Tuesday 25 February 2020

Unit Structures: The Art of Cecil Taylor (A Report)

Unit Structures: The Art of Cecil Taylor
October 23-26, 2019
The Graduate Center, CUNY and Brooklyn College

Cecil Taylor is often noted and acclaimed for his pivotal role in twentieth-century music. But his work is still too often misunderstood. October 2019, just over a year on from his death, saw the first academic conference devoted to Taylor’s work, an interdisciplinary affair held at the Graduate Center, CUNY and Brooklyn College, spanning four days, and comprising papers, poetry listening sessions, workshops and concerns involving figures like Fred Moten and Nahum Dimitri Chandler and a large-group performance led by Taylor’s long-time collaborator Karen Borca. Taylor’s aesthetic system was vast, its references drawn from Haitian voodoo to Mesoamerican irrigation, West African to ancient Egypt mythology, biological science, jazz to ritual, poetry to experimental dance, and it has much to tell us about the century from which it sprang and the century we’re in now. The conference had the advantage of length, but it still felt like we were only scratching the surface. There was so much to take in here that I’ve only just now managed to properly organize my thoughts into this report, which is offered especially for those who couldn’t make it. Hopefully, in any case there will still be material of interest, the conference’s temporality going beyond its immediate excitement.

Amiri Baraka famously said of Albert Ayler that the existent recordings were only ‘rumours’, inadequate traces of music whose full force could only be experienced live. Taylor’s traces are more varied than Ayler’s. Only a handful of recorded interviews with Ayler exist. Taylor, on the other hand, left hours of interview material in video, audio and printed form: Chris Felver’s film All the Notes, for instance, provides some memorable examples. In these interviews, we hear the same elements recycled like licks, riffs, refrains: a set of particular stories, often focusing on his early artistic development, his childhood, formative experiences as a teenager or during his struggles to make it as a musician caught between the poles of too much exploitative work—playing bog-standard jazz standard material for hours on end in a tiny club for a pittance—or no work at all—no clubs being willing to put on or pay him for performing his music. Taylor would also tell these stories to his friends, admirers, fans: the expression that keeps coming back is ‘holding court’, drinking champagne, smoking American Spirits, talking for hours at a time as people listened. The stories constitute a kind of meandering, circuitous autobiography. Entangled in any one of his long, circuitous, repeating anecdotes, the stories of his life and intersections with stars, auratic presences: seeing Billie Holiday enter a club as a ‘vision’, being made to read Schopenhauer as a child by his mother, meeting the poet Bob Kaufman and listening to him read his poems for six hours straight. Journalists were entranced and bemused by Taylor’s persona in equal measure, and, more than this, frequently confused by music that went well beyond the usual vocabularies of ‘jazz’. One thing this conference usefully did was to suggest that our assessments of Taylor’s work will have to work through, not only the tendrils of his own discourse, but the ways in which that discourse was framed by those who didn’t always understand it. The idea, for instance, that Taylor had somehow studied the music of avant-garde composers of the Darmstadt School when he was a young man makes very little sense, but is frequently repeated, with the result that the influence of jazz – Holiday, Dave Brubeck, Bud Powell, Duke Ellington – is de-emphasized, despite Taylor’s own insistence on its centrality to his work.

[Day 1] Poetry Listening Session
Wednesday October 23rd, James Gallery, CUNY Graduate Center

Given this, it was the neglected aspects of Taylor’s work that often received attention in the four days of this conference, not least amongst these Taylor’s poetry. It was appropriate that the conference as a whole began with a ‘listening session’ in the James Gallery at CUNY, amidst an excellent display of material relating to the Cold War Triconntinental movement, its bright, Third Worldist images blaring off the walls. Brent Hayes Edwards and Fred Moten began with some brief scholarly spurs – Moten linking Arturo Michelangeli’s tendency to approach every note with equally intensity (Michelangeli was apparently a favourite of Taylor’s) to Taylor’s own poetic recitations, in which virtually ever phoneme seemed stressed. For Moten, Taylor was concerned with the sounding of every aspect of a word, manifesting a desire “to infuse ‘content’ with something extra”, as well as a concern with displacement in which topography, the obsession with bridges and engineering, and the Olsonian mapping of the ‘field’ of page/sound resonate with longer, diasporic histories. Edwards, meanwhile, noted that, like his music, Taylor’s poetry was apparently composed by ‘cell’, each phonemic element susceptible to an infinite “efflorescence of inflection”, a “poetics of testing” with parallels to the ways Taylor’s music could improvise off a single figure or (in his characteristic letter notation) ‘tree’ of notes for up to an hour.

Moten and Edwards then proceeded to play us a bunch of rare and not-so-rare recordings of Taylor’s readings—in some cases familiar, like the brief ‘Ellel’ from Garden (where Taylor sort-of-sings something between ritual invocation, field holler and defiance of death), but in many cases new, unexpected and revealing. Not least of these was a book called The Book, a joking title for someone who never published a ‘book’ of poetry per se. Apparently a privately-printed gift, of which one copy was made for one person, the text sits alongside an audio recording on CD which is an integral part of the work, and from which we heard excerpts. Though Edwards and Moten didn’t remark on this, it sounds like what was happening in some instances here was that Taylor would speak—a discourse half-way between the mythopoetics he would deliver in performance, spanning world religion, biology, musicology and the like, and the anecdotal conversation he would deliver in private or in interview. This was most evident on a piece called ‘improvisation’, which as bassist and composer Dominic Lash nudged me to note, sounds like just that – an improvised description of the relation of improvisation and composition that was then notated. This did make me wonder if the whole of The Book was composed that way – one of the other pieces, an anecdote about ‘Barry’ (who, it turned out, was dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov) having a scandalous affair with the daughter of a famous film star), juxtaposed with Betty Carter’s epic ‘Sound’, soon span off a long ways from its initial, gossipy starting point.

The standout out of all the pieces we heard and saw from The Book was perhaps the piece simply called ‘To Dad’, a moving reminiscence of Taylor’s father, and a meditation on (literal) biology and familial lineage as emotional, social, and biological, and, ultimately, on the “paradoxical totality” of what a person is, what the soul is. It made sense of a lot of the references to biology in the late work as heard on bootlegs, live performances and the like – a rare fusion of inter-personal, intimate connection with the ‘abstract’ registers of scientific discourse. The poem presented Taylor’s father – here described as a “Southern oracle”, who, as Taylor remarks elsewhere, was a storehouse of oral tradition, of song, and who supported Taylor financially after the death of Taylor’s mother and while Taylor struggled to make ends meet in the early stages of his career – after he’d ended up at the Rivercrest Sanatorium: as the poem had it, having given all he had until there was nothing left. It centred on a description of trying to walk through New York, changing trains, his walk inflected by a life of labour, and made all the stronger Taylor’s own seeking to liberate the body through performance, music dance. Body attitude, body gesture, these are not abstract categories, but ways of responding to, surviving, challenging the dread and drudge of the work routine, of exploitation and misery, and the apparently esoteric or ‘intellectual’ content of Taylor’s work shouldn’t blind us to this.

(Above) ‘To Dad’ from The Book (unpublished); manuscript page of the text to Chinampas (1987)

A few pieces from The Book, such as ‘Abata’ and ‘Before Time’ were recognisable from similar bootlegs (this 2007 performance, for instance) but most of the texts were brand new to me. Though much of this is still speculation, one thread emerging here was that, often, there simply wasn’t a single, stable text for a poem. Moten noted how, when Taylor read, he’d hold up one piece of paper written on from several angles, treating a single page as a book in itself. The Book, then, is more than a book, intrinsically related to a CD recording of its poems; and any release of Taylor’s writings would have to reckon, not only with the disorderly state of the archive, but with the fact that these often handwritten manuscripts were scores for performance—that the discovery Moten and Edwards presented of (some of) the pages of the first poem from Chinampas are not the holy grail, not ‘the poem’ itself. As Moten noted, the recording is the poem: Taylor deliberately didn’t print the poems in the liner notes to his one poetry record. Against duality, binaries, Taylor wants to see it all as a totality. This said, Moten and Edwards briefly alluded to the fact that they, along with Chris Funkhouser, are to edit several volumes of Taylor’s work in print: it’s likely that one of these might be The Book, along with a Reader of the uncollected work that does exist in print, long in the making, and perhaps an annotated copy of a book by poet David Henderson. Due to the complications of the estate, this might take a few years, but it’s at least on the horizon.

[Day 2] Concert: Matthew Shipp / William Parker / Andrew Cyrille
Thursday, October 24th, Elebash Recital Hall, CUNY Graduate Center

The second night relocated a few doors down the same building to the Elebash Recital Center for a trio performance by Matthew Shipp (piano), William Parker (bass) and Andrew Cyrille (drums). Cyrille – with Taylor’s late-1960s and earlier 1970s Units – and Parker – a long-term collaborator later in the Taylor’s career, notably in the Feel Trio with Tony Oxley, were two of Taylor’s most important collaborators; each musician gave a short talk on what Taylor’s music had meant to them. In fact, over the course of the conference as a whole, Cyrille turned out to be the only musician who’d worked closely with Taylor heard from at length, in a spontaneous narration of his time with Taylor, playing in front of artworks by Miro, touring Europe. “We could play for two hours straight – just blasting – just taking off”. Those metaphors of jet-propelled, rocket travel, of flight, are common ways to figure the intense energy of this music of course – at the same time, and against the stereotype of ‘free jazz’ as ‘angry’ or ‘disturbed’, Cyrille emphasized the healing dimension of this music. Playing with Cecil got easier and easier, he noted – at times he felt as if he were floating on a cloud, the experience therapeutic and restful, looking at each other and laughing and having a good time.

In the performance itself, Cyrille was unbelievably crisp, his snare-drum rolling out loud into the auditorium, his timing utterly precise, combined with a melodic sense of tuning and placement – he could play a whole gig on just snare and hi-hat, the key instruments in his kit. Shipp didn’t try to be Cecil, his a more lugubrious, dogged insistence, stabbing out two-handed chords along with free-bop runs that emphasized their own virtuosity, Parker’s arco bass smearing, sliding and bending the string. From the opening, AACM-like spaciousness, as Cyrille’s triangle rang out into the auditorium, to passages of collective, melodic insistence, this was fine stuff.

[Day 3] Papers / Concert
Friday, October 25th, Elebash Recital Hall

The first day of papers took place in the same building. A panel on Taylor’s early development laid some useful ground in challenging certain long-held presumptions in the way Cecil’s work has been framed, even by well-meaning critics. For instance, Christopher Meeder’s paper on Taylor’s training at the New York Conservatory and the New England Conservatory of Music fills in some of the gaps in Taylor’s own account rendered in A.B. Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business (further work has also been done independently by Allan Chase, and can be found online). “Your music is mood music”, a member of faculty apparently told him. “That’s OK as long as it’s not Mood Indigo”. Fitting into neither the model for classical composition – due to his race – nor for ‘popular’ music – his conception already moving in the direction of the avant-garde – Taylor was stuck arranging music for toothpaste commercials. Having escaped these sort of presumptions and beginning to make his way in the jazz world, Taylor still faced well- or badly-intentioned misinterpretation. Lewis Porter’s presentation of a 1959 interview with a Swedish journalist – Taylor’s first – initiated an important topic of discussion that would recur throughout the conference: that an interview is another performance in which the musician seeks to frame themselves, sometimes in contradistinction to the framings imposed by the journalist, for the implied public to whom they must present a certain face. This conversation was continued by Matthias Mushinski’s paper from the same panel on Taylor’s reception in Jazz-Hot magazine and the role of leftist French journalists of the 1960s as ‘participant-observers’ in the New York jazz scene (the next day, Dominic Lash’s paper on the documentary on Taylor produced as part of Luc Ferrari’s ORTF series Les Grandes Répétitions, ‘The Other Side of the Tracks’, extended this to the realm of film.) This sort of work can sometimes seem excessively detailed – exhuming student correspondence, attendance records, and the like – but following the paper trail in this way is necessary in order to challenge the ill-informed characterisations of Taylor mentioned at the start of this report. As one audience member said, listeners and critics tend to hear any sort of dissonance as invoking “modern classical” – but of course there are as many varieties of dissonance as there are of consonance, and no one says that consonance, or western harmony, is limited to any one genre…

Fumi Okiji,
in the first extended paper of the day, extended some of the theoretical concerns that inform her first book, Jazz as Critique: Adorno and Black Expression Revisited (2018), which turns Theodor Adorno’s notoriously anti-jazz aesthetic theory against itself, using it as a way to explore jazz’s contribution to the history of freedom and the history of music in general. Against a loop of Billie Holiday’s arm, picking up from the cues laid in Taylor’s poem ‘Sound Structure Of Subculture Becoming Major Breath / Naked Fire Gesture’ –“As a gesture Jazz became: Billie’s right arm bent at breast moving as light touch” – Okiji picked up on notions of correspondence and community through the notion of the fragment and non-identity, the principal theorist here Adorno’s friend and Frankfurt School colleague Walter Benjamin rather than Adorno himself. Like a number of the papers, the force of this piece came through as much from its at times prose-poetic style as through the more analytically-argued papers seen on other panels, but a number of very suggestive threads were laid, gestures of their own.

The second panel developed the notion of ‘gesture’ first mentioned in Okiji’s paper in a variety of ways: Chris Stover through an analysis of Taylor’s early readings of standards, in which he suggested that the musical syntax later developed in more characteristic form
in Taylor’s own compositions was already developed in these early performances; Anthony Caulkins, through some diagrammatic visualisation of Taylor’s ‘gesture-classes’ and ‘gesture flow’ ; while John Rufo – himself a poet – focussed in less analytic fashion on Taylor’s controversial 1978 collaboration with Mary Lou Williams, Embraced,, and what it might have to tell us about the principle of collaboration, solidarity and the like not only within musical contexts but political / activist ones too. In a sense, what mattered here was not so much the accuracy of the observations – Benjamin Givan has written an exhaustive and thoroughly-researched essay on this encounter (seeds laid in the Williams chapter from Brent Hayes Edwards’s Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination) which would seem to be pretty much the definitive word in scholarly terms – but for the metaphoric extension to politics, for the undoubted political valency that lies within Taylor’s theorisation of improvisation and collaboration within the musical ensemble.

The third panel offered primarily artistic responses to Taylor’s work – Jeff T. Johnson live-typing a poem / essay along to Taylor’s Indent as part of a digital poetics project; Charles Sharp rather strangely juxtaposing the philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer with a slowed-down version of a Taylor piano solo; Magdalena Dukiewicz discussing her own self-decomposing sculptural works alongside the organic-synthetic decay of the cover to Taylor’s Solo (1973) – though frustratingly, she didn’t mentioned the artist who produced this cover art, along with Taylor’s other release on the Japanese Trio Records, Akisakila, Hiroshi Sato (I can find very little information about Sato and would like to know more). Finally, Scott Gleason’s talk focussed not so much on Taylor, but on the visual artwork of Morgan O’Hara, whose drawings of musicians’ hands literalize and fix the questions of gesture (Taylor being one of the artists who were O’Hara’s subjects). After a break, the day’s second keynote saw musician and writer David Grubbs extrapolate some more ways into Taylor’s poetry, principally through the lens of a poem that Taylor read at the ceremony for conferment of an honorary degree at Brooklyn College in 2012 (where he was patronisingly introduced as someone who’d played with “Johnny Coltrane”), at which he read an untitled poem “in appreciation and for the moment we are surrounded by these beautiful trees…” (See video below.) The poem begins “it leans within the scented parabola”, and Grubb’s paper nicely curved around the questions of performance, utterance, speech and music also explored in his own book-length prose poem, Now that the Audience is Assembled (2018).

The evening concert, given the rather grandiose title ‘In Sonic Discourse with Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures’, and taking place once more in the Elebash Auditorium, was a more mixed affair than the previous day’s Shipp-Cyrille-Parker set, in general straying closer to a contemporary classical vocabulary. The piece most likely to have stuck in audience minds was the ‘anti-fascist action’ by Black Bloc-masked group Mayakov+sky who bashed and sawed away at both grand and upright pianos, violin and electronics, as well as showering the audience with slogans-as-confetti (“housing for all or the city will fall”, “#deathtocapital”); it may not have resonated much with Taylor’s own performance or music aesthetic, but provided an unexpected detour at least. Lewis Porter presented solo piano improvisations of his own on material from Taylor’s Unit Structures, in general trading a more conventionally jazz-based vocabulary than Taylor’s own. That’s not meant as a criticism – indeed, Taylor’s improvising style and personal musical vocabulary seem so linked to his own compositions that it’s hard to imagine anyone playing them outside the context of his own bands. (The only examples that come to mind are Steve Lacy’s very early recording of Taylor’s ‘Air’ in the 1960s, and Mal Waldron’s ‘Variations on a theme by Cecil Taylor’ from Update (1987).) Porter, then, interestingly presented the little-explored notion of Taylor’s own compositions becoming something like standards in the hands of those who musical vocabulary is very different. Of the remaining pieces, Chris Stover’s ‘Four Assemblages’ was a fairly muted piece of chamber music with echoes of the unison grandeur of Taylor’s own composed themes; and Sandow Sinai’s ‘Anacrusis’(which I missed, turning up slightly late) likened the titular figure – the pause before note or poetic syllable, a notion explored as a structuring concept in Taylor’s Unit Structures – to the process of coming out as a (trans)(gender) woman. To my mind, the best piece was that by conference organizer Yom – virtual space of air / reverse apocalypse, for piano (once again played by Sinai), flute and no-input mixing board feedback ‘breath’ sounds, the lengthy programme note riffing off unheard melodies, a number of poems by Taylor (“theory not of numbers / and quantity but of states […] existing before / the mathematical congregation / of abstract figures / which existed in nature”).

[Day 4] Papers / Concert
Buchwald Theater, Brooklyn College

The second day of papers moved to Brooklyn College, where, as Grubbs had reminded us, Taylor has read his “scented parabola” poem seven years before. This day was perhaps more focused on musicology: there were interesting talks on the day’s opening panel concerning Taylor’s letter notation systems from Jeff Schwartz – noting how Taylor students Glenn Spearman and Marco Eneidi used Taylor’s letter notation as a means to set down, not only pieces by Taylor himself, but standards and their own material – and Scott Currie, who provided valuable participant insight into the Taylor piece he commissioned for the Sound Vision Orchestra in 2002, ‘With Blazing Eyes And Open’d Mouth.’ (A bootleg recording can be found here, and is quite something; images of excerpts from the score can be seen below.) Jessie Cox gave a more philosophically-minded paper which usefully linked Taylor’s work to Glissantian theories of créolité (particularly significant given Taylor’s interest in Haitian voodoo). And the panel was rounded off by what was perhaps the single most impressive work of scholarship of the whole conference, Mark Micchelli’s transcription and analysis of a solo performed by Taylor for the film Imagine the Sound (1981). Obviously, intricate readings of musical detail are not the only way to approach Taylor’s holistic conception, but this music is of such complexity that analysis does seem a necessary way in. The attention to pianism, to the role of physical gesture, was impressive here; having studied the filmed performance and experimented himself at the piano, Michelli noted, for instance, that Taylor had to shape his impossibly fast runs down the keyboard the way he did (striking notes with the side, rather than the tips of the fingers) because otherwise his knees and elbows would have hit the keyboard. Another angle on ‘gesture’, then: building on previously published analyses of Taylor’s solo music by Lynette Westendorf and Kaja Draksler, there’s much to be done here…

(Above) Images from Taylor's score With Blazing Eyes and Opened Mouth (2002) from Scott Currie's presentation.

After the break, Ben Young presented a lengthy ‘listening session’ in which he talked about the recordings that exist in the Taylor archive and played an excerpt from a late-1960s performance featuring the explosive tenor of the Reverend Frank Wright. This was part of a project of public listening which, for Young, is essential to continuing the legacy of this music one the musicians who played it are no longer around to deliver it live, as well as the lengthy process of researching and writing Taylor’s biography, about which there were understandably eager questions. It seems as if, as with the proposed volumes of Taylor’s poetry discussed by Moten and Edwards on the first day, we might have to wait a few more years yet…

The first afternoon panel focussed on voice, live presence, the personal dimensions of encounter. Jeanette Lambert raised the necessary spectre of misogyny within jazz performance context. Having taken part in a music workshop in the Canadian Rockies at which Taylor was visiting artist, she noticed how Taylor defended her against the misogynist abuse and harassment she’d received, linking his poetry, native Americans roots and queerness to his refusal to tolerate the macho behaviour of the white straight men. Taylor was, as any number of anecdotes will tell you, a difficult person, but Lambert’s story – as with Andrew Cyrille’s the night of the first concert – emphasized the other side, that of generosity and kindness. (Lambert’s own summary of her paper is here.) Chris Funkhouser played a collage of out-takes from his hugely important 1994 interview with Taylor on poetry, an edited version of which was printed in Nathaniel Mackey’s Hambone and has long been available online; one Taylor became many, the cadences of his speaking voice and the multiple tendrils (or what Edwards had called ‘efflorescences’) of his conversational style forming a pleasing weave. Dominic Lash’s previously-mentioned paper provided some useful analyses of Taylor’s film experience from both a musical and a Film Studies background – those questions of framing and gesture again coming to the fore (a shot of Andrew Cyrille with a metronome on his drumkit belying the notion that time in ‘free jazz’ is totally ‘free’). Finally, Chris Felver presented out-takes from his excellent Taylor documentary All the Notes, shot on and off the fly over a number of years: a genial and enthusiastic presence, this was one of the more purely enjoyable parts of the conference.

(Above) Andrew Cyrille with metronome...

The final panel of the day featured my own paper, on the centrality of Voodoo to Taylor’s poetry and aesthetics – rushed through on the day, a more considered version is imminently forthcoming in Bill Shoemaker’s journal Point of Departure (http://www.pointofdeparture.org/). Kehinde Alonge, currently a masters student at the University of Buffalo, likewise focused on Taylor’s poetry – principally the ways in which it gets framed through its printing in the liner notes to Taylor’s albums, against the context of Black musical collectives such as the Jazz Composer’s Guild and the role of musical and poetic socialities / collectivities as part of what he called the “hidden archive of blackness” that exists in and against the nexus of exploitation, commercialism and misunderstanding within which musicians like Taylor had no choice but to work. There were some wonderful turns of phrase here – the notion that a poet’s duty is to create language, working with the given to go beyond it – that will stick with me for some while, and it’ll be exciting to see how this scholarly work develops as part of Alonge’s broader graduate study.

The panel concluded, not with a paper, but a poetry reading. Steve Dalachinsky had originally been scheduled to read from his pamphlet of poems for Taylor, The Mantis, but sadly himself passed away a few months before the conference. An enormous presence on New York poetry and experimental jazz scenes, his absence was not so much filled as attested to in readings by Ammiel Alcalay, Elliott Levin, and Anne and Devin Waldman. Alcalay’s brief introductions usefully linked Taylor to the Olsonian ‘projective verse’ continuum, as well as to histories of racialised and classed labour which shouldn’t be left out of our readings of Taylor’s work. Alcalay’s own poems linked his own memories of New York labour and living with Taylor’s performances at venues such as the Five Spot. He also read from The Mantis, a kind of impressionistic form of poetic music criticism – Dalachinsky observing how Elvin Jones, in duo with Taylor, turned even his ‘fiercest moments’ to intimacy, or pleading “Let us remain locked to each other. / Let us remain”. Elliott Levin played saxophone and flute and also recited poems. Levin played in a number of Taylor’s large ensembles since meeting Taylor when the latter was artist-in-residence at Glassboro University in 1973; Taylor encouraged him to present poetry within the context of the music, and in 1988, when Levin wrote a poem in memory of his friend Kathy Chang, who’d self-immolated in protest at American foreign policy, Taylor allowed him to open a concert by reciting the poem while he danced in accompaniment. (Levin also tells this story here.) As with Jeanette Lambert’s paper, that more generous side to Taylor emerging again; a generosity returned when Levin wrote and played a flute solo to a semi-conscious Taylor, then on his death-bed. Levin played the piece again to close his set. Finally, Anne Waldman read – or rather, sang – from her manuscript Acousmatic, dedicated to Taylor, accompanied by her nephew, saxophonist Devin Waldman. As Waldman noted, she’d first met Taylor when her mother took her to see him perform in 1964, and she’d later invited him to read his poetry at the St Mark’s Poetry Project, her intention being to honour his poetry and to ensure that he was seen within that poetic history that Alcalay also emphasized. “Cecil! No death”.

(Above) Anne and Devin Waldman in performance; cover collage to Steve Dalachinsky, The Mantis (2009)

The force of Nahum Dmitri Chandler’s often moving keynote, delivered via skype from Japan, lay as much in the measured, near-glacial delivery as in the words themselves. It began as a meditation on friendship – Taylor and Chandler spent long hours together, and Chandler delivered a eulogy at his funeral – and on why Taylor might have chosen to turn to solo music – he had no Ellington orchestra of his own. (This is certainly true of the official record; that said, on this point, it was precisely access to large and willing ensembles that Taylor did have in the early 1970s when he had teaching appointments at Antioch College and the University of Wisconsin. Though this period is completely undocumented in the official discographies, archival discoveries in this field might reveal another dimension to Taylor’s large group music.) Chandler then detoured via Japanese architecture and the ‘cantilever spar cable-stayed bridge’ of Spanish structural engineer Santiago Calatrava, a particular obsession of Taylor’s – before ending with a reading of the title to Taylor’s solo record Air above Mountains (Buildings Within) its resonances with the Book of Corinthians and with Afro-Christian figurations of body and spirit in the context of slavery. For Chandler, Taylor’s poetry is a Dantean epic trying to get us out of hell – a characterisation which, along with the brutally humorous Ralph Ellison anecdote Chandler told in the questions – I haven’t been able to get out of my head since.

(Above) Nahum Dimitri Chandler.

The concluding event of the festival was a set in the same auditorium by big band led by Karen Borca, and featuring several participants from the festival and additional musicians who’d played with Taylor such as Levin, Ras Moshe Burnett and Bobby Zankel. Taught through a combination of Taylor’s letter notation scores and Borca’s own memories of playing the material, the band’s performance was based in charts from Taylor’s magisterial Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants) (1984). The band had little time to rehearse, and there was no Taylor to feed the band chunks of melody or streams of notes (Judging from accounts from those would could hear him on the stage itself, Mark Micchelli by provided an impressive parallel, but his performance was inaudible from the audience, despite the fact that in rehearsals he played with such energy that a key flow off the piano and one could see the piano lid almost levitate). The performance was dominated by the horns, with everyone playing at once more than solos per se, Borca cueing unison melodies, structured as unison monody or as simple counterpoint, grandiose and moving in a way unique to those Taylor ensemble melodies (of which he apparently wrote hundreds – Alex Ward provides a useful analysis of some of them here: ). However ragged the performance itself, moments were moving indeed, in large part due to those Taylor pieces. Do we call this aesthetic florid, Romantic, melodramatic, existential? Do we need to call it anything, except to note the way it moved everyone in the room to some other level, some other inner building in the basement air above mountains?

(Above) Big band conducted by Karen Borca in compositions by Cecil Taylor.

It was fitting, in any case, that the festival found as much time for music as for scholarship, and this balance will be an important one to bear in mind if and when ‘Taylor studies’ takes off. We might bear in mind Ben Young’s comments on public listening sessions, at which interested listeners gather to listen to rare recordings, as the way we hear this music now that Taylor has passed, form one element; likewise, the musicological papers on or from those who’d studied with him might impact the music of others, and more work from his collaborators would be welcomed. Finally, aside from Levin in the poetry reading, Parker and Cyrille in the first evening concert, and Currie on Taylor’s Sound Vision Orchestra Piece, we didn’t hear that much from musicians who worked with Taylor, and there would no doubt be valuable insights to be gleaned here. (I have, for example, learned a lot from talking to Bobby Zankel about Taylor’s time at Wisconsin and Antioch in recent weeks.)

By the end of his career, Taylor had won a MacArthur ‘Genius’ grant, the Kyoto Prize, and many other prizes, grants and the like; he performed regularly, on good pianos, and received critical acclaim, even if his elements such as his use of poetry and dance, or the apparent influence of European avant-garde classical music on his style, continued to be widely misunderstood. Taylor’s late career stability – albeit one which was inevitably precarious, as his Brooklyn home was in frequent needs of repairs, which saw him swindled out of his Kyoto Prize money—has to be understood in context as a victory against the indifference, contempt, neglect and (sometimes) exploitative, patronising inclusion with which America treats its artists. After suffering an illness, Taylor told critic Ben Young “I’ve had to be invincible for some years now”, a statement poet-scholar Ammiel Alcalay picked up on as a key instance of what this context might mean. Take the work of other musicians from the same or slightly earlier generations than Taylor who did not make it as far as he did: not only the more famous instances of Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, but Thelonious Monk (whose unorthodox style and personal eccentricities were often framed in similar ways to those of Taylor, and whose mental health issues went misdiagnosed, as he was forced to keep playing on seemingly endless tours of Europe and America), Mal Waldron, Holiday’s accompanist in the last years of her life, and himself subject to electroshock therapy, his breakdown so severe that he had to relearn the piano from his own records ; Coltrane, dead by 40 after years of addiction; and Albert Ayler, dead in the Hudson river at 34. Taylor’s legacy is so valuable because he managed to survive for so much longer than many of these musicians, at a cost we can perhaps hardly begin to imagine. And of course, to quote graffiti that sits behind Bill Dixon in Imagine the Sound, countless other “forgotten rebels died”. Yet, too, there’s William Parker’s more hopeful onstage claim during the second day concert: “we stop playing, but the music never stops”. There will always be more: more to do, more to say, but this was a fine start.