Dear Readers, my dispatches will always be free and open to everyone. I am unable to use my hands and I’m writing, via dictation, with the help of my family. If you could become a paid subscriber and support me, it’d mean so much. Just before Xmas in 2017, having had a minor operation, I was lying in bed, bored, uncomfortable and in no mood to read, when for reasons I can’t explain, I thought I’d listen to Keith Jarrett’s
What an interesting read this post was. And it made me smile several times. Your ability to criticize yourself and your motivations is always nice, and we should all do so more often.
One line stuck with me:
“Suppose you put aside, or entirely gave up, ideas of success and failure, and only proceeded experimentally, following your interest and excitement? What if you retired what Rousseau calls ‘the frenzy to achieve distinction’?”
I’m immediately reminded of a teaching job I took a few years back, but wasn’t enthusiastic about. I needed the work though. It was split between high school (vocational high school) and community college students who would go on to work in nursing homes and as social workers. I quickly decided that, since I would find a better situation for the next school year, it was the perfect time to test out any educational stuff I had always wanted to do, or just please myself. The worst they could do was fire me.
That year, my ESL students decorated gingerbread houses, while speaking English. We had many, many English speaking potluck lunches. We did karaoke to David Bowie songs. Everyone’s test results , despite all this, managed to go up. I lasted for seven years in that job before someone with more government seniority stepped in to replace me.
Ever since, I’ve been trying to get that ‘follow your interest and excitement’ and ‘avoid the frenzy of distinction’ vibe back in another, more rigid, job context, but it is not really what the big administration is looking for. I have to sneak it in. I snuck in a Kate Bush song last week, and we’ll be studying the recipe for fudge in English, and eating it, of course, next week. But it isn’t the same as that last job of 7 years of magical teaching when I was giving in to almost all of my desires.
It is a beautiful sunny day here in Lichfield, England. I just got back from running some chores, and saw the notification for Hanif's new substack. The sun is shining, I'm drinking lemonade, and have been immersed in Hanif's recollections. The passages about depression contrasts with my mood, and yet I recognise the terrain of it, and feel strange, happy because of the lovely nascent English summer, dwelling on the perfection of Hanif's words here: "In these moods you can forget that you are the engine of your own tempest." Sadness and a happy mood coincide.
By the wonders of technology I am listening to The Koln Concert on YouTube for the first time, as I re-read this piece. Everything has changed so fast in our lives. We can type on a website and listen to all the music ever made in the world. I feel distance from things but very close too. And I have decided its time to re-read The Buddha of Suburbia, after so long. Hanif wrote it and lots of us suddenly found a voice and experience of our own reflected, the milieu of South Asian life in modern England. What a wonder it is to be alive and listen to music, read words like these, and hope for understanding of ourselves by ourselves and others. Nice to be reminded we are not alone, sometimes.
That was a joy to read. Thank you and yes, the ears don’t have lids.
Dorian Gray, had he lived, would have calmed-down and taken-up gardening – a hobby where he would neither have excelled, nor disappointed. A mediocre of yield of cress would have sprouted from the eyebrows of his portrait, mirroring the equally mediocre yield in his garden, and embodying the low-wattage state to which we all eventually surrender. Superficially it resembles equilibrium; in reality it is imperceptible decline, seasoned with acceptance. The palace of wisdom, seen on the horizon, at the end of William Blake's road of excess, is usually an allotment shed, or a mound of coloured yarn and knitting needles; an October vocation.
I think that there is something to be said for focused improvisation. You are either trying to force a creative spark, or a connection with someone. In live performance you are attempting both. If you can just get something to kindle, then you can take your feet off the pedals for a while and let the updraught carry along.
It's about exploring what is possible from a given jumping off point, and then allowing those possibilities to evolve, semi-organically, into other possibilities, and so on. Fundamentally, it is an acknowledgement that there are possibilities. It is a vote for optimism and for life.
When it feels like there are no moves left, then there is the other thing. I am haunted by the death of the music journalist, David Cavanagh, who stepped in front of a train, shortly after Christmas, 2018. He had delayed his suicide by a few days so as not to inconvenience people who might be travelling home for the holidays. Anyone who has immersed themselves in the world of popular music, will perhaps recognise a stage where you go from saying “[such and such music magazine] said this”, to identifying, by name, the author of an article or a review, within a magazine, because they stand out for you. For me that was David Cavanagh. I struggle to reconcile his life as a writer, researcher and interviewer with the circumstances of his death – not a peaceful slipping of veil, but a violent and visceral attempt at erasure; placing himself beyond physical recognition. I wish David Cavanagh had been able to improvise more possibilities for himself.
Nice is the rooted in the status quo. It is anti-possibility. Wanting people to just be nice entails tethering them down on the spot and lowering their heads. In exploring the world, there are times when you will not be nice, and people will not be nice to you. Nice will never tell you that you can do better, but that you have to take a step outside your comfort zone, and take a few punches and maybe throw a few wild swings yourself.
Hanif, I wish for you an abundance of possibilities.
Thank you for all this. So much think-ground to enjoy and mull over. I’ve never listened to the concert, so will now do so, soon. Plenty to reflect on and muse as I mow the lawn during what’s left of this (finally and about time) gorgeous late spring afternoon in Somerset. I hope your Saturday is bringing you pleasures and joy. Take care x
Thanks for this Hanif, what a brilliant essay. Inspiring to read.
I walked in to my apartment from a Farmers’ Market two blocks from where I live. I bought glorious peonies, magnificent radishes, and delicious doughnuts and almond cookies to find your posting. What a brilliant piece of writing. I played Keith Jarrett’s Round Midnight with tears flowing mixed with laughter as I read you. Keith Jarrett has been present in my life, saw him perform in NYC. He was alive to every note, and his body responded, he couldn’t sit as he played, , he stood up and always seem to feel in his bones every key, note, sound, sound from his soul.
Your writing mines the soul of our perception every bit as Keith Jarrett’s music digs in places we don’t want to go. I have had only one night fuck. It was as described by you. Intense, remarkable and at the same time forgettable. Thirty years later, we met again to discuss that night. We both became silent with each other after that one night. And here we were years later: what happened, I asked. He said he drank too much. He was scared and frightened of losing our friendship. I described the act itself: he was ferocious, aggressive and unfriendly. I was truly scared. We had been tender loving friends before. Now thirty years later he said he was very sorry. He asked me to forgive him.
Of course I did. I sighed. Then he said I had rejected him just before we fucked by saying I would not date him because he was younger than me. He thought I meant because he was white. I realize we live in a world of misinterpretations and confusion. I thought I was clear, he heard what he heard. This man was then one of my best friends.
Thank you for your posting. I loved it. It went well with beautiful flowers and delicious vegetables.
I am a painter, this idea of improvisation resonates with me, because when I paint I act on suggestions that come back to me as I paint, there is a kind of dialogue that I have with every mark I make.
You and I met once many years ago, I was in a private life drawing class with Monique , which was originally formed with Peter Blake. This life drawing group were exhibiting together in an unused shop in Hammersmith, you came to the PV with your twin boys who were about 10years at the time. My (now former) husband Grenville was there, he had been the production designer on the film ‘My son the Fanatic’ directed by our mutual friend Udayan Prasad.
I am sorry to hear of your accident, you write so honestly it’s a joy to read. I pray for a miracle that you will recover .
I immediately knew you piece was going to be on Keith Jarrett before I even opened your article. The Koln concert came to me in my college days. I was fortunate to have a jazz lover as my first boyfriend. Every weekend we would be running off to see the likes of Chick Corea,, Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Weather Report, Gato Barbieri and Frank Zappa. Little did I know then how this music would shape my listening world for years to come. Gato reigned supreme for me for 35 yrs.
In reading your piece I was surprised to see you mention Prince too. Before I retired from a very stressful job, I escaped into the music of Prince. People were saying he was a genius and I wanted to find out for myself. I spent 7 years listening and collecting a massive amount of his music.
Then I rediscovered Arbour Zena and immediately I was off and running. I purchased and studied and listened and read all things Jarrett. Living alone allows me to be so indulgent in what I want to hear, sometimes over and over. I collected many vintage magazines and would read Jarrett’s take on what was going on at the time. I grew quite fond of his amazing American trio with DeJohnette and Peacock.
Then, the Bowie movie came out and here I am intertwined with him and you. That too has been a joy of non stop listening and collecting.
Jarrett sitting alone at a piano is truly mesmerizing. He writes in his liner notes ( Jarrett’s are a joy to read) to Paris/London, that he had broken up with his 2nd wife for the 3rd time. It was Christmas time. He was distraught. But somehow he was able to pull together some of his most stunningly beautiful improvisations that one could hear, he knew what love is. And he was sharing his knowledge with us. It was not a lament.
I do so appreciate you opening up and sharing with us your thoughts, experiences, joys and struggles.
I anxiously await all that you write.
Fascinating to read. Koln Concert is timeless. Jarret cut his ground intially with Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers...like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock he also had a classical background. Jarrett and Corea playing Mozart together is something special...Concerto in Eb major I think from memory...inspiring.
I've thought a lot about improvisation. I actually left a boyfriend because he was a classical musician and I an aspiring (and not succeeding) music player. I constantly insisted that improv was the purer form of music, and that learning classic methods a deterrent to real music. I wish I could say that things ended well for my opinion, but in fact he IS an accomplished musician, and I'm a still-searching clod. PS I loved reading your last writing; so much to think about. Thank you.
Your post made me immediately seek out 'The Koln concert' - happily I discovered it was instantly available on a streaming service. I am slightly shocked I never encountered this before but where do we find new (and old) music in the normal course of a life? As a seventeen-year-old in the 1970s I bought, and tried reading the New Musical Express and Melody Maker - they baffled me, and convinced me I was too stupid to ever understand anything about music. It seemed I was forever caught between the inanities of Top of the Pops and the sometimes cryptic Old Grey Whistle Test. I had a sense that there was much I was missing but how to find it? My elder sister bought Rick Wakeman's 'The Six Wives of Henry the VIII' I put it on ancient radiogram and listened, awaiting enlightenment. Nothing.
Maybe I was just too hungry for knowledge and like someone who has never cooked anything, utterly bemused about where to start and irritated by recipes which always assumed prior knowledge.
Later at friends' houses an album would be ceremoniously slipped from its cardboard sleeve and put on their stereo system. Asking questions about the music would only reveal the asker to be ignorant - and people could be quite shameless about braying at another's innocence - 'You've never heard X! Where have you been?'
Much later - much, much later - in London I sat in on an impro course led by the jazz musician John Stevens. I was there to take photographs so didn't really absorb the message and meaning - nor quite understand the links between improvisation, music, acting and art. Your post has illuminated these dark spots.
This is a fabulous essay. I want to copy many sentences.
This struck a chord with me because I remember Keith Jarrett at Waterstones in York when I worked there for a while. Actually these were the two years of my recovery from a series of manic episodes. It was a benign environment where I felt accepted. One of the booksellers brought lots of CDs to work including Keith Jarrett's concerts. Perhaps it was therapeutic on some level, and a kind of improvisation that possessed elements of freedom in a creative way, whereas the freedom of madness, and its tendency to take us down a solitary track, is more frightening and strange. Jarrett brought us together, and around this time I also discovered improvisation at a drama group I joined. I was never admitted to a psych ward again. Reading your piece I think spurred me to make some connections that perhaps I would not have perceived. I am intrigued also by the other comments here and how your thoughts stimulate shared anecdotes.
I'd agree that impovised theatre is rarely good.
All of this is just so profound