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.