I have a history of obsessions - playing the Bach solo violin literature on the flute - trying to reinvent Panalal Ghosh's flute. Here's one about Eric Dolphy. The piece originally appeared in Brilliant Corners.
There is an eleven and a half minute cut on an album by Eric Dolphy called Last Date which I think means as much to me as any music I have ever heard or played. Dolphy died in 1964 and it was probably in the late 60's when a friend of mine played the record for me. Dolphy's flute playing in "You Don't Know What Love Is" is transcendent. It flashes and glints, never touches ground, and finally calls across an impossible distance, like a ghost, the ghost of itself ‑‑ there is a sadness when the music ends that is more powerful than the virtuosity of the playing. The piece seemed to me so organized, so logical, that it could be considered as much a composition for the flute as an improvisation. I decided to take down the notes and attempt to learn to play it. I had a reel‑to‑reel tape player which I could run at half speed. This also dropped the pitch an octave, but the slower speed was too great an advantage not to employ. Starting and stopping, sometimes one note at a time, I began to work. Sometimes I would discover that I had taken down a passage in the wrong key. Dolphy's intonation was much more flexible than a classically trained flutist's would have been. Sometimes I had to identify a note by its color rather than its pitch. Often there were simply too many notes to hear, even at half speed ‑‑they disappeared into a grainy quantum‑ nothingness when I tried to resolve them one by one. And before I was halfway through the project, the tape recorder broke down, its stop and start functions overused and overheated. Once I discovered I had lost my notebook and for a week searched frantically, three month's work on a few smudged pages, then found them undisturbed in a studio where I taught one day a week. Who would have wanted my notes? The middle section of the piece was so difficult, so dense and congested, I finally gave up.
When I was a kid, six or eight years old, my uncle had a pond on his farm that was circled by bramble bushes. There was only one path through ‑‑ in any other spot, the vines and thorns would hold you back. It just wasn't possible to get through. Even in the path, my uncle had to step down on the vines with his big boots so I could get up the hill to the pond bank. The pond was in the middle of a large meadow and the brambles protected it from wading farm animals. It was not muddy like the other ponds that cows and pigs wallowed in ‑‑ its water was absolutely clear, at a distance tinged either with the blue of the sky or a mossy reddish‑brown.
At least a year passed before I tried to take down the notes again ‑‑ I think I had a new tape recorder by then. Maybe the sound was a little clearer to begin with, or I was able to concentrate harder, but this time, I began to get the notes. After a month or so, I was able to begin notating the rhythm. This was more difficult than I had imagined and I gave up on the project again. But I couldn't stay away from it completely. I played the notes along with the recording and after a while, I was playing most of the passages in time. Then I could squeeze it into an approximate notation of the rhythm. I had already played the easier opening and closing sections on a few recitals. Now I programmed the entire piece and played it with piano, bass, and drums. I don't remember the little recital, except that I took some time to explain why I had gone to so much trouble. It was not the first odd program I had presented ‑‑ I had played my transcriptions of Indian, Japanese, even Bulgarian music for these audiences. Perhaps the piece was well received ‑‑
if I was capable of noticing, I think I would have remembered a bad reaction.
There was a little pier which projected into the pond. I sat there with my father and my uncle and fished for bluegill. The water was so clear, I could see them float up from the shelter of the moss bank to pick at the worm on my hook. I had never seen anything so miraculous as those little fish, gradually becoming visible, as they swam up from what seemed to me unutterable depths. When I caught one, it seemed too small, and its sharp fins cut my hand. I let it fall back into the water.
On the back of the record jacket Eric Dolphy is quoted. He says: "When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone in the air. You can never capture it again."
I never played my transcription again.