Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The One Sound…

One of the pleasures of this time at home has been writing.  That’s something that I was ambivalent about during the last year but it’s an important means of basic communication.  My ambivalence was likely due to an underlying desire to use writing as a means to figure things out.  But I really don’t think that words ever really clear anything up.  They can describe and they can point.  And they can sometimes be beautiful.  I think that happens when we read something that seems true.  Not stated as factual information, but as an act, alive, set into motion yet not fully resolved.

The answers that I always seem to be looking for are like moving targets.  And even if you manage to snag one it doesn’t seem to remain viable for very long.  And so I keep looking, expecting that one day perhaps I’ll find what I’ve been looking for.  But during this time spent within four walls simple communication becomes paramount.  I don’t want to think about what would happen if the electricity went out.  So I keep focused on the task at hand, whatever it is.  Right now it’s writing these words.  They are a reflection of what is happening on my little corner of 43rd street in NYC.  I’m not even sure what they mean but it seems important to write them and send them out in this electronic form, completely ephemeral.  I really don’t know who reads them nor how the words land.  I have to let go of the whole thing.  Then maybe tomorrow there is something else to write.  Or just be quiet for a few more days.   I guess I’m asking something but I’m not sure what.  The content seems less and less important.  Maybe the asking is enough.  In reading that back it sounds like someone who has been inside for a little too long without speaking to too many folks.  But that is in fact the reality of the situation.  Fortunately I’ve been able to carry on some one-to-one written correspondence with a handful of folks and I’d like to thank each of them very much for sharing something in this form.  It brings some welcome warmth to the simple process of reading and writing.

So here’s the thing…I’ll start with this phrase…

“Visceral Connection to Sound”

This came up in some correspondence recently.  A friend mentioned a book by Madeline Bruser called “The Art of Practicing”.  I have not read the book and will likely not, only because I am ridiculously slow in my reading.  I am in the final chapters of “A Distant Mirror” by Barbara Tuchman.  I started this book when I was in college.  It’s great and I’m determined to finish it.  My wife just laughs whenever I bring it up.  Anyway, I was curious and looked at Madeline Bruser’s website and saw five things that she felt were essential in her approach to teaching.  One of them mentioned strengthening your visceral connection to sound.

I noticed the other day that I started this blog on April 28th, 2010.  That’s exactly ten years to the day.  In that initial post I mentioned becoming “almost obsessed with sound”.  In the ten years since then I’ve tried again and again to come at this notion of sound in order to better understand or perhaps as an assist in getting a better sound on the horn.  And yea, “better” is a lame word so what’s a better word than better?  How about complete?  A complete sound.  I’ve grappled with this notion of a “complete sound” for some time now.  The act of making a sound, from your body through an instrument.  Maybe your voice.  Maybe striking an object.  Vibrating a string or setting air in motion through a tube.  And you might ask yourself, where does the sound come from?  Where does it go?  Why do some sounds make me cry?  These are not just theoretical questions.  It is the visceral experience of vibration, including your body, mind and everything around you.  I realize this may sound like too much.  It certainly is possible to make too much out of just about anything.  But I know I’m not alone in this.  Perhaps most folks don’t feel the need to talk much about it, they know that all that is really required is to just make the sound.  To just listen.  It speaks for itself.

Still, it does sometimes require a bit of a push, in words, perhaps on a blog.  To say to folks, “hey, please don’t forget to listen”.  Or maybe just “please don’t forget”.  Or even just “please”.  I’m reminded of this by virtue of the conversations I’ve been having.  Folks sharing what they’ve been noticing and experiencing.  We do call attention to things, teachers do this all the time.

Here’s a good example…

This particular person I don’t know a lot about.   It seems he did not actually consider himself a musician.  A teacher perhaps.  Or someone who just did what he did.  Coming out of a particular tradition he went his own way.  Something of a character, sometimes mischievous, he often spoke about the “one sound”.  Saxophonist Steve Lacy spoke of him as "one of the greatest improvisers I've ever heard in my life, maybe the greatest."  In hearing him play I’m immediately captivated by the ever changing texture of his sound.  It has something of the same quality I hear in the early rural blues singers whose voices were almost symphonic in the variety of textures and sounds coming from just one person.  In some ways I can’t help but think about multi-woodwind master Rahsaan Roland Kirk who I’m sure knew this “one sound”.

His name was Watazumi Doso Roshi.  He was not a jazz musician but like certain jazz musicians he used his persona as a vehicle, a means to directly convey a lesson that would only be burdened by the use of too many words.  I first heard of him when I came across a story he told a group of musicians at the Creative Music Studios in Woodstock in the early eighties.  These are his own words, through a translator…

Yesterday over at the Zen Arts Center in Mount Tremper two students approached me to be taught the flute.  One of them was as I understood an internationally famous poet, quite an old man.  And he asked me, that when he plays his flute, of various delusions and hallucinations and thoughts appear and he plays his flute out through those delusions and thoughts and “what should I do about it?”  And so I answered him “when you're playing the flute why are there necessarily such delusions?”  So actually I figured out that this person was talking about something else.  I told him that he is playing the flute with his mouth but his body was going somewhere else.  And I told him that what we are doing, the way we are living, is not something that is to be talked about, it is something that is to be actually lived.  

So I said to this fellow “I bet when you sit in front of a plate of food you are not deluded and so why are you deluded when you pick up a flute?  Are you deluded when you eat or when you sleep or when you go to the bathroom?  If you're still deluded then take your flute and hit yourself over the head.  If you can't hit your own self over the head give me the flute and I’ll hit you over the head with it.”  And so he said that he had not come here to ask Doso Roshi to do that.  So then Doso Roshi said “shut up!”

That person had come from New York the day before and stayed overnight at the Zen Arts Center.  Being internationally famous, for him, was nothing.  This person had written poems but all of these poems were surely nothing but deluded words.  He walked away from that interview unable to look this way or that way and unable to see what was around him and so I think that probably he was even more deluded then, when he went back to New York City.

This story has a humorous aspect in as much as he is trying to help someone who is perhaps being a bit too willfully helpless.  It also reads as harsh to be saying that the poet’s work must be deluded.  I’m reminded of my early days in NYC, playing a steady gig in Harlem with organist Jack McDuff.  Sometimes during the evening he would roll his eyes and yell across the stage at me in front of everyone there, “you call yourself a musician?”   I knew what was being conveyed to me in no uncertain terms.  That this whole thing was larger than me.  And larger than him.  This was known as “old school”.  I don’t think this is necessarily an appropriate way to teach these days but I do understand it.  The teacher is not being malicious or arrogant, they are simply using their position to impress upon you that we are not f***ing around.  We might sometimes wonder if this person is abusing their power, that’s always possible.  In any event you had better get over yourself in a hurry and figure out what to do.

But the longer view is this.  It’s up to the poet to know whether their words are deluded or not.  No one else can tell you, not even someone you admire.  The teacher is providing a catalyst for you to gain a perspective on things, to know yourself better, to break away from what you’re holding on to so as to be able to trust yourself and stand on your own two feet.

There is a video of Watazumi telling this story himselfThe title of the video mentions Allen Ginsberg as being the poet in question.  I was curious if that was true since Watazumi never mentions the name.   I contacted the videographer, dug deeper and found two other persons who were also there.   No one could say for sure and my feeling is that it was most likely not Ginsberg.

There does not seem to be much more information about Watazumi but he did record a number of LPs.  Trombonist Ben Gerstein has collected these recordings which I believe are otherwise completely unavailable, and presented them all on one page.

There is another short video of Watazumi speaking and playing.  He describes his methods and training and speaks a bit to the “one sound”.    I watched it again today and was struck by a particular phrase that escaped my attention previously.  Given what I wrote at the beginning of this little essay, it seems to resonate.  In being repeatedly asked by some famous composers “what is the one sound” and repeatedly trying different ways to address them he finally says “You fools! Have you not understood your own question?”

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