Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

In trouble. Again. On a recent broadcast I reviewed a new improv CD by a European group. The music was strong, chewy, mostly abstract but there were glimmers and hints of familiar material (Monk, maybe Herbie Nichols, Sonny Clark) somewhere deep in the mix. I expressed appreciation, suggested that this was improvisation that hinted at some kind of formal structure or architectonics and that it was “beautifully played.” A listener wrote in to complain about this. I might, he said, have enjoyed this particular recording; I might have found much to admire in it, but by no stretch of the imagination could I possibly say it was “beautiful.” There are moments in correspondence columns, just as there are moments in Glasgow bars, when it is worthwhile pursuing an argument, and there are moments when it is healthy and politic to do as wives and girlfriends always advise and walk away. This one really didn’t sound as if it was “worth it.” I might reasonably have said that the adverbial form had a slightly different connotation than the adjectival and that the bugger was actually misquoting. The beauty was a quality of the playing rather than a judgment on the whole thing, but then “beauty” (the substantive form) drags in a whole new raft of philosophical questions too complex for a Saturday night in Sauchiehall Street or a quibble over a jazz CD.

But it set me thinking, and by a carefully contrived coincidence I happened to be re-reading next day James Wood’s How Fiction Works. It’s a brilliant, personal essay – or tractatus might be a better word – divided into numbered paragraphs, 122 of them, that run through the mechanics of the novel and its shorter cognates, subdivided into sections on detail, character consciousness, sympathy and complexity, language, dialogue, truth, convention and realism. I recommend it, even if your reading life goes no further than Dan Brown. Wood’s, it should be said, starts and ends with Flaubert.

I’ve been in trouble before for applying literary values to music criticism, or to music itself. On those occasions I have cheerfully got my jacket off and waded in, arguing that there is a pretty solid syncretism between all the expressive arts and that to throw up barriers between them is in some way to deny the senses. Even the olfactory plays a part. Sometimes you have say, and with feeling: it stinks. What caught my eye re-reading Wood, and I think it was a passage in paragraph 98 where he references Nietzsche’s self-denying comment that German prose must be a torment to anyone who possesses a third ear, and then proposes that the cultivation of a “third ear,” an ability to read musically, is essential to an understanding and appreciation of creative prose. The passage that follows was the one that had pulled me up short on first reading How Fiction Works. Wood says “We must proceed on the assumption that almost all prose popularly acclaimed as beautiful (‘she writes like an angel’) is nothing of the sort, that almost every novelist will at some point be baselessly acclaimed for writing ‘beautifully’ as almost all flowers are at some point acclaimed for smelling nice.”

I came into music journalism as an admirer of Max Harrison, who could deliver a considered 2,000 word review with not a single value judgment or phatic adjective to be found in it. Max’s principle was to describe the music – how it works – set it in some kind of historical context and then, like the Flaubertian narrator Wood prizes so highly, step back and keep his counsel. The practical upshot was that editors routinely handed back marked copy saying ‘Fine, but I don’t know how you feel about this music. Did you like it?’  It’s a very fair question in the circumstances, and though the answer is usually implicit in even the most disengaged description, it’s worth asking.

As a youngster, struggling with the alto saxophone and still dependent on tutor books rather than the sleigh ride of real-life playing, I was astonished to come across instructions and a fingering diagram for John Coltrane’s “ugly note.” This seemed willfully perverse, but then a little later, and as an apprentice reviewer, I found myself describing the music of Borbetomagus as “spectacularly and joyously ugly,” confident that again the adverbs would wrestle round the judgment and confirm its positivity. There was a feeling that ugliness was in some way an essential component of jazz, its dissonances, rackety meters, elisions and sheer density of noise a compound sign of its departure from classical and canonical norms. Jazz was, as the French say, intended to be belle laide or jolie laide, as Jeanne Moreau was often described, that in its highest form it represented a kind of “ugly beauty.”

There is nothing more boring or intellectually lazy than a mere reversal of emphasis or easy transvaluation. If ugliness is a fundamental value, and a positive one, then it doesn’t need to be propped up by its opposite. If a saxophone solo, or a passage of screaming guitar, is ugly, then it’s ugly. The question is largely one of context. Is it ugly because it stands out awkwardly from what surrounds it, or does it work on its own terms, in which case what’s the issue. We’re up against the paradox of subjectivities here: if it works, or seems to work, then it ain’t ugly in the usual sense. Beauty, though, is often consigned to the rear of the behearer. It is, as Wood suggests, a term that is too easily smuggled in to cover a gap in the logic of appreciation. The ideas are strong, the writing is firm but challenging, there seems to be no gap between conception and execution; we like it, so it must be ... beautifully done.

After putting down How Fiction Works I made a list of music that I consider to be ugly-but-beautiful and a list of things usually considered beautiful but ugly to me. The former, for what it’s worth, included Borbetomagus, some of Eric Dolphy, much of Coltrane; the latter was headed by Stan Getz: is that acidulous, preening style really “beautiful?” It may simply be that beauty is simply a useful shorthand term covering fitness for purpose. Wood says this: “There is a way in which even complex prose [insert ‘music’ – he’s a great believer himself in inserting alternative words in poetic or prose contexts] is quite simple – because of that mathematical finality by which a perfect sentence cannot admit of an infinite number of variations, cannot be extended without aesthetic blight” – what a brilliant phrase! – “its perfection is the solution to its own puzzle; it could not be done better.” This is a logic that applies to Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul” to Charlie Parker’s “Now’s The Time” or half a dozen recent solos by Ken Vandermark, which leave the listener with the alternately satisfying and dismaying sense that were one note to be changed the whole thing would fall apart. This is the aesthetics of the icon, though, the notion that artistic value depends on the conjunction of perfect form and irreplaceable elements. Poet Glyn Maxwell hands out redacted texts to his students, famous poems in which certain words have been deleted. The smartarses will, of course, know the poem and simply insert the “correct” word in the gaps, as if they had thought it up themselves or had intuited the one sound and meaning that would “work.” The others, if they have an ear, will find words that will fulfill both the sound and the sense. Still others will get one or the other, but not both. I well remember when I began serious literary research, as opposed to undergraduate study, being seriously discomfited to find MS variations in poems I had considered to be final and set in stone. It happened again when CD durations made possible the inclusion of “alternate takes” and breakdowns and long-cherished pieces of music began to emerge in unfamiliar and “imperfect” forms. It’s a little like finding out that David Copperfield (the character, not the charlatan) started life as “Eric Butternut,” or that Parker rushed his entry on the first take of “Au Privave” and unsettled the meter of the whole track.

I guess the fundamental difference, and the point at which the syncretistic argument falls down, is that our music is at its very foundation anti-iconic. The logic of jazz and of improvised music is that there is no final form. That is perhaps why the Coltrane Quartet played “My Favorite Things” some 1,500 times (I think this was Elvin Jones’s calculation), not in an attempt to “get it right” but in recognition that “right” only makes sense in the very precise context of a particular moment. So what does it mean to describe an album of improvised music (with some structure) as “beautifully played?” It certainly wasn’t meant to suggest that here was something that could not admit of an infinite (or just very large) number of variations; that could not be extended without blight that was the answer to all its own questions or simply couldn’t be improved. In fact, quite the opposite of all those things. I have put on the album again now that kicked this all off and, yes, it could have been done a hundred different ways: it could have gone on longer (and indeed, the club and concert versions of these ideas undoubtedly do); it doesn’t propose a neat mathematical solution; but instead, it sets off to nail down π [pi], which as any mathematician – or jazz fan – will tell you, gets more interesting the further you go from the decimal point. It’s also precisely the point that it just might be done better but that this is the best form one can imagine for it in the moment. This is where there is a dramatic difference between rehearsing at the public’s expense and putting out music that is as complete and as satisfying as the occasion and as talent permit. There are more Dan Browns than Flauberts putting out records. Telling the difference is usually a matter of locating where the author/artist is in the work and acknowledging how well he’s doing it rather than simply pretending it’s a piece of product. Thus my defense of “beautifully.”

I’ve totted up half a dozen recent (this/last year) examples of reviews or features where the word appears, most usually as a qualifier to “played,” fewer where “beautiful” is used as some absolute and final judgment on the music, as if the music were in some way different to and superior to its own execution. Forgive us if we sometimes bridge the inevitable gap with words like this. They are, at one level, mere conveniences, readily and mutually understood, expressions of regard, recognitions of craft, sometimes just a way of getting out of trouble.

The last time I spent a Saturday night in a Glasgow bar, and I’m rusty in that field now, I got myself in a tangle with a tall youth who formed the impression that I had insulted his girlfriend, a casual remark about who precisely was next in line for service. I improvised an explanation just long enough for him to deflate and slouch back into the crowd. “That was beautifully done,” said my friend. Amen.

Brian Morton©2013

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