Monday, January 4, 2010

The Legacy of Honoring "The Sound Itself"

The proposition that, as serious listeners, we should think more in terms of our experiences of "the sound itself," rather than in terms of any abstraction of those sounds through notation, has been an ongoing theme of interest, not only on this platform but also in my writing for Indeed, last month in that latter forum, I invoked this concept with respect to two composers whose work would be featured this month: George Benjamin, who will be hosted by the San Francisco Symphony as part of their Project San Francisco Series, and Michael Jarrell, who will be featured as a composer at the next concert by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and as an orchestrator of Claude Debussy's piano etudes by the San Francisco Symphony. Thus, I was not surprised (and rather pleased) to discover in my reading of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, by Robin D. G. Kelley, that Monk was another composer whose work was intimately wrapped up in this nature of "the sound itself."

The source of my discovery was a profile of Monk by Herbie Nichols, demonstrating that some of the most astute writing about making music comes from an author familiar with making music on equally intimate terms. Here is a passage of Nichols' text that Kelley quotes:

His eyes light up when he speaks of instrumentalists getting the right ‘sounds’ out of their instruments. He is forever searching for better ‘sounds,’ as he loves to say. He doesn’t seek these effects elsewhere. He creates them at his Klein piano. This way of thinking throughout the years has resulted in the creation of a system of playing which is the strangest I have heard and may someday revolutionize the art of swing piano playing.

Kelley's interest in this passage is clearly grounded in his own experience, since he invokes this idea of "the sound itself" in the "Prelude" to his book to explain how his interest in Monk was first sparked:

I became completely obsessed with Monk’s sound, his clang-clang sound of surprise, rich with deafening silences, dissonances, and harmonic ambiguities.

In Kelley's case that sound came from a recording of "Evidence," released on Riverside and taken from a performance at The Five Spot in New York City on August 7, 1958, with Johnny Griffin on tenor sax, Roy Haynes on drums, and Ahmed Abdul-Malik, about a dozen years after Nichols' profile had appeared in print.

My own first encounter with Monk recordings probably took place either during or just before my freshman year. That was a time when I was more obsessed with "the emancipation of the dissonance" than I was with the possibility that a search for better sounds might have been the motivation for that emancipation. Thus, I was more interested in the theoretical insights of Arnold Schoenberg and those who followed his path than I was in putting the scores off to the side and just concentrating on the listening experience. Put another way, I was spending so much time on the logic behind Monk's own approach to dissonance to appreciate that its fundamental impact was rhetorical.

These days the question is not whether or not dissonance has been emancipated but whether we, as listeners, have been emancipated from the theoretical thinking of the last century that subordinated the rhetorical to the logical. Thus emancipated, we can listen to Schoenberg and Monk as situated on the same "terrain" of musical discourse, just as (to draw upon another one of my examples) we can listen to Karlheinz Stockhausen and Ahmad Jamal. This reflects one of the lessons that Randy Weston took away from the experience of being Monk's student, which is, as Kelley put it, the need "to be wary of false distinctions between 'modern' and 'traditional.'" It's all music; and the experience always comes down to that same capacity for listening that, hopefully, we have built up since our first encounters with music.

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