Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Part II: Cornel West, Alice Coltrane Quartet, and perplexity(aka living and dying by degrees)

So it's obvious from my last entry that my experience of the West lectures was in some way impressionistic. It isn't that West wasn't clear, even when he repeatedly invoked Anton Chekov he was clear. Admittedly though I did experience the first lecture as more methodically and linearly laid out than the second, which had a more circular approach.

I suppose it was just a function of listening and savoring and absorbing simultaneous with notetaking. Fortunately, the Toni Morrison Lectures are a collaboration with the new Center for African American Studies at Princeton and Princeton University Press. Each lecture will be published and made available subsequent to the event starting with West's inaugural lectures.

Below, more random notes from the second night of Cornel West's Toni Morrison Lecture:

Fourth Gift: Maturity. As I get older I have a greater appreciation for this gift. You don't have to become more mature as you get age, but it's pretty fantastic when it works out that way. To be clear, West wasn't talking a matronly or staid demeanor: after all this is the man who got older and started putting working in hip hop and appearing in major blackbuster films and really has one of the most sincerely gleeful smiles you've ever seen. So maturity refers to the ways in which the majority of African Americans in the U.S. have handled themselves for with respect to living with centuries of terrorism. Love and justice do not equal niavete, just because African Americans have responded with maturity does not signal a lack of comprehension of the fragility of their lives under terrorism. "Really something deeper going on: resiliance and resistance." Another way of framing this is asking: "Now that we all have been terrorized, can we learn something from black victoms of terrorism?"

"The kind of democratic paidea that produces maturity was enacted by Emmett Till's mother, Mamie Till Mobley, and Martin Luther King, Jr. " (I think we could include Mrs. Coretta Scott King in this as well, and Ella Baker, no?)

"...talking about love in the way James Baldwin did: the dangerous kind that you can't hide behind..."

"...For truth telling go to the artist..." He noted that scholars also have the truth at their disposal but whether or not they are brave enough to let loose with it is another matter.

"...gangsterism is always phenotypically promiscuous...which is to say they come in all colors..."

"...don't confuse perplexity with confusion..." Really I think this was my favorite quote of the evening. West defined perplexity as "searching for coherence" while I understood curiosity as lacking a clear sense of purpose and calling. I left his talk a bit perplexed because it made me think about some things in close proximity, that I needed to consider in light of democratic paidea.

Alice Coltrane and the lost art of dialogue
West posited that Alice Coltrane (pictured above right) and her son Ravi were going to engage in a meaningful dialogue, musically. The situation here is that Ravi Coltrane basically begged his mother to come out of retirement so that they could fulfill a dream of playing together. Alice Coltrane, who is also known as Swamini Turiyasangitananda (or Turiya), had basically retreated out of public life, after founding the Sai Anantam Ashram, in Agoura Hills, California, becoming a devotee of Satya Sai Baba and being involved in creating what Essence Magazine Editor-in-Chief Susan L. Taylor, "the New World that our children are waiting for us to wake up and create for them." The black woman NJPAC representative who introduced Taylor, also spoke of the power of the place that many there call "the Land" apparently several years ago she and a friend went to visit out of curiousity and the friend never left (perhaps she was curious, and her friend was actually perplexed?). The first half of the concert was pretty much just the Quartet with a bassist named Drew, whose last name I couldn't hear, subbing for Charlie Haden. Occassionally it became a quintet with bassist Reggie Workman doubling the lower registers. Coltrane started with her early favorite "Sita Ram" featuring her organ work and her great rhythmic ability--she moved in front of, behind and on the beat fluidly--and moved on from there with A. Coltrane playing organ, piano and electric keyboards. Can she play, oh yes! The fact that she hasn't been playing out consistently for 26 years hasn't kept her from composing, playing and recording sacred music as part of her spiritual practice--and apparently she's been highly creative in the improvisational aspects of composing new forms of sacred music so the new commercially released work is the result of considerable prior engagement on her part.

The second half of the concert was devoted to music that has only been heard at the ashram ("the Ashram Goes Public" we were jokingly told), with with a large orchestral ensemble (4 cellos, 3 contrabasses, etc...) with conductor, and a chorus from the Ashram gracing opposite sides of the stage with Workman and Drew_____ and Jack DeJohnette centrally located and Ravi Coltrane and his mother out front, stage left and right respectively. It was quite amazing. Future scientist Dr. J.J. Hurtak, founder of The Academy for Future Science , is working with Alice Coltrane on creating a sacred language in avant garde music, a combination of modern jazz, futuristic music, and complex eastern music structures, which is meant to further the understanding of planetary humanity (Washington Post writer Teresa Wiltz hearing Cotrane play at the Ashram coined the term, "Hindu gospel".) Hurtak noted the composition work by Coltrane that evokes the many sacred names of God. Dr. Hurtak used to teach at CalArts with Ravi Shankar and now is at the United Nations. He talked about Alice Coltrane's compositional work as "music for emergent spirituality of the 21st century." Further Hurtak referred to them as "beloved Alice's contributions to the music of ascension." One of the songs in this set included this video accompaniment. Including video with music is always tricky, a conversation that I had been having with M+K that weekend in part referencing something I'm currently working on that they were kind enough to give me feedback on (but that's another story). Some of the video accompaniment focused the call for transformation that was evident in the prayer-referencing musical idioms in the composition, but much became a distraction for me from the power of the sonic. It was like having been told that you were going to hear this great transformative work, and then being interrupted with cue cards to make sure you understood what was really being referenced. Also, I can't speak for anyone else, I was in California on 9/11 in 2001, but showing those images repeatedly in the same piece, particularly a piece that operates as something of a visual catalogue of man's inhumanity to man, is still too much for me. The video did move on to images of renewal with the feeding of hungry people and educating of dislocated children, healthcare for those impacted by civil war or with limited access to medical services. Then back to images of the interstellar system which is where it had began. When I focused on the music what I was aware of (despite some serious problems with the house sound system's handling of the bass registers, there was a low rumble throughout much of the second half), was how in the moment everyone was, the relatively inexperienced chorus and presumably conservatory trained classical musicians and the seasoned jazz players, all these different folks from different frameworks coming together to realize this project much like at the Ashram (called "the Land" by many) where apparently people of different cultures come together and live and work together to make the world a better place (they also go to their regular 9-5 jobs). Throughout I was struck by the gracious energy of Coltrane, she was luminous and so appreciative of the audience's warm reception of her work. She continues to be an amazing player, and I look forward to hearing more about her work: I mean if Hurtak is right, somebody needs to sneak a looped recording in a CD-player under the Shrub's pillow at night (mini-amps behind the bedposts? inside the pillow's down fill?), and with a quickness!


At 5:13 PM, Anonymous r.reyes said...

You really got it! Very nice well thought out

At 10:13 AM, Blogger audiologo said...

thanks for your comments r.reyes, and thanks for stopping by.

At 10:14 PM, Blogger John K said...

Really, a superb series of entries. I was dying to see Alice and Ravi Coltrane, even if they were out of sync, in part to see her (I have seen him play); I have this almost unreal level of expectation about her music, which I listen to over and over again. It takes me out of this world, which I think is what she was aiming for before her conversion and deep engagement in this formal spiritual practice. I love how you've brought so many different things together in these entries--it really gets me thinking about adjacency, how certain ideas are functioning together even if independent of each other, and how West at his best is a truly provocative mind and interlocutor.

At 10:30 PM, Blogger audiologo said...

Thanks, John you made me think again about what I was "weaving," and my experience with all these events and musics.

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