David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: December 2005

RIP Derek Bailey and Hugh Davies

This year was bookended by two deaths of two brilliant English free improvisers: Hugh Davies (self-made instruments mostly) at the beginning of January, and Derek Bailey (guitarist) just on Christmas day. Bailey is far more documented than Davies, but they shared amongst themselves much more of a lack of complacency than many of their peers. With Evan Parker and Jamie Muir (also briefly of King Crimson) in the Music Improvisation Company, they made some of the furthest-out music of the late-60s/early-70s British free improv period.

I saw Davies once a few years back, where he played, among other things, a ridged 3-d picture postcard and I recognized the sound before I even saw the instrument. And Bailey, besides his obvious achievements of being one of the most distinctive and influential guitarists of his time, an intimidating influence for any guitarist, provided inspiration to me in other fields. One of his last albums was named Carpal Tunnel, documenting his (rather quick) readjustment to playing after falling prey to the disease. Having had carpal tunnel syndrome myself at age 19, I figured Bailey was made of strong enough stuff to go on for another 25 years if he had staved off hand injury for 75 years. Alas, it’s not to be. I’ll still remember the day I got “Aida” in the mail and upon listening it, said, “I will never be able to get into this.” (I would have had the same reaction to Davies at the time.) Three years later I decided that his “String Theory” album was the most careful, interesting record of guitar feedback I’d ever heard. Here’s to slow mills.

2005 Music Wrap-up

For me, 2005 was probably the best year in music in recent memory. Unfortunately, almost none of it was pop music (except in reissues, where there was plenty of riches): Spoon‘s Gimme Fiction is the only collection of tunes I grew to love and defend.

But elsewhere things were great. No reviews this time; I liked them, that’s all. What separated the best from the runners-up was even more difficult to quantify this year than before. If anything, I seem to be even more attuned to timbre and less to structure than before (with obvious exceptions), maybe in the pursuit of the least cerebral aesthetic experience possible. Something like the Los Glissandinos recording points out just how fine the lines are between what works and what doesn’t. As an intellectual line of inquiry, I wonder if I’m ill-suited to it.

Most of the links are to sites with sound files, and a few of my own.

BEST OF 2005
ROVA::Orkestrova: Electric Ascension
Keith Rowe / Sachiko M / Toshimaru Nakamura / Otomo Yoshihide: ErstLive 005
Los Glissandinos: stand clear
Burkhard Stangl: Venusmond 3-5
John Wall: Cphon
Baghdassarians / Baltschun / Bosetti / Doneda: Strom
Stangl / Kurzmann: schnee_live
Hayashi / Otomo / Toyozumi: The Crushed Pellet
Cor Fuhler: Corkestra
Fred Frith:The Eleventh Hour
samartzis m&#xfcller voice crack: wireless_within
Tim Berne’s Hard Cell: Feign
Veryan Weston / John Edwards Mark Sanders: Gateway to Vienna

4 Walls: Which Side Are You On?
Altered States: Bluffs
Axon: Constant Comments
Tim Berne: Hard Cell Live
Tim Berne’s Paraphrase: Pre-emptive Denial
dieb13 / Tomas Korber / Jason Kahn: Zirkadia
eRikm / Tetrault / Otomo: Trace Cuts
Etage 34 with Tenko
Tomas Korber: Effacement
G&#xfcnter M&#xfcller / Steinbruechel: Perspectives
Otomo Yoshihide’s New Jazz Orchestra: Out to Lunch
Quartet Noir: Lugano
Sanhedolin: Manjoicchi Wa Muko
Martin Tetrault / Otomo Yoshihide: Grrr / Tok / Ahhh
Toot: One
Trio Sowari: Three Dances
Kazuhisa Uchihashi / Tatsuya Yoshida: Improvisations

Laughing Clowns: Cruel but Fair
The Auteurs: Luke Haines is Dead
The Ex: Singles. Period.
The Three Johns: Live in Chicago
Can: Future Days
Prefects: Amateur Wankers
Nightingales: Pigs on Purpose / Hysterics
Scritti Politti: Early
Orange Juice: The Glasgow School

MCCB: Things from the Past
Robert Wyatt: Royal Drury Lane
Mnemonists: Gyromancy
Catherine Jauniaux / Tim Hodgkinson: Fluvial
Slapp Happy: Acnalbasac Noom / Desperate Straights
Fred Frith: Allies / Cheap At Half the Price
Massacre: Killing Time
Skeleton Crew: Learn to Talk / The Country of Blinds
Ne Zhdali: Whatever Happens, Twist!

Julian Priester: Love Love
Derek Bailey / Evan Parker: The London Concert
Anthony Braxton: Saxophone Improvisations Series F / Donna Lee
Ornette Coleman / Pat Metheny: Song X
Tim Berne: Nice View / The Paris Concert
Last Exit: Koln
Spontaneous Music Ensemble: A New Distance
Altered States: Altered States
Masayuki Takayanagi: Action Direct (if only I could get a copy!)

Ennio Morricone: Crime and Dissonance
Munir Bashir: Mesopotamia
Harry Partch: Collection / Delusion of the Fury
Iannis Xenakis: La Legende d’Eer

Erich Auerbach: Mimesis 1

Auerbach on the Iliad and the Old Testament:

We have compared these two texts, and, with them, the two kinds of style they embody, in order to reach a starting point for an investigation into the literary representation of reality in European culture. The two styles, in their opposition, represent basic types: on the one hand [Iliad] fully externalized description, uniform illumination, uninterrupted connection, free expression, all events in the foreground, displaying unmistakable meanings, few elements of historical development and of psychological perspective; on the other hand [Old Testament], certain parts brought into high relief, others left obscure, abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed, “background” quality, multiplicity of meanings and the need for interpretation, universal-historical claims, development of the concept of the historically becoming, and preoccupation with the problematic.

Auerbach lays out all of this schema very quickly in the first chapter, yet so much of it falls so easily from the juxtaposition of the two texts. What struck me was the combination of factors, how Auerbach associates the linear with the behavioral with the well-defined in the Iliad; and in the Old Testament, how he associates the psychological with the tentative and the inchoate, and the problematic. To rephrase his summation, the Iliad presents people as permanently established beings, and the Old Testament portrays them as torn between (religious) ideals for themselves and an uncertain ego/self.

Two associations come to mind. The first is Julian Jaynes and his portrayal of the split, pre-conscious mind devoid of self-conscious doubt, versus the unified mind with an uncommitted consciousness. Utterly implausible as a theory, I still find the analogy compelling.

The second is Alasdair MacIntyre’s version of Nietzsche’s critique of post-Kantian Enlightenment ethics, and MacIntyre’s deployment of it to make an argument in favor of Aristotelian teleological ethics, or (even better!) neo-Thomist ethics. MacIntyre places the starting point of ethical false consciousness at Kant, who, MacIntyre claims, separated the ethical imperative from the concept of “the good life” (cf. Aristotle) and “the good” (cf. Aquinas). In After Virtue he chiefly proposes Aristotelian ethics as a solution, suggesting that the embrace of a defined “good life” as a telos engenders ethical behavior. Elsewhere he seems to find this just as problematic and moves to Aquinas, but I’m more concerned with the Aristotle/Kant distinction.

MacIntyre’s dichotomy between Enlightenment ethical imperatives and Aristotle’s teleological life parallels loosely with the two sides Auerbach identifies in the two ancient works. In the Iliad, characters live out their lives–good and bad–as though by divine force, their characters established by the continued ease with which they fulfill our expectations of their behavior. In the Old Testament, characters are continually struggling with and against the dicta they mystically receive. While these may not be ethically imperative, the characters only avoid the logical gap that MacIntyre identifies in Kant by appealing to the universality of God. Otherwise, they are potentially just as alienated from their ideals as a post-Enlightenment ethicist.

It’s a tenuous connection. But I want to ask why Auerbach identifies such a split in ancient texts while MacIntyre and to some extent Nietzsche locate it at the dawn of modern ethics. Does it have something to do with the fields of literature vs. philosophy? I suspect that the difference in their viewpoints originates in Auerbach’s ability to deal in character and description (and its relation to the foreground/background of literature), while MacIntyre is dealing in intangible imperatives and universals (including the universal of the human and the life).

Both sides are dealing in abstractions, but Auerbach’s abstractions (i.e., characters) are by definition more pluralistic and implicit. It forces him to do more heavy lifting to synthesize a unified thesis, which he accomplishes mostly through an intimidating amount of cross-referencing. MacIntyre gets the philosophical theses for free, but he is consequently more prone to identify single authors as nexuses.

I won’t speculate yet on how this gets them to their respective positions, but I’ve got a few hundred pages left of Mimesis to read. But it’s always inspiring to see someone making a case for literature showing philosophy, even if it takes a book devourer like Auerbach to process it all.

Vijay Prashad: The Karma of Brown Folk

This is not really my area, and I don’t claim to offer a full assessment of this book. Prashad offers an examination (sometimes in the context of whiteness studies). of images of South Asians in America and links protest movements within the community to other anti-capitalist and liberation movements around the globe, especially those of African-Americans. I’m not South Asian, and I don’t have much comment on the central theses of the book, but this one passage troubled me, when Prashad discusses John Coltrane’s studies with Ravi Shankar:

Coltrane’s complex spirituality did not abandon the urges of liberation, a fact that led Ravi Shankar to leave one session in dismay, since “I was very much disturbed by his music. Here was a creative person who had become a vegetarian, who was studying yoga and reading the Bhagavad-Gita, yet in whose music I still heard much turmoil. I could not understand it.” Coltrane, despite his schooling in the arts of India, remained grounded in the class cultures of the United States, and he continued to express his link to the anti-racist struggle in his soulful but turbulent passages.

There are two distinct ideas conflated here. The first is that Coltrane didn’t forget about racial issues in the U.S. in the 60s even after immersing himself in music and spirituality. This is inarguable. The second is that Coltrane’s music remained representative or figurative of that struggle; i.e., that it was not a music just of freedom or spirituality or ecstasy or peace, but of struggle itself.

As the equally “turbulent” Albert Ayler said, “We are the music we play. We keep trying to purify our music, to purify ourselves so that we can move ourselves–and those who hear us–to higher levels of peace and understanding.” Ayler and Coltrane’s music is much less the sound of struggle than it is an ecstatic, unmediated sound. There’s another quote that I can’t find, possibly by Ayler (?), in which the speaker says that it was the crippling damage of drugs that caused Charlie Parker to stick with more rigid bop structures and not fling himself into pure free jazz. I hear Coltrane (and Ayler, and Sam Rivers, and Marshall Allen, and Jimmy Lyons, and Pharaoh Sanders, and Marion Brown, and John Tchicai, and Noah Howard, and Anthony Braxton, and Roscoe Mitchell) straining against human mental limitations itself and articulating a physical vocabulary of sound, not one that’s limited to single emotions like “soulful” or “turbulent.” The effort continues in different places and contexts.

Prashad is incorrect in going along with Shankar’s opinion and making the facile association that an African-American man blowing loudly and atonally on a saxophone is an expression of his struggle, or that it is inherently less peaceful than ragas or taksim. There are players of that period in America for whom struggle assumed a primary place in their music: I would say that Sunny Murray qualifies, certainly Charlie Haden, and sometimes Archie Shepp (though frankly I hear more fury in Masayuki Takayanagi and Kaoru Abe’s work of around the same time). But even an angry elocutor like Cecil Taylor was always careful to separate the cultural context of his music from the content of the music itself. By conflating the two in close succession, Prashad gives his work over to long-deflated stereotypes. The idea of Coltrane as expressing struggle is as much a misapprehension as that held by those who described Anthony Braxton as emotionless and cerebral because he claimed Stockhausen, Warne Marsh, and other white musicians as primary influences (no names–there have been too many to mention).

Prashad, who does his share of self-righteous fingerpointing in the book, at one point expressing offhand astonishment that “One of Deepak Chopra’s friends, stunningly, is Rosa Parks.” I respect Prashad’s efforts for social justice and feel a bit of personal joy at his celebration of South Asian underground music culture (which deserves a book or two itself), but I think that his ideology could use some internal self-examination to avoid its own unwarranted assumptions.

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