Thursday, 28 April 2011

Miles in Bed with Benjamin

I have always remembered this.  Miles Davis telling John McLaughlin “Play it like you don’t know how to play the guitar”.  It was, I guess, to get him to play much simpler, with a little uncertainty, more fragile and tentative, and spare; to create some space for In A Silent Way to breathe.   I also remember McLaughlin’s commentary:

Miles always spoke very cryptically, but at the same time you knew what he was saying was really it … He plays and you know, and that’s what he likes.  He makes you creative.  He puts your creativity on the line.  He’ll make you do something that’s you, but also in tune with what he wants.  That’s hard, but it’s an incredible challenge that everyone should have because it makes you aware of areas you can go that you wouldn’t normally get into…  (Miles Davis, by Ian Carr)

And Dave Holland too, I remember him.  Though his comments are more of the time, but not wrong for that – spot on in fact:

He was always trying to put you in a new space all the time where you weren’t approaching the music from the same point of view all the time, or from a preconceived point of view.  Usually. He would say those things just to put you in that space.  It was almost like a Haiku thing – or a Zen thing where the master says a couple of words and the student gets enlightened.

Two very clear expositions of a supreme artist at work.  It shows the difficulty of conveying the genius of that art to someone else, for them to create it too.  McLaughlin’s reference to Miles’ “cryptic comments” is about the inability of ordinary communication to get that content across.  Its feeling and nuance is below the level of our ordinary language, you have to use other mental tools (intuition, feel, a special kind of insight, also training and a keen alertness; a readiness to experiment…) to grasp it.  It is the ability inherent in a craft tradition, where you pick up, by working in the workshop with the other masters, the skills and sensibility to create masterpieces of your own.  This is why there is no long term progress in the arts; all movements eventually collapsing into bad taste and triviality – the craft cannot so much be learnt as experienced; the senses, perhaps even more than a certain kind of intellect, picking up the most important elements.  That sensibility tied to specific individuals, and their working methods.  To learn merely the techniques is like walking with sticks – slow and difficult, and a crude parody of the original; which itself is so free and flexible. 

Why particular movements rise and fall is a difficult question.  In Art and Life I suggested some reasons for the aesthetic revolution in the early 20th century.  Those were the preconditions, or at least some of them, for a major transformation in how we view the world.  There is, however, the nature of the individuals themselves.  Genius is an overplayed word these days.  However, just like democracy, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use it, only be careful about its meaning.  Thus Miles, Picasso, Gauguin and Goethe are geniuses because of the quality and quantity of their work; and its ability to change the landscape; to create something radically new.   It is that special quality of genius to use a variety of influences, particularly the tensions and strains of the society and tradition they inhabit, to create a transformation in their own fields.  God alone knows how this is done, but it is the ability to bring all these different pieces together, and add just a touch of something new.[i]  And to do this requires fine sensibility, great intellect, a certain talent and an extraordinary energy.  Ian Bostridge picks this latter up in a recent review of Benjamin Britten:

… a demon of facility and application… the workaholic centre of a creative industry – his  own music, the English Opera Group, the Aldeburgh Festival… (TLS 22/04/2011)

We also hear echoes of Miles in

…Britten’s tactful yet somehow commanding way of influencing Rostropovich’s playing of his Sonata in C, as described by the great cellist himself.  Over a meal break together in the midst of concentrated rehearsals, Rostropovich noticed that Britten was humming:

“I realised that Ben was tactfully teaching me how to play this phrase, to make it a little freer in rubato, and he showed just how to gauge the small crescendo and diminuendo and exactly where to start the glissando.   I captured the spirit of his theme by imitating the way he had hummed it.  Ben would never give explicit instructions, and in fact we never talked about how his music should be performed.  Everything sorted itself out in the process of playing.  But I had to grasp at hints like this.”  (my emphasis)

Their personalities are different, and this is reflected both in the music and how they convey it.  But the overall approach is remarkably similar – how to convey the unspeakable.  When Britten died there was no one else to give those hints and precise nudges.  Rostropovich, no doubt, would have done something similar with his pupils, but inevitably the suggestions would have been slightly different.  His pupils would have repeated the process until eventually, after a number of generations, like prints copied from the same block, the subtleties would be rubbed away.  To leave something crude and trivial; a diamond encrusted skull on the pages of our newspapers.

A later genius, with all that life and energy, would not be attracted to a stale art form, reduced to mere technique.  Now that it has become simply an intellectual exercise he would sense the faults, and its limitations; and it wouldn’t fit with his understanding, his feel and sensibility.[ii]  He would be attracted to new forms, and search for fresh horizons.  Sometimes they may even be found.  Thus an old movement dies, and a new one is born.

[i] In an excellent interview for the MIT Infinite History Project Noam Chomsky describes this process in his own work, where he brought a number of new developments together, across a range of fields, to create a completely new approach in the 1950s.
[ii] I discuss this more in Russian Climate.  The greatest talents seem all of a piece; in that their ideas spring naturally from their personality.  The merely talented or the virtuoso technician puts little of their self into the work; so although highly skilled it is often soulless – it lacks any meaning.  A good discussion of some of these issues can be found in Richard Lane’s book on the Masters of Japanese Print, which charts the rise and fall of Ukiyo-e.

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