Friday, January 21, 2005

Music Shows How We Want To Be: Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare," Part 1 by Michael Palmer

The education Aesthetic Realism, founded by American poet and critic Eli Siegel (1902-1978), describes what makes for beauty in music and shows how music comments centrally on what we’re hoping for in our lives. “All beauty,” Mr.Siegel stated, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” There is not one thing that music does,” Siegel once said in a lecture “that does not say something about how a person should organize himself, too.”

The composition “Nightmare” by the late Artie Shaw is a great example of this. It wowed me when I first heard it as a teenager living in the Bronx. It was on a big band radio show. The announcer would come on and say, “Now, live from the Blue Room of the Hotel Lincoln, the music of Artie Shaw and his orchestra”--and the band would come in with the opening bars of “Nightmare.” Hearing that intense, heavy, unrelenting beat, and Shaw on the clarinet seeming to cry out--I would get goose bumps—-and I still do!

As I think of that time in my life, it’s surprising that I liked this music so much. Though I cared for sports, I was a very contained person; I didn’t like exploring new territory, being tossed about. I preferred familiar, comfortable, smooth ground; and so I held myself back, and while I felt “safe” inside, I often wanted to yell out. I had no idea that the reason this music, aptly called “Nightmare,” with its dissonant, ominous wail, excited and satisfied me so much was because it opposed my desire to be smoothly contained, and gave outward form to my hope to break out of that deadening narrowness I had welcomed. Many people go around in a kind of quiet nightmare, not knowing how they got there or how it can change.

In an early Aesthetic Realism class I attended, Eli Siegel asked me: “Do you think you want to change, but you also want to remain exactly as you are?” I said, “Yes.” And he asked: “Are you fond of the status quo and the status no?” I was. I remember, for instance, going to a singles club hoping to meet a woman, but waiting for someone to come to me and start a conversation. I thought my mere presence was enough. But I was wrong, and usually left alone, blaming others for being unsociable. I came to see what I was really hoping for as Mr. Siegel asked me: ”Do you think there is something impelling you to have to have a good effect on someone? Is there an imperative there?” The answer was yes—and my fortunate life these years ratifies that “yes,” a thousand fold.

What Is This Music About?

I see in “Nightmare,” which Artie Shaw composed and arranged himself, a dramatic tension between the confined and the explosive: something painfully contained struggling to break free. As we heard, it begins with that thudding, repetitive pattern on the trombones, saxophones, and drum. The low saxophones are playing a tight, chromatic figure that is almost airless. The rest of the band comes in suddenly in the high register, and the effect is like an electric shock. The high and low aspect of the band are almost in a combat, and out of it, in the middle register, Artie Shaw enters on the clarinet.
It’s important to say that Shaw felt this music, with its nightmarish quality, represented him so much he used it as his theme song. What was impelling him? I feel these sentences by Eli Siegel from Self and World help explain it:

"One thing that can be seen in dreams and also in life is that on the one hand we want to go ahead, and on the other hand we want to check ourselves.... We should see, however, that the desire to be wild and abandoned and the desire to be self-restricting are common desires, and are present all the time, both when we sleep and when we are awake."

As I studied the life of Shaw for a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, I came to see that this desire to go ahead and also check himself, to be both abandoned and self-restricting troubled him very much. An innovative bandleader during the heyday of the swing era in 1930’s and early 40’s, Shaw, writes music historian George Simon, “was a searcher, a man looking for something new, something different.” And he could be very kind, generous; becoming the first white bandleader to hire a Black singer, Billie Holliday, and supporting her with a beautiful insistence despite the terrific bigotry and racism she had to face as she traveled with him and his band in the South. And Shaw also cared very much for knowledge, taking courses in French literature so he, as he said: “could read men like Flaubert, Proust and Baudelaire.” But he was also snobbish, looking down on fellow musicians who he felt were not as intellectual as he was. And unfortunately, he had contempt for his audiences, describing them as “musically illiterate.” Had he studied Aesthetic Realism, he would have been able to learn from the very music he wrote, and his life—which included pain about love—would have been so much more fortunate. In an important paper, Martha Baird, poet and critic of music, wrote of Shaw’s “Nightmare,” saying:

"Artie Shaw is intense. There is a kind of pain in the tone of his clarinet, but he has control too and he knows what he is doing. [And she also wrote] You feel Artie Shaw wept a lot."

Please check back soon for Part 2 on
Artie Shaw's great jazz composition "Nightmare"