Sunday, February 15, 2009

Beyond the Boredom Envelope (with an incursion on jazz time)

My last post has been full of big ideas, big ideas that I’ve kept my eyes (and, more to the point, ears) attuned to for the last few weeks. I’ve composed this blog post as I would a somewhat looser research paper, in a word-processor mostly during daylight, as opposed to my longer blog posts that I typically begin at 1 AM after I drink one too many Dr. Peppers with dinner, only to manipulate the timestamp before publishing.In my last post, I wrote:

“Being inclined to empiricism and aesthetics rather than ideals and analysis, I have a lingering suspicion that some of you "tune out" at concerts too. And yet, this is one of those ideas people are afraid to express in front of people.”

Get used to those block quotes, dear reader.

I then went on to talk about American literature in the context of “tuning out” while reading. I just realized there is a crucial connection between the two in the famous prologue to Ellison’s Invisible Man, in the section where the narrator gets high and “really listens” to time in Louis Armstrong’s recording of “What Did I Do? (To Be So Black and Blue).”Unfortunately, I can only find streaming audio for the version Louis records with the All-Stars in the fifties, after Invisible Man. (In many ways, the All-Stars version is more sincere, and definitely less ironical.) But on to Ellison.

After some seriously perceptive writing on Armstrong’s sense of time, the narrator escapes into a daydream and plays it out:

Then somehow I came out of it, ascending hastily from this underworld of sound to hear Louis Armstrong innocently asking,

What did I do

To be so black

And blue?

At first I was afraid; this familiar music had demanded action, the kind of which I was incapable, and yet had I lingered there beneath the surface I might have attempted to act. Nevertheless, I know now that few really listen to this music…It was exhausting—as though I had held my breath continuously for an hour under the terrifying serenity that comes from days of intense hunger. And yet, it was a strangely satisfying experience for an invisible man to hear the silence of sound (12-13).

It’s safe to say that, in the three-plus pages of daydream, the narrator loses himself in (or from?) the music. Immediately preceding the previous passage (or, the last sentence of the daydream):

Once I tried crossing the road, but a speeding machine struck me, scraping the skin from my leg as it roared past.

It’s really a curious line, suggesting that—given the theme of the novel—Ellison’s character is trying to stake out a territory within the inner structure of Armstrong’s work. Notice that the last line of the daydream—trying to cross a road—leads to disaster, and causes him to scrape get struck by a “speeding machine”; the kind of action of which he was incapable. There is a dialectical relationship between the listener (who is, in this case, truly a “recreational” listener in every possible sense of the word) and the performer, underscored by a famous passage of Louis analysis that immediately precedes the daydream:

Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That’s what you hear vaguely in Louis’ music.

TANGENT, before we get back to the fight between the Invisible Man and Louis: I think this is a really interesting observation about the sense of time in Louis’s peak period—IMHO, the early 1930s, where the most negligible of materials becomes putty in his hands. It also corresponds to some research I’m beginning to collate into my new historical best friend, the composer and jazz journalist William Russell, and his pioneering jazz research—in particular, his early, acute deconstruction of jazz time.

While Stravinsky and others saw jazz time as something machine-like and monolithically unrelenting in pulse, Russell spelled out “the nodes” that Ellison referred to with remarkable cogence. As a music editing project, I’m trying to get my hands on Russell’s Trumpet Concerto (My University of Iowa readers can listen here if on a campus connection), begun in 1937 but only premiered in the 1990s, and based on a syncopated throwaway figure at the close of Armstrong’s recording of “That Rhythm Man.” Russell was in a sense Armstrong’s first biographer, producing a lengthy profile of Armstrong (equal parts folklore, documentary research, and analysis) in the 1939 collection Jazzmen. From Russell’s profile of Armstrong, compare this passage on Armstrong’s sense of time (that came right after he produced his study of Armstrong in the concerto), with Ellison’s (emphasis added):

“In addition to hot intonation, jazz depends on the swing which is generated by rhythmic accents and intervals. Most important is that small interval of delay in which a musician holds back the expected attack. Through this, the listener is not only disturbed but stimulated when the impact is finally felt 140.”

Ellison (from the daydream):

He held me in a grip like cold stone, his fingers fastening upon my windpipe until I thought I would suffocate before he finally allowed me to go. I stumbled about dazed, the music beating hysterically in my ears. It was dark. My head cleared and I wandered down a dark narrow passage, thinking I heard his footsteps burrying [sic] behind me. I was sore, and into my behind had come a profound craving for tranquility, for peace and quiet, a state I felt I could never achieve. For one thing, the trumpet was blaring and the rhythm was too hectic. A tom-tom beating like heart-thuds began drowning out the trumpet, filling my ears… I longed for water (12)

Russell continues:

This is a matter much more subtle and dynamic than the syncopation that Tin Pan Alley supposed to be the basis of jazz. Just as one swings away from the straight melody in improvisation, the rhythmic patterns must also be broken up and vitalized. Armstrong has the right rhythmic instinct and sense of timing in “swinging around and away from the regular beat,” as he expresses it. And so all this talk of rhythmic interval, of making an instant more intense, is not just theory. Nor is this phenomenon of delay produced by instinct alone. The retardation is done consciously, at least to some extent; for instance, in the early twenties Louis described to Lil [his first wife] Bunk’s (Johnson, a classic New Orleans cornetist who Russell recorded) way of hesitating, always just a just a fraction behind the melody, and then of catching up. Veterans from the Bayou country, when asked about Bunk’s style, invariably reply: “He seemed to be kind of behind all the time and then catching up at the end of the phrase”; or, “He played like he was missin’ all the time and holding back a little.” With Louis, we can feel this swing, even when he plays or sings alone, without any accompaniment to mark off the regular pulse, as well as when he carries the entire band along.

Russell writes in the same collection about the very live rhythmic world of Boogie-Woogie. Of even more interest is an article that Russell and John Cage co-wrote for a October 1938 periodical, Dance Observer. During the previous decade, Russell—in addition to his jazz journalism and ethnomusicological pursuits, such as playing percussion for a touring Chinese puppet theater on the Chautauqua circuit (see photo below, bottom right, from the University of Iowa Chautauqua Collection)had written several of the earliest compositions for percussion ensemble that were published in Henry Cowell’s New Music series.

On the West Coast during the late 1930s, Cage and Russell intersected, the one famously entering the world of percussion composition and the other quietly leaving it for jazz journalism and scholarship. Russell’s works were a fixture in the concerts of Cage’s West Coast Percussion Ensemble. At any rate, Russell went on to write quite a bit about the history of jazz drumming, particularly the style of Baby Dodds so it’s easy to imagine that this somewhat counterintuitive passage in their Dance Observer article, “Percussion Music and its Relation to the Modern Dance.” came from him. Note, especially, that the emphasis is original to the text:

The hot jazz drummer fulfills a dual role. As a member of the rhythm section he must furnish an unvarying tempo and rhythmic basis to inspire the arrhythmic improvisations of the melodic instruments. Actually far from being the monotonously regular rhythmic affair its detractors would have us believe, hot jazz is a unique and subtle form of that most rare phenomenon, arrhythmic music (266)

That statement is surely as thought-provoking as it is counterintuitive, and sets up the dialectical relationship between rhythm and arrhythm, drumming and melody, that Ellison recognized:

For one thing, the trumpet was blaring and the rhythm was too hectic. A tom-tom beating like heart-thuds began drowning out the trumpet, filling my ears… I longed for water.

The idea of Cage and “arrhythmia”—and “a—“ everything else, one supposes—certainly crops up later in musical history, and we’ll look at it in a bit (if anyone is still reading!) , but first to go back to another pre-daydream passage of Ellison’s, that comes right after “That’s what you hear vaguely in Louis’s music.”:

Once I saw a prizefighter boxing a yokel. The fighter was swift and amazingly scientific. His body was one violent flow of rapid rhythmic action. He hit the yotel a hundred times while the yokel held up his arms in stunned surprise. But suddenly the yokel, rolling about in the gale of boxing gloves, struck one blow and knocked science, speed, and footwork as cold as a well-digger’s posterior. The smart money hit the canvas. The long shot got the nod. The yokel had simply stepped inside of his opponent’s sense of time. So under the spell of the reefer I discovered a new analytical way of listening to music. The unheard sounds came through, and each melodic line existed of itself, stood out clearly from all the rest, said its piece, and waited patiently for the other voices to speak. That night I found myself hearing not only in time, but in space as well. I not only entered the music, but descended, like Dante, into its depths. And beneath the swiftness of the hot tempo there was a slower tempo and a cave and I entered it and looked around and heard an old woman singing a spiritual as full of Weltschmerz as flamenco, and beneath that lay a still lower level on which I saw a beautiful girl the color of ivory pleading in a voice like my mother’s as she stood before a group of slaveowners who bid for her naked body, and below that I found a lower level and a more rapid tempo and I heard someone shout…

And the daydream is underway.

It’s easy to draw a connection between the prizefighting yokel and the Invisible Man in the passage that ends the daydream: “Once I tried crossing the road, but a speeding machine struck me, scraping the skin from my leg as it roared past.” But was the narrator, as a listener, trying to get through Louis to get past Louis? There’s not a little touch of—well, if not hubris or outright jealousy, perhaps Oedipal admiration. I just picked up “One O’Clock Jump: The Unforgettable History of the Oklahoma City Blue Devils” by Douglas Henry Daniels at Prairie Lights last week, reminding me of Ellison’s early days as a swing trumpet player. Indeed, in his essays—including my personal favorite, “Living With Music”—he talks about that fateful moment, after the publication of Invisible Man, when he realized that while he had fashioned himself a trumpet player, he was now more of a writer. It’s a scary moment we all have to face someday—right?

But who is the Yokel and who is the Prizefighter? Rather than being an inactive listener, through his daydream, the Invisible Man challenges the inert recording, vies with it, fights with it, battles it, tries to knock it out—and wakes up from it, scary, abused, and eventually humbled. At some point, he is no longer hearing Louis but a new work suggested by the contours above and below it. Is it a fine act of listening, or an instance of disrespect?

I mentioned Cage a few paragraphs up, and that brings to mind another passage from a book I bought at Prairie Lights along with One O’Clock Jump: John Adams’ new autobiography Hallelujah Junction. The book is a breezy read, if a little mannered at times (its tone is very self-consciously “New England idyll”), but Adams was in many right places at many right times during the last half-century of American music, and his point-of-view is illuminating. Adams was at the center of many a San Francisco “happening” during the 1970s, and while he respects the deconstructive music(?) from this time, he writes that the audience would consist largely of fellow composers (and some things never change). After sketching the “scene” he had participated in, he narrates two experiences at Cage events (emphasis added):

Boredom was a major element in many of these events, part of the rigors of the aesthetic, and Cage was the eloquent apologist for the aesthetics of patience. In 1971 while still in Cambridge I’d gone to Brandeis University one evening to attend a Cage event that he was presenting in a large hall in the student union. The tables and chairs had been cleared and the audience was clustered around on the floor, listening to Cage, who was seated at a table with nothing more than a typed manuscript, a microphone, and a reading lamp. His reading was from a long piece called Mureau, made by submitting passages from Thoreau’s journals to chance procedures via the I Ching…Thoreau’s phrases drifted in and out of comprehensibility, now and then becoming so remotely isolated from their original syntax as to be rendered into sonic objects with a possibility but not a probability of interconnectedness. At other times, the chance couplings of words would reveal unexpected new meanings. I was charmed for the first half hour, and then I became gradually bored and finally irritated, a frequent behavioral vector for audiences of avant-garde music in those days. The restlessness I was experiencing may have been in part due to the setting and in part due to my unwillingness to accept boredom as an element of the experience. At the Brandeis event Cage read into the microphone patiently and methodically for hours without taking a single pause. People twitched on the hardwood floor or wistfully eyed the exit door (84).

Adams then goes on to characterize the experience as ultimately positive, before also narrating a San Francisco Cage event wherein seven harpsichordists faithfully performed algorithmically scrambled segments from Mozart’s keyboard repertoire while Town and Gown folks clinked glasses over the plucking ruckus.

Two more delightful turns of phrase from Adams: “I too produced several pieces that seriously pushed the boredom envelope,” before describing his composition Ktaadn for a local chorus. A chance piece, Adams drew a compass around the vista of a Maine mountaintop and let each performer choose an order of place names (each name having with it a corresponding modal melody). “The result was a congenial but more or less uneventful chaos of communal mumbling. There was no formal shape to the piece. I was hard put not to acknowledge the tedium that set in at about the fifth minute, once the audience realized that things were unlikely to change (85-86).”

Now, there is one crucial difference here: Louis Armstrong was not (and was not trying) to be boring, but what Ellison did was, in fact, a proto-Cageian mode of listening—or, rather, something along the lines of classic German romantic metaphor—that can unlock music at various levels of engagement. (And has an interesting lesson plan based on Invisible Man and jazz that looks like it would fit well into a high school curriculum and foster some sound imagination, not unlike a Smithsonian lesson plan surrounding Louis Armstrong.)

Integrating the sounds around him into his setting—emotional, physical, spiritual, and sensory—the Invisible Man sought through imagination to put the sounds in correspondence with his setting, not through discarding setting or even disregarding it, but rather by embracing distraction and recognizing it for what it was: a daydream, albeit one with an analytical bent. But is it good listening to lose yourself?

Granted, none of this excuses me for experiencing a REM cycle in Avery Fischer Hall; even Schubert is not as boring as Moreau seemed to be, and to eye the exits warily, aye, your eyes must remain open, even if your mind does wander into some wholly unrelated territory--the history of jazz rhythm, for instance.

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