Sunday, October 26, 2008

Slight Return...AACM + Toni Morrison + Black Bee Women + Short Stories to Live By

So I was woodshedding, and then I was hibernating, catching up on much needed sleep. It's bad when your body forgets how to sleep. Did my grandparents have those kind of experiences? Or is that a product of the modern/contemporary age?

In between I had the following wonderful experiences...

• Early October: Going to the A Power Stronger Than Itself, AACM Celebration at the Kitchen curated by George E. Lewis and performer/curator/composer Christopher McIntyre: including:

§ Hearing the chamber music of AACM musicians Leroy Jenkins, Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill, Wadado Leo Smith, George E. Lewis, and Nicole Mitchell performed by the Wet Ink Ensemble (accompanied by George Lewis on laptop for his piece, with video by the late video artist Kate Craig)

§ An improvised piano duet between Amina Claudine Myers--who moves her hands even when not producing notes, anticipating perhaps chord changes, counterpoint possibilities, rhythmic/harmonic accents?--and Muhal Richard Abrams, who hums louder than Cecil Taylor when playing and has a mean percussive left foot when he wants (and whose chamber work I missed)

§ A panel discussion on George E. Lewis' book and the legacy of the AACM with interdisciplinary scholar Brent Hayes Edwards, music journalist (and long-time AACM chronicler) Ted Panken, flautist/bandleader/current AACM Chicago-chapter co-president Nicole Mitchell, and AACM members composer/trombonist/scholar George E. Lewis, pianist/composer Amina Claudine Myers, and alto-saxophonist/composer Matana Roberts

§ A multi-movement improvisational collaboration between Nicole Mitchell (who pulled otherworldly sounds, and full conversations, whispers, mutterings, and elsewheres out of her flute), Matana Roberts (who was masterful, and intensely gentle with her instrument), pianist/composer Craig Taborn (amazing engagement with the piano), and drummer Chad Taylor (who did much with little). (pictured above, AACM circa 1960s)

• Early October: Toni Morrison reading from her forthcoming novel, A Mercy.

§ Some wonderful opening remarks from Morrison where she stated that she doesn't write novels to explore characters, or geographical regions, or historical period, but to answer a question: what would it be like if "x" were the case, what would it feel like, taste like, smell like. "It" being the world, and/or a life if "x" were a factor, an element, a truth.
(If you want to hear an interview with Morrison as well as the author reading from her forthcoming novel, check out the NPR Book Tour series which is having a 4-installment feature on A Mercy, October 27-30)

§ Getting to hear Morrison's reading before reading the Poets & Writers profile of Morrison which included engagement with the supposed conflict between writer Charles Johnson and Morrison over the appropriate content of contemporary black narrative. (Johnson's article, "The End of the Black American Narrative," published in The American Scholar [Summer 2008], which is credited with starting the apparent conflama: notably, Johnson and Morrison sound basically respectful of each other. From the sound of the article it's mainly their respective academic supporters who are stirring up a less than constructive rivalry).

• Early October: Hearing improvisational pianist Charity Chan

§ Amazing

• Late October: Hearing black gospel scholar/music writer/archivist Baptist deacon/drummer Robert Darden

§ Darden talked about his Black Gospel Restoration Project at Baylor University which emerged from the research done for his book. During that process he determined that 77% of the songs cited as major influences by the gospel artists he interviewed, have been lost. He also played some of the lost gospel songs located by the project that can't ever be released for purchase, or even accessed in their entirety on the archive webpage. This is due to the complicated copyright history that makes impossible verifying the true copyright holder of much of the gospel music from the golden age (1945-1965).

• Late October: Seeing The Secret Life of Bees

§ Not being horrified by what could have been a 21st-century mammy/"magic negro" picture was great. It's ostensibly the story of the white young female character Lila that's at the center of the film. Yet African American woman director Gina Pryce-Bythewood's (Love & Basketball, Disappearing Acts) script and direction made a huge difference in the realization of the lives of the African American women, and a few men too, who largely people her world. I'm sure we have producer Will Smith and executive producer Jada Pinkett Smith to thank for that as well. Perhaps for the first time we hear the a black woman professional caregiver talking about the complex relationship between herself and a white charge in the segregated south, with its unequal power relations and atmosphere of hate. We are aware that these women have lives outside of their dynamics with white people; they have complex family histories and desires. Not only does the film's narrative recognize the child Lila is an outsider to that world, but allows that her arrival precipitates particular choices on the part of each of the black women in the film, but those choices aren't about altering the axis of their world to enable its spin around Lila. From the time of her arrival to the end of the film, her relationship with these women is never easy and simple. Plus the work of Queen Latifah is solid, she can be quite good in understated moments and characters, as was evident in Stranger Than Fiction. Alicia Keys was restrained much of the time, appropriately for her character, and did well except in one instance when she had to be more emotive. Jennifer Hudson definitely proved she earned her Oscar; she doesn't need to sing to own the screen (what a sad time for her, I couldn't help but think about her loss watching the film given its subject). Sophie Okonedo is one of my favorite actors and I'm glad she's getting the recognition she deserves. Her character provides much of the heart of this film during her time on screen, Okonedo disappears into her. Her face is a wonder--what an instrument, and how Okonedo uses it, wow. There are also some amazing vocal moments enacted by Okonedo, ways she subtly, but decisively shifts the energy or focus of a scene with her line delivery. A reminder that as much screen presence as music stars have, that presence and camera rapport doesn't, cannot, consistently substitute for certain kinds of training. Dakota Fanning is turning into an actor, not a mid-career child actor, but an actor to be reckoned with--she already knows something important about acting: how to respect silence, and how to do nothing in a vulnerably human manner; which is doing everything without announcing it loudly and/or repeatedly. (pictured above L-R: Dakota Fanning, Sophie Okonedo (back to camera), Gina Prince-Bythewood, and Queen Latifah on the set)

• Unfortunately, I missed all the CMJ Music Marathon goings on last week. But I hope to catch up on what I missed from Bold As Love, and other blog locales. I don't know if I'll get any music next week. It's probably back to woodshedding...


Short Stories to Live By?
Funny, now that I've listened to all this music (AACM as well as a bunch of contemporary classical and liturgical works). I find myself wanting to read: literature. Well, I did finally finish A Power Stronger Than Itself. After reading what Brent Hayes Edwards has called a collaborative/collective autobiography, I find myself wanting to read fiction; I think it's all those voices. But short works. I recently saw a short-story collection list compiled by Powells Books Q&A subject David Taylor whose collection Success: Stories, has just come out. I thought his compilation looked intriguing, but I didn't see any U.S.-based writers of color on it. So I came up with a list of my own of works I've enjoyed in the past and ones I still want to read:

Here’s My Multi-Culti List (brown, black, ochre, pink, gold, etc.)

Junot Díaz, - Drown (Riverhead, 1997, pbk)
Victor LaValle - Slapboxing with Jesus (Vintage, 1999)
Kristin Hunter (Lattany) - Guests in the Promised Land (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973)
Toni Cade Bambara - Gorilla My Love (Vintage, 1992, pbk)
Dana Johnson – Break Any Woman Down (Anchor, 2001)
Tim O’Brien – The Things They Carried (Broadway, 1998, pbk)
Jhumpa Lahiri – Interpreter of Maladies (Mariner Books, 1999)
Achy Obejas – We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This? (Cleis, 1994)
ZZ Packer – Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (Riverhead, 2004,pbk)
Edwidge Danticat - Krik? Krak! (Vintage, 1996)
James Joyce - Dubliners (Penguin/Viking/Signet, various publication dates)

Edited Collections:
Zadie Smith, ed., The Book of Other People (Penguin, 2008)
ZZ Packer, ed., New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 2008 (Algonquin, 2008)
Junot Díaz, ed., Beacon Best of 2001 (Beacon Press, 2001) out-of-print, still available used.

But I'm open to other suggestions....

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