Clouds from Both Sides Now, by David Haskins

December 29, 2015

(Disclaimer: Joe Rosenblatt once told me never to write about the moon, or June for that matter.)

I’m watching clouds roll across the face of the moon. Sometimes they give way to the fully illuminated disc. Sometimes they allow only its reflected light to highlight the edges of thinner cloud layers. Sometimes they obliterate the moon and any trace of its light. Their parade is ever changing, a mesmerizing interest for my gaze.

I know things about the moon. That the disc is not a disc but a sphere whose dark half I shall never see. That the face is not a face but landforms fashioned by a history of impacts. That somewhere under the ocean is a hole the moon came out of. That tomorrow night a sliver more of the moon will reveal itself to me if clouds permit.

A newborn knows none of these things. If he were to look up to a thickly clouded sky and not see the moon, he would not suppose the moon to be there, or to be, at all. Without the referencing machinery of experience, learning, and memory, he would believe the sky to be always cloudy.

So with song and musical improvisation. So long as the song is present, whether partly disguised or submersed beneath the free musical inventiveness of the musicians, then the music exists in a valid form. When improvisation leaves the song behind, abandoned for what the musician believes to be the real thing, the music in his head, he must be convinced of its validity and worth. But how are we to differentiate between music and noise? Is the immersion into technique enough to justify our attention? Is this the dilemma that faced the listeners at the Five Spot in NYC in 1959? (See David Neil Lee’s The Battle of the Five Spot, W&W)

Improvisation is process working itself out in the moment. How then can it be judged or criticized or appreciated? We can admire the skill of the player, be sympathetic to the theoretical foundation of the playing, but still ask “Is this art, simply because someone is doing it?” This question follows any art which overturns the constraints and conventions of the past. We want to believe that in so doing, the new art searches out constraints of its own, that the artistic pendulum swings away from one set of principles toward another new and different set. In this way art avoids sterility, boredom, and can make claim to contemporary influence. New reference points provide us with some kind of yardstick.

“As time passes, the great innovators of jazz appear as the makers of the jazz tradition.” writes David Lee.

Are we free to provide our own reference points? Can we legitimately apply the lens of feminism to Shakespeare’s plays, or the lens of Bourdieu’s philosophy to Ornette Coleman’s improvisational jazz? Can we move away from the intention of the artist and choose a frame of reference he never heard of to assess or understand his work? Can we judge the clouds by the moon they have obliterated? Or should we look at the sky as would a newborn, perceiving only clouds that pass through his line of vision? We may register them in the moment,–  C. P. Snow’s “first rule of politics” - “Be there.” – but is that all we can do, and is that enough? And is improvisation repeatable? Can the improvised piece be played again, or played by others? And does improvisation become simply the personality of the player, as identifiable as a fingerprint or a singer’s voice once the player’s skills are familiar to us. In this case, improvisation during the latter stages of a career must meet an additional challenge, that of improvising on one’s own playing, in order to attract critical approbation. The moon may be a harsh mistress, but clouds bear the greater challenge. 

What if we had a month of moonless skies, a month of clouds? What if the clouds made us forget the moon, or made the moon obsolete? Then we would belong to the cloud club, and no longer the moon club. We would name the shapes of clouds, and the forces that move them; we would look for repetitions and variations; we would stop wondering behind which one the moon waits.

Clouds might be fields of sheep, ice cream castles, mile high cityscapes, folds of mountain ranges, giant brush strokes, ocean waves, avalanches, animal crackers. A urine sample might look cloudy; your prospects might look cloudy.

Even the metaphor is a metaphor. In that all thinking is an act of interpreting, metaphor is the lens through which we interpret. When metaphor leaves behind its referent reality, it takes on its own life as symbol, removed from the nameable objective world altogether. Instead of my love being a red red rose, I am left with only the rose, a rose no garden ever grew. When there is no regard for the aptness of metaphor and metaphorical thinking, this shift away from reason toward intuition, away from knowledge toward belief and supposition, approaches the definition of insanity.

The arts are all about metaphor, from the literal literary arts to the abstract music and dance forms which may induce more feeling than understanding in the audience. In the arts, the avant-garde is the territory of metaphorical expression which has left its referents behind.  Can the arts reveal colour to the blind or sound to the deaf, and if so, is what those people experience as colour and sound anything like what we experience, and does this matter? So long as we all stop at the red light, what difference our perceptions of red? Is it a good or bad thing that the ragged cloth coloured in country sends the heroic flag bearer to his death in the line of fire? Can someone who doesn’t understand a word of German be swayed by the rhetorical excess of a Hitler speaking in a Speer designed venue? When the only content is metaphor, what are the consequences?

What is the dark side of metaphor? Quick, send in the clouds!


Apologies to David Neil Lee and Jeffery Donaldson for sparking these musings.



David Haskins is the author of This House is Condemned.


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