New in Artists Choices
Some books about art which have relevance to how I see jazz.
The Sight of Death: An experiment in Art Writing
(Yale University Pres)
I was turned on to art critic T.J.Clark’s book by a review in the Observer, and by my previous readings of his books such as the one I refer to below. The Sight of Death is a diary of his thoughts and experiences while looking at two paintings by Poussin. On the surface nothing to do with jazz, but as a friend wrote recently ‘most composers/ improvisers can benefit from wise words of non-musician artists’ and I found that Clark’s close analysis of the two paintings - supported by the copious excellent reproductions throughout - gave me a new experience of looking, really looking, at art. And provided some parallels with my own approach to jazz composition:
Significant form is a matter, above all, of reduction - of saying complex things in the fewest syllables, with nuance and implication doing most of the work.’
‘“Economy” here means happening on a moment when suddenly you realise as you are doing it (or better, you see) that enough is enough - that any more would destroy the openness to different (compatible) readings...’
As well as seeing a connection to my own composing, I read this as summing up something that we can see is missing in the verbosity of much of today’s jazz. And a connection between the final sentences of Adam Phillips’ Observer review and the general level of writings about jazz: ‘It is not incidental that, at a time when there is more visual art than ever before, most writing about the visual arts is either mind-numbingly pretentious and cliquey or boringly descriptive and without vision. Clark’s book could not be more timely’.
Looking for his ‘six degrees’ of separation to jazz (see other items on this site where there is no obvious connection, but one has been found) has not proved fruitful, but I would point to the parallel I drew from a statement he made in The Painting of Modern Life (Princeton University Press):
Echoing T. S. Eliot writing of the death of nineteenth century music-hall singer Marie Lloyd, art critic T. J. Clark said “we are looking essentially for the ways such modest material might have been used, by the right performer, to do something as grand as ‘giving expression to the life of a class’.”
This could perhaps be seen as one definition of jazz, where the modest material used – the blues, the standard song form, repetitive melodies and so on – once provided a basis for ‘giving expression to the life of a class’. But now the music – along with its social and geographical base – has widened, the modest material used links us to the past, while offering jazz musicians the opportunity to demonstrate the inherent infinite possibilities of the blues and standard song.
An extract from the chapter on repertoire in the jazz composer, moving music off the paper.
T.J.Clark at Amazon.com
T.J.Clark at Amazon.co.uk
Clement Greenberg (1909-1994)
Homemade Aesthetics, observations on art and taste
The Collected Essays and Criticism (4 volumes)
(Oxford University Press)
I’ve been reading Greenberg’s criticism for most of my adult life and, although he has his detractors – and I don’t agree with everything he says - I have found many parallels in his writing to the way we should think about jazz. Here are some examples used in the jazz composer:
For jazz to happen in real time once, it is essential that the music should, to repeat Clement Greenberg’s words, ‘determine, through its own operations and works, the effects exclusive to itself’. As is obvious, the effects peculiar and exclusive to jazz are not the written elements, the things that can be seen, but rather the things that can’t be seen, what the musicians do with what they are given. In a word, improvising. …
There is another statement from Greenberg which is of enormous relevance to jazz: ‘the acceptance, willing acceptance, of the limitations of the medium of the specific art’.
‘When it comes to aesthetic experience, you’re all alone to start and end with. Other people’s responses may put you under pressure, but what you then have to do is go back and look again, listen again, read again.’
Clement Greenberg at Amazon.com
Clement Greenberg at Amazon.co.uk