August 02, 2004

what if miles davis were an overweight heating engineer from Oslo?

thinking about miles davis in an un-miles davis like way

(one of my favourite eno conceptpieces)

Miles Davis 2.jpg


[from The Wire Dec./Jan. 1993] When you listen to Miles Davis, how much of what you hear is music, and how much is context?

Another way of saying that is, 'What would you be hearing if you didn't know you were listening to Miles Davis?' I think of context as everything that isn't physically contained in the grooves of the record, and in his case that seems quite a lot. It includes your knowledge, first of all, that everyone else says he's great: that must modify the way you hear him. But it also includes a host of other strands: that he was a handsome and imposing man, a member of a romantic minority, that he played with Charlie Parker, that he spans generations, that he underwent various addictions, that he married Cicely Tyson, that he dressed well, that Jean-Luc Godard liked him, that he wore shades and was very cool, that he himself said little about his work, and so on. Surely all that affects how you hear him: I mean, could it possibly have felt the same if he'd been an overweight heating engineer from Oslo? When you listen to music, Aren't you also 'listening' to all the stuff around it, too? How important is that to the experience you' re having, and is it differently important with different musics, different artists?

Miles was an intelligent man, by all accounts, and must have become increasingly aware of the power of his personal charisma, especially in the later years as he watched his reputation grow over his declining trumpeting skills. Perhaps he said to himself: 'These people are hearing a lot more context than music, so perhaps I accept that I am now primarily a context maker. My art is not just what comes out of the end of my trumpet or appears on a record, but a larger experience which is intimately connected to who I appear to be, to my life and charisma, to the Miles Davis story." In that scenario, the 'music', the sonic bit, could end up being quite a small part of the whole experience. Developing the context- the package, the delivery system, the buzz, the spin, the story - might itself become the art. Like perfume...

Professional critics in particular find such suggestions objectionable. They have invested heavily in the idea that music itself offers intrinsic, objective, self contained criteria that allow you to make judgments of worthiness. In the pursuit of True Value and other things with capital letters, they reject as immoral the idea that an artist could be 'manipulative' in this way. It seems to them cynical: they want to believe: to be certain that this was The Truth, a pure expression of spirit wrought in sound. They want it to 'out there', 'real', but now they're getting the message that what its worth is sort of connected with how much they're prepared to take part in the fabrication of a story about it. Awful! To discover that you're actually a co-conspirator in the creation of value, caught in the act of make-believe. 'How can it be worth anything if I did it myself?'

I remember seeing a thing on TV years ago. An Indonesian shaman was treating sick people by apparently reaching into their bodies and pulling out bloody rags which he claimed were the cause of their disease. It all took place in dim light, in smoky huts, after intense incantations. A Western team filmed him with infrared cameras and, of course, were able to show that he was performing a conjuring trick. He wasn't taking anything out of their bodies after all. So he was a fake, no? Well, maybe-- but his patients kept getting better. He was healing by context-- making a psychological space where people somehow got themselves well. The rag was just a prop. Was Miles, with a trumpet as a prop, making a place where we, in our collective imaginations, could somehow have great musical experiences? I think so. Thanks, Miles, and thanks everyone else who tookpart, too.


Posted by mark at August 2, 2004 03:13 AM | TrackBack

Or Miles as Salford Pipe-fitter: Wasn't there some weird rumour (probably apocryphal) that Miles heard The Fall and really liked them? To the point of considering a collaboration. Sounds unlikely, but a fascinating "What if?" What a bizarre dynamic: who would've sacked who (whom?), I wonder?
And the aborted Eno/Syd Barrett collab...Our Brian as Skittle-Alley Pub-Folk Singer-Songwriter.
Ralph MacTell with a Vcs3.

Posted by: kek-w at August 2, 2004 10:13 PM

Note that Eno only talks about this in relation to Miles' later work, "as he watched his reputation grow over his declining trumpeting skills." Didn't quite have the balls to suggest the the first 30 or so years of unadulterated genius were just a matter of context...

Posted by: that's all very well at August 3, 2004 01:02 AM

But I thought the point was that context IS genius...

Posted by: mark at August 3, 2004 01:06 AM

I'm sure it's a part of it. Miles was certainly brilliant at image, or creating context, or whatever you want to call it. (Although on the other hand in his later years most critics thought he sucked, so maybe he wasn't so good at it.) And since that context seems to be based on his history (playing with Parker etc)... I wonder when the magic moment occurred when he had built up enough context for people to suddenly decide he was good? (Hey, maybe you could make this case... most critics thought he sucked when he played with Parker too)

If Eno is going to set up the opposition between Context and True Value such that Context=Image and True Value=Music, I can't say I find the idea that it's all Context any more compelling than the idea that it's all True Value.

Posted by: that's all very well at August 3, 2004 01:20 AM

Isn't it the other way round though? I thought Eno was suggesting that it's the critics who require there to be an opposition between 'true value' (=music) and context? Isn't Eno's point that valuation - which is never 'true' in any case - always must include both? (sorry for profusion of rhetorical questions)

Posted by: mark at August 3, 2004 02:00 AM

Is this a naive retake on lit crit? How is it that anyone can listen anything without context? If you heard a band, you're hearing a band in the context of every other band you've heard. What's Eno's point? It is an interesting, self-indulgent point, whether or not what we appreciate is the content or the context, but hasn't that been done to death?

Posted by: Mickey Black at August 3, 2004 02:18 AM

Maybe it is. He leaves himself enough wiggle room (the music is still a "small part" of the experience, he allows) But all Eno's rhetoric is about image: the heating engineer, addictions, clothes, wives, Jean-Luc Godard... Maybe if he talked about how context also includes how Miles was the only artist after Louis Armstrong to totally remake trumpet playing, how he redirected the course of jazz 2-3 times, that wickedly sad solo on Blue in Green etc., I would be more convinced (and maybe you could argue that Miles' context-making abilities were musically manifest in his trademark use of space and silence, stepping away to let other musicians/listeners fill in the gaps)...

But maybe that rhetoric was needed in 1993. (Although even then...) In 2004, when we're will into the age of the brand, "the package, the delivery system, the buzz, the spin, the story" doesn't seem quite so contrarian. Hey, maybe that's why Eno's off on a Russian choral music trip these days...

Posted by: that's all very well at August 3, 2004 02:22 AM

Good point--but still, I wonder if it isn't the context of Eno that makes this article relevant. Also, Eno's contributions to music have been of a contextual nature, from Warm Jets to Airport to his production.

Posted by: Mickey Black at August 3, 2004 03:22 AM

Well, this has stuck with me since I read it in 93... seems to apply to Miles' brilliant early 70s lps especially ---- on which he doesn't play much but which are clearly 'his' albums ----

Don't think it's a Lit crit thing; literary critics tend to have fewer problems - or none really - with context than a certain type of music critic, I guess....

Posted by: mark at August 3, 2004 04:15 AM

Yet Miles plays on those records far more than legend has it, and on many of them his playing is as good as it ever was. Check Complete Jack Johnson for instance: he's as strong and as forceful as at any time in his career duelling with the wah-wahs. It's only with/after On the Corner that he starts to recede, and that's partly because he's playing organ. He still pulls out some mournful solos even on Agharta/Pangaea.

Anyway, I have to give Eno props for how much he thought about Miles--He Loved Him Madly was a big source for ambient too, in Eno's own words. I like this essay... it's just a little bit glib.

Posted by: that's all very well at August 3, 2004 05:45 AM

Being kindly I'd like to think Eno was applauding Miles' talent for evoking scenius and aggregating cultural capital. The story about the shaman is telling: there's no doubt Eno is bigging up Miles.

Hmm, In a Silent Way or On the Corner as the best MD albums? Miles was way better when he was being funky (or working with Gil Evans) than when he was doing all that dull small-group noodly shit (DUCKS)


Posted by: paul "bone thugz and armoury" meme at August 3, 2004 12:44 PM

What's being forgotten is that most jazz musicians look more like overweight Norwegians than like Miles. And us jazz fans still like them.

Posted by: mwanji at August 3, 2004 10:38 PM

don't know about the Fall story, but I know that Miles Davis thought that Nik Kershaw was one of helluva funky, jazzy cat, and he mooted the idea of collaborating with him! I think he also rated Thomas Dolby, but i might be getting this story jumbled and it was George Clinton who admired Dolby.

Posted by: simon r at August 4, 2004 09:03 PM

lol, I think we can conclude that Miles had definitely lost it by then (not enough heroin? :-) ) ----

mwanji (and others) I think yr construing Eno's comments far too negatively ---- it's not as if he's saying no-one wd have liked Miles if he were an overweight Norwegian, just that our experience of his music would be very different if he were. What is it in us - what purist aestheticism - refuses this obvious fact, or suppresses it into being something we can acknowledge only guiltily? Eno definitely thinks IMHO that Miles' ability to produce contexts is an ASPECT of his genius; why not?

Posted by: mark at August 5, 2004 10:08 AM

Can't say I've ever heard that Nik Kershaw story before, despite having read most Miles bios out there.

If Eno was just saying we would think differently about Miles if he were an overweight Norwegian, it really would be a weak essay, because that's completely obvious. It's not exactly heresy to point out that Miles worked his image.

But Eno isn't saying that image, or context, is an aspect of Miles' art: he's saying it's the PRIME aspect of Miles' art. The cheekiness of that, which Eno is very self-conscious about, is what gives the essay its force.

Posted by: that's all very well at August 5, 2004 01:59 PM

See yr pt tavw, but I think yr being quick --- everyone is happy talking about image but AS OPPOSED TO 'creativity' --- The force of the essay for me lies in taking apart that 'as opposed to' ----

Posted by: mark at August 6, 2004 10:58 AM

That's where we differ: I see it as inverting the relationship.

Posted by: that's all very well at August 6, 2004 12:36 PM

see what you mean reading it again, but it is ambiguous, certainly it's clear that he's saying by the end of Miles' career his context-making was the most important thing, but he doesn't - as far as I can see - say that that was ALWAYS the case...

Posted by: mark at August 8, 2004 02:54 AM