Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

Coleman Hawkins once said, “If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not really trying." Bean could be extremely trying, in both senses of the word, but one doesn’t automatically associate him with error. That imperious, aristocratic tone, the papal authority of those solos, the gracious longevity and application together seem to bespeak a figure who partakes of, even if he never quite claimed, a kind of infallibility.

The question of error, or mistake, or accident came to me again recently when reading Philip Clark’s excellent interview with John Butcher in The Wire. Clark shrewdly asked the saxophonist whether he was ever irritated by the narrow and hypothetically insulting vocabulary used by critics to describe his playing: “squeaks,” and so on. Butcher replied that Yes, it was indeed a source of annoyance and went to say that he’d once considered sending a critic a tape with precise idents of where he was prepared to admit a little air had got away from the mouthpiece – Butcher is so honest an artist and man that he probably does own up to the occasional far – but more critically of where a putative “squeak” was exactly the tone and timbre he had been searching for.

It is, of course, famously difficult to tell with certain types of advanced, non-canonical and non-idiomatic music to tell what is accident and what is design. I cherish the example of Milton Babbitt’s 1965 masterwork/folly Relata I , 516 non-repeating bars of music to be performed in sixteen minutes, four and a half seconds. Gunter Schuller oversaw the premiere in Ohio on March 3 1966. By the composer’s reckoning, only 80% of the specified notes were played at all, only about 60% were accurate rhythmically and less than half reflected his dynamic and expressive markings. Who knew except the composer?

It might be said that inadequate rehearsal yields a different kind of “mistake” than a creative practice which stretches the artist to a point where “accidentals” begin to take over. Jackson Pollock, who is somehow always adduced in discussions of “free” jazz – partly because his work appeared on the cover of Ornette Coleman’s LP of that name – attempted to follow Max Ernst and the Navajo sandpainters in harnessing accident of a particular type. Unfortunately for Pollock, the confluence of free jazz and Abstract Expressionism was caught up in the wider and stronger current of psychoanalysis, almost a state religion in the US in the 1950s, and even in a country that constitutionally forbids state religion. Psychoanalysis implicitly declared that freedom and accident were both illusory, and that anything deemed to be free or accidentally was only provisionally so, pending a fuller investigation of its deep structure and unconscious motivation.

Perhaps the most dogged resistance to the idea that improvisation offered a kind of inscape, a musical version of Primal Scream, rolfing, deep regression therapy, came from the AACM musicians in Chicago, and arguably in particular Roscoe Mitchell and George E. Lewis, both of whom have pursued an aesthetic of impersonality based on improvisation as a social and communitarian process. Lewis’s recent work, and writing on the history of AACM, underlines this in intriguing way, but what strikes me as most interesting about it is his resistance to the idea of evolutionary accident at all. A fear of haphazardness and facticity perhaps leads him to overestimate direct causal relationships and intentionalities in the evolution of contemporary music. Better that, perhaps, than the patronizing old model, which doesn’t admit of much distance between “It just happened” and “They’re just making it up as they go along”.

The fundamental difficulty with Freudian psychoanalysis, certainly as it is applied to music and plastic arts, is that it is irredeemably verbal and linguistic: Freud called it “the talking cure”, after all. Pollock may have eased away from that by drawing much of his confirming ideology from Jung rather than Freud, an understandable but inherently dangerous course that implies the unsayable is superior to the sayable and that the shared collectivity of human experience is independent of any individual decisions or alliances.

This, of course, is alien to the attentive, responsive aesthetic that Lewis and his colleagues have pursued, and in which they have increasingly involved technology and machine intelligence, two realms in which accident – other than human error in design or actual application – is considered inadmissible. It’s a brave strategy and one that’s seriously fudged in much of the laptop-happy work that’s around at the moment. Randomly firing samples isn’t quite the same as embracing accident or ceding creative independence to a thinking machine.

How remote this maybe sounds from what Coleman Hawkins meant: if you don’t push hard enough to make mistakes, you’re not really creating, you’re just recreating within a familiar comfort zone. Everyone who has improvised, inside or outside, knows that one of the great challenges lies in accommodating error. How do you make a note that falls outside the sequence work as if it were part of the sequence? How do you establish a hierarchy rather than an equivalence between Butcher’s “wrong” note and his intended “squeak”? How, without imposing a ludicrous transvaluation that simply says Wrong-is-right, do you learn to live with mistake rather than surrendering to it? Also, more practically for composers and improvisers, how do you develop an understanding of accident that avoids – and these will seem strange bedfellows – Edith Piaf’s insistence that your faults are your greatest strengths and John Cage’s aleatoric parlour games.

There have been many attempts to systematise accident in art history and literary theory. Anton Ehrenzweig’s The Hidden Order of Art suggests that there is no haphazardness, impersonality or insignificance to any mark made by an artist, that there is a revealing, almost fractal system of micro-gestures underlying the surface impact of the canvas and sometimes running contrary to it. Literary critics like Harold Bloom and the novelist Walker Percy have explored similar ideas. Bloom’s A Map of Misreading is an extension of the ideas he developed in The Anxiety of Influence, which advanced the notion that the evolution of literary style was largely a matter of one generation reacting “anxiously” to the parental authority of a previous generation. This was obviously still too close to psychoanalysis and the Oedipus complex, so Bloom attempted to depersonalise it somewhat by suggesting that simple misreading, an inability to understand or perhaps an anachronistic understanding of texts was the key to progress. Percy is interesting in that he combines an idea of imagination as a kind of mishearing – this had a substantial impact on the work of his fellow-Southerner Michael Stipe pf REM, whose mumbled lyrics draw on misheard conversation and were themselves misheard – with a certain notion that everything has a detectable intentionality and trajectory. Percy’s father killed himself with a shotgun; his mother drove into a bayou: Percy believed his mama’s “accident” was suicide, and in doing so he almost managed to persuade you that he thought his father’s death might have been inadvertent, the way Norman Mailer tried to persuade you that Hemingway’s suicide was actually an existential act of courage gone wrong, an attempt to push the trigger ever closer to the brink without firing the shell.

There aren’t many improvisers around who take the process to those extremes. The late saxophonist Kaoru Abe and a few of his Japanese contemporaries gave every sense that they might, and they paid a Hemingwayesque price that can’t be explained away by reference to the tradition of seppuku and Divine Wind. Coming from another religious and social tradition entirely, the Catholic Percy was able to make a distinction between venial error, which could be absorbed into a discourse without much difficulty, and a mortal error which violated the very terms of that discourse from the beginning.

How this applies to music is harder to pin down and I don’t pretend to have an answer to it. But accept for the moment that Ornette Coleman’s harmonics are based entirely on a venial mishearing of the twelve note sequence and that Eric Dolphy’s extension of bebop language is in part an anxious confrontation of his Charlie Parker influence. What this inconveniently leaves intact is a sense of musical history as a steady linear progression from right to left, an uninterruptible sequence of cause and effect, action and reaction, that doesn’t even have the satisfying resolution of rhetoric.

Too many notes, said a king to Mozart. Too many wrong notes, say sceptical jazz-haters. No such thing as wrong notes, say the radicals. Oh, yes, there is, say the neo-conservatives and those who simply want to re-establish some kind of diplomatic relation with “the tradition”. Round and round, but still with very little sense of what making mistakes in music actually consists of, other than not playing what is written on the page in front of you. In most canonical performance, “wrong” carries no value judgement. It is simply the description of an event that does not conform to the prescribed form. In improvised music, “wrong” still has to mean something, but it has to mean something different. If a Messaien or a Webern piece is violated by the introduction of a single inaccurate tone or dynamic, how is that different from the case of Relata I where only superhuman hearing – perhaps the hearing of Pynchon’s Mucho Maas, who could tell when one string of an orchestral viola was playing a quarter tone flat, or maybe it was sharp – could possibly detect a vastly higher proportion of error? By the same token, if there are no prescribed notes in an improvised piece, where is the standard by which successful articulations are distinguished from unsuccessful?

There is a way round this, and it points back to Coleman Hawkins. The tedious response is that much “error” is simply an artefact of instrumentalism. It is not the player who makes the error, but the cracked horn reed or the slackening piano string. This only serves for a modest proportion of the more obvious cases, and the argument about instrumentality is one of the dullest in the whole discourse about improvisation. A classical piece is not so much violated as cancelled by error. An incorrect performance of Piano Sonata No 3 in G# Op 345 is, by one definition, not Op 345 at all, but some other order of sound. Or it might be that a more sanguine approach suggests the flaw in the fabric is what confirms the genius of the rest, like the flaw in a Persian rug or the crack in classical alabaster. Improvisation is not so easily cancelled, but nor is error so potentially damaging. The obvious counter-example could be dismissed as mere metaphor, but it seems to me that rather than likening an improv to fabric or porcelain, we would have to suggest that it resembles a biological process in which self-correction and a restoration of organic balance is the key factor. An “error” in improvisation might be likened to the rogue proliferation of a cell, the irruption of an external agent, or a certain level of non-fatal physical damage. Error is a species of organic insult, which is immediately reacted to by the organism and in the process becomes part of the organism. This is a real time process and not in any way a metaphysical one. The body – or the music – reacts to the event and in doing so maintains a kind of change-in-continuity. Watch some stop-action film of white cells going to the aid of an injured part, or the slow formation of scar tissue round the point of insult, or watch a body at the more macro-level dealing with a long-term ingress of foreign material, whether a poison or a virus, and you have a model – better than the usual socio-political or more frequently psychological ones – for how an improviser (cell), combo (organ), or full ensemble (corpus), each of which contains all of the others, of course, deals with the processes of imperfection that makes music, and centrally improvised music, such a perfect reflection of our physical presence in the world, and our understanding that there is a reality and a Form beyond that which is unknowable but endlessly to be desired.

Brian Morton©2008

Michael Wilderman Jazz Visions Photography

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