The Player Piano
CECIL TAYLOR AT THE WHITNEY
“Does Cecil Taylor make mistakes?” The question seemed naïve, even disrespectful, as I read it over. I discovered it written hastily among my notes of the concert documentary Burning Poles, screened at the Whitney in April as part of the “Open Plan” retrospective of the avant-garde jazz pianist and composer’s long and diverse career.
Naïve because, after years of listening to his music, Cecil Taylor still has the ability to surprise me with my own resistance. The sixty-minute video from 1991 captures a typically vortical performance of Taylor in ensemble. A mixture of improvisation and material prepared in advance, the music is earthy and brittle, tense and hypertrophied, breaking up in the upper atmosphere of rhythm and tunefulness. The opening piece, “Poles,” features no piano playing: instead, Taylor stalks around the instrument, chattering non-verbally, performing sudden and irregular gestures, or striking at the piano’s exposed wires with a mallet and bare hands. Theory and context only get you so far: what is unfolding has every appearance of meticulously choreographed chaos; that is, total irrationality. There will always, I realize, be some part of me that is not fully prepared for Cecil Taylor.
Disrespectful because, with this first career retrospective in a major American museum, highbrow adulation and holistic embrace for Taylor’s practice appear to have reached a new peak. Though the Whitney specializes in visual art, the museum has a long-standing relationship with jazz performance, playing host to Taylor on several occasions, as well as the likes of Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins, and Ornette Coleman. Curators Jay Sanders and Lawrence Kumpf did well to supply an extensive schedule of performances and panels around the retrospective, a supplement to the physical exhibition as well as an acknowledgement of its shortcomings. Musical subjects will always present obstacles for museums, but Taylor’s is an exceptional case.
One of five installments in the “Open Plan” series, the retrospective was installed on the fifth floor of the Whitney’s new Renzo Piano-designed location, which opened on Gansevoort last year. The Neil Bluhm Family Galleries comprise the largest column-free museum space. It’s a beautiful one, placid and pure white; the westernmost third, apportioned to performance space and seating, offers an imperious riverside view at sunset through a wall of paneled glass. By contrast, the remaining two-thirds dedicated to documents and photos, and stations for viewing and listening, tended to wither in the galleries’ negative spatial grandeur. I thought of the casual visitor, without a timetable of events, who might wander among the tabletop displays, sample some of the music at random, and make their way quickly but politely to another floor. Compared to the previous Open Plan fortnight, dedicated to a single, gallery-sized work by the land artist Michael Heizer, the exhibition itself was heavy on segmentation, contextualization, explanation: the kind of reverential but pedantic wall text that the music itself, at its best, would so effortlessly subvert; a reifying antechamber to the thing itself.
The longer the exposure, the harder that thing becomes to describe. It was at some point during the manic, half-hour centerpiece of Burning Poles, “The Silence of Trees,” that this question of mistakes took on real urgency. This version of the Cecil Taylor Unit featured bassist William Parker and drummer Tony Oxley—the Feel Trio of the late ’80s and early ’90s—expanded with percussionist André Martinez. It’s unclear whether “Silence” has been recorded since, or the extent to which other versions might resemble this one. It is an exhausting piece, a kind of freewheeling, self-forgetting dialogue through crashes of abstraction. Still less clear is the extent to which these players differentiated between processes involved in recording, practice, and rehearsal.
Faithful reproduction is not the premise of the Cecil Taylor Unit and its leader, nor is perfection, nor traditional notions of refinement through variation and repetition. Instead, over the course of several days, I came nearer to an understanding of the freedom upon which the man’s work is premised. His horizons are in constant flux, and his music is an expression of the possibility that flux entails. But even though the boundary may be obscure, the stakes are not. At eighty-seven years old, he is only now receiving renown in some proportion to the poverty and obscurity he endured most of his life. For a long time, those were the costs of Taylor’s supernatural energy and self-belief, the same that animate him so youthfully at his instrument to this day.
The footage is at its most dramatic sitting alongside Taylor at key level, capturing his reflection in the ivories and his industrial application of pressure. But it’s at its most instructive shot from overhead, where the emphasis of his hand placement is clear. Taylor’s style is athletic, a kind of yoga, as much labor as it is play. His hands fall on the keys with force and precision—a grappler’s sporting blows. Oxley and Parker anticipate their leader’s tumults, riding ebb and flow even as they seem to inhabit psychic worlds of their own.
Shot in a studio at a place called National Video Industries (a search online brought up an address on West 17th Street, but your guess is as good as mine), the concert unfolds without a live audience, instruments arranged loft-style, freeing up camerapersons to move freely among the players in stage-lit near darkness. Moody and superbly dated crossfades notwithstanding, the bulk of the video’s attention is up-close on Taylor, and in general the searching looks and non-verbal signals exchanged between veteran players you’d expect this closed-set approach to foreground are, sadly, elided. Still, there’s something archetypal about the play between the musicians’ near-fanatic absorption, their mute observers, the pervasive darkness of their surroundings: a metaphor for the avant-garde at the end of the twentieth century.
The bodily dynamic of the band as glimpsed in Burning Poles sheds some light on the scene of their concern. It’s in this physicality, this being-with, a mixture of intention and intuition, that Taylor’s compositions stake their claim. From the abandon with which they follow one another deeper into this weird shared thing, one might surmise that the only wrong notes are the notes left unplayed out of fear.
Fear seems to be one thing Cecil Taylor has never been able to afford. The installations’ artifacts testify to the composer’s eccentricity and relentless independence. They also offer perspective on his writing process: for what must be the first time ever, pages and pages of his handwritten scores are available to the viewing public. Foregoing the traditional musical staff, Taylor instead performs a kind of graphical translation of his compositions’ structural indeterminacy. Clusters of notes, inscribed in grids, are strung together by networks of jagged or curving lines. As with the indeterminate procedures first popularized by John Cage, this sheet music would seem to provide a superabundance of information to someone skilled in deciphering the code. But while Cage composed for other players, the purpose of Taylor’s scores are more apparently mnemonic, repositories for the torsions of his own restless brain.
Equally diverting was Taylor’s poetry, abundant on scrap paper and swollen notebooks but scarcely published, the sheet music’s calligraphic twin. His mutual admiration with Amiri Baraka notwithstanding, the exhibition’s sole printed inclusion—“Garden”—bears closer resemblance to another of his sources of inspiration, the projective verse of Charles Olson:
Can you dig the recognition performance
preparation organism energies of fusion
the placing experiences metamorphosized
human exchange toward complete submission
to the spirits conscious digestive response
Spirit, knowledge, and the body all figure as richly suffused by metabolisms of a higher order. There are strains here of the same themes—cybernetics and the eternal present—that preoccupy much of Taylor’s commentary about his work. Olson’s notion of the line as a unit of breath, and his conception of poetic form as an “open field,” resonate with Taylor’s spatially oriented philosophy of composition, and with his fixation on the “unit”—the autonomous component or subdivided part that animates and engages with others. Music is only the most accessible element of the complex and indeterminate system of tone, language, gesture, and spatiality that his work instantiates. In a series of interwoven facets that includes traditional and extended instrumentation, as well as dance, recitations have become a fixture of his performances.
Call it incantation. At the opening night’s performance, Taylor spoke of matter and energy and fecundity and memory. There were also words he spoke that were not words, but something meant to stir up the air. As an orator, his poetic delivery is rasped and playfully dramatic, a coy compliment to the second band of the night, the New Unit, a raucous septet with whom, in the midst of a writhing brass crescendo, he could be seen smiling with childlike excitement.
Throughout the long march into noise, Taylor was free to hang back, providing chord-shaped undergirding—the rooms into which these other instruments, the phantom limbs functioning at different rates, could wander. The New Unit’s performance had all the trappings of an elder artist cutting loose, much deserved after a robust and intense opening set.
Taylor took the stage with assistance—in a shimmering coat with a beanie and slippers—to the audience’s warm and relieved applause. These days he’s in semi-retirement, and there was initially no guarantee that the man himself would appear. Along with Tony Oxley on percussion and electronic effects, both sets featured dancer and frequent Taylor collaborator Min Tanaka. A practitioner of the radical Japanese art-dance butoh, Tanaka travelled the stage area during the first performance, striking puzzling positions that worked in productive contrast with the pianist’s unassuming mien. Occasionally the contrast was distracting, even frustrating, but this did little to subvert the trio’s persuasive dynamic: as Oxley shifted from drums to patches and samples, and Tanaka wandered, part-character, part-sign, the piano took its place at the center both of melody and percussion.
This oscillation—the potential for the pressure of the key to be as much an element in a musical system as the sound of the key itself; for the use of fists and forearms to be as prescriptive on the keyboard as fingertips—is foundational for Taylor. It prepares him to find edges of improvisation beyond his own, formidable, conventional talents as a solo pianist. Throughout the performance he seemed less to be fabricating than excavating registers out from within others, moving between recognizable planes of song—atonal, modal, blues—only intelligible because they had been partially obscured.
The effect was of a baroque and unrelenting player piano, a technician’s will to freedom. Taylor’s own physique is slight but hardy; sprightly and shaped by the instrument that is his companion. Were he to have reached into the piano to pluck its wires, even to climb inside and disappear, the audience would have found nothing strange—the gremlin that brings the machine to life.
RYAN MEEHAN is a writer based in Brooklyn.