Thursday, October 23, 2014

Tipping the Scales

For the last few weeks, I have been talking with my students about their reasons for making music.  Why do we do it?  Today is Diwali, a festival that celebrates the victory of light over darkness. With all that is going on in the world these days, I feel more and more that I do it because making music is a meaningful response to the wave of negative and destructive energy with which we are confronted on a daily basis.  Music creates order out of chaos, meaning out of emptiness, reveals the beauty of humanity in opposition to the base and the crude.  In contrast to the hard, smooth edges of technology and the cold, algorithmic calculations of the machines that we invent and invite to govern more and more of our lives, music is organic and welcoming. Even the wildest, noisiest, most rambunctious music is beautiful to me and has an accessibility and a fleshy vulnerability that we need somehow.

Today, violence and hatred was visited on the sleepy capital of our country. It was a shock to most of us. This is of course a very small taste of the kind of pain and suffering people in other lands must face on a daily basis. We watch images of it on television on the nightly news, but it is always far away.  When such evil surfaces in our society, in any of its myriad forms, what can we do?  Heightened security measures won't prevent it, more guns won't help, political rhetoric of any kind will aggravate it.
When others wage war, musicians can wage peace.

I got to play a lovely concert tonight with some fine musicians from the Hindustani and Carnatic music traditions. The sound of the tanpura drone gently filled the room, melodies unfolded, ideas and rhythms were traded back and forth.  The audience was sitting very close, listening very hard, completely focused on the music. Outside, the rain was pouring down with a vengeance, there were traffic and city noises, a drug deal was probably going down at the 7-11 across the street.  But music made the outside world disappear for a time.  People smiled, hugged, drank tea and ate cookies, laughed and chatted with each other at the intermission. Even the ear infection that has been bothering me for 2 days completely stopped. I think it was Vidyasagar's incredible singing of raga Pantuvarali that did it.

 I know that while we were playing our concert, in many places in the world people were and are at war, suffering from cold, hunger, disease, and fear.  But I also know that in many other places in the world, people were playing music, painting, dancing, speaking poetry, writing books, acting plays, telling stories. Darkness and destruction will continue to be realities, but we don't have to despair or succumb. We can choose to exercise our true birthright as human beings to create beauty, order, light, and meaning and to share these things with each other. These acts of creation and sharing are acts of love. When we choose to do engage with acts of creation, as artists or audience members, we are in that moment tipping the scales ever so slightly in favour of the good and the just, the pure and the beautiful.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Reaction to Geoff Dyer's "Catastophic Coltrane"

Geoff Dyer's recent article in theNY Times "Catastrophic Coltrane" was brought to my attention this morning. Here is a link to the article and a brief reaction to his piece.

Dyer does raise an important issue:  the Temple University concert represents a last rather than late example of Coltrane's art.  We don't and can't know what he would have done if he had been able to stay on this planet longer.  Thus, both Dyer's analysis and my reaction to it are both speculation based on our understandings of Trane's legacy.  Perhaps the difference is that Dyer wants to understand Coltrane's music within the scope of jazz and his impact on that idiom.  I want to understand Trane in the broader cultural and musical sense. He was not just a jazz musician, he was a cultural, revolutionary, spiritual and artistic force.

Dyer’s analysis makes sense if one views Trane’s music only through the window of ‘jazz’.  In this article, the writer fails to acknowledge the power of the activity of music making as a communal experience and process and as a site of not only personal development, but also cultural exploration, revolution, and redefinition. In my view, these issues were extremely important to Coltrane and essential for any kind of understanding of the last few years of his life.  Dyer seems to be looking for coherence in terms of the traditional harmonic, rhythmic, melodic, and formal concepts deriving from the jazz tradition.  Such obvious points of reference may be beside the point when we consider the music from the Temple University concert or other recordings from this last period of Trane's life.

I believe that Trane saw (or was beginning to see) the activity of doing/making music with and for people as primary.  The recording from Temple University seems clear evidence of that to me. The actual sounds resulting from the process might even be secondary to what was happening with Coltrane's music during that time, hence his tendency to include more and more participants in the music making.  Perhaps the use of the older tune-based improvisations like “Favorite Things” served as a warm-up or as a way of drawing in participants to a deeper experience. In any case, the importance of actual musical results as observed and evaluated by outsiders (let’s not forget that we are listening to a live recording nearly 37 years later) is secondary or perhaps even further removed.

The author’s suggestion that ‘free jazz' had hit a brick wall shows his lack of understanding of the communal aspect of music making and of subsequent developments in European (and now international) directions and developments in free playing.  Trane was simply pointing music in another direction.  Many people moved in that direction and the road has not ended yet.  Coltrane’s own career demonstrates an incredible arc of development: from simple imitation and music as entertainment to complete technical mastery of the idiom to artistry and innovation within the idiom.  Eventually, through intense self-examination and searching he eventually broke the bands of that idiom and began to question not only his relationship to the jazz tradition, but the purposes of music itself and the changing roles of performers and listeners.

This search and questioning should be viewed not within the narrow window of ‘jazz’ but rather within the broader cultural revolutions of the 1960s.  Speaking just within the field of music, we have at the same time period John Cage, Terry Riley, Lamonte Young, the Fluxus movement, etc. all asking similar questions. Some of them were very much inspired by Trane of course. What is music?  What is it for? Who is the performer and who is the listener?  I find it interesting that in 2014 we still have not fully come to terms with the things people like Coltrane and Cage were saying and exploring.  Many in the jazz world (and many critics certainly) are still extremely conservative.  What happened to the tradition of innovation left to us by Trane and other giants of the 20th century? Has the malaise of the post-modern (or post-post-modern?!) condition extinguished the desire for revolution? This question is directed first and foremost to myself and my own music, but it is worthwhile for anyone to consider it.