Tag Archives: music & lit

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.


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?



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.