What a privilege to hear Anthony Davis play two sets of solo piano at the Western Front last night. His performance—a return to Vancouver after thirty years—also marked the release of past – piano – present, an LP anthology of audio recordings from the Western Front’s archive featuring tracks by Anthony Davis, Paul Plimley, Al Neil and John Kameel Farah.
In her sleeve notes, pianist Dana Reason notes how, in his 1985 performance of “Behind the Rock,” Davis’s “ease mobilizing and maximizing the piano . . . suggests a careful study of Duke Ellington’s rich orchestral tradition.” Not that Davis’s playing sounds studied or academic; his aesthetic – his performance style and his method – seems to offer an idiosyncratic mix of (what George Lewis has called) Eurological and Afrological sensibilities, blurring composition and improvisation, chamber music and blues, Olivier Messiaen and James P. Johnson, recital and gig, to generate a vital, kinetic music of layered possibilities. He played two sets lasting almost an hour each. The first set opened with a piece built from variations on cascading intervals, which Davis later identified as fragments from his composition Wayang No. IV. The second piece, which Davis did not identify, spun magisterially through components of what felt like a 32-bar song, unpacking and reassembling melody with a recognizably Ellingtonian grandeur. The third piece was a version of “Ankle and Wrist” from his 1997 opera Amistad; built on shards of a blues motif, the music surged in swathes gathered and propelled by Davis’s powerful sustain pedal, while his strong left hand offered up lines recalling Sir Roland Hannaor Earl Hines. Davis’s touch is fierce and firm, but he also has a keen capacity for tenderness, as the concluding piece of the first set, a gently deconstructed jazz waltz, suggested.
The second set opened with what he called his “Goddess Variations,” improvisations developed around the “orchestral material” from the aria “They come as if from the heavens (Goddess of the Waters),” also from Amistad. He followed with an extended wordless version of “Five Moods from an English Garden,” a work he described composing when he found himself stranded in Munich – after touring with violinist Leroy Jenkins – sleeping on a studio floor; on a snowy May morning, he said, he walked through the city’s English Gardens – listening to birdcalls – and into an exhibit of Wassily Kandinsky paintings – “moods” – at a gallery there. The composition draws onthese two palettes to create a vivid tone poem. The closing piece from the second set involved a return to Wayang No. IV, extending Davis’s exploration of the material in intense overlaid chords to produce what felt like kinetic densities, a powerfully mobile aural weave. As an encore for an enthusiastic, deeply engaged audience, Davis played a remarkable meditative version of “Monk’s Mood,” a suitably elegant and resonant conclusion to a brilliant concert.
Unmade Remarks on Innovation (Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, Samuel Beckett, C. D. Wright, Tanya Tagaq)
The collective trajectory of this year’s colloquium links practicing various forms of improvisation to nurturing various forms of intersubjective well-being. By attending—carefully, critically and briefly—to solo and to collaborative electro-acoustic performances by the British saxophonist Evan Parker, I want to gesture at the nascent work of remediation that Lisbeth Lipari has recently called “an ethics of attunement,” a close listening that cultivates compassionate alterity within an attentive body: an akroasis—an audition, an audience—that provides a resonant and differential basis for the possibility of what Jean-Luc Nancy has provocatively named an “inoperative community,” a version for me of what Alphonso Lingis calls The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common, of our conflicted and diverse human species. Nancy’s philosophical interrogation of listening to music (as “the art of the hope for resonance”) offers contingent conceptual support with which it’s possible to assess the sensibly vibrant sounding of interstices, both between and within each human frame, that constitutes Evan Parker’s improvising.
http://www.npr.org/player/embed/309047616/309304660Rollins appears to be suggesting that, when you listen to yourself as you play, you lose your through-line, lose the formal sense of your music. But his point, I think, isn’t to romanticize or mystify his artistry—he focuses on his lapses, not his genius—but to assess the cognitive velocity at which that agon, that deliberation, can even occur. What Lipari calls compassionate openness wants to happen not as immediacy but on the fleeting lip of the present, closer to reflex than reflexive. Jean-Luc Nancy refers to “sonorous time” as “a present in waves on a swell, not in a point on a line; it is a time that opens up, that is hollowed out, that is enlarged or ramified, that envelops or separates, that becomes or is turned into a loop, that stretches out or contracts, and so on” (13). The challenge, the risk posed by such a hysteresis, is not merely the neglect of what is other—and this is perhaps why thinking about solo music, about the improvised solo, helps us to re-conceptualize otherness as such, not as a condition of the co-presence of individuals but even as a porosity of self, of voice—but also an issue of technique, of the virtuosic coordination of enharmonic singularities as they pass in and out of our membranous bodies. Listening, writes Nancy, “—the opening stretched toward the register of the sonorous, then to its musical amplification and composition—can and must appear to us not as a metaphor for access to self, but as the reality of this access, a reality consequently indissociably ‘mine’ and ‘other’ . . .” (12).
Writing in the early 1990s, John Corbett describes Evan Parker’s seemingly linear, monophonic instrument as more of an “assemblage” of body—“[f]ingers, mouth, tongue, teeth, lungs”—and horn—reed, ligature, keys, pads, bell—“constellated in such a way as to break the seeming unity of melodic expression” (82). But in Evan Parker’s solo playing, both live and on recordings, those fractures are not ends in themselves, and rather initiate—as what Lipari describes as “challenges” to passive listening—the possibility of tonal and linear multiplication, of what the reedist calls, with measured self-deprecation, a form of “polyphony”: “There’s a more complex sense of linearity,” he says, “to the point where the line folds back on itself and assumes some of the proportions of vertical music, and some of the characteristics of polyphonic music” (qtd. In Corbett 83). Combining circular breathing, cross-fingering, tonguing and biting the reed, Evan Parker is able to generate layers of overtones and nearly-simultaneous contrapuntal arpeggios at high velocity, effectively producing a continuum of cascading choruses from a single breath. But while Corbett is keen to endorse Evan Parker’s virtuosity and instrumental mastery, he also notes, as the saxophonist himself does, how accident and uncertainty find their way inevitably into any performance, subverting claims to absolute technique or intention and undermining the “notion of the unitary, intending subject”—that is, of self-expression—in improvisation. As Evan Parker puts it succinctly in a 1997 interview with Martin Davidson, “It’s to do with layering stuff that I don’t know on top of stuff that I do know.” Here, I think, is exactly the looping of self and other, of expressive intention and unruly, noisy sound, that Jean-Luc Nancy describes as listening. Evan Parker’s descriptions of his improvisatory practice align remarkably closely with Nancy’s philosophical investigations of listening:
Roulette TV: EVAN PARKER from Roulette Intermedium on Vimeo.
Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1991.