A Series of Small Failures: The Conduct of Fiction

In the January 2016 issue of The Wire, Stewart Smith writes of pianist Matthew Shipp’s latest album: “Of the five albums Matthew Shipp issued as leader or co-leader in 2015, The Conduct Of Jazz is perhaps the finest.” It is a fine album; I’m listening to it now, fondly remembering the sublime experience of seeing Shipp in duo with bassist Michael Bisio earlier this spring. Still, The Conduct Of Jazz doesn’t make The Wire’s year-end top 50 cut, though it does make Downbeat’s roundup. My guess is that, one way or the other, Shipp doesn’t care. “What’s the use—I’ve got too many sides out as it is,” he was quoted saying fifteen years ago, in reference to a plan to retire from recording. “I don’t feel the psychological need to continually flood the market with this material…. Embellishment for the sake of the cash advance. That’s a kind of cynicism I’d rather not get into.”

I, for one, am glad that Shipp abandoned his retirement plan, noble as it was. But wait—five albums this year? Looking back over my ever more unwieldy accumulation of new music, it adds up. Five albums in 2015. And when we’re talking about this kind of music—not just jazz but the avant-garde, largely improvised brand misleadingly called “free jazz”—output like Shipp’s is far from uncommon. It’s not like rock, I stress to anyone willing to come with me to a show (I saw the Shipp-Bisio duo alone, as part of a woefully small audience though neither musician seemed much to notice).

No, free jazz isn’t like rock, where a band surfaces every few years with a new album to install into its carefully advancing discography. In contemporary free jazz, musicians seem to be constantly recording, constantly regrouping, constantly experimenting. They’re after what guitarist Joe Morris calls a “perpetual frontier” of creation and innovation. In consequence the quick pace and high volume of releases—ignoring conventional economic imperatives of supply and demand—seems to regard the music’s audience, the listeners themselves, as an afterthought. Keep up if you can.

41-mPMeBNIL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_I’m keeping up better than ever, thanks in part to increasingly reckless spending habits but mostly to a new review-writing gig, which entails access to digital troves of new music every month (like ARCs, only better). But now I’m also drowning in unplayed iTunes files and unopened download folders. The novelty of acquisition wears off, the music goes unheard, the next batch of releases comes in. I’m experiencing what David Grubbs describes in his book Records Ruin the Landscape: “When the total hours of one’s hoard of recorded music are no longer determined by available physical space, the stockpile—the invisible, nearly weightless stockpile—can grow exponentially.” It gets worse: “[Jacques] Attali makes a chilling and necessary point,” Grubbs notes, “when he invokes the unknowable moment in the life of the collector-listener at which the amount of time represented by the stockpile of recordings exceeds the amount of time remaining in one’s life.”

Granted, it doesn’t take much, but there’s nothing like the contemplation of my “unknowable” time left on earth while gawking at some jazz pianist’s staggering discography to remind me of my own pathetically meager yield as a writer. In 1999, Matthew Shipp decides to retire from recording; somehow by 2015 he’s putting out five brilliant albums in twelve months. Whereas I’m deciding which years-old crusted draft to resurrect next.

Of course there are many crucial dissimilarities between the conduct of jazz and the conduct of fiction. No one expects a writer to produce five books in one year—perhaps the inverse. In that way I don’t feel so bad. Yet another part of me wants to glean, steal, adapt. For now, in the last days of 2015—another year of unmet goals and unfinished stories—I leave off with an encouraging thought from Morris’s Perpetual Frontier, one to make the blind push forward more manageable: “Improvisation can be viewed as a series of attempts to improve on previous attempts,” he writes. “Or as a series of small failures, followed by the chance to fix them. In other words, it is about trying, trying to make more of an idea.”

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