Sunday, 9 January 2022

Fanfares from the Abyss: Bill Dixon's Late Style

(Bill Dixon/ Aaron Siegel / Ben Hall --Weight/Counterweight (Brokenresearch, 2009))

Last night I dreamed that I had to organize a concert for the late Bill Dixon: but, on the day of the supposed performance, without access to a venue, publicity, or any other means of communication, time was running out. Dixon had sent a message that I was supposed to let Wynton Marsalis and Lincoln Centre know about the gig, via the cryptic means of a packet of kielbasa (I think); I was worried that I'd have to host the whole performance in my living room, and my failure to publicize the concert was in being denounced as elitist in various music magazines even as my laptop refused to function in order to spread the word. Meanwhile, Fascists were attacking buses which had been covered with flowerpots for completely ineffective protection, the wrecked vehicles lurching round the corner, their windows covered in tarpaulin, as enormous grey factories were being built by the side of the road, the fate of these vehicles apparently subject to the unstable whims of Conservative government housing policy. I'd found my way to a building that might have served as a venue, but as a university turned out to be a hospital--with the map outside showing a church--and staircases led to dead ends, elevators to sheer drops, and corridors back to the rooms in which they'd started, the typical low-level anxiety of the dream-maze seemed unlikely to reach any kind of resolution.

The night before, I'd fallen asleep watching a projection of the video below: a Dixon quartet performance, with Alan Silva, Mario Pavone, and Laurence Cook, from 1981. That experience--Dixon's choked flurries, whispers and screams and the deep, double double-bass line-up making their way through the mists of sleep--was made all the stranger by the presence of the announcer who, superimposed in his swivel chair at the bottom of the screen, speaks over several minutes of the performance, or again, live-translating over Dixon's interview (I don't speak Italian). Layers on top of layers, wheels within wheels, weights and counterweights failing to balance; it's all there, as much as it'd be a mistake to mistake whatever the manifest for the latent content within what any dreams does in rearranging the building blocks of the conscious mind. Whatever the case of this particular dream, in the first weeks of the year, I've had late Dixon on as a kind of tolling and turning: that sombre declivity or trough that is the arbitrary turning of one year into the next. Time, then, to get some of it down it writing, to purge my subconscious and to move into the year.

Bill Dixon's is a music which has to be heard, focused and concentrated on, or any sense of its momentum, development, and propulsive stasis is lost. His recorded history as a leader can be divided into several broad areas: the orchestral music of Intents and Purposes, his major recorded statement; the solo and small-to-medium size group work of the 1970s and 1980s documented on the solo box-set Odyssey and on his recordings for the Italian Black Saint/Soul Note label with the likes of Alan Silva, Tony Oxley, Laurence Cook; and a return to orchestral music in the 21st century, most notably 17 Musicians in a Search of a Sound-Darfur (2007), the mesmerising Tapestries for Small Orchestra (2008), with its five-trumpet line-up (about which I wrote a somewhat underdeveloped note of enthusiasm on its release), and his final album, recorded live by the Tapestries ensemble weeks before his death, and aptly-titled Envoi (2010). Dixon's 'late style'--as we might expect from late style in general--digs deeper than ever, marked, not only by the luminosity of music made at the end and the edge (reconciliation, harmonious resolution, etc), but, as Edward Said famously puts it, by "intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction". 

Indeed, if one were searching for an example of a late style that could be said to have refused incorporation and recuperation, Dixon's would be as good as any. On the music of his final decade, Dixon's music, which had always been profoundly introspective, became a subtle criss-crossing of textures and shades for which the analogies with painting--reflecting his own visual arts practices--are particularly apt: a chiaroscuro type of sound, taking place in a barely-lit interior or an indeterminate nocturnal outside, or the massed forces of blocks of sound made up of intricate and intimate detail that only reveals itself on a second or third listening. The music is invariably slow, even glacial, though there are bursts of energy that develop slowly, like magma or miasma (to mix natural metaphors). Let's mix some more. It's vaporous, rocky, aquatic. It's earthy and it's evanescent. It's almost always spacious, giving the quality of silence even when there's no actual silence. As Taylor Ho Bynum recounts in the 30-minute documentary included with Tapestries for Small Orchestra, Dixon once announced to the participants in a rehearsal: "Listen to the space in the room. If you can't do something more beautiful than that, shut the fuck up.” That belligerent, almost aggressive pursuit of beauty is what characterises all his music, which refuses a programme and insists on abstraction. But, as Dixon tells the players on Tapestries, while "people think of abstract art as mumbo-jumbo", in fact, "anything abstract, anything that is abstracted from something is the essence of that something. It is taking those things that shape and define it, stripping away the filigree. So that's what you're doing--you're going to the centre". And so too in Dixon's music abstraction is only the core or essence of something once everything else has been stripped away: not absence, emptiness, or vapidity, but a centre, a point of focus, a burning flame.
You can stand in one spot and blow a mountain down. You can dance around everything and not move a butterfly. It's the concentration of the energy: singular, and when it's compressed within the confines of the group. And that's when the excitement happens that enables you to create that aura, so when you want to play something delicate, it seems even more fragile. 
(Dixon, in 'Going to the Center') 
The power of Dixon's late works lies as much in his compositions and their realisation by improvising players as in his own playing. Never one to foreground himself as a virtuosic 'soloist'--though he worked perhaps more extensively than any other trumpeter in developing a solo music, as Odyssey attests--Dixon's approach was collaborative, a contribution to the collective texture of the music, and, in his final recordings, it became starker and more stripped down than at any point. Dixon had been working with electronic modifications to his trumpet--principally, reverb and delay effects--for decades, as can be heard on tracks from Odyssey dating back to as early as 1972, but it was around the turn of the millenium that he began to incorporate these as a key part of his (late) style, on recordings like Berlin Abbozzi (2000) and the trio recording Cecil Taylor / Bill Dixon / Tony Oxley (2002)  These effects were not always well understood by free jazz critics or audiences who, as Charles Wilson suggests in a review of the latter disc, might be "as conservative in their tastes and expectations as the audience for, say, the current Rolling Stones tour. Those who complain that Cecil Taylor isn't playing "fast and loud" on this disc are no different than those at a Stones concert who would complain that they didn't play 'Satisfaction'. [They] prefer to approach Free Jazz and Free Improvisation as genres with sharply defined boundaries”. (Eric Lewis' (French-language) discussion of Dixon's contentious press conference at the Victoriaville festival in advance of the performance further unpacks the (often racialized) critical assumptions behind such judgements.) For his part, Dixon stated that year that the electronics helped to bring out hidden resonances and added dimensions of the higher harmonics he favoured, "mak[ing] what is almost audible to the ear, audible". They also worked with a style that had changed as his body aged--he increasingly concentrated, for instance, on his distinctive, pedal register low notes, rather than the higher ones found alongside them in his earlier playing. In the liner notes to TapestriesStephen Haynes notes:
It is worth noting that all of this new work is framed within/arises from the context/effect of age/longevity on physicality coupled with stored experience, sustained study and daily experimentation. Just as one hears a timbral shift in the late work of singers (the past ten years of Abby Lincoln’s work) or wind players (compare/contrast Ben Webster as ‘rabbit’ with twenties Ellington to his ballad work with Art Tatum at the Patio Lounge in 1956: air as tone/note) that simultaneously evidences un-invited/welcome limitation while opening a doorway to new musical pathways, Dixon’s currently decreased employment of upper register multiphonics reflects organic change and the artist’s use of what is available to create new work.

On Berlin Abbozzi, we hear Dixon alternate between electronically-treated work--the basis for much of the lengthy centrepiece, 'Open quiet/the orange bell'--and untreated work for muted trumpet. It’s hard to know which sounds more fragile (a favourite Dixon word): on the final track, ‘Acrolithes’, both the electronically-reinforced delay work, with its emphasis on extended silence and on texture (popping, blasting, gusting, whispering) over melody or even ‘note’ as such, and the more traditionally lyrical muted timbre of the acoustic trumpet, heard ruminating aloud about a third of the way through, seem to bring out different aspects of Dixon’s playing within each other, not so much as mutually reinforcing balance (weight/counterweight) as constantly morphing dialectic. And so, even as Dixon's playing, in his final recordings, moved further and further away from the (acoustic) note/melody approach to that of (electronic) tone/sound/noise, you can hear the ghosts of the former in the latter. 

The work is silent when it is left behind, and turns its emptiness outward.

Showers of breaths, whispers, grunts, sudden blarts and blasts of noise, at once vocalic and machine-like, an aeolian series of gusts, eddies, and other airborne movements and a focused study in extension, decay and the perception of time. As Dixon remarked in a 2002 interview: "There is a feeling tone that has propulsion and the ambience of an enclosure that permits being inside the enclosure or riding the crest of it. It is hard to explain. One has to listen and try to get inside of the sound." The use of the term abbozzi provides one way in, referring as it does to the underpainting whose monochromatic base provides definition for the colour values in layers painted over it. Dixon again:

I like to do multiple layers. If it is done right, I can play three lines simultaneously. There is no trick to it. If I place the delay properly and long enough, I can play something against that, and something against that. That is my interest at this particular point. Reverberation takes the dryness out of the tone. I use three mikes: one for delay, one for reverberation, and a clear mike.
With Dixon's use of reverb and delay, every sound has its double, nothing dies away straight away: the sounds seem to fight off the effects of time and the weight of mortality and, if only temporarily, to win out a kind of floating, suspended space--part purgatory, part paradise--in which a process of reckoning and acceptance can be staged. In his concentration on extended techniques, his compression of the most minute gestures of lip and breath and valve, Dixon--as is commonplace to remark--made the trumpet sound nothing like a trumpet. But of course, this was really more trumpet like than ever, part of the dialectic of instrument and instrumentalist that has characterised Black music in America from the start. Over the ears, Dixon's approach reinvented the idea of the trumpet--the playing of younger musicians like Axel Dörner, Birgit Ulher, and Nate Woolley, or of his Tapestries collaborators Rob Mazurek, Taylor Ho Bynum, Graham Haynes, and his student Stephen Haynes, is perhaps unimaginable without him. 

Weight/Counterweight, recorded in 2008 with two young percussionists--composer Aaron Siegel and Ben Hall, a student of Milford Graves and Jumma Santos--was released in a limited vinyl edition with no liner notes and only the barest of information, and thus received less attention than others in his final batch of recordings. But, of all these, it provides the most extended opportunity to hear Dixon as player from his late work. Working in a freely improvised context--though Dixon eschewed the division between composition and improvisation, insisting that he wanted even completely improvised recordings to sound as if they might have been composed (and vice versa)--Siegel and Hall are heard as much on tuned percussion (gongs, dowels, bowed cymbals, vibraphone, glockenspiel) as on drums, giving the music a floating, meditative quality punctuated by bursts of slowed-down drama, like a quiet, suppressed explosion. Meanwhile, Dixon as the only 'lead' instrument--though any distinction between 'lead' and 'support', 'leader' or 'rhythm section', 'soloist' or 'ensemble', figure or ground, is soon eradicated--can be heard without the dense textural weave of bassoons, saxophones, contrabass clarinets, cellos, and trumpets into which he inserts himself on the orchestral recordings: unadorned, vitally present.

In producing the album without liner notes--in contrast, for instance, to the extended essays by Stephen Haynes and Bynum on Tapestries, and its release alongside Robert O'Haire's 30-minute documentary filmed at the recording sessions--Dixon more than ever seeks to focus attention on the sound alone. Given this, the words above feel so much preamble to an event that they can never hope to capture. It's hard to give the music a chronological summary, given its meditative refusal of narrative, programme, or anything but the quiet intensity of its moment of unfolding. Perhaps it's architectural--the title to the first piece, named for Le Corbusier's studio, suggests so; or perhaps it's painterly--as per the title to the third, 'Contrapposto'. Or perhaps, as Dixon has himself admitted, the titles are a kind of poetic extension that comes after the fact rather than the determining shape of the piece.
There is no special way to view or see or hear. Make up stories if it makes you more comfortable. Find the music programmatic, but know it wasn't done that way. The music and the dance are what they are. There are no stories, no symbols. One day we won't even have titles--or our titles will be poems in their own right. 
(Dixon, quoted in the liner notes to Intents and Purposes)
For me, the album concentrates the most into the twelve minutes of the second track, 'Hirado'. The piece leads off from a typical Dixon melody--three notes, spaced out and cracking round the edges--extended and delivered with such gravity and ferocious single-mindedness of tone that the minimal becomes maximal, a world contained in the progression from tone to tone, semitone to semitone. Feldman's work with the simplest of melodies in pieces like 'For Philip Guston' comes to mind--though their approaches are very different--here amplified by Siegel and Hall's use of resonant, chiming vibraphone like something directly out of late Feldman (and specifically, the Guston piece). Unlike Feldman, however, the concern isn't so much with interlocking series of melodic lines--an interlocking carpet-weave of patterns--but with a more constantly morphing texture. Gently, the three players seem to chase each other, become their own ghosts, echoing and spiralling out and giving the effect of additional players; or the trio concentrate down to seem like one spectral voice; and at any point, they seem conscious that they might as well shut up if they have nothing more beautiful to say than the silence around them. On a series of deep notes that push deeper and deeper, foghorn through the fog, dungchen from the mountaintop, the music transitions into flurries of activity, rolling glockenspiel and rolling drums that have picked up a clattery thing or two from Dixon's long-term collaborator, Tony Oxley. A succession of deep notes and breaths take things suddenly out: the sudden recession of the wind, the stilling of eddies on the waters, a cloud moving out of sight.

'Contrapposto' is whispers from the edge of consciousness, rumours from the sky; fanfares from the abyss, ram's horn blasts from beneath the earth. The title, referring, as so often in Dixon's work, to the tradition of Italian visual art he loved so deeply, implies dynamism and relaxation, mathematical proportion: yet this isn't about a flattened field of idealized beauty. Recall that contrapposto, counterpoise, provides a means of artistic balance through temporary dis-balance--the figure with weight on one foot, the other slightly bent. (Or, weight / counterweight, as per the record's overall title.) In this pose, the figure temporarily rests from movement, or prepares to take another step, caught between coming and going, frozen into the stasis of the artwork: movement in stasis, stasis in movement. Music, time-based and immaterial rather than plastic and fixed, refuses this balance--or, couldn't achieve it even if it wanted. And, if we've learned anything from the revolutions in sound ushered in by the New Thing musicians of the 1960s--Dixon not least amongst them--it's that the Greco-European Renaissance conception of harmony is, at worst inadequate, and at times complicit with, the racialized orders that form what, in his often-overlooked The Mask of Art, Clyde Taylor called "the aesthetic contract": what Sean Bonney calls "a hierarchy built on scalar realities that justifies social conditions on earth, where everybody is in their place, and nobody is able to question the beauty and perfection of these relationships."

What kind of a conception of beauty, or balance, inheres in Dixon's late work? Writing of the insistence on talking about Beethoven's late work in terms of death and ageing, "mak[ing] reference to biography and fate", Adorno wrote: "It is as if, confronted by the dignity of human death, the theory of art were to divest itself of its rights and abdicate in favor of reality". According to this account, 'reality breaks through' into art and gives it especial clarity that's supposed to be clear-eyed but ends up becoming, if anything, more mythologized than the artistic screen through which, like the rending of the temple vein after the crucifixion, it's supposed to break. By contrast, as Said summarises Adorno: "Lateness is a kind of self-imposed exile from what is generally acceptable, coming after it, and surviving beyond it". "Episodic, fragmentary, riven with absences and silences", "lateness is the idea of surviving beyond what is acceptable and normal. In addition, lateness includes the idea that one cannot really go beyond lateness at all, cannot transcend or lift oneself out of lateness, but can only deepen the lateness. There is no transcendence or unity".  While "death is imposed only on created beings, not on works of art", the artist--aware of their impending death--places their artwork in ironic or allegorical relation to their death. As Adorno puts it, late works "do not surrender themselves to mere delectation". Dixon's use of electronics, and his years of study in developing a personal vocabulary of extended techniques, amplifies and abstracts the sounds of human breathing and vocalised noise--cries, whispers, sighs, reverberant moans--via the mechanical prosthesis of the trumpet and the ever-present extension and falling away of the delay effect, not as a facile analogy with death and cessation, but nonetheless, as Said puts it, as part of "the predicament of ending without illusory hope or manufactured resignation". 

'The Red and the Black'--does it title refer to Stendhal's novel, with its motif of the titular card game, rouge et noir, and its combination of game-playing, chance, and the individual's negotiation of forms of order?--opens like a funeral march, rolling toms and a vibraphone melody--abstracted--with Dixon blowing spaced-out, single notes. To my ears at least, so much of Dixon's work--and again, it should be stressed, is purely the personal whimsy of one listener--seems to build on Miles Davis' solo on 'Saeta' from Sketches of Spain as the basis for an entire aesthetic--taking that depth, that maximalism of the minimal, that's only hinted at in Davis' performance, and building it into an entire world. And so, here, Dixon alone (with just the fainted bowed cymbal like the sound of the room around him), around six minutes in, like Davis as the solo voice of mourning on 'Saeta'; but whereas Davis, playing a part in Gil Evans' Spanish-oriented drama, declaims to the backdrop of a public procession, a noisy street band, Dixon whispers to himself, to whoever will still themselves enough to hear: what remains after the parade passed by, the stillness at the core of its activity, the abstraction to the centre. Over pitched percussion trills Dixon speaks out two final notes: melody reduced to its essence, "taking those things that shape and define it, stripping away the filigree"; a series of notes rising and falling, the placement of sounds in time and their cessation, moving, pausing, and then gone.


Monday, 3 January 2022

To Start the Year

I've never been one for New Year's resolutions, but here are some plans for 2022, noted down here for myself as much as anything. Needless to say: pandemic permitting.  In his book on Faulkner, Eduoard Glissant calls lists "inventories of the magnified universal", though they can seem to compress in even as they balloon out into unreachability (or unreadability). But with the past couple of years we've had, and their suspension or erasure of various kinds of future, their conditions of congealed impossible mourning, of warped realism, prediction or prophecy, lists like these are perhaps different ways of clinging onto a future. Either way, consider the list below as some sort of placeholder, as we all continue to literally and metaphorically hold our breath. 

  • To finish drafts of two in-progress manuscripts: one, called Never By Itself Alone, on queer poetry in Boston and San Francisco / the Bay Area (under contract from OUP), the other, which I'm calling Survival Music, on free jazz. This work was supposed to involve research trips to the US since 2019--I'm more than glad that I was able to make it over for a week in fall that year to attend the Cecil Taylor conference, and to hang out with Ammiel Alcalay, Billy Joe Harris, etc--and the longer trip will hopefully manifest providing things remain relatively 'stable' travel-wise and in terms of the general pandemic situation. I'm particularly excited about the possibility of looking at archival material relating to Steve Abbott and Karen Brodine, and--perhaps--of consulting the series of recorded interviews Frank Kofsky gave with many of the first/second wave New Thing musicians in the mid-late sixties, and which have never been published.
(Above: One of Robert Wade's photographs of Archie Shepp's group (Sunny Murray, Grachan Moncur III, Clifford Thornton, Alan Silva, Dave Burrell) performing at the 1969 PanAfrican Festival in Algiers, subject of this week's research...)
  • Time permitting, to work on another manuscript, (I'm calling it Working Notes because that's what it is), collecting various miscellaneous writings on contemporary poetry from the past ten years or so and telling some disjointed story about some of the currents therein. Which also means a story about friendship and 'community' and the adequacy of terms like community, how politics gets lived through lives and words, what poetry has done and continue to do in the specific and the general. This isn't a story the book can possibly hope to tell properly or with adequate measure, but it will at least--provided I actually force myself to work on it--be an opportunity to force myself to sit down and properly articulate my thoughts on writers whose work I've wanted to for a while now. Currently top of the list are Tim Thornton, Lisa Jeschke, J.H. Prynne (especially Parkland and the array of thought around Kazoo Dreamboats), and Linda Kemp (the excellently rigorous Lease Prise Redux, which I think about almost every time I pass the gigantic thanatotic skyscrapers currently rising high above Lewisham DLR station).

  • To put finishing touches on a book of pandemic prose called Present Continuous, written over the last two years in and around the shadows of those skyscrapers and coming out from Pamenar Press; to work on a couple more 'creative' manuscripts swirling around in more or less tangible and intangible drafts and states.

  • With Materials / Materialien, to bring out new books from James Goodwin (whose reading for the 87 Press at the only in-person reading I went to last year was more than excellent), Nat Raha, and Janani Ambikapathy, plus English-language translations of an anti-fascist novel by Gunther Anders (a major author whose importance is belied by the unavailability of his most of his work in English) and of work by Ronald M. Schernikau (who should be a radical gay icon but whose work is similarly scarce), and a potentially enormous anthology of out-of-print work to mark ten years since Lisa Jeschke and I started the press from a photocopier and a series of laid and mislaid plans...

  • To see the printing of the Selected Poems of Calvin C. Hernton, the manuscript of which Lauri Scheyer and I submitted to the press a few months ago; to continue working with Tonya Foster and Jean-Philippe Marcoux on Umbra-related adventures (our Zoom discussions over the past couple of years have been enlivening in the best way, even as Covid has ensure the three of us haven't yet met in person...); no doubt to get sidetracked along the way, to swim (reasonably) regularly, to accidentally cause the death of several house plants, to see if I can make it to the performance of Morton Feldman's six-hour string quartet, to listen to the entirety of the Bill Dixon Black Saint/Soul Note box set, to hope that the latest round of diminishing returns on the academic job market might resolve into something with a little more long-term security (i.e. to be able to pay the rent)...

Sunday, 26 December 2021

Rob Halpern's Hieroglyphs of the Inverted World (Kenning Editions, 2021)

Between around 2012 and 2017, Rob Halpern was in the UK every summer, and during this time he gave an extraordinary series of readings, in Brighton, Cambridge, London, whose echoes still sometimes crash off the walls with a kind of plangent whisper.  Lisa Jeschke memorably characterised one of these readings as lasting so long that it felt as if if it still hadn't ended. “In some ways it still hasn’t”, she observed, and this wasn’t really a joke. The reading in question took place at the Sussex Poetry Festival in summer 2013, held in the upstairs room of a pub next to Brighton station, where the shutters could be closed so that none of the sunlight from outside entered into the room, a kind of all-day poetry cocoon. Lisa Robertston read—I think—the whole of Cinema of the Present and Rob read a substantial portion of Music for Porn (or perhaps it was Common Place): two very different poetries, two entire worlds, poetics that engage with a kind of world-building, an attempt to map a totality—in the case of Cinema of the Present, in a luxuriant, sentence-based structure, in that of Music for Porn, a mixture of poetry and prose that curls in on itself with an agonised and painful rigour that at once collapses and extends the distances and costs of the so-called War on Terror. Though they were the ‘headliners’, both poets read well beyond the expected length, around an hour each; it was excessive, too long, too much—and it was thus precisely right for each of the projects and the way they move into and out of the world, pushing at the limits of what we can hear. Like Lisa J said, the reading still hasn’t ended.

During this time, Rob was working through the project encompassing Common PlaceMusic for Porn, and their refraction in the UK collection Placeholder: a difficult project which is a work of mourning—for the victims of US neo-imperialism after 9/11, for the loss of a lover that the work can barely begin itself to articulate—a ritualistic, repetitive, masturbatory one conducted through an eroticized register that, in the wake of Genet, Whitman, and New Narrative writing, drags us through the contemporary necropolis with a tenderness that’s at once deliberately repulsive and full of loving care. In their ability to convey a kind of ambient, immersive detail in the minutiae of horrific documents of the abuses of power, combined with a devastating queer erotics of mourning and loss, along with Rob's patient, slow, careful, sometimes agonising delivery, those readings were a vitalizing force—at once rigorously Marxist, queer, and committed, through a verse line sometimes knottily prosaic in its unfolding and a prose line verse-like in its lyrical concatenations, its devotional circulations. (The impact of that work on a transatlantic poetic community—or, perhaps more accurately, several intersecting communities--can be illustrated by the special Crisis Inquiry volume of Damn the Caesars that Richard Owens edited around this time, jointly dedicated to the work of Halpern and Keston Sutherland). Since Placeholder, Rob’s work has moved on, even as the formal features and many of the thematic concerns remain: in 2017, a veer pamphlet called Touching Voids in Sense came out with little fanfare, but was, for me, one of Halpern’s finest achievements, its amped-up play with sound, a rhyming insistence sometimes deliberately verging on doggerel, suffusing a painful reckoning with that personal loss the previous work had skirted around, via meditations on a photography by Mike Kelley reproduced on the cover; and then last year (though written earlier), came Fertility, published by Sara Crangle and Sam Ladkin’s Sancho Panzo press, a set of love poems with the characteristic reflexive torque of Halpern’s verse, but with a lighter tone—one might almost call them charming, something that could hardly be said of the preceding Music for Porn-Common Place Inferno.

Now comes Halpern’s latest. The 28 poems that make up Hieroglphys of the Inverted World, none longer than two pages, were written, as Halpern notes in the book’s long afterword, in the atmosphere of the far right rallies at Charlottesville in 2017, through the period extending into the moment of corona crisis in 2020. As such, they function as something of a failed daybook, a stop-start diary full of gaps, ellipses pauses or smoothed-over transitions, like the rub of imperfectly-sanded wood, the visible superglue on broken plastic or metal, the Polyfilla on the crack in the wall. The book’s title, and its explanation in the afterword, ‘For a Hieroglyphic Poetics’, refigure such fractured “calendrics” through a kind of after-the-fact schematisation by which discrete lyrics are joined into the coherent incoherence of a book. Both the hieroglyphs and the inverted world are Marx’s terms for the operations of capital, the structural prism in and through which the world is viewed upside down, the most ‘unnatural’ and distorted of social relations enshrined as the norm. 
Value, therefore, does not stalk about with a label describing what it is. It is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, we try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of our own social products; for to stamp an object of utility as a value, is just as much a social product as language.
(In today’s climate this process gets once more concealed under that murderously snappy slogan “the new normal”; but it is better understood as what Adorno, half-a-century before, called “the heritage of the ancient spell—the new form of the myth of the ever-same”.)

A poem is, Halpern suggests, both a good and a bad place to figure “the narrow path of the totality”. Within the frame of the poem, and if one is not Zukofsky attempting to set Marx to Cavalcanti, poems have tendency to evade their concepts, either too light or too blunt a hammer for the task; and if, as per Marx, the Hegelian dialectic must in turn be “inverted”, turned right side up, the rush of blood streaming down the body when one spends too long standing on one’s head risks its own kind of hallucinatory distortion. Yet it is this impulse that, as Césaire observed of Lautréamont, that also gives poetry is particular brand of (sur)realism in chronicling that “inverted world”; and in the past few years of imperial afterlives as much as the era of 19th century imperialism, such distortions more than match the distorted world around. Consequently, a real Baudelarian spleen, new to Halpern’s work, suffuses the anti-Fascist fury of some of the earlier poems: “in my tongue-torqued tuna-slag the fascists are totally fucked / They puke their boiled prawns on my dream of corn & fat” (13) writes Halpern, insisting on his right “to smother / [fascists] in their own puke” while sarcastically observing “they fashion the worst haircuts too” (22). Later poems become less gleeful, more mournful, as Halpern (re)turns to the bloody viscera  familiar from his earlier work: the victims of bombings and torture spread out across a landscape at once real and imagined, in which “common sense” and “common place” are distorted echoes as akin to black sites where torture, erasure and incarceration underwrite whatever script’s read out on the evening news or the propaganda of official verse, official statistic, official silence. Here Halpern reiterates the concerns of his previous work with deliberate obsessiveness for which rhyme’s absurd recurrence forms a useful figure (more on that presently): homonationalism, the war on terror, the unspeakable trauma of the AIDS crisis, personal loss, the rising inequalities of a hometown—San Francisco—in which the tech boom, the opioid crisis, homelessness, the radical alteration of the city’s social landscape index the changing structure through which the wealthier realms of the ‘western world’ view life as such—the screens of social media, their bases a few miles away from where Halpern might write the poem. 

Building on Halpern’s tutelary immersion in New Narrative writing, much of his previous work sees the erotic as the primary valence through which such concerns are figured, from the radically compromised devotional erotics of Music for Porn and Common Place and their Genet-ian love poems to the dead, the beautifully bungled, self-sabotaging love poems in the chapbook Fertility. That’s perhaps less the case in these Hieroglpyhs, where the erotic occurs alongside a broader range of dedications—to Halpern’s daughter, Laia-Rose, to his late father, to Sean Bonney and to Andrea Brady—and on less programmatic lines. Yet Halpern nonetheless continues to borrow from the erotic and more-than-erotic methodologies of the Romantics and the Metaphysical poets in particular. As he suggests in the afterword, via Anahid Nersessian’s recent The Calamity Form, these are poets whose approach to the collapsed distances of simile, metaphor, rhyme, and other forms of metonymy reproduce the changing scalar dimensions of the growth of racial capitalism, from the initial colonial moments of the Early Modern era and its extensions into the Americas, to the growth of the Industrial Revolution and the Atlantic expansion of the triangular trade. Like these emergent and expanding forms of capital, the conceit, wordplay and wit, maintain multiple dimensions at once, at once an expansion and a compression, or what Halpern might, in today’s terms, name “a ‘kill box’ collapsing space [...] the interior of a prison cell like another hoary figure for the soul” (38). 

This receives perhaps its clearest expression in one of the longer poems in the book, Halpern’s elegy-cum-verse essay, “for & after” Sean Bonney: 
 Counterfeiting stones to rhyme with what I can’t even hear 
 Inaudible substance of catastrophe a heavy-handed conceit [...] 
                                                                           like the soul 
 In Donne’s Funerall where the poet compares his to a wreathe 
 Of braided hair laced round his lover’s shrouded writs 
 Confusing the spirit that inspires his verse with a cuff 
 Or cop-lock affirming the vehicle’s power to collapse mystery. (36) 
For Halpern, as in Donne, this metaphysical collapse maps the image of the beloved, of fulfilled or frustrated desire, onto the cartographic extensions and concealments of imperialism and its mirrors in a language which enables and justifies—or at least normalises, renders into common sense—this movement. (Again, that naming and renaming of conquered territory, “the names of occupied places & lands / And how each enlarges a colony”.)  Here are some of those cartographies: constantly recurring images of body parts and the desires they arise juxtaposed with the tortured bodies and corpses of the War on Terror and the occupation of Palestinian lands: the erasure from maps and physical locations of dwellings, which, raised according to Zionist tenets, Halpern “was told as a kid / never existed as places” (26); the bones of buried Palestinians ground up to simulate the sands of a beach in Ramallah (27); the victims of drone strikes or the wounded soldiers of occupying armies juxtaposed with Halpern’s interactions with his one-year old daughter; the poet writing the poem alongside the workers in Shenzen or Ghuangzho (20) who produce the earpieces and computer devices he uses to communicate internationally or the clothes he wears, in a parody of globalisation’s distances, at once collapsed through technologically-advanced commodities and radically extended through the gap between Global North and Global South. 

For Halpern: “What appears to be the most obvious of things—be it the self-evidence of everyday life, or the social violence erased in that self-evidences—arrives dispossessed of a language not already structured by the violence it might wish to oppose or decry” (49). The aim, then, is not a revelation of a tenderness that might outstrip such conditions—a tenderness that reaches its parodic peak in Halpern’s images of erotic fantasy and commune with the corpses of US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and of Guantanamo Bay detainees in Music for Porn and Common Place—but of the inextricability of a language of love, desire, tenderness and care from the structural conditions in which these affects are produced. For Halpern, the poem thus evinces a kind of Marxist version of “negative capability” challenging the irritable facts and reasons of what passes for common sense in the “inverted world” where unequal social relations are reified as normality, where abstraction of value and the commodity form is the ground on which relations from the most minute to the largest are conducted; “whose unspeakable aim might be to abolish its own conditions, something the poem is only ever too frail to do” (57). Poetry is at once both the ideal site for such analysis and something which, precisely because it moves beyond the analysis of diagnostic, prosaic language, gestures beyond itself and beyond the social conditions which produce it and in which it is produced: “In other words, diagnosis of our conditions always lies elsewhere [...] the poem’s competence is [...] as a point of departure [...] a move beyond the poem, out of poetry, headlong & recklessly into the world” (57). 

In metaphor, simile, and other forms of conceit, one thing stands for another thing, but they don’t line up as do the balanced parts of an equation or a fraction, the components of a sum. Relatedly, in its play with various forms of rhythmic counting, parallelism, the numbered parcelling out of syllables and other particles of sound, poetry may gesture at mathematics, but it lacks the forms of closure, or even the paradoxical logics of set and chaos theory. Likewise, it may gesture at music, but a music that’s lost the flow of sound, one which is blocked and dammed by the stumbling block of word on page (or perhaps vice versa). These paradoxes and double-binds—which are not, perhaps, fully-formed dialectics—once more for Halpern find their expression in the titular figure of the hieroglyph, taken both, as we’ve seen, from Marx, and from Johann Wilhem Ritter via Walter Benjamin (with Etel Adnan’s Arab Apocalypse ever in view). For Ritter, Halpern suggests, the hieroglyph is a sign that stands in for sound, a fixed mark that stands in for movement, a compressed point that contains a kind of transparent secret, were we to know how to read it, and the book’s cover design incorporates fragments Ritter’s sound diagrams, cut in half by the spine. The hieroglyph is thus a useful jumping-off point for the way these poems work with sound. “Purposeless rhymes mute forgotten / Crimes” (38), Halpern writes in the poem dedicated to Sean Bonney; or again, in the following poem, for Andrea Brady: “I think of the names of occupied places & lands / And how each enlarges a colony as if the word / Itself were a spit of sand in my mouth” (39). At times, sound forms an alternative way of knowing. In the same poem, Halpern notes his daughter Laia-Rose’s imitation of a seagull on the beach, “soaring in some divine imitation she soars the air / Parts as it would for a word like ‘bird’ it brings / Her closer to the world its creatures & mysteries” (39)—for the moment, a counter-possibility to the colonial mimesis, its naming and renaming of erased place names, redrawn borders on the map, from Afghanistan to Palestine, which occupies the rest of the poem. Likewise, in the concluding poem, ‘Hieroglyph No.11520’, dedicated to Laia-Rose, Halpern recalls the recitation of Delmore Schwartz’s ‘I Am Cherry Alive, The Little Girl Sang’ to his daughter during the first year of her life as a daily ritual. Here, poetry—particularly the jingling sonic pleasure of rhyme—is lullaby, balm and joyous invention, with “not one rhyme excluded” (45), “as if truth / Were hiding in some alphabetic trance where it reaches us / Thru a veil this screen of rhymes” (46). But a poem cannot include every rhyme, and rhyme’s infinity forms a clanging bad metaphor for the impossibility of imagining elsewhere, a perpetual echo to narcissus’ ever-same, the poem a mirror to nature only in that nature’s ‘self-evidence’ is that of the totalising sphere of global racial capitalism, with all its extractivist terror. 

Ultimately, then, the rhyme, the conceit, the metaphor, the simile, and all those forms of heightened language contained with the serial cell of the poem recur as a repeated, and traumatic re-staging of the poem’s own failure to grasp and encompass the common sense and common place it seeks: 
This model falls flat the conceit’s useless 
To do anything more than what poetry has always done 
To arouse the ache for communion or the rage that joins
Its loss [.] (37)
To many readers, this aroused ache will hardly seem “useless”: “To arouse the ache for communion or the rage that joins / Its loss” is surely as good a slogan or a programme for poetry as any, even as it within its very form is staged that collapse, that breaking apart so central to the book, easing as it does into iambics before the polysyllables of “communion” break it apart, extending into the line break between ‘joining’ and ‘loss’ that contradictions its very urge for communion or joining with their opposites. This double movement—that of utopian assertion and formal negation—doesn’t so much cancel out as further the project of deciphering the hieroglyphs that surround us, reading the unreadable, in aching rage against the losses the daily we hide from and are hidden from us. In doing so, the ache and the rage of Halpern’s verse trace a music intensely moving in its repeated commitment: “To exceed its limit in a movement beyond the shattered sight of glass: to conceive what’s inconceivable as part of a larger effort to abolish the conditions of that impossibility” (59).

Wednesday, 8 December 2021


I talked to Diedre Murray earlier in the year, and that interview is now out in Point of Departure, thanks, as ever, to Bill Shoemaker. We touch on her career as a cellist in improvised music, including her work with Larry Young (Khalid Yasin) in the 'Lawrence of Newark' band, with Henry Threadgill and Marvin Hannibal Peterson, with Fred Hopkins, with The Roots, and as a composer for the stage. A respected figure in the world of musical theatre for her arrangements of Gershwin, her collaboration with the likes of Chesney Snow, and as a composer of operas and musicals, Murray's prior career as an improviser has been sorely neglected in the often male-centric world of jazz criticism, but it's a crucial part of the legacy of American (and global) improvised  music. Hopefully this interview brings it some of the attention it deserves.

Also in the new Point of Departure, reviews of a Sam Rivers session, Undulation, and of the newly-rediscovered recording of John Coltrane performing the 'A Love Supreme' suite with an expanded group live in Seattle.  Another talk on that album, focusing more on its social and historical context, appears at Artforum, here.

And my essay on Gabrielle Daniels, writer-choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones, and New Narrative appears in Journal of Narrative Theory.

Other things in the pipeline meanwhile, on the 'Occult School of Boston', musical responses to the Attica uprising, etc...

Thursday, 11 November 2021

Ligeti in November

As Ligeti’s Horn Trio ends, its principal motif seems to erase itself in front of our ears, disappearing into the void by a process of subtraction: one by one, each player lifts each finger off keys, strings, horn valves, the ensuing silence extended as if daring and denying the applause to come. This principal motif, an inverted version of the ‘farewell’ theme from Beethoven’s sonata Les Adieux, opens the entire work in relatively straightforward form; in the second movement, it’s given a tripping ‘Bulgarian’ rhythmic surge, rendered ostinato; and in this final movement, too, it serves as a passacaglia, a simple three-note figure, constantly descending, getting up, and rising again as the piano gets louder and louder, the horn gets lower and lower and the violin higher and higher. The descending figure with its conventional associations with falling tears; the ascending high pitch with its association with intense emotion, the scream or sob, rendered into structural elements, pulling apart. And then, as it all grand to a halt, instead of the ostinato, the incessant repetition in which no gap is permitted, we have silence: instead of reiteration, the impossibility of adequate iteration at all. Given that the majority of Ligeti’s family died in the Shoah, pianist Tamara Stefanovich suggested while introducing the piece, these subtracted notes assume the weight of the unsayable or unsaid. Ligeti himself likened it to “the photograph of a landscape which in the meantime has dissipated into nothingness”.

In that silence, sounds of the practice rooms elsewhere in the building filtering in, the inevitable sirens, the clunk of goods or people being transported, a bus or train. So too in the many pianissimo passages, silence and near-silences of Kurtag’s Kafka Fragments and 12 Microludes that we’d heard earlier on the programme Stefanovich curated for a free November concert at the Royal Academy of Music: silence that can’t be silence but can’t be eloquent either, perpetually interrupted, prologue to making sense of making an end, or making a beginning, that making and unmaking shakes assurance in the histories that tradition enshrines and erases. In the case of Ligeti’s trio, that tradition is late Beethoven, is Brahms, their works of farewell—Brahms’ own Horn Trio his elegy for his mother; Beethoven’s Adieux bidding farewell in the midst of wars, whether to a whole assembly or city or to an individual, its ambiguously poised programme. Both those works themselves play variants on the horn’s blaring forested aura: “as soon as he pronounced the word horn”, Ligeti remarked, “somewhere inside my head I heard the sound of a horn as if coming from a distant forest in a fairy tale, just as in a poem by Eichendorff”. And so it’s wanderlust and escape, nostalgia and regret—but too it’s Bruckner’s solemn hymns blaring out and besmirched in Bayreuthian Babylon, rendered window-dressing for an ideology of mass extermination.
In 1968, Ligeti identified the emergence of horns within the dense orchestral texture of Lontano (Distance) as providing a historical perspective: late Romanticism, the tutti of Bruckner, Mahler, Wagner, the coda to the slow movement of Bruckner’s Eighth itself a kind of recall of Schubert; the horns heard from long ago, already signifiers of the distant and the past. Hunting calls and farewells, last posts and ghosts. In the Trio, Ligeti bends that horn around, alters its timbre, emphasizing the quarter tones enabled by the horn’s natural tuning: those tones that, within the context of the western classical pitch system, come to sound precisely ‘off-pitch’, ‘unnatural’, and whose swooning, stomping quality are essentially to the woozy, unnerving character of the music as a whole. This ‘mistuned music’: the rhythms by concert standard off-kilter, the tones off-pitch. The music ‘non-atonal’, but neither conventionally tonal, as Kurtag’s Microludes too examine and dismantle each note of the chromatic scale in miniatures and gaps, off pitch-pitches, switches, open brackets, ellipses—for the whole is the false and in the shattered looking glass, down through the rabbit hole, history’s abyss. Earlier, we’d also heard Bartok’s Second String Quartet, its extended pauses and melodic fragments continuously passed around each of the quartet’s instruments. Watching each instrument pick up and drop those fragments, the way it’s always the cello that initiates from the depths or the first violin from the heights, there’s a social dimension going on: a kind of second-guessing, a quicksilver negotiation. Likewise, in the Ligeti trio, the melodic fragments of the work—the Beethoven theme, the individual components of each movement—are at once echoed and distorted, sounding as the cracked remnants which each player mirrors, as Stefanovic put it, as if in shattered glass. Each work comes to seem a comment on the next: perpetual dialogue, perpetual reflection, tradition’s accretion and destruction, links on the chain lurchingly dragging in the vast ship on which are laden history’s broken monuments. Messages, remembrances, cracks, silences. All that can’t be said.

“To hold on to time, to suspend its disappearance, to confine it in the present moment, this is my primary goal in composition”.
Ligeti began the Horn Trio the year that his mother, the sole other family member beside himself to survive the camps, had died, and, as well as the Beethovenian ‘Adieux / Lebewohl’ theme, the work makes use of the ‘lamento motif’ or ‘lament-ostinato’ present in his early and throughout his late work. Ligeti first experimented with this motif in a student piece from the early 1950s, where it began as an adapted Frescobaldi ricercare” “a chromatic theme which functions as the melodic fundamental of the whole piece. I did the same thing in the last movement of my Horn trio”. Elsewhere he links it to “the melodic type of Romanian laments, the bocet”, and in turn to the “Baroque lament-bass”. The lament-motif might suggest the Berliozian idee fixe, the Wagnerian leitmotif: that fixity of character that guides through narrative, the hammering of fate, inevitably, obsession. Yet its character is almost diametrically opposed, operating by coincidences or cracked mirrors, echoes and over-layerings. These are other kinds of history, a halting, incremental, incorrect history that obsessively stutters its way into being, the same basic core varied and vanished, transmuted through bagatelles, etudes, concerti; as nucleus, ghost, coded shadow, “the riddle of this non-manifest musical language”.
“The lamento motif consists of three phrases, the second and third longer than the one preceding them. The phrases descend in stepwise motion most often in whole tone or semitone movement, but occasionally with ascending leaps”. The lament gives a rhythm to the entire work, its talea, constantly repeating. Probably the most prominent use of the motif occurs in Ligeti’s Automne à Varsovie from the first book of piano Etudes that appeared five years after the Horn Trio. The title doesn’t refer to the Warsaw ghetto or the other historical sufferings of that city but to a festival of contemporary music. It continually transforms the lament motif in overlapping figures, descending gradually down the keyboard. In the end it has to stop: it’s reached the final note, the edge beyond which it has nowhere else to go.

* * *

As Amy Bauer notes in her work on Ligeti and Lament, Ligeti linked Les Adieux to the process that would reach its apogee in integral serialism: “the sign of the totally static”. And for Bauer, as the lament, in its inter-textual dialogue with Beethoven and Montiverdi, with folk song, with conventional representations of grief, so “the repetitive strains of both passacaglia and lament retain an aloof, object-like quality, which suggests that emotions that concern the kernel of our being can be approached only as an impersonal play with the object”. Ligeti’s earlier tendency to ‘clocks’ and ‘clouds’—regular, ticking, rhythmic figures, “recalcitrant machinery, unmanageable automata”, taken to its excess in the ‘Poeme Symphonique’ for massed metronomes, on the one hand, and dense, clustered, textural explorations on the other, those for which he remains best known: Atmospheres, Apparitions, Lontano, distance and space, that which evades fixed form or capture.

In the Etudes, the next major work to be written following the Horn Trio, Ligeti, as he put it, tried to write as if there were several musicians playing at once, several tempi at once, like machines, Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano playing impossibly what the human performer could not; automation, pushing the dream of super-human virtuosity to its mechanical limit. The concert piano, index of freedom from labour, of bourgeois leisure, the concert hall or the salon or the living room, becomes itself a kind of factory, its dozens of hammers repeatedly striking, the performers’ fingers and hands multi-tasking, doubled, extending. Ligeti, himself a forced labourer during the second world war, deserting and walking to freedom, links that walk to his desire as a composer for freedom from labelling, but the Etudes also suggest how dreams of freedom and conditions of labour constantly bend in on themselves. I think of the five thousand fingers of Dr Seuss’ Dr T, under whose mendacious tutelage a child imagines piano lessons as a kind of factory torture predicated on child labour. Yet Ligeti’s Etudes are also the joy of complexity, over-extension, polyrhythmic complexity as teeming social life. As he put it to Benoît Delbecq: “This need to feel the resistance of the keys under the pulp of fingers”; “speak[ing] metaphorically about music, using the image of a body that has an organic way to develop”; “just like free jazz, indeed”.

* * *

Though Stefanovich mentioned the Shoah from the stage, she didn’t mention Ligeti’s use of Central African drum musics, the Black Atlantic lineages in the jazz the Trio’s fast second movement evokes. But these histories intersect. The African colonies where the techniques that characterises the Shoah were first practiced, honed; the first concentration camps, mass exterminations, drawing and re-drawing of borders and boundaries like a tightening garrotte. Holocausts the legacy of whiteness, in whatever continent. These roots are hidden in plain sight: the concealment of mass extermination, the refusal to make the links. But music pursues connection by other means, partly by intention, partly by chance, and there are other kinds of both serendipitous echo and cross-cultural influences spread on the trade routes of Atlantic from West Africa to Latin America to North America and back again to Europe. Ligeti told Delbecq:
I discovered African music quite late. In 1985, when I wrote the Etudes, I already had a good knowledge of those traditions. But, in 1982, for the Horn Trio, I used the same kind of ostinato: Even then I knew all this in a non-perfect way, through the folkloric or commercial musics from Brazil, Cuba or Puerto Rico. Samba, especially, I liked a lot, without knowing Africa at all. [...] The varied rhythmic figures are fast and short, and inside them, hidden rhythms and melodies appear by chance. I discovered this intuitively: it was not at all based on a precise knowledge of African or Latin American music.
Instead, Ligeti imagined an encounter between Latin American and Balkan music, or, “a very quick polymetric dance inspired by the various folk music of non-existing peoples, as if Hungary, Romania, and the entire Balkan region were situated somewhere between African and the Caribbean”. Or again, Ligeti remarks: “I was fascinated by a music that didn’t have an initial melody, but in developing would create subterranean melodies: hidden, interior, always ambiguous. They appear, disappear, return.”
Music, with its oscillation between precise, mathematical structures and the amorphous—between clocks and clouds—is here poised between geographies imaginary and real: and I think too of how Ligeti retunes and retones the French horn, with its connotations of Alpine forests, its Bayreuthian blares, as part of a complex grappling with tradition; and of how the horn re-emerges, played by Julius Watkins, on Pharoah Sanders’ Karma alongside Leon Thomas’ yodelling, inspired by field recordings of the Mbuti and Ba-Benzele pygymies of the central African forests; or in the work of Brother Ahh, who recorded Sound Awareness with Max Roach and the M’Boom percussion ensemble after seven years of study in Ghana, Kenya, and Tanzania.
So the music spreads, partly through experimentation and determined study and party, as Ishmael Reed has it, like a virus, a resistant, coded, underground thing that rises to supersede the dominant cultural matrix: those African influences that come through Latin America, through North America. Or again, what Ligeti calls the ‘gypsy music’ of Central Europe—the travellers without nation who also in brutally suffered lebensraum’s expanded homeland. Writing about his experience of the Shoah, Ligeti remarked:
I was born in 1923 in Transylvania as a Rumanian citizen. As a child, though, I didn’t speak Rumanian, nor were my parents Transylvanians... My mother tongue is Hungarian, but I'm not really a true Hungarian, as I’m a Jew. Yet I’m not a member of a Jewish congregation, therefore I’m an assimilated Jew. I’m not completely assimilated, however, because I’m not baptized. Today, as an adult, I live in Austria and Germany and have been an Austrian citizen for a long time. But I’m not a real Austrian either, only an immigrant, and my German will always have a Hungarian accent.
From out of Europe—within it but never at home in it—this music unhomed that remakes the world in its crossed routes, its Atlantic surges, its serendipitous echoes and cultural echoes, solidarities, alliances: that constructs a home in sound of joyous rhythmic complexity, all the notes that squeeze through the tempered scale; and that, at the same time, constructs a home in symmetrically matched lament.

* * *

On the way home, the clouds muted, grey against black; all the clocks in the station glowing red. And Ligeti’s last echoes, “as if it were filtering through atmospheric crystallisation”, on the edge of hearing but refusing to totally fade away; like the half-dying, half-rising light of the tunnel half-light on all day, all night.
(Ligeti’s Horn Trio was performed by Preston Yeo (violin), Zoë Tweed (horn), and Tamara Stefanovich (piano) at the Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, November 10th 2021. Also on the programme were selections from Gyorgy Kurtag’s Kafka Fragments, performed by Clara Orif (soprano) and Małgorzata Zwierzchowska (violin), the 12 Microludes for String Quartet, performed by Michelle Dierx, Sydney Mariano (violin) Rachel Spence (viola) Simon Guemy (cello), and Beka Bartok’s String Quartet No.2, performed by Bridget O’Donnell, David López Ibáñez (violin), Julia Doukakis (viola) and Ben Michaels (cello)).

Monday, 25 October 2021

"May as well be a rainbow": Moran and McBride at the Wigmore Hall

Photograph by Richard Cannon.

Jason Moran (piano), Christian McBride (bass). Wigmore Hall, 06.10.2021. 

The first gig in Christian McBride's turn as artist-in-residence at the Wigmore Hall, following Vijay Iyer's turn in 2019, this was, also, as he announced from the stage, his first performance outside the US since the worldwide spread of the pandemic. Less clearly an experimentalist than Iyer--who played two-piano duets with Craig Taborn and brought experimental hip-hop artist Mike Ladd for two duo performances in a single night--McBride nonetheless chose for this opening duo to bring in an artist who straddles the mainstream and a more experimental approach informed by a rethinking of black compositional trajectories from James P. Johnson to J-Dilla and DJ Screw. Jason Moran will be performing with Archie Shepp in their spirituals-heavy duo at the London Jazz Festival next month. In the much larger space of the Barbican, I've found such concerts tend to lose the intimacy vital to their emotional transmission (let alone the hefty ticket prices), but there were no such problems in the Wigmore (with its heavily-discounted under-35's tickets). The Hall provides an ideal medium-sized space for music of chamber proportions, and its acoustics are excellent: the musicians played un-amplified, thankfully losing the artificial thud that characterises too many large-venue jazz performances, with each detail here singing out crystal-clear. And, despite its generally more conservative programming, the Wigmore was, lest we forget, the site of, for example, the fundamental encounter between Anthony Braxton and Derek Bailey in 1974, a precedent which was, sadly, presumably unknown to the majority of those in attendance this early October.

I'd also been to the Wigmore for the previous day's afternoon concert had seen young US violinist Randall Goosby playing a programme of violin/piano music by African American composers deriving from his recent album Roots, which aims to re-tell the story of 'American' classical music through its Black presence, from Dvorak's use of spirituals to the contributions of William Grant Still and Florence Price. The most interesting part of that concert, to me, were the 'blue/s forms', solo pieces by Coleridge Taylor-Perkinson, sometime pianist for Max Roach and a composer across film, television and classical idioms, whose pieces take seriously the formal implications of marrying what Mingus called 'folk forms' to modernist harmonic extensions. Such pieces are studies in what it means to vary and extend, to 'worry' a line that move out of the vernacular adaptations by Price and Still heard elsewhere on the programme and towards something approaching the radical repetitions later advanced by Julius Eastman. 

Something of that concern with what it means to repeat, in multiple senses--the single note, the circular rhythmic or harmonic pattern, the paradoxically cyclical-progressive nature of improvisation based on chord changes--informs Moran's work too, as it questions the parameters of bop's harmonic vocabulary as opened up by bop itself, extended by free jazz, and shut down again by the 1980s counter-reaction and its legacies, marrying this to the iterative structures of other forms of black music, from hip-hop to gospel, the instrumental transformation of the voice, the voiced transformation of the instrument.

Upon his emergence into the music in the early '90s, McBride, meanwhile, was positioned as one of the 'Young Lions'--young musicians playing traditional, acoustic, bop-derived music in the wake of Wynton Marsalis and Nationalist-turned-Conservative Stanley Crouch, with some of the resources of American capital at least temporarily behind them. Though he rode that wave during the so-called 'jazz bubble' of the late '80s and early '90s (analysed in Dale Chapman's recent book), McBride came to see the "Young Lions" term as unduly promoting a limited set of musicians and styles at the expense of others. As he commented in Down Beat at the turn of the Milenium:

The whole ‘young lions’ hype, which, unfortunately, I was part of, peaked in the early 1990s. I say ‘unfortunately’ because the hype was so strong, I don’t think any musician from that ‘movement’ will ever be looked upon by certain people as serious musicians. We’ll be looked at as puppets for record companies and managers, or People magazine–type personalities as opposed to, well, Down Beat magazine–type personalities.

And indeed, the marketing and recording strategy pursued by major labels like Verve soaked up the majority of the limited resources available to the broader field of jazz as a whole for what was ultimately a limited, blinkered vision of what the music is, based on a dubious respectability politics and an erasure of the aesthetic and political radicalism that had characterised the music of the '60s and that still suffuses free jazz, which, I would hazard, was in fact the music's major source of continued, politicised investigation and creative extension, and yet which was the principal victims of the Young Lions' success. 

Meanwhile, Crouch's other main target--apart from 'ethnic music'--fusion, both of which he saw as a betrayal of the virtues of acoustic, swing-based jazz, is familiar territory to McBride, who is not averse to electric playing, and is capable of an elastic transformation to seemingly any context. (It was McBride who played bass in the one-off meeting between Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman in 2011 that gathered accolades as one of the performances of the decade.) When playing acoustically, his tendency is to more traditional walking bass patterns, along with bluesy, self-consciously virtuosic solos, each note placed out for maximum effect. But Moran's distinct identity as composer and improviser promised to take things gently away from the straight-ahead territory at which McBride could excel in his sleep, and this duo, while hardly as tied to the music's avant-garde as the Iyer-Taborn duo of 2019, were sure to shake things up, just a little. 

Bass-piano duets have an obscure but storied history in jazz. Mal Waldron and Johnny Dyani, Duke Ellington and Ray Brown, Charlie Haden and Hank Jones, all offer duets with distinct characters and differing approaches to a setting that lacks the rhythmic propulsion of a drummer and in which, if the pianist isn't careful, the bass can be reduced to a mere supporting role. As a bass player who's also a bandleader, McBride is no stranger to negotiating between supporting and leading roles. While Moran and McBride have known each other for years, this was not an established duo, leaving open that crucial element of surprise. And this was their first performance, with 30 minutes of rehearsal, as McBride announced from the stage, even if that sense of spontaneity perhaps belied the careful arrangement of the programme. They began with 'Blue Monk', one of (Thelonious) Monk's catchiest and most relaxed of melodies, and a kind of meeting point for them to test the waters, laughing and calling out in mutual appreciation at a well-timed note or a spin on a jazz cliche. Despite Moran's claim that they'd only rehearsed for half an hour, they had a well-developed programme: just under a dozen pieces, each one lasting nearly ten minutes, over the course of a 90 minute programme, ranging from compositions, mainly of the '60s and '70s, from Monk, Mingus and Wayne Shorter, to Moran's originals. 

The second piece, a Moran original, begins with a moto perpetuo bassline figure, over which a melody is delivered with complexified legato as the piece transitions into a more traditional blues-type figure (Oscar Brown's work of the early 60s comes to mind--it may even have been an Oscar Brown piece.) Moran, sitting in a backed chair rather than the traditional piano stool, goes for a few scampered runs, nearly knocking over the chair, but before he can get into full Cecil Taylor territory, McBride pulls him back, tethering him to the familiar changes. This happens a few times over the night, but by the end, McBride's allowed himself to enter the free zone for a minute or so, and one of the pleasures of the night is watching how he stretches his established virtuosity into less familiar territory. Another Monk piece, the rarely-performed but captivating 'Bright Mississippi', is followed by Wayne Shorter's melting 1960s ballad, 'Miyako', from the underrated 1967 album Schizophrenia. Like Monk, Shorter delights in setting up, then undercutting, harmonic expectations, but the main impact is in the rapturous yet wistful emotional territory the tune suggests. Here, the melody's delivered with McBride's melancholic arco echoing and transforming the memory of Shorter's gently brittle tenor on the original, Moran judiciously lifting the foot off the sustain pedal at just the right point, McBride plucking the same string he's continuing to bow on the final held note as Moran trills octave chords, techniques that might appear like mere display--look, I can do this!--harnessed in the service of the music's understated grace. 

Solo features for each musician followed: Moran's 'how much more terrible was the night' sees him crossing over his hands to play a motorically-repeated figure interspersed with a bass clef toll; as the two hands uncross, Moran plays octave figures, reiterating the theme further down the keyboard, the sense that any part of the structure could be transposed at any point on the keyboard at any time lightly suggesting Cecil Taylor's methodology, if sounding very different in content.  There's something here of the quality of Ligeti's Etudes, an assured, glassy rhythmic assurance on the edge of panic, but in control at all points. McBride's solo takes the standard 'Alone Together', melodic figures moved up and down the fingerboard, with harmonics, single note trills, and bent notes not so much decoration as an integral part of the melodic trajectory. This was a lesson in embellishment and development of a solo line, delivered with poise and poignancy, and humour--from the play on playing solo and in company of the title, to the staggered pauses, well-timed delivery of cliches or their subversion--if, sometimes, a little too much polish. A meditative Moran piece saw McBride reading off sheet music. Though the piece mainly consisted of both musicians playing through the melody, the improvisation lies in the delivery, the dynamics, as much as in the development of independent solo lines. They end with a whispered iteration to silence. The next piece, again by Moran, and more gospelly, cycles in wistful hope. Moran knows he's got an earworm of a melodic line, and whistles out the melody as he continues to play it--I'm reminded of Wayne Shorter leaning into the microphone to whistle out a spooked introduction while playing with his quartet in London over a decade ago--exemplifying the feeling of relaxed camaraderie evident from the beginning, McBride laughing in delight at Moran's audacity, and vice versa.

A lesser-known Mingus tune from Let My Children Hear Music sets up an ebulliently sardonic swing over which the musicians overlay the familiar melody to Mingus' Lester Young tribute, 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat'. I'm not sure the overlayering really works--the poignancy of that great melody lost to a kind of technical trick--but Mingus lines give us the opportunity to hear Moran's freer side, with its lineage in the sideman work of Moran's teacher Jaki Byard in Mingus' Jazz Workshop of the '60s and of Don Pullen in the bassist's bands of the '70, as he splashes out a few clusters. Unlike the utter exuberance of his predecessors, though, Moran tends to stick to the middle register, to restrain the energy in near-ironised anticipations and reflexive echoes: playing that's almost--but not quite--in quotation marks. On the other hand, McBride's playing took on suitably Mingus-like timbres--twanging, thick, caustic, voice-like, echoing Mingus' famous 'talking' duets with Eric Dolphy. He even briefly plays 'free' in tandem with Moran, shadowing the latter's parallel motion lines as his fingers leapt across the fingerboard. A final Monk piece, 'Evidence'--probably the most radical of all Monk's compositions--was memorably deconstructed by Anthony Braxton's standards quartet in their London residency just before the pandemic. Moran and McBride play it safer, offering the pleasures of contrast as Moran lets out high-register pings over McBridge's walking bass, opening up the spaces of the melody so that what he plays is as much about what's left out as what's there, the skeletal outline of the harmonic material described and re-inscribed in real time: which is, after all, what Monk had done as early as the 1940s. The piece that sings in the head on the way home, though, is the closing piece from Moran's most recent album, The Sound Will Tell You, 'Toni Morrison said Black is a Rainbow (Shadows)', sees Moran read out a passage from Morrison's Song of Solomon as he plays-"You think dark is just one colour, but it ain't. There're five or six kinds of black". Black as colour, condition, metaphor, process: blackness in the space of the Wigmore Hall, where, as Moran put it when he played the venue in 2019, "people like me don't play in halls like this". Rapturously received, the duo play an encore. Throughout, they put on a show, and then some. An audience until recently starved for live music were delighted. 

Beyond this, as I overheard someone saying on the way out, "[McBride] was much more weird and wiggly than usual"; often, there you could hear him adapt in real-time, particular on Moran's piece. And it was Moran's pieces that were in some ways the most interesting pieces on the programme, taking them away from the familiar virtuosity on which they--particular McBride--could easily have coasted the entire night. Moran's compositions tend to focus on gospel-tinged chordal progressions and melodic fragments, treated in the manner of a hip-hop sample as looping, lightly-modified figures that lope or stride ahead with a kind of melancholic poise--whose simplicity can at first seem affected, but which, on each repetition, increase in emotional power. Moran is a master of dynamics, in particular, of the hushed diminuendo, repeating the figure until it disappears into silence, into space, and the unexpected--but perfectly-placed--hammered fortissimo in the midst of innocuous explorations of familiar figures. Moran has learned from minimalism. Here I'm thinking in part of the familiar minimalism of Steve Reich, at one point an associate of pianist Anthony Davis (whose opera X is to be revived at the Met in 2023). But Davis broke with Reich over the latter's Reich's rigidity and refusal of emotional texture--a key feature of the Black music and speech he used (and arguably, exploited) in his work, and we might equally trace Moran's minimalism to Davis' gamelan-inspired work such as the 'Wayang' pieces. (At the least, Davis himself must be counted among Moran's peers for his fusion of composition and improvisation and for his extension of (and beyond) jazz's rhythmic parameters.) But perhaps a more important part of the mix is the minimalism hip-hop looping, a post-electronic form of acoustic music in which harmonic fragments sampled from jazz, soul or R&B records get chopped up, turned over on themselves like an ouroboros. On The Sound Will Tell You, Moran employs electronics he calls DrIp to add echoic traces to his notes in a manner he likens to the slowed-down effects of the late, great DJ Screw. But it's the fascination of hearing that acoustic transformation that takes the music from mere imitation of effect and into a consideration of the structural territories opened up by the now-decades old sonic technologies of hip-hop, an inter-genre, trans-historical dialogue that's, of course, very much within the 'changing same' of jazz's (radical) tradition. (Moran reflects further on some of these questions in a recent lecture here.)

In his own pieces, Moran plays patterns, and it doesn't seem to matter whether they're composed or improvised--though of course he'll run off a flurry up the keyboard to remind you of his chops. With McBride on pieces from the tradition, he can step inside the more functional role of accompanist or lead at will, comping and soloing on changes with the best of them. But his real interests lie somewhere to the left of this, investigating the kernel of figures and putting them through their paces. In this he echoes not only Davis but a piece like Roscoe Mitchell's 'Nonaah', albeit in gentler form. In its expansive, self-consciously historical 'modernistic' approach, Moran echoes the catholicity of musicians like Byard, exemplified in Beaver Harris' 1970s formulation "from ragtime to no-time", though there can be something almost arch and self-reflexive about his playing: this is considered music, and while it lacks the expansive re-structuralism of the compositional systems of an Anthony Braxton or a Henry Threadgill (with whom Moran performed in duet at Ornette Coleman's funeral), it merges the formal explorations and historical weight that befalls anyone who plays this music consciously and with good conscience with a moving resilience, a hope we might call spiritual or secular, but which resounds nonetheless. As Morrison puts it, night "may as well be a rainbow", its shades of gradation, of difference, resounding in the neglected, the shadowy, the obscure, brought to Black light, to Black life.