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For Hovering at the Edge: Words, Music, Sound, and Song
IICSI colloquium at Guelph, 13 September 2018
(Panel with Sara Villa, Paul Watkins, Rob Wallace)
I want to start by poaching a phrase from the title of Fred Moten’s hot-off-the-Duke-University-Press trilogy, which he admits to purloining from Christopher Winks’s translation of an interview of Antillean poet Édouard Glissant by the filmmaker Manthia Diawara. Here it is: “Consent not to be a single being” (xvi). The implicit network of voices caught up in that performative translation suggests, already, the layered irresolution, the refusal and the excess that Moten names, following on a reading of C. L. R. James, the “not-in-between.” For a good twenty-five years now, I have attempted fairly quietly to practice a plural and dislocated cultural pedagogy, both critical and (co)creative, that hovers in the sometimes appropriative, sometimes disjunctive interstices of the Eurological, the Afrological and the Indigenous. I lay claim to no particular belonging, although my appearance and heritage tend to do that for me, materially and obviously. My writing such as it is has striven, sometimes against its own tendencies and sometimes by embracing them, to inhabit and to enliven—and to be enlivened by—those unstable and conflicted contingencies, those dissolving and partial places where productive intersections can and do happen. “Join me down here in nowhere,” Claudia Rankine calls out in Citizen: An American Lyric. I feel like I have tried, in my teaching and in my writing, to answer (and to answer to) that fraught, rich, poetic invitation.
The hover I often find myself attempting to describe occurs—perhaps as a temporary suture, perhaps as an undoing, as a re-opened wound—in the liquid, motile collision of words and music that happens both in and as song, particularly improvised song. It’s the attenuation, the extemporal hysteresis, in one sense, that tugs lyrics toward the lyric. Drawing on Amiri Baraka’s concept of “musicked speech,” Moten begins to map in C. L. R. James’s sentences a “phrasal disruption” that he names lyric, a noisy “poetry” interrupting (“[n]ot by opposition; by augmentation”) James’s prose—inflecting Moten’s own parenthetical and iterative style, as well as my imitation here—and an aurality that “remains to be seen and heard so to speak, and in excess of the sentence because it breaks up meaning’s conditions of production,” serving “to disrupt and trouble meaning toward content” (3). At the same time, music asserts itself through and against the verbal “not only as a mode of organization but, more fundamentally, as phonic substance, phonic materiality irreducible to any interpretation but antithetical to any assertion of the absence of content” (31). Moten comes to offer his apologies for such theoretically and poetically dense passages as the ones I have just quoted: “I’m sorry if this is all a blur. I’m so used to my own astigmatism that maybe I can’t even talk to anybody anymore. To make matters worse, I’ve never been able to keep my glasses clean” (261). Still, he understands his own verbose blur (as the title of his book suggests) as constitutive and crucial, as inhering in the give-and-take word-music of song itself. This astigmatism, this arrhythmia, is the stuff of the improvisatory; Moten offers, as exemplary, the unsettled musicking of Charles Mingus: “He would protect the pulse, like any good bass player, while freeing himself from it,” and, I want to add, by singing, shouting, moaning, ululating, vocalizing as he plays (103). Protection, however, also articulates itself against the risk of hurt, in Moten’s terms, as both complement and antagonist, as augmentation and opposition. Moten thematizes this correspondent hurt in the transcribed/described “scream” of Frederick Douglass’s Aunt Hester; Michel Leiris evokes the “cri,” which he hears in “les sons râpeux . . . que les jazzmen aiment àtirer de leurs instruments àvents . . .qu’ils savent aussi faire gémir, grognier, se plaindre ou ricaner sur toutes sortes de tons” [the raspy sounds. . . that jazzmen like to shoot from their wind instruments. . that they also know how to moan, grunt, complain or snicker on all kinds of tones] (37). This pained and celebratory tonality—at once, for Leiris, derisive and sanguine—offers a moment of suture, of unruly translation, between what he calls paroleand chant, speech and song: “Peut-être est-ce quand les mots, au lieu d’être en position servile de traducteurs, deviennent générateurs d’idées qu’on passé de la parole au chant? S’ils se font chant, n’est-ce pas lorsque, cessant d’obéir seulement aux injonctions du dictionnaire, ils valent par ce que leur forme et point seulement leur sens official suggèrent (en quelque sorte ‘génèrent’)?” [Perhaps it is when the words, instead of being in a servile position of translators, become generators of ideas that we pass from the word to the song? If they make themselves sing, is it not when, ceasing to obey only the injunctions of the dictionary, they are worth what their form and point only their official sense suggest (somehow ‘generate’)?] (112). In some sense like me, Leiris comes to this music as an attentive outsider, hoping by staging, as audition, a close proximity to its song also to catch at (that is, to translate otherwise) some of its vitality, its deep cry. Moten, by contrast, necessarily resists such “an absolute nearness [to black vitality], an absolute proximity, which a certain invocation of suture might approach, but with great imprecision. . . . There’s no remembering, no healing. There is, rather, a perpetual cutting, a constancy of expansive and enfolding rupture and wound, a rewind that tends to exhaust the metaphysics upon which the idea of redress is grounded” (ix). “Jazz,” as he puts it, “does not disappear the problem,” or dress its wound, or offer healing sesames: jazz “isthe problem and will not disappear. It is, moreover, the problem’s diffusion, which is to say that what it thereby brings into relief is the very idea of the problem” (xii, emphasis in original). While attempting to describe my own practice of study, which I understand as the interrogation and elaboration of a certain conceptual arrhythmia, I have perhaps relied overmuch on quoting Moten in these few minutes, but I am also mindful that the work of reading, with as much acuity as I can muster, is also to develop a tenuous but palpable resonance, a hapsis, a pushback and a to-and-fro with what I hear presently in Moten’s sentences. I’m going to move on to try to give a more specific example of this practice of reading and listening, of listening as reading, but before that I want to look only once more to the early pages of Moten’s book, where he delineates what he calls “black study” as the stuff of discrepant song, as audible hurt and as a “lyricism of the surplus”:
This is why, as Wadada Leo Smith has said, it hurts to play this music. The music is riotous solemnity, a terrible beauty. It hurts so much that we have to celebrate. That we have to celebrate is what hurts so much. Exhaustive celebration of and in and through our suffering, which is neither distant nor sutured, is black study. (xiii)
My own practice of study cannot unproblematically or unchallenged suture itself to that terrible beauty or find even vestigially proximity to Moten’s “we.” Nevertheless, in the fraught translation between word and sound that manifests itself in improvised song, I do find myself, following Brent Hayes Edwards and, of all people, Raymond Williams, “hovering ‘at the very edge of semantic availability’” (16) trying to explain the blur.
Part Deux. Deuxième Partie, I Should Say.
I only have a couple of minutes, so I want to give a brief example of the creative blur, the hover I’ve been trying to describe in my own creative-critical practice by ventriloquizing some of Fred Moten’s recent work. I want to begin to listen carefully to Darius Jones’s and Emilie Lesbros’s Le Bébé de Brigitte, which is both an homage to and an extension of Brigitte Fontaine’s 1969 collaboration with Areski Belkacem and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Comme à la Radio. I want to take up two related tropes to understand how song and the improvisatory intersect in this work: the suture and, borrowing the title of the one wordless track on Darius Jones’s 2015 recording, the “universal translator.” Linking the Jones-Lesbros collaboration directly to the Brigitte Fontaine recording is from the get-go a bit misleading and an instance of mistranslation or of meaning lost in translation. If you dig a little (through the internet, for instance), you’ll discover that the “Brigitte” in Darius Jones’s title is not Fontaine (though named for her) but a maternal figure in his evolving personal cosmology (articulated in his unfolding series of “Man’ish Boy” recordings); unless you find your way to such notes, however, who Brigitte is will remain hermetic and likely miscued for listeners. The promise of universal translatability offers itself through Google or in Star Trekand Hitchhiker’s Guideutopianism (and has something to do with an Afro-Futurism here, though I have no room to engage or unpack it), but rather than transparency, the universality – the Benjaminian Reine Sprache– that Jones describes musically is an effect of contingent opacity, of difference and uncertainty, of the slipped suture: “In the process of creating this music, we often fell into moments of miscommunication because of differences in culture and language. I think this created a sense of mystery, and forced all of us to listen more deeply to each other’s nuances and subtleties, because we didn’t always have words to fall back on.” Words, despite what Jones appears to claim here, are not even a fallback for communicative or diegetic clarity, and even when they’re unsung, their tug and blur remain in play in the performance, the articulation, of these songs. Briefly put, the cosmology – the universality of an imagined universal translator – never closes or coheres, not even for its originator; instead it revises, remakes, re-writes itself, an extemporaneous diegesis. Which means, for me, that in the stitching, the verbal-acoustic suturing that happens when we sing, the lyric “problem” that Fred Moten describes tends to come into play, maybe even necessarily. Here are a few snippets from the (what I take to be) largely improvised lyrics by Brigitte Fontaine for “Comme à la Radio,” the eponymous opening track for her collaborative album:
Ce n’ sera rien
Rien que de la musique
Ce n’ sera rien
Rien que des mots
Comme à la radio
Tout juste un peu de bruit
Pour combler le silence
As she moves through the song, we realize that with her increasing tenacity what we’re hearing both is and is not audible “like” a song “on the radio.” Her words, her noise, fills in silences, but even with what we might mistake for self-deprecation (“nothing but words,” “nothing but music”), it inclines itself, by both suturing and cutting into itself and its musical accompaniment, to the “nowhere” that Claudia Rankine says she inhabits, an excessive and unruly soundspace that both fills semantic gaps and refuses to fill us in. Emilie Lesbros’s singing on, for example, “Chanteuse in Blue,” also darts in and out of any semantic purview (one critic, while asserting that her texts are mostly “suitably poetic,” found that these words “veer into the irritating”: I’d call them edgy, working the audio nerves to the edge, the abutment, of sound and sense, of the Eurological and the Afrological, let’s say, with her Aebi-Birkin-esque accent):
hah, wah, a-a-a-a-a, uegh
“Baby, let me tell you something.”
“Chanteuse in blue . . .”
“He said, ‘What? What are you talking about, sweetheart?’”
“I said, ‘I am suffering from the difference that people
think we have.’”
What’s both thematized and enacted here, meta-diegetically and subversively, as translated verbal excess, is precisely and necessarily the irritation of the lyric: the refusal to settle in; instead Lesbros (and Darius Jones’s dialogic saxophone lines, both miming and counterpointing, intensifying and cross-cutting Lesbros’s voice) presents an embrace—a fraying and a knitting up – of the discomfiting, the discrepant, the extramusical, the blur. I will have exceeded my time. My time’s more than up.
Texts Quoted or Name-checked (in reverse alphabetical order)
Fred Moten. Black and Blur. First volume of consent not to be
a single being. Duke UP, 2017.
Michel Leiris. À Cor et à Cri. Gallimard,1988.
Brent Hayes Edwards. Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary
Imagination. Harvard UP, 2017.
Listening to improvised music can feel like chasing ecstasy: catching at those rare, first and fleeting moments of transport, of heightened attention and unadulterated joy that the performers are also after, often on our behalf – what John Coltrane might have called, following the title of one of the movements of A Love Supreme, pursuance. Last night in Vancouver in an 80-minute set, the alto saxophonist Darius Jones, buoyed up by the surging mellifluence of the piano trio Tarbaby, unleashed those spirit-heavy resonances, that deep cry, in song after song. I’m grateful to been there in the audience at the Ironworks, grateful to have heard. The compositions they played came mostly from Darius Jones’s recent album on AUM Fidelity, Book of Mae’bul, but despite being assembled as a quartet only for a current brief tour, these musicians are much, much more than featured-soloist-and-rhythm-section; they attain an audible integration, a co-creative and responsive agency that feels as if they have been together for years. The opening number reminded me a little of a David S. Ware quartet, with its roiling, keening groove, while I also heard passing echoes, I thought, of Coltrane’s late quartet, with Nasheet Waits’s multiloquent drumming calling up at times the robust, insistent textures Rashied Ali’s layered conception. Orrin Evans’s piano alternates between attenuated lyricism – his left-hand chords often feel suspended, as if holding their breath – and driving provocation. At one point in an improvisation, he appeared to find the famous melody from “I Got Rhythm,” not as an ironically knowing quote but as a means of casting our ears back over a century of foundational jazz practice, palpably reinvigorating a fragment of thoroughly worn-down standard by pulling and caressing the familiar phrase into an alternate time-frame, cross-purposing, if only for a few seconds, the known and the unknown, unsettling the given. Eric Revis’s bass playing felt charged and profound, pushing the music forward with cascading fierceness. Darius Jones’s lines negotiated between dulcet and ululating, shifting from seductive balladry to jagged yawp, before arriving at what felt to me like heartfelt psalmody. The quartet offered us a tremendous, powerful and moving set, a music that, for almost an hour and a half, bore witness to and delivered genuine, shared beauty.