Tag Archives: meta-

Eight Years in the Pit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Seven Years in the Pit

Rather than spending the first paragraphs of this belated annual reflection flogging myself for the previous year’s scant output, wondering aloud whether this blog is still seaworthy, or is sinking under the weight of its own discursivity—if I am writing, as S.T. Joshi once wrote about Arthur Machen, around rather than about my purported subject (music, by the way)—if this is my comeuppance for asserting that, music being what it is, whenever one attempts to write about it, one has no choice but to write around it—that it is an absent center we drive toward, and as such the writing has to find a way of orbiting itself, of becoming its own center, for only by doing so will it find its way to the corona of the musical experience, that superheated margin, second only to the unassailable core, the thing-in-itself … but then you see I’ve written that paragraph after all. So I can move on to the topic of this year’s reflection: blogs versus books.

Over the past few years a couple of friends of mine, doubtless in an effort to humor me, have encouraged me to think about assembling the material on this blog into a book. It’s something I occasionally fantasize about: how it would be organized, what would be left out, whether some of these annual reflections might be assembled into a viable introduction.

Last fall I read Minding Movies, a book composed of selections from the blog Observations on Film Art, by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson. I bought the book because, though I’ve long admired Bordwell’s work, I found myself rarely visiting OFA. Much as I love the blog as an opportunity to “publish” my musical thoughts unimpeded, I’m still much more comfortable reading on paper—a good reason in itself, I suppose, to think of the work here in The Pit as a quasi-book. It was also a good opportunity to see how a couple of veteran academic bloggers had managed the print transition.

That Minding Movies was rather a disappointment forced me to consider the differences between the two media with a minuteness of attention I hadn’t before. Reading the selections, I kept wondering why the book hadn’t provided Bordwell and Thompson with the impetus to dig deeper, consolidate posts, and re-think issues, rather than just re-present their writing from the web. Instead, the posts are printed with addenda, which generally present a little more evidence for a point argued (sometimes from a reader comment), qualify assertions, and/or rebut responses.

The choice speaks volumes about the way we conceive of blog-based writing: finished enough to anthologize, but ephemeral enough to necessitate addenda. Or at least, some blog-based writing. One section of Minding Movies is dedicated to criticizing the state of film reviewing. Lots of opinions, Bordwell gripes, but few ideas. He touts the critical essay as a nice middle ground between blurby review and scholarly exegesis; he thinks the web is a “hospitable” place for such writing, and wishes there were more of it out there; and he clearly sees himself working in this vein. His lovely conclusion to “In Critical Condition”: “Web critics could write less often, but longer. In an era of slow food, let’s try slow blogging. It might encourage slow reading” (61).

As someone who thinks of himself as working in a similar vein, I can’t help but agree with Bordwell. (The quote even serves to justify my output … though, admittedly, the ratio between dwindling number and growing length has not remained equal.) And it must be said that the best “posts” in Minding Movies, including many of those about individual films and filmmakers in the latter half of the book, fit nicely into that category: longish, thoughtful, erudite but not (overly) academic.

That said, Minding Movies also serves as a sad reminder that the web has actually failed to foster just the sort of writing Bordwell would most like to see.* Too many of the pieces anthologized feel like fluff. This is true less often of Bordwell’s than Thompson’s, which are by and large shallower in their examinations, and occasionally fall into a irritating “so-and-so said X, now I’m going to rebut that in [#] salient points” format. They are also more oriented toward the business of filmmaking than Bordwell’s, a topic which, handled well, can be enlightening, but otherwise can sound depressingly close to a speech at a trade luncheon.

Now, I would guess that the fluffier pieces actually read better on-line. But even something that feels relatively weighty on the screen may look scant transferred to the page. Print is a painfully unforgiving medium; a book—paradoxical as it might seem—is still a much larger pond.** (I should add that I encountered a surprising lack of sensitivity in Minding Movies to the way different media shape expression.)

In keeping with the hybrid nature of the critical essay, Bordwell and Thompson strive for a light tone, even as they treat some fairly knotty questions of film art and craft. The desire not to sound like stuffy academics goes hand-in-hand with a generally positive vibe about mainstream Hollywood cinema, something that I think is supposed to sound maverick, but strikes me as hegemonic in the pop culture-sodden world of the humanities today. So Louis Menand, in that stuffiest of stuffy journals the New York Review of Books, is taken to task for writing a disparaging article about action movies; “David” and “Kristin” “are forced to conclude that literary intellectuals and workaday reviewers do not have the inclination or expertise to think about cinema as deeply as their counterparts routinely reflect on the other arts” (xi). I’m not sure who “forced” them to conclude this. They do make a blanket assertion to this effect in the previous paragraph, and Menand is clearly supposed to be the representative “literary intellectual.” It feels like a cheap shot, particularly since they put him against Charles Rosen “dissect[ing] the intricacies of musical composition,” seemingly oblivious to the fact that if you gave Rosen a Judas Priest record, he would behave very much as Menand did with The Rock. (N.B.: Alex Ross, who they mention earlier, would be a better foil for this sort of thing.) The bias of some intellectuals against Hollywood per se may be unjustified, but to assert that “they” can’t think about “cinema” per se is as unjustified a generalization.

There are perils in the desire to keep a blog non-academic—perils inherent in being a blogging academic, which become (once again) that much more apparent between the covers of a book. The long post called “The Anatomy of the Action Picture” is most egregious in this regard. It wanders along with nary an acknowledgement that it is rehashing the sort of plot analysis English teachers (“literary intellectuals”?) spout in freshman-year courses. Chekhov’s gun gets a passing mention; but not until the conclusion (and then again in the addendum) does Bordwell note that Hollywood’s narrative conventions were adapted from the short story and the play. Nor does the post make any effort to engage with a century’s worth of narrative theory. It’s a missed opportunity; a writer of Bordwell’s acuity would be up to the difficult task of translating some of these ideas for a general readership and applying them to the plots of action films. In dialogue with said theory, this might make for a very interesting analysis. But in the limbo of the blog, it reads like Freytag’s Triangle (or whatever) fell on him like Newton’s apple.†

In the end, if the goal is to convince me that “the action movie needn’t be considered a mindless splatter of violent spectacle and CGI. It can have a cogent architecture” (122), I would answer, “So can tract housing.” So, for that matter, can the old 42nd-Street triumvirate of porn, slasher, and kung fu. That spectacle can advance plot without ceasing to be spectacle is hardly news, and is as true of episodic narratives as more “tightly-woven” plots (e.g., “You killed my master”). Action sequences are nominally integrated in order to give them a raison d’etre, but they are bloated far beyond what is necessary to merely advance the plot because, after all, they’re what we’ve paid to see. A minimal amount of horizontal movement is the penny paid to plot for the pound of vertical expansion that it is the logic of spectacle to maximize. Menand’s NYRB quip—that action movies alternate two minutes of dialogue with ten minutes of action—might be a rhetorical exaggeration, but it’s hardly a lie, as Mr Spock knew. Formulaic structures make wonderful vessels for just such mindless splatter, whatever the fluid in question. As always, it’s what you do with the formula, how you fill it and how you squeeze it, that makes the difference.

The “Anatomy” raises a related, and tricky, question. It’s the role of research, and the responsibility (if such can be said to exist) of the blogger, particularly the academic blogger, to draw on research in building his or her arguments. In fact, Bordwell himself calls for more “research essays” on the web. Let me inject my own experience as a blogger here. I’ve noticed that, as the blog has grown (and I’ve grown with it), the work on it has become somewhat less impressionistic, or at least that impressionism has been folded into a broader agenda. It has become more and more difficult to post before doing at least a minimal amount of reading. (This may be for better or for worse; I miss the innocence of some of those early posts; it was occasionally a strength.) But once again, the blog presents itself as an interesting hybrid: I don’t feel the need to scour everything that has been said about a subject, as would be my duty were I writing a book, at least an academic book in my field. Hence, again, the problem, or at least challenge: making the blog book-worthy would (for me) necessitate a great deal of revision based on yet-to-be-done research in the plethora of genres I write about. And that might end up tilting the writing out of the equilibrium both Bordwell and I seek.

That said, I’m in a somewhat different position from Bordwell and Thompson. They are film scholars, and as such an erudite flippancy sits easily with them. Whatever my issues and my wishes, they clearly know their shit. I’m not a music scholar; I just play one, pseudonymously, on the web. Matt Hills’s distinction between what he terms the “fan-scholar” and the “scholar-fan” (originally in Fan Cultures, Routledge, 2002; I came across it in Chris McDonald’s superb academic monograph Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class, Indiana UP, 2009) might be helpful here. The former category describes someone who produces work based on intensive research and deep familiarity with their subject, but who is without formal academic training. Their work has no currency in the academy. The “scholar-fan,” on the other hand, is an academic by training and/or profession, but presumably also a confessed inebriate of his or her subject of inquiry; such an assertion would flout the objectivity expected from academic writing, though, of course, it may be absent from, or only marginally present in, the academic work.

The kink in this model is that “scholarship” is too broadly conceived. I am an academic, but my degree is in a non-music field. (It is actually a hybrid doctorate, part studio (creative writing), part traditional English.) Nor am I a professional music writer, where my authority would be established based on that of the publications in which my work had appeared. Like the “fan-scholar,” I am driven to write about music because of my dilettantish passion for the subject, not my expertise. Yet, I’m not quite a fan-scholar, either: because I have academic training and an academic career; because my discipline is at least related to music under the broader umbrella of the humanities (i.e., I’m not a civil engineer); and because English itself has morphed under the pressure of something called cultural studies, that amoeba which, by turning everything into text, threatens to consume all humanistic fields of inquiry. It’s an odd position to occupy, at once inside and outside scholarship, somewhere on the continuum between scholar and fan. But it’s not necessarily a bad one. As I’ve noted here before, bringing other discourses to bear may be the only way to really grasp (at) music; a cautious interdisciplinarity might provide the key to some worthwhile insights.

And so we return to the idea of hybridity: just as the blog, as Bordwell notes, might be a “hospitable” place for writing that stands on the threshold between the popular and the scholarly, so the blog might also be a natural place for an academic to write about subjects on the margin of his or her field, and to create work that throws lines across boundaries and tests waters, rather than soldering up unsinkable arguments.

Turning a blog into a (successful) book, then, is not as simple as it sounds. What the experience of reading Minding Movies taught me, at least, was that the body of work on a blog is very much its own entity: a growing text that puts out branches in different directions. At their best, blog posts are passionate and thoughtful sallies at ideas that are revisited in time, forming an evolving network of linked ideas, not a coherent argument developed over a set number of pages. A blog may form the bulk of the material for a book; but doing so would mean finding a way to consolidate the output via research and revision. On a blog, ideas necessarily repeat themselves. Readers will come at them from different angles, in different orders, across wide swathes of time. I myself return to ideas from different angles; this difference of approach subtly modifies them, as does rethinking them over the space of possibly months or even years. (Maybe I should have read Minding Movies over the course of a few months rather than a few days.) It means that certain themes and ideas continue to obsess me, as they do Bordwell and Thompson; and as material builds up organically across the blog, I return to them. Considered cumulatively, they express a philosophy about one’s subject and the manner in which it should be approached. A book fails if it tries to function in this way. We may disclaim or revise some of the ideas contained there later in our lives; but that is at least an article … if not another book.

*

As per tradition, I’ll end this end-of-year reflection with some reflections and not-quite-addenda (ha!) on the previous year’s work.

Regarding, “Elastic” (5.16.16), I came across a quote in Miles’s Autobiography that might serve as an epigraph. About the Second Great Quintet, Miles says, “Instead of developing the new music live which we were playing on records, we found ways to make the old music sound as new as the new music we were recording” (279). My note about the prominent role accorded to tempo in “making the old music sound new,” at least the burners, has a funny contemporary resonance. In Ubiquitous Listening (California UP, 2014), Anahid Kassabian notes that the last couple of decades has witnessed a proliferation of new genres “according to all sorts of parameters, though most obviously beats per minute” (10). Thus tempo itself takes on the sort of genre-defining role traditionally accorded to melody, harmony, rhythm, and instrumentation, at least where the music itself is concerned. I would guess this is due to the diminished importance of harmony et al. more generally. On Four & More, the radical ramping up of tempo is partly responsible for attenuating the importance of melody and harmony, and heightening the role of timbre and rhythm, in Miles’s improvisations.

As readers might have noticed, race became a prevalent theme in half of last year’s posts (“Un/coiffed” and “Samson in old Kentucky”). Maybe it’s the last presidential election. I don’t have anything to add here, except to say that I will likely return to my provisional comments about race in jazz. (By the way, in case it doesn’t come though in the post: I really like Judge Priest. The fact that it’s such an endearing movie makes its racial politics that much more depressing.)

And what with the negatives in my titles? “UN/coiffed,” Left UNsaid”; even the original title of “Flesh Against Steel” was “NO Cowbell” … signs of the blogpocalypse? No clue. But while I’m on the subject of the cowbell, into which I read some pretty heavy symbolism vis-à-vis Carcass’s evolution: after posting, I remembered the cowbell in Pantera’s “Drag the Waters,” a song I described way back in the early years of this blog (“Deulogy,” 1.4.11) as “seedy and grating, a rotting wharf of a song, bottomlessly vile.” But what a different cowbell that is! The cowbell on Carcass’s “Rotting” is the clichéd upbeat heavy-rock break; on Pantera’s “Waters,” it’s anything but. (A manhole cover beaten with a lead pipe; a buoy tolling dully in the mist where men with shepherds’ crooks fish for corpses; etc.). As much as musical context, the difference might be in the tone of the cowbell itself, as I learned when I went to buy “a” cowbell (to play with a bass drum pedal) a number of years ago, when 48th Street was all that. I ended up staring at a wall of cowbells. Who knew there were so many sizes and shapes of cows?

I can’t leave this reflection without throwing in my few cents about the idea of reflection itself (jeez, Helldriver, how meta- can you go?), something I originally drafted as an endnote to the “Samson” post but deleted, cognizant of how much verbiage that poor post already had to bear. Reading around in film and popular music theory during this sabbatical, I’ve been struck by the way some recent writers (Bordwell and Thompson, but also Keith Negus in his excellent primer Popular Music in Theory (Wesleyan UP, 1996)) have frowned on the idea of a work of art reflecting the character of its historical moment, or Zeitgeist. As the argument goes, since the Zeitgeist itself is always an oversimplification of a historical period, which necessarily has many competing currents, and since audiences (of whatever) can’t hope to be representative of the populace as a whole, it’s impossible to draw a firm connection between social circumstances and the art of a particular period. As someone who is prone to make the occasional Zeitgeisty argument, and who has no deadlines to face but those imposed by my own conscience, I felt the urge to reply. Perhaps because he is trained as a social scientist, Negus is disinclined to commit to interpretation. He thinks it more pertinent for the theorist to analyze the how than the what. This seems to be because the how is more data-crunchable, more falsifiable, while the what always involves a certain amount of creativity and imagination—just sort of thing that makes social scientists anxious. As for Bordwell and Thompson: One can surely make a case for dominant or important trends in which a large number of people are involved, even if they do not involve everyone, or are not perfectly representative. Does the fact that a large number of Americans were revolted by the counterculture mean that the Summer of Love did not express something crucial in the nation’s psyche, and that the art produced in the late 60s didn’t reflect that? Does the Nevadan goat herder who never heard of 9-11 scuttle arguments that 9-11 deeply impacted American consciousness, and that this impact is, once again, represented in the country’s art? Hell, I’ve written stories that, only as I was completing them, or even after I was done, I realized (and I mean realized) were deeply impacted by 9-11. The fact that there’s a lot of lazy or glib Zeitgeist crit doesn’t mean that a well-handled argument for reflection can’t be deeply illuminating. Michael Wood’s America in the Movies is delightful precisely because he so imaginatively (and stylishly) constructs Hollywood’s vision of America from the plots and images of classic films. Clearly, there can be no myths without the idea of a widely-shared and identity-defining neurosis for the myth to respond to, “enacting an imaginary solution to an authentic dilemma” (xiii).

Wood is up front about a looseness of approach. Still, I’ll take his sort of graceful and creative floundering in the murk of interpretation any day over the parsing of weekend grosses. What’s the point of falsifiability if there’s nothing worth falsifying?

 

* “The net,” Bordwell writes in “In Critical Condition, “is just as hospitable to the long piece” (59) as to the short. But to say that the critical essay “can develop new depth of the web” begs the question of what forces within the culture would move us in this direction—or what about the technology itself would predispose us to it. It’s really a question of audience: that college-educated, curious public for which the critical essay is ostensibly written. Perhaps, in an age where even intellectuals complain about their shrinking and divided attentions, it’s quixotic to expect there will be a broad readership for the web-based critical essay. I don’t know.

In my assertion that the short (but not the fluffy) still dominates web writing almost a decade after “In Critical Condition,” I’m using a benchmark familiar to me: the word length limits for submissions to literary journals. The vast majority of electronic journals set very low word limits, and I’ve watched word limits in traditional journals (some of which have gone entirely on-line, others of which have added on-line content for shorter pieces) erode as well. There are of course exceptions that prove the rule: some journals have begun satellite publications sites for longer work, and scant few journals have been founded to provide a forum for longer work (many of them are print-only). The reasons seem obvious to me: electronic submissions have increased the overall number of submissions journal editors have to read; reading on-line is not the same as reading on paper; and, yes, it might just be true that the net has contributed to the shrinking and atomizing of our attention and ability to focus over long periods.

** I even came to wonder, based on how the book was produced, whether the publishers had taken less care because, well, it’s a blog anyway. But I think it’s less a matter of oversight than unclarity about how to transmute a blog into a book—as though the problem was the (mistaken) decision to retain something of the blogginess, to create a hybrid print form. So the font is wonky in the block quotes; some of the pictures are unclearly signaled; section transitions are unappealing, at least to my eye; the “David here” and “Kristin here” salutations from the web feel tacky. These are minor issues, perhaps, but seem symptomatic of the broader one. The decision to include urls in the addenda is also odd. Ah, maybe for the Kindle version they’re useful. Perhaps they figure the only people who buy this as a book rather than reading the blog itself will be pre-net dinosaurs, so they set out to make it look like … a TRS-80?

† 8. 11.17. Since posting, I’ve had some misgivings about this paragraph, and I thought it more logical to addend (?) than to revise. It could be argued that the classic models for analyzing plot are simply too much common knowledge to require a backwards nod. Likely true. I think what bothered me was the impression that (1) Hollywood’s storytelling “norms” are somehow indigenous to Hollywood, and (2) the addition of a “fourth act” to the three-act structure propounded by screenwriting guides is somehow without precedent. Exposition, Complicating Action, Development, and Climax, with an optional fifth part, Epilogue? This is almost identical in conception and language to the most traditional narrative model; the sole difference seems to be that the complication, which jump-starts the narrative in the classic model, is dilated. It would have been easy enough to add a qualifying phrase like “re-introduces and revises elements of classic narrative structure” or “elongates the complication of the traditionally-conceived short story,” or something like that. I should note that Bordwell mentions a couple of academic texts by he and Thompson where their ideas on narrative structure are more fully fleshed out; it’s possible that the fuller engagement with narrative models I’m asking for is included there. But it seems yet more important to provide such context for a lay audience. And so, again: blogs and books, books and blogs.

As for the tussle between episodic and “tightly-woven” narratives, Bordwell rightly notes the difference is one of degree, not kind; I have the feeling the argument would soon decay into haggling over the degree of the slope of the left-hand side of the plot triangle. For an author (a literary one) who has claimed spectacle must be nominally integrated into plot to have value, see Umberto Eco, Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. (I think so, anyway. It must be twenty years since I read it, and I got rid of the book. Enschuldigung.)

Left Unsaid

What to do when, returning from the restroom after the early set of Dave Holland’s quartet at Birdland, you find Mr. Holland himself occupying the bar stool next to yours? Sit there and fidget, of course. Allow the window of opportunity to close, and the guy sitting on his other side to grab his ear. Then, sulk into your coffee, thinking about all the things you could have been saying to Dave Holland.

There sat I, preparing those few, perfect, penetrating words, those well-sifted nuggets of wit, those giant squids of wisdom—things that would reveal me as neither nerdy starfucker nor blithering idiot. Things that, upon hearing them, Holland would grab my shoulder, and look deep into my eyes, and say: “Helldriver. You get it. Of all the pathetic rabble here, typified by this guy on the other side of me yabbing my ear off, you’re the only one who understands my music. And not just understands: you’re able to articulate it in such a pithy, tuneful way. The Bard could do no better.”

And so, writing and erasing phrases and sentences in my head, my time, my historic opportunity to actually speak to Dave Holland, slipped away.

Bars are for raconteurs. And blogs? One can always aspire. Which is why, rather than talking to Holland at Birdland, I find myself sitting at my computer, talking to the Holland in my head.

There he is, in his black leather vest and blue buttondown, elbows resting on the bar, shoulders hunched. His white beard is trimmed to the length of his hair, his energy bespeaks a man well younger than his years. The bartender, miraculously nimble, shakes and mixes. Ice tinkles; the maitre d’ stalks by. A couple of men rise and tug on their still-wet rain jackets. Holland’s drink arrives. Staring into my coffee, I wait for the right moment to elbow him softly in the ribs.

*

H.D.: “Dave? Dave Holland?”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Man, that was a hell of a set! You weren’t kidding when you said you guys’ve been having fun!”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “You know, there’s two things I associate with Thanksgiving: turkey, and you. No relation, obviously. You’re what Broadway Danny Rose called a perennial.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Well, I beg to differ. Turkey may be better or worse from one year to the next, but you, you just get better. You know what, though. This year? I think you might’ve painted yourself into a corner. Seriously. But then all those cats you bring back with you—Potter, and at least one of the Eubanks brothers, and anybody near as good as Eric Harland—they get better every year, too. [Sotto voce] Hey, just FYI: you’re almost the only reason I drag my ass to Birdland. Their programming sort of sucks, if you’ll pardon moi. What can you do, with all these Broadway theaters around.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Doubtless. You gotta feel the love, though, if people are coming out to hear you in this weather. Of course, you’re from England, this is probably dry for you …”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “They do look like cats in the rain! Speaking of cats: I see you traded Robin for Kevin, and mixed Chris back in. You know that Extended Play: Live at Birdland disc you put out maybe a dozen years back, with Robin and Chris on it? The title is spot-on. If you could wear out a CD like a record, just by playing it over and over, I swear, that thing would be trashed. It would sound like a car driving on rims! Sometimes I feel like running that disc up and down a cheese grater, just to make it show how many times I’ve listened to it. Crazy, right? If only discs would wear properly!”

D.H.: “???”

H.D.: “Yeah, but I like the hard copy. Sounds better. Looks nice. Listen, Dave. How does this sound: joyous noise. I mean, to describe the sound of this band. Joyous noise! Eh? And this … wait, let me look at what else I scribbled on the back page of my little book here …”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “I know, remember this? It was huge in the ‘60s. Just a few years before you started playing with Miles. Miles going electric was probably as much a part of the Zeitgeist as McLuhan was.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Well, he’s basically saying that new technology, by changing the patterns and pace of life, changes the way people process the world. In the electronic age, people stop thinking separately and serially—words across a page—and start thinking simultaneously. And collectively. He’s sort of guru-y, I mean, he kind of relies more on repetition than making a logical argument. Maybe he’s trying to dramatize his own thesis. But, you know, I’ve started to wonder if he’s right, if that’s why nobody reads anymore …”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “I guess it is sort of like jazz. Everyone in the band linked to everyone else, thinking together. He’s imagining a whole society that way, ‘wired’ together by radio, TV … and now the net. But yeah, he’d probably make a similar argument about the changes in music post-World War II. Like the stuff you were playing tonight: it was definitely more static than other stuff of yours I’ve heard—more like electric Miles in some ways. And the band feels leaderless, in a good way. Like everyone’s contribution is on the same level. Potter and Eubanks aren’t any more prominent than you are, or Obed for that matter—he certainly didn’t wait to step into the spotlight! Guy’s a freight train. Makes Tain look tame.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Sorry, you’re right, the whole jazz-as-democracy thing has been done to death. Hey: do you remember saying once, on this very stage, that you hoped people were going to support Obama? Were you early that year? I was wondering … is that why you only said a few words at the beginning of the set? You were afraid you were going to let loose about the election?”

D.H.: “@#$%&!!”

H.D.: “Easy, Dave! Don’t make me say Brexit! Brexit Brexit Brexit! There, I said it!”

D.H.:”%$#@!”

H.D.: “Man, they’re going to throw us out of this place! And you still have another set to play! …. Seriously, though—I love that you guys played straight through like that, with only a few pauses, no words. I’m sure the Birdlanders appreciated it, too—you know, us Amer’cans want to make sure we get our money’s worth! More bang for the buck! No, really, it felt very organic. That’s part of what made it seem so totally cooperative. Well, maybe not entirely …”

D.H.: “???”

H.D.: “I’m thinking of that blues lick Kevin came up with. He didn’t have to move his left hand at all to play it, right? But you were jumping halfway across the neck! Which you did effortlessly, by the way, or it sure seemed that way. I thought it was only horn players who could mess with bassists that way, not guitarists. You’ve played with enough of ’em to know.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “That’s funny, I didn’t think of him at all. You know who I did think of, listening to you tonight? Jaco. I’ve never thought of Jaco before, listening to you. Maybe it was all the harmonics—you know, ‘Portrait of Tracy,’ ‘Onkonkole y Trompa,’ that stuff on his first solo record. Beautiful. But it wasn’t just you; Kevin, he sounded like Hiram Bullock! Maybe partly because this band, like you said, sans Potter, was originally a power trio, I thought of those ‘punk jazz’ recordings from the late ‘80s, N.Y.C., with Jaco and Bullock, and Kenwood Denner on drums. Man, I really love Eubanks’s sound: hyper-distorted, breathy, lots of noise; and then, out of this ambient cloud of distortion, he’ll just strangle out these runs that cut you. I like how he’ll shift between sludgy power chords and funk progressions. The tunes are all really open, too, so they gave him plenty of room to wail.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Oh, c’mon, what’s wrong with ‘power trio’? It’s a compliment. I’m a power-trio junkie. I could live on nothing but power trios. Well, power trios and Nanaimo bars. I already wrote it down, anyway, so there. Hey, what about this: Holland’s band plays a rambunctious world music. (It’s good I read this shit back to myself—half the time I can’t read my own handwriting later on. Club’s too dark to be writing in anyway. Pencil’s dull, too. And look at how shitty the paper is, you can’t even dog-ear a page without breaking it.)”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Okay, okay, ‘world music’ is sort of a cop-out term. But there was something so … primal about it. I mean, some of what Potter was playing? They weren’t runs; they were calls. I could almost believe he was gonna make it stop raining. And Obed …!”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “I guess I’m trying to capture what seems different about this band’s sound. Usually, your compositions sound like—now don’t take this the wrong way—sound like really sophisticated cop-show music …”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Yeah, I like Streets of San Francisco, too, but I was thinking more The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3. The original, obviously, with Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. Like, if Pelham was directed by Michael Haneke. No, wait: scratch that. I hate when arts writers do that shit—‘it’s like so-and-so baking a cake with so-and-so in an oven made by so-and-so, and then running it over with so-and-so’s SUV’ … man, I hate that shit.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Oh, I’m glad you hate that shit too!”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “You know, for a figment of my imagination, you can be remarkably uncooperative. And I resent the suggestion that I’m throwing out names as a smokescreen for my own critical inadequacies.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “[Sigh] You’re right, I did say ‘show.’ Some people in the U.S. say ‘show’ when they mean ‘movie.’ I usually don’t, it’s sort of a Rocky Mountain thing. But to get back to the, ahem, rambunctious world? Obed. I loved the vocalizing—mouth and drum. He makes his toms sound like talking drums. Or does he have one back there? Look, you can’t see the drums hardly at all from this side of the bar, at least where they’re set up tonight. This one night, though, I timed it right, got a seat on the other side of the bar, and the drums were set up so that I could watch Rudy Royston from behind the kit. It was like taking a master class. Unbelievable. From here, though, you have to sit up just to see the cymbals over the bottles. And Kevin, I could only see the back of his left hand—see him not move it on that lick. You know, the one time I got to see John McLaughlin, he was playing electric, Dennis Chambers was on drums—you can just imagine what those two sounded like going head-to-head—at The Bottom Line. The Bottom Line was kind of a shitty place to see music—historic, but shitty—historically shitty, maybe—I don’t know if you ever got a chance to play there. No? Bully for you. Anyway, I was sitting way over on the right. My one chance to see McLaughlin, and he played half turned away from me the whole night. I couldn’t see his hands at all!”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Yes! What a band that was! Did you ever see the movie they made about the Isle of Wight festival?”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Well, don’t bother. At least, if you want to see yourself. They gave maybe thirty seconds to Miles’s band. I think you appear for like two seconds, and John for two, and Chick, and Jack, and then the camera swoops out, and that’s it. The Hendrix footage is decent—better than Woodstock’s. You know what, though. These cats you’re playing with tonight? I think they could hold their own against any band Miles put together.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “I know I’m digressing. I’m making a valiant effort to bring this back on point. But I didn’t have that much to say in the first place, and this is a mock-up of a bar conversation. Besides, I have to fill all this white space, and I have all these little black marks to use.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “No, I don’t really know why. I just have to. Why do you have to make all those notes?”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Well, you better drink up, then, I’ll get the next round. No? Next Thanksgiving, then? Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to stay for the second set. But I live in a land far, far away. Besides, I have start writing, before you and everything else disappears.”

 

This post is dedicated to Rupert Pupkin.

Six Years in the Pit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

Down … down …

 

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

Five Years in the Pit

Dear J.E.,

I’ve been thinking a lot about a comment you made in an email a few months ago. Right before signing off, and after some typically ear-opening remarks about music, you wrote (ahem): “Am I blogging now? Just wanted to share some of what goes on in my head while I listen to music. It would be nice to blog on jazz, but there are so many far more knowledgeable folks out there writing with more depth on the subject.”

I must have suggested to you at some point that you start a blog, and I took the above to be your answer. But—perhaps unjustly—I read something else in those words … something that left me with a strong desire to respond, and in responding, to clarify a little what I’ve been trying to do here. This year’s end-of-year reflection seemed like a good place to do it, especially since this one marks half a decade of activity, and some seventy-five posts about music.

“Why blog?” was the question I asked myself back in 2010, in the Pit Stop’s inaugural post. Some of what I wrote then anticipates what I am thinking now. Here is the most relevant passage: “Why should I [emphasis added] write about music? I’m not a musician, at least not a very good one. Nor am I a music historian or musicologist, so my ability to analyze music and put it into any sort of meaningful context is severely limited. With whom, then, beyond a small circle of friends, would I share my thoughts? […] Enter the blog. The blog seems like an ideal space, to borrow Gunther Schuller’s pun, for musing. In many ways, the blog seems not so different from writing for a circle of friends, even as that circle is necessarily much wider. In a blog I don’t feel like I have the pressure to craft something finished, to speak as an academic from a fortress of authority, to contribute anything to a field. I don’t feel that I have to account for what has already been said about (say) Miles Davis, or Bela Bartok, or Tool. Hell, I don’t even have to have a goddamn thesis if I don’t want to (though I will certainly try, good little academic writer that I am). In fact, a more questioning, probing, personal, intuitive approach might be welcome in such a context, and even more likely to elicit comments and suggestions from the combination of idle browsers and occasional experts who cruise these blogs (this being the CUNY Academic Commons). It might even be that such an approach is warranted for writing about as slippery a fish as music.”

Clearly, I intended to have my cake and eat it too. On the one hand, I would do my best to take this project seriously—and so I have. On the other, the blog would allow me a leeway not granted to academic writing—and so it has. Even more, the last sentence dares to suggest that a lack of expertise, a looseness and multi-prongedness of approach, a somewhat different set of assumptions and expectations, might actually be an advantage for finding ways to speak about what is generally regarded as unspeakable. Alas, precious few experts have braved The Pit to chastise me for such a thought. But more on this presently.

At my orientation in graduate school, the poet Jackie Osherow said something that has stuck with me ever since: grad school was the place where we had the opportunity to test our ideas—you know, the ones we always have flitting around inside our heads, but that often disappear before we can communicate them, or even grasp them. Writing forces us to try to articulate, fail, try again, re-think, re-process, revise. More than recording thought, writing helps create thought in and through the process of articulation. The blog has been wonderful for precisely this reason: it has allowed me the opportunity to work out—to test, in Osherow’s words—ideas about music. The more I write and revise, the more the ideas evolve, resolve themselves, deepen; I am forced to rethink, and re-listen; I become a better thinker and listener in the process.

And yet, we both suggest that blogging is somewhat different from mere writing, because it implies sharing with a broader community. Whatever ideas I am working out, I am working them out before some ill-defined public. Two comments. First, developing a “public” voice has always been part of writing. Writing implies audience and distance, even of the self to the self between two points in time. Second—and this follows from the first: that public, however hazily-imagined or however much a mirage, does serve to raise the bar. Osherow’s words imply as much, for the place where our ideas were to be tested was the graduate-school community. If I’m not crafting something finished, it still has to be finished enough; I have to be prepared to own it, to account for it. I have found that, immediately after I hit the “publish” button on the blog, I go back and edit a piece one last time. It’s that moment you step out of doors and, suddenly, find yourself reflected in the gazes of passers-by. A public, imaginary or no, forces us to perform, to meet expectations, the way any social activity does. Language is one of the chief places that happens.

A blog, then, is the place where you “share what’s going on in your head while [or before, or after] you listen to music,” just like Gary Giddins, or Charles Rosen, or Lester Bangs share what’s going on in theirs.* Yet, the fact that you don’t have Rosen’s or Giddins’s or Bangs’s heads, ears, or words seems to have stopped you from wanting to share what you do have, at least outside of the occasional email. Now is probably a good time to address in greater depth the question of “knowledge,” or expertise, which I take to mean a combination of the technical (harmony, theory) and the historical, combined with either a broad awareness of music, or a deep engagement with one or a few genres.

I don’t mean to sound either glib or arrogant. Or perhaps I do. But … what makes my observations equally valid to Giddins’s, or Rosen’s, or Bangs’s, or yours, is that I had them, and Giddins and Rosen and Bangs (oh my) and you did not. (Or, sometimes, did: e.g., it was thrilling for me to discover that Giddins, too, had something to say about the incredible swing of the second movement of Beethoven’s Opus 111 sonata. Sometimes, the pleasure is in seeing our own thoughts reflected back at us.) Perhaps “equally” is too strong a word, too full of bravado. Or perhaps not. Giddins has doubtless heard much more music than I have—at least, much more jazz. But Giddins’s archaeology of tastes—a term I have used several times over the history of this blog—is utterly different from mine. Ergo, I bring a very different ear to, say, Ornette Coleman than he does. I do not hear Coleman the same way; I would venture to say that we hardly hear the same musician. Not that I don’t have much to learn from his Coleman; I do. Might he have something to learn from mine? And then I bring my Coleman to music Giddins would likely never care to listen to, much less write about. If I can articulate—try to articulate—my Coleman, the way Coleman reverberates not just with the music I have heard, but with my entire cultural formation … who is to say that won’t touch off, in the deep magic of language, reverberations in some other listener, like me, unlike me, about what makes Coleman their Coleman?**

What did the poet who said that Lester Young “plays melodies as if they were dreaming about themselves” know about jazz? Perhaps he knew a great deal. Perhaps he knew next to nothing. Can you tell me how much Lester Young he had heard, or whether he could tell a Texas tenor from a Windy City one, or whether he could spell a B-flat diminished chord? And yet, this line tells me more about Young’s playing than any harmonic analysis I could muddle my way through. It works because it touches off an almost obscene number of cords in my brain; it changes the way I hear Lester Young, and other jazz musicians besides him. The point here is absolutely not to write off theory (about which the little I know, I love), or replace knowledge with some half-baked ideas about poetry. It is rather to expand and diversify and honor the languages we have for touching, for thinking about, for processing music. It’s for phrases, thoughts, sentences like that one—sometimes theoretical (if I can grasp them), sometimes cultural-historical, sometimes metaphorical—that I search in my reading, sifting through hundreds of pages for those nuggets of gold.

And you, my friend? How many jazzheads in their forties listened to Manowar when they were fourteen, and then went on to became acid-addled prog-fusion freaks, and then got into Latin American and Afro-pop, etc., etc.? “Archaeology of tastes” is actually too static a term for the way we listen. I like the image of layering; but since my contention is that all the music from our past continues to influence the way we listen to the music of the present, something more dynamic is called for. Suggestions?

Am I blogging now? Yes, quite clearly I am. I’m never not blogging, in the broadest sense of thinking in words with the intention to revise and share them, and using the internet, when appropriate, as a medium to do so. So, my friend: Listen to the words in your head as much as to the music. Share them. Test them. Remember that our generation, the monstrous afterbirth of the rock-‘n’-roll one, was supposed to be predicated on the idea that we’ve all got something to share. And then along came the internet, one big intellectual mosh pit. Hallelujah! So what are you waiting for?

To the death,

Helldriver

*

As per usual, a few thoughts about the last year’s output, which, like year four’s, was a little scant. No reason to seek forgiveness from the blog-god; blogging has its rhythm, and it appears to mirror that of the Bx19 bus on 145th Street: three or four in rapid succession, then like forty-five minutes without. Might as well walk. No use complaining, either. It is what it is.

I find myself saying that more the more I age: it is what it is. One thing that does strike me as I look over the last year’s work is how references to aging have come with increasing frequency. I’m not sure what to make of this. Oh, yeah: I’m getting old. That must be it. It is probably also due to my hearing loss/distortion, which has confined my listening for almost two years now to certain genres, instruments, and ranges, and forced me to process other music in new ways, when I can process it at all. My first year out of the city I kept up a blistering schedule of concert-going. But the distance, combined with the hearing problems, put an end to that. Live music has become something I do occasionally instead of twice weekly; I am confined mostly to recordings, or to retrospection and reflection. Locked away like Beethoven in my head, but without the gift of his mental ear, etc., music has become more reminiscence, more language. But then that has been one contention of this blog since its inception: that writing, far from simply being parasitic upon the music, enjoys a certain autonomy. Anyway, I think this is one reason the idea of an archaeology of tastes has remained so attractive: as music becomes more and more a matter of memory, so the different genres and concerts and recordings and listening experiences compact against each other, blend with each other, speak to each other, like the bodies in adjacent graves in Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo.

Before I sign off from what is already an overlong fifth-year reflection (but hey, five years, woo-hoo, cohetes and pitos), one that threatens to overwhelm rather than supplement the year’s production (it is, after all, a reflection built on top of a reflection, and with only seven or so posts in the interim), I should throw out a line to the other half of this blog, that strange beast entitled The Payphone Project, which, half-asleep and probably a little hungover, I thought up one morning at some city café. I’m coming to feel that, post- the original couple of theoretical posts, the shorter the text, the better; I have even gone back and pruned the later ones; they might need more pruning yet. I do not know what the future of this project is, or whether it has already exhausted itself. I just know that, although it does have a use-by date, it needs a rounder number to feel complete, and, when that number is reached, and the theoretical and aesthetic ends do seem exhausted, I will abandon it to float in cyberspace, blissful, Buddha-like, and return entirely to music, at least until such point as some other fetid idea occurs to me, in some fetid café, on some fetid morning in the fetid, fetid future.

 

* It seems to me that one hallmark of internet communication has been an evolution toward increasing brevity, informality, and quasi-communality. Maybe the best thing about the advent of social media, just as the movies were maybe the best thing that happened to the novel, is that they allowed blogs to evolve for purposes other than mere news-sharing. For those of us who grew up with and (more important) cling to print media, or to the practices and mindsets of print culture, a blog can be what it was originally marketed to be, i.e., a mechanism for self-publishing … albeit one still hobbled by the habits begotten by the on-line environment.

** And anyway, knowledge and depth come from years of experimentation in the crucible of language. How much of his earlier writing does Giddins disdain? Did you know that Rollins disowns, or at least claims to be disappointed by, almost every solo he’s ever recorded? I’d love to believe that every post, every bit of writing, is a stop along the pilgrimmage toward a mecca of understanding—this no matter how flawed is each bit, no matter how jagged or roundabout the trajectory, and no matter how endlessly deferred the goal. Thought isn’t static; we keep revising it, hopefully, toward some greater depth over the course of our lives, or abandoning it for something else, with that same stupid faith that appears every time the words start flowing, and disappears every time they stop.

Four Years in the Pit

Ah, work, work, work. Groan, expire, reanimate, groan again. The life of a property owner. Pools of blood to be drained and refilled, iron maidens to scour of clotted flesh, eternal fires to stoke and bellow, darkbulbs to change, visitors to mulch, dung to fling. The man-eating hogs have to be slopped, the man-eating cows milked, the coop of the man-eating chickens swept and aired, the seeds of the man-eating plants sown. The vile trees, each and all ceremoniously hugged.

And in the midst of all this spring cleaning, re-no-va-tion!

You’ve probably noticed the rotten plank I’ve laid across the mouth of my pit. Don’t worry—no gag this plank, the pit still sings. But about your fall: it may be inevitable, yes; but once the renovations are complete, my hope is that you will have a choice as to the barbed spikes on which you land. You may, that is, hurtle into one of two nether regions: the Realm of Noise, which contains all materials categorized under “What I’m Listening To”; or the Realm of Silence, which, inaugurated last month, will contain everything associated with The Payphone Project.

Needless to say, the work is dangerous, passers-by hardly protected, “accidents” common.

But how else to fill the pools?

I know what you’re thinking: “You complain about all the work you’ve been doing, but thus far in 2014 you’ve abandoned the pit. You eked out a March post by one day, and on an entirely new theme. What gives? Why have you forsaken us?” Aye, reader. Guilty as charged. I have been pulled hither and yon by one thing or another. A long project, pit-worthy, even pit-relevant, was sent screaming into the world in early March, though I had intended for it to be done by the beginning of the spring semester. Then there was the matter of promotion materials to prepare—what can I say, I’m tired of the first circle, I find the virtuous pagans dull guests and abysmal hosts, all they talk about is living-in-desire-without-hope. Blah, blah, blah. I think I’ve accomplished enough to get bumped down to the fourth, possibly fifth circle—I’d love to work with the wrathful and sullen, knocking them on the heads with a bean-pole while they gargle and stew. I’ve heard tell that a white whale lives in this circle, swimming round and round its Stygian perimeter, and of a man named Ahab (Ay-hab) staked screaming to it; and of one Ethan Brand, who wanders in a vast ellipse, returning as regularly as a comet, where the road to Dis is cobbled with the kiln-cooked hearts of unpardonable sin …

Meantime, my virtuous pagans can muster nothing better than an unpardonable belch. Then they laugh like donkeys. They pick their teeth, too.

And then there is the matter of my hearing, or not hearing (e.g., “Reflections of Orrin,” 10.6.13). This will become a post in itself, eventually, as there is much to be said about it—not to wallow, of course, lest I be hit with my own bean-pole. This doesn’t mean the Realm of Noise will go quiet, though the last few months might suggest as much; but the content will shift somewhat, as it had already started shifting last summer. Concert and set reviews will become more rare, and will probably focus on musical epiphenomena when they do appear. There will be more commentary on readings about music than about music itself. But that’s for the future future; there are at least a dozen posts at various stages of completion to finish and get up, including that ever-belated magnum opus on Domenico Scarlatti, which, with a little diligent work, may finally see the dark of pit this summer.

I can hear enough old music in my head to keep writing until the end of time.

So, as for the desert of the last few months, take heart: the pit is coming a-dead again. As anyone who has kept a blog knows, this blogging thing is not for the sprinter. I was a miler in college—that’s water, not land—so I get pacing, timing, splitting to within a few tenths of a second. And if I ever start to flag, I scroll through some recent posts on Tony’s Thoughts, admire the vastness of his archives, and put my shoulder to the wheel again. (I don’t know what the man eats, but it clearly has fiber, and vitamins to boot.)

As I have contributed less in the last several months, so I’ve surfed the Commons less as well—much to my regret, as the Commons continues to grow, and its musical offerings have expanded. Doing my year-end review provides an excuse to catch up (and spring break gives me a smidge of time to do so). The GC Music Program Community Portal is a go-to site—and when you do go-to, make sure to have a calendar handy, as you will find lectures and conferences and concerts, oh my, more than enough to addle the brain and sully the ear of the most committed CUNY musicophile. Maybe even more exciting is the nascent spinoff Open Music History Project, now in its prodigious infancy, and seeking contributors. Helldriver, whose corpse putrefies before the collective knowledge of CUNY’s music scholars, can never aspire to be more than a reader. But readers have their demands. Let him down, dear scholars, and it will be your flesh he scours from the iron maiden next spring.

Have you seen Dean Reynolds’s series of posts about winter Jazz Fest? A hearty kudos to Dean for busting his hump to finish out those posts with the semester full-on—trust me, I know how hard it is to juggle—and for the insightful comments about the music, musicians, crowds, and venues. I look forward to catching more as he catches more live music in NYC. Besides Reynolds, there are two other ethnomusicology grad-student bloggers, one a writing fellow at Baruch and a horn-player for the Rude Mechanical Orchestra—yes, the groove that has kept your spirit and mine up at any number of protests—the other interrogating the “ethno” in ethnomusicology, among other things, at the wonderful Mu-sing-ing blog (love the story behind the name). A fourth grad student, in theory (not the student; the subject), has posted a series of papers that fly swallow-high over my head. Rounding it all out is the Sonic Cinema course blog, where enrollees post their pre-presentation thoughts on noise and information. Attali’s Noise beckon from my bookshelf. All in all, music writing of all stripes is flourishing on the Commons, making this reader feel at once warm, fuzzy, humbled, and well-fed.

Ach, Helldriver. The least you could do is provide url’s for the above. You could turn them into links, so that people can click on them and be taken to the blogs you mention, and so really do your bit for the Commons community. Your text is a stony, linkless soil. True, vile reader, true. But then I have an argument about hypertext, a perfectly self-serving, self-justifying argument. It goes like this: I am reading on the internet. The paragraph I am reading contains several underlined words or phrases to signify they will link me to another page by clicking on them. They are like whirlpools; my eye is drawn to them, sucked down into them; my finger automatically wanders to the mouse or link, clicks. What becomes of the surrounding text? A channel, a funnel to draw me toward the hypertext, and no more; when I click again, I will no doubt find more hypertext, and so on, and so on. Results: Death of the materiality of the sign. Destruction of the living texture of language. Conditioning to not see the signifier, to move past it rather than examine it, listen to it, celebrate its materiality. We might not call it reading at all: an eye that glides and pokes without ever really looking, a mind that wanders without ever really thinking. Hence my cri de coeur: no hypertext, never, not in the pit, no.*

Well, okay. Here you are: helldriver. Go ahead, click on it. It didn’t work, did it? Frustrated? Try again. Click harder, like you’re speaking to a foreigner as though he were deaf. C’mon, push your finger into the screen—beat that mouse! Working? No? Ha! Ha! Take that, internet! Take that, virtual world!

 

* And then the specious argument—which I think is passé at this point, since hypertext fiction died the ignoble death it deserved—that such texts allowed the reader to exercise creative authority. Please. It was never anything more than a more sophisticated form of manipulation. Sophisticated is maybe the wrong word; in hindsight, it appears quite crass and mechanical. My understanding is that these texts died in part because of the rise of actually collaborative, evolving texts, such as on Wikipedia and social media sites. This seems logical, and begs a bit more discussion. In The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes writes about the way a reader’s eye and mind dip in and out of a text, skipping here and there, though never the same bits twice (hence the pleasure of re-reading). Does hypertext create a particular “grain,” to (mis)appropriate Barthes’s term, in internet reading? Or is it rather a break, one that yanks the reader entirely out of the text? It depends, I guess, on how we define and limit the text: by author, or by reader. In a sense, the reader’s text is a newly-collaborative text created via the circuitous routes of his or her desire. This is marginally more creative than the hypertext fantasies of the ‘90s, since, although the reader doesn’t really contribute, his or her maze is still collectively assembled, and the reader-writer line is culturally more fungible. Anyway. When Helldriver feels snubbed, he writes things like the above.

Three Years in the Pit

Time again to wander through the well-stuffed graveyard of my literary ambitions, whistling as I go, bending now and again to re-read inscriptions, I, patriarch of this obscure family of stones, one such yard among many thousands, some long-ago abandoned, some barely able to keep up with their parade of dead, some of a rare gothic beauty, so that, like the Recoleta in Buenos Aires, they draw millions of visitors annually to leave flowers and pinwheels and scrawled messages for the departed. In these graveyards the stones never weather, even the most ancient engravings are still legible, and even the oldest flowers smell as though they had been picked this morning. The pinwheels never fade, though neither do they turn. And the stones cannot be overturned, and the ground neither heaves nor settles, and the graves will not be robbed. If a stone disappears, it takes the whole graveyard with it, and leaves not a trace—for what stone can claim the memory of the vanished yard itself, of a lineage, a house, a clan?

I am patriarch, but also gravedigger and stonecutter. I make memorials; this is my chief occupation. Custody may be shared with Mother Experience, but the stones are all mine. This arrangement pleases me. The children pass away so quickly, you see. But the stones, the stones remain. I find them very companionable. And if the graves are never robbed, there is good reason: there is nothing to steal. These stones are as much cenotaphs as the marble tablets in Whaleman’s Chapel. Says Ishmael to the reader, about the bereaved: “Oh! ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; who standing among flowers can say—here, HERE lies my beloved; ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these. What bitter blanks in those black-bordered marbles which cover no ashes! What despair in those immovable inscriptions! What deadly voids and unbidden infidelities in the lines that seem to gnaw upon all Faith, and refuse resurrections to the beings who have placelessly perished without a grave.”

The bodies—the music of experience behind each of these stones—are similarly lost at sea, in depthless Time; they survive only in the inscriptions, in the fantasy the latter create that a body is buried somewhere beneath. Dig as much as you like, your shovel-blade will never strike a coffin’s hull. If indeed Ishmael’s body was “but the lees of [his] better being,” then what price resurrection? Resurrection be d—-d! As for Faith, I’ll put mine in those marble tablets, or rather in the words cut in them. Aye, Helldriver, Ishmael’s happy fate is thine, as it is all of ours: “a stove boat,” says he, “will make me an immortal by brevet … [through] a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity.” Faith may be a jackal, but the poor creature starves here—the mere idea of death is not enough to sustain him. It is the inscriptions, only the inscriptions that sustain me; I hope and fear that they are my true substance; my eternity, dear Ishmael—like yours—is anything but speechless!

*

Wandering among the year’s stones, I suppose the first thing to note is that the Pit has diversified—not in theme or purpose, of course, but in style and form. Scott Burnham, in the marvelous final chapter of his 1995 book on Beethoven, calls for rethinking the way academics in particular talk about music.* While I can’t really blame Burnham for my own evolving approach to writing about music, his words do remain a touchstone and an inspiration. (Perhaps professors of music should be more careful what they wish for?) Overall, there is more in the way of creative dialogues with music—more fiction, pastiche, parody—more play—than in the previous two years, though these remain scattered among the more traditional reviews, cultural analyses, personal reflections, and thoughts on pedagogy.

I also wanted to take a moment to clarify one aspect of my process. I’ve noted that I sometimes revise and post older pieces. Now, if an event is involved—usually a concert—there is always a lag between experience and text, usually a few weeks, sometimes more. Sometimes, I work the lag into the piece, as in the year between the show and the post that became “Animistic” (5.18.12). Sometimes, a concert review becomes part of a longer reflection on a genre or band, or I’ll wait a few months and bundle some shorter reviews in a single post. Some pieces, like my by-now-mythical post about Scarlatti, have been in draft form for going on two years; I keep turning back to do more reading and listening; I dread the monstrosity it threatens to become. The point is that I only call attention to something as a revision if it was actually finished and drawer’d before this blog was launched back in 2010.

“Year of the Oh” (3.6.13): In an earlier draft of this post there was more about gender and ethnicity in jazz. A very interesting discussion a couple of weeks back about women in heavy metal prompted me to reflect. If one calls too much attention to an individual musician’s gender (or ethnicity, or whatever), it smacks of tokenism. If one overlooks it, one ignores the very real disparities that still exist, in jazz as much as in other genres. How then to balance drawing gee-whiz attention to (say) gender, and ignoring it entirely? Perhaps I was thinking about this catch-22 when I decided to cut (more likely I was just concerned about length). What makes Oh’s situation particularly interesting is that she is a threefold anomly: in terms of gender, ethnicity, and choice of instrument. I hardly had to face such a dilemma writing about Kazzrie Jaxen (“All That Is Solid,” 12.19.12): disparities notwithstanding, women have been a deep presence in jazz piano since the ‘30s, and Jaxen, bright and wandering star though she is, stands on the shoulders of that tradition, as well as the traditions of classical and avant-garde piano. Anyway, later at the same venue, though not during the same discussion, someone commented that in indie rock, the (electric) bass was one instrument it was “okay for girls to play.” Given Oh’s obvious and deep debt to rock, do we have this obscure rule of music/genre/culture to credit for her evolution into bass-playing bipedalism—and perhaps for the presence of other female bass players in jazz as well?

Reviewing some previous jottings, I actually came across a page of notes I had missed about the Soundscapes Vanguard show. The details are useless now, but the thoughts they prompt about the role of the bass in jazz and other musics might be worth mentioning. Because of its pitch and usual place among the rhythm instruments, the bass is always present, but not always heard—something I alluded to about William Parker’s playing in “Two Free Jazz Epitaphs” (12.7.12). It reminds me of something Tobin, the priest, says to the unnamed “kid” in Blood Meridian: that he’ll know the voice of God has always been present when he stops hearing it.** This is the bass: the Voice that keeps the stars aligned and the planets on their respective axes and orbits, though we only really notice it’s there when things go to hell. It’s the reason Hendrix played so much cleaner with Billy Cox than with Noel Redding: Cox, the Voice, keeps Jimi on the straight and narrow. Redding was but a slovenly demiurge. This is also why a great bass solo is such a show-stopper: if you’re actually going to hear the Voice, you need the quiet of the church; the rest of the music has to stop, or nearly stop, and this creates a space that doesn’t exist for the other soloists—even for a soloist who plays an unaccompanied set. A great bass player knows how to exploit that silence, to frame him or herself in the contours of the sound that precedes and follows.

From reading Charles Rosen’s companion to the Beethoven sonatas, I learned that the beginning of the Opus 2 No. 3, which I noted gave one of the young pianists at the Cincinnati World Piano Competition difficulties (“Closer Than They Appear,” 8.4.12), is “famously awkward to play”—which tells me a little something about the presumed hierarchy of virtuosities. And then just the other day I had the chance to see the marvelous 1998 film about Svatoslav Richter, The Engima, at the Walter Reade. There, Glenn Gould calls Richter “one of the age’s great musical communicators.” Unlike a Paganini or Liszt, who made the act of performing apparent to the listener, Richter used his “enormous personality … as a conduit” between the music and the audience, allowing them to focus on the music itself rather than the performance. This is fairly close to what I was trying to say about the Hungarian pianist Bogdan Dulu in the same post, using Emerson to do so. Emerson or not, I could hardly have said it with anything approaching Gould’s authority … or with that smarmy erudition, in what sounds suspiciously like a ‘30s Hollywood “British” accent.§

Finally, about an old, old post: I was listening to the Eric Dolphy/Booker Little Memorial Album the other day—this is the third installment in the Five Spot recordings, the quintet also featuring Mal Waldron and Eddie Blackwell. Listening to “Booker’s Waltz,” I realized something that had been a bit of a mystery for me when writing about Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” (7.26.10). There, I commented on the enjoyable effect produced when the accent from the drums comes a fraction of a beat before the bass. What I realized from “Booker’s Waltz”—and the same holds true for many if not all jazz waltzes—is that it’s a 2-against-3 rhythm with the two swung.§§ I guess this is what I meant when I said that some of the things that are fascinating and mysterious to a listener may be common practice to the musician.

It’s always fun to make such discoveries oneself, though I confess that, when I started this blog, I had rather hoped its place on the CUNY Commons would mean the occasional itinerant music scholar might wander by, sniff, squat, defecate, and pass on. (“A flatted fifth? Are you sure you don’t mean a flattened fifth? A squashed fifth—like a cockroach?”) Perhaps my good humor constipates them.

As long as we’re talking about graveyards, I should take this opportunity to chisel a line about two Commons yards abandoned or vanished: Footenotes and Librarianship in Lower Manhattan. The latter tossed the occasional asphodel into my Pit; many thanks for the recommendation of Chris McDonald’s book on Rush—it now occupies a happy place on my shelf between Will Hermes’ Love Goes to Buildings on Fire and Steve Waksman’s This Ain’t the Summer of Love. I hope the bibliographizing project goes well. As for Footenotes, obviously an enormous hole has opened in the Commons, like those gluttonous sinkholes swallowing homes all over Florida. I hope that with our collective hard work and goodwill we can manage to fill it. I promise to do my part, in the same manner I have always filled such holes: with prayers, slurs, cries, expletives, screams …

 

* “Rethinking music through the notion of presence and consciousness allows us to disturb the processual, cumulative standpoint to which we have grown so accustomed. If we can thus attenuate the valuation of process, we will be less inclined to read a composer like Schubert as the negative half of a binary opposition, as “process-minus,” or Beethoven simply as “process-plus.” Instead, we will ask why we value the presence of any given music and how we are present in the experience of that music. This is more difficult to do than it may seem, for the attempt to thwart current academic discourse is not to be construed as a refusal to think, in favor of some “be here now” haziness, a “dumbing down” in order to encourage emotional groping—it is rather the challenging business of talking about why music matters to us as something more than the occasion for a specialized branch of academic study. Indeed, this is the most difficult thing to do: although we all understand that music is vitally important to us, we do not yet possess a discourse equal to that understanding.” (Burnham, Scott. Beethoven Hero. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995.) Perhaps “discourse” could be pluralized?

** “When it stops,” said Tobin, “you’ll know you’ve heard it all your life. At night, when the horses are grazing and the company is asleep, who hears the grazing?” “Don’t nobody hear them if they’re asleep,” said the kid. “Aye. And if they cease their grazing who is it that wakes?” “Every man,” said the kid. “Aye,” replied Tobin. “Every man.” (Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian)

§ Or, as I have learned, a “cultivated Canadian accent of half a century ago.” See Mark Kingwell’s wonderful description of Gould’s voice in Extraordinary Canadians (the Gould chapter is currently available on line).

§§ If you tap out a 2-3 polyrhythm and then let your two-hand lag a little, you will hear this. You can work up to this by counting triplets for each three, and then, instead of tapping the two-hand directly between the second and third beats of the three-hand, tap two-thirds of the way through (on beat 3). In other words: ONE two three one two THREE one two three in the left hand, ONE two three ONE two three ONE two three in the right.

Two Years in the Pit

I came to the internet because I wished to write deliberately: to drive life into a corner, stun it with a few well-placed hammer blows, slit its throat, hang it from a hook, and gather up its blood in buckets; to slurp the marrow from its split bones, and mill its flesh into language; to prance about wearing nothing but a skin of words, without any neighbors around to point or phone the authorities. So I built my little cabin in this hollow in the CUNY woods, beside not a pond, but a tarn—a bleak, black, stygian tarn, in whose still waters I see my cabin reflected. There are days I step into the tarn, confusing the reflection for the reality. I feel a downward suck, and know the tarn could swallow me in one cold gulp.

No House of Usher mine, though. Slapped together out of old plywood and salvaged pine, my cabin is hardly taller than I, affording me nothing more than an escape from the elements, a space to store my few worldly possessions, and above all, a hiding-place from R.W.—which is to say, from the world.

R.W.! Little did I know by how long He would outlive me. And now I am in hell, and He in some other woody place He no doubt calls heaven, and we never have occasion to see each other anymore. I admit, I do sometimes miss hearing His voice, calling to me—H.D., H.D., come out and walk with me—; and some days, when the wind whistles through the chinks in my record albums, I imagine I can still hear Him. Sometimes I turn up the volume on my headphones, my version of the wax in Odysseus’s crew’s ears, until I have blotted Him out. Other times His voice is irresistible.

Maybe it’s just loneliness.

My cabin may not look like much, but you should see it from the inside: piled high with records, and cassettes, and compact discs, dirt floor to slat roof. They act as second walls, although from the inside it’s easy to believe them the walls themselves. Up, up from my humble headquarters through the stovepipe chimney my little antenna burrows, beaming my signal out to the world, just as the chimney does the smoke from the cooking flesh of my victims. For here in my cabin, I am just one more node in a noisy global conversation.

It’s why I never let R.W. inside: He always thought I lived a Spartan life, dressed in a hair shirt, knelt to pray on broken glass. Had He found out otherwise, He’d no doubt have felt betrayed. And then He never would have invited me over anymore, and I did so like Lidian, her home cooking. One does tire of beans, beans, beans. But R.W. was so easy to fool, I almost felt bad about it. I do love Him; you just need to take Him with a great big grain of salt … which is to say, a grain will not do.

And how would I survive without Him? I am poaching on His signal, His soil. It’s not even password protected. How could it be, with His ridiculous philosophy?

It’s true, I do raise beans and meaty fruits here beside my cabin, in this fetid viper’s nest rank with death, where nothing lives but as the shadow of itself. And so I have learned to content myself with shadow-beans, and shadow-fruits, until I can’t tell the difference anymore: drop the prefix, and one comes to believe Lidian and R.W. are the real shadows. They—the beans and fruits, I mean—come up early as my thoughts; I blood them generously from bucket and trough, coax them along, harvest them when they seem ready, which is about every few weeks, if I am diligent, and not too distracted by the other business of life. As with any noxious swampland, the task of clearing and draining it was difficult; but once your labor has redeemed you, the soil is that much more venemous for it.

Did I mention that the land on which I built my cabin is part of something called “The Commons”? Leave it to R.W. to come up with such an idea. As if it didn’t all belong to Him anyway!

Nor did He ever tire of reminding me that I live on His property. Then again, because I’ve chosen the coldest, darkest corner of these Commons to live, I might as well be the exclusive proprietor—be R.W. Himself! I ask no permission to build, plant, or hunt; I have all the privacy and dominion of a king in his hunting grounds. Visitors are rare—who would want to come to such a dim, dank hollow in such an otherwise beautiful country?

And who are these rare visitors? I don’t really know. They hardly ever come within easy shouting distance—probably they are afraid of breathing the pestilential air, perhaps of contracting some obscure infection, of becoming mere shadows themselves. And then there are the carcasses I leave in a ring about a mile away, as if to suggest a predator of unimaginable voraciousness that had claimed my hollow as its hunting ground. Not surprising, then, that no one has ever approached me while I’m outside … and all the moreso that the occasional few dare to sneak up and slip a note under my door. There is the footloose Mr Foote, an itinerant tinker; he occasionally still braves these cold, swampy lowlands, waves his stick at me from a distance, not menacingly. I, less often, wave back. Sometimes an old friend sneaks through, and finding me occupied—and knowing my feelings about being interrupted in my work—slips a note under my door. Others I see less often, or from a yet-greater distance, or only from behind. Their names escape me, if I ever knew them to begin with.

I myself do get out sometimes—not often enough, perhaps. I may pay a brief visit to Mr Foote, or Mr. Picciano, out tending his garden every day, a better man than I. When I do go out walking, I am always startled by the number of abandoned properties I come across, and by the number of new, as-yet unlived-in homes as well. It makes me wonder why the newcomers don’t simply squat in the existing structures. Not that there is any problem of cluttering here, mind you. These Commons are so extensive there is hardly a place they do not reach—from the brilliant hills of Appalachia, to Scotland, Italy, even China.

But then I remember days out walking with R.W., pointing to a hill in the distance and saying, There? Your property ends there? And He would smile that cryptic smile, and say, No, past that. Just a little ways past that.

There are strangers who pass through the Commons too, of course: the occasional honest traveler, some of whom are not afraid to stop and visit, have a cup of birchbark coffee with me, talk music—all other subjects leave me dumb as a stone. Droves of salesmen, too, lugging about their coffin-heavy suitcases—I chase them away, waving my machete, howling like a berserker. But there are strangers and there are strangers. It took a long time before I realized that some of them were spies, lurkers: Pinkertons of a sort, scabs by any other name. Just the other day, I surprised one peering through the window of my cabin. Unfortunately, while giving chase I stubbed my toe on a bucket of blood, and by the time I was able to recover myself he was long gone. I did, however, find a small bundle of papers that he must have dropped in his flight, which I brought into my cabin and, under the light of the single bare bulb, set to reading. It turned out to be a report of sorts, addressed to one Dick. It read, in part, as follows:

Dear Dick:

Spent another day browsing the CUNY Academic Commons, as per your request, for heretical, satanic, blasphematory, and otherwise morally turpitudinous material. Can confirm your suspicion that the site is a cesspool of sodomite-coddling communists. Social programs, drugs, organic food, bestiality—it’s all here: the whole domino tumble from secular humanism to tax-and-sex slavery, I mean, it’s horrible, Dick, just horrible. Should be a sign that says “Shower After Browsing.” Am more concerned than ever about what our Godfearing young adults are forced to “think critically” about.

Am particularly disgusted by one site, called “Helldriver’s Pit Stop.” You’d think the name would speak for itself, but it’s actually worse. A general tone of mocking the Creator. Seems like the only way author can make a point is by using foul language, or taking the Lord’s name in vain. Author claims atheism, but seems obsessed with religion—you know, the typical secular hypocrisy. And talk about worshipping false idols! […]

It went on like this for another six or so pages.

Luckily, I also found a card among the papers with said Dick’s full name and address. Rest assured I have set about amending the language of the report. Oh, not so much, really—a few corrections here and there … a little more attention to … ahem … word choice. I only wish I could be there to see what happens to my unnamed Pinkerton when the amended report arrives.

*

Ever since reading the comments from two visitors of apparently evangelical orientation on Tony Picciano’s post about Michele Bachman’s gaybashing last July, I’ve wondered to what extent the Commons is trawled for soundbites by the minions of the religious right. It probably should have occurred to me earlier—after all, CUNY is the home of the dreaded Frances Fox Piven, bitch Eve of the American fall, and her imps canker the campuses of Sodomanhattan and the Gomorrahs of the boroughs. Ah, to be an educator in a time when education itself is considered radical! And so I must admit a vague disappointment at not having become (at least to my knowledge) the target of someone’s righteous anger. Why isn’t anyone commenting on my suspect morality? Why isn’t anyone except my neighbor (my actual, physical neighbor) telling me I’m going to hell? Not that I have any interest in seeing the sainted crosshairs around my mugshot. But an outraged comment or two would really be a shot in the arm. It would be a whole lot better than the spam, spam, spam, spam, spam …

Ah, Helldriver, expurgate thyself. The virtually unlimited nature of virtual space hath made a blatherer of thee. Secretly thou cravest the editor’s bridle and crop.

Pray tell, what editor in his or her right mind would allow me to end anything with the sentence “And then I woke up”? Any of you who have not felt such an urge at one time or another, feel free to cast the first stone … but wait until you have your own blog first!

Blather aside, this is supposed to be an end-of-the-second-year roundup (and, very much in the spirit of my namesake, I will allow my two years to bleed into one). Over the last year I didn’t post quite as frequently as I’d have liked—only 15 posts, as compared to 24 the first year. But it would be incorrect to say my output has dwindled, since the average length per post has increased. Conclusion: I humiliate myself less often, but at greater length; where once I apologized for writing 2,500 words, I now gleefully plop down 5,000. To be honest, I didn’t expect to spend a month writing an article-length post about Anthrax. Summer is one thing, but during the school year? O, how I look forward to the next few short-and-sweet posts …

But to the past. Regarding what Brian Foote called the “sartorial duties” of bandleader Ron Carter (“No Tie-Picker He,” 6.20.10): when I saw Carter last fall at the Highline Ballroom, the whole band (he, Mulgrew Miller, and Russell Malone) were wearing matching rainbow ties. Since this was right around when the legislature was set to vote on marriage equality, I took it as a statement. I actually missed the beginning of the set, so for all I know Carter might have mentioned it.

I got a chance to see Fred Hersch’s trio again at the Village Vanguard this February; the last time Hersch played there, I was so moved by the Sunday night set that I was compelled to write about it (“Double Time,” 8.16.11). I must have been trying to reproduce the experience—knowing full well that such experiences are not reproducible—because I chose to go on Sunday again. He played some of the same tunes, including the same encore—yes, the encore I made such a to-do about last August. Overall, though, it was a very different set: low-key, playful without being rambunctious; a winding down of the week’s residency rather than its apotheosis.

As I continue to plow through the BFI anthology Early Cinema, and after listening to John Zorn’s comments in the documentary Put Blood in the Music (which I don’t recommend unless you’re a real big fan of Sonic Youth), I’m almost ready to start thinking about reconsidering some of my points in two separate posts, “On Bands” (8.5.10) and “Silent Movie” (3.25.11). Some of Zorn’s comments focused on the way television, cartoons in particular, have changed the way he (and his generation) think about musical structure. Since this is not a matter of correcting or rethinking a point or two, but of making a whole new argument, my comments will take the shape of a whole new post. By writing this paragraph, I’m sneakily trying to commit myself to get to it before next April.

I’m sure I’ll have things to say about “Glee Metal” (3.17.12), the second of two Tolstoy-length posts about metal, once I’m a little further away from it (besides the amusing fact that Candlebox is playing the Gramercy Theater next month). As for the first (“Burned-over,” 8.3.11), two points. (1) The July 2011 unrest in England—and similar unrest over the previous months in EU stepchildren Spain and Greece—suggest that it was a bit myopic of me to dismiss “defuse anger at the state of things” as a cultural catalyst. My broader point, though, was that rather than making a sweeping gesture at the recession and then pointing a finger at “angry” music, we need to be careful about arguing the connections between history and the evolution of aesthetic forms. In this regard, the recent popularity of ‘80s metal needs to be considered according to a wide range of determinants, many of them purely aesthetic: the dissemination of elements of heavy metal’s musical discourse into a variety of other genres; many young bands’ open admissions of debt to their ‘80s precursors, now lumped together with “classic rock”; the growth of the nostalgia industries, which seem to have moved on to the ‘80s after turning the ‘70s into a stripmined moonscape; and the propensity to read musical kinships through the lenses of irony, kitsch, and retro-. Once we’re done talking about all this, then maybe we can talk about the economy, racism, etc.—but again, specifically (e.g., Scandinavian black metal and right-wing nationalism). (2) My assertion that thrash metal evolved into a more progressive style between its inception and its demise (roughly 1983-1990) needs to be complicated. I think a closer look would reveal various strands of change, from the more progressive to retro-punk, alternative, and industrial, as metal bled into surrounding genres and vice-versa, through the convergence of audiences accommodating themselves to the new, more aggressive sound, and metal growing to accommodate a wider audience. In terms of my point in “Burned-over,” this means that, with Infected Nations, Evile is recapitulating a certain strand of the genre’s evolution, but not the genre as a whole.

Finally, ever since reviewing Best Music Writing 2011 (1.9.12) I’ve wondered whether I wrote a Trojan horse against affirmative action. Not my intention. My point was that it should not be the responsibility of a “best of” anthology to reflect all the nuances of the historical (musical) moment, but rather to showcase as diverse as possible a range of great writing. An anthology’s not a university … Enough! or Too much.

*

I sometimes wonder how the hell I ended up with a doctorate in English. I was never the Smiths-loving high schooler with the soul of a poet. Portrait of the Artist did nothing for me, except for the “horrors of hell” sermons. I don’t think I finished Billy Budd. Bo-ring. Crime and Punishment, what a drag. And all this despite having really great English teachers. (Take heart, all you teachers out there, and remember Helldriver when you are losing patience with your students.) My first two years of college I was a physics major, and I kept on taking science courses as electives after switching majors. But there was something else I was doing the whole time that served as a thread linking everything together, and keel and rudder for wherever I happened to be going. I came to literature through a back door, figuring that if I wanted to write, I should have a better idea about how the craft had been practiced in the past. I had somehow managed to get a B.A. in The Writing Seminars with only three straight-up lit classes under my belt. (Do the seams show? It’s all homespun.)

With music, the story is somewhat different. I grew up with it all around me. But the trajectory has been similar: wanting to write about music has opened doors I would otherwise have been disinclined—whether too scared, lazy, or just too preoccupied with other things—to open. Writes Jacques Barzun: “Perhaps it [music] must be talked about if it is to give its devotees full measure in enjoyment and significance.” Or, perhaps it is the desire to talk about it, to articulate and find meaning in what we hear, that predisposes us to apply our emotional and critical faculties most fully.

A Year in the Pit

Amid the offal and carrion.

I can’t climb out of the pit, but I can climb high enough up the sides to get a pretty good sense of the lay of the land.

Some days I can’t find the sides, so I just jump up as high as I can, like I’m in a crowd watching a parade. Except that I’m alone, and so far as I can remember always have been.

By jumping, I can see for a moment above the perennial mist, around my dim environs. This combination of jumping and climbing allows me to take stock of where I am, what I’ve done; for with darkness, as with light, space is also time, a record, a history of space traversed.

Somewhere in the pit there’s another pit, a deep dark hole to which I find myself irresistibly drawn. There may be several such pits-within-pits; I’m never quite sure what direction I’m going, and so I’m never sure that I haven’t stumbled onto the same one. For all I know, these pits may have their own pits, and so on, mise-en-abyme, as the French say.

All over the pit—I mean my pit, the pit where I live—in every direction, are words, words, words. Piles of them. Warm, rotting heaps of them.

As I happen across them, with my pitchfork I pick up the words, carry them over to a hole, and dump them in.

I spend a lot of time—I spend most of my time—finding and dumping words. Or so it seems. Like space, time is difficult to judge here. But most days it seems like I do pretty much nothing else.

So the words are everywhere, and it seems like no matter how many of them I try to get rid of, there are always more. Sisyphus, you know what I mean, right? And Ixion, you too? (Pablo: thank you for these words; I do not plan on returning them.) Nor does it seem possible to fill the hole, or a hole, any hole, as was my intention when I started this project a year ago, believing (naively, so naively) that if I kept dumping words into them, I would eventually hear them hit bottom, and not long after see a sort of hillock nudging up toward the edge, until in time I could walk over the wordfill where the hole had been, and stamp it down with my feet, and clap my hands, and do a little dance, and clear my throat, and move on.

But the words all disappear without a trace. Sometimes I think I hear a bit of an echo, but probably I’m fooling myself.

And so a sound pines away after an image enamored of itself, the one never able to grasp the other—a myth that captures the essence of the absurdity of this project.

We’re all better off embracing the absurd. So I toil on. Holes must be filled.

*

I think it was some guest on Charlie Rose said, “How do I know what I think until I read what I write?” Writing is a means of coming to know ourselves … and perhaps even more, of creating and re-creating ourselves in the flux of experience. Writing about music is no different in this regard, since by attempting to discover, define, and describe the object, we inevitably loop back to the self. Writing these posts, as I noted at the very beginning of this project, is a means of personal and cultural as well as musical exploration. I’ve tried to keep a balance among the three, and to use each to illuminate the other.

A few themes jump out at me. A big one is music as vehicle for transcendent experience in the secular world. I know, that’s big, cheap, and old, but there it is. I mean, this blog is being written by someone who once asked his parents what the plus signs were on top of all those buildings. Or maybe that was my sister. Same diff. Not much religion going on in my house when I was growing up. Lots of art and music and science and technology. So, music as a way to get in touch with something larger than the self. Nothing supernatural here, just a personal/universal vibe: memory, emotion, community, biology, the intuition of deep structure—you name it.

Second, the idea of excavation, of an archaeology of tastes, is all over these posts. I’m interested in the way the different kinds of music we listen to at different periods of our lives, and then return to, intersect and end up speaking to each other.

If you’ve read more than few posts, you also might have noticed that I tend to write about stuff I really like. I’ve never really enjoyed the nasty broadside. Something about that if-you-don’t-have-something-nice-to-say injunction. Incredible, but even the savage atheist has a rudimentary concept of morality. The internet seems to cultivate the weird sadism behind public stonings. Yes, you’ll find criticism from time to time, always with caveats and qualifications and addenda. But like I said, I’d rather spend time thinking and talking about the music that excites me. If I want to stone something, I’ll bring a bag of rocks down to Trump Tower … or better yet, up to Albany. Now’s the time. Wanna come?

(Sorry about the questions; it occurred to me many months ago that the blog, the internet itself, has murdered rhetorical questions, but foolishly I keep asking them.)

As a relative novice to the blogosphere I am unsure about blog netiquette. I sort of assume it’s the height of rudeness to comment on one’s own post until someone else has done so. Instead, I thought to use this anniversary reflection (a neologism: metablognitive) to post a few addenda and corrections to the year’s work … with more sure to follow next year.

About “Convalescing With Miles” (4.14.10), I think Joshua Redman put something I was trying to say there about Miles better than I ever could: “It’s like you couldn’t have written it better, but you couldn’t have written it” (in The Jazz Ear, p. 131). Only … he said it about Rollins!

About “Bands, Very Large and Very Small” (8.5.10): Here is Whitney Balliett reviewing a big band performance (in New York Notes): “every instrument was essential, the massed sounds proved new melodic and harmonic points, and a majestic aura was achieved” (30). Ouch. That’s a comeuppance if ever there was one. Not the majestic aura so much, but “the massed sounds prov[ing] new melodic and harmonic points.” In case I tried to repress it, the wall of tenors at the recent Brad Meldhau concert really drove the point home.

Regarding “Modern American” (12.2.10): Where to begin with my cringing re-reading of those snotty assertions in the first paragraph of this post? That I went to hear Papo Vasquez a few months back and his decidedly Latin pianist blew me out of the club? That Bebo Valdez plays nothing like his son, and I could listen to him (Bebo) all day? That I put on “Autumn Leaves” on Somethin’ Else the other day for the first time in years, listened to Hank Jones’s patient, mysterious, singing right hand, and thought, “Who needs a left hand?”

I should acknowledge the recognition of the diabolus in musica in “Black Sabbath” (“Deulogy,” 1.4.11) came from a long-ago conversation with the old roommate of a friend of mine, a brilliant, reclusive black-metal fanatic named Ian. For a while I would call up looking for my friend, get Ian on the phone instead, and end up talking to him about All Thing Metal (ATM) for upwards of an hour. (And if you happen to find a stray word of yours worked into the piles around my pit … that means I was listening, note-taking, as Virginia Woolf put it, for some future revision.)

Finally, I am always moved by the spectacle of those deeply appreciating the music they hear, which finds its apotheosis in dance. Conversely, I am probably overly impatient with those who are bored or distracted. (I am probably overly impatient with bored and distracted people in general. I don’t get boredom; I don’t think I’ve ever been bored a moment in my life. I’m sure I’ve feigned it now and again, to fit in.) With regard to “Contrasts” (1.22.11), then, I have been meaning to apologize for some time now—not for the updated version, but for the initial one, which was available for a full week before I thought to edit it. Now, if you knew what the hell I was talking about, you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog at all anymore. Which makes this apology, like all apologies, pointless and self-serving. Ah well. All I can do is try to do better, though my moral learning curve always (or rather never) runs up against the asymptote of my ego, as big as the parabolic mirror on Mount Palomar. (Yeah, I know, an asymptote is a line. Whatever.)

I may be evil (after all, “I am man”), but I’m not a bad person, I don’t think. Not that bad, anyway. Like Twain said: Bigger than a breadbasket. Smaller than an elephant.

Some words apply to literally everything.

*

Much to come. Beethoven and Brahms and Bartok and Domenico Scarlatti, a roundup of the spring’s Town Hall concerts, Ornette and Monk, Irene Schweitzer and Branford Marsalis, Django Reinhardt, Evile and Judas Priest, flamenco and salsa. And all these interspersed with comments and reflections on whatever else musical the city happens to throw my way between now and next March in its constant cultural shock-and-awe campaign, some to get posted immediately, some deferred until I have nothing else immediate on my radar, and some to float in limbo …

And, of course, dozens, hundreds of new posts about Rush … but all of them hoarded until December, like every studio does with their Oscar contenders, when I can stand on the landing at the top of that winding staircase and say, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr Foote!” … and then come sashaying down those stairs, and into my second major Academic Commons award.

Hotels on Boardwalk! Champagne with Fay Wray! Right to organize, right to strike!

Briefly

Some comments on previous posts, together with my finally getting around to reading The Metaphysical Club this summer, prompt the following reflection on writing about music:

That whatever pleasure or profit is to be gained by it arises out of failure. You can never hit the bull’s-eye, the music. (There is no bull’s-eye.) But you have to shoot at it anyway, have to make believe it exists. (The words can help you do this.) You can’t write without it, without making out of that absent center a positive presence. It’s a target, but not a goal, for the writing remains something other. Anyway, the richest place is not in that unreachable center, but in the surroundings.

And after you’ve been shooting for a while, you realize that you’ve never listened quite so closely before.

*

Since this is such a short post, let me take a moment to mention a few recent updates (or lack of them) in the design & function of this blog. (1) I mentioned before that I was going to try to change the comment filter so that I don’t have to pre-approve comments. The site is currently set up so that, once the commenter’s identity has been approved a first time, there is no secondary approval needed. This seems fair, and particularly given how many “comments” are spam about selling shoes or chronic depression, I’ve decided to leave the filter as-is. Please just bear in mind that, if it’s your first time commenting, your comment won’t appear until the next time I visit the site and approve it; and if you don’t say something at least semi-specific (that is, a bit more than “your blog is very interesting” or “this blows”), I’m going to assume it’s spam. (2) I finally figured out what widgets are, and so have redesigned the side column a bit. There is a monthly archive; it seems like there are now enough posts to warrant such a thing. The links section is under construction, so you should see new links and new categories added over the next month or two. (3) As for tags—categories under which I can file certain posts to help the reader navigate the blog—more in a few months, when I figure out how to actually make them appear (if, that is, the design template, which I intend to keep, supports them).