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Monthly Archives: January 2015

A Short Take on Vertical Squirrels, Time of the Sign

Time of the Sign, the third album from the improvising collective Vertical Squirrels (and their second on Montreal’s Ambiances Magnétiques label), is a modest masterpiece, and ranks for me among the very best recordings of 2014. Vertical Squirrels formed as a quartet in 2008 in Guelph; its core members are faculty at the university there, three of them researchers with the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice (ICaSP) research initiative. Pianist Ajay Heble is the founder and (until this year) Artistic Director of the Guelph Jazz Festival, and his academic and curatorial work have brought him into close contact with some of the finest free improvisers in contemporary music. Guitarist Daniel Fischlinhas collaborated with Heble on key works in improvisation scholarship (including The Other Side of Nowhere [Wesleyan, 2004] and The Fierce Urgency of Now[Duke, 2013]) and is an eminent Shakespearean. Electric bassist Lewis Melville taught in the Department of Botany (now Molecular and Cell Biology), and the quartet’s original percussionist Rob Wallace was an ICaSP postdoctoral fellow. In the years leading up to the recording of Time of the Sign in June, 2012, Wallace moved on to other academic employment, and was replaced by drummer Ted Warren.

         The band is expanded to a septet for this recording, and includes Jane Bunnett(on flute and soprano saxophone), Scott Merritt  (on guitar) and Ben Grossman(on hurdy-gurdy), with contributions from Larry Cramer (on trumpet) and – not, perhaps, to be underestimated – Dave Clark (improvised conduction). Many of the musicians double on miscellaneous electronic and little instruments, an echo of some of the performance practices of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago. The Vertical Squirrels’ electronic press kit suggests that the group was “initially conceived as an informal outlet to get Heble back into playing piano after years of curating the Guelph Jazz Festival (but rarely performing himself),” but the music doesn’t centre on Heble. Lewis Melville also (on this and the other recordings) is credited as the principal producer, and seems to be something of the instigator for the group. (A recording of his composition for foghorns at the Sound Symposium in St. Johns Newfoundland is also used as a sonic underlay for the last track on the album.) But I think it’s important to emphasize the decentred character of this music: not that it’s ever incoherent, but that no single voice ever predominates or directs. There are no solos on this record, which is partly why I wanted to emphasize something like its modesty: not to say that any of the players is ever diffident or deferential; if anything, each contributor’s line or instrumental texture only adds to the gathering energies, the obvious vitality and shared dynamism that every track evinces. But there is also a proactive humility, a thoroughly engaged mutual practice of listening, that informs this music: each player seems instinctively to know when to sound and when to lay out, and what results is a set of warmly shifting, variegated accretions, folds of resonance and dehiscence, an electro-acoustic version of what Byron, of all poets, once called “voluptuous swell.”

         By saying that there are no solos, I don’t mean to indicate as absence of melodic line or improvisational drive, but rather that this music emerges from simultaneous reciprocities, layers of polymorphic call-and-response but also of departures and excursuses that loop in and out of the general, generative flow. (The music was recorded live, open to the public, over the course of two days: the session announcement is still on Facebook.) The press kit, again, compares their music to some of the improvisational jams of Frank Zappa, and I can hear that, certainly, in their communal emphasis on rock ostinato, riff and groove. But I hear a collation of influences, closer at times to, say, Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time group around Virgin Beauty (1988) – without the insistently spiky harmolodic angles of the leader’s alto – or, at other moments, echoes of the audio-Americana of Lyle Mays and Pat Metheny. (Ted Warren’s electronically treated vocals on the title track closely recall Mark Ledford’s melodic doublings with the PMG.) The compiled electric pianos of Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way sometimes feel present, and the opening track, “Falling from the Ground Up,” recalls as it unfolds McCoy Tyner’s work from the early 1970s, while Lewis Melville basslines fall at several points into a Tinariwen-like pulse. None of these audible influences ever quite settles or takes hold for more than a minute or two, however, and what emerges as each cut builds is a buoyant, unstable and living audio organism, a porosity. Each time I listen, I hear new things, other textures: the shifting mesh, for instance, of Fischlin’s and Merritt’s guitars set against the phasing, metallic stringiness of Grossman’s hurdy-gurdy and Heble’s roiling and gangly piano makes for a rich differential polyphony. This music is essentially collaborative not because it demands agreement but because it honours co-creative multiplicity, a coming together apart, not to produce community in difference, not to overcome a plural and sometimes unruly lived humanity, but a community of differences, a soundscape that embraces and welcomes the open auditory field of the many, of disenclosure, of more. Time of the Sign is one of the great recordings of committed collective improvisation. 

Isabelle Stengers, "the most amiable of philosophers"

I’m intensely grateful to the Graduate Program in Science and Technology Studies (STS) at UBC for inviting Isabelle Stengers to lead a seminar on her reading of Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality, and on what she calls “cosmopolitics.” In practice, she didn’t really lead a discussion so much as aim to foster spontaneous interchange and to interrogate and even challenge some of her own thinking; her recent book is called Thinking with Whitehead (2002, trans. 2011)—rather than thinking about or explaining—and the character and practice of that with-ness, of a reading that involves co-creatively being witha work rather that staging some sort of magisterial (professorial?) exegetical mastery of it, is what I think for Stengers makes philosophy matter.
Still, the seminar involved less mutual interchange—less a practice of collaborative speculation, a discursive echo of the “open ontology” she wants to address—and became more about participants posing questions to Professor Stengers about her work. She had offered two papers for participants to read ahead of time, in the hope, perhaps, of avoiding professing, although given the opportunity of having her present in the classroom, it’s certainly understandable why a rather formal question-and-answer session might happen. Describing, in one of those papers, the emergence of her term “cosmopolitical,” she points to how “gripped by worry,” by what sounds like anxiety over philosophical reach, she “needed to slow down.” That slowing is not a diminution of attention but rather its intensification—an attention, moreover, that remains iterative and hermeneutic, but that also aspires to a reading practice that is co-creative rather than derivative or, in the mundane sense, rather than merely critical. “It’s better to read slowly,” she said in the seminar, “in order not to have understood everything.” Reading doesn’t aim at comprehension, but to actualize the creative potential in careful misprision.

She doesn’t really articulate an aesthetics in Thinking with Whitehead, if by aesthetics you mean a theory of art. But what she calls the “adventure of the senses,” of aesthesis, pervades her meditations on Whitehead’s writing and thinking. What Professor Stengers wants a seminar to become, I think, is something that Whitehead describes, in Process and Reality, as “intense experience without the shackle of reiteration from the past. This is the condition for spontaneity of conceptual reaction” (Process and Reality 105). The active mind slows into the present tense, but that spontaneity—I want to call it improvisation, but Stengers does not—is not without relation to a past, without any iterative purchase on (reading) history. Rather, the active, embodied mind, as one reads, becomes (to borrow a few metaphors from both Whitehead and Stengers) an electromagnetic resonator, an amplifier, an interstitial matrix: “It receives from the past, it lives in the present” (Process and Reality 339). The interstice—the fictive and material space “between the lines” of tissue, of both flesh and text—is a crucial trope for Stengers, marking both a material and a societal openness, a biological and a conceptual betweenness (betweenity?) that offers the condition of possibility for communities of difference, for community as difference, the unresolved and contrary, risky situation of the speculative seminar itself: “speculative presence, and the eventual efficacy associated with it, constitutes the wager of the interstice” (Thinking with Whitehead 514). “Life,” as Whitehead puts it, “lurks in the interstices of each living cell, and in the interstices of the brain. In the history of a living society, its more vivid manifestations wander to whatever quarter is receiving from the animal body an enormous variety of physical experience.” (Process and Reality105-6) Those “vivid” intensities don’t and can’t happen all the time, and I’m not even sure what a seminar conducted along those lines of sustained risk might look like, might feel like, but in the classroom yesterday, what for me was notable was how often Isabelle Stengers laughed. Her laughter was never nervous or imperious or cynical—although she did make it clear that she doesn’t abide thoughtlessness or “stupidity”—but manifest moments of vital warmth, her celebratory enthusiasm for thinking that matters, in the present. I couldn’t help but hear, as well, the nascence of an interstitial poetics, an ecology of writing that attends to some as-yet-unapprehended upwelling of life between its own unfolding lines. 

Isabelle Stengers, Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild
Creation of Concepts.  2002. Trans. Michael Chase.
Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011
Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, corrected
edition, ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne.
New York: Free P, 1978.