First reading of Cecil Taylor's '#6.56' (3)

Tstsi Jaji

Here I attempt to transcribe my initial impressions after listening once to the full album of Cecil Taylor’s recorded poem, Chinampas, and repeatedly (for perhaps nine or ten hearings) to the penultimate track, #6.56. I was drawn to the editors’ invitation to show the “under the hood” work that precedes a smoothly running piece of writing, their interest in how we deal with poems that exist only as sound texts, and their curiosity about what a first reading/hearing looks like.

A disclaimer: Chinampas has been on my iPod for a decade, and I imagine I first came to this poem thanks to Fred Moten’s wonderful writing about it in In the Break, but this was a chance to try and recapture a fresh encounter with an artist whose role in my life can only be called medicinal. I spent some time journaling about my first experiences hearing Taylor’s sound art. I remembered listening on headphones in a sweat-soaked library booth in Ohio as an undergrad at Oberlin. I remembered the first time I heard him playing live, through a heavy wooden door …

He’s come to campus for a concert and, in his devotional cell, the orchestra rehearsal room, he practices. Hearing the rapid cluster-arpeggiations rifle up and down the pitch spectrum I start to know Taylor as a choreographer, a movement artist who rehearses his flights, his landings, his breathpacing. I eavesdrop enough that on the night of the concert I bring him roses. But first he plays, in the cavernous Warner Hall, blond wood standing witness. But before he plays he enters. Bells on ankles, beads and white tracksuit unsettling the unthought machismo of ‘the tradition.’ His legs rattle, his wrists ring out the metal. The ritual begins. Humming then incanting, he circles our organum, this hulk of ebony, ivory, history, and damage that is the piano to which we will repair eventually. Twenty years later, I can’t not hear the one word that repeatedly resonated: Herodotus. Herodotus. Herodotus. History did us in, now history must deal us in.”

Then I cued up the track #6.56 and I tried to listen, openly, looping the track. Each time I jotted down words and phrases that stuck out to me, drew arrows, flipped back to notes I’d taken on earlier tracks. Eventually, I started writing, something between transcribing a hearing in real time and synthesizing previous hearings. Reader, please cue the track and listen along as your read. Perhaps you’ll recognize some of what resonated:

How I’m hearing Cecil Taylor’s Chinampas

Arrayed. Arrayed. Arrayed. Arrayed. Arrayed. What requires spelling out could be heard otherwise. What I hear is signature. Taylor, historical poet. This is not fragmentation so much as a reverencing of ritual objects. Let them incarnate they (mmm/may) selves. The voice — this poetry of the throat. Of the bell. Of the cheek. Of the drum. Of the paper, rustler, rifler, robber. The reverence for two-ness through-out the poem makes a home for undoing our national polarities — racial, sexual, normativizing terrors suspended here: I hear a poetry of simultaneity here, a simultaneity that will not undo us. Mixed dress, black velvet pantaloons below, white skirt above. Woman below, man above. Chiasmus. In Taylor’s pairs, the gamma-genesis of twins — I think of Dogon/Platonic beginnings — sounds less like hierarchy and more like position. Still larger orifice housing soft bone and nine serpents, the housing of bodies in body, welcomed, homed here in something other than either or. Brightness in voice, a tightening in throat and becoming brash in accent. Taylor, lover of male bodies, born at the spring equinox, one turn above one below, bearing gnostic truths sounds out, sounds out. His way back into those lost knowings is through the auditory aperture. We who are used to hearing constantly and listening rarely, our ears are opened by the multiple zones of sound arrayed before and around us in stereophonic distribution of sound into imagined intersecting planes: word — an oracle says this was wo-man’s genitalia before skirt was plated — the bell, the drum, the throat’s growls, screeches, hums, pantings.

It is the angle of incidence as much as the linguistic or sonic incident itself I’m taken by — the sounds come from multiple directions. Attention is not demanded or channeled. I am in this. I hear some things repeated, leitmotifs: mixed dress (from earlier in the album) here becomes luxuriant in detail and mystical specificity: white skirt above, black velvet pantaloons below, two birds. O wind. History always here. Damballah stands by, but in this poem, the carnal is foregrounded. Black speech spelled out: let THEY incarnate themselves. Black fleshly presence rises up through the body, of which mouth cavities and tongue and throat, rolling and heady, are part. The horse I hear here is vaudoun’s horse, taken by Damballah. I hear the reverencing of the serpent god of Ouidah. I don’t know what to make of the divine followers of Ha, nor the fellows of Shashenha. I hear the reverencing of the womb, a foreshadowing of the final poem’s last word … already the invitation is formulating: we may as blood cognate enter the womb and pause. Is this womb the anthill that issues forth and that waves in the New World accentuation of murmurs, mumbles, stutters, coffled tongues, Creoles, is this anthill’s issue also Exu’s crossroad, the entry into ritual? I hear Exu’s dualities arrayed. The most violent sound: arrayed (not a raid, and yet it takes my ear hostage). The sound of paper, heard last in #9.20, summoned up as he spells out this singular word. His bright nasal voice in the mask, resonating and order, hierarchy: it matters how the letters are arrayed. When two becomes three in one and the Trinitarian logic inaugurates an age of new empires so calamitous for the lands of Tzotzil, of Damballah, of Exu, and of the metallurgists, builders, orderers/around of every era. The steps are too narrow to climb. Empire is its own undoing. Brightness, bearer of time in breath. This is ritual space, sound world in which to sit among mysteries. Not all of this is for me. Its opacities invite me into the auditory aperture, to practice being with what will not render itself to me. Brilliant by angle. Shining space. Spectrum of pitch, timbre, pace, meaning. Sound of joy. Ku-ti-fa-ku-ti-fa astral planes of being, alchemic souffleurs. Breath. To carnate they selves they selves they selves beginning space. Sunken awe. Auditai auditai.

Chinampas (1987)

1. # 5'04
2. # 3'43
3. # 5'46
4. # 5'07
5. # 12'30
6. # 9'20
7. # 5'46
8. # 6'56
9. # 3'36

Cecil Taylor: poetry, voice, tympani, bells, small percussion. Recorded  November 16 and 17, 1987. CHINAMPA, an Aztec word meaning “floating garden.” Source: UbuWeb’s Cecil Taylor page.

Tsitsi Jaji’s book of poems, Carnaval, was published in the African Poetry Book Fund’s box set Seven New Generation African Poets (Slapering Hol, 2014). She teaches about global black literatures, cinema, and music. Her courses explore African American, African, and Caribbean expressive cultures and exchanges among them and other parts of the African diaspora. Her research often focuses on representations of sound, music and listening, and engages feminist methods and theory. Her first book, Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music and Pan-African Solidarity accounts for how and why African American music and literature circulated in Ghana, Senegal, and South Africa and contributed so profoundly to African notions of solidarity in the twentieth century. She is currently at work on two new scholarly book projects. The first, Cassava Westerns: Refiguring the American Frontier Myth in Global Black Imaginariesexamines the way writers, filmmakers, and musicians of Africa and the Black Diaspora have critically engaged with tropes and mythologies of the US West.