Tuesday, March 06, 2007
Theological Mind Jazz
I mentioned in the comments a couple of days a go that I stumbled upon this great little film on You Tube called The Universal Mind of Bill Evans. For those of you who are jazz fans, it's a must see, but even for you squares and moldy figs who aren't hip to the scene, it's a fascinating excursion into the mind of one of the great musical geniuses in history. For Evans was not just a musician, but a teacher and philosopher, and he obviously thought quite deeply about the creative process. Furthermore, unlike most philosophers, he was able to articulate his thoughts in a very straight forward and accessible manner.
In fact, this parallels his musical technique, which somehow combines a maximum of depth and accessibility. Unlike most jazz musicians, he enjoyed a level of commercial success because most anyone could appreciate his music. For one thing, he had a very unintimidating, "pretty" sound, so if one is not particularly musically sophisticated, Evans might just remind you of the pianist at the Norstrom in heaven. As Evans put it, "Especially, I want my work -- and the trios if possible -- to sing." That it does. He is the most lyrical of pianists.
But despite the outer accessibility, there is enough harmonic, melodic, contrapuntal and rhythmic complexity to keep a musicologist busy for a lifetime -- like a beautifully designed automobile that is even more beautifully engineered. At any given moment, there is so much "interior detail" going on -- musical problems, resolutions, flights of fancy, conversations with the other instrumentalists (usually in a trio format -- bass and drums), introspection, sadness, exuberance.
Another reader mentioned that his favorite pianist was Thelonious Monk. That's a fine choice, except that no one else can play like Thelonious Monk. His technique was so distinctive that if you try to imitate him, you'll just sound like a caricature. Interestingly, Evans' musical conception is so capacious that he was easily able to incorporate Monk without ever sounding like him. Monk just became another "color" in his musical palette. It reminds me of how Stevie Ray Vaughan was able to incorporate Hendrix into his technique. If you merely impersonate Hendrix, then it just sounds like bad Hendrix. It's not art, but mimicry.
I relate on a very personal level to much of what Evans says in the film. In my book I use a lot of musical analogies, because there is something about music that reflects the deep temporal structure of existence. I think this explains the near universal love of music. While music may not be "natural religion," in that it provides no moral code, no grace, no salvation, and no object of worship, it does in many ways represent "natural metaphysics" or "natural ontology."
In other words, music reveals things about the nature of reality, so that if one dwells deeply within music, one can gain universal insights into existence. Certainly this was the view of Wagner, who may not have been the greatest philosopher of music but was apparently the greatest philosopher with music. I'm not saying that I can appreciate his music, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn and I did read this fascinating book (which also inspired Future Leader's name).
Evans made so many provocative little observations in the film that I'm trying to remember them all. One of them was that honest jazz involves making one minute of music in one minute of time. I'd never thought of it this way, but that is exactly what makes it so alive. I just googled some unsourced quotes, and in one of them, Evans says that jazz is "performing without any really set basis for the lines and the content as such -- emotionally or, specifically, musically. And if you sit down and contemplate what you’re going to do, and take five hours to write five minutes of music, then it’s composed music. Therefore I would put it in the classical or serious, whatever you want to call it, written-music category. So there’s composed music and there’s jazz. And to me anybody that makes music using the process that we are using in Jazz, is playing Jazz."
In hearing these words, I instantly transposed them into the key of blogging, because that is exactly what I'm trying to do here: provide you Coons with 60 minutes or 90 minutes of intellection -- or "soul jazz," as it were -- in 60 or 90 minutes. My book, on the other hand, is a composition -- several years of intellection for several days of reading. (That's not completely accurate, since most of the book was written in little bursts of inspiration, but you get the point.)
People sometimes ask me, "Bob, when is the next failed book coming out?," but at this rate, I'm not sure there will ever be one, the reason being that "jamming" on the blog is so much more compelling than composing by myself in my lonely Coon den. I don't know if I'd want to -- or even could -- revert to composition again. Notice that Jesus -- there you go again, comparing yourself to Jesus -- did the same thing. Quite conspicuously, he did not sit down, spend a few years thinking about reality, and write a book. Interestingly, for a religion that is supposedly based on "the Book," Jesus is a poor example, for the Gospels provide no evidence that he ever touched one, with the possible exception of peeking at the Torah when the pharisees were out getting a sandwich at Cantor's deli.
Thus, when Jesus speaks -- for example, in the Sermon on the Mount -- he is giving you ten minutes of theology in ten minutes time. But in so doing -- in abiding in the spontaneity of the now -- he is also giving the listener eternity in ten minutes, which I think is the key point. Everything he knows -- and more importantly, is -- is compressed into the vehicle of that eternal moment.
This is exactly what an improviser such as Bill Evans is attempting to do in the moment, and it is exactly what I try to do with the blog. Now obviously, in order to do this, it only takes half a lifetime of discipline, preparation, and apprenticeship. Otherwise, your spontaneous musings will be as deep and interesting as Maureen Dowd or Andrew Sullivan or Markos Moulitsas or Bill Maher.
Evans says "I believe in things that are developed through hard work. I always like people who have developed long and hard, especially through introspection and a lot of dedication. I think what they arrive at is usually a much deeper and more beautiful thing than the person who seems to have that ability and fluidity from the beginning. I say this because it's a good message to give to young talents who feel as I used to." As Evans suggests in the film, too many budding musicians want to tackle major musical problems and develop a "style" -- which is the last phase -- before they have thoroughly understood and assimilated minor ones. True style can only come after that has been accomplished.
Once again, I immediately transposed this into my world. One of the downsides of democracy is that "everyone has an opinion." Even worse, everyone is a "philosopher," or a "theologian," or a "political scientist," or "environmentalist," or "psychologist." Frankly, most psychologists are not psychologists, let alone people who have never studied it in depth. Deepak Chopra is not a theologian any more than Daniel Dennett is a philosopher or Bill Maher is a political scientist, but because of the lowerarchical narcissism of the age, the question of their credentials does not even arise.
Evans makes a couple of key points along these lines. First, he talks about how the cathedral, so to speak, of his musical conception was built brick by brick, layer by layer. Only when he stably internalized one level of the hierarchy did he move on to the next. Interestingly, this exactly parallels Polanyi's conception of epistemology, as each discovery is internalized by the body and becomes a "platform" to probe more deeply into the unknown. In other words, in the process of discovery, the "known" eventually becomes an implicit background that we don't even think about any more, just as a blind person no longer feels a cane in his hand, but instantaneously transduces this into an "image" of the space around him.
In the film, Steve Allen -- who can't help himself from being a bit of a pretentious load -- makes a valid point when he compares it to the operation of a car. At first, you have to think about everything consciously -- steering, changing gears, applying the breaks, etc. -- but eventually this all becomes background. You might say that the car literally becomes an extension of the body. Whatever your mind wants to do with the car is instantly translated into the appropriate action without even consciously thinking about it.
It is the same way with philosophy, theology, and metaphysics. In a previous post I discussed my frustrating experience of attending a three-day "golf camp" paid for by my generous in-laws who were selfishly hoping that Mrs. G. and I would eventually be their golf partners. Although I am a natural athlete, my athleticism counted for bupkis. If anything, Dear Leader's renowned physical prowess just made him more impatient. At one point we were practicing chipping onto the green, and I was essentially flailing away, punishing the innocent turf below. The pro said, "here. Take the ball in your hand. Now just toss it underhand to where you want it to go. See? Easy. Now just do the same thing with the club."
In other words, the problem was that I was trying to hit the ball with the club instead of with my body and mind -- instead of using the club as a mere extension of the Gagdad soul. When I shoot hoops, I do this automatically. I don't think about anything except for the basket, and "swish!, Lakers win the championship in double overtime!" But in a mere three days, I couldn't internalize the golf club as an extension of my psychic substance.
I'm imagining what it would be like to have a piano as an extension of your body, so that musical thoughts at whatever level of sophistication could be instantaneously transmitted through your fingertps without even thinking about it. But in the case of Evans, it's more than just musical ideas. Rather, again, he is able to put everything he is into the music. The piano is such an extension of his soul, that it becomes an outer reflection of his interior world:
"Technique is the ability to translate your ideas into sound through your instrument. This is a comprehensive technique... a feeling for the keyboard that will allow you to transfer any emotional utterance into it. What has to happen is that you develop a comprehensive technique and then say, 'Forget that. I’m just going to be expressive through the piano....' To the person who uses music as a medium for the expression of ideas, feelings, images, or what have you; anything which facilitates this expression is properly his instrument."
Elsewhere Evans said, "First of all, I never strive for identity. That's something that just has happened automatically as a result, I think, of just putting things together, tearing things apart and putting it together my own way, and somehow I guess the individual comes through eventually." That's exactly how I feel with my own writing. Especially because of the discipline of blogging, it's gotten to the point that I'm pretty sure my identity comes through in everything I write. Of course, it's hard for me to say, since I am an "insider" to my own identity, and cannot experience it from the outside. However, it very much feels as if blogging has come to involve this spiraling reciprocal process of externalization and internalization of my soul.
In other words, if you want to "practice" -- which is to say, deepen yourself -- you will need a piano, or some other such instrument. As you externalize your musical interior, you gradually assimilate what you have exteriorized, and vice versa.
Evans makes a key point about the need for structure to "play against." Although jazz involves radical improvisation, it will be devoid of meaning -- not to say, dramatic tension -- if it is not in reference to a stable framework that is always being "referenced" in the background. Keith Jarrett, who was deeply influenced by Bill Evans, takes this to even greater extremes, starting with a standard and veering into 20 or 30 minute improvisational flights of fancy that never detach completely from the musical structure.
Evans makes the point that this kind of improvisation used to be common to "classical" music, but was lost by the 19th century, only to be resurrected by jazz musicians. Not only were people such as Bach or Mozart apparently wonderful improvisers, but by all accounts, Mozart was capable of making "45 minutes of symphony in 45 minutes!"
Once again, I couldn't help but wonder how this relates to theology, and to what we do here in Coonland. For, what if the inspired prophets and writers of the Gospels were more like Bill Evans than John Tesh or Dino? What if they could only have accomplished what they did by using their entire bodymind as a spontaneous vehicle for higher forces to express themselves through -- as opposed to "taking dication" like Mohammed? What if we're supposed to groove and jam on the Bible, not memorize and rewordgitate it in the manner of the Mohammedans?
One thing that I hope sets me apart from my New Age competitors is that I do not engage in theological "free jazz." Rather, although there is no doubt that I improvise, I always do so over the mystic chords of tradition. No matter how far afield I might go, I am always anchored to the structure that has been revealed to us by the Master Composer. Meaning is what takes place in the dynamic tension between structure and process -- not by slavish devotion to the structure, but by using it as a launch pad back into the vertical realm from which it arose in the first place.
My creed for art in general is that it should enrich the soul; it should teach spirituality by showing a person a portion of himself that he would not discover otherwise... a part of yourself you never knew existed. --Bill Evans
"Jazz's Perfect Afternoon":
Of course, for absolute modern jazz beginners, this is the best place to start (Evans had a major hand in its conception):