Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Drifting on a read in Michael Jarrett's "Drifting on a Read" : Obbligato and Surrealism

In the chapter entitled “Obbligato,” Jarrett spends about forty pages riffing on jazz and creation, adherence and invention, playing fun with the art of compost and popular binary conceptions of composition and improvisation. To be honest, this technically isn’t difficult text. Jarrett doesn’t indulge in an overly masturbatory love of scholarly language, nor does he fall prey to the sheet-throwing, snow-blinding rhetorical styles that seem almost obligatory in many compositions on theory and various incarnations of -ology. The reading can be tricky, though, because Jarrett adopts an approach to text-creation used most often by creative writers: he lets his rhetorical template mimic his topic, writing his way through sections of exploration, reiteration, and improvisation using the meandering swing, trumpeting solos, and unstructured (or destructured) structural sweep that typify (if one CAN typify) his subject matter: jazz. This makes for a rather surreal textbook-reading experience.

It is this sense of the surreal that interests and intrigues me. Maybe it’s because I consider myself an artist on multiple levels, a shaper (albeit a novice one) of visual, written, and ideological text, or maybe it’s just because I’m kind of a weird kid, but the section on pages 86-88 addressing Derrida, surrealism, and the thoughts of Robert Goffin and Krin Gabbard stood out on my interest radar like a lighthouse beacon. Goffin and Gabbard understand avant-garde jazz as vanguard art, a non-visual form of surrealism in which free creation and improvisation dance with borrowed pieces of canonical text (and by “text” I do not by any means imply only written material) in such a way that the resulting piece is imbued with a sense of the satirical. As Jarrett states,
Gabbard links ‘quotation’ – blowing a few bars of some ‘classic melody’ in the midst of an improvisation – to collage, and he argues it turns the modern jazz solo into an avant-garde strategy. Quotation enables artists to adopt a stance of ‘ironic detachment’…toward institutionalized music even as they ‘strive to gain legitimacy for themselves and their music’ (87).

As a visual artist, I can’t help but appreciate this elucidation of “quotation” in jazz as a form of collage, an artistic genre in which myriad bits and pieces of preexisting realities (words, pictures, newspaper clippings, photos, organic materials, fabrics of various prints and textures, etc.) are arranged by an artist to create an original and self-standing composition nevertheless permeated (often with an eye for irony, satire, or social critique) with references to the wider culture in which it exists/ with which it coexists. Beyond the realm of collage, I’m reminded of surrealist art (obviously), as well pop art. Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup prints, which function both as original, vanguard art and as an appropriation of, reference to, and commentary on American post-war pop culture mass market consumerism, come to mind.

As a writer – no, make that a creative writer – I am compelled to take the art/jazz surrealism metaphor even further, and apply it to written text. What sorts of genres could be said to resemble jazz, as Gabbard understands it? Parody and satire, obviously, a pair of conjoined textual twins notable for the fact that they take the figures, ideologies, politics, images, and events from popular culture and reimagine them through the critically humorous lens of (mostly) fiction. Poetry, beat and neo-beat in particular, a realm of creative wordsmithing in which popular conical concepts pop in and out and are reworked with tongue-in-cheek lyricism. Surrealistic classics, like James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake,” in which the author plays with the reader’s conception of reality. And, of course, modern experimental prose, a coming-into-its-own genre in which multiple media and deliberate surrealism are woven together to create texts that are as exploratory and fantastical as the most avant-garde jazz.

So, where am I going with all this? To be honest, I’m not really sure. I’m improvising, fooling around and riffing along a strain of thought, playing it into different areas, and dancing in and out with my own little cultural and canonical references.


Ryan said...

While I understand what Jarrett is doing throughout this chapter, I'm not sure I appreciate it to the same degree as you, Erin. With a title like "Jazz as a Model for Writing," I guess I expect a little more text book in my text book. That is, I want more of the why and the how-to of the process--suggestions and guidelines for how to do it myself, as well as an examination of what the jazz terms really mean and how they can be applied to my own writing. And I really felt that's what I got in the previous chapter--a useful look at satura and what it means and an example of how it can be used. But with this chapter, it seems more of the "Whee, look at me riff--I'm writing like jazz!" He seems to have skipped over the explanation of what Obbligato really is (okay, he tells us it's either what is required or what's not), and gone straight to showing off his own jazzy style.

erindor said...

I totally see what you're saying, Ryan, and to be honest, I kind of agree. I admit that it is a tricky read, and I would perhaps get more out of it if Jarrett was a little more upfront with his info and a little less prone to wandering and name-dropping. That's why (for this blog) I chose one section that I found interesting and went with that, rather than trying to work with the entire chapter. Because, yeah, that would have been a rather meandering, albeit jazzy, handful.