Tutelary Instruments

The distance between music and language—the impossibility of describing music in words, of echoing words in music, the incommensurability of phoneme and tone—is both obvious and notorious, but so is their inextricability. No one has expressed this paradox better than Nietzsche, two quotes from whom will serve to chart out this treacherous territory:

Imagine, after all preconditions, what an undertaking it must be to write music for a poem, that is, to wish to illustrate a poem by means of music, in order to secure a conceptual language for music in this way. What an inverted world! An undertaking that strikes one as if a son desired to beget his father! (Fragment, Spring 1871)

. . . the most important phenomenon of all ancient lyric poetry: they took for granted the union, indeed the identity of the lyrist with the musician. Compared with this, our modern lyric poetry seems like the statue of a god without a head. (The Birth of Tragedy 1872).

Anyone who has ever thought seriously about this relationship—much less been a practitioner whose work leads into this abyss—will recognize the problem. Music and language are as distinct, and as linked, as the lobes of the brain. Talk about it for a while and you will shortly begin to sound mystical.

It would be interesting to know how many poets of our generation are or have been musicians—whether practicing, failing, dabbling, wannabe, or ex—and how that proportion compares with the population at large. A survey might well reveal—as with the famous statistic about suicide—that even more dentists have tried it than poets. Ours is a music-saturated culture in which a certain kind of musician enjoys special status in the popular imagination. So many garages have begat so many decibels, so many high schools have encouraged so many out-of-tune choruses of trombone and violin, that you’d think everybody had been in a band at one time or another. Perhaps the attempt is an American rite of passage.

However mundane the idea of a middle-aged male such as myself still caught in the dream of performance (I don’t say stardom because I honestly was never quite that stupid), there remains a mystery here. Whether we are considering the Homeric hymns or the latest recording of Robert Bly in the guise of a damsel with a dulcimer, the poet is considered the musician of writers—which means that, however inexpressible the relation may be, it is the poet's job is to reassemble what so often presents itself as a broken primal unity.

For poets who write primarily for the page, the problem is compounded by the insistent silence of texts. The text is the instrument such a poet plays; and it is notoriously difficult to master precisely because it is so transparent. Too often, models of the poet's work project an unmediated voice "singing" to an audience. Who touches this book touches a man, Whitman beautifully and falsely wrote. Whitman was one of the greatest virtuosi of the page we have ever had, and though he had his reasons for doing so, he insulted his instrument by pretending it did not exist—as if a bagpiper should pretend that all those caterwauls were coming from his own throat.

In the case of the poem on the page, one then thinks, what caterwauls? The page is precisely as silent as the grave—which is the true motivation behind Whitman’s resurrection of the book. Named, as we know, for "the beautiful uncut hair of graves," the barbaric yawp of Leaves of Grass is thus rendered a kind of Christ. However splendid it may be otherwise, from the perspective of the page, the poor insulted instrument, this is a gross mystification.

The counter-story I have to tell concerns the instrument—the thing itself as thing—and its neglect not only in our poetics but also in the "higher" forms of our musicology. The scene is a run-down band room in a run-down school in east central Mississippi; the year is 1959. We are gathered here, we offspring and our parents, due to the demonstrated musical aptitude of the children: demonstrated by the mastery achieved the previous year on a cheap plastic recorder known as the Flutophone™, an instrument capable of producing little more than a thin whistle which, when multiplied in the inept hands of forty or so eight-year-olds, becomes a kind of teakettle of horror. But somehow we are chosen, and here we are, confronted by a roomful of brand new band instruments lying in state in their cases: clarinets, trombones, trumpets, flutes, French horns, drums, and the one I am about to choose: the saxophone.

This is immediately a mysterious moment. Do not underestimate my ignorance at the age of nine. I grew up on a farm in that distant Jim Crow Mississippi, a place where art generally and music particularly were not much noticed, no matter how many musicians have been engendered there. Music arrived on the radio, of course, and tinkled along in the background of our doings; it lived too in church. Guitars, pianos, pump organs, drums—these instruments were familiar, both to the eye and to the ear. But saxophones? At the age of nine, had I ever even heard one? Surely I must have registered some of those fat and bluesy rides from old rock-and-rollers on the radio, but I had never given it any thought. My exposure to the saxophone as a voice was certainly minimal or nonexistent. But there in the band room I fall suddenly and deeply in love with the saxophone as a thing.

It lies there in its case, a gold and nickel glitter. It smells wonderful—new instruments, or more likely their cases, have a terrific aroma, like new cars. I walk around the room with my parents once in an obligatory kind of way: there the other instruments lie, in their cases, all a gold and nickel glitter, all smelling wonderful. But it is the saxophone I want, a student model Conn alto, the Conn Director, its case dark blue with a power-blue interior. I have never given a moment’s thought to saxophones, but I take one look at it and the other instruments vanish. I am in love.

Why the saxophone? Honestly, I have no idea. Why do you love your lover? What lightning strikes? Somehow, however dimly, I know that this is the instrument, and that this knowledge and this feeling are important.

The fact is, the instrument—the object, the thing—cast a kind of spell on me. In the months that followed, I received only the barest instruction; our benighted little school had only one overworked band director for everyone, grades 1-12. But I wanted this, and I worked at it. My fascination could not have been with the music I wanted to play, because I did not know what that was, nor with the sound of the instrument, because I did not know what that should be. I was attending to, and being taught by, the instrument itself. It was literally years before I began to study music with any real attention, and when I did it was only because my horn insisted on it. I studied music in order to do justice to my beloved. It took years for me to learn to generalize about my obsession, and I began to do so only when my band director advised me to trade the Conn for a better one—then I saw that it was not that saxophone but all saxophones I loved. Music as such, like agape, waited at a distance with its face half turned away.

If this behavior sounds compulsive-obsessive, or fetishistic, so perhaps are all children, so certainly is all art. Because my saxophone was gold and marvelously curved and metallic and somehow distant, I came into its presence with respect. A farm boy in subtropical Mississippi, I would not approach the instrument when I was dirty (as I often was) or wearing short pants. I had to be bathed and dressed appropriately; otherwise, I was unworthy. I felt unworthy in any case. The instrument chastised, then chastened me. I would practice in the back hallway—both for privacy and for the acoustics—where it so happened my mother’s full-length mirror was attached to the bedroom door; I watched myself as I played, and knew that I must stand up straight in the presence of my beloved—my posture had to be commensurate with my emotions; otherwise, I was unclean, and felt rejected. There was a stance that was appropriate; there was a self-consciousness and an ethos that were necessary. I did not have this language, but I felt these things, which was extraordinary: nothing else in my life taught me that I must have a stance, that an ethos was necessary. I learned decorum; I learned humility; I learned ecstasy. It so happened that I also began, slowly, to learn music, which in the end demanded an even more precise stance, an even more arduous ethos. At the age of nine, a white farm boy in the heart of the Jim Crow south, I could not have approached that power unmediated.

Poetry stood even farther off; but, years later, when I discovered it for myself, I had already learned important lessons. I had learned to be something I scarcely know how I could have learned otherwise: an artist, to be which means, in sum, to give yourself up to something and let it chasten and shape you, so that you may in the fullness of time turn back with humility and love and shape it in return.

Every art and every artist has its instrument, for there is no unmediated art. And every artist-in-progress has teachers, whether present human ones, book or canvas or stone or metal ones. In the place where I found myself, there were no artists, no human teachers. The very word, had you tried to apply it to me at the age of nine or ten or eleven, would have baffled and embarrassed me. Fortunately, the instrument itself teaches; the instrument, like the beloved, becomes a second self, a second nature.

In the end, the mystery remains a mystery—one for which I am almost abjectly grateful. The saxophone taught me, by inclination an inarticulate slumper, to stand up straight and to try to speak. Later it would teach me the value of a certain destructive connection to tradition, but that was after it led me to music, and thence to jazz, a process that took years. What is most important in this relation is that the saxophone, the thing itself, was my first passion, and my first exemplar. It terrifies me to think what I might have become without it, because it led me into my own life in the 1960s in a way that no other influence in my immediate world could have done.

Why the saxophone? I ask again, as I have asked so many times before. All I can say with certainty is that there is something about it that suits me. Perhaps it is the ridiculous complexity of the object. Compared to the more elegant and mysterious-looking trumpet or French horn, the saxophone is a Rube Goldberg contraption; invented in the Machine Age, it is in fact the apotheosis of the musical instrument as machine—as the violin is the apotheosis of musical instrument as furniture or the pipe organ that of the musical instrument as architecture, the trumpet that of the musical instrument as plumbing. I can look at certain of my poems in that light and see a similitude: complex machination, out of which issues a voice that is almost human.

In the end, the question does not matter. In other circumstances, I might be asking why the bagpipe, why the kalimba? with equal gratitude. What signifies is that, almost miraculously, I began to learn the discipline of instruments in the presence of a curved metal pipe; I began to be an artist under the tutelage of a golden machine. If this sounds like the story of a primitive who gains power and knowledge from a collection of soda cans and styrofoam washed up on a beach, so be it; Mississippi was my island of exile, and I was its Caliban. It is a tribute to music, incarnated in a glorious cheap saxophone, that it could find me even there.  

T. R. Hummer's "Tutelary Instruments" was originally delivered as part of a panel (The Electric Muse: Poetry and Music) at the Associated Writing Programs Conference in New Orleans on March 7, 2002. It also appeared in a shorter, different version in the Oxford American, Sixth Annual Music Issue 2003 (Issue 45).