Sunday, February 20, 2011

An Evening With Wayne Shorter

In February I had the opportunity to witness the current Wayne Shorter Quartet, featuring Danilo Perez on Piano, Brian Blade on drums, and John Pattituci on bass. It would be folly on my part to think that I could give a written account of the music played on that concert that would do the music justice. But some general remarks are in order.

The quartet played for over two hours an interrupted piece of music. It appeared to have many movements, the sections ebbed and abated, transformed and led into one another. The raw material was in every respect rooted in all of the language of modern and contemporary jazz and yet it was clear that, with the absence of performance conventions involving clearly delineated solos, and applause, regular song forms, and other practices, the entire evening was as close any jazz concert could be to a thoroughly written contemporary concert piece. Though there was a lengthy score on stage, it was also clear that a great deal of it was as improvised as in any traditional small group jazz concert.

I am not sure all of the audience was prepared for it. It was music that required deep focus and concentration. As rooted as it was in the popular it was equally rooted in highest art traditions.

Wayne Shorter is now seventy-eight years old. Given his involvement in the so-called jazz fusion movement in groups like Weather Report, his origins with the likes of Miles Davis, and his great duo with pianist Herbie Hancock, he is a master of any style of music. Yet Shorter has been all of his life working towards what he is now giving the music world. There were hints of it before, especially in his duos with Hancock, but Shorter, is achieving his greatest musical triumph now: a vision of music where jazz, classical concert music, and popular rhythm are so thoroughly merged that what is performed in concert can be compared in quality to any of the written compositions of a Bartok and have all of the performed intensity of any of the improvisations of jazz masters in the previous century.

I heard Schoenberg and Hindemith as much as Scriabin. But I also heard Funk and Latin music in there too. I heard enough music for a desert island.

The tenor saxophone that he plays has had so many great players coming out of a post John Coltrane tradition. The recently departed players Michael Brecker and Bob Berg were part of this post- Coltrane tradition as was Joe Farrell. There have been so many losses to the jazz saxophone world. Many saxophonists coming out of the big bands of the sixties and seventies created this highly linear and hard edged, expressive style owing to Coltrane. Then there was the influence of the mighty Joe Henderson and this can be heard in a player like Javon Jackson. When I hear the well received Joe Lovano I often think of Warne Marsh, an underrated "West Coast" cat who is clearly an influence on Lovano. I could go on about all of the important saxophonists and there are many I don't have the space to include.

Yet Wayne Shorter is rarer still. He is sui generis. Like Ahmad Jamal on the piano in my last musical blog, Wayne Shorter invented a sound and an approach all his own, that seemed as original as anybody could be on an instrument (even conceding the influence of Lester Young). What is so rare about Shorter is that he plays the saxophone with an approach completely outside of the dominant tradition of long lines. Shorter is a great lyricist; he believes in melody and phrase above all. This conviction colors his writing as much as his playing. In his commitment to this type of comparitively shorter lyrical gesture, I believe the only comparable figure on a wind or brass instrument would have to be Miles Davis.

But this evening of music which, judging from the youtube excerpt above, is a work that has traveled for a few years, was a genuine development for improvised music. There have been attempts at this kind of thing in the past but there were two great flaws: a lack of immediate and genuine integration of musical styles, and secondly a rejection of tonality in favor of a purely NOISE or nontonal practice.

Wayne Shorter's current music is completely in the tonal tradition yet it has all of the abandon, surprise and at times dissonance you could find in noise based avant-garde practices in the sixties. And yet it is firmly tonal and melodic, fully flavored by the traditional modes. This shows that one needn't abandon older musical languages to make original music, that those languages are not dead but that it takes the imagination of four great artists to make fresh music out of that language. Every soloist was superb: Brian Blade and pianist Perez deserve special mention, but this was like a string quartet: all players equal, all parts contributing to a whole greater than the sum of any part.

The one characteristic in this new work is the beautiful melodic approach that is Shorter's metier.

Please take an opportunity to see this quartet should they come to your city or town. You will be seeing a great part of jazz and musical history.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Romanticism Past and Present

I should like to make some remarks on Romanticism, in particular inspired by Berlin's seven part lecture series, the first part of which is embedded here, and all of which is included on youtube.

I will only briefly summarize Berlin's taxonomy, risking injury to his majesty. More importantly, I will offer my own remarks on the wider culture, in both the present and recent past.

For millennia, Berlin says, there was a code or the code. He calls it the "structure to things". The details of this structure may very well vary according to geographic distance or individual and group placement in society, but the important thing is that the structure came first. Interiority was always subordinated to the code, as was personal feeling more generally or individual initiative.

One of the marvelous, revolutionary things about Shakespeare is that he was the first artist to create a break or crack in the code, such that individual differences, in terms of psychological diversity, came to the fore as never before in representation.

But it would not be for another hundred years until a revolt against the code was to be realized in the broader society.

This code was the precondition for other things in life. It was always cause and never effect. In that special sense, sincerity, in the usual and modern sense of that word, was either a nonexistent or incoherent notion. You were either right about a proposition or not. And intent, that major psychic force in modern jurisprudence, was also not conceptualized. It did not matter much what one's intent was behind an act, but rather whether the intent followed the code or not.

Isaiah Berlin (in The Roots Of Romanticism) illustrates this with a wonderfully graphic and clear illustration from political and religious history:

"Suppose you had a conversation in the sixteenth century with somebody fighting in the great religious wars which tore Europe apart in that period, and suppose you said to a Catholic of that period, engaged in hostilities, 'Of course these Protestants believe what is false; of course to believe what they believe is to court perdition; of course they are dangerous to the salvation of human souls, than which there is nothing more important; but they are so sincere, they die so readily for their cause, their integrity is so splendid, one must yield a certain amount of admiration for the moral dignity and sublimity of people who are prepared to do that'. Such a sentiment would have been unintelligible...the more sincere, the more dangerous."

While it would be absurd to carry a Michel Foucault styled social constructionism too far - that is, to the point where emotions are thought to be suddenly created, without any underlying latency, potential or constancy across cultures and times - it would be equally absurd to suppose that emotions are static and without history. I believe that the current ability to empathize with emotions that are contrary to our own - modes like comprehension and appreciation for diversity and multiculturalism, for example - came to the fore at the time in the 18th century as Isaiah Berlin records, and ushered in a new epoch in consciousness. This is especially the case with the conviction that Will and Intention, and Sincerity of belief and emotion are innately virtuous.

For some reason Germany was the beginning of the greatest shift in consciousness. (He speculates that this was due to an inferiority complex on the part of Germany and the domination of culture by the arguably more "advanced" country of France. If France was going to play the game of Truth and rationalism and science, it was left to Germany to trumpet the game of psychology, feelings and Spirit etc.).

Yet all of the great art movements of the modern and current post modern period are heirs to Romanticism and not merely the familiar poets of Keats and Wordsworth, but even the Avant-Garde, even when that Avant-Garde was opposed to sentiment in favor of detached rigor. That is, the anti-Romantics are themselves, in spite of themselves, Romantic.

The list is long: surrealism, naturalism, the Method approach in acting, the emotive cinema of Douglas Sirk or Nicholas Ray, Classical Cinema of Hollywood, the observational cinema of John Cassavetes, the abstract painting of Pollack, Bauhaus architecture, the ecology movement, the poetry of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, jazz improvisation, the Feminist and Civil Rights movements in politics and culture, the Rock Revolution in music, including both Glam and Punk rock, Disco music, all folk music of course. And in matters sartorial: both the t-shirt and jeans revolution of the sixties and seventies as well as the go-go 1980s, and especially the grungy nineties. All these and more should be seen as heirs to Romanticism too.

Lest you, dear reader, feel this is to stretch the word Romantic till it loses all definition and boundaries, there is a principle uniting such disparate and often opposed movements: this is the principle of a sincerely felt and freely willed individuality in expression and creativity, coupled with the conviction that authentic, sincerely felt expressive acts ought to take priority over unfelt rules or codes. Words like "real" and authenticity are key here.

I would dare say that even the most "ironic skepticism" of the the past thirty years is as heavily invested in this notion of the authentic. To feel a loss of the self is to have always already believed in a deep self to begin with.

Does this mean we are all Romantics today? Yes and no. We are, in truth, divided souls. One half of each of us carries a vestige of the Classic and Ancient piety towards the code (which accounts for the continuing popularity of the older religious traditions), the other half committed to the newer principles of sincerity and individual freedom.

However Romanticism carried too far becomes an evil thing: both Fascism and Bolshevism, though foes of one another, are part of Romanticism's legacy too. Ironically, Romanticism carried too far destroys Romance itself as normally understood, resulting in a kind of Sadeian orgy of depersonalization. Conversely, Romanticism can be anti-erotic, resulting in a Platonic idealism: devoid of lust and seeking refuge in a cult of Androgyny, free from the code of gender altogether.

So too, the notion that the truth or falsity of a behavior or assertion is less important in comparison to the depth of sincerity and intent behind a behavior or assertion has caused a great deal of mischief, resulting in a kind of "sophomoric Relativism".

Beliefs and convictions we utterly take for granted today, like the belief that one's feelings have a sacredness that ought to be tolerated and honored by others, (such as one finds in modern psychology), have been made possible by Romanticism.

At times it may seem as if the only area of life untouched by Romanticism in the sense that Berlin and I mean, is in the scientific method, that last bastion of Enlightenment belief.

Most representative and illustrative of long standing tensions in the individual self and the collective culture is the important passage in Portrait Of A Lady by Henry James, in chapter 19. Other authors have written on this passage. Above all, Ray Carney (in the The Films Of Mike Leigh, Cambridge University Press 2000), has written wisely on this passage. More recently Robert Pippin has commented in his book on James. The dialogue is between the novel's protagonist Isabel Archer and Madame Merle.

"When you've lived as long as I you'll see that every human being has his shell and that you must take the shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope of circumstances. There's no such thing as an isolated man or woman; we're each made up of some cluster of appurtenances. What shall we call our 'self? Where does it begin? Where does it end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us–and then it flows back again. I know a large part of myself is in the clothes I choose to wear. I've a great respect for things! One's self–for other people–is one's expression of one's self; and one's house, one's furniture, one's garments, the books one reads, the company one keeps–these things are all expressive."

This was very metaphysical; not more so, however than several observations Madame Merle had already made. Isabel was fond of metaphysics, but was unable to accompany her friend into this bold analysis of human personality. "I don't agree with you. I think it is just the other way. I don't know whether I succeed in expressing myself, but I know that nothing else expresses me. Nothing that belongs to me is any measure of me; everything's on the contrary a limit, a barrier, and a perfectly arbitrary one. Certainly the clothes which, as you say, I choose to wear, don't express me; and heaven forbid they should!"

"You dress very well," Madame Merle lightly interposed.

"Possibly; but I don't care to be judged by that. My clothes may express the dressmaker, but they don't express me. To begin with it's not my own choice that I wear them; they're imposed upon me by society."

James was so prescient. In this one passage, written in 1881, at the end of the nineteenth century, he anticipated the 1960s cultural revolutions that would mark the end of the twentieth century: the cult of authenticity, the battle between, on the one hand, the plea for the "real me", free from oppressive masks and artificial codes, and on the other hand, the plea for traditional values, the feeling that fashion and, in one sense, "the mask" is needed for formal rigor, or even as a precondition for expressing the truth of the self.

I can imagine a contemporary reader saying "you go girl" to Isabel Archer's stance against what today would be called "fakeness" or oppressive codes. Yet such a reader would be wrong in that Madame Merle, though she is a negative figure in the novel, is giving in part an authorial view: the degree to which Isabel Archer looks past surface signs, is what causes her to end up wedded to the most unsuitable, indeed, sinister Gilbert Osmond. She refuses to see the surface when the surface was warning her all along. (She also stubbornly clings to a romantic view of the ultimate changeability of all character flaws, also related to a belief in inner, deep essences). Isabel Archer's dream of a formless, pure self, floating free of masks and constructions is a vision of self that cannot read the surfaces of life very well. Moreover, at it's most extreme, it is a view of selfhood that is against the aesthetic, favoring the alleged utility of raw and unmediated emotion.

This is both the best and worst of times for "the couple". It is the best in that for the first time people may freely choose for reasons of individual and sincerely felt meaning rather than the "code". It is the worst, because, the more choice there is, and Capitalism is surely one of the engines of this phenomenon, the more burdens there are upon each individual self: the more a self is blamed and shamed should things go awry.

And that is all I have to say for now on the subject of Romanticism.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Why I am no longer a Cinephile

Just in time for The Oscars, a piece on movies, of sorts.

After a few decades of movie watching I must state here that for the most part the thrill is gone. It is not so much that good movies are not currently being made and there was some golden age in the past when the movies were better. (Though there may be truth to that if our criteria is a classically organized comedy or drama). Indeed in the current epoch some of the greatest movies that have ever been made are being made now: I can name names. Tsai Minh Liang (who made one of the greatest movies concerning movie watching, whose long durational end I post at the top of this entry) and Abbas Kiaorstami are two in Taiwan and Iran respectively. Anna Biller, Kelly Reichardt, Andrew Bujalski and Nina Menkes are a few in the United States. And these are just the fictional narrative ones. There are surely others and I apologize for not mentioning them all here.

Yet most Hollywood studio films are so terrible and terrible in so many ways, in terms of visual congestion and nonsense and auditory horror, that it would be a whole book to list and explain the sins. In my view Star Wars is the film that not only ruined cinema, in the sense of starting a mistaken course that continues to this day, but also ruined our whole culture in all sorts of ways, but that was a long time ago, in the late seventies.

There are many so-called documantaries that are excellent. The good documentaries are either self reflexive docs that interrogate the author and their own making (Sherman's March and Tarnation). Or they are the exact opposite: durational films in so-called "real time" that unfold with exacting observation. (Anything by Fred Wiseman). But most docs are terrible because they occupy a middlebrow middle ground of voice-over narration, dreary interviews and photographic stills to create some sense of usually baby boomer nostalgia.

In any case, I recognize no legitimate distinction between documentary and fictional film. That distinction serve to uphold narrow and glossy, "postcard pretty" notions of the "cinematic" on the one hand, (that fictional films are required to pereptuate in the studio system), and to uphold certain dubious notions about "the real" on the other hand (as if anything in representation, properly and broadly defined, weren't created and subjective affairs).

Films, like other arts, are but stylistic effects organized in various ways to create meaning (or, as is the case in work that might interest me more, something not bound by discursive and conceptual meaning). It is completely irrelevant at worst or trivial at best what the facts are in the world. I suppose an exception could be made for a teaching film to be shown in schools where the facts have to be right. I suppose I would get really offended by a Holocaust denialist documentary. But I could never suppose for a moment that I would want to hold movies to any standards separable from those I hold to a poem. I couldn't care less what millions of people love to look at. I know I don't like to look at what they seem to love, and I don't like to hear the boom and noise they are accustomed to enduring, or even loving.

Which brings me to my final observation. Since most of the movies I deeply love are at best marginal affairs, and do not seem to please, entertain, or hold the attention of that many people, I am no longer in any true sense a cinephile (if ever I were one). I am not interested in looking at edited images in consecutive succession merely to look at this or that old myth or narrative unfold in a new guise or setting. And I am no longer as interested as I once was in looking at actors doing what they do best in such a setting. (Because the setting, or sets, are in a bad way).

It always necessary to cleanse the palette, to turn away from a form or a style when it has no longer served one. I feel much that way about movies. Indeed I think the written word or live performance seems more interesting and more possible. Visual, moving images seem to me to be sprung out.

I have seen many movies. Certainly more than enough to know what is worth seeing. I do change my mind but I also have definite views as to what is perpetually valuable.

Newer modes of production and technologies have killed my cinephilia. I don't keep up so much with the latest, or hottest, or even the edgiest.

People in the current epoch are simply less interesting than in earlier times (!) They are less idiosyncratic, less daring, and less original. They may be brighter than in earlier times in terms of a certain kind of social or emotional intelligence, and maybe in literacy, but they are less passionate and more dull. It is hard to make great art out of them, whether they be the so-called professionaly trained or not. (The best movies today consist, in my view, wholly of non-professionals). I do like seeing the most boring people doing what they do for long periods of time if a sensitive filmmaker allows them to unfold and (un)blocks them in certain ways. Thus their "boring" status becomes heightened to utmost dignity. But this is increasingly rare, since they are usually forced to do conventionally dramatic things that had been done far better in an earlier epoch by performers like Jimmy Stewart or Barbara Stanwyck. In a curious irony, the problem with todays' movies is they don't allow the quotidian and banal to shine forth. (There are exceptions: Mike Leigh).

Above all, I blame the internet. We would do well to remember Marshall Mcluhan when he said that form - the medium - is what is important. People complaining about video games and porn, or heaven knows what else - (inaccurate Wiki entries?) - are forgetting that the world wide, epoch shaking phenomenon of simultaneity of goods and information, that is, the erasure of the need to travel from one loacation to another for separate and distinct kinds of experiences and states of consciousness, in short, the destruction of boundaries between one kind of thing and another (news and art, science and speculation, adult and child) is what has hurt all of the arts, (to say nothing of our lives), but none more than cinema which, as an electronic media to begin with, was more vulnerable to, as it were, infection.

I will continue to mention cinema in this blog. Indeed my next cinema entry might be on "talky cinema" like Rohmer, Cassavetes, and others. But cinephilia, at least in the present tense, is no longer a possibility for me in the current moment.