Monday, December 08, 2008

The Wild Critic

I'm going to quote an extended passage from Ben Ratliff's Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, and your first reaction is going to be like, Man, he doesn't get it. People are telling him as plain as day, but he just doesn't get it. Actually I think he refuses to get it. He has it in his mind that it's his calling not to get it. In this respect he is a dedicated professional and must therefore be taken seriously. He is in fact putting himself out there. He knows the music, in the sense that he has studied recordings, observed performances, talked with performers, and read various studies of the music. He is an interpreter of the music, yes, but above and beyond that he is a critic. He values the act of making judgments about music and about musicians. He is anything but stupid about what he does. Your response to what he does, a response I am sympathetic to, is something he has already thought about, albeit perhaps not in a way that you and I would agree with, but he has thought about it. Here's the passage, concerning John Coltrane's practice of inviting young musicians up on the stage:

But Coltrane seemed not to be able to help it. Rashied Ali tells a story on the subject. He remembers playing at the Village Vanguard with Coltrane in 1966 and being asked by Coltrane, in the club's back room before the gig, what he thought about Frank Wright, the young free-jazz tenor player. He knew that Ali and Wright were friends, and Wright, who had come to the club that night, had independently approached Coltrane about the possibility of sitting in with Coltrane's band at the club. Ali reacted skeptically.

I said, "Aw, man, he ain't playing shit."

He looked at me. I said, "Man, he ain't playing shit."

We go out on the bandstand and the first thing he does is say [to Wright], "Hey, man, come on up."

In the dressing room, after it was over, he said something I never forgot. He said, "I don't care what a cat plays. If you're into music, there'll be something you hear [in that musician] that you might like. One note, one sound, that you might like."

How does one react to such a deeply impractical statement, coming from an artist at the top of his game? Do you laugh? Do you tell him that he is wrong? (No, some musicians really aren't worth wasting time on.) Do you argue with him? How can you do anything other than try to take his advice, even if you fail? As an addendum to that story, Ali added, "From that day to this, I've never put a musician down for anything."

And what of Frank Wright? Until his death in 1990, he distinguished himself as almost the last of a breed by his devotion to the principles of power, loudness, maximum nonmelodic screaming-through-the-horn. He adapted a small part of Coltrane's sound himself, and that was enough for him. Later [presumably not later than his death], he said: "No motherfucker can tell me what I have to play, and I know I'm right because what I do is countersigned by master John Coltrane who accepted me at his side by calling me 'little brother.'"

(pp. 106-107)

The critic's inegalitarianism with respect to making sounds apparently underwrites an egalitarianism with respect to criticizing sounds, but this is not the whole story. Criticism itself must be enabled in a gesture that violently disfigures the object of criticism, a gesture that places music in the category of art rather than life. "If it's [art's] truly good and powerful, it deserves to engender a thousand misunderstandings" (p. 174). This is how the sophisticate says "let a thousand flowers bloom," but we mustn't let the modesty of saying "misunderstandings" obscure what is claimed by the conditional clause. What is being implicitly claimed is that no musician, not even John Coltrane, is, through the practice of making sounds alone, in a position to determine whether any assemblage of sounds truly rises to the level of being good and powerful. It's saying as much as that truth is decided upon, because there must be a decision behind any truth, on the model of an adjudication of verbal contradictions, through criticism, and though the critic might claim an allegiance to poetic truths, indeed a fondness for poetic truths, it is criticism that governs truth processes in his book.

Ratliff dismisses the view that "this music requires new inventions of selfhood" as Romantic in the most uncritical way one can hold Romantic views (p. 172). Calling an aesthetic viewpoint Romantic hardly suffices as a critique; the statement "this music requires new inventions of selfhood" is not invalidated so easily, yet I recognize that in making this point I risk misunderstanding or, what may be worse, misrepresenting Ratliff. He himself tells us that Coltrane is not on record as ever having used the word "art" to describe his life's work (p. 60), which again reinforces the point that Ratliff's criticism is anything but ignorant. Consider this maxim: "whenever Coltrane either started playing more notes or fewer, something was happening inside him" (p. 47). Ratliff sees such changes as "signs of growth," growth as an artist, naturally, but indeed growth, and, it must be pointed out, inner growth–whatever that could mean. Or consider this statement: "even some great artists must endure their own tedium"(p. 31). Isn't there some confusion here between artist and critic, I mean in saying that Coltrane had to endure his own tedium? And why shouldn't there be this confusion? Artist and critic are cut from the same cloth, verso and recto of the same process of decision. When Ratliff says that any musician's sound is a "full and sensible embodiment of his artistic personality," a definition he qualifies, in an elegant turn of phrase that decides for us what truly matters, as "a mystical term of art" (p. x), and then turns around and criticizes an philosophy–before saying "aesthetic" we should want to explore the feeling of music and let that guide us–which takes seriously Coltrane's ambition to be a force for good by requiring that listeners reinvent themselves, then we know that he is being anything but uncritical. Criticism is the soul of his enterprise. Does criticism then intrinsically do violence to egalitarianism, even as it says let 998 flowers of misunderstanding bloom (for the artist and the critic have been exempted from the tedium of a thousand flowers, the latter for having an understanding, the former for being subject to criticism)? Is criticism intrinsically uncharitable–on the one hand of course not, for there is some charity in Ratliff's criticism, arguably a modicum of charity towards Coltrane. Yet how do we do charity to panecastic methods of expression?

I won't say, not even in so many words, that it is egalitarianism that would lead me to be charitable in my reading of Ratliff, nor will I claim that a desire to be charitable has broken through my own tedium as a reader. How should I name my studies in such a way as to show they are not irrevocably estranged from Ratliff's criticism? There's a wildness to Ratliff's criticism. I acknowledge it knowing only too well that I cannot possibly properly acknowledge it. At the same time there is an assiduousness that I recognize as belonging to my world, one might even say a sedulousness in the sense of being devoted to expression if not in the name of logomachic truth then expression in the absence of deception, plain expression, plain poetry. Some of Ratliff's judgments lead me to ask whether Ratliff must free himself from this assiduousness in order to practice his criticism, but I don't mean by that question to grossly imply that his judgments are unstudied, instudious if you will. I resist making that judgment myself for my own good, for my own practice of assiduousness, our shared assiduousness. What is this distance between my intellect and the antagonistic impulse that might be called critical? Is this distance also critical? Studious? Is study in the end only so much rigamarole, or does studiousness demand that we, that somebody, break through the rigamarole of study? It must be thought that we could be seduced by our own devotions, beflummoxed by our own plain truths. Must it be studied?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 7:29 AM.


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