Heretical Musicology

by danielgoode

Heretical Musicology, Part 1
July 4, 2011 12:54:17 PM EDT

The omniscient narrator goes inside saxophonist Lester Young, and Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday, and other great jazz musicians, and tells us their experiences as if they were having them right then. And not only their musical experiences. That’s what happens when you open Geoff Dyer’s 1996 “But Beautiful [A Book About Jazz].” The back cover says it’s to be filed on the “MUSIC” shelf. What can you call it: anti-musicology? Fictional musicology? Keith Jarrett says its the only book about jazz that he recommends to friends. And it draws you in like any wonderful fiction—while you ponder: “did this really happen? did he/she really say or feel this?” I call this the “Lawrence of Arabia syndrome” because I first started asking myself that stupid but unavoidable question after seeing David Lean’s exciting, grandiose film about explorer/writer, T.E. Lawrence. Especially after he was tortured.

So Dyer stands musicology on its head as was said of Marx about Hegel, and Einstein about Newton. But let’s call his strategy an ‘informed poetics.’ Fine to name it, but to my mind he takes a heroic risk to put his subjective narration up with all the well-known ones already out there. He succeeds, I think because he deals with a probabilistic world of weather, landscape, roads, cities, drugs and their effects—these universals in any historical picture of jazz, and then we hope and trust in him to add the specifics of these real people, and their relations to the events, in an informed and astute way. Whomever thinks he hasn’t done so, speak up, but with the evidence, please!

I see the same impetus as Dyer’s in Ken Russell’s series of films about famous composers, Liszt, Mahler, Delius, etc. And there’s an interesting parallel in Thomas Mann’s “Dr. Faustus” with its “cover” of Schoenberg as Adrian Leverkühn. Here names are changed, but intellectual history is reported and interpreted.

I’m musing a bit… The Dyer technique could be used to flesh out that mysterious “walk in the woods”—as performance artist, Chris Mann calls it—in which Mahler had a four-hour walking psychoanalysis with Freud around the Netherlands city of Leiden. Freud was on vacation, and Mahler with his marriage breaking up, his health going, his world disappearing, went to him obviously in desperation after first canceling several appointments for the session. Some protegés of Freud tried to find out from him decades later what transpired between the two of them, but little seems to be reliably reported. Rather, projection by current writers about the historic meeting is obvious. But it’s not a conscious literary strategy as is Dyer’s. It’s half-way to Dyer, thus inept. We’ll never know what was said. We’ll have to make it up!

Thumbnail review. July 4th.

Heretical Musicology, Part 2

I was quoting Keith Jarrett in Part 1 about Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful [A book About Jazz], and marveling at how Dyer uses the omniscient narrator to tell what goes on inside the heads of Lester Young, Duke Ellington, and many more.

And now, reeking from the descriptions of the vomit, blood, glass-in-the-mouth life of saxophonist, Art Pepper, a heroin addict, I have to say: The book is something of a death trip. Not to lessen its impact, just to say this in order to balance my head-in-the-clouds omission of the horrors Dyer paints. The long boring road trips Duke and his musicians had to take, the airless hotel rooms. And for many the drugs and more drugs, the crashes, the rehab, the jails. The jazz creators didn’t get their kicks from their urgent urges of playing creatively (which gives our kicks as listeners). Their nirvana came from the absolute pleasure of heroin or some other cocktail of heaven-on-earth.

It was pointed out to me that Geoff Dyer, the travel writer, is interested in the journeys, on all levels, of his jazz heroes. Later in book he drops his invisible narrator role and lectures us a bit on how the nightly stresses of improvisational creativity had a cost to mind and body. The whole period caught fire fast, leaving lots of burn-out and destruction among the artists who made the revolution in jazz happen. And then its over. What happens after is endless re-enactments of that music.