Tuesday, 7 June 2022

Some Other Stuff: Grachan Moncur, III (1937-2022)

Image above: Grachan Moncur at New York's Vision Festival

Trombonist and composer Grachan Moncur, III, has passed away, the latest loss from the New Thing generation who came of age in the sixties, whose music opens up a world, worlds yet to be attained, makes them open and transparent, brilliant and glittering. Moncur’s work exemplifies the compositional—or, to put it more specifically, the structural: it’s ‘free’, in that it dispenses with, or at least treats as optional the logic of chord changes, but it’s not ‘energy music’; it’s focused on writing, on a composition as an atmosphere to be inhabited, rather than mere structure for blowing, but it’s infinitely more flexible than the stiffness of self-conscious ‘Third Stream’ experiments with the compositional. Brooding and filled with space, constructed on suspended drones or simple vamps, Moncur’s pieces are far from the stereotype of free jazz as energy, ecstasy, and volume. This is a music constructed around space, around absence, in which the careful, and often calculatedly askew placement of notes replaced a logic of momentum and virtuosity of bop, the functional drive of soul jazz, or the decorative restraint of Third Stream and cool jazz. Like the playing of Alan Shorter, of Andrew Hill, or of Mal Waldron—their interrupted vamps and riffs, their calculated mistakes and inscrutable equations—like the spaces between Thelonious Monk’s notes or the dissonant bur of his striking adjacent keys on the piano, Moncur’s music above all contains a core that refuses to reveal itself, an absent centre or central absence, a form of inner or hidden knowledge that initiates an inoculates and protects, that enables survival. Listening to Moncur, the ‘inside-outside’ binary has to be reconfigured: this is music that at one moves ‘out’, in terms of harmonic possibility and liberation from fixed changes—while by no means rejecting them per se—and moves ‘inward’, in the sense of a contemplative inwardness. Moncur, as William Parker would later say, looks for the centre of each note, looks for the silence around it, too: plays only what’s necessary, no filigree, no decoration. Destination...Out! proclaimed the title to a Jackie McLean album for which Moncur’s contributions were pivotal. But outness—McLean’s destination, Sun Ra’s outer space, Dolphy’s Out to Lunch—had its corollary in Moncur’s work in inner space—Inner Cry Blues, as the title to a later album had it. 

Moncur came from the same thriving music scene in Newark, New Jersey, that produced the Shorter brothers, organist Larry Young, trumpeter Woody Shaw. He grew up in a musical family, of Caribbean heritage: his father, Grachan Moncur, II, played bass with swing ensemble The Savoy Sultans at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom; his mother’s best friend was Sarah Vaughan. Low sounds drew his ear: he began on cello, then switched to trombone. He began playing as a teenager, studied at a private musical school, and moved onto Juilliard before having to drop out due to high tuition fees, subsequently touring as Ray Charles’ music director for three years. Energetic hard bop groups were in vogue thanks to Art Blakey: fellow Newarker Wayne Shorter would join Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and push Blakey further out as he took his first steps towards participating in the reinvention of the music. Moving, like Blakey, Larry Young and other fellow Newarkers, to New York, Moncur’s first post-Ray Charles gig saw him part of a Blakey-like sextet, the Jazztet, co-led by Art Farmer and Benny Golson, Moncur contributing compositions including his trademark ‘Sonny’s Back’, a celebration of Sonny Rollins’ return to playing after his infamous retirement. Within the Jazztet, their music a balance between the sound and fury of Blakey and the more measured, distanced sounds of cool jazz, Moncur can be heard finding his voice: the trombone precise and limber, in the manner of J.J. Johnson, but with a pensive openness to it even at higher tempi.


The Jazztet had offered efficient, pleasing post-bop—a kind of synthesis of existing trends which offered structure and balance. The real breakthrough, however, came when he joined forces with altoist Jackie McLean with whom he’d played as a teenager sitting in with touring groups in Newark. McLean, of an earlier generation, was coming out of bebop into freer-influenced playing and Moncur was there with him. In 1963, they recorded three albums together: One Step Beyond and Destination...Out appeared under McLean’s name, Evolution under Moncur’s own. To this day there is nothing quite like these albums. As well as its more profitable line in soul jazz and boogaloo stylings, Blue Note Records had become the home for what would be known as ‘free-bop’ or ‘inside-outside’ playing: Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, Andrew Hill’s Black Fire and Point of Departure, the first records of the teenage Tony Williams, the mid-sixties work of Larry Young. This music took an emotional quality found both in cool jazz and hard bop—the melancholic, even mordant sounds of a McLean or a Mal Waldron, in which melodrama and emotional insularity are each other’s mirror reflections, the astringent manoeuvres of a Sonny Rollins—added the spaciousness of Thelonious Monk, and went somewhere else again. But it wasn’t so much a synthesis of trends as an opened fissure in a world of certainty, genre, categorisation—a world suggested even by the coordinates of names and references I’ve just outlined. It’s a music that lends itself to adjectives: brooding, melancholic, mysterious, even minimalist. Such work didn’t oppose bop, didn’t oppose cool jazz, though it went beyond the limitations into which both sets of stylings had arguably by this period moved; likewise, it supplemented and contrasted the more ecstatic stylings of the post-Ayler continuum as a necessary undercurrent, sidestepping down an alternative path, though deriving from the same source. 

At the turn of the decade, Ornette Coleman had removed the piano, opening up the harmonic possibilities beyond the changes; McLean and Moncur replaced piano with vibraphone, its combination of shimmering sustain and percussive attack, in the hands of Bobby Hutcherson, offering another set of possibilities: a cushioning and probing at once rhythmic as harmonic or melodic, and a timbre at once crisper and more ambiguously floating than that of the piano. One Step Beyond—for which I named a student radio show a decade or so ago—has two compositions apiece by McLean and Moncur. McLean’s ‘Saturday and Sunday’ and ‘Blue Rondo’ suggest one vibe—exploratory, cool, open—Moncur’s ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Ghost Town’ another: the clipped medium temp of ‘Frankenstein’, a kind of swinging march or lope towards the unknown, ‘Ghost Town’ radically slowed, inward, lugubrious, sinister. A simple descending scale, blown in Moncur’s attack-free legato over Hutcherson’s vibratoed vibraphone descends to a bass burr or leaps up an octave in a kind of contained panic. Eddie Khan’s bass carries the rhythmic weight, Tony Williams’ drums are barely there: before the tempo shift for McLean’s oddly jaunty solo, he offers little more than single cymbal strokes, a playing conspicuous by the absences its leaves as the presence it fills. On Destination....Out, recorded at the year’s end, all but one of the tracks—Mclean’s dedication to Kahlil Gibran, ‘Kahlil the Prophet’—are by Moncur: ‘Love and Hate’ opens the album, followed by ‘Esoteric’, and closing off with ‘Riff Raff’, a piece he’d play onstage in the production of James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie. ‘Love and Hate’ remains to this listener perhaps the group’s greatest ever recording, a lengthy melody played with exquisite slowness over a simple chordal figure in vibraphone, the spacious setting allowing the contrast in styles between the two horns to reveal itself to the full. Moncur plays the melody first, from the core of its inward focus, before McLean’s alto produces a sour blaze of light: inside-outside, shadow-light, chiaroscuro. ‘Esoteric’ is more self-consciously maze-like, something from The Twilight Zone, ‘Riff Raff’ jaunty, defiant, swinging, its march-style dynamics suggesting the lope of ‘Frankenstein’ or Andrew Hill’s ‘Les Noirs Marchant’. The following year, the piece would make its way to the stage as part of Moncur’s contribution to James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie, on which more presently.


Evolution was Moncur’s first record under his own name, adding Lee Morgan to the basic quintet format. It’s an album of two halves: misterioso tone pictures, in the first half, a move somewhat closer to post-bop in the second. The opener, ‘Air Raid’ is not exactly programmatic, despite its title: the vibraphone trills with which it opens suggesting a generalized figure of suspension, waiting, pause, over which Moncur blows inscrutable truths in light-dark, dialectical relation to the B-section’s double-time swing. ‘Evolution’—its title suggesting Mingus’ tone poem ‘Pithecanthropus Erectus’, on which McLean had participated the previous decade—opens with droning, gently dissonant held notes punctuated by more suppressed martial rolls on the snare; the sound of the three horns getting inside the sound, interrogating what ensemble sounds like. McLean comes in over the top, somewhere between preaching and questioning; by the time Moncur’s solo comes round a few minutes later, it’s unclear if what’s offered is consolation, desolation, or some other affect entirely. The other pole comes on the closing track, the joyously sideways march of ‘Monk in Wonderland’: through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole, bop surrealism as cohesion, moving ahead, together. The feel of Moncur’s music at this time is suggested by the titles to his piece—‘The Intellect’, Gnostic’, ‘Nomadic’, ‘Esoteric’: an intellectual otherness, a pursuit of knowledge by other means, in other directions, Some Other Stuff. This is a music that moves between places without fixed abode, the mind wandering, errant and introspective, moving in to go out. Monk had opened up the spaces in the music with his sparsely placed notes and pungent dissonances; players like Moncur followed further down that route; tempos were often slow, notes placed into the space like stones in a rock garden, in expansively condensed dramas of scale and shade whose contours were, deliberately, closed to the fetishized world of performance and display. This music refused to let out all its secrets; this was the ‘cool’ that had given the name to ‘cool jazz’ but unlike the stereotyped image of tragic glamour associated with the likes of white musicians such as Chet Baker, this was about a kind of strength rather than a performed weakness, a quiet resolve and inward satisfaction; the inwardness, as Moncur suggests in the liner notes to Some Other Stuff, necessary to survive in the city, on the move; but also a space of discovery, of an alternative—perhaps even utopian—to society as it was and is currently constituted. In this time of struggle, musical and political ,people would need all their inner resources as well as their external ones in order to survive. But, despite its introspection, it was also a music about communication. Moncur perhaps worked best with a more exuberant musicians to play off: the telepathic interplay and contrast between Moncur and the sweet-sharp alto of Jackie McLean; or, later, his contrast to Roswell Rudd in Archie Shepp’s band. Moncur’s music of this period was so effective because the musicians he played with were equally interested in opening up the idea of how a jazz group worked, of the lines between ‘frontline’ and ‘rhythm section’, of how you built space, constructed narrative, moved from straight line to ellipsis. 

In April 1964, Moncur III took an acting job in the Broadway production of James Baldwin’s provocative and today neglected play Blues for Mister Charlie. The acting gig in the three-hour production meant that he could use the time between his appearances to go backstage and rehearse the pieces he’d written for an upcoming studio session for Blue Note, the results of which would be released the following year as the album Some Other Stuff. Moncur also played an important role in the play, serving as understudy for minor parts, and playing a townsperson who delivered a solo performance on trombone. An interview feature in Down Beat early the following year fills in the details: 
“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] 
This aloneness suggests something of Moncur’s music: music as reflective supplement to the social action dramatized on the stage in the next-door theatre, honed and sharpened within the sound-proof space of the rehearsal room, constructing spaces for and around itself. The play itself opens with the sound of mourning from the church, Baldwin writing, in his words, to the accompaniment of “my black ancestors, who evolved the sorrow songs, the blues and jazz, and created an entirely new idiom in an overwhelmingly hostile place”. Songs from Moncur’s former employer Ray Charles and Rufus Thomas played from a jukebox, along with Folkways recordings of work songs; Moncur played onstage as a kind of choric figure, his music swelling underneath the memories of the central, martyred Richard, and his love for the music he plays. The music speaks for what cannot be spoken, the trauma of memory and the possibility of future action. Black music here is memory and defiance; communal repository, the “mighty witness” that enabled Baldwin to find a new language befitting he demands of his first play. 

No recordings exist of the 1964 staging, though a playbill notes that he played the pieces ‘Riff Raff’ and the otherwise unrecorded ‘Carissima’. We can, however, hear the record date for which he rehearsed. Though often neglected in comparison to the McLean collaborations, Some Other Stuff may turn out to be Moncur’s greatest work. As Moncur later told Adam Shatz
“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 Down Beat profile commented on Moncur’s combination of “free acoustical structure”, with “specific harmonic design” as “an intimate extension into a new language”, and Some Other Stuff marked another step beyond even the music of the previous year. Blues for Mister Charlie marked a new departure for Baldwin—a turn to the public environment of the stage, influenced by his personal grief and fury at the murders of Medgar Evers and Emmett Till and by changing political currents. So, too, Moncur would soon participate in a wave of New Music that drew on but extended the music of bebop, often in avowed connection to political militancy. As well as that intellectual otherness I’ve named above, the names of Moncur’s pieces—‘Frankenstein’, ‘Riff Raf,’ ‘Space Spy, ‘New Africa’—suggest the confluence of a working-class identity and a conscious ‘weirdness’ or ‘outness’, or sense of dread, that Amiri Baraka noted as a key propensity in be-bop, and that also characterises the work of fellow Newark Alan Shorter, of Sun Ra, Earl Freeman, and many others. The pieces recorded on Some Other Stuff—‘Nomadic’, named for Moncur’s shifting housing situation, and ‘Gnostic’, the secret knowledge required to survive on the street—suggest at once a personal, introspective language and a common, classed experience. The ensemble might seem more conventional than that on the McLean records, with Hutcherson replaced by Herbie Hancock, but the album in fact radically extends their sense of space, in large part due to the astonishing flexibility of Tony Williams—then in his avant-garde phase, thanks to early work in Boston with Sam Rivers—and the openness of Hancock and Wayne Shorter, whose proclivity for free playing has gone too little remarked in surveys of his career. ‘Gnostic’, as Don Heckman’s liners note, “eliminated a pulsating meter”, Moncur’s questioning melodic fragments answered by doomy unison figures with Shorter’s tenor doubled by Hancock’s left hand as his right maintains a constant tolling, in a kind of desolate version of call and response. It’s an astonishing piece: a music that could go anywhere, in which contemplation also means expansion, a world in a grain of sand. ‘Thandiwa’ gestures toward new-found Afrocentricity, taking its name from Bantu language: Moncur’s jaunty, walking-marching pieces are given a sharp, joyful twist, ironized yet at peace. The solos invariably play with that melodic earworm; Shorter’s sharp keens and caresses, Moncur’s melodic musings, Hancock’s swirling triplets and single line, notes opening out like strings of pearls, Cecil McBee elegant and to the point. Opening the second side, ‘The Twins’ plays off a single chord: like Shorter’s later ‘Schizophrenia’, it plays with mirroring, doubleness, dialectic perhaps. Along with ‘Nomadic’—which predates Miles Davis’ ‘Nefertiti’ in serving as a feature for Williams’ drums—the focus here is on rhythm: not the propulsive, Afro-Cuban inflections of a Blakey or a Roach, but a kind of thinned-out, clipped maintenance of a constant tension. Hancock’s chords on ‘The Twins’ suggest the harmonic vocabulary of his own neglected Inventions and Dimensions; McBee, who at periods plays repeated notes in a high register, extends his bass like a high- or a live-wire. Rather than resolution, the point is a constant opening: to inhabit the space of the in-between, up and down, side to side, to sustain a dissonance and see where it goes, remain in the looping ambit of a rhythm; single lines, single notes, a sparse dialogue, an enigmatic conversation of elliptical exchange and give and take. 


Moncur was not overtly political as some of his peers, but had at least some involvement in the emergent Black Arts Movement activities of fellow Newarker Amiri Baraka. In March 1965, he led a group at New York’s The Village Gate, as part of a benefit concert for the newly-founded Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BART/S): also on the bill were Sun Ra, Betty Carter, the groups of John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, and Charles Tolliver. One track per group was included on the original Impulse! Records release entitled The New Wave in Jazz, Moncur’s entitled ‘Blue Free’; a second, much-longer piece, ‘The Intellect’, was first released on the Impulse double LP The New Breed: The Dedication Series Vol. VIII: Cecil Taylor/Charles Tolliver/Grachan Moncur/Archie Shepp (1978). To my knowledge, no other recordings of this group exist: the combined tracks, recorded in impeccable sound, represent almost a lost album. In some ways, we might see it as representing the ultimate stage of the ‘introverted’ tendency in Moncur’s playing represented, say, by the piece ‘Gnostic’ on Some Other Stuff: a hidden knowledge found deep inside the self through a press of isolation and contemplation, a defensive retreat into the self that is also a social affirmation of what it takes to survive in tight spaces and what expansive resources can be found there. Moncur’s music is the still centre of the swirl of sound around it: Ra’s Arkestra, entering its most experimental phase; Coltrane and the New Thing saxophonists; the life-force of Betty Carter’s post-bop vocal extensions. ‘The Intellect’ lasts over twenty minutes, and throughout is extremely slow, grave, engraved: a pause, an interlude, a call to arms, to peace, or to the abyss. With Cecil McBee spending much of the piece ruminative arco lines, Joe Chambers’ drums are often barely there, a perpetual flutter on cymbals with brushes like a kind of tremulous breathing. Bobby Hutcherson’s vibes offer a crisp counter-commentary, acidic and icy or shimmeringly lyrical, lights emerging from the haze; and Moncur solos with a sense of space rarely heard until the “silences big as a table” of the AACM, each note—often the same note repeated—considered from every angle, every possibility, before being sounded out again; like Coltrane’s polyvalent ‘sheets of sound’ but with the additional notes shorn away.The combination of a kind of static or stasis, of inscrutable gloom or wisdom, of brooding introspection—not the romantic openness or blueness of the traditional ballad, but something deeper, darker, existentially freighted and inscrutable, as if conveying or searching for some hidden meaning lost as soon as it’s uttered--as when the audience begin applauding too early, at least a minute before Moncur’s restatement of the main theme takes things out with the beautiful, solemn, terrible pace of a glacier; the soloist playing as if speaking alone, yet always in conversational tandem with the other musicians—it refuses to be anything other than it is. 


“These musicians change what is given and hopefully understood. What the normal feeling of adventure is [...] show you the music is changing before yr very ears,” wrote Amiri Baraka in the liner notes. Steve Young, music co-ordinator at BARTS, was more dramatic. For Young, the music conjured up: 
“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.” 
Following the Village Gate Benefit, Baraka remembered Moncur as one of the musicians, alongside Coltrane, Ayler, Ra, and McLean, who participated in the outdoor music programme the Black  Arts Repertory Theatre/School ran in Harlem that summer, in which the musicians would “play in playgrounds, housing projects, parks, vacant lots, along with four other trucks we sent out Summer of 65, carrying Poetry, Drama, Graphic Arts, Dance into the Harlem Community”. Moncur himself was not politically outspoken, but his next major collaborator was amongst the most politically outspoken of all the New Thing musicians: Archie Shepp. From around 1966 onwards, Moncur formed Archie Shepp’s phenomenal two-trombone band alongside Roswell Rudd: Rudd extroverted, satirical, Moncur a brooding heart at the centre of the storm. The albums from this period, with studio ensembles of various sizes, are unparalleled—Mama Too Tight, The Way Ahead—but it’s the live album from a European tour with a disgruntled Miles Davis, later released as One for the Trane: Life [sic] at The Donauschingen Music Festival where the music really takes off. (Radio broadcast recordings also exist of a gig in Rotterdam the same month, October, 1967, and a December gig in France, released as Freedom on a 1991 bootleg). While Shepp’s early work with Bill Dixon and the New York Contemporary Five emphasized sparse, Ornette Coleman-style heads and improvisations, exacerbated by the absence of chordal instrument, and his work with Bobby Hutcherson on New Thing at Newport and On This Night imparted a kind of sardonic cool to his flurries, his new music, likely under the influence of Roswell Rudd, now turned towards timbres more reminiscent of pre-swing jazz than of bop. The band’s key feature was its unusual two-trombone timbre—Rudd’s raucous upper-register blares contrasting with Moncur’s propensity for dark-toned, melancholic and menacing shades—and for its suite-like form, as Sousa marches, blues and standards emerged and disappeared from extended improvisations in long pieces that flowed without a break. Shepp later recalled the kinds of reception the band encountered. 
"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." 

Moncur in rehearsal with Archie Shepp, 1966. Photograph by Guy Kopelowicz.

In the summer of 1969, Moncur accompanied Shepp to the more conducive environment of the Pan African Festival in Algiers. Anticipating the trip, Moncur had written a piece entitled ‘New Africa’, which Shepp had recorded for an expanded group that February. Though the recordings would not be issued for another five years—eventually appearing on the unjustly-neglected Kwanza—they’re among Shepp’s finest, Moncur’s enormous spaces turned to the expanded future so many saw unfolding on the African continent, calling across to those other cities of Algiers from the inner cry of New York’s inner city with clarion certainty and turbulent purpose. In Algiers, Moncur played with Touareg musicians, on the streets and on a boxing ring converted into a stage: though he can often barely be heard on the lo-fi recordings of Live at the PanAfrican Festival, the experience was crucial to all involved. Interviewed by Algerian newspaper El Moudjahid, Shepp affirms jazz as a weapon in the popular struggle. For Moncur, though, music is just music. “Music and politics are two very different things. Music is spiritual, politics is, if you like, material. There may be some rapport between them, but they are two distinct things”. (My translation) Afrocentricity and a wide-open experimentation both the atmosphere of Algiers and of post-May ’68 Paris nonetheless suffuses the recordings the members of Shepp’s group would make for BYG Records on departing Algiers. Recording everyone and everything, while hardly paying anyone, the BYG sessions are an invaluable document, despite the business practices of the label’s owners. Moncur appears amidst the dense ensemble textures of Alan Silva’s Luna Surface and Dave Burrell’s Echo, two of the loudest free jazz recordings ever made; by contrast, his featured role on Burrell’s La Vie de Boheme, an instrumental adaptation of Puccini’s opera, sees his trombone replaces operatic voices with a kind of measured, mournful cool, and contains perhaps the sweetest playing of his career. 


 The two albums recorded under his own name are fresh takes on the introspective spaces from earlier in the decade. For the first of the sessions, Moncur’s New Africa, three members of the Algiers quintet—Moncur, Silva and Burrell—are joined by Andrew Cyrille and Roscoe Mitchell, with Shepp appearing on the final track. The pieces tend to operate on vamps, repeating figures, slowly pulsing ostinatos, over which Moncur teases out and develop simple, leisurely melodies, their cast suggesting something of the various ‘folk’ musics he might have heard in Paris or Algiers. His second BYG album, Aco Dei De Madrugada (One Morning I Waked Up Very Early), would indeed, feature Brazilian singer/pianist Fernando Martins and drummer Nelson Serra De Castro, the record divided between Moncur originals and arrangements of Brazilian traditional songs. Mitchell, meanwhile, functions in a kind of update of the Jackie McLean role: his alto thinner and, if anything, even more sour than that of McLean, his playing relatively restrained compared to the stream of notes he would unleash with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, he offers tonal contrast to Moncur, the lyricism of his playing delivered with a timbral sharpness that gives it a piquant clarity. The title track, here recast as a suite, again bursts with the sense of possibility, of wide-open space; hard, concise and lapidary, ‘Space Spy’, by contrast, conveys an impression of relentlessness, seriousness, a brooding and oppressive atmosphere in which repetition is the spur of tension and uncertainty rather than familiarity and comfort, as Burrell stabs out a two-note motif, like rumbling morse code, while Moncur explores gnomic, fragmentary dissonances. ‘Exploration’, as its title implies, is the ‘freest’ track on the record; another menacing low-end melody gives way to a period of collective soloing that finds Moncur and Mitchell initially, elusively, suggesting clock-tower chimes. The horns and Burrell then proceed to riff off each other, picking up, varying, developing and discarding each others’ melodic figures in a sometimes sprightly, sometimes deliberately lugubrious fashion. Another unison melody opens ‘When’, this time more simple, song-like and hopeful, the sort of material that could easily be turned into a collective chant. The temperature boils up when Shepp joins on tenor: the extension of pauses to create tension and uncertainty; the sudden re-entrances in a blurring, blarting blast; the use of particular forms of tonguing, slurring, notes trailing away after that initial fortissimo impact; the combination of languor and passion, romanticism and fury, sometimes within the same phrase; the timbral reminiscences of Ben Webster or Jonny Hodges tied to the multiphonic innovations of John Gilmore and John Coltrane, sliding between smoothness and acidic sharpness. Moncur follows, blowing some delicious, voice-like high notes that seem to pre-echo Mitchell’s bleats, trills, and smooth melodicism, and Shepp ends the piece with fluttering harmonics that seem to momentarily transform his tenor into a flute. 


As well as playing in Shepp’s live group, around this time, Moncur and Burrell joined with drummer Beaver Harris and saxophonist Roland Alexander to form a group entitled the 360 Degree Music Experience. Though they wouldn’t record for several more years, footage of an early live appearance with poet-vocalist Bazzi Bartholomew Grey has recently surfaced online the humour in Moncur’s music illustrated by his exchanging duck calls with Grey on ‘Blues for Donald Duck’. Here was the ‘inside-outside’ sound of the time: repetitive vamps, extended solos, a steadiness and optimism more extroverted than the earlier, ‘gnostic’ recordings.


Moncur’s playing still had that burnished tone, that sense of space, but to different means. The results can be heard to the full in what was perhaps the summit of his achievement, the album Echoes of a Prayer, one of a series made by the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra and released on the JCO label in 1975. Opening with a trombone prelude, Moncur’s album-length suite is organised on that repeat: ‘Reverend King’s Wings’, ‘Medgar’s Menace’, ‘Garvey’s Ghost [Space Station]’, ‘Angela’s Angel’, and ‘Right On’, separated by a drum transitions, featuring Congolese drummer Titos Sompa alongside Harris. The cycle plays twice, ending with an ‘Amen Cadence’ and a bitter coda, featuring Bley on piano, pointedly entitled ‘Excuse Me, Mr Justice’. The circling structure offers an analogy both for the lack of progress made—the deaths of martyrs—King, Medgar Evers—the attempted silencing of figures of resistance—Garvey and Angela Davis—and for the recurrence of collective resolve—‘Right On’, while also suggesting a rejuvenative notion of the cyclical, the figure of ‘sankofa’, of ancestral return and inspiration as a means of moving forward. The operative mood of much of Moncur’s earlier music was brooding, minimalist, melancholic: but what stands out above all is the joy of the music, as often wide-open and celebratory as ominous and questing, with storm-clouds averted for a blazing sun. This is often connected to the consciously diasporic heritage of the music and to the insistence on a group sound, with soloists embodying certain aspects or moods within an overall texture: much of it is riff driven, and the drums that boil up in the transitions are a central part of the music. The album packs a wider variety of moods, textures, feelings into its running time than some manage in an entire career. Moncur’s solo over rising, choraled brass chords and fluttering cymbals on ‘Garvey’s Ghost’ is like the sun rising: checking the time, it’s hard to believe that only eight minutes have passed. The up-tempo drive of ‘Angela’s Angel’ is another highlights: in the first version, Moncur follows Pat Patrick’s flute with serene confidence, in the second, Hannibal Marvin Peterson blows to the heavens. The album has never been reissued and remains almost never discussed. One day someone will analyse together the JCOA recordings made in the 70s—Bley’s Escalator Over the Hill, Don Cherry’s Relativity Suite, Roswell Rudd’s Numatik Swing Band, Leroy Jenkins’ For Players Only—as a necessary chapter in the history of jazz, ‘free’ or otherwise. For now, seek out the music while you can.


Through the seventies, Moncur continued to work with the 360 Degree Music experience, to work with Shepp on live tours, and to participate in New York’s Loft Scene, where Dave Burrell recalls him bringing the likes of vocalist Eddie Jefferson over from Newark. In general, though, he recorded far less. His obscurity was in part to do with health issues, included dentistry, as well as artistic control of the music. As his widow, Tracy, remarked to WBGO:
“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. 

I’m less familiar with the later work than the earlier, though there are fine turns on albums like Butch Morris’ debut, In Touch...But Out of Reach, from 1978, merging with Morris’ dark-toned cornet on lengthy explorations, and, in particular, on Frank Lowe’s Decision in Paradise (1983), its crisp bop edge contrasting Moncur’s burnished tone with Don Cherry’s bright trumpet and Lowe’s rough-edged tenor—the tone and placement of notes within a ‘freebop’ context suggesting an airier version of the work to come of the David S. Ware quartet—and with an early feature for the late Geri Allen. On the heads, alternately jaunty, sardonic, lushly intellectual, long phrases spool out with a post Ornette-Coleman feel; Allen offers smoothness, doubling, a variety of voicings; Lowe breaks things up in truncated riffs and melodic fragments; Cherry pitches and sails; Moncur discloses his hidden knowledge with inspiring steadiness. He knows! Throughout his late recordings, Moncur’s playing maintained its qualities, adding layers of emotional expansiveness that brought it closer in line with ‘inside’ playing: up-tempo joy, balladic serenity. More important than technical terms is the feeling or quality of the tone: it’s there, you know it. In 1995, Moncur’s trombone graced William Parker’s In Order to Survive. My favourite cut is the ballad, ‘Anast In Crisis Mouth Full Of Fresh Cut Flowers’, in Parker’s words, “written about a poet named Anast whose words cannot get out to the world, so the words turn to flowers. Anast cries out but no one hears her because her words are now flowers”. This paradox of communication and non-communication, the offerings the musicians make. “From the infinite number of sounds available”, writes Parker, “[Moncur] chooses the right notes, and places each note in the middle of its tone centre. His sound is full of hope and is laced in the tradition of change.” 'Laced' is a lovely metaphor: flowers, lace, delicacy, the blooming richness of his sound in tandem with the other horns, Lewis Barnes’ trumpet and Rob Browne’s alto, words that become flowers, in and beyond crisis, resplendent.


In his final years, Moncur recorded a couple more albums as a leader, returning to his classic earlier compositions in new arrangements with Mark Masters on Exploration (2004) and on Inner Cry Blues (2007). Sporadic as they were, his relatively few appearances were always welcomed; his sound now opened up to a more straightforwardly swinging joyousness that leavened the intensity of his early work, within a relaxed, post-bop idiom. His real legacy, though, remains that work of the sixties and seventies, a time when anything was possible: the inner explorations of Some Other Stuff, of Evolution and Destination...Out, the wide-open spaces of New Africa and, above all, the cleansing collective propulsion and catharsis of Echoes of a Prayer. Moncur’s music emerged at a time whose implications are still little understood. His work and life open up a gnostic possibility, dismantling illusion, going the way of the hidden, pursuing knowledge by other means, opening onto new vistas, “a vision of a better world yet beyond the present”.

Il Prigioniero at the Barbican

Luigi Dallapiccola, Il Prigioniero 
Sunday 5th June 2022, Barbican Hall, London 

Eric Greene (prisoner) Ángeles Blancas Gulín (mother) Stefano Secco (Gaoler / Grand Inquisitor) Egor Zhuravskii (First Priest) Chuma Sijeqa (Second Priest) London Symphony Chorus and Guildhall School Singers, dir. Simon Halsey, London Symphony Orchestra, cond. Antonio Pappano

LSO Chorus taking applause for 'Il Prigioniero' at the Barbican. Photograph by David Glynn

Taking place on the last day of a Platinum Jubilee weekend that engulfed the nation in a sea of flags and sentimental patriotism, Antonio Pappano and the London Symphony Orchestra’s concert performance of Luigi Dallapiccola’s one-act opera Il Prigioniero (1944-48) opened with an unscheduled performance of the National Anthem, for which audience members stood up enthusiastically. There was a marked—though surely unintentional—irony to this, given that Dallapiccola’s work is a rigorous challenge to persisting forms of authoritarianism-by-consent. The first half of the concert offered Ottorino Respighi’s Church Windows: an orchestral showpiece, supposedly evocative of medieval stained glass, which offered of familiar orchestral colours, tonal resolution, and a comforting vision of religious and musical order. By contrast, Dallapiccola’s twelve-tone opera, written from within Fascist Italy, operated as a gigantic question mark. 

Under the Austro-Hungarian empire, Dallapiccola's family had been suspected of Italian nationalism, and he had himself been forcibly relocated and placed in a kind of open confinement in the city of Graz as an adolescent. Coming to public prominence as a composer in the thirties, he had initially supported Mussolini’s regime until the Race Laws of 1938 threatened his wife, the librarian Laura Coen Luzzatto, of Jewish heritage, and Il Prigioniero is an opera about being coerced and seduced into desiring one's own own unfreedom, even one's own death. The libretto, Dallapiccola's own, is based on Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam's short story ‘Torture by Hope’: Laura had discovered it on a trip to Paris on the eve of war. In the dungeons of the Inquisition, a Prisoner is offered hope by his gaoler’s reports of a rebellion in Flanders; creeping through an open cell door, he begins his escape, only to be greeted at journey’s end by the Grand Inquisitor, who leads him to the stake as the prisoner whispers “La Libertà”, “Freedom?” Dallapiccola sets this deceptively simple scenario as something like a chamber opera, with the music characterised by pounding drama and flowing (serial) melody alike. It’s a delicate balance, and the singers—particularly the American tenor Eric Greene as the Prisoner—gave a strong, moving account of the music, not overplaying its melodrama, while Pappano, conducting without a baton, swept his whole body convulsively up and down in rhythmic sympathy. Constructed in a single, unbroken span, the opera is guided by motifs constructed from tone rows which serve, not as recurrences of fixed ideas of character or fate, static tokens of being, but as ideas in contestation and--ultimately--ideals betrayed: Hope, Prayer, Freedom, Brotherhood. Dallapiccola’s coup-de-theatre is the presence of an off-stage choir, or “inner chorus”, who sing verses from the Psalms in Latin, giving collective form to the prisoner’s individual hope. Yet at the climax, a second chorus moves onstage, the internal voice of individual freedom merging with the external forms of religious conformity singing the condemned to the stake. Despite this bitter irony, Dallapiccola’s ending can be read as act of existentialist defiance. Moving from music back into speech, the pirsoner's final, spoken whisper of “freedom?”, offers up, not so much an acceptance of his fate, as a response to false liberal or pietistic hope—the kind of hope heard in the National Anthem with which the concert began. This response, Dallapiccola suggests, can only be a question, not an answer. Today, the prison cell is still our reality. The Dungeons of Zaragoza end in Guantanamo Bay and in Abu Ghraib; in the immigration “detention centres” that spring up in the bucolic countryside National Anthem-singing patriots so love to celebrate. (Lest we forget, concentration camps are a British invention.) Il Prigioniero speaks more than ever, within and against the contexts in which it is placed. The question, as yet unanswered, is still: “Freedom?”

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Recents (Vivier/McPhee/Nodosus/Duras)

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.

(To be read, perhaps, alongside Lorna Finlayson's piece "I was a Child Liberationist" at the LRB...)

Sunday, 17 April 2022

Anna Mendelssohn / Amiri Baraka (More Recent Writing)

Two pieces on poets whose work--in very different ways--is intimately concerned with the relation of poetry to politics, to social movements, to the carceral policies of the State and the aftermath of the mass dissent of the 1960s, to an international and internationalist tradition moving across the Black Atlantic, across diasporas of various kinds, within and outside institutions from university to political party, that are constantly sites of sedimented power and constant contestation, no less today than in Anna Mendelssohn's or Amiri Baraka's work written decades ago.

"I worship at the Shrine of Poetry": An essay for The Poetry Foundation, introducing the work of Anna Mendelssohn (Grace Lake) and the astonishing, sprawling new Collected Poems, I'm Working Here, edited by Sara Crangle from the voluminous Mendelssohn archives at the University of Sussex, and available from Shearsman. (A tranche of recent Mendelssohn scholarship is available in a recent special issue of the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry, co-edited by Vicky Sparrow and Eleanor Careless, and available free and open-access here.)

"Hard Facts": An essay on Amiri Baraka's turn to Marxism-Leninism in the 1970s, for, emerging from The Red and the Black - The Russian Revolution and the Black Atlantic conference, held on the one-hundred year anniversary of the 1917 Revolution at the Institute for Black Atlantic Research at the University of Central Lancashire, Preston. The essay is the final chapter in the second volume of two books relating to the Red and the Black conference: this one, Revolutionary lives of the Red and Black Atlantic since 1917, edited by  David Featherstone, Christian Høgsbjerg and Alan Rice, also has work by Hakim Adi, David Austin (whose book on Linton Kwesi Johnson, Dread Poetry and Freedomcame out from Pluto a couple of years back), on Hubert Harrison, Wilfred Domingo, Cyril Briggs, Grace P. Campbell, Raya Dunayevskaya...

The essay itself moves through Baraka's turn from Black Nationalism to Third World Marxism--including the key role played by female comrades such as Amina Baraka, Jamala Rogers and Vicki Garvin--the organisational transition from the Congress of Afrikan People to the League of Revolutionary Struggle, the question of Black Marxism and historical forgetting. It ends with Baraka's neglected Marxist poetry, in the collections Hard Facts and Poetry for the Advanced (the latter available only in his 1979 Selected Poetry, an essential but out-of-print volume), along with the musical recordings by the Advanced Workers (two of which are embedded below), arguing for these poems emblem and tool of his developing political hopes, in which the relation between, poem, performance, and the context by which it is activated and which it in turn hopes to activate, is more prescient than ever in Baraka's work: "art as verb rather than noun, process rather than product". For too long, the general image of Baraka has smoothed over the inconvenient fact that he was and remained a Marxist for the majority of his career, and I hope this, along with work like James Smethurst's brilliant recent Brick City Vanguard and Anthony Reed's Soundworks, begins to change the story we have of Baraka, and of Black Radical culture in general, in a time when historical forgetting is perhaps more prevalent than ever. 

Wednesday, 13 April 2022

Houben / Oliveros / Mitchener / Thomas

(Some thoughts on three recent concerts as spring gradually emerges...)

Claire Chase presents Pauline Oliveros, part of SoundState, Queen Elizabeth Hall Foyer, 3rd April 2022

(Image by the Southbank Centre's music director, Gillian Moore

This free concert in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall paid tribute to the late Pauline Oliveros, exemplifying the social, and sonic pleasures of the late composer’s work. Playing an array of flutes and whistles, Claire Chase was accompanied by Senem Pirler, working with the electronic ‘Expanded Instrument System’, a “computer-controlled sound interface” Oliveros first designed in 1963. For the first piece, ‘Sounds from Childhood’ (1992), Chase instructed the audience to remember a time in childhood “when it was a lot of fun to make sounds”, and then to make those sounds. The collective texture—raspberries, sighs, groans, ululations—was then played back through the EIS as a chorus at once disjointed and with the pleasures of togetherness; memory taken forward into the present and, via the EIS, the futuristic. For the text score ‘13 Changes’ (1988), Chase read out each of the textual prompts before interpreting them for an array of flutes. The titles thus served as entities in themselves, by terms pithy, humorous, and thought-provoking, from ‘Songs of ancient mothers among awesome rocks’ to ‘Rollicking monkeys landing on Mars’. The EIS gave the resultant whirling of breath and air an edge sometimes mechanical, sometimes digital, the pieces rendered something like epic bagatelles, condensed but imaginatively vast and expansive.

The duo concluded with the most substantial work on the programme, ‘Intensity 20.15, Grace Chase’ (2015). Oliveros wrote the piece for Chase’s enormous bass flute—or ‘Bertha’, as she dubs it—but with the kicker that the flute would only be deployed briefly at the end. For the rest of the piece, Chase would have to find other sound-producing means. After extended discussion, Oliveros and Chase hit upon the idea of using texts by Chase’s grandmother, Grace. Diagnosed as schizophrenic in her 20s and subjected to electroshock, Grace had self-medicated through art, writing unclassifiable texts in hundreds of notebooks, their inveterate punning subverting linguistic and patriarchal authority.

“In adulthood I have taken up a load of childlike things”, Chase proclaimed, neatly inverting the Biblical declaration of maturity. She proceeded to unload carrier bags of notebooks, bells, whistles, and percussion instruments, turning the stage into a kind of children’s music workshop run riot. This was music as dispersed play rather than concentrated training, un-learning the hierarchies embedded in the world of ‘classical’ music. A linguistic riff—“And I step on you and you and you”—saw Chase using countless pairs of shoes as percussion instruments, ultimately striking a giant bass drum with a high heel in a neatly subversive feminist gesture. The piece ended with an extended bass flute drone, a meditation that eased us back into the present. Throughout, the legacies of the women Chase described as her spiritual grandmother (Oliveros) and her biological grandmother (Grace) provided a non-essentialist model of feminist energies, accessible to all: airing what was unaired in order to bring in new airs for us to breathe together.

A few minutes in, I overheard a small child in the row behind me whisper: “this is cool, I’d actually like to stay”. The ‘avant-garde’ or ‘experimental’ here is accessible, not despite, but precisely because of its experimentation, the particular openings it offers onto the world—to childhood and adulthood, to suppressed memories and lost histories—and above all, to the sheer pleasure in sound-making as participatory endeavour. Oliveros would have been proud.

Eva-Maria Houben / GBSR Duo, Together on the Way', Southbank Centre, 3rd April 2022

(Image again by Gillian Moore)

Immediately preceding the Oliveros concert in the foyer, the QEH's inner concert hall saw a performance by the composer and the GBSR Duo, of Eva-Maria Houben's Together on the Way for organ, piano, and percussion, premiered at Huddersfield in 2021, a performance recently released on Another Timbre. Whereas that performance took place in a small church, the expanded space of the QEH allowed the work to breathe in a new way, even as so much of Houben's music is about doing away with hierarchies of vast auditoriums, prosceniums, scale as a performance of cultural legitimacy: a case outlined in her book Musical Practice as a Form of Life and elsewhere, which might in part be about returning to a pre-19th century way of thinking--the tradition of the local church organist, say (Houben's first professional job in music was as a 12-year old church organist), a different relation between composer, performer, and listening community than that of the giant concert hall--as well as elements of 19th-century Romanticism that might be reclaimed beyond the idea of the Romantic composer as an isolated, bourgeois "political bonehead".  Breathing in a new way, cast in a different light.

Today, bathed in a resplendently subtle light show, Houben was playing the QEH organ that literally rises from underneath the stage (sadly not a spectacle the audience got to witness): emergence from the depths not so much as cthonic grandiosity (Phantoms of the Opera), nor the portentous religiosity that horror film aesthetic builds off, but a more modest inhabiting of environment, of space: what's not there, hidden in the corners, the barely there, that which will disappear again. (Houben's ever-present concern with the paradox a sound that exists in its disappearance, with the "presque rien" indications on Berlioz's scores.) For though, to say it again, the organ has reputation as grandiose, enormous cathedral spectacular, in fact Houben reveals it as a wheezing, mechanical instruments of stops and clicks and wheezes ("the organ is for me a Hoffmanesque instrument", as she says in an interview about the piece here), and at the same time a delicate, airy instrument of breath, of near-silence, sustaining a kind of cloud of sound that hangs in, through and as air, through pipes and stops and keys, at once intangible, evanescent, and weighted, heavy, with freighted tradition, with its un- and re-making...

On stage, Houben was flanked by the two members of the GBSR Duo, Siwan Rhys's piano gently prepared with horsehair, but more often played in a series of unadorned notes, melody reduced to its simplest means--one note, two notes, a few notes that almost, but don't quite, build up a scale or an octave transposition--or gently struck dissonances, reverberating in the sustain pedal and a finger-dampened string; George Barton's huge array of percussion played as a series of barely-audible taps, synchronised and overlapping piano and percussion entries over a single organ chord, sustained over the course of the entire work, not so much as a "drone" as a near-transparent texture, wheezing, breathing, enormous yet transparent, what Houben calls a "shelter" or a kind of sounding silence in which the players can each occupy their separate spaces, spread out on the stage; rather than Cage, for whom it's de rigueur to compare Wandelweiser music, I kept thinking of Nono, Houben's image of "the way" and his borrowing of Machado in the "no hay caminos..."  motto that suffuses his late work, or the interplay of the piano and its outsides, its surrounding echoes and silences in "...sofferte onde serene", of the creation of sound as an environment, a way of remaking the space it's in.
Nono: "It is the inaudible, the unheard that does not fill the space but discovers the space, uncovers the space as if we too have become part of sound and we were sounding ourselves".

Houben: "all together are rather more listening than playing. 
all together become aware of the different ways their sounds decay."
At one point the breathing of someone in the row above me was louder than the music coming from the stage, but there was almost no "actual" silence: a veil, a representation, a mediation. Somewhere in all of this a meditation on decay, on the anxieties of environment as not simply a "natural" space but a contested terrain of despoliation and the imminent ending of life--Houben's programme notes nodding to the anthropocene--or the histories closer to home, the current conflicts and conjunctures that seep into a place that doesn't, as the cliche goes, close itself off from them in a cocoon, but lets them enter and disappear. This is a historical music, a music maybe at the end of something, with the melancholy that implies, but also with the possibility of remaking and rethinking ("when the chord is unfolded, it sounds for a while, then the process of deconstruction begins"...)--spread out, as the performers were on stage, over large distance, chasms, yet with a kind of intimacy, a human scale, the possibilities of bodies in space, the possibilities of hearing as a mode of relation: a music that models eternity or infinity, as per Cage's ASLSP, its centuries-long sounding organ, yet which is in itself concerned with the material of decay, with a focused materialism. After an hour or so--just under or just over--the work ends, signalled with uncharacteristic drama or force by an inexorable, regular set of drum taps, one after the other, over and over: I didn't count exactly, but perhaps as many as fifteen times, a regular, barely reverberating stroke, flatly thudding, inexorably placed. A host of associations invoked: Beethoven's fate, Wagner's forge, yet the taps here also remove drama, ostentation, military forthrightness: and while those connotations can never render this a gesture "purely" formal or abstract, the context of the work as a whole, the manner of its delivery, lend this conclusion a non-forced materiality, at once transparent clarity and a refusal to be reductively read, rendered symbol.

Afterwards, Houben remarked that the piece, which exists in a different configuration each time it's performed, and is thus in essence never the same piece twice, might be considered as still sounding, still being performed. More to write and think about this...

Pat Thomas/Elaine Mitchener--Cafe Oto, 10th April 2022

(Image by David Laskowski)

This was the first time Mitchener and Thomas had performed as a duo, though they appear with Orphy Robinson and the visiting duo of William Parker and Hamid Drake on the expansive Some Good News album, also recorded live at Cafe Oto a few years ago, on which Mitchener is essentially the guest--and entirely at home--with two established duos, that of Robinson/Thomas and Parker/Drake. No prerequisites or expectations as to 'genre' here, this Sunday afternoon in early April; either musician could go anyway, together or separately. It's playing as listening, improvising, holding a line or--more often--knowing when to let it drop and hold back; Mitchener stepping to the side of the stage to listen to Thomas, solo, or vice versa. Both supplemented the complex 'basics' of piano and voice: Thomas with two i-pads functioning as kaoss-pads--an updated version of his earlier rougher, analogue electronics and tapes of the 90s, where he'd deploy tapes recorded off the TV, lo-fi musique concrete cut-ups and blarts of noise, but nonetheless treated with the same expert capacity for a kind of brusque disruption, a refusal to use electronics to coast or provide ambient texture; Mitchener with objects on a table, selectively deployed--a couple of whistles, a thumb piano, some rattles and shakers, used for specific and precise textures at particular points. No prerequisites, no expectations--and the opening five or ten minutes in particular all about finding ways into listening: Thomas scraping or stroking the piano's inside strings, Mitchener's quiet articulations, sometimes the amplifier buzz louder than the sounds they made; audience quiet and focused, this warm spring afternoon, so much lighter and more lifted than the lockdown of two years ago, a social space open to be whatever it might be, the openness of matinees like this, where the music can just be open and relaxed in its exploration, in its unforced listening.
Both Mitcher and Thomas have a penchant for intensity and volume: Thomas' electronic walls or, on piano, trademark thick chords, often clusters played with palms, the piano at once treated in its harmonic richness and rhythmically, as drum; Mitchener's virtuosity, her to turn any note into a series of gasps or rhythmic stutters, gargles, fluid yodels, effects for which the term "extended techniques" will have to substitute for a more precise technical designation--ululations reminiscent of transmuted marketplace or muezzin cry or folk music buzz, echoes of jazz--though almost never 'scat'--occasional avant-classical high pitches, pure and biting like laser beams, sirens, piercing through. But this was not a showcase of techniques, a kind of masterclass or workshop in displaying virtuosity; those impulses initially, and often throughout, kept muted, finding their way in, not forcing the music. 

What was performed, with the interruption of a brief set break, was essentially one long piece divided into natural, unplanned episodes and pauses--though occasionally the audience broke in with applause to 'end' a section. Absent of a score, Mitchener used a series of texts--a Cecil Taylor poem on the elements and on creation("thrice water in air..."), Mingus and Jeanne Lee quotations on creativity, and, the most extended, poems by N.H. Pritchard, mainly from his second book, EECCHHOOEESS--which she moved through, improvising on or off, a word revealing itself gradually, cohesively broken down; the text not so much as a script but as a repository to give the voice shape, as texture and also as a space, a placeholder, a holding place for thought, for suggestion, for image. Pritchard in particular, who she's worked with before, formed the basis for the most extended (re)articulations of the set--the ecstatic yelling of the word "FR/OG" that closed the first set with aplomb, the poem of that name taken up again in the second half, Pritchard's splitting of words, so that "echoing" is reversed, mimesis of the aural effect rendered visually and then resounded--"ing echo", Thomas picking up on that echoic play with a rare melodic echo of Mitchener's pitched tones. An echo is one mode of relation, between the sounding and the sound, the semantic and the 'purely' sonic, the intentional and the unintended, the spoken and the spoken-for. Another--language's connecting words, the way they tie and fry, they fray: the spoken-sung recitation of Pritchard's mediation on and with the simile, "as a / as a / as a / hoo hooz", the call of an owl or the questioning of possession or colour gradation, "whose", "hue", words slipping and sliding, nature imitation, night birds or crickets, Thoreau's loon, nocturnes, clouds forming, faces in the sky, ("VISAGE / BLACK CLOUDBANK / FORMING/ ELSE WHERE") a kind of mystic-material inquiry rooted in (perhaps) American Transcendentalism, the reading of nature's hieroglyph as Emerson put it--letters, sounds, transparent eyeballs, bells--or theosophy, Toomer's Gurdjieff, his sound poems ("vor cosma saga [...] vor shalmer raga"), or a (post)structuralist enquiry into language--metaphysics or metaphor, any number of enquiries..."As a" as a repeated loop between speech and song, Thomas sometimes picking up with piano figurations that offered rhythmic support of staggered dance, more often with electronics on the i-pad that fed in insectoid cracklings or multi-layered clouds sustained then dying away.

(Pages from N.H. Pritchard's EECCHHOOEESS performed by Mitchener/Thomas)

I had a thought, but it was more a feeling, transmitted in the performance's vibrations, its sensations of tone, that this was all above all about material, about the piano as material, as object, as percussion, as an instrument with an inside and an outside, about how Thomas' performance "outside" on keyboard and "inside" on strings activated both, refusing distinctions between them; and how Mitchener too articulated inside and outside, clicks from the back of the throat while singing, the way the entire palette and throat is drawn into and made visible as articulation. It's about time, too, and poise, how listening gets articulated visually as well as sonically, in the way Thomas would hover over a chord, fingers in position, decide not to repeat it, move instead to the inside of the piano or the i-pad; the way both he and Mitchener insistently and unforcedly avoided the cliches of 'responsive' improv (echoing, playing 'together' in too obvious ways, as if that were the only way to play were to overcompensate by demonstrating you were 'listening' by imitation--which is not really listening at all, just a kind of language-learning game, a preliminary to the real listening that never really happens). Often Mitchener channeled an entire band in rhythm and lead parts herself, accompanying doubled vocal lines with a shaker, with a rhythmic articulation that supplemented and separated and merged from a melodic line (like an avant-garde Bobby McFerrin, occasionally); Thomas instead responding with a series of tranquil dissonant chords, or silence, or an electronic crackle, or in one delightful moment, a sudden burst of club music that faded in and out like the ghost of a different sociality, invoked with (im)perfect humour and (im)perfect ting, art brut, joyously knowing. Only at the end did he join or lead in a jazz-tinged series of chords that channelled a host of optimistically rueful medium-tempo solos exemplified by the solo Monk playing over the sound system when I entered the venue, and that maybe aurally echoed in his playing, that lent itself to song-like song-line close on Jeanne Lee's words on the experience of life as process, on life as living: not stasis, not object; and on those words, those chords, that song, synchronous, asynchronous, warmly to end.