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Sunset on Thursday, August 28, was supposed to happen, according to my smartphone app, at about 8:00pm – although sunsets are attenuated diminishments, not sudden closures of the light, so the timing was no doubt loose enough. But I was still running a bit late, and cutting it close. It was about 7:45. Taylor Ho Bynum had announced that he was beginning his west coast bicycle tour this evening with a sunset fanfare on Wreck Beach, Vancouver’s famously clothing-optional strand, at the tip of Point Grey on the University of British Columbia campus. I wanted to be there to hear him play. Getting to the beach involves descending a fairly steep set of 400-odd wood-framed earthen stairs. I had rushed past some former students at the top, saying hello but that I was headed for what I thought was to be a solo concert of improvised cornet music on the beach that was about to start so I was sorry but I had to go. At least, that’s what I think I said. I took the stairs two-at-a-time as I started down, but that soon proved to be too dangerous a tactic, so I dialed the urgency back a little and settled into a one-by-one descent. Tanned and mellow, loosely garbed nudists and dreadlocked dudes passed by me on their way up from a day of sunbathing in the heavy, bronze August light. The staircase itself is shadowed and cool, snaking along a gully in the cliff-side amid stands of west-coast cedar, poplar and the odd birch. Clumps of oversized ferns open in the various cusps of hillocks a few metres off the south side of the path. As I made my way down, at speed, I was pelted by what looked in the dimness like scissor-winged dark moths, small meandering swarms of them newly airborne, a sign of the oncoming night. One or two clung to the folds of my t-shirt. I brushed them off, and, passing the green plastic Johnny-on-the-Spot, emerged from the trees onto the beach sand at the foot of the stairs.
I couldn’t see anything that looked like a concert. It took a moment to orient myself. Scattered beach-goers were still perched against logs, facing the Georgia Strait, watching the sunset in the west across the water. A naked, deeply tanned old man nodded and passed me. Nothing out of the ordinary seemed to be happening. I thought I might have missed Taylor Ho Bynum.
And then I heard what sounded like a Harmon-muted horn, a little faint, off to the right of the stairs. Perched against one of the many driftwood logs that serve as breaks and that define limited privacies amid this reach of open public space, Taylor – shirt off – was playing to some seagulls who had waddled up to him, curious. I came over and sat on the log next to his. There seemed to be a few other people around the space, at their own chosen logs, who were listening, too. Most of the folks around us were couples, however, out for some kind of romantic postcard moment. The seagulls squawked at Taylor’s playing, and he engaged in a little playful conversation with them, before they wandered off. The couple I took for lovers looked over, once, then went back to themselves. The Harmon mute on the cornet gave his sound an intimacy, a hush that was a little swallowed in the rhythmic wash of ocean on sand, and in the wide-open air. You had to be sitting close by to hear.
Taylor finished what he was playing, set down his horn, and put on his shirt. I came over to him and said hello. He’s a very affable, open person, and chatted for a few minutes, telling me how on the very first leg of his bicycle tour – what would probably amount to 1800 miles over the course of five or six weeks, from Vancouver to Tijuana, playing concerts and ad hoc gigs along the way – he had fallen and cut his leg and arm; he had just been washing his cuts in ocean water, which he told me he hoped would work as a kind of natural antiseptic. (Taylor’s own account of his accident, and of playing on Wreck Beach, can be found in his on-line journal for his Bicycle Tour.)
Another listener, whom I recognized from jazz festival gigs this past June and whose name, if I remember right, is Michael, sat down on the log opposite, and joined in the casual talk.
Taylor noticed that the sun was beginning to set in earnest, and said he ought to play some music, like he’d intended. He was concerned that he might be too loud for the thinning community of beach-goers around us, so he placed a soft hat over the bell of his cornet. He improvised an angled fanfare for a little under ten minutes, eventually removing the hat and letting the horn sing out a bit more fully. Michael and I sat a few feet on either side of him as he played, facing the water. The open ocean seemed more or less to swallow up the sound – I don’t think there was a danger of him being too loud here – while the cedars lining the embankment behind us occasionally bounced a cluster of notes back toward us, gently resonant. He was recording himself on an iPad that he had placed to his right, against the log. He put both performances on Sound Cloud – they’re called “Gulls” and “Wrecked at Sunset” (the latter presumably in honour both of Wreck Beach and his crash) – and you can easily make out the ways in which he shifts from counterpointing his lines with the aural textures of the local biosphere through a form of call and response, leaving space for those ambient sounds to overcome his notes before reasserting his voice in tandem with that soundscape, shifting foreground and background, and finally, to my ear, melding his voice into that variegated chorus. You can hear at the close of “Wrecked at Sunset,” if you listen closely, the trees returning his melodies like ghosts.
For those few minutes, it felt like Taylor had begun to initiate a musical ecology: situated and embodied, even a little wounded, this wasn’t a “concert” but a shared auditory space, or better: a temporary entry into the layered networks of place, a kind of sonic reciprocity. The inescapably linear monody produced by the cornet gains depth and polymorphous heft by combining expressive assertion with attentive deference, by concocting instances of responsive, correspondent exchange. A conversing. Not playing for so much as playing along, playing with.
|Actual sunset with which Taylor Ho Bynum was playing on Wreck Beach– including a couple in the right foreground.|
After Taylor finished, and we chatted a little more, one of the RCMP officers who patrol the shore strolled past, and politely suggested that the beach would be closing at dark, and it was time to go. Taylor picked up his horn, and played the Miles Davis outro tag-line from “The Theme,” a light-hearted nod to the historical spectres of improvisers who inevitably haunt our musical memories and an acknowledgement, by quirkily twisting jazz convention, of the ways in which this was no concert, no outdoor club date. He packed up his horn, and picked up his bike, which he had carried down to the beach and which he would have to carry back up the stairs with him. And that was that.
Here’s a recording from two years ago. In Guelph for the colloquium and jazz festival, on September 9, 2011, following a talk and a reading by Jayne Cortez, I read a suite of poems from Embouchure, which was then pretty hot off the press, accompanied by Eric Lewis improvising on trumpet and cornet. The introduction is by our good friend Sara Villa. You can visit my Sound Cloud page for more audio, or check out the audio section of my web page.
I have been listening to Atemwende, a recent CD of music composed by Bojan Vuletić for string quartet and trumpet. His work is new to me, and I bought the CD because of the presence of Nate Wooley on the recording. The composition is a suite in nine movements, and each section is derived from Vuletić’s reading of a poem by Paul Celan. These aren’t settings of text, and there is no vocalist, but Wooley’s idiosyncratic trumpet lines often cleave close to the range and timbre of the human voice, and the music sometimes seems to aspire to the condition, to the textures, of speech, particularly in the trumpet obbligatithat occur in most of the movements. I can’t really comment knowledgeably on Vuletić’s compositional method, although there are times when the textures he achieves remind me of the chamber music of Giya Kancheli, or of Krzysztof Penderecki in a rhythmic mood. But that’s just an impression: the music is accomplished and well-crafted.
It’s very tempting to hear the suite as a series of sonic allegories, as mimicking the collapse of meaning in much of Celan’s later work – a poetry that skirts the epistemic and phonemic edges of its own language. Vuletić invites exactly such an interpretation when he cites, in lieu of a liner note, a key passage from Der Meridian, Celan’s 1960 acceptance speech for the Georg Büchner Prize (the translation, uncredited on the package, is by Rosmarie Waldrop):
Poetry is perhaps this: an Atemwende, a turning of our breath. Who knows, perhaps poetry goes its way—the way of art—for the sake of just such a turn? And since the strange, the abyss and Medusa’s head, the abyss and the automaton, all seem to lie in the same direction—is it perhaps this turn, this Atemwende, which can sort out the strange from the strange? It is perhaps here, in this one brief moment, that Medusa’s head shrivels and the automaton runs down? Perhaps, along with the I, estranged and freed here, in this manner, some other thing is also set free?
Celan’s challenging poetic, I want to say, ties neither to inspiration – to the romanticizing of personal transcendence – nor to expiration – to a fraught modernist teleology of collapse. Instead, it seeks in the dissolute fraying textiles of his own language (a dire and lyrical German that offers him both enmeshment and estrangement) a semiosis, a graining of air across the larynx. Celan’s voice, the “I” that finds itself estranged poetically from itself, that appears to inhere in that very estrangement, can also temporarily – extemporaneously, for “one brief moment” – find the means to sing: es sind / noch Lieder zu singen jenseits / der Menschen (Faddensonnen, “Threadsuns”). That passing contact with a music other than or “beyond the human” can happen so fleetingly it’s hard to trust it happens at all: it’s worth listening to Celan himself read to hear if that breathturn can be made audible in his own elocution.
Eric Kligerman reads Celan’s Atemwendedifferently, as the moment in a poem when mimesis dissolves into a terrifying, stony silence; representation, as achieved semiosis, collapses into empty phonemes (as it does, literally, at the close of Celan’s Keine Sandkunst, “No More Sandart” – Tiefimschnee, / Iefimnee, / I – I – e), a loss which for Kligerman can be mapped over “the horror of an historical erasure” (118-9), an address to the unspeakable event of the Shoah. Celan’s poetry, for me, offers no simple redemption, but neither does it fall to pieces before the unspeakable; I take Kligerman’s point, but I still want to claim that Celan’s words effect a contingent but necessary return to the aural grounds, the sound-loam, into which human speech roots itself and from which it emerges. It’s risky, I think, to attempt what Vuletić attempts in recasting Celan musically, in as much as those settings might pretend as glib heurisms to give voice to the unspeakable, rather than, as Celan seems to seek to do, to find a language that takes up a fraught alterity at its core. “After Auschwitz,” as Theodor Adorno puts the problem in Negative Dialectics, “our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims; they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate,” because such sense-making, for Adorno, is altogether too bleak, an “absolute negativity” (361). Celan’s poems, I believe, respond to this terrible linguistic quandary, this crisis in sense itself, not by refusing to speak, but instead by attempting to voice that resistance as feeling, as such.
It’s tempting for me to hear Nate Wooley’s untempered trumpet lines in Vultelić’s suite as a tense, unruly sound-commentary on the through-composed string quartets. Wooley sounds very occasionally like a kind of Maurice André-Chet Baker hybrid, but more often produces a species of brittle, breathy, steel-wool (pardon the pun) sound. The seventh section, named for an early Celan poem Zähle die Mandeln, opens with a single tone (a concert G?) attenuated through circular breathing and played into what sounds like an aluminum pie-plate (I have seen Taylor Ho Bynum produce a similar timbre using a CD-R as a mute); the quick, resonant rattle not only picks up overtones, but also essentially de-tunes the sound, shivering the harmonics into a myriad of metallic threads; when the note moves a whole step, and Wooley’s starts alternating between G and A, the effect is to overlay a stannic breathy wash onto the audible effort of embouchure and string to find the sweet spot in their given pitches, to make their notes resonate and sing. At those brief moments, as sound-grain and resonance pull at each other, I think I hear a kind of breathturn begin.
Adorno, Theodor W. Negative Dialectics. Trans. E. B. Ashton. New
York: Continuum, 1973. Print.
Celan, Paul. Collected Prose. Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop. Manchester:
Carcanet, 1986. Print.
Kligerman, Eric. Sites of the Uncanny: Paul Celan, Specularity and the
Visual Arts. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007. Print.
Vuletić, Bojan. Recomposing Art: atemwende. Nate Wooley and the
Mivos Quartet. Ignoring Gravity Music IGM 12-13. 2012.