a column by
Stuart Broomer

In 2012 Bill Shoemaker and I were members of a panel at Lisbon’s Jazz em Agosto discussing, well, something like the role of the critic in jazz. For me, writing or talking about music is largely made possible by not thinking about writing or talking about it, something that tends to focus on the profound contradictions that abide therein, based on the insistent discursiveness of writing and what might be the insistent non-discursiveness of music. Toward the end of the discussion, the general difficulty of what we were trying to do came up. Bill managed to sum up his goal with a quote from Samuel Beckett: “Fail better!” I don’t have a repertoire of Beckett phrases on the tip of my tongue, just one, and I blurted out, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Five years later, I’m not sure I’m failing any better, but I’m still going on.

So I felt a mix of joy and trepidation when I was invited to interview the trio of John Butcher, Matt Shipp and Thomas Lehn at this year's Guelph Jazz Festival Colloquium. As I tried to prepare for it, I went through my usual crisis of conscience/consciousness around how one talks meaningfully about improvised music. Unlike composed music, it usually lacks even the notion of a text, a score that at least fixes its elements on a page, or more traditional forms of improvisation that at least fix it within a structure (one thing it does have is diverse, complex and fluid social structures and metaphors of same, which may be why a certain amount of current academic writing on the subject is focused around ideas of community).

Struggling to come up with starting points, I eventually thought back to some beginnings. My mind turned to the first time I had heard John Butcher live. Then something else triggered. The sole group to perform at the Guelph Festival on the day of the interview was Toronto bassist Rob Clutton’s Cluttertones, and my first acquaintance with the Cluttertones came back to me. There was a very strange symmetry to the events and it was around texts. The first time I heard John live was in 1997 at FIMAV (Festival International de Musique Actuelle Victoriaville). He was a member of the Phil Minton Quartet and they were performing Mouthfull of Ecstasy, the group’s adaptation of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. My acquaintance with Rob Clutton’s music goes back to around 2000. His first CD as leader of the band that would later become the Cluttertones (with Holstein Dreams from 2003) was called Tender Buttons, named for Gertrude Stein’s 1913 collection of abstract prose pieces. The sudden collocation of those two texts was, for me, a spontaneous delight.

I’ve usually preferred what musicians have to say about improvised music (the Zorn anthologies, for instance) to most of what’s written, because there’s relatively little of musicians writing about it and they’re often unwilling to assign meaning to the result, realizing it would diminish the experience of the music. It struck me suddenly that those two texts chosen by improvising musicians, Finnegans Wake and Tender Buttons, had more to tell us about the relationship between improvised music and language, or more accurately the ways meaning is distributed in that music, than any accounts of improvised music I’d seen.

Finnegans Wake (1939) and Tender Buttons (1913) are among the most radical prose experiments of twentieth century modernism, and they could not be more unalike (Both are in the public domain with PDFs readily available through Google). Finnegans Wake is notoriously hard to read, but it’s almost impossible not to find meaning in it: in fact, you can’t stop it from meaning more every time you look at it. It’s endlessly witty and quotable, whether summarizing the contemporary mania for branding with “love thy label as thyself” or summing up psychiatry with the phrase “When I was jung and easily freudened.” Finnegans Wake puns trivially and quadrivially (Joyce: “My puns are not trivial. They are quadrivial”: a play on the renaissance division of fields of knowledge). Finnegans Wake operates by multiplying and ambiguating meaning. It never stops meaning more, becoming more and more dense in meaning and ever less specific in denotation as its associations expand. It operates on a principle of punning compounded by misspellings so that words hang between meanings; frequently words are drawn from other languages, but they may suggest, whether by spelling or context, English words. “Wake” is both funeral observance and awakening. The character HC Earwicker becomes the motif HCE which becomes Here Comes Everybody. It’s both the most ambitious book ever written and one of the funniest. Here are a couple of (short) paragraphs near it’s beginning, the first mangling the language of heraldry:

Of the first was he to bare arms and a name: Wassaily Boos-laeugh of Riesengeborg. His crest of huroldry, in vert with ancillars, troublant, argent, a hegoak, poursuivant, horrid, horned. His scutschum fessed, with archers strung, helio, of the second. Hootch is for husbandman handling his hoe. Hohohoho, Mister Finn, you’re going to be Mister Finnagain! Comeday morm and, O, you’re vine! Sendday’s eve and, ah, you’re vinegar! Hahahaha, Mister Funn, you’re going to be fined again! (p.5)


Shize? I should shee! Macool, Macool, orra whyi deed ye diie? of a trying thirstay mournin? Sobs they sighdid at Fillagain’s chrissormiss wake, all the hoolivans of the nation, prostrated in their consternation and their duodisimally profusive plethora of ululation. There was plumbs and grumes and cheriffs and citherers and raiders and cinemen too. And the all gianed in with the shout-most shoviality. Agog and magog and the round of them agrog. To the continuation of that celebration until Hanandhunigan’s extermination! Some in kinkin corass, more, kankan keening. Belling him up and filling him down. He’s stiff but he’s steady is Priam Olim! ’Twas he was the dacent gaylabouring youth. Sharpen his pillowscone, tap up his bier! E’erawhere in this whorl would ye hear sich a din again? With their deepbrow fundigs and the dusty fidelios. They laid him brawdawn alanglast bed. With a bockalips of finisky fore his feet. And a barrowload of guenesis hoer his head. Tee the tootal of the fluid hang the twoddle of the fuddled, O! (p. 6)

Tender Buttons is, by contrast, easy to “read,” constructed from a common English vocabulary, but extremely difficult to process, stringing together or isolating words in ways that disrupt associations and relationships. Divided into three sections, Objects, Food and Rooms, it occupies a mere 50 pages in Stein’s Selected Writings. Here are a few samples from each section:

From Objects:


A purse was not green, it was not straw colored. it was hardly seen and it had a use a long use and the chain, the chain was never missing, it was not misplaced, it showed that it was open, that is all that it showed.  (469)


A white hunter is nearly crazy. (475)

From Food:


Custard is this. It has aches, aches when. Not to be. Not to be narrowly. This makes a whole little hill.

It is better than a little thing that has mellow real mellow. It is better than lakes whole lakes, it is better than seeding. (490)


What is cut. What is cut by it. What is cut by it in.

It was a cress a crescent a cross and an unequal scream, it was upslanting, it was radiant and reasonable with little ins and red.

News. News capable of glees, cut in shoes, belike under pump of wide chalk, all this combing. (492)

When Stein turns to the subject of “Rooms,” the rigid sectioning of “Objects” and “Food” gives way to a kind of continuous prose describing various spaces and things (almost every word I write should be in quotation marks: here the writing is both more fluid and more discontinuous):

A can containing a curtain is a solid sentimental usage. The trouble in both eyes does not come from the same symmetrical carpet, it comes from there being no more disturbance than in little paper. This does show the teeth, it shows color.

A measure is that which put up so that it shows the length has a steel construction. Tidiness is not delicacy, it does not destroy the whole piece, certainly not it has been measured and nothing has been cut off and even if that has been lost there is a name, no name is signed and left over, not any space is fitted so that moving about is plentiful. Why is there so much resignation in a package, why is there rain, all the same the chance has come, there is no bell to ring.

A package and a filter and even a funnel, all this together makes a scene and supposing the question arises is hair curly, is it dark and dusty, supposing that question arises, is brushing necessary, is it, the whole special suddenness commences then, there is no delusion. (502)

One totalizes meaning, one subtracts meaning. They behave oppositely, but there’s a kind of ecstatic disconnect, a liberation from the language of the quotidian. Joycean word play expands, Steinian wordplay disconnects meaning. Both writers appealed strongly to John Cage, who was setting Stein poems to music as early as “Three Songs” in 1932 and spent a great deal of time late in his career creating acrostics on Finnegans Wake. Each was intensely involved in music. Joyce discussed an operatic mounting of Ulysses with George Antheil, the latter imagining a dozen “electric” pianos (player pianos one assumes, it was circa 1925) controlled by a 13th piano [it suggests the later Cage/Hillier HPSCHD]); Stein’s plays were most successful when they became libretti for Virgil Thomson: Four Saints in Three Acts; The Mother of Us All. While we might imagine Joyce as an insistent chromaticist, Stein enjoyed improvising on the white keys of the piano.

I’d given up thinking about dropping that load of language and associations into the interview, but for the sake of discussion I ran it past the trio at lunch before the interview and they immediately picked up on it. Matt Shipp brought up the subject of John Tchicai, his contribution to Ascension and the extreme contrast to Coltrane; Tchicai’s early work in general and its extremely abridged line seemed to fit the Tender Buttons mold, so it’s an instance of how these things, these divergent energies, could co-exist in the same piece: Trane totalizing, encyclopaedic; Tchicai minimalist, truncated, laconic (my further example: a Tchicai solo on Bird’s “Mohawk” by the New York Art Quartet has so few notes you can count them).

(It turned out that I ended up talking about it in the interview/discussion because Matt asked me to, around the 45-minute mark when I tried to get questions out of the audience).

So it goes, developing both as ways to think about language and improvised music and maybe why so much interpretive writing about improvised music seems so, well ... beside the point, lacking the very plasticity and suggestion in which the music is so rich. There is a central element of subversion in these books, an anarchic ecstasy that these writings have in common with the music. Each of these very different works often hinges on erotic subtext: the widespread censorship for Ulysses would help press Joyce to a language which exists in a perpetual state of non-specificity, just as Stein’s texts suggest a sexual lexicon, from the title “Tender Buttons” itself to “Suppose a collapse in rubbed purr, in rubbed purr get” (SUPPOSE AN EYES, p. 475), or “It is a need it is a need that a flower a state flower. It is a need that a state rubber. It is a need that a state rubber is sweet and sight and a swelled stretch. It is a need. It is a need that a state rubber.” (BUTTER, p. 491). This notion of a covert double of language parallels the history of jazz, a music that thrives on its inability to address social issues (most pointedly apparent in the cases of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and Charles Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus,” both rejected by Columbia Records but 20 years apart and both driven to “little” or alternative labels).

Appropriate here is Archie Shepp’s description of the “uneasy reprieve” jazz offered America by its lack of language:

We know today that the lyrics of the spiritual sometimes served as an alarm, a call to arms, or an angry cry to be done with suffering and rid of the oppressor. Much of the blues is an extension of this argument.

Later on as musical instruments replaced the human voice, poetic directness and social commentary began to give way to a “purer” musical form. This musical form developed at a much faster pace than the lyric. It was due in large part to the plasticity and ambiguity of notes over words that a folk art became transformed into a national art and later into a universal art. It was now possible for a listener to hear just the music without the ambivalence that words elicit. He could identify with whatever he chose and reject whatever he chose. Thus the Negro (through jazz) has lent America a somewhat uneasy reprieve and, in the bargain, developed an art form which it could be said is more nearly “american” than any other. (This statement is variously credited to a Savoy liner note and to John Sinclair’s short-lived journal Change\1: neither comes to hand.)

One of the most valuable things that contemporary improvised music has inherited from free jazz is the sense of nuance preserved from the obtuseness of discourse. This is not to suggest that we might try to write about jazz and improvised music using the methodologies of Joyce and/or Stein (though some writers have found their own distinct ways, e.g. Paul Haines and Nathaniel Mackey), but it’s worth pondering the ways that these texts get close to the energies and mysteries of improvised music, that they are in themselves a kind of verbal or linguistic music, divorced from the utilitarian functions of language – language instead as pleasure principle and liberator. It’s that sense of the liberator that we might consider in our experience of the music, and the issue of what methods, what language, might manage to convey it.

There is, for me, a certain Proustian “madeleine moment” about the practice of these certain methodologies, and John Tchicai’s early recording are a key. Thinking of “Wake” players is easy: those musicians who suggest/create vast overlapping systems, new notes jamming into every cranny. It’s a line that likely picks up from the cadenzas of certain piano concertos (the earliest, unrecorded and surely best [Mozart, Beethoven], were improvised) and runs through Tatum to Parker (Charlie) to Cecil Taylor, Coltrane, Braxton and Parker (Evan). Where the “madeleine moments” come in are with the other side – the generally less systematic, less affect-driven – and it’s evident in certain figures who are essential to the early free jazz discourse community. If Dolphy is a key “Wake” player, he’s also a Tender Boutonnière, his sudden blasts and wails detached from syntax, readable as pure emotion or as unreadable touchstones, as signs of an otherness, sudden turnings in time, apart from the forward momentum. Another free improviser who suggests that Dolphy doubleness is Derek Bailey, whose work is a kind of vast and virtuosic anti-system in which systemic disconnection is further marked by sudden squeaks and disconnected tinkles – almost like radio signals from outer space, as mysterious as the drips in an abstract expressionist painting or in one of those wandering or abrupt “function words” in Tender Buttons (consider “ROAST POTATOES” in its entirety: “Roast potatoes for.” The modest “for” stands in for the entirety of ideas of purpose and presentation (gift, bearer, recipient) while somehow simultaneously meaning nothing).

What Wake and Buttons may have in common, and which is central to improvised music as we increasingly know it, is the binary notion of system and anti-system as underlying contrary structures: Finnegans Wake enacts familiar structures – myth, narrative, joke, syntax – then undercuts them with anti-structures of puns, collisions, words that have wandered from dozens of tongues, simultaneous and multiple digressions inserted into the line; Tender Buttons presents the most domestic structures, the signs of daily life – Objects, Food, Rooms – then anti-systematically, by a number of strategies, drains them of their common meaning, opening them at once to alternative reading as well as a blissful absence of something signified.
Matt’s “madeleine” mention of Tchicai will repeatedly lead to recalled conversations sprinkled over many years. A particularly acute listener to New York free jazz in the very early ‘60s (Paul Haines) once mentioned to me that, before Tchicai recorded, he was a fairly earnest disciple of Ornette Coleman, an influence that had been pretty thoroughly sublimated by the time Tchicai went into a recording studio. When these notions started to circulate in my mind, I kept recalling someone comparing a particular Don Cherry solo to the placing of stones in a Zen garden. The memory clarifies. It was circa 1965. It was a friend, the late trumpeter Ric Colbeck, and we were listening to a track from the New York Contemporary Five recording on Savoy, half of an LP shared with Bill Dixon. The track would have been the only one Cherry showed up for, identified as “Like a Blessed Baby Lamb” in one discography (in passing I’ll recommend listening to Colbeck’s The Sun Is Coming Up [Fontana, 1970], superb free jazz with Mike Osborne, Jean-François Jenny-Clark and Selwyn Lissack). The connecting link, of course, is Tchicai, another member of the NYC5, but this dialogue of discourses has every bit as much to do with Cherry, who at one time or another provided a laconic and abstract contrast to every great and voluble reed player of the era – a minimalist abstractionist among all the Wake-men: Coleman, Dolphy, Coltrane, Rollins, Ayler and Sanders.

The Wake/Buttons analogy, taken in one direction, describes an essential tension between different modes for combining the systematic and the non-systematic, but it also points here to the special sculptural aspect of Button players. Even when their work may be read as blasts of pure feeling, they often occur as and highlight a fundamentally abstract, liberating discontinuity in space.

Envoi: As I was getting near the end of this, John Butcher mentioned in a note that, coincidentally, he would be playing with the California trio of Tania Chen on piano, electronics and toys, Gino Robair on modular electronics and Tom Djll on modular and circuit-bent electronics, a trio named Tender Buttons.

Stuart Broomer © 2017

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