Saturday, September 27, 2003


A recent entry in Greg Sandow's blog entitled Don't believe the hype has me thinking about how I approach music, both as a listener and a writer. I think I'm a bit too much of a music geek without having enough knowledge and experience to really justify that approach: the worst of both worlds?

Ideally, I would like to experience music that renders technical and formal judgement (whether something was well-played or not) not only meaningless, but literally impossible because it is in these moments that music takes on all of its power. I've experienced this only fleetingly: in Turkey, walking through a residential neighbourhood, a kid starts tapping out a complex beat on a garbage can lid, without thinking about it, simply because that's what's in his blood; on CNN, seeing a group of Liberian women sing their hopes for peace in a war-torn land, tears streaming down their cheeks.

Such experiences are, in my opinion, made more difficult in the settings of concert halls and even of clubs, which are formalised almost to abstraction. An experience similar to the two cited above was seeing pianist Mal Waldron's quartet perform in the centre of Brussels three nights in a row, two years ago. For all I know, those were his last concerts in the city he lived in the last 15 years of his life. The first set of the second night was 40 minutes of transcendent, inspired music, such that at times I felt like I was levitating. Waldron's blues-based minimalism was hypnotic, as was John Betsch's phrasing on drums. That Sean Bergin is a South African saxophonist who can sing Martiniquan biguines and Jean-Jacques Avenel a virtuoso bassist also recognised as a master of the African kora was just icing on the cake.

Of course, the music and its surroundings cannot be the only things to blame for my frustration. Music can only give back as much as you bring to it. I often ask myself "What am I bringing to the table?" Charlie Parker's "If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn" is often quoted to describe the musician's apprenticeship, but does it not also apply to the listener? That is to say, if you don't live it, can you at least hear it? (Please excuse the Carrie Bradshaw-like phrase construction) The answer surely lies in my wider feeling of distance from nearly all things, events and people. Were I fully able to experience things directly, without distance, in other words to "Let the horse go (, baby)," what I hear, and by extension what I write about what I hear, would surely be different.

Mr. Sandow's text has put in bold relief some aspects of music criticism which I had tried to bury and now will do my best to address. I think that in the end it boils down to one question: "Why am I listening to this music?" In every concert or CD review, this question is more or less directly approached and surely deserves a better answer than whether or not saxophonist X has sufficiently stepped out from under John Coltrane's shadow.