Interstellar Space: When Music Hurts

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In my later teens, I happened across John Coltrane’s album Interstellar Space while sifting through neat rows of CD jewel cases in a Half-Priced Books. I almost couldn’t believe my luck. At that time, I was in the red-hot middle of an infatuation with the Beat Generation and everything that typically comes with it: books, booze, and jazz. I was devoted to Coltrane since discovering Blue Train, but fell in love for life after hearing A Love Supreme. I had read somewhere (probably Amazon, a site to which I owe the overwhelming bulk of my musical education) that A Love Supreme marks the borderlands between Coltrane’s early accessible productions and his mysterious, “later” phase. Interstellar Space was firmly in this “later” period and appended with an even more mysterious and enticing label: “avant-garde.”I added Interstellar Space to the increasingly unwieldly stack of CDs on my arms without hesitation, trembling with the very intense and nearly ecstatic joy of an extraordinary find (an experience which is one of the greatest losses to the streaming generation—God bless and protect the few book and CD stores still left, Half-Priced Books being one of the few). In the car, I tore open the jewel case and immediately played the first track “Mars” on the portable disk player (which hooked up to a cassette adaptor, since my first Toyota Carola didn’t even have a CD player).

Interstellar Space began with a scatter of rapid snare and bass. There seemed to be some loose form to the percussive patterns, although I couldn’t exactly trace it. Just as I was acclimatizing to the sporadic rhythm, Coltrane crashed in with a frenzied onslaught of atonal arpeggios. The whole thing, I realized with a sinking dread as I continued to listen, is just noise, random, sprawling and downright abrasive noise. I skipped to the next track. And then the next. They were all the same, notwithstanding slight changes in what might be called texture for lack of any familiar musical landmarks like “melody” or “atmosphere.” “Avant-garde” must mean, I concluded unhappily, “unlistenable.”

I checked Amazon that evening, sure the glowing reviews I thought I remembered reading for Interstellar Space were attributed to a different album. Not at all—reviewers waxed poetic about the unlistenable album. Some even claimed to listen to it regularly.


I concluded that the Amazon reviewers for Interstellar Space must fall into either one of two categories: either they are musicians themselves and able to appreciate some technical aspect of Coltrane’s album quite beyond the casual listener’s understanding, or they truthfully find the album unlistenable as well and are merely pretending to enjoy it, thereby gaining some sort of distinguished status (I’m not sure what) above the rabble of common, inferior members of the Amazon reviewer community.

The second of these categories is a fairly common layman’s dismissal of anything difficult or uncomfortable in art. I’ve stumbled across it hundreds of times throughout my various ventures into the world of human creations. I’ve found myself saying or thinking it myself when faced with the inaccessible, and my interest in music, literature and art has made me a lightning rod for accusations of pretentious posturing more than once (and probably not for the last time).

Certainly, we’ve all come across pieces of music, art or writing we absolutely don’t understand. We’ve probably dismissed it just as easily as I was tempted to dismiss Interstellar Space. At that time of my life, however, I was frustrated by my inability to understand things. I routinely read Ginsberg’s poetry with a kind of fury, not at the injustice and ugliness of the world which Ginsberg tended to evoke, but at my inability to glean an overarching “point” or “meaning” behind his writing. I was frustrated at my lack of “erudition.” I felt like an outsider to the world of art and literature, desperately trying to breach the gap between me and the sublime world of useless creations. I hadn’t yet learned to accept my limitations. I now consider this period of frustration a stroke of fortune.

Why? Because this rage of misunderstanding drove me to attack impossible things like Coltrane’s Interstellar Space with a maddening persistence. Refusing to give up, I listened to the album all the way through the next day—and again on the next. Several days later, I listened again.

Did I finally learn to appreciate Interstellar Space?

Not at all. Even now, revisiting the album for the purposes of this article, I find it entirely unlistenable. It is so demanding that it impossible to think enough to write with it on. I can’t even make it through “Mars.” But the process of listening to Interstellar Space, the deliberate and persistent exposure to the otherness of this avant-garde album, was unquestionably beneficial to my development of musical appreciation.

Soon after my experience with Interstellar Space, I enrolled in a required undergraduate music appreciation class where I found myself exposed to composers like Stockhausen, Varese and Penderecki. My patience with Coltrane had furrowed a path of communication that assisted my encounter with these composers. The furrow has been traveled a thousand time since—it is deep and well-worn, gentle and smooth now, despite the violence of its origin. When it comes to music, I am no longer a helpless slave to an infantile attention span. I can immerse myself in musical experiences not entirely devoid of pain, experiences that unfold into turgid fields of intricate textures, as beautiful in their subtleties as they are sublime in their furies.

Am I suggesting that you download Interstellar Space and subject yourself to a week of musical masochism? Good God, no. I am suggesting that patience is certainly rewarded when it comes to art and that is better to check our impulse to dismiss difficult encounters in favor of an attitude of receptive openness. A little pain never hurt anyone, after all.
By Justin A. Burnett

Originally published on Lost in the Funhouse

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