Monday, August 11, 2008

The Music Lesson

The Music Lesson
By Victor L. Wooten
Berkley tradepaper original

Many musicians have a profoundly spiritual side. Others are very shrewd attending to matters of this world, without it dampening their musical creativity (Benny Goodman comes to mind in this category). Although Victor Wooten has experienced significant commercial success as an electric bassist, his book The Music Lesson suggests he leans more towards the former than the latter.

Originally independently published, Lesson has now found a home with a New York publisher, that might have been more attracted to its spiritual dimension than its musical lineage. (No disrespect to Tony Levin, but his quote seems a dubious choice for the front cover, rather than that of the late great Michael Brecker, a decision Wooten would not have had input on.) Lesson itself is a book that defies easy classification, but it might best be compared to books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that try to teach spiritual lessons through an ostensibly novel-like format. In fact, Wooten immediately discounts the narrative to follow, attempting to refocus readers on his actual lessons. Of the teacher we are to meet, he writes:

“I never found out who this guy really was or where he came from. The more time goes by, the more I start to think that maybe, just maybe, he came from my imagination, from some unused portion of my mind, where he’s now gone back to live.” (p. 6)

He is talking about Michael—just Michael—a large man of unusual dress, indeterminate ethnicity, and seemingly endless musical ability, who one day barges in on Wooten, or the narrator, to give him musical guidance. “Notes are overrated” he tells the bassist, devoting his instructions to neglected musical elements, like dynamics and space. (p. 41) Michael’s pedagogical techniques veer close to Zen-like koans, and he has an annoying preference for answering questions with questions. Wooten underestimate how irritating this approach can be writing: “I hated it when he answered my questions with my own questions, and he knew it.” (p. 92) Frankly, some of these exchanges in Lesson made me want to scream.

Despite his excessive Zen, Wooten is quite a fluid writer. He makes his points clearly, and at times Lesson drifts into the arena of practical advice. Some of Michael’s performance lessons sound particularly on-point, as when he and the narrator subbed in a Nashville bar band. Some of Lesson’s strongest passages describe that gig, and Michael’s tricks to bolster the soloists:

“I brought the volume way down and [the drummer] Ralph followed. Michael stopped playing chords and went to a single note rhythm that really created space. It was then that I realized what we were doing. We were creating a hole right in the middle of the music that allowed the soloist to stand there out in the open . . . The whole audience stopped what they were doing and started listening to the saxophone solo. It was brilliant.” (p. 140)

Through Michael and his friends, the narrator has a number of musical epiphanies. Ultimately, the subtitle “A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music” might be misleading. More than using music for spiritual growth, Lesson suggests spiritual growth is necessary to serve music, a femininized universal power greater than mere notes, according to Wooten.

How you respond to Lesson, will probably depend on how New Agey you were coming in. If you gravitate to the Enlightenment thinkers, rather than the Romantics, the mysticism will likely become quickly tiring, but if nothing else, the book will provide insight into Wooten and his music, if you happen to be a fan.