Monday, October 5, 2009

Coltrane recording

About a decade ago, I did a presentation to a group of people who came to our monastery in Grahamstown for a week-long immersion into the Benedictine world. My subject was the mutual influences of monastic music and monastic spirituality upon each other. In discussing Gregorian chant, I tried not to get too technical but focussed on the searching, dynamic, even restless quality of the melodic lines. They were always seeming to probe something more than themselves, trying to get at something intangible, ineffable, reflecting often the architecture of monasteries in the Middle Ages.

I then decided to take the idea a step further. I tried to trace the influences of chant forward into musical history all the way to jazz. I finally ended up discussing John Coltrane. He made his greatest and most adventurous recordings in the 50s and early 60s and died too soon after them. The recording I played was his famous interpretation of "My Favorite Things". The saxophonist was certainly influenced by the technical elements of chant using the church modes, which were the musical scales, the building blocks that made up chant.

But even more so, I wanted to emphasise Coltrane's same restlessness. In many ways, he is not easy to listen to. To me, his playing sounds like he is never satisfied, has never found home, always trying to probe, penetrate through to something beyond him. And he had much musical talent and genius with which to do this. Often he played the same melodic patterns again and again, slightly modifying them, sharping and flatting notes here and there, changing rhythms, beginning the pattern on a different beat or offbeat. His playing was as unnerving and mysterious as prayer. At the same time, in that discomfort and mystery, I have always heard a great humility. His prayer was never settled and never finished.

When I presented this idea to the group, I went as far as to say that because of these reasons he displayed the values and passion of a monk. I certainly experience my life as a monk the same way. It is a restless life for me, one of constant searching and when I feel that I have found what I am looking for, then, I know I am exactly at the point where I need to start all over again.

One of the participants felt that it was a bit of a stretch for him to see this connection between monasticism and Coltrane. Over the years following, I have done the same presentation to different groups and even lectured about this at our arts festival in Grahamstown. But for some reason, I felt I wasn't able to capture the clarity, impact or even conviction of what I said that night. So, I was beginning to question whether I really was taking things a bit too far.

Then, I read a poignant portrait of Coltrane written by Tom Dowd, the recording engineer for the Atlantic Record sessions and felt vindicated. Dowd's description of Coltrane's routine before recording sessions brings me right back to my original conviction of which I won't hesitate to express again. He writes:

"...He would stand in a corner, face the wall, play, stop, change reeds and start again. After a while he would settle on a mouthpiece and reed that felt most comfortable to him, and then he would start to work on the 'runs' that he wanted to use during the session. I would watch him play the same passage over and over again, changing his breathing, his fingering, and experimenting with the most minute changes in his phrasing. Once in a while he would go back to the mouthpiece he had abandoned earlier. He never lost control: every step had a reason and almost everything he played was acceptable to everyone but him. Until he felt comfortable that he had exhausted all of the possibilities, he would continue to play the various permutations.
As the rest of the band members started to arrive, he would nod a greeting but never stop playing. He was deep into another world. He set the atmosphere for the sessions ... "

I have no idea what religion Cotrane was or even if he was part of any church, and I am not sure it matters that much. What I hear in his playing combined with the passage above speaks volumes to me about faith itself. He is the living example of St. Augustine's statement: Our heart is restless until it rests in you. Coltrane's heart was restless and because of that, he was one of the most creative musicians of the 20th Century. I believe faith is the one thing that keeps us from settling for anything less than resting in God. If our lives are authentic, then, we will be suspicious when others are trying to convince us or we are trying to convince ourselves that we have found God. As Jesus tells his disciples in the Gospel of Mark (13:21 - 23), "False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray if possible the elect... But be alert!"

The great Trappist monk, Thomas Merton writes about contemplatives in this unsettling way, “The contemplative is one who would rather not know than know. He [she] accepts the love of God on faith, in defiance of all apparent evidence.”

I can now look to Coltrane's example for a source of courage and strength to travel that "dark and unknown path" of not knowing and to keep searching even when I know I will not find what I seek. Writing poetry for me is a contemplative act. In some ways, I am writing the same poem until I get it right and at the same time hoping I never do. Below is one "permutation" of that life-long poem that is never finished inspired by Dowd's tribute above.

Coltrane recording

He came to recording sessions an hour early
faced the wall and practised,
blowing a massive column of air
through furious fingers and snapping keys.

As other musicians arrived,
he acknowledged them
with a small nod, without
a break in his endless patterns.
He clamped down on that reed
and tried to bore inside of that wall,
see its own patterns and play them.

But sheets of notes bounced hard
and ricocheted around
the sound booth containing him
as if he were under observation.

If he found the scale, the run,
the harmony that shattered the glass
his search would be over.
He would have nothing else to play.
He would have to wrench
the sax from his mouth
and lay it down for ever.

And so he continued
to pelt the wall until
it caved just enough
to give him enough room to breathe
into another voice.