Thursday, March 08, 2007

Lock's key

i am rereading Graham Lock's "Forces in Motion: The Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton." this book means a lot to me. it might be my favorite music book ever.

i have a suspicion that this is in large part because it reinforces an interplay between journalist and subject that i would like very much to believe in--very simply it's a working relationship that closely comes to resemble friendship. i realize that it may be too rosy a view and that anytime someone publishes anything having to do with anyone else that they risk offending them. but Lock and Braxton seem to work so well together. i hope to undertake a large-scale biographical project like this at some point and i guess it's just that i would want it to feel a lot like this.

one thing i mean is that Lock's tone is that of a tribute rather than a critique. i can't imagine that anyone would undertake a book-length project about anything that they did not adore passionately. Lock makes it clear early and often that he is more a fan than a critic. he even refers to Braxton as his idol at one point. a lot of people would find this fawning, or bad criticism, or what have you. i just find it honest. my favorite musicians ARE my idols and i'm not afraid to say that. Lock says this in the intro:

"It will, I hope, be evident that this is not a biography nor a critical analysis in which the critic attempts to assess and judge the artist. My sole intention here has been to *learn* about Braxton's music. How is it structured? How has it evolved? What is his purpose? Who were his models? What is his philosophy of music? Of life? How do the parts fit together?"

goddamn, i just cherish this shit. i just relate to it so goddamn much. my greatest joy in writing about music is learning about it. i enjoy constructing a cogent argument now and again, but what i like more is getting to know the music in an encyclopedic way, taking notes, interacting with the musician, transmitting my experience of the person and of the music. in other words acting as a medium. not as a judge. not as a hatchet man. etc. etc. i've talked before about my ambivalence about the word "critic." i feel more like a fan. whatever the case may be, i consider myself first and foremost a lover of music. and if i were to write a bio, it would be for no other reason than to learn about a subject i adored and to help others do the same.

goddamn, Lock does an amazing job of this. the book has a great freeform structure: interview transcripts interspersed w/ reminiscences from being on the road w/ Braxton and his quartet. if there is a narrative it's one of knowledge. it's as much an autobiography of learning about art as it is a biography of an artist. Lock is brave enough to frequently admit that he just doesn't get what Braxton is saying--he often says, literally, "I'm getting lost" in the interviews. that's so awesome! it's fucking revelatory, actually. that's what criticism doesn't do, cannot do. it can't say, "i'm simply in awe of this thing. i'm not worried about its quality; i'm concerned only with knowing it more, because all i do know about it is that is exciting to me. exceedingly so. i can catalog my reaction to it, but i will not try to pass that off as a judgment as to its inherent objective worth. i'll admit that i'm confused, but i won't blame my confusion on my subject." that IMHO is a godly, and extremely honest, way of looking at things. it embodies curiosity rather than spitefulness, enthusiasm rather than suspicion. i recognize the beauty and honesty of Lock's approach because it's the way i think too.

the raddest thing is that Braxton seems to recognize how brave this process-oriented, knowledge-based viewpoint is. for an artist who, as he expresses time and again in the book, so distrusts critics, it's a big thing for him to advocate so strongly for Lock in the intro: "It was always clear to me that only a creative person can write with insight about creativity--and I was right! Read the book and like or hate me if you will--but I wouldn't have had a chance with an average writer. I respect Graham Lock's efforts because he respects his profession--Lock has technique but he is not a technocrat... *Thank you for your work, sir.*"

beautiful! god, can you imagine how wonderful that must have felt for Lock to hear that? it's a contract of mutual respect. Braxton clearly relishes the opportunity to speak his mind as much as Lock enjoys picking his brain. and Braxton clearly appreciates Lock's struggle to make sense of his systems. at one point, Lock observes this at one of Braxton's lectures: "Braxton pauses and wearily surveys his silent, shivering audience. 'Is that clear? I don't want to assume that for once in my life I've said something clear enough that everybody understands it.'"

in other words, Braxton gets it. he understands what a massive undertaking it is for someone to try to parse his musical and linguistic systems, and maybe Lock's endeavor even put him on the spot a little bit, made him clarify oblique terms that he was hiding behind. Lock never flinches, just drills right through, asking Braxton to define his pet words like "restructuralist" "co-ordinate musics," etc. it would be a mistake for a writer to swallow this stuff whole, just as it would be a mistake for a critic to dismiss it as highfalutin' garbage, as so many have done vis a vis Braxton.

whatever you think of Braxton, reading this book, there's no doubt that he's a genius worthy of having such a book written about him, worthy of being studied and analyzed and yes, critiqued, but more importanly appreciated. Braxton's insights are too numerous to recount. suffice it to say that if you read this book, you'll receive incredible insight into jazz, period. Braxton has an incredibly holistic viewpoint on the music and his whole theory of restructuralists (Parker, Coltrane, Ayler, etc.) and stylists (Warne Marsh, Jackie McLean, etc.) is a really useful framework. so are his theories of sexism, "the myth of the sweating brow," "black exotica" and the countless other prejudices that have infected the music. you'll also get some great humor out of the guy (at one point, he hits upon the idea to establish a chain in England and serve "Braxburgers"). he's just a fascinating person to "be around," and Lock lets you do that; his reactions always seem honest, and he knows just when to ask for clarification and when to let Braxton hold on to his obliquity.

as i said, there are a million insights into music and life here. this is only one. Braxton offers:

"When you establish a consistent body of work it makes its own reality, and there's no way it can be put down or put up: it bcomes something that exists for human beings, a body of musics that will help people on the planet."

i say amen to that. Graham Lock did too, and he and Braxton have got a timeless work of scholarship to show for it. i'd suggest you pick up a copy posthaste.


Jason said...

"you'll also get some great humor out of the guy (at one point, he hits upon the idea to establish a chain in England and serve "Braxburgers")."

Having had the privilege of spending a little time around Braxton, this is what struck me most: his immense charm, generosity, and (especially) sense of humor. Once you get an ear-feel for how Braxton speaks, his written texts and transcribed interviews come off the page in a different way. I hope some of these aspects of Braxton's personality (reflected in his work) is captured in the DVD I put together for the upcoming 12+1tet box set (coming April 3 on Firehouse 12 Records - had to get that plug in there).


ps - You should have heard Graham talk about Sun Ra a few months ago here in Chicago! (And if you haven't read Lock's incredible "Blutopia", you need it now!)

ted said...

great post... I wholeheartedly agree, for obvious reasons. To me, this book is like if a great writer had been following Louis Armstrong along on a Hot 5 tour. It's that important a document of music history... and it is a hilarious document of what musicians on the road were talking about in the 80's. Don't you wish we were still worrying about acid rain?