What I did on my summer's first weekend (part 1)

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#1 Sat, 1997-06-21 23:28
Alan Saul
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What I did on my summer's first weekend (part 1)

I apologize for crossposting this, but wanted to kill several birds with my limited sucking stones. This shotgun approach leaves many recipients with a few crumbs pertinent to Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy, or perhaps even jazz, but hopefully whole pieces of this will be of general interest.

Friday was the 69th anniversary of Eric Dolphy's birth, and Cecil Taylor came to town to celebrate with a free concert in the park (the connection was only in my mind). On a gorgeous springer day, I saw the place we're moving to for the first time and signed the lease for it, then headed downtown where the concert was taking place along with the rest of the annual Three Rivers Arts Festival. I took in some of the art, and was particularly intrigued to find a piece by Carol Kumata in the PPG Wintergarden gallery (a big glass - because of Pittsburgh Plate Glass - palace designed by Philip Johnson) that consists of probably a couple dozen silver serving platters mounted on a wall, all of which have the word "tongue" embossed on them in calligraphic script, with the word "SILENCE" painted on the wall behind them. The connection (for me only, again) is to a Cecil Taylor record on Arista from 1974 titled "Silent Tongues". Down at the Point, Water Shed 5tet was going through a sound check for their part of the show. I had brought some records their leader, Ben Opie, had laid on me, and he came over and chatted a bit and filled me in on part of their plans. One of the interesting aspects of their set was the first performance of a previously unknown Sun Ra composition titled "Satana". James Wolf recently unearthed this and many other sheets of music, and I was looking forward to hearing it. It turned out to be a fairly standard Sunny song, nicely done though not particularly revelatory for me. I won't try to analyze it since I'd just embarrass myself in front of Ben :-). Water Shed played a great set of varied music, with the addition of a theremin to Ben's toolbox that also consists of tenor, alto, and clarinet. An audience member provided a title to some nice theremin playing by shouting "Dot the i".

Cecil soon started, playing with a trio consisting of Dominique Duval? (man, I can't believe my memory is deserting me so badly, and will have to ask for help from Rick, Matt, David, Ben, ... please) on bass and ? on drums. They played an intense set of Cecil's music for about 45 minutes or so I'd guess. It was an excellent example of his art, tremendously stimulating. As a scientist (for now) I've tended to scoff a bit at discussions of tone scientists and the like (e.g., as applied to Sun Ra) because it seems to me that the methods are so dissimilar, in particular the way of going about scholarly pursuits. But listening to Cecil changed my mind somewhat. He has clearly studied nature and derived and created novel structures from it through intense devoted efforts. His music can be thought of (incompletely, certainly, this is just one aspect) as consisting of gestures. Most of these are completely unique to Cecil. I suspect a lot of people hear what he does as common to a lot of people who use clusters and the like, but his gestures are readily identifiable through their idiosyncratic rhythmic and tonal movements. Remarkably, if not surprisingly, his sidemen have learned this language and play right along. The synchronization, particularly with the drummer, was fantastic. He played an ancient wooden trap set, with a snare with a wooden rim and a little tom. I didn't hear where he said it came from, but maybe somebody can fill that in (along with his name!). They played a variety of things based on what Cecil would come up with and presumably from music that he kept having to weight down on top of the piano so it wouldn't blow away. It's clearly difficult to follow live, but the audience was large and quite into it. The couple who provided the dot the i line whistled loudly throughout and shouted encouragement, and Cecil seemed to enjoy playing along with them and the trucks on the overpass above him and the planes that flew by (just as Ben Opie had integrated a helicopter into his instrumentation earlier). The trio played one encore, then Cecil came back and played a solo encore that ended with his patented abrupt exit from the piano. He didn't dance or recite, but the music carried the day. I was struck by how old he looks, not having seen him for many years, but the drummer assured me that he's in good health and said that they are booked to lots of places in the US this summer (he mentioned NY, Boston, and I believe LA). Taylor had his accustomed energy for the most part, but didn't last quite as long as he used to when he'd play continuously for well over an hour.

Had a chance to talk with writer David Bothner afterwards, who recently moved to Ann Arbor where hopefully George Klein and others will get to know him. David had interviewed Cecil at some length, and says there are lots of goodies that he hopes to get published somewhere. Among other things we discussed were unreleased material from John Coltrane at the Village Vanguard in November 1961. It was news to me that there may be additional recordings beyond those due out in September. Does anybody have any info on these?

One of the thoughts I had because of Cecil Taylor's concert involves communicating about the music. Some artists spend a lot of energy trying to verbalize things related to their primary medium for their audience, for instance by combining words with music in various ways, or through introducing their compositions, or even providing explanations in some form or another. Other artists choose not to attempt this kind of communication, for quite good reasons. Scientists are faced with related problems, but it seemed to me that there is more of an expectation/obligation for scientists to communicate verbally. In fact, we often think of our production as being our verbal reports in the form of published papers. This doesn't satisfy, in most cases, the implied obligation to communicate with the broader audience outside our specialties, however, but that obligation seems clear, if not always consummated. Should Cecil Taylor feel compelled to report on his methods and results? There is a hunger for it, obviously, since our discussions like this are poor attempts to obtain that sort of nourishment. How excusable is not talking about your art because you can't do so adequately? I don't mean to suggest that Cecil or anybody else should feel such an obligation or feel guilty about their difficulty in expressing anything in any other form than their primary medium, I just started thinking about the issue and thought I'd mention it. Particularly in light of how much trouble David Bothner had getting the interview :-).

(part 2 to follow)

Alan Saul saul+@pitt.edu