Eliot Cardinaux – “Suicide is Painless”: Mal Waldron & the Difficult Poetry of the Title

Thanks to Caleb Schmale for the vital conversation that helped shape these thoughts. With apologies to Ocean Vuong. I’ll fail better

“It hurts to play this music.”

—Wadada Leo Smith

At the bottom of a well, when you see the night sky, that’s your only perspective. I feel like this thing about cynicism, we take for granted. Suicide is painless. Why then write these words? Why not just kill myself? Why title a song after something that is finally & so essentially tempting? Is it simply an invitation? 

In music we are given a very limited set of tools to determine an artist’s intention. Without language, oftentimes we fall prey to the pleasure & enjoyment of sounds without ever even attempting to elucidate, to shed light on the deeper message latent within the context of the artist’s intention.

While we may be able to read up on the social, political, & historical contexts that surround a given work — what was going on in the world at the time that an artist composed any given piece — & if we’re lucky, some, mostly minimal autobiographical context — what the artist was going through personally at the time when that work was composed & recorded — (these are the usual means with which we draw conclusions about a work that occurs beyond our reach — in that time has passed; the artist is now dead; there is no one left on earth with enough shared experience with the artist — in layman’s terms, with enough information to tell an adequate, or at the very least, accurate story about the piece whose composer & performer seems to pull us in so naturally) — these specific conditional determinants say little about an artist’s actual intention.

Most of the critical language we’re given, surrounding this music, is descriptive. It does little or nothing to address why this music dares to exist in the first place. In other words, “it’s a given.” When we talk about jazz, or better yet, jazz poets, we often forget one essential piece of the equation, of language in relation to the music itself. The title is an underwritten view into the intention (and poetry) of musicians whose work, like that of visual artists, often exists instrumentally, i.e. virtually outside the margins of text, outside the margins of language; that which is given to straight communication, at the very least. In that sense, Mal Waldron is as much a poet as the lyricist, Abel Meropol, who wrote “Strange Fruit,” & Amiri Baraka, & Fred Moten, who wrote, from within a lineage, at the liminal intersection — i.e. poetically & critically — of Billie Holiday’s life & her music.

Given, the song in question is the theme from M*A*S*H. A lot of times I hear musicians say that the title of a piece is a throwaway feature, that it holds no bearing on what is played, composed, or otherwise arranged, put together on the page, on stage, & on recording. I would contest & say that the title is a form of agency that musicians are otherwise dispensed of, more often than not, at their own expense. Why not just kill myself, one might say.

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