All of the great musicians have borrowed from the songs of the common people.—Antonín Dvořák, 1893
Listen to an audio version of this essay read by Lewis Lapham.
I’m just here to make some music and help out with the fucking.
Lawson had been asked to account for his presence in New York in 1954, at Eddie Condon’s on West Third Street, sitting in on trumpet with Ralph Sutton at the piano, Jack Teagarden on slide trombone. A joyful noise in Chicago and well regarded as a recording-studio instrumentalist, Lawson was unknown to a jazz-club reporter looking to compose a program note. Was Lawson come to town to make for himself bigger money and a brighter name? Cut a record with Tommy Dorsey? Climb the stairway to the stars?
Lawson’s answer didn’t see the light of print, but Condon delighted in the tempo and the phrasing, scrawled it on cards sometimes stuck in a lower corner of the mirror above the bar. Where at the age of twenty in 1955 I found it with a sense of thanksgiving and relief. The next day I was returning as a senior to Yale College, where for three years my undergraduate questions about the purpose and meaning of life had most of them come back marked address unknown or return to sender. All but one, and that one off the books, the assurance that when bound up in the embrace of music, I knew and felt as fact—as in other times and places I assuredly did not—that yes, Virginia, and if it please the court, I am a human being. And if to become a being at least in some part human is the object of the lessons taught by poets and philosophers, then why not and better yet the high note hit by Lawson? Why else is mankind here on earth if not to dance to the music of time, make a joyful noise unto Chicago or the Lord, help out with the labors (Promethean and Pythagorean, Apollonian and Dionysian) of creation?
Sixty-two years further along the road to who knows where or when, this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly poses the long-deferred follow-up question. How and why is music the most powerful and liveliest of the arts, the utmost reach of human expression, the stuff of which dreams are made, and, if ancient philosophers and modern physicists are to be believed, also the stuff that binds body with soul? The text and illustration in the issue, an orchestration for 165 voices in time on the staff of three millennia, find music everywhere at the heart of human society, urging men into battle, arranging them in states of wild abandon and sacred ceremony, feeding them the foods of love.
In any and all event in accord with the thinking of Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher who in the sixth century BC conceived the cosmos and the whole of its creation (apes and butterflies, seas and stones and stars) as works of music, the vibrations of energy in motion instinct with life in all its forms and fancies. According to Pythagoras, the world consists of three sorts of music—the sounds of instruments (lyre, violin, tambourine, flute), the voices of the human organism itself (pulse, intestine, breath), and the music of the spheres, the planets oscillating in harmonic orbit.
None of Pythagoras’ writing survives on scroll or parchment, but his thought has been peer-reviewed and verified over the course of twenty-five centuries by music teachers and mathematicians, poets and astronomers. Cicero in the first century BC and Boethius in the sixth century, both familiar with Pythagoras’ teachings, regard him first and foremost as a physician employing music as saving grace. “It is common knowledge,” says Boethius, that song “has often worked great wonders on the affections of bodies or minds. Who does not know that Pythagoras, by performing a spondee, restored a drunk adolescent…to a calmer and more composed state?” Citing other instances of human distress relieved by timely application of suitable melody (tormented citizens in Lesbos, infuriated youths in Sicily), Boethius concludes that “music is so naturally united with us that we cannot be free from it even if we so desired.”
Body and soul in unison is the news breaking from the stage of a Stones or Swift or Springsteen concert, but also, and these days probably as often, in reports from a hospital intensive-care unit or cancer ward. Vibroacoustic therapy alleviates the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease; Alzheimer’s patients recall familiar songs more easily and accurately than spoken words; music increases and improves immune-system function; the Mayo Clinic employs the playing of a harp to relax and lower the blood pressure of patients undergoing chemotherapy.
Cicero relies on Pythagoras for the assurance that the music of the spheres is at all times present in the human ear; he goes on to say it comes and goes unheard because humankind has “become completely deaf to its melody.” Modern authority begs to differ. NASA’s orbiting X-ray telescope in 2003 picked up on a B-flat fifty-seven octaves below middle C, emitted by a black hole in the Perseus cluster of galaxies and reverberating across a distance of 250 million light-years in the key characterized by late eighteenth-century poet and composer Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart as “cheerful love, clear conscience, hope, aspiration for a better world.”
Tartar Officer with Blond Lady Playing Musical Instruments, Chinese silk album leaf, nineteenth century. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, from the Collection of A.W. Bahr, Purchase, Fletcher Fund, 1947.
And if a music of the spheres can be dimly heard by a machine, who’s to say the sweet unheard melodies imagined by John Keats cannot be heard by human beings born among us for whom everything is music? W.C. Handy, American composer known as the Father of the Blues, learned his notes by listening to the sounds of nature. No piano or organ in the District School for Negroes in Florence, Alabama, but in the nearby woods and fields there were robins carrying “a warm alto theme,” bobolinks singing counterpoint, mockingbirds trilling cadenzas, distant crows improvising “the jazz motif,” the moo-cow a saxophone, the whippoorwill a clarinet.
Transpose Handy’s music lesson into the key signatures of a different culture in another century, and in 1993 it is Gita Mehta telling the story of a young girl taught by the master musician who is her father that “the universe erupted into being” when Shiva danced the music of Creation and “everything started to tremble with the longing to exist.” Before the child is allowed to touch an instrument, the father teaches her to hear the peacock’s cry, the neighing of a horse, the anger of an elephant, a calf calling to its mother, all the notes in nature embodied in the major ragas, which in turn “sustain the harmonies of living things.” Each raga relates to a particular season, time of day, and an emotion “unlocks” its soul. But whether the Darbari Kanada raga plucked from the strings of a sitar or “The Memphis Blues” played on the keyboard of a piano, music is the emotion dormant in human mind and heart and ear—emotion as clear and present fact, not as imitation or representation of a memory, a picture, or an idea.
Shift the observation into still another setting in a minor key, and it is the Russian writer Vasily Grossman describing the arrival of trains at Auschwitz and the division of the freight into living and soon-to-be dead. The air—stinking of garbage, dark with smoke, and streaked with the glow of the gas ovens—is “filled with music,” music made by a dozen prisoners, as ill-kept as their instruments, “on a wooden bandstand like in a public park.” A sob passes down the column of the condemned, and Grossman observes that “music resurrects in the soul of a man about to die…neither hope nor thought but simply the blind, heartbreaking miracle of life itself.”
If one hears bad music, it is one’s duty to drown it by conversation.—Oscar Wilde, 1890
The essayist George Steiner and the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer carry the thought a step further. All of us knowing ourselves born of mortal flesh and therefore condemned to die, we also know the music goes on without us, “uniquely expressive of the highest states of human consciousness,” says Steiner, because “it functions outside truth and falsehood, good and evil. It possesses men and women but is not possessed by them.”
Schopenhauer regards music as the “universal language” more necessary and infallible than any of the other arts because it speaks directly to the human being behind the masks of identity—sexual, social, racial, cultural, political, historical—fitted to the frames of circumstance and the accidents of birth. “Music always expresses only the quintessence of life and its events, never these themselves.” Content is form, form content, and nothing in the way of their longing for one another. One needn’t be Christian, periwigged, and German to hear in the music of J.S. Bach the sound of one’s own life—or suede shoed, panama hatted, and black to see in the music of Duke Ellington one’s own face in the mirror.
Arriving at Yale College in the autumn of 1952—bourgeois, button-down collared, and white—Bach I knew as a name sometimes mentioned by my churchgoing grandmother; born and raised in California, I wouldn’t have known where to look for Ellington’s A train. I was familiar with what has come to be known as the Great American Songbook, the abundance of life-giving melody (“Over the Rainbow,” “All the Things You Are,” “Night and Day,” “But Not for Me,” “As Time Goes By,” “Isn’t It Romantic?”) composed during the years 1910–50 by two generations of American musical genius (Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Ira and George Gershwin, Harold Arlen). But as to what was to be heard beyond the ken of my mother’s Victrola or a debutante-dance orchestra, I was as deaf, dumb, and blind as the stones on Easter Island.
The pianist Jonathan Biss remembers his first encounter at the age of thirteen with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 32 in C Minor as “the first time I wondered what it might be like to die.” My initial encounters at the age of seventeen with jazz and the music of the baroque I remember as the first time I wondered what it might be like to live. Without prior warning or program note, I was taken hostage by what Biss calls “music’s mysterious capacity for saying the unsayable,” to give voice to “feelings we don’t know how to express and sometimes don’t even know we have.” I’d been accustomed to coming across such feelings in books. No organ or piano in the households in which I’d grown up, not even a ukulele or harmonica, but books everywhere on tables, shelves, and chairs, and by the age of ten I was adept at booking passage to far, far better worlds in the novels of Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Walter Scott, in books of archaeology and astronomy by authors whose names I now forget.
At college in freshman year, I discovered in music an even surer escape from the prison of self, and for further direction to feelings I didn’t know existed, I relied on Pythagoras redux in the person of John Eaton, newly and happily met classmate just in from Washington, DC, where his piano playing consoled tormented and infuriated youth in the local jazz clubs and hotel cocktail bars. Eaton was then, is now, a musician born among us for whom everything is music, a student of the classical as well as the jazz piano, at the age of eighteen capable of improvising a three-part fugue on any three popular tunes named by random voices hanging around in the after-midnight crowd to hear one more for the road.
Eaton supervised what was to become the lux and veritas of my college education, introducing me to Bach’s Partita for Keyboard no. 2 in C Minor, to Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Lester Young, Sarah Vaughan, and Billie Holiday, to Beethoven’s Archduke Trio. During sophomore year Eaton often conducted me to New York City to hear Charles Mingus at Birdland, Rudolf Serkin at Carnegie Hall, Marian McPartland at the Hickory House, by A train to Harlem to hear Miles Davis play Monk’s “ ’Round Midnight.” By the time we showed up at Condon’s in 1955 to find Lawson’s note on the mirror above the bar (Ralph Sutton still there at the piano, Cutty Cutshall on trombone, Wild Bill Davison sitting in on cornet), I was on the same page with Friedrich Nietzsche (“Without music life would be a mistake”) and Dr. Samuel Johnson, “Had I learned to fiddle, I should have done nothing else.”
I share the learned doctor’s feeling of disappointment; I never learned to fiddle well enough to avoid having to do something else. I began with lessons on the harpsichord for reasons both sacred and profane—my senior-year encounter at the Yale School of Music with a willing teacher of the instrument who was as lovely in person as she was enchanting in mind, and my desire above all else at that moment to play the Bach partita in C minor. Why I wanted to play Bach instead of Ellington or Beethoven I can’t explain; couldn’t have done so then, wouldn’t attempt to do so now. The unsayable is the unsayable, and I’m content to rejoice in the fact.
The Pic-Nic Orchestra, by James Gillray, 1802. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1917.
In New Haven I learned to play Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, a few of the Two-Part Inventions, and a fair number of Elizabethan songs and dances. Leaving college, I shifted my efforts to the piano, studying in San Francisco with Margaret Tilly and then in New York with Alexander Lipsky. Lipsky was Eaton’s teacher, once-upon-a-time student of Leonid Kreutzer in Berlin and not a man to be trifled with. For six years I held to a strict practice schedule (three hours on six days out of seven) and acquired a repertoire that included several of Bach’s preludes and fugues, five of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, miscellaneous works of Chopin, Schumann, Schubert, Mozart, and Brahms. I never learned to sight-read music because no matter how often I had to play a piece to hold it in memory, every time I did so, the force of the emotion was always a new discovery. Biss strikes the same chord when he says, “Being able to access Beethoven’s world with my hands, feet, and heart, I felt uncharacteristically at ease in my own.”
So did I feel uncharacteristically at ease at what I now look back upon as the last stop on my pilgrim road to the hope of becoming a musician. A command performance at the command of Thelonious Sphere Monk, in Monk’s tenement apartment on West Sixty-Third Street, in the presence of his wife, Nellie, and the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, longtime protectoress of Charlie Parker and sister of the third Baron Rothschild.
Invitation to so august a concert stage calls for a word of further explanation. In the winter of 1964, I was a contract writer for The Saturday Evening Post, allowed by its editor, Otto Friedrich, to chase rainbows likely to prove rewarding. I’d been listening to Monk live and recorded for ten years, knew he had influenced musicians as dissimilar as Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins, knew also he had suffered a siege of obscurity (time in jail, trouble with money, shunned by nightclub owners who thought him too sinister a shade of black) from which he had begun to reemerge into the limelight. Lulu was back in town, and probably a good story, his use of dissonance being taught in composition courses at the Juilliard School of Music. Friedrich agreed. He was himself a musician of no small means or consequence—“The only way to understand a Mozart concerto thoroughly is to sit down at the piano and play it, which I do with his no. 27, humbly, every six months or so”—and he suggested I take as much time as necessary to come up with something that didn’t read like a program note in DownBeat.
Monk at the time was appearing at the Five Spot Café in the East Village, his presence pictured in the trade press as “the weird and enigmatic genius of modern jazz” surfacing like the Loch Ness monster from the sloughs of despond, “the perfect hipster,” fond of wearing an Ottoman fez or a Chinese coolie hat, “high priest of bop” playing “zombie music” and given to whimsical and cryptic statement. To a disc jockey asking, “Why do you play such strange chords, Mr. Monk?” he had been quoted as saying, “Those easy chords are hard to find nowadays.”
At the Five Spot, I introduced myself as a writer come to write about his music, said I was content to hang around and listen until it occurred to Monk to talk; it was three weeks before he stopped by the table to announce his opinion of critics. “That’s a drag picture they’re paintin’ of me, man. A lot of people still think I’m nuts or somethin’...but I dig it, man; I can feel the draft.”
An imposing figure elegantly dressed in a sharkskin suit, Monk carried himself with the dignity of a man who knows his own mind and doesn’t countenance fools. He wore a goatee, a purple shirt, a dockworker’s cap, and a diamond ring on the little finger of his right hand. I asked him if it was true he never left home without a hundred-dollar bill stuffed into the black silk sock on his left foot. He laughed, easily and good-naturedly. “Right foot,” he said, “you never know when you’re gonna run into a bargain.”
Women playing music, Chinese hanging scroll, seventeenth to early twentieth century. © Philadelphia Museum of Art, purchased with funds contributed by Edward B. Robinette from the Simkhovitch Collection, 1929.
I hung around for the rest of the winter, never knowing if or when Monk might entertain questions. Most nights I arrived around midnight after completing the day’s lesson for Lipsky. Sometimes, when listening to Monk’s complex rhythms and the abrupt, far-fetched chord progressions, I could hear echoes of late Beethoven. Seated at the piano, Monk was utterly possessed by the music, his whole body following the rise and fall of the melodic line, the expression of openmouthed surprise on his kind and trusting face like that of a child watching a magician changing oranges into rabbits. When standing up to conduct his band, snapping his fingers, thrusting an open palm to call for a solo from Charlie Rouse on tenor sax or Butch Warren on bass, Monk never stopped moving. He looked like a man dancing on hot coals.
Time passed, and as my face became more familiar, Monk stopped by more often to voice an opinion. He talked the way he played the piano, fixing upon a theme and running it through numerous variations, taking it apart and putting it back together until he got it right. He spoke in a soft drawl, ended many of his sentences with the question “You dig, man? You dig?”
The conversation was serious but friendly (he asked what I was learning from Lipsky, whether I heard the difference between a flatted fifth and a diminished seventh), and gradually I learned to see as an absurdity the gossip-column characterization of Monk as anarchist hipster. He talked about his early childhood in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, about musicians he admired and his wrongful arrest for possession of narcotics, about unreliable people who one day ask for your autograph and the next day want to put you in jail.
His manager, Harry Colomby, had said of him, “He’s so straight, it makes you nervous”—married to the same woman for seventeen years, careful father of two children, despite his various troubles with authority, convinced that he was a citizen of the best country in the world, lived on the best block in the best town, drove the best car, had found the best wife. In many ways naive, he walked, talked, laughed, danced as the spirit moved him, an honest man in a not-so-honest world, believing, as he once told Colomby, “The truth is not supposed to hurt you.”
For Monk the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth was music—music functioning off the charts of good and evil, “the heartbreaking miracle of life itself,” and the day came when he decided to find out if I could dig it.
At four AM on a Thursday in late March, the Five Spot’s waiters stacking chairs on tables, Monk stood up from the piano, snapped his fingers, thrust his palm in my direction. “Time to play, man,” he said, “time to hear what you know.” Out front in the back of a Rolls-Royce, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter was come to carry Monk home. She did so many mornings, but I never had been around at four AM to see Monk nod to the chauffeur holding open the door. A beautiful woman of uncertain age, wrapped in fur and wearing pearls, the baroness smiled, pointed me toward the seat in front. I can’t now remember if she spoke more than four words in my direction, either in the car or after we arrived at Monk’s apartment on West Sixty-Third Street at Eleventh Avenue.
If one hears bad music, it is one’s duty to drown it by conversation.—Oscar Wilde, 1890
The best home on the best block in the best town turned out to be three small rooms on the ground floor of the tenement in which Monk had lived all but seven of the forty-three years of his life, first with his mother, brother, and sister, then with his wife and two children, entangled in a domestic clutter entirely at odds with his reputation as the weird, angry, enigmatic high priest of bop risen from a black lagoon. Children’s toys, shopping bags, steam irons on the floors, clothes hanging from nails in the walls, soup dishes stacked on the baby grand piano.
Monk didn’t mess with preliminaries. Not bothering to remove his hat (that evening a fine English bowler), he pointed to the piano, opened and closed the wooden door of the bathroom directly behind it, seated himself on the toilet to listen to whatever came next. Nellie and the baroness sat upright and attentive on the small blue sofa they shared with a rag doll and a rocking horse. I played Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 27 in two movements (the first in E minor, the second in E major), run time fourteen minutes if taken at the indicated tempos. I don’t say I played it as well as Lipsky might have played it, but I’d been practicing it six days out of seven for two months, and to the best of my knowledge and recollection, I didn’t miss many notes, never once felt ill at ease or afraid. Monk stepped out of the bathroom, looked me square in the face, said simply, straight, no chaser, “I heard you.”
By then I knew enough to dig what he was saying. It wasn’t the personality of Lewis H. Lapham he heard playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 27. He didn’t care who or what I was, clubfooted and white or blue-eyed and black. It wasn’t me or my interpretation, it was the music itself, off the charts beyond good and evil that somehow and if only for the time being I’d managed to reach.
I also knew in that moment I wasn’t likely to come that way again. Unlike Monk and Eaton, I wasn’t a musician to the manor born; I didn’t hear the difference between a flatted fifth and diminished seventh, couldn’t even hum in tune, and unless I practiced the piano every day, I stood no chance of making music deserving of the name. Friedrich at the Post was proposing assignments requiring long-form, out-of-town travel, and Lipsky was unwilling to continue his lessons if I missed two of them in a row.
The young musician in Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser abandons hope of becoming a virtuoso concert pianist on realizing he never would have been able “to play as well as Glenn Gould,” whom he meets when they are studying with Vladimir Horowitz in Salzburg. To play better than Gould “wasn’t possible, was out of the question,” and so the pianist devotes himself “to philosophical matters.”
I didn’t have the talent to entertain ambitions as lofty as Bernhard’s novice virtuoso (wasn’t present on West Sixty-Third Street to climb a stairway to Birdland or Carnegie Hall), but I know what he means when he says he no longer wanted “to paw at my instrument.” He quit playing on short notice; I did so gradually, to work at reading and writing as my best chance of moving up and out of the valley of self. The human voice on a well-tempered string of words is the joyful noise of mortal man adrift and at play in the chains of the immortal sea.