Rotunda in the West — Michael Leunig

Michael Leunig at Victoria University on June 4, 2009

This does not qualify as a jazz gig at all, but I’m posting a few thoughts despite the fact that I have some jazz gig posts (for Howard Cairns at Paris Cat, Adam Simmons at 45 Downstairs) to add that should precede this — if I am totally anal about the order of posting.

Leunig was responding to questions from Bruno Lettieri (what a great name for a literacy teacher) and writer Paul Bateman in a fireside-like chat (without the fire) as part of the Rotunda in the West series.

A lot of things were discussed, but creativity was a focus. Leunig said (paraphrasing) that the artist (writer, poet, musician) can touch us and help us express what is repressed. He talked about the pressures of conformity and the illusion that we are expressing ourselves as against  innocence and wonderment, the eager quality in a child (a concept referred to by Donald Winicott, an English paediatrician, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst) and the “twinkle in your eye” that is so vital if we are to keep nature and beauty alive.

He mentioned Keats’s “negative capability” — a state of intentional open-mindedness when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason, a state when the unconscious kicks in and the person is able to get rid of ego. Leunig said that art and music are essentially expressing what’s there.

What does this have to do with jazz, or improvised music? Well, I am always fascinated by the creation of music, especially music that is produced spontaneously, and with its origin. Of course, as many improvers will point out, what is often called improvised music is created according to guidelines laid down before the music is played. And then there is music that is totally invented in the moment, as far as that is possible, and there are all the gradations in between. But when music is created in all these ways, or when the composer of scored music is writing it down and refining it, where is the inspiration drawn from?

That question seems to relate to what Leunig is saying about creativity of the artist, writer, musician and poet. Keats’s negative capability seems relevant also, as does Winicott’s idea of a “secret self” who is alone and yet comfortable with that. What seems to be a connection here needs to be developed, but I think there is a link.

The other relevance of Leunig’s thoughts to music is his reference to the way in which people can be touched and awakened by music, poetry, writing or works of art. Any music fan must have experienced that, whether for a few moments or in whole pieces of music or whole sets. A good example for me recently was the Tim Berne Adobe Probe Melbourne gig for the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. I was awakened, touched and almost bowled over. There seems to be a link between that way in which I could be reached by that music and the way Leunig has, he says, been initially unable to make an idea for a cartoon work, and then descend into anger, self-loathing and regression to become as a child — an innocent, primal needy creature. Leunig says that state of mind is a perfect setting for creativity.

Does that tie in? I am certainly not saying that when Stephen Magnusson played those weird, primal (to me) notes — during the Bennetts Lane gig with Berne and Scott Tinkler — he was in a state of regression or self-loathing, but what state was he in that produced that music which touched me so profoundly?

I’m not sure this qualifies as jazz-related, but the Leunig evening was a chance to reflect on creativity, and surely that is at the core of jazz (and lots of other music).

As an aside, postscript or whatever, this was the first time I had been out to a “gig” in recent times without a camera. Leunig was a great subject and during the discussion a VU photographer was snapping away merrily. That brought to mind how much I missed — and also have recently enjoyed — being able to take photographs while listening. That sometimes interferes with my appreciation of music, so that I have to close my eyes and let the notes flow back into my awareness, but often when I am waiting for the moment in a piece when a particular musician is going to be “right” for a photo, I am also getting totally into the feel of the music. When that happens, I can sometimes feel when to click the shutter and it works: the shot is there as I felt it would be. It almost becomes like experiencing the music from a player’s perspective, just because I seem to feel the moments that will come next and capture them.

That was a digression. It’s probably going too far to suggest that I can vicariously experience music by looking through a camera viewfinder or at an LCD screen. But it is at least a little like that. And it does seem to work … just not all the time.

Thanks to Bruno et al for the Leunig gig.

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