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Music Shows How We Want To Be: Artie Shaw's "Nightmare"

By Published: June 8, 2005
The education Aesthetic Realism, founded by American poet and critic Eli Siegel (1902 -1978), describes what makes for beauty in music and shows how music comments centrally on what we're hoping for in our lives. "All beauty," Mr. Siegel stated, "is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves."

"There is not one thing that music does," Siegel once said in a lecture, "that does not say something about how a person should organize himself, too."

The composition "Nightmare" by the late Artie Shaw is a great example of this. It wowed me when I first heard it as a teenager living in the Bronx. It was on a big band radio show. The announcer would come on and say, "Now, live from the Blue Room of the Hotel Lincoln, the music of Artie Shaw and his orchestra" - and the band would come in with the opening bars of "Nightmare." Hearing that intense, heavy, unrelenting beat, and Shaw on the clarinet seeming to cry out, I would get goose bumps - and I still do!

As I think of that time in my life, it's surprising that I liked this music so much. Though I cared for sports, I was a very contained person; I didn't like exploring new territory, being tossed about. I preferred familiar, comfortable, smooth ground; so I held myself back and, while I felt "safe" inside, I often wanted to yell out. I had no idea that the reason this music, aptly called "Nightmare," with its dissonant, ominous wail, excited and satisfied me so much was because it opposed my desire to be smoothly contained, and gave outward form to my hope to break out of that deadening narrowness I had welcomed. Many people go around in a kind of quiet nightmare, not knowing how they got there or how it can change.

In an early Aesthetic Realism class I attended, Eli Siegel asked me: "Do you think you want to change, but you also want to remain exactly as you are?" I said, "Yes." And he asked: "Are you fond of the status quo and the status no?" I was. I remember, for instance, going to a singles club hoping to meet a woman, but waiting for someone to come to me and start a conversation. I thought my mere presence was enough. But I was wrong and usually left alone, blaming others for being unsociable. I came to see what I was really hoping for as Mr. Siegel asked me: "Do you think there is something impelling you to have to have a good effect on someone? Is there an imperative there?" The answer was yes - and my fortunate life these years ratifies that "yes," a thousandfold.

What Is This Music About?

I see in "Nightmare," which Artie Shaw composed and arranged himself, a dramatic tension between the confined and the explosive: something painfully contained struggling to break free. As we heard, it begins with that thudding, repetitive pattern on the trombones, saxophones and drum. The low saxophones are playing a tight, chromatic figure that is almost airless. The rest of the band comes in suddenly in the high register; the effect is like an electric shock. The high and low aspect of the band are almost in a combat and - out of it, in the middle register - Artie Shaw enters on the clarinet.

It's important to say that Shaw felt this music, with its nightmarish quality, represented him so much he used it as his theme song. What was impelling him? I feel these sentences by Eli Siegel from Self and World help explain it:

"One thing that can be seen in dreams and also in life is that on the one hand we want to go ahead and, on the other hand, we want to check ourselves ... We should see, however, that the desire to be wild and abandoned, and the desire to be self-restricting, are common desires and are present all the time, both when we sleep and when we are awake."

As I studied the life of Shaw for a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, I came to see that this desire to go ahead and also check himself, to be both abandoned and self-restricting troubled him very much. An innovative bandleader during the heyday of the swing era in 1930s and early '40s, Shaw, writes music historian George Simon, "was a searcher, a man looking for something new, something different." And he could be very kind, generous; becoming the first white bandleader to hire a black singer, Billie Holliday, and supporting her with a beautiful insistence despite the terrific bigotry and racism she had to face as she traveled with him and his band in the South. And Shaw also cared very much for knowledge, taking courses in French literature so he, as he said, "could read men like Flaubert, Proust and Baudelaire." But he was also snobbish, looking down on fellow musicians who he felt were not as intellectual as he was. And unfortunately he had contempt for his audiences, describing them as "musically illiterate." Had he studied Aesthetic Realism, he would have been able to learn from the very music he wrote and his life - which included pain about love - would have been so much more fortunate. In an important paper, Martha Baird, poet and critic of music, wrote of Shaw's "Nightmare," saying:

"Artie Shaw is intense. There is a kind of pain in the tone of his clarinet, but he has control too and he knows what he is doing. [And she also wrote] You feel Artie Shaw wept a lot."

Control and Crying Out in the Clarinet

When Shaw comes in a second time, on a longer solo, he is deep, thoughtful and yearning; you feel he is looking for something, and is not satisfied as he leans on blues notes that sound sour, painful and don't quite fit the background harmony. As the solo progresses he goes further, becomes more abandoned, goes higher and higher in the instrument's range - nearly three and a half octaves. Every phrase takes in more and more territory; and surprisingly that steady beat underneath, which earlier seemed so ominous, now seems to support him, encourage him on even as it remains so tight, just two semitones. What a contrast to the range of the clarinet!

So different from "Nightmare," dark, minor and portentous, is a song Artie Shaw is very much associated with: Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine," which is mellow, beguiling and in the major. It was one of Shaw's biggest hits, and audiences would demand he play it again and again. These two compositions were recorded in 1938 and it thrilled me to see that the same opposites are central in both of them: the contained and the expansive, something tight, held back, and something that surges forward, together with a persistent, ongoing beat.

Isn't it something to think that the same man is identified so closely with these very different pieces - one upbeat, with a smooth, undulating melody; the other severe, dissonant, critical. It shows that Artie Shaw, like every person, was trying to put opposites together.

As "Nightmare" concludes - with that dark, inexorable pattern below, the brass blaring out above, and that final bright cymbal crash - we get an emotion that's very satisfying. This music is brash, it's bold, it's critical, it doesn't smooth things over. We can imagine audiences in the late 1930s, worried about what was happening in Europe, and trying to make sense of their own lives, pleased to hear it played by a big band, to hear something troubling given artistic form. And audiences today can feel this, too. In fact, "Nightmare" is part of the background score to the current film The Aviator.

As we listen to that last assertive minor chord with its crashing cymbal, we feel there's something honest going on. Reality is not summed up - we feel there's more to see.

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