Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's BĂȘte Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Friday, July 31, 2009

20th century poets wrote about jazz a lot --
Nathaniel Mackey, Ntozake Shange, Jayne Cortez, Amiri Baraka,
to name some I've been happy to read --
and Wagner made a big splash with late 19th century poets --
Baudelaire, Mallarme --
and the only 20th century poet I can think of writing about 20th century Euro-derived music
is Frank O'Hara, with his series of poems "On Rachmaninoff's Birthday,"
and his beautiful poem "Radio."
Music enraptures poets, since Romanticism anyway.
Jazz was the leading Romantic music of the 20th century,
in the capital-R sense of Romantic Individualism,
and a lot of classical music dudes consider Rachmaninoff's style
a 19th century Romantic holdover,
which, in my view, doesn't make it bad music,
not at all, some of it is gorgeous,
and he had an influence, I think,
on some of the more florid precincts of Muzak and related "beautiful music,"
as a radio genre used to be known as --
it was also called "Easy Listening" --
Ferrante & Teicher come to mind particularly.
"Easy Listening" reminds me that a friend in college
wrote a poem about "Difficult Listening" --
he was a musician and a poet --
and Charles Ives said that his father inveighed against Easy Listening,
that a person should open their ears to difficult listening.
I love a lot of that noisy 20th century music,
tending to favor the noisy jazz over the noisy classical,
though of course there are fabulous passages in Stravinsky,
and I do adore Varese,
whom I checked out from the library in high school because Frank Zappa touted him.
I don't listen to Zappa any more --
but that's cool if you do.
I shouldn't say I favor the noisy jazz
because I also adore Ives
and sometimes the Viennese atonalists
and sometimes even the 2nd & 3rd generation atonalists.
But I adore noisy jazz.
When Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders or Roscoe Mitchell,
to name three idols,
go into sheets of multiphonic intensities and harsh timbres at fantastic speeds,
a lot of people have said they hear anger --
people used to say this about Coltrane especially --
I usually hear ecstasy.
I started writing this poem several days ago
and then got interrupted
and as I was writing it on a computer
and didn't have computer access for a couple of days
I didn't get back to the poem for a while.
I remember thinking I knew where I was going with it,
knew where it was taking me,
and feeling confident that that direction would be evident
when I looked at the poem again,
but I've lost it,
I've lost the thread.
Ariadne had given me the thread before I entered the Labyrinth
to slay the monster at the center,
she gave me the thread so I could find my way out again.
And now I'm afraid that, since I've lost it,
I'll never find my way out.
There remains the monster to deal with.
Perhaps we could parley.
Does it speak English?
I don't know.
When dogs bark at me I try to remember to chuckle and say
"Good doggie, good puppy" in a sweet and condescending voice
which dogs seem to like.
Will the monster respond similarly
if I come across it?
The jazz soloist improvises within a set parameter,
the parameters within which soloists improvise vary widely,
wild wide wildly --
the great wide wild --
a wild ride over the wide wild --
the parameter of a jazz solo can be a set number of measures over a set chord pattern,
or as many times through a set chord pattern as the soloist wishes,
or over a particular scale or mode for a determined or undetermined length of time,
or simply, whatever the soloist wishes to play
for a period of time predetermined, or set by the soloist or by someone else on the fly.
The individuality of the soloist's style
is key to his or her stature in jazz culture.
Ntozake Shange writes about this.
I'm sleepy now and am going to bed, to pick up this, or another, thread,
another day.
Now it's the next day.
I remember more of where I was going with this poem,
where it was taking me,
or, where I thought it was taking me,
last week when I started writing it.
It was inspired by a discussion on
Poetry magazine's group blog,
and by reading a book on jazz aesthetics by Ted Gioia,
which had insightful things to say about jazz and Romanticism,
thoughts that had echoed notions I had entertained
about post-Dylan Rock and Romanticism,
and about jazz and stardom and individualism,
though I hadn't connected the individualism of jazz with Rock and Romanticism,
and so I was happy to be reading a writer who had,
and my beloved spouse and I had just seen a romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock,
and Sandra Bullock's love interest was a sensitive artsy type rebelling
against his hard-nosed successful businessman though loving in-his-conflicted-way father,
and sensitive rebellion is signified by the son being a novelist,
in which activity we never see him taking part,
or even him reading anything,
and his being a novelist made sense -- a novelist has a place in today's society,
and a chance for direct remuneration,
whereas a poet is an unclassifiable eccentric
whose only hope for income related to his or her art is to teach other unclassifiable eccentrics
in a college.
A novelist -- and Sandra Bullock, who's a book editor and would know, says this to him,
her love interest, that he does it well
-- a novelist observes society
and the relationship between human behavior and emotion and economics.
What does a poet do?
Well-meaning trivializers like Bill Moyers and Garrison Keillor --
though I'm not sure if the latter is well-meaning --
they say that poets mess around with words.
And yeah, kinda sorta, that's part of what poets do --
I might say phrases rather than words, but, whatever.
There's no reason, though, that poetry can't be a vehicle
for ferrying a writer's observations
of society and the economic causes of emotion and behavior.
It's just not the style today.
I like watching romantic comedies
because you always know how they'll end
though not how they'll get to the ending.
This Sandra Bullock flick was no different
and even though it had one or two preposterous plot points
its good humor and the attractiveness of the stars made it enjoyable.
The Romanticism of jazz is different
than the romance of a Sandra Bullock comedy.
A movie star, ideally, should have a specific individuality,
as a jazz soloist should,
but in movies,
the individuality is not the point.
Ntozake Shange says that a poet should have as individual a style
as a great jazz soloist
and I'm inclined to agree
even though
I'm aware
that this poem's style is derivative --
I'll leave it to you to decide from what it derives --
and as this poem goes along we'll see whether its derivativeness
falls away -- I'm interested to find out and hope you are too!
The jazz soloist is an existential figure -- he or she has their one shot
to deal with the musical moment
and create a beautiful or exciting or otherwise absorbing musical experience,
which is what we all must do with our lives,
we're all improvising, right?, even when doing things we've got down to a routine,
every day throws a new wrinkle, a new demand,
a new fold in the fabric,
and like the jazz soloist we have our shot to do our best.
In most of life, though, the context in which we improvise ourselves
does not put a premium on individuality,
but in poetry and jazz it does --
in any of the arts, really -- no, that's not true --
not in section work, not in orchestral playing,
and most of the famous jazz players are good section players too --
they can play anonymously to blend in when that's what's wanted,
and that's a lesson too --
we rarely get to solo.
In some of his late '50s recordings with top-flight post-bop players,
when Coltrane comes in, he grabs the ear with his distinctiveness,
his urgent attack and phrasing, his severe tone,
as if he has something deeply important to say that
can't wait,
he needs you to hear it
right now,
whereas the other players, all of them superbly accomplished,
lack that individuality and urgency,
they're playing "period style."
A major period style today is irony.
I'm soaking in it!
For instance, that last line is a quote from a TV commercial for dish soap from my childhood.
It shows up in this poem, hoping to charm
by triggering a shared memory with people
who remember that TV commercial
who notice how it applies to this situation.
There are ways of transcending period style
that differ from Coltrane's Path of Intensity --
Dylan's singing, hugely influential, as was Coltrane's,
is usually not particularly intense,
though he could and can be intense too,
likewise Monk is intense in a way that differs from Coltrane's --
a Monk solo splatters bright shards of oblique harmony
in rhythmic figures that are at once extremely subtle and extremely in-your-face,
or perhaps I should say complex rather than subtle,
they would be very complex to notate,
and, to my knowledge, have never been widely discussed and analyzed --
Monk's rhythmic individualities, I mean --
and, I'm guessing here, an analysis of his solos
would demonstrate a very subtle regularity
within his own style,
his own ear-grabbingly unique style.
Once in a Starbucks
I heard a Miles Davis recording
on which Monk was the pianist --
one of Monk's few sessions as a sideman --
few people hired him because his sound was so unique that it can dominate its surroundings --
and Monk's solo on this recording,
which I had listened to many times,
is so startling
that I couldn't believe that Starbucks was playing it,
and it turned out that my skepticism was warranted --
they faded the track out before Monk's solo!
The track was a Gershwin tune, "The Man I Love,"
in case you're interested.
Coltrane recorded gorgeous records with Monk and with Davis,
both of whom always transcended their periods
with the uniqueness of their styles,
so I didn't mean to say that Coltrane always stood out
while his collaborators faded into the period style --
but on some recordings he does.
None of this can be codified -- or, at least not yet --
maybe there is a formula for lastingness,
for uniqueness,
but nobody has discovered it yet.
Lots of times when listening to music
I wonder why the writer wrote the song
or the singer sang it,
I don't get the motivation,
I don't feel the impulse
that called the performance into being.
I never feel that way with Coltrane or Davis or Monk
or many other musical idols.
I feel that even a favorite musician
lacks a good idea
or that their rhetoric and their intention don't match,
for example,
a favorite singer and songwriter, John Lennon,
when he writes about his love for his second son,
I understand the intention
even though the musical rhetoric doesn't persuade me,
I'm thinking of that song "Beautiful Boy,"
which might have worked with a more delicate vocal,
something whispery,
like a lullaby,
but, as it's recorded, sounds to me like Lennon's heart isn't in it,
and he was usually a very heartfelt singer.
The rhetoric of "heartfeeling" has to do with attack and timbre and phrasing --
we all understand it, we all hear it,
and it's very hard to talk about --
just think about how tone of voice can affect how you understand what someone says,
what, for instance, sarcasm sounds like.
Overemphasized, as if there were quotation marks around it.
You know it when you hear it.
Same is true of music -- you know heartfelt when you hear it,
although you may well hear it differently than I do!
Right now my favorite song on popular radio
is something about "Turn the Car Around,"
in which the singer yearns for escape
but always turns the car around.
I think he wants to escape a bad relationship,
but I've never listened closely to the words.
The recording is saturated with emotion,
soaking in emotion,
it feels like a whole movie,
as the best songs do,
a whole story encompassed in the emotional catharsis of the moment,
you feel the whole arc behind the outburst,
and, like the movies, it englamors you,
engulfs you with its glamor,
so that you identify with the singer,
or the main character,
and project your own fantasy life onto an attractive surrogate.
Jazz and, even more so, poetry have lost their glamor in our culture.
It may sound like a complaint but it's not.
Unclassifiable eccentricity -- I'm OK with that.

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