Day 27. Miles Davis and Gil Evans – Sketches of Spain, 1960.

One of greatest achievements of this record is that it made that 2nd movement of Rodrigo’s concerto interesting. I know that will probably annoy some people, but that piece just doesn't do it for me. Too clean, too correct. I note in the Rodrigo Wikipedia article that he’s considered “one of the pinnacles of Spanish music,” which got itself slapped with an entirely justified citation needed label. It’s amazing to me what Evans achieved with it on this album. I guess it’s a solid melody, and that was all he needed. 

If you listen to nothing else of this, just start at 5:45 of the first track and listen until 7:22.  I think maybe the whole point of this obsessive album review is for me to reconnect with the kind of thing that happens in that minute and thirty-seven seconds. It isn’t only nostalgia. It can be all about now, too. The key to these great recordings isn’t so much that they hold hidden secrets that you discover through time, but that in their complexity they’re able to reflect your own capacity for hearing. This is what we mean by words like “hearing again for the first time”.  I know it sounds like BS, but it’s not. When you really listen, in the way that matters, your ability to find new ways of hearing is endless.

A related anecdote about hearing. I listen to music with Jack on Thursday mornings. Jack can hear a lot more, and a lot less, than I can. First, he can at the purest level of the physical act, hear way more of the music I can, because his young physical ear responds to a much wider chunk of the frequency spectrum than my old one does. (See Pierre Schaeffer’s concept of “ouïr”.) Several years ago my sexagenarian uncle, 20 something cousin, 40yo me, and 4yo Jack tested this out once with a smart phone pitch frequency tool. You start this oscillator thing off above the spectrum of frequency that humans can year, and slowly lower it. Sure enough, we heard it, starting with Jack, and proceeding to my uncle, in order. As far as the fine, bright upper frequencies of sound are concerned, Jack hears so much more!  But his young brain doesn’t know what to do with it, and one of the most melancholic aspects of my getting old is the realisation that my big grown up brain “hears” way, way more than his does, but only intellectually.  I can pick out, organise and decipher sound in a way that he cannot, but only due to his lack of experience. I will never ever again hear the world in the way he does, though. For him there’s more of everything. More birdsong, more trickling water, more wind, laughter, weeping and song. It’s all brighter, finer. His world is a technisonic feast of sound he doesn’t understand, and he doesn’t even know it or value it, that ungrateful little jerk. (JK love my boy)
What can I hear in that bit that Jack cannot? It can be called cultural hearing, I suppose, but I am by no means a special case as far as hearing goes. I know many people can make much more of this than I do, but I know what I know, and I have my perspectives. (Esoteric musical nerdery alert.) It all comes down to the colour of harmonic intervals that are still called for no good reason “dissonant”, which in classical music are always treated or corrected in time, even in Wagner. It is what drives common practice tonality, and is inspired by a ruthlessly logical construct about sound and time. Don’t get me wrong, I love that sound. But it was all made up, like most things people assume as “right”, and after it one finds eventually its disintegration in French colourists like early Satie (that melancholic piano bit you’ve been listening to on your classical chill study playlist) as well as Debussy and others, and also expansive modernists like Mahler and those who followed him, and then of course the all-important African American legacy of focusing on the richness of the sound itself, not as a reflection of enlightenment values, but as a pure, amazing, hedonistic experience in itself.  After all that you’ve finally paved the road for that minute and thirty-seven seconds of music. I’m paraphrasing, but Monk once ranted, “why do people keep talking about my crazy chords?! They’re not crazy chords, they’re beautiful chords!”. That minor-major seventh chord from the excerpt seems such a workaday jazz chord now, but the way it just rests there with those quivering flute trills, inbetween Miles's improvisational statements, just insisting that you hear it, again. Yeah it's workaday now, but if put in its proper historical context is emblematic not only of a complete shift in musical thinking in the 20th century, but a reflection of the broader loss of the pre-eminence of enlightenment thinking. In case you were wondering what you were hearing.