July 17, 2010

Playlist Week of 7-17-10

* Biber: Unam Ceylum (Holloway/Mortensen/Assenbaum) (ECM CD)
* Corelli: 12 Concerti Grossi, Op.6 (English Concert/Pinnock) (Archiv Prod. 2CD)
* Handel: Solo Sonatas, Op.1 (AAM/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Handel: Trio Sonatas, Op.2&5 (AAM/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* John Coltrane: Impressions (Impulse! CD)
* Wayne Shorter Quartet: Park Den Brandt, Antwerp, Belgium 8-14-05 (FM 2CDR)
* Sun Ra: Slug’s Saloon, New York, NY 8-19-72 (AUD 3CDR)
* Sun Ra: Rehearsal 9-76 (AUD CDR)
* Sun Ra: South St. Seaport Museum, New York, NY 7-09-72 (AUD? CD)
* Lowell Davidson Trio: WBRS-FM Brandeis University 5-08-86 (Pre-FM 2CDR)
* Anthony Braxton 12+1tet: 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 (d.6) (Firehouse 12 9CD+DVD)
* Matthew Shipp Trio: Old Customs House, Tampere, Finland 11-03-07 (FM CDR)
* Kip Hanrahan: A Thousand Nights and a Night (American Clavé CD)
* DJ Shadow: Preemptive Strike (Mo Wax/A&M CD+CDEP)
* Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On (Motown/MFSL SACD)
* Bob Dylan: Planet Waves (Columbia SACD)
* Lucinda Williams: Sweet Old World (Elektra CD)
* Grateful Dead: Fox Theatre, Atlanta, GA 4-10-78 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY 9-17-91 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY 9-18-91 (SBD 3CDR)
* Yes: The Yes Album (Atlantic/MFSL CD)
* Yes: Fragile (Atlantic/MFSL CD)
* Yes: Tales of Topographic Oceans (Atlantic 2LP)
* Genesis: Paris Theatre 3-2-72/BBC 9-25-72 (Pre-FM CDR)
* Genesis: Convention Center, West Palm Beach, LF 1-10-75 (SBD 2CDR)
* Genesis: Empire Pool, Wembley, London 4-15-75 (Pre-FM DVDR-A)
* Peter Gabriel: [2] (a/k/a “Scratch”) (Atlantic LP)
* Steve Winwood: Arc of a Diver (Island LP)
* Can: Landed (Spoon SACD)
* Can: Flow Motion (Spoon SACD)
* Neu: Neu! (Astralwerks CD)
* Uncle Tupelo: Still Feel Gone (Columbia/Legacy CD)
* Uncle Tupelo: March 16-20, 1992 (Columbia/Legacy CD)
* Wilco: Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch CD)
* Radiohead: Gofferpark, Nijmegen, Netherlands 9-16-00 (FM 2CDR)
* Radiohead: Hail to the Thief (Capitol CD)
* Radiohead: “There There” (Capitol CDEP
* Radiohead: “Go to Sleep” (Capitol CDEP
* Radiohead: In Rainbows (TBD Records CD)
* Panda Bear: “I’m Not”/”Comfy in Nautica” (Uunited Acoustic CD)
* Panda Bear: Person Pitch (Paw Tracks CD)
* Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino CD)


* Glenn Kurtz, Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music (Knopf 2007)

I sort of knew Glenn Kurtz when we were both students at The New England Conservatory of Music back in the mid-1980s. I didn’t know him well at all – he was one of those serious classical musicians who spent most his time in practice rooms while I was basically a slacker and a fraud, taking brief refuge in the quirky and nebulous Third Stream Department. But I hung out a lot with some of the characters who populate Kurtz’s memoir and reading it evokes the hothouse environment of the Conservatory with a discomfiting vividness. Moreover, his tale of bitter failure and painful reconciliation hits particularly close to home.

Kutz’s disarming honesty and elegantly crafted prose captures the complex and fraught relationship a musician suffers with an instrument and with music itself. Playing music is (or can be) fun; practicing is no fun at all:

Practicing is striving … a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure. I warm up my hands and awaken my ears and imagination, developing skill to equal my experience. I listen and concentrate in an effort to make myself better. Yet every day I collide with my limits, the constraints of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. Each morning when I sit down, I’m bewildered by a cacophony of voices, encouraging and dismissive, joyous and harsh, each one a little tyrant, each one insisting on its own direction. And I struggle to harmonize them, to find my way between them, uncertain whether this work is worth it or a waste of my time (p.9).

This is how every musician feels as they sit down to practice. It only seems worth it if your love of music and dream of becoming an artist remains intact. For Kurtz (as for many others, such as myself), the dream was cast upon the rocks of a harsh reality and the only response is to just stop playing music altogether:

Like so many people who practice an art in their youth, I couldn’t reconcile my love for music with the demands of adult life or the professional realities of earning a living from art. Perhaps I lacked the talent; perhaps I didn’t work hard enough. Whatever the case, quitting was a catastrophe. For ten years afterward my hands and my habits—the whole history of my playing—seemed like obstacles to music. I lost faith in the power of practicing to lead me forward. The one thing I loved most in life became a torture. It was a devastating loss (p.12).

I can relate to this, even though I lack Kurtz’s talent and worked nowhere near as hard as he did. I took a slightly different path but still achieved a modicum of success playing a kind of punk rock/free jazz hybrid that a few critics and hipsters might adore but most people can’t abide. I never made any money and never would. As I got older this crushing reality become impossible to ignore and my dream of being an artist collapsed in a fit acrimonious self-incrimination. After graduation from NEC, Kurtz traveled to Vienna, hooked up with fellow alum with whom he developed a nightclub act that managed to be moderately lucrative. But it wasn’t satisfying to Kurtz, whose dream was to be another Segovia, a superstar concertizing in prestigious concert halls. For both of us, making a living and making art wound up being mutually exclusive and when we gave up that dream, we gave up on music itself. Playing music became an exercise in futility so we simply stopped doing it.

At music school it is assumed that music is sublime; why that is so is not a subject of study or even serious contemplation. It therefore remains a mystery even to those entrusted with its performance. Indeed it would appear that the power of music is unexplainable and thinking about it too much can be a mortal danger to the professional musician. Kurtz describes an early crisis of faith he experienced while at NEC that he attempted to remedy by going to the library and studying various philosopher’s definitions of what makes music meaningful. Not surprisingly, he came up empty handed despite scholarly investigations dating back to Pythagoras:

For all of these music lovers, music was something other than music. It might be different for each one. But it was always the thing they loved the most. To the astronomer, music is disguised astronomy. To the mathematician, it is disguised mathematics. Leibniz, who invented calculus, was quite certain that “music is an unconscious exercise in arithmetic in which the mind doesn’t know it is counting.” The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was equally convinced that “music is an unconscious exercise in metaphysics in which the mind does not know it is philosophizing.” Among my friends at the Conservatory, we took for granted that music recounted the narrative of our emotional struggles. In Susanne Langer’s phrase, music was “our myth of the inner life.” Langer quotes the eighteenth-century theorist J.A. Huller, who expressed our belief, writing, “’Music has fulfilled its mission whenever our hearts are satisfied.’” This sounded right. It still didn’t explain music’s power. But it described how music comes to be the pure metaphor for our desire (pp.91-92).

In the fleeting instance of its sounding, music imposes an illusion of universal harmony and cosmically ordained order within our chaotic and seemingly irrational earthly existence. This is what makes music the most ineffably sublime of all the arts. But how music does this remains wholly speculative. As Katz observes, “We can’t prove our theories of what music means. But each theory reveals what we long for; it proves the truth of our longing” (p.93). A musician aspires to be the vessel of this mystical transubstantiation, but music school does not offer classes in aesthetics, much less alchemy. After all, how do you teach someone to turn a performance into a “metaphor for pure desire”? This is up to the performer alone and the best musicians do it unthinkingly. But as Kurtz flatly admits: “The essence of music is revelation … The essence of life, however, seems to be disappointment … once the music ended, the experience slipped away. Harmony is not eternal, though our need for it may be” (p.99).

For most young musicians, no matter how technically gifted or rigorous their practice regime, the task is too great, the goal will be forever beyond their reach. The wrenching painfulness of this realization one day causes them to quit playing music forever and wonder whether all that effort was for naught. Or they surrender to the exigencies of the marketplace, peddling meaningless aural wallpaper for people willing to pay for it. At one point, Kurtz contemplates a career as a wedding musician, “making pretty, classical-sounding noise to decorate the occasion”:

I could perform Beethoven or I could play scales. Either way people would tell me that it sounded lovely. Maybe that was enough … I shuddered at the thought. A life of loveliness. This was the opposite of everything I wanted. “Lovely” was nothing. It described prettified music drained of all power, of everything that made music great … If there was still the chance I could make great music, then settling for a life of “lovely” would be an unbearable betrayal (p.135).

What Kurtz feared was a “life of insignificance” (Id.) which is, of course, what everyone fears and a fate (almost) everyone nevertheless comes to endure. Coming to terms with this brutal truth is not just the problem of failed musicians, but they tend to feel it most intently. While Kurtz enjoyed playing the “mongrel” music he performed in Viennese cafés and bars, this was really no better than playing weddings in the states. He was an entertainer, not an artist, a musician’s best worst fate. And he comes to realize that his goal of becoming a star soloist was indeed just a shattered dream:

It takes courage to play new music; it takes courage to be a musician at all. But it takes more, so much more, to remain a musician, to let yourself be shaped by music however it speaks to you. Since I was twelve years old, I dreamed of living the life I heard, living an artist’s life. But I’d misunderstood myself, my desires, my ambitions. I misunderstood what it meant to be an artist.

In fact, I was just beginning, just learning how to conduct myself as an artist in the world. But it wasn’t the world I’d been working toward. And in that moment I saw that the distance between where I was and where I wanted to be was impossibly long. It sank in that I wasn’t ever going to arrive, and so it suddenly felt like I was nowhere. All the pent-up bitterness of a desire endlessly deferred broke loose. It devastated my dream world of music. My fingers hadn’t failed me; my technique and talent were not to blame. I’d just imagined the artist’s life naïvely, childishly, with too much longing, too much poetry and innocence and purity. And this image ruined music for me … the guitar had been the instrument of my dreams. Now the dream was over (p.193).

Kurtz returned to America, obtained a Ph.D. in literature from Stanford and settled into a life of writing and teaching. He put his guitar away and didn’t touch it again for more than a decade. But then, still grappling with his feelings of bitterness and inconsolable loss, he began to practice again, but with a different agenda:

I returned to practicing not as a young, aspiring artist, but as a former musician, with a different sense of what it means to play the guitar … My first time through, I practiced badly, chasing an ideal that ruined music for me, turning what I had loved the most into torture. Now I’m pursuing not an ideal but the reality of my own experience. I began to practice again because I felt I could do it better this time (p.207).

Some years after moving to Nashville, I bought a Yamaha Clavinova, an electric piano that looks, sounds and (for the most part) feels like a real acoustic piano. While at the Conservatory, I had taken up the electric guitar even though all of my training to that point had been on the piano (and clarinet, but I never took it very seriously). At the time I was motivated not only by my love of the electric guitar, but by the fact that competition for practice rooms with a decent piano was incredibly fierce at NEC, making it difficult for me to practice, even if I wanted to (which I didn’t). Besides, I was not at the conservatory to study classical music and the piano was, in my mind, forever associated with the stultifying imperiousness of so-called classical music. I loved the guitar because I didn’t know how to play it; not knowing the names of the notes freed me to hear those pitches as music instead of marks on a page. It was punk rock. Amazingly, the Third Stream Department tolerated this approach, at least for a little while. But I abandoned the guitar after the collapse of the band and hadn’t played any music at all ever since. Even so, I still had stacks of sheet music, classical compositions for piano ready-made for the amateur home soloist and I thought taking up the piano again after decades of neglect might rekindle my love of playing music. I began to practice again, re-learning the pieces of my youth on an instrument that felt like a long lost friend. I gradually regained some facility but playing well was not the point. I was regaining a part of myself that had been strangled by the vicissitudes of life. I will never be a musician, but I can still play music – if I take the time to practice. My experience is exactly as Kurtz describes:

I may never again play as well as I did when I was seventeen or twenty-one, may never play as well as I think I could. My hands are not as flexible, and I’ve lost so much time not practicing. But each day now when I sit down, I try to give a performance, opening myself over and over again to what I love the most, knowing each time that I will have to let it go. To play better now means learning to continue, living through what slips away (p.210).

Ultimately, this is a useful lesson for anyone to learn and suggests that all our efforts to live out unrealizable dreams are not totally wasted. Practicing an instrument is like trying to live any kind of meaningful life, full of frustration and failure, but also full of opportunities to find true love and experience moments of transcendent beauty. As Kurtz puts it, practicing teaches us about our limitations, which enables us to improve ourselves:

I think it is the same with anything you seriously practice, anything you deeply love. For me, it was music. The guitar. But whatever “music” is for you, if you practice for real, eventually it will show you everything that is within you. Because as accomplished or as disappointed as you may feel now, you don’t know what remains concealed in your hands. Maybe you’ll never grasp it all. What you want may never yield to your touch. And yet maybe one day a performance will surprise you. Maybe today your music will reveal all the joy and disappointment, all the love and the fear you are capable of, your whole life, the true concord of your own heart (p.211).

Kurtz’s touching memoir is about more than just music and trying (and failing) to become a professional musician; it is about the loss of childhood dreams and the agonizing accrual of adult wisdom. It is about making peace with that loss and having the temerity to carry on practicing anyway because to do otherwise is to die.


Sam said...

Wow, Rodger, another excellent post! While I had nowhere near the training or proficiency in music that you did to begin with, I have experienced a lot of the same passages and realizations about myself and my playing that you (and Kurtz) so eloquently express. We'll have to talk about this more in detail soon ('cause I can't type! har har)

Random crossover in our playlists: Panda Bear!

Well, them mountains, what are they doing? They just come out of the sky...and they stand there! Those darn mountains!

Here's my list from last (largely sick) week:

Playlist 2010-07-19

*Anthony Braxton Sextet + 1: 2007-05-26 Moers Festival (CDR)
*Anthony Braxton 12tet+2: 2010-06-18 NYC 65th Birthday Celebration (CDR)
*John Coltrane: Live in Stockholm 1963
*Charles Mingus: Let My Children Hear Music
*Nicole Mitchell String Trio: 2010-06-18 NYC 65th Birthday Celebration (CDR)
*Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: The Moment's Energy
*Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: Memory/Vision
*Dewey Redman/Cecil Taylor/Elvin Jones: Momentum Space
*Sun Ra: College Tour Vol. 1: The Complete Nothing Is...
*Sun Ra: Live at Slug's Saloon (Transparency) disc 4
*Sun Ra: The Universe Sent Me (Lost Reel Collection, vol. 5: 1972-07-09/1973-09-08)
*Sun Ra: The Road to Destiny (Lost Reel Collection, vol. 6: Live at the Gibus)
*Sun Ra: Destination Unknown
*Cecil Taylor's Q'ah: 1998-06-04 Tribeca Hall, NYC (CDR)
*Cecil Taylor Quartet: 1998-12-05 Yoshi's, Oakland (CDR) disc 1
*Kevin Ayers: Joy of a Toy
*Kevin Ayers & the Whole World: 1970-07-30 Dreibergen, Holland (CDR)
*Beatles Remixers Group: White Album Remixed, disc 1
*Broadcast: Broadcast & The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age
*Circulatory System: Circulatory System
*Elvis Costello & the Attractions: Imperial Bedroom
*Guided By Voices: Human Amusements at Hourly Rates
*Grateful Dead: Dick's Picks 2 (1971-10-31 Columbus OH)
*Grateful Dead: 1972-05-04 Paris (CDR) selections
*Grateful Dead: 1972-08-21 Berkeley Community Theater (CDR)
*High Llamas: Retrospective, Rarities and Instrumentals, disc 2
*Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin
*Panda Bear: Person Pitch
*Elvis Presley: heartbreak Hotel (CD single)
*Rascals: 1969-06-29 Honolulu (CDR)
*Rolling Stones: The Satanic Sessions vol. 1 (boot CDR) disc 1
*Stereolab: Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night
*Various artists: The King R&B Box Set, disc 1

Reading log 2010-07-19

*Morgan, Richard K. Woken Furies (started)
*Morgan, Richard K. Broken Angels (started/finished)
*Morgan, Richard K. Altered Carbon (started/finished)
*Musil, Robert. Man Without Qualities (in progress) **Finally!!
*Theobald, Lewis. Double Falsehood (Arden Shakespeare ed.) (in progress)
*Heatley, David. My Brain is Hanging Upside Down (in progress)
*Larson, Gary. The Complete Far Side (in progress)
*Palmer, Robert. Blues and Chaos (in progress)

Rodger Coleman said...

Them mountains, indeed. Another unlikely hit single. Is it just that opening guitar thing that gets people off? I think so. Well, and Bruford rocks.

Panda Bear! Yes! Good stuff.

Glenn said...

Dear Rodger, thank you for this beautiful, heartfelt, and immensely perceptive meditation on my book (which I've only just now come across). I'm sorry to hear you experienced something similar to me. But I'm very grateful to read how deeply you have learned from it. All the best!

Rodger Coleman said...

@Glenn -- Thank you so much for your comment! I found your book very moving, obviously! Keep practicing! :)