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Time Changes: Improvisation, History and the Body
June 20-21, 2015, Vancouver, British Columbia
UBC Robson Campus Room C100
10am – 5pm Free
Time Changes is an academic symposium including presentations from artists, performers, scholars and community members from across the continent, with keynote talks by percussionist-composer-improvisers Gerry Hemingway and Billy Martin, who are both performing at the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.
The colloquium will focus on social, cultural and artistic encounters with, and depictions of, time and the times in which we live. What does it mean to create in the moment? What are the implications of keeping time or of transgressing time? How does the human body sound its time and place? Can improvisation bring about tangible social or cultural change?
Saturday, June 20th
All presentations will take place in UBC Robson Square Room C100.
PrOphecy Sun: The Body, Chance and Improvisation
Panel: Race, Rhythm and History
Emma Cleary, Staffordshire University
Jazz-Shaped Bodies: Mapping Space, Time, and Sound in African American Fiction
Barry Long, Bucknell University
Freedom Songs at the Intersection of Jazz and Journalism
Brian Jude de Lima, York University
Synth-copated Rhythms: Reanimating Dissonance as a Tool for Rhythmic Prolongation
Brent Rowan, Wilfrid Laurier University
The Impact of a Jazz Improvisation Experience on an Amateur Adult Musician’s Mind, Body and Spirit
12:30 pm Catered lunch
Billy Martin: Wandering
Film Screening and Discussion
Moderated by David Lee, University of Guelph
Rupert Common and the Freestyle Rap Alliance: Improvisation in Hip Hop
Sunday, June 21st
All presentations will take place in UBC Robson Square Room C100.
Julia Úlehla: The Dálava Project: Meditations on (musical) evolution and (cyclic) time: activating past, present, and future through song, body memory, and improvisation
Panel: Interfaces – Contact Technologies
Neelamjit Dhillon, California Institute of the Arts
Chapbook and CD Launch
Ammons: A Sheaf of Words for Piano
12:30 pm Catered lunch
Gerry Hemingway: Expression in Music: A Look Inside the Personal Language of an Improviser
Panel: Impacts and Changes
Kathe Gray, York University
All time exists in the present: Utopian moments in improvised music making
David Lee, University of Guelph
Improvised Music in Canada: High Modernism and the Artists Jazz Band
Tom Scholte, University of British Columbia
AYSYNCHRONCITY AND THE EMERGENCE OF MEANING IN THEATRICAL PERFORMANCE: Cybernetically Improvised Performance Texts and their Hermeneutic Impacts
Ben Brown and Michelle Lui: MAM Music and Movement Improvisation
TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival
For the complete Jazz Festival schedule, click here.
Innovation Series Concerts (featuring conference presenters)
The Ironworks Studios 235 Alexander Street
The Pugs and Crows (Ben Brown) Friday June 19th 9:30 pm
Destroy Vancouver (Billy Martin) Friday June 19th 11:30 pm
Samuel Blaser/ Benoit Delbecq/ Gerry Hemingway Saturday, June 20th 9:30 pm
Dálava (Julia Úlehla) Saturday, June 20th 11:30 pm
Paul Plimley/ Joe Williamson/ Gerry Hemingway Sunday, June 21st 11:30 pm
Here is an audio capture of my part of a colloquium session for the University of British Columbia Department of English Faculty Research series, which took place in the afternoon of Friday, October 18, 2013, on “Teaching Literature in the Time of the MOOC.” I co-presented with Jon Beasley-Murray. (There are a few glitches – I inadvertently call Dave Cormier “Eric” – so I have included a script for the talk below. I truncated the long quotations when I presented. The gain on the recorder was also set a little high — my apologies for any clipping. Jon’s portion of the session can be found here.)
The past year has seen massive and radical shifts in the practice and delivery of higher education, particularly around the emergence of the MOOC, the “Massive Open Online Course,” adopted and (as of January 2013) offered for credit through many prominent North American and Australian universities. While some commentators continue to suggest that educators are over-enthusiastically caught up in surging hype around the technologizing of education, hype that will soon deteriorate into backlash, it has become clear that the MOOC represents much more than a passing trend. It signals a fundamental change in the cultural and pedagogical mission of the university – in what constitutes a university, and what constitutes university education, in our time. I, we, believe it is vitally important for academics – not just administrators, not just early adopters, not just those in the managerial echelons of an emerging knowledge economy, but particularly academics in the critical humanities – to address and to interrogate the implications of this change. Because of the velocity of these ongoing renovations to the form and substance of higher education, we need to do more than act as latecomers or followers, to be more than epigone adopters. Bluntly put, our job descriptions are changing, with or without our direct input and even our consent, and it is vital that we find the means, as both pedagogues and scholars, to contribute not only to managing but also to shaping the direction and structure of these nascent developments.
I don’t want to position myself as anything like an expert. Frankly, it’s too soon in the arc – I won’t say history, not yet – in tracing the developmental arc of media-savvy pedagogies for anyone but a few originators to lay claim to expertise, and even then there seems to me to be something endemic to these kinds of digital humanities, something inherent in what has come to be called connectivity, that wants both to exploit and to refuse cults of expertise, cults that have also largely tended to be understood as the provenance of a professoriate. I’m still under the sway, myself, of Paolo Freire’s critique of what he called the “banking model” of education, and I think I share his thorough suspicion of the cultural privilege of expertise. But rather than offer any materially rigorous critique of the economics of knowledge production and dissemination, I’m going to stick to a critique of the MOOC at the level of metaphor, something I feel like I can do with some confidence in my own method. It’s how I work, in my own field, as I understand it. But I want to be clear that I’m thinking of what I’m proposing today, briefly, as gestural and provisional, as a small contribution to a workshop rather than as a definitive or in any way exhaustive reading of the MOOC in our time, in its time.
I should offer at this point a potted history of the MOOC, although in a spirit of appearing to let shallow précis pass for knowledge, I have to defer to Wikipedia, which does a much better job than I ever could at condensing the last four or five years of MOOC history and at naming the significant names. Wikipedia – and Jon can tell you better than I can – in some very telling ways epitomizes the networked, editorial crowd-sourcing that is currently tending to replace expertise in this contemporary educational episteme, the time of the MOOC. So, go read Wikipedia, and find out something about Dave Cormier, George Siemens, cMOOCs, xMOOCs, Coursera, EdX, and the whole whelming business. In a November 2, 2012, article on Education Life, New York Times correspondent Laura Pappano dubbed 2012 “The Year of the MOOC,” lending an epochal weight to a phenomenon that is, I’m willing to argue, almost without a history, and even without history.
So what does a MOOC have to do with time? I want to gesture at two key aspects of generalized MOOC temporality, both of them catachrestic: packeting and velocity. As one among many formations in the current digitalization (as opposed to the digitization) of knowledge, MOOCs imply a mediated phenomenology, a specific set of experiential markers keyed to time management – or to a common figure in MOOC syllabi, a figure that I’m going to suggest manifests as generic course content around learning outcomes a technological latency, the data packet. For example, Jennifer Shoop’s current syllabus for “English 402: The Poetry of John Milton,” a MOOC from saylor.org, has a detailed segment on “Time Commitment,” which is distinctive to on-line pedagogy:
Time Commitment: This course should take you a total of approximately 73.25 hours to complete. Each unit includes a time advisory that lists the amount of time you are expected to spend on each subunit. These advisories should help you plan your time accordingly. It may be useful to take a look at these time advisories and to determine how much time you have over the next few weeks to complete each unit, and then to set goals for yourself. For example, Unit 1 should take 6.5 hours to complete. Perhaps you can sit down with your calendar and decide to complete subunits 1.1 and 1.2 (a total of 3hours) on Monday night; subunits 1.3 and 1.4 (a total of 6.5 hours) on Tuesday night; etc.
The precision suggests an empirically obsessive scientism, but also a desire to lay out student commitments with as much transparency and accuracy as possible. Al Filreis’s “ModPo,” a “fast-paced” and much more loosely orchestrated MOOC from UPenn on “Modern & Contemporary American Poetry,” still lays out participant time commitments (“Workload: 5-9 hours/week”) and offers some proleptic feedback in an FAQ on course velocity:
You say the course is “fast paced.” Will it move too fast for me?
ModPo is “fast paced” because we will not spend long on any one poet. This is a “survey” course — covering many poets with the objective of conveying a sense of poetic movements and trends. We will study only a few poets in any depth (Dickinson, Williams, Gertrude Stein, John Ashbery) but otherwise during each week we will typically talk about poems by three or four or even five different poets.
A sense of depth is sacrificed for coverage, and the learning outcomes are accordingly adjusted, offering gestalt in lieu of detail. Finally, the extensive course matter around Gregory Nagy’s HarvardX MOOC on the Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours explains at some length how pace and segmentation interconnect, a pedagogical strategy as well as a gesture at the temporality of his subject-matter, particularly the Homeric epic. Indeed, of all of the MOOC syllabi I have tried to encounter so far, Nagy’s is the most reflexively sophisticated, and conveniently provides me with something of a test-case for an informed critique of the humanities MOOC.
In an article from The New Yorker earlier this year, Nathan Heller seems to think so too, spending considerable column-length on Nagy’s HarvardX course, and its time-demands:
Nagy has been experimenting with online add-ons to his course for years. When he began planning his mooc, his idea was to break down his lectures into twenty-four lessons of less than an hour each. He subdivided every lesson into smaller segments, because people don’t watch an hour-long discussion on their screens as they might sit through an hour of lecture. (They get distracted.) He thought about each segment as a short film, and tried to figure out how to dramatize the instruction. He says that crumbling up the course like this forced him to study his own teaching more than he had at the lectern.
Presuppositions about attention span and attentiveness push Nagy to “crumble up” and parcel out his material, but I’d like to assert that what’s happening here isn’t so much an effect of his students’ shrinking cognitive capacities, but rather the impact of the structural informatics of media-dense teaching. He’s creating analogues on his students’ screens to the data packets – as distinct, though not entirely so, from the packaging or commodification of information – into which his texts and videos must be divided in order to disseminate efficiently across a network. Data packets are essentially arbitrary segments (blocks, cells) of bits and bytes, of data, into which a text, for instance, must be materially fractured if it is to be transmitted effectively. The process of packet-switching involves a horizontal leveling of parceled information to facilitate exchange across a dimensional (as opposed to linear) network; in a way, you could imagine one of Nagy’s students ranging in an anti-linear fashion through the welter of text, video and assessment tools that make up his MOOC, although that movement is still governed by a broadly linear rhetoric – at least a rhetoric, if not a teleology – of progress and completion, of sectional and totalized learning outcomes.
Efficiency, as a hallmark of good tech, of vibrant network and of functional pedagogy, is tied to velocity or pace, the re-assemblage and the intake of cultural knowledge – in Nagy’s case, of Homeric epic and Sophoklean drama. The trick to success in his course in particular, he suggests, is learning to manage and to adjust your rate of reading, to accelerate and decelerate modes of critical attention. There is, frankly, way too much material on Nagy’s syllabus, as there is on Filreis’s. I have to confess that I signed up for the Nagy MOOC – drawn by the promise of some sort of close-ish link to the cult of expertise that accretes around Nagy’s work on Homer. And I flunked it, mostly because I just didn’t have time to do the reading or to complete the multiple-choice and short-answer assignments. It’s reading, of course that I have done before, for the most part, so that shouldn’t have been a problem, but there is a density of information – something keyed to what I’d like to think of, analogically again, as bit-rate compression – that was frankly overwhelming, particularly as spare-time or extra-to-load reading. Nagy insists in the descriptive matter he writes about how to take up his assigned coursework, that students need to learn different velocities of reading, from fast to slow; the second is privileged, as a mode of close attention that Nagy develops from his own take on Friedrich Nietzsche’s Homeric philology. (I hope you’ll pardon the extensive quotation.)
So what do I mean when I say slow reading and fast reading? Let me explain briefly, starting with slow reading in §5A and then moving on to fast reading in §5B. For the reading of the following paragraph, §5A, you will have to slow down and take more time. For the reading of the paragraphs after that, §5B, §6, §7, §8, and the Appendix, I hope you will feel free to speed up again.
§4a. So here is the paragraph that needs to slow you down until you have finished reading it (and this paragraph includes the moderately long quotation that you see ahead). Please give yourself about five minutes. That said, let me delve into it. When you do slow reading in this course, you have to slow down and give yourself time to stop and think about what you are reading. You have to do this even if you feel at first that you simply do not have the time to do this. You have to develop a sense for feeling that you really do have the time to stop your reading and to think about what you have just read, allowing yourself to make connections with what you have read earlier. Some people think that philology is the “art” of such slow reading. Friedrich Nietzsche was one of these people, and he compared the “art” of this “philology” to the art of the goldsmith:
“Philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow – it is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento. But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today; by precisely this means does it entice and enchant us the most, in the midst of an age of “work,” that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to “get everything done” at once, including every old or new book: – this art does not easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate fingers and eyes.”
In closing, let me highlight one big change I made in the translation I just quoted: the translator had written “with delicate eyes and fingers,” but Nietzsche in the original German text mentions fingers first and eyes second – in order to drive home his comparison of philology with the art of the goldsmith: when you read slowly, you read with a sense of touch – with “delicate fingers and eyes” (mit zarten Fingern und Augen). We see here an example of reading out of the text instead of reading into the text (I will define these terms in §8).
Now that I am finished with this paragraph, please feel free to go back into a mode of fast reading.
Such Nietzschean tactility feels anathematic to a largely tactless and intangible internet. The manual control of the eye, its kinesis across the liminal surface of a screen, seems to be a transplanted version of formalism or of the deconstructive “slow reading” practiced, or so he says, by J. Hillis Miller. Nietzsche, it sounds like, wants you to run your finger over the paper, tracing each line. But the tactility of translucent fonts is both metaphorical and – despite the existence of the touch-screen and the new Windows touch, say – at best a feint. Stopping to think, rewinding a video, going back over a passage are all embodied reactions, all reading tactics, that have nothing inherently to do with electronic media. Rather, Nagy is cautiously attempting to return something of the material character of the book – of the manuscript, of “hand-writing,” in fact – to a multifunctional medium that fractures, compresses and accelerates. Yet rewinding, as Laura Mulvey reminds us, is a temporal trait – a gestural inversion of what Vladimir Jankélévitch characterizes as time’s essential irreversibility – that remains specific to cinematic media, from videotapes and DVDs to the YouTube videos. The time of the MOOC – that is, broadly understood, its temporal episteme – has everything to do with shaping and managing these recursions and inversions, with stopping and starting, with packet-switching and shifting velocities. In 1993, Paul Virilio asserted with dire conviction that
With acceleration there is no more here and there, only the mental confusion of near and far, present and future, real and unreal – a mix of history, stories, and the hallucinatory utopia of communication technologies. (The Art of the Motor 35)
I want to start to claim here, pace Virilio’s warning, that we need to think carefully about how the anxieties around mass connectivity and the knowledge economy, anxieties that are for me essentially temporal in character, don’t so much impel us to withdraw nostalgically into a world of letters and paper, but help motivate is to address (say, through a more careful interrogation of something as seemingly incidental as metaphor) what it means to teach literature, and what literature and reading might become, in an era when something like a MOOC is even conceivable, let alone a cultural and educational destiny.
At the final meetings of the research team for the “Improvisation, Community and Social Practice” research initiative, held on Monday September 2, 2013, at the University of Guelph, we had an opportunity to divide into our various research streams and interest groups, and to reflect on achievements and outcomes over the past six years of the grant, around the establishment of the interdisciplinary field of Improvisation Studies. (Co-ordinators for each of the seven clusters were invited to present at a panel during the upcoming colloquium, on Wednesday morning.) Rather than catalogue books, performances, courses, etc., what many of us elected to do — to reflect the on-going and open-ended aspect of research on and around improvisation — was to produce and hone a set of research questions that had come to inform the work being done by our group.
Here are some of the questions we collectively arrived at, in the “Improvisation, Text and Media” stream, for which I have served as co-ordinator.
How do improvisatory practices affect the production, dissemination and reception of new media art?
What are the impacts of electronic and social media on poetry, literature and other textual practices? How is the study of print culture impacted by a critical emphasis on improvisation?
How can methods and approaches that have emerged from improvisation studies be deployed to assess the velocity of information, and the pace of the transformation of the human archive? What are the emerging temporalities of writing?
How do new media offer a means to investigate the permeability of the academic and non-academic worlds?
What are the key tropes around which inquiry into text and media in improvisation takes place? (Some of the tropes we mentioned included membrane, network, fractal, pod, articulation, mix, polyphony, voice, texture, ear.)
How does improvisation both expose and re-instantiate inherent social power structures, especially around concepts of authority and expertise?
How do social and electronic media influence reading and reception?
How do text and media studies articulate with improvisational pedagogy across the disciplines?
What does the study of improvisation, text and media bring to the understanding of canon, of expertise, genius and orthodoxy? How are we to accept or to resist the tendencies for improvisational tactics to becomes orthodoxies or ideologies?
How are practices of appropriation, borrowing, imitation, representation and revision managed through improvisation?
Our hope was that these questions, and others, might serve as contingent focal points, both to understand the work that has been ongoing in this sub-field and to provoke and urge the development of new work.
Here is a youtube video made by Jon Beasley-Murray (of Posthegemony fame) for Arts One Digital, a first year humanities program at the University of British Columbia in which I taught for the past two years. I mention, and try briefly to describe, something of the improvisational pedagogy I have been trying to develop on my own terms over the past decade. The video was taken in my UBC office on Friday, 5 July 2013. The other materials on the Arts One Digital website form an evolving digital humanities supplement to the Arts One syllabus. Two of Jon’s blog posts on MOOCs, pedagogy and electronic media appeared today re-published in The Tyee, and are well worth checking out.
Listening to jazz, to improvised music, changed my life, and for the better. The music started to matter to me early on, when I was still a teenager. It wasn’t that I had a particularly difficult life, but in the struggle through late adolescence to articulate myself as someone I hoped might become a coherent human being, the music was there, impelling. And I don’t exactly mean making music, since I was never a player. But for some reason, it presented me with a calling that has remained more or less insistent throughout my adulthood. Listening — actively, deliberately — to this music continues to offer me what feels like meaning. This kind of listening wants to be proactive and deliberate, a willful focusing of the ears and the mind. A concentration you have to work at. A version of this imperative, the call to pay attention, famously takes poetic form in the disjunctive closing line of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (hardly a jazz poem, I’ll admit — it doesn’t even mention music, but dwells instead on the visual and the spatial), where a broken classical sculpture conjures the capacity to look (or to perceive, to attend) back through its viewers — its shoulders curve down, Rilke says, “durchsichtig,” which means translucent but also, literally, through-sighted — and to invite if not to demand, as the poem finishes abruptly addressing both onlookers and its own readers in the second person, that “Du mußt dien Leben ändern”: “You must change your life,” you must other your life, live otherwise. Illusions and delusions aside, I always knew I was never going to be much of a musician myself. But I still hear it, and write about it. It’s the experience of listening itself that continues to impel me, as what I hope to become as some sort of a creative maker, a poietes.
One of the metaphors that attaches itself to this music is curative; it’s good for you because, as Albert Ayler puts it, “Music is the Healing Force of the Universe.” This kind of music makes the world — or at least my small corner of it — a better place to be. In “The Sick Man,” one of the poems gathered in Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa’s first Jazz Poetry Anthology, Wallace Stevens explicitly associates Southern Black American music — a mishmash of folk blues (“mouth-organs in the night or, now, guitars”), gospel choirs and jamming bands — with a capacity to heal an epigone (“late, late”), dispirited and ailing North, a cure that takes on a specific form of attention, a form of listening:
And in a bed in one room, alone, a listener
Waits for the unison of the music of the drifting bands
And the dissolving chorals, waits for it and imagines
The words of winter in which these two will come together,
In the ceiling of the distant room, in which he lies,
The listener, listening to the shadows, seeing them,
Choosing out of himself, out of everything within him,
Speech for the quiet, good hail of himself, good hail, good hail,
The peaceful, blissful words, well-tuned, well-sung, well-spoken. (206)
There’s an uncomfortable raciology here that needs to be acknowledged. Still, the seclusion Stevens describes as the generic solitude of the sick-bed is also uncannily analogous to the situation of the music fanatic, headphones on, volume turned up, listening to recordings. The poem attends, in the dual senses of waiting and listening, but it also promises to overcome in an imagined ideality the bifurcations of race, geography and history that both inform this music and mark its distance. What Stevens describes as healthy listening — betterment signaled repeatedly as “good hail” — is not musical imitation, trying to appropriate this music as his own, but verbal response, a mode of speech that wants to find its answerable style. The sort of listening that I find myself aspiring to practice, a listening invited and even provoked by jazz, impinges on the writing, critical or otherwise, here and elsewhere, that I’m trying to do. I aim to write out and to write through acts of listening, and to suggest how, in a number of crucial ways, we can come to recognize the temporal drive and the vitality of literary language — of the intensified, musical verbiage of poetry — by digging into the heft and flux of the improvised as it intersects with words, lines, periods: and by trying to feel, in some measure, the pull of its moment, the “choosing” for which Stevens’s poem calls.
On the back cover of Echoes of a Friend, a 1972 recording of piano solos of compositions by and dedicated to John Coltrane, in whose great quartet he played in the 1960s, McCoy Tyner cites an old Calvinist adage: “Many are called, but few are chosen.” His intention is clearly to honour Coltrane’s genius, to affirm the saxophonist’s singularity and to acknowledge with careful humility his own part in Coltrane’s legacy. But what emerges in this brief statement is a figuration of the instrumentalist not so much as co-author of the work, which Tyner clearly was, but as listener, as student, as apprentice: the passive voice — “are chosen” — suggests both a sidelining of artistic ego in the service of greater things and an erasure of artistic agency in favour of a more romantic notion of the artist as passive receptor, as Aeolian harp. Stevens, in a subtle but deft move, refigures the listener as an active presence, as hearing becomes a forging in the consciousness of the listener not just of sound but of aural form, and of meaning. Heartsick and passive though he — or she — may initially appear, the listener for Stevens intervenes in the music, which transforms from “singing without words” into a plenitude of speech. The change, the healing that jazz — that Black Classical Music, as Rahsaan Roland Kirk called it — affects in this outsider, is not a case of being called or chosen, but of choosing, of taking up that call and making it speak back, a form of existential call and response.
So then, here is a story about how I once missed my own calling. In junior high when they announced over the PA that anyone who wanted to be in the school jazz band was to come down to the auditorium, I must have been talking, because I missed the announcement. And it never occurred to me, naive and acquiescent as I was by nature, that I might have still been allowed to join up after that. When I found out after school about the call for the band, I figured that was it, I’d missed my big chance, although looking back now I can’t really blame anyone else, since I was probably just more interested in other things — other than music, I mean. (I was in the drama club that year, and worked on the yearbook.) I’ve always liked brass, and used to imagine myself with a trombone, an instrument my younger brother picked up two years later. (He was clearly the kind of guy who paid attention during home room.) Years later, at graduate school I used some of my scholarship money to buy a student-style Yamaha trumpet at a pawn shop; I still take it out of the closet about once a month, squeeze out a few awkward clams, then wipe it down and put it back in its case. If you don’t practice every day, you lose your lip. Like I said, I am no player. And, all things considered, I must never really have wanted to be one, or I’d have joined the band, somehow, long ago.
Taking part in improvised music, for me, hasn’t meant playing music so much as playing along, enacting a certain kind of participatory audience, of actively listening and responding, of aural interaction. Writing about jazz and improvisation, writing alongside, through and even against it, marks off some of the traces of that interaction, and also gestures at a language of enactment, of improvising critically and verbally, a form of what Ken Nordine and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, in different contexts, once called “word jazz.” (Reflecting on his 1957 LP Word Jazz, Nordine defined what he does as “a thought, followed by a thought, followed by a thought, ad infinitum, a kind of wonder-wandering”; essentially, as a precursor to the surreal monologues of Spaulding Gray or the transcribed monologues of David Antin, Nordine improvised serial text over a hard bop background, his first two records featuring a jazz quintet led by cellist Fred Katz.) What this meant, for me, was that there could be a viable intersection of language and music, of the written and the performative, of script and improvisation.
Things started, and kept on, with record collecting, a habit I acquired at fifteen from my friend who lived down the road from me and who had a good stereo. We used to hang around in his basement after school or on Saturdays, listening to his records and, later, some of mine. He got me into jazz. I don’t know where he heard about it. We lived in a small town in Nova Scotia, where the local AM station played a mix of country, the hit parade, and MOR rock. We were both pretty well-behaved middle-class fellows, but we were secretly hooked on punk, which was still around (this was about 1979 or 1980), though nobody knew Much about our two-person subculture, since we never actually dressed the part. But even if we never really walked the walk, we still tried to talk the talk. And we weren’t all that exclusive in our tastes, and would listen to anything with a bit of a rough edge: the Rolling Stones (Some Girls and earlier, none of that disco), the Who (anything with Keith Moon — and Pete Townshend loved the Sex Pistols, which was cool), Bruce Springsteen (The River was new), Elvis Costello (everything, which at that point amount to four records), and especially The Clash. And then, maybe out of boredom, maybe out of curiosity, we both bought some jazz. Well, I bought what he bought, which started out with two records. My Dad had some old albums by Dave Brubeck (Jazz Impressions of New York) and Al Hirt (On Broadway), but we disdained them as too mainstream and too tame — too middling white like us. We wanted something sophisticated, something unique. Something that didn’t fit. And I think in our own restrained way we wanted to rebel, we wanted out. So, we each got a copy of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue — ironically, one of the best selling and ubiquitous jazz albums of all time. And a copy of The Vibration Continues, an Atlantic two-fer compilation of Rahsaan Roland Kirk — an album that hardly anybody had, or ever would, although Rahsaan’s music, it turned out even more ironically, was even more closely in touch with mainstream pop, from Marvin Gaye to Burt Bacharach, than Miles Davis’s dressed-up “social music” of the 70s and after.
More often than not, that Rahsaan record was, to my ears, just plain weird, some of it to the point of being unlistenable. (There was a three or four minute meander on the nose-flute — Rahsaan Roland Kirk had a notoriously huge and abnormal instrumentarium, most of which he wore dangling from halters around his neck when he performed — called “Rahsaanica” that I could never get into, no matter how hard I tried to force it: Joel Dorn’s liner notes said it was genius, but I just heard noodling. It took me a long time to connect with what he called his “natural black inventions – root strata.”) Not too many people outside of aficionados and devotees, even now, have likely heard much of Rahsaan. (Most of the liner notes to recent issues and reissues of Rahsaan’s recordings used to be by Dorn, on whose independent labels these recordings often later appeared; in almost every one, he cites listeners who have experienced epiphanies — what Rahsaan himself might have called “bright moments” — at one of Kirk’s concerts: “I was blind until I experienced Rahsaan,” one listener rethinks the saxophonist’s disability into his own version of an amazing grace: “blind to the infinite potential of the human spirit.” Interestingly such insight, such personal revision, comes from Kirk’s auditory presence, his sound. Rahsaan, Dorn notes, “wasn’t given his due during his lifetime. He died frustrated, but he knew that someday people would get it.” Enlightenment, getting it, has been closely tied to jazz listening since its beginnings, even when it was essentially a popular dance music; the apocryphal story of Louis Armstrong’s response to a reporter asking him to define jazz — “If you have to ask, you don’t need to know” — implies a closed, cultish elitism that both informs the trope of “getting it” we hear circling around Rahsaan’s unjustly neglected music and runs counter to its fiercely loose populism, its imagined capacity to reach out to anyone and everyone.
Rahsaan’s music did reach me, however. I know this, because when I listened to one track in particular from that double album — a medley recorded live at the 1968 Newport Jazz Festival, which originally appeared on the second side of his Volunteered Slavery record — something was to break in on me: and not just for the first time, but every time I’ve played it on the stereo since then. The recording itself is pretty low-end. Rahsaan is backed by a great trio of pianist Ron (later Rahn) Burton, bassist Vernon Martin, and drummer Jimmy Hopps, but the piano is tinny and remote, the bass nearly inaudible, and the drums a slurry wash. But the technical quality, it turns out, didn’t really matter, and may even have pushed up the intensity of my bright moment, since Rahsaan’s flutes and saxophones are (in contrast to his band) miked so closely that the sound sometimes overloads with wow and flutter. He gets right in your face. While some might hear aggression in this performance, I hear energy, intensity, and explosive vitality. It’s next to impossible to describe what happens in the mere twelve minutes that this track takes, and it seems to me you need to hear it to believe it. Not because it’s transcendental in some naive sense, transporting us to realms of consciousness beyond words, no. But because it marks an intense collision of form and content, of tenor and vehicle, of signifier and signified that simultaneously informs and defeats what Roland Barthes once called being “condemned to the adjective” (180) in music criticism. It’s meaning, for me, consists in an iterable and nearly infinitely reproducible overwhelming of the break between act and description, a break that — if you think about it — actually forms the necessary gap across which meaning in language always occurs; this performance produces meaning both for and in the listener by closing the hiatus that requires language to mean in the first place. But I also need to be clear that I’m not talking about music itself, whatever that might be, but about a kind of affect, a response in and by a listener. About the ways in which the music enables and even contains a practice of audition, of audience.
On the recording, Rahsaan announces to his audience that he wants to play “a memorial and a short medley of tunes that John Coltrane left here for us to learn”; this particular Newport Festival happened almost two years to the day after Coltrane’s death, and the anniversary may have been on Kirk’s mind, although he also makes it clear that he “was playing this before [Coltrane] split, so I dig him very much.” It’s noteworthy that Kirk positions himself as a somewhat epigone synthesizer, a latter-day traditionalist who gathers and configures even the immediate musical past, demonstrating important continuities and influences; he gives his audience a lesson in jazz’s living history. Only one of the compositions Kirk chooses is actually composed by Coltrane, so the idea that the saxophonist “left” these tunes behind might at first appear odd. (The songs are Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” Mongo Sanatamaria’s “Afro-Blue” — which has at times been miscredited to Coltrane — and Coltrane’s own “Bessie’s Blues.”) These tunes become Coltrane’s, however, not only in as much as he recorded them and put an almost indelible interpretive signature on them, so that they would be associated with him from that point on, but also because the first song in particular points to a continuity between Duke Ellington, from whose band book “Lush Life” comes, and Coltrane. Ellington and Coltrane recorded an impulse! album together in 1962, a session for which the pianist composed the infectious blues “Take the Coltrane,” its title signifying on another famous Strayhorn composition. The blues, as the basic idiom of an African-American folk tradition — Rahsaan called jazz “Black Classical Music” — also informs each of the compositions Kirk chooses from the Coltrane canon, but the blues is also variously skewed and rearticulated. Joel Dorn writes in his liner notes to The Vibration Continues that “Rahsaan was interested in preserving the music and reinterpreting it,” but his performance creates and sustains a more radical form of musical history than such banal statements indicate. Kirk invokes a complex network of associations and resonances that extend from New Orleans through swing and bebop to Coltrane’s avant garde output of the last years of his life; furthermore, he doesn’t simply replicate, as repertory, Coltrane’s style or sound, but reinvents this music as his own, accounting for Coltrane’s presence while freely — and even sloppily — adding in his take. Rahsaan’s classicism is neither staid nor fixed, but a renovation, an amicable and lovingly rough scouring of what has come before.
If his aim in revisiting Coltrane is pedagogical, if we are meant to learn something from this music and from Kirk’s revisionary re-performance of it, what we are taught, both by example and by participation, is how to listen. Kirk’s reworking of Coltrane is an act of directed listening, of “digging” what Coltrane played, but a listening that is also a musical performance to which we — the “us” Kirk invokes is both the audience at the live performance, who scream more wildly as his performance continues, and, because this is a recording, a more general evocation of his rather fallen and decrepit America (“Can you hear that yet?” Kirk asks Dorn, and, according to Dorn, also asks all of us) — are listening. His record becomes an occasion to relearn how to hear.
This insertion of the listener into the potential sound-space of the performance, the way in which the music makes room for response, for a kind of audience participation — or really, for audience as co-participation — emerges on the recording as the Coltrane medley gives way to a Kirk composition, “Three for the Festival,” which Kirk had originally recorded in 1961 for the album We Free Kings. Writing or playing himself into this medley might seem an act of egotism, working himself into the canon by attaching his own career retrospective to that of Coltrane, but “Three for the Festival,” as various bootleg recordings of Kirk’s performances demonstrate, was a staple of his live set. Nevertheless, Kirk clearly and unabashedly does write himself into that history, not only as an exponent but also as a living presence, its embodiment. This intervention is not, however, a form of hubris so much as a delineation in performance of that history, a lived iteration of the past not disguised as immediacy but reworked in a dynamic, present-tense, active mediation. “Three for the festival” is a show-stopper, which begins and ends with Kirk blowing a simple melodic line through three saxophones simultaneously. (Kirk continued to be charged by critics with mere gimmickry for showing off his multi-horn technique, but he was also clearly more interested in the musical potential of this kind of makeshift polyphony than in empty grandstanding.) This riff frames an extended solo on the flute, while the band double-stops behind him. The effect certainly centres the performance on Kirk and foregrounds his instrumental voice (as does the extremely uneven live mix of the recording, as I’ve already pointed out), but what happens during this solo has little to do with self-aggrandizement. Kirk customarily sang or hummed into the venturi opening of his flute, creating slightly detuned unisons or harmonies; the roughness of the collision between instrumental and vocal sounds isn’t so much a failing as a roughening designed to highlight what Barthes named “the grain of the voice.” Barthes’s essay focuses on operatic baritones, and on the demystification of a perfected tonality that essentially dehumanizes the voice itself. What we hear in Kirk’s tone is just the opposite, almost all grain. Breath, vocal cords, even musculature seem to sound across the mouthpiece of his flute, and because of the close-miking what we hear is the impact of air and lip on the surface of the microphone itself. As his solo continues, Kirk refrains from letting the flute sound, retracting his breath rather than blowing into the opening. Instead, a audible set of grunts, as he sings with his mouth nearly closed, along with the clicking of his fingertips on the flute’s pads, creates a species of musical mime, a refusal that sounds as music. The notes, held back in this way, become nearly pure percussion, rhythm without melodic content: we hear, in other words, the liminal background noise of the performance — the clicks and thuds of body and breath against metal that are usually covered over by the proper sounding of the instrument — now brought to the aural foreground. We hear the grain of his voice, as the voice holds itself contingently in abeyance; the grain, Barthes writes, is “the materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue” (182). “The grain,” he asserts, “is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs” (188). But there is more to this idea than a temporary reification of sound mechanics in Kirk’s solo; within seconds, the tension caused by holding back his breath leads to an explosion of sound, a slurry of spittle, ululation, laughter and unmusical noise into the flute. Kirk clearly loses control at this point in the solo, and as he works to find a tonality again, he starts speaking — well, cursing — into the flute. Here, not just sound but extramusical commentary enters into the performance; when we hear him stutter “god damn da da you [unclear swearing]” into his instrument, we also hear his struggle to reformulate his playing on the fly, and to acknowledge his failure to keep his music on track, in line with his intention. But that failure, importantly, also is his music at that moment: it’s still integrated into the solo, which never loses momentum, despite itself. Importantly, along with this collision of performance and commentary is a simultaneity of language and music, a simultaneity that Barthes (again, in a rather different musical context) suggests is the outcome of attending to “the grain of the voice, when the latter is in a dual posture, a dual production — of language and of music” (181). That grain, however, is better understood as friction than cohesion, “the very friction between the music and something else, which something else is the particular language (and nowise the message)” (185). Barthes posits a new kind of criticism that becomes immanent to the object or performance that draws its attention, that catches its ear: the engaged listener doesn’t decode a message from the musical performance so much as experience, in this duality of word and sound, a rethinking of the structures of message-making themselves.
This doubling is what (via Rahsaan) “word jazz” is all about. This kind of critical practice, in as much as its calls for a newness, still depends on the delivery of a message, however, but it is not a content in the common sense of meaning or message. What listening to this music delivers, its message, is essentially a pedagogy, a mode of apprehension that wants to be learned, and relearned, rather than unquestioningly or casually regarded. You have to hear it, rather than just listening to it; you have to listen instead of merely hearing it. Such imperatives cling to this music, and form the core of what it not only invites but even requires from its audience. On his 1963 album Mingus Plays Piano, the bassist and composer Charles Mingus has a brief tune entitled “Roland Kirk’s Message.” (Kirk had played with the Mingus’s group that recorded Oh Yeah the previous year, with Mingus also on piano instead of bass.) One of my own responses to Kirk’s music was published in Descant in 1995, and takes up this idea of content, of message in the music, pace Barthes. It’s called “Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Message,” and it goes something like this:
Forget the word-jazz; tell it like it is.
Most people sleepwalk through their custard lives,
then waste what little snatch of breath remains
trying to talk their way out of waking up:
volunteered slavery. The world wears its chains
like a badge of honour. Nobody gives
a damn about nobody else. Who says
the blind’ll see? Darkness fills my cup.
Somebody tell me why. Charles Mingus said,
“Maybe someday they’ll hear,” but I doubt it.
The black and crazy blues pass on. We have
to bear the cross before the cross bears us.
The poem (I need to admit) is a tissue of quotations and intertexts from Kirk — including the titles of several of his compositions, as well as a modified line from his “word jazz” version of “The Old Rugged Cross,” which forms the last sentence of the poem. The lightly inflected African American idiom isn’t and can’t ever be mine, but remains an off-kilter ventriloquy of Kirk’s voice. This is my attempt, in a far more muted and formally constrained manner, to do something like what he did to Coltrane: not imitation, but tribute. The effort, as I know it, involves finding an answerable style; not trying to sound black, for example, but to collide my sense of my own subject position with Kirk’s to produce a tension between idioms, positions, languages. That tension, for me, also manifests itself as a refusal — again, ventriloquized through my imaginary, reconstructed Rahsaan — to accept the idiom in which the poem, as quotation, tries to cast itself; the call to forget the word-jazz, that is, is actually an instance, perhaps as best as I can contingently muster, of word jazz. The imperatives, miming Dorn or Kirk, also belie the demand for honesty, a demand that characterizes the canon of Kirk’s music and its interpretation quite thoroughly. An honest speech would, in at least one sense, be an embodied language that inheres in the grain of the voice, into which meaning collapses and from which it emerges as an undifferentiated manifestation of aural plenitude, as fullness. However, such a poem, as a demand, can never lay claim to any such completion. It opens a space, perhaps, but can never fill it, depending instead — whether as invitation or imperative — on the co-presence of another listener, to inhabit that gap.
One last note: the original publication of this poem carried an unattributed epigraph that I want to explain. When my friend first got The Vibration Continues, he played the Coltrane medley for a guy he knew, a trombone player from the school band. (Again, unlike me, he had paid attention during home room announcements.) After the trackfinished, my friend asked his buddy what he thought. “Well,” came the response, “I guess he made a few mistakes.” “Mistakes?” my friend said. “Man, that’s perfection.” The imperative, and even a certain elitism, in this statement sticks with me. Some people — well, all of us, really — have to learn how to listen, and listening — if anything can be said to be absolute about it, as an act — requires a renovation of expectations, and a willingness to open oneself to the possibilities of sound or text that isn’t necessarily cleaned up, even, rectified or fixed. “Perfection,” in this sense, names a phenomenology that is neither passively acquiescent nor egocentrically overbearing, but that seeks out a openings in structures of attention where self and other are held, contingently, in tension, as the technologies of making meaning, of meaning itself, are both produced and interrogated.
A quick post ad hoc from my mobile to initiate things. One of the research streams from the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice research initiative is called “improvisation and pedagogy.” A symposium on music education was held at the University of Guelph a couple of weeks ago that affirms a general tendency in this research stream to focus on improvised music, particularly jazz, as a model for education, particularly around practice-based research. Other significant threads want to develop community, collective and even networked paradigms for learning and for knowledge-sharing around the kinds of work done by the AACM in Chicago beginning in the mid-1960s. (See George Lewis’s A Power Stronger Than Itself.) My own interests, particularly as a pedagogically-untrained academic, involve assessing and exploring the implications of using both musical and theatrical improvisational techniques in the classroom. What are the cultural politics and the ethics around importing such aesthetic practices into an educational setting? How can improvisation be theorized as a pedagogical practice? More to come.