Energies: A Note on Music and Disbeliefs

I do not believe that the act of making music, however deliberate or spontaneous it might be, aspires to a preordained ideal. That is, there is no perfect music, except insofar as a given musical piece or performance fulfills the needs of its participants — listener, composer, and performer alike. This fulfillment is, in the end, all that matters.

I also do not believe that all music aspires to art, nor should it, any more than any other activity aspires to art. I emphasize my use of the word activity because I believe music is something one does.1


  1. This idea will be familiar to readers of Christopher Small’s Musicking, a book I’ve only recently come across. I recommend it to anyone who’s interest in music is more than passing. His development of a theory of music-as-action has inspired rather than deterred my remarks here.

Energies: A Note on Music and Utility

I am, like many people I know, a person whose identity has been discovered, determined and formed through the music I listen to. This is more than the cigarette-smoking or various haircuts and wardrobes I adopted to suit my nascent rock-and-roll, metal, or punk phases; it is in fact the way I have learned to view the world and be a part of it. By which I mean that without music, there is little doubt that I would have ceased to exist some time ago. In this way it has been and is useful to me.

Of course, the criteria for utility vary according to need. Hollis Frampton, in an essay whose title I cannot currently recall, describes art as a practice whose utility has become obsolete. His example, as I recall, is painting, which initially appeared on cave walls as warnings (“Keep an eye peeled for bears!”) or narrative (describing, perhaps, a hunt). From there, it evolved into religious iconography, and only later into a secular mode of entertainment, expression, or reproduction. He distinguishes photography as falling outside this progression, positing that it moved in reverse, from expression (a substitute for amateur painting) to utility (a recording medium whose veracity was intact without question for nearly a century).

Music falls somewhere in between or alongside those media: music has sustained its utility throughout its history, as prayer, as communication, as entertainment, as expression, as rallying point. That is, rather than evolve from utility to art, music has remained a utility and evolved into art simultaneously.

Energies: A Note on Records and Listening

My record-buying and listening pattern is a combination of impulse, artwork, artist, review, and genre. I tend to listen exhaustively, by which I mean I latch on to an artist or group and pick up whatever I can from them until their music is either assimilated into my listening-repitoire or the buzz of the new music simply fades. Most music falls into the latter group but it doesn’t matter.

Reckless Records, Chicago, IL

As Ezra Pound once said, art of any kind in any era requires journeymen, whose works serve “to sustain the art.” Likewise, these eventually-mediocre records serve as journeymen in my listening. They keep things moving, keep me in the habit of listening and seeking, keep things afloat. Once they recede from the turntable and playlists, I’m left with the indefatigable records that are useful and endure.

Christopher Small

[O]ur present-day concert life, whether “classical” or “popular,” in which the “talented” few are empowered to produce music for the “untalented” majority, is based on a falsehood. It means that our powers of making music for ourselves have been hijacked and the majority of people robbed of the musicality that is theirs by right of birth, while a few stars, and their handlers, grow rich and famous through selling us what we have been led to believe we lack.

— Christopher Small, Musicking.

By which Mr. Small means, at least: it’s already in you so make your noise.

Two Sides of Joe Henderson

Joe Henderson was the first saxophone player whom I ever called my favorite.1 As a younger man getting publicly into jazz, it seemed that the known heavies among the people I spoke with were more than I could get my ears around.2 There were tenor players I favored, Dexter Gordon chief among them, but I found myself wanting something that leaned into more aggressive improvisations, turned occasionally away from standards, maybe carried a message of personal – if not cultural, political or social – freedom. Sonny Rollins was almost perfect but older guys, like in their 40s, seemed to enjoy him a little too much.

Enter Joe Henderson. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s he found a home at Blue Note and swung with the best of them. 3 In the meantime, however, he was playing some very different kinds of jazz, appearing on most of Andrew Hill’s miraculous LPs from 1963-19654, Pete La Roca’s Basra (1965), and Larry Young’s Unity (1965).

The years 1963-1964 also bore Henderson’s emergence as a leader. In that time he had four records appear under his name5. Frankly, there’s not a klinker to be found on any of those sessions.

So by 1967, if he wasn’t famous among listeners he remained in high demand among other players. One of my favorite saxophone numbers of all time comes from this period.

le konitz duets
“You Don’t Know What Love Is,” Lee Konitz with Joe Henderson, The Lee Konitz Duets, 1967.

The first time I heard this tune, and nearly every time since, there’s some point or other at which I seem to forget that I’m listening and the saxophones sort of take over my consciousness. I lose track of who’s playing what but one thing remains certain: Mr. Konitz, outside this duet, never has this effect on me. Mr. Henderson, on the other hand, has this effect on me frequently, and at every phase of his career.

Like many players in the late-60s and early-70s, Henderson seized an opportunity to stretch out further than he had even in the previous several years. His move to Milestone Records6 brought larger, funkier bands into the picture. Henderson was equally at home in this environment as he had been in every other7, and the aggressive tones he’d worked out during his Blue Note years simply erupted. Though it also appeared in the Milestone box and on Soul Jazz Records’ marvelous Freedom Rhythm & Sound: Revolutionary Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement 1963-82, this tune originally appeared on his Black Is the Color LP in 1972, and characterizes for me the kind of force Joe Henderson was capable of:

black-is-the-color
“Foregone Conclusion,” Joe Henderson, Black Is the Color, 1972.

This was not a live recording. What you’re hearing, in part, is Mr. Henderson on alto flute, soprano saxophone, percussion and, obviously, tenor saxophone. The groove is fierce. 8 Which goes to the point that you could pick up pretty much any one of his records from pretty much any point in his 40-year career and find something passionate, conscientious, and technically astonishing. His was an awesome career. He is missed.


  1. Thanks and shouts to my friend, Michael Honch, who turned me on to Joe Henderson nearly 20 years ago.

  2. e.g. John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders; the point was clear: either one was hip to Mr. Coltrane’s journey out and the men heading there with or behind him or one was not quite with it at all.

  3. This is not a figurative statement. In addition to his sessions as a leader, Henderson played with Kenny Dorham, Horace Silver, Lee Morgan (on “The Sidewinder,” no less), Grant Green, and more.

  4. There were seven in all, two of which featured Hill’s all-rhythm quartets (no horns or reeds – either piano/bass/bass/drums or piano/vibraphone/bass/drums), and two others which featured John Gilmore, a worthy subject of tenor saxophone pursuit in his own right. Mr. Hill, of course, is a whole other study altogether.

  5. In 1966, Blue Note released Mode for Joe, which would be the last Henderson-led LP on that label until 1985’s State of the Tenor, a 2 disc live set recorded at the Village Vanguard.

  6. His entire Milestone catalog was released as a box set in 1994.

  7. Unlike some of his colleagues who more or less disappeared into an almost-visible haze of reefer, cocaine, and neverending sunsets under the increasingly warm, airless guidance of CTI Records.

  8. Bassist, Adam Rizer, likened the physical effect of such stern grooves to whiplash. He was talking about the Budos Band but I experienced this phenomenon with this number on my ride home from work today.

From My Old Blog, December 2006: About “Myrrhman”

Talk Talk is probably best known in the U.S. for their early ’80s hits, ‘Talk Talk,’ and ‘Dum Dum Girl.’ Some remember ‘Life’s What You Make It’ from the transitional The Colour of Spring LP but for the most part that’s the end of it. What goes largely unacknowledged is one of the most intriguing progressions in popular music history: Talk Talk, due to the mutual influence of keyboardist Tim Friese-Greene and singer Mark Hollis, became a band whose aim was, apparently, to not make any sound. The group went to great lengths to accomplish this goal, most notably, effectively, and perhaps paradoxically, by way of improvisation and expanded instrumentation.

[Edit, 2011] The effort towards silence succeeds in large part because of an equally extreme dynamic ceiling; that is, if the group was able to achieve stretches of near-inaudibility, they were also committed to periods of alarming saturation and volume.

tt-ls
Talk Talk, “Myrrhman,” Laughing Stock, 1991.

Energies: Authenticity & Slow Culture

Further thinking about slow movies1 has brought me to both a more general and a more specific idea about the distinction of slow culture, inspired in part by this insightful piece by Matt LeMay.

Slow media 2 are not necessarily the same thing as slow culture, though they are certainly related. The term *slow media* as I’m using it here refers to a direct, physical contact with a medium’s material; *slow culture*, on the other hand, is not so limited and refers to a culture which produces reflective, meditative, deliberate, and/or restful gaps in its material. Mainstream culture’s works bear revisiting because we look forward to the known satisfaction of their resolution; how we get there is less important than that we know it’s coming, and, for the most part, the sooner the better. Slow culture’s payoff comes generally in the works’ process. That is, slow culture gives its participans and audience members a chance to think about what they’re participating in while they’re participating in it. This thoughtfulness is essentially creative and mutual, an investment by the artist in the audience as well as an investment by the audience in the work.

Though the formats and modes suggested by the *slow* terms are generally appreciated by many people, they exist outside the main channels of production, exhibition, performance, broadcast, and spectatorship: it’s cool to know they’re there but they’re not the money-makers of their fields.
They remain, nonetheless, characteristic of a kind of hipness that is less obsolete than it might seem.3

I’ve digressed from my original intention but not irrelevantly. We’ve grown accustomed to the speed of not only cultural works themselves but also their accessibility. Even though the ideas here can probably be applied to any aspect of artistic or cultural life, for the purpose of this piece, I’ll stick to music.

The last decade has yielded an exponential increase in the number of musicians and musical artists and a subsequent increase in recorded and performed output. And yet there has been little *new* music in this period.4 We’ve seen new ways of getting it, new ways of making it, storing it, and distributing it; new places to discuss it, new places to see it, new places to bring it. But the music itself tends toward retro/nostaglic styles 5 whose chief asset is described according to the artists’ *authenticity*.

So from the soulful voices, hard or smooth MCs, sassy cheerleaders, brooding journeymen, laptop-toting maestros, cool popsters, forthright post-punkers, and whoever else has shown up in the last ten years, we learn that many of these artists write their own songs, or that their talent first emerged in early youth; that they heard the call of G-d to sing out in His name. Yet none of these experiences is unique to them or artists in general.

Let me be clear: I do not mistake the experiences of these artists for pretense. On the contrary, I believe we have all been moved by our faith, our youth, our need to find or build a community around what we fear separates us from everybody else or might, however tenuously, connect us. But for these expressions and performances to be meaningful takes time, and what’s been increasingly absent is a culture willing to take the time to think while it listens.

Observed from a different and more pointed angle, the artists, captivated by the availability of recorded music’s entire history, give or take, are deliberately making derivative music. This is not simply the case of punk bands sounding like their predecessors or tenor players adopting the modes of post-war heavies, which practices are rooted in identity-formation, alignment, alliance, homage, tribute; in most such cases, the younger artists anticipate finding their own voice through inspiration. What I’m trying to get at is the widespread assumption that copping styles from older music is good enough. It is not. The standard for original playing has unfortunately been replaced by a standard of authentic fandom, which is fine for fans but diminishes the prospect of hearing anything new when held to by the people who make the music.


  1. See my brief entry on slow movies here.

  2. e.g. LPs, a preference for movies in which people who don’t say very much don’t do very much, books as opposed to magazines or the internet, live performances in small venues

  3. That is, hipness to the kinds of material described above; knowing that vinyl is cool, for example, does not mean that one is buying any. To be *Old School* is, a surprising amount of the time and somewhat paradoxically, to be hip.

  4. Jaron Lanier discusses this subject with great intelligence in his book, *You Are Not a Gadget*, a terrific if sometimes opaque manifesto on life online, its evolving homogeneity, corporate control, and a host of other relevant cultural and economic stuff. Worth a look.

  5. e.g. the last-several-years’preponderence of so-called *psych* music; the americana boom at the turn of the century; hip-hop’s relative stasis compared to its evolution from, say, 1980-2000; the odd mini-boom of British soul singers highlighted by Amy Winehouse, Adele, and Duffy; the mostly-Madonna-derived successes of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. Other genres present their own examples, which are surely known to their constituents. This note sticks to the well-known to avoid confusion.

From my old blog, February, 2007: On Selling Out, Sort Of

My experience as an artist is more or less divided into two spheres: on the one hand, I’m a musician, a practice which has always involved public performance and the explicit realization of a community. On the other hand, I’m a poet, a practice which has been, until the last year or so, an almost entirely private practice, one I shared with a handful of people, whose publication was limited to a couple of poems published several years ago (including, as it happens, the same poem twice). By and large, the two spheres remain separate, though, decreasingly so. I have tried to model my life as a poet on what I learned in the Rochester, NY and DC punk scenes from roughly 1989-2000: that artists, regardless of their art, carry with them a responsibility to the world in which they create and exhibit their work (it is, after all, created and exhibited in the same world).

Photo by Jim Saah

The Jim Saah photograph above is from a Jawbox show at the Black Cat in DC; I think the year was 1994 and it might have even been the show advertised in the poster next to it. I have kept a print of the photograph on my refrigerator since that time to remind me of several things, chief among which has become the best-integrated art/politics scene in which I have been an active member. It was the reason I moved back to the area in 1991, and found it to be an invigorating and inspiring time and place to be as both writer and musician (I had, when I left Rochester, decided to give up music entirely, in favor of literature; thankfully my mind was changed nine months later when I joined Jawbox). There was a near-constant air of protest, of seeking out materials and economies that abandoned convention in favor of defiant humanism and concern for essentially leftist values. This took place mostly among bands and show-attendees, who were gathering anyway for music and new ideas. There were frequent benefit shows, protests, and a network of people around the world whose contact with each other depended on touring bands. The link was inherently political: we were doing our thing, not the mainstream thing. It worked, too.

By 1994, several of us (by which I mean bands) had signed to major labels, in hopes, variously, of reaching larger audiences, or at the very least, having more time and money with which to make records. I think Jawbox was more concerned with writing better songs than we were with fame. The jump to the majors allowed us to practice more, tour more, and record under better circumstances.

The ramifications were obvious enough then as now: we were selling out. For my part — I can’t speak for J., Bill, or Kim — I’ve always thought of it as *cashing in*, though there wasn’t really much cash and I’m not certain that the distinction even matters anymore. For what it’s worth, I didn’t feel like we were wrecking anything by signing to Atlantic; that is, the decision was ours, the consequences were ours, and it didn’t reflect on any other bands, labels, or fans. I was wrong.

The scene from which we’d come felt, in some circles, betrayed, and the mainstream rarely has the patience required for unconventional art. We were ignored by our label within nine months of our first release and completely pushed aside within a year. Our story is not at all unusual except perhaps for the degree to which we continued to practice a DIY-based method, regardless of being on a major label. We knew what we were getting ourselves into (most of the time). I don’t know that this recounting requires much elaboration at this late date so I’ll just say that if I was in that situation today, I’d probably handle it differently, though this remark is qualified by knowing that the circumstances that made Jawbox possible at all no longer exist for me.

Jawbox on Atlantic & TAG

In the end, I can’t say I regret our deal with Atlantic. Kim and Bill even bought our tapes back from the label and are planning to re-release both *For Your Own Special Sweetheart* and *Jawbox* online. The fact remains that we made our most challenging music under those conditions, and my experience in that band has positively served my consciousness as much as anything else I’ve done, before or since.