Tuesday 23 January 2007

Music is the Healing Force of the Universe


Modernist visual art has arguably become part of our visual culture - we think nothing of a once-shocking Picasso painting and Warholian collages are part and parcel of TV makeover design. But modernist music hasn't permeated mainstream musical culture to nearly the same extent. Why is that modernism in the visual arts has received so more widespread acceptance than modernism in music? Virtually everyone knows who Picasso is, and could probably recognise one of his works if they tried, but mention Schoenberg or Cecil Taylor or Captain Beefheart and you'll either get a bemused, non-comprehending look or a sigh of disgust.


Is it because music reaches to a deeper level, cuts to the heart, cuts beneath the barrier we can construct between ourself and what we see, what we read? We can filter these through our mind, we can take time to consider them: we can look at a work of art for minutes on end, because as it exists as an object in space, we can read a sentence from a book and then ponder it for several minutes before moving on to the next sentence. But music is different - you can't keep pausing it to digest the latest bit of information, you can't stand around it and examine the details like you can with a painting or sculpture, except afterwards, in your mind, or, if you're very dedicated, and with the appropriate technology, by going back to the track and playing it a few seconds at a time. If you listen to a piece of music, you have to let it flow straight into you, and because it's much more of an immediate thing than other art forms, it's also more frightening; it exposes you to the possibility of having to feel. Sure, you can be moved by a painting or a novel, or a poem, but, I'd argue, not in the same way as you can be moved by music. It catches you off your guard, there's something about it that provokes a deep level of feeling in the listener that is beyond words, beyond images - something deep and mysterious which accounts for its great attraction to so many people. In early cultures this might have been the intense physical sensation of banging the drum (the next step up from banging the bone on the piece of rock, from tapping out the first rhythm), or of letting loose the voice from the throat, in an aesthetised version of such deep-rooted, primeval human noises as the scream, the cry, the laugh. [Incidentally, on this point, my ideas about the blues are that they are also deeply connected to such sounds. Interestingly, the playing of Ornette Coleman, a player who, though pioneering free jazz, was heavily influenced by blues feeling (if less so by blues form), was described as "like someone crying...or laughing." More on this stuff in my future post on the concept of the blues].


As Eric Dolphy puts it in an interview snippet at the end of his superlative record 'Last Date' (which I highly reccommend), "when you hear music, after it's over, it's gone, in the air. You can never capture it again." It doesn't exist as an object. It exists as something living, not static - to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, words and music move in (or through) time. And it's in the twentieth century, with the advent of jazz, and, in particularly, the absolute spontaneity of elements of free jazz and free improvisation, that music's potentiality for such a flowing, organic, NATURAL role has really found expression, after centuries of thought-through, composed classical music. This is particularly applicable to jazz, as I'll go on to explain. Different performers of classical works undoubtedly bring different interpretative elements to the music, meaning that it can never be heard exactly the same way twice - there is no absolutely precise template for how it should sound, though the musical notation of the composition gives a pretty precise idea. However, such differences are generally minimal - even an extreme case, like Glenn Gould's different recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations, taking at radically different tempos and with different emotional viewpoints, are recognisably versions of the same notated piece of music. (More on Gould here - http://www.amazon.com/State-Wonder-Complete-Goldberg-Variations/dp/B00006FI7C) Jazz improvisation is a different kettle of fish, though: by its nature, it is something of the moment, expressing the player's socially/culturally/musically conditioned attitudes (whether to a small or large extent depends on the player) but in a spontaneous form which lays them bare. And maybe it's this we don't like - it expresses the things beneath the surface, things we might be uncomfortable with, it implies the loss of control, away from the safety of written notation and into a region where creativity can be exercised in a much freer, looser way.


Now I realise this view of improvisation in jazz is very simplistic, and is certainly not applicable to much of jazz - but that's perhaps also because players and audiences don't really understand what jazz really is (more on this in the next paragraph). Classical music (and pop music, etc, etc) can of course express emotion wonderfully well - I am by no means implying that music being written makes it less viable, less emotionally strong. Far from it, in fact - perhaps having time to think through your ideas and write them down means you express them more fully, you draw out every last inch of emotion. And some jazz seems almost emotionally shallow compared to classical music.

To audiences especially, it becomes just a sound, a way of being less stuffy than classical music but more sophisticated than pop music, an idea of 'cool'. The 'Beat generation' of the 1950s saw writers such as Kerouac linking it with a whole social attitude, so that it became a sort of zietgiest, the soundtrack to a counter-cultural movement (in much the same way as Hendrix, Santana, et al, would be for the 60s Hippie Movement). But today, jazz is either pleasant, sophisticated background music, or, if not background music, music not to be listened to THAT closely, not to be analysed too much, because it's not an intellectual form, it's easy on the ear, it's not too much trouble. (An alternative view is that perhaps encouraged by some critical commentary on jazz, that perpetuated by the Fast Show sketch where it becomes a series of stock, smarmy 'hipster' phrases ("nice...great...") and hopelessly members-only musical jargon spinning ("the famous chorus in double time modulating between the keys of B and A flat, and resolving itself in E...crazy!"). In short, it becomes a cliche, without serious thought into what the musical tics that have become cliches once stood for, and what once made them so innovative (such as be-bop melody and phrasing, once at the forefront of jazz modernism, now turned into old hat by decades of use). At its best though, jazz improvisation embodies the qualities expressed a few paragraphs ago: the exercise of creativity in a freer, looser sense than in written music.


However, that's not really the point I'm trying to make here - I'm not trying to argue the case for the virtues of improvisation over composition or vice versa (lets not even begin to get into the complexities of the chord changes (limiting the improvisation or tying it down?), jazz composition, and so on). I'm instead trying to argue that music makes us FEEL, hits us in a different, almost physical way that other art forms can't (apart from film, which utilises music for a lot of its emotional appeal, and then you have the actual moving image, an approximation of reality far greater than any other art form, which makes it something else entirely, and out of my scope today). The thing with feeling is that we often can't control what we feel, though we can hide it, to the outside world, or even partially to ourselves, through social conditioning and emotional denial, or apathy. And if music makes us feel, then perhaps we're reaching to emotional levels we might not wish to reach - yes, it's fine if it's the easy romantic glow or tear-jearking of the pop ballad, or the brash exuebrence of soul music or the I don't give a fuck attitude of rock music. But modernist music? - that's something different. The fact is, a lot of us don't like being put in touch with the pessimism, the despair, the bleakness of much 12-tone classical music (such as Schoenberg's hideously disturbing Pierrot Lunnaire - http://www.cduniverse.com/search/xx/music/pid/1057813/a/Schoenberg:+Pierrot+Lunaire,+etc+%2F+Boulez,+Sch%E4fer,+et+al.htm), the bizarre, twisted humour of Captain Beefheart's experimental blues-rock (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trout_Mask_Replica) or the anger, the pain, the utter depth of feeling in the free jazz of Archie Shepp or Peter Brotzmann (both using the music to express their radical political views).


The fact is that free jazz, and modern classical music, and experimental music of various other forms, expresses what the twentieth century was really all about - progress, to an extent (what progress! technology, arts - you name it, it's progressed massively), but, more importantly, the realisation that established forms of authority were corrupt/inadequate (take your pick), and the attempt to overthrow them. The failure of religion, of Communism, of government - all engendered feelings of rebellion and anger and pain, yet at the same time, there was a real sense of vitality and excitement at the changes. This paradox comes through precisely in free jazz - while Schoenberg may be stuck in a gloomy Expressionist forest of pessimism (though he has his lighter moments) and Webern retreats into a crystalline, microscopic world of his own, the brutality and vitality of free jazz echoes the mixed feelings the various counter-cultural and rebellious movements of the twentieth century brought with them.

A few lines from T.S. Eliot seem uncannily appropriate to the chaotic nature and apparent randomness of such music:
"Words strain,/Crack, and sometimes break, under the burden,/ Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,/ Will not stay still. Shrieking voices/ Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering/Always assail them." (Four Quartets, Burnt Norton) He could almost be talking about a John Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders or Albert Ayler solo - cracked notes, multiphonics, split reed technique - all methods of distorting the pure notes (or words) to try and get at the essence, to express the inexpressable (in Coltrane's case, to express several ideas at once), to get back to the pure sound so often submerged by the weight of words, of conversation, of musical form - the cry, the scream, the shout.

It may all be tottering on the edge of the brink (of meaninglessness, of despair, of utter pessimism, of death), but if it's going to go over, it's going to go over with a bang - it's not going to go timidly. Thus, modernist music may seem incomprehensible in terms of our normal expecations of music - meaningless of terms of what has gone before. But in a century inventing new ways of thinking, of acting, of being, perhaps that's what was needed. The Pollockian notion of action painting, the random amounts of paint chucked onto the canvas, comes to mind - Ornette Coleman's landmark recording for 'double quartet', "Free Jazz", had a Jackson Pollock painting on the front of the album sleeve, and though Coleman's essentialy melody-based, blues-soaked style isn't the best analogy, the Pollockian notion of action painting does have strong parallels with the free improvisations of artists such as Derek Bailey (who once said that the ideal situation to play in would be after you'd just woken up, where you were in a state of consciousness a step below your normal waking state, with all its social/cultural baggage). This is challenging stuff, sometimes moving beyond the levels of feeling I was talking about before (despair, depression, anger, etc) into a strange, colder-seeming realm (Bailey's guitar sound, Webern's miniatures) - but is there feeling there too? By that I mean feeling in the sense that the act of making music is in itself a way of expressing one's own humanity, through creativity, and thus asserting one's place in a totally destablised world where now one knows where they are any more. Music becomes not just a form of entertainment, but a form or asserting one's identity, be it political and ideological (Brotzmann, Shepp), be it philosphical or religious (Sanders, Ayler, Coltrane), be it simply the act of existing (Bailey). I play (or listen), therefore I am. In an age of no absolutes, music could really be, as Ayler put it, "the healing force of the universe."



Absolutely superb music, totally disproves the idea that Ayler was just a free jazz screamer, here he plays with real lyricism and a depth of feeling that is almost unbearable in its soulfulness - 1000 x better than the posturing 'emotion' of so much commercial music. Captures the sense of the time - its despair, its anger, its frustration, its beauty - yet also speaks to/of, something universal in all humans throughout history. Click on the link and marvel (but not at the video, which is pretty shabby).


Sunday 14 January 2007

R.I.P. Alice Coltrane/Michael Brecker

There are several things buzzing round my head at that moment which I will organise into coherent posts in the next few weeks. Coming up, gig reviews of Wayne Shorter and Evan Parker, thoughts on the state of jazz today, on the blues, and on free improv. But as there are only at an early stage of development so far, a brief post which I didn't want to have to write, but which has been created by circumstances.

It's not official yet, and that gives us hope that's it not actually true, but I've just heard today that Alice Coltrane, widow of John Coltrane and musical experimenter herself, has died at the age of 69. (Source - http://www.metafilter.com/mefi/57735) She leaves a son, Ravi, who, like his father, is a saxophonist, and, like his father, performed with Alice on several occasions. Presumably he will now be in charge of the Coltrane estate, and so, you never know, we might see some more the release of more rare recordings that Alice was sitting on. However, that's not really the point - we should be remembering the recordings Alice made as part of the late John Coltrane groups, on 'Live in Japan', 'Expression', and the like, and under her own name on the Impulse label - 'World Galaxy', 'Journey in Satchidananda', 'Universal Consciousness', etc. Noted for her performances on piano, organ and harp, and her lush yet surprisingly tough string arrangements, influenced in equal measure by Stravinsky and eastern music, she doesn't really sound like anyone else, and, though she never really achieved a high level of fame, she was something of a cult favourite among fans of "out" music.
I must admit that, though I've been listening to quite a bit of her music in recent weeks, I'm still not convinced by a lot of her music, but at least she wasn't afraid to experiment and was certainly an original voice. And she was one of the few widely-known women in jazz who wasn't a singer, which is something.

While in the middle of writing this post, news of another jazz death came onto my radar: this time, saxophonist Michael Brecker, famous for his recordings with brother trumpeter Randy Brecker as 'the Brecker brothers', with Billy Cobham in the fusion band 'Dreams', and for much other esteemed work as leader and sideman in more straightahead jazz fields. The writer of this article from the New York times ( http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/14/nyregion/14brecker.html?_r=1&oref=slogin) puts it better than I could:

His tone was strong and focused, and some of his recognizable language echoed Coltrane’s sound. But having worked in pop, where a solo must be strong and to the point, Mr. Brecker was above all a condenser of exciting devices into short spaces. He could fold the full pitch range of the horn into a short solo, from altissimo to the lowest notes, and connect rarefied ideas to the rich, soulful phrasing of saxophonists like Junior Walker.

I am sure blogs will be buzzing with more news and MP3 samples of these 2 artists as we get more details on the tragic news over the next few days, but for now, I'll just say

R.I.P. Michael and Alice.