You came to see human bodies tonight, but she said this is “holy work and it’s dangerous not to know that ’cause you could die like an animal down here.” She was talking about making dances — pacing back and forth across bridges, riding up and down the block, selling loosies on the corner, walking in the middle of the street. The hazard of movement, of moving and being moved, of knowing that we are affected, that we are affective. There’s danger, too, in the very fact of this reminder, even if it’s just a taste, of what you haven’t seen. The maternal is a radical exteriority the eucharistic consumes. Time and again and out of time we’re lost in the rematerialization of this loss, another invaluable impersonation done gone, sometimes of natural causes, sometimes in refusal of naturalization. That’s when he (I mean that man, you know, the man, the one, the one who looks like everyone and no one, as you know) tries to control the more than human by calling it less than human. The quasi-autobiographical modalities of our story, of however many years a slave, which try to render thingliness relatable, model this regulation precisely in seeking after it. Relatability, which is subjection’s scene, the romantic subject’s haunt, is the naturalization of what can’t help but be a docile body. It comes to light as the production of corpses on or underneath the thoroughfare. The only way to come through this bildung in the service of destruction and rebuilding, that contract, that contact, that refusal of surrender, is to extend the ante-autobiographical modalities of our story. Our consent to be inseparable, our constant escape from what our constant escape induces, even from time, even when we’re on it, require us to live in danger.
So may I offer you something? Something rich and strange, an abundance, but on a plate so small it’s not even a plate; a spoonful, really; just a mouthful, just enough to taste, just for a moment, the alchemical magic, the terrible and beautiful and immeasurable richness and impurity of a train or a streetcar or a sidewalk held in the flavor of solfège, in simultaneously encrypted and decrypted composition, sung until it can be tasted, that taste made music from embouchure to batterie, hand to mouth, in ongoing haptic incident and percussive hors d’oeuvre. If you’ve never been offered something like this before, I can only imagine your frustration at being enjoined to imagine dance before you can attend to it; and by way of this intangible offering from so far away; and by way of something which is, if not quite nonsensical, moving by way of the wrong sense. The synesthetic reach is probably too little and too much: a proprioceptive failure — a sharp disorientation — appears to be immanent as well as imminent. Nevertheless, beyond the bonds of taste, feel how much of dance — of the chorographic, choreographic life you’ve been living and are living and are about to live right here, right now, in this bearing that we can’t quite get — there is to be tasted in and by way of Samuel R. Delany and Cecil Taylor.
She opened her mouth, feeling her tongue’s weight on the floor of her mouth, the spots of dryness spreading it, and tasting the air’s differences, which marked not the air’s but the tongue’s itself.
When I was in the Conservatory, there was a Southern woman who taught English the first year that I was there. … She was talking about Tennessee Williams, and she was talking about Streetcar, and she said, “The language in that play, there are sections of that play that are so good,” she said, “that I could actually taste it.” … Mother always had me reading. Mother spoke French and German and brought Schopenhauer to me when I was eleven years old, but that was something else — that was — you didn’t have a choice there with Mother. Boom! That’s the way that went. But here was this woman who just said this, and I heard it. And her emotional dedication to a word — I said, “Wow, that’s my dedication to music. You mean it’s possible to have that kind of dedication to another art?” So, that.
Moved movers amid the intensity of the pas de deux my offering asks you to imagine, Delany and Taylor are bound in what Denise Ferreira da Silva would call the affectability of no-bodies. Bound for that embrace, they hold, in their openness, to its general, generative pattern. Openness to the embrace moves against the backdrop of exclusion and the history of exclusion, which is a series of incorporative operations. This is how openness to being affected is inseparable from the resistance to being affected. Dance writes this push and pull into the air and onto the ground and all over the skin of the earth and flesh that form the city. The words of these moved movers have something specific to do with dance and I want to talk about that specificity as an interplay between walking and talking, between crossing and tasting, between quickness and flavor. Their words and work form part of the aesthetic and philosophical atmosphere that attends the various flows and steps that have taken place in and as New York City over the last fifty years, especially downtown in the serially and simultaneously emergent and submergent dance space between two churches, Judson and St. Mark’s. I want to call upon this history of devoted heresy, of transgressive congregation, because, as with most of what we know of atmospheres and their conditions, the astral air and gritty fluid Delany and Taylor have long been circulating, rich with the mineral, venereal, funereal character of New York’s paved soil, it’s palpable, haptic aroma, the way it gets rubbed into and out of yourself and others in the jam and crush that tends to mess and mix up selves and others in the grand, eccentric compound improvisation of the city — because that kind of knowledge, our knowledge of all that, our capacity to think in and with our inhabitation of all that, is too often suppressed in crowded, solitary busyness. It takes a lot to feel yourself walking around, mouth open in wonder and/or desire, as eager to taste as an Arkansan, or an Oankali, out looking for where the dragons might be.
Genitals, buttocks, nipples, tongue all seemed so insistently present inside Sam’s mouth and twenty-four-hour-worn suit. Once, well back before dawn, when the train windows were still black and the other passengers slept, he had stared at one white round glass, thinking of the moon, when, at once, he’d stood, to bring his mouth closer and closer, as if to kiss this night light at the aisle’s end, pulling back only when the heat about burned his lips.
Yoruba memoir other mesh in voices mother tongue at bridge scattering Black.
We shared an apartment for a while, and I had the opportunity to watch him practice, and his practicing revolves around solfège singing. He’ll sing a phrase and then he’ll harmonize it at the piano and then he’ll sing it again, always striving to get the piano to sing, to try and match this feeling of the human production, the voice, in terms of pianistic production so that it gets the same effect. Cecil’s trying to get the vocal sound out of the piano, and I think he’s achieved it on many occasions. You can almost hear the piano scream or cry. It’s worked for him.
In their shared preoccupation with bridges and their variously creative use of cantilevering; in their questions concerning the architectonics of the graph, and of the graft, and even of the grift; in their investigation of the trick’s subsocial emergency, the aesthetic and sexual imagination’s passage between lawmaking and lawbreaking, the centrifugal range of holistic difficulties that mark the relationship between the bridge and a kind of engineered, sculptural, and machinic thingliness that fleshes forth history, that juts or walks or gets walked out into history as a kind of manufactured outcropping or as out speech, that speaking out into history that animates queer performance, black performance, and their convergence, Delany and Taylor reveal that dance is the city’s mother tongue. The bridge marks, because it also is, where crossing over crosses over into smuggling, a transportation of lost and found desire, lost and found matter, both of which move in constant escape. The bridge’s errant merger of rant and merge is given in the audiovisual logisticality of the cry from Edvard Munch to James Brown; but concern for it must be registered in close attention to the mouth — to the feelings of words and sounds on the tongue, the taste of herbs and roots and cream and flesh and glass, the bridge where the tongue rests — and to the fingers, too (another transfer within song towards tactile, percussive lyricism) and to the variously good and bad feet that carry them. The passages above allow for that further investigation as does the use of solfège as a pedagogical tool by Taylor’s teachers and, then, as a pedagogical-compositional tool by Taylor himself. Consider dance as a matter of mouthfeel as well as footstep (of a song, or story, the physical-chemical reaction that occurs when the idea is sounded, a birth effect given in combinations of soufleé, saveur, and savoir-faire). The essay I’ll never write would have been an ode to la and mmm.
That’s the soundtouch of an aberrant cruise inside the straight line, which uninstalls directness in interior paramouric curve or cave or cant, sticking out from itself but slant as a kind of gesture, in a kind of dedication, where the senses have become theoreticians, where aesthetic experience is a literal and literate transfer of substance. Between the oral and the aural there’s some commerce at the level of taste: material tactility, material event, material inscription. In Just Above My Head, this is what James Baldwin is after between Arthur and Crunch: circuits of lyrical emulsion and theoretical image. Knowledge of this dedication is given by way of parental — but please, in the interest of another movement, of mmm and all it stands for, of the general and pansexual maternity that animates materiality, indulge me if I say marental — lesson and lesion and loss. There’s a kind of violence to black/queer maternity that deals in the liberatory force of endangerment. Toni Morrison speaks of a certain extremity of this force, but its mundanities — not necessarily any less spectacular — animate the tradition she extends. The hazard is abandonment, which is inseparable from the grace of abandon. Delany and Taylor speak (of and in) this movement.
My mother died when I was, like, thirteen or fourteen.
After my father died, I went into analysis. It was Sullivan analysis, a kind of analysis that built on the theory of interpersonal relationships. The analyst would help steer your course. There is a relationship between the analysis and my music, even though it’s hard to define. The fact is that, being a musician, I had put a lot of things into music that music itself was not able to resolve. That is, music is the creation of a language out of symbols, of sounds, sounds that cannot be spoken and therefore create a kind of personal isolation. If there are problems that music cannot answer wholly, you either have to have friends whom you can trust not to destroy you with whatever you give them of yourself, or you have to go to a neutral source, and that is what analysis was for me.
“When I came out of school, the first thing that I did was to walk down 125th Street and listen to what was happening. And it took me maybe a month before I started digging. That was the beginning of, like, the other education. I mean the participation in, and the doing of, the thing.”
… (“I try to imitate on the piano the leaps in space a dancer makes”) …
“The dance, I think, had its results on his playing because a lot of his playing depends on body motion, especially the fast playing. He does things with a speed that most pianists, if they heard it on a record, would say, ‘How does he do that?’ It has a lot to do with the rhythmic flailing of his arms or his ability to move his body back and forth like a pendulum from one end of the piano to the other so that he can put his hands in the proper position, and I think his interest in the dance has a lot to do with that.”
“My father died of lung cancer in 1958 when I was seventeen.” This is just not a sentence that, when an adult says it in a conversation seven or a dozen or twenty years after the fact, people are likely to challenge.
And when, to facilitate my Pennsylvania scholars, I put together a chronology of my life, starting with my birth (April Fools’ Day, 1942), that sentence, among many, is what I wrote.
I don’t remember the specific letter in which one of them pointed out gently that, if I was born in 1942, I could not possibly have been seventeen. In 1958 I was fifteen up until April 1 and sixteen for the year’s remaining nine months. Various researches followed. … Finally, in an old Harlem Newspaper, a small article was unearthed that confirmed it; my father died in the early days of October 1960.
I was eighteen.
In October, almost exactly a year after my father’s death, Marilyn miscarried. She recuperated in my sister’s old room at my mother’s apartment. Two or three weeks later, she got a job as a salesgirl at B. Altman’s department store. Let go even before New Year’s almost immediately she got a job as an editorial assistant at Ace Books.
Probably within a week (certainly no more than ten days), after a set of obsessively vivid dreams, I began what, not quite a year later, would be my first published novel, The Jewels of Aptor.
On a chill, immobile evening, during a midnight November walk, through a window in an alley adjacent to the Village View construction Marilyn glimpsed two or four or six naked people — multiplied or confused, in a moment of astonished attention, by some mirror on the back wall, as the window itself added a prismatic effect to the bodies inside, gilded by candlelight or some mustard bulb — before they moved behind a jamb, or she walked beyond the line of sight, the image suggested proliferations of possibilities, of tales about those possibilities, of images in harmony, antiphon, or wondrous complementarity. Once, when I was gone for the night, she went walking — and was stopped by two cops in a patrol car, curious what a woman would be doing out in that largely homosexual haunt — on the Williamsburg Bridge. It was a time of strained discussions in our tenement living room, in the midst of which a bit of plaster from the newly painted ceiling would fall to shatter over the mahogany arm of the red chair.
My father died when I was sixteen, when I was eighteen; my mother died when I was, like, thirteen or fourteen; when I was thirty-seven, but I was thirty-eight, my mother and father died. Note the temporal confusion of a loss that makes you move, that puts you in motion, bearing you out onto the city streets. Delany writes of an abyss between columns waiting to be bridged, itinerant flight through soffit and cistern, where one enters into another scene, into contact, in which one becomes more and less than that. Taylor’s autobiographical narrative pylons, the burred, felt precision of the recollection of marental loss, move in their relation to Delany’s. Then the music becomes self-analysis, improvisation taking over the function of a certain distance, where private language and personal gesture move from solipsism to the social. There’s a thinking of the kinetic thing that Taylor engages — the participation in, the doing of, it. There’s a theory of illicit exhaustion and insistence that he gives, coming out of an experience of the ordinary in and as movement like a feel Trio A or some undercommon Caminhando, Yvonne Rainer and Lygia Clark channeled in asymmetrical, off-stride walking and cutting, hip flaneuses returned to get deep in the tradition of the everyday thing, a thin-curved slice of life, a fugitive trench, an almost interminable tranche. This is the general dance project we share tonight, supernaturally; this is solfège by Ellington, his suite for Ailey, a bridge over The River’s repercussive cascade, the music of things worn, strummed but also beaten, to airy thinness, in nothingness, as indiscretion.
Yet Cecil Taylor has no compunction about transferring to jazz any innovations that might be useful. He opened his section of a December, 1963 Jazz Composers’ Guild Concert at New York’s Judson Hall with an improvisation for tuned piano. Strumming tuned piano strings is a device rarely used in jazz, and it is obvious that all those blues chords and chord changes, rhythms and melodies that have been the definitive substance of jazz could not be played in any recognizable way on the inside of a tuned piano. But the piece was well received by the jazz-oriented audience, and Cecil, who feels that he has only one music, whether it is played inside or outside the piano, and who regards himself as nothing but a jazz musician, did not feel that he had compromised himself in the least. Buell Neidlinger described the performance: “I don’t find any of the sounds Cecil makes on the inside of the piano at all similar to John Cage or Christian Wolff or Stockhausen or Kagel. I know he’s heard all that music, but the implements that he uses to play the inside of the piano are nothing like the ones that they use. For instance, he uses bed springs, steel mesh cloth, things that he lives around. And like those cats are using rubber erasers, corks, felt mallets. Cecil’s is a much more metallic sound, very brilliant, but the Western cats soften the piano down.
“In the Judson performance I played the sustaining pedal and the keyboard and Cecil played the inside of the piano. It was fabulously successful, but it was entirely improvised on the spur of the moment — there was absolutely no rehearsal of that at all. On that tune there was just the drums and myself, and I was able to reach under the piano with my left foot and play the base at the same time.”
In that other essay I would have been more delicately emphatic in approaching this exhaustive collection of approaches. When Taylor says you can’t just walk up to the piano any kind of way, when Delany details a history of the broken world in calculated, but nevertheless incalculable, drifting, a dance is being danced from which a range of composition is improvised. Opening the piano recalibrates swing; it’s another way, in and in extension of the tradition, of organizing sonic energy. Something is given in this penetration of the instrument that is allied to orchestral song and dance. A ritual of approach is already given here that culminates in performance with Min Tanaka on the street that time, in refusal of the tonic, outside of Tonic, in what they used to call Loisaida, and then this last time in Kyoto, that long, slow, felt, sensed, anarepetitive inhabitation of our fallenness and our flight. What’s the difference that Neidlinger hears and senses in these encounters of penetrative, penetrated objects? Taylor’s implements are every day objects, “Things that he lives around.” Canted, this is the bridge Delany lives around, where matter and desire are lost and found in mist and mystery.
Usually when the moon lingered toward the day torches were not set out, and he’d be able to see all the way across the bridge, into the market square, to the glimmer on the water that plashed in the fountain at the square’s center — as long as the stalls and vending stands were not yet up.
But tonight, to fight the fog that now and again closed out the moon completely, the torches had, indeed, been lit. As the cart rolled onto the bridge, waist-high walls at either side and clotted shallows beneath, the weak fire showed the crockery shapes under the lashed canvas; then firelight slid away, leaving them black. And the bridge thrust three meters into dim pearl — and vanished.
He cuffed the ox’s shoulder to hurry her, confident that the old structure was the same stone, bank to bank, as it had been by day or by other nights. Still, images of breaks and unexplained fallings drifted about him.
1. On –th Street, just beyond Ninth Avenue, the bridge runs across sunken tracks. Really, it’s just an extension of the street. (In a car, you might not notice you’d crossed an overpass.) The stone walls are a little higher than my waist. Slouching comfortably, you can lean back against them, an elbow either side, or you can hoist yourself up to sit.
There’s no real walkways.
The paving is potholed.
The walls are cracked here, broken there. At least three places the concrete has crumbled from iron supports: rust has washed down over the pebbled exterior. Except for this twentieth-century detail, it has the air of a prehistoric structure.
At various times over the last half-dozen years, I’ve walked across it, now in the day, now at night. Somehow I never remember passing another person on it.
It’s the proper width.
You’d have to double its length, though.
Give it the pedestrians you get a few blocks over on Eighth Avenue, just above what a musician friend of mine used to call ‘Forty-Douche’ Street: kids selling their black beauties, their Valiums, their loose joints, the prostitutes and hustlers, the working men and women. Then put the market I saw on the Italian trip Ted and I took to L’Aquila at one end, and any East Side business district on the other, and you have a contemporary Bridge of Lost Desire.
It’s the bridge Joey told me he was under that sweltering night in July when, beside the towering garbage pile beneath it, he smelled the first of the corpses.
Transfer is hard life. The history of approach is terrible in its ongoing removals and violent translations. Unnatural causes burden every step you take. In the city, under the bridge, tonight, murder animates the history of dance, so you have to turn enjoyment to refusal and be open to the things you live around. How are you getting home tonight? Pretty soon it’ll be time to go out into the pearl.
She said, if you’re ready to be less and more than human, to be nobody, to have no body, to claim the nothingness that surpasses understanding, then recognize and move against the killing even if you think it’s not you that’s killing or being killed. We study non-compliance with civil butchery. X and ’nem were walking in the middle of the street. What can we do to match that danger? Abandon flown in and out of abandonment, dance is the risk of movement. Dance is movement at risk. Noncompliance is contact improvisation. He’s trying to kill this ongoing walking down the street together. He’s gone, unburied angel, and we are anti-gone, against the times. We study the sacrament of self-defense, which is fulfilled in the persistent practice of what we defend. Always already less than human, we’re more than human in public. Evidently, there can only be one human at a time. Humanity is antisocial, evidently. Calm the tumultuous derangement and mow your lawn, he said. You can be human by yourself but black don’t go it alone. It’s a social dance, unruliness counterpoised between riot and choir, and our melismatic looting is with child, sold all the time, but never bought. Our numbers are queer, they won’t come out right, ’cause we keep moving like simple giving in the remainder. The human is never more or less than one. More and less than one, we’re walking down the middle of the street. We study staying unburied in the common underground. Don’t let him humanize us. Don’t forget about X and ’nem. We an’ dem are more and less than that. We an’ dem and X and ’nem a-go work this out. We’ve made some other plans. Your mama’s baby’s flesh will raze the city. In that crossing, in the rub it bears, we’ll raise the city. We are the engine that will raze this city. What neither begins nor ends is that we are the engine that will raise this city. On earth, where we read the worlds he makes in force against song and dance, we are instruments at work and play, in touch and taste, of tongue and roof, for mouth and bridge. Just a taste, and our amusement, and it’s gone. This is our invitation to dance — out of nothing, till there’s nothing at all.
This essay was commissioned by Danspace Project for the catalogue accompanying PLATFORM 2015: Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Streets, organized by guest curator Claudia La Rocco and Danspace director Judy Hussie-Taylor. For more information about that book, and the various readings, discussions, and performances during the Platform, please go to danspaceproject.org.