and curl of the index finger.

§§ I may have parodied the idea of metal being a drug in “Vermis Odium” (02.11.13), but only because I am intrigued by metal’s (like all music’s) potentially therapeutic use; I’m actually still waiting to receive a scientific paper to this effect from a presenter at April’s Heavy Metal and Pop Culture conference. Seriously, there’s a reason I listen to Miles Davis on the way into work and Napalm Death on the way home. Distortion, noise itself, has to be therapy. Writing this post called to mind an experience my partner and I had while working in Spain as WWOOFers back in 2002. At one of the fincas, the proprietors informed us of a technique where one person lay relaxing belly up on the ground while another blows into a didgeridoo, moving the end of the instrument all around the person on the floor, about a foot away from their body. I don’t remember what the outcome was supposed to be, or whether I felt anything when it was done to me; but it was clearly intended to be therapeutic (relaxing? exciting?), and it strikes me that the sort of all-consuming distortion HOF trades in might have a similar effect on the listener. A vibrational purging, like those tractors with a vise on the front, that shake the ripe olives out of a tree at harvest.

*** Or perhaps I have stopped writing about High on Fire here, and started writing about Meshuggah?