Emerson

Okay, this is hard.  Very hard.

Keith Emerson is dead.  Apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 71.

That in itself is difficult to square with the pictures in my mind of the epic artist of the heyday of one of the greatest musical outfits of the 20th Century.

It’s tempting to get into the justifications for Keith Emerson’s place as a composer and performer, what his music meant for rock, for classical, for a generation of people who found in his work an uncompromising dedication to a particular aesthetic and a level of quality found in few pop acts. Indeed, to even use that term—pop act—seems to diminish the breadth of the ambition he displayed throughout his career.

Post Sgt Pepper’s, rock music—what then without much hesitation or embarrassment was termed pop music, in the sense of it being “populist” as opposed to “elitist” and embodying an idea that popularity and depth were not mutually exclusive—went into a decade-long period of experiment and innovative “reaching” unparalleled since Romantic music shouldered aside Baroque, or when Be-bop and Cool displaced Swing in jazz.  The “three-chords-and-bridge” format that had dominated rock’n’roll, built often around fatuously insipid lyric content and attempts to mask the underlying restiveness with whitebread presentations, gave way to genuine musical innovation and serious compositional challenges. Strumming guitars and 4/4 backbeat proved insufficient in this ecology, even while they served as the basis for forays into multiple key changes and experimental time signatures.  Blues transmogrified into psychedelia and hard rock and a multiplicity of forms that took on meanings apart from their origins even while labels failed to define what was being attempted.

Keith Emerson began as an aspiring jazz pianist and emerged as every bit the “classicist” composers like Copland, Barber, or Bernstein were.  First in The Nice, which began life as a backing band, and then in Emerson, Lake & Palmer he put out music that tore at expectations and demanded an attention to content unusual in the rock idiom.  Sitting through any of the first five albums from ELP, you simply did not know where Emerson was taking you, but it was expansive, exciting, challenging, and in many ways other-worldly.  For me, this was the soundtrack of the future I wanted to inhabit, the sound that went with the science fiction I was reading.

More, though, it was also a bridge with a past I imagine a great many of his fans did not know, a musical archive encoded in the templates of a new music.  There was Bartok, Sibelius, Bach, Copland, Bernstein.  There, too, were echoes of Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Jellyroll Morton, Dave Brubeck.  Emerson took the past, blent it into a melange of sound aimed at the part of the mind that hungered for the future.

The first concert I ever attended was The Nice. 1967.  I’d heard those albums, that keyboard sound, and then found out about the show, and the first and only time I ever snuck out of my house I went and saw this guy in leather pants and knee-high boots playing multiple keyboards (no synthesizers at the time) and while I have since forgotten the details the impression was amazing.  It sank into my brain and remained, so a few years later, when I finally came upon the wealth that has since been called Progressive Rock it was with instant recognition.

I’ve seen ELP six times.

I could go on about what it is in the music that is so important, but I’ll leave that for other, better equipped commentators.  The subsequent backlash against ELP and all of progressive rock that came into vogue with the advent of Punk and then New Wave is only so much mosquito-noise of people with no patience, no sense of history, and who believe the only function of music is biokinetic.  ELP is pompous and overblown?  Well, so was Beethoven, much of Tchaikovsky, and certainly Mozart was arrogant.  Yet the music does not fade, does not desiccate or dissolve with repeated listenings. Rather, if attention is paid, there is always more.  Such music is not pompous but expansive and it requires a willingness to leave a certain provincialism behind, something many people are unwilling to do or uncomfortable in experiencing.

Keith Emerson opened the possibilities for taking the idioms of rock music and applying them to greater effect and leaving behind work that could be considered in the same breath as Brahms or Grieg or, certainly the composer who most reminds me of Emerson, Aaron Copland.  Emerson was the composer at the center of my life’s musical aesthetic.

He damaged his right hand decades ago.  He suffered a degenerative nerve condition as a result.  There had been operations, he had worked hard to overcome it, but in recent years videos of his performances showed an increasing difficulty in playing.  The last I had seen, he was learning how to conduct since playing was becoming perhaps problematic.  Any look at him performing, though, shows us a man in love with the physical act of making music.  That he might not be able to do that must have weighed heavily.  He was always all about the music. Take that away and you lose what he was.

No one can presume to know what he felt in his last days.  But by all means, go back and listen—really listen—to the music he left behind.  Genius is too slippery and rarefied a term, but for me it applies.  He created a space for amazing sounds and he should be celebrated even as he is mourned.

I’m going to go listen to Tarkus now.  That tough armadillo has left us.  But the music…the music is forever.

Music of the Fears

One of the most powerful yet ineffable experiences we are occasionally granted is the moment when music opens us up and sets our brains afire with the possible.  Music, being abstract in the extreme, is difficult to slot into the kind of “safe” categories to which we relegate much else.  Stories certainly have subtext and can expand our appreciation of the world, but they are still “just” stories and all that mind-altering power can be rendered ineffective by dint of the filters used to shunt it aside.  Paintings and sculptures likewise can be “seen” as purely representational—or ignored when such designation is impossible.  Even when we appreciate what we see or read, the power of taking the work in as merely a reflection of a reality we think we understand can have the result of diverting any real impact.

Not so with music.  Once we open ourselves to the emotional realities of the sounds and let them have their way with our psychés, it becomes difficult if not impossible to shove a piece into a conventional box.  You either take it as it is or ignore it.  A great deal of pop music is written with this fact in mind, that people want to be coddled, “entertained,” and humored—not moved.

Because when music moves us it is not in easily definable ways.  We experience, when we allow it, heady mixtures of emotional responses that have no convenient hole for the pigeon.  We are altered for the time we experience it—sometimes altered for hours or days afterward.  Less often, we are altered for life.  We can, after such an experience, never hear music the same way again, and sometimes life itself becomes different.

Richard Powers understands this as well as it may be possible. In his new novel, Orfeo, he unleashes the revelations music can bring:

Young Peter props up on his elbows, ambushed by a memory from the future. The shuffled half scale gathers mass; it sucks up other melodies into its gravity. Tunes and countertunes split off and replicate, chasing each other in a cosmic game of tag. At two minutes, a trapdoor opens underneath the boy. The first floor of the house dissolves above a gaping hole. Boy, stereo, speaker boxes, the love seat he sits on: all hand in place, floating on the gusher of sonority pouring into the room.

Music has that power.   (For an excellent examination of the various effects of music, I recommend Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia.)  Music can transform us in the listening.  Occasionally such transformations remain after the music is over.

It was not wrong of people in the 1950s to look askance at rock’n’roll and think it subversive—it was, but in no way that could be detailed.  It was in exactly the same way any new musical form is subversive.  In the same way that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused riots during its premier or Wagner altered the politico-æstehtic personality of an entire people.  Music both seeps in and charges through the front door of our minds and, if we are listening, changes the way we apprehend the world.

In Orfeo, however, Powers gives us a portrait of how music informs a life with its power to rearrange priorities by setting Peter Els on a quest to find the music of life itself.  And in so doing inadvertently make himself the object of a nationwide manhunt as a terrorist.  This unlikely combination would seem absurd, but Powers handles them deftly, with a logic that matches our present world where people going off to do things by themselves for their own arcane reasons can seem threatening and cause for mass public alarm.  The passions that drive Peter Els are both universal and singular and make him the ideal protagonist for what becomes a lifelong quest for an unseizable transcendence.

For he wants simultaneously to be free and to be important.  The two things may well be mutually exclusive, but he is driven to find the essence of what has driven him through a life that, on its face, appears to be a failure.

Powers knows music.  Throughout the novel he exhibits an enviable command of its history and its theory and, most importantly, its effect.  Anyone who has been in the grip of music that has touched the inmost part of us will recognize Peter Els’ obsession.  This is one of the finest prose explorations of that bright nonspace of luminous shadows and delicate splinters of emotion that is the mystery of the musical experience.

Set within a story about the present and all its fears and insubstantial alienations, its cluttered paths of chance and chaos, and the difficulty of being one’s self in the midst of panicked conformism, a time when it may be more important than ever before to acknowledge the possibility of becoming more, of embracing other, of refusing limits imposed out of fear of losing something we may not even have.

Mixed Signals

I listen to music every day. Intentionally.  I choose something to set my internal harmonic brainscape and listen.  It was a difficult and startling revelation to me back in my youth to realize many people don’t. That is, even when they have music playing, they don’t listen.  For many, it’s wallpaper, and this just struck me as sad.

But it explained what I thought of then as the execrable taste a lot of my acquaintances seemed to display in music.  I have never cared for so-called Top 40 tunes, with rare exception, because in my experience such songs were either the least interesting pieces on their respective albums or they were the zenith of a mediocre musical imagination.  Boring.  Listen to them three or four times and their content is exhausted.

I also used to have an absolutely absurd prejudice that if I could manage to play it myself, on guitar or keyboard, with only a few practices, it was just too insignificant.  This was ridiculous, but I’d been raised to appreciate technical difficulty as a sign of quality in most things.  It took a long time for me to overcome this notion and I still have not completely.

For good or ill, though, it informs my taste to this day, and in the presence of the technically superb I am seduced.  I have found technically accomplished work that was simply not as good as its polish, but I have more rarely ever found sloppy work that was so much better than its presentation that it didn’t matter.  Technical ability, precision of execution, polish…these are not simply ancillary qualities.  The guitarist may know all the notes of the Bach piece but if the timing is wrong, the chording inaccurate, the strings squeak constantly, it will be a thoroughly unenjoyable performance.  Likewise, if the guitarist has composed a beautiful new piece but then can’t perform it as imagined…who will ever know how beautiful it is?

Ultimately, technical sloppiness gets in the way of the work.  The better the technique, the clearer the art shows through.

Which brings me to what I wanted to talk about here.

The other day I sat down with two works that for whatever reason seemed to counterpoint each other.  Put it down to my peculiar æsthetic, as I doubt anyone else would consider them complimentary.  And perhaps they aren’t, but they shared a common quality, the one I’ve been going on about—technical superiority.

Ansel Adams is a byword for precision in art, especially photographic art.  His images are studies in excellence, from their composition to their presentation.  There is a fine-tuned carefulness in many of them, if not all, that has set the standard for decades.  I have a number of his monographs on my shelf and I have been an admirer and follower since I was a boy.  His set of instructional books, the Basic Photo series, were among the first I read when becoming a photographer myself.  Every year I hang a new Ansel Adams calendar in my office.  I have a biography of him, one signed volume of his Yosemite images, and I find myself constantly drawn to his work.  These photographs are replenishing.

So when a new collection came out this past year—400 Photographs—it was a given that I would acquire it.  (I do not have all his books—there’s a heavy rotation of repeats strewn throughout his œvre.)  I had it for some weeks before I found time to sit down and really go through it.  When I did I was surprised.

The collection is broken down in periods, beginning with some of his earliest images made when he was a boy, reprinted directly from the scrapbooks in which they were pasted, all the way up to the very early 1970s when he, according to the commentary, stopped making “important” photographs and devoted his time to the darkroom.  Gathered are most if not all his iconic images, many that will be familiar to those who have more than a passing acquaintance with his work…

…but also a number of relatively unknown photographs, peppered throughout, many of which show a less than absolute control on Adams’ part.  They do not come up to par.  Some of them, the composition is slightly “off” or the tonal range is not fully captured.

Which is not to say they are not beautiful.  Adams at his worst is equal to most others at their best.  But historically it’s interesting and instructive to see the “not quites” and the “almost theres” among the otherwise perfect works we have all come to expect.  But rather than detract, these works actually enhance the overall impact of the collection, because there is variation, there is evidence of “better”, there is obvious progression.  The commentary between the periods by Andrea Stillman is concise, spare, and informative as to the distinctions in evidence.  This is a chronicle of an artist’s evolution.

Looking at an Ansel Adams photograph, one sometimes feels that the very air was different around him, that light passed from landscape to film plane through a more pristine medium, that nature itself stood still for a few moments longer so the image could be recorded with absolute fidelity in a way given to no other photographer.

As I went through the images, I listened to a new album.  New to me, at least, and in fact it was released this past year.  Levin Minnemann Rudess.

Who?

Of the three, two had been known to me before this year.  Tony Levin is a bassist of extraordinary range and ability.  Besides his own work, he seemed for a time the player the serious groups called in when their regular bassist was unavailable.  Which means he played bass for Pink Floyd in the wake of Roger Waters’ exit.  He played bass for Yes. Dire Straits, Alice Cooper, Warren Zevon, and even Paul Simon and Buddy Rich.

He was also one of the most prominent members of King Crimson during one of its best periods.  He is a session player in constant demand and his ability seems chameleonic.  He can play anything in almost any style.  He is one of those musicians who always works, is always in demand.

Given his associations, sometimes it is a surprise to hear his own work, which can either be described as a distillation of all his influences or as a complete departure from them.  Such would seem to be the case here.

Jordan Rudess plays keyboards and came out of the progressive schools of Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, UK, and others, although the first band with which he was associated was the Dixie Dregs. He later joined Dream Theater, but like Levin has been a much in demand session player whose name I’ve seen pop up many times since the early 90s.

Marco Minnemann, then, is the only name with which I am unfamiliar, but that’s changing.   As a drummer, he’s played with former members of UK—Eddie Jobson and Terry Bozzio—and has been doing session work with metal groups.  I learned of him just this past year in association with guitarist Guthrie Govan, with whom he has formed a trio with bassist Bryan Beller, The Aristocrats.  He seems committed to that unit, so I believe the album I’m discussing may be a one-off, an experiment for these three musicians.  He is an explosively complex, solid drummer.

What does this have to do with Ansel Adams?

Not much other than what I began with—precision.  There is an overwhelming technical precision here that, for the duration of my study of the Adams book, formed a complimentary experience of sharp-edged landscapes and absolute control.  The LMR album is largely instrumental (which has slotted it into my writing queue) but fits no particular genre exactly.  Jazz?  Sure.  Metal?  Somewhat.  Fusion, certainly, but fusion of what?  Rudess’s runs evoke classical associations, but no single track is identifiable with a particular Great Composer.  This is experimental work, theory-in-practice, done at a high level of musicianship and compositional daring.  An aural high-wire act that is constructing the landscape as it records it.

As I said earlier, it happens more often than not that technical prowess can substitute for significant content.  “Too many notes” can mask as absence of substance.  Too-fine a presentation can distract from the fact that an image contains nothing worthwhile.

But when substance and technique are combined at a stratospheric level of ability, when performance melds precision and depth, then we have something truly special.

All I needed that afternoon was a fine wine to complete the immersive experience.