Fugue States: When music isn't (and is) enough.
Coltrane, Tyner, Greensleeves, and days when you can't get out of bed.
I am painfully aware of every single thing that I need from music, embarrassed by what I ask of it. Having developed such a desperate belief in the power of music to salve and heal me, I ask big, over and over again.
— Jessica Hopper, “I Have a Strange Relationship with Music”, Spring 2002.
Music is the love of my life. But like any other kind of love, it requires work. Sometimes you grow tired of the same gestures, the same call-backs to better times, a repetition that, like Basinski’s Disintegration Loops tapes, deteriorates over time. A wandering eye (ear?) isn’t a crime, but there will be days when music, and all it once held for you, doesn’t feel like enough. There are days when the thought of it is entirely too much.
Take last week for instance. It was a tough week, for many reasons — I was anxious, teetering on the familiar borders of depression, and desperately seeking solace from too much time spent wasting away in front of YouTube videos and Netflix shows. The little, green Spotify icon was right there, under the video player, nestled in the taskbar alongside abandoned writing projects and unfinished work. My records, stored in a ‘temporary’ box by my window for the better part of three months, felt colossal. A library of potential but not enough energy to enact on it. I wanted a hit, to feel something transportive, but my old reliables had worn out their stay. I couldn’t think of a single song that would wrench me from this (admittedly, melodramatic) state.
These weeks come and go. Sometimes they last for months, with the music I’m reviewing for work or discovering on playlists passing me by without effect. I hear it well enough, but the connection can get lost in space, turning music into something that happens near me, not to me.
But what goes down must come up. I’m writing this on my bed on a Monday night, propelled by the energy of music again. Eureka! I’m listening to John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass sessions, which starts with what might be my favourite piece of recorded music. McCoy Tyner arranged Greensleeves — a ten-minute assault on the traditional English ballad, with Coltrane’s restless improvisation grounded by Tyner’s bright, coruscating chords. The liner notes on my record sleeve come with a quote on the tune from Coltrane: “It’s one of the most beautiful folk melodies I’ve ever heard. It’s written in 6/8, and we do it just about as written. There’s a section for improvisation with a vamp to blow on.”
I remember hearing Greensleeves (the folk ballad) for the first time in secondary school, in my first-year music class. My teacher used the melody, 16 bars printed in our textbooks, to teach us to sight-read. When we had the melody down, sheepishly and slowly wrapping our mouths around the notes and lyrics, she moved to the upright, wooden piano and accompanied us with the chords. We sang louder then. I’m not claiming to have the same great taste as Mr Coltrane, but I fell in love with Greensleeves’ melody that day too.
What makes Coltrane’s recording so impactful is how it blurs the specifics of the tune, all the while inching ever closer to its essence. The piece is impressionistic, giddy, delighting in the chance to riff on a timeless melody. But it is also sombre, wistful. The skittish dance of Coltrane flutters over McCoy’s grounded melancholy. It is light and dark. Old and new.
The days (and nights) when music comes back are glorious. If anything can make me excited about music again, it’s the thundering explosion of that melody. Greensleeves remains as formative for me now as it did all those years ago.
This week’s playlist is shorter, but hopefully no less considered. They’re slow burners, some jazz, some rock, some folk, and some something-else. They’re songs that reward patience, all with a moment of clarity that, at one time or another, has reminded me of music’s power to evoke something else. Something slightly out of reach, painfully and joyously intangible, explaining everything and nothing. Crucially, these are songs that have gotten me out of, or off, my bed.
I ask one favour of you — if you find yourself uninterested or perplexed by the vertigo of jazz, focus on McCoy’s piano on Greensleeves. The reward — and what a fucking reward — when he returns with the B section of the melody is one of music’s brightest moments. You’ll know it when you hear it.
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