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Rubies & Resurrections

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

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

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

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

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

A scattering of rubies

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

Thelonious Monk, 1955. Photo by Roy DeCarava

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord, there’s Thelonious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feet & hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ex Nihilo

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

 

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Of Plagues and Antibodies

titanicIf someone were to ask me, “Helldriver, what is the most maudlin sound in the world?” the Conan sitting Indian-style in my brain would answer, in the thick Austro-Bavarian accent of a future governor of California, “The most maudlin sound in the world is that of a Chinese immigrant playing ‘My Heart Will Go On (Love Theme from Titanic)’ on an amplified tremolo harmonica against a karaoke backbeat, on a subway platform in Harlem.”

And lo, there he sits, feet crossed at the ankles, PA on a dolly, wringing out chorus after chorus with Dion-like fervor. If you live in New York, or maybe any major city, you’ve no doubt heard this song played on a host of different “world” instruments, all vying to out-schmaltz that dreadful penny whistle on the original. As melodies are memes, and memes are viruses, so this one is the plague among plagues of melodies. No cultural mountain is high enough, no lost tribe lost enough, to be safe.

God help us, is there a vaccine?

Waiting for the 4 train, I open my copy of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber to the page where I have stopped, and read the following: “The Countess wants fresh meat. When she was a little girl she was like a fox and contented herself entirely with baby rabbits that squeaked piteously as she bit into their necks with a nauseated voluptuousness, with voles and field mice that palpitated for a bare moment between her embroideress’s fingers. But now she is a woman, she must have men. If you stop too long beside the giggling fountain, you will be led by the hand to the Countess’s larder.”

Carter! Hear how she bites the throbbing vein of sentiment, nourishing herself on its blood while Celine Dion squeaks piteously. She is the proverbial iceberg in that hyperinflated dinghy’s path. If My Heart Will Go On is music at the service of a children’s story, The Bloody Chamber is a collection of children’s stories at the service of—at the mercy of—Carter’s grotesquely seductive voice.

In Carter’s version, I imagine Winslet hacking off DiCaprio’s hands with a hatchet as he tries to climb from the icy waters into her lifeboat. She takes the one that still clings to the gunwale and hides it under her dress. Back in New York, she masturbates relentlessly with the severed hand of her dead lover.

The 4 arrives. I am boarding the train, giggling to myself—the image of Kate Winslet masturbating with Leonardo DiCaprio’s severed hand is irresistible—when the song modulates up one step in that de rigeur pop apotheosis … just when I thought he had wrung every last drop of sentiment out of the melody. Oh, Angela! Quick! The hatchet!

On the train, a Guatemalan man begs money for his sick daughter in Guatemala City. He has a picture of his daughter in one hand and his hospital ID in the other. He tells his sad story first in English, then in Spanish. While he is talking, I dip into Carter again, read: “She loathes the food she eats; she would have liked to take the rabbits home with her, feed them on lettuce, pet them and make them a nest in her red-and-black chinoiserie escritoire, but hunger always ovecomes her. She sinks her teeth into the neck where an artery throbs with fear; she will drop the deflated skin from which she has extracted all nourishment with a small cry of both pain and disgust. And it is the same with the shepherd boys and gypsy lads.”

Perhaps he has no daughter. Perhaps he does, and she is not ill, but hungry. Who knows what parts of his well-practiced story are true? I read Carter. The Countess does not want to kill; she feels compelled to. She is as pitiful as the rabbits whose blood she sucks. Ill, hungry, she waits for that rational, virginal shepherd boy to arrive on his bicycle and break the spell. Like many of Carter’s stories, this one mobilizes the fairy-tale romance against itself, yet still maintains something of its original sentimental power. Carter, then, is the Countess, at once relishing and regretting the violence she must do.

I can sympathize with the Countess—the monster, the outsider—better than I can with the Guatemalan man’s daughter, an unknown figure suffering an unknown malady in a faraway hospital. Her father’s presence, the bits of evidence he holds in his hands, are less persuasive than Carter’s voice, before which I am as powerless as the Countess’s voles and rabbits. It is his story, most of all, that I guiltily resent. So overwrought, so manipulative. So Titanic.

Do they enable me to withdraw from a world of suffering, these lurid fantasies of incandescent beauty? Probably, but no more than Titanic would. In fact, far less. After all, The Bloody Chamber is a self-conscious antidote to the tawdry Titanic fantasies that undergird our society, where peasant boys die for love and the virtuous poor valiantly panhandle their way to health.

And yet, I don’t give a dime, and the ones who do, why, they were the very ones bathing happily in the melliflous stream of “My Heart Will Go On” on the subway platform.

*

Carter may be an antidote, but it is only temporary, and when I stop reading, the Titanic virus begins its insidious replication inside my brain cells. A couple of hours later, I find that I am manifestly ill, humming the melody to “My Heart Will Go On” around the office and between classes. Thankfully, there is another little antibody floating around inside me, waiting to be mobilized: through incessant repetition, I find that “My Heart Will Go On” resembles “The Great Gate of Kiev” in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The same opening interval, tentative or triumphant, evenly spaced across two measures; and then a four-note phrase that touches down again on the supertonic.*

The differences, however, are what make “Kiev” an effective antibody: it mimics Titanic only in order to scuttle it. The stepwise cascade of notes that ends the first part of the Titanic melody has none of the muscularity of “Kiev”’s 3-1-3. Dion has just blown her wad in an effusive leap, a full octave if you include the preparatory dip; now she turns tender, goes in for the snuggle (that 3-4-3 half-step nudge; another stepwise, descrescendo descent). “Kiev” mirrors a bit of the descent, but the effect (3-5-2-1-7-5) is of clanging cathedral bells, prefiguring the chimes at the piece’s end. “Heart” goes on to repeat the whole choral melody, which is really an embellishment of the verse; in pop, you have to come twice or people want their money back. “Kiev” repeats just the second phrase, then—counterintuitively, at least to my ear—jumps back to the opening four bars. (This jaggedness of phrasing is typical; Pictures’ well-known “Promenade” theme, with which “Kiev” is allied, is another example. In “Kiev,” the latter parts of this opening section will be reshuffled as the theme reappears.) But it is the last part of the opening section—the different use of IV, and another near-repetition before a more emphatic restatement of the opening bars—that most happily throws Winslet and DiCaprio overboard. Overall, rather than present us with the sinuous thread of an emotional narrative (boldly declared love followed by self-pitying longing), “Kiev” is static, ekphrastic, a music of sharply-angled phrases that boldly affirm and resonate with each other, as suits its purpose. (This is not to say the piece as a whole feels directionless; it builds through repetition and crescendo, like Bolero. As has been remarked, if it suggests any narrative, it is one of the traveler approaching the titular monument until it looms above him in all its sublime grandeur.) Titanic is confessional, personal; “Kiev” is ritualistic, cultural. It is marriage, not romance. Cuddling with the Gate is strictly verboten.

The similarities shouldn’t surprise us; romantic love and romantic nationalism are twinned emotions, and can be made to speak a similar language. I don’t mean to elide the difference made by instrumentation, or to understate its importance to “Kiev”’s effectiveness as an antibody: the heroic vehicle of the piano, or the brass in Ravel’s dramatic re-creation for orchestra, versus Dion’s heart-choked voice (or the penny whistle, or the tremolo harmonica).** What I find most fascinating, though, is the way the musical brain responds to melodic, rhythmic and structural affinities regardless of instrumentation and mood.

Anyway, thanks to Mussorgsky, before long I am marching around the office to a fanfare, a bloody Russian patriot.

*

With these two pieces I was able figure out why my brain toggled from one to the other. But who knows by what dark logic my inner ear moved between a Bach prelude and Nuclear Assault’s “Stranded in Hell” the other morning as I walked down 145th Street. Oh, the funny looks I have gotten from record-store clerks for bringing, say, Slayer’s Diabolus in Musica and John Coltrane’s Crescent together to the register, as if the latter would burn the former, like Lucas’s lost ark burns that swastika off the Nazi flag draped over the crate in which it is stowed. Or the Anthrax EP Armed and Dangerous with Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth. But I am not the god of used record bins to say why I should have found these two in the same vinyl vein; nor can I say why bugs for Love Supreme-era Coltrane and ‘90s Slayer should have bitten me at the same moment. Maybe I need Slayer to clean the Jesus out of my system, and Coltrane to clean the Satan out, before either works his nails too deeply in. Or maybe all this is just a symptom of the true plague of the West: an abiding Manichaeism, crippling our aesthetic sense, blinding us from the fact that music is music; that Coltrane and Slayer, in their moments of inspiration, stand shoulder to shoulder, tugging at the same old rope around the heart.

 

* I am reading the song in E, not C# minor, despite the initial chord. I can’t hear the melody resolving any other way. The chord progression of “Heart” (C#m-B-A-B-C#m) is standard rock/folk fare (e.g., “All Along the Watchtower,” etc.), though there it is often i-VII-VI-VII-i. Here, all vi seems to be doing is substituting for the I in I-V-IV-V-I.

** James Horner, who wrote the eponymously battle-horny score for Aliens as well as the theme for Titanic, cannot be a stranger to Mussorgsky, and this makes it doubly tempting, though perhaps unfair, to hear Titanic as a degraded version of “Kiev.”

Two Quixotes

When I lived in the City, I used to spend my Friday afternoons tooling around the Village, working a well-worn route between used book and music stores, park benches and cafés. Generation Records, on Thompson a little north of Bleecker, was a frequent stop. One of the clerks there, with a badgery sort of face and most of his exposed flesh colorfully desecrated, was—likely still is—their resident metal expert, and now and then I would pick his brains about, say, a representative Wolves in the Throne Room album, or whether the new Deicide was available in an aerosol can.

One day I was in the basement flipping through discs toward the back of the alphabet, grinning at the relentlessly offensive names and cover art of bands and albums I would never hear. Said expert was playing something I thought I should recognize, but didn’t. I approached, inquired; he looked up and, eyes scourging me from under his tight-fitting commie-kitsch military cap, wordlessly stood a CD on the counter. It was Sepultura, Schizophrenia. Old Sepultura, clearly. Really old. And here I had thought Sepultura began with Beneath the Remains (1989). I was staring at a Sepultura album I didn’t know, Max Cavalera-era Sepultura, my Sepultura, proffered to me by someone who probably hadn’t yet been born when it came out.

Upstaged on my own turf by a coffee thug, I immediately wanted to talk about how I had seen Sepultura in their heyday, on the Arise (1991) tour, at a club in Madrid. About the posters I had seen around my Madrid neighborhood advertising the show: death squad on one end, Cavalera and his guitar on the other, facing them down, both cut out against a fire-orange background. About how I had tried to pull the poster down and hang it up in my apartment, but ended up tearing it.

I didn’t say anything.

Some months later I was in Baltimore visiting a friend, who related a somewhat similar experience to me. He works on an urban farm, and on weekends sells the produce in one or another of the city’s farmers’ markets. Who does he meet at one of these markets one weekend but a kid maybe half his age—a little older than his own son—who is enamored of ‘80s hardcore punk? We’re talking Dag Nasty, Minor Threat, 7 Seconds et al. My friend was a skinhead back in the day, was still wearing his burgundy Doc Martens when we met in college. (Keeping the hair short was easy: we were swimmers.) When he told this kid that he had been into all those bands, had been to all those shows, had a milk crate full of old hardcore records in his basement, he immediately became an oracle.

Or should have. As it turned out, the kid was reading a book on the history of hardcore, and knew a hell of a lot about the scene that my friend, who had participated in it half a lifetime ago, was not aware of, or had forgotten.

Result: my friend bought the book. He claims to have learned a great deal.

*

Don_Quixote_6In Book II of Don Quixote, the ingenious knight encounters a duke and dutchess who know of his exploits from having read his “history.” He is famous, and, as is due any knight, becomes the guest of honor at their castle … and the butt of endless jokes, a grand entertainment. He appears as a character walked out of a romance, into the real world of the present (la actualidad). So my friend must have appeared to that temporally-displaced version of himself: as a character from a moment in cultural history. To be viewed as a splinter of a dead scene’s true cross, a living, breathing historical artifact, like a thawed mammoth: it gives one a glow, an aura, for people who value that moment, but whose contact with it is purely textual.

But in that encounter between one-time participant and passionate historian, we—forgive the transition to the plural pronoun—become texts, signs. We are there to be read, not listened to; we do not speak, but are spoken. We are nothing more than that (faint) aura that surrounds us, exhausts us. Disposable saints, transparent as icons, the better for them to project their desire upon, venerated not in ourselves, but for allowing the worshipper to get nearer to God: that fantastic, unrecoverable past. Like Don Quixote, we are at once honored and ironized, empowered and neutered.

Bits of pottery without pattern, we can’t hope to represent our time. So-called living history is always a disappointment; flesh is no match for text. For they finally know more than we do: all our rare butterflies, the ephemera and esoterica, patiently netted and impaled. Suddenly, we are forced to recognize that our knowledge of our time is piecemeal at best, that we are inadequate historians of ourselves, that we are not masters of ourselves—that we are in fact mastered by their agglomerate, abstract vision, that sees us as part of a comprehensible totality, an island from the air, the earth from space. They can click through our whole history in seconds, and file it away on a chip. Our time, our history, our selves, stripped to bits of information, small enough for them to hold in their hands. What is lost to us is weirdly present to them, more present, yet only through the phantom agency of language.

They know much too much about what we were like to ever be us. How can they hope to be us when we knew so little about ourselves?

Conversely, what is present to me—the ambience, the outrage, the trace sensory impressions and other memories, emotions and stories, all knotted together into a sort of umbilical cord—is mine and mine alone. I can’t claim to know more, only differently. My knowledge, such as it is, is more in my muscles and blood than in my brain, is bonded by things non-textual, things that can be expressed only obliquely, when at all. Experience fuddles text, creates gaps, swells seemingly meaningless moments, hazes everything. When I reminisce with friends, we are not sharing information, but performing a ritual.

What can it mean to that clerk at Generation that I tore that Sepultura poster trying to pull it down? Yet the image on the poster, the weatherbeaten paper … I can still feel it, gritty from the dirt blown onto it while it was still wet, stiff and brittle as parchment.

We may listen to the same music, but we hear something entirely different. I don’t hear the Jimi Hendrix that, say, Germaine Greer did, and I wouldn’t recognize E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Beethoven if he pulled up beside me on the street, horn blaring. My Hendrix is out there, like the house seen from the piazza; the albums, the documentaries, the guy in Salt Lake who fixed my guitar and who saw Hendrix in ’68, are as close as I’ll ever get. I’ll never be able to strap myself to his Marshall cabinet, like to the mouth of a cannon, and experience the thrilling Liebestod of that opening chord. The left-handed general lowers his sword, Brrrang. Nor did my mother bring my infant self to Woodstock, like she did to the TV the night men landed on the moon. My love for him may be deep as the ocean, but my Hendrix is facts spinning around an absent center. Or at least, a different one.

Don Quixote is maybe too literary a figure to describe our experience. No one could be more loquacious, and his surprised interlocutors always comment on how his opinions are as judicious as his vision and actions are mad. In the event that I do speak, I feel more like one of those mechanical presidents on Disneyworld’s Main Street, who recite something sententious, patriotic, and very much in character about U.S. history. My mouth moves like a dummy’s, my eyes light up; when I am finished talking, I freeze again. They will get no more from me—everything else my body jealously guards—and no closer to the Thing Itself.

Half the time, the nickel gets stuck in my throat. Better to sit and wave, like an effigy on a parade float, and try to make my halo obvious as I pass by, and perform gestures as though to bless them.

The genius of the second volume of the Quixote—a genius which far surpasses the first—is in its transformation of the world into text: the duke and dutchess participate in writing the second volume, make themselves characters in Don Quixote’s legend. The madness of the knight transforms the world, which is revealed to be just as much fantasy and theater. So forgive us, young lovers of ‘80s metal and hardcore punk, if, in our roles as characters in your drama, we end up textualizing you as well. The book is reading you even as you read it. You are just as much a ghost. Your costume of me is a little baggy; you don’t quite fit my scene’s drama.

And yet, that is the only way I have myself: textually. I can’t resurrect myself as the monster I was, and were I to try, I would be no less baggy than you. And perhaps I’m gratified to see myself refracted in people half my age, listening to the music that that mythical we did. Amused, moved, the way we are by Don Quixote.

We’re not tilting at windmills, my friend and I. We’ve never tried to live in a mythical past, or to re-live our own. They are at least as much Quixotes as we are: driven mad by electronic libraries infinitely vaster than the knight’s, and by a text, music, infinitely more seductive than the epic of Amadis de Gaula. Because it convinces us, somehow, that it is more than text, that it captures an essence, that it bores a hole in time. That through it, and only through it, I, and my friend, and the clerk at Generation, and the young man at the farmers’ market, touch. What can we, the duke and the dutchess, do but play along?

For RJD

Leviathans

An hour or so before dusk last Friday I walked out of the Upper West Side and into Central Park, started north following the dirt riding trail along the embankment of the reservoir. This was the first real day of fall; the park had the feel of a location shoot for Wuthering Heights, sky all overcast and wind gusting leaves off the trees. The trail climbed slowly, meeting the top of the embankment at the reservoir’s northwest corner. From there the water looked like the pate of a great tonsure, and the fountain in the distance like the spout of a whale. Maybe the whole island was leviathan, I mused, and that its blowhole. Walking north again, I glanced back now and then, until all I could see was the top of the spout and the mist. The illusion was complete.

I had just watched King Kong for the umpteenth time, and for the second in recent memory on the Big Screen, so I had leviathans on the brain. What struck me this time around was that all the movie’s beauty is in its stop-motion behemoths. The name of the craft is actually misleading: the creatures are in constant motion from the moment they appear: tails and necks writhe, wings flap, mouths roar or hiss; when they square off, they feint and jab, pounce, snap, and pummel. There is a great ka-boom every time their bodies hit the ground. Watching them dance, I felt like I was not at a horror movie, but at one of the first great musicals of that genre’s golden age: Busby Berkeley and Willis O’Brien collapsed into each other.

A few days earlier I had gotten an email from the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, where I briefly volunteered some years back, about the carcass of a blue whale that had washed up on the California coast. The email was encouraging people to go see the animal for themselves, and to touch it—a rare opportunity, it said, to touch the largest mammal that ever lived (the carcass measured 80 feet). There was a link to Facebook pictures of its body, with people climbing along and around it. I thought of the “Bower in the Arcasides” chapter of Moby-Dick, one of my dozen or so favorite chapters in the book, where a sperm whale’s beached skeleton, “woven over with vines,” has become an object of worship and a chapel, “the skull an altar,” incense-smoke rising from its bony blowhole.

As I walked and pondered I was listening to Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, a piece to which I find myself returning with the sort of routine urgency that one returns to a place of prayer. The Preludes and Fugues document the composer’s struggle with the leviathan of Bach, and particularly with the Well-Tempered Clavier—leviathans wrestling leviathans. Like Kong and the Tyrannosaur, though, it’s less a fight than a carefully-staged dance. Perhaps Bach was as ambiguous a god to Shostakovich as the whale’s vine-skinned skeleton is to Ishmael: it “seemed the cunning weaver,” the “busy,” “unseen weaver-god,” “himself all woven over with the vines; every month assuming greener, fresher verdure; but himself a skeleton. Life folded Death; Death trellised Life; the grim god wived with youthful life, and begat him curly-headed glories.” A moment later, Ishmael will break through the ribs and almost lose himself in the labyrinthine chapel; “naught was there but bones,” he declares, before daring, against the outcries of the priests (“That’s for us!”), to measure it.

Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues run the gamut from the meditative and the never-quite-mournful—there is always a kernel of assertiveness lurking inside them—to the agitated and kaleidoscopic. I love the meticulous attention to structure in building his sonic cathedral, necessarily so different from Bach’s, but just as different, I think, from any modern church or skyscraper. I love its domes and buttresses, its cornices and spires, the whole clear architecture of it, and only wish I could stand back from it far enough to see it all at once, like one can from the carcass of a whale, and to measure it, like Ishmael with his switch. To my ears, it is as little Solzhenitsyn’s cathedral as Stalin’s, probably because one can hear Shostakovich raising the stones himself, rather than finding a ready-made home in God’s, or the State’s. (And if you were looking for a Tyrannosaur here, take your pick: God, the State … though we should perhaps add Capital to the list, and not forget the image of Kong astride the cupola of the Empire State Building. It is in those intensely affecting moments right before he falls that his movements most clearly resemble a dance.)

The lamplight was scattered in the turtlepond. The willows were ransacked by the new cold gales. And if I happened to reach the twelfth fugue, one of several regularly-spaced spires, as I climbed the Great Hill, then no doubt I intended to, or someone intended for me to. I had modified the pace of my walk; I had come across a propitiously downed tree. At the top of the Hill I cut across the grass to the flat schist outcrop at its center, another peak among many. Only to me, this evening, it was the crest of leviathan; I could sit on its rocky brow like a leviathanic thought, and say, Here is where the music has brought me; no further. For the Shostakovich—or maybe the Shostakovich post-Kong and dead blue whales—makes me think about what music can and cannot do, what its limitations are, where its natural boundaries lie, to what heights it can climb in its desire for the infinite. Anyway, it was a nice place to finish listening to the wild peasant leaps and washboard chromaticisms of twentieth-century Russia, and to intuit for a moment that there is order, maybe inexplicable, but not necessarily oppressive, that emanates like a light from within.