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Possibility Abstracts: Taylor Ho Bynum, Nathaniel Mackey and Discrepancy (Audio)

Here is an audio capture of “Possibility Abstracts: Taylor Ho Bynum, Nathaniel Mackeyand Discrepancy,” a paper I delivered in Prague, in the Czech Republic, on 18 July 2014 as part of the vs. Interpretation symposium, sponsored by the Agosto Foundation. The text riffs on the epistolary form of Nathaniel Mackey’s serial novel, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, particularly the fourth volume, Bass Cathedral, on which Taylor Ho Bynum draws for his modular composition Navigation, versions of which he recorded with his sextet for release on Firehouse 12 records late last year. (See firehouse12records.com/album/navigat…12-recordings.) For me, this music is a contemporary masterpiece, negotiating the liminal zone – the discrepancies – between the improvised and the composed, and doing so in such as way as to creatively undo that rather careless binary. There is an excellent review of Navigation by Stuart Broomer in Point of Departure.

Partial Elegy for Charlie Haden

The great Charlie Haden passed away Friday, July 11, and tributes of all kinds have been appearing over the past two days. I hadn’t really realized how many records in my collection Charlie Haden had appeared on; his bass playing, his sound, has been a pivotal and essential part of much of my listening. I saw him a few times in concert. Once, with his Quartet West on a double bill with John Scofield’s quartet at the Orpheum in Vancouver; and once, very memorably, with Geri Allen and Paul Motian in Montreal, as part of the 1989 invitational series. I wanted to write something in his memory; for some reason, I found myself thinking of the Kurt Weill/Ogden Nash standard “Speak Low,” an evocative version of which Charlie Haden performed with Sharon Freeman for Lost in the Stars, a Hal Willner tribute to Kurt Weill. The song leads back to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, but I have also recently been pretty heavily under the sway of Nathaniel Mackey’s word music, so some echoes of that must have found their way into this piece. It was composed very quickly, so I’m sure there are a few rough edges and infelicities, but I’ll leave them in to honour the improvisational drift of Charlie Haden’s music.
Partial Elegy for Charlie Haden
Already gone too soon, other than him
who in this fraught hereafter could have named
the ruminant lumber his instrument
had been assembled from? Dark-toned boxwood,
hickory, lacquered spruce. Coaxing a deep
murmur from heavy-gauge strings, propounding
their full-bodied, hefty resonances,
he re-curved chthonic rumble into line
and cadence, his trademark over-fingered
pizz and tectonic double-stops marking
the thick eddies where sound and purled silence
abutted, then let go: a politics
of left-leaning, strung-out torch-songs that tell
you, “Speak low if you mean to speak at all.”

Possibility Abstracts: Taylor Ho Bynum, Nathaniel Mackey and Discrepancy (Abstract)

This is the abstract/proposal for a paper I am set to give at the Vs. Interpretation colloquium and festival on the improvisational arts, which is taking place in Prague in the Czech Republic on July 17-20, 2014. The colloquium is supported by the Agosto Foundation, and keynote speakers include George Lewis and Pauline Oliveros. The original theme for the colloquium had to do with “improvising across borders.” I am aiming to extend my own thinking about the intersections of improvisational practices and the poetics of listening by addressing the work of Taylor Ho Bynum and Nathaniel Mackey. So here it is:

Released in November 2013, the multi-format set of recordings of Taylor Ho Bynum’s innovative composition for improvising sextet, Navigation, both culminates and continues his fascination with the interfaces between the extemporaneous and the written, the scripted and the performative. Separate LP and compact disc versions of the work are paired with different fragments of text from poet Nathaniel Mackey’s experimental epistolary novel Bass Cathedral, a book that Ho Bynum has recently said, for him, is probably the best writing about music he has encountered. Earlier compositions by Bynum, such as his suite Madeleine Dreams, have not only used prose fiction as libretto, but more tellingly have striven to address sonically and structurally the complex and often fraught relationships between the musical and the diegetic, between sound and sense. Navigationtakes up Mackey’s own address to this interface, sounding what Mackey understands as creative discrepancy, an expressive troubling of formal and cultural boundaries. Name-checking both Sun Ra and Louis Armstrong, Mackey has noted what he calls a “play of parallel estrangements” in improvised music and in poetry, arguing that music “is prod and precedent for a recognition that the linguistic realm is also the realm of the orphan,” that is, of the limits of sense, a liminal zone of both orchestration and letting go. Ho Bynum’s recordings pick up not only on Mackey’s thorough enmeshment in jazz history, but also on his intention to pursue the expressive potential of language and of music at their textural boundaries, at moments of troubling contact between divergent worldviews, or between dissimilar social and cultural genetics. Composing using what Mackey calls m’apping – a portmanteau splice of mapping and mishap, pursuing what Mackey calls the “demiurgic rumble” of discrepancy, improvising across the gaps between careful craft and unruly noise – Ho Bynum conjures a hybrid and collaborative music that blends the complex Afrological heritages of jazz performance style (audible in Navigation’s network of gestures to Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington, to name only two key forebears) with graphic scoring techniques derived from Sylvano Bussotti or Wadada Leo Smith, among others. If improvised music, for Mackey, represents – and represents precisely – what defies descriptive capture in language, what eludes ekphrasis, then the music of Taylor Ho Bynum’s sextet aspires to invert that representational effort, to take up the discrepant aesthetic tactics of Mackey’s writing and to assess how the written (as graphē, as graphic score) can approach and test the expressive limits of making music happen. Taylor Ho Bynum’s compositions for improvisers offer exemplary instances of how to negotiate creatively the boundaries between text and sounding, and suggest a means of addressing, too, the graphic work of other composer-improvisers, including the work of Nicole Mitchell, Anthony Braxton and Barry Guy