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....]

1 comment:

Beth said...

I'm not even going to attempt to talk about "In a Silent Way." I dislike prescriptive responses to art in general, so I get your frustration with Freeman's words.

Apropos of nothing, I recently listened to "In a Silent Way" on a run, and it made my run almost pleasant. Almost; Miles was a genius not a magician.