To obtain a state of grace is to make divine artistry. To be in the moment with only instincts, the labor of learning long gone with muscles and mind working together seamlessly.
Or something. I don’t know because I’m a music critic. I listen to Al Green and I hear the ache, I listen to Donna Summer and I dream of synths. I know there’s something more, and I hear it, but I know it only as much as it makes my words work.
Musicians who play “new American music,” jazz, or improv like George Lewis, talk a lot about flow. It’s an idea that comes after the transcriptions of Charlie Parker solos, after logging Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice rule, and an equal number listening. Sometimes it doesn’t ever come. It includes skill but it isn’t merely. It’s maturity, but it’s not a rite of passage. That’s why the subhed of Paul Berliner’s classic text on the topic, Thinking In Jazz, is “The Infinite Art of Improvisation.” It’s not timeless work; it is an eternal work.
Runners speak of their work in the same way. It’s odd to think of training as practice, but that’s what it is: undoing bad habits, developing new strategies, easing the body into comfort with a once difficult movement. All athletes have to do this. Anyone who has sat at their instrument ready to bash their own skull in with frustration over a difficult passage knows the same. It has nothing to do with hours put in or with repetition, but with obtaining flow. It’s no coincidence that this is how rappers name their mastery of language, meaning, structure, and rhythm.
The space between flow and eros is close, and especially for us in the Americas, tied to complex histories of racial imagination. And part, if not all, of the classic jock versus nerds distinction is this: the anxiety about who can move in a way that pleases, whose movements are so sure that a partner will be satisfied. In the stereotype, the jock is someone who flaunts this erotically charged grace, a nerd is someone who disavows it.
With an athlete, the body and its art are in accord, but with musicians the body and its work—its erotics—can be somewhat disembodied. The music can’t directly point to a body, but it can index its gestures, mimic its grace, or exaggerate its shambles. Punk, no wave, indie rock, and noise: in essence they are the voice of the awkward, expressing their longings in musical phrases calculated to jar the body from flow, to disrupt gesture.
What could be less sexy than Big Black’s Songs About Fucking? Anthropologist Wendy Fonarow, whose book Empire of Dirt is required reading on the subject of indie rock aesthetics, would consider this not reverse psychology, but the legacy of Protestantism: by showing a disdain for flow and the charisma that comes with it, one attempts to transcend of the body and its earthly concern. She argues that critics made indie not as a sound category, but a moral one.
Flow, like life itself, is fleeting. Innovation and optimum work are engines of progress, but as Devendra Banhart sings in his Karen Daltonesque coo, that rupture breaks flow. The moment where it’s lost is often dramatic on the playing field, but in musical performance the exertion from playing is not so overt, and physical decline of skill more obvious in retrospect.
The jazz writer David Hajdu wrote recently in The New York Times about the pianist Fred Hersch who has been living with AIDS since 1986. In the past few years Hersch’s illness took a turn towards dementia and landed him unconscious in the hospital for two months. After much effort he recovered and released two albums. Hajdu wrote of his recent concert, “His cheeks were hollow, and his skin was gray, though his eyes were bright and his playing was strong. In fact, in its emotive urgency, expressive range and beauty, Hersch’s music had rarely been so potent.”
Imagining Hersch’s recovery renders the living artist’s inevitability of horror plain. He worked to make, or to find, flow and then it slipped away while his mind wandered. He returned to a body robbed of grace but not the memory of it. He went back to the bench and, thankfully, found it once again. If only the body could do the same.
My thanks to Sean Nelson’s amazing piece in The Stranger, “Let's (Not) Get It On,” for inspiration on this article.