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