Friday, January 8, 2021

Tape is rolling…take one…

The cassette tape.
  A technology from the 70s.
  One in a long line of sound carriers with it’s own admirable and idiosyncratic qualities.  My parents gave me a portable radio and cassette recorder for my 16th birthday.  One of the things you could do with it was record the radio broadcast right onto the tape.  At the time, that was very new and very cool.  I tuned in that evening to WBJC, a local Baltimore station that hosted a show called “Helen’s Explorations in Jazz”.  I wish I knew who Helen was, her delivery was quintessentially 1970s.  “Vibrations beautiful people” was how she opened the proceedings.  She began with  Charles Mingus’ “Prayer for Passive Resistance” including a gut wrenching sermon on tenor saxophone from Yusef Lateef.  I recorded the entire program.  I still have this tape and every time I’ve listened to it it’s as if I’m transported right back to that night, enraptured with music that spoke to me simultaneously of the past, present and future.  

I have other tapes as well.  Hundreds actually.  Tapes of myself practicing the saxophone.  Tapes of jam sessions with friends.  Tapes of rehearsals, recitals and gigs.  And somehow miraculously, they’ve made it this far.  They are not well organized or labeled and I’ve been tempted to part with them many times knowing that they are slowly disintegrating the longer they sit on the shelf.  But I have some kind of archivist bug that won’t allow me to do that.  Or maybe the whole thing is simply a matter of obsessiveness meets housecleaning.  In either event I’ve decided to face reality and have taken up the charge to digitize each one.  It’s a weird psychological journey to take, being suddenly confronted with some long lost episode from the past.  The first few weeks were all day and night affairs just getting things set up and trying to find a flow, dealing with glitches and sudden problems.  That and questioning my sanity several times each day.  More than once I almost bailed, just wanting to heave the whole lot out the door.  

And in the end I really don’t know how much will be worth saving.  Even less will be worth sharing, we’ll see.  Some have great sentimental value, such as the recordings of my mother and I from 1974 playing tunes together like “Just in Time”, “Take the A Train” and “Here’s that Rainy Day”.  There is one of us playing “Night Train” (my favorite tune at the time) with the drummer and trumpet player from the band she had in Baltimore that worked in the early sixties.  Her organ playing had immense drive.  My wife heard me playing this recording from the other room and asked what it was.  What she could hear of it sounded good to her, she thought it might have been some early jazz.  That made me feel good but I told her that in spite of that I would never share it due to my embarrassment over my playing at the time.  Incredulous, she pointed out, “you were fourteen, people will understand that.”  “Embarrassment doesn’t have any rules”, I replied.  “So you’re still fourteen then?”  “Yes, and I don’t sound any better now than I did then!”.  That was my closing remark on the subject.  I don’t know what’s more embarrassing, my playing, my reaction to it or writing about it.  Things did get a little better though.  Of potential interest to jazz fans might be some of the sessions from The Closet in Baltimore, mid-eighties, where I played with the late saxophonist Arnold Sterling and another with fellow saxophonist Gary Thomas.  Whether any of this ever gets shared it will at least have to wait until everything is loaded into the computer and I can begin the process of cleaning up the sound which in the case of the earliest tapes is rather rough.  

A friend asked me if at the time I ever had any intention of using these tapes for anything or were they just for posterity.  Neither actually.  It was all done pretty casually just to listen to in the short term, as a means of assessment.  I recall a gig I did at Sweet Basil here in NYC (a club long since gone) with trumpeter Terumasa Hino’s band in ’84 or ’85.  Larry Willis was on piano, Ron McClure on bass and Billy Hart on drums.  Ron had a small tape recorder with him on stage recording the gig and during the break was playing it for the other guys trying to nail down something about a tempo.  At one point he says “the tape doesn’t lie!”  I remember thinking, actually it does lie, that’s exactly what it does.  It’s an approximation at best, especially when it’s some hand-held deal, recording from the floor of the stage.  

Now that this recording technology, sketchy as it was, was available to musicians it seemed to accelerate a certain process of idealization.  This went along with commercial recordings, radio and even PA systems in which the ideal of good sound changed from what was possible and natural acoustically to what was achievable through electronic means.  I recall a gig that saxophonist Jan Garbarek did at Fat Tuesday’s with bassist Eberhard Weber in a quartet.  What was amazing was that the sound coming from the PA system in this small club sounded exactly like their records on ECM, huge and expansive with that trademark reverb that ECM is associated with.  It was the first time I had encountered that and I was very impressed.  Having experienced everything that has transpired since then, I’m no longer so sure.  No fault of theirs, it’s simply the fact that the way we think of sound has changed and something always gets lost in such a process.  Incidentally I have a cassette in my collection of Jan Garbarek playing at Blues Alley in Washington DC from 1981.  Guitarist Bill Frisell was in the band.  I don’t think anyone had heard of Bill yet, certainly not my roommate and fellow saxophonist from Baltimore, Tom McCormick, who attended the show.  I remember him telling me about it when he got back.  We loved Jan Garbarek but Tom was equally enthused and effusive about “this guitar player, he didn’t play a single lick all night!”  I was trying to imagine what that would even have sounded like.  It was intriguing the way he said it and I think it actually had a formative effect on me even though I wasn’t at the concert.  It’s just as intriguing to realize that before recordings were widespread this word of mouth description of music and events must have played a much larger role in the development of the music.  It’s as if your imagination kicks in and the sky’s the limit.  Once we actually hear someone we tend to classify and qualify right away, even if we like it.  Ironically, while the role of recordings has been integral to the development of the music they can also be limiting.  However, Tom knew the sound person at Blues Alley and got a cassette of that gig directly from the sound board, and it sounds great!  I was probably supposed to give it back to Tom, maybe it’s not too late.

Fast forward (no pun intended) to today when owning or handling physical media of any kind has almost become an oddity.  But more than ever we still have this technologically induced set of sonic ideals.  The received wisdom I got from listeners back in the day was that “live” was always better, that recordings were never as good as being there.  They are certainly different experiences, that is for sure.  But I was also a bit uneasy about that declaration of superiority.  Certainly recordings do not replace live performance but they are their own mode of expression with enough differences to make the comparison a bit misleading.  I’ve greatly enjoyed making recordings over these many years as well as my experiences playing live.  But those live experiences have also changed due to technology and not in every case for the better.  Playing music without a PA system, without recording or video streaming is very rare and increasingly difficult to do.  It should be the easiest thing in the world, just show up and play but “live” is not so live anymore.  I’ve spoken about this at length and often wish that I could find something better to talk about.  It remains an unresolved and important aspect of how we go forward but in the past year that has all become moot.  The act of making music for one another in person has also become a rarity.

I’ve not done any live streaming during this time and have preferred instead to avoid as much as possible the simulation of personal interaction on line.  This blog and my e-mail correspondence are about it.  It feels good but I’ll have to make some decisions when things begin to open back up again.  I’m curious to see how folks will readjust to being together.  I know I don’t want to do things the same way I was doing them before but the social environment will certainly be a determining factor.  Streaming and interactive video don’t speak to me as a social medium let alone an artistic one.  Recordings I understand, I’ve always regarded them as documentation of a process born out of live performance and I think that’s as far as it goes for me.  I expect that coming out of this period artists and venues will begin to see these new technologies as a new normal, if we haven’t already.  I am hopeful that there may be others like me who are moved by interactions that do not require electricity, speakers and screens.  After a year without having played a single concert I’m beginning to understand a bit better what patience requires and what it may mean to create the conditions that invite the kind of experience I’m speaking about.  I’ve been quite content with playing the horn at home every day and feeling in no rush whatsoever to “make things happen”.  Lest I mislead anyone, there is no lack of inspiration or motivation in this and it all feels quite natural at this stage.  

I’ve also been thinking about the commitment that comes with being together in person.  I don’t know if I ever thought so consciously about it before but what it really amounts to is our willingness and need to take care of each other, something we might only think about in an emergency.  But beyond that, if someone is hungry you offer them something to eat.  If someone is lonely you spend some time with them.  If someone wants to talk, you listen.  Even the smallest things, such as a passing smile are truly a matter of life and death.  It’s our time, which we measure by a physical lifespan.  Spending time with someone is your very own life.  This is also how I hear music.  

I’ve spoken often about embodiment and have recently posted about meaning in music.  They are one and the same to my mind.  This embodiment is profound and yet simple, involving the simplest of means, the simplest of movements.  In talking about musical ideas we might understand that there is a physical basis for every idea we have.  Our bodies being the model of thought, this physicality is embedded in language, manifest in everything we do, make and see.  The sounds and movements we see and make are primary, the basis for everything in our world, our experience.  The fact that they can be arranged according to the imagination is fantastic.  And of course we have many forms of mediation, many ways in which to convey, amplify and disseminate our ideas.

Having said all of this I am well aware of the fact that artistic expression has found some measure of vitality in digital form even as I find my spirit largely moving the other way.  So I’m happy to share something with you that ideally might have happened in person but instead came about as a result of necessary physical distancing.  A few months ago dancer clyde fusei forth did a live streamed presentation as part of Zen Mountain Monastery’s 40th year anniversary using some music that I had written.  We had spoken some years back about a possible collaboration and this seemed like a potential first step towards making that happen one day.  She chose two short pieces from “Non Sequiturs” a suite I wrote in 2011 as a commission from Chamber Music America.  These pieces are very sparse and allow a great deal of space in which to work.  Later on she made a video version for me and I asked her if I could share it on the blog.  In seeing what she’s done I begin to wonder where the boundaries are between sound and movement.  I don’t think there are any.  

I've asked clyde to write something about the project.  These are her words, which I find to be as palpable as her dance...

Main North and Vertical Prose (or Enter Before Ready)
a project with Ellery Eskelin
October and December, 2020

At this distance
between signals and pixels,
Within bandwidth of variable strength
and dependability,
While yearning for that sweet living vibration
we may not hear until summer

Enter before ready.

I have listened to this music
Just enough to forget it
until this moment
So it arrives new as I arrive

to my self, one tiny awareness at a time
Awarenesses like microscopic birds accumulating within
my hollow form, whatever form enters I accept
Until I am fully present with all the things:
Then I let the flock move me.
I move the flock, moving
beside and within and at a distance
from the music also entering and arriving
and moving.

Enter before ready.
Every moment an opportunity to trust
that the moment will survive my entrance
and whatever comes after. 

In practice, what I did was enter into the work before any sense of preparation had set in. No time to feel confident or unconfident or have even a definitive pathway in mind. No time to try and hook up with the music. I did not know which part of the floor I headed for or what I would do there. I only entered and saw my entering one moment at a time until the entrance was complete. Then I arrived. The way I practice arrival these days is to close my eyes and feel the shape of my form in as much detail as possible. I visualize the shape of my form as hollow then see it filling with the accumulation of sensations and awarenesses that may take the shape of cells, or birds, or waves of light, etc. I never really know. I accept whatever comes but often it is crows. Go figure. Sometimes this takes a longer time, sometimes very quick. Doesn’t matter. I let myself arrive in this way until I experience my form completely full of the accumulated awarenesses moving in unison. Sometimes the flock moves the form, sometimes the form moves the flock. Sometimes the music and I enter and arrive simultaneously, sometimes not. Sometimes it’s too porous to separate one from the other. But every movement I enact as a body-form visible to a viewer I am experiencing as an internal flock in unison. This naturally breaks down and comes back, like a murmuration of starlings, somewhat leaderless. The image itself usually gives way to a physical experience within a few minutes, but when it’s useful I call it back up. Within this somatic process, I am composing and attuning to numerous influences (which in this case included Ellery’s musical composition). There are choices being made within the awareness; there are entrances into each “now” constantly happening and then raveling (or unraveling) out as they will. When I enter the exit, an ending develops. The ‘piece’ ends, and then (if all goes well) continues as the rest of the day.

- clyde fusei forth

clyde fusei forth, Artistic Director of Lokasparśa Dance Projects is on Instagram and also maintains her own blog.  I especially enjoyed her most recent post “Do It Anyway”.  The video was done during her recent residency at Mount Tremper Arts on December 20, 2020.

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