The Invented Beauty of Wise Elders: composers and musicians Cecil Taylor and Pauline Oliveros featured in Solo – Duo – Poetry

By Daniel Garrett

Cecil Taylor and Pauline Oliveros, Solo – Duo – Poetry
Live at the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media
and Performing Arts Center, October 5, 2008
Director Johannes Groebel; Musical Director Micah Silver
EMPAC Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 2012

It is possible to see Cecil Taylor, a creative composer and musician, a legend, at the piano and hear the intense and inventive music as coming from him rather than the piano. Cecil Taylor may as well be fused with the instrument, as one does not doubt at all what is most responsible for the sound: he is, his imagination and will. In Solo – Duo – Poetry, the visual documentation of Taylor’s appearing on the same program as Pauline Oliveros, he is dressed in dark clothing, wearing a shirt with white collar and white cuffs, with bright pastel socks. Cecil Taylor is an eccentric, confident figure, concentrated on his startling music, music of expression and experiment, known for its sustained improvisation, percussive approach, tonal strangeness, and irregular rhythms. The writing on the pages atop his piano—from a distance—looks more like drawings than musical notes. Taylor’s hands have dexterity, skill, grace. When Taylor and composer and teacher Pauline Oliveros perform together it does seem as if he has met his match in this white-haired, stout, tough-looking lady (she has a black belt in karate), as Pauline Oliveros plays an elegant and expensive large black accordion (usually her instrument is specially prepared). Their playing is complement and contrast, as Taylor plays and varies rhythms and Oliveros seems to respond. Taylor listens to Oliveros and plays something different. Music has not kept them young but it has kept them vital.

“What I am doing is creating a language. A different American language,” Cecil Taylor told Chris Funkhouser in 1994, in an interview for Nathaniel Mackey’s journal Hambone, No. 12. A sensitive and cosmopolitan man, Cecil Taylor’s heritage is Native American (Cherokee, Kiowa) as well as African-American, and he began playing the piano at about five-years old. Cecil Taylor had a cultured and disciplinarian mother who knew art and philosophy, and guided him through music, though she dreaded and forbade his having a career in music, teaching him and enrolling him in classical competitions and taking him to hear Ella Fitzgerald and Lionel Hamilton. “But you see, the thing is, growing up one of the reasons I was disturbed was because I was raised to believe all of these truths that turned out to be not even myths. This is the land of opportunity. What opportunity? Equality and justice? Took me a long time to understand that none of this was true,” Taylor told Funkhouser (Hambone). Although antagonistic to authority and establishment, Taylor studied at the New York College of Music and the New England Conservatory. In an interview with Bill Smith from 1974, Cecil Taylor declared, “Because I was never a part of any clique, the secrets always were filtered down to me rather from on high. And I didn’t mind that, because one of the things you find is made very clear at the earliest possible date in New York, is that the price for admission to a clique is, or was, a kind of subservient unquestionable behaviour that was not acceptable to me” (interview available online 2012, Taylor has been independent throughout his career, with his music considered brilliantly, even offensively strange. He has been thought to be a pioneer of free jazz, though his music has gone beyond jazz. Cecil Taylor thinks that an artist is a vessel, informed by ancestors, infused with the spiritual, an appreciator and maker of beauty. He has traveled around the world, where he is treated with great respect, though he remains an acquired tasted in America, revered by those who have taken the time to know his work.

Cecil Taylor performs first alone in the concert program recorded on Solo – Duo – Poetry, then Pauline Oliveros is alone with her accordion on the stage, her music by turns melancholy and whimsical, and then they perform together; and included as well in the documentary is a recitation of original poetry by Taylor, who thinks of language as a way of moving beyond the self and of poetry as being at the heart of different kinds of art. Taylor has been influenced by both European classical music and African-American jazz, but he has been following his own independent muse for decades. Cecil Taylor’s music seems both sophisticated and simple, and return one to fundamental considerations: Music is a language that cannot be translated into anything else; and we try to get closer to it by using associations—images and words—but the surest way to perceiving it is listening, taking time to hear the sound. There is nothing else. Do the short, tense rumbling musical phrases stand for anything but themselves? Does our sense of tumult and peace have anything to do with the musician’s intentions? Taylor’s prolonged exploration of severe tonality and forceful rhythm does not evoke the word swing. I suspect Stravinsky would recognize Taylor as a relative before Strayhorn would.

Pauline Oliveros has been concerned with the relation of music to spirituality, like Taylor, but she has emphasized how mind, body, and society are involved in perception. A professor and administrator of a music center, the Houston-born Oliveros has been a composer and musician involved with improvisation and innovation, particularly regarding art music’s use of electronics; and she has experimented with environments—playing in natural spaces of unique resonances such as caves and underground cisterns as well as auditoriums and cathedrals. The solo playing of Pauline Oliveros on Solo – Duo – Poetry with her handsome accordion begins with long, slow tones, nearly mournful. Once that long exploration is done, she begins playing in a manner that seems experimental and whimsical—full of short, sharp sounds, with significant silences or pauses. She can sound like a whistle or a train. When Oliveros and Taylor perform together, the music is abrupt, teasing, elegant, playful, and serious. Taylor’s playing with Oliveros is more delicate than when alone, but he is still capable of drama and the splintering of sound; and her work seems more harmonic, though not easily or sweetly harmonic: there is nothing slight or sweet about either artist; although there are moments when together they approach a sonority that might be accepted by a very generous listener as melody.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.