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Edgy Listening: Evan Parker and Jean-Luc Nancy

[This is the draft text of a paper I am set to present at the 2015 Guelph Jazz Festival Colloquium, on Wednesday, September 16.]

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. 
         Claims about well-being and health tend to presuppose an uninterrogated sense of what constitutes a proper, well-ordered body. Rather than extend a critique of what Michel Foucault might have called the “care of self” and its biopolitics, I am going to premise my remarks on improvisation and well-being by assuming that corporeality may also be understood as porous and conflicted instead of individuated, discrete or holistic, and that this porosity is a founding condition both of co-creativity and of lived community. Reworking a Deleuzean pluralism, Annemarie Mol writes of a medical practice that addresses and heals the “body multiple,” which she presents as an “intricately coordinated crowd” that “hangs together” through “various forms of coordination” (55). Following on Maurice Merleau-Ponty, David Abram describes “the boundaries of a living body” as “open and indeterminate; more like membranes than barriers, they define a surface of metamorphosis and exchange” (42). I’m interested in pursuing with some rigour those “forms of coordination”—or the textures of that porosity—at the level of acoustic experience, as a humane and ethically preferable set of cultural interactions.
         Lisbeth Lipari proposes “interlistening” as a term for “the multiple dimensions of embodied consciousness that vibrate in the dance of conversation between [among?] people talking” (161). Her aim is to delineate discursive practices that listen otherwise, that attend to the presence of others, even as they enable speech.
Listening otherwise,” she writes,
challenges the ego and the illusion of control and sees how the distortions that arise from our insistence on innocence, certainty, and understanding damage our capacity for compassion. . . . [L]istening otherwise . . . suspends the willfulness of self- and foreknowledge in order to receive the singularities of the alterity of the other” (Lipari 185, 186).
Heavily influenced by Emmanuel Levinas, Lipari also models her auditory ethics on the music theory of Hans Kayser, whose concept of akroasis(the Ancient Greek word for “hearing”) articulates a “theory of world harmonics” as a holistic gestalt-series rooted in Pythagorean acoustics (Lipari 27). Kayser appears to mitigate dissonances in attunement, and prefiguresby several decades R. Murray Schafer’s disciplined “ear-cleaning” of European music . I’m less sanguine about what I know of Kayser, however; without refusing the hopeful tenor of his thinking, I worry that he only re-instates a cult of primeval innocence, a re-tooled Ptolemaic naïveté. It helps me, instead, partially to recover the etymology of akroasis, which occurs in Aristotle as a term for audience and hearing: notably, not in The Poetics nor in the sections of his Politics focused on music, but in his Rhetoric. The ἀκροατής (akroates), frequently translated as “hearer,” is actively implicated in discursive exchange: “Now the hearer (akroatēn) must necessarily be either a mere spectator or a judge (kritēs), and a judge either of things past or of things to come.” That is, listening—at least, to speech—is inherently active and deliberative, and those deliberations, within a polytemporal reciprocity, include critical intellection. Akroatic listening, close listening as thinking, becomes more agonistic than syncretic, more unsettling than epideictic. (Compare George Lewis: “In its marginalization, its often-unseen, intangible presence, which generates new discourses, in its mobility and facility with hybridization, and in its locus, the contestatory space where difference can [be] and is enacted, improvisation’s general importance to the underlying health of the musical ecosphere and the public commons must be recognized, valued and protected [138].”)
         In a 2014 interview, Sonny Rollins repudiates any sort of reflexive intellection as disruptive to improvising, invoking the demanding temporality of playing: “I don’t want to overtly think about anything, because you can’t think and play at the same time — believe me, I’ve tried it (laughs). It goes by too fast.” 
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).
         I want to read Evan Parker’s solo saxophone technique as a crucial instance of this intensely vacillating subjectivity (if that’s the right term for a solo voice), of the surging disavowal of self sounding itself. Here is an excerpt of the solo music, recorded without overdubbing, from his 1989 album Conic Sections:

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:
It’s clear to me that if you can imagine something, you can find a technical way to do it, but if you can’t imagine it, whether or not there is a technical solution never occurs to you because there’s no need to. So it’s very necessary to listen closely to what happens when you try to do things, because usually at the fringes of what you’re producing is something that you’re not really in control of – that there is a central thing that you are fully in control of, and then a kind of halo of suggested other possibilities which have to come with the central thing that you’re in control of, whether it’s a wisp of breath escaping from the side of the embouchure, or an overtone that you could push harder, or some key noise which you can’t escape. There’s always something there, and if you’re listening at the fringes of the sound as well as at the centre of the sound, then you can be led to other things and other possibilities.
The collision of self-possessed declamation and open-eared deliberation in what he calls “trying”—and what I’d suggest in fact takes the form of a musical essay—points up the irresolute multiplicity at the edges of extemporaneous sound, its tensile present tense.

Roulette TV: EVAN PARKER from Roulette Intermedium on Vimeo.

         Gently pushing back at Sonny Rollins, I hear Evan Parker—playing at velocity, going by too fast—as negotiating between an organic immediacy and an akroatic self-scrutiny, as both listening to himself and not in the same breath. Corbett calls this tensioning a form of “research” (85), a science or an intellection, and I’m inclined to agree: this music is, it’s my contention, one instance of practice-based research into the possibility of inoperative community. So, to think about community, and to close my remarks today, I want to listen to a recording of a recent performance of Evan Parker’s electro-acoustic septet at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle in Victoriaville in May, 2014. Evan Parker supplies a typically ironic sleeve note: “My art of composition consists in choosing the right people and asking them to improvise.” He playfully refuses the “rampant egomania” both of the improvising soloist and of the composer, preferring an unregimented collectivity. At the same time, the consistent spatial arrangement of the septet onstage—which can be seen both in the inner sleeve of the VICTO cd and in the video taken of a performance at Roulette in New York City, positions Evan Parker at the centre and apex of the group, facing out like the others but occupying the conductor-leader’s chair. There’s much to note about this music, but I want to make just a few points. The three laptops to Evan Parker’s left are able both to sample and re-figure the live improvisations and to contribute other electronic sound textures—this is the key concept of most of Parker’s electro-acoustic groups—which means that the instrumentalist is displaced across the ensemble. On the Victoriaville recording, Evan Parker doesn’t initiate the performance, and—if my ears are right—doesn’t even enter as an contributing voice until the six-minute mark: not through diffidence or even deferral, necessarily, but as an audible disavowal—silence amid sound—of egocentric voicing: he starts by listening rather than playing. A version of his own solo practice emerges into the swirling sonic layers of the ensemble around eighteen minutes into the performance, combining both self-parody—inserting his long-established unaccompanied voice into the group dynamic, which both pushes the tutti back, but also opens up a series of interstices into which other voices might enter. As a model of community, what the group manages around this moment of solo horn is what Jean-Luc Nancy calls “a mutual interpellation od singularities prior to any address in language,” a corporeally-based multiplicitous nudging that, despite the reflective stillness of many of the players onstage – particularly the three at their laptops, who enact the reflexive, deliberative aspect of the music, as opposed to the apparent organicism of the improvisers to his right: the point, for me, is the co-creation of a virtual in-coherence, a playing apart together that inheres in the shared differences among the ensemble members, the byplay between egocentric voice and a yielding to the voices of others. Community, Nancy writes, is not the panacea of delusive  “communion . . . nor even a communication as this is understood to exist between subjects. But these singular beings are themselves constituted by sharing, they are distributed and placed, or rather spaced, by the sharing that makes them others” (IC 25). Well-being, as listening otherwise, means neither self-satisfied holism nor ludic conflict, but a sharing that nurtures our mutual unknowing.
Works Cited
Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and
Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York:
Vintage, 1997.
Corbett, John. Extended Play: Sounding Off from John
Cage to Dr. Funkenstein. Durham: Duke UP, 1994.
Lipari, Lisbeth. Listening, Thinking, Being: Toward an
Ethics of Attunement. University Park: Pennsylvania
State UP, 2014.
Mol, Annemarie. The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical
Practice. Durham: Duke UP, 2002.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. Listening. 2002. Tr. Charlotte Mandel.
New York: Fordham UP, 2007.
———. The Inoperative Community. Tr. Peter Connor.

       Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1991.

Ex Tempore


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.


The cheap contrarian tactics that permeate Michael Lista’s recent National Post blog entry, “The good in bad reviews,” do more to provoke acrimony than to invite the kind of genuine disagreement he appears, in the piece, to crave. To his credit, he has succeeded in provoking me, as a committed reader of poetry (and as someone who worked for a number of years as an associate editor, responsible for book reviews, at a scholarly journal, Canadian Literature), to reconsider what I think a well-crafted review needs to do. “The purpose of a review, good or bad, is to begin a conversation, not to end it,” he writes, an assertion that sounds as inherently laudable and reasonable as it is slippery. (I’ll come to what I think are some of the buried complexities in such claims in a moment.) He certainly has, well, not so much initiated a conversation as needled me – and, I’m assuming, many other readers – into reactive self-critique: no one, after all, likes to be called out as uninformed or misguided, which is what his short editorial frequently does. (I’m pussyfooting: what I mean is, when Lista declares “Enough of this bulls–t,” I can’t imagine anybody wanting to admit to themselves that they might be knee-deep in complicity.  —Or would they? The rhetorical feint in such “straight-talking” faux-bluntness presumes, after all, that a reader won’t be inclined to push back, but prefers to be led, and to be told directly: that he or she likely won’t have the temerity to call bulls–t on Lista’s bulls–t.) Straight up, his review of reviewing made me mad, which is why I have taken a few days to reconsider what I actually do think, so I won’t feel like I’m being pulled, in my own small way, into a non-starter of a debate I’m somehow predestined to lose, and that, really, I don’t want or need to have.  That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to think about, to re-consider and to re-view, here. But I won’t have Lista’s article setting the terms or trajectories of that discussion: he’s wrong, and wrong-headed, and his text should serve as no more than a point of departure, and as an entry into a wider cultural conversation from which, on the evidence of invectives such as this, he has effectively excluded himself.
            Lista’s piece is occasioned by the re-posting on the CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) website of an essay by Jan Zwicky on “The Ethics of the Negative Review,” which originally appeared in the fall 2003 issue (no. 144) of The Malahat Review. (Both Zach Wells and Carmine Starnino offered rather mean-spirited rebuttals to this essay some years ago, doing what Starnino calls “speaking truth to stupidity” but which, from my vantage point, only comes off as misconceived and unconvincing harangue. Lista has now joined their sidelined and fading fray, as its new epigone.) It’s Zwicky’s thinking I really want to engage now, because her essay deserves the sort of careful and considered attention that she invites from herself, poetically, as a reviewer and as a reader of the work of others. But first, I feel like I have to get this Lista business out of the way. The key failing of his meta-review, and what I believe in the end got my dander up, is a lack of strength in the writing. Lista’s approach and prose style are consistent throughout; for instance, he gets up a head of steam when he takes on Zwicky’s opening mention of Byron’s lament that “the critics killed Keats”:
Cue the violins, folks. The essay, woozy with Romantic anemia, begins by paraphrasing Byron’s idiotic diagnosis that “the critics killed Keats” (Keats died of an infection of the tubercle bacillus, TB), and along its way manages to summon every black-beret cliché about the poetic temperament, so that by its conclusion we can all but smell Chatterton’s extinguished candle. And beneath those black berets are the empty heads of red herrings and straw men.
 The flippant evocation of “folks” and the pointless correction of Byronic hyperbole with smug fact-mongering point up his attempt to produce a kind of audience solidarity in elitism, the sort of bluster I mentioned above that appears designed to silence rebuttal. More significantly, Lista seems to mistake his own meanness and invective for candour and critical acuity. “Call me old-fashioned,” he opines, “but I think the truth sounds beautiful, and there’s an intrinsic value in discovering what writers think of each other’s work.” I don’t think this is discovery, nor that the writing evinces even the sort of Leavisite clarity it purports to desire. His version of the Keatsian collision of beauty and truth – a collision that, with considerable philosophical heft, informs much of Zwicky’s poetry, it turns out – doesn’t convince me; Lista’s “truth” needs to be put in scare-quotes, because it presents a narrowness of vision – the hypostasis of a very particular Anglo-American positivism, I’d say – as truth itself, and elides the varieties of aesthetic experience, experiences, in a misdirected yen for what reductively offers itself up as fact, but turns out to be deeply and thoroughly socially and culturally coded: masculinist, old-fashioned and contrived. Zwicky, in the essay confronted in Lista’s piece, laments that “we are a culture, perhaps a species, drunk on a narrow notion of assertiveness and virility.” It’s hard not to see this brief National Post rant as a case in point. (Zwicky has since published a response to Lista, well worth reading.)
            So, as I said, I’m using that text as a point of departure rather than as a substantive interlocutor, and I’m happy to leave it behind now. I can’t hope to be critically thorough enough in a blog entry such as this one, but I want to take up three issues arising out of Jan Zwicky’s take (pace her title) on the ethics of positive engagement, of poetic listening. They’re biggish abstractions – truth, gender and community – but they connect in specific and situated ways in what I understand as her poetics. That conceptual ecology also partakes in some of the work being done in and around the CWILA site, as members of and adherents to this loose, emergent collective start to reconsider and reframe – to review – what constitutes a listening community.
            Okay: truth.  And, notably, truth with a down-case t. It might appear on first pass as if I might be trying to ally Zwicky – and that’s my Zwicky, the Zwicky I read, not the real Jan; the poems not the person – with a more relative conception of truth, of truths plural: that cultural and social and biological differences produce a multiplicity, and that it is dangerous and ethically fraught to lay claim to any sort of unified or holistic truth. But, postmodern relativisms are very un-Zwicky; she has, from the outset of her writing career, consistently sought out, not merely alterity, but  “Absence,/ Clear, still space where truth might echo” (Wittgenstein Elegies23). Writing wants honesty, clarity, truth. It’s important to recognize that this isn’t a call for a mere rhetoric of candour, for sounding like you’re being direct. Zwicky might not agree, and my reading of her is certainly coloured by her reading of Robert Bringhurst, but I hear Parmenides in these early lines as much as a mystical version of Wittgenstein: that truth has no negative.  This Parmenidean ontology isn’t anodyne, but instrumental: ex-istence as outward making, as productive, or – in a refabricated and ancient Greek-ish sense – as poetic, poieitic. Absence (and I’m starting to sound like E. M. Forster now) is not non-existence, but opening, an acoustic space (note the “echo”) into which attention – particularly poetic attention – can enter. Representation and semiosis – and this is Zwicky’s understanding of metaphor, I think – become compiled soundings, resonances. This all might seem a bit murky the way I’m articulating it, but it’s important to acknowledge Zwicky’s insistence on the laser-like precision of metaphor, its absolutely non-Romantic quality. There is nothing woozy or anemic about her work, ever. At least, there is a precision to which she aspires.
            That exactitude, moreover, is not dialectical – not an excrescence of negation – but responsible. That is, it tends to engage its objects, whether textual or material, with both responsiveness and respect. Such responsibility is what I take to be the ethical dimension of reviewing, of the art of reviewing.  The conversation, the call-and-response into which the poem or the review enters, is not characterized for her by antithesis – not by “answering” in the Old English sense of and-swerian or rebuttal  – so much as by a flexible and porous mode of address, not merely talking to but talking with. This coexistence, which is not passive but interested, seems to me to open up a means to talk about gender that doesn’t immediately lapse into antithetical binaries (and so to offer me some sense of why I want to participate in work such as that being done by CWILA, which seeks practically to redress gender inequity in literary reviewing). Gender tends by us all to be understood antithetically, femininity as the negation or contrary of the masculine. But the sort of strength, the virility, that Zwicky wants to offer poetically against narrow negations – to offer as truth – refuses that binary in favour of outward gesture, of the act of opening as constitutive of another, better sense of what gender might be, might become. Like many readers, one of my favourite and much-revisited Zwicky poems is “Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115” from Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, a meditation on musical meaning, on rural Saskatchewan farmland, and on Johannes Brahms’s passion for Clara Schumann.  It confronts the erotics of absence, and frames the vital inclinations of one human being for another as the stuff of gender. What I mean is, with its inherently relational declaratives –That we shall not forget to honour brown / its reedy clarities” – the poem constitutes a mutuality of difference (reductively put, woman to writing man writing to woman) both as honorific and as corresponsive. The promissory syntax – this poem is highly illocutionary, a largely self-constituting speech act – opens into a layered verbal ecology, which I have noted thematically but which can also be seen here acoustically, in the network of phonemic echoes (listen to the rs in the lines I’ve just cited) and structurally, as a form of hailing or prayer. Tellingly, the poem provisionally ends with a beginning, with a gesture outward from the verbal to the intentional: “That a letter might honestly / begin, Dear beloved.” If the poem itself can be understood as a (Brahms-like?) love-letter, still held in abeyance, still virtual and absent, it also prays for, and effectively derives, strength – honesty, clarity, truth – from the relational work of saying itself into existence. Gender, constituted in the  beloved, is an opening to mutuality, a beginning.
            That’s all a bit abstract, I suppose, but it does suggest something about why Zwicky, in her discussion of reviewing, tends to separate the aesthetic and the political: hers is an aesthetics of engendering rather than a gender-politics. But I also think that a case can be made for a politicizing of that aesthetic, insofar as the thoroughly lyric language pushes, I’d say, toward a form of community: not an anodyne, flattened out gathering of allegiances, but community in difference, community as difference, as a sharing of what we don’t exactly hold in common, a set of convergences and of divergences. I seem to be tarrying with negatives here, a hazard no doubt of trying to write about alterities.  It might be best to understand this promise of community, this community-to-come, as shared listening: listening not as deference or as passive reception but as co-participation in the human. Which, it turns out, is how Zwicky seems to understand the art of the review:
The discipline of the appreciative review is, I believe, among the great unsung arts of our culture. I suspect it remains unsung because, appearances to the contrary, it is not actually a species of speaking, but a species of listening; and our culture tends to regard listening as a passive activity. But listening — real listening — requires that we give over our attention fully to the other, that we stop worrying about who’s noticing us, that we let the ego go.
I don’t agree completely; I don’t accept that the ego disappears in listening, so much as that it collaborates with its others, that it remakes itself amid their echoes. But Zwicky’s gesture, at responsive and responsible sharing, sets that conversation in motion.