Monday, November 30, 2020

BOOKS! (The Ensemble + Moving to Higher Ground)

To close out November I'm pairing two music-focused books together! First up is a novel about a string quartet that I heard about indirectly via a horror-themed TV show last year. And then I've got a book about jazz, written by a member of a legendary family of jazz musicians from New Orleans.

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel

'The Terror: Infamy' aired on AMC last year, and that season focused on the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WW2, blending the horrors of racist wartime policies with an embittered ghost from traditional Japanese ghost folklore. While watching the show I would check to see what people were tweeting about it, and I happened to see Aja Gabel tweet out an article relating 'The Terror' to her family's own experience of being incarcerated in California and Utah. I decided to see what else Aja had written, and that's how I learned about her book, The Ensemble. I bought it much later on when I happened to see a copy of it in a B&N, and I read it sporadically this year before finishing it this month.

The titular ensemble is the Van Ness Quartet, consisting of four classical musicians who become partners in both music and life over the course of their nearly 20-year career, from 1992 to 2010. The quartet members first meet and join forces at a conservatory in San Francisco, and their home base switches between the Bay and New York City as their collective journey evolves. Jana is the leader and first violinist, hyper-focused on her career longevity to the extent of occasional meanness and ruthlessness, but always with what's best for the group in mind. Brit is the second violinist and the most sensitive member, valued as part of the group but often not taken seriously enough because she received an inheritance from her parents and is the most outwardly naive and love-starved of the four. Henry is the young protégé of the group, a viola player who seems to maneuver life and the music world with the most ease and faces consistent outside enticement to go solo. (Henry's basically the Beyoncé of the group.) And then there's Daniel, the precise but emotionally-detached cello player and the oldest group member, who often resents how much harder he's had to work to be a professional musician and maintain financial stability than his fellows have. Outside of their work together, Jana and Henry have the closest friendship, whereas Brit and Daniel have a non-committal romantic relationship. Parts 1 and 3 are written from Jana and Britt's perspectives, parts 2 and 4 are written from Henry and Daniel's perspectives, and the coda at the end revisits the group's very first rehearsal back when the quartet was first formed.

I don't know what exactly I was expecting from The Ensemble, but upon finishing it, I felt like something was missing. I learned more about certain happenings in the characters' lives than I cared to know, and less or nothing at all about developments that I actually wanted to know more about. (Warning: spoilers.) Henry opts to leave the quartet so his wife Kimiko can finally pursue her career in earnest (and because tendonitis is threatening to shorten his career anyway), but then they start planning for a third child? And we never learn how Kimiko's career goes? Jana (a white woman) adopts a daughter from Ethiopia, in the early 2000s, and nothing is brought up about about the racial implications of that decision, or how Jana may or may not be taking adequate measures to help her daughter nurture her Black/African identity? The only difficulty mentioned is that Jana doesn't turn out to be as motherly as she hoped, and worries about becoming like her own aloof and self-absorbed mother?

Even though we follow each of the characters closely through nearly two decades together, I felt somewhat distanced from the quartet's collective journey to renown and success. This is because each chapter presents them in a new phase to which they've somehow managed to ascend since the previous one, even despite the crisis moments readers have just witnessed. Things just keep working out for Van Ness somehow, and I feel like I connected to and learned more details about each member's interiority than the group's story as a whole. But I'm almost wondering if that was intentional? Gabel impresses open readers how essential unison and cohesion are amongst chamber music players, and she also explains how the bond and intimacy that ensemble members have is something that's rarely felt or understood from outside the group. So perhaps the readers are actually meant to feel like we're on the outside looking in? I'm not sure.

I played alto sax from 5th through 12th grade and we played lots of classical music, so I can appreciate the genre but am not an expert on it. It's not necessarily my thing. I mention that to say that of all the classical music references Gabel includes, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself rapt by two pieces in particular: Antonín Dvořák's "American" String Quartet in F Major, op. 96, no. 12 and Felix Mendelssohn's Octet in E-Flat Major, op. 20. I'd never heard of those pieces before, but I went out of my way to listen to them on YouTube because Gabel included them in this book, and I'm really glad that I did.

If you're a music enthusiast of any sort, are curious about how classical musicians live, want to digest ample philosophical takes on what it means to make music, or simply enjoy reading about interpersonal drama amongst people who are required to have chosen to stick together for the long haul, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:

"For Henry, sense-making was perhaps the opposite of the point. He had fun in the chaos of four people; the chaos was what made it feel like art, like beauty... Choosing to stay in the quartet was not the obvious, logical decision. But for him, obvious and logical had nothing to do with real music-making" (85).

"Jana allowed herself to accept something most people spend their days running from. She stood in the knowledge that there were people who saw the parts of her that she did not want to see herself—the anxiety buffering the nastiness, the desperate quality to her ambition, the tarnished sheen of her past—and that one of those people was standing right in front of her, seeing her be seen" (206-07).

 "And now she was nearly forty, and it was about time she admitted that the life she was living was actually her life, not some precursor to her life, and that the reason she wasn't living another, perhaps better, life was that she'd met someone decent with whom she'd had something very important in common: a desire to be in love" (217-18).

"First was the music, which was servant to nothing. Second was everything else, servant to her music" (246).


Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life by Wynton Marsalis with Geoffrey C. Ward

This was among a handful of books that I bought for cheap at a Book Warehouse in the Louisville area after Christmas last year. (See Confessions, the most recent book I finished from that bunch). I started it on the first day of fall this year and then made sure to finish it this month so that I could write about it with The Ensemble. Moving to Higher Ground is written by Wynton Marsalis, a jazz and classical musician who wears many hats, including trumpeter and the current artistic director of Jazz at Lincon Center in New York City. He's from New Orleans (the birthplace of jazz), and his father and all three of his brothers are jazz musicians too, so it runs deep. Marsalis has been playing music basically all his life, and he uses this book as an opportunity to share the numerous lessons that he's learned from playing jazz, and also advocate for the enduring relevance of jazz as crucial to America's cultural identity. In his words, it's "America's greatest artistic contribution to the world". By default this also means advocating for Black people and their contributions to be properly acknowledged, credited and celebrated; you can't cherish jazz as the quintessential American art form without also acknowledging how central Black people (the folks who created jazz) are to making this country what it is or claims to be.

Serving as a comprehensive introduction to beginners, this book is also a helpful guide to people who want to brush up on what jazz is, its history and legacy, and why it's still important. Marsalis explains essential elements of jazz like swing and the blues, touches on musical theory and some of the more technical aspects of performing, and even highlights what makes the personalities and playing/singing styles of various notable musicians so special. But overall I found this book to be largely philosophical, and intriguingly so. Marsalis likens jazz to a democracy, with members of a jazz band playing well together being analogous to a healthy, communicative society with a functioning democratic process. Marsalis' optimism and enthusiasm about what America is and/or can be reads more like wishful-thinking in 2020, but makes more sense when one considers that this book was originally published in 2008. (His mentality makes even more sense within the context of 2009, which is when the paperback edition I read was published, not long after Obama was first elected and inaugurated.) And honestly, if his objective is to link the work of jazz musicians to personal development and the American democratic process, then having the cynical-but-perhaps-realistic attitude of, say, "America is a young-ish country but it's also wretched and maybe even irremediable, and maybe nothing or no one can save it at this point" wouldn't bode well for his argument. So I get it.
Now. I have to say that I find it ironic how Marsalis lauds the egalitarian and democratic aspects of jazz—anyone can find their place in it provided that they can actually play well or are willing to work to become a skilled and knowledgeable player, everyone has something to share, everyone on the bandstand is meant to communicate with and listen to each other to play cohesively, etc.—only to take an elitist stance against hip-hop. It's pretty clear that he disdains hip-hop, referring to it as a minstrel show and poo-pooing it as "hip-humping" and "booty-to-tinkle wiggling" music. But is hip-hop not an offspring or at least a godchild of jazz? Maybe twerking is too straightforward and unabashed for some people's tastes, but is it not also intimate? And is there not ample hip and booty movement involved in swing dancing (which Marsalis believes to be the true American national dance style)? Additionally, are there not ample jazz and blues tunes full of erotic themes and lyrics? Especially since Marsalis emphasizes that jazz artists have always composed and played music in response to the times, including widespread social issues, personal desires, and other phenomena that everyday people experience? And were scores of white people not demonizing jazz as "the devil's music" when jazz was new, the same way they did hip-hop when it first emerged and gained widespread popularity?
I'd heard or read mention of artists including Marsalis being purists, and how their earnest desire to preserve the integrity of "real" jazz—especially earnest for Marsalis, who grew up playing jazz but was completely unaware of many of the greatest artists and composers until his late teens/early 20s—can sometimes fall into snobbery or even close-mindedness. And far be it from me to argue about music with professional music people who have decades of wisdom and experience under their belt... but my goodness! That way of thinking is truly unfortunate to me. How can someone harp on the historical and cultural legacy of jazz but not appreciate or respect the art forms that jazz helped create?  How can someone be a musician from a place like New Orleans and imply that rap and hip-hop categorically have no merit? How does someone base their entire life and livelihood around one form of Black music, but then completely disparage another related form of Black music? 
At this point I'm ranting and I know it, so I'll just say that if you've ever studied music, are a fan of jazz, or admire Wynton Marsalis specifically in anyway, then read this book. I found it to be insightful and informative, even if I did disagree with some of his points on hip-hop and on racial dynamics in America (especially as it concerns who jazz does or doesn't "belong" to). Reading this book also reminded me a lot of Mo' Meta Blues, which is equal parts memoir and a demonstration of Questlove's phenomenal and multifaceted musical knowledge. Marsalis's book isn't as heavy on the lists or name/song-dropping as Questlove's is, but it still has a similar feel to me. Like if you're looking for specific recommendations of jazz artists, albums, and songs to listen to, then Moving to Higher Ground is a great resource for that too.

Favorite quotes:
"Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth" (8).

"Through jazz, we learn that people are never all one way. Each musician has strengths and weaknesses. We enjoy hearing musicians struggle with their parts... [Miles Davis] would release recordings with mistakes, and they still sound good. The imperfections give the music even more flavor and personality" (12).
"It takes all kinds of time to develop first-class technical skills, and to expose your true feelings in public can be very discomforting. But exposing your feelings and transforming a bandstand with them is a powerful thing, so powerful you'll sacrifice almost anything to experience it. Art—creativity of any kind in any field—needs food, and that food is your experience, whether you're on the bandstand or in the audience" (66).

"When you find a style of music you can relate to, it's like finding a friend" (71).