Mozart, Mahler, Miles and Marsalis
June 25, 2008
Say Hi to the four Ms, all famous for their music, but for vastly different reasons. Millions find great joy in the art of the four although few like all four. Billions more do not appreciate or even recognize any of the four, possibly leaning more towards Grunge Metallic Slacker Sludge, Christmas Carols, Mexican Hat Dances, AK-47s or Tibetan chants.
Why are these Ms considered important? Are they really even artists? Do they truly produce art, whether or not they are artists to begin with? The features of their trade share little: Symphonies versus Ragtime. Lieder versus Solos. Form versus Adlib. Opera versus Gigs. Black tails or Headbands. Liberia versus Libretto, Joy versus Angst. Technique against Creativity. Brooklyn versus Berlin?
How can four so different practitioners of music all be famous? Should they be? What about Culture, Racial and Generation Gaps? How about Snobbery, Elitism or simple Ignorance? Are such items factors in this mystery? Add all into the pot, stir and suddenly one might feel a) is there really a thing called art, 2) if so, what is it and 3) what’s for dinner? Such questions are hard to face after a long day at work. Not to despair. Art is real. It’s just hard to understand at times. But then, that is part of the secret.
Mozart toiled at his legacy in the late 1700′s in the remarkable city of Vienna. Gustav Mahler followed suit in the early 1900s in, mostly, Vienna and Austria. Miles (Davis) is mostly a mid 1900s guy. Wynton Marsalis lives his glory moment as we speak. Mozart was an early Classicist, Mahler a late Romantic and Miles a little of jazzy everything in an introvert manner. Marsalis is also a little of everything but in a very different extrovert way.
Music According To Ms
>Mozart is the legend of all legends to most of us – the true artist, the wonder kid, the greatest of geniuses and the master practitioner. At the time, emperors and dukes solemnly nodded their heads (or not) while Burghers applauded, silver coins clinking. Today, record companies know him as a sure, positive ROI. His personal life was a romantic mess – no money, starvation, illness over and again. He completed the fairytale by predictably dying prematurely. Luckily, he got off to a good start around the age of four or so, producing six hundred works that apparently won’t by surpassed till the end of time.
Not liking Mozart is as unsocial as beating kids, kicking your dog, picking thy nose (or worse, someone else’s nose) or missing Mother’s Day. Some might wonder, though what is real and what are myths such as Robin Hood, King Arthur or Babe Ruth.
Mahler wrote his hour plus long, grandiose symphonies, vastly orchestrated, while suffering from all the angst so popular at the time. He started dying as soon as he was born and it didn’t ever get better. He did eventually die after producing around fifteen hours of symphonies and, mostly, lieder about Angst and Death (KindernTotenLieder). Some claim his music basically is a poor copy of Alpine cows roaming over the mountain sides, their bells clonking and loudly producing masses of green house gases. Critics happily find all kinds of technical problems. Maybe so but Mahler made art. Perhaps he went over the top at more than one occasion in a technical and emotional sense. Don’t we all?
The picture to the left is from the US premiere of his 8th Symphony. No, that is not the audience you see. Those are the performers. It is not known if they managed to squeeze an audience into the hall.
The last 60 years of jazz produced only a handful of truly great jazz artists with a lasting legacy. Miles is one of them. Not only that, he was an artist never standing still. He worked his way through late swing to bebop to cool to the best quintet and sextet music ever recorded, followed by fusion, free style and what have you. Other true artists in the same vein include Picasso and Stravinsky. Lead, don’t follow.
Perfection not Desired
Was Miles as great a trumpet player as he was an artist? His early recordings with Charlie Parker lacked the confidence, flair and excitement of Navarro and Gillespie. Later, he tended to play with his back to the audience, walking off stage when others soloed. Like Mahler, the angst level was high, yet he delivered just about every time. Nothing belittles his legacy – it only shows that superior skill is not required if artistry is big enough.
Miles is not the only case where the art genius beats the stiffness of lips and the speed of a few fingers. Ellington’s piano solos are series of three-finger chords that only a composer can love. Chet Baker couldn’t tell a chord from a Ford, much less read any kind of score. Louis Armstrong was a teddy bear of a singer but technically perfect? Not quite. Yet all are Hall of Famers.
Leni Riefenstahl debuted as an Alpine sex symbol of great beauty (above). She clawed her way up to become Nazi Germany’s most prominent film maker. Her immense talent, flawed, naive and self-serving as it was earned her the friendship of Hitler and a jail term by the Allies after the thousand years Reich vanished. Following that, she fled to Africa and became a distinguished documentary photographer of steppe tribes. In her seventies, she switched again and learnt to scuba dive. Her underwater photography ranks with the best. She was not a nice person but possessed an immense talent. She also was an artist never standing still until her death at 101.
Compare that to Rolling Stones still living off their 1960s tunes. Think of Mel Gibson playing the same role in every film. Many of us go through life never changing or even considering change. “She was a 3rd grade teacher all her life”. “They were married for seventy two years”. “He never wrote that novel”. “Her mother was a nurse so she followed the family tradition”. All of which may boil down to nice, comfortable lives. You will not find many true artists in these bourgeois neighborhoods.
Sanity – Way Overrated
Another school contains those with above average sanity challenges. Bud Powell was a brilliant pianist when his madness was somewhat controlled. The same goes for Glenn Gould of Bach fame. Van Gogh and the ear business come close. Robert Schumann was locked up in his mid forties and soon died. Charles Mingus was not mad to my knowledge but had a temper issue that resulted in smashed bases and screams at audiences. Keith Jarrett also has an audience problem. Do not sneeze in the presence of the master.
Charlie Parker left recordings amply proving that having your brains on fire does your artistry no good. So did Billie Holiday, Zoot Sims and Lester Young. Ben Webster went nowhere without his pocket flask. No one can fault the brilliance of these cats. No one can deny the artistic disasters all produced at many a time. You won’t find technical perfection here.
There is the phenomenon of Outside Artists, a phrase coined in the nineteen twenties discussing (academically) the art of the insane or severely disadvantaged artists mostly residing in asylums. At the time, there wasn’t much of a splash. But the last ten or twenty years awoke the World of Art to yet another way to make money, especially since by now the Outsiders were often dead with little need for royalties or income. Today, museums and galleries from Tokyo to Toronto feature the original Oursiders as well as an inflow of others. I have covered the artistry of these Outsiders several times in these essays.
We have the complete artistry and skill of Mozart, the fatal emotions of Mahler, the imperfect genius of Miles Davis and scores of others – sane, angry or not. Put it the other way. Mozart wasted his genius faster than his money could fly. Mahler does sometimes in fact sound like roaming, self pitying cows. Miles Davis was one of the great but blowing his horn was not flawless. But artistry and adversity are not the only ways to create music.
Practice makes Good
Wynton Marsalis is at the other end of the spectrum. He is the current self declared high priest not only of jazz but music in general. His brilliant technique flashes everything a trumpet can do in polite company. Cool, urban, the Obama of Jazz, his repertoire stretches from (the) baroque to big bands with lots of lecturing.
My problem is that his work leaves me out in the cold. No engagement – it’s like looking at the blueprint rather then the basilica. Of course, his nine Grammy’s and a Pulitzer (all earned, not nominated) probably indicates I’m the one with a problem. Little do I care. Miles Davis matches the nine Grammy’s. He even has a Hollywood Walk of Fame Star. So there.
Marsalis is not the only technical supremist. Yo-yo Ma punches his way through reinventing Bach to fiddling along in the Appalachians, South American Tango bars, Silk Roads, Tibetan monasteries, Brazilian beaches or Japanese gardens, sometimes on the same day without losing his stride as he jets from Vienna to Vermont. Technical brilliance and an odd need to explore what perhaps doesn’t need exploring, but who can argue with fifteen (15) Grammy’s, a carbon fiber cello and first class upgrades for life on every airline currently in the air?
On the piano, technicians such as Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and John Lewis battle it out against the belly laughs of Fats Waller, the gyrates by Ray Charles and the off the beat beats from Errol Garner in Concert by the Sea. Errol was about as technically challenged as Chet Baker. The only good sheet is a dead sheet, they said. No Academies needed. Juilliard, go home.
Artistic Black holes
The Grammy’s is possibly the most boring TV show ever invented, surpassing the Oscars, CSPAN, Traffic cameras and Community TV. Endless hours are spent on Best Polkas, Best Studio Lavatories and the Most Recent Tattoo Screamer. Imported celebrities snort and snore while practicing looking alert while asleep. Grammy’s, needless to say, are a lousy way to understand artistic accomplishment.
Several modern day performers mentioned here have in the order of ten awards each. Others do not for undisclosed reasons. Ellington has eleven; Oscar Peterson seven and Ella Fitzgerald received thirteen. Kenny G trails with only one with Louis Armstrong at a miserable single one for Hello, Dolly. John Coltrane also missed the trane with only one. Errol Garner lost out completely. U2′s twenty-two is the best score, Michael Jackson got thirteen and Tony Bennett fourteen.
Another measure: Record sales shows who got rich and prove bad music can sell very well. The toppers are the Beatles, Bing Crosby, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra and Elvis. None of the Ms are best sellers. Kenny G ranks around 120 together with high octaners such as Hibari Misora of Japan and Luis Miguel of Mexico. The opera crooner Luciano Pavarotti ended up in the mid-seventies, close to Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey. O Soli Mio doesn’t stand a chance to White Christmas by Bing Crosby.
Categorizations such as the Grammy’s, Emmy’s and Tony’s never were intended to provide artistic judgments. They are more like voting for “Most Likely to Succeed” or “Best Dog Catcher in Town”. That does not tell us which success story or dog catcher will make the most significant contributions to mankind. Snooze with the Grammy’s if you like. Grammy’s might claim to know who is the best Tango Flutist in Western Argentina. They will not tell you whether such a flutist possesses any artistic talents whatsoever.
Let’s turn to the fakes, jokes, pests and bores mercilessly ambushing us in the largest abundance bad money can buy. This illustrious gang comes at us blaring from our TV sets, out of the supermarket and elevator PA systems, in Town Hall meetings, party alliances and church action groups. They are plastered on bill boards and buses. They predict the weather, read the news, write to the editor (or rather blog writers), investigate community antiwar groups, combat abortion clinics or practice white, black or Compassionate Conservative power. Many like to prohibit art, burn books while others promote sending artist commies to the nearest reeducation camp for a little tough love. And God help the Jaywalkers and those spitting on the sidewalk.
The Jokes and the Losers
Sadly, we suffer the charlatans or, as I’ll call them, the jokes. Capable of some obscure publicity trick, they hail utterly forgettable causes. A few examples – Ann Coulter in the world of fascism, George Bush in the nonexistent world of compassionate conservatism (as practiced in Guantánamo??), Jerry Springer in “entertainment”, Geraldo Rivera as the brave war correspondent. In music, you have Britney Spears, Kenny G, various Jacksons and Mantovani. “Men in lace panties and the women who loves them”, to quote Geraldo.
Billions are untouched by Mozart, Mapplethorpe, Miró, Mailer or Mahler, correctly caring not at all that these five survive the cruelty of time. Surviving is not enough. Hitler will be remembered. Our memories are infested with Charles Manson with his crazed troops, Reverend Jones of Jonestown serving up Kool-Aid or Reverend Koresh in Waco playing with matches, Teddy the Unabomber giggling in his windowless shack, peace in our time by Chamberlain on the eve of the WW II 73 million dead, Tricky Dick Nixon chatting with Checkers by the fire, neither being crooks, where’s the meat by Mondale (who?), the spelling of Dan Quayle, the grammar of Dubya, the line in the sand and no new taxes according to his Dad while Bill Clinton never had sex (define sex).
Twelve Tone Music seems like a loser as are the USSR sculptures of worker heroes. Cubism doesn’t have much of a future – been there, done that. It’s hard to believe Pierre Boulez’ bird songs will be in much demand a hundred years out. Art Nouveau is hardly Noveau any more. Fauvism no longer resembles Wild Beasts. What about the minimalistic school? Is it minimalistic in terms of art or just far too tiny to care for? Smooth jazz, snooze jazz. Is rap crap? New Age is more Truly Boring Age. The Road Less Traveled might be just that. Prozac for the devoted fans. All two of them.
Most of us are more concerned with the famous of today. There is no real way of predicting who will be remembered in 2108 but here are some wild guesses. Will anyone remember Bill O’Reilly, Hillary Clinton, Norah Jones, Jay Leno, Harry Truman, Burt Bacharach, Mel Gibson, Ralph Nader, James Inhofe or the Princess of Wales? I surely don’t know but certainly have an opinion which says none of the above. On the other hand, Michael Jackson likely will have his picture in a few medical journals as will Cher and Joan Rivers. Muhammad Ali will be there but not Kobe Bryant. Pele will kick around but David Beckham will not.
The Artistics of Artistic Artists
An artist is a person whose creative work shows sensitivity and imagination, a character who creates or builds the new, who use imagination, talent, or skill to create works that may be judged to have an aesthetic value. And so on. Others say an artist is skilled at some activity, who pursues a practical science, traditionally medicine, astrology, alchemy, chemistry. According to sources in Kansas City, a practicing fine artist may not necessarily be a resident of the Kansas City metro area.
Leo Tolstoy defined an artist as someone with communication skills allowing the audience to be “infected” with the artist’s point of view. I suppose that means most self help gurus, TV evangelists and politicians must be artists rather than mere con artists.
In most of history, an artist was viewed as a craftsman. That is certainly true of, say, Haydn who lived at the mercy of various aristocrats. Bach served the mighty church as an organist during most of his career. His 200 cantatas played to the glory of the masters. At the time, his Goldberg variations, Brandenburg concertos and other secular works were mostly ignored. His contemporaries found him a tolerable organist, not a composer.
Mozart, at his arrival at the Salzburg court, found he ranked between the valets and the cooks. By then he had about 35 symphonies and a dozen operas to his name, together with a resume covering many European Courts. Emperor Joseph II uttered his classic put down, ‘Too many notes, my dear Mozart’ following the premiere of the opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
More recently, the Soviet Union practiced a policy of art being a political tool to con the masses into higher production of tractors, vodka and tanks. Artists were servants of the proletariat (aka the Politburo), expected to follow detailed guidelines. This practice lasted till the fall of the Soviet some seventeen years ago. Lately in the symbol of freedom, Rudolph W. Giuliani made an ill-fated attempt to reinvent censorship. Joe McCarthy favored going after artists in general and those associated with Hollywood in particular. Republican congressmen would like to disband public radio and TV together with the National Endowment for the Arts in favor of drilling holes in the Arctic.
Art survives. Artists never die. Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev both kept a degree of artistic integrity in spite of Stalin’s ever-present threat of having both join the millions of others executed. The Soviets are not alone. Turkey, for instance, is not far behind: “Individuals are being harassed and threatened with imprisonment simply for speaking or writing about aspects of Turkish history or culture that do not conform to an imposed nationalist ideal”, according to Amnesty International. Amnesty itself is under constant criticism from Russia, China, Vietnam, Congo, Israel, the United States and other nondemocratic governments.
Art objects, of course, are easily destroyed. In WW II, the Allies pulverized the Italy Monte Cassino Monastery which dated back to te year 529. Today the Monastery is rebuilt. Militarily, the strike was a disaster. The destroyed buildings provided the Germans with plenty of new defense positions.
The historic center of the German city of Dresden, filled with art treasures and historic buildings was completely wiped out by the British Air Force in 1945. This was only a few weeks before the end of the war. The raid was plain revenge without any military benefit whatsoever: the Dresden military targets were not hit at all. Much of the Dresden centre is rebuilt to the historical standard, except the Russian occupiers bulldozed into oblivion the wreckage of treasures such as the Gothic Sophienkirche, the Alberttheater and the Wackerbarth-Palais.
Art gets stolen, in particular paintings. This rather limits its access to mankind in general and its rightful owners in particular. The Nazis with Goering in the lead stole the art of the occupied territories on a massive scale. Approximately 20% of Western art disappeared into Nazi hideouts. Some 100,000 items remain unaccounted. The value may approach billions of dollies. The hunt is still on.
Historically, music and literature were harder to steal. Today, that is no longer true. Computers in everyone’s hands and the Internet makes theft not only possible through copyright infringement, but also so easy few bother to consider the impact. Copyright owners all over the world struggle with this and so far it is mostly a losing battle. How can you prosecute millions of kids?
Bach and Haydn are remembered today. Their masters are long forgotten. Yet these masters, depots, Fuhrers and kings of this and dukes of that may have made the rest of us an unintended favor of immense value.
Art does not just come from individual creativity. It’s often dependent of and based on controversy such as war, terror and the many 9/11s of history. One of Picasso’s most famous works is based on the Nazi bombing of a Spanish town. Robert Capa’s pictures of D-Day slaughter and Jewish artists producing masterpieces in Hitler’s concentration camps also make the point.
Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony dedicated to the millions who died from hunger and cold as Nazi troupes watched. Shostakovich wrote most the symphony on location as Leningrad died around him. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s books about the Gulags are based on personal experience. In 1945, he upset Stain so that, under Soviet Criminal Article 58, he spent the next 11 years in various camps and exiles. Here, in his own words:
- I was arrested on the grounds of what the censorship had found during the years 1944-45 in my correspondence with a school friend, mainly because of certain disrespectful remarks about Stalin, although we referred to him in disguised terms. As a further basis for the “charge”, there were used the drafts of stories and reflections which had been found in my map case. These, however, were not sufficient for a “prosecution”, and in July 1945 I was “sentenced” in my absence, in accordance with a procedure then frequently applied, after a resolution by the OSO (the Special Committee of the NKVD), to eight years in a detention camp (at that time this was considered a mild sentence).
- I served the first part of my sentence in several correctional work camps of mixed types (this kind of camp is described in the play, The Tenderfoot and the Tramp). In 1946, as a mathematician, I was transferred to the group of scientific research institutes of the MVD-MOB (Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of State Security). I spent the middle period of my sentence in such “SPECIAL PRISONS” (The First Circle).
- In 1950 I was sent to the newly established “Special Camps” which were intended only for political prisoners. In such a camp in the town of Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich), I worked as a miner, a bricklayer, and a foundry man. There I contracted a tumor which was operated on, but the condition was not cured (its character was not established until later on).
- One month after I had served the full term of my eight-year sentence, there came, without any new judgment and even without a “resolution from the OSO”, an administrative decision to the effect that I was not to be released but EXILED FOR LIFE to Kok-Terek (southern Kazakhstan). This measure was not directed specially against me, but was a very usual procedure at that time. I served this exile from March 1953 (on March 5th, when Stalin’s death was made public,
- I was allowed for the first time to go out without an escort) until June 1956. Here my cancer had developed rapidly, and at the end of 1953, I was very near death. I was unable to eat, I could not sleep and was severely affected by the poisons from the tumor. However, I was able to go to a cancer clinic at Tashkent, where, during 1954, I was cured (The Cancer Ward, Right Hand).
- During all the years of exile, I taught mathematics and physics in a primary school and during my hard and lonely existence I wrote prose in secret (in the camp I could only write down poetry from memory). I managed, however, to keep what I had written, and to take it with me to the European part of the country, where, in the same way, I continued, as far as the outer world was concerned, to occupy myself with teaching and, in secret, to devote myself to writing, at first in the Vladimir district (Matryona’s Farm) and afterwards in Ryazan.
Through his punishment, he kept writing, hiding the notebooks, defending it with all his cunning, seeking publication. The Soviets kept suppressing him but eventually, all of Solzhenitsyn’s work is published, first in the West, later in the Russia that replaced the USSR. At this time, his old adversaries are dead,
Art also survives through cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, madness, wrecks and early death. Scott Lafaro, Clifford Brown, Bill Evans, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Fats Waller, Bix Beiderbecke, Charlie Christian, Eric Dolphy are some examples of early death and lasting art in the small world of jazz.
In the world of classical music, Mozart died at the age of 35, Robert Schumann at 46, Kurt Weill at 50. But in general classical music is a safer environment than that of jazz and rock. Few classical composers spend their time in obscure clubs in strange little towns with a wheezy old bus running through the night to the next gig and another grease pot burger. Classical soloists are sometimes treated as royalty – rock punks and jazz cats are not.
Goliath versus David. Hillary versus Obama. Marsalis and Miles. Yo-Yo Ma versus Jacqueline du Pré. Oscar Peterson versus Bill Evans. Kenny G versus John Coltrane. Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin. Anita Baker against Billie Holiday. Diane Krall compared to Shirley Horn. Britain versus Thirteen Colonies. Jedi Knights versus Hobbits. Kojak versus Philip Marlowe. Miami Vice versus Sam Spade. Ronald McDonald battling The Colonel battling homemade porridge. Technicians versus Artists.
The Lure of the Technicians
A technician is someone who might service your car. They fix machinery and appliances. There are chief, expert, assistant and bad technicians. Some deal with maintenance, testing, forensic, x-ray, optical, nuclear, food, brakes, shark, toe nail, nose, lice, cat and dog matters. They make the World tolerable. They are licensed, bonded, illegal or shy, loaded or pretty much like all the rest of us. Some say a technician is generally someone active in a technological field (Gee!).
Few descriptions of today’s technicians mention art although historically, artists were viewed as technicians or craftsmen. Society today is complex indeed, requiring an army of experts to run it. The true technicians are very visible. We need the doctors, plumbers, mobile phone gurus, Redmond enablers (“Your potential. Our passion” which currently translates to xBoxes) and hairdressers. Torturers, lawyers, snipers, SWAT teams and concentration camp guards are desperately needed.
Way back, people just hunted down some animal for dinner so they could return to painting pictures of the same animals on their cave walls. Few technicians were needed. Fire and the concepts of shelter were already in place. What else could anyone possibly need? How about a little art to liven things up? At the time, stealing art was not a big issue. Time changed. War was invented. Money came along. Al Gore came up with the Internet. Art became steal able.
Few laws prevent changing original art to whatever the nimble technician desires. Famous people find themselves starring in sex videos. Fake Hillary videos have her say the most astonishing things. Fox Network changes those graphics ever so slightly and yet another liberal commie walks the plank.
US Senator from Oklahoma James Inhofe doesn’t need computers, skills or technical fakers to make up his own fake reality, a talent shared with George W. Bush, Michael Jackson, OJ, Saddam Hussein, Kim il-Jong and Anderson Cooper. Global Warming deniers ignore science. Creationists ignore their own bodies. Spiderman reinvented human flight. King Kong went from chauvinism to sensitivity in just an hour or two.
The Joy of Technology
Today we have entertainment technicians manning the porn stages and sport technicians dunking basketballs at an unbelievable price tag each time. Other technicians fiddle with mp3s, MIDIs, Photoshop, YouTube and online sharing of art. Ansel Adams images now exist in thousands of versions, cropped here and adjusted there. Mona Lisa might bear the sneering face of Dick Cheney. That Glenn Miller tune may be all coming out of some computer. For a while, a decent printer and basic computer allowed you to print your own money. Today’s PDAs can design your very own nuclear bomb if you’re technically inclined.
Industrial CAD and robots can easily reproduce Aztec temples, Chinese walls, Zeppelins, Pharos tombs, the Hiroshima bomb and the Model T automobile. Add a bit of cheap video and Battleship Potemkin becomes a Ben Affleck flick. We already have fake Gettysburg battles, fake moon landings and man made UFOs, interactive alien invasions and fantasy versions of killing thy neighbor, spouse or pet alligator. Or yourself. We now enjoy video games about video games. Inventors experiment with whole body rubber devices that can simulate remote Internet sex at the annoyance of many a motel owner and to the joy of divorce lawyers.
What I Think
Artists are the ones who touch me emotionally. They make me see, learn and experience more than is obvious. Technicians may make me a bit envious but they leave me cold. No Marsalis solo will engage me as those of Miles Davis do. Yet Marsalis beats Miles technically every time. I don’t care.
Not that emotions are the only ingredients in Art. Dazzling highs, darkest lows, wild exaggerations, cold blooded cynicism, racism, chauvinism, greed, betrayal, you name it – all parts of the deal.
I was about fourteen when I first heard Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and the Abschied movement on the radio. Many years later I still remember that evening and how music was never again the same. I discovered that emotions drives artistic experience. And few can play on emotions like Gustav Mahler could. Couple that with Thomas Mann’s books from the same time and you have a world class melodrama on your hands, easily beating the suffering of Hollywood any day.
Another memory from the same time finds me home from school sick in bed. Based on my pains, I managed to blackmail my father into believing an album by a mysterious Charlie Parker might cure me. I became the naive recipient of my first Parker experience. I hated the bloody thing. The sound was terrible. Every track seemed like weirdness galore. The harmonies could raise your hair in panic. It was one of those radio recordings with Parker, Davis, Fats Navarro and Bud Powell. There was weird stuff like Round Midnight and Ornithology. Considering myself as a fellow alto player, I kept at it though. Suddenly it dawned on me. The hump disappeared. The anarchy of bebop and modern music suddenly became part of me. The emotional discovery happened and nothing was ever the same.
In the early 1970s I experienced a concert by Jacqueline du Pré, a cellist and a remarkable story. As with Mahler, some saw her as emotionally over the top. Perhaps she was. She also at the time suffered from MS that would kill her some 15 years alter. Her illness brought a brilliant career to an end by the mid seventies. On our trail of emotions, her most famous recording is that of Elgar’s Cello Concerto made with the London Symphony in 1965 when she was 20. Two years later she married Daniel Barenboim in a remarkable artistic partnership that was brought to a close far too prematurely.
Experiencing de Pre’s Elgar Cello Concerto is as much an emotional high as anything can be. It is the basis for her today being viewed as perhaps the greatest cellist ever. The technical skills and travels on the roads less traveled by Yo-Yo Ma will not approach the impact of that scratchy old de Pre recording.
There are, of course, other significant experiences. A first hearing of Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat or the Rite of Spring ballet ranks high. Here is to prove others are gripped by emotions as well at the 1913 premiere of the Rite in Paris:
- “The complex music and violent dance steps depicting fertility rites first drew catcalls and whistles from the crowd. At the start with the opening bassoon solo, the audience began to boo loudly due to the slight discord in the background notes behind the bassoon’s opening melody. There were loud arguments in the audience between supporters and opponents of the work. These were soon followed by shouts and fistfights in the aisles. The unrest in the audience eventually degenerated into a riot. The Paris police arrived by intermission, but they restored only limited order.”
- “Chaos reigned for the remainder of the performance, and Stravinsky himself was so upset on account of its reception that he fled the theater in mid-scene, reportedly crying. Fellow composer Camille Saint-Saëns famously stormed out of the première (though Stravinsky later said “I do not know who invented the story that he was present at, but soon walked out of, the premiere.”) allegedly infuriated over the misuse of the bassoon in the ballet’s opening bars. Stravinsky ran backstage, where Diaghilev was turning the lights on and off in an attempt to try to calm the audience. Nijinsky stood on a chair, leaned out far enough that Stravinsky had to grab his coat-tail, and shouted counts to the dancers, who were unable to hear the orchestra.”
Cool huh? Moving along to other discoveries, eye openers, emotional highs and just great artistry, Coltrane’s Giant Steps and A Love Supreme, the Mingus Ah Um album, Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debbie and I Say Farwell (he really did), Ellington in 1928-1931 and 1940, Kind of Blue by Miles (much as I hate to admit it given the gross commercialization of the album), the 1955 Clifford Brown and Max Roach album, Charlie Parker in 1947 and Sonny Rollins in The Bridge and Saxophone Colussus both rank high.
In the classical area, add in anything by Martha Argerich, Keith Jarrett and Villa-Lobos. Argerich, a publicity shy Argentinean who may or may not show up for concerts, consistently produces fabulous records. Her Prokifiev and Bartok Piano Concertos are very, very good. Keith Jarrett is many a thing. He is mostly a jazz pianist of real originality but also a truly great classical performer. His 24 Preludes and Fugues by Shostakovich are fabulous. He made a mark with his jazz solo recordings with hour-long free form improvisations that to me are a bit trying.
Hector Villa-Lobos, a Brazilian composer of the first half of the 1900s, is mostly associated with Bachianas Brasileiras, a takeoff on Bach that includes a train trip and other fun features such as scoring for no less than eight cellos and voice. He also composed a series of really great string quartets.
The artists, records and works above all are time tested, well known, critically acclaimed and safe bets. Some of them are a little less well known but the selection is by no means adventurous. It is unforgivable to pass over the equally talented artists as well as letting so many jokes off the hook. On the practical level, there are thousands upon thousands terrific artists out there – I manage an artist database that in a very short time passed 100,000 records. Unfortunately, not all can be covered in a blog like this.
Leo Tolstoy said in the 1897 book “What is Art”: “Art must create a specific emotional link between the artist and the audience. The link “infects” the viewer. Art embraces any human activity in which the artist transmits previously experienced feelings to the audience. Tolstoy offers an example of this: a boy that has experienced fear after an encounter with a wolf later relates that experience, infecting the hearers and compelling them to feel the same fear that he had experienced—that is a perfect example of a work of art.”
Tolstoy is mostly right except for claiming the audience must share the fear of the boy. The audience rightfully may react any way they wish, be it amusement, fear, pity or what have you. The aim is to get the reaction, not to dictate what reaction is allowed.
Artists quite often are victims both of their own devices (the madness of van Gogh, the starvation of Mozart, the addictions of Charlie Bird Parker) as well as the persecutions by the Goebbels, Stalins, Bushes and many a local chief. Technicians, in the narrow perspective of this essay, are not so often victims as they are victim makers. Yet Mozart, Haydn, Dostoevsky, ancient cave painters, da Vinci, Michelangelo are Hildegard von Bingen are even more present today than in their own days.
Art expands us. Art without a point is not art. The artist may strive for a specific point but the interpretation is really in the minds of the audience, not the artist. Experiencing art is an individual undertaking where the next guy may see things very differently. That is how it works or as it should work. Art is the most democratic of all ideas surrounding us.
Mozart taught me about joy, Mahler pointed at death and thus life. Davis proved sketches are more powerful than billboards. John Coltrane built the grandest of architectural music monuments. Tomas Mann showed me what despair really is while Dostoevsky made me understand suffering. Ellington is all about color and light. Bird rose into the skies with a path towards new horizons. Beethoven was made of courage, anger, heroism and superiority. Leni Riefenstahl proved Art can be immoral while Jacqueline du Pré showed it is immortal. Shostakovich and Solzhenitsyn made me see how suppression and prosecution can not beat down Art. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Chet Baker and Errol Garner relied not on technical wizardry but on a gigantic inner artistic spirit.
That’s how it is, how it should be and how it will be. Lucky us.
Thank you all and happy listening!