Sunday, 9 January 2022

Fanfares from the Abyss: Bill Dixon's Late Style


















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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

 

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