Saturday, August 22, 2020

Late August, 2020, NYC

My last gig was in December of 2019.  It’s been eight months since I’ve played music with another person. What’s surprising is that I’m pretty much OK with it.  I don’t know how I should feel about that, but that’s OK too.  Sometimes we need to learn how to be quiet.  Practicing my horn each day, it’s enough.  As I've said before, the saxophone has never let me down.

I’ve been listening to music.  A little.  Very little, actually.  Almost none really.

Otherwise we’ve been deep into the daily routine.  It’s neither good or bad any longer, it just is what it is.  I don’t have any stories to tell.  No adventures, no anecdotes to share, no exciting plans to promote.  I do follow politics.  Do you need me to tell you about that?  No.  You don’t.

If I was a skilled enough writer I could describe how beautiful Central Park is on a perfect afternoon.  What it smells like after a good rain, all of the different bird calls.  I could revel in the telling of how “the more you look the more you see” in the wild wooded areas.  Or I might try and describe what it’s like navigating Prospect Park (which I do not know well) on a bike, looking for a friend.  You already knew that I don’t carry a cell phone, right?  Lost, it took an hour and a half on a hot day, drenched in sweat, working out my frustration on each stroke of the pedals, wanting desperately to be “on time” before finally locating him, sitting alone under some massive trees facing a meadow.  We sat together for a few hours while the park changed around us.  How could I possibly describe that?  Speaking of parks, I celebrated a birthday with my family by having a take-out meal from our favorite Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown, Nha Trang.  I’ve been going there since I don’t know when, maybe late 80’s?  It seems that every Vietnamese restaurant I’ve been to has a different approach to many of the same dishes.  Nha Trang has been absolutely consistent in their offerings and the place has barely changed over the years.  They have seen my son grow from a toddler to a young man.  He orders the same dish every time, they just bring it when he shows up.  We took our meal to Union Square park to meet up with his girlfriend and spread a blanket on the grass just as it was getting towards dusk.  There were a few other groups of folks on the lawn but I wasn’t totally sure we were supposed to be there, it felt a little transgressive.  In my twenties I might have been energized by that.  At this point there are some adult impulses that are starting to kick in.  Better late than never.  And there are rats in the park.  You knew that right?  It was a beautiful, if slightly menacing, evening.

Otherwise most of the interactions I have with folks are rather brief.  So I’ve been thinking a lot.  Probably too much.  Here’s this one thing that hung me up a little.  

A few posts ago I mentioned listening to Watazumi Doso.  Since then I’ve been in touch with trombonist Ben Gerstein who shared with me more information about this elusive figure.  Ben also pointed me to a blog he maintains containing  recordings of traditional music from cultures around the world.  It’s music I don’t always understand, yet I feel an immediate affinity towards.  You can sense there is wisdom in this music, something in the act of making sound in order to reach for what’s invisible, what’s inexpressible about being alive, that all cultures seem to share.  No matter what I may think of modern music by comparison, something seems very much the same.

This was all mulling around in the back of my mind when my son showed me a book he’s using for a college class called “The World of Music”.  I was eager to look at it and yet immediately disappointed by page two.  “Music: Universal Language or Culturally Specific Activity?”


It’s an old either/or argument of the kind I’m no longer interested in and yet I got hooked.  This is probably the “too much thinking” part.  I knew it wasn’t going anywhere and yet I wanted to understand why it upset me.  Maybe this time there would be some insight in seeing it through and coming out the other end.  Because this is not just a theoretical pursuit.  Being a musician trying to make sense out of current conditions, along with everyone else, it matters, in ways that reach beyond musical concerns.

The book made clear it was coming from the standpoint that no, music is not a universal language.  I’ve felt this myself, twenty years ago raising the same question (in the liner notes to Arcanum Moderne) but for a different reason, questioning my own assumptions about who might or might not relate to what I’m trying to do musically.  Ethnomusicology is an academic study and the book makes a clear and reasonable case for the pitfalls in assuming too much about intent and meaning.  To say that an intended meaning or cultural understanding is not precisely communicated may be true but that is not all of what music is.  Even when we have cultural or personal meaning, there is still mystery.  So while there is nothing I really disagree with here (except for the unnecessary negation of what gets to the heart of why we, meaning everyone, make and relate to music to begin with) there is an intellectual bias, an arrogance even, in the assumption that this can be understood and packaged in words.  Arrogance because power is at the root of it.  The drive “to know”, which is admirable, can become a tool with which to subjugate, even vandalize ourselves.  And I say that as someone who otherwise admires the scientific pursuit.

My son jokingly said that in looking through the book and seeing everything named and laid out, he wouldn’t even have to listen to the music.  You can imagine my reaction.  It’s like saying “I want to understand something without ever actually doing it.”  I’ve occasionally encountered students who seem to think they need to understand something before they can do it.  It’s a gross underestimation of experiential, ingrained practice.  But don’t get me wrong, intellectual understanding is fine.  I’m also a very strong proponent of misunderstanding as an essential creative element in making music.

There is something universal about music.  Clearly it’s not a language in the literal sense but it is a universal activity.  Then again, so is language.  Can we say that language is the universal language?  Not that there is one that everybody understands.  But we do seem pretty good at translation, using language itself to communicate across linguistic distances.  Reminds me of that joke about the United States and Britain being two countries separated by a common language.

What’s really at the heart of this is meaning.  Asking what music means from a scientific perspective becomes an exercise in science coming to grips with it’s own limitations as a discipline.  But let’s keep going a bit further.

And so the question I might ask is what kind of meaning?

The assumption, at least on the part of ethnomusicologists generally, seems to be intellectual, verbalized and measurable meaning.  But sound is just sound.  What’s touched in the listener is a recognition of something.  It might reflect something mathematical but it’s not math.  It’s sometimes like speaking but there are no words.  I am speaking largely about instrumental music, but not exclusively.  Even when we sing about a certain topic we’re really singing about something much larger.  That’s why we sing it!

What there is is a sense of movement.  Movement was required to make that sound and a sense of movement is conveyed in that sound.  Even stasis, such as a drone, carries  physicality.  The sustain is also movement through time.

So there may be a kinetic “meaning”.  A bodily action or a movement in nature corresponding in sound.  It’s not necessarily specific, but it’s fundamentally relatable.  Our physicality is the physicality of the entire universe.  When we make music we are resonating with the entire universe. That may seem like a big assertion but I see nothing standing in the way of it.  From simple elemental actions, immense complexity and richness can be created.  And it’s completely ephemeral.  In order for it to be sustained it has to be shared.  It has to be lived.  This can be interpreted as universal (shared among everyone), cultural (shared among some) and individual (your personal response) all at once.  Is it good music?  Is it bad music?  It doesn’t change anything.  We can interpret things however we like, for our benefit and to our detriment.

If meaning was fixed and music were culturally static there would be no sharing or understanding among people.  The book is correct to point out that cultural meanings are given to music by us and are not literally and specifically embedded or communicated in the music.  The book is misleading however in the implication that meaning can only be intellectual, verbal, literal.  It’s possible that I’m being too loose with the word meaning but we need to accommodate the effects of change with respect to meaning; intent, purpose and usage as well as misunderstanding, mis-use, distortion, appropriation, exploitation, theft, forgetting, loss and indifference.

So it’s impossible really, to break music down to some kind of meaning even as it feels deeply meaningful to make and listen to music.  And because it’s an action, it’s direct.  Not just the idea of an action but someone, a real person, has to do something.  You.  You have to do something.  A fellow musician recently asked how I would talk about swing.  My first response was “swing is you swinging”.  Might we say music is you playing music?  Or music is you listening to music?  The more I think about it, the more I think that’s true.

Music expresses the universal within the very particulars of our lives which are changing all the time.  It’s so easy to identify with music because it reflects who we are, what we are.  We assert our experience of it vociferously because it seems so deeply real and true.  Because there is no fixed meaning, even our conflicts can seem embedded in music.  Want to start an argument?  Ask a group of people if music is political.  This can be vexing but the more I think about it the less of a conflict I see.  To the extent that music might be seen as political we do not need to add or take away from it.  Life and music are ephemeral and fluid, moving, containing potential.  And we are nothing if not potential.  We intuitively know and feel that music can erase the sense of separateness that we feel from the world, from others and even from ourselves.  In this way music is a compassionate act.  It may not change the world or the immediate circumstances of your life in some direct, discernible way but it certainly has the potential to relieve a lot of suffering.  Just try and imagine a world with no music.

Understanding that what is universal is not opposed to what is relative might also help come to terms with what we think of as intellectual about music.  It’s undeniable that some musics, like certain kinds of jazz, may have a strong intellectual component.  Questions are often raised as to what you have to do in order to understand it.  I’ve always stood by the notion that you don’t have to understand it.  Everything you need is there, the very same sound, completely available to the “expert” and the “novice”, if that’s how you want to look at it.  At the same time it’s bottomless, endless.  The problem, if there is one, is that experts think they know and novices think they don’t.  The only real difference I can see is that of immersion, repeated listening, living with it.  When the conditions are right, your experience is transformed.

In researching this topic I came across a couple of quotes from composer Igor Stravinsky that seem to bridge the gap a bit between music and the study of music.

“For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention – in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being.”  Igor Stravinsky (1936). An Autobiography, p. 53-54.

Years later he addressed and revised his statement:

“The over-publicized bit about expression (or non-expression) was simply a way of saying that music is supra-personal and super-real and as such beyond verbal meanings and verbal descriptions. It was aimed against the notion that a piece of music is in reality a transcendental idea "expressed in terms of" music, with the reductio ad absurdum implication that exact sets of correlatives must exist between a composer's feelings and his notation. It was offhand and annoyingly incomplete, but even the stupider critics could have seen that it did not deny musical expressivity, but only the validity of a type of verbal statement about musical expressivity. I stand by the remark, incidentally, though today I would put it the other way around: music expresses itself.”  Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft (1962). Expositions and Developments.

“Music expresses itself”

I would go along with that but perhaps not for the same reasons he did.  Or at least I’m not sure we need to take such an intellectual path to get there.  It’s not unlike the problem that every improviser faces; developing, practicing and executing great musical ideas only to find out just how awkward it is to try and fit them into a given musical space.  It’s backwards, contrary to the way music flows.

Perhaps we can cut to the chase…

If we think we don’t know the answers, we think we’re confused.  If you bring a confused mind to music, the result will likely be confusion.  It’s only necessary to listen.  I often say trust the music, which means trust yourself.  Which means trust what you are doing.   In spite of what we tell ourselves, we all know how to do that.  We do it every day of our lives, the rest is drama.  When I say drama I’m not talking about hardship, misunderstanding, conflict, injustice or the basics of survival, all of which are too real.

Trusting what you are doing is really a matter of simplicity. It doesn’t change anything, it doesn’t solve anything, it doesn’t get you anything.  But as in music, it’s your experience that is transformed.


Premise:  It's not so easy to let things be exactly as they are.

Prospectus:  The closer you get the more you can let go of.

Proposal: A simple act expresses itself, music expresses itself, giving and receiving expresses itself.

This is enough.  But don’t take my word for it.  Listen…

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