Writings about Music

White Jade Floating: Time In Music

Just recently, I was reading about how jazz trumpeter Shorty Rogers described hearing Charlie Parker for the first time. He could only compare the overwhelming and exhilarating shock to the Bible: first there was Darkness, and then there was Light. He also said that he actually felt like he was being forced through the wall behind where he was sitting, and volume had little to do with it! My personal epiphany comprehending the unbelievable profundity of Bird for the first time came in tenth grade after I had learned the music and lyrics to How High the Moon, allowing me to experience the ingenious expansions Parker spontaneously constructed upon the foundation composed by Morgan Lewis, with lyrics by Nancy Hamilton, in a live recording.

What musicians and composers hope for with their sound (sic) efforts is a sensation of time being suspended, or at least forgotten about when someone is listening, whether it is live or on a recording. If listeners are thinking about time they are not truly engaged. In other words, music aspires to be worthy of a region that is unique unto itself, dwelling in-between the physical (you can hear it) and metaphysical worlds (it is invisible) where the passing of time is illusory.

Thus, a music composition designs to exist at once in its full form or duration, so that a listener may reach out perceptually in the manner of an immense giant who has the capability of touching any location on earth with one's finger at will, removing the need to travel to those locations. The analogy holds because music that reaches the desired domain has its unique "DNA" in any particular phrase or passage, just as the entire film, Chinatown, is intuitively impressed upon the viewer from the opening images and sounds.

This is why, when I was a guest student attended his conducting class at Tanglewood, Leonard Bernstein spent well over one hour explaining the correct way to give the opening downbeat for the First Movement of the Brahms First Symphony. At once, Bernstein was filtering the cumulative episodes and nuances of the entire work through the initial release of the gathered and gathering forces, something that required a precise, if elusive to convey, calibration expressed through physical gesture, including the eyes. From his very first spoken sentences to the class, it was shockingly evident that the conductor's extreme physicality was completely in the service of a previously unimaginably articulate and probing intellect that rendered everyone mute in stunned and intimidated silence, much to the maestro's baffled frustration, pleading for questions to be asked by the students. (I had a great question, but was too insecure to state it at the time. Fortunately, I did have an opportunity to converse briefly with Bernstein at a party following a student orchestra concert.)

While it was not my intention to include both Charlie Parker and Leonard Bernstein when I began this writing, I am reminded about how Lee Konitz once told me that Bird was easily the most brilliant person he ever met in his entire life. Konitz, who lived for a period of time in the same Manhattan building as Bernstein, was friends with the composer of West Side Story, who told the alto saxophonist how the song Cool from his famous score (lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) was directly inspired by Lee's playing. In fact, the rather vague jazz influence commonly attributed to West Side Story in general is actually closest to the music of Lee Konitz by far.

The first part of my title, White Jade Floating, from Sung Dynasty poet, Yang Wan-Li, translated by Jonathan Chaves, is used here referring to the imperceptible movement of the moon traversing the evening sky above us.

- Michael Robinson, December 2014, Los Angeles


© 2014 Michael Robinson All rights reserved

Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer.