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Brian Lynch and Hervé Sellin: Interpreting French Music in a New Way

Debussy's Music Lives On in a New Jazz Hybrid

Two weeks ago, I witnessed public acts of lovemaking.

It happened in Baltimore and it was beautiful, transcending all things physical through a new synthesis of modernist French music and jazz created by Brian Lynch (trumpet) and Herve Sellin (piano).

As I listened to this wonderful fusion of classical music and jazz, I couldn’t help but think how it represented a kind of procreation, the offspring of a passion-driven union of two great musical art forms, or “memes,” if you follow Richard Dawkins’ views about the evolution of culture. By combining musical memes from the classical and jazz worlds, the Lynch/Sellin collaboration gives new life to both, perpetuating them like children do with their parents’ genes.

In the intimate surroundings of An die Musik on August 5, Lynch and Sellin, joined by David Wong on bass and Shareef Taher on drums, gave the first public performance of compositions inspired by works of Claude Debussy, Erik Sati, Henri Dutilleux and Olivier Messiaen. The music, vibrant and at times haunting in its beauty, included jazz interpretations of Debussy’s Second Piano Etude and the third movement from the only Dutilleux piano sonata.

Lynch and Sellin spoke to the audience about their attraction to the music of modernist French composers, whose work spans the late 19th and the 20th centuries (at 95, Dutilleux is still composing). Like someone who describes what he finds attractive about a lover’s eyes, Lynch, demonstrating with his trumpet, explained to the audience how composers such as Messiaen used an “octatonic scale,” a symmetrical scale that divides the octave into equal parts, or what jazz composers refer to as the “diminished scale.” In other words, the two musical genres share something in common, and they seem to like each other − a lot. Lynch said he was “crazy” about the French modernists.

Tommy Cecil, the accomplished jazz bassist well known to Washington, D.C. jazz fans, also attended the concert. He said the octatonic scale is not unlike a blues scale, which is why it works well with jazz music, adding that the mode seems to break from the heavily chromatic sound of late German romantics (Wagner, Brahms, Mahler, Strauss) who dominated music until the time of the emergence of French Impressionism.

Of course, mixing classical music and jazz is nothing new. The successful collaboration of two other French musicians, Claude Bolling and Jean-Pierre Rampal, comes to mind. By focusing on a particular subgenre of classical music – French modernism – Lynch and Sellin have produced an excellent new musical mélange.

Following the concert, Sellin suggested contemporary jazz composers would do well to follow the approach of classical composers and develop a single theme with “balance” rather than incorporate a multiplicity of musical elements. After hearing Sellin’s marvelous take on Dutilleux, I hope jazz artists listen to him.

The Lynch/Sellin project is supported by a grant from the Chamber Music America and French American Cultural Exchange, made possible by the French Embassy, Cultures France, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Florence Gould Foundation, and SACEM.

Lynch said he hopes the project will continue, and that he and Sellin get to the recording studio.

Lynch won a 2007 Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album of the Year for “The Brian Lynch/Eddie Palmieri Recording Project – Simpatico.”  The Hervé Sellin Tentet won The French Jazz Academy’s award for Best French Jazz Album of the Year for the 2008 release, “Marciac New York Express.”

London’s wolf howls true and Woolf gets it right, too

White Fang doesn't sound too human.

Stories featuring animals have always been popular and not just with kids. One of my favorites is Robert Olen Butler’s “Jealous Man Returns in Form of Parrot,” a short story that wonderfully dodges the criticism of being anthropomorphic. Butler need not be concerned with the A-word since his tale involves a man reincarnated as a parrot, a bird inhabited by a human mind.

In truth, fiction told from an animal’s point of view can’t help but be anthropomorphic. The writer uses human symbols – words – to convey characters’ thoughts, feelings and emotions, whether they be those of a person or animal. Words, by their nature, infuse non-human characters with human traits and qualities.

The writer should be a kind of translator or interpreter, conveying an animal’s point of view in a manner that honors the uniqueness of a different species. For example, the writer can show how the animal perceives the world through its own senses, rather than making it sound so human one wouldn’t know the difference except for descriptions of fur walking on all fours.

And yet, the growing consensus among animal experts for the last 15 years has been that animals show human-like emotions. Jeffrey Masson in his classic, “When Elephants Weep,” speculates that, based on behavioral observations, even spiders may love their babies − and one day scientists may prove it.

At the same time, animals may have emotions that humans find alien. No doubt their sensory experiences are different from those of people. Animals “think in pictures” according to Temple Grandin. She draws comparisons to autism (she’s autistic herself), characterizing animal consciousness and thought as a highly visual experience, with heightened auditory and olfactory sensitivity. Animals do not display “abstract” thinking to the same extent as humans, even while sharing many similar emotions. This is where, I think, writers can get into trouble with anthropomorphism, when animal characters “think” too much and end up sounding too human.

Jack London’s “White Fang” brilliantly avoids such an error. How? For the most part London objectively describes White Fang’s raw feelings – his personality – without lots of detail about the wolf dog’s observations about his thoughts and emotions:

“If ever a creature was the enemy of its kind, White Fang was that creature. He asked no quarter, gave none. He was continually marred and scarred by the teeth of the pack, and as continually he left his own marks upon the pack. Unlike most leaders, who, when camp was made and the dogs were unhitched, huddled near to the gods for protection, White Fang disdained such protection. He walked boldly about the camp, inflicting punishment in the night for what he had suffered in the day.”

With simple and consistent objectivity, London shows us the wildness of a non-human protagonist who gains the reader’s respect and admiration.

Virginia Woolf’s “Flush: A Biography,” the story of Elizabeth’s Barrett Browning pet spaniel, is another example, I think, of getting it right. Her approach pays special attention to the dog’s senses, especially that of smell. Flush’s nose rules him, over and above his love for the mistress who takes him for a walk:

“The cool globes of dew or rain broke in showers of iridescent spray about his nose; the earth, here hard, here soft, here hot, here cold, stung, teased and tickled the soft pads of his feet. Then what a variety of smells interwoven in subtlest combination thrilled his nostrils; strong smells of earth, sweet smells of flowers; nameless smells of leaf and bramble; sour smells as they crossed the road; pungent smells as they entered bean-fields. But suddenly down the wind came tearing a smell sharper, stronger, more lacerating than any — a smell that ripped across his brain stirring a thousand instincts, releasing a million memories — the smell of hare, the smell of fox. Off he flashed like a fish drawn in a rush through water further and further. He forgot his mistress; he forgot all humankind.”

Here, the action of Woolf’s character is guided not by his thoughts but by his experience in the moment. Flush knows only his nose.

Whereas Butler’s delightful story of a man-parrot is a first person account that raises no issue about anthropomorphism, those of White Fang and Flush are told by omniscient, third person narrators that succeed by not being too anthropomorphic.

The challenge, I think, becomes more difficult when an animal which is not a reincarnated human narrates the story. The best the writer can do is to create, through interpretation and translation, impressions of the uniqueness of a different species, using words so humans might understand.