Sunday, February 3, 2008

Library Haul - Abstract Truth Edition

I went in search of a copy of Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question, because I have haphazardly saying that Johnny Greenwood much-ballyhooed droney soundtrack for the equally droney and ballyhooed There Will Be Blood consisted largely of 4 minutes of material lifted form Ives stretched out to fit an overlong movie, and figured it might be a good idea to see if these claims had any merit. The Unanswered Question remains unanswered, but I did land on this exquisite set of Ives' two string quartets, performed by the Lydian String Quartet.

Once back when I was a classical music snob I was very into string quartets and Charles Ives. I though string quartets seemed to contain a composer's real thoughts. One could still get pretty flowery in that setting, but there is little place to hide in such a small ensemble. one of the most transformative musical experiences I've ever had was listening to the Guarneri String Quartet play Janacek's second quartet (like Ives, Janacek only produced two quartets, and also like Ives, they are both exquisite) - I remember saying something like "it's like doing algebra while the plane is going down" in slackjawed afterglow.

Charles Ives is the most American of composers, and that meant something to me back in my snob days. Aaron Copland gets the limelight for ripping off Dvorack and Stravinsky and filtering it through the dirty rag of Tin Pan alley (ok, not really. Aaron Copland is a motherfucker of a composer when you start digging into his catalog, and a double motherfucker of a catalyst for music. One minor contribution of his was bringing a promising young Welsh violist by the name of John Cale over to study under him, but Cale soon fell in with a bad crowd and his musical career took a different turn) but Ives is the bomb.

Ives was like Walt Whitman, in that he was engrossed in the cosmic American experience, pulling in folk songs, leaving parts of them intact as to not betray his sources, while submerging the melodies in his own processes: a hodgepodge of Romantic technique and experimental ideas. He took an entrepreneurial stance toward the music of The people and that of The Spheres - gathering it all into a pile and saying now, what can I do with all this? In Ives, just like in Whitman, John Fahey, Bruce Springsteen, we can find an abstracted variant of who we are as a people.

The way I always approached classical music (the correct term would be art music, since classical is a period, not a style, but classical is what we say) is to start pretty and head into the cold toward austerity, so I dragged through the stacks in search of something even more cosmic, something closer to the bone and landed on Béla Bartók's Mikrokosmos performed by Claude Heffler. Bartók' is in many ways the Ives of Eastern Europe, building vast epihanous beauty from the folk music of his native Transylvania. His orchestral music is wild, exquisite stuff, but here on the six volumes of Mikrokosmos, the melodies are stripped to the core starting out as little more than scales, evolving into dense urgent rhapsodies as they progress. the piece was written as student work, that a eager pianist could graduate through the volumes of this as their expertise grew.

The thing that is interesting about the progression is that the earlier, simple pieces have a tranquil air about them, a dreamlike lollygagging around the scales, where as they get more complicated, the melodies get confused, the mood is tainted with anxiety and occasional panic. The steps herein the expert end seem to be taken lightly, as if experience has shown that the ground might just give way if one stomps around as one did in their youth.

The reason I stepped away from classical music years ago is that I found it fostered a distance between my own thinking and the greater mass of humanity around me, and that this was a part of myself that I only half-liked. I did enjoy the feeling of superiority it tricked me into feeling but it made me rather impossible to be around, so I had to get into something a little less pretentious. Instead, I got into Jazz. I thought Jazz might unearth that wire connecting the Appolonian and the Dionysian, but more often than not, jazz would mire itself in its own traditions, losing track of both camps in favor of constructing an ivory tower of its own.

Take Oliver Nelson's brilliantly titled The Blues and The Abstract Truth. With a thesis statement like that, all emblazoned in Impulse! black, white and orange, this record should contain all the answers, and of course it doesn't even come close. Nelson delivers piece after piece of perfectly wrought jazz pleasentry in a variety of styles: "Stolen Moments" is penthouse cool and groovy, "Hoe-Down" is an awkward repositioning of the kind of cornball Appalacian themes Aaron Copland was much better at assimilating into his art, "Cascades" is an impressive bop workout. It's not until we get to "Yearnin'" where we get close to the blues and the abstract truth. The truth is there is no viable abstraction of the truth. We can talk around it, rub up next to it, but The Truth is an egg that proves to be hollow when we crack it.

So, we can spend all of our lives pulling away from the pedestrian, climbing mountains of our own crafting to speak to gurus that aren't there, searching for meaning in the universe, or we can kick back and enjoy the ride, and this is precisely what Wes Montgomery does on So Much Guitar! Wes is about as brilliant and tasteful a guitarist as there is. the sun shines out of his archtop when he plays. There are definitely more virtuoso players, more cerebral players, certainly many more interesting players, but few that sound as organic as Wes Montgomery. And this whole diatribe is not a turning of my back on the Appolonian way of doing business, on the contrary. This has been an Appolonian exercise in and of itself. It serves as a reminder to not analyze myself into a corner, to not get so hung up thinking too much and to step back and have fun every now and then.

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