We all need variety sometimes, but when every channel has nothing, shouldn’t we notice?
I came across this 1992 op-ed by pianist Keith Jarrett called “Categories Aplenty, but Where’s the Music?”
Jarrett wrote it in the year after Miles Davis’ death. It’s cranky, and it might make some folks roll their eyes. (Jarrett was notorious for being difficult and “proud to be difficult” — in a 1997 NYTimes profile he was quoted as saying, “There are some ages, I think, that don’t deserve art as much as others. I almost think we live in a time now when that is true.”) But for a 30-year-old piece of writing, it feels state-of-the-art to me in that it still describes the state of the arts today. (Plus, I tend to like cranky musicians. Musicians have to be too nice today!)
“We live in an age in which only results seem to count, not processes,” Jarrett writes. “We need to hear the process of a musician working on himself. We don’t need to hear who is more clever with synthesizers. Our cleverness has created the world we live in…”
Elsewhere, Jarrett has told the story of his first encounter with music as a young kid: banging on the kitchen table with celery sticks. He asks us to “try to imagine the first musician,” who was “not playing for an audience, or a market,” but was “playing out of need, out of his need for the music.”
The original musician was not looking for his image; he was using his voice to learn about the world. He knew the world to be liquid (i.e., not made up of discrete entities). We see the world as ‘bits’ of information, either/or, yes or no, digital. We seem to have no desire to experience time. We trade this experience for the ‘accuracy’ of ‘bits’ of time: it’s either 9:19 or 9:20, never almost 9:20. So we think that time is a straight line and, eventually, that everything has edges. Something stops here, something starts there. But the natural world is essentially circular; our heartbeats are not like a click-track or a drum machine; there are different kinds of time, and we don’t only die when we are dead.
“Life is liquid, not solid; a process, not a result; the present, not the future,” he writes. “Life is a process. We’re losing the concept of ‘becoming,’ because this, too, is circular.”
He quotes a canto by Ezra Pound (“Nothing counts save the quality of the affection”) and paraphrases Emerson’s Self-Reliance:
This is a good place to mention that ‘Do your own thing’ came from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who actually said, ‘Do your thing, and I shall know you.’ In other words, you reveal yourself to others through what you do. Emerson’s statement was not meant to be a kind of carte blanche to follow our shallowest whims: it’s not about life style or fashion or technique or casual choices. His statement contains a warning: I will only recognize you if you have your voice; I will not recognize you otherwise.
The actual line from Emerson is “Do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself.”
(Surely, Emerson read Thessalonians: “Do your own work.”)
Jarrett still plays, btw, but due to chronic fatigue and two strokes, he can now only play with his right hand.
Here’s an interview with Rick Beato from earlier this year:
Related reading: “Tomas Transformer at the piano.”