Two luminous orchestral works by the late, great Wayne Shorter: first, Dramatis Personae, a Lincoln Centre Commission from 1998 with Shorter on soprano, Jim Beard on piano, Christian McBride, bass, and Herlin Riley drums alongside orchestra conducted and arranged by Robert Sadin--the bridge between the monumental, and underrated, High Life(1995)and the orchestral collaborations of the Danilo Pérez/ John Patitucci/ Brian Blade acoustic quartet to come.
A decade-and-a-half on, the massive LA Philharmonic commission Gaia (2013), described by Richard S. Ginell in Variety as a “murky, thick-set monster of a piece [...] massive, slow-moving, opaque textures, sometimes tracking Wayne’s distinctive long, snaking melodic lines on soprano; treating the sections of the orchestra as blocs”. Varying in performance from 25 to 30 minutes, this version from Gdansk in 2014 veers toward the latter, with Shorter on soprano forming part of a quartet with Leo Genovese (piano) and Terri Lynn Carrington (drums); the solo vocal part and libretto are by Esperanza Spalding, who also doubles on bass as part of the quartet.
Shorter first began work as a teenage student at NYU, and it’s to be hoped that Shorter’s Kennedy Center collaboration with Spalding on the opera Iphigenia--his final piece after he retired from performing in 2019--might appear in the future. For now, the serene drama of these orchestral works represent the majestic, achieved late blossoming of the compositional impulse Shorter had been building throughout his entire life, from his early work on that teenage opera through to the unreleased orchestral pieces Universe, Legend and Twin Dragon he wrote for Miles Davis in the 1960s and ’80s (later realised by Wallace Roney) and the misunderstood trilogy of post-Weather Report Afro-futurist epics Atlantis (1985), Phantom Navigator (1986), and Joy Ryder (1989), along with the aforementioned High Life.
I have a longer piece on Shorter in The Wire, with thanks to Meg Woof.
(Edited down from a 30,000 word draft--with plenty more to say on Shorter’s orchestral work, his status as composer, and the framing of ‘jazz’; more of that may see the light of day elsewhere.)
In other news:
My interview with composer Hannah Kendall is online at Bachtrack: Kendall is Composer-in-Residence at the Royal Academy of Music this March, and a couple of concerts are forthcoming the following week. Highly recommended if you’ve not heard her music in performance before.
On March 22nd the trio GUE will be making its delayed debut at waterintobeer in Brockley, South London. Jacken Elswyth on banjo, Laurel Uziell on electronics and myself on electronics and melodica. We’ll be joined by a saxophone trio of Alex McKenzie, Nat Philipps and Nicholas Hann, plus Tom Mills on theremin. Tickets £5, doors 6:30, to be wrapped up by 9pm. Eventbrite page here.
Finally, I’m delighted to reveal the cover for the Selected Poems of Calvin C. Hernton, co-edited by myself and Lauri Scheyer, and now available for pre-order from Wesleyan. The book includes material from across his career--including the long out-of-print The Coming of Chronos to the House of Nightsong--and a foreword from Hernton’s longtime friend, publisher and champion Ishmael Reed, along with notes, chronology, and index. It will be published this August.
In February I was interviewed about A Black Arts Poetry Machine by João Paulo Guimarães (University of Porto) and Elina Siltanen (University of Turku) for the online Poets Talk Politics Series hosted by the University of Porto. Thanks to João and Elina for the questions and discussion, and to João for the invitation. The event was live-streamed and should be uploaded to the Youtube channel of the Instituto de Literatura Comparada Margarida Losa in the next few weeks. For now, it's available on Facebook, as embedded below (no need for an account) or at this link.
Also online is the video of the online launch for Present Continuous back in January, hosted by Malvika Jolly and with responses from Tyrone Williams, Linda Kemp, Ciarán Finlayson, and Ghazal Mosadeq, can be seen on the Pamenar Press Youtube channel here, or in the video embedded below. Many thanks to Malvika for hosting and Ghazal and Hamed for publishing, designing and typesetting the book!
Some photos from the 'Electro-Acoustic Responsiveness' gig at IKLECTIK with Eddie Prévost (percussion), John Butcher (tenor and soprano saxophones), N.O. Moore (guitar), Emmanuelle Waeckerlé (voice, objects), and Tony Hardie-Bick (electronics), courtesy of film-maker Stewart Morgan, whose film on Prévost should soon be nearing completion.
Photo credit - Stewart Morgan Hajdukiewicz
And some photos from the Materials/Materialien reading at Halle für Kunst Lüneburg, with James Goodwin (launching the new collection Faux Ice), Lütfiye Güzel and Laurel Uziell: thanks to curators Ann-Kathrin Eickohf and Elisa R. Linn.
James will be doing a UK launch for his book at Café Oto in Dalston on Sunday 9th April; this will also be the launch for Candace Hill's astonishing book-length poem Short Leash Kept On. James will be in conversation with Nisha Ramayya and I'll be in conversation with Candace via Zoom. (Fred Moten will be reading, in his trio with Brandon Lopez and Gerald Cleaver, later in the evening.) Tickets from the Café Oto website.
Finally, in further Materials news, Anne Boyer's Money City Sick as Fuck and Lisa Jeschke's The Athology of Poems by Drunk Women are back in print and can be purchased from the Materials website at the following links: Boyer here and Jeschke here.
A few weeks into the new year, Elaine Mitchener continued her five-year artist-in-residency at the Wigmore Hall with a performance by her electroacoustic group the Rolling Calf Trio, joined on this occasion by Pat Thomas. In a relatively short first half, first we heard a Thomas piano solo—a characteristic study in piano resonance, making full use of the concert grand the concert hall setting (was this Thomas’ first time at the Wigmore? What are the points of access for what music is or is not allowed to be heard in such places?), thick clusters and repeating figures that never quite coalesced into riff or melody but moved off elsewhere, pealing like wave upon wave, preludial and exploratory. Next, Mitchener came and stage and, with Thomas performed a kind of deconstructed skeleton of a standard, or standards, Thomas playing plangent chords and discrete bursts of blooping electronics, Mitchener at one moment repeating a vocal sound and a physical movement that at first seemed spontaneous—head inclining to the right, hand moving up in the air alongside—and then repeating it, over and over, like a gif or a loop, problematising the notions of immediacy, performance and the like present in the position of the singer of songs of love or lost love, of feminine presentation, of the standard as vehicle for emotions and notions always greater than its lyrics suggest. I was reminded of Fumi Okiji’s paper on Cecil Taylor, Billie Holiday and gesture at the Taylor conference in New York a few years ago, riffing off Taylor’s line “as gesture jazz became Billie’s right arm bent at breast moving as light touch”, accompanied in her rendition by a video loop of Holiday’s arm in an old TV clip. The model of singer and accompanist is here at once gestured at and moved beyond, in that Mitchener, who keeps words to a murmured or half-sung minimum, functions as much as instrumentalist as singer. Even more so than the versions of standards found on Mitchener’s quartet with Alex Hawkins, the model of song form is moved away from into a more open, capacious improvisational and questing and questioning approach to the spirit of the standards more so than their harmonic or melodic content. The duo don’t perform any particular single standard as such as one, fifty-to-twenty minute ur-standard, a net picking up ghostly traces of songs that float by: the word “lovely”, a wisp of melody, a line or two half-recognised from a song. The first comparison that comes to mind—not least for the depths of Mitchener’s contralto voice, here heard with generous reverb allowing it to swell into the hall with the magnified intimacy pioneered in the recording technology of mid-century that did so much to shape ideas of what jazz singing might be—would be the ‘free standards’ of Ran Blake and Mitchener’s long-standing inspiration Jeanne Lee, in which the melodic contour, the verse-chorus-verse structure of the song are adhered to but the harmonic and rhythmic contours moved away from; or any number of deconstructions of the standard, from Taylor’s—or Sunny Murray’s—‘This Nearly Was Mine’ to the quieter, chamber deconstructions put in play by the likes of Paul Bley,Andrew Hill, or, more recently, Jason Moran.
Gesture and movement of another kind characterised the performance by the Rolling Calf, Mitchener’s ‘Black Power Trio’ with Neil Charles on bass and electronics and Jason Yarde on alto saxophone and an even wider range of electronics: synths, drum machines, digital manipulations and live sampling. Yarde—whose performance with Louis Moholo-Moholo’s ‘Six Blokes’ band in a three-horn line-up alongside Byron Wallen and Steve Williamson one night, Shabaka Hutchings the other, the last time Moholo performed in the UK back in September 2019, was so vitally transforming and powerful—appeared miraculously recovered from the onstage stroke he suffered in October the previous year in France, his life saved thanks to the presence of two parademics in the audience who he insisted he go straight to the hospital, and to the treatment he was able to receive in France at a time when a government of millionaires is attempting to utterly destroy and deplete the British National Health Service in the spirit of a kind of nightmarish blend of Dickensian Victorian inequality and neoliberal ideology pushed to the max. Survival, literally, yes—that’s what this music has always been about.
The musicians entered from the back of the hall, behind and through the audience, each playing hand-held “stirring xylophones”—tuned wooden percussion instruments struck with beaters—in the quietly tempestuous manner of early Art Ensemble of Chicago records, first sparsely echoing melodic patterns, then swirling cascades in glissando’ing stir and swell; one at a time, the three came on stage, Charles and Yarde moving into loops and figures on mini-synths, drum machines and samples, Mitchener’s voice totally commanding, moving from the deliberately constricted/restricted register of the first half to declarative, soaring notes, pronouncements and announcements.
As in many of her recent performances, Mitchener has developed an approach to form in—rather than compositions or ‘heads’, but not completely ‘free’ improvisation, a set will be organised around different texts, which Mitchener will work at, sing and speak until their possibilities have been temporarily used up, moving to the next fragment. These texts, generally poems, but sometimes incorporating statements from interviews, were on this occasion organised into a collection named on the programme as ‘Myths and Dreams’, that included Césaire, Brathwaite, Una Marson, Taylor, Sun Ra, and Jay Bernard. They form points of reference, clearly demarcated sections that function something like movements in a suite, helping to organise an often quite lengthy piece in ways that are not obvious or circumscribed. These are not ‘lyrics’, in the jazz or pop model, nor are they ‘settings’, in the classical or new music model, so much as elements of musical material; while words imply narrative, context, fixity, in Mitchener’s case are treated in ways that—as in the case of Jeanne Lee, whose approach in her work with Gunter Hampel or on a record like ‘Conspiracy’ is again perhaps the closest formal analogy—might differ each time, in minute or quite dramatic ways, always with an ear to what is happening in the musical texture of that moment, how it might go on from there.
To me, the heart of this particular Rolling Calf performance was the rendition of a poem from young British poet Jay Bernard’s Surge, an elegy in pats in which Bernard’s archival research into the 1981 New Cross Massacre—an event which happened eight years before Bernard’s birth—is set against the unfolding tragedy of Grenfell Tower fire, which happened as the sequence was being written. Constructed as homages to the dub poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson—particularly his own poem ‘New Crass Massahkah’—the first of two poems entitled ‘Songbook’ establishes a space and a geometry at once of the dancefloor and of wider tactical manoeuvres, the territory of mourning and militancy that first, the New Cross Massacre Action Committee and later, Justice 4 Grenfell have to trace. In Johnson’s 1981 poem, released as the final track on the 1984 album Making History, words insistently inflect the music in dialogue, in contrast and tension: jaunty but haunted, the rhythms shift from the poem’s section, describing the celebratory sociality buoyed by the rhythms of the party before the fire—“di dubbing and did rubbing”, “di dancung and di skanking”—to the rhythm of the fire itself—“di crash and di bang”, “di heat and di smoke”—to the rhythm of activism, its persistence and resistance. “but wait / yu noh remembah”, “but stap / yu noh remembah”: the poem is a call to remembrance, of the need to tell and re-tell a story ignored or mis-told in official record. Like Johnson’s poem, written in the immediate aftermath of the attack, Bernard’s later poem traces the rhythms of dance—the party before the fire—turned to violence—the fire itself and the second violence of bungled police investigation and racist media reportage—in turn turned to resistance through the work of the committee and the Black Peoples’ Day of Action. Over time, the mathematics Bernard’s ‘Songbook’ traces—“me seh ah one step fahwahd an ah two step back”—its manoeuvres of progress and defeat, of progress and defeat, of going round in circles or back to square one—becomes not just the immediate events of a particular movement, but of the seemingly infinite deferral of closure, as the quest for justice stretches into and beyond the space of a lifetime. Echoes fade away, generations build and develop; Johnson’s insistent call to remembrance fades and must be taken up and replayed, overlaid and overlayered like the laboratories of dub transformations that take up and distort the sounds of an original track. When performing, Bernard themself recites the poem without music: the music-and-speech dynamics of Johnson’s dub poetry, with its low-key delivery given power and contrast by the accompaniment of Dennis Bovell and the Dub Band, internalised into the rhythms of the poem itself, as stripped-back, ghostly echo; a memory, of a social moment, a movement, something we can barely hear. “Me seh half de revalushun deh pun de attack / Only half a salushun to de tings dem we lack.” One step forward, two steps back, half a step, half the revolution, half a solution—the process is incomplete. There’s no closure, no justice.
Yet Bernard’s poem is also about togetherness and community. Playing with rhymes or assonance in words like “back”, “attack”, “tack”, Bernard’s poem , which, like Johnson’s work, refuses to be contained by standard English, is buoyed up and carried on by the pleasures of rhythm and the pleasure of sound, the excess of sound, sounds ability to contain and then explode, the poem as a kind of carrier, an unexploded charge, carrying its “secret cargo” into the present. And when Mitchener delivered the poem within the context of music once more, the poem attained a fresh power, a declarative insistence. In comparison to Bernard’s Johnson-esque understatement, Mitchener’s was loud, present, unnerving: she delivered the text half spoken, half sung, a singer’s voice, expansive and huge, used to projection, not the quiet dynamic of a poet’s voice; her delivery at once toasting and sprechstimme; combined with the abstracted patterns of Charles on bass and Yarde on electronics, drum machines and synths stuttered into loops and sampled patterns, giving way to blasts of Yarde’s alto squall, the music traced another kind of time again, one in which instrument associated with pop music are repurposed and abstracted and which, in turn, an avant-garde that has too often excluded the matter of black life, is repurposed for its energies.
The music moves on again—picking up on the carefully poised ironies of a Sun Ra statement—“those who will not dance will have to be shot”—traversing language of ritual and apocalypse, Mitchener now playing with the ritual of calling out the band’s names—the celebratory incantation over music that signals celebration and closure in the Art Ensemble’s rendition of ‘Odwalla’ at the end of almost every concert they gave over the years, or the ecstatic sung shout outs on Pharoah Sanders’ 1981 album Live. “We are the Rolling Calf!” she proclaims, and as she picks up a phrase from a Cecil Taylor interview—“Hearing is playing. Music does not exist on paper”—turning it into an incantation, Pat Thomas makes his way to the stage, adding further electronic bloops and trademark thick chords and clusters on piano to the stuttering loops set up by Yarde and Charles. “Music does not exist on paper”. After a minute or so, the lights go out, the musicians playing in the dark, rendered illumination, focused on hearing, on the work that listening and playing can do, beyond visuality, beyond representation, beyond the page. The trappings of concert hall, of the performer/stage division, of the above-stage frieze, with its art deco image of music-making as a ritual idealized and frozen, already expanded by the trio’s entrance through the audience, by Mitchener’s dance round the stage, blowing a whistle, by Thomas’ entry onto the platform from the front-row seats; all these melt away, focus into the material and more-than-material presence of sound itself. Mitchener has long been an expert at making time melt, bend, twist in this way, all with an awareness of history, of music’s history and the histories beyond music that music sediments. Tonight was a particular resplendent example.
What is it that's so unsatisfactory about this film? And what can that tell us? Before answering that question, a brief run-through of the plot. Glenda Jackson's frustrated bourgeois housewife, having gone to the spa town of Baden-Baden for unspecified reasons, maybe or maybe doesn't have a brief affair with Helmut Berger's young gigolo. In town on a botched drug deal, Berger operates through a combination of what we might term freelancing: as a car or drug smuggler but, it seems, principally as a gigolo whose opening line is that he's a "poet". (The role he plays here, as a class-ambiguous outsider who both manipulates and is manipulated by bourgeois families seething with tension, mirrors that of Visconti's then-recent Conversation Piece--or, indeed, Terence Stamp in Pasolini's Teorema, at once far more ambiguous and far more socially incisive than either film.) Meanwhile, back in British suburbia, Jackson's husband, writer Michael Caine abandons plans to work on a novel to begin a screenplay based on his jealous imaginings of his wife's Baden-Baden sojourn. When Berger telephones Caine to announce that he's an admirer of his work and turns up (literally) "for tea", the stakes are set for the triangle to play out, with the added drama in the final third of Berger's drug connections, among them the poker-faced Michael Lonsdale, turning up in a kind of lugubrious pursuit.
No spoilers here, though the film doesn't aim at resolution so much as a kind of blank termination. The title is bitterly ironic, a phrase spoken by Berger's gigolo about the various ways he's paid for his services: with the utmost discretion by European women; with a kind of throwaway vulgarity by American women--"here, go and buy yourself some shirts"; and with a kind of guilt passion by English women, who wish to invest, not simply their money, but their whole beings into what for the others is more clearly transactional. Hence "romantic". Social roles, the film's ending seems to suggest, are fixed: the characters know this, they analyse it, generally with bitter cynicism or contempt, sometimes with frustrated outbursts of drunkenness, rage, or desire, but their knowledge does nothing to change it; attempts to move beyond these constraints in the name of 'freedom' are in themselves played out according to similarly hierarchical and fixed positions; desire cannot escape these prohibitions. The film exacerbates this sense by focusing on a limited range of characters and settings. These are bourgeois characters within bourgeois spaces: the house and garden; the hotel and its surroundings; the occasional visit to a dismal restaurant or club. Even as these characters, given the narrative events, spend much of the time engaged in international travel, the journeys through a setting that would reveal a fuller social world--a town, an airport, a port--are reduced to a truncated snapshot of empty spaces, seen at their edges. They move within a confined world and take that world with them wherever they go, in a grim and claustrophobic myopia. When they look out of the window--as in the shots of Jackson aboard a train that play over the credits--they see a mirror.
In this deliberate limitation to a confined social setting, the film echoes Losey's earlier The Servant, The Go-Between, or Boom! In The Servant, principally the increasingly claustrophobic house; in Boom!, the luxurious island getaway, isolated from the mainland; in The Go-Between, the wide-open spaces of a lushly filmed Norfolk countryside whose empty flatness comes to stand for a kind of myopic claustrophobia characteristic of a particular class at a particular time. In The Servant, desire is manipulated as part of an endless, circular game of power relations and hierarchies, negotiated across lines of sexuality, gender and class; in Boom!, it's a Burton-Taylor tete-a-tete which is both a kind of "battle of the sexes" and an allegorical struggle with mortality; in The Go-Between, forbidden desire across class lines and the fetishised mediations of smuggled messages leads to a denouement in which the outsider protagonist represses all thought of desire as a founding trauma. Losey's films of the 1960s and 1970s--the period in which he reinvented himself from a filmmaker of social problem pictures and taut, gritty noirs, to an arthouse director--were often criticised for the essential vacuity of their gestures. Losey, it was said, took the formal innovations of Resnais-ian temporal ambiguity or self-conscious echoes of the history of art (as when Jeanne Moureau's Evestrikes a pose from Massacio's Explusion from Eden) and presented them for their own sake: they became empty signifiers, somewhere between costume dramas and the arthouse, in which a self-evident critique of a decaying social class was presented with gimmickry and trickery; or at worst, in which the formal presentation nullified the critique that was being made. (Is The Servant, for example, with its presentation of the usurpation of the power a member of one ineffectual, privileged class by another shown to be cynical and grasping, as Amy Sargeant suggests in her BFI Film Classics guide, ultimately a reactionary film?)
Such criticism was neither entirely right nor entirely wrong. During the '60s and '70s, Losey made films that were various combinations of flawed, highly skilled, and near-disastrously misjudged. In The Go-Between, things come together with a tact and taste that has far more beneath its surface than the costume drama feel implies. (It's a film, in other words, that's easy to misread as simply nostalgic, Downtown Abbey-style, particularly given the lush Michel Legrand score all all those sweeping shots of green fields--as Serge Daney punningly put it, "the depth of field which is often the depth of the fields, very green, crossed diagonally and nervously.") In Boom!, meanwhile the misjudgments are so far off that the film achieves the status of camp--quite brilliantly. (Not for nothing is it highly regarded by John Waters.) With Losey, quality--both the actual quality of cinema, or the pretentious trappings of a "cinema of quality"--was never absolute. 'Accident' was followed by the startling incoherence of Secret Ceremony and Boom! but in turn by The Go-Between. The Romantic Englishwoman and an indifferent Galileo--the literal return to Brecht--were followed by the incisive Mr. Klein, a film which actually felt to reckon with the weight of history, all framed through characteristic Losey-ian preoccupations. Tracing a through-line in Losey's work thus becomes both all too easy--given its auteurist excesses--and one that's frustrated by how unevenly it's executed. What we watch, at least from Eve onwards, is a set of variations on a theme, more or less successfully rendered. (And Losey's detailed breakdown of the making of his films in Michel Ciment's exemplary 1985 book Conversations with Loseygives a lovingly detailed sense of continuity between the more apparently diverse elements of his ouevre.) The Romantic Englishwoman has all the features of Losey's Pinter collaborations (for this script, one playwright--Pinter--is replaced by another--Stoppard; Losey had of course worked with a perpetually stoned Tennessee Williams on Boom!, as per the waspish recollections in Conversations with Losey), but without the deceptively minimal clarity of analysis--particularly relating to social class--that Pinter's presence afforded those films.
Take the classic Losey-Pinter structure of flashbacks and flashforwards--longer or shorter inserts of scenes whose relation to the main narrative is not immediately revealed, which might later resolve into being seen as "earlier" or "later" than that action, or which might reveal themselves as a particular character's subjective fantasies, and which serve to offer an ambiguity of subject position and narrative temporality that, as Losey argued, was specific to the cinema, in what are at once intensely filmic and intensely literary adaptations of often dense source texts (novels by Nicholas Mosley--who, as the son of the British Fascist leader, knew all about power relation and masculinity--and L.P. Hartley, respectively). This device has been used to particularly good effect in the late '60s/early '70s Pinter collaborations Accident and The Go-Between. Its most obvious antecedent lies in Resnais--and indeed, Losey directed an obscure sequel to Resnais's La Guerre est Finie which shared its original star, Yves Montand, ten years after the original. Its use by Losey is, however, perhaps closer in spirit to a lesser-known film which, like Losey's, shares a more ambiguous mainstream/arthouse cachet: the 1968 melodrama Petulia, directed by that other American abroad, Richard Lester (and sharing with The Go-Between the presence of Julie Christie, radically different in both films). In Resnais, the most obvious forebear for this technique, the dense intercutting of multiple temporal levels furthers a political analysis, with--for example--narrative puzzle as analogy for the way that politics is subsumed or repressed vis-a-vis the Algerian war of independence and political torture in Muriel, or the workings of the political underground in La Guerre est Finie. In Petulia, they serve as a cynical demolition of the Californian 'summer of love' and its reverberations among the liberal (or not so-liberal) wings of the bourgeoisie--along with the presence of racism and intimate partner violence--and in Losey's Pinter collaborations, as a careful analysis of the ways that gender and class replay among networks of power--the ivory tower of Oxford University in Accident, on the one hand, and the English country house in The Go-Between, on the other.
Most of these examples are films about the past: or, if about the present, about the inability to reckon with the legacies of the past that serve as the return of the repressed, particularly in a gendered violence, done by men to women, which assumes unspoken structural dimensions. In the car crash and its aftermath that opens and closes Accident, a particular moment reveals itself as made up of a mosaic of different perspectives, while Losey/Pinter through various methods also suggest that much of what's seen exists within the warped imagination of Dirk Bogarde's central character, the Oxford don whose repressed desire leads him to commit an unforgivable act. In The Go-Between, meanwhile, the traumatic repression of an incident seen only at the end of the film (the discovery of the illicit, cross-class lovers in flagrante delicto, leading to social exposure and suicide) is cinematically expressed through the insertion into a broadly chronological narrative of brief flashforwards to its conclusion which function something like involuntary memories. While these might technically be experienced as flashforwards, they ultimately take place within what is essentially a flashback structure, in which the adult Leo is finally able to recall his suppressed childhood experiences, as signalled by the famous Hartley line heard in voiceover at the start of the film: "the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there". In either case, from the perspective, both of its making in 1971 and the publication of the novel in 1953, the narrative is framed as a retrospective, deceptively nostalgic one, towards its clearly outmoded Edwardian setting (and one with an oblique nod to the colonial relations that, in Resnais' Muriel, exist on the peripheries of the narrative, yet are central to its puzzle-like meaning.) These are films in which we see country houses, Oxbridge colleges, games of cricket: the signifiers of nation and history that exerted a particular fascination for an exile like Losey, driven by McCarthyism to the old colonial heartland.
More contemporary in its setting, The Romantic Englishwoman is less clearly oriented towards the past, and its flashbacks become something more like premonitions: memories of an event that may never have happened, whose presence causes that event to affect the course of future events. These flashes--whether forward or back--centre on an incident that occurs, as in Accident, near the start of the film: the moment Jackson and Berger take a lift together in their hotel and may or may not initiate a sexual relationship. Yet, whereas in Losey's other films, devices of literary narration were incorporated or subsumed into what were, as he notes in Conversations, fundamentally cinematic temporal structures, enabling the recurring snippets of a traumatic event to oscillate through the film like shards of glass or wisps of smoke, here, the literary, constructed nature of memory is turned into a kind of clunking, meta-fictional conceit, in which in life imitates arts as the paranoiac, jealous fantasies of Caine's novelist/screenwriter--the encounter in the lift, and, ultimately, the wife's decision to abandon her husband and the entry of gangsters as the story turns into a 'thriller' (a more contemporary--and cinematic--mode of storytelling than that of The Go-Between's "costume drama")--come to life onscreen and in the narrative.
In their initial appearance, these scenes are compelling enough. What happened in the lift in Baden-Baden? From whose perspective do we see this? What are the lines between desire--whose desire?--and action? In its opening third in particular, the incident in the lift serves as a central focus for the insinuation of various triangulations of a bourgeois marriage--a kind of infinite range of scenarios, generally operating according to the same pattern, on the various real or imaginary pairings of the heterosexual couple and a third partner: the frustrated wife and the younger gigolo; the frustrated husband and the young au pair; and so on. Yet as we see Caine type on screen and then see the fantasy come to life with Berger's arrival at the house, the film curls on in itself in a way that begins to shut off other possibilities. (Losey himself later expressed discomfort with the way the scenes of Caine writing fitted into the texture of the film.)
Like Fassbinder, Losey argued that the power dynamics so coldly dissected in his films are operations of sexuality in general, as opposed simply to those of heterosexuality: "With [the 1962 film Eve--perhaps the first of his 'arthouse' or auteur films] I wanted to make a picture - as I still and always do - about the particular destruction and anguish and waste of most sexual relations, whether heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or whatever". (Hence what is in effect a bisexual triangle, or quartet, or, at the film's end, a kind of expanding circle, in The Servant.) In The Romantic Englishwoman, they are particularly focused on the ways that such power dynamics play out within the context of heterosexual marriage. As with much of his work, the film couldn't easily be called either a feminist or an anti-feminist film: Caine's obnoxious outburst at Jackson's friend, a visiting gossip columnist, for repeating feminist statements about female homemaking roles, represents one pole; yet, in a film such as this, as, to a different extent, with Moureau's more liberated Eve, Jackson's dreams of liberation from marriage can occur only through another man, and no real possibility of sociability outside the heterosexual contract is offered. We simultaneously watch the playing out of male jealousy--Claude Chabrol-style--though Caine's character, apart from this one outburst, never reaches heights of Chabrolian murderous rage; and of Jackson's "romantic" desire for escape--the doomed template of much melodrama. Too often, though, the film simply presents this double-bind as is, with little other perspective on what we already know. Truth becomes truism, even fatalism. Does the presence of the gangster subplot imply an equivalence between the workings of organized crime and those of bourgeois marriage and the affairs and transactional sexualities that exist alongside it--the one 'legitimate' and the other the necessary other to allow that structure its legitimacy?
If this were an early Fassbinder film, it might. Here, however, Losey is so preoccupied with formal exactitude that a more layered sense of meaning--allegorical, narrative, ideological--evades its grasp.Yes, the film allies form to content--as in Resnais, as in Lester, as in Losey's other films. The flashback-flashforward structure insists on the claustrophobic way in which its characters play out pre-ordained social roles--again and again. It insists on this at a formal level, at every stage.
But to what end?
As the auteur model hardened into a kind of doctrine, within both mainstream and arthouse cinema, its worst characteristics--the delineation of directorial vision through mannered stylistic over-emphasis and the obsessive replaying of certain themes or preoccupations from film to film--ossified. Often, this gets called "self-indulgence": there can be a pleasure to that, as in the obsessive zoom lenses and luxuriant sweeps of historical decor in '70s Visconti (especially Ludwig), a critique from within of its own decadence with some parallels to that of Losey. But it can also become excessively mannered--perhaps mannerist. In The Romantic Englishwoman, the flashback-flashforward device takes its place alongside other characteristic Losey features such as the obsession with shots which use mirrors to produce a kind of mise-en-abyme or double framing, incongruously languorous, lushly romantic orchestral scores, and bitterly ironic cut-aways. By now, however, it has become an example of a technique, a device, a tic used to more or less good effect in earlier films--the mirrors of The Servant, the cutaways of Accident, the Michel Legrand score to The Go-Between--that simply replays itself, as if one could part the parts together to put something that, while in perfect working order, seems to have been produced without any real necessity. Yes, style and form enact narrative content: and on top of this, the meta-scenario of the script, in which Caine's screenplay becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, renders narrative itself a mise-en-abyme. But form and content here are too perfectly tied: the parts fit so neatly that any social commentary is reduced to a bare-bones outline.
Losey feels obliged to attract the attention in terms of social relations toward a visual mechanism which was always designed to conceal these relations.
Perhaps this is the central issue. The cold distancing that such a style produces--one watches every shot, not so much as a moving, breathing thing, but as a kind of fastidious construction, like a well-made watch--superficially offers something approaching the analytic operations of early Resnais or the alienation effects of Losey's mentor, Bertolt Brecht, but without the content of thought and critical reflection on the mediations of the aesthetic medium that effect was intended to foster.
As Jackson and Caine arrive back at the house where a party awaits them--the end of the affair, real or imagined, that disrupts the bonds of the couple form, the reiteration of the social bonds of bourgeois life--it's evident that there's no way out. We see this from the outside, looking in on the goldfish bowl--a bowl we may well ourselves have no access to, as the screen shows us yet more images of bourgeois life and tells us they are unhappy. The viewer is placed determinedly outside the frame, where they can stand with the arch-framemaker, Losey himself.
Yet what kind of outside is this? In the Brechtian model, the artwork prompts a self-critical reflection on what is being shown and how it's being shown aimed to combat deception, smoke-and-mirrors, and the replaying of art as the endless perpetuation of a bourgeois perspective. And this is why Brecht's work--or the work of, say, Straub-Huillet--still feels so alive, however difficult. In a film like The Romantic Englishwoman, however, we seem to stand outside the characters for no particular purpose. Brechtian engagement is replaced by a kind of deadened admiration of craft for its own sake. Perhaps this is why the film feels so "cold", so dead, such an exercise in style.
In Conversations, Losey recalls the picture as one in which he had relatively little interest. "I don't like the characters", he remarks.
And they're not likeable [...] Helmut's character [...] [is] the only one in the whole film who has an articulated, concrete philosophy. It's an anarchistic philosophy but at least it's there. The others are just kidding themselves one way or another. I've made that picture a thousand times, maybe not as well, but - you know, it's a remake essentially. It deals with an impossible situation in which a bourgeois life encases people and they don't get out of it and to that extent it's The Prowler, Accident, Eve.
Yet, beyond Losey's own dismissal of the film as a begrudging rehash of the kind of story he'd told before, the fact that it exists perhaps tells us something else about the evolving nature of cinema as the reactionary years of the seventies settled across the Euro-American world. What does it mean that such a film was made? Who was it for? There's more thinking to be done on this question that I have the capacity for here, but suffice to say that, for all its faults--in fact, because of those faults--The Romantic Englishwoman has something to tell us about the peculiar status of a particular model of cinema--not quite arthouse and not quite not-arthouse--that had evolved out of the ruptures and eruptions of what Getino and Solanas termed 'Second Cinema' and made a kind of uneasy rapprochement with Hollywood's 'First Cinema': a cinema within which, paradoxically, or so Daney argued, Losey had been able to make more socially subversive films than in the apparently more radical work of the auteur years--The Boy with the Green Hair, The Dividing Line, and so on. Losey's own comments on his film suggest that he had by this point himself become entrapped within the same world as his characters: a circular series of representations of a circular series of relations, the bourgeois life whose lovingly detailed exposure had become the de facto image of art cinema of a certain kind (Antonioni, Visconti, Losey...)
In Losey's final film, La Truite, released seven years down the line, Isabelle Huppert plays what is in effect an updated version of the Jeanne Moreau character in Eve, or, indeed, of the Helmut Berger character in The Romantic Englishwoman: a figure whose act of rebellion and survival within a bourgeois world are both entirely directed against it and entirely dependent on and circumscribed by it: "an anarchistic philosophy but at least it's there". Once more, though the characters spend a lot of time travelling within settings of various opulence, there's, really nowhere for them to go. As Daney writes:
Losey looks at this small world, this modern fish tank, with a slightly indifferent tenderness. He continues to pretend undoing the terribly tangled web of the plot, even though it is no more important than mishmash.
In the fishtank of formalism, aesthetics is divorced from pleasure: everything is a copy, nothing changes. Or, to adopt another metaphor, the picture that the puzzle portrays will always be the same, however the pieces are jumbled. Daney's "tenderness" might be read as "sympathy"--sympathy for Moureau and Berger and Huppert's acts of revolt, sympathy for the roles in which all the characters, without exception, are trapped--a sympathy so all-encompassing, and so low-level, that it can hardly be called "humanism", which protests, not with the anguish of Sirkian restraint or the caustic exaggeration of Fassbinderian satire, but with something colder, flatter, both closer in spirit to its bourgeois subjects and immeasurably further from any kind of transformative analysis of the situation in which it finds itself. And perhaps, after all, this is where certain aspects of Euro-American cinema, of Euro-American society, still find themselves, half a century on.
The performance of Eva-Maria's Together on the Way last year was truly one of the most astonishing things I've seen (I wrote about it on this blog): these works really live and breathe in live performance, and if you can, I'd encourage you to try to make one or other or both of these performances.
Announcing three new titles from Materials: Faux Ice by James Goodwin, Short Leash Kept On by Candace Hill, and Kruk Book: An Anthology of Frances Kruk. All three can be purchased from the Materials website: http://material-s.blogspot.com/
A long-awaited reprint of Askia Touré’s Songhai is also available for pre-order and will be printed in early 2023.
Also this month, Lisa Jeschke and I will be hosting a reading/discussion with Materials/Materialien at Halle für Kunst Lüneburg, Germany, on Sunday 28th, with readings by Laurel Uziell, James Goodwin (launching his new Materials book, Faux Ice), and Lütfiye Güzel, followed by a discussion about the first ten years of the press with Lisa and myself. A book table will also remain in place for the duration of the Halle's group exhibition, focused on the various stages of production of an artwork. Thanks to Elisa R. Linn and Ann-Kathrin Eickhoff for the invite.
News of four new books from Materials shortly to follow....
Towards the end of his solo on ‘Hootnan’, the final track on the album Action! Action! Action!, Jackie McLean unleashes an extreme upper-register cry at the climactic point of an otherwise conventionally swinging phrase. Rhythmically, it fits perfectly; in terms of harmony, it’s a transposition--albeit an extreme one--of the note that he might logically be expected to play next. Yet that sound seems to come out of nowhere, its timbre entirely startling, a miniature explosion that dies down almost as soon as it appears only to to explode once more as McLean unleashes further altissimo notes, each held longer than the last, before winding down the solo into some elegantly curlicuing bop licks that signal in the next soloist, trumpeter Charles Tolliver. No one one breaks a sweat. Blink and you could miss it; or explain it away as an aberration, an eccentricity, a tic. This was, after all, but one of many such moments in McLean’s solos once he began playing “out”--some variant of this type of cry occurs on virtually every check of Let Freedom Ring, for example (check the acerbic ‘Melody for Melonae’ and the devastating version of Bud Powell’s ‘I’ll Keep Loving You’ for examples). It’s a relatively simple musical manoeuvre--albeit one requiring technical chops. But it’s much harder to place in terms of its ‘meaning’. McLean’s altissimo cry--some writers call it a “squeal”--is not so much the explosion of emotion, not the idea of spontaneous overflow that characterises the idea of the cry or “scream” in the contemporaneous free jazz with which it shared space in New York--Albert Ayler, Frank Wright, Coltrane (Action! Action! Action! was recorded the year before, though not released until two years after, Coltrane’s Ascension). Neither was it the celebratory cry of the barwalking R&B “screamers” and “honkers” from whom the New Black Musicians of the sixties inherited their own cries, the line that links Coltrane to his former employer, Earl Bostic, “up there in orbit”: multiphonics, altissimo tones, turned from musical effects into the basis of a new vocabulary. McLean’s is, rather, an analytical cry, one which seems to offer a vantage point the music from which to observe it, a kind of shattering of a musical fourth wall. The McLean cry radically extends the principal of transposition, of the brief foray into another register, moving so far beyond the conventionally-charted octaves as to seem beyond transposition: a sudden entry from above, an alien sound, hard and metallic and material, bright and implacable, sour and sharp and firm. “Ecstasy”, ex-stasis, means to stand outside oneself, but to stand outside oneself, as McLean does here, need not be ecstatic: looking in on the music while being in it, stepping back while still soloing “out front”, examining the matter at hand from all sides, aslant or straight on.
In this, McLean’s use of the “cry” has something in common with Sonny Rollins’ use of the altissimo register on another horn--the tenor--during the same period. Rollins uses the technique to perhaps its most startling effect in his superlative duet with Coleman Hawkins on ‘Lover Man’ from Sonny Meets Hawk, recorded shortly after the release of McLean’s Let Freedom Ring, or a few years later, in the eerie conclusion to the title track of East Broadway Run Down. Over a firm rhythmic base, and in tandem with other musicians playing in generally conventional register and key, in Rollin’s hands, this studied, practiced, concentrated, focused sound is too precise to be called ungainly, but could never be called conventionally elegant. It provides punctuation, atmosphere, a sharpening or blurring of edges like a smear in the middle of a precisely delineated painting, or a sharp line in the midst of a field of abstract colour. It clarifies and confuses at the same time. As with McLean, this is not a sound that signifies an excess, an emotional “hotness”, but something else altogether--something intellectual, cerebral, the sound of the working of thought, and that in turn encourages a self-conscious reflection on musical form.
Rollins’ legendary sabbatical from the cut-and-thrust business world of the jazz scene, his period of hermetic practice on the Williamsburg Bridge from 1959 to 1961, saw him playing alone, for fifteen to sixteen hours a day, developing his breathing through yoga, working through every possible sound, legitimate or illegitimate, he could wring from the tenor saxophone. In a 2007 interview, he remarked:
[I’m] interested in the technique of playing in different registers. I’ve spent a long time working on getting a full sound and the proper accuracy on the notes you find above the so-called “normal” range of the instrument. I’ve been experimenting with it, really, since the 1950’s. I’ve got books on such things. What interests me is the accuracy and the security of getting each note right and full every time [...] The whole problem was in getting to feel secure about creating the notes as I wanted; in assimilating them entirely into my “normal” technique. I don’t want to have an artificial division between registers - it should be seamless in my playing. Only then can I incorporate it into my natural improvisational practises. I can do it privately, when I practise, but it is only recently that I’ve felt that I’ve reached the proper level of note production whereby I could play it on stage. I’m building up to it. I may try it soon.
Rollins had, of course, been incorporating such notes in his playing from after his sabbatical--if not before--but his comments suggest an important way in which what he learned in the bridge, while providing the basis for everything he did since, could never be entirely assimilated. The note that is played in private, in practise, but not on stage cannot be given away easily: it is self-possession, the self’s possession, that which might, at times, be given away as sonic gift, air from another planet briefly wafting through. But care must be taken. Recall the ‘Afro-Horn’ of Henry Dumas’ short story ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken?’: an instrument that, in unveiling the “the freedom of freedom”, produces vibrations that cause the hearts of white audience members to give out. “I’m building up to it. I may try it soon.” Another story has Rollins backstage practicing the highest possible of registers, sounds almost too high for the human ear to hear, before going on stage and blowing the lowest possible note.
What secret is being held here? Rollins’ return from the bridge and to public performance serves as an almost too-perfect allegory of between the public and the private dimensions of jazz: a triumphant public display by which the music is returned to circulation. Yet recall that this return was not only to the atmosphere of nourishing sociality in which the music could be created, but to its exploitation in the environment of uncertain labour conditions, police clampdowns and organised crime which, as Gerald Horne notes in his recent book Jazz and Justice, dogged jazz throughout its history. Rollins had conquered earlier addiction problems in Chicago a few years earlier; McLean likewise suffered from addiction problems early on in his career, an experience he drew on playing one of the junkies in Jack Gelber’s play The Connection (1959-61), and in turn worked in community programmes such as the HAR-YOU initiative in Harlem. As A.B. Spellman notes in his profile of McLean for the classic Four Lives in the Bebop Business, heroin had been flooded into musicians’ communities by the Mafia as bebop was beginning and the young McLean was beginning as a musician.
I have been told by several men who used heroin during the Forties that, looking back on their own experiences, there was a conscious attempt (most say by the Mafia) to create a market. [...] There was heroin in the jazz set before it was on the street. In [the jazz] set, which Jackie admired so much, heroin was one of the greatest symbols of hipness. It was in this era that the idea of hip developed, and Jackie is one of the last of the original hip musicians. They created a language, a dress, a music, and a high which were closed unto themselves and allowed them to one-up the rest of the world. The bebop era was the first time that the black ego was expressed in America with self-assurance, and heroin, because its effect blocks out all doubt, is a drug that facilitates the self-assurance. There was heroin all around the hip teen-age set that Jackie ran with, and many of the idols whose music, speech, dress, whose every mannerism they were endeavoring to copy, were heroin addicts.
Interviewed for Spellman’s book, McLean suggests that heroin use provided a kind of internalised defense against the backdrop of the broader structural inequalities of which its use was symptom, rather than, as was stereotypically portrayed, cause. “McLean”, writes Spellman, “does not consider having to get his pennies together to meet the connection any more distasteful or self-destructive than choosing to live with dishonest record companies disrespectful nightclub owners, or a disinterested public that guaranteed only long periods of unemployment.” Users were, however, subject to what effectively amounted to a widespread barring of the labour force from its own market, enforced by the State. McLean lost his cabaret card in 1957 and was unable to regularly perform in New York clubs for the next decade. In Spellman’s words, “the law requiring cabaret cards issued by the police department for work in nightclubs selling liquor [wa]s a totally antiquated one which by now applie[d] almost exclusively to jazz musicians in a most discriminatory way”. McLean was instead forced to turn to the recording studio, recording numerous sessions for labels such as Blue Note: studio replacing club as space for experimentation or, more often, simply making ends meet. Ironically enough, it was his turn as a junkie in The Connection that guaranteed him a period of employment, travelling internationally with the play. McLean’s presence, both as a person with addiction issues, and as a performing musician, was acceptable when framed within the lens of a white playwright’s art; unacceptable when he tried to make his way in the regular labour market in which he was forced to frame his own art.
But for Rollins, in his time on the bridge after kicking his habit in 1958, and for McLean after he’d kicked the habit in 1964, there was another way, one which took the attitude found in the closed, self-assured ego facilitated in the bebop ear by heroin--Spellman’s “a language, a dress, a music, and a high which were closed unto themselves and allowed them to one-up the rest of the world”--and turned it toward another model of inward strength. The stakes of survival--material, literal, physical, spiritual--all of it--were high. What Sonny Rollins learned on the bridge was not just technique, but a certain privacy, a secrecy, the reliance on inner resources, akin to the register of hermetic knowledge--figured as a kind of combination of street smarts, spiritual discipline, and aesthetic focus--that McLean’s bandmate Grachan Moncur talked about in relation to his own survival during this period, and which he termed “nomadic” and “gnostic”. Such knowledge suggested an alternative to the reliance of the “hip” on the drug high; it might also be known by its more familiar name as the cool, in the politicized way Amiri Baraka talks about that term. “Cool [...] before Lee Konitz and Chet Baker absorbed it” was, for Baraka, a knowing but defiant silence during a time of political reaction, the flipside to the “hot” he and his fellow Newarkers had absorbed from the R&B “screamers”, but a part of the same impulse of rooted defiance.
And so we might understand the altissimo register that we hear in Rollins as, in part, the sound of that secret knowledge on the bridge: a little sampling of it, not to be used too often, because it can’t be integrated into the public traction of the music--tones that won’t easily, in Rollins’ words, “assimilate [...] into my ‘normal’ technique.” When Rollins plays those notes, the joins show: new layers are created, new levels, ghosts or alien sounds. That’s one side of it, at least. Hearing the Sonny Meets Hawk version of ‘Lover Man’ for the first time, one could parse his playing alongside Coleman Hawkins as disruptive, aiming to shock. But really, it’s about history: Hawkins himself had experimented early on with the altissimo register in pieces like ‘Queer Notions’ or in his famed ‘Body and Soul’ solo--in the process essentially inventing bebop avant la lettre. In taking that technique somewhere else, Rollins was also showing it back to the older musician, returning a gift: here’s what you’ve given me, here’s where I’m taking it. In other words, Rollins’ altissimo is the sound of the social, of connections being passed on, as much as it’s the sound of publicly-displayed secret knowledge. And these are the twinned, doubled, dialectical aspects of the avant-garde of the fifties and sixties: the hot and the cool; the passing on of knowledge, and its transformation into something else that sometimes moves so far beyond its initial source of inspiration as to seem almost unrecognisable to it.
Steve Lacy, ‘Existence’ (Remains, 1991)
McLean on alto (his first instrument having been soprano); Rollins on tenor (his first instrument having been alto); a third player to add to the purveyors of analytical cries is soprano player Steve Lacy, who would sometimes rehearse with Rollins on the bridge, and who, thanks to the already-higher range of his instrument, would over time develop an extreme upper range on soprano, staying up there, sometimes at whistle pitch, with resolute, vibrato-less clarity (check the extraordinary opening to the quintet version of his piece ‘Esteem’ from a 1975 Paris live date, or on The Wire from the same year). Lacy called the extreme upper register “going to the moon”. “When you go to the moon like that, it hurts, and you can’t do it often and it’s got to be controllable”. These questions of assimilation (Rollins) and control (Lacy) are practical ones--questions of technique, of physical capacity, of not damaging lip or teeth or lungs. In a 1961 article that Lacy wrote for Metronome magazine on the potential of his instrument, he observed that “certain portions of the soprano’s range are intrinsically out of tune with the rest of the horn. All instruments have ‘bad’ notes but the soprano has whole segments of such notes.” The solution found in previous decades by Sidney Bechet--the only real precedent for the instrument’s use in jazz--had been to deploy wide vibrato. This approach was not one, however, for Lacy. “If one wants the power of, say, a Bechet without the vibrato”, he noted, “one must humor each note, bending it to the desired pitch. This requires long and assiduous practice with much frustration, or else a high natural sensitivity, coupled with extreme lip flexibility.” The ‘cry’, the extreme high note, is a technical problem, a battle as well as a collaboration with the instrument, a bending of its natural inclinations against itself: something that is artificial, the result of work and practice, far from the myth of spontaneous overflow.
Music is work, insisted musicians, like McLean, like Lacy, like Rollins, for whom too often remuneration was in short supply, who had to work within damaging and degrading labour conditions is work. It is, of course, play too, but play in a serious sense: play as adaptation, improvisational, survival. Recall Thelonious Monk’s piece ‘Work’, recorded on an album with Rollins in 1956, and by Lacy on his own debut album Soprano Sax two years later, a version marked by what reviewer Bob Rusch calls “a controlled tension [...] like everybody’s trying to play, carefully, to a common goal. It’s almost as if someone were present to make sure everybody stayed within obvious perimeters.” Lacy was, it’s true, still at a germinal stage of his playing, undergoing an apprenticeship with Cecil Taylor, who’d first taken him to see Monk, several years before his own six-month stint in Monk’s band. Be that as it may, there’s a quality to both Lacy’s smoother and Monk’s more jagged renderings that suggests something of the title’s doubled sense: laconic, gritted-teeth, a relaxed nervous tension, that which turns work to play, to playing, as serious as your life.
Lacy didn’t know addiction as McLean and Rollins had done, lived in conditions of privation, at one point in New York, sleeping in a tent inside an apartment he couldn’t afford to heat, at another, having decided to depart the States in search of musical opportunity, getting stuck in Argentina in the aftermath of the right-wing coup of 1966, over the next nine months exploring free improvisation and recording the extraordinary The Forest and the Zoo with Enrico Rava, Johnny Dyani, and Louis Moholo-Moholo and discovering what he later called “the hermetic free”. “I made that [record] because I thought the music was too important to lose”, Lacy remarked. “It was what we’d call the ‘hermetic free’. The point of no return. Where the music had the maximum calories in it. There was nothing to say, no words necessary. Just: ‘play’. After that, the music went elsewhere.” In the seventies, Lacy moved away from purely free improvisation, finding the balance of inside and outside, composition and improvisation that would characterise the rest of his mature output: the aim to find a music that, as he said, would “try to get it to the bone”, a principle exemplified by Lacy’s piece of the same name, its one-word title typical of the dry brevity that characterised his aesthetic: “snips”, “stabs”, “the crust”, “the woe”, “the wire”.
Lacy’s playing in such contexts, particularly the solo dates which he made a speciality, would often deploy altissimo as the high point of a working through of scalar figures, a logical and relentless reach up to a point necessitated by its context: an implacable and relentless push, necessitated by the contours of compositional frameworks in which figures would be repeated--sometimes obsessively--put through the permutations of transposition, as if pushing the identity of a musical phrase as far as it could go before it transforms into something else. Take, for instance, the closing portion of the 1991 version of his piece ‘Existence’, a video for which is embedded above: the first movement of his 1970’s solo suite Tao, “composed for six elements of Lao Tzu’s greater principle”. Lacy recorded the piece on on several occasions: in Tokyo and Como in 1975, released as Solo at Mandara and Axieme on ALM and on Red Records respectively, in Montreal in 1979, released as Hooky by British free improvisation label Emanem, and on the 1991 album Remains, released on Hat ART. The titles to the individual movements--‘Existence’, ‘The Way’, ‘Bone’, ‘Name’, ‘The Breath’, and ‘Life on Its Way’--suggest an approach in which the spiritual is figured through the relentless material, through the negotiations of body and instrument. This is not a music of representation, though Lacy was always drawn to using words, and in time had become perhaps the finest exponent of a particular brand of art song he made his own, but of resolute and relentless presence, an existential music, devoid of sentiment, which left the listener to make up their own conclusions. Around four minutes into ‘Existence’, after a pause of a good few seconds, Lacy begins a figure that progressively cycles higher and higher, traversing the gamut from a throaty low note to a high-wire screech: the cry, taken higher and higher each time before things are taken back down and the piece ends at a point at once definitive and entirely open-ended: a multiphonic, two notes at once, two in one, dialectical clarity and potential. Lacy has already played some upper register notes in the opening section of the piece, running up and down the scale to some high, exposed places, but the high notes towards the end of the piece are something else. Perhaps “cry” is the wrong word, suggesting as it does an involuntary spontaneity or an apostrophic expressivity. These notes mark intensity, but not excitement: a tight, chill grip, a condensation, a focusing of attention, what Lacy in another piece termed “the peak”.
These “peaks” occur at the end of the 1991 recording of ‘Existence’, serving a function akin to that of the musical climax. But, as Lacy’s former student Jorrit Dijkstra reveals in an incisive essay on learning this piece with the saxophonist, they also echo its introduction, “where one ‘warms up the saxophone’ or sets the atmosphere of the tune by slowly exploring the pitches of the first scale, much like the rubato ‘alap’ introduction to an Indian raga.” High notes are often something the saxophonist must build up to--think McLean’s cries towards the end of his solo, moments of focused climax which he followed his former bandleader Art Blakey’s lessons about the art and arc of constructing narrative and drama within a concise, hard-hitting statement, or Rollins’ unearthly altissimo during the final portion of ‘Lover Man’. They can, however, also be a jumping off point, straight from the diving board. Consider here the aforementioned opening of Lacy’s ‘Esteem’, a piece dating from around the same period as ‘Existence’, in which a preludial circling through transposed notes, from high to low, wavers and hovers before settling into a melancholic melody which emerges from it in a kind of exhausted release. That transition is suggested particularly well in the duo version of the piece with Mal Waldron on their album Communiqué, a good twenty years after it was first recorded. Waldron’s sombre fatalism fits the atmosphere of the piece perfectly--an outgrowth of a certain trend in the music of the fifties, that David Rosenthal, in his fine study of hard bop, identifies in particular with his and Jackie McLean’s work: “More astringent, less popular musicians, whose work is starker and more tormented [...] The mood of their work [...] tended to be somber. They favored the minor mode, and their playing possessed a sinister—sometimes tragic—air not unlike the atmosphere of, say, Billie Holiday’s ‘You’re My Thrill’. ” Waldron, another survivor of the heroin years, last accompanist of Holidays last accompanist, who, like Rollins and Lacy, found salvation in exile--this time in Europe, where he was able to clean up and to move his playing into a territory closer to that of free playing--plays as if every note is his last, singular and to itself, yet completely focused as part of a musical chain, a process of scalar rising and falling, the stringing out of seemingly infinite patterns, the building of the biggest structures available from the smallest toolkit possible. Like an experiment with holding your breath as long as you can, Waldron’s and Lacy’s approach alike is a stripping back, a going without, that is at the same time an excess, a constant exceeding, “going to the moon”.
As Dijkstra notes, many of the pieces Lacy would perform solo date from the early seventies--that period he identified as the move from the ‘hermetic free’ to what Lacy called the ‘post-free’, that music that cut down to the bone. Lacy comments on the return of elements like the C major scale to his music, the embrace, rather than the abolition, of limits as a paradoxical means toward freedom of a different sort. In the pieces written during this period, can be found a deliberate and definite reliance on patterns and exercises, akin to those found in practice books, a foregrounding of technique, not for its own sake, but as a working-through of process, of the basics of music. Dijkstra comments of Lacy’s composition notebooks, now held by the Library of Congress:
In the first few notebooks we find messy sketches from a very experimental early period (right after he moved from New York to Italy around 1967) where he delved into graphical scores, word combinations, conceptual free improv ideas, anti-Vietnam war protest music, and the first sketches for suites such as the Precipitation Suite and Tao Suite. The pieces in the early ’70s are studies in how one can write music about anything – from the weather to food, materials, animals, expressions, feelings, etc. Cahier n°4 (1973) alone contains “The Wax,” “The Wake,” “The Wage,” “Weal,” “The Wool,” “The Woe,” “The Wow!,” “The Oil,” “Salts,” “Fruits,” “Laps,” “Nags,” “Flaps,” “Ladies,” “Scraps,” “Flops,” “Slabs,” “Worms,” “Lumps,” “Stumps,” “Moms,” “Snorts,” “Slats,” “Stabs,” “Hops,” “Snips,” “Chops,” “Tots,” “Tracks,” and “Revolutionary Suicide.” The vast majority of works from this period are interval patterns grouped into loops, repeated a number of times, followed by a free improvisation. After the mid ’70s his works become mostly texts set to music, and more melodic.
Lacy, as this suggests, would move to art song, to an approach integrating the free forms of the late sixties (the ‘hermetic free’) and early seventies with the exercise-based disciplines of his early seventies pieces (the ‘post-free’)--what he called the ‘poly-free’. But, while one should avoid an over-schematic division of Lacy’s playing into different periods, it’s the moment before that integration that interests me here: that moment of the pare-down, of the scale, the practice book, the composition notebook, of the deliberate establishing of limits. Those looped interval patterns that we hear in ‘Existence’ and ‘Esteem’--loops that push the intervals higher and higher, are the sounds of exercises, of practice: like Rollins on the bridge, the endless work at sound, outside the circulation of music as labour environment, work of a different sort--preparation, practice, a private or even secret readying of “the way”. As his notebooks reveal, Lacy dedicated ‘Existence’ to John Coltrane, dating the piece “Rome 1969”, before revising it in 1975: “Bone”, the piece which gave Lacy’s new ethos its guiding metaphor, was composed in 1970 and dedicated to Lester Young. Lacy explained the dedication to Existence by its resemble to Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’, its scalar working-through at a high tempo--at least in initial versions, and the difficulties this presented for improvisation. Like ‘Giant Steps’, the piece is a rigorously arranged series of harmonic patterns based on large interval leaps. In that sense, it is thoroughly composed, yet, given that these patterns are fundamentally designed as the basis for improvisation, improvisationally demanding: the soloist must both negotiate technically-tricky passages while imparting their solo with the feel of more than a simple exercise. The relative success or failure of the multiple versions of Coltrane’s composition attempted by any number of saxophonists over the years, and the fact that Coltrane himself never played it live following the initial studio recording, suggest some of this difficulty. Teaching ‘Existence’ to Dijkstra, Lacy did not hand over a copy of a score. Instead, he played through eleven different pentatonic scales and recited the words of the relevant poem from the Tao Te Ching: the musician is intended to memorize and improvise on these scales, while reciting the words to the poem in their head. The pentatonic, a famously pan-global scale that turns up in numerous different musical cultures, is Dijkstra notes, “often considered more fundamental or rootsy than other scales.” But Lacy does not aim for something ‘natural’. Once again, this is work.
The melodies in the Tao suite are composed to the (silent) words of the Tao Te Ching. “While playing the melody,” Dijkstra notes, “one should express the words and sing them in one’s head.” These words and the dedication to Coltrane alike are silent, messages for the player--think, perhaps, of the silent words from Hölderlin inscribed in the score to Luigi Nono’s Fragmente-Stille. They are a private, interior discipline, that interacts with, but does not necessarily translate over to, the social network of playing music to an audience. Dijkstra explains: “Lacy dedicated virtually all of his compositions to a specific artist, musician, writer, scientist, or other high-level practitioner), often a picture of the dedicatee, a date, sometimes a place where it was composed, and specific performance instructions. In many cases, these references connect in a way that makes artistic sense but is hard to describe.” Whether in the tight-knit quintet Lacy had with his wife Irene Aebi, pianist Bobby Few, and fellow saxophonist Steve Potts, bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel, and drummer Oliver Johnson, or in his solo recordings, such dedications were a way to emphasize music’s collective nature, even as it most apparently stripped-down, individual, existential, isolated. “Every piece I write”, Lacy observed, “has a reference to somebody as well as the things which have to do with the person.” Like that of Rollins, this is a music of silence and secrets and of public declaration and declamation at once. And, like that of Rollins, it is a music that, however new, sui generis, or unearthly it may sound, is always rooted in a negotiation with tradition, with history, with predecessors: that which has come before.
In exploring the soprano at a time when the instrument had almost entirely disappeared from the jazz front-line, Lacy remarked, he had drawn on the high notes both of Louis Armstrong and of operatic sopranos:
Its register is quite vast, as big as for the right hand of the piano. There are a lot of territories to explore: the moon on high, the earth below. The tonality is very feminine—I’ve studied the voices of women singers a lot. Louis Armstrong also played very high, with a lot of excitement, like in the operas of Puccini.
Queer notions: the upper register, the cry or squeal or scream, is that range of the instrument that at once affirms and blurs gendered signifiers--the stereotype of the phallic high trumpet analysed in Krin Gabbard’s ‘Signifyin(g) the Phallus’, on the one hand, the blurring of the operatic high voice, of castrati and opera queens, that Wayne Koestenbaum sketches in The Queen’s Throat, on the other; sound both utterly material and totally unearthly; those two sides that the new jazz of the fifties and the sixties always channelled, often at the same time. This is about work; it’s about play; it’s about survival; it’s about knowledge. Lacy, as Dijkstra notes, returned to music from the Tao suite while dying of cancer in 2004, new arrangements in jagged handwriting. Music, Lacy believed, exists outside the self. “We only follow it to the end of our life: then it goes on without us.” Ex-stasis, continuance, excess. The music, its cry, knows more than it lets on, and more than the person playing and creating it knows.
Lacy; McLean; Rollins. Three musicians, three instruments, three kinds of cry. Listening to these analytical cries, their similarities and differences, moves us beyond the binaries and dichotomies by which jazz and jazz-adjacent musics are still too often understood. Jackie McLean’s cry, like that of Rollins, like that of Lacy, is delight; is disturbance; is analysis; is that which defies analysis. It speaks and it sings. It knows more than we could ever know.