Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

I’m living in a monastery. That may sound like the cry of a middle-aged man denied his conjugal pleasures or put on an artery-preserving diet, but it happens to be true and what sardonic amusement it has afforded friends, former colleagues and one ex-wife who for quite different reasons regard a monastic retreat as either an entirely appropriate fate or one so profoundly ironic as to be entirely appropriate.

There is nothing duller than other people’s real estate and I have been comprehensively bored down the years by friends and colleagues (some of the same friends and colleagues) who’ve been busily renovating old manses, schoolhouses, oasthouses, doghouses, cathouses and mills, and happy to talk about it. Architecturally, there’s nothing much to say. No cloisters. No stained glass apart from one purely decorative window of a kind you’d find in any Scottish house of this vintage. The only oddity is the tiny suite of rooms that has become my study, a shut-off, windowless space in the middle of the house where Sr Colette (the former inhabitants were two monks and a nun, which I know sounds like the start of a bad music-hall joke . . .) shut herself away for a year to pray and keep the hours.

I’d been working in here for a couple of days before I found her orarium on a laminated sheet, pinned to the back of the door. She rose at midnight and for the rest of the day alternated work, reading, painting and prayer with the elements of the Holy Office: matins, prime, lauds, terce, Mass, sext, none, vespers, compline, before retiring around five in the afternoon. It’s a discipline I have followed myself (albeit rising at four a.m.) when on retreat with the Benedictines at Pluscarden Abbey, whose abbot has just been elevated as Bishop of Aberdeen. The stringencies are perhaps more apparent than actual. There was often wine or beer with supper at Pluscarden. Food was good and plentiful, if rather plain. Exercise and physical work were to be had, and in concentrated bursts before the bell sounded the next of the hours. And music was an essential – perhaps the essential component of the day.

There were inevitable e-mail jokes when I gave out our new address. “I know who you’ll be listening to in future . . .  MONK!” One pretentious wag even proposed Andrew Hill’s “New Monastery” as a ringtone. And so it went. But it wasn’t until I found Sr Colette’s list that something fell into place, something that had perhaps passed me by even on those visits to Pluscarden. And that is how little our present experience of music retains of ritual, of any sense of fittingness to the hours of the day. And how much my own listening habits seem to express an inchoate need for such a discipline. I couldn’t verbalize, let alone rationalize, the logic that dictates choice, but there are forms and styles of music that I wouldn’t consider playing early in the morning and others that I would find uncomfortable late at night. This has nothing to do with children’s bedtime, need to concentrate on other matters, or intake of alcohol, which might well influence a selection. I know people who cannot work without music, but who cannot work with any vocal music in the background. I am either listening to music, or I am doing something else, so the stricture doesn’t apply. Nor does it have anything obvious to do with physical environment and appropriate setting, though I do tend to dislike liturgical music in a concert setting and I have an old-fashioned resistance to applause in a church.

I once interviewed Ravi Shankar for the BBC and was given a gentle master class in the nature of rāgā, what forms are appropriate for morning and what for evening. He also spoke about his foreshortened association with John Coltrane, of whom I think he expected a great deal, and it made me think in turn how Coltrane fitted his mature music, with its profound spiritual heft and meditative span, to the profane environments in which a “jazz musician” was required to practice his art. This is troubling territory, and not really what this column is about. The question of sacred jazz leads down several blind alleys as well as some neglected thoroughfares. It takes in Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, a younger contemporary like the estimable Pete Malinverni, and it skirts that ambiguous edge which demarcates the “religious” from the more abstractly “spiritual.” It also conjures up an outdated and unwelcome distinction between “sacred” and “profane,” of which the ten-minute egg is poet Ted Joans’ likening of Spiritual Unity to screaming “Fuck!” in St Patrick’s Cathedral on Easter Sunday. I suspect Ayler may have had a tinge of that iconoclasm, even if much of his music has the quality of ecstatic preaching, and I also tend to think that by the time of his Seattle recordings (recently augmented by a private taping of a radio broadcast from the same Penthouse club) Coltrane was wearied by the mechanical indulgences of a world he had left behind when he embraced sobriety. Isn’t “Lush Life” on that session delivered with a Hogarthian savagery untypical of late Coltrane? He sounds glum and disgusted.

There is a running joke about the hours jazz musicians keep, but some do follow a monastic orarium in their practice and performance routines: playing long tones or stride or classical pieces in the morning and improvising only later, or vice versa. Some – and we won’t name names here – will only perform in duly sanctified surroundings and using only consecrated instruments, and though this shades over into Church of Me absurdity it is very often only fitting and just recompense for generations of racist and/or culturally snobbish marginalization. But this again isn’t quite what I am talking about . . .

As a listener, I seem to need some kind of structure or template for my listening. Choices, or better still, imposed choices have something of the character of daily texts or readings. They impart a certain intellectual or ethical aura. I have always said that listening to Derek Bailey braced me. No matter what his context or company, I have never listened to a recording of Bailey’s without feeling in some way enlarged and stiffened with purpose. It is, perhaps, merely a reaction to his fixity of purpose and to the absolute congruence of means and message, instrument and music. I listen to a Schubert song nearly every day, and very often to one of the cycles in its entirety, but for completely different reasons. There, the perfection of form, and the completeness of vision offers a kind of philosophical solace. However hard the day or wintry the journey, it can be caught up in some larger philosophical cadence that reduces personal woes to nothing. Sub specie Schubert, life is always reassuringly meaningless and also packed with unlooked-for grace.

I once asked Ken Hyder about the appropriateness of listening to shamanistic music in what was essentially an entertainment context, on a home stereo or headphones rather than in a hut or yurt on the icy fringes of Siberia. His answer was typically full and pungently alert, but it occurred to me later that the question was wrong and based on a misunderstanding of cultures, similar to the old-maidish quibble about clapping in church. There is a category error involved. Shamanism is a better model because it is above all else a highly practical model, and the essence of any monastic existence is practicality, as St Benedict states in the Rule.

I indulged the jokes about listening to Monk in the monastery before saying that I was, instead, following one of Monk’s most assiduous disciples, Steve Lacy – or St. Lacy, as I like to put it down these days. There was, it hardly needs repeating, something monastic and ascetic in Lacy’s application to the soprano saxophone. He came from a different background, but his playing and composing life resembled that of one of the Desert Fathers, with long periods of dry searching interspersed with brief ecstasies, brief but in the proper sense apocalyptic. Those taut substantive titles – Weal & Woe, Chirps, Troubles, The Flame, The Gleam – somewhat resemble the Hours and Lacy’s music, on which I re-embarked while trying to find a Lacy performance on an old BBC cassette, has acquired something of a meditative quality. I’ve been listening all the way from the early wrestle with Monk’s “Introspection” to the very last and posthumously released recordings, and of course there is even a Vespers along the way, that wonderful 1993 set of tributes and remembrances.

There may be something unhealthy or obsessional about a self-imposed discipline like this, but if you’re going to indulge an unhealthy obsession it might as well be focused on a musician of such obvious psychic health as Steve Lacy. As I routinely say to my doctor after each, increasingly pessimistic visit “At least my diet is good.” I extend that to music as well. I’ve rarely passed a complete day in the last twenty years without listening to something by Joseph Hayden (who Lacy greatly admired, as witness “The Door” on Actuality and other pieces). Again, lots to listen to without repetition; again, that air of disciplined celebration and absolute . . . decorum – there’s no other word.

Every new place brings its own noises and its own kinds of silence. I’m never far from a murmur of water; the bird seems to chirp here according to a different arrangement; and the wind blows overhead and not into the walls and chimneys. The night we arrived, I strung up the speakers, played something bracing and then just listened to the space it had created for itself in the air. At dusk I wandered outside and because it was turning chill I threw on an old brown toweling dressing gown of my wife’s, pulling up the hood to deter the midges. I wandered out and stood by the side of the track, just listening. At that point, what later turned out to be a local farmer’s wife walked by with her dog, glanced at me and fled into the gloaming. I met her the following day and apologized, for startling her and for eccentric attire. “I thought I was seeing a ghost. I thought the monks had gone!” Solid gone, lady, solid gone.

Brian Morton©2011

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