Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Shostakovich, Eddie Barefield, and The Evolution of Western Art

The following posting from August 2018 was a challenging read, much as Shostakovich is a challenging listen. But it offers a rare big picture view, from a musician's perspective, of the evolution and degeneration of artforms.


Riled up by Christopher Lydon’s terrific Open Source podcast on Shostakovich, I ventured to Tanglewood last weekend to hear his Fourth Symphony. It’s always a powerful, emotional experience; a triumph born of failure. As so often happens in the arts, the composer tried to imitate (in this case, Gustav Mahler) and failed magnificently.

Mahler wove popular songs and motifs, gestures and dogma, commentary and meta commentary, seamlessly into his majestic symphonies. You always know when an orchestra is outfitting itself for Mahler. Every half-decent brass and percussion player in town gets called in to fortify those sections. In this, his most Mahlerian effort, Shostakovich beefs up the band aplenty. A furniture store of basses, along with a complete second set of timpani and a redundancy of tubists (scary gleams in their eyes, awaiting the bloody meal) are just a few of the upgrades.

But I'm sorry, Dimitry. You know I love you, but you've produced no bold smash of schweinefleischy indomitability, because you're just not that guy. Rather, the Fourth Symphony plays out like a nerdy, nervous, soulfully acerbic patchwork of musical tchotchkes. Pravda was foolish to call it "muddle not music", but, political pressures aside*, you can't blame them for failing to appreciate such a sharp turn. Shostakovich's brilliant cornucopia helped usher in a more ADD approach to 20th century art, eventually culminating in postmodernism (as well as at least one soulfully acerbic blogger). In retrospect, it was a glorious muddle of profound musicality.

A style was born, even if partially the product of serendipity. Charles Mingus tried to write like Duke Ellington, but he lacked Duke's jaunty elegance and formal structure, so the result was a rumbling slurry of primal soul. Many of us prefer that slurry.

Mahler has inevitability. His music may sound dissonant and clashy to the uninitiated ear, with more dense cross-talk than a Robert Altman film. But it dependably presents as a unified whole, all elements seemingly preordained. As disparate as the strands might seem, one cannot imagine revision. By contrast, Shostakovich's work feels like more of a ride, a personal journey through 1000 ingenious inflection points. Inhabiting the composer's point of view (Mahler had no POV; he was channeling God or whatever, and you will obediently sit and you will listen), any effort to anticipate where he's going is swiftly toppled by tsunamis of feverishly fertile invention. One’s expectations are methodically and craftily defied.

It amounts to open warfare against expectation. Whenever a passage turns prettily tuneful, some unimagined dissonance - spitting trumpets, kooky double reeds in buzzing half-steps, or WTF jungle juju percussion - descends like a Terry Gilliam animation to wreak havoc and avert complacency. It all hangs together beautifully, but it's pastiche; a dense warren of delightful interludes rather than a structure of momentous revelation.

While Mahler preaches at you, Shostakovich endlessly fucks with you. Temperamentally unwilling to erase his own tracks, he obviously wants you to know you're been fucked with. Never is the listener allowed to feel comfortable; ears are deliberately denied what they want to hear. Instead, you get something fresher, more nuanced, personal, and rife with bittersweet irony. Like a great used bookstore, there's scant hope of finding what you were looking for, but you will assuredly take away greatness.

What, exactly, does the ear want to hear? This is a thoughtful question with a thuddingly banal answer: the clich├ęs of the previous generation, that's all. Bach piously adhered to rational principle - principles he himself had largely initiated. Before art can go “off the rails”, rails must be established, and there was no greater rail-builder than Bach. But the obedience was short-lived. Mozart applied his genius to gleefully, wittily, brilliantly flout those rails, barely skirting wreckage. His music, as heard at the time, was a delight (or a misery, depending on your disposition) of elusiveness, never quite yielding the expected. "This is the part of the meal where you're traditionally offered an ornate chocolate petit four, but here, instead, is a thimble of rich hot cocoa dosed with a provocative touch of black pepper." Mind blown! (By the time Shostakovich appeared, a few centuries later, the metaphor might be scorching cocoa beans shoved up your nostrils while your temples are tenderly massaged, the burn extinguished in the nick of time via a dainty spritz of chilled champagne infused with a note of nightingale sweat.)

Every great creative artist both rebels against the previous generation and lays down updated rails to be defied by the following one. Art advances via a chain of generational defiance. In all eras and in all arts, a few are compelled to shatter complacency - denying the audience the anticipated tropes, and offering, instead, something enticingly skewed.

Shostakovich's rebellion was both deliberate and accidental. Failing to fully embody Mahler, he was diverted by Gustav's gravitational field into a path of his own, following an instinct to mischievously sideskirt convention. Every snatch of tunefulness explodes like a trick cigar; every lovely bit is spiked with bitter bite; every soothing flow chafed by an intractable grind. Blessed with exquisite taste, he was sensitive in doling out surprise, startling open-minded listeners into astonishment rather than pummeling them into confusion.

It's shocking, as a jazz musician, to recognize how far classical composers of this period had progressed. At that time, jazz was flattering its audience with unashamed facile conventionality. Jazz had started as a movement of inventive rebelliousness - marches, waltzes and sappy popular drek were cheekily adorned, defiled, swung up, profaned and debauched. It was beautiful. Mozartian irreverence...and funky! But then it grew popular for a while, and commerce does not encourage the deliberate defiance of expectation ("The film I'm envisioning will be sort of a cross between Forrest Gump and Shrek...")

While jazz had grown docile in its eagerness to gratify audience expectations, classical composers were building sophisticated terrains of dissonance that wouldn't influence jazz until decades later. It was only its death knell as a popular form that recharged jazz' original spirit of rude rebelliousness and invention.

By the mid 1960s, jazz had nearly caught up, but, by then, classical music had painted itself into a corner. Movements like serialism and microtonalism had seemed destined to open up vast landscapes of possibility, but, paradoxically, vistas only contracted and desiccated.

The vitality of an art form derives from the friction between rail hugging and rebellious invention. Creativity is kindled by confrontation with status quo. Thousands of microdecisions emerge from this confrontation, aggregating to imprint a creator's vision, personality, taste; perhaps even soul. Without any rails whatsoever (or with a new, theoretical set of rails that haven't been - and likely never will be - internalized by one's audience) you're left with sound rather than music. We hear many composers mucking around amid infinite space, rather than purposefully blowing up a railroad. Which strikes you as the more engrossing proposition?

Both jazz and classical music have settled into a steady state. Rails fully obliterated, it's now all about performance rather than creation. There's money to be made in reviving old repertory, and armies of conservatory graduates deliver technically accomplished renditions of each era's status quo without a trace of rebelliousness. The performance even of dissonant music once considered subversive now carries the edgy gleam of a Perry Como tribute.

The greatest creative docility is now found at the intersection of composition and performance, in improvised music. Since leaving Chowhound I've roamed unsung nightclubs like Rip Van Jazz Cat, searching for the indomitable creative spirit of thoughtful defiance. But I've heard nothing but flat conventionality, without a scintilla of invention. No bombs thrown, no expectations ingeniously baited-and-switched. To the contrary, expectations are dutifully, even eagerly, coddled. That's become the whole game - the unabashed goal of an entire generation eager to recapitulate the same-old, unskewed by a nanojoule of spontaneity, let alone sabotage. Status quo has, alas, finally become the status quo. And so the universe cools.

Having spent my 20s hanging out almost exclusively with elderly semi-forgotten black jazz veterans, I shudder on their behalf. For example, in 1990 I gigged in a bored Williamsburg watering hole with a musty band of oldsters including Eddie Barefield, a direct link to the earliest days of jazz (he'd played with freaking Bennie Moten!).

Though Eddie had been a fixture in every subsequent era (he'd mentored Charlie Parker, dead 35 years by this time), few remembered him (even his home town of Scandia, Iowa had long-ago faded and died; today it doesn't even Google), hence his presence at this $50 gig. He sat, mildly choleric, in his chair, occasionally hocking loogies to the bandstand's sawdusty floor. His technique was no longer supple, but by the second or third chorus, his spirit would sometimes rejuvenate back to 1936 - the Shostakovich Fourth Symphony's birth year - and, amid the moldy swing tropes, he might slip in some astonishingly oblique ear-defying run that left me and the other musicians startled and breathless. “WHAT IN JESUS HELL WAS *THAT*??” I'd silently scream to myself, whipping my head around toward Eddie, impassive as a wooden Indian, while bored patrons continued to blithely sip their beers. Eddie had gotten from Point A to Point B in a manner never before heard.

Such miracles were not modern anachronisms. They stretched 1936 conventions, never snapping them. Eddie was recalling fallow branchings that had spawned no twigs or flowers; forgotten Shostakovichian tchotchkes of rebellious glee; the sort of material deviously inserted by lesser-known players of the time who hadn't fully shaken their subversive instincts.


* - As for the pressures inflicted on Shostakovich by Stalin's regime, that's interesting history but it's a serious mistake to draw conclusions about an artist's work from events in his personal life. My travails with the DMV coincide with my writing of this article, but I'd much prefer that you consider the material at hand full-on rather than recast this as my oblique rejoinder to a repressive bureaucracy. Great art seldom refers to our planetary day jobs - our day-to-day yadda yadda - despite efforts by the small-minded to reduce a heavenly sweep to something more consciously manageable; to force-translate poetry into prose.


An index of some of my previous music writings

All previous music writings (reverse chronological)

A recently discovered video of me performing on trombone on a particularly good night in 1992.

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