“Or maybe the music we are hearing tells us about the unconscious, coming from some place of archetypes or from the trauma of unspeakable secrets.”
Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, Timothy Morton.
There are many ways to think about a musical instrument. A compellingly bizarre essay published in 1976 by Alan Dundes – A Psychoanalytic Study of the Bullroarer – is perhaps the most extreme example of this. Through the convolutions of his argument, Dundes persuades the reader to consider the bullroarer through a miscellany of interpretations and theories: a phallus, a phallus inverted to become a womb or substitute womb, the fecundating agency of wind, fertilising breath, thunderous farts of the gods, an excremental device of shadows and secrecy, the voice of deceased ancestral spirits, an excreta hawk, shit eater, masturbation symbol and flatulent phallus.
Perhaps this is a lot of weight for a slender strip of wood to bear, but once implausibility and risibility are set to one side, then a different kind of thinking about objects of this kind opens up, not just in relation to the instrumentality-of-the-instrument but as a loose, vast ‘mesh’ (to borrow Timothy Morton’s term) of properties, actions, conditions and futures (what I have called elsewhere ‘bodies without organology’, which is to say an object whose extent lies far outside the constraining discourse of musicology, encompassing the deepest reaches of its composition). If what is just a simple strip of wood attached to string can inflate itself to the cosmic dimensions of flatulent gods then its supposed evolutionary position somewhere to the furthest far west of the piano becomes reversible, the piano a regression or retreat back into the cave of resonances, too timid to venture into a vibrating, respirational and unsystematic open air populated by shit eaters, excreta hawks and farting gods.
Once this was a subject of prolific anthropological debate, this complicated relationship between the playing of a bullroarer and its sounding, in which the instrument became spirit voice or mask, a collusion maintaining the structure of a society, the way in which women, men, children, non-human entities and barely imaginable beings negotiated each other’s space. The object or sculpture of the playing – to whirl a strip of wood in circles – was the small spark that lit the raging fire.
I am not listening to Seymour Wright’s Seymour Writes Back (alto saxophone solos 2008-2014), partly because I have done so and will do so again, but partly because to attend to the spark at this given moment of thinking through ideas is a distraction from the raging fire. It may be that he has some sympathy with this idea of bodies without organology. The physical form of the release is a folded sheet of texts and photographs on which are mounted four audio CDs, further enfolded in a wrapper reproducing a 1920s design by calligrapher Margaret Calkin James, an artist whose posters for the London transport system were both as celebrated yet as anonymizing as Phylliss Pearsall’s design for the London A-Z street atlas; within this he quotes Peter Brook on King Lear: to paraphrase, the play (a usefully versatile word in this context) is an object, a cluster of relationships, complexes and meanings rather than a linear narrative.
If you like, it’s a mythology of the saxophone, a universe inhabited by the gliding tremor of Johnny Hodges (true ancestor to Albert Ayler), Sonny Rollins mowing his lawn, the reaction of the crowd to those famous 27 choruses played by Paul Gonsalves that set alight “Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue” at Newport, 1956, Richard Wilson’s Watertable (whereby London’s agitated water table could be seen and heard through a 28-inch diameter concrete pipe sunk 4 metres into the clay beneath Matt’s Gallery), the unfolding of London’s spaces and places over centuries, the blurred still image of a blurred video of Willis Gator Tail Jackson screaming through a tenor saxophone without restraint on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1955. These and others.
He quotes Clarice Lispector, from Água Viva and Hour of the Star – “What am I doing writing to you? Trying to photograph perfume?” and “as for the future” – both quotes as enmeshed with spectacularly vast sets of ideas as the bullroarer; in doing so pulling aside the screen (as Daniela Cascella does also in her F.M.R.L.) that was obscuring for us the prophetic relevance of Lispector’s writing to our present day endeavours in the making of an un-music, by which I mean a working in sound/not-sound that attempts to reclaim an intensity of time, feeling and objects from the emptied out rites of bourgeois music.
And if I listen I hear the vibration and resonance of a pipe burrowed through London clay into its watery substratum, a new way of listening as predicted by Clarice Lispector in Água Viva (1973): “I see that I’ve never told you how I listen to music – I gently rest my hand on the record player and my hand vibrates, sending waves through my whole body: and so I listen to the electricity of the vibrations, the last substratum of reality’s realm, and the world trembles inside my hands.”
And if I listen I hear the respiratory, the gustatory, the intestinal (not unlike the bullroarer whose sacredness can never be disconnected (no getting away . . .) from sex, food, shit and death. And if I listen I hear the disappearance of the saxophone, lost in the woods or eaten up by circular inhalation and the voracious nature of space and its bodies. And if I listen I hear the future of a tradition. There is Evan Parker, seated at the table and photographed by Roberto Masotti for his book, You turned the tables on me, and there in this title and preceding titles – Seymour Writes Back, Reed ‘n’ Wright, and so on – a jazz tradition of creaking puns on names exemplified by another alto saxophone player, Lee Konitz, whose “Subconscious-Lee” and “Ice Cream Konitz” have a purpose beyond what we call word play.
And if I listen I am in-close and personal to spit, reed and tubing, to the face and mouth, to the rumble of steel through tunnels under the last substratum of reality’s realm, the friction of expulsion into restless air, the softness of an instrument that gives itself up to all those vibrations to which it is subjected.