Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

It’s a wonderful phrase in itself, but doesn’t “cumulative adverse expectation” work just fine as a definition of the blues, or of the jazz musician’s lot? It’s not often you get a helping hand from socioeconomics, but hell, it’s the holiday season, so let’s get all ecumenical and reach out a mitt to George Katona, who doesn’t often get a namecheck in jazz writing.

For reasons both personal and professional, I’ve been thinking a good deal about 1958. It was the focus year, or maybe more accurately the point de mire, of this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (itself a youthful but now strapping thirty year old), which culminated with a “reclamation” in the local town hall of John Cage’s May 15 1958 retrospective in New York Town Hall. It was, in the Chinese sense, an “interesting” year in the US, and one of those cusps that can either be read as the end of something old or the beginning of something new. It was certainly both of those things for Cage, who received warm recognition for his “early” work (i.e. twelve year old things from 1939) but whose new piece, the Concert for Piano and Orchestra was more roundly booed than anything since the 1913 premiere of Le Sacre du printemps. A rite of passage, in the spring.

The spring of 1958 was marked by a sharp global recession. In The Powerful Consumer: Psychological Studies of the American Economy, written in 1960 but still readable and relevant, Katona points to some of its more unusual aspects. For a start, prices went up instead of down. The auto industry (how this resonates down the decades!) went into a belly flop and unemployment in some urban centers rose to nearly 20%. Consumers simply opted not to spend. Though ticket sales generally in the UK are leveling out and retrenching, Huddersfield sustains an audience through local loyalty, a wide circle of long-term friends, students and a programming policy that nicely balances new music with jazz and improv. Whereas in its earliest incarnation Huddersfield focused very substantially on the major modernists – there is even a cherished photograph of Cage, Stockhausen and Messiaen together – and their Darmstadt/IRCAM progeny, nowadays the mix is far more eclectic and daring.

Because I’d been thinking about 1958, I’d inevitably turned to Sun Ra, who produced his masterpiece, Jazz in Silhouette, in that year. It was, therefore, an astonishing surprise to hear Stockhausen’s luminous late music – (HOPE), the ninth hour from his unfinished cycle marking the hours of the day – alongside two arrangements of Sun Ra pieces, played with astonishing discipline and authority by Musikfabrik, one of two fine German ensembles tackling bold and eclectic programs this year; later that same night, Ascolta played a set of finger-busting Zappa arrangements in a disused smelting shed just down the hill.

The Sun Ra pieces were advertised to be arrangements by Marshall Allen, who’s the strawboss of the posthumous Arkestra and keeper of the flame as far as Le Sony’r Ra’s music was concerned (flames and straw sit uncomfortably together); but what we heard instead were what Ran Blake would call "recompositions," altered versions realized, with some assistance and advice from various musikFabrik members, by saxophonist/clarinetist/flutist Frank Gratkowski, who took the main solo part on “Pleiades” and “outer nothingness.” It was initially disconcerting to see modestly dressed musicians instead of shimmering space avatars processing onstage from the back of the hall, blaring their horns in the faces of happy consumers, exactly what Detroit wasn’t able to do in 1958. But these musicians have such formidable technique and authority, and the commanding physical presence that great instrumentalists always have, it was difficult to criticize their presentation in any way. They aren’t the Arkestra and don’t pretend to be.

One might adduce two problems. First of all, the Sun Ra pieces had the mild misfortune of following Stockhausen’s astonishing string trio, a work that would reshape anyone’s perception of the composer’s late music. There was also the testy question of whether Musikfabrik quite knew how to swing, but that seems curiously irrelevant. It isn’t as if they tried to and failed. Instead, they simply took Sun Ra’s line and substance and turned it into wildly exciting modern repertory music that didn’t wear its “jazz” lineage too self-consciously on its sleeve.

It occurred to me strongly that if the Cage Town Hall retrospective with its attendant riot was one of the iconic moments of 1958 and one of things that gives that year its curiously Janus-faced aspect – Sputnik came back to earth, Elvis joined the army, you see how this might go? – then the other was Sun Ra’s Jazz in Silhouette, for me his and the Arkestra’s greatest achievement on record, less polished and coherent perhaps than The Magic City seven years later, but containing some of his very greatest music. It was around this time that the Arkestra started appearing in costume, a by no means incidental point of evolution in the music. The quality I always identify on Jazz in Silhouette is its timelessness. As Francis Davis points out, it’s a record that could – sound quality aside – have come from anytime between the 1940s and 1980s. The line-up has something to do with that, a near-perfect balance of voices – Hobart Dotson, Julian Priester, Marshall Allen, James Spaulding, John Gilmore, Charles Davis, Pat Patrick, Ronnie Boykins and ‘Bugs’ Cochran – that delivers the music with a kind of highly engineered lyricism, or conversely, couched in romantic cybernetics.

There were other improvising presences at this year’s Huddersfield. John Butcher unveiled a magnificent new composition that explored the debatable lands between scored and “free” music in a striking new way, but with quiet confidence; cranc, with Angharad Davies, Rhodri Davies, Nikos Veliotis and Radu Malfatti, spent twelve hours in a perfectly bland room, making evanescent sound that, with market noises and passersby leaking in from the outside seemed the perfect realization of the Cagean notion that the music is everything you happen to hear; and there was the controversial noise artist, saxophone assassin and visual artist Dror Feiler, possibly best known to jazz fans as the leader of Lokomotiev Konkret. Feiler’s wider reputation was sealed when the Israeli ambassador to Sweden publicly vandalized his Snow White and the Madness of Truth, a gallery installation in which a photograph of a Palestinian suicide bomber was placed on a small white boat floating in a pool of blood-red fluid.

Feiler has played with FARC guerrillas, is currently starring in a stage adaptation of the Communist Manifesto, presents a couple of pieces in Huddersfield which require the services of a garbage truck, and has ideas to burn. His most illuminating thought, as far as our present subject is concerned, is that while classical music has lost much of its sensuous, ritual quality, a good many of its alternatives – Techno, Industrial, Noise – have restored those essences at the fatal expense of musicality.

What was striking most about the Musikfabrik performance – and the Stockhausen piece also demands a measure of physical theatre from the players – is not so much that the ritual element of Sun Ra’s music isn’t done with the Arkestra’s highly colored zeal as that it is done at all. More important, though, the players got a rare sensuousness out of Sun Ra’s voicings. The brass parts stung. The tymps boomed like they were inside your head. The saxophones and clarinets were like singing voices.

I got home and I immediately got out Jazz in Silhouette, as I do every few months, but this time with a fresh urgency. Those drums on “Ancient Aethiopia,” the dazzling compression of “Saturn,” the sheer, unplaceable quality of “Enlightenment” and the sheer excitement of “Blue Midnight:” Is there a better jazz record from the period? And, if not, why isn’t Jazz in Silhouette not more regularly bandied about with those more familiar icons of the period? There is a recording of John Cage and Sun Ra, ostensibly together, but each locked in his own personality and language, in the way that suggests a mutual understanding of the other’s importance and a doughty refusal to cede one’s own ground. Perhaps when we think back to what happened to Cage after 1958, it might be worth thinking again what Sun Ra brought not just to “jazz” but to the whole continuum of modern music. Fifty years on, America is poised at a curious and powerful threshold. Unlike in Britain, when the removal vans turn up at 10 Downing Street almost as soon as the exit polls are collated, in the American presidential system there is this beautiful Zen pause of caesura, where all is possible, the droplet still hangs from the leaf, the fingers are still raised over the keyboard, everything perfect. It's not quite appropriate for a Brit to propose it, but mightn't Sun Ra's music be every bit as appropriate as Sam Cooke’s as an anthem for the Obama administration? All those years of “cumulative adverse expectation” went into both of them . . .

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