E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel

I’ve  been enjoying E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel this week. I was particularly struck by this passage:

This reference to genius is, again, typical of the pseudo-scholar. He loves mentioning genius, because the sound of the word exempts him from discovering its meaning

Forster is talking about the dangers of admiration, especially disingenuous admiration. If we lavish praise upon the art we encounter, then it somehow gets us off the hook. Instead of having to engage with something, we can admire it. That we are uncertain about exactly what it is we admire (or whether we really do at all) is got out of by the assertion of genius.

Forster is talking about novels, but I wonder if the same can be said of jazz. Certain jazz artists seem recalcitrant to exact description. It’s as if there is something indescribable about their music we can’t get at, even after having tried our best with musical-analytical description and historical assessment.  At this point, no nearer the heart of the matter, the word ‘genius’ rescues us from inarticulacy.

Monk would be a good example. It’s possible to describe in analytical terms what’s going on in his music and then trot out the usual adjectives – angular, spacious, cubist even. His importance in the development of bebop, of the piano, of the jazz composer also gets talked about. Yet when you listen to the music itself, none of this lays a finger on him.

None of what I’m saying is particularly original, but it leads me to feel some new gratitude for an old truism about music-that it gets to places that words can’t. Forster implies that, in literary criticism, the critic is limited in their response by and to words.  To understand a piece of literature in one’s criticism takes an excellent scholar, with many avoiding true understanding by resorting to the genius tag. Musicians, however, can use music itself to understand music when words run out of use (dance as well actually-something that Monk frequently did on and off stage). In a sense, what we’re doing in playing and improvising with a composition in jazz is conducting our own form of criticism, one that often leads to a profounder level of insight for those playing and listening than any amount of writing. Listening to Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron playing Monk tunes (I’m doing this now!) teaches me more about Monk than anything I’ve ever read about him. I’ve also found this through by playing his music repeatedly.

I think this is also useful in relation to practise. Something I’ve noticed in myself and others is that when we’re struggling with something we’re working on, or not giving our practise the time we want to, we resort to trying to understand things mainly by talking about them, usually resulting in at least partial confusion or irritation. I remember a lesson I had once where I hadn’t done as much practise as I’d wanted to, meaning that I felt out of touch and a bit aimless when I arrived. I asked a lot of questions in that hour whereas maybe I should have asked one and then played my way into an understanding of the answer rather than trying to do it intellectually.

I’m certainly not denying the importance of talking with each other-I’ve had hours of enjoyment and insight from doing so and clearly wouldn’t be writing this blog if I thought words had no place in music. I do think, however, that words are usually a precursor or summary of the deeper wisdom found in playing and listening.

– Steve Lacy & Mal Waldron, I Remember Thelonius, (Nel jazz 1992)


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