The Meditations of John Coltrane
I first heard John Coltrane’s Meditations when I was a freshman in college, almost forty years ago. The hip graduate student who played it for me and a few other youngsters seemed much older and more sophisticated than the rest of us, and though we were determined to be cool and our reactions were probably evasive, I think we were all appalled by it. I know I was. I’m not sure that the graduate student didn’t prize it mainly for its shock value, because he described it as sounding like a slaughterhouse. That seemed pretty accurate to me, and although I soon learned to love some of Coltrane’s earlier works, such as My Favorite Things and A Love Supreme, I didn’t bother with Meditations again. I supposed that he had, toward the end of his life (Meditations was recorded in ’65 and he died in ’67) wandered off into some angry musical wilderness.
I hadn’t thought about it until right now, but I think that impression was reinforced by some people I knew in the early ‘70s who were admirers and practitioners of what still, in spite of its now rather advanced age, tends to be called “avant-garde” music—unstructured, atonal, arrhythmic, usually abrasive, often improvised: it sounded hostile, for the most part, and hostility was certainly present in the musicians. They were likable people person-to-person; the hostility I’m referring to was the social and philosophical hostility of hippies discovering the anti-bourgeois avant-garde of the Dadaists and others. It seemed to me that the whole point of it was to attack conventional ideas of what music should sound like, and by implication to attack conventional society. Resistance on the part of the audience (which of course soon dwindled to the vanishing point) seemed welcomed as a confirmation that the music was doing its job and that the musicians were superior to less advanced persons. I’m being careful to say “seemed” here, because I may have been misjudging them, but the fact remains that they left me with the impression that not music per se but some vague program of philosophical liberation was the point of their activities.
Although I don’t consider myself a serious jazz fan, and am not terribly knowledgeable about it, I’ve always been drawn to Coltrane’s music. Over the years I accumulated eight or ten of his albums, twice as many as those of his nearest competitor, Miles Davis, but still avoided his late work. A few years ago, by way of a visit from my son Jesse Canterbury, who both listens to and plays this kind of music, I had a chance to hear a sample of Meditations for the first time since 1967 and thought it wasn’t nearly as bad as I remembered. So I decided to give it another try.
I like it, a lot, and am a little surprised by the fact. It’s as if I suddenly heard the music in an entirely different way, a bit like the sensation you get when you look at one of those optical illusions that can be either a single vase or the silhouettes of two faces, depending on the setting of some mysterious optical-mental switch. The sound is pretty much as I remembered it (at least in the more intense sections) but it isn’t saying what I thought it was. What I took to be anger and anguish now seems like intense yearning, so intense that it explodes out of the limits of ordinary means of expression. This could be, perhaps paradoxically, a recipe for monotony, and in fact I find most music that lacks the clear and naturally recognizable elements of music to be monotonous. But Coltrane and the other musicians on this recording make it work by their inventiveness. The experience is mesmerizing. I’m still far from convinced that this approach to music is a good example for anyone else to follow, as I’m not convinced it’s wise for a fiction writer to try to follow Joyce, but in this case at any rate it succeeds.
I don’t often find an opportunity to listen at any length to music without interruption or distraction, but I’ve been able to hear Meditations under those circumstances twice now, and both times the forty-plus minutes of the suite seemed more like ten. I didn’t read Nat Hentoff’s liner notes until after I’d heard the piece, and I found that the same metaphor had occurred to both of us: that of speaking in tongues. To quote Hentoff, it’s “…as if their insights were of such compelling force that they have to transcend ordinary ways of musical speech and ordinary textures to be able to convey that part of the essence of being they have touched.” The idea that there is something to do with religion going on here is unavoidable, and I don’t think that’s entirely because the first section is entitled “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost.” Coltrane is quoted as saying he “believe[s] in all religions,” which is logically impossible, but that doesn’t matter: he’s not a theologian and I think what he’s expressing in this music is the longing for God that exists in every single human heart and is indeed the basis of all religions, however near to or far from Him their solutions may take the believer.
Another religious reference comes to mind, the somewhat mysterious words of Christ which were used by Flannery O’Connor as the title of The Violent Bear it Away: “The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” I was puzzled by that until I read her explanation of it in one of her letters. If I remember correctly, her idea was that an extraordinary and in a sense violent effort to attain the Kingdom would be rewarded. (I just tried to find her comments, but the index to The Habit of Being contains several dozen references to The Violent Bear it Away, and I don’t have time to check them all.) Something of that seems to be involved in Meditations: an effort to climb into the transcendent by the sheer force of desire to get there.
Music, specifically the symphony, is often used as a theological metaphor, to convey the idea of many and frequently conflicting chains of event and meaning woven together to form a fabric that God alone perceives in full. If there is any such structure in Meditations, it isn’t apparent to me. But I think it functions as a variant of that metaphor: a lot of things happening at once that seem to have little structure in themselves and hardly any in relation to each other, but which nevertheless cohere in some broad and fundamental way. It’s an emotional coherence rather than a formal one, and suggests to me another way of thinking about the apparent near-chaos that is this world. I can’t quite articulate this on short notice, but I suppose that’s fitting when the subject is music.
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