Wednesday, October 17, 2007

viewing notes: spike lee, bamboozled

Bamboozled was shot in Digital Video, which makes the image flat, shiny, cheap-looking. Devoid of texture, it loses gravitas without really gaining intimacy. I got past this, eventually, but it brought up the question of the importance of texture and its role in conveying meaning, in music and in general.

How much of an old photograph's meaning and emotional (and perhaps artistic) weight comes from yellowed paper, curled-up edges, creases, loss of colour, gradual disappearance of its subjects and the thousand other disfigurements it might suffer? Similarly, the pops, hisses and clicks of LPs and the warm, muddy sound of music played on a gramophone are part of the listening experience.

Photographs and vinyl add texture at the moment of reproduction, but music is a bit more complicated, as texture happens along with everything else, at the moment of production. Paul Desmond was sometimes accused of coasting on his tone: texture was seen as superficial (literally and metaphorically). Indeed, "How can you watch Bamboozled and only talk about what it looked like?" is a perfectly reasonable question. Still, what would be left of Ben Webster without that feeling of a cavernous rush of air?

There is an irresistible attraction to the dirty, the outdated, the broken, the ruined that's not just nostalgia: we must imagine their past potential, recreate their splendour for ourselves. We are an indispensable participant in what they are and what they were. They need us. The new, polished, perfect, finished don't need us, they need admirers: disengaged viewers who need not imagine anything, as it is all laid out in front of them. They can't even offer encouragement: everything has already been achieved. Perhaps this is merely a rationalisation of the mundane complaint against technical over-proficiency: "Admire my perfectly-formed blur of slick notes, which leave you neither time or toehold to add to them, to imagine, to recall." And you leave the concert feeling empty and vague: no memories have formed on the sterile ground of admiration.

This last point goes beyond texture alone, but most players regarded as unemotional generally have sleek tones. Steve Coleman succintly explains the issue in his blog post on timbral improvisation:

Early in the history of the spontaneously composed music in the United States (the Armstrong-Parker-Coltrane continuum, and probably in most music) there seemed to be more emphasis on expression, therefore things like timbre and phrasing were the most important elements. However, rhythm and pitch (when and how high/low) are the basic elements of any music system.

I have spent most of my career concentrating more on the rhythm/pitch/form aspects of music versus timbral considerations.
I sometimes wonder if jazz's principal contribution isn't contained in a brass's slangy growl, from Bubber Miley to Taylor Ho Bynum, but Coleman suggests that it serves, more modestly, to "amplify" expression. So how does texture relate to harmony, melody, rhythm, form? Is it a pretty bow tied around note choice/harmony/etc.?