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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

It Cannot Be Described


Let's put these ideas in concentrated form. This is their essence: Coltrane's loud and dense late-period music cannot be separated from the path toward racial tolerance and absolute worldwide human equality. It is not really meant to be recorded - such enormities can't be frozen and sold in measured units - yet the recordings are transcendent in spite of themselves. Resistance or intolerance toward this music is a kind of sclerosis; to open oneself to it is to admit honesty and greater feeling. "Understanding it" is empirical Western foolishness; the will to understand is just more sclerosis.
- Ben Ratliff,
Coltrane: The Story of a Sound [emphasis mine]
Reading Ben Ratliff's Coltrane: The Story of a Sound was a fascinating and holistic exercise for me.

The book is chock-full of musical analysis which I had no hope of parsing completely - in that sense, it is one of those books, for me, that one reads to catch a glimpse of another world, to exercise the navigation of terra incognita. Yet, the principal attraction was sociological, as Ben promised to posit Coltrane and his influence (and influences) in the American musical universe - the sort of thing that is red meat for me. He delivered spectacularly on that front (and probably on the other as well - being unqualified to judge, I can only say it all sounded good to me.)

I'd like to describe my experience with this book in the context of what Ben Ratliff was trying to say about where Coltrane was coming from. In the book, a recurring tension appears between those who would try to understand what Coltrane was doing in terms of evolution of existing forms of music, and the possibility that he was standing somewhere outside of it (or deep inside) and was trying to tease an explanation of what he saw, in the language of music - primarily jazz but (and this is no small part of the confusion) the deep well of musical expression, American and World.

There is a great profundity in Ratliff's thesis (and I feel he pulled it off, incidentally.) I say this because as I considered his case I felt the neural tinglings I normally associate with those wide-awake bliss moments, when all the world seems to be in its proper place. I think that my decision to not use this reading as an opportunity for musical education (researching the musical terms and insider musical lingo) contributed to this experience, for reasons that I hope I can make clear.

In taking this tack, I was forced to approach Coltrane in ways metaphorically similar to that of critics, and many musicians, who were trying to understand what he was doing. My ignorance is of a different sort, and quite opposite to their challenge. John's contemporaries in the jazz world understood the musical language all too well, but it is this knowledge that hindered many of them from comprehending his work and intent, especially in the white musical critics' world, as Ratliff discusses. If I had decided to get into the wonky weeds of this book, I would have thrashed around for a long, long time before I got even close to understanding the man.

There is a tendency in the West to attribute a kind of superiority to structured music, with well thought-out propaganda designed to manipulate the emotions of the listener (all in good fun, of course). The tendencies of "world" (or black) music to engage in more repetitive, ritualistic sound is looked down upon as something "primitive." This is, of course, quite racist. It is analogous to the idea that man is more "civilized" if he is steeped in acquisitiveness and "productivity," and somehow "savage" if he is not (definitely not any fun in that at all.)

But repetition and ritual - anti-knowledge - is essential in understanding some things, perhaps the most important things. And in being forced to read many sentences that said so many things that I did not understand - restated, built upon, morphed around, saying something to be sure, but I know not what... put me in that essential trance.

It is not in spite of my ignorance that I was able to understand, but because of it.

Coltrane wasn't playing music at all. He was at the mountaintop, talking about the dream.

This is the part where I reveal that this is not a book review.


We live in a time that calls for some serious non-linear understanding. In a sense, it is always that time, but every few generations this need becomes particularly raw, in no small way because of our dysfunctional neglect. I mark this up to maturity, the lack thereof. Humanity is in adolescence, and he's got the keys to the family car.

(As I view our world holistically, then I can say by extension that Earth is in adolescence herself. We're just one of her expressions.)

I have a very good friend whose mind is finally cracking, in a good, cosmic egg, kind of way. We have discussed these things over the years, and he urged me to put up a post about this process ("You may want to consider lecturing in your lovely barrio on the deconstruction of thought itself.") This is extraordinarily difficult to do.

Writing, and language, is expressed thought. Thought is jealous. It is not given to exercises that lead to its irrelevance. The most successful approach is through negation - explaining over and over why it is irrelevant, or worse, dangerous. Over and over. Repetition and ritual. Until understanding arrives, suddenly, from someplace that is not-thought.

Those who are steeped in the primacy of thought are as thought themselves. They are jealous, they are not given to exercises that lead to their irrelevance. They will see this as primitive mumbo-jumbo, to be ridiculed or "civilized." It is to be remembered, however, that they remain as much a part of the non-verbal as those who do see.

We who do see are waiting for you, with open arms.

No, it cannot be described. But you'll know it when you see it.


  1. Your Favorite BartenderApril 28, 2010 at 9:44 AM

    I suppose there is some irony, and it probably says something about me, that I read this post maybe 10 times before deciding to respond, rather than launching inot some diatribe after one intense reading and then one "skim" like I usually do.

    Unfortunately that repetition is almost certainly an example of the repetition you caution against here. The analogy is a brilliant one, Coltrane's best music was not a journey so much as a long walk without a destination. He wasn't interested in hooks, he wasn't interested in phrasing, he was interested as much in the landscape around him as the path he was fact I doubt he would have called it a "path."

    Likewise thought, true thought, the kind I believe you're encouraging here, shouldn't be a straight line, or any line at all for that matter. At least not all the time. I'm sure you would agree that there are subjects for which linear thought is well suited (what is the best way to the store? how do I rebuild this engine?), but rarely do those linear thought processes allow us, humans, occupants of this planet, to grow. Life without growth, hell, even a day without growth, is wasted.

    Thoughtful and balanced, I loved the analogy, and was genuinely inspired by the post, well done youngster, and thank you.

    (Though I admit there's a part of me that is disappointed I'm not even tempted to point out how you've radically flown off the rails...maybe I'll go back to the Avatar'll just revel in this one for awhile.

  2. I appreciate your words. Incidentally, "not a book review" is important since there is a great deal more richness and texture to the book than this little take-away that I posted.

    A couple of minor quibbles:

    "...repetition you caution against..."

    That's a typo, right? I wrote precisely the opposite.



  3. And I agree that linear thinking has its important place. One needs to know what time the train arrives.


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