Wednesday, 10 August 2022
Southbank Centre, August 6th 2022
Part of the ongoing show In the Black Fantastic currently on display at the Hayward Gallery, just round the corner of the Southbank’s concrete maze, the setting for this summer gig was an unusual one: the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall had been transformed into a gig space, with a stage set up in a corner and people wandering round the edges into the zone where the music was happening. This perhaps affected the vibe of the show—people wander around, find it hard to focus, the open-plan setting risking relegating the stage itself to a kind of background item. But perhaps that’s also the point—the music as part of a social environment, albeit one bracketed by ticket prices and cultural expectations. Trying to channel the vibe of a party inside an art space makes for an odd feel: but increasingly, as hip-hop and R&B artists enter the artworld, these are the social dynamics that the music has to reckon with. “Make some noise if you’re working class”, Goya Gumbani shouts out at one point in his set. About ten people respond.
Opening act muva of Earth led a solid, jazz-tinged band in songs about nature, positivity, and self-acceptance, accompanying herself on a couple of numbers on rippling, Alice Coltrane-esque harp, alongside the band’s trumpet, acoustic bass, cello, keys, and a drum machine. The music knows its vibe and stays there: a kind of hinterland between jazz, particularly the gentler end of the Afrocentric music of the sixties and seventies, (neo-)soul and R&B: a soundscape shaped by the sounds of the past as connotating a certain mood, a feeling successfully transmitted. That channelling of the sounds of the past as vibe—encountered as much through samples as through—in Goya Gumbani’s set. Another jazz-tinged band—bass, guitar, keys, and again, a drum machine—launched in with one of the familiar Ahmad Jamal samples prevalent in ’90s hip-hop. In their use by the likes of Pete Rock, those samples suggested a kind of critical nostalgia—the music of a prior generation, now often associated with middle-class attainment, repurposed to soundtrack contemporary urban realities. I wonder what their replaying now signifies, and how the relation between these different layers and levels of musical history relates to the broader project of the Black Fantastic exhibition. What attitude toward history might be taken here? Perhaps, though, these questions are too much for any one show to handle. London-based but Brooklyn-raised, Gumbani’s delivery tends towards a gentle upward inflection at the ends of line, as if every line were at once question and statement; the music gently strolls along at a jazzy mid-tempo. Gumbani is an engaging stage presence: the vibes are invariably good, even if the set lasts perhaps a little too long.
The pairing of the opening acts with Pink Siifu is in some ways a strange one. Presumably, they were chosen because all reference jazz within a context also shaped or inflected by hip-hop. But Siifu, it seems, has an entirely different sense of what jazz is. He can do mellow—and on other projects proves well capable of delivering the sort of woozy, jazz-sampling, gently mumbled post-Cloud Rap soundscape recently popularized by the likes of Earl Sweatshirt, Mavi, Mike, and producers like The Alchemist. But for this project, based on his incandescent 2020 album NEGRO, jazz, when it appears, is associated with a strain of politically-inflected Black experimentalism about as far from mellow as can be imagined. On the album—a sprawling of twenty tracks, doubled in number in a subsequent Deluxe edition—Siifu’s vocals—often distorted and buried in the mix—move through churning guitars, bursts of free jazz, everything from Amiri Baraka’s ‘Nation Time’ to the Black Panther Coloring Book, in response to the wave of police violence and the rebellion against it in the United States during the spring and summer of that year. NEGRO often challenges the distinction between music as energy, pleasure, and excitement, and music as reaction to trauma: notably on ‘ameriKKKA, try no pork’, where news reports on racist police killings build up into a chattering, feedbacked backdrop. Its opening words recounting a killing streamed live on Facebook, the track sparks reflection on the spectacular mediation of anti-black violence, the scopic fantasies delineated in David Marriott’s Haunted Life. Live, the news fragments form the introduction to an energetic number in which Pink Siifu encourages the audience to rock out, uneasily blurring the boundary between aesthetic pleasure and spectacle of blackness and class with which the history of hip-hop, and its representation in white-controlled media, has played such a pivotal role.
‘Tha NEGRO Alive Experience’ include a number of musicians who collaborated with Siifu on the album itself; this group previously toured Europe last year, but the music hasn’t grown old in that time. Chris Williams plays trumpet—often heavily processed—channelling the hard edge of seventies Miles Davis, where the trumpet seemed to swallow itself and be reborn as a kind of hybrid guitar/hornet/cornet. Many numbers are drenched in Grant Jefferson’s guitar feedback and Parker McAllister’s booming electric bass, while drummer Mekala Session. Siifu himself, wearing a vest and giant skiing goggles, moves round the stage, an electric presence even when he’s letting the band have their say. He functions as catalyst, bandleader, and lead singer, but he’s also part of a group: the energy is collective and shared. That energy draws much of its sound and fury from hardcore punk: ‘Run Pig Run’, played early on in the set, is a good example. Siifu encourages people to mosh at the end, and they do. But the music consistently refuses both genre and a stable pattern of mood or tempo. Following a high energy number, the band switch into a ballad on gentle guitar strums, but cut it off before people can settle in. A number from Siifu’s newest album, Gumbo—its title aptly suggesting his musical aesthetic—gets reconfigured from smooth and mellow to gnarly and edgy.
On both NEGRO and Gumbo, Siifu takes the feel of the contemporary, online playlist, whether curated or algorithmic—constant switches, a logic that’s sometimes rendered more subliminal than apparent—and takes it somewhere else. The music constantly chafes at the constraints of the well-crafted pop: the songs are too long or too short for smooth narrative trajectories, more like shards of avant-garde poetry than crafted short stories. Likewise, it has an ecstatically coruscating sense of the relation between genres, and of the signifiers—particularly racialised—that genres contain. In interviews, Siifu has invoked—among others—George Clinton, Sun Ra, Dungeon Family, and Bad Brains, to the latter of whom the guitar-based punk energy of this show is clearly akin.
This kind of thinking is not new. In the late sixties, Amiri Baraka’s essay ‘The Changing Same’ suggests a kind of united front of Black Music, from free jazz to R&B, putting this into practice on his album It’s Nation Time-African Visionary Music a few years later. Siifu’s invocation of Baraka’s ‘nation time’—here a kind of mellow, spaced-out reflection that sounds as if Siifu is either flying or floating from the heights or from subterranean depths—suggests an ongoing reckoning with musical strategy deeply imbricated in the ongoing history of anti-racist struggle in—and beyond—America.
Hip-hop is over four decades old. Siifu channels its original, hybridising spirit—not as a recognisable genre as such, but an assemblage of elements from seemingly incompatible sources, channelled through the verbal and moral authority of people who use their voice as instrument or the instrument as a voice, whether speaking, rapping, singing or screaming--all of which Siifu can and does do. Listening to and moving with Siifu’s relatively short set—perhaps thirty minutes in length—I also think of Miles Davis, whose music of the ’70s the seventies and its kinship with the hip-hop generation was so memorably chronicled in the writing of the late Greg Tate. At times, in spirit as much as in sound, the music also channels the various New York-based Downtown scene fusions of the early eighties, with its interface of jazz, punk and no wave, or the equivalent scene of British experimentalism, from The Pop Group to God, in which vocals are treated as a kind of structural or instrumental element, breaking down definitions of what we mean by ‘song’. Pink Siifu’s music is clearly what might be labelled ‘experimentalism’, even as the term ‘experiment’ is a misnomer: it draws on numerous predecessors, follows an exciting and still-relevant lineage. Is it an art music or a popular music, and is that an either/or question? The gig took place in a gallery. The music is available for free online: the record or cassette will set you back double figures. Whatever all this tells us about the future of hip-hop, its intersection with class, with social space, and with the available frames for art, Pink Siifu’s music is a real force, and this gig gave a good snapshot of its energies.
Friday, 5 August 2022
Played over two long sets, this is music of intense focus. It begins with Sieger’s throat singing and Mitchell blowing some spare notes on curved soprano saxophone. “Time to move on, perhaps”, Mitchell suggests, and Sieger, picking up the trombone, sits there holding it in silence for some minutes. Much of the contribution the musicians make is about listening: we’re beyond the logic of the solo and the showcase, into the world of sound and silence. As the percussionists set up a transparent wall of sound, Mitchell leans forward into the bass sax—an instrument so big he has to play it sitting down—and blows a single note. He sits back and folds his arms, eyes closed, listening. A pause, and then another note. He sits back once more. The enigmatic space between enigmatic notes erases linearity while forcing us to listen for linearity all the more. The notes form a kind of dispersed melody, each one an entity, a world or even an entire piece in itself, yet also part of a structure that could, potentially, extend infinitely. This is Mitchell’s gnomic method in a nutshell: his tone sharply precise and yet woozily loose; the structure intensely focused and open to any direction, within a self-limiting set of confines.
By contrast, the two percussionists provide a veritable forest of sounds and textures. On one side of the stage, Kikanju Baku leans over a drum kit with expanded gongs, bells, and wooden and plastic cowbells; on the other, Dudu Kouate deploys a whole array of sound-making devices, from a giant gourd filled with water to cymbals and gongs, flutes, a thunder-maker, and bowed crotales. Sometimes sitting, sometimes standing, Kouate in particular draws the audience in like a magnet. At one point, he starts swinging a pink whirly-tube—more officially known as a corrugaphone—over his head, narrowly missing the Wigmore’s vase of plants and the top of Sieger’s tuba, and setting in motion the aethereal strains of the harmonic series. At another, he submerges flutes attached to plastic bottles in the water-filled gourd so that they’re played by the water itself. None of this, however, feels like showmanship: Kouate’s playing throughout is characterised by a profoundly melodic sense, whether varying the pitch on a drumhead to play counterpoint with Sieger’s horns, or in dialogue across the stage with his fellow percussionist.
During the second set, Mitchell finishes an alto excursion to be met by a single audience member’s vigorous applause: weathering the interruption, he follows up with a piccolo solo that touches on the repertory associations of the solo ‘classical’ flute repertory yet ends up—and starts from—somewhere entirely different. He puts it down, never to take it up again. The music is like that: discrete moments, self-contained, yet bleeding into each other with cumulative intensity. It’s not about narrative, momentum, or progress, though some of the most effective moments contrast Mitchell and Sieger’s slow, fractured melodic counterpart with regular percussion rhythms, paradiddles and polyrhythms, a kind of elongated procession, pausing for thought along the way. Time’s doesn’t so much stand still as jump over itself in somersaults.
In rehearsal, Sieger notes afterwards, the band spend hours playing scales, and Mitchell duly plays a major scale to close the first set. In the second, I swear I hear him perform a kind of cubist reconstruction of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’. These moments—a kind of refractive woodshedding, at once private and instantly accessible—seem to lie behind Mitchell’s playing even at its most rhythmically-staggered and tart. Strangely familiar or familiarly strange, they echo the kinds of playing you do when you’re starting out, or the singing you might do to yourself at quiet moments—a point of access at a point of privacy, a threshold over which to enter the music. There’s humour here, and what I would go so far as to call love: a love that manifests in listening, in attentiveness, in a sharing no less meaningful for its sometimes thorny difficulty, and perhaps all the more so. And then, suddenly, Mitchell and Sieger launch into the Art Ensemble’s familiar theme tune, ‘Odwalla’, as he calls out the names of the band members. In the row in front of me sit a father and three teenage sons. Throughout, they’ve been totally with the music, even at its most abstract points. As they hear ‘Odwalla’, they nod their heads in knowing acknowledgment. Coming back to its roots for replenishment, this conclusion, as ever, is only temporary: renewal and resting point, only the latest stage in the ongoing journey.
Sunday, 17 July 2022
Since January last year, the Poets’ Hardship Fund, run by Tom Crompton, Dom Hale, and Alex Marsh, has been a lifeline for poets and for poetry. In practical terms, it’s a lifeline for poets because it provides them a little extra money that can mean the difference between paying rent and not paying rent, buying food and not buying food. And it’s a lifeline for poetry in that allowing poets to exist and subsist, at least a month at a time, lessening the physical and mental fatigue that crush out words, that dense, barely breathable space from which poetry has to constantly fight its way out: impossible geometries, a Piranesi prison labyrinth or an Escher staircase turning in on itself. More than this, though, the PHF has been an example, springing from the mutual aid initiatives that emerged in response to the government’s criminal mismanagement of the pandemic—the response is as much a symptom as the plague itself, as someone said at yesterday’s event. In focusing this specifically on poetry—with the proviso that the problem is a far wider one, and the capacity to link up to other such endeavours—it’s created a real and—to use that word again—practical ground in which that often-bandied word, ‘community’, might actually mean something.
For the last decade or so, my own experience of a particularly poetry community, scene, or whatever term you want to use, has been one of friendship, of a disparate and shared project of writing, but it’s also been one of fractures, disputes, controversies, oversights, often channelled through the academic or fringe academic frameworks—conferences, symposia, papers, special collections, email listservs—which still, to an extent, remain important sources and channels of activity, but in which internalised hierarchies and standards have too often seen an identification, conscious or not, with the institution that ill-prepared us to challenge those processes by which the institution, leaned on by the State, purges and prunes itself of any extraneous elements—us!—judged surplus to requirements. And this has, arguably, caused focus to be directed in the wrong places, perhaps, vision to become obscured. But by no means do I want to suggest that it has been the prime characteristic of these scenes. A spirit of huge generosity—which is by no means distinct from being opinionated, rebarbative, fully of passionately held positions—animates the small presses, magazines, readings and reading series that are the real centre of this marginalised work, and it’s from this spirit that the PHF emerges as a corrective or alternative, not just to the generalized spite of the kinds of life we’re told we should be living—or hardly living—blared out from a newspaper, billboard, or government message near you, but to the hierarchical blindness that can all too easily be internalised by those given a modicum of power—professorships, management and middle-management, what Lisa Jeschke and Lucy Beynon once called being a “mini-boss”.
The PHF and its attendant magazine, Ludd Gang, along with the small press Gong Farm—both sets of publications printed, photocopied, and stapled at home—don’t so much provide an idealised community, but simply a practical one, and one practical in more ways that the endless debates about poetic strategy, whether poems might be slogans, which party poets should join, etc. The bottom line is that everyone is able to survive. Perhaps these questions didn’t have to be asked, or to be asked in the same fashion, a few years ago, though one can hardly say any of these experiences are new. As someone whose experience of higher education was shaped by the 2010 lifting of the fees cap, the protests against which happened a year after I finished my BA, and whose postgraduate education was in turn marked by the sinking horizon of job prospects beyond fixed-term, temporary, precarious positions, mine is a common experience in which I’ve been luckier than many. In their founding statement, the PHF write: “The Poets’ Hardship Fund UK provides a channel for getting some money to poets who require it, without the kind of means-testing processes attached to similar kinds of efforts.” The story keeps writing itself: austerity, the pandemic, and now the expanding effects that have emerged from and on the back of these and into a future of rising energy prices, rising prices in general. Euphemism dominates, as the terms shift, in a language of metaphor, the poetry of capital—“the financial crash”, as if the economy were a speeding car, “austerity”, with its moralistic tinge, “cost of living”, with its language of pure economics, a set of numbers removed from the lives it names but ignores, “hostile environment”, as if this racist, anti-migrant hostility were a product of the space itself, rather than a specific and targeted policy driven by the actions of a set of people, the ideology of a class. As for us, we weren’t even using the term “cost of living” back in 2020: the language was at once more apocalyptic and more practical—“social murder”, “mutual aid”—certainly not euphemistic.
As I say, this is both new and not new. Back in the day, there would be occasional benefit readings for individual poets. Yesterday, the PHF organised what was in essence a benefit reading for an entire community, launching their new anthology, Ill Pips—the title a pun on the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) that replaces the old Disability Living Allowance benefit—and seeking to raise money to keep the fund going. When the PHF started a year and a half ago, donations flowed in relatively comfortably: since then, however, as the “new normal” reverted to the “old normal”, and the government support temporarily introduced during the pandemic was removed, more have started claiming and few have continued to donate. The PHF benefit took place, largely, in lieu of donations from those actually endowed with the capacity for comfortably survive—which is to say, the of salaried academics with permanent jobs has trailed off at just the point that the ‘cost of living’ bites. Instead, this was mutual aid: the community supporting itself, poets buying each other’s books from the table, giving donations—which, in a sense, is what already happens at a poetry reading with a booktable and in the self-sustaining world of the small press and the little magazine, but which here takes on a larger and more urgent form. What was billed as a “family fun day” took place at 56a infoshop, a small, volunteer-run anarchist bookshop founded as a squat in 1991, located a few street corners behind the labyrinthine ‘developments’ and destroyed market of Elephant and Castle. Inside, magazine holders and books from floor to ceiling, a collection of VHS tapes, posters and information, a small dog wandering in and out of the heat. Outside, the sun beating down in the middle of a heatwave apparently unprecedented in the UK, a self-assembled, malfunctioning barbeque—eventually replaced with disposable—a crate of beer, a table overspilling with books, in a concrete corner by the entrance to some flats. As much as a benefit or a reading, this was a social occasion, a summer party. To me, these occasions are still marked by that sense of realigning when events started to happen again late last year, persisting beyond the lifting of restrictions—the collective processing of a trauma, an interruption, a fragile holding together in which the joins still show. Perhaps this will wear off as more events continue to happen, perhaps it will always be there, something else to add to our losses. I don’t mean to make this sound like a huge gothic edifice, poet-wraiths congregating like a group of the undead Halloween costumed as so many Thomas Chattertons: it was a summer party, and it was fun.
Six of the eight advertised readers read: short sets, attentively heard. Perhaps inevitably, many of the poems were about those conditions that produced the necessity for a fund like this: the precarity of those within the university, the process of applying for work and state benefits. Nicky Melville’s poetry of the past decade or so has often charted processes like these through found texts—a project from a few years ago was based on tippex erasures of bank leaflets. The poems he read today used university brochures in which the words ‘university’, ‘student’, and so on, were altered to refers to ‘butchers’, ‘butchery’, descriptions of courses changed to descriptions of preparing meat. The poems operate on a knowing based on humour: the identification of a shared experience of alienation turned into a collective laughter that takes the deadening repetition of bureaucratese on its own terms and twists it against itself. Perhaps the most effective poem he read, though, was the short, single sentence with which he began: “Life is cheap. Living is dear”. The language of truisms by which economic valuation serves as the basis of life opens up just a fraction to enable some other term of, or beyond value, life beyond measure. Fred Carter’s poems manifested a kind of nervy, earnest argumentative lyric energy. The poems repeatedly speak from an individual experience to a collective wish, their insistent use of “we” and “us” seeking to create a community while also speaking from it. Laurel Uziell read from a new sequence about the experience of defeat, and a personal experience of police violence, first as a kind of crushing helplessness, the second, at a demo where the police where chased away. Laurel’s work, too has an argumentative quality, but one based more than Fred’s in a dialectical irony, a caustic-sincere holding up for inspection of socialized positions and perspectives that unfolds as a movement in and against the breaks and flows of poetic language. The poetry is consistently reflecting not so much on itself, as on the contradictions of activism, social life, the interpellations and mis-interpellations of identities individual and collective alike. Poetry is the vehicle to do this not because it offers direct, unmediated experience, but because it draws attention to meditation and seeks to work dialectically within it.
If Fred’s work largely addressed conditions in the academy and Laurel’s those of activism, Tim Wolff’s poems spoke more directly of life at the receiving end of the State’s slow violence, as expressed in the benefits system. As a volunteer from the shop—whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch—remarked in an impromptu speech that followed Wolff’s reading, the dole queue as a physical entity has now been replaced by an automated system, a website, an app. You’re not standing in a line; you’re on your computer, on your phone, on someone else’s computer or phone, as the site crashes or the phone-line stays on hold for hours at a time, replaying an automated message like a kind of anti-lullaby. The capacity for collective resistance enabled by presence within physical space—when you see someone on the line being mistreated and step in; when you collectively grumble and gossip about the conditions you’re put through—is replaced by forced separation, individualised anxiety, total atomisation. Digital bureaucracy and data gathering are the fronts, at once new and old, of a process of slow social murder. In Wolff’s work, the frustrations and despair generated by such systems translate into physical positions, each line a miniature drama of movement and statis—a line about ‘spinning on the sofa’ comes to mind—as the body exists in relation to. The poems didn’t offer the narrative by which such experiences are often described: instead, they at once resisted and sought for narrative, a through-line, a way out. But this was a language, too, of defiance and anger, of barbed satire. Verbal inventiveness—metaphor, simile, modes of often grotesque comparison—throw back the blankness of bureaucratese and name the conditions for what they are. If socialist realism could be reclaimed, it might describe something like this.
Sometimes, it can seem that every good thing is the product of something bad. “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly” becomes the new Victorian parlour stitch. The sun which this BBQ party temperatures the result of climate change, as the ironically-named ‘leadership’ context, in which a parade of Tory gorgons line up to compete for callous, murderous intent in the right-wing gameshow that is the British media, sees candidates threaten to abandon the net zero pledge: even greenwashing won’t do. One of the things, it seems to me, that the poetry emerging from our current conjuncture tends to do is to twist figures, metaphors, circumstances in on themselves, at once trying to cut through and further tie itself in knots. The poems—and the figure of the poet within them—act like the contortionists that, faced with the brutality of the state apparatus and its privatized allies, we’re forced to be everyday. The space of the poem is that of a labyrinth, a maze, a black hole, entropy and energy the constant balancing points by which the poem steers around and away from their central voids. That might suggest that the poems are always on the back foot. That would be true. At the moment, what other foot could we be on?
But poetry does not, cannot just offer reactive affective mimesis. A report on reality is written in the hopes of transforming it. Dialectic might be one word for the kind of work such poetry does. Another might be transmutation. Sean Bonney’s work was always exemplary for this: when, in the second set of readings, Sophie Carapetian read out one of Sean’s poems after Katerina Gogou, rendering—at least in this reading—loneliness a means of coming together. ‘and loneliness is power is sharpened and bloodstained is swirling is swirling’. This process of conversion—loneliness as power, atomised suffering turned into a virtual collective of the excluded, including ghosts, the dead, those minimum-waged or unwaged, done daily violence to—happens in the poem first, but we have to believe that it can happen outside the poem for the poem to mean anything. Or is it the other way round? It’s again a question of scale. Sophie’s other text, a sprawling essay, began with a conceit about eyes becoming fists, turned into an analysis of mark making and the line as systems of domination—in the case of official language, official speech, the shibboleths which enables people to speak— or-in the case of much contemporary art—of participation in such processes. It ended as a demand for an intergalactic communism and a reclamation of the idea of propaganda as a necessary force. After all, why not make the most extreme demand? Why not reclaim discarded, discredited words? What is there to lose?
One of Laurel’s poems contained a sardonic line about ‘form’ and ‘content’—the question debated endlessly in poetic histories and seminars rejected and taken up in new terms. In their speech, the 56a volunteer suggested a way this could be understood as a more general model, drawing links here between what makes a poem live and what makes solidarity real. Poets are not concerned with whether or not what they write is a poem: instead, it becomes a poem in the encounter between poet and text, between text and reader, an exchange, a sharing. Poiesis: “the activity in which a person brings into being something that did not exist before”. Likewise, solidarity is an action, a cutting across barriers: those suicided in prison, those on hunger strike, across the states of Britain and Fortress Europe and beyond, are not thought experiments, but real people for whom real action must be taken. The speech expressed frustration with the idea of creating ‘space’, of creating ‘community’. Sure, we need to do those things. But what about flipping the terms, and instead seeking to create ‘density’—a thickness, a concatenation of actions, of people, of poems? Such density must of necessity reach beyond poetry, poems and poets. As the PHF founding statement has it: “The problems we’re seeking to address extending far beyond any discernible ‘poetry community’—we see this fund as, at least, ‘a start’. The premise is simple: give when you can and take when you can’t.” In a variation on ‘from each according to his ability...’ giving and taking balance each other out: equilibrium is dynamic, against the entropic process by which the means and the will to live are steadily drained out, “like the use medieval use of leeches as a cure for leukaemia”, as someone remarked. Again, this doesn’t just happen in poems themselves—as condensed concentrations and containers of social energy—but in the social life around them, into and out of which the poem releases that energy.
Over the course of the afternoon, in the concrete courtyard outside the 56a infoshop, an audience of around fifty people, coming and going, arriving and leaving, made up of poets, but not just of poets, raised £700 to keep the fund going. £700 might not sound like all that much money, but it will be a lifeline for many. The Official Poets whose names you might see in prize lists and newspapers offer a specialism in ideologically vague poeticising—poiesis redefined as “activity in which a person fails to brings into being anything that did not exist before”. These poets won’t donate, won’t care, won’t be aware. The world that flares into existence at events like the benefit outside the infoshop is not their world. This is a world created by poets for themselves and for those who tread into its orbit; not a clique, not an elite, not a coterie, but a collective in its truest, and thus in its most fragile and most provisional sense. Reading last, Luke Roberts said something along the lines of—to paraphrase: “I’ve been doing this for a while, and over this time, many people have told me what poetry is or isn’t or should be. But if there’s any definition of poetry, what it can be and what it can do, perhaps about it’s this.” This gathering, this spirit, a mutual aid organised around words, a community that’s come together around poetry, poems, and poets, but that, in doing so, seeks to extend itself beyond the fractures that keep people apart, to overlap, to survive.
Tuesday, 7 June 2022
“When I got the call to audition,” he said, “my emotions were mixed—a jazz musician, being confronted with a situation on the Broadway stage. I assumed that I’d have to play something ‘stiff’ for the audition, but to my amazement, they wanted to hear my own music. I played for [director] Burgess Meredith, and he was quite receptive. First I played Frankenstein and laid back a little...He liked it but asked to hear more. When I played Riff Raff, I really opened up, and he was gassed...I had expected a stiff, professional job—nothing more. As it turned out, my judgment couldn’t have been more in error [...] The show really involved me and became my most serious obligation” [...]Underlying almost all Moncur’s reflections one notices an almost compulsive need to come to grips with the everyday world. For this the tragic insight of Baldwin's play served as fertile ground. The challenge to create music about a deranged social action became more than a mere mechanical exercise; it had a therapeutic effect.“Blues for Mr. Charlie was a demanding job because I was playing alone,” Moncur said. “If I goofed, there was no rhythm section to pick me up. I had to blend with the mood and pitch of the actors—every nuance—every inflection.When the theatre was empty, I would go there and practice. I’d try to project my tone to every point in the house—inch by inch. The acoustics were my only support, and I had to know every phase of the reverberation... The mood of the stage was always changing, and if I wasn’t absolutely flexible, the whole performance could be ruined. If you don’t think that’s a responsibility, try it.”[‘Flexible Grachan Moncur’, Down Beat, Jan 28, 1965: 15]
“That whole record was inspired by the hard times I was having in New York. I’d just fallen out with the first young lady I’d met in New York, and I’d moved out of my apartment in the Diplomat Hotel opposite Town Hall, which was the biggest mistake I ever made since I had a room there with a private bath and telephone for only $27 a week [...] I was a nomad after losing my room, and I was a gnostic because I had to survive in the streets by my own wits.’”
“the lands of Dada-Surreal a la Harlem, South Philly and dark Georgia nights after sundown, night-time Mau Mau attacks, shadowy figures out of flying saucers and music of the spheres [...] This music, even though it speaks of horrible and frightening things, speaks at the same time so perfectly about the heart and to the heart. This music, at the same time it contains pain and anger and hope, contains a vision of a better world yet beyond the present and is some of the most beautiful ever to come out of men’s soul or out of that form of expression called Jazz.”
"We performed [...] one time in Paris at a big hall called the Salle Pleyel, where we followed Miles Davis. Now, Miles had gotten a standing ovation. This was in 1967, [soon] before the student rebellion in Paris. And so we came on, and we were shocking to look at: Roswell was wearing a baseball cap; I was wearing a dashiki. And there was this explosion of sound, cacophonous, and we only played one song, one long piece for about an hour and a half. [...]When we finished, contrary to Miles, there was an outcry of boos – oh, it was terrible. But up in the balcony — where all the young people were seated, in the cheap seats — everyone was cheering. So there was a standoff for about ten minutes between the boos and the cheers. And finally I was asked to do an encore; it was amazing. And the following year they had that student rebellion, so I guess it was an indication of things to come."
“After he made the albums for Blue Note, he wanted to own his own music. He wanted to not only get royalties as a performer but also as a composer. He was told that he was never going to work again. Basically, he still worked, but he was one of the first to get out there and actively try to own — and did end up owning — his own music.”Shadows, released under Moncur’s name in 1977, features strong performance from vocalist Andy Bey on a set of standards and ballads, and is not what one might expect given Moncur’s previous work. The determined strangeness of the album lies, not, as on Evolution or Some Other Stuff, in the spacious inscrutability of playing or compositions, in its balance of the straightahead—swing, chord changes, ballads—with the textural oddness of Bey’s vocals, treated at times as a kind of instrumental third horn alongside Moncur’s trombone and Marion Brown’s alto. Dave Burrell’s typically expert composition ‘Teardrops for Jimmy’ is meltingly traditionally, beautiful, Bey entering half way through and channelling a higher-pitched, more emotionally extroverted, Johnny Hartmann, Moncur offering sweeping, lilting cadences in glorious tandem.
Tuesday, 17 May 2022
For Artforum, I wrote up the three-day Claude Vivier festival that took place the Southbank Centre in early May. Great in particular to hear pieces like 'Lonely Child' and 'Zipangu' live--all too rare an occurrence, though there seems to be a bit of momentum around Vivier's work of late. Vivier's was a career cut short just as it seemed to be entering a new phase--but such riches there, particularly in the last two or three years of his life. Despite the traces of Stockhausen in the earlier works--their theatricality, their derivation of works from melodic cells or formulae--and the affinities with Spectralism in those towards the end, there really is little else like this in music, in its singularity of focus, the strange ambiguity of its soundworld: waves of un-identifiable feeling, swathes of colour, beams of light. For context, Bob Gilmore's biography is very highly recommended. Hoping to write in more depth on Vivier for another project, in any case...
Photo by John Sharpe.
A few days before that, Decoy with Joe McPhee at Cafe Oto were sublime, continuing their periodic reinvention of the organ trio as if they'd never left off. Alex Hawkins on a vintage Hammond B-3 hired for the occasion, John Edwards on deep-diving bass, Steve Noble on absolutely thunderous drums, McPhee--who I last saw at the venue pre-pandemic, in a series of varied duets including a mesmerisingly surprising one with Áine O'Dwyer on harp and vocals--this time on tenor only, no trumpet (with occasional recitations of poems), taking his time, playing in bursts or sections rather than blasting in one uninterrupted flow, an immensely subtle player, though the energy he conjures up might make that easy to overlooks. This is a real live band, thriving off the crowd's energy and creating energy all of their own, they played for two nights, four sprawling sets, from floor-rumbling quakes to glassy high pitches and McPhee's too-little remarked lyricism (there's little else as gorgeous as that short early seventies piece 'Cosmic Love', recovered for posterity several decades after it was made). Somehow, despite the broader revival of interest in those of his generation--preferably dead and thus saintly--McPhee has to an extent escaped this sort of mainstream attention. Perhaps his career outside the circuits of academia has something to do with it; or the fact that McPhee isn't writing works for classical forces and the concert hall, those worlds that still, despite gradual signs of change, are arbiters and gatekeepers of musical value and prestige within the world of the avant-garde. Perhaps, too, class could be invoked, McPhee working in a factory for years alongside his musical career. Either way, it's almost impossible to believe that he's in his early eighties, and Decoy is surely one of the most sympathetic contexts he's had over the past ten years. Above all else, there was a real sense of joy and fun to the music: life affirmed, over and over. A capsule review of that will be out in the next Wire.
And within the same week, Dom Lash and N.O. Moore at the indefatigable Hundred Years Gallery. Scheduled as a trio, they ended up performing a duo in the absence of the scheduled John Butcher, the unforeseen combination of double bass and guitar a fairly unusual combination (though Joe Morris and Damon Smith provided an interesting contrast over the speakers in the break). In fact, that accident served as a kind of focussing device, in two sets fascinating for their textural detail and the concentration the detail afforded: Moore's playing admirably finding ways out of the inevitable Bailey-Rowe alternatives facing the non-idiomatic guitar player, a modest array of pedals swallowing up the sound like hiccups or stuttering gulps, scratching and plucking, cut-off gasps, or else exploding and expanding the sound with the occasional flying-fingered virtuoso run; Lash's scrapes and thwacks activating the bass's woody surface, all the nervy robustness of the instrument at play, tensile and tense. Gnarly is the word I'd use, in the all the best senses of that word. (Some representative video clips provided by a fellow audience member here.)
Mention should also be made of the album launch the previous month by another Lash-featuring group, Nodosus, this one taking in South London at Iklectik, round the corner from Waterloo station, a warmish evening, farm animals poking their heads behind the fence next-door. I've brought along a gigantic volume of the collected poems of Larry Eigner that I brought back from New York, the conglomeration of minute fragments in unwieldy, oversized form. Maybe that combination of the small and the large says something about the music that takes place, maybe that's just coincidence. "All matter / standing / build up / wave to wave" reads an Eigner poem dated May 10, 1970. And the pairing that takes place here--whether opposition, interrelation, transformation--of solidity and flux, materialism and what troubles its edges, is as good a way into this music as any.
Nodosus is a brass and strings kind of ensemble: John Butcher's on tenor, Angharad Davies on violin, Matt Davis on trumpet and electronics, Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga on zither. The sound they make together is, as might be expected, quiet(ish) and droning in its tendencies, but it's often fuller or more jagged of texture than might at first meet the ear. This is, above all, real ensemble music by a group of players really excellent at listening in groups, overlapping and building a collective texture that's not homogenous but finely abraded, interlinked, solid yet with a tendency to dissolve at any point. Lash, focused more on the bow than in the duo with Moore, was perhaps more assertive than might have been expected from his playing in Wandelweiser contexts or the quieter idioms of "non-idiomatic" playing: moving forward or holding back, leaning into the music's deep end or playing high harmonics as a kind of ethereal commonplace, commonplace ether, everyday magic. Activating the resonating surface of a zither with e-bows and objects, Lazaridou-Chatzigoga's sense of touch never ceases to amaze, succession of vibrating or smoothly oscillating held pitches ensuring the music has a drone-like energy to it all the way through, but capable of switching texture at any moment. What's fascinating about watching Lazaridou-Chatzigoga perform is the way you can see the sound shaped before your eyes: the pressure of object on string, of finger on object, the way that placement alters sound, live-sculpting, structures built and dismantled, textures thickened and lightened, tightened and loosened, a playing unassumingly yet at times overwhelmingly focused in its presence. Angahard Davies, too, is the most subtle of players, her approach to the violin so often a radical reinvention of all the cliches associated with the instrument--quiet, brittle, circling, not smooth and flowing and dripping with molasses-like pathos; and so good as a group or solo player alike--again, that interrogation of the surface of the instrument, of touch, a perpetual reinvention of what it means to play ensemble; while Butcher and Davis bring in a sense of breath, of extension and pausing, holding notes in upper registers and multiphonics, latching onto phrases that cycled, held, subsided. I remember Davis' playing, in the deconstructionist vein of Dixon--Doerner--Uhler--Kerbaj, from one of the first free improvisation gigs I went to, at the old Red Rose in Finsbury Park; possibly the Freedom of the City festival; Bechir Saade might also have been playing. It's not a playing self-consciously minimal in its approach, nor does Davis appear to have any interest in asserting himself as a single voice or element outside the ensemble texture; and while the tone of the instrument might lend itself to a certain melodic heft, leaning more towards the melancholic lineage of Dixon and its jazz trumpet associations than the noise elements of the trumpet-with-electronics approach, its place in the group is one of texture as much of melody (or conversely, of melody, as much of texture). Finally, it's perhaps easy to take John Butcher for granted, but every time he plays there's a new surprise to go alongside the vocabulary he's long made his own. A particular phrase he played at one point was one of those moments in an improvised performance perfect in their transitoriness, jewel-like, gleaming--and unassumingly as much a part of the music as any other.
"All matter / standing / build up / wave to wave". Yes, the Eigner poem fits perfectly, arbitrarily precise: the sound of these five musicians together combining over two sets in solid rippling waves. A few years ago there might have been some debate about whether this was 'eai', which school of Berlin or London silences it might have bene placed in. In 2022, it was free to be what it was, in all of that inscrutable and beautiful mystery. The CD can be found on Daniel Thompson's Empty Birdcage records here.
Finally...somehow I've only just discovered the existence of Marguerite Duras' children's story Ah, Ernesto!, via Duras' last film, Les Enfants, an expanded feature which later spawned her novel Summer Rain--one of the first of her books I read in a copy discarded by the local library or charity shop. (The original was adapted into a short by Straub-Huillet.) There's a reprint from 2014, apparently illustrated as if it were a cookbook, which I suppose fits Duras's austerity but not the wildness that austerity enshrines. From the looks of it, the original printing has some more (in)appropriately wild psychedelic images, including a giant Einstein. If anyone knows of somewhere I can get hold of a more affordable (French-language) copy than the £87 currently listed on AbeBooks, do leave a comment here.