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I’ve been listening to Petra Haden‘s recordings for years now. I’ve never had the pleasure of hearing her sing live, but still respond to a vibrant directness, a deeply engaging vitality, that inheres in her music, particularly in the overdubbed choric covers of popular song that she’s been self-releasing through YouTube and Facebook. I associate her vibrancy with an adaptive, attentive and essentially improvisatory approach to singing—improvisatory not despite the compositional fixity of any recording, but as a structural principal of this kind of recording. That claim needs to be argued, rather than taken as a given, and making a version of that argument is what I’m starting to do in the essay I’m posting here; it’s a paper that I delivered on Friday, March 30, 2018, at UCLA during the annual conference of the American Comparative Literature Association, as part of a seminar called ‘“Stay Woke”: The Politics of Protest Song,’ organized and chaired by Bronwyn Malloy of the University of British Columbia. I’m working with Petra Haden’s cover of the David Bowie-Pat Metheny Group collaboration, “This Is Not America,” which is the theme song from the 1985 spy-thriller The Falcon and the Snowman, to try to discover the ways in which dissent voices itself not necessarily as dissonance or discord but rather in the re-figurations of plurality in the varietals of community represented by choral song: to concoct a multiplicity out of an initial gesture at negation or lyric refusal, the promise of an America sounded from what it is not or what it refuses to be. Many of her covers of film themes and of pop and pop kitsch (such as Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”) operate neither as satire nor as mere celebration, but produce a form of Americana – Haden’s collaborations with Bill Frisell and with Jesse Harris, as well as her work with her father Charlie Haden’s legacy operate in this vein, in my view – that sustains a democratizing impulse in its aural blend of irony and joy; her songs open up an auditory and audible space in which an attentive and open-hearted America can begin to hear itself more fully.
The great Charlie Haden passed away Friday, July 11, and tributes of all kinds have been appearing over the past two days. I hadn’t really realized how many records in my collection Charlie Haden had appeared on; his bass playing, his sound, has been a pivotal and essential part of much of my listening. I saw him a few times in concert. Once, with his Quartet West on a double bill with John Scofield’s quartet at the Orpheum in Vancouver; and once, very memorably, with Geri Allen and Paul Motian in Montreal, as part of the 1989 invitational series. I wanted to write something in his memory; for some reason, I found myself thinking of the Kurt Weill/Ogden Nash standard “Speak Low,” an evocative version of which Charlie Haden performed with Sharon Freeman for Lost in the Stars, a Hal Willner tribute to Kurt Weill. The song leads back to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, but I have also recently been pretty heavily under the sway of Nathaniel Mackey’s word music, so some echoes of that must have found their way into this piece. It was composed very quickly, so I’m sure there are a few rough edges and infelicities, but I’ll leave them in to honour the improvisational drift of Charlie Haden’s music.
Partial Elegy for Charlie Haden
Already gone too soon, other than him
who in this fraught hereafter could have named
the ruminant lumber his instrument
had been assembled from? Dark-toned boxwood,
hickory, lacquered spruce. Coaxing a deep
murmur from heavy-gauge strings, propounding
their full-bodied, hefty resonances,
he re-curved chthonic rumble into line
and cadence, his trademark over-fingered
pizz and tectonic double-stops marking
the thick eddies where sound and purled silence
abutted, then let go: a politics
of left-leaning, strung-out torch-songs that tell
you, “Speak low if you mean to speak at all.”
I have been trying for some time to find proper, better words to describe what has now come to seem like my own very long commitment to the music of percussionist Paul Motian, who died nearly two years ago. His particular feel, the way in which his music characteristically unfolded and continues to unfold, sui generis, both temporally and spatially, has had a sustained effect on how I have begun to think about the poetic apprehension of time, the material experience of the human body in its textiles, its welter and wash. It sounds so generic, so mundane, so less than momentous, to say: for some time. And maybe I only mean to play on the titles of some of Motian’s compositions, which also both thematize the experience and elegize the ineffability of the temporal: “It should have happened a long time ago.” So I feel like I’m trying here, but inevitably falling short, even before I seem able to get started. But I think that this halting phenomenology might have something to do with the specifics of Paul Motian’s sound. Because there’s a semantic and temporal gap, a kind of hiatus particular to Motian’s sense of line and rhythm, that opens around the question of the thesis, Θέσις: of the subtle incursion of, say, a dancer’s footfall, of the give-and-take around every singular, embodied, creative pulse, step upon step. In Motian’s playing, each beat, each thesis, doesn’t drop into the lockstep of fixed metre, even when he plays in time, but tends to exist as a stroke, a temporal marker, relative only to the beat that preceded it; Motian always seems to be feeling his way forward through time itself, testing its viscosities, its resistances, its eddies, its flows. His sense of measure is tensile, and a little precarious: simultaneously countable and protean, refrained and free.
I have been listening to Shadow Man, the second recording by Tim Berne’s Snakeoil quartet released (last week) by ECM records. I haven’t made it through to the end of the CD yet, because each time I put it into the player, I’m brought up short by the third track, a duo version – by Berne on alto and Matt Mitchell on piano – of Paul Motian’s composition “Psalm.” I had forgotten that Motian played on Berne’s Mutant Variations and The Ancestors on Soul Note (both 1983) and also on his early Songs and Rituals in Real Time (Empire, recorded 1981); their musics, even then, appeared to share something of a preoccupation with rhythmic knotting and unknotting. In a 2009 interview with Ethan Iverson, Berne describes his first encounter with Motian:
I met Paul Motian when he was doing a gig with the bass player Saheb Sarbib. And I just went up to him and I asked him. And to this day I have no idea how I got the nerve. But he sort of said “Yeah, man, send me something,” or whatever. I may have given him a record or sent him a tape. I called him up a couple of weeks later and asked him if he listened to it, and he said “No.” But then he said, “Yeah, whatever, I’ll do the gig.” And that was this gig that turned into this record. . . . And Paul was great. I don’t know why I didn’t know to be more frightened. I think I got more terrified when we did a tour, because then I was like “Holy shit, I’m on the road with Paul Motian.” There are two Soul Note records with Paul too, and he plays just great on them.
Berne’s version of “Psalm” offers a lyrical tribute to this yes-and-no meeting, but, fittingly, also audibly remarks on Motian’s posthumous absence: it’s performed drummerless, and fluidly rubato. (Notably, Russ Lossing has also made a brilliant solo piano CD of Motian compositions, Drum Music [Sunnyside, 2012], that theatizes the composer’s absence in a similar fashion, but which is also wonderfully attentive to the prod and pull of Motian’s lines.) The openness and the looseness of the duo’s time feel is wholly appropriate to Motian’s music. The melody, lightly fragmented by Mitchell’s right hand, is not especially definitive, and seems to emerge, to find its feet so to speak, out of an undifferentiated gentle swathe of long tones, here played sotto voce by Berne; on the original version by the Paul Motian Band – “Psalm” is the title track and the first cut on Motian’s 1982 ECM lp – the core line of the song (and many of Motian’s compositions consisted of not much more than melodic fragments) wells up tenuously from layers of saxophone, guitar and bass. In his liner notes to the ECM boxed set of Motian recordings that appeared earlier this year, also from ECM, Ethan Iverson describes how “Psalm” “begins like an emission from deep space before a chorale comes into focus.” And he’s not wrong: Iverson has keen, practiced ears, and he hears a kind of primal rhythm behind all of Motian’s playing, a well-defined, historically-informed sense of jazz time: “With Paul,” he wrote in a New York Times obit,“there was always that ground rhythm, that ancient jazz beat lurking in the background.” But I’m not sure I agree with him, or, at least I don’t know if I hear the same sense of beat he does. For me, Motian’s playing, at its best, digs into that ground, destabilizes it, turns it over. His time extends, distends, undoes and reknits the whole sense of primal beat, of pulse. In the Berne-Mitchell version of “Psalm,” I think, a pliable tactility – the gesture toward measure and the soft refusal to fall into a countable frame – manifests, and reminds me, as I listen, of the ways in which Motian’s music wants to open both into time and out of it: to extemporize. That opening – sensible as hiatus or absence, certainly, but also as push, as motion, as the forward heft of a given line – seems to me to form a crucial aspect of Paul Motian’s legacy.
One more brief note. I only saw Motian play live once, in Montreal in 1989 during the Charlie Haden invitational series early that July. I was at the gig – released as part of The Montreal Tapes – by the Haden-Motian collaborative piano trio with Geri Allen. What I remember most about that concert was that it was over too soon. There wasn’t enough time. It slipped away. Motian’s warm, flexible rhythmic touch is in evidence from the very first notes, on Haden’s fittingly titled “Blues in Motian.” I feel like I need to listen to that record again.