Saturday, June 8, 2024

The Art of Breath


    I just took a bike ride through Central Park this afternoon and stopped to listen to a jazz combo play the tune “Star Eyes”.  Took me a minute to remember the title but it was a stalwart choice at jam sessions back in the day.  And a nice tune which got stuck in my head as I tried to recall the chord changes while continuing on my ride.  Of course once I got home I had to play though it, remembering all the little nooks and crannies where one can inject clever little ideas to connect the contours of an otherwise straightforward song.  I’m going to guess it’s been a good thirty years since I’ve played it.  And now I’m getting the urge to look up the Sonny Rollins version.  


    OK, I’m back…it’s been even longer since I’d heard that.  And I wasn’t even planning on writing about this but somehow it got on the page and I had to go with it.  Now I’m thinking about those qualities that make someone’s sound recognizable, on the elemental level, down below all the stuff that we can play, and then gives all the stuff such character.  It’s really one’s delivery that does that and it’s not easy to separate the delivery from the musical content.  In fact, we shouldn’t separate these things, which is something I find myself emphasizing with students when I teach.  But I digress.


Allow me to jump to where I thought I’d begin this essay…


    About a month ago I took part in an art seminar at the zen center I go to and it’s had me thinking.  First, let me say that I am not a visual artist nor were any of the other attendees.  The point of this session was for us to experience drawing in a direct way without our thinking minds interfering in the process.  The first technique we tried our hands at was literally to draw our hand (the one we weren’t drawing with) without looking at the paper we were drawing on.  We drew a number of things that way, including portraits of our fellow artists, except this time we were told to keep our pens moving rapidly and continuously, not lifting them or stopping until a face emerged from the thicket of lines.  But the exercise that surprised me most involved drawing with a three foot stick from a tree found outside that had a small piece of charcoal attached to the end with duct tape.  A bowl of fruit was placed on the floor and we gathered around it in a circle, standing with our branches and sheets of paper placed on the floor at our feet.  The idea was to draw the bowl of fruit.  I crouched down and grabbed my branch like a big pencil before being corrected.  We were to remain standing, drawing with our extended arm.  It’s as awkward as it sounds, the charcoal wiggling around on the end of the stick while you try to make a mark on the paper.  Just when we were beginning to get comfortable we were told to exchange our branch with the person standing next to us, which is like starting all over again, each stick being differently shaped.  We also drew portraits of each other with a bottle of Elmer’s Glue on white paper.  The surprise was seeing what happens after pouring fine black sand over the page.  


    Afterwards we set all the pieces out on the floor and looked at each one.  By this time no one had any pretensions of having done “well” yet we were all impressed by the fact that there was a natural line evidenced in each work, not to mention that each person’s group of works was identifiably theirs.  That’s even more surprising given the seemingly unnatural methods we were utilizing.  We weren’t trying to be natural, personal or identifiable.  We were just concentrating (for dear life) on the movement required to make a mark on the page.  


Think about that for a moment…


    Getting back to those students, I’ve had many accomplished saxophonists come to me over the years, each with their own set of circumstances yet each asking pretty much the same question.  How do I find my own voice?  The simple answer is not to worry about it but I wouldn’t be a very good teacher if that’s all I said.  There are some serious considerations to be dealt with such as the matter of developing one’s ear, acquiring technique, understanding theory, assimilating language, not to mention learning about the cultural history that you are taking up, all of which can become quite compartmentalized especially within a university music program, which is where most young people go to study jazz.  


Here’s a question I don’t have an answer for.  Are university art departments more creative than their counterparts down the hall in the music department? 


    Perhaps I’ll look into that but a more immediate question might be, what is it about that art class that makes me think about these musical questions?  Is there a way to translate that visual experience into a musical one?  If there is an equivalent to the artistic line I suppose it would be the breath, or the bow or whatever means one employs to get something vibrating on an instrument.  The means of sustain, moving the sound in all of the ways it can move.  It implies hearing a melody or even just a sound as something complete in the way you shape it, the way you deliver it, being sensitive to the fact that every note you play is different.  No matter what you are “saying” on the instrument, this directness is essential. I believe every musician has this ability, it’s just that the great ones haven’t forgotten it while the good ones could sometimes use a reminder.  I like to remind myself of this every day.  


    I suppose I’m going to have the opportunity to look at all this more closely given that I was invited to offer a series of group sessions working with sound and listening at the Zen Center of New York City this fall.  One thing I know is that these sessions will differ from the typical improvisation workshops I do at universities in that they will not necessarily be jazz based and will likely involve a range of folks, some who have been playing for awhile and others with little to no experience on an instrument.  In any event, rather than bring too much of an agenda into it I’m going to simply let it take its own form given who shows up.  More news on that as we approach the time.


For now, I’ll leave you with a quote from photographer Diane Arbus. 


“It’s what I’ve never seen before that I recognize…Nothing is ever alike. The best thing is the difference.”  


She operated in a visual medium but I imagine we will be finding ways to engage this idea of recognizing what we’ve never heard before. 





As always, if you are interested in private study please have a look at the teaching page of the web site.







Thursday, May 23, 2024

What is it we want to say?


Last evening I attended a contemporary chamber music concert to which I’d been invited by some friends I hadn’t seen in awhile. It was located within walking distance so I got there a few moments before start time, took a seat in the front row and tried to relax from the jarring energy that is midtown Manhattan. Before long a gentleman came to the front of the room and introduced himself as the artistic director of the ensemble. He prefaced his remarks by apologizing that he did not have a witty means of conveying his feelings about the present political situation in the US, while still managing to insert some caustic rhetoric into that apology, and would instead simply tell us a little about what we were going to hear, a scene which folks found amusing.  


I was grateful to be there yet something bothered me about those remarks. I tried letting go but it wasn’t until halfway through the concert that I realized those words were having a limiting effect on how I was listening. It was as if the music and everyone involved suddenly had to stand for an ideology. It also felt limiting with respect to any sincere motivations that may have brought him to speak that way in the first place. Beyond agreement or disagreement it was at odds with the openness that naturally occurs within a roomful of people gathered to take part in a creative undertaking.


As I’m writing this a strong thunderstorm has suddenly developed outside, causing me to me stop what I’m doing, open the window and take a deep breath. It’s the smell of rain and there is a word for it, petrichor. It’s probably more the odor of the earth, a welcome antidote to the thick of concrete, asphalt and cars. Short of any actual damage, I love the energy of a rainstorm, probably because it’s a shared experience in spite of any particular opinions one may have of it. This one turns out to be rather short and now I’m left to pick back up and make some sense out of what I was writing…


The assumption on the part of the director that everyone there was on the same page politically was likely correct, and yet that somehow made the proceedings feel a bit smaller.  Conversations about art and ideology are typically fraught, embedded as they are in the language of conflict. It’s incredibly easy to get caught up and tangled in “this” at the expense of “that” such that trying to resolve anything by those means only leads to deeper, more entrenched conflict.  It seems like such a simple thing to say and yet this plays itself out on every level from the mundane to those of epic proportion.  This instance was somewhere closer to the mundane, almost not worth mentioning.  The overall experience was positive and I respect the fact that this person was able to make such an event happen.  I’m in a certain amount of awe of this, asking myself what it would take for the improvised music scene to have such support.  Still, I feel it's important to take into account these small things as they do tend to add up and the effects are not always seen.


The sun has now come back into the picture and the wind which was moments ago threatening the fortitude of the trees has now, just as suddenly, taken the form of calm as the streets begin already to dry and activity resumes. Interesting that there is no language involved in that process, just the residual dusts blowing through my mind in the form of words.


And where is that music from last night? Political words weren’t enough to hold it and the words that blow around in my head this morning don’t seem to be taking much form either. I’m going to go to another concert this afternoon. I doubt anyone will bring up politics this time but of course that will be in the room, in it’s form, along with everything else in the world.  


What is it we want to say?








Monday, December 18, 2023

Solo Concert 12/15/2023

This past Friday evening I performed a solo concert in Brooklyn.

It was my second concert in about four years, the previous one also being solo which took place in 2021.  

This particular concert took place at a Zen temple.  More about that in a moment.

The Set Up…

Preparing for any concert requires concentrated practice but a solo concert is perhaps the most demanding.  I began focusing my daily practice a couple of months in advance, gradually ramping things up in earnest about a month out only to encounter a bad bout of “reed neurosis”, something that does not happen often but is quite the pain in the ass when it does.  I like to think I’ve developed a good degree of flexibility with respect to reeds but occasionally the whole lot of them seem to go south all at once, for reasons I’ve never been able to determine with any certainty.  Saxophonists are notoriously dissatisfied with their reeds and everyone has a theory but I don’t really subscribe to any of them, the saxophone is mysterious that way.  I do know that when preparing for a concert I do tend to get more picky.  And I had been experimenting with overtones at around this time and it’s possible that adjustments to my embouchure may have thrown things out of alignment.  Or maybe it was a sudden change in the barometric pressure or whatever else we saxophonists like to blame for the vagaries our instrument.  As you can see, this is the neurosis part.  


So I did what every saxophonist does in such a situation, I tried a new brand of reeds, in this case the reeds currently being offered from the Boston Sax Shop which it turns out I like quite a bit.  That combined with spending a couple of weeks really working on the physicality of getting the horn to speak from every note to every other note to an extent I had not done in awhile.  However, in concentrating so heavily on sound and notes I began to feel a bit stiff musically which became something else to wonder about.  So I took time to remember some of the things I mention to my students, orienting myself to the physical gesture, shaping the sound and phrasing, the physical movement being the generative element which determines the phrasing, which determines the color of the sound, which determines the notes, all of which rides on the breath.  That got everything realigned pretty quickly but in order to remind myself, I wrote down on a piece of paper “the breath dances…” and took it with me to the concert.


The Setting…


Many musicians speak about their creative process in spiritual terms, often self-styled or sometimes aligned with a particular tradition, which is all fine and cool.  But when folks find out you may be a bit more serious about that tradition things can get a little quiet all the sudden.  That’s completely understandable given the complexity of religious practice in America as it intertwines with our personal histories filtered through the cultural, economic and political landscape that make up our collective experience.  The word fraught springs to mind to the point that spiritual becomes a loaded term.  For years, even as it was obvious to me deep down that music was spiritual, I didn’t want anything to do with the word.  This being a blog about music I feel pretty strongly the importance of keeping on-topic.  You have your own thoughts and feelings on life and it’s probably best if we all find ways of honoring that about each other.


In this case, given that I played at the Zen center that I have been attending as a practitioner for many years, I’m faced with honoring my own sensibilities, some of which seemed a bit contrary to the whole endeavor.  For example, I was apprehensive about playing a saxophone, or any kind of music actually, in a Zen temple. After all, it’s a place in which we practice silence.  Not that there isn’t a precedent for doing so, there is the tradition of the shakuhachi flute for one.  But the saxophone and the musical traditions that inform how I play it may appear antithetical to the image one may have of the shakuhachi or even Zen itself.  But in spite of any reservations, I couldn’t really come up with a convincing reason to refuse the invitation.  Having played in concert halls and dive bars and everything in between, this was a new experience and yet it turned out to be a natural fit.  I saw quite a few folks I hadn’t seen in awhile (which is most folks come to think of it) and while most of those in attendance were not Zen practitioners it was perhaps the most concentrated listening experience I’ve been a part of, allowing me to go a bit deeper into musical areas that I might not have trusted so firmly in the past.  Given the disruption of the music business in recent years and the effect it’s had on musicians, venues and audiences this invitation turned out to be quite welcome.  It also provided a means for me to encounter some of my own blind spots around what I think it means to be a musician.  I played three extended improvisations and in retrospect, while the experience was very positive, I have almost no sense of what I actually played.  I’m not sure what to think about that.  This makes me realize how heavily we rely on recording to inform ourselves of the progress of our work and yet in this case I chose not to record the event, thinking about the Tibetan monks who create mandalas made of sand only to wipe them away after finishing.  Where does music come from and where does it go?


The Takeaway...


After the concert we had a chance for folks to ask questions or offer comments.  One person said that at times it sounded as if I was playing backwards and asked if that was intentional.  It wasn’t, although the thought has crossed my mind in the past.  Another person, with experience in improvisational theater, asked whether improvising musicians also come up against habitual tendencies and wanted to know how we handled that.  I offered that we do and that it doesn’t have to be a negative thing, it’s actually something we need and something we can use, seeing it might simply move you in another direction.  Years ago I might have answered differently, given that in earlier stages of development it may feel necessary to focus on particular ways to meet challenging conditions that come up when improvising.  We may even feel the necessity of taking a particular stand artistically and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.  But when seeing that our agendas have become weighty over time we can drop them, not out of negation but out of trust, there being no real need to make an ideology out of creative practice.  Personally I find that all of the same basic kinds of thoughts and feelings come up as was always the case, just that now I don’t feel the need to manage it all to such a degree.  Someone came up afterwards and said that she experienced a wide range of feelings throughout the music and wondered if I was guiding the music emotionally in some way.  I wasn’t, although I’m certainly aware of everything I’m feeling.  It’s just that the concentration is such that I can’t get distracted by those feelings.  In some way that I don’t quite understand it seems that this process allows for those feelings to be even more true in that they can move, as they must.  


This makes me think of a quality that musicians often speak of in terms of idealized states for playing and that is the word effortless.  It’s the quality of the music seeming to play itself.  I would not negate that but I think it can be misleading if taken at face value.  It might imply that our involvement, intention or effort is misplaced, even an obstacle to achieving a desired state.  In my experience “effortless” does not negate our involvement, it requires it.  Personally I like the feeling of working a bit when I play.  It’s a very physical and directed energy in which the horn offers its resistance and thereby the sound is created.  In putting in this effort there is a kind of equilibrium that takes place in which it can well seem like the whole thing is going by itself.  But it does require an investment.  We put our energy into the process and are met with…well, that’s up to you to experience in whatever way you feel it.  Sometimes musicians might say that the music doesn't come "from" them but rather "through" them.  I would not negate this either except to say that I would not want to imply that there is music “out there” that comes through me “in here”.  In fact, I was having this discussion recently with my first saxophone teacher, Mr. Reinhardt, who rephrased my statement as “the music that comes ‘through’ you is not separate ‘from’ you.”   I think that’s very nicely put.  


This is all just my take on what I’m feeling, something that defies putting into words although I can’t resist trying.  There really is no end to the ways in which we might think and feel about playing.  I love to read interviews with artists in which they speak about their process.  Sometimes I don’t relate so much to a particular approach or even disagree with it strongly.  Once I read someone advocating mastery before creativity in a way that seemed dictatorial.  On the other end of the spectrum are folks who express an aversion to conventional skills or even anything determinative, wanting instead to surrender to whatever is happening.  But I know that we are all essentially doing the same thing, in our own way.  It’s a good practice to take something that rubs me the wrong way and try and enlarge my view of what’s being said in order to see that.  


In closing, there was one other question that came up, a rather obvious one that nonetheless caught me off guard.  “How does it feel to play for people again?”  I should have been prepared for that one but I really didn’t know what to say except that having just done so I should probably do more.  And in fact, I do want to play for folks but I have my concerns about the form that takes, at least here in NYC.  It’s a challenging environment and a challenging time for creative work.  In acknowledging this I’m greatly appreciative of the effort it takes from folks who know how to make things happen on the ground and I do want to extend my appreciation for all of their efforts.  In particular to Hojin Sensei, the abbot of  Fire Lotus Temple, a creative artist herself who helped me to see a bit more clearly that yes, it is OK to play the saxophone in a Zen temple.   



Epilogue

For the benefit of us saxophone nerds, given all of the pre-game drama, upon warming up in the performance room for the concert I opted for my regular brand of reed, Rico Grand Concert Select.  They are a classical cut reed which works very well for a solo performance.  I suspect I will be using Boston Sax Shop reeds for ensemble work although I understand that they will also be offering a classical cut reed in the future.  And out of curiosity I just went back and played through that bad batch of reeds only to find out that they are pretty much fine.  So…I remain clueless about the whole thing…



The group photo is by photographer Todd Weinstein.  You can find out more about his work at toddweinstein.com







Saturday, November 11, 2023

What's the Story?

 If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you know that…

1. I’m an improvisor.

2. I’m an advocate for acoustic music.

3. I have my concerns as to the ways technology affects our experience of music.


Perhaps more than any of these things I am a listener.  These days it feels just as gratifying to listen to someone play music as it does to play it myself.  As such I’m beginning to realize that beyond my love for jazz, improvisation and the saxophone the real artistic medium to be spoken of is the concert experience itself.  



You may also have noticed that I’m writing more about classical music, a subject I have little knowledge of or insight into.  Some of what excites me may seem close to trivial, like my surprise at discovering new (to me) instruments from the medieval era presented by the Gotham Early Music Scene at a local church in my neighborhood.  In researching some of these I came across an amazing (to me) instrument from the sixteenth century called a rackett.  It’s basically a wooden cylinder, not much bigger than a beer bottle, utilizing a double reed in which nine parallel internal bores have been carved giving it an astonishing range for its size.  Have a listen.  Perhaps not the most profound thing you’ll encounter today, but somehow I feel better about the world knowing this even exists.

  


Some of my listening has in fact been more profound.  I was one of about a dozen folks in attendance on a recent Sunday afternoon to hear Finnish organist Kalle Toivio give a recital.  I took a seat in the first row just to the left of the organist where I could see everything including the music he was reading.  After playing two written works (one by Vivaldi and another by McNeil Robinson) he ended by improvising a piece based on two short melodic themes given to him at that moment.  After playing each of them verbatim he paused in concentration for some moments before launching into ten minutes of impassioned expression and compositional inventiveness; variation, transposition, reharmonization, fugues and sonic transformations all delivered with a virtuosic creativity that left me speechless.  Upon leaving I wanted to thank him yet only managed to babble something to the effect that it was one of the greatest musical experiences of my life.


Certainly the surprise had something to do with it.  I wondered, if that had been a composed piece would it have had the same effect?  To be honest, I think his improvised piece was the strongest work on the program. Which as it happens, I didn’t look at before or during the performance, in fact I never do.  A few months ago I was chatting with a concert director before a performance who asked if I had a program. I said yes but told him that I’d read it afterwards.  “How will you know what you’re listening to?” he asked incredulously.  As you might imagine, I have a lot to say on the subject of not knowing what you’re listening to but I’m probably in the minority on this.  Often these days there is some commentary offered on the part of the performers and composers prefacing their work and no doubt many folks welcome this as a way to feel connected to the music.  That’s great but personally, I don’t want to know.  Afterwards I’ll read but in the moment of listening I want to know what it is about the music itself that works, without the need for any kind of narrative.  Not that narrative is a bad thing but I do consider its effects on our perceptions of music.


Just this week I attended a concert of Bach performed by Cynthia Roberts on violin and Peter Sykes on harpsichord.  At a certain point in the proceedings Cynthia Roberts mentioned that her violin had been made in 1620 and she wondered aloud how many places it’s been and how many times it had played the very pieces she was playing that afternoon.  That certainly added real emotional dimension to our appreciation of her performance but as I was walking home afterwards I began to wonder, what if she had not been telling the truth about her instrument?  I wasn’t skeptical at all, nor was I being cynical about the sincerity of what she said and what we all felt.  But I don’t think her story would have meant as much if her performance had not been so compelling.  It was the music itself that was true.


So if the concert experience is the artistic medium (more than the instruments, styles and stories) a recent presentation at the Juilliard School raised some questions in my mind.  Under the heading  “New Series” the concert was titled “Vox Celli” with music by Arvo Pärt, Giti Ratz, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Julius Eastman performed by a cello choir.  “Cello choir” was all I needed to hear and I entered the date into my calendar.  Of course I did not read the program upon arriving, however the director did make an announcement, referring to a “mandate” from the school to foster interdisciplinary collaboration between its departments.  On stage were assembled a dozen or so cellists, the sheer sound of which (despite some intonation problems in the opening) was lush and detailed.  In addition there were some light projections on the back wall of the stage, morphing almost imperceptibly.  And then there was the more apparent and sometimes dramatic effect of the lighting on the stage itself, which was coordinated with the movement of the compositions, all of which bordered on becoming a light show with classical music.


Ending the presentation was music by composer Julius Eastman.  I was thrilled to have the chance to hear his music performed live as I’d been hearing about him for years, the first time probably during my tenure as a shipping clerk at New World Records (a classical music label) in the mid eighties. In addition to my regular duties I occasionally got to turn pages on recording sessions and had the chance to meet composers like Milton Babbitt and Ned Rorem.  Incidentally, I also once played with Gerry Eastman, a jazz guitarist and brother of Julius, although I didn’t know that at the time.  Vocalist Shavon Lloyd opened the proceedings with an unaccompanied vocal piece titled “Prelude to The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc” that completely transfixed the room.  No light show or any frills whatsoever, just a slowly developing plaint boldly delivered (one repeated fragment of the lyric was “Speak boldly, Joan!”) off stage from the side of the room that lasted over ten minutes.  With almost no means of support other than his sheer willpower it was emotionally gripping.  While listening I could not help but wonder how that might be achieved on the saxophone, to strip away almost everything and be left with so much power, unadorned.



Afterwards the cellists re-assembled on the stage in order to perform Eastman’s composition “The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc” this time in a different configuration, seated in rows, now amplified.  Each musician was also wearing an earpiece for reasons that were not apparent.  On the back wall of the stage was projected the 1928 silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (directed by Carl Theodor Dryer) albeit cut up and reassembled so as to coordinate with the music.  Whatever anyone may think about these choices (and without knowing exactly who made them) I was most struck by the fact that the musicians seemed not to have much of a role in this “collaboration” beyond being relegated as an element in someone else’s stagecraft.  Despite any of this, I must be honest in pointing out that the most potent moment of the evening by far was delivered by Mr. Lloyd, one person with one voice.  And I hope to have a future opportunity to hear this composition in a more straightforward presentation.


Two nights later, also at Juilliard was the Axiom ensemble which I’ve heard a number of times and have always come away from feeling very positive and energized.  Just a straight up concert of contemporary repertoire, everyone’s attention going straight into the music.  I must admit that I sometimes worry that this kind of experience is becoming less the norm given the increasing mention of “immersive” presentations in the promotional materials I read.  I understand that artists will do what artists will do but I hope that the classical concert world does not feel the need to follow the music world at large on whatever trip it is on.  I understand that it is possible to make too much of these things and I understand that I am pretty much out of step with everything these days. But I do pay attention to what’s going on.  Just the other day the Times published an article about folks attending mega-concerts by stars like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé and becoming live-streaming internet heroes themselves in their fandom, “amateur camerapersons who show up with phones taped to their heads and backup batteries at the ready, eager to help hundreds — or hundreds of thousands — view the concert from home” as a means to “stick it to the man”, ostensibly because tickets might cost $549 and hey, it’s something we can do now.  Being that that’s a “thing” maybe you shouldn’t even listen to me.  Seriously, I really don’t know what’s going on.

So what might be the point of all of this?  I’ve mentioned narrative, which is not a subject I’ve devoted much time to, but I’m becoming more curious about the role it plays in the creative process.  Stories and music have gone together for as long as there have been people with stories to tell.  What we call narrative could be something as simple as the contents of one’s press kit or the promotion for one’s concert.  On a personal level it may be the stories we tell ourselves every day about who we think we are.  It can be our opinions, ideologies and histories, how we think music and the world ought to be.  It is our literature, helping us in understanding the conflicts, contradictions and complexities of life.  On another level, perhaps technology can be seen as a kind of narrative given the adage that “the medium is the message”.  But the power of our stories is essential to our lives.  Joan of Arc is a compelling narrative.  And the story of Julius Eastman’s life (he passed in 1990 at the age of 49) is a compelling narrative.  Words are powerful, especially when made alive by those who embody the spirit of their expression, not by means of describing an emotion but by knowing it from the inside.


And yet I wonder how music speaks to someone who may know nothing about it.  On some level we want to relate, find ourselves in it, even when we don’t know what’s going on.  Any tensions in that process are probably the result of reconciling one’s sense of narrative (who, what, where, when) with the simultaneous quality of the actual experience (everything at the same time, all at once).  The narrative is pretty much in the realm of the discriminating mind (what you know, complete with likes and dislikes) while the the discerning mind includes everything you don’t know, but find yourself right in the middle of at that moment.  It’s able to take in the larger picture, so long as the tension doesn’t create a short circuit sending you running out of the room.  Keep in mind, you don’t have to like it.  I might take a moment to point out that this will never be the case with respect to watching a video because it simulates to a large degree some of the emotional and intellectual triggers without presenting you with the real dilemma of reconciling your own physical presence (and all that it entails) with the reality of what you are experiencing.  Your presence has everything to do with it. 


This tension is spoken of very concisely by writer and art historian Teju Cole in the New York Times.  “Any work of art is evidence of the material circumstances in which it was produced. The very best works of art are more than evidence. Inside a single frame, within a single great painting, complicity and transcendence coexist.”  The complicity he speaks of extends into everything that made the painting possible, both good and bad.  That’s a truthful narrative, and it has great value.  I also see complicity more broadly, not as in wrongdoing but as in involvement itself.  To be born into this world is to be already involved in it.   On the part of the viewer, you bring everything to it whether you know what you’re seeing or not.  I don’t mean ignorance, but I am saying that you make it alive in a very direct way that is difficult to express in words because it’s dynamic, it goes in both directions.

With our stories we investigate what is true, what is believed, what is embraced and what is discarded.  As an artist I might ask…


Does this narrative illuminate, focus and intensify?  Or does it simplify and reduce?


Is the work strong enough to support this narrative?  At what point might the work become overshadowed?


Is this narrative political? If so, whose politics?


What of the commodification of this narrative?


Does this narrative free one’s spirit or cage it?


Of course any notions of “my” narrative may be completely illusory in that any good story needs to accommodate the rest of the world.  That connection may not always seem clear.  I suppose this blog functions as narrative, I’ve spoken a lot about my mother and father and my hometown of Baltimore but I’ve always felt that the stories of people around me were much more interesting than my own.  Above all I was more interested in the music itself, what it could tell me, and so my method was to simply put everything into the horn.  That may sound noble but in retrospect I can see that there might also have been some shortcomings in doing that.  I can say with some confidence that music probably kept me alive.  I had more of a protective feeling about the music than I did about my own sense of self preservation.  The narrative legacy of my own father who passed at the age of 37 (a musical mentor in spite of the fact that I have no memory of him) was not one that I wished to replicate.


In spite of a certain amount of introspection as evidenced here I do pay great attention to what’s happening in the world.  I have strong opinions and I have my politics which have not essentially changed much over time (although I am increasingly disenchanted with partisanship). I’d like to feel that my political passions are based in humanitarian ideals. Most folks probably like to think that yet it would seem that we are very good at boxing ourselves into particular roles and relationships based on our perceptions of ourselves and each other, which plays itself out on every level. Fortunately, art can function as an antidote to the ills of politics, not by avoidance but by putting those energies into our creative process, explicitly or implicitly, to be transformed, thereby humanizing our experience.


Beyond that I’ve always been stubbornly averse to being told what to do, not least of which by the chatter in my own head, some of which I should probably listen to, most of which seems repetitious and annoying, none of which probably has nearly the importance it seems to demand.  In spite of all my excess verbiage on the subject, I want to be careful not to be telling things to the music, rather I want music to tell me things.  That’s why I emphasize process to the point of embracing the idea of pure music or music for its own sake.  That idea is sometimes misunderstood to be exclusionary in some way, negating the circumstances of our lives for the sake of an ideal.  But to me, a pure process, one in which we follow its natural course, invites direct experience of the truth we look for, in all of its complexity.  It is a simple, but informed, process.


As for narratives, we need our stories but they ultimately need to fold back in on themselves, to be renewed, to connect with and dissolve into all of the other narratives.  It’s easy to carve up our perception of life into a billion different parts and then feel confused about why things are the way they are.  Given our present state of affairs it can sometimes be overwhelming when we really allow ourselves to be “in the moment”.  At some point that ceases to be a cliché when we are faced with all of our feelings and realize there is nowhere else to go.  Music cuts right through this, it can shatter our world and comfort us at the same time until there is no longer any moment to speak of.  I think this is what it means to listen.




P.S.  As a reminder, I will be doing a solo concert on December 15th at 7pm taking place at the Zen Center of New York City.  Please note that seating is limited and registration is required.