Monday 27 February 2012


So, the launch for Luke McMullan and Sophie Seita’s finally-released magazine, 1* I guess we can call it, or alternatively pdpdpdpdpd: it’s from Contingency Press, its format is A4, and it’s got poems, got prose, got interviews real and fictive, got drawings (designs?,; got here at last after some time in the preparation. As readings go, I’d hesitate to call this a ‘reading’ as such (in the sense that term takes on as a kind of coded, public social experience). Because it was more like this: there’s this party going on and then can we all move next-door; so it’s just, what, ten people in a room, maybe a few more, and some of them standing up or leaning on tables and reading: poems mostly, one prose piece which in delivery, in fact, felt divided or enunciated at least cadentially, as if there were some line-breaks we couldn’t see as we read along. This (by Jonas Tinius) was about quotation, in part – about synaesthesia, as a whole – but, following Deleuze and Guattari’s multiplicity-(non-)programme lead, also about gathering in, or scattering, diversities of sources and putting them in a kind of non-hierarchical dialogue with each other, argumentation as experimentation, testing out the waters. A passage from Nabokov in which synaesthesia links to childhood providing the refrain (de- or re-territorialization, D & G style), and amidst the D & G and Barthes and Serres the pleasant unobtrusiveness of a little throw-away sound play from Tom Waits about sleepy male whores, I think. At times the piece felt like it wasn’t really about synaesthesia at all; rather, synaesthesia serving as a trope for a kind of multiplicity or inter-disciplinarity which the magazine itself encourages.

Lisa Jeschke actually read first: three short poems which I’ve heard her deliver several times previously, brief and rigorous. OK. So I realized upon being asked to write up this event and the magazine that I’d written something on Jeschke’s work a month or so ago, but not done anything with it. And as it’s been lying on my hard drive in inactivity since then, let’s just shoehorn it in here for now. It’s about restraint and excess. Also talks about some work by Jeremy Hardingham, who wasn’t there at the launch, and Lucy Beynon, who was, so it both connects and moves away from the matter at hand, the review of the event. Bear with it, tho’, it’s only a paragraph.

restraint & excess in the work of jeremy hardingham, lisa jeschke, lucy beynon

from a poem by jeschke: "this rests upon restraint. // austerity measures." consider here: restraint both as a method of performance, a necessary paring-back or what jeremy hardingham might call 'evacuation', and as something associated with an ascetism demanded of us by those in power whose lives are anything but ascetic, their non-asceticism, their excess and extravagance in fact allowed by our enforced asceticism ("austerity measures" - 'cutting back', 'saving the pennies', 'adding an extra notch to the belt'). as such, it might be taken as a negative CONstraint, upon desire and excess, the latter as a revolt beyond the allowed or allowable, a shout in the face of the hypocritic enforcement of austerity. to what extent does self-imposed limitation – something very much present in the work of hardingham, jeschke and beynon – force an artistically rewarding tension between stricture and slippage, leaving minute space for negotiation, variation and invention within a set of apparently narrow, but often in practice, quite wide parameters? we might counter-balance this with the excess seen as a virtue in a particular kind of performance art - the vienna actionists and their caressed/tormented swans, the live action painting extravaganzas of georges matthieu, yves klein's objectifying nudey-paint-rolling 'anthropometries', nudity and meat and the writhing body as a kind of anti-technological animality, a primitivist assault – by contrast, moments of the shocking, or the perverse, assertions of wilful oddity here have their force precisely by not being the be all and end all, prolonged into endless orgiastic background noise, a kind of anti-ambient music with the same ultimate effect. consider, more in line with a restrained or cramped excess, yoko ono's apparently – and, indeed, truly – excessive vocal works – the prolonged sing-scream in which that performance pitch is maintained not as the rock star's flamboyant animal roar – roger waters, even iggy pop – but as something more constrained, sustained, a narrow confine forcing sustained discomfort, rather than allowing iggy's or waters' quick orgasmic release. also to consider: whether art which works within these restraints – the often conceptual scores of the wandelweiser group, john cage's number pieces, hardingham's recent theatrical works (which work specifically with an element of temporal restraint) – in some way also work with the manner in which we are constrained –socially, politically, economically, emotionally – in the forms of everyday life, in terms of allowed movement or speech or spatial existence – forcing similar restraint to be felt rather than simply unconsciously absorbed and acted within, and, paradoxically, opening up a space beyond that, a counter-restraint which is at once terrible, sad, tragic etc (if you like), and liberatingly imaginative (it's not the word i want, but it'll have to do), you yourself setting the terms of your own constraint, setting your own parameters within a space that you circumscribe, a magic circle in which excess plays with and against what would curb it and exacerbate it, in which limit is tested, enforced, and even, for the briefest moment, broken through.

So Lisa Jeschke read, and Jonas Tinius read, and Sophie Seita read, a new poem, untitled, about ten minutes in total to read, I guess, an exploration of a kind of structural boredom, in part, repetition and expectancy, managing to avoid the knowingly ironic smugness the approach potentially engenders through its own sense of its possible, and actual, deliberate banality; conscious too that it might just be ‘playing around’ – but a necessary play, I think, like Jeschke’s, in fact, looking at those conventions round readings, their righteousnesses, their slashings of irony and anger and intimacy, going outside all those things and instead, multi-lingually and calmly, going through a set of procedures in which formality is highlighted, anticipated, parodied, carried on with, followed through. “Skip another line

Break” and there is play with sound, the repeated line on the first page maybe even intended to trip up a too-smooth enunciation of its regularity, as a kind of re-assertion of error or risk amongst what, now I think of it, actually acts as a kind of error or risk in itself – the risk of boredom, the apparent appearance of CD-‘skip’, a hop and a jump or feet shuffling on the ground in a pulse that can’t quite remain as ‘soothing’ as it proclaims itself to be for the hardness of its cutting k’s and popping p’s, the ping-pong pop too, in the reading, of the played audacity click-track, loping plosives off tongue maybe twisting or re-iterating, re-iterating what, actually getting going, riffing on that notion of (not) getting started – as in Cole Porter, right – deferral and a kind of battle of wills, poised anyway in intended uncertainty inside a laughter that turns – where? on the reader or listener themselves, causing them to smile at being in on the joke, or maybe to smile at not being in on it, seeing how far that could go – and that’s then thrown back in the real or imagined critical extract that follows the slight twitch or breakdown that signals the end of that first page of skipping line-breaks, when ‘skip’ does a kind of stutter – ‘skip k’: “The one thing that interested me about the poem was that it was not yet there.” But of course it is there and now is there in another list, figures of twelve, an impossibility of cataloguing, that catalogue resulting in a series of samenesses wrenched from diversity, maybe, tho’ I’m not sure I know what the various things that follow the twelves are doing with each other. Well, they’re funny – yet then we get caught, again, just now that we were settling in, caught on the final line: “The one who performs these every day will not be poor in a thousand births.” Which for some reason disturbs, a little, whether it’s the (gendered) pain involved in the thousand births, or the impossibility of material poverty being averted through plays on names and multi-lingual puns and steps in Rome or piano keys – which is, then, about an artistic impotency, and saying that is not in itself a highly original thing to do, maybe, but we all do harp on or batter against that constraint, right, and it’s not polemical(?) as I thus make it out to be, no? And then the lit-crit voice again, “The one thing that interested me about the poem was that it was short,” which anticipates and draws into itself, as did its predecessor, the criticism (a) that the poem is (in- or un-)distinguished just by its regular and soothing rhythm, and (b) (by saying the opposite of what it means) that the poem is actually too long, self-indulgently so. Now I am going to speed up, tho’ the next page in fact is the densest so far (I’m reading thru the PDF retrospectively, so maybe this is a reading of the written text rather than of the read text, last night, for which, apologies –and, yes, that tension or embarrassment(?) about the potentially perceived frivolity or patience-trying of the text is key to its delivery and smooth crackle as performed poem, which is what the end, I think it is or wants so to be). The next page is (very briefly) about views and, again, banalities, suburban settings and windows and curtains and plays with sound, the line about nothing being seen outside television as drawing in or together the theme of mediation, the line on “vowelling our way out of or into without any form of dogmatism” seemingly an accurate description, but of course not, and the poem acknowledging that rejection of dogma, or that ‘purely’ formal approach, as itself a kind of dogma or stricture, and the sentences descending into self-parodying nonsense of assonantal or spiffily poly-syllabic (and self-describing) words: “text terminates in reference and reverence to one of the greatest terminologators of” – before again the repeated stuckness skips – “please take some time with this line”, how to read that unchanging right-hand column against the little insistences of the left-hand column. This refrain is actually the opposite of that found on the first page: whereas at that first the line negates itself by causing skipping or skimming, flicking through until things properly begin, here, the injunction is to dwell on a line which is nonetheless no more full than the one we were earlier instructed to ‘skip’. And the lit-crit coming back, now explicitly identified with “the [common?] reader”, speaking you back at yourself, and at itself – like, you know that running together “lines” and “lions” and “lie-ins” is banal and maybe there’s a pleasure in it, but what can it lead to except platitudes: “Lots of words sound like / other words.” And questioning then whether an admittedly pleasurable sound play can be ethical, or whether it is in some sense just superficial surface to a real ethics that gets done in what’s said rather than how it’s said, some imaginative ‘grace’ against the necessary authenticity and ‘grounded-ness’ of ‘gravity’(?). “There is no reason why this should be so / apart from habitual / steadiness.” And then give up. “This poem doesn’t interest me at all.” Now I feel that here I should be breaking through to saying something really cohesive and conclusive about what the poem does, but I will just stop there, you’ve probably all had enough.

Luke McMullan read. And explicitly this reading was trying to tell us something, to do theory-enactment in a poem, the title, from Adorno, “Art is the negative knowledge of the actual world”: ‘Negative Knowledge’, the poem, to grapple with that one we’re all going tête-à-tête with, that ‘I’ of yours whose illusion of ‘free’ and private subjectivity prevents genuine solidarity and out-boxing thought (“the speechless obliteration of difference”). Space is crucial here (as is surface – “our enneper love”): spacing on the page, and spacing in terms of the Occupy movement, which Luke mentioned, and which re(con-)figures relational body-position and occupation, yes, of space defined explicitly as non-private, as against a kind of false individuum of gaping rapacious maws: “the perimeter of the subject / the diameter maintained in the private jaw.”

Some other person read. And at the end, Ian Heames read. And as when I saw him read at a more public occasion, back in November, he read from memory, so we could say he spoke, or recited, rather than ‘read’, just sitting in a corner and I was thinking /

how far could a delivery impart something that a poem itself, when encountered on the page at least, did not necessarily contain?

I was thinking this in part because of reports of the Lyric and Polis conference at Falmouth where Denise Riley’s reading reduced much of the audience to tears, and the prose section in Douglas Oliver’s ‘An Island That Is All The World’ where he talks about doing a reading of the Diagram Poems in which he also so moved his, different, audience – having explicitly decided beforehand to concentrate on prosody only, on the musical articulation and regulation of utterance, of syllable length and of breath – and in so doing, taking himself out of the poem and out of himself as subjective ‘deliverer’ of that poem; as it seems Denise Riley may also have done. Those tears are a strong emotional reaction that seems to come from somewhere originating in the formal, as that shades over into affect. Though of course ‘thematically’ it is to do with the loss of a child that both poems enact (Riley’s ‘A Part Song’ is her first work for several years, and the result of a sense of poetry’s inadequacy in the face of actual loss, the memorialisation of the dead that always poetry has self-consciously done in spite of the awareness of the inadequacy of its own rhetorical over-statement), it is to do also with taking oneself out formally, the latter something that might at best be hard to really catalogue or chart, and at worst, impossible or undesirable and even mendacious so to do.

I say all this, maybe, as preamble, and because I’ve been thinking about it this past week, and I realise this is already too long (“The one thing that interested me about the review was that it was short”), which is itself a kind of verbal-diarrheic over-compensation for not having anything to say and saying it, so, On: When Ian Heames read his voice had a tremble to it which no doubt came from the sheer effort of actually remembering these poems, which are not simple poems in the slightest, and delivering them with clarity and fidelity, and the intensity of just someone sitting on a sofa in what is a domestically-scaled setting, and where do you look, everyone quiet breath, at their feet perhaps, I didn’t look up myself, and you could laugh, even, when there were jokes and smile with recognition at bits you’ve heard like that line about having three browser windows open and eating the guts of an alarm, which does so many things with the mechanised and the work-place and the sci-fi element that runs all the way through and alarm as ironised or made bathetic even as it’s registered, thus reduced of any efficacy at all: which is all to say, it was intense, moving, even – lines that in the text one might skim or not be as struck by here take on a terrible force: “Time penalties cannot hurt her”, “Thank you for not shooting You are my favourite ones”, “The orchestra wells up with the last / ice cap,” “Dealing with the loss / like merchandise,” “Love is the derangement of leisure time.”[1] (The sequence, of five short poems, hasn’t been published beyond photocopies here and there, will take a while to come out, is dedicated to Jeff Keen: ‘Banners over Terminal Highway’, you’ll check it when it appears I’m sure.)

I was going to combine this review of the reading with a review of the magazine itself, and I’ve run out of time and space and energy, so there’s a lot I’ve missed out: the interview with Birte Endrejat; Thom Donovan’s piece; Yates Norton’s piece; Eben Wood’s piece, &c. You can get it all, tho’, from Click.

Another line-break.


[1] Ian points out that this last line is borrowed from a poem by Danny Hayward.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Britten Sinfonia / Adès – Concentric Paths

West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge,
Monday 20th February 2012

Couperin Les barricades misterieuses
Couperin arr. Thomas Adès Les baricades misterieuses
Thomas Adès Three Studies from Couperin
Ravel Le tombeau de Couperin
Stravinsky Airs du rossignol and Marche chinoise
Stravinsky Suites Nos 1 & 2 for Small Orchestra
Thomas Adès Concerto for Violin (Concentric Paths)

Thomas Adès conductor
Pekka Kuusisto violin

The first half of the evening centred around re-workings of, works inspired by, and actual pieces by Francois Couperin: as such, it evidenced a fairly carefully-programmed selection, guaranteed not to offend the delicate sensibilities of a classical crowd, with the dissonant meat or medicine (Adès’ violin concerto) shoved to the end of the programme. Normally, mind you, it works the other way round: get the commission, or revived recent work – twenty minute concerto or programme piece, whatever – over and done with mercifully early, and then settle down for the guest soloist laying down some Mozart. James Dillon has complained at the way in which classical programmes still retain such an awkward and none too well managed balance between the ‘classics of yesteryear’ which are the clear preference of both traditionalist audiences, and, perhaps, orchestral players, and the new works which are, it is felt, somehow culturally necessary to avoid charges of total nostalgic regression. The idea that there might be a whole concert of ‘new music’ (which, in context, means anything atonal written from the ’40s onward) is a real rarity – which makes such instances as the ‘Total Immersion’ weekends at the Barbican gleaming havens amidst the mediocre sea of compromise (sorry, that phrasing is absurd).

Adès’ music – to get started on that right away – is technically accomplished, and it has some colour: the ‘Ecstasio’ movement of ‘Asyla’ does a diverting job of imitating the sounds of a club with a full orchestra, though it sounds little different than the re-arrangements of Aphex Twin and Squarepusher that the London Sinfonietta did a few years ago, and which have got nowhere near the same press. Still, I can’t help feeling that it remains something of a trick for the un-hip: classical audiences – or maybe not even audiences, maybe just composers who want to be seen as cool young things, bursting out of their stuffed shirts – are not too savvy with the real thing, with the pounding experience of hours on end of communal movement and throbbing bass and the surprising pared-back dissonance that can occur in dance music; but they find quirky and amusing and rather trickily skilful the imitation of such occasion. It’s like the stripper music in Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Prelude, Fugue and Riffs’ (a piece for which I must admit to having something of a soft spot), or, most execrably, the appearance of Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s ‘Hammered Out’, like a drunk dad trying to dance along at a wedding party. Needless to say, such projects fall flat on their face between two stools: maybe pop or rock or dance musicians seeking some sort of ‘credibility’ (let’s say, Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, now a composer of soundtracks and even classically-premiered works), or maybe classical composers and musicians trying desperately to retain(?) some social relevance, to get down with the kids and with local communities (Charles Hazlewood’s various schemes in this regard perhaps the most polished and well-intentioned of such endeavours).

Adès’ work is not really an example of this, that ‘Asyla’ moment excepted, but it does share with it a kind of in-betweenness that I find, in the end, profoundly unsatisfying: constantly gesturing forward towards cluster and dissonance and extremes of orchestral colour – high violin lines against parping or muted trombones and tubas, the occasional string scrape or slightly woozy flute/bassoon combination – but drawing back almost straight away into a conventional chord resolution, a moment of ‘beautiful’ melody as if to reassure us that some such song still sings. What we get, then, is neither a truly memorable or beautiful melodic sense – fine, I’m down with that – but neither do we get anything truly radical to offset that: the orchestral colour thing has been done so much more interestingly by numerous composers – the high/low thing by Varese back in the 20s! –and the rhythmic sense is surprisingly lumpen. Compare Birtwistle’s cross-rhythms, the mechanically-driving sound of ‘Harrison’s Clocks’, a take on clockwork with affinities to the ubiquitous and now tired sounds of (post-)minimalism but with a sense of development and technical problem-solving or addressing that takes it far beyond the easy comforts of that mode of writing: or, for the pitching of fragile but continuous melody over rumbles and clouds of frighted and ominous discontent, the little-known ‘Grimethorpe Aria’, perhaps the finest work written for brass band by a classical composer. Adès’ violin concerto was, in the end, remarkably traditional, for all its apparently spiky outer-garments: in three movements, the slow one in the middle, orchestra playing support to soloist, never challenging or questioning or really much interacting with the violin’s continuing ‘concentric paths’ of vaguely folk-ish, vaguely anguished, non-directional melody, spinning on through no real development or contradiction in furrowed-brow meander. There were moments, of course – in particular, the gleeful/ominous devil’s dance at the very start of the third movement (though this was quickly sidestepped for something more lyrically effusive) – but I find it hard to see how The Guardian’s Peter Culshaw could read in Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir and The Rite of Spring, a ‘gorgeous bluesy tune’, and a ‘close-to-techno beat’, let alone laugh at that movement’s ‘audaciousness’, as he claims to have done. Iannis Xenakis’ electronic works, or the ferocious rugged struggle of his concerti, have more in common with the spirit of dance music as its most radical or rock music at its most radical than Adès’ nods in that direction – and I fail to see who, really, the latter are for, in the end. The middle-aged-to-old people I was sitting behind smiled through the Couperin (which was beautiful, and beautifully-played – Adès’ gifts as a pianist are not in doubt); the Couperin arrangements (which were often skilful, and sometimes flashed rather deliciously odd textures, through muted brass or marimba or a gentle tug at the emotional register (for which, compare Glenn Gould’s Chopinesque take, in his 1955 recording, on the 25th of Bach’s Goldberg Variations), turning the music keening and quasi-tragic, while keeping it under its original wraps (that restraint, of course, being part of the music’s charm and, I wouldn’t say difficulty, but mode of careful and sustained attention); and the Ravel (for which, yes, I was smiling too – let’s even say that I find the more bittersweet moments quite moving, in fact, having listened to this piece over and over over the past few years, feeling its nuances, the sudden shifts from reverie to an almost-enforced helter-skelter jollity which, through its dignity and slight restraint, retains something of that preceding sorrow). They sat through the Stravinsky, aided by the faux-exotic Chinoiserie of the ‘Marche Chinoise’ (which for me was really a sour note after the ‘Airs du Rossignol’, a piece nicely tough in texture, its birdsong imitations even gesturing towards Messiaen, the piano clanging and hard, the violin rough and thick, folk-music style, not the thin-edged pious wail of its salon- or Hollywood-music incarnation), and jollied along by the shambolic-smooth dances of the Suites for orchestra; and then they grimaced their way through the Adès, taking their medicine (a medicine that nonetheless managed to inspire the apparently contagious malady of the auditorium coughing round), clearly not impressed by the ‘further-out’ moments, nor too drawn in by the melodics that one felt were in some sense written for them (am I being unfair here?). OK, so if this music ended up not being for them, fine: neither was it it for me. It just doesn’t have that purity of intention, attention, technique dedicated towards the solving of formal problems that in some sense matter, historically, even (to get all Adornian on y’all). I can just think of so many other composers, in different modes and from different times, to whom I would rather listen – and this isn’t limited to Adès, it’s something I find distressingly prevalent across a whole spectrum of middling, quasi-dissonant but none-too-adventurous composers, particularly British ones – something, no doubt, to do with our island parochialism (Adès has written a piece called ‘O Albion’, the soft counterpart to Finnissy’s rigorously impossible ‘English Country Tunes’ (a work I don’t love, but which one cannot but admire) or even James MacMillan’s slightly sub-Ivesian, yet nicely rowdy ‘Britannia’ and football-piano-concerto ‘The Beserking’). Even, say, the utter unswerving devotional pitch of Tavener’s ‘Protecting Veil’ wins out, for me, over the similar moments in the Adès concerto where a high solo line is placed over a low pitched orchestra. And to those who argue that such compromise is necessary because of the inhuman, academic excesses of straw-man-serialism (“I remember starting the first rehearsal and thinking, I'm making this noise! It was so--you know--modern. It really did sound like horrible modern music”), I’d put the question: how much more bonkers richness is there in any number of pieces by Karlheinz Stockhausen, how much more unworldly eeriness (mingled with fierce political commitment) is there in a piece by Helmut Lachenman, how much better did Luciano Berio deal with the whole tradition of classical music and with contemporary culture in his works, how much more richly coloured and attractively, endlessly inventive is Pierre Boulez’s superlative ‘Derive II’? For Christ’s sake, how much more radical and more alive is the music of the 103-year-old Elliott Carter? And there let it end. (I did dig the Ravel, the Couperin, the Stravinsky (in part) – honest.)

Saturday 4 February 2012

"Make the Suckers Back Back": An Amiri Baraka Music Compilation

01 // New York Art Quartet - Black Dada Nihilismus (3:39)
Album // New York Art Quartet (ESP 1004, 1964)

02 // Sunny Murray - Black Art (6:35)
Album // Sonny’s Time Now (Jihad 663, 1965)

The connection between modern poetry and music – specifically, jazz – was obviously not one that started with Amiri Baraka, but it was brought to a kind of fruition in his work that can be argued in some way to have sparked an entire generation and style of doing the poetry-and-music thing which has its legacies in – among other things – the hip-hop and slam poetry movements, and the work of Gil Scott-Heron, Kain, Wanda Robinson, The Watts Prophets, Sara Webster Fabio, Jayne Cortez, The Last Poets, et al. Whereas, in earlier collaborative efforts (witness Kenneth Patchen or Jack Keroauc's recordings with musical combos), poetry had tended to sit on top of a jazz background, easily rolling along on its atmosphere – the jazz restricted and smoothed down by having poems in front of it, the poetry similarly smoothed down and, perhaps, distracted from by the jazz combos – Baraka's aim was for a kind of synthesis in which the two – music and poetry – were placed in active dialogue. The energies that Keroauc tries to replicate in spontaneous pieces such as 'Old Angel Midnight' find themselves pushed back down, rather than dialogically or even dialectically invigorated, by accompanying music; and though a little-known poem such as Ray Bremser's 'Drive Suite', a sequence dedicated to Cecil Taylor, and purportedly written underneath the piano that Taylor was playing in a club, has a visual and textual energy intended to reflect the energy and multi-directionality of Taylor's music – suggesting exciting mutual influences, inter-disciplinary encounters and endeavours – it's not, it seems, until Baraka' first recordings with musical groups during the mid-60s, that those energies and potentialities are liberated into fused or excitingly tense and crashing encounter, poetry and music sharing performative space in far from token, genuinely exploratory fashion.

That said, Baraka's reading on the first track, 'Black Dada Nihilismus', is restrained and quiet, even hesitant – which suits the sombre mood perfectly, no doubt influencing the contributions of the New York Art Quartet as they play around and under him. It is not the rhythmically-thrusting, angrily energised thing it would become later on (a change also reflected in Baraka's solo reading style, without music – compare the available recordings from 1964, say, with the readings from the 1979 film 'Fried Shoes, Cooked Diamonds'), but a threat all the more sinister and urgent for being understated. 'Black Art', released as part of a Sunny Murray album put out on Baraka's own Jihad record label, ups the ante – Albert Ayler's staggeringly wide vibrato, Don Cherry's inquisitive, pithily constant melodic investigations and Sunny Murray's freed-up drums force the poet out of that place of quietly terrible contemplation into active exhortation, the gleeful, horribly gleeful vocal imitations of aircraft, machine guns, police sirens setting off a chain of similarly multifarious, emotionally complex responses from the horns. The words are, finally, as shocking as the music, the music as shocking as the words; there is a sense of something on the cusp, of a moment of potential transformation which is longed for and even revelled in, but also shocking and violent, involving intense personal, as well as more broadly social and political ruptures that are embraced almost against themselves.

03 // Jihad Singers - Beautiful Black Woman (3:19)
04 // Jihad Singers - Nineteen Sixty Something (4:29)
Album // Black & Beautiful, Soul & Madness (Jihad LP1001, 1968)

Put against these two recordings, the doo-wop songs recorded for an album credited to the 'Jihad Singers' (or ‘The Spirit House Movers’) might seem rather tame: certainly, they don't possess the same lyrical strength, tending to exhortation rather than complication, striving for a kind of declamatory urgency of utterance that sometimes falls flat in unintended bathos: "The white man / at best / is corny!" A piece like 'Beautiful Black Women' pushes a notion of idealised femininity in which women must be entirely beautiful (the fat, ugly and old have little place in Baraka's rhetoric of this period, except as occasional targets of ire and scorn) and exist entirely to support their men in what is essentially, a reinforcement of the heterosexual family model (with added polygamy – for men only, of course). Such idealisation combines with notions of racial purity that we might find equally problematic - and, lest we forget, round the corner from this, Baraka’s virulent misogyny of this period ("the world cant beat you/ and my slaps are love") and the anti-Jewish, anti-Irish, anti-Italian slurs (however based the latter are, in, say, economic conditions relating to store ownership (cf. James Baldwin's essay 'The American Negro is Anti-Semitic Because He Is Anti-White'), useful methods of ensuring there is no inter-racial co-operation between different groups of oppressed people). Nonetheless, the way in which all these problematic hatreds fuse with more progressive notions of throwing off oppression is, undeniably, incredibly uncomfortable and hard to untangle, and it certainly should not be apologised for. All that said (of course, 'Beautiful Black Woman' is hardly the most despicable example available), I've picked the piece because its combination of Baraka's spoken word with a version of Smokey Robinson's 'Oooh Baby, Baby' seems a potent example of the concept Baraka would go on to articulate in his 1967 essay 'The Changing Same', in which R & B, free jazz and the Black Arts movement are seen (I should say, heard) as part of a continuum of Black expression, the related urges of the sacred and the secular (made earlier explicit by Ray Charles' use of gospel stylings for secular lyrics, of course) generating and embodying, encouraging and being encouraged by a revolutionary potential, the constrained desire and physical oppression and repression that threatens to burst out into social upheaval. As Baraka points out in his liner notes to the album's reissue, the music might have "seemed a classic R&B du-wop send-up," though at the same time "we also had a clear vision of what we wanted to say regarding the Afro-American struggle for equal rights and self-determination[...]we thought of ourselves as cultural workers, revolutionary artists 'pushing the program' as some of our cultural nationalist comrades were wont to say." That element of parody would thus appear to be poised somewhere between the intentional and the non-/unintentional; certainly, the lo-fi sound quality and the somewhat rough-and-ready nature of the performances (particularly Russell Lyle's saxophone playing, which can be at times rather undirected) are nowhere near the level of actual R&B big-sellers like The Impression's 'Keep on Pushing' or Martha & the Vandella's 'Dancing in the Streets' – tracks with the potential to inspire socio-political ferment through the hidden codes or meanings which their ostensibly harmless lyrical and musical material secretly contained, or could be adapted towards.

05 // Wha's Gon Happen? (7:43)
06 // Who Will Survive America? (3:06)
07 // It's Nation Time / Pull the Covers Off (4:13)
Album // It’s Nation Time (Black Forum/Motown Records 457, 1972)

That ‘changing same’ impulse finds perhaps its finest expression in Baraka’s recorded output on his next release, the 1972 album ‘It’s Nation Time.’ This time the record label is Black Forum, a Motown subsidiary who also put out various Black Power related speeches, attempting to give that kind of ethos a slightly more mainstream availability, perhaps. Given this, the recording quality is higher, the band – or, I should say, bands – seem better rehearsed, and the whole forms a kind of two-part suite which plays very nicely as a record, rather than as a raggedy collection of separate numbers. The poetry is mostly from various pamphlets put out around this time, in which Baraka’s Black Nationalism is at its most assertive (though, paradoxically, this pushes them formally closer to Beat Poetry than to anything else – they’re certainly a far cry from the carefully tortured, almost Creeley-esque placements of the poems in ‘Preface to a 21 Volume Suicide Note’ and ‘The Dead Lecturer’); as their sentiments go, they’re fairly reprehensible (no “crackers” or “old people” will “survive America”), and faintly absurd – the fantasy, on ‘All in the Street’, of a kind of retro-futuristic African city seems almost to be posited as a genuine political programme (intriguing though it is to view it in relation to Afro-futurism, and, particularly, the work of Sun Ra, a close associate of Baraka’s for a time). That said, the combination of an R & B group, a ‘New Music’ group (playing not-quite-free jazz, but something approaching it, particularly in the vocalized and sensuously slippery stylings of Gary Bartz, who made several Black Power-tinged records of his own around this time which still hold up pretty well), a chorus of male and female voices, and a group of African drummers – these various groups sometimes uniting, sometimes playing on different songs – remains remarkably cohesive and satisfying, the occasional hesitancy in transition (which could easily have been edited off the finished records) only a momentary slip. If nothing else, the sheer urgency and street-toughness of ‘Pull the Covers Off’ still packs some punch today (“attack attack, make the sucker back back”), even if the sensation of listening to commands to “put some on your cracker / put some on your devil” is inevitably somewhat masochistic for all us 'honkies' out there listening...

08 // You Was Dancin' Need to Be Marchin' So You Can Dance Some More Later On (4:09)
09 // Better Red Let Others Be Dead (3:47)
Album // 45" record by The Advanced Workers with The Anti-Imperialist Singers (Peoples War JPU-1001 (1976))

The two tracks released as a 45" six year later on People's War make up the recorded legacy of a band – full title, ‘The Advanced Workers with the Anti-Imperialist Singers’ – which apparently gigged around Newark, fusing funk with Baraka’s declamatory, some might say strident, Marxist sloganeering. While the music is fine – certainly better-played and better-sung than the rather rough-and-ready doo-wop of the Jihad singers record (which is no surprise, given the participation of musicians from Parliament, Funkadelic and The Commodores) – one might argue that the blend between form and lyrical content misses precisely the subjective urgency – which is inextricably political – that Baraka had earlier identified in the blues. I should say that 'subjective' here does not imply merely, say, the solitary individual self-pity of the suicidal singer-songwriter strumming away in their room – the kind of mythology that Nick Drake's early death, say, might play into – but an often collective undercurrent of emotions provoked, constrained and released by social and political factors that are always entangled with questions of love, sex, death, and oppression. Once a more stable notion of community is organised out of fracture and individual alienation – the move made by Baraka some time in the mid-60s, as he entered his Black Nationalist phase, accompanying the decisive break from Greenwich Village – the attempt to speak to a 'we' becomes an over-riding concern which might seem unpleasantly hectoring. Indeed, there are real problems here; a sense that the pudding must be constantly over-egged, that the community must be exhorted, verbally forced, to actually exist, let alone to act. Somewhat schizophrenically, this can lead to Baraka both praising the inherent, natural goodness and beauty of the black man as already existent (see the photo captions in 'In Our Terribleness'), and invoking that goodness as un-realized potential which must be invoked and summoned up. The problems of putting such poetry into practice might be best illustrated by the footage from Jean Luc-Godard's abandoned 'One AM' (later refashioned by D.A. Pennebacker as 'One PM'), in which we see Godard and the crew travel down to Newark to witness a performance by Baraka and cohorts, in the street outside the Spirit House. Godard hangs around the fringes of things, looking as if he doesn't quite believe what he's seeing – the detached, amused outsider, a Gallic cigarette hanging from his mouth; while Baraka, for all his reputation as an artist who could actually in some way also function as a community leader, facilitator and negotiator with those in political power (the alliance with mayor Kenneth Gibson), hangs back, hesitantly striking a xylophone, leaving it to others in his group to move in and out of centre-stage (or road), blowing 'ethnic' flutes and improvising generic Islamic-tinged Black Arts lyrics. The social contradictions manifest here are almost too many to name: the simultaneous sense of gleeful performance for the white cameramen and women (perhaps Baraka's awareness of this contradiction is why he holds back) and barely-disguised suspicion and hostility towards them (after the performance, the 'musicians' troop back inside; there is no suggestion that Godard & co. will be invited back in with them); the emphasis on African roots finding its expression only in a kind of dabbling (it's clear they don't really know how to play the ethnic flutes) which is arguably as unconsciously racist as the appropriations practiced by the likes of Picasso earlier in the century; the fact that, for all the claims to creating communal art (which were, to a certain extent, true, it seems – read, for instance, the passages about the Watts Riots in Horace Tapscott's autobiography, ‘Song of the Unsung’), the street is deserted save for Baraka & co. and Godard & co., and the faces that we do see, peering out from behind windows are simultaneously amused and apologetic – an old woman and a child, both equally baffled by the whole occasion. Given all that, and given the harmful separatist notions which perhaps prevented the kind of coalition that could have caused genuine revolutionary change in the United States at a certain point in the mid to late 60s (the direction Malcolm X was heading in before his murder by, shall we posit, a combination of black separatism / religious extremism and something between government approval and active involvement), Baraka's embrace of Marxism, his entry into the left that he earlier seemed to flirt with in the fairly early essay 'Cuba Libre', would seem a step in the right direction. But his insistence on doctrinaire preaching, on pushing a form of Marxism-Leninism-Mao-Tse-Tung thought of a sloganeering variety, would hardly seem the best way to enter into the third world liberation, women's rights, and class struggles that he does endorse; though perhaps it contrasts positively with the widespread vagueness elsewhere of left-tinged peace and love sentiments that one might see as regrettable hippie hangovers. The fact that Baraka's analysis often seems borrowed from an earlier time, something even approaching that Communist Party line which Ellison satirised in 'Invisible Man' – his active admiration for Stalin, his notion of the 'black belt south' as a separate nation which should seek independence – could not have helped matters, though the legacy of the Black Arts has continued to inform his writings on music and collaborations with musicians – the latter actually increasing in the last twenty years – serving to prevent mere doctrinaire haggling, his poems becoming performative, near-musical things in themselves in ways which might dialogue with rap or with slam poetry (see his appearance on the TV programme 'Def Poetry Jam', or his collaboration with 'The Roots', included in this compilation). And it's hard not find the People's War tracks exhilarating, to enjoy the perversity of their combined slogans and funk (even as Baraka perhaps doesn't see that perversity), even to be exhilarated and inspired by the conviction with which those slogans are delivered, the hopes that they contain.

10 // I Love Music (3:12)
11 // Class Struggle In Music I (5:25)
12 // Class Struggle In Music II (6:43)
Album // New Music, New Poetry (India Navigation 1048, 1980)

‘New Music / New Poetry’, from 1980, sees Baraka move into the position which he’s pretty much held to this day – that of a kind of guardian of the African-American tradition, somewhat like a less-conservative Stanley Crouch (Crouch initially beginning as a poet very much influenced by Baraka, though his lectures and rants tend to outweigh the actual poetry he manages to read – see the album ‘Aint’ No Ambulances for No Nigguhs Tonight’). At this time, though, both were championing the same breed: a generation of ‘young (or not so-young) lions’, including the likes of Arthur Blythe and David Murray, whose rough-edged fire still gave their music a free jazz ferocity, even as the forms they adopted moved closer to the regressive models that Wynton Marsalis and Co. would enshrine and turn into museum pieces at the Lincoln Centre (with Crouch’s support). Here, the combination of Baraka’s strong delivery, his confidence in the musical potential of poetry that has been very specifically crafted, as notation, to foster that kind of delivery, Murray’s roaring saxophone (sometimes restricted to repeated melodic figures, sometimes leaping outside that restriction) and McCall’s complementary drumming, mostly works well – though the repeated backdrop to ‘Dope’ actually smooths over the incendiary, bitingly satirical power that Baraka imparts the poem on an exceptional solo reading from around the same time. Lyrically, we are presented with a mixture of celebrations of black music, sarcastic and crude insults thrown out at various real or perceived enemies, and directions on the correct political line to take: ‘I Love Music’ is perhaps a lesser piece than the more famous Coltrane poem ‘AM/TRAK’, but Baraka’s howled imitations of Coltrane’s multiphonic squalls are intense and even frightening, while the moments when he locks in with McCall’s drum pattern on the first ‘Class Struggle in Music’ would seem to indicate poets and musicians working off the same (invisible) page.

13 // The Roots - Something In The Way of Things (In Town) (7:04)
Album // Phrenology (MCA, 2002)

14 // William Parker Ensemble - People Get Ready (12:080
Album // The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield: Live in Rome (Rai Trade, 2007)

There have been numerous live projects with the likes of Murray since then, including a jazz opera, but we have to skip forward into the next century to hear the next substantial recording, in which Baraka, taking on, in context, the kind of wise old griot role he had played in Warren Beatty’s film ‘Bulworth’, intones a poem of urban despair and dread, suitably backed up by the Roots’ gloomily atmospheric soundscape. Baraka is here very much as ‘poet’, rather than as rapper or even proto-rapper, but the symbolic significance of his appearance on a hip-hop record should not be underestimated, even if it took a decade or so since the original, radical explosion of hip-hop as global phenomenon for such collaboration to happen. It would seem, in the main, that Baraka’s musical heart still lies with jazz and R & B, rather than with hip-hop, in any case, even if he recognises the music’s historical, social and political importance. Both genres are combined in William Parker’s intriguing ‘Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield’ project, in which that ‘changing same’ principle is once more explored, Parker’s aim being to unveil the energies within Mayfield’s songs, look at them from new angles, unlock their still-relevant potentials. Baraka’s words serve both to connect to that Black Arts tradition which saw, for instance, David Henderson write a poem called ‘Keep on Pushing’ about the Harlem Riots, and to keep things in the present – however tenuously – with curses rained down on the likes of Berlusconi (the concert was recorded in Rome). If the music doesn’t, I don’t know, ‘match up’ to the originals, that’s because it’s not supposed to – it is something different, and whether wholly successful or not, it suggests a level of thought and engagement with cultural and political history that manages to avoid the recuperative and stultifying tactics of the jazz neo-conservatives. No longer at the forefront of proceedings, Baraka nonetheless does not seem extra baggage, an unnecessary guest: his shouts and recitations energise the music, providing punctuation or encouragement and giving some sort of purchase which can act as focus and rallying point: and the screams with which he ends a purposeful ‘People Get Ready’ indicate that he’s not easily slipping into a comfortable old age. We’d expect nothing less.

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