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Be the Mule Blog

The Angry Music of John Coltrane

I listened to this interview with John Coltrane the other day. I was struck by the apparently common assessment in the press of Coltrane's day, acknowledged by the interviewer here,  that Coltrane's music sounded too angry, or angrier, or angry at all. That sounds absurd given what has happened in music between he and now. How do the Melvins measure on the sound-perceived-as-anger scale? I find the Melvins beautiful. Coltrane too.




Coltrane handles the question of the press's apparently common assertion wisely, largely ignoring it, thus paying it the amount of attention it deserves, but the broader implications I began thinking about were in regards to what anger is, and what its place in art is. How is anger rightly, and constructively expressed? Can that happen at all?  Is there beauty in anger?


I set out to write something cohesive and academic, deriving a conclusion, but I've edited this a few times, rewritten, and it seems most appropriate, and honest, as it is here - a series of thoughts on the subject drawn from personal experience. Perhaps someone more linear in thought can make a summation and conclusion. 


Dictionary definitions point to anger as "an emotion related to one's psychological interpretation of having been offended, wronged or denied and a tendency to react through retaliation."  Anger is classified as a retaliatory response. It is self defense. Is it constructive? In terms of expression, I certainly can be angry at times. I don't know if that is helpful. I do know I feel better, and more connected to where I have been, and where anyone listening has been, after performing. Is it valid?  It is to me, not in the sense that I am allotted some special entitlement of anger wanking and someone should care, but in that I believe there is something worth sharing in my experience, both for myself and anyone who may want to listen, otherwise I would be doing something else. Speaking through art and word is my means of communicating. I grew up listening to, and being inspired by, people who spoke honestly and directly. To veil anger is a disservice to progress, and the suffocation of expressing anger leads only to further suffering, and most dangerously, the birth of hate.


There is an implication in the assertion that if something is "angry" it is irrational and impulsive. That is a fear based teaching that holds no truth. Anger is natural, how we express it, or if we choose to, is the issue. We can turn our anger to hate, or turn it love. Art is love ("Love may be understood as part of the survival instinct - a function to keep human beings together against menaces and to facilitate the continuation of the species"), it is sharing. Violence is hate, it is death.


Anger is not hate. Hate is completely destructive. Anger can be helpful. How? We share it, it is an emotion, a reaction to what is happening to us. What is happening to us involves a combination of situation out of our control and situation as we experience it, that is, how we create our situation. Some would argue our situation is entirely of our own making in the sense that we an choose to respond to our conditions in any manner of ways, thus arguing peace and serenity can be achieved solely within ourselves, by ourselves. To me, while not without a degree of merit, this is a passive and ultimately sterile response. 


Martin Luther King Jr. got angry. He didn't hate, but he did get angry. And he expressed it, constructively. And we all got better for it. 


We need not only be expressing anger as a response to what has happened to us personally. We are free to be affected, comment, and create on happenings in a broader society. Our voices are valid. We forget this.


We all feel we have been wronged at some points in our lives. The degrees to which we have been wronged certainly vary, but we all seem to react in either healthy or unhealthy ways regardless of the severity of the suffering we experience that comes from outside our control. For example, a Holocaust survivor can respond in a way such as Elie Wiesel, writing illuminating books, masterpieces, while a disgruntled employer who feels he has been wrongly fired (certainly a far less degree of suffering) can take a gun and start shooting his co-workers and bosses. 



Acknowledging our own anger, and that of others, and truly considering it, is uncomfortable. Where does it originate from, and how can we learn from it? These are important and relevant questions today more so than ever, as we have descended into a violently corrupt, violently angry series of acts that gain global attention. Surely we are more exposed to anger than before, but we are less comfortable than ever expressing it. We don't truly say much. Turn on the radio. Watch the TV. Listen to our politicians. Everyone is too afraid to make much of a statement at all. Angry is cast as crazy. Not right. We have reason to be upset. Everyone, and anyone. I find hope in music that expresses real human situation. All of it, the entire experience. I want more than diversion from my art, I want introspection and illumination.




What is beauty? It is relative. Its based on our perception. There is no defining it. Dictionary definitions point to a "perceptual experience of pleasure or satisfaction".  Words like pretty get associated with Beauty. It could just as easily be ugly. Harmony is mentioned. That seems more fitting. Something in harmony with the truth. That seems beautiful to me.


So, in anger as beauty, we are left with a response to a perceived wrongdoing that could be perceived to contain elements of pleasure or satisfaction.


I like my definition better, which would require a verb that doesn't exist yet. (Aside - read the piece in the current The New Yorker  on the creation of the Ithkuil language) . What I am left with is "responding to a wrongdoing with action in harmony with truth". I hear this in Coltrane's music, or Monk's, slave song, Woody Guthrie, William Burroughs, Hunter Thompson, Martin Luther King Jr, many addicts in recovery, the words spoken in meaningful conversation with friends.


There is no word for anger and beauty in art, it requires feeling, and consideration. There is no solution. Thats why art matters, and when it matters, and how it is divine. 

Comments Section

The Melvins... right. I remember when I first heard the Houdini cd, and specially the Kiss cover 'Goin' blind', that I discover that beauty comes from the more distinct places. That, eventually evolve to other kinds of beauty, like the one I feel for Sun O))) when Attila Csihar growls or Electric Masada when John spills out the sax guts. For me there's always light in the darkness. And maybe in darkness we can really find peace and beauty... is there for us to find out and it demands our full capacity. But as soon as we let ourselves go in the hands of Sunn, Zorn, WITTR, Melvins and Jesu (to name a few), we discover a kind of beauty we never felt before. Anger, is always a good driver, if you know how to use it as a creative force...

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