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Black Sky Thinking

Music Is A Memory Machine, By David Toop
David Toop , May 14th, 2020 08:27

Reflecting on artists and collaborators who have passed away since the start of the Coronavirus crisis, David Toop explores how the transmission of music between disparate cultures can be a tool against populism and prejudice

David Toop at Meakusma Festival

Music is a memory machine. I feel the conviction of this from within pandemic conditions: at the time of writing these words, fifty-four days since I last played music to an audience in the same room, fifty-three days since I was part of an audience in the same room as performing musicians. I feel the conviction of this as deaths accumulate over the past weeks: musicians I have known, past collaborators, a music documentary filmmaker with whom I once worked. Some of these deaths were from Covid-19, some from other causes like stroke or cancer, but the sense of a generation of elders falling away, as if tumbling together over a precipice, is acute. Films and records remain as recall devices, of course, but the works of a performer, an improviser, emerge into air, rooms, society and states of memory that confront us as fully alive, alert and listening beings, recalling what happened and has gone, what is happening right now as a passing moment, what is coming into itself as if as listeners we are living permanently in the future. The dead ¬– and I am thinking of Carole Finer, Henry Grimes, Richard Teitelbaum, Lee Konitz, Jeremy Marre – are denied access to this experience.

I think of Henry Grimes, dead from complications arising from the coronavirus at the age of 84. For Henry, a multi-instrumentalist best known for his bass playing, music was a memory machine whose effect on his life was complex, transformative and traumatic. After studying at The Juilliard School he played with many musicians – Sonny Rollins, Anita O’Day, Walt Dickerson, Charles Mingus, Mose Allison, Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor, Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler – then disappeared for decades, living alone in a Los Angeles hostel, writing poetry and surviving precariously through low-paid jobs. In effect, he became an anonymous and solitary archive. Soon after he was discovered in isolation in 2002, detached from the music world, the efforts of those who respect ancestry drew him back into performing.

I played with him once, in Ghent, 2011, in a trio with vocalist Elaine Mitchener. During the day he seemed unreachable, locked away in a profound and gentle silence. His wife Margaret looked after the practicalities, often spoke for him. No conversation was forthcoming and most questions went unanswered, particularly if they were about musicians, sessions or records. All seemed forgotten. Then suddenly something would spark. I asked him about his time studying at Juilliard and he came to life, speaking about all the instruments he played during his studies – the English horn, tuba, percussion, and so on. There was the sense that he was a repository of knowledge and rich experience, all enclosed as if locked away in a forbidden library, yet when he played a fervency broke through. After we played, his eyes shone with some luminous spirit that was otherwise sleeping within him. He was energised by the way we had played, perhaps because it lay outside the jazz tradition, a different approach to improvisation. I can only speculate but my suspicion is that Henry, in different circumstances more supportive of his vulnerable personality, would have made a far more expansive musical life for himself. The troubles of his mind made it hard to build that situation for himself and hard to surmount the obstacles of a wayward musician’s life.

Music is a territory

Music is territorial, yet uncontrollably it breaks through territorial boundaries, moving at speed. Yesterday, as I was writing, an email arrived from Brazil, from a musician and researcher – Rafael Ramalhoso Alves – who tells me he has been inspired by my field recordings of Yanomami shamanism and ritual songs, recorded in Amazonas, southern Venezuela, in 1978. In 2017 he made his own recordings in two Yanomami communities in Brazil, working with a translator and making more detailed documentation of the same songs, ceremonial dialogues and shamanic healing sessions that I witnessed more than forty years ago. This suggests a tenacity in defending the territorial boundedness of traditions, despite extreme pressure to relinquish and abandon those boundaries. Another passage in his email was far less positive: “As you may know, these groups are currently at an imminent risk of genocide, both due to the expansion of Covid-19 and the rampant increase in gold mining and illegal logging on their land, largely due to the current government’s incentive to illegal exploitation of the natural resources of their lands.”

In my naivety it had not occurred to me that indigenous people like the Yanomami would be at imminent risk of coming into contact with the coronavirus, even though I was aware of president Bolsonaro’s reckless, uncoordinated and inhumane response to the pandemic. “So what” was his reaction to the news that 5,000 Brazilians had died. In 2017 he described the demarcation of a Yanomami reserve as “high treason.” But of course if Yanomami men work in or even live near the illegal mining industry they have every chance of catching the virus and little defence against it.

The first Yanomami death from Covid-19 was recorded on April 9th, a teenage boy who lived on the banks of the Uraricoera River where wildcat miners illegally search for gold. Thinking of this sombre landmark in a potential catastrophe, I was transported back to the 26th November 1978 and a Yanomami village on the Ocamo River, where I was allowed to witness, though not record, a sacred ceremony. In the early evening I stood at the edge of a shabono, a Yanomami shelter, watching and listening as the ashes of the dead – crushed ashes of a cremated corpse – were eaten in a soup of boiled plantain. Perhaps this strikes us as grotesque? Yet as I stood in the shadows and listened to the uncanny sound of quiet sobbing from every person gathered together for this ceremony I felt profoundly moved. Even as an outsider I could experience something of what it meant to move through those boundaries that separate living beings from ancestors, that make a distinction between human sounds of grief and an unearthly music.

Music is impurity

Jeremy Marre was a filmmaker who dedicated his life to making music documentaries. His was another death during the early days of the pandemic in Europe, not from Covid-19 though it was impossible to separate his passing from the general mood of grieving. I collaborated with him in the early 1980s, on a television series called Chasing Rainbows, so wrote an obituary and appreciation for The Wire magazine. Central to his method was listening: what did the music sound like and what was its atmosphere and place, what did musicians have to say about their own work and what did a style of music have to say about its own situation within a community, a society, a political reality? His own manifesto was laid out in Beats Of The Heart, the book he wrote in collaboration with Hannah Charlton in 1985: “I wanted to escape from the awful television categories which treat music as high art, folklore or consumer pop. I wished, instead, to show the street musics – the beats of the heart – that truly mirror the mixes and changes inherent in every society. There is no such thing as a nationally ‘pure’ music. As we attempted to show, the music of one culture has always been subject to influences from many others, as well as to developments within its own. Like the rest of life, music is in a perpetual process of change.”

That conviction, that there is no such thing as a nationally ‘pure’ music, has become increasingly urgent in the turbulent populist politics of recent years. Nationalism and nativism have returned with a vengeance. Jeremy Marre’s body of work often focussed on what many of these nationalists would now describe with contempt as foreign music, the music of invaders and infiltrators. He made films about Jamaican reggae, the music of Nigeria, Colombia, China, samba in Brazil, salsa in New York and the Romany trail of gypsy music traced through Egypt, Spain, India, Macedonia, Hungary and Germany. Music can only be understood as a benign virus, transmitted from musician to musician, from one cultural environment to another, a moving web spreading in all directions, a seeping of forms, motifs and aesthetic sensibilities that soaks its way, like water, into adjacent territories and becomes transformed.

Think, for example, of military music, often perceived by nationalists as a pure expression of patriotic sentiment, untainted by foreign influence. And yet European military music, a style that can be heard all over the world, was a development formed out of the influence of Janissary bands. Extravagantly uniformed and known for their loud trumpets and drums, these formations of the Ottoman Empire used music as a psychological weapon. The influence of what came to be known as ‘Turkish’ music was adopted by European armies in the sixteenth century, though as Richard Cullen Rath writes in his book, How Early America Sounded: “Europeans confronted Janissary music not in alliance, but as enemies, so the borrowing was often second-hand.” According to Rath, Africans became the preferred musicians for Janissary corps in Germany, so racial purity, accepted then as a matter of scientific fact, was turned upside down within the heart of national and territorial defence, the military and its music.

As a counter to the reductionism of nationalists who deny the hybridity, even promiscuity, of music, take also the example of the Japanese court music known as gagaku. Described by William P. Malm as possibly the oldest extant orchestral art music in the world, gagaku has survived for more than a thousand years. In my own practice as a musician and composer, gagaku has been extremely important since I first heard it performed in London in the early 1970s. I was entranced and learned from its eerie, transparent harmonies, its slowness, the solemn, measured unfolding of its cyclical rhythms. Now considered a national living treasure – as the Unesco website for intangible cultural heritage puts it, “. . . an important cultural tool in confirming Japanese identity and a crystallization of the history of Japanese society” – its historical development is as complex and alien as the hybrid of European military music. As I wrote in my book, Into the Maelstrom, describing the significance of gagaku as an influence on British free improvisation in the 1960s, “. . . its originary form coalesced out of prototypes from all over Asia, imported along with Buddhism and other fashionable new ideas in the third, fifth, seventh and eighth centuries from Manchuria, China, the kingdoms of Korea, India and south-east Asia.”

Music is a virus

One of the first gagaku pieces heard by improvising drummer John Stevens, one of the founders of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, was called Karyōbin are the imaginary birds said to live in paradise. This same title was used for the Spontaneous Music Ensemble’s second LP, released by Island Records in 1968. The original gagaku composition was said to imitate the beautiful song of the immortal creatures known as Karyobinga, their name a Japanese transliteration of the Buddhist propitious bird Kalavinka. Karyobingas were hybrid creatures with human head, a bird’s body and long flowing tail.

Mythologies such as these, in which combinatory species were common magical beings, remind us of the intimate interconnection between the musics of human and non-human animals. Think of the Paleolithic flutes found in caves in Germany, instruments made of animal and bird bones dating back as far as 43,000 years. We have no way of knowing what music was played on these flutes but many examples of global musics from the twentieth-century, documented by anthropological research, photographs and audio recordings, demonstrate the closeness of this relationship. My first radio programme, Crossthreads, broadcast by BBC Radio 3 in 1972, explored this interspecies music of humans imitating non-humans and non-humans imitating humans. This was the beginning of a lifelong obsession originating, in part, from a concern about environmental despoilation, the destruction of habitats, collapse of ecologies and loss of species. Also, it grew from a conviction that musical forms articulated a rich variety of social structuring, languages and ways of listening. As they disappeared, along with the animals and birds, the diversity of musical exchange was depleted and so human potential was depleted with it.

The coronavirus is thought to have spread through zoonotic transmission, in other words a disease that would normally only exist in animals suddenly infects humans, possibly a pathogen spilling over from bats. Reactions to this have been mixed: on the one hand expressing well-founded environmental concerns that human encroachment into wild animal territories is making it easier for pandemics to take hold; on the other hand leading to racist assumptions about unfamiliar cultural practices. In many respects this mirrors the transmission and spread of music, the memory system that flows through boundaries and territories, acting as a virus that continually mutates into spectacular new forms. The difference, of course, is that one is death; the other is life.

This text is musician, educator and writer David Toop’s contribution to a series of essays, commissioned by REMAIIN (Radical European Music and its Intercultural Nature) - a project that investigates non-European cultural influences on the experimental, avant-garde and innovative music of the present and the past. It is co-funded by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union.

David Toop (born 1949) has been developing a practice that crosses boundaries of sound, listening, music and materials since 1970. This encompasses improvised music performance, writing, electronic sound, field recording, exhibition curating, sound art installations and opera. It includes eight acclaimed books, including Rap Attack (1984), Ocean of Sound (1995), Sinister Resonance (2010), Into the Maelstrom (2016), Flutter Echo, a memoir first published in Japan in 2017 (May 2019) and Inflamed Invisible: Writing On Art and Sound 1976-2018 (November 2019). He has released thirteen solo albums. Curator of sound art exhibitions including Sonic Boom at the Hayward Gallery (2000), his opera – Star-shaped Biscuit – was performed as an Aldeburgh Faster Than Sound project in 2012. He is currently Professor of Audio Culture and Improvisation at London College of Communication.