On David Sudnow’s Ways Of The Hand

by Thomas Brett

They don’t seem to make books like David Sudnow’s Ways Of The Hand anymore, but then, Sudnow, who died in 2007, was no ordinary explorer of musical experience.  Trained as a sociologist, Sudnow took a turn inward in the late 1970s and wrote Ways Of The Hand (1978/2001), a remarkable insider’s phenomenological account of learning to improvise jazz piano that was based mostly on his own introspection.  The book attempted to articulate the lived experience of what it feels like to move one’s fingers about the piano keyboard, tracing exploratory paths and going for notes to make jazz.

Here’s a passage from the book’s preface:

“I’ve found that thus far unanalyzed aspects of the body’s ways can be closely depicted, for all to see, by the performer, and perhaps no one but the performer, especially one who self-consciously takes up a complex activity with as strong an intention to master its accomplishment as to try to reflect rigorously upon the experiences of doing so. Guided by neither an introspective, mentalistically inclined consciousness nor the methods of analytic science but only by the concrete particular problems faced in the course of learning jazz piano, I’ve pointed to various critical tasks faced when sustaining orderly articulated movements” (2001:3).

Ways Of The Hand is not afraid to attempt a comprehensive cartography of the terrain the jazz pianist must traverse to make jazz.  And contrary to what I imagine most jazz musicians would think about learning jazz–that you learn the “right” way, the jazz way, by just listening to the jazz greats, by mysterious osmosis in other words–Sudnow proposes an approach to grasping a (graspable) set of jazz moves.  If that weren’t audacious enough, in its intricate, rigorous, and poetically rendered details about the deep connections between the musicking body, cognition, feeling, and creativity, Ways Of The Hand also sets an example for a kind of writing about music that has had few followers since.  In 2001, Sudnow even revised the book (Ways Of The Hand: A Rewritten Account) further distilling its already austere descriptive language into something even more crystalline.

We need more books like Ways Of The Hand–books that look inward for answers, books that approach (and achieve) rigorous thinking through intuition, reflection, and practical experience in things musical.  Many great musicians never write about music, and many great critics and academics seek deep answers far outside the relationship between musician and his/her instrument.  But Sudnow proposes that the way can be simple: it’s right in our hands.  We just need to think about it.

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