Being matter recorded

Cecil Taylor on/poetry

Chris Funkhouser performing at 'Open Plan: Cecil Taylor,' Whitney Museum of American Art, April 2016. Photo courtesy of Constellation Funkhouser.

After my first firsthand encounter with Cecil Taylor’s work in Charlottesville in November 1986, I never would have imagined having a series of extraordinary experiences with him across the decades that followed. Seeing him that first time, a two-hour solo concert during a thunderstorm, I didn’t realize music could exist in such a different aesthetic universe — concert as a poem: words, movement, and sound, ominously beginning, “A stroke, the night.” I had been exposed to all kinds of music and was a student of jazz via courses centered on the Smithsonian Collection, which included something of Cecil’s work, but experiencing it live was as if someone from another planet came down to embody what music and performance could be — that every norm could be reshaped, if not broken altogether. I was in graduate school at the time, coincidentally reading D. H. Lawrence’s senses of Whitman (“breaking a way ahead … pioneering into the wilderness of unopened life,” a “strange camp at the end of the great high-road”) and fused it to awareness(es) that began to grow during the concert. Cecil’s “Avant Hard” (a phrase I wrote in a journal that night) spirit and actions (finger, corporeal, and mind ballet, letting sounds out of his body that are there) were intensely appealing, far removed from anything I’d known previously, a mystical event for me (“we look for the light light light”) that dramatically certified Cecil as an artist of untouchable, seemingly unapproachable quality, a type of wizard/master operating on an entirely different register. 

Five years later, a housemate in Santa Cruz had acquired a tape of Cecil’s poetry, Chinampas, which completely blew our minds. Shortly thereafter, through our work with We Press, we met a poet named Trudy Morse, who was part of one of his Workshop Ensembles, and We ended up releasing a piece of theirs on one of our cassettes. Meeting Trudy was a fortuitous connection, as she was working closely with Cecil; perhaps a type of gravitational relationship was developing. After moving to Albany, still under the spell of Chinampas and with Trudy’s encouragement, I finally communicated with him, writing, in essence, a gushing fan letter with questions. Cecil responded with a series of phone calls and an invitation to meet at his Brooklyn home for an interview in September 1994. Why? He explained that no one had ever approached him wanting to discuss his poetry. About half of our 400 minutes of conversation on the subject was published in Hambone 12— one of my most treasured publications. 

I saw and heard Cecil perform many times during the 1990s, and at one point he and I made plans to construct and issue a collection of his poetry, although it (disappointingly) never came to fruition. Nonetheless, my admiration is total (and I am overjoyed to hear rumor of a typeset manuscript, finally, more than twenty years later). His readings at the Poetry Project during this period were phenomenal events that left a permanent impression on me, projecting language so intricately and musically, gathering forces and spirits to exalt “the power of utterances / as system / as meaning.” To be in his company was always an occasion of great fortune.  

Late last year I read an announcement for the April 14–24, 2016, Whitney Museum of American Art’s Open Plan exhibition dedicated to Cecil. I did not, for a moment, imagine being part of it, and was most surprised when Jay Sanders, a Whitney curator, contacted me in January about participating. I accepted the invitation and set out to prepare something engaging.

I found the cassettes of our conversation, boxed in silence for more than twenty years. A couple of them had decayed in places, though overall they were in decent condition. Digitizing them, I listened carefully and made notations on a printed transcript. Listening a second time, I collected fifty-two samples of things he said with regard to poetry and what might be construed as poetics, including two passages that did not appear in Hambone. We talked about many things the night we met in Brooklyn, and revisiting the dialogue was an expansive experience, to say the least.

In advance of creating these audio samples, what I would do with the material was unclear. The idea to make an interactive, multitrack apparatus for the exhibition performance arose during the process. Using Ableton Live software — a component of my practice in various capacities over the years — turned out to be the perfect choice.

Then, as I experimented with layering Cecil’s words about poetry, it seemed wise to include some of his poetry alongside them in order to create a more broadly indicative sound collage. Since most people who know Cecil’s poetry are familiar with the Chinampas recordings, I shied away from them and instead found a few examples on YouTube and transformed video to audio. To those, I added my documentation of one of Cecil’s Poetry Project readings, and recordings from a poetry performance he did in Troy, New York, provided to me by George and Susan Quasha.

A few decisions about selecting content and organizing and preparing the material had to be made along the way — some hierarchizing was in order — though these aspects of the project were not especially difficult, because Cecil says so many elegant and interesting things. Coupling his comments with poetry, shifting back and forth between the two forms, enables fuller context to emerge. A ten-channel audio sketch suitable for museum presentation — on an April 22, 2016, bill with Tracie Morris and Susie Ibarra, Fred Moten, Jemeel Moondoc, and Ensemble Muntu — came together without excessive turbulence, requiring mainly copious amounts of time for technical preparation. Its title, “improvised is how the voice is used,” is part of Cecil’s answer to a question about improvisation in Chinampas.

Once the exhibition material was ready to go, I decided to make an online version built on the bones of a JavaScript/HTML5 interface I have been cultivating (at first in consultation with digital poet Jim Andrews) since 2012. The online version of the material includes all of the selected samples from the interview, whereas the concert version omits a few. Conversely, five of the poems featured at the Whitney are not part of the online application.

To explore our “improvised is how the voice is used,” visit us.

— Chris Funkhouser
Rhinebeck, NY
April 2016