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Highly Opinionated

The Skies Above Us... The Decay Down Below: From Cavafy and Mahler to Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden

By Published: March 27, 2008

[Artists] have never given up the struggle to hold up a mirror to society by giving us art in the name of Humanity and Decency.

For days, looking at the darkening sky of the Canadian winter, I was preoccupied with the image of this deep-blue canopy as a mirror—a mirror not only to the individual, but also to the collective soul. For days I have wanted to say what I saw, but no words come to mind yet and the ideas were invisible. Then, today they come in waves of quantum packets. Their high energy was blinding. And like an electric current that had become more audible day by day, they urged me to make note of the impulses. But I could do no more than stare at the page. I saw ideas collide and words swirl like various partners performing a gratuitous waltz in the brain. To write about music they must not only do so, but also make harmonic sense. Sure the melody dictates itself must pry open the subject... But the harmonic approach is critical to complete the circle. And it must drive the rhythm... Time! Timing... The timing has to be right... Otherwise nothing will sound good. No one will be able to dance... The music will say nothing about life...

So, for days on end, the time was not right for writing about music.



But then neither has most days been conducive to the creative process... I am constantly disturbed by death... News about death and thoughts about death... The news gets more troubling everyday. Although one can never justify it wars seem inevitable. But what is even more disturbing is the machinery of death. More powerful weapons to kill with... and do so more brutally than ever before... to go down in a so-called blaze of glory. Most disturbing of all is the fact that young men "students" have taken it upon themselves to dispense justice, however twisted, by killing their own: mass murder in schools, colleges and universities... It appears that there is too much hate roaming like loose smoke all over the earth. I am distraught today. It did not help that I finished re-reading a deeply troubling essay by Gene Lees—Jazz Black and White (from Cats of Any Color, Da Capo, 2000)—a dissertation on racism in music as, sadly, reflected in one of the premier music institutions of New York. It bears mention here, that (at the time of writing, some seven years, or so, ago) Lees was referring to racism in the context of an attempt to keep "the white man out" by denying his contribution to the jazz idiom. I have always found racism, no matter who practiced this ugly form of discrimination, to be truly disturbing. For me, there can be no justification—no excuse and certainly no room for hate in our lives—much less in our music. Ask any self-respecting musician. It destroys the art. That was never the intention of the blues...

A poem comes to mind. The poem is from quite another realm, quite another era, but to me it speaks to the decay of our society, so driven by ignorance and hate. The poem is entitled "Waiting for the Barbarians," by C.P. Cavafy. The great Alexandrian poet, who wrote at the turn of the 19th and in the early 20th centuries, had an epiphany about the imminent fall of a highly developed civilization—not unlike Rome—which was beginning to devour itself with its own fangs of sophistication and a certain emptiness born of its inability to recognize the fabric that held it together... a lot like ours, you might say.

In the poem—that presents the dilemma faced by a society in decay with a heightened sense of drama—all life comes to grinding halt.

"What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn't anything happening in the senate?

Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today

What laws can the senators the senators make now?

Once the barbarians are here, they'll do the legislating.

As the poem unfolds with rhythmic intensity so does the stultifying scene of decadence at the centre this highly developed civilization. We meet the emperor, sitting at the city gates in all his finery, waiting to receive the barbarians... so do the consuls and the praetors, dressed in scarlet togas... wearing "bracelets with so many amethysts...rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds..." waiting to receive the barbarians... The orators are silent... no speeches are to be made as the barbarians are bored of rhetoric...

Then, as night falls people become restless and confused. The streets and the squares empty rapidly. And everyone goes home lost in thought... because the barbarians have not come. Some, who returned from the border, announced that there are no barbarians any longer... the poet asks:

"And now, what's going to happen to us without the barbarians?

They were, those people, a kind of solution"

So what, you may ask, is the point of recalling this poem? Why now... why in an editorial about music?

First of all poetry and music are plucked from the same string, struck on the same skin. The rhythm and meter of both music and poetry emerges triumphantly from the same wellspring—and has done so since time immemorial. From the psalms and ancient monastic chants to the work of Langston Hughes and Kamau Brathwaite... Abbey Lincoln and Charles Mingus.

Second—and most significantly—the artist exists not in an abstract, elevated state, but in a very deep relationship to his or her ethos. Their work holds up a mirror to society... civilization and culture. And so their work or opuses may be looked upon a history of a people. Cavafy's poem reflects a society on a downward spiral, as does this Mahler's, Mingus,' Ornette Coleman's... The fact that there is continuity here, chronologically speaking must count for something. Perhaps it is the fact that the artist is the first to spot the advent of his/her decaying civilization. Or perhaps it is the fact that only the artist will ever admit to the decay itself!

Between 1908 and 1909, Gustav Mahler composed his "9th Symphony in D Minor." This is one of Mahler's most intense works. It has been recorded that around the time, Mahler became aware that his wife was being unfaithful to him. He sought solace in music. The "9th Symphony" was a result of this sojourn. Its last movement—a stirring contemplation of death and eternal life—bears a striking similarity to the hymn, 'Abide With Me' and also quotes from Beethoven's "Les Adieux" (piano sonata 26—opus 81a). Its effect on audiences and other artists was profound: Most however concerned themselves with the work in isolation. For instance, Otto Klemperer believed it to be his greatest achievement and Herbert von Karajan called it, "Music... from eternity." Leonard Bernstein, "It is terrifying, and paralysing, as the strands of sound disintegrate... in ceasing, we lose it all, but in letting go, we have gained everything."

But it was the late Dr. Lewis Thomas, writing almost eight decades after the Mahler's opus was written discerned something unique in the music. Dr. Thomas had been listening to the symphony probably for decades, taking comfort in its wonderful intent. Then at the height of the Cold War and the arms race between the superpowers, it started to mean something totally different to him. Dr. Thomas let his thoughts dwell upon the last movement—the adagio.

Dr. Thomas states that there was a time when the final movement of the piece meant a great deal to him. He states that once, this piece of music used to fill him with "a mixture of old melancholy mixed with high pleasure." He admits that (especially) the final movement was an ..."open acknowledgement of death and at the same time a quiet celebration connected to the process. I took this music as a metaphor for my own strong hunch that the dying of every living creature, the most natural of all experiences, has to be a peaceful experience. I rely on nature." He wrote in this magnificent essay, "The long passages on all the strings at the end, as close as music can come to experiencing silence itself, I used to hear as Mahler's leave-taking at its best. But always, I have heard this music as a solitary, private listener, thinking about death... Now I hear it differently..."

Almost imperceptibly, Dr. Thomas discerned hope (in death and life everlasting) in the "almost vanishing violins, all engaged in a sustained backward glance... edged aside for a few bars by the cellos. The lower notes pick up fragments from the first movement, as though prepared to begin everything all over again, and then the cellos subside and disappear, like an exhalation." He used to hear this, he says, as a "wonderful few seconds of encouragement: we'll be back, we're still here, keep going, keep going."

Hope indeed, but no more, when he found a pamphlet describing the weapons of the Cold War, MX Basing that was published by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. The publication went on to describe "alternative strategies for placement and protection of hundreds of (these) missiles, each capable of creating a hundred Hiroshimas, collectively capable of destroying the life of any continent..."

So now, listening to Mahler's 9th in the context of the weapon-capability and the ever-present threat of destruction of the Cold War, Mahler's 9th—especially the final movement—that once filled Dr. Thomas with so much solace—now reiterates the violence of death and its finality... not the everlasting life.

The Cold War changed civilization, as we know it, forever. The production and stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction gave us a new and final sensed of mortality—almost like eating forbidden fruit in real life! And this has made us a much more violent society, with a greater propensity to kill. Dr. Thomas' life must have changed forever. But he was much more concerned with us: He put himself in the shoes of a teenager of the time—one of us baby-boomers—and felt certain that we would feel the same sense of horror... "I would know for sure that the whole world was coming unhinged," he concludes. In many ways the reaction of the rap of The Last Poets and Chuck D and Public Enemy was a reaction to the world coming unhinged. (Racism was the precipitating factor). I would be remiss if I did not say that I do not condone the often-expressed demeaning of the woman and the gratuitous sexual and other violence, expressed by rap and hip-hop artists, although I can understand where The Last Poets, Chuck D, and even Tupac was 'coming from.'

I felt the world coming unhinged in the '60s too. The music was saying 'love.' Everything else was saying just the opposite! Woodstock was a case in point. So were the events at Newport. As a student of ancient civilizations, I believed that human history was a record of crime, bloodshed and wars of incredible ferocity. The normal state of man and woman was alienation. People were alienated from each other: There was hatred, lying, injustice, oppression, and open or covert hostility, not to mention ignorance and sheer folly. War after war has drenched the earth in blood and now, our propensity for violence was threatening the very future of the planet.

That feeling of discomfort was sometimes so palpable that I felt my head ready to explode! How could a species whose compassion had enabled it to create definite cures for so many diseases, for instance, and come so close to destroying itself with anger and hatred? Where would I go now, to seek a better understanding of this human conundrum? The psychoanalysts could only explain the phenomenon after the fact. So inevitably I turned to the work of great artists of yesterday, today and tomorrow—all the poets of their individual instruments. Their poems sonic booms from lips or fingertips... But there is a greater significance of their art... and that is the holding up of the mirror to life itself. And in we see the decadence of civilization as seen in Cavafy's poem and Mahler's symphonic poem, the 9th. I remember hearing Charles Mingus' Meditations on Integration for the first time. Something I have never got over, even until today, is that the music touched me in the depths, where no other music had ever reached before.

The long, brooding composition arose out of a newspaper article that Eric Dolphy had read and told Mingus about. According to Mr. Mingus, residential zoning of some kind had become a phenomenon in the South, where they were separating people ..."the blacks and whites... by barbed wire... and how they'd better put some wire-cutters in our hands before someone gave some guns to us..."

One must remember that this was the late '50s... in April 1964, at the Town Hall, New York City... Also Mr. Mingus was reflecting the unfinished business of Civil Rights, shortly before Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and (the) Soledad Brother(s)... and although Mingus was being far more generous than the Panthers would be some years later, the unmitigated sadness of his sentiment was eminently vivid in the music, reflected in the mirror that showed a image of a society shattered by senseless hatred.

The music opens in a minor key, reflecting the dynamic tension of social reality. Mingus makes his way arco, expressively, majestically through the front end of the theme—a brooding examination of civil rights depicted in the senseless segregation by colour. The sadness is immense, like thick grey smoke that hovers gloomily in the sky above us. It is the pieta sung in the idiom of jazz. No bass had ever sounded so elementally sad, capturing the mood of the inhumanity towards a people no different than their white counterparts in society. Mingus was joined in statements of theme and narrative by the explorative piano at the hands of Jaki Byard, the heartfelt cry of Dannie Richmond's cymbals searing through the heat of the theme... and all this is capped by the mournful wail of a people denied as the melody is sung at the lips of Eric Dolphy's bass clarinet and flute. The mood of the music never becomes hugely uplifting because there was no resolution to the social conflict. But in subsequent movements—originally dubbed 'prayers,' by the composer, the music reaches a sort of de'nouement driven by Mingus' abrupt shifts in rhythm and propulsion in the ensemble passages. Like so much music of the era, a resolution is suggested for reflection: in this case, "how they'd better put some wire-cutters in our hands, before someone gives some guns to us."

I would be hesitant to judge Mingus' motives, but I believe that I know intimately that his music suggests only love in the end. This is a kind of child-like imagined love, the kind you experience when so crushed by the weight of hatred thrust upon some of us, we begin to imagine just the opposite. Yes, imagining love! (Mingus' greatest work—one he was not able to perform in his lifetime suggests this: in Epitaph (Columbia, 1990) indicates that there was some sort of resolution to hatred in Mingus' world, but it is tinged by sadness as this did not happen to his world until his time was passed. So tragic that this is suggested by the inevitable perception of an artist examining the progress of our civilization as late as in the '50s and early '60s!

Then in early 1970, we hear, reflected in the deep indigo dish of the sky, a colourful harmolodic excursion of some 200 years of history... a sonic continuum, a single unbroken work in one long movement. Skies of America (Columbia, 1972), was a colossal work from Ornette Coleman's revolutionary pen.

He had spent a night in the open, he said, beneath the starry sky in Montana and had participated in (ironically) sacred Crow Indian rites. Speaking with Richard Williams in 1971, Coleman said these rites inspired Skies. "I feel that everything that has happened in America, from way before the Europeans arrived is still intact as far as the sky is concerned." This sounds like an ominous reminder that the all-seeing eye of God was casting a look upon his creation. As the music suggests, things were still not looking good.

In this concerto grosso Coleman used polytonal harmolodic colour and percussion to depict the vision of turmoil down below. Expressed in slow lines and flatted chords by the orchestra, the sky remains eternal and unmoved, but not untroubled. It opens and closes and returns to the forefront several times during the course of the piece. Down below, musical vignettes describe the lives of the civilization: appearing happy, angry, sorrowing, loving—and above all—active. Coleman's saxophone enters at dawn, a shrill, tortured soulful expression of the plight of "The Artist in America." In a driving, polytonal streaking passage, Coleman the eventfulness of the murderous life under a now blood-red sky. The vision is Whitmanesque in scope, embracing the ambiguities and tensions of modern life. It covers the tragic violence of the Vietnam War, but more importantly suggests the unfinished revolution in Civil Rights—something Mingus and many artists before him were tortured by as well.

It is unfortunate that Civil Rights are still an unfinished business, even today. But now we are grappling also with the impending loss of something even more basic and frightening: The loss of Humanity... The two wars that are being fought thousands of miles away are promoting more hatred under the skies of America than we can ever imagine. In Charlie Haden's Not in Our Name (Verve, 2005) wasting resources, killing thousands and destroying whatever little beauty is left of our global civilization.

Haden declared his purpose, as he so often does, in the manifesto in his notes: "We were hoping sanity and justice would prevail. They lost out to greed, cruelty and injustice. The machine won the election again by hook and by crook: The way it won in 2000.

"We want the world to know, however, that the devastation that this administration is wreaking is not in our name. It's not in the name of many people in this country.

..."So now, although we lost the election, we have not lost the commitment to reclaim our country in the name of Humanity and Decency.

"Don't give up... the struggle continues!"

Like Cavafy and Mahler, Mingus and Coleman, Charlie Haden and a growing group of musicians, committed to improving the human condition, have never given up the struggle to hold up a mirror to society by giving us art in the name of Humanity and Decency. Haden had done so publicly in the past (notably in 1971, when he dedicated his performance of "Song for Che" in Portugal to the anti-colonialist revolutionaries in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau, leading to his subsequent arrest by the then-repressive Portuguese regime) and in the political statements on Ballad of the Fallen (ECM, 1983) and with Dream Keeper (Polydor, 1990), once again, Charlie Haden and Liberation Music Orchestra have created a stark image of the America that the world sees—hypocritical and warmongering. Once again, holding up his mirror to society the artist—in this case the deeply committed bassist—has created bass lines so lyrical that you hear in their every note a growling of the heartbeat that breaks through to become strong and free...

And suddenly we can hear the sound of hope... A hope that belies love and faith in humanity and fills us all with a sense of the ultimate triumph of the human soul... Now all we need to do is listen, take heed and move forward.


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