Flow, Fissure, Mesh

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Texture, Line, Frissure: Kathleen Jamie and Birgid Collins

In addition to reading her newest volume, Frissure, which is a collaborative set of mediations on healing and attention, I have been re-reading Kathleen Jamie’s 2005 gathering of essays, Findings, to prepare for a set of first-year lectures on prose non-fiction I am set to deliver over the next few months.  The earlier volume appears to lay some of the groundwork for her more recent prose poems. In the pages of Findings, Jamie consistently demonstrates a palpable gift for perceptive clarity, an attunement to visual and auditory detail: the eleven mediations on the “natural and unnatural world” – “world” meaning contemporary Scotland – that make up the book reflect on her own all-too-human need to accrete what she sees and hears, to hold and remember it, to catch something of her sensory drift and document it on paper before it skitters beyond her field of view. She listens and watches, she notes and collects. And what she often ends up attending to, in each piece, are the gaps and uncertainties in the apparatus of her own consciousness. She comes to observe herself wanting to observe, trying to see and hear her way toward a sublimity, a sense of the near-absolute alterity of nature, that keeps refusing her any absolute access. She often directs her creative energies toward collection and preservation, picking up souvenirs and compiling wrack and flotsam from shoreline scrapheaps, a tactic that recalls the poetic salvage of “Mr and Mrs Scotland Are Dead.” (“Do we save this toolbox . . .?”)
Salvage is also self-directed, when she visits, for example, the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh and peruses the formaldehyde-filled anatomical specimen jars: the human form, a late version frittered from Da Vinci’s homo mensura, becomes a collation or an assemblage of posthumous, scattered parts, bottled samples and amputations. “At certain shelves,” she writes, “you have to bend and look closely, without knowing what you might see. It will be pale and strange, and possibly quite beautiful. It will be someone’s catastrophe and death” (from “Surgeon’s Hall”). Bodies are catalogued, labeled, textualized; she sees them as particular, uncanny artefacts, almost art-objects that, with their vestigial humanity, still resist the aesthetical gaze. Medical and representational objectivity is mitigated by empathy, by the traces of human suffering and of feeling – not affect, but feeling – that persist in these fissured bodies, at once remembered and dismembered: “a stranger’s arm with his [not ‘its’] corroding carcinoma, a diseased breast, a kidney taken from a man gassed on the Western Front, all call forth the same plain tenderness, “ for Jamie.
“Pathologies,” the first essay in her subsequent collection, Sightlines (2012), develops this empathetic scrutiny further, when Jamie describes her visit to a pathology lab to observe clinicians performing biopsies. What she thinks of, plainly, are the people with whose tissues she has gained, as she scrutinizes samples through a microscope, a strange and unbidden intimacy, an impossible closeness. This complex ethic in which she finds herself implicated had already been hinted at in Findings, in the essay I’ve been citing, where she offers a précis of one of the earliest accounts, in “an Edinburgh book” from 1863, of a Victorian surgery: a certain “Mrs Ailie Noble, suffering terrible pain from breast cancer[,] is taken into theatre, and in full view of the young medical students undergoes a mastectomy.” Jamie’s writing practice is often highly iterative – texts embedded into texts, marking the retreat of an abyssal subjectivity – and she quotes her source text to close her own essay; but her point is not to remark a futility, so much as to emphasize the shared pathos of loss even in the seeming detachment of patriarchal science:
He says “Don’t think [the students] heartless . . . they get over their professional horrors and into their proper work, and in them pity as an emotion ending in itself, or at least in tears and in a long drawn breath, lessens — while pity as a motive is quickened and gains power and purpose.
Pity converts from romanticized, narcissistic amour-propre into viable empathy for others, an intersubjectivity of care (to borrow a phrase from Julie Livingston), a call to feeling that Jamie seems to discover somewhere between the jars she observes and the archive she re-reads: reminder and remainder. 
Frissure emerges from Jamie’s collaboration with visual-tactile artist Birgid Collins. When she turned 49, Jamie notes in her preface, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and underwent a mastectomy. For her, she writes, “it seemed ironic: a case of life imitating art.” She had written extensively, as I’ve just noted, on pathology labs and breast cancer, and now her own body was subject to medical scrutiny and intervention. Redirecting her own attention selfward, negotiating the now intimate collision of observer and observed in her own physiology, seems to come to mean, for her, finding some kind of balance point between the aesthetic and the lived, a means of sensible transcription that would become part of her healing. She ended up approaching Birgid Collins to draw her mastectomy scar, to try to find a means of inhabiting this intersubjective tension; collaboration entails both deferring to perspectives outside of your own, and simultaneously voicing yourself against that deference: both seeing closely and being closely seen, in this instance. The scar is an unruly line, not only in the literal sense of a mark on her skin, but also in both the visual and the poetic senses: “Whatever it was, it was a line, drawn on my body. A line, in poetry, opens up possibilities within the language, and brings forth voice out of the silence. What is the first thing an artist does, beginning a new work? He or she draws a line.” She and Collins, in their various media, begin from a contingent, shared understanding of line.
“With that, a line of Burns arrived in my head. ‘You seize the flo’er, the bloom is shed.'”
Jamie composes a number of prose-poems during her recovery, which become part of their collaboration; Collins pastes fragments of text into her constructions, and incorporates found matter and textiles described in Jamie’s texts into her compositions, which she comes to understand not as drawings but as dimensional constructions she comes to call “Poem-Houses,” which she creates in “conversation” or “exchange” with “K’s fragments.” Line here becomes a trajectory of intersections, an empathetic give-and-take (though not without difficulties and uncertainties). Collins begins with drawings, then introduces “natural” matter onto her paper, then builds dimensionality beyond the surface of page or sheet. The resulting hand-sized sculptures, if that’s the right word, have a raw, stunning beauty, an intricacy and a delicacy of texture that suggest an uneasy balance between the found and the made, the fractal and the formal, the aleatory and the intentional, the natural and the unnatural, that informs much of Jamie’s best writing. (You’ll have to buy the book to see photographs of these Poem-Houses; Collins’s website also has plenty of images of similarly-realized constructions.)
The sense of line in these prose poems, for example, is more latent than manifest: the rhythmic shape of each sentence remains insistent but not (yet) fully differentiated from the rhuthmos, language’s unruly cadence, its natural flow: there are no clean lines, but, like Collins’s art, an attention to the besmirched, the impure, the incipient. “What is a line? “ Jamie asks in “Line”: “A border, a symbol of defence, of defiance.” But a body, such as hers, isn’t healed by being defended, medically or poetically, against its own enmeshment in the natural world, by the surgical repair of its boundaries and limits. Rather, healing for Jamie involves a return to the permeability, to the interpenetration, of body and world:  “To be healed is not to be saved from mortality but rather, released back into it: we are returned to the wild, into possibilities for ageing and change” (“Healings 2”). The textures of Collins’s work derive from this enmeshment, emblematized at a number of points in economies of reciprocity, mutuality and interchange, as healing gifts mailed to Jamie from friends, and passed on to her, like letters written in natural scraps, from the landscape around her: “Spilling from an envelope, a get-well gift of silverweed, bog-cotton and thrift.” (The brief catalogues of found matter in these texts recall the collected flotsam of “Findings.”) To heal, for Jamie, is not to protect or to defend herself in art, but to open up her language to the textures of the inhuman, of the given, and to listen carefully for a “music at the edge of sense . . . the sound of the benign indifference of the world.” (“Healings 1”). Tacitly, and amid its contingent stillnesses, Collins’s work performs this same close attentiveness both for and with Jamie, and both for and with us.

Double Short Take on Two Guelph Gigs: Indigo Trio and KAZE

Robert Kerr introducing Indigo Trio, with Hamid Drake and Harrison Bankhead

There were a number of standout performances at this year’s Guelph Jazz Festival, but for me two gigs in particular really made something happen, small concerts by Indigo Trio and by KAZE. I’d like provisionally to map my own reactions, even at this slight remove in time, to those moments, because they have stayed with me, and will for a while. (These sets both took place last week – one on Thursday night, and one Saturday morning.) Both performances modeled and enacted improvisational listening practices, modes of attention not only to aesthetics – the practiced formal tactics of shaping sound into music – but also to the sociality of audition, to how human beings empathize with one another, sense each other’s embodied co-presences, at the level of texture, resonance and pulse. The kinds of immersive listening into which an audience is invited by both of these ensembles are not, for me, a way of losing yourself, of becoming absorbed into and overwhelmed by their music, but present instead opportunities and openings for intersubjective moments, as our ears focus and refocus on the interplay and divergences of line and shape that occur as each performance unfolds, live and spontaneously both before us and with us.
Indigo Trio, from the back of the room: Nicole Mitchell, Hamid Drake, Harrison Bankhead
Indigo Trio –Nicole Mitchell, flutes, Harrison Bankhead, bass, and Hamid Drake, drums – offered two extended extemporaneous suites Thursday night, September 5, in the re-purposed hall of St. George’s Anglican Church in Guelph. I have been avidly listening to them since their first album appeared, on Dave Douglas’s Greenleaf label, in 2007, a recording I think of their first performance as a trio in Montreal in 2005. As then, their music remains rich, warm, flexible, free, accessible and dynamic: a paradigm for collaborative co-creation. I don’t know which composition is which, but each suite gave the impression of morphing or evolving forms, particularly around the loping, deep grooves Harrison Bankhead set up on his big upright. I thought, as did a few others there that night, that we could hear traces of the firm, warm sound of Wilbur Ware or of Malachi Favors Maghostut in his playing, echoes of departed mentors and colleagues, but also of a Chicago sound-palette that imbued his playing with a powerful historical dimension. Harrison Bankhead’s predilection for danceable lines, for groove, coupled with Hamid Drake’s strong sense of rhythmic pockets – what I’d describe as his sanguine, organic feel – drew the audience into the trio’s playing, and kept them rapt: toe-tapping, hip-swaying and happy. Nicole Mitchell played a shattering solo on piccolo, but rather than disrupt the flow, it only intensified the room’s commitment to what was happening. Each improvised “suite” concluded with Nicole Mitchell singing, in a bell-like soprano, what seemed like Afro-futuristic lyrics – two song forms, the first of which I think was a hymn of praise to Gaia, while the second, concluding piece affirmed the entwining of strength of purpose and of the embrace of difference that shape Indigo Trio’s music:
When you find the truth you will realize
You’re a stranger in a strange land
But you’re not alone
You’ve got to stand strong
What I hear, here, is a call to community in difference, community of difference: strength among strangers, audience.
KAZE: Satoko Fujii, Natsuki Tamura, Christian Pruvost, Peter Orins
KAZE is a collaborative quartet that has been in existence since at least 2011, pairing the longstanding duo of Satoko Fujii on piano and Natsuki Tamura on trumpet with two members of the French MUZZIX (sounds like “musiques”) collective, trumpeter Christian Pruvost and percussionist Peter Orins. Nominally (on the programme) Satoko Fujii’s band, the group operates more as a collective, showcasing compositions and concepts from each of its four members. I had never heard them play, either live or on CD, before Saturday morning at the River Run Centre in Guelph, although they have already recorded two albums as an ensemble: Rafale (2011) and Tornado (2013), both released by Circum-Disc in collaboration with Fujii-Tamura’s label, Libra Records. I have to say that I was blown away by their collective virtuosity and by their kinetic interaction, from the first notes they played. The two-trumpet line, in some ways, hearkens back to Louis Armstrong and Joe Oliver, and there are echoes of the playfulness and smart-aleckry of early music, although there is little in their work, in my view, of the subversive. They play with sounds, the trumpeters ebulliently incorporating “little instruments” and percussive sound-makers into their arsenals of sound-sources, but the idea is never to undermine or interrupt: disruptions are creative, centrifugal, happily unruly, both provocative and strangely supportive. All four appear to celebrate and to uphold each other’s contributions to the collective: no cutting, no ego. At the same time, both trumpeters self-evidently have technique – extended technique – to spare. Tamura and Pruvost are masters of their instruments, and then some. And, well, if you like your trumpet by turns limpid and wicked, seductive and fierce, this is the music for you.  Satoko Fujii’s virtuoso piano formed an integral part of the ensemble, negotiating between polydirectional rhythms and entwined melodic lines, sometimes subtending the performance harmonically, sometimes offering percussive counterpoint. Her playing is dynamic, ever-present, but also open and responsive; she is never at a loss for something to add in, but also never crowds at her cohorts: a paragon of give and take, of response listening. Peter Orins’s drumming was, for me, a revelation: he has a way of propelling a performance forward, while striking each tympanum with an attack that somehow individuates and momentarily savours, pulse by pulse, the elastic beat-patterns he conjured. His style of improvising at the drumkit reminded me at times, if this makes listening sense, of Ronald Shannon Jackson’s definitive touch.
         The group played two or three extended suites – akin in structure, though not in idiom, to the Indigo Trio’s set – combining, I discovered afterward, most of the compositions featured on their recent disc. (I think they recombined “Wao,” “Tornado,” “Imokidesu” and “Triangle,” although I’m relying on memory here.) Each of their forays began with quiet hiss and suck from the horns, breath feeling its way into tone, gradually ramping toward more organized thematic statements or unisons, then negotiating a series of polyglot interchanges and exchanges toward the next composition way-point. The group operated as a living assemblage, an organism pursuing not so much coherence or closure as open-edged symbiosis, a generative, sustaining autopoeisis. Each piece did, of course, reach a tenuous end, but it felt that, even after the concert was done, KAZE’s generative soundscapes still kept roiling and resonating in our minds’ ears.
         For me, hearing both of these groups had an epochal aspect, an impact not unlike, say, hearing the Parker-Guy-Lytton trio, or Wayne Shorter’s recent quartet, or Charles Lloyd’s “New Quartet,” or one of David S. Ware’s quartets; they seemed to represent something of the power and possibility of distinctive new directions in creative improvised music. A greatness.

Breakfast, Nearly, with Pharoah Sanders

I think I’m more than a fan, much more than a fan, of what people in my various small circles of friends and fellow listeners would call The Music. Not just music, but The, with a capital T. What my colleagues and I usually mean to indicate with this definitive and emphatic article is a certain lineage or a set of lineages in recent jazz, lineages that can trace their origins to consciousness-raising performances and recordings in the mid 1960s around the civil rights movement and the emergence of Black cultural nationalism in the United States. I am neither Black nor American, but I know that I have had a powerful personal investment in this music since my mid-teenage years, when, and I have no idea how to explain this objectively, my friends and I started buying jazz records. The Music has – again, powerfully – helped to shape who I feel I have become, who I think I am and how I think. For some reason, across a number of tangible cultural and social boundaries, this music came to speak to me: it’s an experience that’s not unique to me, but it does seem a bit strange that this feeling of connection occurred in small-town Nova Scotia in the late 1970s, in a place that still feels remote from the contexts out of which this music came. The Music was not in the air very much, at least not where I come from. But that’s not exactly true, either: there were people around us who knew things, there were kids like me who wanted to know, and there was the odd record that arrived in the bins of Kelly’s Stereo Mart that we could buy. The first jazz-like record I ever bought – copying what my friend had done – was The Vibration Continues, an Atlantic two-fer that appeared in 1979 two years after the death of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It was an album that would change everything for me, or at least cause as much change as any one record can. The sense of tradition as well as of extemporaneous experimentation that vitally energize the tracks on that compilation epitomize what Mr. Kirk called “Black Classical Music,” and help me to consider the collisions and intersections of the creative and the critical, of music and poetry, of history and innovation, that seem to me to make cultural performances of all types come to matter.
         Listening to Rahsaan and to Miles Davis and others soon led me outward – tracing the networks of connections and sidemen they deployed – to John Coltrane, of course, and especially to his later, more tumultuous post-1964 music: recordings that had become established, by the time I could have encountered them, as touchstones of The Music, fierce beautiful classics. In the summer when I was seventeen, I bought a copy of Meditations. The opening track on that album, “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost,” with the stuttering, surging and entwined tenor saxophone lines of Mr. Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, was transformative for me, at once devastating and profoundly moving. I don’t know how many times I have played that first side over; I can hear it in my mind’s ear even now. There is nothing like it. I think I read an interview some years ago with Carlos Santana, where he said that he tries to listen to Coltrane every day – for “spiritual nourishment” – and he mentions “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost” in particular. I know what he meant, what he means.
         I have been in Guelph, Ontario, for the past week, attending at the university there an academic colloquium about, among other things, The Music. The colloquium is tied to an ongoing research initiative called “Improvisation, Community and Social Practice,” and to a yearly Jazz Festival, programmed for twenty years now by Ajay Heble, who is both its Artistic Director and the Principal Investigator for the grant-funded academic initiative. Because of the relatively small size of Guelph, many out-of-town attendees end up staying at the Delta hotel there, which is where most of the musicians playing the festival stay, too. So you tend sometimes to cross paths. This year, the festival headliners included Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet, performing a scaled-down version of his Pulitzer-nominated suite Ten Freedom Summers, and Pharoah Sanders, collaborating with an amalgam of Rob Mazurek’s Chicago and Sao Paulo Undergrounds. (I’ll say something about these performances in another piece.) I was returning alone to the hotel by taxi after a wonderful concert by the Indigo Trio on Thursday night. As I came through the sliding glass doors into the lobby, there in front of me, leaning over the front desk trying to check in, was Pharoah Sanders. I knew him immediately, from photos on LP jackets I had poured over and scrutinized while I listened, headphones on, in front of the stereo downstairs in my parents’ house years ago. It was Pharoah Sanders. And for a moment, I had no idea what to do.
         Of course, I didn’t have to do anything. I felt as if I ought to approach him, ought to say something. I have been immersed in his music for decades, and feel a kinship, because of the effect that it has had on me over those years, that of course he couldn’t have shared. He has no idea who I am, or how his music has changed my life, the way Rilke once said all great art ought to do. My impulse was to try to walk up and tell him something then and there about my own story, the story of my love for his music. But, it would have been pretty rude to bother Mr. Sanders while he was trying to sort out his arrival. So I got into the elevator, went up to my room, and put up an excited jazz-nerd blurb on Facebook and Twitter about having just passed The Pharoah Sanders in the lobby.
Along with Mr. Smith, he was doing a public interview the next morning, which I was going to attend, so I would get to see and hear him anyway. And I had my ticket to the concert the following night. Great.

Wadada Leo Smith and Pharoah Sanders, after  the interview Friday morning, 6 September 2013
         At the interview Mr. Sanders wasn’t especially voluble. (A video recording of the interview ought to appear on the ICaSP website sometime in the near future.) What might appear as reticence in that interview could also be an after-effect of all of this public adulation and esteem, this spiritual fandom. Not that he shouldn’t be rightly and justly praised for what he has done, for the lives his music has affected, but he may have been a bit wary of the kinds of closeness that listeners like me seem to need to claim and to feel. It’s easy to forget to accord the person, the human being, the dignity and the respect, the personal space, that they deserve – and that every human being deserves. Listening, even as closely as many of us do, needs still to be kept at a remove from entitlement. And this distance, around historically significant and culturally transformative artists such as Mr. Sanders, can sometimes present a very difficult line to walk. (“He became his admirers,” says W. H. Auden of the passing of W. B. Yeats: such appropriations have a moribund aspect, I think. They objectify the living, and reify their creative energies, often without intending to, as real people get turned and admiringly calcified into their own self-representations, their myths.)
         There was another great concert Saturday morning, by KAZE. I was up a little later that morning, but still had some time, so I decided to treat myself to a warm breakfast in the hotel restaurant. As I stood by the please wait to be seated sign, waiting, Pharoah Sanders was suddenly there, coming out of the restaurant towards me; he had obviously been eating breakfast. Okay, I thought, now was my chance to say something, anything. “Mr. Sanders,” I said, “I’m a great admirer of your music.” And I held out my hand to shake his. “Thank you,” he said, and then put his own hands together in a gesture of prayer.
“My hands,” he said. “Of course,” I said, though I didn’t know exactly what he meant. (I have spoken with musicians and others who have to shake hands with strangers often when they’re on the road: they tell me that folding your hands this way is a good practice to keep from having viruses spread to you.) And then a waitress showed me to my single table, at an extended curved bench along the restaurant’s far wall.
Someone had been eating at the small single table next to me. I looked down at the menu, to figure out what I wanted to order, and then looked up again. Pharoah Sanders was coming back into the restaurant towards me. I had been seated beside his table. It turned out he hadn’t been leaving at all, but had been making a second visit to the breakfast buffet, which was located just the other side of the please wait to be seated sign. He sat back down next to me. I was becoming a little concerned he might think that somehow I was following him, so I didn’t want even to try to pester him with small talk. We ate side by side quietly at our separate tables, together. I took no photographs. I don’t know why it would even have occurred to me as something I could so, and it’s embarrassing to admit that I even considered it, so intrusive, so disrespectful of someone else’s space. When I left, I did manage to wish him a good day, and to say I was looking forward to his concert that evening. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.”
The concert was tremendous. As I said, I’ll post something more detailed about it soon. It ended around midnight, and I managed to flag a cab back to the hotel, amid what turned out to be masses of partying students newly arrived in town for the University’s boozy Frosh week. (None of them had anything to do with the music, with The Music. It’s a coincidence that the Jazz Festival and the academic colloquium happen simultaneously with the first week of classes.) I got back late, and went to bed.
Pharoah Sanders (and Chad Taylor) performing at Guelph on September 7, 2013
I had to be up early the next morning to catch a shuttle van to the Toronto airport. I came down to check out at 6 am, and the desk clerk asked if I had got the message that the shuttle was postponed until 6:30. (I hadn’t, but it didn’t matter.) The idea, it turned out, was to fill all seven seats on one shuttle, rather than have to send two vehicles. So, fine, I took my bags over to the hotel foyer, where coordinated brown and beige couches had been arranged to look something like a furniture showroom at The Bay.
As I sat down to wait, someone else appeared at the desk to check out. It was Pharoah Sanders. He did what he needed to do at the desk, and then came over to join me on the couches. I thought at this point that if he realized I was this same guy who kept appearing wherever he was, he might have started genuinely to worry. But he smiled and nodded at me, and started to chat. Like me, he was headed to the airport to catch a flight west. He asked where I was headed. He said he found it a bit cold in Guelph. He told me he’d had trouble with the air conditioner in his room, which kept coming on at night, and I told him I’d had exactly the same trouble, which was true.
Others arrived who were taking the same airport shuttle, all of them musicians who had performed the night before, including Wadada Leo Smith and Anthony Davis, both of whom are indisputably major composers and performers in contemporary music. The shuttle arrived; I told Mr. Sanders it was here, and he went to stand over in front of the sliding glass doors at the hotel entrance.
The doors opened, and the shuttle driver, clipboard in hand, came through, and walked right up to Mr. Sanders. “Who are you?” he asked bluntly. Mr. Sanders gave his name. “Right,” said the driver, “one of the jazz musicians.” I thought, oh, maybe I’m not on this shuttle, so I went up and asked. It looked like there wasn’t going to be enough room. “Nope,” said the driver, “this is your shuttle too. You’re the one non-musician.”
He managed to load all the bags, and told us to climb in. I ended up in the front pair of passenger seats, sitting next to Pharoah Sanders, again. I hope he didn’t mind. There was some confusion about airlines and paperwork. Pearson airport has three terminals, each of them linked to different domestic and international carriers. The driver got in, turned around in his seat to face Mr. Sanders and the rest of us, and said: “Don’t worry. I have a master plan.” I thought I heard a few chuckles, though maybe not. I don’t think the driver was deliberately making a kind of joke – he genuinely had no idea that one of Pharoah Sanders’s most praised and beloved recordings is called “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” But in that moment, what started to emerge was a troubling irony, one that creative musicians such as these must have to confront on a fairly regular basis.
“Say,” the driver said, as he started the engine and pulled away, “I’ve got the radio tuned to the jazz station.”
“No, please,” said Mr. Smith. “No music.” It was still really early, and no one had had more than a few hours of sleep.
“I thought you might want to hear some jazz,” the driver kept on. “You know, I like Billie Holiday.”
“We all like Billie Holiday,” said someone from the back of the shuttle. The driver tried to play the radio a little lower.
“No, please,” said Mr. Smith. The driver finally obliged.
The 40-minute drive east along the 401, with a fine reddish sun emerging from the clouded horizon in front of us, was silent. Most people just dozed in their seats, the way people do.
When we arrived at the airport, the first three let out included Mr. Sanders. He said goodbye, and wished everyone and was wished a safe journey.  He smiled and waved, and that was it. When the driver climbed back into his seat, he turned around and asked those who remained – except for me, the one non-musician – what kind of music they played and what clubs in Guelph they’d been playing in. (I don’t even think Guelph has a jazz club: the downtown as I’ve experienced it seems to be full of bars catering to students.) “Clubs?” said Mr. Davis. “It’s been a while since I have played in a club.” “No clubs,” said Mr. Smith.
The driver seemed mildly surprised that their performance had taken place at the city’s opera-house style concert hall, the River Run Centre. I asked if they liked the venue, and both of them said yes, and talked a little about acoustic space, about spatial acoustics. Then it was my turn to go. I wished them a safe journey, too.
After we pulled up at the terminal, the driver came around to help me unload my bag. Out of earshot of the musicians, and feeling some kind of mistaken kinship with me, he told me: “I expected this trip to be more hilarious, more fun, with, you know, those kind of . . . jazz musicians.”
Why was it, I wondered, that he waited until we were both outside of the van to tell this to me, like some kind of secret. Like I might understand him.
And then realized I knew why.
And then I knew: when he said “non-musician,” I don’t think he was talking about music. He may not have known himself what he intended. But I think I hear it now.
Pharoah Sanders, Wadada Leo Smith, Anthony Davis, and the others who happened to be on that shuttle, are among the most forward-thinking and brilliant musical geniuses of their, of my, generation; they perform and compose, for those who want to hear, a life-altering, profoundly moving music, coalescing jazz, art music, folk, and other styles and practices into their own idioms and sound-worlds, but all drawing on the creative impetus of the wide African diaspora. “If you have to ask,” Louis Armstrong is purported to have said, “you don’t need to know.”
Maybe so. But at the end of their interview on the Friday morning, Wadada Leo Smith made a point of encouraging listeners, simply, to try to speak to our neighbours, to connect with other human beings. “Consider the fact,” he said, “that someone else is important, and make that work in your life.” And it’s hard work, for sure, to overcome even a few of the complex barriers presented by ignorance and, strangely, by adulation, and instead to try to find the human gesture, both besides and beside ourselves.

Vowel Meadows: Seamus Heaney’s Catches

Like so many, I have been very deeply saddened to hear of Seamus Heaney’s death this morning. Like so many, I have held his work closely for many years, and have heard and continue to hear in my mind’s ear the echoes and soundings of his careful resonant lines. He remains a presence. He has been for me one of the few poets who maintained a thorough and unwavering faith in the capacity of the lyric to speak in and to and with our late world. He seemed always to believe, when others fell away, in the essential and abiding interdependencies of earth and speech. He listened. Spoken, his poems each found a particular catch in the voice.
I have been re-listening to The Poet & the Piper, a collaborative recording he produced with Uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn a decade ago. Most of the poems Heaney reads on the CD have to do with folk music, with listening, with voice, and many of them are closely familiar to his readers.  The second-to-last track is a recitation of “Postscript,” a poem that comes from his 1996 collection The Spirit Level:
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
The rhythmic lilt and lift – setting the withheld beat that closes “capture it,” for instance, against the firm iambic heartbeat asserting itself in the rhymed phrase, “a slate-grey lake is lit” – is all Heaney, and reinforces the medial position, “neither here nor there,” in which he characteristically positions himself in his later work. But this shore-line sense of self and place – and the geography is specific and significant: Clare south of Galway on the western edge of Europe, the light and wind smashing and buffeting in from the mid-Atlantic – has little to do with poetic diffidence or last-Romantic fraughtness. (Are those Yeats’s nine and fifty swans?) This isn’t, for me, Heaney’s more violent version of the poet’s body as an Aeolian (or even Uilleann) harp. Rather, his lyric frames and expresses a different order of self awareness. What catches and moves him involves both the estranging sublimity of the oceanic – the bottomless centre of his “Bogland” well – and the necessary inadequacy of language, its pathos. The “catch” in the last line, I think, names both the beautiful and moving brokenness of speech and the song-form – a catch is a traditional round – that utters this insufficiency and makes it sing, in second-hand human terms. The poem, with its opening unlinked conjunction, sounds to me more like a promise to make time “some time” to revisit that sublimity than an assertion or claim to have done it. His autochthony – emblematized in a diction obsessed with turf and rock and root and water – strikes me never as a given but always as a coefficient of desire, as want. In “Postscript,” he wants to keep the experience unfinished: a futurity, a need. And it’s this address to uncaught air and light, to the medial textures of encounter, that lets Heaney’s poem do its deep, keen work, that crafts his faith.

Hard Frailties: MD and PiL

Always be merchandizing.

I bought a re-issue on LP of the first Public Image Ltd record a couple of weeks ago, and I have been playing it over and going back to my other PiL records, particularly the key four of the first albums (including Second Issue, Flowers of Romance and Album). I don’t know why, but I hadn’t had these out in a while. Maybe they still have a certain repulsion about them, wanting to push listeners back and keeping them estranged. It’s not exactly likable music. In their specific ways, they also have a raw immediacy and a loose fierceness – not just in the dissonant snarl and visceral whine of John Lydon’s vocals, but in the way the music assembles itself – that shake me every time I put the needle down. Even as each track locks palpably into its particular, febrile groove – and from Jah Wobble to Bill Laswell, these remain definitely groove-based records – you often get the sense that things could also shatter at any moment; songs, particularly on the first album, hang vestigially in scissions and fractures. Sometimes, they sound like the reassembled shards of songs, songs that can’t quite piece themselves together again, if they were ever whole to begin with. Setting the new-age steady on-the-beat pulse of “Public Image” against the unkempt noise of its b-side, “The Cowboy Song,” suggests the antithetical aural tug-of-war in which Lydon and companions consistently engage: centripetal and centrifugal sound. The attenuated slow drag of Wobble’s bass on “Theme” teeters on the verge of collapse, then lurches forward a bar at a time, still locked into its deep rhythmic pocket. These are compelling and unsettling collaborative performances that take aim at the sonic foundations of popular music.
The uncertainties and incommensurables inherent in the collaborative process – that there are differences among performers that can’t be overcome, and instead need to be embraced – seem to me to play a significant part in PiL’s music, in how it unfolds. Still, the track I most want to repeat on the player is “FFF” from Album (1985), and what draws me to it isn’t this uncertainty, but rather a sense of its absolute, unshakeable beat: the confident, driven heaviness of Tony Williams’s drumming, and Bill Laswell’s bass-line. In contrast to the dehiscence that I have been suggesting lies at the heart of PiL’s output, “FFF” and most of the tracks on Album (or Cassette or Compact Disc) feel intentionally stable and powerfully coherent (Lydon’s singing aside, perhaps). Album is famously a Bill Laswell project, assembling studio musicians and colleagues from Laswell’s Material bands, mixing funk players with avant-gardists, to produce a set of tracks onto which Lydon’s vocals could be overdubbed. Lydon’s liner notes to the 1999 compilation Plastic Box admit as much:
In some ways, Album was almost like a solo album, [guitarist] Keith [Levene] and [drummer] Martin [Atkins] weren’t around, and I worked alone, with a new bunch of people. Obviously the most important person was Bill Laswell.
Importantly, Laswell employs a number of forward-thinking – some might even say inappropriate – improvisers to lay down tracks on the record, most peculiarly perhaps acoustic bassist Malachi Favors Maghostutfrom the Art Ensemble of Chicago, although any potentially startling or obvious improvisational work seems to me to be largely lost in the mix here. It’s the idea of employing Favors, perhaps, rather than the quality of his actual contributions, that seems to matter – an instance of artist cred derived from public-image-making, no doubt, although Laswell also withheld the musicians’ names at the time of the record’s release, toying with the weight of notoriety in music marketing. My point is that Laswell’s pool of players offer substantial potential for creative, rule-breaking performances, although he also very audibly, musically, reins every one of them in.
         Lydon’s note continues with another significant moment of name-dropping:
But it was during the recording of this album in New York that Miles Davis came into the studio while I was singing, stood behind me ands started playing.
         Later he said that I sang like he played the trumpet which is still the best thing anyone’s ever said to me. To be complemented by the likes of him was special. Funnily enough, we didn’t use him.
There isn’t any corroborating evidence that this encounter took place, and it’s not clear what Miles Davis would have been doing in that specific studio at that time. I’m not sure how well Laswell (who had elevated his credentials working on Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock LP, which may have put him in Davis’s viewfinder) knew Davis. (Tony Williams, who would collaborate on Laswell’s Arcana, was one of Davis’s greatest drummers, but the instrumental tracks were done, and only Lydon would have been in the studio that day. Davis may also have been working on Steve van Zandt’s anti-apartheid Sun City project around that time, so their paths may have crossed around those recordings in New York.) Panthalassa, Laswell’s “Reconstruction & Mix Translation” of Miles Davis’s 1969-74 music, only happened years after Davis’s death. (Wikipedia offers another account of a fabled unreleased Laswell-Davis session from the period: “Laswell has stated in numerous interviews that he met with Davis a number of times and discussed working together, but busy schedules kept them from arranging such a recording before Davis’ death, though Laswell’s chief engineer reports an unreleased Davis recording session from 1986.”)
But there are some very real connections that might be worth pursuing about this missed encounter between Lydon and Davis, illuminating something about their respective senses of “voice” and phrasing. Paul Tingen quotes PiL bassist Jah Wobble praising Laswell’s “mix translation” of On the Corner: “The weird thing is that when I thought of On the Corner, I have always heard it in my head the way Bill mixed it. That’s how it really is. Bill’s in the one. That’s the real deal” (Tingen 140). Wobble goes on to associate the music of Davis’s pre-retirement period, the mid-1970s, with the early performance style of PiL:
Dark Magus is my favorite Miles album of that period because it is so raw, with such a hidden power, such a mixture of dark and light. When I first heard it, in 1978, it was one of those magical moments. It had an overall sound that was similar to what Public Image Ltd was about. I couldn’t believe it had been recorded several years before us. I imagine Miles deliberately threw in these new musicians at the last moment because musicians get complacent. I can imagine how he wanted to affect their psychology, and so the music. I also know that musicians can think something is not representative of their best work, and yet it’s actually great and a lot of people love it.
This doubled sense of an improvisationally rough, groove-driven music pushing itself forward even as it seems to come apart at its seams links early Public Image Ltd directly to Davis’s aesthetic, though as (what he called) “social music,” Davis lays claim to a racial provenance that both eludes Lydon and company, and also becomes an ironically appropriated foundation for their work. (“I could be black I could be white / I could be white I could be black” Lydon yawps in “Rise,” rejigging lines from a South African torture victim as a provocation against prejudice; the shock-tactics title of his memoir, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, venomously throws racist signage into its reader’s faces.) But when Lydon recounts Davis saying he sings like he plays, he creates a collision of similitude and difference that results in a species of violent fragility, or fragile violence: an antithesis, a negative identity, that emerges not through or against but as voice: “Like me, / you are unlike me,” Lydon snarls in “Fishing,” recalling Shakespearean manipulations of self-image from Twelfth Night and Othello, in which both Viola and Iago assert that “I am not what I am” – or, perhaps for the latter, “I am what I am not.” Selfhood – as (public) image, as seeming, as performance – consists in its own negation.
         And how does that negation sound? (Or maybe better, what does it sound like?) How is it voiced? Lydon may not be much help here, but Davis suggests in his autobiography that he derives his own sense of line, of musical phrase, principally from the human voice:
See, music is about style. Like if I were to play with Frank Sinatra, I would play the way he sings., or do something complementary to the way he sings. But I wouldn’t go and play with Frank Sinatra at breakneck speed. I learned a lot about phrasing back then listening to the way Frank, Nat “King” Cole, and even Orson Welles phrased. I mean all those people are motherfuckers in the way they shape a musical line or sentence or phrase with their voice. (70)
And later on, near his book’s close, comes another version of the same claim:
I had a chance to work with Frank Sinatra a long time ago. [. . .] But I couldn’t make it because I wasn’t into what he was into. Now, it ain’t that I don’t love Frank Sinatra, but I’d rather listen to him than maybe get in his way by playing something that I want to play. I learned how to phrase from listening to Frank, his concept of phrasing, and also to Orson Welles. (395)
There are some structural ironies here as well, given that the text is principally poet Quincy Troupe’s imitation of Davis’s speaking voice, culled from hours of taped conversations: it isn’t really Davis speaking directly here at all, that is. But, more importantly for my purposes here, is the recognition that Davis appears significantly to mishear his own voice. In practice, his fractured, bent phrases – no matter how lyrical they may be – have very little in common with Sinatra’s mellifluous, soporific baritone or Welles’s theatrical declamations. His connection with Lydon comes through, if at all, in the steely and fragile awkwardness of his lines, their bent uncertainty. The Barbadian-Canadian novelist Austin Clarke once told me he heard anger and fierceness in Davis’s Harmon-muted horn; this was no soothing balladry. “Anger,” sneers Lydon, “is an energy.” What’s valuable for me in the early Pil sessions isn’t so much the audible anger as this vicious, cutting lyricism, the probing, needy and breaking articulation that, for me, also makes Miles Davis’s bittersweet electric music of the 1970s so vital.

Davis, Miles, with Quincy Troupe. Miles: The Autobiography.
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.
Lydon, John, with Keith and Kent Zimmerman. Rotten: No
Irish – No Blacks – No Dogs. New York: St. Martin’s P,
Tingen, Paul. Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles
Davis, 1967-1991. New York: Billboard Books, 2001.

Short Live Take on Tim Berne Snakeoil

[A headnote: I’m coming back to this post a day later to do a little revising and correcting. My intention with these “short takes” was to do as little revising or reworking as possible, but in this case there were some small issues that really needed to be fixed. I had the titles of the compositions wrong in my first pass, so these needed to be amended. (Thanks to Matt Mitchell for kindly letting me know the real titles.) I’m also sure that I misperceived some of the music, hearing Berne’s new pieces as versions of older work on the issued recording. Such misprisions are a hazard of being less than intimate with the scores, and of hearing this music for the first time. But the fact remains, as well, that – given what I hope is a genuine effort to map out my own auditory affect, to explain and to frame as cleanly as possible what I thought I heard and about how I was hearing it (and given, also, the challenges of the adjective, of being as descriptively accurate as I can) – that a mistaken listening seems to me as potentially interesting to think through as an attention that’s either distracted or that falsely claims acuity or expertise. I’m no music reviewer, and don’t want to pretend to be. But writing through and about the situated reception of music, particularly the immediacy of an improvised performance, which is inherently non-repeatable or, as Vladimir Jankélévitch suggests, irreversible, strikes me as a possible practice, if it works, of an active “cultural memory in the present” (a phrase I’m lifting from Mieke Bal, who repurposed it from others). So, okay, here is the revised piece.]
Tim Berne‘s quartet Snakeoil (with Oscar Noriegaon clarinet and bass clarinet, Matt Mitchell on piano and electric piano, and Ches Smithon drums, vibes and hand percussion) played a four-tune, 75 minute set at Ironworks on the final evening of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Berne announced the first three compositions as something like “Lamé #2,” ” Lamé #3″ and ” Lamé #1″ (in that order), but he was also slightly, well, mumbly and off-mike, so I could easily have misheard. “Don’t judge me by my titles,” he told us. It’s not that the titles had any obvious meaning for me (Berne’s music is hardly proximate to flashy pop or disco, and I’ve never seen him dress in gold lamé), but that Berne was indicating how each of the pieces formed part of a larger conception, and there was definitely a sense in which all four fit together rhythmically, harmonically and texturally. As with his earlier Bloodcountbook, his compositions tend to use long, sinewy lines — angular, deliberate meanders often taken in unison or at least in parallel paired horns and (in this band) piano. They are also constructed — again, as far as I can make out, as a listener  in sections that, like shifting puzzle pieces, seem to lock together in various kinds of timbral juxtapositions and sequences. He counted in each piece in four, but as the quartet joined in the music instantly became more metrically dense and polyrhythmic. Overlapped sonorities created fluctuating densities, an alternately thickening and winnowing counterpoint. With his move to ECM for his latest recording (by this quartet), his open-form compositional style — mixing structural exactitude with free improvisation —  seems to me to draw at times on the work of Jimmy Giuffre, although the performances leave aside any latter-day chamber music feel in favour of harder edges and more aggressively articulated extemporizing. The fourth and last composition was announced as “OCDC” (maybe?), but listening back to the Snakeoil CD it felt to me – wrongly, as it turns out – that it was an expanded, roomier version of “Spare Parts”; I thought in retrospect (again, mistakenly) the third piece they played was also a re-arrangement of “Scanners” from the same disc. (The bass-line in Matt Mitchell’s left hand sounded remarkably close to what I can hear on the recording.) I’m sure that this sort of musical re-purposing was not really what was going on (and I’m not at all asserting that this music is somehow recycled), but what my perception of these echoes does suggest to me is not only the continuity, the organics, of Berne’s concept but also that the audience was hearing not so much product as process, compositions built from predetermined cells and segments that also relied on formal elasticity and focused improvisation to expand, to animate and flesh out a given set of sounds into new and immediate music. I was very impressed by the unthrottled drive of Matt Mitchell’s playing, by the rough ecstatic energy of Oscar Noriega’s solos, by Ches Smith’s expansive and propulsive sense of time, and by Tim Berne’s own brilliantly knotty phrasing. Berne’s group offered us an object lesson in colliding composition and spontaneity, the made and the making, to intensify a performance, and to bring it creatively, with measured noisy poise, to life. 

Mary Halvorson, "Songs that Get Stuck in My Head"

Just come back from an hour-long afternoon public workshop with guitarist Mary Halvorson at the Roundhouse Community Centre in Yaletown, part of the last weekend of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. It was a real privilege to hear her talk and play. She was personable and articulate, taking questions and playing a handful of brief solo improvisations. 

She confessed that she was in the midst of “working on solo guitar music,” and that she hasn’t really performed solo up until this point in her career as an improviser. She said that she had decided to base her nascent solo work on “songs that get stuck in my head,” which at this point were principally jazz standards, although she was also looking to various “compositions by other people” as source material. She admitted that she tends to focus on melodies and has a harder time “remembering the chords.” But there was nothing diffident or self-effacing in her aesthetic or in her performing; her spotty memory seems to offer creative opportunity rather than impediment. Or, as she put it, “I’m going to make up my own chord changes to these existing melodies.” She offered a foreshortened but compelling version of “Beautiful Love,” laced with pitch-bent burbles, halting twangs and lyrical turn-on-a-dime redirections. She likes, as she said, “weird left turns and falling off cliffs” in music–her version of the “sound of surprise”– but her playing also drew out a gently fraught lyricism in each of her lines. If this really was a hint of what’s to come, her solo work is going to be beautifully unsettling and eclectically brilliant. She talked at some length about some of the challenges she feels she is facing combining her own idiosyncratic approach to the instrument with a more idiomatically “jazz” approach to playing and to musical form. (In fact, before she began talking, she played us a track from her iPod, Johnny Smith doing “Moonlight in Vermont,” and admitted her love of Smith’s sound. Smith had passed away a little over a week ago.) She also played a track from her yet-to-be-released septet album, roiling layers of horn and guitar.

When asked about connections between her styles of band leading and composition, she said she tries to enable and to support the members of her group, and is keen “not to be too controlling.” She pointed to her experiences with Taylor Ho Bynum‘s sextet–the example was suggested by someone in the audience–as a possible model for relinquishing control and instead creating democratic interactions among the players. At the same time, referring to her studies with Anthony Braxton (whose music she said helped her decide to drop her courses in biology and pursue music) and with Joe Morris, she said she felt that “the teachers you have really shape who you become,” noting that both of these mentors encouraged her to follow their example in seeking out her own idiom, her own ways of making music. A brief improvisation built from cascading pulses closed out the workshop.

A Little Bit Late About Bettye Lavette

Like many listeners, I have come to Bettye Lavette’s music a little bit late. Just a few months ago, in a bookstore in Tsawassen, we picked up (for music to listen to in the car on the trip back home) the Bob Dylan tribute Chimes of Freedom, a January 2012 release that bills itself on its cover as “honoring 50 years of Amnesty International.” There are some great (and some mediocre) versions of Dylan spread over its 4 CDs, but when our player cued up Bettye Lavette’s cover of “Most of the Time,” I have to say that I was brought up short: it’s a powerful, fierce, committed, startling transformation of the song. “Who,” we had to ask ourselves, “is THAT?” It turns out that 2012 also marks 50 years in music for Bettye Lavette herself. Her first single, “My Man, He’s a Loving Man,” was recorded and released in 1962, when she was sixteen. Her career, for subsequent decades, seems to have been a long struggle for recognition, a story she tells in her forthright autobiography (also published in 2012, though titled after her first album for Anti-), A Woman Like Me. Her concert Saturday night at the Vogue, as part of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, was a revelation for me, a brilliantly orchestrated overview of that career, featuring songs from her early days to recent versions of Gnarls Barkley, but every song infused with aspects of that struggle to be heard and acknowledged, and given an edgy vitality, a moving immediacy and a grainy depth that lent her performance moment after moment after moment of true greatness.  As Marke Andrews notes in an omnibus review in The Vancouver Sunof the festival’s opening weekend,
Despite 50 years in the music business, [Bettye Lavette] remains largely unknown (“We’ve just completed the ninth year of our Who The Hell Is She Tour,” she joked to the audience), and seems determined to prove herself with each performance.
But there was nothing strained or effortful about her singing, only a fierce and unwavering commitment to the emotional substance of each song she chose. She engages lyric and melody on their own terms, but she also remakes them on hers. At one point in the concert, she admitted that she “wasn’t a writer,” but I think that might be exactly what she is. Most of her source material (from standards to Motown classics to country ballads to carnivalesque Tom Waits numbers) is so utterly and radically transformed that it becomes wholly her own; her re-casting of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” which she first covered in 1972, is nothing short of stunning, as she turns his frail nostalgic folk anthem into a tragically affirmative lament for lost days. The highlight of Saturday’s concert, for me, was a version of Pete Townshend’s “Love Reign O’er Me,” which was the song she performed at the Kennedy Center in 2008 that seems to have secured a position for her in the pantheon of epochal voices. Slowing the song, almost to the point of fissure, at the verge of coming apart, drawing out the melodic line syllable by syllable as she felt her way along and through the notes – “Love … reign … o … ver … me …” – she made the music do what it needed to do for her, to allow us to recognize her, that is, to connect with her as a powerfully felt and powerfully feeling human being. I don’t mean to suggest that her voice was especially serene; any saccharine critical platitudes would be belied by her take-no-shit attitude toward her own 50-years-overdue canonization. I think there is something to be said for hearing her performance in relation to what Edward Said called “late style”:
The accepted notion is that age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works, often expressed in terms of a miraculous transfiguration of reality. . . . But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and contradiction?
Bettye Lavette offers us neither one of these alternative alone, but sings instead with a resilient, difficult beauty. “Late style,” as Said puts it, “is what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favour of reality.” In her voice, I hear a collision of fierce self-awareness and commanding aesthetic presence. For real.

Keith Jarrett, Yard Sales and the Commodification of Genius, Part One

In the next handful of posts, I’m going to parcel out some revisions of a sixty-odd-page draft of what remains of a chapter for a book (once called Earmarked) that was never to be, maybe never meant to be. The chapter, which I called “Keith Jarrett, Yard Sales, and the Commodification of Genius” was occasioned by me finding (about ten years ago now, maybe longer) a fairly pristine LP copy of Keith Jarrett’s famous and well-circulated Köln Concert album at a yard sale in Vancouver, and also by a brief and really unremarkable exchange I had with the seller over the right price. The chapter was intended as a recuperation of a Marx-influenced formalist materialism, close to the sort practiced by Theodor Adorno about forty years earlier; as an implicit plea for the necessity, in our own time, of a kind of critical archaism, a deliberately out-of-step temporality; and as an interrogation of the figure of the postmodern genius, or of the virtuosity of the extemporaneous thinker. How does improvisation either resist or accede to becoming cultural capital? Is its cultural capital, in fact, inscribed or encoded into the work of resistance?
I’ll start with two quotations, to set the project up, the first from music critic John Corbett:
One of the things I like most about LPs is the way they absorb history. By that I don’t mean the history of the music, but also the history of each record as an object; records are repositories of music’s material culture. CDs seem less historically palpable than LPs. Collectible CDs? Maybe, but not for me.
And the other from Karl Marx, the eleventh of his theses on Feuerbach:
Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt darauf an, sie zu verändern. (Or, something like, “Philosophers have merely and variously interpreted the world; the point is to change it.”)
Despite my hopes at academic relevance, it seemed quaint to me then and its seems quaint now to begin with such a citation from the “Theses on Feuerbach,” particularly this one, the eleventh, which has been flogged like a dead horse at the crossroads of interpretation and action, of what thinkers do and what they think they ought to. To me, now, it sounds more like an excuse than an imperative, a means of translating the feint of engagement in critical and academic writing into something that really matters, that changes the world. Marxism now, however various and unruly it might be, however impossible to frame as a coherent movement, has also come to appear dated at best: notions of socialism and social reform, class consciousness, commodification and exchange, property and value, have shifted so drastically in the last century, many to the point of conceptual dissolution, especially in the rather privileged Western European sphere. With multifarious levels of access to and exclusion from investment (everything from bank accounts to mutual funds), the blurring of ethnic and national identities, the suffusion of global capital into uncertain and contingent oligarchies like multinational corporations and free-trade alliances, the diffusion of a complex body of worldly information through the mass media, the idea of an economically determinate class, for example, seems historically remote, out-of-date. All this seeming is no doubt at least in part a function of my own economic and cultural privilege; I have the luxury and the leisure to release myself from the imperatives of social transformation, a comfort zone established by my rarefied – if still tenuous – position within many networks of value. Certainly there are haves and have-nots, the well-to-do and the poverty-stricken, but the boundaries and divisions are no longer so easy to determine, if indeed they ever were. Participation in the mechanisms of consumption and exchange is neither uniform nor closed, and the forms of consciousness and solidarity on which Marx might have depended for the renovation of labour and worth have become permeable, plural and radically indeterminate. It is truly difficult, for instance, to ascertain who exactly might constitute a proletarian body. Most late and post Marxisms, from Adorno on, have winnowed away the categories of Marxist analysis (from class to ideology) to the point that they can no longer find much of a purchase in the contemporary economic and political morass. It would be fatuous to dismiss Marxism as irrelevant; indeed, given the transformation of an orthodoxy of political economy into what Michel Foucault once characterized as “divergences” in a foundational “discursivity” (Rabinow 114-5), I should note instead how Marxism has come to designate a limited but prolific body of intersections, a master canon continuously inflected and re-written by an array of theoretical and critical modes:
Annales school historians, Frankfurt School theorists, Poststructuralists, Reader Reception Theorists, New Historicists and Cultural Materialists have reformulated Marxist principles and extended them by drawing more and more widely on other ideas from other texts — texts of philosophy, ethnology, anthropology, linguistics, psychoanalysis and religion. They have produced a variety of transformations, inversions, displacements and reformulations, resolving some of the impasses they inherited and reinscribing others. And they have made Marxism perhaps the most imperialistic discursive formation today. (Bannet 2)
I think I tend, however, to lose sight, in the wake of this permanently self-revolutionizing theory, of what might still be said to constitute the core of a Marxist critical praxis. (Bannet appears unwilling to grant the positional solidarity of a proper name to her “Marxism,” given its decentred plurality.) Returning to canon, to the classic statements of value and revolution we might associate with Marx himself, doesn’t prove particularly satisfying, either. The demand that workers of the world unite, for example, would serve as well for a slogan for Benneton advertising as it might for union bureaucracies, and clearly re-inscribe a deeply problematic collective determinism that is deeply endemic to the hegemonic forms of western politics. (What workers do we mean? What constitutes work? How is a proletariat demarcated? What world do we mean — first, second, third or fourth? Unite on whose terms? How?) It is difficult still to hear a deeply felt call for socialist revolution. Manifestoes date themselves, locked into their own inevitable anachrony.
The flipside of such anachrony, its camera obscura inversion, has to be nostalgia. I remember when I was fourteen, or fifteen at the most, I bought from our local bookstore a blue-spined Pelican paperback version of The Communist Manifesto. It’s short, a quick enough read, but it is also so historically and materially specific in its frames of reference, with its welter of dated prefaces and that its smallish scholarly apparatus (by none other than A. J. P. Taylor), that I had a hard time feeling anything of the insistent presentism of its famous opening: “A spectre is haunting Europe . . . .” but a spectre that felt, at least as an adolescent reading experience, more archaic than disturbing. I wasn’t a particularly careful reader, sure, but I seemed to know that the book, that this particular book, could have very real transformative power as a material object. I could use that manifest spectre, I mean, to scare my parents. Which is exactly what I think I did. I remember announcing to them from the back seat of the family car, book in hand, that I had become “a communist.” I hadn’t joined any political organizations, of course, and I don’t think I even knew anyone who was especially political. I think my parents took my declaration fairly calmly, assuming I had next to no idea what I meant, which wasn’t exactly true. I knew some things. I think, looking back, that this announcement offered me a point of Oedipal differentiation, a small shock I could leverage into separating myself from the everyday security of a safe middle-class paternalism. I’m not sure why I wanted to do this; privilege will feed and clothe you. Maybe I liked the idea of risk, without any experience of it. This moment, when saying “communism” offered me the literary pretense of action, a very small-scale moment of teenaged shock-and-awe, was also the moment when politics – at its very outset, even – deteriorated almost instantly into mere style.
In Why Marx Was Right (2011), Terry Eagleton reacts to this political anesthesia, symptomatic of late-stage capitalism, by arguing for – or at least asserting, declaring – the necessity of Marxist thought in a seemingly post-Marxist world, a world that appears to have left Marx behind. Marx’s “archaic” quality, Eagleton asserts (making a point about a return to “Victorian levels of inequality”), “is what makes him still relevant today,” that Marx still offers a means to regard capitalism, critically, from a contingent but critically-viable outside (Eagleton 3). “In these dire conditions,” Eagleton writes, citing Fredric Jameson, “‘Marxism must necessarily become true again’” (8). Marx is right for our own time, for Eagleton, because of his vatic prescience, because – against the odds, perhaps – in Adorno’s formulation, he threatens to be right, because we don’t want him to be. Eagleton suggests that Marx foresees the contemporary consequences of globalization, for example, and also offers a still-viable conceptual path for the critique of the massive commodification of experience. I think Eagleton is following Friedrich Engels, in a famously deferential note in the last chapter of Engels’s late book on Ludwig Feuerbach:
Here I may be permitted to make a personal explanation. Lately repeated reference has been made to my share in this theory, and so I can hardly avoid saying a few words here to settle this point. I cannot deny that both before and during my 40 years’ collaboration with Marx I had a certain independent share in laying the foundation of the theory, and more particularly in its elaboration. But the greater part of its leading basic principles, especially in the realm of economics and history, and, above all, their final trenchant formulation, belong to Marx. What I contributed — at any rate with the exception of my work in a few special fields — Marx could very well have done without me. What Marx accomplished I would not have achieved. Marx stood higher, saw further, and took a wider and quicker view than all the rest of us. Marx was a genius; we others were at best talented. Without him the theory would not be by far what it is today. I[t] therefore rightly bears his name. [Italics mine.]
Praising the genius of Marx, for Engels, is obviously a way of acknowledging both his intellectual brilliance and his visionary acuity. The Latin etymology of the term genius – a transliteration of the Roman name for something like a guardian angel or “tutelar spirit” – is linked (my old companion W. W. Skeat suggests) to the idea of the genus, genetic kinship, creative or generative origin, maybe even to push things a bit, something like a muse, an instructive spirit. Marx’s genius, along these lines, makes him into a corrective spectre who haunts our world, and who persistently speaks against the oppressive tendencies of our times, a counter-episteme. Eagleton explicitly states that this Marx isn’t the one he wants to recover, the Marx of “moral and cultural critique” who seems to him next to impossible to dismiss as foundational to most critical projects in the humanities. And maybe this means leaving Eagleton behind now in my current trajectory; but it’s important to acknowledge how even Eagleton’s doggedly practical and political recuperation of Marx depends upon and is haunted by that genius.
         The political and the cultural, that is, are difficult to disentangle, which seems like a banal enough claim to make, hardly a claim at all, except that the question of how that interdependency articulates itself, particularly across the domain of the aesthetic, becomes both crucial and vexed – bewitched, Adorno might say. Aesthetic abstraction, the rarefication of artistic material and experience, takes on the quaintly archaic appearance of privilege and withdrawal, but that rarefication can also be understood as an at least contingently foundational moment for political engagement, the fraught origin of what Fredric Jameson calls, potentially, “a radical intervention in the here-and-now and the promise of resistance to its blind fatalities” (The Cultural Turn35). I hear Adorno’s negative dialectics all over Jameson’s argument:
In the old days, abstraction was surely one of the strategic ways in which phenomena, particularly historical phenomena, could be estranged and defamiliarized; when one is immersed in the immediate – the year-by-year experience of cultural and informational messages, of successive events, of urgent priorities – the abrupt distance afforded by an abstract concept, a more global characterization of the secret affinities between those apparently autonomous and unrelated domains, and of the rhythms and hidden sequences of things we normally remember in isolation and one by one, is a unique resource, particularly since the history of the preceding few years is always what is least accessible to us. (35)
Jameson is talking about theorizing the postmodern, but – and I don’t think I’m out of synch here – he is also outlining a poetics here, at least implicitly, and even – in his gesture at rhythm – a musical aesthetic. And he’s talking, for that matter, about how Marx’s genius might materialize in contemporary language, how it might sound itself.
What’s emerging, I think, is an aesthetic of relevance, of creative urgency that matters. How is it, the question goes, that Marxism might remain, as Marxism, relevant if not contemporary, given its archaism, its ineluctable entanglements with “the old days”? Douglas Kellner argues, following both Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, that Marxism is defined by its persistent field of crisis:
Marxism still has the theoretical and political resources to provide an account of contemporary history and strategies for radical social transformation. In a sense, Marxism is always in crisis as new events emerge that require revision and development of the theory. Marx himself and subsequent Marxists were always revising and reconstructing the theory to take account of historical developments and to fill in the deficiencies in the original theory. In this sense, “crises of Marxism” are not so much signs of the obsolescence of the Marxian theory as a typical situation for a social theory facing anomalies or events that challenge its theories. (16)

For Kellner, scientific or orthodox Marxism can only be misapplied and inappropriate, but critical Marxism remains relevant (especially Frankfurt school, especially Marcuse): “Because no competing economic theory or critique of capitalism has emerged to replace Marxism, it is still an indispensable part of radical social theory” (18). But what constitutes the core of a theory, the theory, which is wholly self-renovating? For me, it’s the collision of the archaic and the nostalgic – that is, in a sense of the ideological and the utopian – in textual-materialist engagements with the historical. Historicizing Marxism itself, which asserts its relevance as a theory of historical crisis and transformation, refigures its quaintness. Responding to critiques of Adorno’s Marxist anachrony, Jameson argues that “if you reproach Marxism with its temporal dimension, which allows it to consign solutions to philosophical problems to a future order of things, . . . a vision of postponement and lag, deferral and future reconciliation,” you are in effect assuming an a-temporal critical posture he associates with the postmodern:
it may be admitted that this future-oriented philosophy — which prophecies catastrophe and proclaims salvation — is scarcely consistent with that perpetual present which is daily life under postmodern or late capitalism. (Late Marxism 231)
The radical critique proffered by Marxism has remained, for Jameson, its “genuine historicity,” the insistence upon historical renovation — even to the point of facing its own immersion in the historical, its own perpetual theoretical anachronism — to which Kellner also holds.
      So, I want to use Marx as a point of departure for at least two reasons. First, my initial object of study, the yard sale, operates like a peculiar pocket of capital production and exchange both within and outside the complexes of regulation, distribution and control that constitute the wider market. Like Marxism itself, yard sales are inherently quaint. They are highly localized, interstitial formations at which nascent commodities, in the Marxian sense, are able to gestate, baldly exposed to view: yard sales offer an immediate display (an aesthetic) of capitalism in its infancy. Marxist critique, for a moment, applies. Second, the actual ideologeme that I want to isolate and interrogate – the production of “genius” – feeds back into the dialectic articulated by Marx’s eleventh thesis, tired as it may seem. How is it, I want to ask, that an acquired object – in this case, a particular record by Keith Jarrett – shifts from a thing interpreted (as valuable, as meaningful) to a political manifesto, an immediacy which no longer simply represents but enables participation in a kind of community of action, a shift, as Keith Jarrett might say, from the passivity of audience member to the activity of listener. An apparently trivial, everyday act – buying a used album in somebody’s garage – presents a potential moment to call radically into question the structures of consumption and determination that almost invisibly and nearly inaudibly govern and shape us.
         More to come. (Next, theorizing yard sales, then acquiring, and listening to, Keith Jarrett.)
Works Cited to This Point
Bannet, Eve. Postcultural Theory: Critical Theory After the Marxist
Paradigm. New York: Paragon House, 1993. Print.
Corbett, John. Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage
to Dr. Funkenstein. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. Print.
Eagleton, Terry. Why Marx Was Right. New Haven: Yale UP,
2011. Print.
Engels, Friedrich. Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German
Jameson, Fredric. Late Marxism: Adorno, or, The Persistence of the
         Dialectic. London: Verso, 1990. Print.
– – -. The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern,
1983-1998. London: Verso, 1998. Print.
Rabinow, Paul, ed. The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon,
1984. Print.

VISI Art Song Lab 4, Sprechstimme

What came to mind watching and listening to the rehearsals, the workshops and then the performances of art-songs created this past week was a tensile interdependence of cantus and poesis. The poems, as song-text, were written first for the most part, although during the week some alterations and revisions happened, as words were adapted for and inclined toward the music. In some cases, the same poem developed into two distinct versions; in my own case, the words didn’t change, but one of the two composers working from it, David Betz, used an earlier draft (which I had sent him by e-mail, to let him see the progress I hoped I was making coming up with suitable text) as the basis for his composition, so a few words and phrases don’t appear in the finished poem. (For instance, the title of his art-song, “Torn Daisies,” uses an adjective I changed [to “shredded”] in the final copy.) But I am very happy to let these slippages stand, partly because they work in his setting, and partly because I think that such misprisions, whether deliberate or inadvertent, cut to the heart of collaborative interdependence: the words take hold in the music, but also have to be let go, partially and partly, by the poem from which they originate. In David’s case, his setting deliberately mines the original poem for phrases and word-clusters that he seems to have felt resonated with his own textural sound-palette, but he almost wholly disregards the narrative or even syntactical order of the poem itself (although he does end his song, for example, with the last line of the poem, so some structural imperatives could still be translated, for him). In this instance, the poem has to be released from its formal bands, as speech, to adapt to the melodic contours of song.
This tug between cantus and poesis, between song and speech, can be read as a species of translation, but it can also be set apart from translation in its mundane sense, as derivative or secondary language, if by working between media we want to pursue a more primordial pathos. In À cor et à cri (Hue and Cry, 1988) the poet, ethnographer and surrealist Michel Leiris attempts, in a book-length collation of notes and lyric fragments, to map an alchemical genesis, a passage (cri-parole-chant) from visceral cry winnowed through words toward a condition of song: chanterfor Leiris means not merely to put words to music, not melopoeia, but also to materialize a perceptual intensity, gathered by and diffused through poetic language. He juxtaposes this heightened, conceptually genetic (that is to say, phenomenologically vital) modality to the servility of translation:
Peut-être est-ce quand les mots, au lieu d’être en position servile des traducteurs, deviennent générateurs d’idées qu’on passe de la parole au chant?
In practical terms – that is, in terms of the realization of an art-song and not merely its conceptualizing as an idealized poetic state of language – I think one element that might enact this tension performatively, audibly, is the technique of Sprechstimmeor song-speech (literally, speech-voice). In Alex Mah’s setting of the middle section of my poem “First Person Shooter,” which he titled “Drift” after an early version of the text, the vocal literalizes (as a kind of active reading, a lettering) this tension in phonemic stutter and repetition at the outset of the song (“st . . . st . . . stalled . . . stalled”), as if the grieving singer were unable to find her words, as if singing itself, as keening, were an act of verbal grief, stalling on itself. This stutter suggests both semantic shortfall – not having the words – and creative agon, a voice contesting its existential impediments to find an expressive diction. The words of the poem initiate and thematize this agon, but it can only fully realize itself in musical performance, becoming song rather than recitation. A little further along in the setting, Alex introduces Sprechstimme, and even produces a performative version of what Paul de Man named an “allegory of reading” or what J. Hillis Miller might call a “linguistic moment,” as the vocalist falls back into her speech register to utter the word “unspeakable.” It’s a dramatic effect, certainly, but also a semantic paradox, in as much as she says that she cannot say, as song diminishes or frays back into utterance, retreating from the agon in the initial stutter, rendering it all but pyrrhic: a version, or perhaps an inversion, of what Martin Heidegger meant when he claimed, in poetry, that “Die Sprache spricht.” In the performance last Friday evening, Phoebe MacRae did a tremendous job conveying not simply the feeling of grief over the events to which the poem responds – the Sandy Hook shootings – but also the essential pathos of the shortfall of language itself, of our inability to make sense of the senseless.
         I want to try to frame this tension, which I think operates at the core of art-song as a genre, by looking to the last lines of another poem written for use by the Art Song Lab, Leah Falk’s “Directions to My House”:
I am also a door, remember,
                           hinged to wind
                           swinging between
                           a list and lost
It’s a fine poem, which both investigates and resists the teleology of directions, of the map, to interrogate lyrically the concept of home-coming, of nostos. But our sense of home at the poem’s formal close has been unmoored, even rendered abyssal. The speaker-singer herself becomes a transitory and contingent site, permeable and unfinished. (Notice the absence, for instance, of closed punctuation – these sentences begin, but refuse to conclude.) The poem as descriptive list, as a catalogue of traits or a repository of images, hinges on a vowel shift – from the typographical (door-like?) rectangle of the i to the open oval of the o – between empirical certainty and placeless vacancy. Leah Falk’s spare melopoeia, a muted vowel-music, draws her words close to song, while also refusing the semantic surety of bel canto. Pathos emerges for me, as listener and as reader, in negotiating the fissure, the persistent and lyric gap between sound and meaning, not in wanting to try to suture it shut.