512facvEFXL._SX364_BO1,204,203,200_Mike Faloon’s The Other Night at Quinn’s isn’t really about music, and I prefer it that way.

I moved to New York when I was twenty-two and recall two formative experiences.

  • Barreling over the Manhattan Bridge on a D-train – squished in a seat facing the rear, knees tucked against a man in a trench coat – reading Amiri Baraka’s “Coltrane at Birdland” (… to hear a man destroy it, completely, like Sodom, with just the first few notes from his horn).
  • Sitting in a folding chair with pinballs whistling and tilting in my ears me while Ben Monder, guitar in hand, cracked open Pandora’s box with a mallet from behind a wide semi-circle of cables and stomp boxes.

I learned in rapid succession that words are musical and that music can defy categorization. Faloon knows this too. My music history teacher passed along the often-quoted quip that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. She meant that writing about music can’t capture its essence. My high school art teacher used to say that you can’t paint the sun – “It’s just too hot!” He meant that we’re reduced to painting its impact: shadows, blood orange, and fuchsia as it dips behind clouds.

Faloon understands that music is far too hot for painting. He writes about the experience of watching it rather than the music itself. A series of quirky essays represent his introduction to free jazz by way of a Monday night music series at Quinn’s – a local bar in Beacon, New York. He knows he can’t describe the music he’s hearing but doesn’t discover quite how to write about it until later. He assembles descriptions of the town of Beacon, the walk from the car to Quinn’s, the scenes around him, the musicians, the music itself. Injected throughout are brief digressions: events from his life, memories, musings, associations. As he returns to Quinn’s, the memories grow more fluid, the associations more free, until he hits his stride.

He describes, midway through his year of music, a performance by Peter Evans and Sam Pluta:

“Witnessing Evans shove so many ideas through his mouthpiece is like watching traffic funnel into the Holland Tunnel. But those cars crawl, mark their journeys a few feet at a time. Evans has six – or eight or twelve – lanes of ideas barreling ahead, accelerators stomped to floorboards, yet somehow converging.”

This becomes Faloon’s defining conception of the music. The digressions become shorter (a single sentence or word), the references yet more obscure. He stitches together a hodgepodge of impressions, metaphors, juxtapositions, punk bands, movies, comics from radical zines. Faloon articulates the confusion of sitting in a room and experiencing something outlandish. He doesn’t stare into its burning eye, but paints around it, pirouettes and arabesques between the rebar and colonnades.

When music defies comprehension, I’m often surprised by how my brain files it. Ben Monder: drunk hipsters playing pinball. Mary Halvorsen: accidentally missing my first shift at a new job. Ari Hoenig: a friend trying to order a glass of milk at Smalls. Julian Lage: this many people in this space cannot be legal. Ambrose Akinmusire: snow.

Whether the first sip of coffee as Charlie Parker crackles from the speaker or the drive to New York to see heroes play in anonymous Brooklyn basements, music is a thing we do. Musicians have trouble admitting this. See live music and support local art because artists deserve it, music is powerful, you like music and might like this music too. I’ve never been convinced of any of that (though artists do deserve it). We should see live music and support local art because it’s a remarkable experience. Peek inside the mind of another, witness something truly wild or avant garde, watch cheeks bellow and air flow and feel the force of the action immediately. Faloon captures that value.

I leave each chapter with no concept of what the music sounded like, but a clear picture of what it meant to one listener. His attention flits from the ambience, to the loud party in the back, the cymbal hanging dangerously from the drum set, the sax player’s face, the pretentious conversation beside him, self-consciousness, euphoria, his to-do list for work. A sunset is no less sublime for being something other than the sun itself; the swirl and tumble of refracted light, more beautiful than a great, white hot ball. Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, but Faloon is graceful and there’s nothing at all wrong with dancing.

Peter Amos is a native of rural Virginia. The son of an English teacher and a librarian, he studied music in college and moved to New York City where he works, performs, explores, and writes about it. His work is listed on his site: The Imagined Thing.