From 'From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate'

Joseph Donahue, 2014 (photo by Star Black).

[From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate is an ongoing series of letters written by composer/multi-instrumentalist N., founding member of a band known as the Molimo m’Atet based in Los Angeles.]


Dear Angel of Dust,

I’m enclosing a tape of a new piece we just added to our book. It’s called “Other Lives, Their Jostle” and it’s written by Drennette, a rare foray into composition for her. The title comes from a poem she came upon recently, a poem called “Transfigurations” by a poet named Joseph Donahue, of whom, she explained when she introduced the piece to us at rehearsal, she’d never heard before. She was browsing in Chatterton’s Bookstore the other day and came upon it in a little magazine she picked up and began to thumb thru, an obscure literary journal of which, she says, she’d also never heard but ended up buying a copy, unable to put the poem down. She brought copies of the poem to rehearsal and, as we could see, it begins with those four words: “Other lives, their jostle.”

Something about it got to her. Something took hold and wouldn’t let go, she says. It tugged at her, not letting her be, so much so that rather than going directly home when she left Chatterton’s, as had been her plan, she went around the corner to the teahouse on Melbourne, went in, ordered tea, and sat down to reread the poem, unable to wait to get home to do so, rereading it again and again. Maybe it had to do with having lived in New York, she explained, for she saw in the contributors’ notes at the back of the journal that Joseph Donahue lives in New York. “Jostle in the sense of impingement, yes, being put upon by others, the fact of so many others,” she said, “shoulder to shoulder on a subway or a bus the least of it. But there’s something else to it, more to it.” She paused as we hung on her words. “It’s that necropolitan aspect I often sensed when I lived there,” she went on, “a necropolitan aura, a necropolitan umbra, as though so many people packed into so compressed a space going so busily about their business put pressure on being to the point of rubbing it out, erasing it, a reduction to pure machination, living dead.” She paused again, gathering her thoughts. “I got that sense often when I lived there,” she said when she spoke again. “Maybe it’s that he got that sense into the poem.”

But it wasn’t only that, she went on to insist. It wasn’t only, if I heard her correctly, an apprehension of living dead, it wasn’t that preemption alone. It wasn’t only a sense of the living dead but of the dead living, age and wear, which are also, she pointed out, a sign of endurance, having as much to do with it as the monumentality bearing down on you wherever you look. “We don’t get that here,” she summed up this part of what she had to say by saying, “at least not in so strong a dose. Here it’s too spread out to accrue in that relentless way.” Having said that, she continued to specify the “something else” she meant to get to or to give a sense of, the “more to it” she insisted was there and that we see was there. She wanted us to understand jostle as also something inward, proliferation within, perturbation within, a stir the word “soul” might carry, transmigratory the farther in one went.

The upshot was that the poem had, as she put it, held her captive. She had sat in the teahouse for a couple of hours mulling over it, reading it over and over, sipping tea. She was struck by so much in the poem she could barely, she told us, begin to touch on its details and its particulars, driven to compose by that very fact, the persistence of “something else” not yet gone into or gotten to no matter how much was gone into or gotten to. She put it this way: “I remembered having read Shepp say somewhere that Trane’s music proposes an infinite horizon. I remembered that Something Else!!!! is the title of Ornette’s first album. Grachan Moncur III’s Some Other Stuff came to mind as well, as did Jimmy Lyons’s Other Afternoons and Gary Bartz’s Another Earth, not to mention the plea for ‘another chance’ in so much blues, R&B, and pop, all of it suggesting a sense of alternative or a call for alternative. I wanted “Other Lives, Their Jostle,” which I then and there named and began to imagine, to be a vehicle for, a sense or a call nowhere more outright than in Sun Ra’s “I Am the Alter-Destiny,” a sense of elseness or a call for elseness.”

There was, though, one thing she would go into, one such particular, something, she went on to say, related and in some ways catalytic to the sense of alternative her piece would be an exponent of. This was the poem’s preference for sentence fragments over grammatically complete sentences, a tendency she called its “phrasal bent,” sometimes its “clausal bent,” a predilection so pronounced she resorted to counting the relative occurrence of the two. While at the teahouse, that is, she went thru the poem and counted the number of sentence fragments ending with periods and the number of grammatically complete sentences, finding around eighty of the former and around thirty of the latter, a ratio tending toward three to one. Consistent with and probably an effect of the jostle and the impingement present in the poem, as though events and apprehensions crowded it, came in too fast to be noted other than telegraphically, sketchily, breathlessly almost, too fast and too abundant for grammatical completeness, this feature, Drennette noted, is conducive to and conveys a certain wariness of predication, maintaining a trepidatious tone. That tone or that tack, we could see, is there right away:

Other lives, their jostle. The engineer
crumples error into a paper ball, hurls it
as I enter. Man in the locker room,
skeleton visible beneath pale ripples
of fleshless skin. At the corner phone,
the acting vice president, her son
beaten with a pipe in a drug transaction.

“It’s as though,” Drennette pointed out, “nothing good could come of predication, as though the declarative sentence were to be avoided or, if not avoided, put off as long as possible, as though the sentence most often, if not always, carries, eponymously, a juridical, punitive sense: ‘Orestes is condemned to scrub the blood / from his parent’s house.’”

Yes, we could see, grammatically fulfilled sentences often, if not always, report unfulfilling outcomes (“No Summa survives the saint who writes it”) and the poem seems to be countering a dystopian closure that sentences carry, shying away from that sort of completion. “Other Lives, Their Jostle,” Drennette explained, ups the ante on this. She distributed two copies of the poem to each of us, on one of which all the complete sentences were blacked out with a felt marker. The piece opens with Drennette soloing, reminiscent of Max Roach’s “The Dream / It’s Time” on the Chattahoochee Red album, the one where he interlaces the concluding passages of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech with his drum solo. Here the spoken part is the rest of the band reciting lines from the copy of the poem on which the sentences have been blacked out, reciting lines made up only of sentence fragments — an all the more phrasal bent, all the more clausal bent, plied in pursuit of a utopic horizon.

As you can hear, the recitation is neither a straightforward reading of the poem nor anywhere near a setting of it as in lieder. Drennette left each of us free to choose which passages to recite, and we all recited at the same time, so that different passages are heard simultaneously, each up against the others, paratactic jostle. Nor is there any attempt to get it all in. The complete sentences, of course, are already excluded, in addition to which we made no effort to recite each and every sentence fragment in the poem. In the course of the four spoken “breaks” woven in with and punctuating Drennette’s solo I don’t think the five of us covered more than a third of the available lines. This was yet another nod to incompletion, one that Drennette took even farther in the writing of the piece and in the guidelines for our improvisations. The piece is written in such a way that none of its musical thoughts is completed, in terms of harmonic accord and resolution, melodic or motivic sustainment, rhythmic predictability, cadential arrival and such. We were instructed to take the same approach in our solos, to introduce ideas, thoughts, phrases, riffs, motifs and what have you, only not to finish them. 

It turned out well I think. It was an exercise in derailing habit, among other things, with all the challenges that come with that. It took some work, more than a few run-throughs, but I think we eventually rose to the occasion. And it was in fact that, an occasion, Drennette not being much given to composition nor inclined to as much talk as the poem drew out of her. It’s a testament to the power of the poem that it did, especially that a work so dark had her talking about utopic horizons, alter-destiny, elseness and such (though maybe it’s only natural, in some respect, that it did, a dialectic of release or relief). Never had we heard her go on so. I think that led us to put a little more into it, even at the risk of trying too hard, which I think we were guilty of the first few times thru. Her being so worked up got us worked up. But it all did eventually come together.

You can and will listen for yourself of course, but I’m particularly taken with the arpeggiated G-flat pedal the piece’s head, insofar as it can be said to have one, plays around with. I hesitate at “head,” thinking “throat song” might better apply, given the deep devotional stutter bordering on deep devotional hiccup the opening ensemble statement hits one with. Drennette instructed us to each pick a passage from the poem other than those we recited during her drum solo and to let it influence and, so to speak, preside over our solo, at the very least be kept in mind as we soloed. We were not to recite it outright or, worse, try to act it out on the axe, charadelike, but simply let it be there, not bearing down too hard, not conflicting with the dictates of incompletion. Here are the passages that Djamilaa, Aunt Nancy, Lambert, and Penguin chose: (a) “Her entrance, nine years back. Asked by police / if a car was involved.” (b) “Colonial attitude of the mind / toward its residence.” (c) “New York rinsed by rain.” (d) “On the laundromat floor / the towel that Pilate used. Golgotha. Sinai. Tabor.” Try, as you listen, to figure out who chose which. (I’m enclosing a copy of the poem.)

As for me, I chose “Not that, but not uninformed of that.” As you’ll hear, it inspired something of a grittiness in my trumpet, an off-the-cuff grace I don’t know would have been there otherwise. I was nothing if not turned on but also nothing if not turned around by it, a mix only quick extension held at bay. I’d have shinnied up the world’s tallest tree, had my arms and legs been strong enough, and shouted it from the top: “Not that, but not uninformed of that.”

                                                                                                As ever,