A while back, I found myself in a kind of Lovecraftian mode. I was writing specifically stories that sort of merged my own version of Lovecraft’s Dreamlands setting with his Cthulhu stories, the stuff set in a world like ours, but with a horrifying alien-god conspiracy hidden in its shadows. I’ve long felt like this would be an interesting synthesis, something Lovecraft might have gotten around to himself if he’d lived longer–and there are hints of it, here and there, in the Dreamlands stories–but which is, nonetheless, very much my own take on things.
My crit group at the time expressed some puzzlement as to why I kept writing these Lovecraftian stories, and I’ve been thinking about that, while considering the question of why the Lovecraft revival has hit full swing rather recently. (My truncated thoughts are visible in the comments to this blog post at Overweening Generalist, where the question was posed and explored.)
I had something of a hard time explaining it to them, though I likened it to going back and studying jazz standards, which I supposed wasn’t much help for people who aren’t really versed in jazz, so: jazz standards are sort of the classic tunes of jazz. They’re the songs that form the bedrock of the jazz paradigm, the works from which the shared language emerged. Take four musicians whose background is jazz–say, a solo stride-piano player working in the oldest of jazz idioms, a fusion-jazz drummer, an atonal/experimental saxophonist, and a straight-ahead post-bop bassist, and stuck them in a room and told them they had to play a presentable concert and only gave them a couple of hours to prepare. Here’s what most such assemblages would do: they’d go straight to the jazz standards, because, as the historical, linguistic, and pedagogical bedrock of improvised music today, pretty much everyone learns them, and pretty much every competent improvisor can play at least a selection of them. And chances are, they’d live, and maybe even do something interesting with some of the pieces, too.
It’s a motley collection of tunes: some are taken from old Broadway plays and films that few remember today; others are contrafacts of famous Broadway or pop tunes; and still others were composed from scratch by working jazz musicians. What they have in common is the fact that the vast majority of them use a limited set of musical structures that are easy to memorize, and which are used as musical building blocks in the creation of a larger structure. Beyond that, they’re widely available, great musicians have performed on them countless times (so there are plenty of examples to study regarding different ways of “how to do it” and no definitive example that trumps all the others ), and they’re actually pretty useful in terms of building your musical chops, and becoming a musically fluent player.
A single, small example:
This tune is quaint and old. It also happens to be a crucial ur-text in jazz: if you can improvise on this particular chord sequence, you can improvise on any tune that uses “Rhythm Changes” (the chord changes from “I’ve Got Rhythm”). And that’s a pretty significant list of tunes. Some people have argued that being able to play on Rhythm Changes is a reliable make-or-break skill test in jazz improvisation. I’m currently, off-and-on, struggling with this sequence of changes myself, so take it from me: it’s not easy, but mastering it makes you a much better player.
So what does this have to do with Lovecraft, other than his having worked during the height of jazz as popular music in his country? Continue reading