I became aware of Jorge Luis Borges in college. My new friend JM pressed a copy of Labyrinths into my hand and told me to read it. I was entranced, most particularly by the story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.”
Thanks to Mostly Other People Do the Killing, I went back to “Menard” tonight. (For those wishing to understand the story without reading it, Nate Chinen gives a excellent summary in his column on Blue.) Good god, what an immortal masterpiece. Every sentence is either hilarious or profound. For straight-up funny, try this, a description of an arcane Menard work:
…A technical article on the possibility of improving the game of chess, eliminating one of the rook’s pawns. Menard proposes, recommends, discusses and finally rejects this innovation.
Since my previous post, MOPDTK has come under heavy fire for Blue, especially on Facebook. Some consider it racist; others cautiously approve of paying tribute to the masters but don’t like the packaging, which includes the Borges’s story “Pierre Menard.”
The question of racial appropriation certainly can be asked. For me, considering how much bad jazz and imitation black music I hear all the time from white culture everywhere (the garish “jazz” music on the most recent episode of Doctor Who, “Mummy on the Orient Express,” is a current irritation), MOPDTK actually playing the notes of a jazz classic seems perfectly acceptable.
Just a few further thoughts for those eager to condemn:
Black jazz means swing. And no, MOPDTK doesn’t swing on Blue. Not really, especially in the bass and drums. They are indictable for this, sure, but at the same time they are revealing something else about themselves in an arguably humble way. As Borges explains:
The archaic style of Menard – quite foreign, after all – suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time.
He decided to anticipate the vanity awaiting all man’s efforts; he set himself to an undertaking which was exceedingly complex and, from the very beginning, futile.
The question, “How can you swing like Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb?” gets no satisfactory answer on Blue. But at least we know something more about this question than we did before.
To those not appreciating the meta, Borgesian, or conceptual aspects of Blue, my response is:
The importance of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the rest of the cast of Kind of Blue is hardly confined to jazz. To declare that they not be allowed to be part of a deconstructed or conceptual undertaking might inadvertently suggest they are not “worthy” of arty mischief. Of course they are worthy! They are Gods, nothing is going to harm them.
Besides, Miles and Coltrane would have actually been around NYC when Cage made “4’33″” and Warhol printed “Campbell’s Soup Cans.” In a way they deserve to be looked at through the prism of Blue.
I mentioned “Pierre Menard” in a jazz context on DTM a few years ago when discussing Bud Plays Bird. My comparison of that disc to the Borges story is in a way more appropriate than MOPDTK, as Menard stresses he is just trying to remember how Quixote goes, not copy it out. In the end Menard recreates only a few fragments, not the whole work.