Sunday, April 11, 2010

The terror and beauty of difficult music and the miracle of creation

I know I'm not the first person to think that Ralph Gleason's liner notes to Miles Davis's classic 1969 album "Bitches Brew" are about the best piece of music writing ever. I mean, he won a Grammy for those notes. Now I'm lucky if I can even read, much less admire, the liner notes on modern CDs, the type is just too fucking small. But I could read Gleason's essay over and over:

"there is so much to say about this music. i don't mean so much to explain about it because that's stupid, the music speaks for itself. what i mean is that so much flashes through my mind when i hear the tapes of this album that if i could i would write a novel about it full of life and scenes and people and blood and sweat and love."

I love a lot of kinds of music. There's play music, and cry music, and help-me-get-my-work done music; there's love-making music and boogie music; there's music to make the world go away, music to make the world more fun music, and music that makes the company of friends even better. But it's really a certain kind of music that Gleason really puts his finger on:

"it's all in there, the beauty, the terror and the love, the sheer humanity of life in this incredible electric world which is so full of distortion that it can be beautiful and frightening in the same instant."

It took me a long time to get into Miles, to get into "Bitches Brew." For that matter it took me a long time to get into John Coltrane too, though maybe starting off with "Infinity" wasn't the best way to go for that. The music these two guys came to play wasn't always pretty, although they knew how to do that. But the kind of miraculous jazz they played just sounds terrible in the background. It's because this is music that demands you pay attention to it. It's not like you can sing along or anything, and while your body can certainly feel the pulse, the beat, sometimes even that gets a little abstract.

I suppose anybody can learn to play an instrument and make it shriek. Mercifully I gave up on my junior high school clarinet lessons before I hurt anybody. There's a lot of shrieky ain't-I-cool musicians out there, and sorry, but few have ever impressed me.

One day about ten years ago I was walking down a quiet tree-lined street in Brooklyn. Somebody standing in front of building handed me a leaflet about a free concert about to start. I had nothing better to do and went upstairs to some sort of meeting room. The guys who started playing are known on the NY independent jazz scene, and well, they're not generally my cup of tea but there was something about this afternoon. I'm fishing for names in my head I think William Parker was the bassist. Anyway the music just started. There wasn't a huge audience, and it was daytime. The music was free, and intense. I didn't know if I liked it. A woman in the row of chairs ahead of me had her eyes closed and her head was moving, far gone into the sound. Most everybody seemed to be like me, a random individual. When the music stopped, there wasn't really applause, because it would have been completely superfluous. Everybody just sort of looked up, a little dazed. We all kind of stood up, straightening our clothes out as though we had just been through something physical like an afternoon's romantic liaison. There was no chit chat. The sound of anybody's voice seemed jarring after what we had experienced...and it was sort of hard to look at other people in the eye. People just left, and went back out on the street. But there was this sense, for a moment, of having participated in something miraculous. We all returned to the regular world as though we had just changed out of our superhero costumes at the corner phone booth. As Gleason wrote:

"it's not more beautiful, just different. a new beauty. a different beauty."

Back in the eighties my friend Dean dragged me to an abandoned apartment building in the East Village. A friend of his was going to perform at some sort of impromptu venue. I can't quite remember if it was on the first or second floor of this building; I remember a dusty ruin inside open to the outside air, a couple rows of chairs for the audience and a row of chairs facing them for the musicians. The group was sort of a string quartet: my memory is dim but I'm pretty sure I remember the full complement. We were all in for a bit of a surprise: the audience pretty much all quietly gasped at once as the quartet started to play their instruments not with bows but with rusty wire brushes, and metal ball chains, the kind you hung around your neck as a kid with a key hanging from it. It was an incredibly painful cacophony, screeching and scratching. It was LOUD, and there was no discernable melody, hell I'm not sure if there were notes. I don't know how long the performance went on; it seemed interminable. You felt this "music" in your skin, which stretched and curled against this noise in rebellion. And then suddenly, quite coincidentally, an ice cream truck out on the street started to play a few notes on a bell. The musicians stopped playing and everybody looked up, knowing that it was not possible to proceed. Everyone in that room was smiling ear to ear, musicians and audience alike. It was the most glorious moment of musical ecstasy I have ever experienced. The simple beauty of the mechanical bells had somehow resolved and released all the tension wound up in this experimental free weirdness, in perfect counterpoint. There it was, Gleason's "beauty and terror and love" all laid out in this random accident of transcendence. I've never forgotten it, and I've never forgotten the sense of gratitude I felt -- I think we all felt -- to the strange musicians and the passing ice cream truck for allowing us to experience such a cosmic blessing.

When I can spare the time to focus on what I'm listening to, that's the time to turn to Bitches Brew, or turn to Impulse!-era Coltrane. Cause it's music for thought, no maybe music for experience, for working through the thoughts to a state of just being. Maybe that's what art is all about; it's an act of creation that engages our spirit to be present. Gleason's short essay is so keyed into that same creative energy that Miles was channelling. It conveys the excitement and awe and awakening that is the gift of Miles's creative act. It's like the thundercloud spinning out of or into somebody's head and the raw elemental forces on the archetypically freaky "Bitches Brew" cover art, shown above.

I'm reminded (again) of my favorite Gato Barbieri quote: "i sing sometimes, not because i like to sing but because the music needs singing. and when I scream with my horn, it's because the music needs screaming."

The world keeps spinning. It can be one fucked up place. But I thank the gods of music, of creation, for the chance to be present, to experience that which can't easily be put into words, to scream when needed, to express myself, to be.


  1. just wanted to say how much i enjoyed reading this post regarding the experience of listening to music. it's funny how without the existence of ugliness, we would not recognize the existence of beauty. although for me personally, i prefer my music to be able cease the incessant stream of thoughts that we engage in on a daily basis, not unlike the act of meditating. i'm a junkie for that emotional fix, so i'm always seeking that out that beautiful melancholic melody that moves me down to my bones, or that neck-breaking groove that is so funky i could punch myself in the face. those moments are priceless, for at those very moments, all notions of time and thought has ceased, and at least for me, the emotion, the music, and the Self become one.

  2. Great article Ish. There's something you really special that you capture - in this article and others from your music blog - about the listening experience ...

    (oh and my word verfication is "curation")

  3. Tripmaster, Very well stated.

    Thanks, Simon! Thanks for stopping by these parts!

  4. I found Bitches Brew almost exactly 20 years ago through the oddest of paths--I followed Sting's 1987 cover of Jimi Hendrix's Little Wing (with the Gil Evans Orchestra, no less) to Jimi Hendrix himself. From Hendrix, I quickly found electric Miles and Bitches Brew. This album altered my perceptions of not just music but of just about all other kinds of art as well. When people ask about my drawings, I always say "I want to make the visual equivalent of Bitches Brew. Thanks for the great post.

  5. Thanks beebe. I peeked at your stuff. I do graphic design for a living but I can barely draw a straight line.

  6. Beautiful piece ish. Also some excellent comments as well.

    Bitches Brew wasn't a real revelation for me. Due to my age, I'd heard soooo much that had been influenced by it at the end of the 70s and start of the 80s (avant gard, punk jazz, industrial noise, wanky fusion) before I got around to hearing it. Its visceral impact was immediate and I recognised it as a masterpiece but I had already been "trained" by that point.

    I actually never got a chance to read Gleason's notes since I bought mine via Columbia House in 84 and it wasn't a gatefold. Boy did I miss out, huh? Thanks for the link to the transcript.

    I enjoyed most reading the personal experiences you related. I too have been in situations like the first where I was rendered speechless and disoriented by sounds - not necessarily "music" - that broke my consciousness to allow something else to emerge.

    However, your second story is pure magic. I ditched my walkman in the 90s and to this day do not own a personal music device or whatever they call them now. Why? I never want to miss the ice cream bells that resolve the cacophonous tension of the urban soundscape.

  7. Hey Cheeba! Glad to have turned you on to Gleason's notes. Seem right up your alley.

  8. Ish--
    Thanks for your thoughts on experiencing music. Great 'food
    for thought', and a topic which is rarely discussed.
    My appreciation for "difficult" music changed once I started thinking of it as "performance art". Funny, if I was asked to qualify this--not sure I could. Its just a different kind of focus and acceptance.

  9. Very succinctly put and well written too.Makes a change to read something that actually stimulates you sufficiently to pull an album from the shelf.Thanks for reminding me what a great album Bitches Brew was and still is.To quote Gleason:
    "Listen to this,this music will change the world"

  10. Absorbing article, my friend.

    In music we can feel understood and it can help us understand.

    As Nietzsche said: 'Without music, life would be a mistake.'

    Ruminations on the purest art form are always welcome.


  11. Nice quote Gypsy Maiden. Is the photography on your blog your own? Quite nice.

  12. Fantastic article! It took me a very long time to ease myself into the freer and more progressive areas of the jazz scene, but it was absolutely worth it. I think you're spot on about it being music that demands your attention. In particular with Coltrane's later material, there seems to me to be a real spiritual core to the playing which only fully reveals itself after an investment of time and attention on the part of the listener. Of course, I could be speaking nonsense, but that's one of the potential pitfalls of trying to write about music.

    Cheers, man.

  13. Thanks Jim.

    Isn't that funny about the "spiritual core" you speak of? And how we recognize that so clearly even when nobody's singing about, say, God?

  14. Absolutely! For example, even if there wasn't a devotional poem accompanying the liner notes to "A Love Supreme" (and forming the basis for the last track), there'd still be that vibe. I don't know if it's anything to do with the scales and intervals used in the music or just the soulful nature of the playing that gives it such an atmosphere.

    There's a book I keep meaning to read (you may have heard of it) called "This Is Your Brain On Music" by Daniel Levitin. I believe it touches on this sort of stuff.

  15. Inspiring words for a magical album.

    Been watching music ever since this LP--listening is too conventional for the experience it offers!

  16. This article.... E X H A L E

    I loved the segment about the noise scene being interrupted by the soothing ice cream truck! I love moments that prove that our perception is but a playground...

    "A new beauty." I like that. "The would can be fucked up." I can relate and be thankful to that, as well.

    This was a wonderful piece! I can't wait to share this on my Facebook page!

  17. Forbidden Light, thanks for the best opening line of gay erotica evahh :

    " I can't recall what I was dreaming about..something involving spears, penguins and Aretha Franklin. "

    love love :)

  18. @Simon666: Thank you! That was based off a real dream I had! LOL