Brad Mehldau: Brahms, Interpretation & Improvisation

The aching beauty of the Adagio movement in Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet always gets me. It’s a sweet ache that hits you in the stomach, like the first sip of a good single malt after coming inside from a cold November evening. You breathe in, riding the dull pain, and the music rewards you soon enough, moving outward from the gut, crackling into goose flesh. The clarinet hovers closely around the movement of the strings, and their harmony nestles its melody. The wordless narrative that the music spins for me is unique to late Brahms. There is an incredible sadness and regret over something or someone that is unattainable. This object of beauty cannot be experienced directly, but the very gap between it and its beholder (Brahms/us) is what produces such a lucid rendering. If the Gypsy middle section of the movement is an evocation of sensuality, its carnal desire lacks consummation, and the clarinet’s song grasps at empty air in eerie, disembodied lust.

There is nothing remotely like hope in this music, and that’s precisely what gives it its humanity. Its deep resignation rings true and offers a kind of empathy. In one of those magic tricks of art, the music itself takes on the role of another subject alongside the listener, providing a consoling, human presence. Indeed, we almost forget that the very same music is the object, after all—the bewitching, unattainable one. Seducing us with a far-away vision, while simultaneously pacifying us in our unrequited desire, Brahms’ music here is erotic and sanctified all at once. Is this what Marvin had in mind with “Sexual Healing”?

On another day, I may drop the whole Eros gambit and hear the movement in much loftier terms, as a meditation on mortality and the transient quality of human existence. My interpretations are interchangeable and contingent. Interpretations take place after the event; the very poverty of actual experience is what fuels their metaphors. But my own experience of the music—the one that already escaped into the past—is all I have to go on. There are a few important degrees of separation between the Brahms and me. (Perhaps the best propositions about music are made in a knowing blindness, and operate by using a kind of entropy. They make observations about the space directly outside the work—the space that is our own consciousness—and measure how much of its mass is sucked into the black hole that is the music.)

Music’s distance from me is rendered so palpably because it seems to promise a presence that can be felt directly. It shimmers with immediacy but remains utterly ungraspable, like the end of an asymptotic geometric curve, or one of the beautiful women on Star Trek that Captain Kirk hooks up with: every time the camera’s on her, they smudge a little Vaseline on the lens to give her that far-off, dreamy look.

At least part of what I’m feeling when I listen to music is a kind of displacement, one that involves the constant shock of not actually being able to meet its presence directly, melt into it and achieve the consummation that it advertises. In this understanding, the pleasure of listening is at least partially masochistic. Think of your favorite piece of music as a lap dance: There you are, cowed into a submissive state, perfectly useless to the rest of the world, salivating before its tonal landscape while it wags its ass in front of you.

The “so near yet so far” relationship between music and its listening subject circles right back to the Brahms Adagio, and suggests yet another interpretation of that movement: art about art. There is no need for an analogue to this music, one could argue, whether it involves sex, death, flowers or airplanes. To the extent that music is ‘about’ anything, it generates its story from within, and spins a wordless narrative that simply tells us of its own presence and the distance it keeps from us.

This Kantian idea of the autonomous artwork is particularly appealing for music because it gives its nonlinguistic aspect a privileged status. The dualistic rub of speech communication takes place between a word that signifies and a concept that is signified. Between those poles are cognitive badlands. Something is always lost or mutilated in the journey from thought to utterance, but music would seem to provide a more direct perceptual experience for the listener. Because it doesn’t clearly signify anything outside of itself, when we listen to it we engage in a kind of pure consciousness, unfettered by any referent concept.

That take on music has the big problem of its own irony. Any idea of music’s quasi-divine autonomy from speech-language can only be formulated and gain currency within that language. The flip side of this idealism is that music itself becomes a kind of mute object that cannot speak on its own behalf; likewise we cannot speak of it.

I could try using a different set of linguistic tools, and speak in terms of the notes on the paper. I would point out the harmonic device that’s underpinning the first three motific notes of the melody in this movement, because it’s so central to Brahms: the relationship between minor IV and major I, in this case E minor and B major. Yes, that plagal cadence with the minor twist is older than dirt, but it still packs a powerful punch. It’s everywhere you are—in the 20th Century Fox pre-movie bit, countless Lennon/McCartney songs, Cole Porter (“…But how strange the change/From major to minor…”), and Brahms. This relationship is so basic to functional harmony that you could think of it in chemist’s terms, but emotionally: Add one part minor IV to one part major I, chemical reaction takes place, new simple compound is happysad. Or, I think of the Haiku-like phrase that Brahms’ great biographer, Karl Geiringer, used to describe his music: “Smiling through tears.”

As a kind of aural symbol, the mixing of minor and major literally paraphrases Romanticism in its gesture. B major and E minor don’t just sit adjacent to each other in the same progression; they melt into each other seamlessly, passing through melodies. Tonality itself is not a black-and-white affair. What we experience instead is a constant flux, an emotional admixing.

In the act of constantly accounting for its own Other, this harmony is a quintessential expression of romantic irony. It contains the knowledge that everything you experience can be redescribed in terms exactly opposite from the ones you initially put forth—whether it’s a proposition about the weather or, as in this case, a direct utterance of raw emotion. True Romanticism goes deep down and takes a self-reflexive step past its own clichéd, unreturned love letters and broken hearts. It involves the dark, premonitory knowledge that all your pining may ring false; that you’ve just been indulging in a bullshit ode. The knowledge is only a partial recompense, because it arrives too late. A fracture has already taken place.

This Brahmsian harmonic sentiment can be traced back through some of his predecessors, particularly Schubert. J.S. Bach first exploited the possibilities from admixing different scales in “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” written for a new kind of 12-tone keyboard instrument. All sorts of new possibilities arose when music broke from a strictly one-mode at a time tonal frame; indeed, this was a real fracture. Other composers had already moved way beyond this basic minor IV–major I kind of device in terms of complexity by the time Brahms came along. But perhaps what makes this harmony so poignant for me is its simplicity. The rub is felt more starkly because it takes place within such a fundamental cadence. (The plagal is nicknamed the “amen” cadence because it ends most Lutheran hymns.)

In this sense, you could set aside an idea of Romanticism proper from everything else. It would be the initial, naïve shock after the fracture, felt acutely for the first time. If “plurality” is the catchword of postmodernism, I’ve always found its Romantic predecessor more useful and honest: duality. You’ve got one thing, and one other thing, seemingly polarities, yet interacting, corresponding, riffing on each other—simple but effective. In this case it’s major and minor.

That duality is what I love about Brahms, so it might pop out in an improvisation or a composition of mine. One of the great aspects of jazz for me is the way you get influenced. First, you’re a fan. You get the goose bumps; you become bewitched by the music. If that process doesn’t take place, then whatever music—be it Brahms, Jelly Roll Morton or klezmer—won’t find its way into your vocabulary for very long, unless you’re on some weird mission to play music you don’t dig. Anything is fodder. With a kind of Pavlovian logic, what comes out of your horn will be your own happy bastardization of what you love the most—whatever music seduced you initially. “Should I study classical music?” is the wrong question for an improviser. If you don’t dig it, it won’t do anything for you.

There’s no middleman in the transaction of influence, no third party involved. Jazz offers a uniquely pragmatic approach to expression. The player uses what she needs from the history of music, meaning, what she needs to approximate the rush of goose bumps that she has felt from listening in the past. It’s all wonderfully self-serving, and make no mistake, there is a basic truth to the cliché of the jazz musician who only plays for himself. If the playing moves the audience, that’s great, but it’s incidental, after the fact.

To construe that outlook as elitist is to miss the point completely. On the contrary, jazz improvisation offers up a deconstruction of the rift between musician and audience in a performance. The musician is less cut off, and can melt into being a fan as well: “You love Brahms? Me too. Here’s what I get from Brahms.”

Likewise, the audience is free to roam in their interpretations. Ideally, no specific bill of goods is being sold to them, so they might not register “Brahms” at all. They might register the Beatles or Bill Evans or maybe nothing specific, save a familiar, strong sentiment.

The music itself is issued first, in that preternatural, blessed moment before there is a name for it. It arrives at the audience completely bald, happily nameless. That poverty of interpretation—its subjective, groundless aspect—is subsumed in the pragmatic logic of improvisation and works in its favor. The solidarity between player and audience is malleable, and delights in its own contingencies. The motive of improvisation is not to gain a consensus. It’s wonderfully free of any notion of utility at all; that Western hang-up on means-ends relationships gets checked at the door. There is no advance notice for the audience, and ideally, very little cognitive preparation for the player himself.

Alas, improvisation itself can be construed as a kind of interpretation: the direct, heartfelt interpretation of what’s closest to you at any given moment. But in that moment when my riff on Brahms slides out, it has no cognitive baggage. Theorizing comes later. Again, the rift between audience and player lessens in that appraisal. The pleasure I take in creating something, free of theoretical baggage, sounds very much like the nonreferential, wordless pleasure that I receive from listening to music.

Originally published in January/February 2001

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