As I prepare for the first performance of Know Thyself since last November (August 14, New Haven Jazz Festival), I find myself reflecting on what it entails to present music that is deeply personal, something that this piece does on a level far beyond anything I have ever written. I’m proud of the music in the suite, but I’m perhaps even more proud of its sincerity in representing my own quest for self-knowledge. If you did not attend one of the initial performances, you can scroll to the bottom of the post to see the program notes, which discuss this in greater depth.
I realize now that Know Thyself represents the first time in my career as a “recording artist” that I have put myself out in quite this way. The Patch Kit album has something of a narrative, but a fairly loose one – and to be honest, my headspace was centered largely on working to make the most of (and not freak out about) being in the studio with Ron Carter and Ben Riley. Soul Force has some very sincere and emotionally intimate writing, but writing about Martin Luther King is not an entirely “personal” endeavor, regardless of how personally resonant and relevant I find his life and message to be. Some of the tracks on Bliss are very personal (particularly “Second Sunrise,” written about my daughter Rebecca, and “Bliss,” which was the processional for my wedding), but still focusing on other people as inspiration. Before Know Thyself, I think the closest I ever came to publicly presenting work this personal was in the mid-1990s (my early 20s), when I was into writing poetry and set a number of poems (some of them almost painfully personal/honest) to music with spoken-word recitation. I spent a little less than two years working on this mostly-undocumented (save for “private” tapes) body of work and I think there was some good stuff in there. However, my own experience presenting the work ranged from vaguely unsatisfying at best to profoundly difficult at worst. With about 15 years of hindsight, I can see that the biggest problem was that there was so much of me in the pieces that I was extremely raw and vulnerable in performance and as yet far from the point in my personal growth where I could handle that. A bad solo on “Ornithology” might be disappointing or embarrassing, but a sub-par performance of one of these spoken-word pieces felt like an unflattering depiction of the depths of my personhood, and if the audience reaction was lukewarm, I felt deeply and disproportionately invalidated.
My dear friend Rachel Green, herself a performing artist for years (now a brilliant and successful mental health professional) introduced me years ago to the notion of “therapy art.” The term refers to creations that are first and foremost vehicles for processing raw emotions. The therapeutic benefits can be substantial, but one can debate whether something in this mold is fit for public consumption, given the inherent lack of mental clarity that generally corresponds with such a purely emotional state. But how can we identify “therapy art?” Most of us have heard music that we have dismissed as self-indulgent . . . and most of us have also been deeply moved by music that is this raw and unfiltered. With Know Thyself I like to think that I managed the best of both worlds in this regard – at least that was my goal. I went back and forth between raw emotion and aesthetic objectivity often throughout the compositional process. I came up with ideas from an emotional place, switched headspaces to evaluate the content and do the extensive grunt-work of putting the piece together, and then switched back again to see if the emotions were still equally resonant as the music became more refined.
For me the question of whether to be completely personal with my work is not so much a question of success vs. failure (judged on a scale by which more personal = better) but rather a question of cost vs. benefit. I think that even in the current low-attention-span era (don’t get me wrong, I love a good ringtone as much as the next guy) there is still plenty of relevance for art that provides an emotional journey, maybe even more so for those needing an antidote to things that are shallow and disposable. But does the world want (or benefit from) this sort of intensely personal music to an extent that outweighs the strain of creating it? I’m in a much better place than I was at age 23 when I said “no mas” to the spoken-word/music work, but working in this way is still exhausting and, frankly, kind of scary.
This is not to imply that creating and presenting “Know Thyself” has been a negative experience, mind you. Quite the contrary, it has been profound on multiple levels. The audience responses to the concerts at Wesleyan and at the Jazz Gallery were very consistent with the kind of emotional journey I tried to create. That was extremely gratifying artistically and extremely validating to the emotional parts (the “damaged inner children,” if you will) who were given voice through much of the suite. That said, it would be difficult to make this sort of public emotional vulnerability a daily occurrence and still remain centered. As I reach the final stages of producing the recording of the suite (to be released before the close of 2010), I am also quite conscious of the unusual challenges. A recording can be a great way to share a piece of music, to allow people to re-experience it and perceive layers of sound and meaning that were missed in live performance and so on. It can also be put on in the background at a dinner party or “listened to” while having a conversation or reading a book. Objectively speaking, all of that is fine, and objectively speaking I am conscious that it is a lot to ask in this day and age to request that people sit for an hour and devote their attention exclusively to an emotionally intense piece of music. But objectivity is a lot easier to come by when we are discussing my interpretation of “Sweet and Lovely” than it is for this suite.
So where do I go next with all of this? Honestly, I don’t know yet. Some of the music that is most important to me is that which affords me a glimpse of the artist’s innermost emotions and experiences, and I know I am not alone in that regard. On the other hand, I am also moved by Phineas Newborn, Jr. and Joao Gilberto and Eddie Harris and the Four Tops and many other artists for whom being “personal” is less relevant and/or means something different. I do know that I will invariably cycle back and forth in this way, just as my recording projects over the last 10 years or so have tended to bounce between “concept albums” and collections of tunes that I simply think sound good, each filling a role that the other is not fully capable of filling. So I’ll take some time to focus on arranging and on the piano, but when I next return to the realm of conceptually-unified work, I already know it will amp up the inner debate I’ve written about here. Hopefully in the meantime Know Thyself will reach some more ears and hearts and further reinforce that part of why I took this on in the first place.
The “Know Thyself” suite began as a proposal for Chamber Music America’s New Works grant program. Through the good fortune of receiving this grant, I have had the opportunity to explore the development of themes over an extended piece, something to which I have been drawn in works ranging from Beethoven’s Fifth to Charles Mingus’s The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady to the Who’s Quadrophenia. There are eleven themes, each one with a meaning beyond notes and rhythms, and they evolve and interact over the course of thirteen movements. I have deliberately strived for emotional resonance and sincerity, rather than shielding myself with the protective barriers of abstraction implicit to instrumental jazz.
When I took on the project, I intended for it to be a fairly conceptual examination of the human search for self-knowledge. I have always valued introspection, and through the years I have observed the impact of looking inward (or not) on people around me. I draw inspiration from people who have the courage to honestly re-examine themselves throughout adulthood, and on the other end I have seen sad and damaging patterns perpetuated by those who turn away from their inner truth. What I did not anticipate was that in between drafting the grant proposal and composing the music, my own life would be turned upside down several times over. I found myself having to dig deep to manage the present moment, while also needing to deal with some unaddressed baggage from my own past.
As a result, this suite’s initial goal of examining the generalized notion of seeking to know oneself necessarily gave way to a highly personal exploration of my own quest. I say “necessarily” because, having taken on this task in life, any other approach to this music would have been disingenuous. Having six fabulous musical collaborators at my disposal has afforded me the opportunity to explore a variety of textures, grooves and harmonic landscapes. More resonantly for me, though, they have given voice to this wordless narrative that explores a journey through suffering, fear, determination, faith and, ultimately, transcendence and wholeness.