Asymptotes, Voicings: Amirtha Kidambi, Julia Úlehla, and Darius Jones
at Ironworks, 3 July 2022
For there is a musicke where-ever there is a harmony, order or proportion; and thus farre we may maintain the musick of the spheares; for those well ordered motions, and regular paces, though they give no sound unto the eare, yet to the understanding they strike a note most full of harmony. Whatsoever is harmonically composed, delights in harmony.
—Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici (1643) The second part, Sect. 9
Give or take a weekend ago,
the five available planets
looked to align like lit crotchets
along the predawn ecliptic’s
oblique stave: zircon studs glinting
in that sky’s freshly pierced left ear.
Jump to last night’s one-off trio—
voice, voice, and alto saxophone;
the local cosmos witnessed you
concoct an ad hoc almagest,
threading a three-body problem,
weaving nascent swathes of wordless
repair across the world’s ripe wounds:
vibrant fray, orbitals, vectors
of what songs justice wants to make.
You urge us to attune, to hear:
Pure music is what you must face.
There is a tide in time, of sound.
This text is an experiment around responding to improvised music in lyric form. It was written during the morning of Monday, July 4, 2022 as a reaction to a profoundly engaging performance the night before—the closing night of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival—at Ironworks, a venue just outside of Gastown near the entrance to the Port of Vancouver on the Downtown East Side, which annually hosts a series of experimental and innovative musicking. The festival, now returned to in-person performances in the attenuated wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, has a long history of setting up one-time improvisational meetings of Vancouver-based performers with musicians who have come to town as part of the festival programme—many of which have gestated international collaborations. The evening of July 3 featured one such meeting, of Darius Jones, Amirtha Kidambi, and Julia Úlehla. New York-based saxophonist Darius Jones held a composer’s residency at Western Front in June-July 2019, commissioned by Coastal Jazz (under Artistic Director Rainbow Robert) and partially supported by the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (for which I am the UBC site coordinator) to create a composition that engaged with some of Vancouver’s improvisers; he premiered his “Vancouver Suite” for strings at Ironworks—after a three-year pandemic delay—employing Jesse and Joshua Zubot on violins, Peggy Lee on cello and James Meger on bass, with San Francisco-based percussionist Gerald Cleaver on drumkit and himself on alto saxophone, on Friday, June 24. (I’ll say more about this piece in a forthcoming post.) Darius Jones has currently taken up another residency at Western Front, this time to develop a duo with vocalist and composer Amirtha Kidambi around the poetry and thought of Sun Ra; later this week, they will be performing and discussing some of their emerging co-creative work. Vancouver-based vocalist Julia Úlehla has collaborated with both Darius Jones and Amirtha Kidambi almost a decade ago when she lived in the New York area, so their trio meeting—while in some sense a first—also emerges from a shared history. (Please follow the embedded links for more information on their music-making.)
The poem responds to an extended (around 55 minute) free improvisation that these three offered that night. It’s a little hard to describe—hence, perhaps, my response in lyric form rather than denotative prose—but essentially consisted of layers of nascent texture and vestigial melodic lines. Darius Jones began by blowing breathy, whistling overtones through his saxophone, to which the two singers responded in kind, with murmurs and whispery phonemes that very gradually gained voice and thickness; collectively, they seemed to feel their way into various surges and ebbs of sound, layering lines that looped back on, crossed over, and raveled each other. At times, ghost tones and other phasing vibrations lifted up into the room, generating a resonances palpable on a listener’s skin and ears. The sound-space took on a profundity, manifesting not so much as volume but as deepening quiet, an increasing sense of presence to the music and to each other. There were no solos, but each made space for the others, attending to shifting interactions and mutually responsive discoveries. Both Amirtha Kidambi and Julia Úlehla bring sensibilities to their performances that are vibrantly rooted—at least in part—in folk traditions, and there was for me a keen sense of connection to the human planet in the ballad-like shared melody that appeared at the close of the piece, as if all three had arrived at temporary common ground. It was a deeply moving, spiritually engaging music; it was a tremendous privilege for me to have been there in those moments.
A few explanatory notes on the poem I hope might help. The prosody is not free, despite it being correlated to a free improvisation; the stanzas and metre are built mathematically around 3! and 4!—six- and twenty-four syllable groupings, cut across by an eight-syllable line, clustered in three (for the trio of voices) 48-syllable choruses—though the last stanza adds an irruptive extra eight. Tetrameter lines like these are often found in folk ballads. This pattern emerges retroactively from the last two (italicized, eight-syllable) lines, which are quotations from the writing of Sun Ra—in this instance lifted from a 2019 essay on his poetics by Harmony Holiday. The quick drafting of this poem lends itself, for me, to a kind of free forming that the final pre-set lines lock back into compositional place/space. The quotation from the seventeenth-century Englishman Sir Thomas Browne’s autobiographical Religio Medici coordinates the revisionist cosomology of Johannes Kepler with the Ptolemaic music of the spheres to describe a spiritual listening beyond listening. See also earlier medieval versions of Ptolemy’s Almagest. Kepler’s harmonic attunement is also the source for the Urania-inspired astronomical word-music of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The three-body problem is a mathematical quandary around chaotic motion caused by the shared gravities of three celestial bodies; apparently, Kepler fudged his calculus around such quandaries in order to make the idea of harmonic planetary motion work. An alignment of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn (Sun Ra’s planet of origin) took place on Friday, June 24, 2022, the date of the premiere of Darius Jones’s Vancouver Suite, and enacted a kind of orbital harmonics of that cosmic music. The reference to justice is an oblique gesture at the U.S. Supreme Court striking down the human rights precedents set by Roe v. Wade, which has been in the air these recent weeks, among other things. I’ve been reading Nathaniel Mackey’s Double Trio lately, too. For me, the poem counterposes Afrological and Eurological cosmologies, and wants productively, somehow, to negotiate with their cross-talk. At least, that’s the idea.
Darius Jones playing Sun Ra in 2019: