Sunday, January 31, 2021

On the matter of Criticism

Occasionally, either by collision or perhaps in the act of navel gazing, I’ve endeavored to resolve my feelings around criticism, something every artist faces and something that no one likes.  It never works, the best I could ever come up with was that critics should offer insight over opinion.  Sounds good sort of, but mostly I don’t like to think about it so I write it off as unimportant.  But that doesn’t work either so it sits there unresolved, perhaps to be grappled with another day.  

This week I’ve had occasion to appreciate that there may be some good in criticism after all and I’m tempted again to ask, what if this tension could be resolved?  I’m reminded of what a friend of mine would say in this situation, “if you ever thought that you came to the end of that road it might be time to check your pulse, you may be dead”.  At this point, after having deceived myself numerous times in the past I’m starting to feel that this kind of tension is simply built into life.  Perhaps what is required is to resolve oneself within that tension, to cease externalizing it.  Something does want to be resolved, to be at rest.  But not dead.  

Last week we had a family conversation about reading habits.  My son and I  started by discussing what constitutes a polemic, a form of writing with a long history that has taken on renewed energy, morphed into 280 character twitter-bursts and burned into our daily cyber-consciousness.  By the way, there is no way this does not affect our collective mental health.  In recent weeks there has emerged the clearest evidence yet of some of the worst effects, a mutating internet cult making it’s way into political life.  I have to think of it as a form of brainwashing made all the more effective by technology.  But I digress.

My wife is an enthusiastic reader, very open to entering literary terrain.  I’m inspired by her because I’m the opposite, sorry to say.  Somewhere along the line I became aware that there is a tacit world view or set of assumptions in anything anyone writes.  There is always a degree of self interest that would seem to infect what may otherwise be a sincere reach towards some kind of truth.  Attention to this fact on the part of the reader (me) often requires arduous work to counter the threat.  Sounds paranoid, right?  “Infect” and “threat” are exaggerations but it’s difficult to articulate the more subtle and hidden operations that take place under the surface when reading.  I asked the question “is it possible to read something without having any personal vested interest in what is being read”?  My wife immediately responded in the affirmative saying that fiction takes her somewhere, she is open to learning about another person, other people, other cultures.  This set the stage for a good conversation that has been resonating since then.  

I’m pretty deficient in the amount of literature I’ve read.  What I do enjoy reading are essays, interviews and news.  This morning I read an interview between jazz pianist Ethan Iverson and classical music critic Alex Ross (of the New Yorker).  I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it, at first glance it seemed to be potentially dry, involving a somewhat detailed exploration of the academic tradition of criticism and classical music.  But I have enjoyed the writing of Alex Ross (whom I cited in a previous post on Passion and Etymology) and decided to go for it.  I’m very glad I did.  After pushing my way in, the interview gradually became more personal and alive.  By the end Alex Ross wound up fleshing out this tradition (by way of his recent book “Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music”) by illuminating connections between music, art and literature that I never fully appreciated, with Wagner being central and vastly more influential than I’d realized.  An investigation of Wagner is also problematic but you can read the interview for a better analysis than I can provide. In the final few exchanges Alex Ross offered some surprising connections from the late nineteenth century to aspects of popular American culture today.  Most importantly I am appreciating that the role of criticism has been an integral part of the western tradition, not just on the part of critics but on the part of composers, writers and artists, as evidenced from their correspondence with each other and even in the way they may teach. To know literature and academic study is to know something about criticism. I had been vaguely aware of this phenomenon and to be honest I never liked it, it seems contrary to the process of making art.  I recall years ago reading a book (I wish I could recall the title) which was a series of articles or interviews with contemporary composers in which they all trashed each other.  It really turned me off of the idea of criticism and I dismissed the whole thing entirely.  But perhaps I was not being quite honest with myself. 

Reading the Alex Ross interview put a light on my skepticism and intimidation around academic tradition while at the same time eliciting an undeniable attraction to it.  Critical thinking, while being essential to our survival and to our sense of meaning is also an essential skill for any artist in being able to gain a perspective (a form of distance) on their own work.  But in artistic practice (the creative act) it is often very limiting, distance being a liability.  I emphasize instead the virtues of intuition and direct experience.  Above all I’m an improvisor, but hopefully not a dumb one.  It’s easy to romanticize a degree of willful ignorance in the name of authenticity.  And it is equally easy to throw stones at the citadel but I still very much want to know what’s in there.  

Many years ago when I was still rather new on the scene I did a radio interview here in NYC.  Afterwards the DJ and I rode the subway together and chatted more about music, he also being a jazz critic and a sharp scholar of the music.  At one point I expressed my enthusiasm for Albert Ayler only to be told in no uncertain terms that Albert Ayler was “not part of the canon”, which floored me.  It had never even occurred to me that there was such a thing as a jazz canon (I was pretty naive) but I immediately knew I wanted no part of it.  It sounded too much like gatekeeping and exclusion by folks who were not musicians.  

What was most impressive about Alex Ross was that he was actually embodying the academic and critical path, coming to terms with it’s complexities and contradictions by coming to terms with himself in it.  In other words, it was personal and that is compelling.  I’m in no way drawn to that path myself but I begin to understand something of my attraction to it.  Still, it seems unavoidable that there is a conflict and an adversarial process at work, but what is it and where does it operate?

We all have a critical inner voice that we live with every day.  Reading news seems a good way to feed that critical voice but without some discipline and discernment there is risk of creating distress and outrage.  Who wants to live with that?  That’s just painful and whether you direct that distress outwards or inwards, either way it is you who will feel it.  This is not always easy to stop once it gets rolling and may require an antidote, deliberately practicing gratitude for example.  At the same time we can ask ourselves if our habitualized negative assumptions are true.  Critical thinking actually works well when it examines itself rather than feeding on itself.  You don't have to be an academic to do this.

I come from a working class background and was raised to an ideal that it didn't matter what you did in life as long as you did it the best you can. If you were a ditch digger, be the best ditch digger you can be.  That gave me the sense that it was possible to attain the fullness of one’s potential using just what you have.  A good education is important, no doubt, and the world is often unjust.  My parents instilled positive values and I was told to stay in school.  I was fortunate in that way.

I followed up the Alex Ross interview with another set of articles that I had also put aside for later reading.  The New York Times recently published an article titled “When James Baldwin and Langston Hughes Reviewed Each Other”   It recounts the discovery of a pair of overlooked reviews in the archives by Langston Hughes and James Baldwin from 1959.  I found them to be revealing.  If you subscribe to the Times you can access the original articles on their Times Machine

Coincidentally, one of the first books I remember loving was a children’s book by Langston Hughes called “The First Book of Jazz”, published in 1955.  He engendered a sense of respect and dignity for the music and it’s culture by not speaking down to his reader.  He was able to tap into a child’s natural creative ability to grasp how the music sometimes expresses sadness and other times happiness and yet it is the same music.  I still have this book.

Langston Hughes began his review of Baldwin by saying, “I think that one definition of the great artist might be the creator who projects the biggest dream in terms of the least person”, reaching millions with something they can understand.  He goes on to praise aspects of James Baldwin’s writing while detecting a quality of irresolution as needing to be resolved in order to qualify as great art.  

James Baldwin seems to endorse this irresolution or is at least willing to nearly sacrifice himself explicitly in addressing it.  That is my feeling having read some of his work, his pain is laid bare.  In his review of Hughes he speaks of a war between “social and artistic responsibilities” that are “all but irreconcilable.”  He’s speaking of Langston Hughes but also more broadly as well, perhaps including himself, I’m not sure.  But it may not be the indictment that it first appears to be.   Baldwin says “the poetic trick, so to speak, is to be within the experience and outside it at the same time…”.

What impressed me greatly was the fact that the pieces were rigorous but not adversarial or destructive.  There is empathy, each man seems to sincerely wish for the other to succeed and yet each are unafraid to put themselves on the line. It is a form of strength and vulnerability tied together.  Their topic is racism and they are speaking in deeply humanitarian tones.  The conflict, between artistic aims and with respect to the artist’s relationship to society, while handled differently by each, is not being externalized, rather it is lived.  The essays are specific to their experiences and the writers are acutely aware of the cultural dynamic that threatens to co-opt their language, style and more.  At the same time, I feel that they are by necessity speaking to everyone.  

Personally, writing about this feels fraught but it also feels like a responsibility.  I was born the same year these words were written.  The words do not belong to me and yet externalizing them puts the truth at a remove, just out of reach. But perhaps it’s not as difficult as it first seems. There are clearly differences between each writer, as well as differences between them and me, which need to be honored.  To honor these differences requires honoring our shared humanity, and to honor our shared humanity requires honoring every difference seen and felt in this life.  

The idea of “great art” has taken somewhat of a beating in intellectual circles since those articles were written.  I don’t know that I fully endorse the concept myself, it seems an interference to the artistic process as well as in fully understanding ourselves.  But that’s not the problem of art, it’s the problem of how we deal with it, ourselves and each other.  I don’t wish to play games of avoidance either, I’m perfectly willing to give it up when I encounter deep truths in art and I deeply respect the dedication that is required to achieve that.  But as an artist I can’t really concern myself too much with it, in a way it’s none of my business.  

I still don’t know what the role of criticism is, especially now when so much discourse is incendiary.  And I’m still unsure of my relationship to fiction.  I was heartened however when my wife pointed out that there are a much wider range of voices in the literature that is available today as compared to thirty years ago.  In addition to new writers there are also newly unearthed revelations of historical voices from outside the western canon.  Perhaps it’s time to catch up a bit.

Still, I’ve not resolved anything, but that would seem to be exactly the point.  Sometimes I really do worry that the pace of current events have overtaken culture.  But I am encouraged by what James Baldwin said about being inside the experience and outside at the same time.  And the ability and example of Langston Hughes to find a way to include everyone.  

I am not outside of either one of those investigations, nor can they be done alone.  To embrace this contradiction (which is itself a contradiction to be embraced) is to accept who we are.  

Friday, January 8, 2021

Tape is rolling…take one…

The cassette tape.
  A technology from the 70s.
  One in a long line of sound carriers with it’s own admirable and idiosyncratic qualities.  My parents gave me a portable radio and cassette recorder for my 16th birthday.  One of the things you could do with it was record the radio broadcast right onto the tape.  At the time, that was very new and very cool.  I tuned in that evening to WBJC, a local Baltimore station that hosted a show called “Helen’s Explorations in Jazz”.  I wish I knew who Helen was, her delivery was quintessentially 1970s.  “Vibrations beautiful people” was how she opened the proceedings.  She began with  Charles Mingus’ “Prayer for Passive Resistance” including a gut wrenching sermon on tenor saxophone from Yusef Lateef.  I recorded the entire program.  I still have this tape and every time I’ve listened to it it’s as if I’m transported right back to that night, enraptured with music that spoke to me simultaneously of the past, present and future.  

I have other tapes as well.  Hundreds actually.  Tapes of myself practicing the saxophone.  Tapes of jam sessions with friends.  Tapes of rehearsals, recitals and gigs.  And somehow miraculously, they’ve made it this far.  They are not well organized or labeled and I’ve been tempted to part with them many times knowing that they are slowly disintegrating the longer they sit on the shelf.  But I have some kind of archivist bug that won’t allow me to do that.  Or maybe the whole thing is simply a matter of obsessiveness meets housecleaning.  In either event I’ve decided to face reality and have taken up the charge to digitize each one.  It’s a weird psychological journey to take, being suddenly confronted with some long lost episode from the past.  The first few weeks were all day and night affairs just getting things set up and trying to find a flow, dealing with glitches and sudden problems.  That and questioning my sanity several times each day.  More than once I almost bailed, just wanting to heave the whole lot out the door.  

And in the end I really don’t know how much will be worth saving.  Even less will be worth sharing, we’ll see.  Some have great sentimental value, such as the recordings of my mother and I from 1974 playing tunes together like “Just in Time”, “Take the A Train” and “Here’s that Rainy Day”.  There is one of us playing “Night Train” (my favorite tune at the time) with the drummer and trumpet player from the band she had in Baltimore that worked in the early sixties.  Her organ playing had immense drive.  My wife heard me playing this recording from the other room and asked what it was.  What she could hear of it sounded good to her, she thought it might have been some early jazz.  That made me feel good but I told her that in spite of that I would never share it due to my embarrassment over my playing at the time.  Incredulous, she pointed out, “you were fourteen, people will understand that.”  “Embarrassment doesn’t have any rules”, I replied.  “So you’re still fourteen then?”  “Yes, and I don’t sound any better now than I did then!”.  That was my closing remark on the subject.  I don’t know what’s more embarrassing, my playing, my reaction to it or writing about it.  Things did get a little better though.  Of potential interest to jazz fans might be some of the sessions from The Closet in Baltimore, mid-eighties, where I played with the late saxophonist Arnold Sterling and another with fellow saxophonist Gary Thomas.  Whether any of this ever gets shared it will at least have to wait until everything is loaded into the computer and I can begin the process of cleaning up the sound which in the case of the earliest tapes is rather rough.  

A friend asked me if at the time I ever had any intention of using these tapes for anything or were they just for posterity.  Neither actually.  It was all done pretty casually just to listen to in the short term, as a means of assessment.  I recall a gig I did at Sweet Basil here in NYC (a club long since gone) with trumpeter Terumasa Hino’s band in ’84 or ’85.  Larry Willis was on piano, Ron McClure on bass and Billy Hart on drums.  Ron had a small tape recorder with him on stage recording the gig and during the break was playing it for the other guys trying to nail down something about a tempo.  At one point he says “the tape doesn’t lie!”  I remember thinking, actually it does lie, that’s exactly what it does.  It’s an approximation at best, especially when it’s some hand-held deal, recording from the floor of the stage.  

Now that this recording technology, sketchy as it was, was available to musicians it seemed to accelerate a certain process of idealization.  This went along with commercial recordings, radio and even PA systems in which the ideal of good sound changed from what was possible and natural acoustically to what was achievable through electronic means.  I recall a gig that saxophonist Jan Garbarek did at Fat Tuesday’s with bassist Eberhard Weber in a quartet.  What was amazing was that the sound coming from the PA system in this small club sounded exactly like their records on ECM, huge and expansive with that trademark reverb that ECM is associated with.  It was the first time I had encountered that and I was very impressed.  Having experienced everything that has transpired since then, I’m no longer so sure.  No fault of theirs, it’s simply the fact that the way we think of sound has changed and something always gets lost in such a process.  Incidentally I have a cassette in my collection of Jan Garbarek playing at Blues Alley in Washington DC from 1981.  Guitarist Bill Frisell was in the band.  I don’t think anyone had heard of Bill yet, certainly not my roommate and fellow saxophonist from Baltimore, Tom McCormick, who attended the show.  I remember him telling me about it when he got back.  We loved Jan Garbarek but Tom was equally enthused and effusive about “this guitar player, he didn’t play a single lick all night!”  I was trying to imagine what that would even have sounded like.  It was intriguing the way he said it and I think it actually had a formative effect on me even though I wasn’t at the concert.  It’s just as intriguing to realize that before recordings were widespread this word of mouth description of music and events must have played a much larger role in the development of the music.  It’s as if your imagination kicks in and the sky’s the limit.  Once we actually hear someone we tend to classify and qualify right away, even if we like it.  Ironically, while the role of recordings has been integral to the development of the music they can also be limiting.  However, Tom knew the sound person at Blues Alley and got a cassette of that gig directly from the sound board, and it sounds great!  I was probably supposed to give it back to Tom, maybe it’s not too late.

Fast forward (no pun intended) to today when owning or handling physical media of any kind has almost become an oddity.  But more than ever we still have this technologically induced set of sonic ideals.  The received wisdom I got from listeners back in the day was that “live” was always better, that recordings were never as good as being there.  They are certainly different experiences, that is for sure.  But I was also a bit uneasy about that declaration of superiority.  Certainly recordings do not replace live performance but they are their own mode of expression with enough differences to make the comparison a bit misleading.  I’ve greatly enjoyed making recordings over these many years as well as my experiences playing live.  But those live experiences have also changed due to technology and not in every case for the better.  Playing music without a PA system, without recording or video streaming is very rare and increasingly difficult to do.  It should be the easiest thing in the world, just show up and play but “live” is not so live anymore.  I’ve spoken about this at length and often wish that I could find something better to talk about.  It remains an unresolved and important aspect of how we go forward but in the past year that has all become moot.  The act of making music for one another in person has also become a rarity.

I’ve not done any live streaming during this time and have preferred instead to avoid as much as possible the simulation of personal interaction on line.  This blog and my e-mail correspondence are about it.  It feels good but I’ll have to make some decisions when things begin to open back up again.  I’m curious to see how folks will readjust to being together.  I know I don’t want to do things the same way I was doing them before but the social environment will certainly be a determining factor.  Streaming and interactive video don’t speak to me as a social medium let alone an artistic one.  Recordings I understand, I’ve always regarded them as documentation of a process born out of live performance and I think that’s as far as it goes for me.  I expect that coming out of this period artists and venues will begin to see these new technologies as a new normal, if we haven’t already.  I am hopeful that there may be others like me who are moved by interactions that do not require electricity, speakers and screens.  After a year without having played a single concert I’m beginning to understand a bit better what patience requires and what it may mean to create the conditions that invite the kind of experience I’m speaking about.  I’ve been quite content with playing the horn at home every day and feeling in no rush whatsoever to “make things happen”.  Lest I mislead anyone, there is no lack of inspiration or motivation in this and it all feels quite natural at this stage.  

I’ve also been thinking about the commitment that comes with being together in person.  I don’t know if I ever thought so consciously about it before but what it really amounts to is our willingness and need to take care of each other, something we might only think about in an emergency.  But beyond that, if someone is hungry you offer them something to eat.  If someone is lonely you spend some time with them.  If someone wants to talk, you listen.  Even the smallest things, such as a passing smile are truly a matter of life and death.  It’s our time, which we measure by a physical lifespan.  Spending time with someone is your very own life.  This is also how I hear music.  

I’ve spoken often about embodiment and have recently posted about meaning in music.  They are one and the same to my mind.  This embodiment is profound and yet simple, involving the simplest of means, the simplest of movements.  In talking about musical ideas we might understand that there is a physical basis for every idea we have.  Our bodies being the model of thought, this physicality is embedded in language, manifest in everything we do, make and see.  The sounds and movements we see and make are primary, the basis for everything in our world, our experience.  The fact that they can be arranged according to the imagination is fantastic.  And of course we have many forms of mediation, many ways in which to convey, amplify and disseminate our ideas.

Having said all of this I am well aware of the fact that artistic expression has found some measure of vitality in digital form even as I find my spirit largely moving the other way.  So I’m happy to share something with you that ideally might have happened in person but instead came about as a result of necessary physical distancing.  A few months ago dancer clyde fusei forth did a live streamed presentation as part of Zen Mountain Monastery’s 40th year anniversary using some music that I had written.  We had spoken some years back about a possible collaboration and this seemed like a potential first step towards making that happen one day.  She chose two short pieces from “Non Sequiturs” a suite I wrote in 2011 as a commission from Chamber Music America.  These pieces are very sparse and allow a great deal of space in which to work.  Later on she made a video version for me and I asked her if I could share it on the blog.  In seeing what she’s done I begin to wonder where the boundaries are between sound and movement.  I don’t think there are any.  

I've asked clyde to write something about the project.  These are her words, which I find to be as palpable as her dance...

Main North and Vertical Prose (or Enter Before Ready)
a project with Ellery Eskelin
October and December, 2020

At this distance
between signals and pixels,
Within bandwidth of variable strength
and dependability,
While yearning for that sweet living vibration
we may not hear until summer

Enter before ready.

I have listened to this music
Just enough to forget it
until this moment
So it arrives new as I arrive

to my self, one tiny awareness at a time
Awarenesses like microscopic birds accumulating within
my hollow form, whatever form enters I accept
Until I am fully present with all the things:
Then I let the flock move me.
I move the flock, moving
beside and within and at a distance
from the music also entering and arriving
and moving.

Enter before ready.
Every moment an opportunity to trust
that the moment will survive my entrance
and whatever comes after. 

In practice, what I did was enter into the work before any sense of preparation had set in. No time to feel confident or unconfident or have even a definitive pathway in mind. No time to try and hook up with the music. I did not know which part of the floor I headed for or what I would do there. I only entered and saw my entering one moment at a time until the entrance was complete. Then I arrived. The way I practice arrival these days is to close my eyes and feel the shape of my form in as much detail as possible. I visualize the shape of my form as hollow then see it filling with the accumulation of sensations and awarenesses that may take the shape of cells, or birds, or waves of light, etc. I never really know. I accept whatever comes but often it is crows. Go figure. Sometimes this takes a longer time, sometimes very quick. Doesn’t matter. I let myself arrive in this way until I experience my form completely full of the accumulated awarenesses moving in unison. Sometimes the flock moves the form, sometimes the form moves the flock. Sometimes the music and I enter and arrive simultaneously, sometimes not. Sometimes it’s too porous to separate one from the other. But every movement I enact as a body-form visible to a viewer I am experiencing as an internal flock in unison. This naturally breaks down and comes back, like a murmuration of starlings, somewhat leaderless. The image itself usually gives way to a physical experience within a few minutes, but when it’s useful I call it back up. Within this somatic process, I am composing and attuning to numerous influences (which in this case included Ellery’s musical composition). There are choices being made within the awareness; there are entrances into each “now” constantly happening and then raveling (or unraveling) out as they will. When I enter the exit, an ending develops. The ‘piece’ ends, and then (if all goes well) continues as the rest of the day.

- clyde fusei forth

clyde fusei forth, Artistic Director of Lokaspar┼Ťa Dance Projects is on Instagram and also maintains her own blog.  I especially enjoyed her most recent post “Do It Anyway”.  The video was done during her recent residency at Mount Tremper Arts on December 20, 2020.

Given all current events...

Given the events of this week I find it impossible to post any further without a certain acknowledgment.  There is much I could have said on many matters during these past four years.  While I find it necessary to speak, the overall commentary has been deafening, amplified and distorted as it is by social media. I’ve also been grappling with the tension and overlap between moral/ethical concerns and political action.  On this blog I’ve tended to emphasize universal values in music which have distinct parallels in everyday life.  There is always the risk however that without addressing the facts on the ground these universal truths could be seen as wishful thinking.  They are not.  To me they are more real than the things I see with my eyes.  Meaning that interpretation of what is seen allows for both understanding and misunderstanding.  That’s why I have largely chosen not to offer too many unsolicited opinions, of which I seem to have an endless supply and which inflame my own passions.

I was speaking with a friend recently about intensity in music.  I said that it’s almost more a matter of receiving that intensity rather than creating it.  We aren’t passive about it, when it’s time to raise the roof don’t hesitate.  But in truth it’s more the case that we create the conditions for this intensity to come about. It’s more an act of accommodation than force.  As applied to day-to-day life in these particular days, raw and explicit as they are, I wonder how it might apply.  It’s very tempting to want to tell other people what to do, proclaim what is right and what is wrong.  Substitute the word truth for intensity in this case.  We are all struggling to find the truth in our own way, distracted by our personal desires and too often willing to cause harm in the process, in large ways and in small.  I can only trust that what is true is true and that there is in fact no need for me to try and impose my view of the truth on anyone else.  At the same time I cannot hesitate to act.  Rather than an act of force the best thing I could possibly do is to try my best to cultivate the conditions by which someone else can see that truth.  In doing so perhaps it will be reflected back to me, so that I can see more clearly myself.

Wishing you all peace and sanity as we move forward.