I was invited to take part in the closing panel of the UBC Arts Undergraduate Society’s student conference on “Innovation.” The members of the panel were asked to discuss ways in which academic faculty could foster innovation in student research, but I seem to have missed the memo, and so I prepared a set of remarks offering a critique of the concept of innovation. I realized my mistake about five minutes before I was scheduled to speak, so I ended up improvising some comments—using bits and pieces from what I had written—on the poetics of “study” (gesturing a little at Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s work on the undercommons) and on research as question and risk rather than innovative production: that it might be better to think of ourselves as students rather than experts. I also felt that I had pitched my remarks all wrong, and that it would be better to talk with this audience than read out my prose. Still, I like what I wrote; I used this moment to start thinking about Tanya Tagaq’s music, a critical project I have been meaning to set in motion for some time. Here is the composed undelivered text I’d prepared.
Innovation Without Innovation
Kevin McNeilly, University of British Columbia
Unmade Remarks at the AUS Humanities Conference
Saturday, 16 January 2016
I want to make a few remarks to frame and to critique the ideological loading of the concept of innovation. I’m resisting the un-interrogated praise of making things new—the allure of novelty—and at the same time trying to suggest a relationship to time, a going forward (or perhaps better, outward) that can be sounded as a crucial potential in particular forms of lyric, in poetic language that W. H. Auden famously imagines as “a way of happening, a mouth.”
Approaching the end of writing The Order of Things(1966/1970), Michel Foucault admits that he discovers himself “on the threshold of a modernity that we have”—that he has—”not yet left behind” (xxiv). This unqualified “we” is epochal, its episteme described asymptotically by the reflexive acknowledgement not only of the limits of his own language, but also of a cultural latecomer’s language as such: “the question of the being of language,” as he puts it, is “intimately linked with the fundamental problems of our culture” (382). (I’m poaching and re-appropriating material, if not the argument, from John Rajchman’s 1983 essay “Foucault, or the Ends of Modernism” .) The shared cult of Bildung—linked to myths of progress, of newness, of innovation, of transcendence, of what the philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers refers to as the “epic” of our time—presently and lately, as it touches the expressive limits of its own futurity, its forward motion, can only cannibalize and repurpose itself in the guise of renewal, a mortal remix that tends to pass off an eviscerated avant garde for material discovery.
A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
So-called progress names a cultural if not an ontological imperative as a species of dire pharmakon: remedy as ruin, betterment as destruction. In the opening paragraphs of one of his last texts, Worstward Ho, Samuel Beckett articulates this imperative as driving whatever remains of self-expression in our time, the need to “go on,” and to go on saying, despite exhaustion, despite the obvious futility and emptiness of the new, despite the asymptotic approach of his language to its absolute expressive limits, its nohow: “On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on.” The work’s title parodies Charles Kingsley’s 1855 novel Westward Ho!, an extended romance of colonial expansion, masculine industry and liberal self-reliance. More recently, Beckett’s lines have often been misappropriated and repurposed as a kind of global capitalist mantra, a call to technological and corporate innovation. As readers, and fellow latecomers, we need to be more rigorous and careful about what Beckett articulates here.
Beckett’s language sloughs off the trappings of Western progress for an acknowledgement of cultural and epistemic decrepitude: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Speech deteriorates into fragmented clichés and bathetic puns; pushed to its verbal limits, the romance of expressive imperatives can only cannibalize itself. What passes for innovation or renewal reduces to tautology: “Imagination dead imagine.” For me, this fraught word-circuit allegorizes the broken teleology of the human project, its attenuated failure, a diagnosis that seems increasingly self-evident in our era of climate change, endocapitalism, exhaustive consumption, viral technocracy, global insecurity, displaced populations and supersaturated media. The imperative to innovate, however, persists as a resilient remainder, or “stirrings still” as Beckett’s last text puts it. Acknowledging the vestiges of this imaginative prod that might stir us on is one of the cultural functions of lyric, still, today. Confronted with its own extinction, Beckett’s language nonetheless enacts a thetic rhythm, a halting but persistent step beyond itself.
The American poet C. D. Wright, who died earlier this week, suggests in One with Others (2010) a comparable cultural function for poetry in our fraught, self-destructive era of “progress”: “It is a function of poetry to locate those zones inside us that would be free, and declare them so.” Wright’s declaration may sound as if she wants to recuperate naïve confession, potentially masking wreckage in aspirational nostalgia. That’s certainly a danger in advocating for poetry in an age when lyric language becomes increasingly corny, recycled and fatigued. Better understood, Wright advocates for a fracturing of interiority, a form of innovation, a freeing that doesn’t so much foster the cult of expressive genius as open intimacy onto an alterity, an outside, that refuses merely to cannibalize its own ruins.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Tanya Tagaq’s 2014 album Animism culls a lyric intensity, an embodied affective immediacy, by splicing and looping an extemporaneous, situated circular breathing derived from Inuit throat-singing back onto itself, supported by her core improvising trio with Jesse Zubot and Jean Martin, and others. Confronting the porous boundaries between the human and the animal, the corporeal and the machinic, the given and the made, the recording troubles the edges of signification, and generates its eros by turning those zones of encounter inside out. Each nascent “song” offers a kind of post-natural ecology. It innovates not by being new but by freeing up, by crossing lines, and by making vocal music from the come-and-go of those transgressive stirrings. Her/their music surges up, finds its pulse, in sustained and audible risk. There is much to say, and to say on, about this recording, but I’ll finish my own set of re-purposed texts by briefly noting how Tagaq and group re-purpose and renew—innovate through—The Pixies’s “Caribou.” A parody, perhaps, of ethnomusicological collecting, the CD opens by concocting a form of techno-shamanism with a cover not of Inuit folksong but of American post-punk, inverting salvage anthropology into a call for, if not a performance of, primordial agency—deft ululation, yes, but also voicing an acute cultural politics through expansive virtuosity, decolonizing the ear: “Give dirt to me / I bite lament / This human form / Where I was born / I now repent.” In an interview in NME Black Francis apparently disclosed that “maybe even the singer of the song is reincarnated as a caribou.” In Tanya Tagaq’s version, animistic metempsychosis emerges from speech act—thematized as repentance in the lyrics—toward verbal becoming, the self—its human form—transubstantiated through unfolding textures of voice: anthropomorphic debris reanimated, said on, sung on.
This week I’m taking part – as one of six poets – in the Art Song Lab, which is hosted by the Vancouver International Song Institute, an intensive set of early summer programs in art song performance and in academic approaches to art song. Now in its seventh year, VISI is the creative brainchild of Rena Sharon, a professor of collaborative piano studies at the UBC School of Music and one of the very finest pianists in the country. For six successive Junes, I have given lectures on poetry for VISI, and will be giving another one (on W. H. Auden this time around) on June 21. But this week, I’m a participant rather than a faculty member. The six participant poets were asked to produce a draft of an original poem in January, which would be set to music by two different composers – two art songs emerging from the same initial text. The composers then bring their draft songs to rehearsals in Vancouver, for a week culminating in a concert – “Playing with Fire” – at the Orpheum Annex on Friday, June 7, when each of the twelve compositions will receive its world premiere, as part of the month-long Songfire Festival.
On the afternoon of Sunday, June 2, we had an informative opening session with the three co-directors of Art Song Lab: poet Ray Hsu, composer Michael Park, and pianist Alison D’Amato. They invited questions and discussion – most participants had just arrived in the city, and were still orienting themselves – and then offered to give something of a demo, workshopping a composition that Ray and Michael were preparing with Alison and soprano Lynne McMurtry for its premiere later this month. During the discussion, each of the co-directors spoke about the opportunities for collaboration that the Art Song Lab offers. Ray compared the creation of art song – and of poetry itself, for that matter – to translation, an analogy that gestured back toward Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator,” though Benjamin went unmentioned. (Ray gestured at Benjamin’s notion of an Ursprache or primal language, I thought, which all works of art translate; difference becomes primary to any form of writing, any work of art.) I thought Renée Sarojini Saklikar, one of the participant poets, made a provocative point about “performance as a site of research” for poetry.
The brief, open rehearsal for Ray and Michael’s new art song was really informative, a pleasure to watch and to hear. The text for the piece involved a re-purposing of material from an interview with Lynne about art song performance, which she then sang back in a kind of lovely recursive loop; one of the lines referred to “having something to say and the confidence to say it,” which she did.
This first session for the Art Song Lab was followed by a plenary discussion for the whole of VISI; there was some thought-provoking talk about strategies for overcoming the potential hermeticism of contemporary art song and also about cultivating an aesthetic openness, an open-mindedness. I’m looking forward to seeing, and hearing, what happens this week. It was good to meet the two emerging composers who have created art songs from my work: Alex Mah and David Betz. I’m keen to hear what they have come up with. The poem I came up with is a three-part elegy for the children and teachers killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in December. Here is an audio version of the poem.
I have it from a reliable source that at one point during his speech at the ACRL conference in Indianapolis this past March, Henry Rollins re-emphasized the significant impact on his life of the music of The Clash and of the music of John Coltrane. The latter might be a bit surprising, although Rollins did record Everythingwith Charles Gayleand Rashied Ali in 1996, so Coltrane has been with him all along. He has said that he first heard Coltrane from records his mother owned, but that what he took from Coltrane’s music wasn’t spiritual or even musical, but a kind of directness, a fierce honesty that models intense communication: “I am not a musician. I have written a lot of songs but it’s just to get the words out. I always admired Coltrane for his truth and his purity. He was really going for something. He is inspiring because you can tell every moment he plays is sincere. I have never heard anything like it.” (The same thing might even be said for Joe Strummer’s gruff, insistent, committed vocals.) As far as my own listening goes, I think I have been struggling (or maybe something less agonistic: aspiring) to reconcile the collisions of Coltrane and The Clash, conflicted aesthetics aimed at what I tend to divide into the transcendent and the world-bound, the excessive and the mundane, contemplative restraint and expressive intensity. One conceptual trajectory that might bridge such bifurcations is the idea, and the practice, of what I’d call commitment. It became a key word in my Embouchureproject, and it makes a kind of sense, for me, to re-invoke it here. One of the reasons I have picked up on what Henry Rollins has to say about Coltrane’s music is that his tastes, his preferences, seem to coincide with my own: he says he is most drawn to late Coltrane, post 1964. And he’s consistently skeptical about any all-too-easy professions of enlightenment or poetic transport: he’s no mystic, but a demystifier. That doesn’t make his work any less searching, any less committed to honest, hard engagement with a will to truth, to truthfulness. But it does depend on how you understand what and when and how that truth might be.
The recent release of the “complete” studio recordings for John Coltrane’s Sun Ship – first issued in edited form posthumously, in 1971 – aims materially toward full disclosure of historical and music fact, to paint a vivid, truthful sound-picture of the improvisatory collective creative process of the Coltrane-Tyner-Garrison-Jones quartet by offering for public issue every listenable scrap of music and studio chatter extant on tape. This is definitely a music of plenitudes: the huge swathes of saxophone, the dense piano, the rolling bass-lines and the surging drums characteristic of the quartet’s last days together, and of the music Coltrane made from 1964 until his death in 1967. The session that produces Sun Ship takes place on 28 August 1965, and, apart from a first pass at the “Meditations” suite on September 2 (issued later as First Meditations), this is the last time the “classic” Coltrane quartet will record together as a unit. (McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones will leave in November, replaced by Alice Coltrane and Rashied Ali: all of this information is well-known, and well-circulated.) So in so many respects, this music has immense historical value and interest, and every detail is worth hearing. Even the fragments and outtakes can be heard as stunning performances unto themselves. The false starts and apparent missteps overflow with powerful, potent music. Everything happens.
It’s tempting to want to hear what Walter Benjamin might have called a messianic totality in these recordings, a vital archival gathering of historical minutiae – the digital imprint of every essential sonic particle – into an absolute and audible present. We can imagine ourselves there, as we listen – or can imagine the “there” of those searching performances now here, relocated in our own immediate moments. That’s how recording works, sure, but the idea of a “complete” package such as this one is to seem to place us, aurally, in close proximity to the music’s realization. And it works, of course: McCoy Tyner’s solos on both versions of “Sun Ship” are astounding instances of extemporaneous dynamism, but more than that they refuse to settle even on repeated listenings, re-creating the sound of surprise – at each return, they still never sound the same, even though they must be. Historical value collapses into what feels like an exploratory, unsettled present tense. Hearing Jimmy Garrison patiently evolve and re-shape his solo prelude to “Ascent” reaffirms his careful attention to depth of tone, to the rounded resonances of his instrument; in his ensemble work, too, I can hear foreshadows of William Parker’s elastic sense of time and line (in his recordings with David S. Ware or his In Order to Survive quartet). But that influence also seems to dissolve in the palpable immediacy of Garrison’s playing.
What strikes me most about this session both works against and strangely reinforces this idea of a reanimated plenitude, of a musical Jetztzeit. A little of the studio banter was included in the original release of Sun Ship, but now most tracks contain extended snippets of “studio conversation”; rather than mar the music in any way – they don’t, of course – and rather than merely let us hear bits of the musicians’ speaking voices, as if they are with us again in our own sound-spaces, the loose fragments of casual chatter present a stark contrast to the intensities of the performances. The quartet can shift on a dime from chuckling about a track title to overwhelmingly powerful improvisation. How is it, I keep asking myself, that a music of such depth and wonder can co-exist so unproblematically with the casual and the mundane? Though maybe, maybe, that seemingly effortless coexistence is exactly what this music can teach us, can let us overhear.