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.