12 March 2019

Sleeve Notes for Other Worlds, by Maggie Nicols and Peter Urpeth

Here are the sleeve notes I was invited to write for Other Worlds, a duet recording by pianist Peter Urpeth and vocalist Maggie Nicols, issued on compact disc in 2017 on the FMR label, although from the look of the website it appears to be out of print—copies are still available from Squidco and other distributors, I think. The music deserves wider circulation, and it was an honour to write this brief piece.


Other Worlds

These duo improvisations were originally made for the development of the soundtrack for Seán Martin and Louise Milne’s 2011 documentary, A Boat Retold. A few short sequences made the final cut. Fortunately, we can hear on this album something close to its initial and fully realized form: a pair of aqueous, intimate and mesmerizing extemporaneous suites. Maggie Nicols, I’m told, came to the title—or the title came to her—after re-listening to the recordings. The music she and Peter Urpeth share combines the exploratory and the attentive, shifting between moments of assertion and accommodation, of provocation and conversation, of sounding out and listening in. The phrase Other Worlds suggests not only a combination of allure and unknowing, of the worldly and the strange, but also a search by the duo for its own nascent, unfolding narrative, sound-tracking their mutual reach toward each other’s sound-worlds and outward, together: an opening up to the textures and audible flows of the living worlds around them. There are moments, at the beginning of the second piece, when the vocalist veers on her own into what seems like a kind of ur-Gaelic patter, syllables contingently and playfully feeling their way into what might be meaning, but never quite arriving, never quite coming to ground.
At least that’s what I hear, since I don’t speak Gaelic. She offers us something just the other side of words, distilling a ludic alterity that’s sonically palpable in the edgy grain and in the throat-singing overtones that come and go along her sometimes fierce, sometimes yielding melodic fractals. The piano functions as resonant accompaniment, drawing out and layering harmonics, supporting and deepening their exchange. But as each improvisation unfolds Urpeth quickly becomes co-creative collaborator; piano and voice variously merge and diverge, unknitting temporary concord into contrapuntal banter, then stitching threads and coaxing excursuses into newly discovered intersections and emergent, evanescent alignments. What I pick up on, as I listen, is the pianist’s decisive, responsive and protean touch, the haptic give-and-take of a genuine reciprocity—the point being, I think, to attend on their itinerant and vitally otherwise communion, a collision of quickened but separate attentions, and to follow where they go.
The sound of this particular recording is capacious, yet close. I overhear their shared and mutually shaped space, as notes seem to bounce and scatter along the walls of The Vortex on an empty afternoon. I find myself proximately immersed in their interchange, amid stream, virtually part of it. The music of Peter Urpeth and Maggie Nicols remains warmly open and consistently welcoming: an invitation. The poignant release that the closing minutes of the second piece enacts, as they let go of each other and as their lines come apart and dissolve into ambient sound—the voices of children playing outside the club, an outer world that has been present throughout the recording—offers a deeply moving enactment of what their music accomplishes, here: a lyricism of possibility, an open-hearted grace.





05 March 2019

Song for Song For (Elegy for Joseph Jarman, 1937-2019)

I'm a good few weeks late with this, which was written soon after Joseph Jarman's passing in early January.  I haven't been keeping up with the blogging for at least a year now; things should change soon. In any case, this is for Joseph Jarman out of deep respect for what I believe his music and his poetry have taught me. And how his work has taught me more about how to listen.


Song for Song For
(Joseph Jarman, 1937-2019)

whoever heard about a better way to dance, then did;
whoever sensed life soon enough gets over with itself;
whoever got called to call out hardline America;
whoever learned to ghost-finger an alto’s sacred glyph,

a baritone’s raw mark-up language, a tenor’s thick throat;
whoever showed righteous moxy in situations when
righteous moxy was not exactly needed; whoever 
testified to the unkempt scurf of little instruments;

whoever understood the fraught, feral imperatives
of compassion; whomever good gumption never let go;
whoever decided on fiercely striated face paint
most gigs, most nights; whoever chased “uncharted microtones”;

whoever caught nothing shy of the heft of complete light; 
whoever said, “I seek new sounds / because new sounds / seek 
                                                                                                     me.”


09 November 2018

Leaf Meme, Nitobe Memorial Garden (Poem)

Here is my version of an Instagram poem. Or one of them. My take on Rupi Kaur, maybe. I wrote the text and took the photo yesterday in the Nitobe Memorial Garden on a lunchtime walk with my wife Christina, to whom the poem is dedicated. It was pretty quick. There was a little tweaking and polishing and editing today, but not much, as I combined them into something meme-like. And also not.


11 September 2018

Remarks for Hovering at the Edge (IICSI Guelph Colloquium, 13 September 2018)

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)

First Half.
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
Des mots
Comme à la radio
And,
                        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.

11 August 2018

Some Musics, for Ken Pickering (poem)

Here is a brief elegy for Ken Pickering, who passed away yesterday and will be sorely missed.


Some Musics
for Ken Pickering

Some musics draw you in and pull you near.
Some musics sound what words fall short about.
Some musics free you up enough to hear
what offers a brief means of letting go.

Some musics can’t be bought again, even
by special order at Black Swan Records.
Some musics refuse the done, the given.
Some musics have a way of happening

that defies and embraces love at once.
Some musics winnow a few greasy vowels
down to their consequential resonance.
Some musics make life a bit more worthwhile. 

Some musics have little to do with notes.
Some musics improvise what can’t be said.
Some musics stir what grieves and celebrates.
Some musics keep good company in loss.


31 July 2018

Voicing Dissent: Petra Haden's Other America (LA Sojourn, Part 1)

I've been listening to Petra Haden's recordings for years now. I've never had the pleasure of hearing her sing live, but still respond to a vibrant directness, a deeply engaging vitality, that inheres in her music, particularly in the overdubbed choric covers of popular song that she’s been self-releasing through YouTube and Facebook. I associate her vibrancy with an adaptive, attentive and essentially improvisatory approach to singing—improvisatory not despite the compositional fixity of any recording, but as a structural principal of this kind of recording. That claim needs to be argued, rather than taken as a given, and making a version of that argument is what I’m starting to do in the essay I’m posting here; it’s a paper that I delivered on Friday, March 30, 2018, at UCLA during the annual conference of the American Comparative Literature Association, as part of a seminar called ‘“Stay Woke”: The Politics of Protest Song,’ organized and chaired by Bronwyn Malloy of the University of British Columbia. I’m working with Petra Haden’s cover of the David Bowie-Pat Metheny Group collaboration, “This Is Not America,” which is the theme song from the 1985 spy-thriller The Falcon and the Snowman, to try to discover the ways in which dissent voices itself not necessarily as dissonance or discord but rather in the re-figurations of plurality in the varietals of community represented by choral song: to concoct a multiplicity out of an initial gesture at negation or lyric refusal, the promise of an America sounded from what it is not or what it refuses to be. Many of her covers of film themes and of pop and pop kitsch (such as Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”) operate neither as satire nor as mere celebration, but produce a form of Americana – Haden’s collaborations with Bill Frisell and with Jesse Harris, as well as her work with her father Charlie Haden’s legacy operate in this vein, in my view – that sustains a democratizing impulse in its aural blend of irony and joy; her songs open up an auditory and audible space in which an attentive and open-hearted America can begin to hear itself more fully.






13 June 2018

Sounding Promise in the Present Tense: IICSI Vancouver Colloquium, June 22-24, 2018

This year’s IICSI colloquium—Sounding Promise in the Present Tense: Improvising Through Troubled Times—happens during the opening weekend of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, from Friday June 22 to Sunday June 24, 2018. All of the talks, presentations, and performances, which are free and open to the public, take place in room C420 of UBC Robson Square, the downtown Vancouver campus of the University of British Columbia, located underneath the Vancouver Art Gallery. By my count, this is the tenth Vancouver colloquium supported by the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI) and by its parent research initiative, Improvisation, Community and Social Practice (ICASP), which have been presented almost annually here since 2007. Rainbow Robert, from Coastal Jazz, and I have curated this year’s colloquium, blending various modalities of and approaches to improvisation. Here is the provocation I put together to suggest some of the potential overarching themes and trajectories for our event:

At this year’s colloquium for the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation, presented in collaboration with the Vancouver International Jazz Festival and Coastal Jazz, presentations and performances will address questions around what it means to improvise in a challenging and uncertain present. What roles can the improvising arts play to address cultural and social turbulence? How might improvisation both settle on and unsettle our senses of what matters now? How does improvising confront our enmeshments in a heavily mediated and diverse world? What sorts of connections and resistances does improvisation enact? How might improvisation involve practices of disruption and of reconciliation? Of protest and of healing? Of undoing, of re-mixing, of co-creation? What senses of promise can improvisations sound in a time of unease and displacement?

We have expanded from two to three days of programming, and part of our focus this year involves making space for indigenous performances and community work. On Friday, June 22, we will be presenting Tla’Amin youth activist, singer-songwriter Ta’Kaiya Blaney. We will also be featuring a performance-discussion by Blue Moon Marquee, and a day of workshops and presentations on community engagement through improvisation; some of this latter work has emerged from the influence of Jo-Ann Episkenew, and we have dedicated the day to remembering her legacy.

There will be artist keynotes on Saturday and Sunday from drummer-composer Scott Amendola (titled “Stretch Woven”) and guitarist Nels Cline (“Improvising from the Get Go”). Writer Gillian Jerome will give a poetry reading on Sunday morning, and writers Dina del Bucchia and Jen Sookfong Lee will record a live “Can’t Lit” podcast on Saturday. Percussionist-improvisers Joe Sorbara and Dylan van der Schyff will discuss their co-creative approaches to improvisation, and British singer-songwriter Gwyneth Herbert will present  her piece “Letters I Haven’t Written.” Guitarist Aram Bajakian and poet-singer Alan Semerdjian will discuss their collaboration involving musical settings of poetry around the Armenian genocide.

I’ll post expanded blog entries on each of our presenters in the coming days. In the meantime, check out some of the links above. And feel free to come on out any or all of the colloquium presentations: there are going to be some exciting, powerful and compelling moments!