The Music Club

Two Sublime Experiences and a Heavy Question

Dear Gerry,

Where do I begin in relating my current crisis regarding music and meaning? I guess I’ll start with you, in Africa, the source for the single most powerful musical experience I had this year. The film Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, shows how South African music sustained the long, triumphant struggle against apartheid. This is music as language and lifeblood, used to communicate across barbed-wire barriers and connect people otherwise kept apart, to carry souls and bodies through horrifying episodes of violence, to maintain a history and a spirit that the state may have otherwise eradicated. I’ve never seen such strong evidence of music’s powers of entrainment—the way it can enter our flesh and literally move us—as in the scenes of “toyi toyi,” the protest marches fueled by songs and dance during the 1980s. And that’s just one in a half-century’s worth of musical miracles Amandla! captures. The soundtrack is crucial too, containing many previously unrecorded freedom songs—though it can’t capture the excitement of watching crowds move through the streets with righteous insurrection on their lips. Lee Hirsch and Sherry Simpson, the documentarians who spent nine years on the film, deserve the highest praise and gratitude (and a much wider release—Amandla! screened only one night at EMP). But I’m sure they would deflect all kudos toward Vuyisile Mini, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and the thousands of other voices who lifted their voices and sang.

The year’s second big revelation for me came at listening’s opposite end. Wayne Shorter opened Seattle’s Earshot Jazz Festival with his newish quartet, and the foursome delivered a stunningly intuitive and unpredictable performance. Shorter embodied humility, playing his saxophones as sparely as a Japanese flutist, letting Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and Brian Blades on drums take the lead in constructing this set’s narrative. On the hushed floor of the ornate old Paramount Theater, the audience barely breathed at first, waiting to hear what subtle, consequential turn each player would take next. Then, as Perez and Shorter traded brushstrokes, Patitucci showed his sense of humor, and Blades gave the whole thing the coolest of kicks, the audience relaxed and became a roomful of true listeners. The pleasure of that night reminded me of how infrequently we’re really asked to listen to popular music, even as critics—most big concerts are either spectacles more akin to a Vegas show than a group meditation, and smaller ones are all about your tribe, hanging out and seeing friends and singing along. Those are valuable experiences too, but they’re further away from one key element of musicits ability to make us think in new ways about time, to get away from our habits of introspection, and come up with new dreams.

These two events hit me particularly hard, I think, because in general the year’s music eluded me. Oh, I’ve listened to all the big records and had some fun with many, but I rarely felt the cathexis that compels me to play a record over and over again. I did have some crucial moments with the Steve Earle disc right after it came out—I was feeling quite desperate for a strong voice of protest to counter the patriotic diatribes on one hand and equivocation on the other. I still really like that record. But only one new disc demanded a serious place in my consciousness: Redemption’s Son, by Joseph Arthur. I have a well-known weakness for arty boys with angel voices, and Arthur’s previous releases have charmed me, too. Why did I love Redemption’s Son more, or more, for that matter, than similar atmospheric tools for contemplation, like your beloved Sigur Ros, or Ed Harcourt’s fine Here Be Monsters, or even Beck’s much-vaunted soul-baring Sea Change? I think, again, it comes back to that challenge to listen—Arthur’s method of composition, using tape loops along with more conventional instruments to create little labyrinths of sound, adds mystery to even his most accessible pop tunes. Tchad Blake, one of those helmsmen making the producer role so crucial now, was one of the forces behind this project. I’ve always liked his itchy sense of interiority, like on those Latin Playboys records, so that probably helped too.

Maybe I only loved one record this year because I wasn’t working primarily as a critic. The discrete units of sellable sound that dominated my listening for all those years I spent in New York weren’t the only way I took my music. Working on exhibits, I reached back, getting especially (and delightedly) stuck in the disco dens of Larry Levan and Nicky Siano; grooving to the radio, I oscillated between Hi NRG dance motivation and indie-rock dependability. I was a regular person, and you know what? I didn’t have to have a big opinion on every hyped release. Basically it’s made me begin rethinking what role music plays in my life, and that’s got me wondering about the bigger questions: How, given the corporate-pop feed mill on the one hand, and the galaxy of smaller choices on the other, does music end up meaning anything, in a collective sense?

So, there’s a heavy question.