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A few remembrances from the inimitable John Cage:
“The sound experience I prefer to all others is silence,” he says in this short clip on You Tube. And for most of us on the planet, says Cage, the sound of silence is actually traffic. He rhapsodizes that the sound of traffic is constantly modulating and cannot be predicted. “I don’t need sound to talk to me,” he says simply.
My favorite vignette about Cage has always been the one that I heard during a Laurie Anderson performance. Asked to interview him for the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, Laurie was intent upon asking him a really difficult question: Is life getting better or is it getting worse?
When she finally did pose this query to Cage, he looked at her intently and then answered in a very measured fashion:
“Well of course it is getting better Laurie. It’s just that it is happening so slowly.”
In the “Earth stood still for a minute. Seriously dude, it did” category: My son Bryce came with me on a 2 hour pilgrimage from Boston to Hanover, New Hampshire–Dartmouth College–on Thursday night to hear and see Jason Moran perform with The Bandwagon (Tarus Mateen on bass, Nasheet Waits on drums and guest artist Marvin Sewell on guitar.) I’ve written about Jason on this blog before, but in case you didn’t catch it I can say it again and again: He is one of the greats. If you ever get a chance to hear him, take it.
Jason has been exploring the deeper connections between jazz and the visual arts for several years. Earlier albums pay homage to the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Egon Schiele and Robert Rauschenberg. Recently he has collaborated with and explored the works of visual artists including Joan Jonas and Adrian Piper.
In the fall I went to Washington DC to hear In My Mind, a multi-media performance that is a tribute to jazz piano god Theolonious Monk. Jason’s latest undertaking, Milestone, continues to explore the boundaries of jazz performance, the audience/performer interface and how the personal and the public sides of an artist weave in and out. The players move around the stage, sit facing the audience at times, just listening to previously taped conversations along with the audience. Jason is moving outside the armature of a typical jazz performance and looking to create a different kind of experience for anyone who is there, including the musicians. And even though Jason’s wife, soprano Alicia Hall Moran, was not present at the concert, she was very much there in spirit. Her singing and spoken voice are accessed repeatedly, giving the sense that her ambient presence is hovering over everything happening on stage and in the hall.
As Jason describes his approach with Milestone: “We made a full-length theater piece out of an ordinary jazz concert, and Tarus, Nasheet, Marvin and I didn’t really know too much about stagecraft so we got a crash course from Alicia. She was the director and my collaborator as a writer. In Milestone I wanted us to play the part of ourselves almost, and bring the audience inside the heads of this band; show that while we’re up on stage and you’re looking at us, we’re involved in our own examination of you.”
Jason, Marvin, Tarus and Nasheet stayed afterwards to talk about the music. What righteous, thoughtful, soulful men each of them is. When I asked a question about that fuzzy line between the personal and the work of art itself, Jason made a very provocative comment. He said that he cared about content, and it was something difficult for his kind of jazz to provide. Without lyrics, he said, the content is harder to access. With Monk’s music for example it is vital to understand that Monk’s grandparents were slaves, that faith healings were part of his heritage, that the music he made came from his experiences, and that the story of where it came from matters. Jason talked about how he wants to make his own music more content-rich (my phrase) by including and exploring the personal dimension as well as new forms of experiential delivery.
Ah, content. It’s an ongoing question for me as a non-representational artist who values mystery, the unresolved, the uncertain, the unspoken. Jason is extending the frame in which his music sits, exploring new and bold ways to bridge the gap between maker and listener/observer. All the way home, driving in moonlight off the snow covered fields of New Hampshire, I kept thinking of the Seamus Heaney comment about the wiresculpture qualities of Eastern European poetry: “The density of the unspoken thing is where the meaning lies.”
Like the universe, my only answer to all of this is, Yes.
Alex Ross writes about music for The New Yorker. He is so reliably brilliant, and my musician sister Rebecca and I both turn to his articles first when the magazine arrives at our respective homes. Then we call and talk about the nuance he captured or yet another poignant insight. His writing is fluid, seductive and informed. After a long year of waiting, his new book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, is finally out and worthy of a hard cover purchase.
Under Ross’ expert hand, the extraordinary evolution of music over the last 100 years is delivered up as comprehensible, a kind of ordered chaos. There’s nothing canonical about his approach, but the journey from the fin de siecle in Vienna to Stalin’s Russia to modern minimalism is engaging, lively, highly textured.
Here’s an excerpt from his introduction:
Berg was right: music unfolds along an unbroken continuum, however dissimilar the sounds on the surface. Music is always migrating from its point of origin to its destiny in someone’s fleeting moment of experience–last night’s concert, tomorrow’s solitary jog.
The “Rest is Noise” is written not just for those well versed in classical music but also–especially–for those who feel passing curiosity about this obscure pandemonium on the outskirts of culture. I approach the subject from multiple angles: biography, musical description, cultural and social history, evocations of place, raw politics, firsthand accounts by the participants themselves.
Many of his descriptions of music during this period apply to the visual arts as well. For example:
In the twentieth century…musical life disintegrated into a teeming mass of cultures and subcultures, each with its own canon and jargon. Some genres have attained more popularity that others; none has true mass appeal…beauty may catch us in unexpected places.
And this great passage, quoted at the beginning of the book:
It seems to me…that despite the logical, moral rigor music may appear to display, it belongs to a world of spirits, for whose absolute reliability in matters of human reason and dignity I would not exactly want to put my hand in the fire. That I am nevertheless devoted to it with all my heart is one of those contradictions which, whether a cause for joy or regret, are inseparable from human nature.
–Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus
Jason Moran and Bandwagon played two sets at the Regatta Bar in Cambridge last night. I was glued to my seat through both. Jason and crew (Tarus Mateen on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums) were joined on several numbers by Jason’s wife, Alicia Hall Moran, one of which was an aria from Turandot. Who would have guessed this could be sung so beautifully with a trio of jazz musicians?
Jason pays homage to artists Adrian Piper and Joan Jonas in his performances, and last night he also gave us a small sampling from his upcoming project on Thelonious Monk, sponsored by Duke University and the San Francisco Jazz Festival. He has been asked to re-create a famous Monk concert from 1959 which he will do, but with a typical Jason Moran twist.
I don’t have language for how transforming his music is for me. It is beyond my powers to analyze or parse. He’s my favorite musician, and one of the nicest.
If you live in DC or Miami, Lisbon or Munich, you too can hear Jason perform over the next few months. For his full schedule, check out his website:
Why I Am Not a Painter
I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,
for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.
But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.
This O’Hara poem has made me laugh since I first read it years ago. Maybe I should paint a piece entitled, Why I am Not a Poet.
The first time I heard Jason Moran play jazz piano, it felt like I was listening to the soundtrack of my life. Maybe I should quality that: It sounded like the soundtrack of my creative life. When Same Mother was first released, I played it in my studio every day for months. It never grew tiresome. In fact it did quite the opposite. His music kept me energized through a very demanding period when I was getting work ready for a big show of my paintings in San Francisco. That entire series of work is infused with a Moranian impulse.
The first time I heard him play live, I spoke to him after the set and told him how much his music had influenced my artistic output. Turns out Jason is very interested in visual art, and he is particularly compelled by how visual art and music come together. His follow up recording, Artist in Residence, is a collaboration with several installation artists such as Adrian Piper and Joan Jonas.
I can’t predict what sounds could amp up your creative juices. But I can encourage you to give Jason a listen. His music, like the man himself, is intelligent, explorative, inclusive and executed with such finesse.