La Niña de los Peines had to tear her voice because she knew she had an exquisite audience, one which demanded not forms but the marrow of forms, pure music, with a body lean enough to stay in the air.

–Federico García Lorca

When I was young, I had an embarrassingly obvious recurring nightmare about my classical piano playing. In the dream, I was giving a concert, playing one of the exacting pieces from my repertoire, when I played a wrong note. Instantly the scene shifted from the concert hall to Hell, where I was still seated at the piano but now was being lapped by scorching flames, the scent of sulfur thick in the air.

The dream did not bode well for my later ability to grasp subtle symbolism, much less create it on the page should I ever become, say, an aspiring writer. But more importantly, it demonstrated a fundamental truth about my approach to music—and perhaps to life, for in musicians these things are inextricably bound up with one another—during my early years as a pianist. It may be facile to say, merely, “I was afraid of making mistakes.” What musician, what artist, what human being is not, on some level, afraid of making mistakes? And it is just as certainly facile to suggest that this fear—any fear, but especially this one—is stifling. But what then do we do with my unsubtle, unsettling dream? If it is simple, should its antithesis be equally simple? Must one simply give in to the inevitability of mistakes? And if one gives in to mistakes, how can one then rebuild one’s demanding, perfectionist, artistic self?

In his essay “Play and Theory of the Duende,” Federico García Lorca explores the possibility that there are three abstract entities which are responsible, metaphorically, for the creation of art. The first and most familiar is the muse, of whom Lorca writes:

The muse dictates and sometimes prompts. She can do relatively little, for she is distant and so tired (I saw her twice) that one would have to give her half a heart of marble….The muse awakens the intelligence, bringing a landscape of columns and a false taste of laurel. (51)

Lorca’s style is freely associative and almost exclusively symbolic—he would not have found much inspiration from my dream—and so his essay resists distillation into simple, logical premises. But clearly the muse he is describing is Classical: if she inspires art, it is the orderly, well-proportioned kind, scrupulously obeying the laws of Aristotle’s Poetics, or the geometry of the Golden Section. The muse, let us say, was exceedingly kind to Haydn, and not too stingy with Mozart, either.

The second of Lorca’s personifications is the angel, who “guides and gives like Saint Raphael, defends and avoids like Saint Michael, announces and forewarns like Saint Gabriel” (50). “The angel dazzles,” he continues,

but he flies high over a man’s head, shedding his grace, and the man effortlessly realizes his work or his charm or his dance…and it is useless to resist their lights, for they beat their steel wings in an atmosphere of predestination. (Lorca 50)

Once again, this definition is difficult to pinpoint, but the word “effortlessly” is key. Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican may be too outspoken to obey Classical orders, but it is too inevitable to admit of any difficulty, any struggle in its creation. Fittingly, this is work inspired by the angel.

If the muse dictates and the angel dazzles, what then does duende do? Well, for a start, Lorca writes that:

he burns the blood like a poultice of broken glass, that he exhausts, that he rejects all the sweet geometry we have learned, that he smashes styles, that he leans on human pain with no consolation and makes Goya…work with his fists and knees in horrible bitumens. (51)

If Lorca’s definitions of muse and angel are difficult to distill, his definition of duende is impossible. Crudely speaking, duende is a dark inspiration, culled from human suffering (this is reductive, but it will do for now). More importantly, duende does not merely allow, but insists upon mistakes. Lorca writes of an audience member who, complaining of a lack of duende in a performance, “sarcastically murmured, ‘Long live Paris!’ As if to say: ‘Here we care nothing about ability, technique, skill. Here we are after something else’” (52-53). The something else, he goes on to tell us, is duende, and instead of technique and skill it requires a “scorched throat,” the ripping of clothes, the divestment of “skill and security” (Lorca 53). Duende is a jealous muse: it demands that we “reject the angel, and give the muse a kick in the seat of the pants, and conquer our fear of the violet smile exhaled by eighteenth-century poetry” (Lorca 51). Which is all fine and good, but it leads to the question: What is it, and where can I get some?

I find my answer in an unexpected place. I find it in jazz, a music I grew up listening to but never seriously played until I had left classical music—and my Classical muse—behind. But to understand how duende reentered my life and music, one must first understand a bit about the history and theory of jazz.

Jazz music arose out of the wreckage of a collision of cultures, a violent mishmash of tonal colors and vocabularies, each developed in its own right and then uprooted (as in the case of African improvisational field chants), reappropriated (Southern spirituals), or simply ransacked for its valuable spare parts (Western classical music). What evolved is a singular genre among all the arts: it requires instantaneous, on-the-spot improvisation, but within a set of strict theoretical rules. Composing a jazz solo on stage is rather like attending an improvisational poetry slam and, instead of coming up with sprawling free verse, producing a fully formed sestina or villanelle completely impromptu, with nothing protecting you from the audience but a set of lights and a microphone.

Yet jazz demands more than accuracy of technique, although technique and understanding are essential. It is a musical form which invariably demands duende—it cannot be played without breaking rules. And while it is reductive to talk about these transgressions in technical terms, a little explication may help illuminate how intrinsically transgressive all jazz must be.

One could begin, for example, with “blue notes”—notes used in jazz and blues scales in order to imitate vocal effects and give the music a “bluesy” sound. The problem with blue notes is that they are outside the traditional twelve-tone Western scale: to play them on Western instruments, one must in fact play out of tune, between two different notes. But more importantly, blue notes do not have an exactly defined place: if a musician plopped them down dead center between the two tones on either side, they would not be recognizable as blue notes to true jazz lovers, even if music theorists declared them appropriately blue. Instead, blue notes must be sought out—they represent a vocal effect, after all, and it is the effect of a voice breaking between notes, burdened by its meaning and its pathos. Blue notes do not strive for mathematical precision; they strive to show the inherent imperfection built into all human experience, and to do that, they must themselves be imperfect notes.

The same admittedly reductive technical point could be made about another technique in jazz, namely that of “side slipping,” or playing “outside.” The simple explanation of side slipping is that it juxtaposes unexpected scales against the expected or dictated chord progression of a song in order to produce dissonance. That is, the chords of a song call for one scale, but the soloist deliberately plays another scale, a “wrong” scale, to surprise and even offend the listener’s ear.

Of course, this definition is also incomplete, just as it is incomplete to say that blue notes fall in the space between two real notes. Anyone can play the wrong scales during a solo. Indeed, to an untrained musician, playing the wrong scales is usually easier than playing the right ones. Side slipping, in order to be effective, must play these wrong scales at just the right moment, in just the right combination, in order to surprise the listener without losing or completely obliterating the form. The beauty of the technique is in its careful juxtaposition of the expected with the unexpected; duende rips the flesh off the form, but the skeleton reminds us what it used to look like.

That these techniques are difficult to master is not the point. The point is that they both require a kind of abandonment of mastery: the muse gives us rules, the angel gives us technique, but only the duende can inspire such lucid excursions away from the rules, outside the technique. Without duende, I am back to my fear of mistakes.

I stopped playing classical music at the age of twelve and more or less never looked back. Between my already crushing fear of mistakes and the increasingly competitive atmosphere as I advanced in the classical music world, I had lost the joy I originally took in making music. I re-found it, though, almost instantly, in the form of jazz. And if I am able to write now with some semblance of confidence about arcane and profound points of jazz theory, it is because I have devoted the last eleven years of my life to becoming a jazz pianist. I feel fairly confident that I have gone further as a jazz musician than I could have as a classical musician.

Which is not to say that every time I sit down at the piano to play jazz, duende perches on my shoulder, infusing the music with a spirit of rapturous suffering and technical transgressive brilliance. Aside from the abyss that lies for all musicians and artists between idea and execution, there is also with jazz a constant struggle between technical prowess and emotional immediacy, between muse and duende, between knowledge and spontaneity. Resolving this struggle requires hours of exacting practice; and since the most important practice for jazz musicians happens not in the practice room but on the bandstand, it requires a fair amount of embarrassment and pride-swallowing, as one works out one’s problems in front of an audience and fellow musicians. Moreover the jazz world is exceedingly competitive: one will always walk into a club and hear a musician whose technique and duende both exceed one’s own. The jazz musician never stops learning—even from the same recordings or the same songs, over and over again—and this means an almost constant confrontation with the possibility of embarrassing, heart-rending, hell-bending mistakes.

But it is not a mistake if this description is starting to sound more and more like the classical music world I left behind. The irony of digging deep into my own duende is that now I see duende everywhere, where before I saw only muse and angel. Now I realize that classical music, played without the underlying possibility of mistakes, would be as flat and meaningless as jazz without blue notes. Jacqueline du Pré’s wide, wild vibrato, J. S. Bach’s relentless, over-exuberant modulations from key to key, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony blaring its “Ode to Joy” at the top of its lungs for chorus after unending chorus—what muse would dare claim credit for these things of beauty; what angel dare claim that his wings fanned their flames? I may not, at this point, ever return to playing classical music. I do not need to. I realize that the muse with her Classical Pantheon has no room for sprawling, messy genius, the only sort of genius for which I have any appetite. No matter: duende steps in, trailing symphonies of wrong notes; I’d rather slip sideways into the sublime.

Works Cited

Lorca, Federico Garca. “Play and Theory of the Duende.” In Search of Duende. New York: New Directions, 1955. 48-62.