October 12, 2017

Thelonious Monk at 100

At Thelonious Monk’s hundredth birthday, it’s our ears that have changed, not his sound.  Instead of odd angles and eccentricity we hear orchids in music, various and beautiful.  The truth of the man’s life is ...

At Thelonious Monk’s hundredth birthday, it’s our ears that have changed, not his sound.  Instead of odd angles and eccentricity we hear orchids in music, various and beautiful.  The truth of the man’s life is clearer, too: drawn back from the ragged edge to the creative center of classically American music.  

The quirky story of Thelonious Sphere Monk made a new sort of sense in Robin Kelley’ grand biography in 2009.  Monk was one of the be-bop revolutionaries, it’s always said, uptown in Manhattan in 1941, but Robin Kelley revealed him as a child of Fats Waller stride piano and all the music of 1930s Harlem and well beyond it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=yHpB4lkgeN0

He mumbled at the piano and danced around it. He showed up late sometimes, sometimes disappeared, and did time for small drug offenses. But inside Robin Kelley’s biography is an unshakably original, purposeful musician, ever a generous genius, an attentive father, son, and husband, in triumph and in trouble.

What Monk did was take the oldest, rooted tradition of the piano, in Harlem, New York, all over the country. And then he combined it with a future we have yet to achieve. It’s collapsing space and time. And his whole approach to the piano is one that brings past and present and future together in one. And he had never ever left his roots as a stride pianist — all the way to the very last tune he ever played.

Monk wrote close to a hundred songs still being interpreted and reinvented. He was musician beyond category, or genre, or period, in Kelly’s persuasive account. It’s fun to see Monk now an African-American Emersonian. His line, for instance, that “the piano ain’t got no wrong notes,” resonates with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s war on conformity and consistency. “To believe your own sound,” paraphrasing Emerson’s line in Self Reliance, “that is genius.”  

Robin D. G. Kelley in conversation with Chris Lydon, December 18, 2009

From the Archives • March 12, 2014

Vijay Iyer’s Life in Music: "Striving is the Back Story"

Vijay Iyer brings rare stuff to jazz piano, starting with a Brahmin Indian name and heritage, and a Yale degree in physics. Gujarati stick dances and Bhajan devotional songs from Northern India are in his blood, well mixed by now with the pop sounds of a boyhood in Rochester, New York: Prince and James Brown, then Miles and Monk.

 

Vijay Iyer brings rare stuff to jazz piano, starting with a Brahmin Indian name and heritage, and a Yale degree in physics. Gujarati stick dances and Bhajan devotional songs from Northern India are in his blood, well mixed by now with the pop sounds of a boyhood in Rochester, New York: Prince and James Brown, then Miles and Monk. He brings also — to his Birdland debut this Spring, and to his new CD, Historicity — bassist Stephan Crump and the drum prodigy Marcus Gilmore, who just happens to be the grandson of the last living drum giant of the Forties, the eternally experimental Roy Haynes. But the sum of Vijay Iyer’s gifts is more exciting than any of the parts. He brings to improvisational music, most of all, the aura of an art starting fresh, just beginning — not looking back, much less winding down.

Could we talk, I inquire, about the space he seems to be building out between cultures and eras, between East and West, between the music that marked the American Century at its best and whatever it is that’s trying to happen next? So, on the morning after his opening gig at Birdland, Vijay Iyer is sitting at the piano in a rehearsal studio just off Times Square, making conversation in much the same confident probing spirit he makes music.

I identify with the culture of cities. I find cities to be inherently transnational… And that reflects my own perspective, and my own sense of hybridity and the dynamics that unfold in the music I make…

I was an improviser… I started on violin and then on piano learned to play by improvising. There was never any boundary between improvising and playing a song. It was really the same thing for me. That was how I learned to play. And really, that’s how we as humans learn to do almost everything… It’s the way we stumble around in the world.

Most of our social network as a family was in this burgeoning Indian community in Rochester, New York. That was where my Indianness existed, with family and with family friends. But in my neighborhood or in my school, Indianness was more a mark of difference, and something that had to be negotiated. There was this dual existence, which is reminiscent of Du Bois’ double-consciousness kind of thing. The Karma of Brown Folk…

I have this other heritage, and that heritage is a very important part of who I am, and it’s an important part of my music. But I’ve been here as long as anybody else my age. I was born and raised here and 100 percent immersed in American culture. To me, it was never a question of how American I was, but to others it is always a question…

The drummers are the real history of the music. The rhythm is where the music lives and grows…. I wish I was a drummer. I try to connect with the drummer and do what the drummer does. When you link with the drummer, everything sounds better. You get that resonance, that sympathetic action. That’s part of what music is: the sound of people moving together.

Here in New York…there are people playing together just for fun, or for mutual betterment…. People are in it because they love it, and that love is constantly expressed in wonder at new music and at new possibilities and new discoveries and new talent, new players on the scene who have something new to offer.
Architecture is a fair metaphor. The analogy holds up. Architecture is about creating spaces. You’re creating spaces for people to move around in. That’s what we’re doing. And you want people to be free, but you also want to offer them things, to offer them possibilities. You want to frame their activities in a way that helps infuse it with meaning.

My particular American experience is one of improvisation and navigation through a certain set of challenges and opportunities… For me, as a person of color in America, I’ve looked to histories of other communities of color in America as an orienting guideline. And that’s part of what led me to really stay with this music: the history of the African American pioneers who dreamed the impossible and made this music happen… That striving is the back-story for this music. When you talk about improvised music, it’s as William Parker says: “In order to survive, the music was invented.” Not to match my struggles with theirs—I had a very different path, and my parents had a very different circumstance—but they also came here with very little, and had to build something.

Vijay Iyer in conversation with Chris Lydon in New York City, June 17, 2010.

December 23, 2012

Paul Elie and Donal Fox: Reinventing Bach

Paul Elie, author of Reinventing Bach, is spelling out a wonderfully homey theory about the greatest musician who ever lived. And jazz pianist Donal Fox is demonstrating the idea in real time, on my piano. ...

Paul Elie, author of Reinventing Bach, is spelling out a wonderfully homey theory about the greatest musician who ever lived. And jazz pianist Donal Fox is demonstrating the idea in real time, on my piano. We’re blessed to share it, in praise and thanksgiving, as a Christmas offering from Open Source.

Why, we ask, does Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), “the Leonardo of sound,” sit virtually alone and god-like, in so many testimonies, at the peak of all artistic creation? The great clarification here is that Bach left not just a multitude of masterworks; but further that in his notebooks and albums of instruction, in exercises for his children and minimal “inventions” for keyboard students ever after, he made clear he was giving the world a “source code” of music. He composed, in effect, bone-marrow or stem-cell music, ready to be extended into new shapes and sounds, new limbs and organs, new life and insight and delight until the last trumpet sounds.

Much of Paul Elie’s marvelous book recounts the Age of Recording, starting in the 1930s, and the ways it accelerated and compounded the meanings of “reinventing Bach.” Albert Schweitzer made an organ thunderbolt of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor to wake a dying Europe in 1935. In Hollywood the next year, Leopold Stokowski transcribed the same music from organ to full-orchestra for the opening theme of Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Pablo Casals’ recording of the then unknown Cello Suites in 1939 was called “a Catalan cry of the heart” at the end of the Spanish Civil War. Casals declined to play the Bach Suites in his native Spain — or even in the Kennedy White House — as long as Generalissimo Franco lived and ruled. In much the same spirit the pianist Leon Fleisher decided he could not play “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” or “Sheep May Safely Graze” in George W. Bush’s White House, in fact wouldn’t perform at all. Yo-Yo Ma’s performance from the Cello Suites at Steve Jobs’ funeral reminded everybody of Jobs’ legendary judgment that those pieces and Ma’s playing of them made “the best argument I’ve ever heard for the existence of God, because I don’t really believe a human alone can do this.”

From the Swingle Singers‘ scat versions of Bach instrumental pieces in 1963, more recently Bobby McFerrin’s singing the “Air on a G String,” Savion Glover‘s tap dancing to Bach and the infinite mash-up possbilities, Paul Elie looks forward to almost endless extensions on his catalog of Bach reinventions. And still isn’t the heart of the story in the beginning? That is, in Bach’s own handwritten notebook for his nine-year-old son William Friedemann? It held musical sketches of melodies and implied harmonies, basic exercises in rhythm and counterpoint; but many pages were left blank, as Elie writes, “to be filled with pieces that father and son, teacher and student, would compose together.” The exercise was to discipline fingers and ears, mind and heart, to cope with tension and dissonance, design and surprise, inversions of phrases, the pulse of a bass line, the tempos of life. What Bach is still offering us, as Craig Smith used to say, is “a way to live.”

Podcast • February 20, 2008

Master Class: the Global Beethoven

The sublime pianist Hung-Kuan Chen is playing for keeps at what I think of as the great three-way intersection of our time. His passport says: USA. His stock in trade is the classical canon of ...
Hung-Kuan Chen, Multi-polar Pianist

Hung-Kuan Chen, Multi-polar Pianist

The sublime pianist Hung-Kuan Chen is playing for keeps at what I think of as the great three-way intersection of our time. His passport says: USA. His stock in trade is the classical canon of European music from Mozart to Messaien, Beethoven to Bartok. His working base is the piano department chair at the Shanghai Conservatory in a country with 80-million young students of keyboard music.

He perches, so to speak, high above the three-cornered convergence of the new Big Three: China, the European Union and the United States — what Parag Khanna calls the “global, multicivilizational, multipolar battle” of the era. Hung-Kuan Chen’s life is not about battles or geo-politics, of course; it’s about art and music. What he teaches, and what we talk about in this conversation, is above all a consciousness that comes with a lifelong immersion in musical masterworks, mostly Western but Chinese as well:

What I brought [to the Shanghai Conservatory] is a certain attitude, or paradigm… that being a musician is to be an artist. And to have an artistic life means to be means highly intelligent, highly alert, discerning and sensitive to the inner world and to the outer world. All in all it is a spiritual experience… a complex life. One has to live it, experience it. I teach them that music work or art work is a by-product of such a life. When we learn a great piece of music — say by Beethoven, Mozart or Schubert, it’s a two-way street. The music is itself great wisdom. Only when we are up to a certain level, we are able to see that level of wisdom in the music and beyond. And this — which is beyond — will further teach us. And if we are dedicated enough to this work, we than elevate ourself to that level. And so it’s a bit like a Jacob’s Ladder, it just goes up and up and up. And that becomes what is called an artistic life.

Hung-Kuan Chen, in conversation with Chris Lydon at the New England Conservatory, February 15, 2008

But don’t we all wonder — the moreso at the very moment when the New York Philharmonic is playing in China, on its way to North Korea, and Hung-Kwan Chen was playing Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata at Carnegie Hall last week — what are the connections and analogies in the heavy traffic of a globalizing culture?

Yes, Hung-Kwan says, he can hope to teach his students about the radical democrat in Beethoven (who in legend anyway, ripped up the dedication of his Symphony No. 3 to Napoleon Bonaparte after the standard bearer of revolutionary France crowned himself Emperor. Beethoven called his piece “Eroica” instead.) But no, Hung-Kwan continues, he cannot hope to protest China in Darfur in anything like the way his fellow pianist Leon Fleischer recently protested the war in Iraq at the White House. Hung-Kwan Chen can count on the authorities in China for prompt delivery of new pianos to his Conservatory — as he couldn’t at any music school in the US. But he also knows that nobody’s interested in his “second opinions” about politics.

Most of our conversation is about sublimity, not politics. That is Hung-Kuan’s way of getting to the point, not avoiding it. “Oh, my God,” as he says, “it’s culture that leaves a legacy, not war or money, or who wins or who places second.”