Monday, February 27, 2017

Living with Music (and noise, lots of noise)

Ralph Ellison starts his essay, "Living with Music," remembering an apartment he used to live in during the late 1940s with thin walls and unfiltered noise from outside. He describes neighbors who would blast music, drunk people who would sing (or scream for quiet) outside, and one neighbor in particular living in the apartment above who was dedicated to studying singing… all day long, as Ellison tried to focus on his writing.
In those days it was either live with music or die with noise, and we chose rather desperately to live.
There are a few things I love about this essay. One is Ellison exploring the distinctions people make between music and noise. Another is the way music is the means of both trying to understand people and attempting to block them out or knock them down. For instance, his upstairs neighbor - she reminds him of when he would practice trumpet growing up (to a mix of detractors wishing he’d stay quiet and supporters wondering if he’d be the next Louis Armstrong). He comes to admire her and her dedication to song. Her practicing also drives him nuts sometimes, and he blasts music (the same pieces she’s practicing, but performed by world-class musicians) as a way of trying to silence her. She doesn’t rise to the bait or quit practicing, and they eventually settle into a way of coexisting based on understanding and greater courtesy. Meantime, he rediscovers an appreciation of music that he mostly gave up when he set aside his trumpet.

Music is also a way for him to bring together different aspects of his culture and self. He loves classical pieces, jazz, Negro spirituals, and writes about the error of seeing only stark divisions between different types of music:
There was a mistaken notion on the part of some of the teachers that classical music had nothing to do with the rhythms, relaxed or hectic, of daily living, and that one should crook the little finger when listening to such refined strains.
I also want to leave this excerpt, when he reflects on serious jazz players:
Life could be harsh, loud and wrong if it wished, but they lived it fully, and when they expressed their attitude towards the world it was with a fluid style that reduced the chaos of living to form.
Each “must learn the best of the past, and add to it his personal vision.” Playing jazz is only one way of doing this. And any such endeavor usually starts with, and many times doesn’t get past, “an effect like that of a jackass hiccupping off a big meal of briars” (Ellison describing his own trumpet music). But one could argue the attempt is still worthwhile. (Though maybe not for people forced to overhear you as you figure things out. Like, in the case of writing, the teachers who have to read your work when you're trying to learn how to wax poetic...)

(This was one of my selections for Deal Me In 2017.)

5 comments:

Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary on this essay.

I would like to read it. Music is so important for all the reasons that this essay seems to touch upon.

As for music verses noise, I am thinking of the philosophy and compositions of John Cage.

Roderick Robinson said...

With keyboards you simply pick the notes like flowers; with trumpets you have to create the notes and there's a limit as to how long you can do this. The lips lose their ability to vibrate accurately and it's time to put the instrument back in its case. As to noise you can use a mute but this changes the tone (that's a mute's main function) and to some extent its expressiveness. Acoustics is also a factor: hard walls (in my case my mother's cellar) are more rewarding as they bounce back the notes clear and hard; in living rooms the curtains and upholstery absorb the trumpet's brilliance and the thrill is diminished.

Now my trumpet, acquired when I lived in the US, sits untouched these many years beneath my computer table as I attempt - very late in life - to shape my voice for singing Mozart and Schubert. Luckily I live in a detached house so the neighbours remain undisturbed. Which is just as well. I can sing mezza voce (ie, subdued) but it's harder to stay in tune at this lower level and I'm never convinced it develops my voice.

I've often wondered how I'd respond if someone was practicing within earshot. Ironically it's easier to bear amateurs since they tend to do the whole piece while pros repeat short passages over and over again. The worst experience of all is hearing someone learn the violin from scratch.

HKatz said...

@ Brian - thanks for reminding me of Cage, and the piece all neighbors with thin walls love: 4'33"

@ Roderick - I played viola for several years as a teenager, and I remember those early screechy, raspy days. It's lovely that you're working on singing Mozart and Schubert now.

Jay Carr said...

I've only read Ellison's Invisible Man, but it would be interesting to hear about his "distinctions between music and noise," I often use music (via headphones) here at the office to avoid the "noise" of my sometimes loud coworkers. I also used to listen to music on headphones during chess tournaments to block out the disordered random noise in the room, but electronic devices have pretty much been barred from serious tournaments these days, since they have been used as a method for disguising cheating (i.e. using a computer program to suggest the best mov, etc.).

HKatz said...

@ Jay - I think you'd like this essay. Ellison tries to use his own music to block out other people's music, but winds up communicating through music with his upstairs neighbor instead of just shutting her out.