Saturday, June 30, 2012

Texture Part 3: A piano solo from Hank Jones

My final and third installment in this trilogy on the issue of texture in art and life consists of a single performance on a single instrument - the piano - and by one of the greatest jazz artists on that instrument in the 20th century - Hank Jones.

This will be a consideration of varied and contrasting texture in improvisation and compostion based on popular original material - the theme of Ray Noble called The Very Thought Of You.

The immediate overall issue in Jones' creation is a sense of utter completion. Texturally this is a realm of symmetry, balance and fullness. The roots of the chords, the harmonies, steady rhythms and the lead melody are all represented with all the richness the piano can convey. The effect is at once orchestral and pianistic.

Jones' contribution to jazz piano is his blending of pre-Bebop swing era and Stride styles of Fats Waller or Art Tatum in the thirties with the modernity of Bebop. Jone's gift more  particularly is in his exquisite touch. His touch is unafraid to be precious, crystalline. At times he flirts with an almost willful delicacy that approaches the purposefully tentative. In this he is at utter odds with the more hard or percussive sound of, say, a Thelonious Monk. It is not a matter here of who or what style is better or worse, but merely a fact of profound difference. This is in the very nature of jazz performance which is about making individual expression. Different styles exist for the reason that there are different kinds of men and women and that life is filled with different occasions, both for sad heaviness, joyful lightness, and others too varied to be mentioned here.

Jones starts his reading of Noble's theme with an introduction setting up the 1 and V chords of the basic harmony: a kind of vamp with root and chord. This was a device that was beloved by Art Tatum, especially in his introduction to Jitterbug Waltz, a composition originally penned by Fats Waller. This alteration of tonic and dominant or cycles of the main chords in a piece as a way of setting up or introducing a composition is heard in millions of cases, from folk, to jazz, to rock, to show music, and vocal arrangements. But notice that in his simple outline of tonic and dominant how dissonant and chromatic his harmonic renderings are. (Also a nod to Tatum). Not so chromatic that the chord types are unrecognizable, yet just chromatic enough to take us into different places, than say, if we were to hear the Ray Noble orchestra playing it at a society function.

Throughout he alternates between wildly florid passages that are at once elegant and jagged and simple melodic phrases. All throughout the piece his touch is the touch that we have come, throughout mass culture and the entertainment industry, to associate with the so-called cocktail or lounge piano: that is, music to accompany dinner. This unfortunate reduction tells us nothing about the inherent value of the music itself, other than the fact that it is potentially "unobtrusive" enough to be played while other activities are being entertained. Bill Evans once remarked on the tragedy of how such solo piano music is treated by commercial culture. But make no mistake about Jones here or  jazz piano ballad playing at its best. In truth it is an art equal to anything from the European concert tradition and equal to anything meant to be actively heard without accompanying drinking and eating. And the "touch" we hear here is a touch that is the only one to make possible certain kinds of feelings in the listener, a sentiment, and affect, that would otherwise, without this touch, be unable to be invoked.

But those are issues of reception and treatment. Let us attend a little bit to the music. At one point, on the altered seventh on the second degree of the key he indulges in some mysterious whole tone play to create tension. Note too the chromatic alterations downward by half steps during the first chorus of the melody. This anticipates the tensions that will replay later. Every time Jones gets melodically simple, he will then get "further out". When he pushes the listener away, he will reel them in in turn.

Nobody put together a series of phrases quite like Hank Jones. He pushes melodic elegance as far as is possible to push in a swinging jazz context. There is a sweetness and dignity to Jones' art that seems to embody a whole tradition of lyrical piano playing for centuries. And it is all here in this little piece.

His uses of tremelo octave to mark the rising of Noble's melody underscores Noble's own melodic genius, how Noble creates movement through the addition of rising tones from the root. Jones respects the original material as much as he wrestles with and departs from it.

In this Jones piece we have an example of texture as the highest art. It is to music what John Cheever's paragraph was to prose. And, last but not least, to think that such texture is achieved on a piano, without the diversity of several instruments that can sustain notes for long periods.

This then finishes, for the time being, some examples of the uses of texture in art and life.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Texture in Life and Art Part 2: The Apple Store

In my last column I discussed the texture of John Cheever's art in prose. Now we shall proceed from art to life and deal with texture in architecture.

When we deal with matters in real life aesthetically, we shall deal with them in the same sense that we would when dealing with non-real representations in prose, poetry or images in art.

The first impression of the Apple store is that it might appear to lack texture since the entire point of it is to embody the disembodied, sometimes fanatical spiritualism of the Internet age. Since it lacks all depth and color, since it is all airy and light, and above all transparent, the Apple store has the texture of a society that wants to be finally done with texture.

 In the neoPlatonist view, recently reinvigorated by the late great James Hillman, spirit, body and soul, are the three parts of human life that each have specific and separable needs. Soul is always in the middle and is meant to prevent the extremes of bodily grossness at the bottom and spiritual purity at the top.

I know the Apple store is beloved but it is a textbook case of an environment that lacks soul. I don't mean this in the vernacular sense that the word "soul" is usually used. I don't mean that it cold or ugly, for example. Indeed I will concede that there is a certain beauty to the Apple store. Yet something is missing, and not as an oversight but willfully missing. I mean something technically specific.

Hillman noticed that there is a tendency in cultures at certain times to get overtly spiritual and lose a sense of soul. This usually happens when a society or a culture gets the idea of banishing certain human habits and traits, especially those that are comforting and dense or rich, all such refusal being in the interest of a kind of excess purification.

Is the Apple store an expression similar to the tendency Hillman noted? It sure feels like it. For example, I don't recommend that anybody with vertigo climb the design genius that is that glass staircase. You really do feel weightless, as if walking in midair. Initially, the most dogmatic of Modernists were worried about the sin of ornamentation. The Apple store has not only dispensed with comfort and coziness and the appearance and pretense of design but has also dispensed with any affection or conviviality for our physical selves. Like the computer itself, the store is a dream, a grand dream of a world without tensions, without genders, without limits: ageless and free from all burdens of a physical and human world.

This fact about the Apple store was made most apparent when I watched a celebrity interview with the great R&B supergroup Earth Wind and Fire that was held at Apple. Against such an environment the three musicians stood in great relief. Verdine White, the bass player, wore exotic, custom made embroidered denim trousers. Their whole career has been an expression of color - of soul in the vernacular and musical sense. The band's way of speaking and presence seemed to call out for another kind of architecture entirely: something that would be highly textured, with patterns and color. They looked as if they had the (mis)fortune to play a gig in an airline terminal.

The reason why the Apple store was designed the way it was was that it appeals to the anxieties and desires of the current moment. Ever since the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, there has been for the following forty-plus years a craving for transparency and a paranoid suspicion of privacy. Designs are expressions of beliefs and world views as all styles are. Any design that appears too solid or too colorful, that implies separation or privacy, or that seems too much like an object is a design that is implicitly guilty. We have learned to associate heavy with stodgy and hierarchy. The Apple store feels as it does because a part of us longs to leave Earth and body behind and evolve to something that is thought to be higher. There is no other way to account for the almost parodic fidelity with which it embraces a certain Modernism that one would have thought now to have been less strict in its hold upon us.

One of the dogmas of the current moment is that no behavior should seem unnatural or inauthentic. What could be less pernicious, many feel, than a design that hides nothing. In its way, however commercial the Apple company may be it is an expression of a certain spirituality as strict and austere as any traditional monastic religion. Of course, what people look at on the Internet are representations of all of the confused and diverse human mess of the previous century. The Apple store stand as a reminder that people would rather have none of that challenge in their actual, real life, however.

The first photo shows the starkest contrast between two very different buildings and the two very different worlds that created them. Note the soulful and heavy solidity of the stone in the building across the street, especially the elegance of the front doors with the arched tops. That building was an expression of certain human drives of its time. Then you can look at the Apple store and note its airy lightness and see some of the drives of our time.

Of course there are many ways to look at buildings and my comments are not meant to ignore issues of economy and budget, changing aesthetic taste, and so on. One would have to be very blind indeed to not see some of what I suggest here. For a building, like a piece of prose, or anything humans make, makes meaning and is not only for utility alone.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Few Words on Texture, with the help of John Cheever

I should like to offer some words on one of the most important elements in human made things in general and the arts in particular. Normally I would mention style or tone, but here I will speak of texture as a valid critical category.

When I speak of texture I in no way am speaking of objects which must have volume and mass, or even have a visual import or representation. I am talking about something different too from tone, a quality I consider the most crucial in any art (to say nothing of life). Texture possesses less specificity than tone. One way of understanding texture is to see it as a whole overarching set of assumptions in figural or representational form (say, that things should be hard and shiny, or light and airy, for example), whereas tone is more involved in particular emotional meaning. Texture deals with the most general of perspectives: how paragraphs are constructed in prose, mise en scene in film, quality of cloth in dress. This post will consist only of one quote from John Cheever. On posts to follow, I will use other examples from the different arts.

My example comes from the opening of John Cheever short story. I feel we can only fully appreciate this marvelous passage if we empty our mind of all the accumulative contextual stuff that we think we know about Cheever. I have to state it out in the open to clear the air. We should forget ideas about affluence, suburbia, alcoholism, the show Madmen, the sociology of the suburbs, his daughter Susan Cheever, what John Cheever's letters say, what Queer Theory has to say, his alleged bisexuality and the rest of it.

Now that I have gotten that out of the system we should proceed to the work. Not that those elements are unimportant. They might serve as a useful way for Cheever to get started, as initial generation of his electricity. But a passage like the following cannot be reduced to such discursive, conceptual notions. Moreover such concepts such as the ones in my list will prevent us from fully entering into Cheever's art, in essence feeling fully for his creations. Indeed its very existence is an explicit challenge to any attempt to contain it, so full it is of exuberance for the subject at hand.  What I am interested in Cheever is precisely what gets left out of my previous list. I have a feeling that what is left behind was what finally most interested John Cheever as well.

Reading the following passage makes one want to inquire about an entire mode of writing and its affective powers, its relationship to the reader. What does it mean that prose of this kind is no longer in great evidence? It surely cannot be that our times demand a different or more knowing kind of prose. I think the matter is quite the reverse: it is that we don't regard the texture of prose in the same way and we have given to prose a new set of work to do.  The times are what they are: the texture of art is a choice and it is only because we believe in notions like relevant and the appropriate - believe as the most fundamentalist believer does - that we see a reduction in a certain kind of prose. We brandish ourselves as worldly-wise and place older modes that appear to us as less informed into the category of  History: that which belongs to the past. We would do well to remember Faulkner however, who said that the past is never past.

Here then is the opening of John Cheever's "O YOUTH AND BEAUTY!"

"At the tag end of nearly every long, large Saturday-night party in the suburb of Shady Hill, when almost everybody who was going to play golf or tennis in the morning had gone home hours ago and the ten or twelve people remaining seemed powerless to bring the evening to an end although the gin and whiskey were running low, and here and there a woman who was sitting out her husband would have begun to drink milk; when everybody had lost track of time, and the baby-sitters who were waiting at home for these diehards would have long since stretched out on the sofa and fallen into a deep sleep, to dream about cooking-contest prizes, ocean voyages, and romance; when the bellicose drunk, the crapshooter, the pianist, and the woman faced with the expiration of her hopes had all expressed themselves; when every proposal-togo to the Faquarsons' for breakfast, to go swimming, to go and wake up the Townsends, to go here and go there-died as soon as it was made, then Trace Bearden would begin to chide Cash Bentley about his age and thinning hair. The chiding was preliminary to moving the living-room furniture. Trace and Cash moved the tables and chairs, the sofas, and the fire screen, the woodbox and the footstool; and when they had  finished you wouldn't know the place. Then if the host had a revolver, he would be asked to produce it. Cash would take off his shoes and assume a standing crouch  behind a sofa. Trace would fire  the weapon out of an open window,and if you were new to the community and had not understood what the preparations were about, you would then realize that you were watching a hurdle race. Over the sofa went Cash, over the tables, over the fire screen and the woodbox. It was not exactly a race, since Cash ran it alone, but it was extraordinary to see this man of forty surmount so many obstacles so gracefully. There was not a piece of furniture in Shady Hill that Cash could not take in his stride. The race ended with cheers, and presently the party would break up."

We must immediately remark that there is, to some eyes, something of the pathetic in the spectacle of a middle aged "Cash Bentley" reliving his glory athletic days for the amusement of his fellow affluent suburbanites. All of which leads us into Cheever's genius which partakes of a certain Balzacian or Flaubertian naturalized view of a scene, a whole way of life. Note he says "nearly every long party", "the ten or twelve people always remaining". There is a detached, objective quality in this, not unlike what Jean Renoir will do in his ensemble set pieces in films like Rules Of The Game or The Golden Coach. There is the sense that everybody is doing these things specific to a whole way of life. He writes "the chiding was preliminary to moving the table." There are certain types: "the crapshooter, the pianist, the bellicose drunk." The cumulative result is a kind of texture of a certain lifestyle.

Where Cheever is unique, I think, in moments like this, is that the people he is depicting are his people, in his neighborhood. In this he is not only objective but subjective for he is one of them and he partially tries to bring the reader into this neighborhood. As such, it is implicit in the prose that there is something actually universal about his admittedly narrow social milieu.

And last, but not least, there is an elegiac quality. Cheever loves these characters with his whole heart and soul. There is a naive kind of compassion that I think is rather American and for which there is great misunderstanding and misreading by certain readers who wish for a harder, cynical social satire.  It is the latter approach - that of Madmen specifically - that is so favored these days. The chief reason Cheever rises above the merely critical and skeptical is that Cheever actually sees something of faith and admiration in Cash Bentley's dreams. (This respect for dreaming connects a lot of Cheever's figures and connects Cash Bentley deeply to the hero of The Swimmer, for example.) This notion of a dream realized in prosaic or earthly, sometimes banal guises, and this notion that the dream must be realized while wrestling with community is a notion that is important to American arts and letters: community is both a source of meaning and feeling as much as emptiness and alienation. (It is in Hawthorne, Pynchon, Toni Morrison, in lots of places). Cheever achieves all of this through his language: though he offers a list of various items, he nevertheless combines such list of details with a specific affect. Of course such a strategy on Cheever's part leaves him open to criticism for real skeptics: those that see in his "WASP" characters nothing but error and privilege. Yet I would argue that all the very best writers have a similar attitude towards their subjects, whatever nation or status they happen to inhabit.

The general loss of Cheever's belief in a kind of sustaining dream is one of the reasons why writing like this is so rare these days. Few of us "believe" anymore in the way that Cheever did. This is not because we can't, but rather that we have given up or have chosen not to.

Any recourse to the zeitgeist will not do to justify the absence of this social lyricism from todays "realists". Rich Moody opens his novel on suburbia, The Ice Storm, with a direct address to the reader: "I am going to dish you this comedy about a family I knew when I was growing up." Moody then proceeds to list all of these technological and cultural differences between the 1990s and the 1970s. ("No answering machines. No call waiting.") There is the same use of a panoramic list, but the effect is completely "wised-up". I liked The Ice Storm; yet we are in a world, stylistically rather removed from Cheever. Rick Moody is like a young anarchist or Marxist out to kill off his parents rather than attempt to inhabit or understand them. Instead his sympathies are with the children.

Always the point of view in  contemporary art and culture is that of the children. (This is also the case, as critic Daniel Mendelsohn pointed out in The New York Review of Books, with Madmen, where Mendelsohn argues that the point of view of the show is through the often absent children, even though the jaded adults are the ostensible main figures of the series That is, the show is unable to finally come to terms with the adult leads - Joan, Don, Pegg, Roger etc. - because it is imaginatively narrowed by being from only the point of view of today's assumptions, those that would have been very young children in 1962.)

Similarly, I believe Rick Moody's choices reflect not the needs of our moment but rather what we think to be the needs of our moment. He - and we - could have gone in different or other directions than what we consider the relevant ones.

We see here an example of how much texture can do to create meaning. Space permitting I could have a whole panoply of examples of varying and differing textures - all of which would give us equally varying and differing views of the world or philosophies of life.