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Blues In The Closet : Some Reflections On Contemporary "Chamber Jazz"

What are the defining characteristics of chamber music? Last year, I wrote the following in a review of an excellent disc by the cooperative group The Space Between:

"For, post-Debussy, jazz has led the way in making innovations in the constitution and sound of the small ensemble. George Rochberg, Donald Erb, and John Harbison (whose "The Flower-Fed Buffaloes" of 1976, for clarinet, tenor saxophone, violin, cello, double-bass, piano, vibraphone, conventional drum kit, bongos, assorted percussion, baritone voice, and choir is a startling example) are all composers who have written works that, from this view of ensemble dynamics, may be called 'jazz-related'. As West Coast cool, hard bop and 'free' jazz styles have aged, it has been this liberated sense of what makes for a 'group' which has been audibly influential on artists such as Anthony Davis, Franz Koglmann, Don Byron and Dave Douglas. Moreover, neither the Zen-like, aleatoric resignation of Cage and Feldman nor the assaults on Western canons in Coltrane, Ayler, et al. have defined a common ground for improvising musicians of very different persuasions as often as has a sympathetic understanding of the vast possibilities latent in what appears to be limited instrumental voicings."

Perhaps this is just another way of talking about chamber music as inherently introspective. But nothing precludes chamber music from being agitated, as anyone who has heard Elliott Carter's frankly monumental string quartets can attest.  Chamber music cannot be simply a matter of ambitiousness, scale, or emotional restriction. Is it that other characteristics of the genre so often dictate otherwise? Being circumscribed is very much a matter of perception.  John Cage's "Cartridge Music"—written for "for small sounds amplified in live performance", and in its earliest performances utilizing phonocartridges as primitive contact microphones—remains one of the most innovative chamber works of the modern era.  The score of "Cartridge Music" consists of graphical figures reproduced on plastic transparencies, which are then laid over surfaces.  The performers then trace these figures with the phonocartridges.  There are other empirical activities taking place within the piece (including the insertion of foreign objects into cartridge-spaces), to be sure, but the transparencies are essentially fascinating.  They are at one both limiting—to the surfaces at hand within the performance spaces; to the figures contours—and liberating—any surface will do.  Cage's music is truly portable, aiming always for some unison with its environment, using that environment's resources but never depleting them. Like good conversational skills, Cage's music gains its value from being applied.

There is a long tradition—I wish I knew its origins—of discussing small group jazz on the basis of its being "chamber-like". (This neologistic adjective seems to be a favorite of Richard Cook and Brian Morton, authors of the esteemed Penguin Guide To Jazz Recordings). The example of the Chico Hamilton Quintet is a useful one, for the stated aim of the original group—Chico Hamilton, percussion; Buddy Collette, alto sax, clarinet and flute; Jim Hall, guitar; Fred Katz, cello; and Carson Smith, bass—was a "refined" sound and a lighter, less emphatic "modern" group approach that owed as much to Count Basie as it did to French Impressionism. Moreover, the critical consensus over the years has remained that the Hamilton Quintet was a "chamber-like" group, as in the old formation "If you look in the dictionary under 'chamber-like,' there's a picture of the Chico Hamilton Quintet." But what was the basis of this reference? Was it the Quintet's instrumentation, the "legitimate" cello (still capable of soft pizzicato interplay with guitar), and the use of woodwinds (clarinet and flute) that previously had had little place in post-bop jazz? Was it the group's unobtrusive, if undeniable swing and the quietly baroque melodiousness of the arrangements? Was it the fact that Hamilton was far more than a mere time-keeper, and that he managed to integrate his percussion more completely into the ensemble foreground, not simply as a soloist, but as a supplier of highly developed musical material? Was it the fact that written arrangements and through-composed material were as much a part of the group's considerable popular appeal as was its ability to "blow"? Remember, even on the group's first recording, one can find the pre-Kind of Blue modal structure "Blue Sands", as well as the completely improvised "Free Form". Or, finally, was it simply the Hamilton Quintet's general air of bespectacled studiousness, their cool, cerebral engagement with the demands of a more serious music? All doubtless factored into the Quintet's critical reception, and have since fixed, with a certain degree of permanence, an image of what a chamber ensemble should look and sound like. (For an excellent account of the Hamilton Quintet's career, see Robert Gordon's Jazz West Coast).

Jump-cut forward 40 or so years and consider for a moment the Gerry Hemingway Quintet, a cooperative unit with Michael Moore (woodwinds), Wolter Weirbos (trombone), Ernst Reijseger (cello) and Mark Dresser (bass) which recorded primarily for the Hat labels in the early to mid-1990's. The group's instrumentation was nearly identical to that of the Hamilton Quintet's (trombone taking the place of guitar). Moreover, the integration and balance of written and improvised material in the group's music could, with only a little straining of the imagination, be likened to that of the Hamilton Quintet's. The chief difference, of course, lies in the fact that the leading edges of the avant-garde, in both jazz and contemporary composition, had been transformed radically in the intervening time. Bop and, to a lesser extent, Stravinsky and serial polyphony supplied the "modern" element for Hamitlon and Katz (his musical director); "free jazz" and the whole range of "process musics" (from minimalism to microtonality to Stockhausen and Cage-inspired uses of extended technique) served the same purpose for the Hemingway group. But the Hemingway Quintet is hardly ever referred to as "chamber-like", with its connotations of daintiness and self-effacement. Something else—in music, and in critical attitudes—has changed.

The dissolution of that same quintet ranks as one of the most lamented inevitabilities of the 1990s creative music scene. A study in poise and capable of fierce density as well as intricate delicacy, the Quintet was a classic group in every sense. But Hemingway has been liberated by the group's passing, as witness his growth as a composer of fully notated music and his renascence as a solo percussionist. Perhaps most importantly, with the recording and touring obligations of the Quintet now a thing of the past, Hemingway is now able to engage in meetings such as those with synthesizer artist Thomas Lehn. A 1999 German tour with Lehn produced a fine double-CD set for the Erstwhile label, and, perhaps more importantly, found Hemingway renewing his long-standing interest in electronic textures and generating large musical forms from basic sonic materials. Hemingway has always been a very personal 'electro-acoustic' artist, and the meetings with Lehn found him testing his idiosyncracies in this idiom against those of another.

It is certainly over-stating the case to say that there is much that is truly innovative about the music found on Fire Works (Umbrella), recorded live over the course of a 2000 concert tour of the United States. The pieces here seem to fall into either one of two modes—frenetic outbursts of rhythmically complex noise, or quiet, microscopic inspections of sound. In other words, 'energy music' and AACM-style minimalisms. But the looking forwards and backwards of this music, its situation as a consolidation of much of the work Lehn and Hemingway have done in the past, is what imparts to it its chief interest and fascination.

Lehn plays analogue as opposed to digital synthesizers, and that is an important distinction. Analogue electronic instruments demand an entirely different m.o., and their sometimes clumsy interfaces certainly place extreme demands on the real-time improviser. Analog synths simply operate on very different procedures than their digital successors. And the sounds one can produce on them, of course, are very different. There's absolutely no sense that Lehn is after sounds that mimic preexisting instruments, or that strive towards an orchestral blend of overtone and timbral shadings. This is not to say that Lehn does not like to toy with the associations that have attached themselves to these sounds: the Buchla Music Box effects on 'Pots a feu'; the stray video game noises on 'Dragon Eggs'; the Fantastic Planet-ish pops (like a detuned ukulele) and theremin swirls on 'Coconut Pistil'. He favors sounds that are, though audibly electronic, somehow more organic, even liquid. Lehn plays his instruments in such a way that you can actually perceive that he is processing the sounds, bending and shaping them. It's the electro-acoustic equivalent of hearing the breath escape around Ben Webster's mouthpiece, or watching Monk's feet work the pedals on his piano.

Likewise, Hemingway is a kinetic player. He's also a master of clatter, suggesting dance gestures and believable movement with largely arrhythmic activity, as on the lengthy 'Girandola'. Hemingway's approach combines the best features of the Milford Graves and Art Blakey schools of drumming, and adds his own appreciation for volume, shading and percussion tradition (as when he plays his kits with whirling dish towels). In some ways, Hemingway has always been "versatile". On Fire Works he shows an individual character, perhaps more so than ever. Lehn is a percussionist of sorts as well, for the sounds he employs most often occupy that same liminal state between noise and non-tempered sound that percussion itself does. In many ways, Fire Works documents a drum orchestra, and pulse, even though never very explicit in these performances, is critical to the music's development. As with the best of duets, a paradox emerges from the music: nearly unfettered self-expression achieved without one player dominating the other.

Another unique quintet that straddles improvisation and composition can be heard on Simon Nabatov's The Master And Margarita (Leo). Avowed Muscovite Nabatov is still most renowned for his Waldron-esque trio recordings, but last year saw the release of two, more ambitious projects via the Leo label—Nature Morte, musical settings for verse by Joseph Brodsky, and this interpretation of Bulgakov's epic modern allegory. I suppose you could call The Master And Margarita a pastiche, as the program references Webern, Shostakovich, Weill, bop, American popular song, and even Phillip Glass-styled minimalism. Nabatov also tends towards real harmonic daring, which renders his references and forays into quotation and interpolation even more dizzying. But isn't pastiche a pitfall of all program music, a demand of drama, a form in which shifts of locale, time, logic and sympathies are possible from line to line? Moreover, Bulgakov's novel is a structural oddity if there ever was one, a political allegory designed to have its correspondences buckle, then self-destruct.

As a whole, the vastness of The Master And Margarita renders it very difficult to evaluate after even two or three listenings. Nabatov's trademark rhythmic complexity and intensity, his favoring of large, hard-struck chordal shapes that shear and slip against one another like tectonic plates, is the landscape on which these musical structures stand, and connects to his piano trio music. On the most jazz-infused pieces here, such as "The Show" from the program's second half (it contains some of the most memorable music here), this can lead to climax upon climax tumbling out of the ensemble. And, as ravishing as both Mark Feldman and Herb Robertson (whose work in this idiom still goes largely unremarked upon; it is a significant aspect of his oeuvre) sound, there's not much lyric beauty here. The sustained tones that open "Don't Talk to Strangers" may sound Debussy-like at first, but their shimmer is that of waves of heat coming off pavement, not the rippling of sunlight on water. The Master And Margarita turns on such juxtapositions, its tenderness cloaked in sarcasm, its obliquities—there are many—disguising articles of faith.

One cannot quibble with the precision and commitment with which Nabatov's group performs here, and the use of the ensemble is highly creative. Elements are routinely out of place, and the group is alternatively several duos, trios, and quartets. Long-time Nabatov drummer Tom Rainey in particular has a difficult role, one which he fills admirably. The Master And Margarita music feels simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. The end result is comparable to a Coen Brothers film. The work is undeniably intelligent and expertly crafted, the actors brilliantly, emotionally convincing, but one begins to wonder if the point of the many puzzles thrown up in the course of the telling isn't, finally, the cultivation of a sense of puzzlement. There is not much here which does not sound predetermined in some sense; as a result, some surprise has been replaced by the "jazz" we detect in articulation and in complicated attitudes of irreverence.

Herb Robertson appears as a special guest (he's the "+ 1") on the next recording, for the Ackerman / Purvis / Morris / Charles Quartet was a working unit in the early 1990's. Purvis is probably second only to the late Jeanne Lee in her ability to fully integrate her vocals into a small ensemble of this sort. This is no "vocal with accompaniment" recording. An unusually conversational vocalist in a free style, however, Purvis is much more likely to use invented syllables ("The Maiden and the Monster") and nearly interpretable vocal sounds than the breathy, throaty tones Lee made the basis of her vocabulary. There's also subtle electronic processing (mostly echo and delay) of Purvis' voice, resulting in some unusually transparent chorus-like effects. As on the Nabatov disc, the emphasis is upon group variations, aided here by the fact that Ackerman is fluent upon just about every member of the saxophone family. The basic quintet constantly breaks apart and reconstitutes itself. As a result, and more so that the tightly structured The Master And Margarita, the entire recording feels like one long performance, cycling through solos, duos, trios, etc. in drawn-out permutations. Unfortunately, the thematic material on which these are based lacks a certain variety and dynamic range. "Mother Time", crooning even as it moves into an extended, straight 4/4 scat episode, typifies this aspect of the music. The sorely-missed Charles, as always, makes his Carribean-isms fits, but he's a driving drummer, and there's not much drive to this music, which, as the recordings' title indicates, is mostly misty limpidity. And Now I Can See Crows Mating In The Mist (Cadence Jazz Records) is a lovely record, but it finally suffers from a surfeit of its own proficiency.

The same problem dogs violinist Hertlein's first date as a leader. By calling this ensemble the "Improvising Chamber Ensemble", she also makes most plain her music's putative relationship to a very singular tradition. Heard most recently as a guest with the Dominic Duval / Joe McPhee / Jay Rosen Trio X, Hertlein is a player of very resilient technique. Her phrases and articulation recall Leroy Jenkins, but her tone is fuller and more singing (Jenkins, as he called one of his bands, has more sting). She has assembled an absolutely faultless band on Two Letters I'll Keep (CIMP), one that is basically an augmented string quartet. French horn and trombone take the place of viola and cello, respectively, with reeds and percussion darting in and out as the rogue elements -- even though David Taylor is as likely as anyone to blow these structures wide open. In fact, Taylor, who is not heard on his customary bass trombone here, emerges as the most heroic player, his solos never failing to grab one's attention; like Herb Robertson, he can mix the wild and legitimate in equal measure ('The Unsung'). And Charles Burnham is never far from the blues in tone or phrasing; he too has several lively moments. Unfortunately, he does not blend with Hertlein in a pleasant dissonance. Certainly no one can fault the empathetic listening involved in bringing these pieces to life, as on the occasionally stunning "The Arrow of Time."

The recording's most substantial piece ("Broken-Wheel Bop" is the most visceral), "The Arrow of Time" builds several nearly seamless sections of individual character out of call and response figures, mimicked riffs, and mobile cells of different instruments in combination and contest. The CIMP label sound is often maligned—curiously, in my own experience, by self-professed audiophiles—and accused in particular of lacking presence in the bass register. But it works wonders for this group, and the sonic imaging and sense of instruments placed in an actual space, in real relationships to one another, is key to the music. Nonetheless, a certain sameness creeps in. The French horn and trombone state low, sepulchral tones, over which the violins and reeds state a slow or angry lament. Even on those compositions which employ an explicit tempo, such as "Hold Your Breath", the feel is melancholy. But this may be a case of expectations running too hot: the unusual instrumentation and the players involved promise music of greater vibrancy, but everything here seems muted and reserved.

Perhaps these last two recordings suffer from qualities Ted Gioia identified in a brave little essay entitled "Boredom and Jazz" (it can be found on pages 108 through 126 of his The Imperfect Art):

"At its best... this kind of jazz can almost sweep the listener away with the momentum and seemingly endless creativity of its complex melodic statements. Yet this approach to music, by its very nature, also risks achieving another, less satisfying result. By overwhelming the listener with too much variety, it risks losing him entirely. Modern jazz, at its worst, creates another type of boredom, one in which the listener has ceased to care about the music and where it is going." (p. 114)

The Hertelin and Ackerman / Purvis recordings do fail—rather falter—in that too many variables are left stranded in uncompleted computations, and even a provisional sense of resolution is lacking. Resolution may not be the point of the music being made as we hear it, but if the ensembles we are listening to on these dates are indeed involved in experiments in color, line, form, density, activity, dynamics, and endurance, elements of control and limitation are involved. Unfortunately, they receive passing notice much of the time. There's a large difference between a pile of gunpowder and a firecracker; both are flammable, but only one is explosive. Nabatov's recording succeeds where it does because he has so deliberately structured the variety in his music, and structured it in a way that that we can hear it and wonder whether it's not, after all, spontaneous interplay. In a real sense, then, Nabatov's example is Horace Silver, and, by extension—as first pointed out by Martin Williams—Count Basie. Silver's quintet music belonged as much to the big band as bop tradition, for Silver used riffs and written changes in order to ground the improvisations of his horn soloists. The Master And Margarita is an orchestral work, then, one that incorporates the idea of the chamber ensemble at key moments but is not engaged with it at the risky, experimental level that the Hertlein and Ackerman / Purvis groups are. This is no damning criticism of Nabatov's work, for the best musicians, such as Duke Ellington, do not just play / essay popular standards, pieces from the repertoire, and examples of musical genres.  The best musicians, in playing such forms, improve them, and make them viable all over again. Still, this distinction between the "orchestral" and the "chamber" is one which may aid in our understanding of the actual chamber-ness the music.

What makes a chamber ensemble? We can say for the moment that, from one perspective, it is instrumentation, the pulling together of wind, string and even percussion into a cohesive whole. But from another perspective, it is simply the deployment of the instruments that gives chamber music its distinctive character. Increasingly, musicians have focused upon the internal dynamics of the ensemble—sometimes regularly working groups, sometimes one-off experiments—generating their music from the inside outward, not outward in. So perhaps it is that the last 15 years or so of jazz and improvised music—not surprisingly, mostly in small groups—will be remembered as much for the instruments that have made the music as much as the musicians or music itself. From Philip Wachsmann's live electronics to Guy Klucevsek's accordion, to Hal Wilner's employment of Harry Partch's mammoth folk-art pieces in the realization of Charles Mingus' scores, to Scott Robinson's use of just about every member of the saxophone family, we've heard new instruments and seen forgotten ones revived.

Though there are tuba "doublers" on the scene these days, and Giancarlo Schiaffini has recorded an entire album of solo tuba improvisations (Tuba Libre on Random Acoustics), San Franciscan William Roper is arguably the most significant full-time tubist active in creative music. What will be most surprising to listeners about Juneteenth (Asian Improv) is the tuba's sheer melodic qualities. Anyone who has heard his work with the late Glenn Horiuchi's Unit A can attest to Roper's virtuosity and imagination, as well as his ability to avoid the burping burlesque wind instruments often employed as a comic substitute for the string bass. Roper can move comfortably -- and gracefully -- in both the instrument's extreme lower and upper registers (nearly sounding like a French horn at times), his tone smooth and pliable, and can even execute multiphonics with apparent ease. On the disc's "Pigs, Pigs, Oh! Those Tasty Pigs," as paper, presumably a score, is torn into little pieces, Roper achieves some incredible trombone-like glides.

But Juneteenth, largely a program of tuba / percussion duets, suffers under the weight of the same instrument. Roper plays with both curdled wit (the title track itself, which toys with march tempos) and even ravishing lyricism (the closing "Lachrimae", which opens with the sound of distant thunder or cannons from Joseph Mitchell's tympani only to become a tuba / vibes colloquy), the textures are just a little too unvarying, and the performances, almost all over 10 minutes in length, can be molasses-slow in development ("Dance of the Sophists"). Not for casual listeners. Also a problem is the fact this is an all-digital recording. It is very clean, but the perspective is flattened a little too much. That said, the pleasures and beauties of Juneteenth are not going to experienced anywhere else, though it is at times most reminiscent of George Lewis' duets with Douglas Ewart. As Roper says in his notes, this music "meanders".

Double Yellow, a cooperative project, gives a better accounting of what both Roper and his horn are capable of in an idiom which places the highest value on cogent and nearly instantaneous communication. Roper's tuba here is but one point of a brass triangle, completed by Michael Vlatkovich on trombone and the wonderful Rob Blakeslee on trumpet and flugelhorn. The apex of the triangle changes from piece to piece, but the form holds only the efforts of each player. Not only does the recording here benefit from a brighter, more resonant recording, the material—all the pieces are truly spontaneously realized compositions—is considerably more varied. "The Admiral Remembers Wild Times on the Isthmus" is about breathing and wind, exertion and nature; at about the 2 minute and 30 second mark, Roper somehow mimics Blakelee's fanfare. This moment sets the pattern for the whole of the recording; with Roper here seeming a more vital / indispensable element than on his own date. Blakeslee, however, is as always a paragon of musical concentration and motivic tunefulness in a "free" context; his statement on "Abandon the Ink" is almost Wayne Shorter-esque in its internal logic and penetrating intelligence, the key difference being its unmistakable brassiness. All three horn-players here double on percussion, but a few words about Brad Dutz are in order.

Too often, percussionists on these kind of recordings provide color and background material; for all their activity, their contributions lack assertiveness and personality. Not so with Dutz's work. He is not content to drive the group, or fill in blank spaces. He agitates, instigates, annoys and otherwise nags Vlatkovich, Blakeslee and Roper. He gives them a snare out of which to wiggle, as with his Baby Laurence tap patterns on "Lamentations and Dirge of the Huskies" (portions of which could pass simply for sound effects—purely musical sound effects to be sure, but sound effects nonetheless) or wrests control of melodic material away from the sustained tones of the horn players as on "Sentrys" with the merest tinklings and quiet gong strikes. And the very idea of using a berimbau (its origins are in the Southern hemisphere) on a piece named after the Northern Lights ("Aurora Borealis")—an instrument, by the way, that blends unexpectedly well with tuba—has to be admired for its sheer audacity. Still for all the non-tempered sounds here and on Juneteenth, Roper remains a "legitimate" or "conventional" player interested in the essential "tuba-ness" of his instrument, not extended techniques. If anything, perhaps Roper is too stately—you wait for that crude blast that never comes, at least not with the force you expected. This is commendable, but it is also a huge challenge—one that must take into account the tuba's historic role in the jazz ensemble, from New Orleans to the "Birth of the Cool" band to Max Roach's late-1950's combo with Ray Draper to Henry Threadgill's various groups.

So, finally, we have to come to terms with the fact that there is a history—in musical forms, in instrumental deployment, and in musical literature—associated with chamber music. Jazz has, over the course of its history, both confused and enriched this tradition. You can hear it in the recordings discussed above, a fact which, by extension, renders them part of that tradition themselves. But, of course, there's more to it than that. In the late 16th Century, we first encounter the term musica da camera in Italian musical discourse. This description was applied to music not intended for either liturgical, dramatic, or festive performance. In other words, the earliest chamber music was associated not only with the secular world, but with a specific space or set of spaces within secular life. It is also apparent that musica da camera was a kind of absolute music; it had no utility, and embroidered nothing, other than itself and its only ability to please the ear with its own qualities and proportions. Does this sound much different from the improvising jazz musicians meeting informally in some garage or basement or rehearsal space and wood-shedding—jamming for personal enjoyment, and in order to hone musical reflexes? And what is more secular, more quotidian, than human communication (aren't the blues similarly a medium of communication, of unburdening)? The communicative act is common; it is not exalted as the allegorical ideals of "love" and "homeland" and "honor" are in symphonies and operas.

The interpersonal and social operations of the musical combo, especially in jazz, have often been the subject of jokes and anecdotes, but not so often the stuff of sustained critical attention. This seems to me a tragedy, for musicians such as Charles Mingus and Jimmy Giuffre have revealed in interviews that they have thought seriously about these issues. And jazz has always been a musical form that has made a virtue out of necessity—would the compact, maneuverable, easily-disciplined hard bop ensemble patterned after the Silver and Brown / Roach Quintets have been as dominant in the 1950's as it was if the economics of the music business had not been so unfavorable to maintaining a large jazz orchestra? The market, the competitive arena, for large band jazz was not as expansive as it had been in the 1930's, and the relative novelty of the small bop combo is what brought about new performance spaces in night-clubs and bars. It was precisely in these night-clubs that the Chico Hamilton Quintet rose to national prominence, as you can see in the Alexander McKendrick film The Sweet Smell Of Success. The major jazz festivals were about the only venues in which one could witness performances by both large and small bands—the Ellington Orchestra and the Jamal Trio, the Mulligan Concert Jazz Band and the Coltrane Quartet.

So it seems to me that there is no real contemporary sense of chamber music, or music of any sort, defined by its place of performance. If this is truly the case, than a large part of that tradition has been lost, and listeners are left with musical artifacts that bear little to no trace of their makers. If we accept the idea of the chamber ensemble as a laboratory, a musical world in miniature, and as something of a private venture by musicians of agreeable temperament, perhaps our definition of the "chamber-like" jazz expression is nearly complete. Speculative in outlook, small in size, formal in organization but informal in execution (hence the importance of the working ensemble or the carefully assembled "pick-up" group in which all instrumental voices are truly equal), and concerned with internal relationships and the various attributes of the sonic materials at hand—these for me define the chamber ensemble. The difficulty for me comes from the fact that these qualities are more easily known than discerned from the music that these ensembles play. If it is true that chamber music is the "music of friends", perhaps we think it refined only because we are not immediately fluent with the individual means by which these friends communicate. What is natural to them is mannered to us. With chamber music, then, we are confronted with a certain inability to completely enter the music, and it is this hindrance that creates the space in which the music genuinely exists. We're aware of the door that's closed to us, and we're aware that fascinating, beautiful, passionate, and, yes, repugnant incidents are taking place on the other side of the wall. So we listen all the more intently, and become joined to the music by our very failure to comprehend.