In William Shakespeare’s sonnets; Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos; Jack Kerouac’s Book of Haikus; and Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker’s cutting-edge exploration of the Bebop solo, each artist utilized contemporary techniques, improved by preceding generations’ lengthy experimentation, to relinquish themselves to their audience, leaving nothing behind but the space in which they used to reside. Despite the variances in each of these artists’ methods, their work allowed their souls to transcend the vessel of their lives, to become part of humanity. We, as passive onlookers in times far past their own, must only ask how they attained artistic immortality and how we may follow their lead.
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Both Shakespeare’s sonnets and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos represent two powerful avenues by which these two men enlisted in the eternal brotherhood of artists, primarily through their excellence in—rather than redefinition of—constructing societally beautiful verse. Reverent of their art forms’ extensive histories, they crafted brilliant portraits of their experience, many of Shakespeare’s including themes of love, regret, and the pains of realism, Bach’s both exhilarating and polyphonically complex, yet overwhelmingly formal and unintrusive.
In adhering to age-old structural standards, Bach and Shakespeare principally shaped their art as their predecessors did. As worldly renowned musicologist Malcolm Boyd points out, “with the exception of the first, each Brandenburg follows the convention of a concerto grosso,” a quintessentially Baroque style, guided by its use of bracketing slow solo movements with fast tutti ones (qtd. in Gutmann). Likewise, Shakespeare molds the strict boundaries of a sonnet’s structure—a 300-year-old concept already—into a river, ebbing and flowing with parallel and contrasting images, adjectives, and ideas across both its couplets and sections. Take Shakespeare’s first sonnet, for instance. His poem nearly culminates with a wretched contradiction, “Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament, … / [a] tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding,” one of the many threads in his interweaving the tenderness of a rose with the darkness of second-hand defeatism, depicting the object of his poem as a selfish rose, a once-radiant woman now destined for nothingness, on account of her selfishness (11-12). Juxtaposing “tender” with “churl,” he articulates his dilemma in characterizing her painful decline, from the Venus of his world to a selfish Hades, stealing from the world any hint of Persephone. Ultimately, Shakespeare’s first sonnet—embracing any structural limitation—implores the reader to decide for oneself the ultimate ramifications of personal growth and decay, all within a single testimony to a past love.
Unfailingly, however, to many, the perceived excellence of both Shakespeare and Bach is very much subordinate to the transparent pedanticalness within their writing. As a price many artists of their time must posthumously pay in respecting compositional traditions, their limited exploration of expression may alter their perceived quality in the contemporary age. In comparison to the blissful disregard of centuries of musical standards and the hauntingly magnificent use of competing emotions in Bebop music, Bach’s Brandenburg concertos, though technically challenging, are unabashedly boring, any hint of Bach’s emotionality lost in a labyrinth of intellectuality. Yet, in many of Shakespeare’s poems, he contrasts complex structure with straightforward—though metaphorical—parlance, such as in his 18th sonnet, “thy eternal summer shall not fade,” detailing a simple compliment to his lover enveloped in a sonnet of copacetic simplicity (9). Nevertheless, it is rarely an absence of complexity for which modern readers strive; they pleasantly await genuine, brazen emotion—such as that in the final couplet of his 29th sonnet: “For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings”—provided that the search is not for naught. While Shakespeare and Bach’s writing may be pedantic, that is no legitimate refutation for their artistic excellence; the beauty of a single blossom is very much evident in their forests of complexity, and that discovery may be the most satisfying of all.
Moreover, despite their nearly perpetual yield to contemporaneous compositional constraints, both Shakespeare’s sonnets and Bach’s Brandenburg concertos contain chilling evidence of their experimentation beyond previously established guidelines, proving even more of their legitimacy to a contemporary audience. In the second movement of Bach’s third Brandenburg concerto, for example, he writes only two measures, the quintessential yet semi-cliché 5-1 chord structure, to culminate the piece; thus, he relies on the harpsichordist to improvise the movement, breaking loose from the chains of centuries of standardization (Sorrell). <1> Moreover, even Shakespeare’s sonnets occasionally overlook regulation; in his 29th sonnet, one line reads, “like to the lark at break of day arising,” clearly deviating from a ten-syllable maximum, in order to best articulate his idea, manifesting the triumph of poetic quality over reverence for the past. Ultimately, both Shakespeare and Bach’s art are purely pulchritudinous in their own right; while their punctilious work within their respective genres may earn limited negative criticism, the very excellence of their work within said constraints allowed their personalities to transcend their lifespans, forever remaining a part of the greater artistic world, and we are better because of them.
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He starts the first chorus, then lines up his ideas… and then he rises to his fate and has to blow equal to it. All of a sudden somewhere in the middle of the chorus he gets it—everybody looks up and knows; they listen; he picks it up and carries. Time stops. He’s filling empty space with the substance of ideas, rehashes of old blowing. He has to blow across bridges and come back and do it with such infinite feeling soul-exploratory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows it’s not the tune that counts but IT.
(Kerouac, "On the Road" 207-208)
Unlike the time period of Shakespeare and Bach, in the two decades following the Second World War, the tide of artistic expression turned to the breakdown of age-old restrictions on the structure of poetry—new authors scribing poems that neither rhyme nor utilize consistent meter—and music—composition transforming from the culmination of hours of musical desolation to several spontaneous verses imagined and performed concurrently, in front of the audience’s very own eyes. With these nouveaux techniques, emotion has no shield, and the line between performer and audience is ever-more blurred.
Gillespie’s hasteful flurry of high notes and slides amongst intervals otherwise nearly impossible on the trumpet in “A Night in Tunisia” and Monk’s careful yet stylistically and alluringly idiosyncratic piano solo throughout “Well, You Needn’t” each represent a revolutionary approach to artistic expression, each manifesting within itself an au courant synthesis of techniques, quite the opposite of Bach’s nonexperimental ideals. Indeed, Charles Mingus’ unique organization of instrumentation and voicing, including even his peculiar mimic of the New Orleans “Second Line” style of “collective improvisation,” in which multiple players solo concurrently, rightly earned him the song title of “Better Get Hit in Your Soul.” <2>
As haphazard as many imagine Bebop solos to be, Mark Gridley writes in Jazz Styles, “even the most adventuresome, free-form improvisations are usually organized around [shifting] tone centers, keys, [and] modes,” relying upon a musician’s extensive musical—and often classical—training, to attain success (218). In the same light, Kerouac designed his own poetry; <3> utilizing his extensive knowledge of strategies of English composition, his best artwork was the candorous inscription of a single moment, a single idea, such as his haiku, “The bottoms of my shoes / are clean / from walking in the rain.” Its purpose is neither to educate nor to exude any outrageous emotion, but to document a moment without a single metaphor and never erase. Duly noted, however: in this haiku, Kerouac arguably redefines his moment with poetry. After people trot through rain, their shoes are inundated with water, mud, and other particles from the storm; in Kerouac’s poem, per contra, he presents a reality in which we ignore the negativity of our lives—in dictating his own idealism, he lives in a dream world, potentially teaching to us that we may do the same, all within three simple lines. While Shakespeare’s sonnets present a much more complex style of expression, the tremendous ramifications of Kerouac’s haiku make them not at all inferior to their predecessors.
Discussing revision in “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” Kerouac writes, “Never afterthink to ‘improve’ or defray impressions, as the best writing is always the most painful personal wrung-out tossed from cradle warm protective mind” (58). In his poetry, he explores offbeat topics, original and unrevised, such as a “sleeping moth” ignorant of the newly ignited flames in a nearby lamp (1), sneezing flowers (2-3), and a “winter fly” that has “died of old age” (2-3), uniting disjointed subjects under the pretense of joyous simplicity. In contrast to both Shakespeare’s and Bach’s pedantic writing and revising strategies, the Kerouac craft lies in instantaneous verse, in the beauty not necessarily of words and structure, but the subject itself: the inherent elegance of the world at large.
A product of poetry’s new school of thought, Kerouac reanalyzed and reconstructed Matsuo Bashō’s haikuic style into the easily accessible yet nevertheless thought-provoking “Pop,” limited only to a maximum of 17 syllables in a maximum of three lines (“Book of Haikus” ix). Though seemingly insignificant, his alteration of a standardized art repudiates Shakespeare’s consistent accord with sonnets’ inherent guidelines. Perhaps, as, contemporaneously, Gillespie, in his trumpet solos, strayed from the very foundation upon which the trumpet solo lies, its strict yet striking charm in Bach’s second Brandenburg concerto, Kerouac’s abandonment of earlier generations’ guidelines is a microcosm of 1950s artistic expression at large.
Yet, irreverence need not yield desertion: as much as both Kerouac’s writing and the Bebop solo may seem spontaneous, within both genres, there exists an ultimate tribute to their punctilious pasts: within the Bebop solo are numerous arpeggios, scales, and subservience to the ever-changing tonal center, and within Kerouac’s haiku is evidence of slight revision, enough to claim “writerly control”; in his own words, “Haiku is best reworked and revised” (Berrigan). Furthermore, in many of Kerouac’s haiku, echoing Bashō’s ideals, are themes of nature within the common era, such as, “Full moon in the trees / —across the street, / the jail” (1-3). Kerouac’s placing the moon behind a jail may represent humanity’s incarceration of the world around us; we clench seemingly distant entities, detaining them, so that we may control our environment, leaving nothing to chance. This timeless question of dominance and enjoyment is a birdcall to the generations of haikuists before Kerouac—in similar reverence to that of Shakespeare—in the same way that Monk, on piano, reverberates many of Bach’s harpsichordal themes. Thus, the art of the mid-20th century is not a full reversal of centuries of artistic growth; indeed, it represents merely one stage in art’s ongoing evolution.
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In the era of Shakespeare and Bach, transcribing one’s heart into a composition meant delivering it in a camouflage of glistening flares, sharp sounds, and re-exploring tone in every phrase. As the artist would cache oneself in one’s creation, only accessible to the most detail-oriented of audience members, discovering the soul of the artist was the faint light at the end of a tunnel, a journey few ever completed.
In contrast, the Bebop and Beatnik era presented an entirely different challenge to the artist: ignoring—or, perhaps, advancing beyond—the restrictions of the past, holding onto only the most prized techniques, and arriving at a modern, beautiful, artistic epiphany at the moment of performance, exhaling one’s very life into one’s work.
We must always ask ourselves about the artistic era we will paint onto the mural of history, how our choice of expression adds a new shade to the many colors that have preceded us, and how we may ultimately inscribe our minds and souls into the immortal catalog of human experience.
In the words of N. H. Kleinbaum, “We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race... The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?” (Dead Poets Society).
1. However, this potential for improvisation rarely yields true jazz in a symphony hall; many interpreters simply forego the two chords altogether and perform another of Bach’s numerous harpsichord sonatas in their place, most likely in accordance with Bach’s intent.
2. Startling to an unaccustomed audience, the studio recording of Mingus’ hit, “Better Get Hit in Your Soul,” includes numerous screams, sighs, and even momentary vocal riffs from Mingus himself, demonstrating the tremendous emotional and physiological repercussions of a single jazz chart on its performers. It should be no surprise that many jazz artists of the Bebop period exited the stage with tears in their eyes.
3. Although racial status was not central to Kerouac’s writing, the irony of his mimicking contemporary African American jazz musicians compels further explanation: American jazz is largely rooted in antebellum slave hymns, often sung in organizing slave rebellions, and, in the years since institutionalized slavery, its nearly Black nationalist sentiments have remained integral in its evolution (Sullivan 21; 33). Thus, there is significant evidence to conclude that Kerouac’s relationship with contemporary jazz may have chiefly been one-sided.
Berrigan, Ted. "Jack Kerouac, The Art of Fiction No. 41." TheParisReview.org. The Paris Review, n.d. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.