Friday, December 5, 2008

To be a trumpet player

Wynton Marsalis wrote that the musician has a "moral commitment" to practice. That little phrase stuck in my brain and worked its way deeper and has recently been the subject of much personal rumination.

I am a firm believer in John Gardner's thesis that all art is necessarily moral art. Now, it must be stressed that we don't mean didactically moral art (Mein Kampf was a didactically moral work...) but simply that the artist uses his work to explore the range and meaning of human activity and reason.

Perhaps my first realization of the importance of morality and action happened during the later stages of my experiment with Buddhism (about six years ago?). After reading Gandhi's autobiography, I realized with a shock (similar to Marlon Brando's "diamond bullet" in Apocalypse Now?) that Right Mindfulness and the rest of the Eightfold Noble Path were all totally subservient to Right Action. (Bear in mind the Mahayana adage, "if one behaves as a Buddha, then one is already a Buddha.") The only thing that matters in life is our actions. How do we behave? How are we to live our lives? What is the right action? (I almost immediately quit Buddhist practice and began reading Nietzsche.)

Philosophers have spent millenia debating that one, and religious authorities have been yelling about it hysterically for longer. But for the truest explorations into the nature of existence and human action, I believe we cannot do better than to look to our most visionary artists, those who have dared to find something new in this infinitely varied universe and show it to us through their work.

Now, it is comparatively easy to isolate the moral dilemmas in, say, literature. It doesn't take a genius to understand Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov as the embodiment of a moral commitment, and when Dostoevsky writes his story, he is truly living his character's life and experiencing the consequences of his actions. Same thing goes for the theater: the playwright undergoes the same authoritative process by which he explores the moral decisions of his characters.

But we start to get deeper into the issue when we look at the morality of acting. The actors do not create their character's moral dilemmas (at least as they directly pertain to the story! I am sure that all actors embed within their characters moral issues that are not furnished directly by the playwright...). Rather, they truly live and embody the morality of the issue. An actor playing Raskolnikov would need to personally undergo his character's horrifying moral crisis.

A musician takes this concept a step further towards the abstract. In fact, many have said that music is necessarily the most abstract art form... When we hear our culture's most brilliant musicians play, there can be little doubt that part of their performance is a deeply personal exploration of the meaning of human action and the nature of what is right and true.

What, then, of the moral commitment of the musician? What is it to be a trumpet player? Certainly we can differentiate between the hack who puts some plumbing to his lips every once in a while and the truest artist whose spiritual being is not separate from the physical processes inherent in performance. The difference is morality. The difference is how one lives one's life, not how one thinks idly about right and wrong but how one acts.

(Side note: nothing is still, nothing is constant, nothing exists from one instant to the next: all we are is action. There are no nouns in this universe, only verbs. All nouns are categorical statements that limit and defy the constantly changing nature of phenomenal existence. "I" should be understood as a verb, not a noun.)

Right. So the musician is, like all artists, exploring the fundamental question of human existence: the moral question. When we listen to Miles, Coltrane, Glenn Gould, to the Cleveland Orchestra playing Beethoven (!), or to any other great musician, if we pay attention we can hear a profound moral question posed.

I remember reading somewhere or other that the key to understanding jazz is to hear the hidden social message: in the softest, most intimate ballad are the seeds of a profound sadness, and in the most joyous, swinging celebratory bop number is wild rebellion, lurking just beneath the surface. This isn't surprising, considering that jazz has its roots in the story of an oppressed people. The morality of the social situation surrounding the music informs it, and becomes a part of its presentation: who can doubt that black music needs to express deep sadness and wild rebellion? Part of the reason modern jazz sounds so damned sterile is precisely because the moral commitment has been lost- the music is now just formalism, as opposed to a drastic, necessary statement about the moral conditions of the time.

We hear Coltrane soaring past the asteroid belt towards the stars in his later recordings. Personally, I prefer to have a trustworthy helmet on, with chin strap, when I listen to albums like Sun Ship- McCoy Tyner plays like it's the end of the damned world, and Coltrane isn't content with playing to Planet Earth, he prefers other galaxies to dig it as well. There is a strong moral message to Coltrane's playing, and in some of those beautiful bootleg recordings you hear of him in his late period you can hear the audience screaming at the top of their lungs, shouting, carried away by this juggernaut with a tenor sax. It sounds like a religious revival. Which it is. Coltrane brought back to the art form a profound spirituality, and his explorations into man's moral predicament seem to lead him deeper into the human soul, even as his music blasts out to the edges of the known universe.

But as important as the moral universe which provides the context to Coltrane's playing is the commitment to his art. Coltrane was a fanatical woodshedder. He spent hours and hours a day just on long tones to get that laser-cannon sound. Miles wrote in his autobiography that everyone would go out to party after a show, but Coltrane would politely decline in his soft-spoken, gentlemanly way and lock himself in his hotel room for hours practicing new scales.

All artists must first and foremost be true to their medium. This is the first moral commandment of the artist. All that woodshedding that pisses off the neighbors (!) is necessary to become one with one's medium. The instrument is an extension of the human body. The sound is an extension of our speech and singing. The music, the art, is an extension of our humanity, and the message is an exploration of human morality.

The musician has a moral commitment to practice, indeed. Then, in our music, we must examine and live the fundamental human question.

Time to go woodshed...!!! But I will leave you with a short poem by my hero, Mr. e. e. cummings.


wild (at our first) beasts uttered human words
our second coming made the stones sing like birds
but o the starhushed silence which our third's




ross said...

Well done, Kleve.

This is the whole tamale.

It's impossible to tell the difference between right and wrong, etc... the brain seems almost useless sometimes because it's so confused with various logics and reasons. I mean, I know it's a useful evolutionary tool, but the thing is, we have to get beyond it. The brain can really slow you down with things like: "am I a good trumpet player or only a decent trumpet player, am I a good person or am I a jerk, am I doing something useful or am I wasting my life?" or whatever else it is that the brain thinks that distracts from the main thing, which is


it's my whole moral system right now, man, there's nothing else I've found that makes any sense, not that practicing makes any sense... but that's just it, it makes some kind of sense that isn't immediately rational or excuseable. It's totally frivolous to make beautiful music. It doesn't contribute anything to achieving our basic needs (shelter food sex water fire, etc) but it contributes something, a whole lot of something, which no one is very good at describing. Probably because music is the best description of that thing that we can get.

I'm just saying that the "moral responsibility to practice," is the only sense of morality that I know.

I suppose that's not a bad thing either: day after day, taking the thing down to the workshop and finding ways to make it better.

Now I just need to apply that to all the other areas of my life...

Kleve said...

Ye Gods. Just finished reading David Foster Wallace's collection of essays, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." I can't express how much I loved this little treat and I frankly can't wait to dig into his meatier fiction.

That said, the obtusely-titled "Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff About Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness" (Whew! At least we don't have to wonder what it's about...) contained material directly relevant to our discussion above... Though his subject is an athelete. To wit:

"...We prefer not to countenance the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athelete has made to get so good at one particular thing... But the actual... sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read... defensive tackles who shoot up bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews, or to imagine what impoverishments in one's mental life would allow people actually to think in the simplistic way athletes seem to think. Note the way "up-close and personal profiles" of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life - outside interests and activities, charities, values beyond the sport.... [But] the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one pursuit. An almost ascetic focus. A subsumption of all other features of human life to their one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child's world, is very serious and very small."

Now, the athlete is most certainly an artist. Their unbelievable performative feats require a moment-awareness and ability for truly immediate creation that all musicians know. And certainly, they are creating in and about a moral universe, one whose first Commandment is also to Practice.

But I am saddened that Mr. Wallace (who was a competitive tennis player, so he ought to know) has seen such mental impoverishment in professional athletes. Those of us who create music can draw valuable lessons from this... Most importantly that single-minded and total devotion is necessary to attain the highest levels of artistic craft.

But there is a profound question here. The athlete as artist has no need to place his art in a social context (though he can, as in the case of Muhammad Ali avoiding the draft). His art's moral universe is contained fully within the human body, and perhaps the miracles of medicine and training that allow the body to exceed formerly reasonable expectations... But the writer is expected to include the social and political universes in his art. After all, the writer studies human behavior first and foremost, which is not understandable without examining social influences.

The musician's art is another story however, a kind of gray area... It is easy for me to believe that a musician could be completely ignorant of political and social concerns and still make breathtakingly powerful music... But somehow all my favorites have made moral music, from the overt politicism of Fela Kuti and the Beatles to the implied social outrage of Miles and Coltrane. I think that as musicians we have that choice, and to pursue social morality in our music (though not didactically) is our highest undertaking, at which most of us will probably fail.

Maybe an athlete who informs his art with social and globally moral concerns stops being an athlete and becomes a dancer.