Friday, October 22, 2010

My Hearing Belongs to ME

I recently read  a description of Miles Davis' album In a Silent Way (IASW) that gave me a start: 
It was the sound of Miles Davis and Teo Macero feeling their way down an unlit hall at three in the morning. It was the soundtrack to all the whispered conversations every creative artist has, all the time, with that doubting, taunting voice that lives in the back of your head, the one asking all the unanswerable questions.
This is from Phil Freeman's book about Miles' electric period, Running the voodoo down: the electric music of Miles Davis. I haven't really looked at much more of the book, and it hasn't been a book that has held much interest for me otherwise. I ran across the excerpt above in the Wikipedia entry on IASW; I was curious to see what Wiki had to say about the album after giving it a serious listen for the first time in over a year. I realize it's not entirely fair of me to write off Freeman's book without reading some more of it - but that's not what concerns me here and now. 

As I said, Freeman's description gave me a start. These musings about Miles and his producer Teo Macero wandering through an unlit hall, about secret interior dialogues in the heads of artists...these comments, though juxtaposed with some historical information and contextual analysis, are certainly evaluative, definitely subjective, and don't even try to be critical or historical. One might say they're also poorly-written. Freeman switches perspective in the second sentence, beginning by describing "every creative artist" in the third person, and then switching to the second person, talking about "that doubting, taunting voice that lives in the back of your head" - "your head." And isn't "creative artist" a redundant construction? Doesn't the second word, "artist," already imply the adjective "creative"? Yet the interpretive thrust of Freeman's gloss gnawed at me - maybe the way he imagines the voice in Miles' head, or any creative artist's head, gnawing at him. There was something about Freeman's notion of IASW as the sound of being lost, of contemplating the infinite, that struck a chord within me. 

I was going to continue here, to recount my personal history with IASW, probably get a bit mushy at times, etc. (See below for previously unreleased excerpts of this reminiscence.) Well, what was happening was that for a few days it felt like Freeman had stolen my hearing of IASW. Yes, stolen, taken the way I hear the album, the way I feel about it, think about it, know it away from me. But then a few days elapsed, and Freeman's slick yet for me nevertheless uncanny gloss on IASW lost it sway over me, and I started to regain my own hearing of the album. I became able to reconcile Freeman's "unlit hall" with my own dimly-lit space created by IASW

And then I remembered that Freeman's book belongs to the greasy, fetid, and even depraved industry of Miles Davis publications - a entire subcategory within music books - and I said to myself 
The still-growing number of vapid monographs on Miles Davis - or some period of his life, or one of his albums - is another topic altogether, one which I intend to address in my very next post.

Unreleased Reminiscence Outtakes
[This is an album I've known well since the age of 16, 38 minutes of music which I've listened more than 200 times, possibly more than 500. Miles' trumpet sound immediately struck me as incredibly beautiful - as full and cushiony as on Kind of Blue, and yet with a new timbral variation, especially in the high register. It was also the album from which I really got to know Wayne Shorter's sound on soprano - still one of my favorite sounds among the recorded jazz I know. There are so many moments on IASW I could tell you about, so many aspects of the recording that have fascinated in different ways at different times. I could really talk someone into oblivion about it....

....I never really thought of IASW as "being about" being lost, if that's even what Freeman is getting at in his words. For me, IASW has often been about something unknowable, both something unknowable about life, the universe, the human condition, and its own unknowability - the music's own inscrutability. There was something evocative about Freeman's thoughts, about the idea of the album being a soundtrack to an internal dialogue of metaphysical questioning. So reading the excerpt, I had an experience of the uncanny. Freeman touched on a feeling I too had gotten from the album - a feeling of contemplating the infinite through music....

...In my late teens the things Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea were doing on the Fender Rhodes keyboards, and the things Joe Zawinul did on the electric organ, held infinite fascination for me. I imagined that as I continued to learn about music, I would someday be able to explain what made the web of keyboard sound on the album so intriguing; I'd be able to analyze it - break it down into its component parts and understand the how and why of the keyboard soundweb. When I started to really delve into music theory in college, I would sometimes return to IASW, maybe play a few phrases on my trumpet along with the record, and think to myself that I was getting closer to being able to analyze that thick, inscrutable fog of keyboards....]

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Louis Szekely (a.k.a. Louis C.K.)

I've been seriously digging on the comic Louis C.K. for the past few weeks. (Thanks to my oldest friend on this earth for introducing me to him, by the way.)

His comedy strikes me as wide-ranging. He can do a lot of very funny observational things; it's social satire with insights as brilliant as the language is plain. His current show on FX  combines this observational/satire stuff with some real quirky plots and great moments of absurd and/or surreal humor. I highly recommend. 

What I really appreciate about him is that he's a white comedian who is not afraid to deal with race and white privilege. Now it's not like I keep tabs on all the comedians out there, but it seems to me that C.K. has few white colleagues who are willing to venture into those kinds of comedic waters. I want to share a brief but very pithy bit he did about the "N-word" a couple of years ago: 

Suggested viewing/reading of related interest:

Monday, October 4, 2010

"Things Are Crazy"

[WARNING: Ranting ahead]

I'd like to propose an indefinite moratorium on the following phrase, and all synonymous variations: 

"Things are crazy."

Last week a beloved friend inadvertently woke a sleeping giant when he included this phrase in an email to me. Said friend, who is an adept writer and talker, inspired me to finally compile and present my thoughts on the matter of the above phrase.
Initially I want to address the ambiguity of the phrase "things are crazy." It is a simple enough grammatical structure, a three-word sentence in the indicative mood; the speaker is saying that it is a current reality that things are crazy. But already things (not the "things" of the phrase, though) are becoming vague. Is this an observation of a general condition of existence? Are things always crazy? To remedy this ambiguity, people often modify the core phrase as follows: 
"Things are crazy right now."
"Things are crazy these days."
"Things have been crazy this week."
Here we already are considering some of the synonymic variations I refer to above. So it could be an observation about how these "things are" at a specific point in time, or during a specific period.

But what of these things? What is their nature, beside an apparently volatile mental condition? To alleviate my annoyance at hearing the phrase, I often amuse myself by imagining the "things" in question. When someone tells me that "things are crazy," I pciture his or her living space filled with small creatures, of reptilian or perhaps amphibian type, who are causing havoc. These small things might resemble gremlins or imps, running around the house, knocking things over, spilling liquids, and generally causing a ruckus. Perhaps they have behavioral problems. Possibly they experience hallucinations and hold deluded views of reality. 

You see, not only do I lack knowledge about the nature of the "things," I also don't know in what way they are "crazy." Do they suffer from recognized mental conditions such as sociopathy or schizophrenia? Or are they just plain old fuck-ups and hence projecting their fucked-upness onto the poor human's life? 

More likely than not, the speaker of the phrase "things are crazy" does not intend it to be a statement about monstrous creatures who have intruded into their lives and torment them. He or she probably doesn't even mean to be making a statement about the way of the world, or the human condition. The actual scope of the statement - what the person is really talking about - is usually much more limited. 
"Things are crazy for me."
And I'll give folks the credit they're due - I often do hear or read this particular variation. Though unfortunately the observation far too often remains unqualified by any pronoun. It is often qualified by reference to a location, or a specific situation. 

The family of phrases I'm grouping under the general archetype of "things are crazy" is a favorite utterance of academics: "It's a crazy time of the semester" which leads to common variations like "It's a busy time of semester," "It's a rough time of the semester" - all of which I have heard employed during the first week of classes, right after midterms, or during finals week - basically any time of semester can be a crazy time and can cause those things to get all hot and bothered. 

So let's take stock of the taxonomy we have so far. There's the ur-phrase:
"Things are crazy."

There are the time-specific variations:
"Things are crazy right now."
"Things are crazy today."
"Things have been crazy this week."
"Things have been crazy for months."

Then there are substitutions and variables on "crazy":
"Things are hectic."
"Things have been all over the place."
"Things are busy this week."

Sometimes folks even remove the "things":
"This week has been nuts."

When most people utter the phrase, I hear a strange echo, a kind of veiled sonic afterglow. It usually goes something like this:
"Things have been just crazy the past week." [pause of a few seconds...] I've got a lot going on in my life....
That's the secret message there in italics. When a person tells me "things are crazy" this person is usually also indicating how busy s/he is, how rich his/her life is, how many endeavors/projects/tasks/ongoing-something-or-others s/he has got his/her hand in. (This is an observation that go-getter types, into which category most academics fit, really like to make about themselves.)

But I'd really like to acknowledge that the phrase-type "things are crazy" belongs to the rhetorical category of bullshit - that is, a statement without truth value, one which can be proven neither true nor false. The usefulness of the phrase-type "things are crazy" lies not in its observatory power. No, the power of the phrase lies in its application, and in how it communicates what it does. When we say "things are crazy" (and yes, of course I have used it too...unfortunately), we are exculpating ourselves. A more truthful transformation of the phrase would go something like this: 
"I know I was supposed to do [insert task here]. I'm sorry I haven't done it; I just did not get around to it. I have no excuse, but I'm asking your understanding, since we have all been in this position at some point."
But when we say "things are crazy" we displace our own inability to do the things we should be doing outward and turn our own temporary lack of organization or irresponsibility into an external and general condition of reality. 

So once again I propose an indefinite moratorium on the phrase-type "things are crazy." For my part, I will make a concerted effort to admit openly when I have not been able to look at someone's email/call someone back/get something done when I said I would. I will not talk about those pesky apparitions we call "things." Because let's be honest, 
when aren't things crazy?