A post-it on my computer desktop keeps telling me to write this article. My experiences in life and with music have increased a gazillion (taking this word from NYT columnist, Maureen Dowd) fold in recent years. I suppose it is for the reason that music for me, as it does for many others, serves as a comforting heartbeat existing outside of my own and informs me that I am not alone. Writing about how the music I listen to affects me is an activity which I like to share because I treat each article that I write like it is a statement of belief within itself, based on the central focus of the article, the focus being a recording or a concert, an interview or a thought. Every emotion that I have, every subject I am privy to all inject themselves into the words. That is the reason, the writing is a satisfying, resolving, complete act.
"Music" is a rich subject matter to broach. Music has been around forever, and I do not intend to give the impression that I know about it inside and out. Only very few have encyclopedic knowledge of it. And I do not know those people. Hopefully, they are teaching somewhere.
When music is being performed, it becomes completely sensational. When music is merely being listened to without the performers present, it can become a background canvas on which other movement shadows itself. The point is that transforming music into another language, this legible one, is a matter of paying attention to both languages at the same time to corroborate them.
Writing about concerts is a question of my being alert to all the visuals as well as the audibles. I think to tie them together mentally so that my memory of the music is doubly associated and therefore more easily recalled especially if I consult my notes later. Taking notes seems counterproductive but how taking notes contributes to my thought process is to pave the road of listening. The notes are really detailed at first, too much in fact---they aid in determining the pace and demeanor of the music. About midway through the concerts, the light finally hits me as to the total picture the music is structuring. When that happens, it is the beginning of the potential verbal codification of the songs I hear, the sonoral concepts I postulate, the aural expression in which I float. By the time I write, the notes have no use. The musical language given to me in the performance has evolved as decipherable and most of the time, adorable, as the choicest extension of the vastness of possibilities for the shaping of what I hear as tunes or improvisations or both interwoven, combined or separated. My attention moves to the musicians. The musicians are awesome----not in the colloquial sense, in the real sense of awe-inspiring.
If the musicians weren’t there, where would the music be? Nowhere. A simple analogy would be if merchants had not used abacuses to calculate totals to pay for merchandise, the computer would not exist. Or even better if we did not have fingers, we might not have so easily come to counting. The abacus was a means to have available more fingers than we could ever have on our hands. The abacus was a de-personalization of counting to permit calculation to be external to the body, thereby allowing it to be perceived as an abstraction that could be changed, molded, revolutionized to satisfy the necessities that arose in the world of more than two people.
So, back to the music. The serious stuff. I can only suppose that the musicians who have made the music I listen to (not exclusively improvised, avant-garde jazz) have reached into the recesses of who they are to produce the sounds they produce. Who is to say where it comes from. Some say God. Well, everything comes from some Higher incomprehensible mysterious resource. Even Einstein believed in God, for God’s sakes. Speaking of science...some neuroscientists say that certainly identifiable, specific regions of the brain generate the impulse for rhythm and regulate emotions that could, to my understanding, propel creation. OK---Paste on the electrodes, let’s go!
Creation is a matter of necessity. A long time ago, when I was in college, I wanted to do an art piece that documented time. (I was then practicing, er... trying to invent conceptual art.) The enactment of my idea became the act of sitting in each of the four corners of my dormitory floor and writing down every sound I heard. The product of the idea was a group of four typewritten lists of the sounds that I described. But the lists varied more in the numbers of sounds recorded than in the kinds of sounds heard. I was making verbal music and did not even know it. I was tuning my ears. I was raising my awareness to sound. And in that strange live means of sequencing of an orchestral version of banal, mundane, pedestrian noises, I learned to correspond sound and words.
Writing about recordings is less difficult than writing about concerts because all I have is the sound. I do not have the visual. I do not know how the musicians are standing, perspiring, plucking, blowing, playing the drums, singing the songs. I cannot see them. I do not know what they look like. The sound comes out of the speakers of the stereo over and over and over again. The listening happens on many levels of intensity. The first listening is always concerned with getting the ambient picture of the recording. The second and third and on and on are concerned with how certain words pop into my mind while I am listening. The words describe what is constant, what does not exist, what innuendoes prevail in melody, chorus, phrasing, what details of transitions rise out of the unified whole... Simply what I hear: clicking my mind to separating out or to blending together. It isn’t until I make the overt gesture of putting the CD into the computer where I can track the tracking that I am ready to write. The music is close to me then. Closer than ever. As if it were coming through my ears, down my arms, out my fingers, to the keyboard, to the screen and to your eyes.
In his column in a recent issue of DOWNBEAT, pianist D.D. Jackson approached contemporary musics in a way that makes more sense than any commentary I have heard or read about how jazz, in particular, is going to develop. His theme addressed the fact that influences on music come from the entire world now through all sorts of networks, predominately the Internet. And that music can reach people in split seconds, electronically. He concludes that no one grand figure of jazz will exist any more, the way in which Coltrane was a giant or the way anyone of huge influence was back then before instantaneous communication could occur or information was immediately available. D.D. Jackson is absolutely right. All the music that I write about has that thinking ingrained in the words. No more honing down on exactly any one source of music anymore. Everything influences everything. The choices of who is going to be inspirational are up to the people who have to choose. Coltrane inspired more musicians that can be counted but he was not the only influence on musicians thereafter. From my perspective, perhaps the line can be drawn when a commercial edge is on the music and renders it distasteful to my ears, but I try not to see the differences. I believe in the integrity of everything, that no music sounds like any other music, until I can observe otherwise. I am innocent until I learn when not to be.
At this point, the choices I make for subjects of my writing guard against dismissing any kind of music as being unworthy of my earshot. So many different kinds of music exist that it would be sinful not to try to make sense of how it fits into the whole and can therefore feed the texture of my writing. For instance, I attended an Olu Dara concert last week. I heard him about two years ago and it did not impress me at the time because I had not exposed myself to the wide range of music that I have under my belt now. This time, though, I understood what he is doing as clearly as could be. Or at least I think so...in my mind, that is. And what he is doing is terrific. He is a contemporary eclectic blues & creative word and music improvisor/composer/vocalist. Actually, the pigeonholing takes away from the spontaneous beauty of how he sings and guides his group. There are no words to accurately describe what he does. I know that I can refer to his artistry in the future as a means to elucidate other perceptions even though they might not be musical. Natalie McMasters, Bela Fleck, the group Bang-on-a-Can, composers Steve Reich & Toru Takemitsu, and on and on, all fit in the same categoryless category in which Olu Dara fits. In my mind.
The passing of time becomes an important factor overall in the discussion of all subjects musical, visual, creative....put into the bucket of history. Physicist Brian Greene, author of THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE, wrote in the conclusion of a recent newspaper article about the literal illusion of time due to the incredible scientific revelations which throw accepted theories about time into question:
"...we will still mourn the evanescence of life and be able to thrill to the arrival of each newly delivered moment. The choice, however, of whether to be fully seduced by the face nature reveals directly to our senses, or to also recognize the reality beyond our perception, is ours."
Understanding that cultural phenomena all have precedents is one stance to take. However, given what is implied by Greene’s statement about time, it is more than necessary for music, art, writing to be viewed as it is, right now, not in relation to the past. How this changes perception of music art, etc. is to relieve the appreciation of the latter correlating it with something other than it actually is. This idea is not new--it stems from deep feelings about the pervasiveness of the present. How everything is present all the time. There are no dividing lines. Perhaps this viewpoint is too intellectual....I don’t know. I will say that it took my life to this point to inculcate this belief into my set of intellectual and emotional givens.
We have to start somewhere, hearing music as it is, seeing art as it is, all without so much interpretation that distortion becomes the true thing. Why not start right here?
(This article is dedicated to the jasfarmer, Roger Fega, who pushed me to begin writing about jazz, and to my ex-husband, the composer and pianist, John Newell, who began to teach me everything I know about music.)