A friend of mine who does not like jazz—especially anything that has a saxophone in it—told me once about a conversation she and her ex-husband, a serious jazz-lover, had over dinner with a couple, the male half of which also loved jazz, while the female half felt similarly to my friend. This second woman defined her dislike by saying something along the lines of, “I don’t need to sit and listen to a bunch of men masturbating,” a reference, my friend said, both to the emphasis in jazz on the improvised solo and to the fact that most jazz musicians—or maybe most well-known jazz musicians—seem to be men. My friend said she felt an immediate click of rightness when her dinner guest made this statement, which led to a long discussion about the comparison between music and sex, between improvisation and solo sex–though, of course, jazz improvisation is not usually done in solitude. What my friend’s story made me think about was how, say, a certain kind of jazz solo, where the musician explores subtle nuances of melody and harmony, or the various ways in which you can slice up a beat to create different rhythmic textures, corresponds to the kind of masturbation in which you use the pleasure you are giving yourself to explore yourself, either through the fantasies that arise while you masturbate or through the different kinds of awareness your solo lovemaking gives you of your own body.
Then I thought about how rock solos or blues solos or the large solo concerts that Keith Jarrett once gave all have an analog in masturbation, from the kind that is just a release of sexual tension to the kind that is an affirmation in deep sadness or joy—or any of the emotions it is possible to feel during sex, which means pretty much all the emotions of which human beings are capable—an affirmation of the fact that you are alive. Masturbation is, after all, as all sex is, a working through of who we are and how we feel about ourselves, of what we wish for, of what we wish to avoid, of the history of our bodies, of everything that makes us human in the capacity of our bodies to experience that humanity; and there is a way in which sex is the creation of a symbol of that humanity: in the pleasures we move through on our way to orgasm, not because orgasm is the only and necessary goal of sex (though in masturbation orgasm usually is the point) but because each orgasm, whether we are conscious of it or not, is something to which we have to give meaning; and meaning requires history, not only the specific history of the sensations that brought you to this particular orgasm, but the larger personal and cultural history that each of those sensations taps into. I know I’ve had orgasms that changed me. Some were solitary and some were shared, but all of them captured a truth about myself that I needed to face if I was going to grow, sexually and otherwise.
Talking about sex in this way reminds me of something I read a long time ago in Suzanne Langer’s book, Feeling and Form about how music is the symbolic representation of the process of human emotion and that it is this symbol which the composer creates on the page and that the performer plays into existence when he or she performs. Sex, solo or otherwise, is the playing into existence of that part of ourselves that is waiting to become, and sometimes we will understand what we are becoming in and through sex, and sometimes sex is what opens us up to the fact that this understanding is what we need to find.