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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.

https://player.vimeo.com/video/83893846
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.

Equality as Listening: Maya Angelou and Dave Holland

When I heard about Maya Angelou’s passing last week, I also realized it had been a while since I had listened to Dave Holland’s setting of her 1990 poem “Equality,” two versions of which he recorded with his quartet (one with vocals by Cassandra Wilson) on his 1996 album Dream of the Elders. This group – with Steve Nelson on vibes and marimba, Eric Person on alto and soprano saxophone and Gene Jackson on drums – was a transitional band for Dave Holland, articulating between his two great quintets – the second of which would retain Nelson at its core. I’m not sure if “Equality” remained in the later quintet’s book, but I do remember hearing an instrumental version of the song when this quartet played Vancouver (at the Van East Cultural Centre) in June 1997. I remember how Dave Holland stressed that the tune was composed around a Maya Angelou poem, that her text made a difference as to how he felt his music could be heard and understood. The booklet for the ECM disc offers a “special thanks to Dr. Maya Angelou for permission to use her poem Equality, and for the inspiration and clarity of thought that her work gives to this world.”  

Maya Angelou’s work has a specific relationship to American cultural memory. It strives for clarity, for declarative resonance and public audibility. “You declare you see me dimly,” her poem “Equality” begins, ironically presenting intersubjectivity (in this instance, what will soon emerge in the poem as a gendered imbalance of power) as a longing for claritas. Her poem wants bright mutuality and distinctive, distinguished exchange.  Poetry, as self-attentive speech, meant for Angelou overcoming dimness or obscurity with demonstrative surety. Her writing enacts and invites, maybe even demands, a certain practice of shared listening that is at once responsive and responsible. Its verbal music can be simultaneously plain and arch, colloquial and poetical, convolute and direct; listen to the counterposed diction in a line from “Equality” like “You do own to hear me faintly . . .” As a form of public speech, her poetry satisfies conventional, base-line expectations (around rhyme and rhythm, for example, or around occasionally abstract diction) about what a poem ought to look and to sound like. Her poems seem to be woven from her own personal moral fibre, from her principled example: the poet, in this conception, preaches what she practices, and writes what she lives. “I go forth / alone,” she declares in the composite voice of “Our Grandmothers,” “and stand as ten thousand.”
Still, for all its emphasis on aspirational greatness and empowerment, her poetry also repeatedly recognizes its own shortfall. The uncompromising capital-P full-stop artistic power to which she lays claim in her poems – she isolates the term as a single-word sentence in the last line of “Love Letter”: “Power.” – relies on a potentially problematic assertion of self-mastery that risks replicating the oppressive social and cultural discursive machineries it seeks to overturn. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t recognize and respect the historical and societal circumstances out of which Angelou’s fierce voice emerges, her proud and defiant assertion of African-American women’s heritage and language against racial and sexual oppression. Speaking truth to power, particularly on behalf of the disenfranchised, ought not to be constantly compelled to interrogate its own essentialism, and such self-directed skepticism genuinely risks undermining and diffusing the political efficacy of its challenge, and of falling into unwelcome compromise: “You have tried to destroy me / and though I perish daily, / I shall not be moved.” But the firmness of Maya Angelou’s poetics, of her declarative mode, also entails acknowledging and confronting the ethical risk around a speaking subject who might declaim without listening, who offers up a language of refusal without reciprocity – even given the obvious imbalance of power and the self-evidently just demands for expressive space, to make herself heard. What she risks in writing is very real in two senses, then, as she balances the demands of self-actualizing pride and of ethical deference. And Maya Angelou says so, too. “When you learn,” her composite grandmother intones to her cultural children, “teach. / When you get, give.” Against the sculptural stridency of her lines, Angelou also repeated counsels herself and her readers to engage in an open-armed and reciprocal humility. “Enter here,” she intones, inviting her ancestors, but also her readers, to converse with her, to listen but also to be listened to.
She frames her elegy for “Ailey, Baldwin, Floyd, Killens, and Mayfield” with a gesture at the contradictions that inhere in representative greatness, in the work of exemplary self-expression and racial or community solidarity:
          When great souls die,
          the air around us becomes
          light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
In this set of foreshortened lines, she traces the emergence of a stricken hiatus, manifest “briefly” at a moment of subjective crisis within that collective “we” when those artists and figures (in this instance, of creative black masculinity) in whose names and images we have invested, as a community, are suddenly absent. In coming days, with the unfolding of shared grief, Angelou promises that those absences will soon “fill / with a kind of / soothing electric vibration,” but this instability is enacted, in the present tense of her poem, as a claritas – a declaration – that simultaneously wounds and salves, a “hurtful clarity.” The nascent refrain in these lines, “briefly,” affirms through repetition its own sure-footedness while bespeaking a fleeting contingency, a briefness.
Elsewhere, she describes this attentive and unsettling reciprocity as a collision in the voice of the private and public, of lyric and polemic, of self and other, as a form of mutual listening:
                  Listening winds
                  overhear my privacies
        spoken aloud (in your
        absence, but for your sake).
I think that this dynamic and shifting balance of humility and power, of surety and openness, in her lines (notice the gently fractured line-breaks in what I’ve just cited, for example) is one way of understanding what she calls “Equality.” The poem employs an 8787 syllabic stanza pattern derived from hymnals:
                  Yóu annóunce my wáys are wánton,
                  thát I flý from mán to mán,
                  but íf I’m júst a shádow tó you,
                  cóuld you éver únderstánd?
(The “but” in the third line is an anacrusis.) This fixed rhythmic form – “the rhythms never change” she states twice in the poem – has been associated with the public traditionalism of Angelou’s poetry. Christopher Benfey, in a succinct entry on Maya Angelou in the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry, notes how “[t]he strength of her lyrics, with their unashamed and passionate use of iambic rhythm and full rhyme, lies in the combination of blues and gospel traditions with strong emotional and political insight.” The performative rhythm of her verse, however, both here and elsewhere, tends to be trochaic rather than iambic, a rhythm that’s at once instantly assertive and recurrently elegiac, as each two-syllable unit begins on a strong stress and then briefly falls away. “Equality” takes as its subject the oppression of women by unresponsive and callous men, and the indices of race – unless we take her stanza form as inherently African American, which it isn’t – are much less in evidence than Benfey’s reading (which seems to rely on cultural stereotypes) suggests they might be in a Maya Angelou poem. The poem’s refrain – “Equality, and I shall be free.” – certainly echoes the public discourse of the civil rights movement, but the “equality” she seeks is presented as a balance of erotic power. It’s worth noting, too, that despite the nominal, declarative pressure that the chorus asserts, pronouncing the word ”equality” on its own as a gesture at enacting it verbally, that balance is also pulled slightly askew by the tacked-on modifier, a phrase that looks to the future rather than affirming an achieved present. Within a shifting braid of pronouns – you, I , we – the voice calls for equality, rather than attaining it.
But it’s also worth remarking that equality, repeated within a choric sentence fragment, becomes dynamic rather than discrete; it’s contingently, “briefly” attained in the process of speaking or singing the poem. Dave Holland’s recording has the syllables of “equality” attenuated and stretched in the lower registers of the singing voice, either Cassandra Wilson’s warm alto or Eric Person’s alto saxophone. The setting is built on a looped, largely unchanging slow-tempo phrase in Holland’s bass – a “line” that picks up on the trochaic lament of Angelou’s own line. Holland’s firm touch, his technically assured and rhythmically forward style on the double bass, also seems to me to correspond to what I have been calling the declarative surety of Maya Angelou’s verbal style. (Choosing to set this particular poem, Holland also arguably enacts an interracial dialogue and a masculine response to Angelou’s female cry.) Steve Nelson’s vibes provide an Afrological sound texture to the performance, echoed by Gene Jackson’s mallets on his tomtoms, which for me also recall some of Max Roach’s playing (behind Abbey Lincoln’s vocals) on “Prayer/Protest/Peace,” from his Freedom Now Suite. The collective performance of the quartet, with or without vocalist, enacts in the give-and-take between extemporaneous freedom and ensemble cohesion a formal, polymorphic analogue to what Angelou calls “equality”: a motile balancing act among disparate voices.
That the music inhabits a kind of resonant hiatus is not to suggest that it is diffident or tentative, but rather that it opens itself up to contrapuntal subject positions, a version of what Jean-Luc Nancy has described as the “listening” of (not to, but of) music itself: “alteration and variation, the modulation of the present that changes it in expectation of its own eternity, always imminent and always deferred . . .” (Listening67). I hear a version of the futurity of Angelou’s claim that “I shall be free” in Nancy’s withdrawing eternity here. Nancy insists on the selflessness of this kinesis, but between Holland and Angelou we have more like a partiality, and inclination of open-eared selves, a conversation. Although Angelou declares she will not be moved, in fact to move – in both its affective and kinetic senses – is precisely the interchange toward which “Equality” strives, toward which its imperatives incline us:
         Take the blinders from your vision,
         take the padding from your ears,
         and confess you’ve heard me crying,
         and admit you’ve seen my tears.
         Hear the tempo so compelling,
         hear the blood throb in my veins.
         Yes, my drums are beating nightly,
                   and the rhythms never change.
The eternal return of those figural drums marks a demand to be heard: that the private interiority of the voice’s pulse, a somatic beat audible we’d imagine only to herself in her own ears, might become liminally audible in the grain, in the wide long held notes, of the singing voice, in her open vowels. When Cassandra Wilson sings these words, they turn into an invitation to reflect on how we engage in attending or listening to music, on how we actively and deliberately open our eyes and ears to attend to a shared humanity. And they also, tonally, allow us briefly and approximately to access, across the tympanums of our own open ears, the palpable textures of her breath and pulse. Equality is Maya Angelou’s name for that temporary intimacy, that contact, that touch.