Sunday, June 14, 2020

Delirium and Unity

In a recent post I mentioned how long it’s been taking me to finish “A Distant Mirror”, a book by Barbara Tuchman about the “Calamitous 14th Century”.  This morning, victorious, I finished it.  And in this immersion of history; a cavalcade of upheaval, pestilence and violence—merging in my consciousness with the present moment and present events—I am delirious…

This is a blog about music and the medium is words.  I’ve written about politics and social issues to some degree but I’ve always felt it wise to keep the focus on music.  While I have strong opinions I have no expertise in politics.  And while there have been many words shared on the subject of social justice it’s clear that actions are the force by which the world is shaped. 

Music is what I know.  I don’t actually understand it, but I seem to be able to do it nonetheless.  What I “know” about music comes out of the creation of it, out of not knowing.  In the fifty years I’ve been playing you’d think that some measure of disillusionment might creep in.  And yet the saxophone has never let me down.

In the previous post, Why Do You Play?, I was inspired by the words of saxophonist Sonny Rollins to look deeper into this process of music and life.  Since then another piece with Mr. Rollins came out, an interview “On the Pandemic, Protests and Music” (The New Yorker June 11th, 2020)   

In it he says…

“It’s not about your music—it’s about what makes your music your music. You’ve got to have a feeling like that. You have to have a reason for your music. Have something besides the technical. Make it for something. Make it for kindness, make it for peace, whatever it is. You know what I mean?”

Words like kindness and peace can easily be taken for granted.  For them to have any depth of meaning there has to be an awareness and acknowledgement of their opposites.  As I reread some of the things I’ve written lately I’m appreciating that they come from a growing and unavoidable recognition of pain, individual and collective, mine and yours.  What is difficult to fully appreciate is that this pain comes out of the very interconnectedness and unity that we rejoice in as musicians.  There are tragic events occurring in the world, in our nation, in our neighborhoods.  I have seen tragic events right outside my window.

“A Distant Mirror” opens with this:

“For mankind is ever the same and nothing is lost out of nature, though everything is altered.”
- John Dryden, “On the Characters in the Canterbury Tales,” in Preface to Fables, Ancient and Modern

What is “ever the same” that also allows for “everything is altered”? 

It’s interesting that conflict and pain, the qualities screaming out the loudest for our attention, are two of the things we would most like to rid ourselves of.

What is it about the act of music that looks the truth of pain straight in the eye and transforms it?

A friend of mine recently brought to my attention a Rahsaan Roland Kirk video, a performance of “Volunteered Slavery” from 1972 and said to me “This music is honoring human life as a whole”.

This is not at all abstract.  It is honoring life out of a specific history, specific issues and experiences, real people and real events.  At the same time, honoring life is universal.  It’s an invitation for all of us to participate and embrace our humanity.  It’s truthful and therefore a compassionate act.  It is transformative.

Art and music are able to address immediate needs and concerns yet they occupy a unique space.  We often ask, are music and art political?  I can’t fully say yes and I can’t fully say no.  I’m beginning to wonder if it’s even the right question.  Perhaps a better question is how do we take up this invitation to participate in honoring our humanity?

We are each being called upon to act.  To be honest, I don’t always trust some of these calls.  I’m cautious around self-righteousness, positioning or signifying.  I recognize those things  because I see them in myself.  But when we hear a true call, someone speaking their own truth, it’s evident.  How do we respond?

With respect to political action it is often difficult to know the right course to take, difficult for us to even agree on what that is.  Within political groups there is often struggle, mistakes and disillusionment.  And yet that is not an excuse to sit back, awaiting perfection.

If I were to say to a student something along the lines of what Sonny Rollins said, inviting them to widen their perspective and allow the music to reflect and express more than some abstract self-contained set of values, I might rightly be asked “well, how do you do that?”

That is what's called a active question.  Meaning it needs to be enacted.  You can’t do it by yourself, in your head, wondering whether it’s right or wrong, good or bad and "what are people going to think of me?"  Enacted means it involves other people.  It has an effect on your life and the lives of other people.  Granted…easy to say, not always easy to do.

In music I often look to simplify the process.  I ask questions like “what does the music need right now?”  If I get stuck, not knowing what to do, I stop worrying about myself and listen more intently to the other musicians.  And then I know what to do.  There are endless parallels between improvisation and acting in the world.  It’s basically the same thing.  So how might I translate this into something relatable for addressing our time, our selves and our world?  I might ask…

1. Am I willing to look directly into my own pain and meet it with compassion?

2. Am I willing to take responsibility for the effects of my speech and action, unconditionally?

These questions must be enacted, we don’t do this alone.  As with music, you find the answer by doing it.  What’s vitally important is to know that it matters greatly how we do what we do.  Whatever we want to bring to bear in the world has to come from within, embodied and embedded in every action we take.

This is what I hear in Sonny Rollins’ statement…“It’s not about your music—it’s about what makes your music your music.”

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