First reading of Cecil Taylor's '#6.56' (4)

Gillian White

Well before I’ve clicked the audio file, the reading begins with the email invitation to (re)produce a “first reading” of a “spoken word” performance by Cecil Taylor. His name rings jazz bells, so I’m reading my mind, too. As a student of jazz vocals in Manhattan, I sat in with Reggie Workman, but didn’t feel free enough to accept the invitation to join his ensemble. I’ll be embarrassed later to remember that some call Taylor the “inventor of free jazz” (at the Five Spot), and to know how often he’s been written about by poets I even teach. So the reading, I’ll admit, begins with strained self-awareness about being a “professional” reader (maybe of a Certain Kind? Paranoia enters here, and anxiety about my limited experience writing about sound) invited to write what I don’t know. Initiate, meet professional. I will try here to stay with that situation, not take it back.

The question, at first, that is, was whether to research this track’s contexts before listening, or not. 

Either way, I’m beset with expectations of what I’ll hear, before I know my ear.

The invitation email introduces the link with several generic labels that strike me as conflicting. This is “a free-jazz poem,” yet also “[Taylor’s] poetry … recited,” yet also “spoken-word.” If Taylor’s “reciting,” is this free? Not only haven’t I been given a text, if there is one, the editors (also) disclaim it: “We’re obviously interested here in how our colleagues handle a poem that only exists as sound (i.e., where there is no text).”

So still before clicking the link, paratext and genre and I are in conversation about what to prepare for.

I decide a good first reading might plausibly be sensory and even naïve without being at sea, and so entertain without answering contextual questions before I click: How to place Taylor’s career (region? class? educational backgrounds? how canonized? collaborator, loner? how did he afford to make art? for whom? how was this work distributed? how was he oriented to and against mainstream American society in 1987)? Who among those writing about sound poetry write about him? “Spoken word” in what sense (like Amiri Baraka? Gil Scott Heron? Marc Smith? )? I recognize I have assumptions about about genre, class, aesthetics, and politics activated by the phrase. Was it Taylor’s phrase? There is spoken word and there are spoken words:  what’s his relationship to Charles Olson, to sound poetry, to the historical avant-garde, to the persons recording him, to my hosts for this? What is his interest in 1980s Mexico or the Aztec agricultural practice called “floating islands” (both which the album’s title — Chinampas — refers us to)? How was he recording? Did he write criticism? How embarrassing is what I don’t know? How will fully facing this gap in my knowledge affect my responses?

Click: SOUND washes out most of my questions. Not what I expected: the noise of this piece — the force and shock of it. Many of my assumptions don’t seem right upon hearing, especially those formed around the phrase “spoken word.” More questions; no time. (History of that word and its relation to “free jazz poems”?)    

To register the shock and formal complexity of this happening seems the most important thing to do. Before I know anything else, or why, there is its bodily thrill and irritation — its demands. How was this made? I try at first to jot down words as it goes, but Taylor (?) has overlaid — with multiple tracks it seems — vocal noise, bells, rain stick (?), percussion, audible speech, frustrating my desire to derive from this weave and wash of sound a semantic thread (especially at first). There is the word — “incarnate” — followed by “theyselves” (I think) but mostly there are tinkling bells … I make out “oyo” or an “oye” or “hoyo” (hole?) and the desire arises for TEXT — something to hold to, a raft. My initial notes are illegible though not meaningless later — mostly scribbles. I write all over the page, not horizontally or vertically but moving to jot quotes and comments (without indicating which is which) in distinct areas of the page, perhaps more like someone trying to map a physical space than recording language. The piece articulates a physical space, and if I attempted to turn it into text, I’d want varying orthographies, different fonts and sizes and overlays of text to articulate the overlays of sound in time and their rendering the inaudible and the audible, producing a foreground and background difficult to describe — but sensible. 

Because of its speed and multilayeredness, my desire to turn the experience into a text is interesting and frustrating, and being the type of reader I am — committed to what form provokes and fronts — I gather this is part of what the piece “knows” or invites me to explore. I pick out words but who knows why: “orifice,” “white skirt above, black pantaloons below” (?); a string of clear, instruction-manual-ese at minute five (approximately) meeting and mocking my urge to come away with information. Repeated phrases — “a column of rain” — maybe because I catch them, sound cited. Was that “flooded,” “dew,” and “spittle” forming a triad, or did I just think of dew and spittle together and jot those down? Sound or sense? So much that’s repeated seems not just cited but antique: “velvet black pantaloons,” “male above, female below,” “columns of rain,” the Miltonic “word was woe,” all of which I’m tempted to lineate. I write the word “issues” but is it his or are they mine? I write the words “native — a-lyric” and draw arrows out that rise above and cross. Later, I’m lost as to why. The loud and nasal phrase, “a raid,” repeats — assaulting air — then the voice spells it out: “a-r-r-a-y-e-d” — “arrayed.”

In then thinking about the first hearing, and listening again (and again), my assumption that I ought to transcribe this piece seems to miss its point, or to fall into its provocation to array what floats, to struggle against its irritation and freedom: Taylor’s growls, choking, squealing, heavy breathing, clicks, spits, muttering, whine explore the full, free, “out” range of his vocal instrument. Yet the whiff of Poetry is there, too — those clearer phrases and something about the poet’s voice remind me of the quaint oddity of some early-twentieth-century “poets’ voices” — think Ezra Pound in pantaloons.  Things move from sound to chant-like language but morph quickly to a highly stylized performance of (it seems) literariness — think Vincent Price on Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Who claims these voices? With what claim on them? In second and third readings, I’m wondering about Taylor’s relations to race in America. What’s improvised here, what’s meant to sound natural, what generic, what mediated, what free, and what was Taylor’s relationship to those questions? Would one want a text of this? What moves me as I go on, as I come to map this better and better, as I research where to turn — LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Nathaniel Mackey, Fred Moten — is the gain and loss of bearing in more than hearing.

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.

Gillian White is an associate professor of English at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She is author of the book Lyric Shame: The “Lyric” Subject of Contemporary American Poetry (Harvard 2014), and her writing on poetry and poetics has also appeared in London Review of Books, The Wallace Stevens Journal, and Twentieth-Century Literature