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Leroy Jenkins
Leroy Jenkins

“…the music is about weight distribution.”—Cecil Taylor

Let me start off by saying in this, my second attempt at writing a “column,” that I have many friends and acquaintances who consider themselves jazz journalists or music critics, and that I’m not one of them. I admit that we share certain goals (mainly a love of music and the desire to dissect it), and like them I do make extra pocket money by writing the occasional liner note. But that’s where the similarity ends. I also have no interest, as do certain scholars I know and admire, in writing the definitive discography or biography and charting the course of one great musician from the time he was born, to his first shit, baptism, cigar, and demise. What I do want to do is have as much serious fun as I can while listening and presenting as much of what I’ve managed to listen to, to you, by any means necessary. So here goes…

Pierre Boulez at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall: Part of what Boulez said in a discussion before conducting Le marteau sans maitre, with a text by Rene Char—a truly difficult piece premiered in 1957—was that when it was written years ago it was new, as in innovative, and that it took fifty hours of rehearsal. Now it is part of the repertoire, and the players have mastered the extended techniques so it only takes ten hours. The piece is very disjointed and striated, employing different time signatures in each of its nine sections as well as using many different voicings and instrument combinations (duos, trios, and the full ensemble of six instruments and one voice). The piece constantly shifts color and mood, and is filled with asymmetrical rhythms, using in part Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire as its model. But despite Boulez’s feelings that the piece went from “next to impossible to play to more than possible…no more disasters…no sweating…better instruments…score easier to follow and assimilate, not like then, when…they were like turtles…escargots…slow,” I found it somewhat sloppy, possibly because of its difficulty, its lopsided time signatures, and what I deemed to be unintentional off-centeredness, making it still too tricky and perhaps in need of those forty extra hours.

The second piece, Sur Incises (1996–98), I found more palatable though equally difficult. Using three pianos, three harps, and three percussionists, it was written for a competition arranged by Berio, and was originally very short. Then Boulez, now eighty-three, expanded it to forty-five minutes, taking ideas from Bartok’s two-piano form and Stravinsky’s four-piano form, though Boulez claims using three was simply a coincidence. He said, and I quote, “Please don’t laugh, but the idea came from conducting Wagner…the piece contains certain developmental aspects…going forward and going backward…creating different expansive possibilities with a bit of Stravinsky thrown in.” He claimed he was a “failed anthropologist,” hence the use of exotic instruments in both pieces.

This piece worked one hundred percent perfectly for me: the slow, belching steel drum, the lead voices constantly shifting in alluring, ferocious, repelling, sometimes tender intensity, with at times an almost animalizing of the instruments. It was one of the densest pieces I’ve ever heard.

Eliot Carter at 100: Speaking of density and things in opposition that eventually seem to mesh, Carter, when writing his first string quartet, had just that in mind; he claimed in an interview that when he wrote his third string quartet—where the individualizing of the parts reaches its peak—he never expected that anyone would be able to play it. Carter also stated, similarly to Boulez, that his third string quartet originally took hours to rehearse, and that most players needed to use a “click track” when performing it, but that now the time factor has greatly diminished for the same reasons Boulez gave.

I experienced two full weeks of Carter, which included small chamber works, duos, solos, a masterful clarinet concerto, a cello concerto, vocal pieces, all five of his string quartets in one night, and the culminating work, the New York premiere of his massive Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei.

Carter’s music, and his particular genius, is all about instruments being at odds with one another while seeming to “harmonize” or eventually mesh rather than blend. Most of Carter’s mature works—all of which, to some extent, contain a bizarre blend of Schoenberg and Stravinsky—are both disparate and uncannily unified.

Cecil Taylor: Drinking champagne as he held court in the dressing room at the Blue Note, Cecil spoke of Farrakhan, Guiliani, Obama, Bird, Max, and Mingus, in his usual disjointed but somehow perfectly sensible fashion. When someone asked him what he thought of Joe Zawinul, I split to find a seat downstairs, almost afraid to hear his answer.

After what seemed like an eternity the great William Parker and Pheroan Aklaaf took the stage and played a fifteen-minute bass-and-drum/percussion duet. Finally, Cecil sat down at the piano and hit, and continued to do so non-stop for the next hour-and-a-half. At seventy-seven his vitality, genius, uncompromising artistic integrity, technique, and style still cannot be matched. He continues to amaze me and is still my favorite living musician. Catch him while he can still be caught.

John Zorn: Works & Process, at the Guggenheim, featured master cellist Fred Sherry and some other fine musicians performing three chamber works by Zorn. These included a world premiere of the terse, fierce 777, a piece for three cellos that both began and ended the program. According to Zorn, the piece consists of seventy-seven measures and is based on the writings of Alistair Crowley, Zorn being heavily into alchemy. Other pieces included an untitled work for Joseph Cornell and "Amore Fou" dedicated to Andre Breton, which consisted of cello, viola, and piano (played by longtime Zorn associate Stephen Drury). Between pieces there ensued conversations about the works, moderated by Charles Wuorinen. At one point, when he asked Sherry and Zorn about how Zorn’s work as well as other twentieth- and twenty-first-century music fit into musical history à la Schubert, he answered the question himself by stating that all music is “not a continuation but a continuum.” The evening was the first of a four-part series dedicated to Sherry, and was one of sheer exuberance.

Christian Wolff: In the continuing Experiments in the Studio series at the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Wolff and his ensemble played mostly premieres. It was the most Wolff I’ve ever had in one sitting. The work was passionate, witty, weird, and compositionally radical, with the spatial merging of Feldman and Cage, yet flavored like neither and containing more of an oblique lack of spacing. It was music filled with crowded emptiness and slow noisy silences that remained, as with Carter and Zorn, romantic, no matter how extreme. All the compositions showed a masterful restraint that I had never before encountered. There was an almost undetectable sense of ma, always filled with melodies or the lack thereof, and abounding parallel movements of sounds and rhythms. The pieces were titled simply Exercise 10, 18, 1, Duo7, Grete, and Jasper (for Jasper Johns), and the musicians were all above top-notch. I can’t wait to hear more very soon, and I shall (at Roulette, April 24).

Tribute to Leroy Jenkins: This concert, a nearly sold-out event for the great violinist/composer who passed on recently, took place in a new hall at the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza. Each set was more intense and moving than the next. Thomas Buckner, accompanied by flute and viola, sang Dream of Dreams of Home, a piece composed by Jenkins and Ann T. Greene, taken from news headlines about the homeless. The Flux Quartet played a string quartet by Jenkins, then added contrabass and played an equally brilliant quintet, both revelatory to me. Myra Melford’s trio played Spindrift, a piece comprised of two Jenkins compositions with a text by thirteenth-century Persian poet Rumi. And finally the Leo Smith 7 (sans two) played a Smith original, Queen Hatsheput, dedicated to Jenkins. I could write pages just about this. It was an incomparable evening of joy and artistry.

Two new CDs highly recommended: The Stone Quartet with Joelle Leandre, Mat Maneri, Roy Campbell, and Marilyn Crispell live at the Stone, and Last Exit with Brotzmann, Laswell, Sharrock, and Jackson live in Europe, both on the Downtown Music Gallery’s new label. If you’ve never heard Last Exit, get your mind ready to be bent, and then put on the Stone Quartet—it will put you in a place near bliss as you re-enter our atmosphere and re-acclimate yourself to sanity. I give both discs an A.

So why do I keep going to hear music so often, sometimes nearly overdosing, many times being sorely disappointed? Surely not to write a book or even a column, which takes me many hours. Well, the above-mentioned gigs are just a few good reasons. In the past two months alone I have experienced, to name a few, Messiaen, Mateen, Mcphee, Moondoc, Swell, Tchicai, Haydn, Schnittke, and two incredible, heartbreaking memorials for my dear friend, the too-early-departed saxophonist Thomas Chapin.

Anyway, as Wourinen declared, it’s all a continuum, so LISTEN.

Poet Steve Dalachinsky was born in Brooklyn sometime after the last big war, and has managed to survive lots of little wars.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2008

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