The Do-Minor Effect

Stories and thoughts about music with an invisible academic touch

Category: Books

The Köln Concert: Learn how (not) to Forget Music

If you’ll raise the volume very high, you can hear at the very first moments of the Köln Concert a burst of laughter from the audience. That’s a strange response for the beautiful musical sentence that opened the concert. The common assumption today is that the five first notes Keith Jarrett played in his successful concert were imitation of the opera house’s bell that calls the audience to take their places.

The improvisation on the bell’s sounds is another evidence of Jarrett’s improvisation. The pianist heard a moment earlier the bell and from this vague sentence started a tremendous 26 minutes of clear improvisation. A new book by the musicologist Peter Elsdon, which is called simply by the name “Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert” is trying to frame the improvisation idea at this concert in a wider way of thinking.

Elsdon get to first sentence of the concert and to the music analysis only after half book. Just before he starts dealing with that, he apologize over two pages and explains why is it wrong to examine with theoretical views music that was totally improvised on stage.

The main thesis in the book is that the improvisation concept is not the idea which is in common use. improvisation is indeed playing with no future planning, but there are a few conditions to that. The myth of the Köln Concert is that the concert was improvised from beginning to end – a myth that rose from the crowd and fans of Jarrett, and wasn’t encouraged by him.

Peter Elsdon - Keith Jarrett the koln concert

One of the elements that helped creating the myth was led by the part’s names. They were named simply by the order they were played. The encore was named “Part IIc” as for – second half, third movement. But the encore was different from the previous parts. It wasn’t improvised. Jarrett wrote the part probably earlier that year. Some students from Boston published in 1975 a music booklet with the notes of a piece similar to the encore by the name “Memories of Tomorrow” with credit to Jarrett. Comparing the notes of the encore and what’s written in the booklet shows that the two pieces are very similar, even tough Jarrett’s still improvise in the concert on the melody.

Playing a prepared encore wasn’t unusual in Jarrett’s tour that days. He used to end his concerts with ready encores, composed pieces, sometimes even cover songs. It wasn’t a secret that the piece was composed earlier but naming it in the album just as “Part IIc” covered that fact and did not differentiate it from the three other pieces. Elsdon wonders what can happen to the listening of the piece knowing it wasn’t improvised. Do we appreciate the music less in regarding that information?

But the encore was just a short moment in an hour of music. Was the rest of the concert pure improvisation? Well, the answer is complicated. The Köln Concert was held during a European tour, in which Jarrett played almost every second night. In an interview he once said that while he was touring he listened to the recording of the Köln Concert. That is to say, Jarrett examined his playing while he was on tour and could ave been “influenced” by his own playing or maybe trying to take an idea from one concert and to develop it in another concert. Elsdon reviewed some concerts from that tour and found several parts where there are rhythms similarities, but they are different in their harmonies.

Improvisation is not chaotic. There is order, structure, form and strategy of playing. These characteristics does not eliminate the idea of improvisation as an unplanned method, but sets its boundaries. Elsdon shows that there are patters that Jarrett uses when he is getting stuck. The improvisation is an unplanned act held in a long time periods (weeks, months), and not just the time period where the musician played. Jarrett is improvising, but he is not playing in an empty space as one might think. He has some rescue maneuvers that help him ignite himself when he is in trouble and keep him going on to new undiscovered places.

Köln Opera House

Köln Opera House

The album records the whole concert as it was at that day in 1975. There was nothing left behind. There is no video footage of the concert but from testimonies of several people, who witnessed the concert, Jarrett was moving and dancing by the piano with his well-known body movements. One of the people who was at the concert told that Jarrett’s body language was very distracting. Another one told that he was so overwhelmed by the music that he didn’t dare buying the album – he didn’t want the recording to interfere with his memory of the event. Elsdon is talking about the recording in his book and says that maybe we hear something that nobody heard that day. The concert was recorded with two microphones on stage, but the recording quality was improved at studio (just like any recording). That is to say, sound-wise, we hear nothing identical to what happened on stage that day.

The Köln Concert was received by the public not only for the music but for the idea of improvisation that was being part of it. Elsdon stresses that there is a feeling when listening to the album that the listener and Jarrett are both “in the moment”. The time of playing and listening is the same one. The creation and listening happen at the same time (unlike writing a text and reading it). This feeling encourage sympathy of the listener to Jarrett. The long duration of the playing and its complication arouse an awe by the listeners, an awe that only gets bigger in the next listening when more details are being revealed.

KJ_Kln2s_orig

Jarrett wasn’t interviewed to the book, and it doesn’t seem like Elsdon was trying to get any comment from him. Jarrett fed up dealing with that album and is not talking about it much. In an interview he once said that “we also have to learn to forget music. Otherwise we become addicted to the past”.

The option of being forgotten has left the Köln Concert. Even knowing that the concert that starts clearly from an improvisation ends with a written encore, won’t weaken the myth of the album today. From the many official recordings of Jarrett, this album from his early career is still the most known. This recording is not only pure beauty, but a symbol of an idea. It was once said that while a symphony is the aspiration to infinity, variation is the aspiration to discover the tiniest fragments possible. Jarrett live a symphonic life, full of solo-piano concerts like the Köln Concert. I have listened to this album hundreds of times and every few times I discover another fragment I didn’t notice before, another variation of beauty that deepens the addiction to the past.

“All folk was once somebody’s pop”

Since David Foster Wallace sadly took his life, there are several names mentioned as his heirs. One of them is John Jeremiah Sullivan, and not just because of his triple name.

Sullivan, as Wallace, writes about living in the modern world and contemporary culture. His assays deal with the life in America, and mainly related to music. He is being published in very well-known magazines, such as GQ, Harper’s, and The New York Times Magazine. Last year he published a book, named “Pulphead“, that holds 14 assays that had been published over the years. One of the assays is “Unknown Bards” who tells a story about one old blues song, lost recordings and music research.

It all started at the end of 98′, when Sullivan worked as a junior editor at the Oxford American Magazine. He got a task from his supervisors to check the lyrics of an old song from 1930 that some of its words can not be understood. The song is “Last Kind Words Blues” and the singer of it is Geeshie Wiley, an anonymous musician that no details are known about her, not even the right way to spell her name.

The song starts with a three clear verses:

[1] The last kind words I heard my daddy say/ Lord, the last kind words I heard my daddy say

[2] If I die, if I die in the German war/ I want you to send my body, send it to my mother, lord

[3] If I get killed, if I get killed, please don’t bury my soul/ I p’fer just leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole

The problem starts in the forth verse (1:18 at the video). Sullivan cannot understand what Wiley sings in it:

When you see me comin’, look ‘cross the rich man’s field, / If I don’t bring you flowers, I’ll bring you [a boutonniere?]

Sullivan doesn’t understand Wiley and guesses “boutonniere” (a flower worn in a buttonhole). But this guess is meaningless and does not relate to the song’s spirit.

It’s pre-google times and in order to decode the lyrics one needs to make some effort. Sullivan knows he can’t return to his editors and say he failed. So he starts looking for someone who knows anything about blues. He contacted John Fahey.

Fahey, then 60, blues guitarist, got no clue. He asks Sullivan for some time to call friends and ask them but after a while he admits they all know nothing about those lyrics. Sullivan gets into his car and starts listening to the song over and over again. Suddenly he hears at the second sentence the word “bolt”. He returns to his office, open the OED, Oxford dictionary, and started to look for combinations of using that word. Eventually he finds a quote from 1398 with old English that solves the mystery:

“The floure of the mele, whan it is bultid and departed from the bran”.

So Wiley didn’t sing “flowers”, but “flour”:

“If I don’t bring you flour, I’ll bring you bolted meal.”

Sullivan calls back to Fahey with his new hypothesis, and Fahey tells him that his guess is very reasonable: during the civil war, when the flour ran out, people used bolted cornmeal.

Today all this process would last less than a minute of search over the internet. Sullivan would have never met Fahey. But that fortunately didn’t happen and the acquaintance with the bluesist deepened his connection with that genre and he started following blues anthologies that been published in the states. With this deepening he get to know blues collectors, one of them is a blues historian who worked as a pest-control man who goes from door to door. He asked the tenants, “need your house sprayed?”, no, “got any weird old records in the attic?”. That way he broadened his collection and maybe saved some records from oblivion.

The assay continues with exploring the blues through collectors, researchers and musicians, and looses tension. But the interesting thing with the people being told about is that the music they are looking for – and they do not know precisely what is it – must be found with someone. “All folk was once somebody’s pop”, its been said in the assay and they are looking for their lost music with the people – sometimes they find records and sometimes and musician themselves. They know that if they won’t find it, it probably be gone forever.

(“Unknown Bards” can be read fully here:pdf ; “Last Kind Words” can be read here)