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Living with Jazz, Comprehending Audio Culture 

Strong Morgenstern collection, essays on post-modern music

As writer's clubs go, few are as exclusive, exalted and excoriated as the too often ego-driven fraternity of jaz critics. It's a select ensemble of (mostly) men who loom nearly as large within the genre as the players themselves; read enough liner notes, essays and collected works, and the biases stand out like a Charlie Parker solo. But over the course of his five decades covering jazz, Dan Morgenstern has earned a reputation not only as a brilliant scribe but also for his selfless portrayal and understanding of the giants who strode across the stage. Equally at home discussing Louis Armstrong or Ornette Coleman, Morgenstern's Living With Jazz: A Reader (Pantheon, $35) collects most of his liner notes, analyses and profiles in a 700-page volume that reads much shorter.

What makes this European emigre's writings so worthwhile is both the depth of his knowledge and the humanity of his profiles. Take this bit of analysis from his essay on tenor sax great Coleman Hawkins, and how the Old Lion was wise enough to know that Parker had something to teach him, too:

"In its basically linear conception of jazz history, the critical-historical establishment has paid far too little attention to musical influence as a circular phenomenon. Hawkins is a primary example of the fact that great artists don't reach a plateau and stay there, but continue to listen and evolve."

Even in a limited format like the liner notes to one of John Coltrane's live releases, Morgenstern gets right to the heart of the matter:

"Moreover, once he had discovered a way that seemed right for him, and within which he achieved mastery of content and execution and invented a language that gave him recognition and made him an influence, he abandoned this way just as he began to have perfection within his grasp. Instead, he searched anew (this time in the limelight, which took great courage), and the search became the essence of his new self, with perfection no longer even an issue, much less an achievable goal."

As a summation of Coltrane's eternally restless spirit, that may stand without parallel. The same may one day be said of Morgenstern and this highly recommended collection.

By John Schacht

Notes on New Music Describing Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music (Christoph Cox, Daniel Warner, eds., Continuum, 454 pages, $19.95) in print presents much the same problems as does listening to the music that it proposes to cover. Just what the hell is it? Despite its title, Audio Culture more often than not speaks to what might be better termed "Postmodern" music: things like DJ culture, dub-based reggae, free jazz, minimalist composition, and collage and noise-based music. Appropriately, the book features dozens of soundbite-style pieces by the likes of authors William S. Burroughs and Umberto Eco, musical pioneers like Anthony Braxton, Edgard Varese, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Brian Eno and Ornette Coleman, media theorists like the legendary Marshall McLuhan, philosophers like Jacques Barzun, and computer-based musicians like Aphex Twin and DJ Spooky. An all-star lineup of individualist/iconoclasts, if you will.

As you might expect, the writing in Audio Culture is nearly as free-form as the music it proposes to flesh out. Yet, the book is still eminently readable (in a choose-your-illusion, tapas-menu kind of way), and experimental music enthusiasts and the pipe-and-elbow patch crowd should find plenty in here to pique their interest.

Perhaps the book's strongest asset is its form — or, in this case, its lack thereof. Audio Culture doesn't limit itself to traditional ways of looking at music, just as it doesn't limit its rogue's gallery of contributors (Burroughs, for instance, describes how his famous "cut-up" technique works equally well with audio and video tape, and John Cage's summation of his aesthetic philosophies consists of a number of aphorisms: "Art = imitation of nature in her manner of operation" being one of the better ones.)

Thankfully, topics such as minimalist composition and noise-based music are finally given some long-overdue critical attention, with the underlying suggestion being that the formation of such musics isn't all that different from artistic movements in other art forms (Minimalist composition = Rothko and Mondrian, say; Noise = Pollock and de Kooning).

By now, depending on your proclivities, you're probably either watering at the mouth or checking out our movie listings. Doesn't matter either way. As Audio Culture posits, ignorance on either side's part is the only true killer of music, whereas true creativity lasts (and creates) a lifetime.

By Timothy C. Davis

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