From the Music, to the Word, to the Body in Motion

'Epistrophies'

by Jordan Penney

3 October 2017

 
cover art

Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination

Brent Hayes Edwards

(Harvard University Press)
US: Jun 2017

The back cover of McCoy Tyner’s 1974 release Sama Layuca includes a brief essay that situates the pianist in a musical and historical context. “I am the music I play,” Tyner is quoted as saying. “Music tells a story—it may summarize the past or redirect the the future. Compositions written and played by black musicians are vehicles to express the struggles and sufferings of black people.” The author of this missive concludes on a spiritual note, imploring for God to continue to bless Tyner “for what he has been, for what he is, and for what he surely will become”.

Although Tyner does not appear in Epistrophies, in it Brent Hayes Edwards proposes an array of intellectual tools—theories, concepts, frameworks, and a language—with which to analyse both the form and content of these and other similarly seemingly ephemeral passages. Edwards’ point of entry into what, at its widest angle, effectively amounts to a framework for understanding jazz aesthetics, is the peculiar ubiquity of the musician-writer in the history of jazz music. In the cosmic poetry of Sun Ra, the musical “tone parallels” composed by Duke Ellington to accompany the works of Shakespeare, or the written records that Louis Armstrong seemed to keep almost compulsively throughout his adult life, Edwards shows evidence of not merely connections between writing and music for such artists but also argues that they cannot easily be separated at all. The two creative forms should be viewed instead, he writes, as “components in a broader sphere of art making and performance”.

The governing idea for Edwards is pseudomorphosis. The term has roots in the writing of the historian Oswald Spengler who used it to characterize the process whereby remnants of an older culture are retained by the new culture but which assume different or lesser functions. Since then it has also come to assume musicological and aesthetic meanings. Pseudomorphosis takes place when a work in a single artistic medium “is asked to ape, or to do the work of, some alien medium”. Introducing it in The Decline of the West (1922), Spengler imagined pseudomorphosis as a form of decadence or corruption—the prefix “pseudo” itself implies a debasing of the original form—but Edwards assigns no such normative assumptions to it. Instead, it is reimagined as itself an aesthetic, a means of artistic innovation and “a way to expand boundaries, to discover new possibilities, [and] to transform a medium precisely by making it become other”. To put an even finer point on it, the appearance of such pathways and passages is for Edwards the “paradigm of innovation in black art”.

The outlook invites us to revisit a range of writing that might typically be perceived as ancillary to the presentation of the performance or the record as an artifact. Record reviews, liner notes, and interviews, for example, are not then subordinate but instead constitute an amorphous body of jazz literature that potentially establishes means for musicians and chroniclers of music to shape, participate in, reflect, elevate, and channel creative impulses.

In the first instance, there’s a music writing that’s descriptive and utilizes a stock of adjectives. This practice, done well, has its place in establishing the context for a piece of music. But Edwards’ theory asks that music writers and other observers consider both the form and content of their writing and attune them to the form and content of the music. The point is not that criticism must look like what it interprets. A critic of serialized music does not necessarily need to write about it in serialized instalments, nor does a reviewer of swing need to write prose that aspires to catch it in language that figures rhythm and motion. But an approach that recognizes the pseudomorphic possibility of translating creative ideas between the artist’s music and the writer’s words is at least adequate to the pathways between music and words and the surprises that may be hidden there. It’s also a creative act of pseudomorphosis itself in that it recognizes and acts upon possibilities found by listening across media. 

To remain at this level of abstraction, however, is to do a disservice to Edwards’ bravura for furnishing the reader with material that constantly surprises and subverts expectations. The book’s title, for example, is a reference to a rather obscure word derived from Greek meaning “to turn about” as well as the name of a Thelonious Monk composition. In the midst of live performances of this song and others, Monk himself would occasionally stand up and dance as his sidemen soloed. There is something, Edwards notes, in the chromatic structure of “Epistrophy” that is reflected in Monk’s physical movements. We notice a device that is “taken into another medium, provides the ground of inspiration” and is then “echoed in another medium”. We experience a single creative inspiration jump the track three times—from the music, to the word, and to the body in motion.

In another virtuoso piece of analysis Edwards investigates how rhythm and “swing”, elusive but historically salient elements of black musical expression, are connected to multiple cultural, performative, and literary forms of expression. Citing James Weldon Johnson’s preface to the Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), Edwards focuses on the image of the “old time Negro preacher” who draws upon his insight into the “inner secret” of black oratory: “The ability of the speaker to set up a series of rhythmic emotional vibrations between himself and his hearers.” This is the swing of the spirituals that also expresses itself in the bodies of the group, “a collective swaying so unified that it seems conducted by an unseen hand”. The impulse travels through time, through music, and then finally through Johnson’s text, which hesitates, wavers, and juggles as if registering the very same motion.

Returning to Tyner’s comments on the staging of his own music, in the spirit of Edwards’ approach, we might begin to perceive subtle connections at the hem of contact between the social context, the individual, and the individual’s expression. Tyner’s creative process seems to begin with a type of pseudomorphosis in which his personal experiences, emotions, joys, agonies, and inspirations—himself entirely, embodied —are channeled and transposed into sound. His most famous performances and compositions—consider, for example, A Love Supreme (1965) with John Coltrane, as sideman, or Enlightenment (1973), as leader—are long-form musical suites that each run around 30 minutes. Both encompass bracing block chords in the modal tradition, torrid soloing, moments of quiet contemplation, and they periodically swing. They are both classics of spiritual jazz and hint at a programmatic function that characterizes the individual’s progress towards peace of mind and salvation. The cultural and biographical fabric of McCoy Tyner—the individual, the socially conscious artist and spiritual seeker—and the musical fabric of Enlightenment are one and the same. We must assume the transposition allows Tyner to convey something otherwise unsaid or impossible to articulate by any other means. He has put his life into his music—he is his music—and he challenges the listener to experience that in its fullest implications.         

Edwards occasionally slips into the kind of jargon that weighs down so much academic writing in the humanities. Polyvalent concepts like antidiscursivism and fugitivity are breathlessly introduced and unceremoniously hurried along without grounding in a firm meaning to anchor the reader. But truly recondite debates that will interest only academic practitioners of literary and critical theory are typically tucked away in the endnotes, and he’s generally adept at shifting from abstract concepts to the fine details of textual analysis. It’s not the sunless and arid prose of most published efforts at cultural studies and its apparent orientation towards the intellectually curious general reader may be strategic. His point is that the pseudomorphic idea is an essential quality in jazz aesthetics. To read, write, and to listen with this habit of mind is to become adept at hearing across media and to subsequently become prepared for identifying potential new meanings and insights. But the argument has a force and a momentum that suggests it may just be true of creative expression in general.

Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination

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