“It would be a lowly art that allows itself to be understood all at once, whose apex can be observed by the newly initiated.” – Goethe
There’s a lot to like about My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection, a tumblr blog that is refreshing in its open-minded and non-specialist reviews. The blog has been popular and much discussed because it’s actually a really great concept and is well executed. As she explains in the introduction, Sarah and Alex have been living together for 9 years and in that time they’ve had to move 15 boxes of records every time they’ve moved. Recently Sarah realized that since her husband insists on keeping all of these records, most of which she hasn’t heard, she should try to listen to them all and document her experience. Sarah’s writing is energetic and smart, the photos often say as much as the review itself, and occasionally Alex chimes in to offer some sort of context.
Gender politics aside (this has already been addressed by others, for instance here), my problem is one I think a librarian or a DJ would have seen coming: curation.
Here are the rules I’ve set for my self. Start with the “A’s” these records are set up in alphabetical order by artist. Listen to the entire thing even if I really hate it. And make sure to comment on the cover art.
I appreciate the fact that she’s forced herself to listen to the entire record, and it’s a nice touch to discuss the artwork as well. I take odds, however, with the arbitrary structure imposed by alphabetization. First of all, this says a lot about Alex, as she’s adopting a structure dependent on the means by which he has ordered his collection. How many home libraries or record collections are organized alphabetically? Personally, I prefer a combination of genre/style, chronology, and idiosyncrasy, especially if you actually want to dig and play records regularly. If you know you’re looking for a particular record, perhaps alphabetical is the way to go, but I would bet anything that this means the majority of records go forgotten and unplayed. This isn’t necessarily a problem in itself. The instinct of the collector is about more than the collection itself. When Walter Benjamin was asked if he’d read all the books in his library, he responds “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?” But let’s save a discussion about collecting for another day.
The Problem of Free Jazz – Albert Ayler’s Spirits Rejoice
This starts out with a very free form sounding saxophone and some drums. It sounds really busy and hard on the ears at first, and then Alex starts humming along and I’m like, “excuse me?” This is not humming music, but then it does start sounding like a familiar patriotic song that I can’t put my finger on, but still really messy and almost like a band doing sound check. It also occasionally sounds like the trumpet that’s played before a hunt or a horse race. I have to say that at first this was all very off putting, but now I feel like I’m kind of getting it. It’s almost relaxing in its very busy way. But then it veers away from all melody whatsoever and really starts making me feel grouchy. Ack! It doesn’t even sound like they’re playing their instruments correctly and it also sounds like a desperate, crying, dying animal. Part of me feels like I want to be avant garde enough to get this, but then another part of me feels like the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes! What are all these musicians doing? Is this really enjoyable for them?
Sarah’s review of Albert Ayler‘s Spirits Rejoice demonstrates why an arbitrary order (alphabetization) fails in any attempt to understand a collection, acknowledged by her husband’s need to respond to her review. In many ways she’s a great reviewer: she hits on so much about Spirits Rejoice that makes it what it is. The “primativist” aspect of it going back to slave spirituals and early jazz marching bands, Ayler’s own time in the army, his unique tone (plastic, as if a toy) etc etc, but she has no real context for this music and is ultimately dismissive of one of jazz’s greatest innovators and visionaries as a result.
A good mix, compiled by a competent DJ or “selektor”, is one that is well structured, one that can think on multiple time-scales, in terms of impact in the moment as well as the narrative over time. A well-composed mix can be a form of education, leading the listener to places they wouldn’t go on their own. Some albums, some artists, are like a cool bath and sometimes the best way is to just jump right in and get chills, but often it’s better to prepare and ease into it.
I’m not criticizing Sarah here. Again, she did an excellent job critically reviewing her experience of this record, and that sort of experiential reviewing is often lacking in music criticism. Yet my own relationship to this music compels me to respond.
Like her husband, I have my own history with Ayler. I grew up playing the flute in concert band, and got into jazz as a kid because I was interested in other traditions and repertoires for my instrument. I had wanted to play the sax, but if they let every kid who wanted to play the sax, then by the time we got to the unified middle school band half the ensemble would be saxophones. I chose the flute knowing the fingerings were nearly identical, and made use of the time hanging out with girls and learning what I could. (I never did get to play the sax, for the record). I quit the flute in high school in protest of mandatory marching band, but by this time I was mostly into punk, hardcore and metal anyway. I had a parallel experience of digging deeper into jazz, discovering Miles, Monk, Trane, Mingus and so on. I bought Coltrane’s Ascension and was totally lost. I remember downloading Ayler’s music on Napster, I think because I found a song called “For John Coltrane.” My first encounter with Ayler was by accident, and I took the extreme, radically different music as a challenge. I wanted to understand what was going on, to experience this music and feel this music they way people who “got it” did. As I got deeper into noise music, it made sense to unpack free jazz, and so my ‘research’ continued but I began to be able to feel the music, its texture and emotions and raw energy, its rage and sadness, without having to understand it on an intellectual level. I don’t know that it “clicked” for me at any point, but I realized I couldn’t just start with Ascension and Om and Spiritual Unity. I had to follow the artists up to that point, I had to trace the lineage through Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Sunny Murray and so on. It’s a gradual process.
There’s a lot going on on this record which also makes the decontextualization particularly troubling. It’s not a stripped down trio like on Spiritual Unity, nor is it the bass/drum/sax/trumpet of Ghosts or Spirits, but one of his noisiest most inaccessible records, featuring a second sax player, and sometimes a second bass player and also a harpsichord. If she had begun with Ayler in a trio, then a quartet, and build up to this point, the experience of Spirits Rejoice would probably be quite a different beast.
That doesn’t mean everyone should have to put in the work. I get that. But if the experience were structured in a way that lead somewhere the experience of each album would be very different. Her point is well taken. This isn’t Meredith Monk or Steve Reich, or even Sonic Youth, artists that reveal themselves through repeat listens, through internal logic and attention.
As with many jazz musicians, the difficulties of his life and the mysterious cirumstances surrounding his death often overshadow the great contributions Albert Ayler made to jazz music, and to innovative art more generally. It’s hard to talk about jazz, especially free jazz, without underscoring the political context which all too often gets whitewashed.
I’ll leave you with some thoughts from Wu Ming 1, taken from the liner-notes to the ESP records double compilation he curated, entitled The Old New Thing, which will hopefully put some of the context back, and brings us back to Ayler.
Free jazz was not uprooted, abstract innovation: it stood on the pedestal of African American tradition, its feet were roots plunged in fertile soil. This is the most interesting aspect: a non-traditionalistic approach to tradition. This challenge is still valid, now more than ever we need an approach that would be neither subservient nor completely arbitrary, an approach that wouldn’t leave tradition unaltered but at the same time wouldn’t consider tradition an immaterial shopping mall, you glance at the goods on the shelves and pick them up at random, as happens in the Wal-Mart of so-called “World Music”. Such an artist as Albert Ayler, seemingly an anarchic and iconoclast one, had a great respect for tradition, his work cited old time street band music and small brothel combos, but this would never lead to slavish imitation, as happened with the Dixieland revival. Moreover, Ayler’s music had a spiritual dimension, which came directly from the Black baptist church.
There was another aspect of Free Jazz that stemmed from the tradition: its being “turbulent” and “riotous”. In African American culture, and in jazz in particular, there’s always been an identity between music and resistance, between improvising and struggling. The Black difference, the “double consciousness” (i.e. being both American and African) has given birth to a music full of nuances, subversive allusions, and coded messages that couldn’t be understood from “Whitey”, “Chuck”, “the honky”, “the Man”. As Ben Sidran put it: “To the extent the black man was involved with black music, he was involved in the black revolution. Black music was in itself revolutionary, if only because it maintained a non-Western orientation in the realms of perception and communication” (Black Talk, 1971).
Let’s take a look at the titles of jazz tunes that have become “standards” – and therefore “inoffensive”. Now’s The Time. The time to do what? The time to stand up. If it doesn’t sound like a big deal, that’s because we miss the context, it slips away from our hands like a rebel piece of soap. The Black community has always interpreted those messages correctly. We should never forget that Blacks, back when they were slaves at plantations, perfected a coded communication based on allegory, paraphrase, and roundabout references. All that stuff had crossed the Atlantic on slaveships. Ben Sidran: “The african tradition aims at circonlocution… The direct statement is considered crude and unimaginative. [All contents are veiled] in ever-changing paraphrase”.
The “new thing” adapted that culture to the new times, times of overflowing anger. Now’s the time, the time to use less paraphrases. More direct talking: “Black Power!”
Albert Ayler. Ghosts and Spirits are renowned tunes. At that time, their most impressive feature was a non-dialectical, unpredictable (intellectuals would say “rhizomatic”) relationship between catchy themes and boundless improvisation. Improvisation was not “based” on the theme, and it wasn’t a mere “deviation” from the theme either. On the contrary, the theme was just one of the many potential articulations of improvisation. It was impossible to predict how and when the musicians would return to the theme, supposing that they had started from it. In the apparent confusion of sounds, you’d go round the corner and there it was, the theme, not farther than the end of your nose, completely unexpected. In the following years, our ears have heard all kinds of sounds, any possible genre and sub-genre of aleatory music, fractal break-beats and clashing loops. Strange to say, now the most “perturbing” aspect of Ayler’s music is the timbre of his sax. It sounds… “wrong”. It’s intentionally strident and, at the same time, it is “toyish”, “playthingy”. At times it makes a gurgling noise, as though there were water inside – hot, fumigant water.