The Pain of Music

I have previously written in this space about “dread.” I then referred to a more general foreboding—which still occasionally visits me, in spite of my improved circumstances. I accept these visitations as inevitable. There may be no help for them—or, at best, I could spend an exorbitant amount of money to a credentialed stranger to convince me, over a course of treatment lasting several years, to embrace impending doom rather than letting it bug me. (“Letting it bug me” is a much cheaper method of addressing the abyss.)

No, my dread du jour actually arises from my newly exalted status. Now that my position as publisher of The Syncopated Times has accorded me a measure of influence in my chosen field (and believe me, I never saw that coming), I live in something like blithering terror of expressing an opinion that brands me, for all the world to see, a philistine.

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I used to express ignorant opinions with gusto. I was just a guy then. Now I’m an authority—and having to say what I really think about certain matters of sensitive interest scares the prunes out of me. I may spend weeks at a time pretending to know about art but not admitting to know what I like.

But this is not about art. It’s about music. Oh, boy. And how.

I am blessed with the happy facility of being able to like almost anything, if it’s fairly good of its kind. That is, except certain things. Reader, would it lower me in your estimation (assuming I do not already inhabit the lowest sub-basement there) if I were to admit that listening to one particular variety of jazz is like being run over by a convoy of main battle tanks?

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I spent a month one afternoon recently as I heard a largish group of talented young people (who had taken lessons) attempt to make tonal and rhythmic sense of a set of arrangements, or blueprints, or something, that could resolutely not be made to yield a moment of swing. What they did was—what’s the opposite of “swing?” Slog? Yes, what they did was slog.

There were valiant attempts at Swing, and one young trumpet player in particular was ready to swing at a moment’s notice if but given the chance. It was not to be. Other musicians seemed never to have heard Swing, or even have any concept of it. They might have been fugitives from a JSL class—Jazz as a Second Language.

I will say that they were playing actual compositions by well-known composers—some even known to me. But the conductor took pride in giving them the “hard” charts. He might as well as put the Advanced Algebra Regents Exam on their music stands. It didn’t help that he waved the baton with all the effortless fluidity of Vincent Lopez wearing a straitjacket.

This performance was the epitome of modern Big Band Jazz: It must be good for you, because it feels so bad.

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The set had not a millisecond of lightness or joy. It was peanut butter for the ears. (And I mean the extra-chunky variety that takes several trips to the audiologist to completely dislodge.)

My wife and I considered leaving at intermission, but we did stay. It’s wasn’t masochism, exactly—but a vague hope that things would improve in the second half of the concert. There was a man we had come to see who was the guest soloist that afternoon, and whose virtuosic musicianship we revere.

So we stayed, and we sat down in front, and there was Swing. It wasn’t just Swing, but even the more esoteric “modern” stuff swung. Our hero (who plays an array of instruments) brought the Swing with him. It was frankly a relief. After the first half of the concert, I had despaired of ever being able to enjoy music again.

And then I thought: am I an ignoramus for wanting to “enjoy” music? Shouldn’t music be something I inoculate myself with, to build up a gradual tolerance to its difficulty and unpleasantness? Does it not bespeak my incredible intellectual laziness and moral slovenliness that my first instinct was to go home and assuage my bruised eardrums with Schubert, Grieg, Red Nichols, and Benny Goodman?

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Dear Reader, I am a bumpkin. I am a dolt. I am a yahoo. I do not own a single recording by either Alban Berg or Anton Webern. Give me Chopin—and (God help me!) Mendelssohn. And I cannot, will not subject my ears to Big Band jazz that is intentionally difficult and unpleasant to listen to. It must swing! It must syncopate!

There. I’ve said it. I am a philistine. I will now return to my wallow.

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