Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Ellington addendum

Thanks to Jason Crane for pointing me to this thought-provoking Ethan Iverson piece, following up on his interview with Terry Teachout and his reflective essay about Ellington

Iverson is pretty critical of blogger and writer Maria Popova, who recently posted a brief but favorable review of Teachout’s Duke. In the main bit Iverson focuses on, Popova writes:
What Ellington did was simply follow the fundamental impetus of the creative spirit to combine and recombine old ideas into new ones. How he did it, however, was a failure of creative integrity. Attribution matters, however high up the genius food chain one may be.
Personally, I have a hard time responding to this, because I’m not sure what Popova means by that phrase “failure of creative integrity.” (Is she accusing Ellington of an ethical failure, I wonder?) And what is a “genius food chain”?
In any case, Iverson is right that “everyone who loves jazz has always known how important dozens of great musicians were to Duke Ellington and the sound of Ellington's music. No other bandleader has shined such a powerful light on so many of his team.” And so it’s odd that the rest of what he says in this piece restricts that light only to Ellington, criticizing a broadly collaborative interpretation of his career. Iverson begins with an analogy, citing (as an example of how artistic appropriation happens) the opening portion of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, noting that the composer borrowed the theme from “a book of folk melodies”—in that book, the tune was called “Tu, manu seserėlė.” After comparing scores for the opening of Rite and its source, Iverson claims that “the source could never have been a hit. But Stravinsky’s asymmetric rhythm and the astonishing orchestration (the highest notes of the bassoon) made it an earworm.”
Wait a minute. For something to qualify as a “folk tune,” isn’t it by definition already an earworm? In this case, didn’t “Tu, manu seserėlė” need to have some kind of life as a shared melody, handed down by ear for some period of time, before Stravinsky ever got his own ears on it? How else would it have ended up in a book of folk melodies in the first place?
Iverson never comes out and says it, but he seems to be giving credence to the idea (the wrong idea, I think) that the relationship between Stravinsky and the author(s) of “Tu, manu seserėlė”—like that between Ellington and his musicians—was fundamentally hierarchical. He credits Ellington with the divine act of bestowing immortality on the music—just as, in another analogy, “Bach's harmonizations immortalized chorale tunes from the Lutheran community” (he cites Matthew Guerrieri on this). Like the Stravinsky, that’s an interesting comparison, but I have to say, anecdotally: I play some of those chorale tunes every Sunday for a Lutheran congregation here in Portland, and very rarely do I have the pleasure of being asked to play them in their Bach harmonizations. Indeed, I wish I had more opportunities to do so—if I had my way, I’d be playing as much Bach as I could. But the truth is that at least some of those tunes are doing just fine without him, thank you very much—and that’s a kind of immortality too.
This notion of authorial hierarchy is an easy bias to adopt, because of our cultural habit of lionizing the composer. But like the desire to “definitively” separate the work of Ellington and Strayhorn, it clouds our understanding of collaboration, which is a much more pervasive phenomenon than we're comfortable admitting. It’s like saying the composer is Europe, and the other guys are the New World, providing the raw materials that are then harvested and mined and turned into art—and then celebrating that interpretation of the relationship. “I am absolutely convinced this is what Duke did with fragments from the early horn players as well,” Iverson writes, in his comparison of Ellington and Stravinsky. “None of them—not a single Duke horn player, ever!—has contributed a standard to the repertoire. It was the settings that made these fragments famous.” 
But that’s not quite fair. If the Ellington horn players were never known to have created standards outside of the band, that only proves that they depended on context just as much as their boss did, and that the context Ellington provided was a rare and inspirational thing for everyone, even when (as was sometimes the case) there were bad feelings involved. Ensembles like that don’t just drop out of the sky, and they require something more than simply putting a bunch of talented individuals together in the same room. 
More importantly, why are we so obsessed with saying that Ellington-undoubtedly a man of prodigious giftswas more essential to the overall creative process than his bandmates? Especially in cases where he used a tune (or a melody, or a lick) that came from elsewhere? What view of the world does that interpretation protect? If the end result of a composition was greater than the sum of its parts, what justifies the impulse to single out the author of only one part? 
I (respectfully) suggest that arguments that force a value choice between raw materials and work done to them are inevitably informed by their makers’ own creative strengths and weaknesses. No one can do everything well. I do well what I do well, and it’s easy for me to overlook the importance of what the other guy can do better than me. (I once had a literature professor who pointed out how tempting it is to talk shit about iambic pentameter until you try to write it yourself.) Coming up with a worthy tune—even coming up with a worthy tune fragment—is never as easy as it seems to the person who didn’t actually do it. It’s silly to dismiss that part of the process as if it’s literally nothing. Yet incorporating it into our conception of creativity requires wrapping our minds around a dynamic that is more complicated, profound, and beautiful than we have been taught to expect. And that may take a little work too.


Ethan Iverson said...

Hi Andrew
Thanks for being on me! I need to clarify when I include this bit in an update of "Reverential Gesture." I like your comment about those Lutheran tunes! I will take out that section.

I wish you engaged a bit more with the piece I was responding to, though. In case it isn't obvious, I am trying to protect Ellington from attack. Much of what has been said about commentators like Maria Popova and Adam Gopnik I would file in the category of "At last! A chance to take a famous black man down."

Somewhere - actually, do you know the source? I need to find it, arrgh - there's academic research about how several folk-melody borrowings in the RITE are all in the same space in the page, like Stravinsky just grabbed whatever was in that quadrant when he turned through the book.

And no, I don't think those folk tunes in that collection were "hits." Not yet. We may disagree about this!

Beethoven, another not particularly inspired tune writer (at least compared to Mozart or Schubert), made fun of the dumb Diabelli theme before fashioning his famous variations on it. Of course Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler all used lots of folk tunes in their work. A fragment gives the framer inspiration.

I single out "B" of "Mood Indigo" (written by Bigard or his teacher) as not really that great. Do you think it's great?

And I wrote (in "Reverential Gesture"):

Terry’s comment is more nuanced than some of his readers realize. “No more than Beethoven or Stravinsky was Ellington a natural tunesmith: His genius, like theirs, lay elsewhere.” I agree: those three aren’t like Schubert or Monk, where each moment seems full of catchy song. Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Ellington all assembled memorable final statements out of whatever they needed. In Beethoven and Stravinsky’s case, part of it was local folk song; in Ellington’s case, part of it was his horn players’ hot licks.

Something other than the tunes themselves makes the Ellington canon one of the greatest contributions to American art. Indeed, even if they were more reliable, playing through the published piano/vocal Ellington anthologies would be less interesting than playing through the anthologies of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, or Cole Porter.

Ellington is logically therefore harder to appropriate. I have no fear of playing pop tune composers like Porter and Kern on a standards gig, but with Ellington all the elements, especially the swing feel, have to be just right. Billy Hart puts it simply: “You can’t fuck with Duke.”

Andrew Durkin said...

Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment, Ethan. This month I’m actually in the process of responding to editorial comments on my book (hence the delayed followup), so your input has been extremely helpful.

It was certainly obvious that you were protecting Ellington from attack, and I understand the need to do so. To an extent I think you’re right that people have taken the wrong lessons from Teachout. But I don’t think Teachout has done himself (or Ellington scholarship) any favors by lacing such a carefully researched and thorough text with that condescending psychobiographical tone of his. It’s like a license for smugness, especially for readers who (as I am assuming is the case with Popova) have little previous experience with Ellington. (That’s not to exonerate Popova, just to put her in perspective.)

I do think it is important to defend Ellington, and to recognize his incredible accomplishments--especially, as you suggest, given the racial context. But I don’t think one should do so at the expense of the other guys in the band, most of whom were of course also African-American. They may have possessed less forceful personalities, but they were, I believe, creative equals in what should be understood as an extremely complicated mutual endeavor.

It’s a recurring, frustrating pattern in Ellington writing—the recognition that the composer needed his players, followed shortly after by the disclaimer that he didn’t need them too much. And in my opinion, the question of “greatness” is a big distraction in that discussion, because I don’t think it actually exists in the way it is usually meant. It makes more sense to talk about individuals loving music, or not loving it. Claiming greatness is one of those slippery aesthetic phenomena that even the most dogmatic of us politely dismiss when pressed, drawing from the arsenal of cliches: “there’s no accounting for taste,” “different strokes for different folks,” or your own caveat that “we may disagree on this!” Yet we’re all stuck in our own heads, and what we hear seems most real to us, so on some basic level we naturally guard our own sense of beauty fiercely. That’s why we end up evaluating a sequence of sounds based on some (usually) unstated and (always) arbitrary criteria, rather than thinking carefully about how the sounds may have gotten there in the first place, which I think is a more interesting problem.


Andrew Durkin said...


Hence my comments on “Tu, manu seserėlė.” From the perspective of more than a century of recorded music, sure, one could argue that that piece could not be a “hit.” But what baggage we bring to that statement! Someone, somewhere at least thought the tune was important enough to write down in the first place. And someone, somewhere liked it enough to sing it for that writer. Were they wrong? Who knows? Is the B section of “Mood Indigo” great? Beats me. I know I love listening to it. I know that for me it works in the context of the tune, even if that’s just because it makes the sounds that happen before and after it all the more intriguing and beautiful (there are aesthetic uses for boredom, after all). Did Ellington think it was great? Was it merely great for his purposes? Is there a difference? It’s hard for me to believe that he would have been satisfied putting just any old sequence of notes in its stead. If he was comfortable borrowing tunes, why not seek out something more obviously gorgeous, as he would later do with “Sophisticated Lady”?

Of course, we’re in counterfactual territory now. To stress the setting over the tune implies that we can extract each, and compare it objectively. But how do you hear the arrangement without the melody it was designed to express?

I understand how this argument might seem threatening to Ellington fans—the counterargument will be informed by centuries of aesthetic philosophy that has taught us to believe that “music comes from composers—not musicians” (as Frank Zappa once put it, in one of the few statements of his I disagree with). There’s a natural impulse to want to include Ellington among all the old white guys—you know the ones I mean—and in precisely the same way, lauding him as the isolated genius we always thought they were. Except that we were wrong. The old white guys were all creatures of collaboration too, in ways that go far beyond borrowing folk tunes.

But that’s one of the subjects of my book, so I’ll leave it there for now.

Thanks again!

(PS: don’t know the source on your Stravinsky question—possibly Taruskin?)

Ethan Iverson said...

I see where your coming from, and indeed, applaud it. I have attacked a standard view of jazz as "leader plus sidemen" repeatedly on DTM. Not only that, The Bad Plus is a collective, and we encourage collectives wherever we go.

I will immediately stand up to protect Ellington until I feel his canon is acknowledged as just as important as, say, Copland. (A featured "old white guy" in my longer essay.) My current perception is that Ellington doesn't sit at the same table as other great American thinkers in moneyed or academic societies. Those societies don't yet understand the beauty of Ellington's quote about Willie the Lion Smith at the Capitol Palace. This is the Afro-American diaspora in action. It's not just emotional, but also intellectual:

"...The tempo was the lope - actually everything and everybody seemed to be doing whatever they were doing in the tempo The Lion’s group was laying down. The walls and furniture seemed to lean understandingly - one of the strangest and greatest sensations I ever had. The waiters served in that tempo; everybody who had to walk in, out, or around the place walked with a beat."

I will bear your comments in mind, and look forward to reading your book.