When the word “wild” shows up, it is typically being employed to suggest, of its unwitting subject, the absence of order, planning, care, or thought. When applying it to you, the speaker means to proclaim that your emotions are running hot, you’re out of control, your hair is flying, you don’t know the rules. It imposes a judgment of impropriety. It says that you can’t be trusted.
It feels imperial, this word. It is a tool of dehumanization, a weapon of subjection; it likens you to a feral child, or worse, an animal. Three decades ago the term “wilding” became its most cruel manifestation, wielded by prosecutors and rehashed echoically by compliant journalists to eject the Central Park Five from the category of the human. Five children lost half of their lives to this damning, contemptible term.
Is “wild” ever not racist? Does what they call “wild” emerge from what you call discipline, or habit, or practice? Does your mere being show up to them as illegibility, dissonance, discrepancy? To the powerful and the willfully ignorant, will the ordinary behavior of the oppressed ever not be construed as monstrous?
Some of us use “wild” or “wilding” in another way, to name everyday abuses of power. Police are wilding, recklessly driving SUVs into protesting crowds; Trump is wild, priggishly inciting his audience with shameless hate speech; Giuliani is wilding, showing up drunk in court, brazenly lying to our faces. These men are out of pocket, heedless, crazed, violent. When they and their supporters loudly cry “freedom,” they are naming nothing other than their right to maim.
But that which is perceived as “wild” in art and music actually seems to count for something else, not abject or condemned at all, but rather exalted, even envied. Perhaps it’s that moment where an artist offers their observers, by way of example, a ritual space for the practice of a different kind of freedom: a brief chance to shed the shells of self that we carry around with us. Why this dichotomy? Why is a disruption of what is proper despised in life, but desirable in art?
Wildstyle graffiti writing was a practice of maximizing the artist’s aesthetic arsenal in a push towards abstraction. Saturated with stylized detail, this art form was carefully constructed to defy or exceed immediate legibility; it simply demanded a closer look, challenging the viewer, taking them somewhere new. As with all graffiti, it existed outside the bounds of law; but it also was born of careful planning, meticulous labor, and astonishing ingenuity. Nothing about the process could be called wild, except the artists’ own will to outdo themselves.
The composer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith once observed, in a quietly resistive mode, “Our music is built off of systems. And systems aren’t free.” In that moment he was referring to this set of practices that journalists insist on calling “free jazz,” or more generally that range of behaviors that they designate as “improvisation”—two terms that he ultimately rejects. Similarly, composer-pianist Mary Lou Williams’s “Free Spirits,” the joyful, elegant title piece from the album of the same name, seems to express the strength to exist on one’s own terms, unbothered, in collective ensemblic relation—claiming both a freedom from and a freedom to.
Roscoe Mitchell’s “Nonaah” appears in multiple versions across his immense discography. He has described this composition as an effort to explore and perhaps unite multiple registers of the saxophone, to reach for polyphony with a monophonic instrument: to exceed the limits that are given. The composition is, appropriately, full of the widest intervals; its line is a series of notes displaced across octaves to such a degree that it does not seem to live comfortably within a single being.
In a solo version, confronting a hostile Swiss audience, he settled on one phrase, repeating it insistently for several minutes, until it had, as he put it, “cleared the air”—tamed or exorcized the wildness from a belligerent crowd. An ensemble version begins with different musicians independently cycling different fragments of the line to create a strange whirligig-like assemblage, before blasting through the entire melody in glorious, hectic unison. In later years this piece evolved to different instrumentations, acquired whole new sections, and has continually developed over a half century of creative reengagement.
Mr. Mitchell is undeniably a man of aesthetic extremes, and his music creates an intense, inscrutable world. From thirty years of studying his music, twenty years knowing the man, and dozens of concerts together, I can say that he and his methods are serious, methodical, patient, particular, and discerning—and that he manages to use those means to reach, unflinchingly and without fail, into a vast abyss.
Every time I encounter “Nonaah,” once I catch my breath, there is no denying the word that comes to mind: “wild.” Even from my place of familiarity and knowing admiration, I have somehow yet again been shaken, pushed, remade.
New York City, April 1, 2022