Beauty In the Face of Tragedy: The Jazz World Responds
“In tribute to those who lost their lives.”
These are the words that accompanied “Paris,” a track posted on Brainfeeder’s Soundcloud earlier this week. Created by Thundercat and Mono/Poly, it comes in the wake of the recent tragedy in Paris. The world remains unhinged. The weight of loss and heartbreak has yet to ease, and a clear path to recovery has yet to reveal itself. But in such places of darkness, music can help us come back to the light.
Only clocking in at 1 minute 24 seconds, this track is brief, simple, and pure. It begins with a warm Spanish guitar – nothing more than a stripped down, soft descent of melody and the muted pluck of strings (and fingers in motion.) After a few bars, a rich, warm chorus of voices slinks its way in, gliding from chord to chord. They shy away from the cut of consonants, instead opting for a set of quiet “oohs” that say more than words ever could. Then, at the command of a sharp chime, the track finds its way into something deeper, darker… angrier. Thundercat and Mono/Poly tiptoe into murky harmony, shifting the mood to something wholly more ominous. The guitar settles into a grittier tone with a more beat-by-beat rhythm, eliminating the gentle ebb-and-flow it had previously relied on. A succession of jagged synths cut their way through the mix, each hovers briefly, meanders its way through the sonic space, and then flits off to make room for the next. A reverberating flute floats high above the rest, followed by a whistle that pierces the mix despite audible distance. This is where the track ends – in a place where the lines of space, time, and optimism tremble.
In trying to understand tragedy, the music community often turns to creating such works. This brings to mind “On the Transmigration of Souls,” a work inspired by the events of 9/11, crafted by contemporary Classical composer John Adams. While Adams was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to compose the piece, he used the opportunity to explore music as a means of understanding how to navigate the horror left in the wake of the tragedy. Similar to “Paris,” the piece begins quietly, then grows as a chorus of voices enters, ebbing with the flow of music. Running 25 minutes long, Adams’s piece is considerably lengthier than “Paris,” but the two share a similar emotional arc. “On the Transmigration of Souls” enters a place of harmonic ambiguity and darkness in its latter half, in which the confusion and resentment Adams felt in the face of the attacks bursts through. It is more jagged, harsh, and intensive to listen to – much like the latter half of “Paris.”
On creating such an emotion-based piece, Adams said, “modern people have learned all too well how to keep our emotions in check, and we know how to mask them with humor or irony. Music has a singular capacity to unlock those controls and bring us face to face with our raw, uncensored and unattenuated feelings.” When we are confronted with horror, with heartbreak, and with the unfathomable, we find ourselves asking “How do we grasp the unthinkable? How do we broach that which we can’t forget? How do we move forward?” The answers to these questions are as unique as the individual – some need art; others, the comfort of loved ones; some just need time. Clearly Thundercat and Mono/Poly answered in the best way they knew how, and we thank them for that.