October 16, 2017
at an improv jazz concert. a guitar and a trumpet. electric guitar. people are covering their ears. grimacing. one of the guys is also screaming into a mic. mix between Kurt Cobain and the Lion King. a steady loud electric hum and rattle from the guitar over which they riff. life’s like that never totally silent. movement, desire, I need to get there not here this fact of life makes some people grimace, others smile, others turn to their friends and laugh, others write. and the people producing the noise are like life itself crazy hectic unbelievable not keeping for or rhythm but keeping themselves organized up there in a recognizable albeit abrasive form. we as humans exist as humans despite all of the stuff we hear / feel / cry about / laugh about. now the trumpeteer’s picked up a recorder. simple sound now to the composition. like a new relationship or to go upstate to do the simple stuff — wander in the forest, the quiet natural forest, ‘away’ from it all. but the recorder begins to wander, begins to screech. suddenly you’re not away, you’re right in it still. it’s all you can think about. and the guitar riff in the background, the quick shifty riff makes you think why am i still thinking about it why is she still on my mind I thought I was going away to be away this isn’t that this is a trap + cage. but they play on. nobody breaks in and shuts down the club or demands that we be quiet now. they will only be
quiet when they want to be. they will never be quiet. when they go to sleep, maybe. but even then, now the trumpet wanders, it contradicts itself it screeches it crosses the line of what is palatable. and I feel the sweat building up in my forehead and I can’t fall asleep. still the background hum of the guitar and now it all breaks down sounds like castles collapsing and smashing and instruments crashing no harmony or notation he waves an unrecognizable furry item in the air who has he become? a moment ago he was peaceful on his trumpet peaceful in his dress jacket. he speaks into the microphone and it comes out like staticky. it sounds like he’s saying, “I am not
sorry. I am not, in the end, sorry.” the piece ends, people clap, smile, talk to their neighbor, reenter the space of the reliable. it starts again and one of them makes an abrasive honking sound that sounds like dental technology failing after you kicked yourself for not ever learning to floss. And people laugh at the sound out of discomfort out of a wish to at least hold hands with their friends as they’re brought into a space of such violent confusion and mystery. the room is dark the lights shine on the musicians and their instruments because this is what you came to see and whether you laugh or not this is here this sound is in you now. smoke rises blurring the exit. be here now. breathe as your mind begins to wander to refocus yourself back in this space because you know these guys have something to say you know you’ve felt this broken now is elated and violated and reaching out for help and unable to escape even if it’s your only way to gain control again. give up control. you trust these two people, in all of their messiness and making new shapes out of familiar constructions. you wrote an essay earlier and you like this experience so much more, listening watching writing, because why should anything be cut out? hide nothing from yourself. hide things from others, to keep distance, to always make sure you know more about yourself than anyone else. right now it feels like these two musicians know
things about me that I didn’t know. they’re bringing things out of me. how do I relate to these sounds that I’ve never heard before? where are they coming from? is this writing good? can I hand it in as an assignment? will it be graded and will my message get across? what is my message? start and see what happens. start with a person (maybe just yourself, except the book says you’ll need a partner) and with tools that you trust and go. go on your own time making your own noises. if it’s with somebody else, make an environment that invites you both to wander and explore, for yourself. “I’ll go see what food I can find and I’ll bring it back for us.”
next band now. find myself zoning out in thought. like in meditation, wanting to get into the train and ride through as stuffs come up, shielded by the train’s walls, protected by my breath. protected by this sound. can always come back to the sound, to this band, because they’re hiding nothing, they’re just playing. that’s comforting to watch chaos break out but know they’re all in it together, not to do anybody harm. they will collaborate their way through all of it. meanwhile just breathe and watch and listen and when your mind wanders do not get upset with yourself or judge because this music will always be here, the background and its slippery craggy cranky trippy surface. ‘floating round and round.’ sometimes up, sometimes down. ecstasy, like when India Witkin and I kiss in front of everyone at senior year high school parties, you’ve known me all these years but you’ve never had me and now this beautiful girl does, look at us look at me. and back down, when I call her three weeks later and abruptly tell her I’m done w/ her, and I hang up and it’s back to nobody wanting me again. leaving parties alone. and then back up again — the evening fall breeze feels reinvigorating on my sweaty neck as I emerge outside, independent, going home. all part of it. not to judge any part of it, just to know it’s all equally
part of it. it’s why I like the Pompidou. looks like a heap of towers and pipes and wires strewn onto an abandoned structure, left for dead, ugly and cumbersome. but there nonetheless. a part of all of us. all of these brash harsh erratic sounds is all part of us, it comes from and to and for and with us wherever we go. not to laugh or tune out or to call it weird and dismiss… that’s the challenge. to accept it as life.
James Baldwin and I, writing across several decades, on different continents — the concert I experienced was in Paris while Baldwin was living in New York City — each responded to some of these phenomena with our work.
No matter how we respond to the chaos of the improvised music performance, it exists amid everything else in the world. It is part of life, wandering and sweating, erratically telling a pulsating story of contradiction and mishap, all while maintaining a recognizable, palatable shape. The performance, then, makes palatable the notion of unpredictability, because, as it happens, everything is completely fine. The task becomes to sit back and observe it, not to judge criticize it, but, instead, to witness and reflect and try, as both Sonny and the narrator try to do, to make the chaos your own in such a way as to gain a bit of control over it. To enjoy a concert of this kind is to give into the inevitable fact that there will always be aspects of life outside of what we can control, that we will often smell bad, feel ugly and make mistakes. That friendships will end, loved ones will die, we will not get the things we most want. And at the same time, an entire life is to be lived, with paths yet to be foreseen, desires yet to be formulated.