[CATEGORIES: Literature, Lapham’s Quarterly, Reading, Book Review]
[Click HERE to see my previous posts referencing Lapham’s Quarterly.]
[Some of LQ’s contents are available free.]
[L.Q. cover and art from L.Q. Fall 2017: Music. Banner is detail from Sheet Music Collage by Rene Magritte, c. 1925]
[New to Lapham’s Quarterly? See the standard notes at the end of this review. After 39+ LQ reviews I jump right in.]
Ever autobiographical, founder/editor Lewis Lapham tells us in his Preamble: ‘Round Midnight of the time in 1964 he played piano for Thelonious Monk in Monk’s apartment:
“I played Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 27 in two movements (the ﬁrst in E minor, the second in E major), run time fourteen minutes if taken at the indicated tempos. I don’t say I played it as well as Lipsky might have played it, but I’d been practicing it six days out of seven for two months, and to the best of my knowledge and recollection, I didn’t miss many notes, never once felt ill at ease or afraid. Monk stepped out of the bathroom, looked
me square in the face, said simply, straight, no chaser, “I heard you.””
“By then I knew enough to dig what he was saying… …It wasn’t me or my interpretation, it was the music itself, off the charts beyond good and evil that somehow and if only for the time being I’d managed to reach.” (p. 20-21) A very high compliment.
‘Straight No Chaser’ is a barely disguised allusion to one of Monk’s great songs, the Preamble title is another. Wikipedia enlightens on both and Monk. iTunes, YouTube, and others will give you audible previews.
I listened to a lot of jazz in the ’60s, a lot of it from the previous decade. I’m not sure how I got into it. Perhaps by way of my military high school buddy LBD III. I know we liked the same jazz. I was visiting him and his wife several years ago and some of this old jazz poured from his new home’s stereo, was it Poinciana by Ahmad Jamal? It was an old cassette compilation saved from his destructive house fire because it had been in his car player at the time.
Perhaps I got into it by way of some of the jazz artists dragging the public at large kicking and screaming into the genre via chart hits such as Take Five by the Dave Brubeck Quartet or The In Crowd by Ramsey Lewis. I always preferred trios and quartets, usually led by piano or piano and sax. Monk, Mingus (bass), Ahmad Jamal, Jimmy Smith (Hammond B3 organ), Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, Coltrane, Turrentine, Blakey, Wes Montgomery, and so many others none of which I could intelligently discuss today (or even then perhaps). It is still some of the best jazz ever in my opinion.
It isn’t easy to write or read about music, portraying sounds with silent symbolism of script.
A couple of the extracts address learning music from the sounds of nature. Gita Mehta’s eloquent piece about an Indian girl instructed in musical scale by listening to certain birds and mammals is a beautiful, compelling fiction.
Similarly, early bluesman W.C. Handy heard nature as music:
“As a child I had not heard of the Pipes of
Pan, but pastoral melody was nevertheless a very
real thing to me. Whenever I heard the song of
a bird and the answering call of its mate,I could
visualize the notes in the scale. Robins carried a
warm alto theme. Bobolinks sang contrapuntal
melodies. Mockingbirds trilled cadenzas. Al-
together, as I fancied, they belonged to a great
There was a French horn concealed in the
breast of the blue jay. The tappings of the wood-
pecker were to me the reverberations of a snare
drum. The bullfrog supplied an effective bass.” (p. 85)
Speaking of Handy, some of the extracts I liked best were about musicians, not just music. Jelly Roll Morton makes a fervent plea in 1938 to Mr. Ripley, of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, to set the record straight that he, Morton, was more an originator of jazz, stomps, and blues than was Handy. I’m not sure the difference of opinion has ever been settled (see Wikipedia) but he makes a case for what is essentially copyright:
“Music is such a tremendous proposition that it probably needs government supervision. There does not seem to be any proper protection for anything in this line.” (p. 63)
Since various forms of copyright have been in existence for centuries, and music ‘collecting societies’ such as ASCAP have been in existence since the early 1900s, I wonder if Morton was aware of its availability.
Thelonius Monk is covered in the Preamble. 50’s/60’s jazz bassist Charlie Mingus (his album Mingus Ah Um a favorite of mine) chats with trumpeter Fats Navarro in 1947 about whether musicians own themselves or do the music companies. I think Fats unwittingly lays down a rap line:
“I see what you mean—so busy worrying
how to make a dime with your horn, ain’t got
time to make a race. Gotta go downtown and
see the man, ain’t got time to shake your hand.
So we play jazz in its place.” (p. 109)
Speaking of which (rap), there is a piece by ‘rap musician’ Jay-Z on his childhood interest and introduction into creating rap lyrics. Apparently it quickly became a passion despite his alleged 15-yr sabbatical selling crack cocaine. I applaud anyone who can put that in the past. Personally I find rap and hip-hop as removed from one end of my limited musical understanding as classical music is at the other, i.e. I understand neither. I do expose myself to classical however, rap I do not. I’m attending the autumn classical series in my community, chamber music, and loving it.
Another group of extracts that intrigued me were those about would-be musicians who decided they would never be good enough and gave up budding or potential careers as accomplished players. I’m sure there are many of us who love music and perhaps dabbled with an instrument but realistically know we will never have the enthusiasm, commitment or expertise to be accomplished.
After playing for Monk, Lewis Lapham notes it for himself in his Preamble:
“I also knew in that moment I wasn’t likely to come that way again. …I wasn’t a musician to the manor born; I didn’t hear the difference between a flatted fifth and a diminished seventh, couldn’t even hum in tune, and unless I practiced the piano everyday, I stood no chance of making music deserving of the name.” (p. 21)
The complete piece is available free online at LaphamsQuarterly dot Org.
A couple of fiction extracts about failing to excel piqued my curiosity. Carson McCullers, who achieved literary fame for The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, writes a poignant and eloquent piece about failure:
“She felt that the marrows of her bones were
hollow and there was no blood left in her. Her
heart that had been springing against her chest
all afternoon felt suddenly dead. She saw it gray
and limp and shriveled at the edges like an oyster.
His face seemed to throb out in space be-
fore her, come closer with the lurching motion
in the veins of his temples. In retreat, she looked
down at the piano. Her lips shook like jelly, and
a surge of noiseless tears made the white keys
blur in a watery line. “I can’t,” she whispered. “I
don’t know why, but I just can’t—can’t anymore.”” (p. 89-90)
Thomas Bernhard’s piece sent me on one of the usual dozen or so forays from each issue into Wikipedia for further information. His fictional work incorporates real pianists Glenn Gould and Vladimir Horowitz. Gould’s Wiki entry is quite extensive. In Bernhard’s The Loser Gould is just too good:
“From one moment to the next I hated my piano, my own, could’t bear to hear myself play again; I no longer wanted to paw at my instrument.”
“I myself played, I believe, better than Wertheimer,
but I would never have been able to play as well
as Glenn Gould, with whom we’d studied under
Horowitz, and for that reason (hence for the
same reason as Wertheimer!) I gave up the piano
from one moment to the next. I would have
had to play better than Glenn, but that wasn’t
possible, was out of the question, and therefore
I gave up playing the piano. I woke up one day
in April, I no longer know which one, and said
to myself, no more piano”
“If I hadn’t met Glenn, I probably wouldn’t have given up
the piano and I would have become a piano virtuoso
and perhaps even one of the best piano
virtuosos in the world, I thought in the inn.
When we meet the very best, we have to give
up, I thought.” (p. 83)
Enthusiasm, commitment or expertise. Will (power, perhaps). I rest my case.
What else? The philosophers are here. The Greeks. The Romans. Plato, Cicero, Boethius, Plutarch, Sappho, Lucian, Apollonius of Rhodes (of Sirens’ songs and Argonauts a la Homer), Aristides Quintilianus.
In addition to the plethora of Europeans and Western Hemisphereans there are Africans (Es’kia Mphahlele), Middle Easterns (Ferdowsi, Naguib Mahfouz, Ibn al-Ukhuwwa (we must follow the rules)), South Asia (the aforementioned Gita Mehta, Visnu Sarma (an amusing fable of donkeys and ‘musicological principles’ of ragas), and The Orient (a metonym for, and coterminous with, the continent of Asia –Wiki) (Han Yu, Hiraga Gennai, Lu Buwei).
There is a Beatle’s plagiarism suit (George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord v. He’s So Fine. (p. 119)
There is frequently a WWII concentration camp extract, lest we forget, and I mean that. Life on earth almost always seems near a precipice, now more than ever. In WWII music often surrounded people on the way to death:
“The travelers emerged into a spacious square.
In the middle of this square were several dozen
people on a wooden bandstand like in a public
park They were the members of a band, each of
them as different from one another as their in-
struments. Some of them looked around at the
approaching column. Then a gray-haired man
in a colorful cloak called out, and they reached
for their instruments. There was a burst of some-
thing like cheeky, timid birdsong and the air—
air that had been torn apart by the barbed wire
and the howl of sirens, that stank of oily fumes
and garbage—was ﬁlled with music. It was like
a warm summer cloudburst ignited by the sun,
ﬂashing as it crashed down to earth.
People in camps, people in prisons, people
who have escaped from prison, people going
to their death, know the extraordinary power
of music. No one else can experience music in
quite the same way.” –Vasily Grossman (p. 116)
The 78 extracts of Voices In Time are divided into sections; Theme, Variation, and Improvisation. Five full length essays conclude the issue, along with Conversations, Miscellany, and Glossary (see LQ online or refer to the issue).
My favorite of the 5 was Secret Music, about Duke Ellington’s personal composition and recording for Queen Elizabeth II. Essayist Christopher Carroll describes:
“…The Queen’s Suite, six songs he and his collaborator Billy Strayhorn composed for Queen Elizabeth II in 1958. Five of the six songs represent different musical landscapes—a grove full of fireflies, or a mockingbird singing at sunset—seen by Ellington in his travels around the world. Several of these, he wrote in his autobiography, represented some of the most moving moments of his life. It is a remarkable artistic achievement, even by the standards of such a prolific composer. But after recording it, he gave to the queen what he claimed was the only copy, refusing to release the album in his lifetime.” (p. 213)
Full essay The Emperor’s New Music by Xiaofei Tian intrigues also, referring yet again to nature and mood in music:
“The difference between sound (sheng) and tone (yin) is the presence of patterning. The cawing of birds and the whistling of wind, or the sobbing at a funeral, may be considered sounds, but a dirge sung at the funeral belongs to tones. Music is both nature (based in feelings) and culture (with patterning). Even more important, music is closely associated with words—that is, song lyrics. It’s also associated with governance. An old legend about ancient kings articulates this unique belief in the political—not just aesthetic or philosophical—importance of music. According to the story, the kings would send their officers to the villages, collect the songs of the common folk, and bring them back to the court, believing the songs to be signs and symptoms that can tell the king about the mood of his people. If it is happy, the king can rejoice with them; if it is distressed and resentful, the king must either reform his government or face certain ruin.” (p. 204)
Music courses through the veins of every man, and woman. As evident in these pages its manifestations are as varied as the cultures of the world. How did it come to be? Did early Homo Sapiens get rhythm from the beating of his heart, and add trills, grunts, and groans imitating the sounds of nature? Could be… could be.
The standard notes:
1. Since L.Q.’s inception with the Winter 2008 issue its size is always 7″ x 10″ x 1/2-17/32″. It is white-covered, printed on high quality paper throughout, with richly printed reproductions of fine art from time immemorial, and 221 pages up to a page or two of addenda at the back.
2. Each issue contains extracts about the title topic from great authors and thinkers spanning all recorded history. It begins with an eloquent, to a fault, preamble/introduction by editor Lewis Lapham. The main body is called Voices In Time and contains 3 or 4 subcategories of the topic with about 25 extracts per section. Noteworthy sidebars, side quotes, and depictions of appropriate art from the ages are liberally distributed throughout. Several extended contemporary essays bring up the rear. There are several other small sections every issue (Among the Contributors, Conversations, Miscellany, ‘The Graphic’).
3. Per the L.Q. website:
“Lapham’s Quarterly embodies the belief that history is the root of all education, scientific and literary as well as political and economic. Each issue addresses a topic of current interest and concern—war, religion, money, medicine, nature, crime—by bringing up to the microphone of the present the advice and counsel of the past.”
4. I encourage all to subscribe to this fine publication. It is a rich supplement to anyone’s reading.