Thursday, January 30, 2014

A meandering post on collaboration

“Certainty is as it were a tone of voice in which one declares how things are . . .”
Recent reads: two interviews with Terry Teachout, author of a controversial new Ellington biography. I’m about halfway through that book myself, and so far I’m not loving it, although of course the subject is interesting to me—not only because Ellington is a personal hero of mine (he’s the guy who got me interested in jazz in the first place), but also because he is a recurring theme in my own book, Decomposition (to be published later this year). 

Whatever brouhaha exists around Duke is not the first Teachout has prompted. A few years back, he was the guy behind the discussion that led to the “#jazzlives” hashtag. With Duke, the complaints seem to have to do with challenges to Ellington hagiography. As Teachout says in the interview with Darcy James Argue:

Some Ellington buffs hate my book. I have ample reason to know that. And I think the reason why some of them hate it is because — whether they fully understand this or not — they don't believe that he's a great enough man to stand up to an honest discussion of what he was like, both as a man and as an artist.

I respect the swagger here, and I’m all for challenging hagiography, but that comment really captures some of the things that irk me about Teachout’s work. Note for instance the insouciance with which he claims to be able to see into the souls of his critics. More vexing is the underlying assumption that the most important conversation we can have about art is the one in which we designate greatness—a term that I think invites trouble almost every time it is uttered. 

I am not an Ellington scholar, but I know enough about Ellington scholarship to have seen that trap before. Jazz fans, critics, biographers, and academics are often concerned with determining Ellington’s place in relation to already-assumed benchmarks of importance (usually, the so-called classical masters). Teachout summarizes, and then responds to, the most frequent version of this argument in his interview with Ethan Iverson:

Some people think that in order to take Duke Ellington seriously as a composer, we have to believe that he was successful as a composer of large-scale works.  The idea, I guess, is to push him up into the classical-music arena: he played in Carnegie Hall, therefore he's serious.  And that's completely wrong. Duke Ellington is serious because he is Duke Ellington.  [. . .] Jazz is a completely successful form of expression in and of itself, the same way the mystery novel is. 

Put simply, this is a disagreement about criteria. The classically-oriented people say that Ellington belongs in the western canon, on that canon’s terms. And the response Teachout describes—what could be called the “apples-and-oranges” argument—says that Ellington is great for reasons of his own. 

There’s a case to be made for both viewpoints, but neither is particularly interesting to me, because each requires getting into the viper pit of musical analysis, which typically addresses everything but its own subjectivity. I don’t need to be convinced of Ellington’s greatness; I already know his music saved my life. I’d rather look at the man’s biography in terms of process. The collaboration narratives that pervade it have so much more to offer than a circular exchange about whether or not he mastered extended form. Like no other popular twentieth century figure I am aware of, Ellington’s story practically begs us to develop something musicology has always neglected: a compelling, robust theory of collaboration.

The endless anecdotes about how Ellington stole melodies from his sidemen, or put his name on pieces he didn’t work on, or handed off certain arranging tasks, are only controversial because of how little respect we have, culturally, for collaboration—which in turn is a function of how little we understand it. It is strangely both blasé and shocking, almost fifty years after “The Death of the Author,” to say that artists are, by virtue of the physiology of being alive, always collaborating in what they do. But what Ellington demonstrated so forcefully is that collaboration is not a special case: it is the norm. It is “composition.” It is how music happens, no matter the genre. We shouldn’t be reaching back to see how Ellington measures up to Beethoven (or whoever)—we should be looking for the truths that Ellington’s example teaches us about all music.

The problem is that we give lip service to the role of collaboration and then turn around and bury it under the same old stories about individual compositional genius. Consider the way Teachout handles the relationship between Ellington and composer Billy Strayhorn—perhaps the best known of modern musical collaboration narratives, second only to Lennon/McCartney. The modern Ellington biographer’s problem is complicated by the fact that for a long time the notion of Ellington/Strayhorn has been skewed, so that Strayhorn was made to seem an extension of Ellington, a subordinate, a protégé. Teachout, to his credit, pushes back against that version of the story, drawing heavily on Something to Live For, Walter van de Leur’s book on Strayhorn, which emphasizes the younger man’s creative individuality.

And that's a good thing. Strayhorn definitely got the short shrift in jazz history, and deserves to be more celebrated. And yet. . . “Ellington and Strayhorn, individual geniuses” is not that much more helpful a way of describing the creativity of these men. It's two steps forward and one step back. Even with their strengths, van de Leur’s book and Teachout’s gloss of it both inhibit the creation of a collaboration theory; their idea of composition is the same idea we have always had: music is aural stuff, written by individual composers. They approach their subjects as an archaeologist would—putting excessive faith in our ability to analyze and understand the objects that have been left behind, and ultimately indulging in a kind of aesthetic positivism that seems to have precious little connection to art as a lived experience. 

Van de Leur’s argument, for instance, rests heavily on what could uncharitably be called handwriting analysis. At times his willingness to treat the provenance of the texts he examines as self-evident (just because they are handwritten) is maddening. How exactly can we be sure which squiggles or dots or lines came from which pen? The reader has no real way of knowing: unless I'm missing something, Something to Live For includes only two score facsimiles, and these are extremely short excerpts, tacked on in an appendix, almost as an afterthought. They are meant to illustrate the difference between Ellington’s and Strayhorn’s musical penmanshipbut studying the facsimiles myself, it seems there is a bit of interpretive magic going on. The Manhattan Murals excerpt is particularly confusing, because it supposedly includes a shift in penmanship—van de Leur writes that in bar nine “Strayhorn takes over to finish the eight-page manuscript.” To me, the handwriting in bar nine looks pretty much the same as the handwriting in bar ten. I’m not saying they are the same—and Van de Leur spent a lot of time in the archives, so it’s quite possible he sees something I don’t. But it would be nice to know what that something is.

Yet the problem is bigger than this quibble about unarticulated methodology. I realize of course that at times the provenance of a piece of written music is signaled by a composer’s signature or mark. But even in an autograph score, a huge part of the composing process is invisible, and that’s the very part that Ellington’s career stressed over and over again: context. Even if we can definitively prove that a given squiggle/dot/line came from a given pen—how do we know what else was going on in the room at that moment, influencing or even determining that gesture? How do we know someone else was not on the other end of a phone (as Strayhorn often was), singing or playing an idea or suggestion? How do we know what had happened on the bandstand earlier that night—or the night before that? 

Most important of all: how do we know which of these things to include as part of the act we call “composition”? And why?

Interestingly, van de Leur is aware, I think, of the trouble he is flirting with here. In his introduction, he includes “the idea that a manuscript unequivocally reflects the composer’s intentions” as “one of the greatest fallacies of musicology”—only to dismiss that critique in the very next sentence (where he says that “even with these possible pitfalls, the autograph scores provide the most powerful tool in understanding Strayhorn’s music”), and leaving it hanging there for the rest of the book. Later, he writes that Strayhorn and Ellington’s

musical partnership consisted of discussion, an exchange of musical ideas, and a quest for solutions to compositional problems, but not necessarily to joint compositions.

But that statement raises more questions than it answers. What is a “joint composition” if not the end result of a discussion, or the outcome of an exchange of musical ideas, or of a mutual questing for aesthetic solutions? Who knows how many discussions or conversations—even those that may have seemed inconsequential—resulted in trains of thought that ultimately led to a decision being made as the notes were inscribed on the paper? How many of those decisions even had to be conscious to “count”? And what is the mechanism by which we, decades after the fact, are able to claim access to knowledge about all of these things? 

These are the sorts of questions a theory of collaboration would at least get us thinking about. Instead, we’re left with critical hubris. Maybe that’s a strong way of putting it, but I don’t know how else to characterize Teachout’s comment to Argue, that van de Leur “went through all the manuscripts, all of them, and has identified with exquisite precision who wrote what”—or the similar statement he makes to Iverson, that the compositional distinctions between the two men have now been established "definitively for all time.”

“Exquisite precision”? “Definitively”? “For all time”? Even if Ellington and Strayhorn’s every movement had been observed, studied, and recorded, throughout their entire time together, such confidence would be misplaced. You’re a human being: are you that transparent? We’re obscuring the really important question: what is writing, anyway? You have an idea for how some notes go together, in a rhythmic or harmonic combination—but where did that idea came from? 

Can you even say what an idea is? Is it a bunch of nerve impulses? Something more? Is it divine inspiration? Aliens? 

Okay, I’m exaggerating a little—but my point is that assertions like Teachout’s ride roughshod over the fact that composition is a process of the mind. And if you think we understand the mind with “exquisite precision,” or “definitively”—beyond what it feels like to have a mind, or beyond what we tell each other of what we think—more power to you. I think that’s quite a leap.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet

Happy 2014.

On my to-do list for the new year: websites for my book, Decomposition, and for my writing in general.

To that end, some publicity photos. 

Go ahead and laugh. I am utterly uneasy in front of a camera. How brutally it documents the limitations of skin, body, mind, mortality . . . 

Any beauty in these images is solely attributable to the photographer, the amazing Sara Hertel.