Monday, August 17, 2009

The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music

Between December, 2004 and March, 2007, Ben Ratliff, the New York Times’ jazz critic, held a series of conversations with prominent jazz musicians. The rule for these was simple: they would listen to music, and they would discuss what they heard. Ratliff stipulated one condition: the music could be any that the interviewees selected, but they could not choose their own recordings. The results were almost always informative and stimulating, and frequently enlightening. Musicians, after all, listen from inside the music; they hear things that are inaudible to the rest of us; they know what recordings, even parts of recordings, deflected the course of music history, and they know why.

Ratliff begins with Wayne Shorter, a famously difficult interview. Shorter is a kind and gentle man but – how to say this – his prose can be somewhat oblique. They heard two selections from a box set of Sir Adrian Boult conducting the music of Ralph Vaughn Williams. (It is a striking feature of this book that these jazz musicians so often chose classical works.) Shorter loves movie similes: of a particularly noble scherzo from the Fourth Symphony he remarked, “It’s like something from a movie…It could be astronauts: ‘we need a large vehicle to get beyond this gravity and away from our decadent thinking.’’’ As a Nicheron Buddhist, Wayne shades his interview with mystic conceptions: “when you say, ‘what is life’ – well, life is the one time you have an eternal adventure. Sounds like a contradiction… I like that! It rubs against itself; it makes sparks. To me those sparks are fuel.”

The guitarist Pat Metheney’s first choice was Sonny Meets Hawk, a 1963 recording of two of the seminal giants of the tenor saxophone, Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins. He played a standard of the jazz repertoire, All The Things You Are. Metheney observed, “Hawk was kind of like his father. And it’s like Sonny saying, ‘yeah, but.’ “ But the performance that Pat wanted to discuss was the solo by Paul Bley. “The shot heard ‘round the world because of how it influenced pianists coming up like Keith Jarrett.” I was aware of Bley’s influence on jazz pianists, but I never before knew that it was this particular solo that broke the mold.

Particularly noteworthy was Metheney’s response to Miles Davis’ 1964 recording, Seven Steps To Heaven. He makes two interesting, related observations in his commentary on this performance: “If we go down to the New School [one of the most accomplished of today’s jazz training programs] we’re going to find fifty guys who can eat this tune alive in the way that the jazz education movement has evolved toward. But there’s not one second in what Miles plays that has anything to do with any of that.” Metheney, like many, if not most of the generation that grew up learning jazz improvisation through a combination of autodidacticism and informal master – apprentice relationships, believes that the academic bourgeoisification of the music has drained it of much of its soul, its “street sense”, as he puts it.

His second observation: “it has this whole thing of glue – the way ideas are connected to each other on a phrase by phrase basis.” He calls this “glue” the essence of swing. a fascinating metaphor, as one ordinarily would think of glue as a device of stasis, a substance that holds things still, but Methaney projects a dynamism into it, as swing to him is the element that unites propulsive sound. He hates that jazz pedagogues want to quantify it.

Much of the conversation in The Jazz Ear concerns the desire for greater freedom either from or within the traditional organizing devices of jazz music: time and prescribed harmonic sequences. Sonny Rollins: “jazz means freedom. I don’t think you always have to play in time. But there’s two different ways of playing. There’s a way of playing where you can play with no time. Or you can have a fixed time and play against it. That’s what I feel is heaven, being able to be that free, spiritual, musical.” Or there’s Andrew Hill’s elaboration of Charlie Parker’s dictum that “melody is rhythm.” “If everything is rhythm, then you have these rhythms on top of each other. But they’re not polyrhythms or pyramids of rhythm, they’re crossing rhythms.” Ornette Coleman: “I’m at the point now where modulation is the closest thing to pure improvisation. No key, no rhythm, no time. Just the idea itself.”

Coleman’s first choice of music to listen to and discuss was a recording of the early 20th century cantor, Josef Rosenblatt. He said of the first recording that he heard of Rosenblatt’s, “I started crying like a baby.” Rosenblatt was “crying, singing, and praying all in the same breath…I said, ‘wait a minute. You can’t find those notes. They are not ‘notes.’ They don’t exist.”

The orchestral composers who are included are unified in their determination to have done with the traditional jazz format. As Maria Schneider put it, “I had this template in my head of bass line, chord, comping, melody, tune, sendoff [release of the improvising soloist], like you were buying a modular unit….Then I started questioning.” To keep their minds expansive, Schneider and the other interviewees often go to classical music. In the 1960s she was so taken with adagio of the Ravel G Minor Piano Concerto that she had to force herself to stop listening to it. (There’s an interesting circle of art closing here, for this was the Ravel who hung out, soaking up the jazz, at the right bank jazz club that Cocteau started, Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit -The Oxen On The Roof. Yes, I know, this was also the title of a surrealist ballet by Cocteau & Darius Milhaud And here’s Ravel paying jazz back with his elaboration of the blues.) She loves that blues feeling in it, used with such originality, “He creates a sense of motion with harmony, the slightest tension between the melody and the harmony, and it’s like, if you bring two elements & they pull apart – that creates motion…[I}n life, sometimes, boy, time goes by really fast, and it’s just a ride. And sometimes, every minute is just excruciating because you’re being forced through issues. He has this way of forcing you through little issues.”

Similarly, Bob Brookmeyer, whom Maria Schneider consulted on issues of writing for large bands, declared the jazz theme-solo-theme format dead. He advised her not to write provisions for solos “until you’ve completely exhausted what you have to say.” Brookmeyer admires John Coltrane, but abhors the over-blowing of Coltrane’s acolytes. During his conversation with Reisner he acknowledged two major influences, Count Basie and Witold Lutoslawski. Basie not only brought Brookmeyer into music, he showed him the way out of a miserable adolescence. When he attended a concert of the Basie band in his hometown of Kansas City, Mo. in 1941, “I melted….It was the first… body chill I ever had. I just said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to do this.’”

He played for Ratliff Basie’s 1941 recording of the 9:20 Special. Basie “had supernatural powers…He didn’t evince a lot of effort, whereas other people seemed to take music and pound it off the earth - Basie came from under the crust of the earth and through your feet.”

In the early 1980s, Brookmeyer bought all of Ludoslawski’s recordings and scores. Listening to a section of Mstislav Rostropovich’s recording the Cello Concerto in which the woodwinds and harps ascend and descend in 3rds he said, “It’s so lovely, and so subtle…It’s like a rainbow shooting up.” Brookmeyer contacted Lutoslawsyi through a third party to enquire about the possibility of studying with him and received a favorable reply, but he chickened out. (Is it just me, or has Lutoslawski pretty much disappeared from concert programs these days?)

An aside: I find the comments and listening habits of the composers and bandleaders to be particularly interesting (and let’s count Wayne Shorter, Andrew Hill, Bebo Valdes and Guillermo Klein with Schneider and Brookmeyer as composers) as a lot of us have been waiting for the Next Big Thing in jazz to emerge from this conservatory-bred generation of musicians. Never before has the music had this many practitioners with so much technique, theory and history, yet this is the longest that jazz has been without a defining genius or a radical new movement. I have been wondering if this might become a composers’ era.

Bebo Valdes is a historic figure in Afro-Cuban jazz, yet he is better known as the father of the brilliant pianist, Chucho Valdes. His interview is a brief survey of Cuban music history; his discussions of two of the great composers of Cuban music, Ignacio Cervantes and the seminal Ernesto Lecuono, are valuable. Like all pianists, even the classical pianists who know his work, Valdes is in awe of Art Tatum. (Vladimir Horowitz was a fan, as is Phillippe Entremont). On listening to the solo version of Without A Song, recorded in 1955, a year before Tatum’s death, Valdes remarked, “It’s virtuosic in technique – totally classical, with modern harmony. He was the first pianist I ever heard playing modern harmony with heart.”

“When you know classical music”, said Bebo, “you can do what you want to…’Es mejor ser la cabeza de un perro que la cola de un tibaron. It’s better to be in the head of a dog than the tail of a shark’.” You figure it out.

The soloists’ voices are equally strong. Branford Marsalis bemoans a certain absence of soul in today’s young jazz musicians. His surprising opening selections were of Louis Armstrong in collaboration, first with Bing Crosby and then with Jack Teagarten.. Contemporary musicians “are completely devoid of personality,” he said, while Louis was so visual. “The idea that the music that they’re [playing] is supergenius is completely secondary.” As do others in this collection, he complains of the mechanical approach of his students; he employs the recordings of Bessie Smith to teach his instrumentalists how to phrase. While illustrating his point with her Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl, he stated, “Man, you gotta growl, you gotta bend those notes.” Conversely, Marsalis thinks that jazz musicians should more often avail themselves to the resources of classical music, citing how Charlie Parker once quoted in a solo the opening bassoon line from The Rite Of Spring and his own use of the fate motif from Gotterdammerung in his Braggtown recording.

Joshua Redmond was seduced into music by Sonny Rollins’ famous solo on St. Thomas. “[W]hat Sonny showed me was that you could be completely spontaneous and at the same time have this unerring sense of logic and structure.” But it’s Redmonds’ comments on John Coltrane that are worth the price of the book, for he identifies in ‘Trane the sublime, the highest, the Platonic state of art. (This is gratifying to me personally as I have waxed on this theme so often that I have forbidden myself to write any more poems about it.) Those who can allow themselves to submit to the wide open John Coltrane utter gushing phrases of absolute praise. Redmond chose Transition, a late recording of Coltrane’s, when he had become, I believe, an ecstatic dervish after his studies of Sufism and other mystic systems. Redmond said, “as far as a single piece of Coltrane with the classic quartet, it has perhaps the greatest force, impact, feeling of surrender, you know, abandon, devotion…[T]here’s no intro. It’s just, like, bam: here we are. You can’t go any higher. Yet, they keep climbing, and then they come down a little bit, and then they climb again….” He continues with a useful combination of figurative description and musical analysis and then states that, though he is not religious, “[a]t certain times in my life this music has kind of swept me up & transported me to a place where I can sense that there is something greater than the material existence of things. And a fabric that holds the material world together and offers an escape from that world.”*

That, my friends, is what is meant by the sublime, a state of art that is so extremely rare that I doubt that there are ever more than two or three musicians alive at any one time who reach it. Sebastian Bach lived there, the late Beethoven, Coltrane; I can’t think of any today who can claim it, but that just might be my personal limitation.

Altogether, The Jazz Ear is a good and revelatory read. I appreciate the skill with which Ratliff has rendered these conversations; some of these musicians are difficult interviews, either reticent or prone to lapse into unfathomable flights of homemade ontology or epistemology. Others talk with literary precision, so lucid that one feels that every word must be transcribed. Ben Ratliff has made the best of all of them, though some, of course, are better than others. His introductory and contextual remarks are insightful and learned. The result is that The Jazz Ear doesn’t read like a series of newspaper interviews. Well done.

The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music

Ben Ratliff

Times Books

Henry Holt & Co.

235 pps, ISBN-13: 978-0-8050-8146-6

Reviewed by A. B. Spellman

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Book Review: A Power Greater Than Itself

Not that George Lewis heard it from me, but I have often argued that musicians, particularly jazz musicians, should write more. We have heard their voices and opinions mostly second hand, through interviews with people like me who are not musicians or, at best, through “as told to” autobiographies. With several notable exceptions we seldom get to read their written opinions about the world and times that they have lived in, their music criticism or their musicology.

George E. Lewis has written a different kind of book with A Power Greater Than Itself; different, that is, from any other text that I know on jazz history. This essential book is music history from the inside: inside the birth and evolution of the seminal Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (or AACM) inside the biographies of the musicians who comprise it, inside the music that it has made, and the situation of that music inside the racial and economic politics of the world of modern serious music. That is a lot to attempt, but Lewis, who took nearly a decade to complete this work, has accomplished it in admirable fashion. His book is both scholarly and personal: while he has done careful and deep research on the factors, historical and contemporary, that shaped the many themes that he treats in A Power GreaterThan Itself, there is no pretense at objectivity. He loves and values the AACM, its members, and the music that it has made. Some might see a weakness here for Lewis is never critical of these men and women and they are not equally brilliant, as no school of artists can claim to possess uniformly accomplished members, but Lewis is honest about his stance. He is writing about, and often defending, his family.

Industrial Chicago was the central stop for those African Americans who moved north from Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Arkansas in the massive Great Migration of the 1920’s and ‘30s. This is a point of some importance to the author, for he takes great pains to establish that the first generation of AACM members were all born between 1927 and 1932 and thus were a part of, or at least the children of that Migration. Thus he establishes their working class bona fides, which in turn explains the autodidacticism that was the normal way of musical development for jazz musicians before the conservatories drifted into jazz pedagogy in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

The AACM was officially founded in 1965, but its genesis, as with all great movements, is more difficult to nail down. Lewis sets its origins within the context of the fertile but seldom discussed bebop, hardbop, and avant garde mid-century jazz scene in Chicago that produced such important artists as Gene Ammons, Ahmad Jamal, Sun Ra, Wilbur Ware and many others. The ultimate precedent of the AACM was the Clef Club, the cooperative that was organized in the early 20th century by James Reese Europe and Will Marion Cook, two of the most important American musicians that most readers probably have never heard of. A more proximate model was local 208 of the musicians’ union, the black Chicago local, as the union, save for 802 in New York City, was segregated in those days. It was at 208’s Union Hall that the young Richard Abrams (not yet Muhal) was able to meet and learn from accomplished instrumentalists and composers as he taught himself to be their peer. Union Hall also offered free rehearsal space, a not insignificant factor in the making of the Experimental Band, the unit that assembled most of the musicians who would found the AACM.

The Experimental Band was a remarkable phenomenon. In the early ‘60s, it met most often at the C & C Lounge in the afternoons. The musicians who attended had developed in various ways: many had learned their instruments under stern and dedicated high school band leaders, particularly the heroic Walter Dyatt of DuSable High. Some had gone on to study theory at Woodrow Wilson Junior College with Richard Wang, who introduced them to the systems of Hindemith and the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Webern, Berg et al). Among Wang’s students were such noted jazz modernists and future AACM members as the bassist, Malachi Favors and the saxophonists, Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill. Other participants in the Experimental Band included the late pianist Andrew Hill, the saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarmon, and Eddie Harris; and the percussionist, Jack DeJohnette, to mention only some of the most famous of them. At the center setting artistic direction was the wise young mystic pianist, Muhal Richard Abrams.

A spiritual, unassuming man, Muhal established some principles of freedom that the Experimental Band and it’s members must follow and these became the musical tenets of the AACM: the Band would play only original music, which all participants would be encouraged to compose; musicians would encourage and assist each other in their development; everyone must be musically curious: any and all sources of music were open to exploration. Of contemporary models, Ornette Coleman was by far the most influential for his excision of chord changes from his unique discipline of collective improvisation.

Having seen the New York based Jazz Composers’ Guild fall apart to form again with less black participation as the Jazz Composers’ Orchestra, the charter meeting of the AACM was democratic to a fault. Every issue was debated to exhaustion though Muhal, the undisputed leader, drew the lines when they were needed. Governing principles were adopted that would commit the organization to community service, self-sufficiency, and continual enlargement of the methods and practice of free jazz performance. The AACM would strive for self-sufficiency in finances, management, promotion, and bookings. Gigs would rotate among the members. Strict standards of professional behavior were set. A school was planned for youth and others that would eventually feed new musicians into the organization. Dues were set at $1, which members sometimes had a hard time making.

In describing the making of the AACM, Lewis painstaking makes a corollary with the Society for Private Music Performance that Arnold Schoenberg founded in 1918. This describes an important value of this book: George Lewis will not allow the music and musicians of the AACM to be left out of the discussion of modern serious music, to be limited to conversations about jazz. Though an early concert entitled Imperfections In A Given Space which had Joseph Jarman performing with John Cage left Cage unimpressed, Lewis considers the modernist master to be a peer, and he pursues this point of peerage when he writes about funding, criticism, precedents, and other themes. He rightly believes that twenty-first century “experimental” (a very unsatisfying term) concert music must include practitioners from the jazz tradition.

The first recordings of AACM members were sonic disasters. Engineers who were accustomed to a standard jazz format of a group statement of the tune followed by a sequence of solos and a closing recapitulation, all in a fixed dynamic range, had no idea of what to do with the multiple tools that even a trio might employ, including the dozens, if not hundreds of “little” instruments that the collective so valued. There were instruments that the musicians had made and found objects that made useful sounds. Dynamics might change several times in a short period, and all of the musicians might not be playing at the same volume. Solos were deemphasized in favor of group improvisation.

The concerts were nearly as theatrical as they were musical. Joseph Jarman’s extended composition Bridge Piece featured his band performing against a recording of itself playing the same work. Any errors that the musicians made added texture, and the improvised sections were entirely different. A woman moved through the audience wrapping some in aluminum foil while others strolled around blaring a top forty radio station. Other listeners were given sacks to put over their heads and then moved around and told to sit and stand. All this plus a juggler and a tumbler flipping over people in a disco setting with film on the walls.

The collective developed a loyal following in Chicago during the ‘60s, mostly among young white people, but also with a reliable base in the African American community. Their reviews varied as the jazz press was firmly and at times acrimoniously split over avant garde music. Aware as they were of a greater appreciation of modernism in Europe, many of the more prominent AACM members tried Paris. The first were the quartet of Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, the trumpeter Lester Bowie, and Malachi Favors, important musicians all. They would become the brilliant Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC). (Famadou Don Moye joined the band in 1970). The AEC flourished in Paris to the degree that artists can flourish while staying broke. With their faux tribal makeup, theatrics, and musical creativity, audiences loved them, and critics couldn’t praise “l’ecole de Chicago” highly enough. The drummer Steve McCall was there; Braxton would follow with the violinist Leroy Jenkins and the trumpet player Leo Smith. This was a mighty collection of artists who were wide open with youthful creativity. They were a big draw at festivals.

And they were different from the New York avant garde, which emphasized hard, intense blowing. Lewis writes that the AACM players changed mood quickly: “a quiet, sustained ‘spiritual’ texture offered by one musician might be interrupted by an ‘ah-ooh-gah’ horn or a field hollar from another. A New Orleans style brass fanfare would be quickly dunked in a roiling sea of tuned trash cans.”

During the ‘seventies many of the stalwarts of the first generation of the AACM drifted to New York City where they found a layered, combative musical scene. Uptown (actually, midtown) was for the symphony, opera, and chamber music. Downtown housed the younger composers and jazz. Funding went uptown, a situation that several jazz modernists, black and white, challenged in 1971 at a “play in” at the Guggenheim Foundation protesting racism and artistic narrowness in grantmaking.

Furthermore, the downtown scene subdivided into factions, a waste of leverage and resources. The best development for new jazz was the rise of the Loft Jazz scene, led first by the saxophonists Ornette Coleman and Sam Rivers, who hosted concerts of free jazz in their lofts. Other musicians followed. This was a vital and exciting movement for a while, and some excellent and important recordings survive as evidence. Many AACM members were prominent in these performances, but even so they felt that the New Yorkers saw them as interlopers.

Meanwhile, back in Chicago, a second generation of AACM artists led the organization including Lewis, the trumpet player Douglas Ewart, the percussionist Kahil El Zabar, and Steve and Aqua Colson, saxophonist and singer. The school was at capacity and the concerts continued. The New York members, many of whom were by then commanding large fees, formed their own chapter. Eventually a certain stress developed between the two units as one might expect, though eventually a measure of comity prevailed.

A kind of 19th century positivist imperative to isolate phenomena into fixed categories that can be observed independently still holds in contemporary criticism, and the AACM artists have suffered from this balkanism since the ‘eighties, when several of them received commissions to write for ensembles that are associated with Western classical music. One critic wrote, “one of the hazards this music may be facing is the ingestion of a fatal dose of root devouring Western intellectual hunger.” AACM composers were attacked from the left and right sides of the esthetic-political cultural divide as lacking authenticity. But it seems to me that in the communication age “authenticity” is a shaky premise to argue in any art form that can’t be defined as “folk”, and even there the ethnomusicologists often struggle with it.

Lewis’ defense is studied, tightly argued, and fair. He is never captious, never goes for anybody’s jugular, even when they have gone for his. Duke Ellington is with him in this fight, for that grandmaster always strove to make music that is “beyond category.” Or, as he put it, “if it sounds good, it is good.” The author offers a sound summation of the bilateral influences of jazz and Western classical music. (Though if I may be permitted to cavil, for many reasons, I wish that he had chosen a work other than Ernst Krenek’s opera Jonny Spielt Auf as an example of a jazz influenced classical composition. Darius Milhaud’s La Creation Du Monde would have been a much more sympathetic selection.) He discusses how African-American composers who wrote in classical forms included jazz elements, and how jazz musicians have historically paid attention to useful theoretical advances in Western music. He finds jazz in Minimalism and sees a more organic and evolutionary movement toward extended composition in the AACM than in the Third Stream movement of the ‘fifties. Above all, George Lewis considers the AACM musicians, though soundly grounded in canonical jazz, to be uniquely prepared to expand the conception, even the definition of composition for they have been trained all of their musical lives, even as children entering the AACM school, to begin and end with composition, and to approach it by giving honor and respect to all forms of music making from anywhere in the world. This is sound argument, not done justice by my precis, and any riposte should be as thoughtful.

The postmodern ‘80s and ‘90s were unkind to the AACM. There was an economic and esthetic retrenchment as the record companies, after the success of the trumpet prodigy Wynton Marsalis, went for the “young lions”, who were decidedly mainstream in their music making. The new musicians were out of the conservatories, taught for the most part by mainstream musicians, and were more standard in their playing. The new fledgling jazz institutions, museums and repertory orchestras, looked backwards. The AACM artists still find work, but they are less often seen as central to the conversations on where jazz is going.

The last chapter, Transition (read “death”) and Reflections, is poignant. Beginning with the funeral of the saxophonist John Stubblefield at St. Peters, affectionately called the Jazz Church, it tenderly tells of the deaths of AACM members. The last story is of the brilliant Leroy Jenkins who in his last hours awoke and joked to those at his bed side that at his funeral he wanted “improvisation… and white horses.” Then the last time he regained consciousness he said, “Well, I’m ready. Where are the horses?” We should all ride out so well.

A Power Greater Than Itself is a good read though it does possess a few bumps. Don’t be daunted by Lewis’ threat in the introduction to write in the kind of Post Deconstruction academic prose that has denuded so much of art and literary criticism of elegance in the last three decades. There actually is very little of that kind of writing here, and when it does appear it is quite accessible. A strong editorial hand could have eliminated some of the repetition and smoothed out those points at which the reader can recognize the fact that the writer has been away from the text for an extended time. These are small complaints though; George Lewis is telling an interesting and important story here and telling it well. Anyone who is interested in modern serious music will learn from and enjoy this outstanding book.

A Power Greater Than Itself

The AACM and American Experimental Music

George E. Lewis

University Of Chicago Press

676 pages; $35.00

Thursday, June 11, 2009

My Favorite Poem: Autumn Testament by Pablo Neruda (W.S. Merwin, trans.)

I was asked by the Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven to write a brief essay on my favorite poem. This is what I wrote:

The question is, of course, impossible to answer, so I asked myself, “what poem do I go back to most often?” & Autumn Testament by Pablo Neruda, the late Chilean Nobel Laureate, quickly returned in answer. Ask me again three months from now & some other poem might nominate itself, but for now, Autumn Testament is the clear winner. This is because lately I have been opening it during those famine times when months have passed since I last made a satisfying poem, when my senses have sent no pregnant images to my mind, when every stanza that I lay down reads sterile & off-key. Usually in such times this, & other poems of Neruda’s, will set my imagination into a productive energy that will yield promising drafts.

This is not to say that Autumn Testament is his greatest poem; most critics think that honor belongs to The Heights Of Macchu Picchu, a magnificent epic that was based on his ascension to that Incan city in the Andes. Many South American readers are partial to the early, lusty love poems, which thousands have committed to memory.  Residence In The Earth, published in two volumes in 1933 & 1935, also has its advocates. & who could dispute with anyone who adduced these brilliant lines from an early autumn poem? 

From Autumn Returns


A day dressed in mourning falls from the bells

like a fluttering veil of a roving widow.

it is a color, a dream

of cherries sunk in the earth

a tail of smoke restlessly arriving

to change the color of water and of kisses.

So if you prefer some other poem of his to Autumn Testament I certainly won’t argue the point; in fact, I will waste neither time nor thought trying to adjudicate the work of a poet as prolific & brilliant as Neruda. I write here to say that Autumn Testament has a particular personal resonance for me. Perhaps this is because it is a poem of reflection & bequest by an old guy who enjoys the hell out of his remaining days, but is preparing himself for their end. I’m in that place too, & I appreciate how Pablo Neruda renders it with such exuberance. (Let me pause to write that I don’t claim to be a Neruda scholar; in fact, I have no Spanish & thus know, at best, half of the poet: his eye, but not his ear.)

He originates a very clever device: each section is introduced with an explanatory note in the margin. For example, he begins:

Autumn Testament


THE POET                   To die or not to die.

BEGINS TO                 I came out for the guitar

ACCOUNT FOR           and in that fierce profession

HIS CONDITION       my heart knows little peace –

AND                            for where they least expect me

HIS PREFERENCES     I’ll turn up with my gear

                                   to reap the early wine

                                   in the stetsons of Autumn…

“wine / in the stetsons of Autumn.”? That kind of incongruous juxtaposition is emblematic of Neruda in the way that he situated both his nouns & his modifiers. Though he was not a Surrealist, he often employed Surrealist devices such as free association & the placement of adjectives & adverbs next to nouns & verbs that they could never modify. Yet he does it with such skill & ease that the reader’s intuition cops to it. 

He continues: “I’ll enter if they shut me out: / if they receive me, I’m off again.” &, having received him, having accepted that this will be a journey of paradoxes, we know that we’re off on a trek to literally amazing places:

and if I rest up anywhere

I’ll choose the kernel of the fire

choose whatever throbs and crackles

and travels on without a goal.

In the section that he names HE DISCUSSES / HIS ENEMIES / AND SHARES / OUT HIS / INHERITANCE (I’ll just place these margin titles in  the line from here on) he is generous, sort of, to his adversaries:

So I leave to those who barked

my hiker’s eyelashes,

my preference for salt,

the address of my smile,

so that they can steal it all…

& then he girds himself against canonization by the hypocritically devout: “Let them not wear my clothes / and not appear on Sundays with slices of my corpse…” 

This man whose virulence is clarion in hundreds of poems treats the fundamental old guy issue in HE SHARES / OUT HIS / SUFFERINGS

To whom was destined so much joy

brimming in my veins,

this being and not being fertile

that Nature helped me to?

I’ve been a river wide and filled

with hard stones ringing

clear night-time noises

and dark day song:

to whom can I then leave so much –

so much to leave, so little left,

a happiness without an object,

a horse alone among the waves,

a loom weaving the wind?

Another paradox: he’s wielded the fluid dynamism of the river in his day; now, after a lifetime of joyous stud work, he is the old horse standing in impotent irrelevance off shore, waves of the power that he once deployed crashing at his knees. Old guys will recognize the feeling. 

But this is not a mopey or bitter poem. In the AND DISPOSES / OF HIS JOYS section he wrote:


My sadness I intend for

those who caused me to suffer

but I forgot what they were

and I don’t know where I left them:

if I see them in mid-forest

they are climbing vines

rising up with their leaves

and they end where you end,

in your head or in the air;

if they’re not to rise again

you must change to another spring.

Here is another facet of Neruda’s incredible poetic imagination: it possesses a projectile momentum that puts the reader in flight. That stanza, which is one compound sentence, contains a single idea: that he has forgotten the face of his sadness. Most poets would have stopped with “…I forgot what they were…” & gone on to the next thought. Neruda stares into his metaphors to find more metaphors beneath them. This not only deepens the poem, it pours motion into it, gives it impetus, life.

After two sections that dismiss hatred we arrive at the gorgeous FINALLY HE / ADDRESSES / HIMSELF / ECSTATICALLY / TO HIS / BELOVED in

which he leaves his treasured paradoxes to his last wife:

Matilde Urrutia, I leave you here

what I had and did not have,

what I am and what I’m not…


You are the one most beautiful,

the wind has most tattooed…


You are red and you are hot,

you are white and very salty…

you are a piano laughing

with all the notes your soul

your eyelids and your hair

consent to shed on me,

I bathe in your golden shadow

and your ears delight me

as if I had found them

in the pools of coral reefs:

for your fingernails I fought

with terrifying fish…

It is difficult to present images like this without making them read sappy, insincere, like a pickup line. That’s why love poems are so hard to write: yes. you publish them and you hope that the reader will find empathic sentiments among their lines; but most of all you want the lover who called those lines into being to believe that they are true, & be moved. This requires that you convey a natural honesty in your hyperboles. As I said, this is not easy.

This Matilde Urrutia is strong enough to make a myth of; according to Neruda’s love, she was born of ancient magic & heroic struggle:

Body and face arrived

like me from angry regions

from rainy rituals,

old earths and martyrdoms,

the Bio-Bio sings

along our blood soaked clay

but you brought out of jungles

every secret aroma

and that manner of shining,

the profile of lost arrows,

a warrior’s medallions…

What can he bequeath the woman who has everything? “…if in your touch you own / that perfume of burned leaves,…” Perhaps he should just pay his debt:

I owe you this silent valley

in which sorrows are lost

and only joy’s corollas

rise to the forehead…


Or perhaps he should just let time take care of it:

Some time if we’re not yet,

if we’re not gone, if we’re not coming,

under seven layers of dust…

we’ll be together, love,

strangely confused together…

No, that won’t get it: .”but what will be the use / of graveyard unity? Let life not part us / and to hell with death!” My sentiments exactly.

In FINAL / INSTRUCTIONS Neruda lays out his testament to his friends:

…as I leave you nothing

you should all have something:

the most inclement thing I owned,

the most insane, the most intense,

sinks back to earth and into being –

petals of generosity

falling like peals of bells

into the green mouth of the wind.


And then, THE POET ENDS / BY TALKING ABOUT / HIS VARIED METAMORPHOSES AND / BY / CONFIRMING / HIS FAITH IN / POETRY, which has some of the most honest lines of verse on the subject of impending death that I’ve experienced:

I’ve had a good experience

of all the times I have been born

like creatures of the sea

who’ve known sky-changes

and earthly destinations.

And thus I go, and cannot know

to which earth I shall return

or if I’ll go on living.

While things make up their minds for me,

I leave my will and testament,

my shipshape box of tricks,

in order that, with many readings,

no one can ever learn too much

if not the never-ending motion

of a man clear and confused,

a man of rain and happiness,

energetic and autumn-bound.


And now behind this very page

I go and do not disappear:

I’ll jump into transparency

like a swimmer in the sky

and then I’ll get back to growing

till I’m so small one day

that the wind will take me up

and I won’t know my own name

and I won’t be anymore when he wakes:


and then I’ll sing in silence.


Autumn Testament speaks of every aspect of what I once called in a poem my summary years, when the poet looks at the great distance behind & the shorter distance before him & wonders at, if not the meaning, at least the implications of his life, celebrates the miracle that his great love is still reciprocated, & prepares for the inevitable ascendance of his bones. With all that he has learned, he knows that he is not wise, & wonders if that admission is all that wisdom is. He hopes that he has affected the world at least a little, but knows that the world has a greater volition of its own that rolls within the scope of his touch but not his grasp. He writes poems about all of this in the spirit of generous offering, but knows that these probably are his most selfish works, for he has written them to himself.

Man, I wish that I had written this one.

- A. B. Spellman, Washington, D. C. 6/09








Sunday, May 24, 2009

Between The Night & Its Shadow

Gentle reader:

I know, these essays are coming with less & less frequency. There's no particular reason for it, except that I get busy with other things & don't get around to doing the research that I need to make them substantial. My first rule of judgment on the prose of others is that I must learn from it; if not, it was a waste of time. I want to post things that I can reasonably suppose you'll learn from.

I am a poet, although I'm not so very prolific there either. Of course, you learn from poems in quite different ways from the learning of prose, as William Carlos Williams so famously stated in his Asphodel poem. Poems teach your intuition, your heart, your head much less. So I promise that when I have no essay for two weeks, I'll give you a poem that I hope you'll find worth reading a few times. This one's a little dense, though audiences have surprised me by enjoying it. I've been told that it helps to read it to yourself aloud.

--A. B. Spellman

between the night & its shadow is the music
between the music & the night is the song
between the song & the music is the voice
between the voice & the music is the self
between the self & its song is the mind
between the mind & the song is the melody
between the song & its melody is the rhythm
between the rhythm & the melody is the mind
between the mind & its song is the word
between the word & the mind is the voice
between the voice & the word is the thought
between the thought & the voice is the self
between the word & the self is the shadow
between the shadow & the self is the light
between the light & the word is the music

(the song is the melody in the word in the rhythm
the self holds the mind to the word & the thought of the song
the voice in the song sings the self to the mind
the light lights the shadow of the voice & its melody
the rhythm moves the self through the dimming night’s song
the thought in the song is of night’s shadows without music)

Monday, January 26, 2009

J. S. Bach & Zarabanda, the Congo God: African Influence on Western Music

Where to begin? Ned Sublette, author of the seminal Cuba And Its Music, which I commend to all curious readers & require for all music lovers, begins with the Phoenicians, the biblical Canaanites, who brought Africans with them in their settlement of Cadiz in plus or minus 760 b.c.e. Apart from its large silver mines, Cadiz became one of the most cosmopolitan & important trading cities of Spain, the second largest city in the Roman empire by the time that the Romans reached the Atlantic. Among the most popular entertainers of the Phoenicians were singing courtesans, many of whom were black. It is not possible to know what these women sounded like, but the musical sex worker would later continue for all seven of the centuries of Muslim rule in Spain. Sublette posits that African people in Cadiz must have affected the culture, explicitly the music of Cadiz, as they have changed the music of everywhere else that they have lived.

But I think it best to begin at a place where more is known of the history & culture. The major African influence in medieval Spain began with the arrival of Abd al-Rahman & his Berber army in 755. Abd al-Rahman was the scion of the Umayyad family, rulers in Syria. His family was annihilated by the Abbassids, who assumed dominion over the empire of Islam. The only Umayyad to survive the massacre, Abd al-Rahman ran to the end of the west, gathering disaffected Berbers as he went, & made his way across the strait of Gibralter to Iberia. As Asian Berbers, the Umayyad do not represent the African culture that I intend to sketch here, but they did bring some of it with them, & they did set into play the African Muslim arrivals that were to follow.

Iberia in the mid-eighth century was no place at all, as culturally & economically undeveloped as could be found in what we now call Europe. There was an emirate at al-Andalus, Andalusia to us, but it was overthrown by the Umayyad army. Abd al-Rahman established his capital in Cordoba & made it the most sophisticated city in the world. He spread his emirate over much of Iberia, establishing in the process one of the most tolerant, literate and culturally advanced civilizations in Western history. Christians & Jews, as “people of the book”, lived in fairly integrated prosperity: many Jews held high office, & Christians were free to worship, though they could not build new churches or proselytize. Jews & Christians also paid taxes, though Muslims did not according to Islamic law. Jews in particular enjoyed a valued status as an educated elite. They would not be so comfortable in Europe again for a millennium.

Intellectual culture was all but dead in the Christendom of the time; the policies of the Church discouraged it. Theology after St. Augustine was full of Platonic absolutes, with an undertone of Paul’s dictum (after being ambushed a group of philosophers while preaching in Greece) that when reason & scientific evidence contradict the scriptures, go with the scriptures. Significant European intellectuals from the classical line would not appear again until the arrivals of Peter Abelard, Hildegard von Bingen & St. Thomas Aquinas in the 12th & 13th centuries.

The lords of al-Andalus were the polar opposites of such Paulist anti-intellectualism. In The Ornament of the World, Maria Rosa Menocal wrote,

It was there [in al-Andalus] that the profoundly Arabized Jews rediscovered & reinvented Hebrew; there that Christians embraced nearly every aspect of Arabic style – from the intellectual styles of philosophy to the architectural style of mosques….This vision of a culture of tolerance recognized that incongruity in the shaping of individuals was enriching & productive…

The vernacular tongues that would evolve into Romance blended first in al-Andalus; poetry, which had not much been heard since the Roman Empire fell, followed the vernacular.

The Umayyad employed Qiyan, enslaved African singers & dancers who were also sex workers. They were said to know thousands of songs, & were often the most valuable possessions of their owner. Professional male musicians were new to Muslim culture in the eighth century; the first known to arrive in al-Andalus was an African known as Ziryab, a male Qiyan of well-earned legend. One translation of Ziryab is “Black Songbird”. His origin is unknown, but he came to Cordoba by way of Tunisia after antagonizing his teacher by singing too soulfully for the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad.

In Cordoba, Abd al-Rahman II had filled his court with excellent singers, & Ziryab was the greatest of them. It was said that he knew 10,000 songs. His style was distinctive & he had vast knowledge. More important for our purpose is the fact that he made important improvements on the oud, which would aid its transformation into the lute: he improved its design, added a fifth string & originated the use of an eagle quill instead of the wooden plectrum. Ziryab was a great music theorist who established the world’s first music conservatory. As if his music innovations were not enough, according to Ned Sublette,

…[H]e popularized new styles of dress, adding to the winter & summer clothes a specialized wardrobe for spring & fall;…he popularized facial shaving for men;…he introduced toothpaste, underarm deodorant, & the use of salt as a laundry bleach; he popularized asparagus & made many culinary innovations, & popularized the drinking of wine…He is also said to have given Cordoba that fundamental contribution of the singing star: a new hairstyle.

Generations of musicians acceded to Ziryab’s principles in Cordoba, Granada, Sevilla, Toledo, & Valencia. If the ninth century was Islamic music’s golden age, setting its course up to our day, then the Black Songbird may be said to have founded its renaissance.

The Muslim’s returned high culture to a Europe that had lost it after the Roman fall & the ascent of the Church. In addition to a refined medium of sung verse, dance & musical instruments; they introduced radical new knowledge in medicine, astronomy, agriculture, chemistry & most important, mathematics, not to mention historically pivotal innovations that they brought over from the far east, such as gunpowder & paper. They had a nascent banking system, including bank drafts. The roots of the Renaissance are in the mid-east & North Africa, for without the mathematical & financial innovations of the Muslims, the Medici would never have developed the banking systems that financed the artists, architects & other humanists whose work we so admire. Without the Arab &, to a lesser degree, Jewish innovations in navigation & navigation technology the heroic voyages of discovery could not have occurred. Even the celebrated late medieval rediscovery of the writings of antiquity is attributable to the Muslim scholars who preserved them when the Church was destroying pagan writings. Let me resist the impulse to linger over this most interesting subject; instead I commend to you Jerry Brotton’s The Renaissance Bazaar: From The Silk Road To Michelangelo.

Al-Andalus grew fat & lazy & underwent a series of civil wars, with the emirs allying with various Christian lords in an undulating series of battles for one prize or another. The ascendancy of the Christian lords would eventually congeal into the reconquista, which would continue until Ferdinand & Isabella’s expulsion of Muslims & Jews from Spain in 1493. First the Norman princes captured Palermo, the Islamic seat of Sicily, then Cordoba in 1013, & moved on toward Toledo. This does not mean that that they overthrew al-Andalus’ culture; rather, they moved into it. For the first time they read the great libraries, particularly the one at Cordoba, an event that would alter the intellectual life of the West permanently. Maria Rosa Menocal observed, “Over the course of the subsequent century & a half, the Arabized Normans ended by becoming near captives of the culture they had conquered.”

After the Christians under Alphonso VI of Castile took Toledo in 1085, the Ummayad caliph of Seville, al-Mutamid, applied for help to a fundamentalist regime that recently had risen to power in Marrakech in the polity now known as Morocco, the Almoravids,. Al-Mutamid, a wise, literate & accomplished man, expected that the Almoravids would be a short hire, that they would defeat Alfonso & then return to Marrakech. But he underestimated their fanaticism; defeat Alfonso they quickly did, but the Almoravids were contemptuous of the Andalusian way of diplomacy with the Christians & integration of the Jews into all manner of high civic function. These dour & intolerant jihadists took over al-Andalus &, with their successor Almohads, ruled for 150 years; yet they never defeated the proud Andalusian culture

The important aspect of the Almoravid arrival for our story of African music is that the army that they brought comprised enslaved warrior Africans, mostly Sudanese: the Moors, or Blackamoors according to the English, & the Moors brought a powerful new weapon, the war drum. The armies of Christendom had never heard the like, & it terrified them.

These probably were kettle drums; the drumheads might well have been made of the skins of enemies; the great music historian, Fernando Ortiz, wrote that 11th century African war drums probably were “fed” with the blood of enemies. These were drums of power – they called to earth supernal beings. They talked, and therefore had a great military value as they could give commands. The drums were of great utility in the course of battle as the primary means of maneuvering troops. Theirs was not a sound that your army & townspeople wanted to hear during a siege. El Cid, the first great modern epic poem (a form that was a byproduct of the culture of al-Andalus), mentions the Moorish drums three times. These kettles would evolve into the tympani, whose importance in Western music is well known.

Other instruments that settled into Iberia during the years of al-Andalus included the rehab or rebec, the first bowed strings that the European continent heard; it would be the antecedent of the violin. Another was the shawm, a double reed instrument that may or may not have been the progenitor of the oboe. They also had a cylindrical bore trumpet that was more advanced that any brass that Westerners played. They introduced the tambourine.

There is much, much more to be written about the infusion of North African & Mid Eastern music into the Western vernacular, particularly in the instance of sung poetry, but I will skip ahead a few centuries to a hot relationship that Ned Sublette tells of so well: the marriage of Havana & Sevilla.


What, you might wonder, can the god of steel, the primary god of the Congo, have to do with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach? Quite a bit, actually, but I’ll take the long route to the answer.

The word “drum” has no documentation in the English language before 1529. Europeans had danced to the tambourine, introduced, as you will recall, in al-Andalus, & a few small drums have been noted here & there. European armies adopted the Moorish military kettle drums during the wars of reconquista, but they had not yet been employed in music. Why? because the church designated drums the instruments of the devil & banned them. This was not unreasonable from the church perspective as they considered the polytheistic gods of other cultures to be demons (a belief that had prevailed since Peter settled in Rome) & these drums spoke articulately to the gods as could be seen in the routine possessions that occurred during African religious ceremonies. Of course, all dance & dance music were banned by the church, though they never were anywhere near eradicated.

In medieval Europe, dance & musical instruments essentially existed almost entirely within the domain of the lower classes. Andalusia, with its powerful Moorish retentions, was the source of much of the continent’s instrumental music. The moresque or morisca, which mean “Moorish dance”, is the dance that appears most often in texts from the 15th century. In Britain it became the still extant Morris dance.

Cultural change accelerated when Portugal instituted the transcontinental African slave trade in the 15th century. The conservative, up tight Portuguese didn’t know it, but they were importing rhythm & a love of dancing to Europe. Fernando Ortiz wrote, “from the south, hot & black, the rhythm of Africa invaded Europe up to the cold countries, where the negros were frequently drummers, both in the armies & in the popular diversions.” The source was Iberia: Lisbon, Cadiz, & increasingly, Sevilla. By the mid-16th century drums had become integral to show music, & then to court music, because the new dances could not be done without them.

The social mobility of dances & their rhythms will be familiar to us today: the popular dances were done first by black people, then by poor whites, & then by the “society.” Yet Western music historians have been silent on these origins, though the documentation is ample. Sublette observes, “The entry for ‘rhythm’ in the 29 volume New Grove Dictionary of Music does not once mention Africa in its 32 page text. But it does speak of a ‘metric revolution’, noting that

Around 1600 a dramatic change took place in Western rhythmic notation…The appearance of this constellation of notational features is significant, for it indicates that a basic change in the rhythmic foundation of Western music was underway…Before 1600 some music was metric while other music was not; after 1600 most music was metric.

Ned Sublette:
I would like to suggest that this European metric revolution had something to do with a new wave of dancing, which in turn had more than a little to do with the rise of the African slave trade & the entry of Africans into European society. As everywhere else Africans have gone, they played music & got people dancing.

The Spanish purchased their enslaved Africans primarily from the Portuguese for settlement in the New World. A rebellion in 1522 in Hispaniola, now the Dominican Republic & Haiti, struck chords of memory of the fierce warrior Moors, & the Spanish, who still dreamed of crusades to rid Jerusalem of Jews & Muslims, wanted no more of it. In 1526, King Carlos issued an order that banned the importation of any “Gelofes [Wolofs, from the Senegambia], nor those from the Levant…nor any others raised with Moors.”

Cuba, then, was settled by Africans from the forest regions; drum speaking Africans, unlike those from the North of Africa, the grass & desert lands, whose musical orientation was strings. Those Africans went to the British colonies, a fact that provides Sublette the basis for an elegant explanation of the reason that jazz musicians & Afro-Cuban musicians had such a hard time playing together when Dizzy Gillespie & Mario Bauza tried to merge the two in the 1940s, but that’s another story. The Cubans came from the region of Africa that Europeans called the Congo, though it was much larger than the Congo & included Angola & more. They were the people who are most often referred to as Bantu, an appellation that these Africans dislike as it is applied correctly only to language & not to people.

In 1539, “the year before the drum made its first appearance in English history”, a writer made note of an African dance in Panama called the zarabanda. It came from the Congo, called by the Congolese Nsala-banda, after the god of iron, the principal god of the Congo. It was later noted in Havana.

The zarabanda would soon show up is Sevilla, the port city of preference in commerce between Spain & Cuba. Sevilla by then had a large African population. There was a grand May festival there, the Festival of Corpus Christi, “a splendid fiesta of religious drama, sacred music, & even sacred dance, with floats supported on the shoulders of a dozen men” (Sublette). As with any large popular festival, the partying went on all over the city, in streets & alleys & other public spaces. Africans came out in costumes of their own, performing their own dances accompanied by their own instruments, especially the drums, still satanic to the powerful clergy.

The zarabanda quickly grew wildly popular in Spain; the church declared it anathema & threatened to whip men who did it & sentence them to the galleys, & to exile female performers, but still it raged. Covarrubias de Orozco wrote in his Spanish dictionary of 1611, ”It is lively & lascivious, because it is done with immodest shaking of the body.….Although all parts of the body are moved, the arms make the greatest gestures, sounding the castanets.” The dance dominated the Corpus celebration of 1593 with everybody joining in, to the disgust of the clergy. Padre Juan de Mariana thought that it was “so lascivious in its words, so ugly in its sway, that it was enough to set decent people afire.” Padre Juan seems a bit contradictory here, but one can imagine the sheer irresistible power of the rhythm & the release of inhibitions.

Soon, the zarabanda was seen, not only in festivals, but also in the open-air comedy that would lead Spain into its golden age of theater. People of African descent were very popular in Spanish entertainment in the 17th century when Spanish theater was the most highly developed in Europe. As Fernando Ortiz wrote, “the negro & the mulatto…were something more than figures in the background; they were also musicians, dancers, singers, comedians, even authors.”

The zarabanda adapted as its adoption spread. African guitarists of Seville, with their percussive phrasing, were the best in Spain. They played the zarabanda music on this new instrument & made it what Sublette names the rock & roll of Spain in the way that it acquired rapid popularity. As the guitar quickly moved into the poor quarters across Europe, the zarabanda rode with it. It was soon in Naples, another city with a large African population. As it traveled it became instrumental: it lost its text & context. The first notated example appeared in Italy in 1606; Ben Jonson mentioned a saraband in England in 1616. By the time it settled in France it had doused its percussive fire & become the common conclusion of a dance suite. In the 18th century, J. S. Bach wrote at least 39 sarabands, the most dances that he ever composed. Instead of the rabble rousing, sexually graphic demonstration that shocked Covarrubias & Padre Juan so much, it had changed into something that Lincoln Kirsten called “elegiac, meditative & noble.” Ned Sublette’s summary:

So imagine that Zarabanda, the Congo god of iron – the cutting edge, if you will – traveled on a slave ship with his magic, his mambo [“mambo” originally meant magic] & his machete as soon as the New World was open for business. Then he went back through Havana, across the ocean again, where he got all of Spain dancing, then covertly crept up through Europe – through the servants’ entrance, of course - & became part of what we call classical music. In the process, his name was frenchified, he lost his drum & his voice, & his tempo slowed way down. All that remained was the distillation of his dance onto the lute & the guitar, with only the barest of the original flavor remaining. Today we call that process going mainstream.

As it was with the zarabanda, so it would be a generation later with the chacona, which replaced the zarabanda with the dancing poor. A verse from that time of that giant of Spanish theater, Lope de Vega, reads, “From the Indies / to Sevilla / it has come by post.” For “Indies”, read Havana.

The chacona was most often played on the guitar with castanets & tambourines. Like the zarabanda, it was the dance of slaves & servants; like the zarabanda, it was said to be Satan’s invention: its movements were sexually suggestive, its lyrics mocking, even of the clergy. It was danced very fast. Its course through the hard strata of society was the zarabanda’s. By the time that it worked its way up through the dance masters & musicians of the courts of Europe & entered classical music it had become entirely instrumental, & was much slower. It was no longer the chacona; it was now the chaconne or passacaglia, the terms were nearly interchangeable. However, the “constructive device” as Sublette calls it, remained the rhythmic cell that is the common constructive device of the drum cultures of Africa.

Ned Sublette’s conclusion of this chapter is cogent & challenges what we thought we knew of the cultural basis of classical music. I quote it here at some length as I am loathe to paraphrase & certainly can’t improve it.

The undulation of the zarabanda & the ostinato of the chacona were badly needed in European music. The sixteenth century was a time when church composers, after centuries of stretching the boundaries of the liturgically permissible, had erected a complex superstructure over the cantus firmus of Gregorian chant, elaborating rules of harmonic movement for independent vocal lines, what theorists call voice leading. When composers transcribed the multiple, independent lines of the early polyphonic vocal composers for lute & for organ, a new kind of music was born: a complex, legalistic, purely instrumental music for listening.

With the gradual acceptance of equal temperament, the system that made the keyboard king, a concept of functional harmony was developing that would reach its peak in the “well-tempered” works of J.S. Bach. With that came a new concept: harmonic rhythm – the resolution of tension & release in time. This led to the tonal-dramatic structure of the sonata, whose internal architecture, combined with the multimovement structure of the suite, would give rise to the symphony.

It was a tremendous intellectual & aesthetic achievement. It’s the basis of what university music departments teach to this day. Rhythmically, however, it was much less sophisticated than what the Pygmies had been doing for millennia. It definitely wasn’t for dancing.

But Europe wanted to dance. The slave trade, which had previously spurred a fantastic prosperity in the Islamic world, was now generating riches for Christian Europe. &, as previously had happened in the Islamic world, there grew a moneyed leisure class that wanted music for dancing.

But the Europeans never learned to drum. Ortiz writes:

A curious phenomenon occurs whose consideration is indispensable to appreciating duly the influence, then & later, of black drums. The musical transcendence of blacks in the musical cultures & theaters of the whites manifests itself preferentially by the penetration & dissemination of the characteristic rhythms of their drums, but not by the adoption of those drums, except for those of military character. This social phenomenon in Europe has hidden much of the reality of African influences…& the invasion of the rhythms, which then penetrated the whites’ music, has remained in large part unexplained.

In other words, the rhythms were taken up but were shifted over from the drum to the tambourine, an instrument not associated with the vileness of the negro. The masters, not the slaves, wrote the history; the slaves’ culture was invisible, even as it transformed that of the masters.

When that African – probably, specifically Bantu – thing of dancing to a syncopated rhythmic loop came into Europe via Spain from Havana & found a home in the dance suite, that was about as rhythmic as European art music was going to get until well into the twentieth century.

Well said.

Next, Jeseph Bologne, the Chevalier de St. George, whose mother was African & whose father was a French Noble, becomes the greatest swordsman (double meaning here) in France, one of its greatest composers & violinists, & creates the first modern orchestra.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Last Of My Time Makes A City

the last of my time makes a city that fills
is filling now with all the music i have ever loved
sonatas for cellos & congas, for arpeggiones & oboes d’amore
choirs of saxophones, entire symphonies of scat & arias
in languages i’ve never learned but know the music of
this is where i live, this is how i feed, on memory
& melody whose fey structures surround me
whose architects have shaped my time

but perhaps i make too much demand of song. could
some other art better compose my summary years?
does the poem reach far enough / spread wide enough?
can i clear the stage of people whom i do not wish
to know? is the eye to be trusted after all
that it has seen? could my last city be well built
on canvas, its thoroughfares curving & arcing
in perspective up past the smokestacks & bridges
where the factions of my years lob color bombs
at each other across the boulevard? no & no
my last time is a swinging tune in a minor key
in a town built of timbre, with lithe ethnic dancers
& a hell of a band


i have come so very far & gone nowhere, memory wearied
long ago & now rests with my youth at the start of paths
old runaways like nat turner wore across the Great Dismal Swamp
where my home town floated. cottonmouth & cohorts
of nocturnal forest felons hunted & mated there
so much leaf over the eye & under the foot
loam so alive each fallen twig bored down roots
vast orchestras of birds sang of me & other peripatetic
tourists of the swamp. the summer sun blinked down
its checkerboard patterns according to the whims
of breeze & leaf & i was domiciled with my serenity
until the perfidious dark chased me home

my city walk is no less shaded by time & euphony
(the birds sing a cappella here) no less the habitat
of hunters & prey. i know where the ocean is
can smell it from here, can find the houses where
the specters of my loves reside, can shop for melodies
of every shade of humankind. some days my wealth
enlarges me, for i own treasures as short as
a four beat phrase or as long as that string of 16th notes
that trilled through my head just now. you i value
most of all for the billowing love that let you read
this far. please describe for me the light
we met inside of. did our breath collide? i do not mind
that i can’t recall the cubist planes of your face
but when you spoke, how was your cadence tempered?
what was your favorite word?


in homer’s time they tracked the body’s hollows
for fumets of the soul. the colon seemed a likely host
which we can understand, but if their excavation
yielded one, what would they have done with it?
dyed it green & sealed it in an jar so natural philosophers
could worry it to death? nagged it for tutorials
in metaphysics until the poor thing bled ectoplasm?

i have read so much & learned so little. it’s not just
that age stutters the mind, that i can’t recall the sequence
of the presidents or where the peloponnesus is
it’s time’s obliteration of all those smart ideas
that could have cued my life; knit together they might have told me
how we came to live in this kakistocracy & how to lead us out
how history defies hegel & adopts the progress
of the cottonmouth, fanging & breeding & shedding
its odious skin as it slithers along. it’s that i can no longer
sing on key so what does it matter if i know ten thousand
songs? it’s that i can’t chant the tribal story like a griot
or think my pea green ass out of this goddamn jar


despite or because of all i remain a man
of song. there’s a boogie in my blood that palpitates
my body in the tempo of the present. in the presence
of my children who are wiser & more comely
than i my low bass voice projects a dust of summer
colors as far as its range will carry. unlike me
they have such perfect pitch they do not have to sing
to be understood. on the theme of karen
i blow a mellow blues of owing what i don’t know
how to pay. my vows swore me to clarify her dreams
pitch a brick into the eye of the cyclops that bars our way
& all i’ve done is compound a long confounding puzzle
even i have no solution for

so that’s the quest i’m off on now. i’ll drive
till the map runs out, fly till i reverse the globe
spin & spin till i’m dervish enough to improvise a song
that’s free of every image in this poem. transcribe that lyric
& you’ll have my answer

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Endless Campaign; Some Final (I Think) Thoughts

1) It pisses me off that of all the commentary that I’ve heard on CNN & all of the op ed pieces that I’ve read in the New York Times & the Washington Post, not once have I heard anyone say or seen anyone write that Obama won because he was, by several furlongs, the superior candidate. Yes, Bush made most voters realize how incoherent social conservatism is as a working political & economic ideology. Yes the economy made voters anxious to throw the bastards out. Yes, McCain made some blunders, but it was clear to anyone who wasn’t dead or, worse, ideologically locked into voting Republican at any cost, that Barack Obama was the best of all the candidates of both parties, & that’s why he won by such a plurality.

2) As much as everyone, including me, complained about the length of this Presidential campaign, in some ways its length, its very enormity, was of historic substantive importance. First, it gave Barack Obama time to grow. The Obama whom I saw Sunday night on 60 Minutes is a much larger man than the Obama who announced his candidacy however many eternities ago. Remember that neophyte? He read his speeches beautifully but had long gaps in his answers to interviewers while he searched for safe places to stand. Did you not think, “talented young guy, but not ready. He’s building his name, marking his path to 2012 or even 2016.” People who knew somebody who knew somebody who knew said that he expected Sen. John McCain to beat Sen. Hillary Clinton in ’08, that his run was a rehearsal. But as the months passed we saw him steadily pile up elements of competence. His delivery grew progressively smoother. His responses to interviewers appeared less & less like a grad student who had stayed up all night studying for the quiz & more like those of a professor who might have taught the course. Similarly, the Barack who did well to survive the first debate with the formidable Sen. Clinton was replaced by the fully hatched man of depth & scope who seemed mildly amused by the desperate jabs & hooks of Sen. McCain, an old pro who actually was at the top of his game in the three debates. In sum, by the end of the campaign, Barack Obama exuded a reassuring command that made us comfortable in our votes. I’ve been watching these campaigns for more than forty years, & I’ve never seen such growth in a candidate before.

3) Then there’s the campaign its own self, as we used to say in North Carolina. Remember how the early speculation was that, while Sen. Obama would be able to raise a fair amount of money & attract a lot of attention, Sen. Clinton’s organization was too well made for him to challenge seriously; nor could he aspire to raise the cash that would flow to her. & anyway, Sen. Clinton had already locked up all of the leading strategists, so there was no one left to guide Sen. Obama. Yet Sen. Obama’s operation was so well conceived, so meticulously organized that it dropped the jaws of hard, life-long politicians. My sister-in-law, a State Senator, was one of a group of Connecticut politicians that included at least one Congresswoman, who convinced Sen. Obama to fight Ms Clinton for Connecticut, which his staff had thought the New York Senator had locked. This was a tough group of hard leg pols who worked effectively to help deliver the state, but they all swore that they had never seen an operation & a staff with even half the efficiency of Obama’s, & this was in the early primaries. This, they said, was something new. By the time of the election, the organization had grown so large that it might easily have become unwieldy. Yet everyone I know who volunteered to work on the election, including my wife & daughter, both experienced street organizers, shook their heads in amazement at the competence & resources of the Obama enterprise. It’s an interesting sidebar that the staff that my wife encountered in Virginia comprised primarily older women, while my daughter met twenty-somethings & college students in Cleveland. Even the Republicans, accustomed to the efficiently cynical, leave no bull pie unthrown campaigns of Lee Atwater & Carl Rove, were boggled by the supremacy of the Obama machine.

All of this was governed by an intellectual acuity that was the solvent of all of the slander, misdirection & faux populism of the opposition. It was the first 21st century campaign. One Republican Governor complained this week that, “Obama’s got an email list of ten million, while our candidate doesn’t know how to use (a blackberry)”. Enough has been written about President-Elect Obama’s application of the internet to mobilize suporters & to raise money, & I’m more like Sen. McCain than the President-Elect in this respect, so I will not comment on this more. But they will go to school on this operation for a long time. Don’t think for a minute that Republicans won’t woodshed on it & apply its lessons in turn. They did not like being outspent by an attractive young man who could legitimately claim to owe no lobbyists, with some $500,000,000 raised on-line.

Too, as noted above, Obama was superior to any other politician who declared for President in strategy. He & his assistants out-thought them all. Sen. Clinton was dead certain that she’d have the nomination locked by super Tuesday & was completely unprepared by Sen. Obama’s methodical accretion of delegates. Nor Was Sen. McCain able to cope with the red state challenges that Sen. Obama posed. There was such precisely cold-blooded analysis at work in all the demographic groups, the campaign so sure footed, so prepared for every assault, that Senators McCain & Clinton must have felt themselves surrounded.

The result was that by the end, voters were reassured that someone who could build such an organization, conceive such a strategy, execute a two-year march with such originality, discipline & skill, was competent to be their hard-times President, no matter the skimpiness of his resume. I have never seen the very management of a campaign become a crucial mode of evaluation of a presidential candidate, It was the campaign of a new generation of politicians, & it is only right that they take over this world that my generation has screwed up so bad. & no, the left is not blameless for this state: we fell dormant too often & for too long to have a serious historical effect during the last twenty years.

4) Can we please stop hearing from Sarah Palin for a while? Doesn’t she have a job? This is a genuinely annoying person who has nothing interesting to say, but there she is, every day, blabbing inanities to anyone with a microphone. Will she shut up if we let her keep the shoes? Even though she shows no evidence of ever having read a book voluntarily, she’s gotten a fat book contract. What will the title be? Maybe Knocked Up In The Tundra: Miss Alaska Heads For Washington With A Moose On Her Hood But Gets A Flat On The Way. No, that’s the whole book. She’s going to need a hell of a ghostwriter.

But seriously folks, as Peter Beinart has written, the culture war that the right loves to wage & that Gov. Palin personifies so perfectly is irrelevant in depressed times. Few people are preoccupied with issues of racial, sexual & religious identity when they are struggling to buy groceries & pay the mortgage. Beinart notes that in the roaring twenties, elections were fought over immigration, evolution, the Ku Klux Klan & prohibition. He wrote, “in 1924, the Democratic convention so bitterly split over prohibition & the Klan that it took more than 100 ballots to nominate a candidate for president.” (I trust that no one will think that he was implying that bigotry became impotent during this period). The Depression put the progressive wet candidate, FDR, in office. In 2000, one of several years when the business flourished on the kind of abstract capital that the ‘twenties roared on, 22% of voters cited moral values as their primary concern against 19% who named the economy. Compare this with the Newsweek poll in the week before the 2008 election wherein 44% named the economy as number one & only 6% held to “issues like abortion, guns & same-sex marriage.” This is why McCain-Palin couldn’t anchor Bill Ayres & the Rev. Wright (again, a better man than most of you think) to Obama. This is why Sarah Palin couldn’t help Sen. McCain extend his reach.

5) If you go back a few entries you’ll see my essay entitled …Being & Politics
in which I discussed the Existential implications of Sen. Obama’s candidacy for inner city youth, who often are so alienated that they think that being smart is white. I wrote that the symbolism of his success might bring at least some of them to the kind of angst that could cause them to reconsider this lost view of blackness. Now we have innumerable anecdotes describing teenaged African American & Latino youth talking about how, after watching Obama work, they might try to go to college. I saw literally hundreds here in D. C. wearing Obama t-shirts. He made smart cool.

I hope that he & Michelle remember the kids like those with whom he worked as a community organizer in Chicago. Of course, he’ll try to improve their education; perhaps he’ll fund developmental after school programs for kids who have no constructive leisure time activities. Some intensive job training would be good. But most of all, I hope that he occasionally talks to them, goes to see them, shoots some hoops with them. Show them how cool smart really is.

A. B. Spellman