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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

About Music from the Day the World Was Supposed to End

I'm going to start putting up little foundling pieces I've written in this recent period, here in this safe viewing space. This first one comes from last month, written the day after I saw an amazing performance at The Falcon:

On Permanent Waitress Leave: A Note on Historic Music Last Night

Dedicated to those about to enter the real world

According to certain sectors, last night the world was supposed to end.
Ignoring this fact, last night I went to a music performance at The Falcon. And in theory, this could be a very simple statement: culture exists and people go out and enjoy it in particular venues.
And yet, and yet. Other families may have figured out better how one has a life going out at night, alone or as a couple, after kids arrive but we seem to remain forever in the pre-training-wheels stage, even eight years into having kids, staying in our cloistered home night after night, dealing with this one’s urgency or that one’s need for the cuddle of routine, so going out – solo or as a couple -- is a rare treat.
So that The Falcon, in upstate New York, in the small town of Marlborough, became my mecca last night: a giant, heaving, raftered, and yes, falcon-colored barn of a place perched over an unusually beautiful waterfall which, in its past, overflowed all human intervention and hence the lower landing requires some impressively cantilevered stones to remind all of the potential for revolution, that is, natural overthrow.
The Falcon in its acoustical and natural splendor is the dream space of some 1970s music impresario whose name I didn’t catch, one of these white-haired, smooth-cheeked people fired by a certain post-1960s idealism who has managed to stay preternaturally young: he announced the musicians with avuncular warmth, having arranged an endless series of evenings for musicians who come not because they get paid but because the audience is urged to donate. In turn, there is never a charge to come hear music, only a gentle solicitude on the part of the place’s waiters who carry out their black-clothed functions as if part of some elite monastic cadre.
You will see later why I say they are elite.
I came to see David Rothenberg play. I had met David years ago when I was following out one of my own new monastic precepts linked with the idea of starting to write. At the time, I was copy-editing at both Ms. and Esquire magazines, if you can manage the gender spin in my head as I walked the twenty blocks between the two jobs. I was also giving up, slowly, the idea that I could edit film as a day job in order to support my writing habit. I was finishing my first novel, begun in remote hill towns in Sri Lanka, and was living in what felt to me as if it were a one-room palace, on 104th and West End in Manhattan, a rent-stabilized, loft-bed, old-wood tiny place with large prewar windows looking onto the sidewalk in front of a halfway house where a bunch of largely unrepentant addicts rumbled.
In short, I was in a sort of heaven for a fiction writer.
Except I was a bit disconsolate. Whenever I eyed the racks of literary magazines at any of my favorite bookstores, I could not quite find the literary conversation that would have me. The truth of this, rather than suggesting that I was a youngster at an adult table, is that I could not find the literary conversation I liked, the one with enough rigor and play, the one with a certain archetypal boom! in the heart when I read it.
At the same time, given the paltriness of the funds flowing into my bank account, some of my relatives were suggesting I seize control of the tracks and just, darn it, switch them. That I should become, for instance, an insurance grantwriter, making what at the time was the princely sum of fifty thousand a year. Others thought I should use my interest in science – as well as coming from a family of scientists -- to become, well, naturlich, a science writer!
But as I now, in my latterday cloak of college professor, often find myself counseling graduating seniors: there are no compromise professions. Or, rather, there exist too many, a plethora. The world will suggest that if you have a certain aptitude and at least a quarter of a calling, one can crunch qualitative factors and emerge with a sum, a profession that puts one close to the fire yet leaves one neither maker nor, to stretch the metaphor, marshmallow-toaster. For example, the dancer whose parents suggest she become an arts administrator. The writer who, without true interest in the fine art of editing or selling, ends up in publishing or a literary agency. The filmmaker who ends up writing pop culture reviews.
I do not mean to suggest that there should only be artists and creators in the world: I only mean to say that it is necessary, at these hinge moments, to listen to that still voice that tells one that one will better serve the world by following a path the masses don’t support. In such moments, it is salutary to leave aside for the moment the distracting question of selfishness versus service, because, with Joseph Campbell, with all others in priestly professions, with everyone who has come from post-1960s California, either metaphorically or not, I still believe we serve best when we follow our bliss.
And, as a good friend often reminds me, there are paintings in a dentist’s office; imagine the world without music; and on. Art, an undertaking which can be questioned at its most foundational principle by the simple question is it self-indulgent? can also be profoundly generous.

That said, the world is full of gatekeepers who are dedicated to keeping those below from bliss-following, whether toward or away from art and its creation, and these gatekeepers are expert at land-grabbing zones in a young head. They are also morphers: gatekeepers can appear in the form of someone who is interviewing you for a job or a good friend or anyone who is a tad too certain when telling you the restriction of your pathways. In other words, even for cancer patients, there are always outliers, those who beat the odds and survive.
And yet, in my New York aerie, I was feeling the pull of these gatekeeping voices. Was I deluding myself? Should I just chuck in my writing habit, glistening and polished after so many years of daily tending, and just feed bits of my soul into a meat-grinder, take on a day job that would suck the last bit of writing out of me?
My own former mentor, Peter Matthiessen, had counseled me years earlier: never take a profession that is too much like writing! Keep your fiction pure!
I had taken his words as a true edict, thinking it much better to be a carpenter, a farmer, waitress, to learn from the world and its people and its handiwork. And yet in my chosen career pathway, to be a waitress, I had been fired too many times to recount. My father could not hide his glee whenever I was fired: had I graduated from a fancy college only to serve finicky customers Caesar salad with dressing on the side? Because, unlike Dana Spiotta and many other memorable waiter-writers, I never got waitressing right. At one fancy Italian restaurant in Berkeley, I poured the wine wrong. I chatted too much with the customers. Or I couldn’t hide, in one Venice Boulevard diner, what my face thought of a particular customer. The Venice boss, in his past one of those enthusiastic Kinsey-experiment participants, had a tone both kindly and sorrowful when he told me the news. He pulled his overlong blond handlebar moustache, saying, I’m sorry, Edie, we’re putting you on Waitress Leave. But it’s that particular kind of Waitress Leave – permanent.
Within my permanent waitress leave, therefore, years later, living in New York, somewhat ignoring my mentor Matthiessen’s advice since I worked with print in my day job, copy-editing at Ms. and Esquire, I could not help but feel disconsolate about the literary conversation that I imagined. But I found it, in a small literary journal, called Terra Nova, published by MIT Press, one that happened to catch my eye at one of my favorite bookstores where I had spent some of those desultory hours, rich in a kind of melancholic curiosity.
When David Rothenberg, the journal’s editor, published an excerpt of my early novel, he then asked to meet me and so we began our long conversation, one that has followed spirit as much as letter in that months can go by without any contact.
But last night I thought I should change the terms a bit and go out for once to hear music, that proposition simple enough when you’re young and starting out and not when you have two cuddle-hungry cute kids. In the middle of my path, a path the outcome of all those many choices made years ago, having that day met some parents at the college where I teach, therefore, I went to The Falcon.

David is one of those kids who started playing an instrument at school when he was in third grade and, a true bliss follower, never stopped: he has played his clarinet since in some unusual settings, to whales, to birds, and most recently recently to Laurie Anderson, being someone who is unafraid of sending a hero a CD of his, a book, homage. With his philosopher’s bent (he teaches both philosophy and music at New Jersey’s Institute of Technology) he has written books about some of the settings in which he has played: Why Birds Sing and A Thousand-Mile Song among his other publications. Last night he was playing with a friend of his, a pianist named Lewis Porter
who is a full-time music professor at Rutgers-Newark, a guy listed in the program as, in quotation marks, a “helluva pianist”, a quotation pulled from Jazz Times, a writer-pianist who had written a biography of Coltrane about which Coltrane’s son, Ravi, said: it’s the best there is.
This is what I knew.
Now, my family and I had just come back from two months in Cuba where the music, whenever we heard it, was sublime but lacked the quality I always listen for: it wasn’t historic.
Historic music, to me, means that moment when you, whether listener or performer, encounter a moment of playing or interaction, improvised or set, that lets you know you have been witness to a hair-tingling moment. The moment will never happen again. All the choices that led up to it made the moment possible.
Part of the nature of first love, I had been thinking that day, is that it seems more intense because the face of the beloved is the face of your unmarked future: immense, big as Oz.
And part of hearing historic music is that the moment hinges: the music may never again be so good, but all the musical context prior to it made the moment possible.
And you are part of history even when you are just a listener, forming part of the experiment, changing its very nature by your listening.
Until this night, I had not realized that I had been a bit disappointed, while we were in Cuba, with the lack of historicity in the music. What we heard felt like slipping into a warm bath of tradition, an endless cycle, which could take us into its warm or familiar or sexy embrace, but could just as easily not have us listen, a big fat sloppy mama, not a whore but a mama.
This is not to say that during our two months we did not hear good music. For example, one night we braved a doorman line in Havana, our fellow queuers young gussied-up prostitutes, foreigners, and a few wealthy Cubans wanting to plunk down an ordinary Cuban’s month’s salary to see the salsa legends Los Van Van, a group that manages to turn salsa into a narrative bully pulpit. On another occasion, a black-market street-seller had pressed on me some lively protest CDs by the group Los Aldeanos and I’d thought their music made Cuban reggaeton seem much more dynamic than the mind-numbing quality of the majority of Mexican reggaeton.
But in the main, the music we had heard, recorded or live, had stayed within certain conventions so deeply encoded that they form part of the national neural pathway: nothing disturbed, nothing pushed against surprise.
So back to last night: David and Louis began with some piece they called an ode to New Jersey impressionism, which as a phrase would seem an oxymoron – impressionism? in New Jersey? -- and yet the music did spill with a force like the waterfall outside The Falcon. Louis’ head seemed to be in a vise, nodding assent; he clearly liked David, who gets wracked by an internal rhythm when he performs, jumping and popping all over the stage, that inner rhythm only occasionally coming out in overt music. I realized quickly these two trafficked in covert music and its transformation, as if each were confessing private dreams to his instrument. Between them, there was a patient assertion in the way long notes or passages were held; the piano would deepen in a series of open fifths, making the music into some jazzy Debussy water music.
The group of us at a table, all David’s friends who had been published by him way back in the past of the late Terra Nova, which we realized he had used as if it were his proto-Facebook, often laughed in recognition at his antics, given the shamanic energy he infuses into performance. He plays like a suffering Jesus, like it hurts but he must continue out of inner necessity, and then, occasionally, will be tender toward his instrument as if he now must needs offer a balm to someone. Behind David and Louis flickered some neopop light sculpture, while around them blared unsettling art by local high school students, and then I heard David introducing his next piece saying: “Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast! As you all know, it’s the best title of classical philosophy. Giordano Bruno wrote it and he was burnt at the stake for writing it.”
At The Falcon, people actually listen: the place offers up a concert in a beautiful restaurant but no one eats while the musicians play. I once read a study that said that the sense of hearing is diminished when one eats, which perhaps goes some of the way to explaining skinny rock musicians, but this certainly seemed to be the case last night: forks perched midway and then were abandoned entirely, though the libations – given that elite cadre of waiters – kept flowing.
David introduced the next piece by mentioning Lou Reed who had apparently told him two weeks ago that every day he listened to Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman”, every single day, but never with words, because “words ruin it.”
They were getting into their set; Louis was biting his lips. The bassist, the leader of the tango band that was headlining, came on for this piece, chewing gum while he played. David’s clarinet squalled and he started hopping more manically. Squall, hop, squall, hop. I was wondering why David kept introducing pieces as being “written by” someone when clearly there was such improvisation to it all, and later Louis explained how proprietary jazz is: you have to pay an artist 125 dollars every time you play or record a piece of his, and there is a way to hide the use of a piece, but much better to be, as it were, open-source.
In the middle of the Ornette Coleman piece, deep in open-source bliss, Louis could not hide his happiness: he looked at his wild partner, smiling, nodding into some deep piano riff. David looked as if he were about to have a seizure. Sometimes, behind them, the sculpture lit up, as if some Juliet were about to appear on a metal balcony, making me wonder whether jazz remains, at this late age, fundamentally a male enterprise, given that I once lived next to a known saxophonist who never once had streams of women coming to his house to play, only young acolytes and legends, all male. I also was thinking about how some musicians seem to have a sadistic relation to their instrument: a dom, submit, dom, submit pattern that becomes the conversation of their music, i.e., what the listener notices. While David and Louis were interested in some kind of conversion of the masses, fitting their title, a true expulsion of the triumphant beast.
Because right then came the highlight of the evening, the historic beat: a Stephen Foster piece, “Hard Times Come Again No More”. One of the best and worst things about jazz is how it is always so ready to throw off its center, yet here the center held. In the pair’s inspired riff off such archetypal, steamboat chord changes, the audience was moved. Louis played it to the hilt, doing cheesecake vibrato octaves, and we were transported to another time. The two of them pulled such watery depths out of the piece that there was a collective intake of breath, an echo of the performers’ energies at the end.
I was thinking too, while watching, of Ernesto Granado, the cinematographer of Fresa y Chocolate, Strawberry and Chocolate, the iconic Cuban film which tore apart certain prejudices: anti-gay, pro-revolutionary. What would Ernesto have thought if he were here? We’d had the luck to meet him on a public bus coming back from the cowboy backcountry of Cuba, and he had taken it upon himself, our last weeks in the country, to try to introduce us to Havana’s artistic intelligentsia. Unlike many we had met, he was not soured on the revolution; it still paid him, both conceptually and actually; and he was filled with an enviable love of his fellow countryman in a fully essentializing, most un-PC manner. When we had gone to see Los Van Van perform, in that crowded club, he had danced with and near us in a sweet rendition that had reminded me of Woody Allen dancing in a fugue of aggrieved coolth in Annie Hall at the beach house, or do I mistake the movie?
If he were transported to The Falcon and were American, he would have raved: This is what I love about Americans! You see? They are filled with life, filled with color! They listen! They can come together despite all their differences!
And yet, the problem or gift of America may be that we are so darned ornery, we persist in seeing everyone as individuals, which is – to go back to the beginning of this whole discussion – what makes choosing a life profession so difficult. You feel such responsibility on your shoulders when you are choosing in a vacuum of collective support or identity. You ask, for one of the most significant times in your life, do I want to become part of this tribe or that tribe? While, in a place like Cuba where the population and roots may be multiethnic but the culture has a homogeneity, tribe fails to matter.
So that in this iconic American moment – jazzy riffs off Stephen Foster, how much more American does it get? – somehow, magically, David and Louis made a historic tribe out of all of us.
Meanwhile, the world was still going to end.
We had been knit together, a bunch of people in America, listening to music linked in subterranean channels to our history; the community we secretly longed for lived.
Meanwhile, in the background, expert waiters slipped people their bills. When the audience went out into the night, the endless rush of that waterfall made it seem that, at least that night, we had performed at least one sacrament correctly, one stolen from our own national religion: we all had made at least one good choice.

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