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For Hovering at the Edge: Words, Music, Sound, and Song
IICSI colloquium at Guelph, 13 September 2018
(Panel with Sara Villa, Paul Watkins, Rob Wallace)
I want to start by poaching a phrase from the title of Fred Moten’s hot-off-the-Duke-University-Press trilogy, which he admits to purloining from Christopher Winks’s translation of an interview of Antillean poet Édouard Glissant by the filmmaker Manthia Diawara. Here it is: “Consent not to be a single being” (xvi). The implicit network of voices caught up in that performative translation suggests, already, the layered irresolution, the refusal and the excess that Moten names, following on a reading of C. L. R. James, the “not-in-between.” For a good twenty-five years now, I have attempted fairly quietly to practice a plural and dislocated cultural pedagogy, both critical and (co)creative, that hovers in the sometimes appropriative, sometimes disjunctive interstices of the Eurological, the Afrological and the Indigenous. I lay claim to no particular belonging, although my appearance and heritage tend to do that for me, materially and obviously. My writing such as it is has striven, sometimes against its own tendencies and sometimes by embracing them, to inhabit and to enliven—and to be enlivened by—those unstable and conflicted contingencies, those dissolving and partial places where productive intersections can and do happen. “Join me down here in nowhere,” Claudia Rankine calls out in Citizen: An American Lyric. I feel like I have tried, in my teaching and in my writing, to answer (and to answer to) that fraught, rich, poetic invitation.
The hover I often find myself attempting to describe occurs—perhaps as a temporary suture, perhaps as an undoing, as a re-opened wound—in the liquid, motile collision of words and music that happens both in and as song, particularly improvised song. It’s the attenuation, the extemporal hysteresis, in one sense, that tugs lyrics toward the lyric. Drawing on Amiri Baraka’s concept of “musicked speech,” Moten begins to map in C. L. R. James’s sentences a “phrasal disruption” that he names lyric, a noisy “poetry” interrupting (“[n]ot by opposition; by augmentation”) James’s prose—inflecting Moten’s own parenthetical and iterative style, as well as my imitation here—and an aurality that “remains to be seen and heard so to speak, and in excess of the sentence because it breaks up meaning’s conditions of production,” serving “to disrupt and trouble meaning toward content” (3). At the same time, music asserts itself through and against the verbal “not only as a mode of organization but, more fundamentally, as phonic substance, phonic materiality irreducible to any interpretation but antithetical to any assertion of the absence of content” (31). Moten comes to offer his apologies for such theoretically and poetically dense passages as the ones I have just quoted: “I’m sorry if this is all a blur. I’m so used to my own astigmatism that maybe I can’t even talk to anybody anymore. To make matters worse, I’ve never been able to keep my glasses clean” (261). Still, he understands his own verbose blur (as the title of his book suggests) as constitutive and crucial, as inhering in the give-and-take word-music of song itself. This astigmatism, this arrhythmia, is the stuff of the improvisatory; Moten offers, as exemplary, the unsettled musicking of Charles Mingus: “He would protect the pulse, like any good bass player, while freeing himself from it,” and, I want to add, by singing, shouting, moaning, ululating, vocalizing as he plays (103). Protection, however, also articulates itself against the risk of hurt, in Moten’s terms, as both complement and antagonist, as augmentation and opposition. Moten thematizes this correspondent hurt in the transcribed/described “scream” of Frederick Douglass’s Aunt Hester; Michel Leiris evokes the “cri,” which he hears in “les sons râpeux . . . que les jazzmen aiment àtirer de leurs instruments àvents . . .qu’ils savent aussi faire gémir, grognier, se plaindre ou ricaner sur toutes sortes de tons” [the raspy sounds. . . that jazzmen like to shoot from their wind instruments. . that they also know how to moan, grunt, complain or snicker on all kinds of tones] (37). This pained and celebratory tonality—at once, for Leiris, derisive and sanguine—offers a moment of suture, of unruly translation, between what he calls paroleand chant, speech and song: “Peut-être est-ce quand les mots, au lieu d’être en position servile de traducteurs, deviennent générateurs d’idées qu’on passé de la parole au chant? S’ils se font chant, n’est-ce pas lorsque, cessant d’obéir seulement aux injonctions du dictionnaire, ils valent par ce que leur forme et point seulement leur sens official suggèrent (en quelque sorte ‘génèrent’)?” [Perhaps it is when the words, instead of being in a servile position of translators, become generators of ideas that we pass from the word to the song? If they make themselves sing, is it not when, ceasing to obey only the injunctions of the dictionary, they are worth what their form and point only their official sense suggest (somehow ‘generate’)?] (112). In some sense like me, Leiris comes to this music as an attentive outsider, hoping by staging, as audition, a close proximity to its song also to catch at (that is, to translate otherwise) some of its vitality, its deep cry. Moten, by contrast, necessarily resists such “an absolute nearness [to black vitality], an absolute proximity, which a certain invocation of suture might approach, but with great imprecision. . . . There’s no remembering, no healing. There is, rather, a perpetual cutting, a constancy of expansive and enfolding rupture and wound, a rewind that tends to exhaust the metaphysics upon which the idea of redress is grounded” (ix). “Jazz,” as he puts it, “does not disappear the problem,” or dress its wound, or offer healing sesames: jazz “isthe problem and will not disappear. It is, moreover, the problem’s diffusion, which is to say that what it thereby brings into relief is the very idea of the problem” (xii, emphasis in original). While attempting to describe my own practice of study, which I understand as the interrogation and elaboration of a certain conceptual arrhythmia, I have perhaps relied overmuch on quoting Moten in these few minutes, but I am also mindful that the work of reading, with as much acuity as I can muster, is also to develop a tenuous but palpable resonance, a hapsis, a pushback and a to-and-fro with what I hear presently in Moten’s sentences. I’m going to move on to try to give a more specific example of this practice of reading and listening, of listening as reading, but before that I want to look only once more to the early pages of Moten’s book, where he delineates what he calls “black study” as the stuff of discrepant song, as audible hurt and as a “lyricism of the surplus”:
This is why, as Wadada Leo Smith has said, it hurts to play this music. The music is riotous solemnity, a terrible beauty. It hurts so much that we have to celebrate. That we have to celebrate is what hurts so much. Exhaustive celebration of and in and through our suffering, which is neither distant nor sutured, is black study. (xiii)
My own practice of study cannot unproblematically or unchallenged suture itself to that terrible beauty or find even vestigially proximity to Moten’s “we.” Nevertheless, in the fraught translation between word and sound that manifests itself in improvised song, I do find myself, following Brent Hayes Edwards and, of all people, Raymond Williams, “hovering ‘at the very edge of semantic availability’” (16) trying to explain the blur.
Part Deux. Deuxième Partie, I Should Say.
I only have a couple of minutes, so I want to give a brief example of the creative blur, the hover I’ve been trying to describe in my own creative-critical practice by ventriloquizing some of Fred Moten’s recent work. I want to begin to listen carefully to Darius Jones’s and Emilie Lesbros’s Le Bébé de Brigitte, which is both an homage to and an extension of Brigitte Fontaine’s 1969 collaboration with Areski Belkacem and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Comme à la Radio. I want to take up two related tropes to understand how song and the improvisatory intersect in this work: the suture and, borrowing the title of the one wordless track on Darius Jones’s 2015 recording, the “universal translator.” Linking the Jones-Lesbros collaboration directly to the Brigitte Fontaine recording is from the get-go a bit misleading and an instance of mistranslation or of meaning lost in translation. If you dig a little (through the internet, for instance), you’ll discover that the “Brigitte” in Darius Jones’s title is not Fontaine (though named for her) but a maternal figure in his evolving personal cosmology (articulated in his unfolding series of “Man’ish Boy” recordings); unless you find your way to such notes, however, who Brigitte is will remain hermetic and likely miscued for listeners. The promise of universal translatability offers itself through Google or in Star Trekand Hitchhiker’s Guideutopianism (and has something to do with an Afro-Futurism here, though I have no room to engage or unpack it), but rather than transparency, the universality – the Benjaminian Reine Sprache– that Jones describes musically is an effect of contingent opacity, of difference and uncertainty, of the slipped suture: “In the process of creating this music, we often fell into moments of miscommunication because of differences in culture and language. I think this created a sense of mystery, and forced all of us to listen more deeply to each other’s nuances and subtleties, because we didn’t always have words to fall back on.” Words, despite what Jones appears to claim here, are not even a fallback for communicative or diegetic clarity, and even when they’re unsung, their tug and blur remain in play in the performance, the articulation, of these songs. Briefly put, the cosmology – the universality of an imagined universal translator – never closes or coheres, not even for its originator; instead it revises, remakes, re-writes itself, an extemporaneous diegesis. Which means, for me, that in the stitching, the verbal-acoustic suturing that happens when we sing, the lyric “problem” that Fred Moten describes tends to come into play, maybe even necessarily. Here are a few snippets from the (what I take to be) largely improvised lyrics by Brigitte Fontaine for “Comme à la Radio,” the eponymous opening track for her collaborative album:
Ce n’ sera rien
Rien que de la musique
Ce n’ sera rien
Rien que des mots
Comme à la radio
Tout juste un peu de bruit
Pour combler le silence
As she moves through the song, we realize that with her increasing tenacity what we’re hearing both is and is not audible “like” a song “on the radio.” Her words, her noise, fills in silences, but even with what we might mistake for self-deprecation (“nothing but words,” “nothing but music”), it inclines itself, by both suturing and cutting into itself and its musical accompaniment, to the “nowhere” that Claudia Rankine says she inhabits, an excessive and unruly soundspace that both fills semantic gaps and refuses to fill us in. Emilie Lesbros’s singing on, for example, “Chanteuse in Blue,” also darts in and out of any semantic purview (one critic, while asserting that her texts are mostly “suitably poetic,” found that these words “veer into the irritating”: I’d call them edgy, working the audio nerves to the edge, the abutment, of sound and sense, of the Eurological and the Afrological, let’s say, with her Aebi-Birkin-esque accent):
hah, wah, a-a-a-a-a, uegh
“Baby, let me tell you something.”
“Chanteuse in blue . . .”
“He said, ‘What? What are you talking about, sweetheart?’”
“I said, ‘I am suffering from the difference that people
think we have.’”
What’s both thematized and enacted here, meta-diegetically and subversively, as translated verbal excess, is precisely and necessarily the irritation of the lyric: the refusal to settle in; instead Lesbros (and Darius Jones’s dialogic saxophone lines, both miming and counterpointing, intensifying and cross-cutting Lesbros’s voice) presents an embrace—a fraying and a knitting up – of the discomfiting, the discrepant, the extramusical, the blur. I will have exceeded my time. My time’s more than up.
Texts Quoted or Name-checked (in reverse alphabetical order)
Fred Moten. Black and Blur. First volume of consent not to be
a single being. Duke UP, 2017.
Michel Leiris. À Cor et à Cri. Gallimard,1988.
Brent Hayes Edwards. Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary
Imagination. Harvard UP, 2017.
Here is an audio capture of a paper I delivered on Thursday, September 5, 2013 at the Colloquium of the Guelph Jazz Festival, which took place at the MacDonald Stewart Art Centre at the University of Guelph. It’s called “Carnets de Routes Improvisées: Transcultural Encounters in the work of Guy Le Querrec and the Romano-Sclavis-Texier Trio,” and, like the title says, it connects a number of recorded improvisations by a European trio around the African photography of Magnum photographer Guy Le Querrec to certain concepts of decolonization and latter-day ethnography. I try to suggest, in a limited utopian vein, how viable transcultural encounters might be realized through improvisation – not only musical, but visual as well. I also refer to the compelling historical work of Julie Livingston around biomedical practices in southern Africa, particularly her book Improvising medicine: An African Oncology Ward in an Emerging Cancer Epidemic (2012). This paper formed part of a two-person panel on media and transculturalism; the other presenter was Alan Stanbridge of the University of Toronto. The moderator for the session, whom you can hear offering an introduction at the beginning of this recording, was Nicholas Loess.
Here is the abstract for the paper:
Sponsored by French cultural institutions, the improvising trio of clarinetist Louis Sclavis, bassist Henri Texier and drummer Aldo Romano formed in early 1990 to undertake a tour of central Africa, including performances in Chad, Gabon, Congo, Cameroon and Guinea. Other tours would follow in 1993 and 1997. Despite both appearance and funding support, this group wasn’t engaged in officially-sanctioned cultural promotion, but had been conceived as an artistic and cultural project by Magnum photographer Guy Le Querrec, who appears to have wanted to chronicle in images the encounters of European jazz musicians with mostly rural African audiences. Le Querrec had already taken numerous photographic trips to North Africa—in 1969-71, 1978 and 1984, for example—trips that had produced significant images in his portfolio concentrating on both the troubling appropriations of ethnographic image-making and the complex challenges and impediments to transcultural understanding. His work with the Romano-Sclavis-Texier trio, now seen in retrospect, constitutes a deliberate post-colonial cultural intervention, a re-engagement by both aesthetic and documentary tactics in parts of the world from which colonial France had withdrawn. Le Querrec curates this particular tour of leading voices in French free jazz—he is listed on the recordings as a fourth member of the trio, not merely as a courtesy but as an active if tacit participant in the performances—for two main reasons. First, Le Querrec is one of the preeminent jazz photographers in Europe, and several of his collections centre on historic images of canonical jazz musicians. A 1997 show in Paris saw musicians (including Texier and Sclavis) improvising to projections of Le Querrec’s work; the show’s title, Jazz comme un Image, suggests how closely Le Querrec links his photography to improvisational musical (and visual) practices, a connection he further clarifies in an artist’s statement for the performance:
Être jazz c’est avant tout une manière de vivre, de se promener sur le fil du hazard pour aller à la rencontre d’un imaginaire qui contient toujours l’improvisation, la curiosité, qui oblige à écouter les autres, à les voir, à être disponible pour mieux les raconter en manifestant sa propre poésie.
This complex sense of likeness, at play in the overlap between rencontrer and raconter, to encounter and to give account, traces itself back in the context of French colonialism and ethnography to the Dakar-Djibouti expedition of 1931-33, and particularly the poetic-documentary writing of Michel Leiris in L’Afrique fantôme and L’Âge d’Homme, the latter of which in particular focuses on the Afrological substrata of jazz. Second, both the trio’s music and Le Querrec’s photography investigate the give-and-take, the tensions between re-appropriation and creative misprision inherent in this jazz-based transcultural model. The music on the three compact discs released by the trio (Carnet de Routes, 1995; Suite Africaine, 1999; African Flashback, 2006; each accompanied by booklets collating Le Querrec’s photographs from their 1990, 1993 and 1997 tours) does not come from their live performances, which seem (apart from the photographs) to have gone undocumented, but consists of recordings in a French studio after the tours were done, improvised reactions to the photographs as well as compositions that emerged from their African experiences. The “poetry” of imaginative encounter that Le Querrec describes is enacted musically (and even visually) in the extemporaneous negotiations of difference, and the creative troubling of Eurocentrisms, that these improvisations offer. Rather than reproduce the exoticism and even nostalgia that shapes late colonial, modernist ethnography, these audio-visual “records” investigate performatively how a transculturalism of shared differences, a contingent community of unlikeness, can be brought extemporaneously into being.
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
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.