Davey Williams: Dancing about the Architecture

an essay by
Kevin Whitehead

Then, when I was around eleven years old...                                                           ©2012 Davey Williams

Even 30 years ago, at a time when practitioners could be a little mystical or stubbornly non-verbal on the subject as if fearful of giving away their secrets, or just sounding banal Alabama guitarist the logic of their sudden spontaneous unisons. “If we start hitting those enharmonic passages,” Williams said, “in the first place we still don’t know exactly where we’re gonna go, we’re just tuned into the same wavelength, going on the same plane together. In the second place, you don’t know how it’s going to resolve. In fact, it’s more likely to be interrupted Davey Williams could and would freely articulate what’s going on when he free improvises. Back then I’d interviewed him (alongside his duo partner, violinist LaDonna Smith), and asked about than resolved, anyway. So it’s logic, but logic in its place.”

That was getting down to cases, but what about the big picture? What’s going on in the greater scheme? These are questions that must have been sitting on his mind, through decades of free play with all manner of partners and ensembles small and large, put in perspective by occasional blues gigs with Johnny Shines and showband work six nights a week, and years of Lower East Side genre bending with the band Curlew. He took a stab at laying out his views in an essay for Mr. Zorn’s Arcana IV published in 2009; now that essay’s been revamped and expanded as Solo Gig: Essential Curiosities in Musical Free Improvisation (Birdfeeder Editions; Birmingham, Alabama; 246 pages).

Davey Williams approaches what-we-do-when-we-improvise by indirection and analogy; the book’s non-idiomatic structure and episodic nature, recurring motifs, sudden non-sequiturs, and visual cues that color your reactions, are kith to what he describes. Free play is about the process, the living it in the moment; some chapters are epigrams, flashing by in half a page; the longest chapters run on for all of three pages. They are sequenced less by explicit themes than chains of association. For instance, the idea of referencing existing music in free play (it’s allowed) is echoed, over the course of seven pages/four chapters, by the intrusion of another narrative in a different style (more on that below), and a discussion of the ways sampling culture turns your music into someone else’s versus the DIY own-your-own-music cassette culture that helped international improvisers find each other in the 1970s.

That’s how he delves. Here’s how he writes about seeming telepathic interplay such as he described in the quotation above:

In playing, we can encounter types of magnetisms, or something behaving as magnetisms. A player’s mind intuitively sort of “locks on” to some other player’s activity; their phrasing, say….

Actually this analogy applies more correctly to electromagnetism, since these connections are usually temporary in nature. They occur, take on a function in the sound-making interaction, and then the moment of their functioning somehow morphs into some other kind of interaction.

At that point the electromagnet has been at least temporarily disconnected from that particular sonic event. (Note: the disconnect switch is under the kitchen cabinet, on your right….) [p88]

The conversational tone, the whimsical digression, the likening of music impulses to physical forces that’s Williams all over. He takes inspiration from noting his guitar strings were once molten metal, and stone before that. (Not to mention magnetic.) Elsewhere he compares music to “‘liquid architecture,’ which in the case of improvising, employs design features that evolve while being executed.” [59] Through all the talk of inclusive listening (Cage was right) and superior inattention (when you wind up in some beautiful collective space without willing it) and Swarm Theory (we turn like birds in flight), he likes things fluid, like any surrealist. Dreams are “a primary model of how improvised music can proceed, formally speaking. Jump-cuts, juxtapositions, unfamiliar things recognized, accepted and worked with.” [38]

Improvisation is a sort of meta-narrative, then. Which brings us to that other story intruding on this one, mentioned earlier. Williams tells us right up front what he’s up to, like a teacher who gives the finals questions in the opening minutes of a college course, knowing no one’s paying attention yet. He’s “somehow improvising the book in the way that I might be improvising solo on my instrument. Words and punctuation standing in for notes and phrasing…. [T]his might be a book about musical improvisation. Since it hasn’t been written yet, I can’t say with certainty. At this point, I could still write a novel.” [7-8] Which, it turns out 67 pages later, he seems to be doing in another universe, or maybe two universes, as scraps of that story/those stories briefly intrude this one, as if we’re overhearing Philip K. Dick loudly typing in the next room.

That metafictional razzmatazz hides his deeper game in plain sight; the real novel he’s writing is in fact the main narrative: it’s the novel as explication from myriad angles (like Moby Dick, another book slicing natural processes wafer-thin, for all the disparity of scale) and William Gaddis’s final yowlof pain Agap­ē [ED: should read as a flat line over the ‘e’] Agape, about that short book’s own agonized composition.

We assume Davey Williams no more had those models in mind than Nathaniel Mackey’s epistolary novels devoted to the explication of improvised music after the fact, with their own Dick-like moments when objective reality seems to melt away to reveal the real truths behind the facade. (I’m thinking in particular of the Seattle gig in Atet A.D. where “a needling mist” descends on the bandstand, and something like cartoon thought balloons appear to emerge from the band’s ‘talking horns.’) But then Mackey’s novels of the Molimo m’Atet aren’t really about presenting improvised music in a fresh way on the page, but rather devising a jazz/improvised music of the page, where the author riffs associatively on ideas and images and concepts (and puns) much the way improvisers manipulate and run with musical ideas, shapes, associations, enharmonic shifts and substitute chords. Molimo’s letter-writing saxophonist N. thinks about music in surprisingly verbal terms thinks far more like a self-conscious, academically-trained writer than an actual improvising musician, as he chases down all manner of parallels and allusions. (Both Mackey and Williams, for what it’s worth, love vocal music in languages they don’t speak.) In one sense, the difference between the two authors is like the difference between Hammett who worked as a detective and Chandler who imagined his way into that life.

Not that Williams can’t get metaphysical too as when contemplating his talking strings’ mineral origins. Objects are potent, as he was already explaining 30 years ago, regarding the kid’s-pocket worth of small found objects he uses as guitar picks. Davey Williams has a touch of Mackey in him, seeing the reality behind what’s before our faces. On quiet music that suddenly gets loud, he writes, sometimes “the ‘quietness’ part of this ‘quiet mood’ survives the takeover, transformed into a subtle attenuating influence, operating on a more purely energetic level. This may in fact pervade the entire session somehow.” [108] That’s a Mackeyan observation. Note the diction now: we’re a long way from feeling around for a switch under the kitchen sink. He’s changed his tone, as electric guitarists often do.  

Solo Gig plays out like improvisation: the starts and stops, the moments of self-conscious hesitation and the rushing ahead, the way the trip itself illuminates the process. Finding his form as he goes, he dances about his topic, the very architecture of improvised music. You’d worry about the mimetic fallacy if not for his colloquial wit, and language that stretches to take in what he means to say, and if he hadn’t so assiduously cultivated his surrealist gift for far-flung connections.

How one reads his prose is tinted somewhat by a couple dozen of Williams’ often grainy or blurry surrealist collages or distended photographs, images that put us in a metaphysical space not far from our own world, but far enough. He puts you in another arena and keeps you there for the duration of his set. Or you can just read Solo Gig one section at time, for its Zen pearls of wisdom.

I read it both ways, actually: as mini-essays the first time through, as novel the second. Solo Gig is non-fiction on the micro level, fiction on the macro, Heisenbergian in its shifting frame.  

Kevin Whitehead©2012

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