Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Muzak

If some improbable necessity--say an interviewer or an administrator of a psychological evaluation--were to ask what my favorite musical instrument was, I would indict the piano with no hesitation and with no need for Johnnie Cochran to play the string card. A piano is a series of hammers striking strings, brought from its earlier avatar as piano forte to its current incarnation by the designs of one Ludwig von Beethoven.

With the piano and nothing but the piano, you could spend your days in the stunned ambiance of the Beethoven and Mozart sonatas, the siren call of the transcribed Bach inventions, the lyric inventiveness of Bill Evans, the harmonic bravura of Bud Powell, the intuitive grace of Marian McPartland, and those characteristic sharp ninths of Red Garland.

Close upon the heels of the piano would come the sonorous depth of the cello. I mean Yo-you Ma. Right? Soprano saxophone hadn't entered the picture until I heard Sidney Bechet, which was a trail of crumbs leading to John Coltrane and Steve Lacey.

For all the while he worked as a duo with Calvin Jackson, I was pretty tight with bassist extraordinaire Al McKibbon, and while I followed the rising piano career of Bobby Timmons, became taken by his bassist, Ron Carter.

I am fond of the full symphonic orchestra, particularly if it showcases in concerto form works such as The Emperor or Mozart's soulful # 20, and of course the Ravel and Prokofieff. As a kid I ushered at the Hollywood Bowl to get to the Stan Kenton concerts and the stunning orchestrations of Pete Rugolo. 

Gerald Wilson is no slouch with a big band, and of course there is that plangent memory of the full-bore Duke Ellington big band, bursting at the seams with sideman talent and the Duke's gifted collaborations with Billy Strayhorn. There was the manic enthusiasm and explosive creativity of Woody Herman's First, Second, and Third Herds. 

But smaller held me in a tighter grip. Count Basie, getting a rangy, big sound from small. And Shorty Rogers and the Giants, with a number of classically trained sidemen and arrangers, leading the charge for the so-called West Coast Sound.

You just think this essay is about music.

It is about sound.

One of my cherished hang-out musician buddies was Sonny Criss, the alto man who played as though he's been fired from a slingshot. Another was the gifted reedman Jimmy Giuffre. Each of these got me seriously thinking about the relationship between music and writing: both mediums relate to time, composition, phrasing, invention. Each said he heard the piano while playing his reed. What's that? You play an alto or a clarinet and you hear a piano? Yeah, well some guys hear a guitar.

I asked the most iconoclastic of all musicians, Artie Shaw, before he called me a son of a bitch. I hear strings, he said. An ensemble of strings. Fred Karlin, the composer and trumpet/flugel hornist said piano or organ (bur not the Hammond B-3, which he hated).

Which gets me to thinking how writing should sound. And don't try to cut the argument off with the observation that the individual composition should have its own voice, which is a lovely distraction over a bottle of pinot noir or two, but misses the point of the composer's hearing in the first place.

How does your writing sound to you? Does it have the intrinsic knowledge of which J.S. Bach wrote when he penned his discourse on the emotions produced by each key? Does it have your edge, your traits, your inner person. I can remember vividly being at a session one night and remarking that a particular trumpeter was trying too hard to sound like Roy Eldridge and then Rev. Jerome King, who'd gigged with Eldridge, said, Never in a million years could he be as aggressive as Eldridge was.

What sound does your writing produce when you hear it? What edge? What tempo? Does it sound like your mother, like the sea smashing on rocks below Big Sur, like the interior of Salisbury Cathedral, like the wing flutter of startled doves?

There is a special, memorable moment in Beethoven's Third Symphony, The Eroica, where a bassoon caries on a dialog with the ensemble orchestra, an avuncular chuckle going on Hard Ball against the authority of God, and in the process getting God to admit to a laugh.

I can think of other moments that turn my insides to overly steamed asparagus--the adagio from Mozart's Clarinet Concerto comes quickly to mind, or Brubeck's soaring chords climbing through the roof on Over the Rainbow--but that Beethoven daring dialog remains the standard for me.

Underneath it all is laughter. It may at times be the laughter of derision or the laughter of pure relief or the laughter of discovering one's car in an hopelessly complex parking lot, it may be the awareness of our last option having been spent, or the understanding of how frail we are in the face of nature, but it is the one thing we have that suffices us here and now and allows us not to duck the tsunami but to stand up to it, alone but with some semblance of our own substance.

Laughter asks the unthinkable question, Where do we go from here, when the here has been turned into a real estate venture that has been sold off as a sub-prime loan.

If I sound like laughter, it is because I am. If I do not sound like laughter, it is because I am too busy looking over my shoulder.


Smiler said...

I love too many kinds of sounds, instruments, composers and interpreters to give you a list here, but I can tell you two things:

1. When one talks about voice I'm not sure if it's meant in the sense of the actual voice the person inside the writers has, but in my case it's very much a conversation (one-sided, admittedly) that I am basically transcribing as I write. Sometimes I naturally switch to different accents or nationalities or personalities, as an actor would, and I write from that place.

2. I remember Lee bringing me along to countless piano recitals when I was a wee youngin' in Israel. There were some truly incredible interpreters there. Can't tell you a single name though, cause I don't remember. Often times these would go on for hours, and I'd end up, much to my dismay, falling asleep before the end. It made for a very nice soundtrack to dreams though.

I like to keep the illusion going that all this writing on the keyboard is like playing the piano, with each letter a note, and that the manual dexterity acquired from the daily keyboard practice would translate well into actual piano playing. Wanting to maintain this illusion, I have not attempted to actually play the instrument itself, but that goes without saying.

x said...

When I recently made an MFA attempt at Bennington and quit half-way, it was because in the program I became mute. None of my teachers had a sense of humor. I felt anxious and scared all the time. I was ALWAYS looking over my shoulder. I lost the ability to write and to laugh. Blogging, I write and laugh. If I look over my shoulder, it's only to laugh either derisively (not nice) or playfully (nice). That's why I think blogging is the most meaningful writing I've ever done. Well, except for a published essay and a published story, both of which squeezed the life out of me to create. But I'm proud of them. I'm hoping the laughter of blogging will free me up enough to get back to writing for publication with laughter in my voice, even if the topic is scary or sad. There's a YouTube of the musical laughter of a baby that is so beautiful. I will have to post it for you sometime soon.

Lori Witzel said...

So, when I tried your "Search with Shelly" thingie by typing in the phrase "try me"...I got a whole lot of James Brown.

And that ain't bad synchronicity for a sound post like this.

R.L. Bourges said...

thelonius monk playing a bar in Montreal
and nobody knew that man except us folks in the bar.

a singer named penny lang who sang in montreal (in her case, really nobody knew her except us folks in the bar)

the goldberg variations with glen gould almost eating the piano keys

a polish pianist doing beethoven's 32 piano concertos over a full season

sitting in on master classes for pianists (i said sitting, not playing)

dancing a full thirty minutes to dire straits doing "the walk of life" when i figured i had finished one of my novels (i was on final draft number 5, actually, with at least one other left to go)

a group called kazbek playing russian klezmer while i write the voices of some of the Family Players' lines (in some places, if you go digging for humor, a bit of klezmer or gypsy music is one great lifeline - and just the right tempo)

thanks, as usual.