First reading of Cecil Taylor's '#6.56' (5)

Donato Mancini

I have decided to take the “First Reading” framework literally, as “First Hearing.” I’ll take advantage of my ability to pause the MP3 as I go along to type notes about what I’m hearing, in real time. (When I’m out at a concert or out seeing a film I often wish I could hit “pause” or “rewind.”) The other thing is that I don’t know very much about Cecil Taylor. His work as a musician is somewhat familiar to me, but nothing of his work as a poet. I really have no idea what I’m going to hear. I desperately hope it’s not smooth jazz with erotic poetry slapped on top, but I doubt it will be like that. I’ll hold off on reading anything about him or the album until after I’ve listened through “#6.56” at least once. Hopefully I won’t write anything that seems ignorant — apologies if I do. The other other thing is that I am very tired today, and probably not at my sharpest. Spent the morning looking at exotic birds at the Bloedel Floral Conservatory, and then spent the afternoon working on a poem. Very tired, yes, but I’ll do my best, without excessive editing. OK, here I go.

0:18 — Sounds of bells. They sound like little brass bells on a string. He reads fairly straight at first, but then slips into a kind of corny “beatnik” delivery style. A lot of repetition so far. It seems like he’s trying to evoke the atmosphere of religious ritual, or ceremony. Ok, I’m all for Cecil Taylor, but at this instant I don’t think I’m going to like this poem.   

0:33  Ah, then a second voice comes in, making these great guttural noises and asemic vocal sounds. It’s getting better, way funnier. It’s comical. What a relief. Being a materialist, I can’t always handle new-agey-ness in poetry. I was a little worried that that was what I was in for.

0:49  The choking noises are really good. He slips into a “spoken-word” kind of rocking-chair rhythm at points, rhyming “pantaloon” with “buffoon.” Glad he’s not sounding beatnik anymore. It’s weirder than that. An image of a green oil-slick on a pond is coming to mind. The text sounds new algae “green.” I guess my tiredness is making me hear colors. 

1:24  It’s reminding me more and more of this amazing Phillip Werren record I have. Werren composes tape pieces using analog synthesizers like the Buchla, and splices those sounds with overdubbed tracks of voices reciting W. B. Yeats. You should listen to the Werren record. Taylor is wittier. The Werren record is like listening to a dangerously successful séance.

1:42 — Right now I’m most interested in the second voice, the quieter one. Can’t tell if he is speaking a real language or not. Sometimes it sounds like Spanish, at points like nonsense or nonce-words  then clicks into English. It’s best when the two voices sound like they are fighting for prominence in the mix.

2:14  The riffing on the word “intersect” is good, folding/unfolding a recognizable word into something else. It’s maybe especially striking because everyone is talking about intersections and intersectionality nowadays. I thought there would be piano or trumpet at some point. Starting to think there won’t be. 

2:37 — Great passage of nonce-words. This is when the piece is most interesting, especially when the two voices conflict enough to interfere with the audibleness of both. You can feel the sheer weird joy of making vocal noises for their own sake. I’ve never grasped why sound poetry is so hard for people to get their heads around. The principles are so evident, even universal: language and the somatic.

3:15  After many “columns of rain” it gets interesting again. I’m wondering to what extent this is improvised or precomposed. Is he using graphic scores to direct, or just playing improvisationally off the first recorded track? Some of the repetitions of words sound tired, like he’s grasping for an idea but can’t quite get one. I would like to hear him playing with that gap, that space between the normal word-forms and distortions or mutations of word-forms, more. He loses my interest a little when he just insists repetitively. “Columns of rain” should be evocative but I find it bland. Oh boy, this is turning into a review. Not what I intended.

4:15 — The black velvet pantaloons have come back  “white skirt above black velvet pantaloons below.” Whose pantaloons? Is he writing about a woman? His voice reminds me of George Carlin’s voice, especially how he pronounces the letter “o” in “below” and in his falling intonations. There’s a slight scratchiness too, like Carlin. I guess both were/are New Yorkers, that’s part of why the voices sound alike to non-New-Yorker me.

4:52  I like that it’s getting more intense now. It’s following a bit of an arc, as if towards a climax that may or may not arrive. I don’t mind the repetitions so much anymore, because I can feel the piece changing. Other than that, is there a structure? Is there a plan? Listening for it.

5:50 — Jumps into a fairly long run of coherent text. Something about the distance between bodies being measured mathematically, using pi. Is this turning into a weird sex poem? Is the “climax” going to be something about a hook-up or a seduction? Don’t know how I’ll feel about that if so.

6:02  Now all the sexy stuff is gone. About-face. It’s not turning into a sex poem anymore. He’s gone back to rhythmic riffing on noises and semi-sung vocalisations.

6:28 — Someone is shaking paper! In my imagination that paper is the score they’re using, with the text and the chart written on it — but how can I know?

6:40 — A bit of the expected climax happened around 6:00, but it wasn’t as climactic as I expected. Now it’s ending by tapering off, giving the feel of a ritardando. Slow slower slowing down, quieter quieter quietening. All the way down to whispers and deathlike throat-rattle sounds, breath/wind sounds. This piece really didn’t go in the direction I expected.

6:53 — What? Did he just say “seminal, a priori-tie”? That’s what it sounded like.

7:00  The piece is over. That was enjoyable. Definitely liked it more than I thought I would in the first few seconds. Can’t get over the feeling that I might be missing something about the piece’s structure. Only wishing it had been a little more obviously structured, with a little more development or direction. It sounded mostly improvised within a loose set of constraints. I liked it, but I found it curiously affectless and static in spite of the often intense, insistent delivery.

OK, now I’m going to go read up about the piece and the album then listen to the piece again.

[Ten minutes later] — Wikipedia describes Taylor as a poet. I truly didn’t know he considered himself a poet, and thought maybe this record was a complete fluke. But then the Wiki page about the album itself quotes an review that calls it an “oddity” in his output. The review they quote, by Thom Jurek, has some good passages in it. When Jurek describes Taylor as “transforming [language] into sand and blowing it away to make room for something else” suddenly the near-formlessness of the piece doesn’t bother me anymore, and I feel like an idiot for not digging it more as it went by. Perhaps listening straight through without pause will make it sink in better. I think Jurek is right when he conflates music with language — “It’s all language; it’s all music” — or at least I think that poets have the right to treat language this way, as sheer intensity, accentuation, color, sound — and as a play of forces experienced in a time-bound way. Seems to be what Taylor is going for, but I do wish he had allowed the language to be even more abstracted.

Now I’m going to listen to some more of the album before I relisten to “#6.56.”

[A certain amount of time later.]  I think I like some of the other pieces on Chinampas more than I like “#6.56.” Supposedly Taylor’s influenced by Amiri Baraka. I think I can hear that, in the way his line breaks seem to function mainly to accentuate a vocal quality and produce rhythm or emphasis, rather than (say) making the meaning denser.

Now I’m going to listen to “#6.56” straight through, loud, without pause.

[Seven minutes later.]  Yes, if there’s a specific structure here, other than riffs with variations, I’m not getting it. It sounds through-composed, like a serial poem moving from event to event. It definitely uses time and duration effectively, as I guess you’d expect from an improvising musician. And its relative formlessness does become a strength, I think. Sometimes I think form and pattern are overrated  like they stand in mainly as a sign of writerly labor, to make readers feel sure they’re reading something constructed with intent. Spontaneity is overrated too, though — it always risks being the worst kind of ideological regurgitation. So anyways, “#6.56” brings up a few basic poetic problems for me that I haven’t worked out to my own satisfaction. Really glad to hear this work, especially at time when I’m getting interested in listening to jazz again.

* *

Chinampas (1987)

1. # 5'04
3. # 5'46 
2. # 3'43 
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.


Donato Mancini makes visual and procedural poetry, bookworks, and visual art. His main books are: SNOWLINE (2015), Buffet World (2011), Fact N Value (2011), Æthel (2007), and Ligatures (2005). Mancini’s published critical writing includes work on the archive, time, and memory in Anamnesia: Unforgetting (2011), and a discourse analysis of poetry reviews in You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence (2012). His newest full-length book is Loitersack (2014), a labyrinthine commonplace book where critical, theoretical, and para-literary tendencies intersect in the forms of poetry, poetics, theory, theory theatre, laugh particles, and questions.