[M]ingling with the remains of the plane, equally fragmented, equally absurd, there floated the debris of the soul, broken memories, sloughed-off selves, severed mother-tongues, violated privacies, untranslatable jokes, extinguished futures, lost loves, the forgotten meaning of hollow, booming words, land, belonging, home.
– Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses
(Five miles above the English Channel an aeroplane explodes, and two men fall towards earth, improbably to survive.)
I’ve got a thing for this kind of writing, where the author has managed to compress so much feeling and experience into so few words. This is the definition of ‘poetry’ with which I go along: where the sense of the words is only a fraction of their meaning. Where suggestion is invoked, valued, essential, where your own contribution as reader is indispensable to the realisation of the various possibilities of the text. (Also where attention has been paid to rhythm.) What Salman Rushdie writes here is poetic in my best estimation of the term’s meaning: it encourages, it embodies pulse, it goes beyond.
But quite apart from that, who doesn’t know something about what Rushdie is suggesting here? What is experience, what is memory, but the things that previously coalesced into some kind of situated-ness, some frame of reference? And how easily brought into question. How transitory, how personal, how airy. The migrant experience with which he deals is not my own – at least, not in such short historical order, not such as I can remember anything of what came before. Still his idea about the booming hollow-ness of ‘home’ (in particular) flicks a switch with me.
A few days ago I was walking Lucy to school and we took the route that goes through Grace Park, then down Lennox St before going through St James Park, up the hill past the cenotaph. Crossing the oval in the park I looked up and saw the trees. Later that day I had lunch with my newest friend, and inter alia we talked about travel. She has been overseas to study and lived here and there; I have not. I have been overseas but never for more than a month or so at a time, and only, strictly, for pleasure. She asked me about my inclination to travel, particularly in the context of doctoral study – she’s such a new friend she didn’t know I’ve actually completed a doctorate. (And neither do I blame her, nor care.)
I know there are people who are busting to get out of Australia and go and experience the music where it’s really happening – usually New York City. They take off as soon as they can after completing whatever they’re busy completing, and then they settle there for perhaps a year, perhaps more – this is a goal that a great many people I know have endeavoured to kick. Others favour Berlin, others again Tokyo; there’s a desire that some seem to feel to be elsewhere, presumably to discover something they can’t discover here.
It’s possible too, that (as for my new friend) the international scene provides a particular opportunity that is not available here. And please, listen. I’m not having a go at anyone who wants to travel. Okay? Let’s be clear about that. Great things are available to be achieved just about anywhere. Which must surely also mean: even here.
When I saw the trees I registered their familiarity, because my beloved maternal grandparents lived in Hawthorn West and when I was very young I would spend time with them both at their place, over there. Because of this, I knew St James Park and now we live in Hawthorn again, and two of our kids are being educated over that side of the suburb, I’m enjoying to experience it once more. When I saw the trees I could feel, in a way, the presence of my grandparents. I could see myself in their house and in its surrounds, I could imagine leaving it after dinner on Wednesday evenings (this is later, after my grandfather had died) for my piano lesson in Kew. I could recall cricket games with my brother on the front lawn. Bowling, you had to get your runup from the driveway because the pitch ran the entire length of the lawn, at which Pa said, ‘It’s longer than Lord’s!’ (It probably wasn’t, but we were a bit thrilled.)
The will to keep things present is defeated simply (and, yes, rather obviously) by the passage of time. Nothing lasts, although you paint a picture! or make a record! or write something down! to establish a personal permanence. The people that you love will die, or they will move away, or circumstances will change so that you are in less close contact, and because you need to survive you will manage to accommodate the new situation, no matter how long that takes, and carry on effectively enough in their absence. Buildings will be altered or removed, clubs will close, restaurants will go out of business, people’s affections will morph so that perhaps you are not as significant in certain relationships as once you were. You’ll live, and you do.
Still, the thing that was subsists in your memory and is never entirely lost. Frequently I remember my nana (that is, my maternal grandmother) saying things that were slightly cutting but absolutely to the point. Not about me, of course, because my siblings and I were perfection itself. Once over in Williamstown a gentleman called to his son to come back to the family’s car: ‘Bradley!…’ and nana quietly offered, ‘trend…‘ I know now that if she had seen me with any or all of my children at the weekend, in the absence of their mum, she’d have concluded that my wife and I were divorced and it was my turn. She was full of opinions, many of which were probably wrong but which demonstrated her enthusiastic imagination and her peculiarly wilful connectedness with people and their doings. She loved few things more than being able to sit still and watch people go by, meditating on their particular way of doing things and nurturing her own ideas about the world at large. I feel I understand this, because people are by their very nature perpetually interesting. Even the slightly dreary ones.
Anyway, anyway. I got to thinking about connection and the permanence of things learned early and about my very real desire not to take myself (for too long) away from the things that I feel matter most, that seem to give me life. You could quite reasonably say that the burden of memory is such that progress is impeded; you spend so long thinking about that then that you miss this now. That’s fair; and perhaps if I had travelled and spent a couple of years in New York I’d be a different piano player. Very probably, I would. But would there be a gain, as such? How to measure?
I don’t regard jazz as a thing that has necessarily to relate to any particular place, any centre of origin. I know about its history, of course, and I’ve heard a great deal of the music that is widely considered to be central to the Jazz Tradition. I’m also very fond of a lot of it. But I have never felt obliged to follow any path that was said to have been predicted by any of those American greats whose work comprised the tradition as established and conveyed. And why? Because very rarely, if ever, did they explicitly say that was what their descendants were supposed to do. They worked each to their own method, their own path; it seems to me that this is what we too should do. Critical inference about ‘direction’ or ‘implication’ departs from the essential momentariness of the improviser’s creation. Those who were sorting things out as they played thought not about what was to come; merely about what was being done.
Influence is unavoidable, and there is no-one who does not bear the imprint of some forbear whose work was particularly impressive and instructive. Stanley Crouch (no, really) writes in the notes to Wynton Marsalis’s Black Codes (from the underground): ‘the person who reminds the audience of no-one has somehow managed to avoid the colossal problem of giving personal character to the essential particulars of an idiom.’ How you define the idiom is your business, I reckon, so it’s thanks Stanley and all the best since I know he is pretty sure his definition can weather most available storms. We mayn’t agree on exactly what the idiom demands of us but if I’m an improvising musician and I believe I can ignore jazz then good luck to me – but actually forget it because I don’t want to. All the same, I’m here, now. I might at some stage or another remind you of someone or something and that is absolutely fine with me. I hope just that I’m putting my own little spin on whatever it is that I’ve appropriated.
Place is, to me, a big part of art. My own context contributes obviously to the nature of what I play, be it the what or the how, or even the why. I could not have made a record like I’ll tell you later without the early personal experience of the music on which I’ve based the improvisations. The music of Charles Wood, composed in Victorian Britain, based on an Elizabethan model, sung in Melbourne in the 1980s. Psalm chants, learned as a chorister, re-worked after becoming acquainted with jazz harmony. There are so many possible permutations of the variables of history and performance and circumstance. But ITYL is only my most obvious example. I have always felt that the music of my trio, having been imagined and made here, will relate best to others who are here. I suppose I could be wrong about this and I haven’t really tested the theory outside the bounds of the wide brown land of the parched echidna.* But I feel sustained by the continuing association with places I know and love, and when I think ‘I wrote that in Sydney!’ or, ‘that was in West Hawthorn, and so soon after the birth of Oliver!’** that’s so much a part of what the music means to me. I treasure memories of place, and of personalities; when friends are physically distant it is so much the shared experience here that constitutes the basis of our association.
The relevance of this (right now, for me, etc.) relates to the miserable decision to rub out most of the music programs on Radio National. If music is important to life, and I’m just arrogant enough to protest that it is, then the removal of so much music from the national ABC network’s programming is disastrous. Unkind, uncreative, impolite, thoughtless, insulting, and ugly. Kind of bone-headed, too. Any musician of my age or older, and many who are younger, will testify to the signal capacity of the ABC to permit us to tell our stories, to get our work out there – to contribute, even, to the national cultural life. These things remain of great importance, because no nation that does not cherish its character and expression and traditions will make much of itself as an innovative presence in the world.
So begging your forgiveness for getting all political on yo’ ass, I quietly plead the case for a greater understanding of art’s potential contribution to place, as ever it draws on it. I have written to my local member about this but since he’s the same goon who made lovely noises shortly post-election on the reality of climate change but is now going in to bat for the establishment of our largest and most destructive coal mine, I don’t hope for much from him. Sad to be surrounded by dickheads, but I guess ’t was ever thus. Would that things could change. We try, eh.
*I think I owe this disarmingly charming turn of phrase to Flacco, but I could be wrong about that. Someone said it somewhere, and freely I admit I didn’t think of it myself.
**There go time and place intersecting in their determining fashion. Damn. That’s another post I think.