Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Mississippi (Montreal) Moonchile - Feb 27/2010

For the actual Nuit Blanche, I participated in Matana Roberts' latest workshopping of Coin Coin at the loft space L'Envers. I had reviewed Chapter 1: Gens du couleur libre, and Chapter 2: Mississippi Moonchile, for the now-defunct site Panpot when Matana had presented them during past editions of Suoni per il Popolo. Matana had e-mailed me while I was in Banff, asking me if I'd be into performing Chapter 2 during Montreal's Nuit Blanche. I immediately said yes. I had seen glimpses of the score for Chapter 1, and was highly intrigued by the process and structure of these pieces. Also, the opportunity to play alongside Montreal improvisers that I highly admire but rarely, if ever, work with, was one to seize. The band consisted of Matana - alto sax; Philippe Lauzier - bass clarinet; Sam Shalabi - guitar; Nicolas Caloia - bass; Isaiah Ceccarelli - drums; Molly Sweeney & Diego Poblete - voices; and myself on piano. A truly Montreal mix of musicians and people across various backgrounds coming together to create.

The most immediately engaging aspect of Coin Coin is its intensely personal nature, and how that may manifest itself musically. Mississippi Moonchile is based around an interview Matana did with her grandmother about her great-grandfather Rev. John Roberts, a sharecropper and travelling preacher from Mississippi. In the interview, Matana's grandmother referenced many traditional African-American spirituals that held great important in her life, as well as many important years. She steadfastly refused to talk about the bad times of growing up in Mississippi - as Matana recites through the piece, "There's some things I just can't tell you about, honey."

The macro structure of Mississippi Moonchile is very clear: written tunes and recitations are bridged by interludes of improvising, both entirely free (to get out of the tunes) and guided by graphic notation (when cued by Matana). The cues for the graphic sections are intervals corresponding to those milestone years. Within the graphic notation, there are often three or four things going on at once: a graphic gesture, an assigned fragment of a spiritual that provides the melodic content for the graphic gesture, and a dynamic marking. Sometimes there are additional specified pitches, voicings or tonal centres. The second type of graphic notation in the piece is a schematic that comes towards the end - a series of words in squares, joined by lines. It's essentially a "choose-your-own-adventure" approach to improvising, going through the schematic at one's own pace and in one's own direction. For all these reasons, my approach to improvising through this piece was less based on listening to everyone else and more on focusing on the directions given by Matana, both in the score and through conducting. So while I wasn't really aware of what everyone was doing individually, I will say that collectively there were some brilliant moments; that the entire piece had this level of intensity and drive; and that Matana sounded as strong, if not stronger, than I have heard her before.

The sound of the piece - with 6 instrumentalists and 2 vocalists transforming fragments of songs deeply entrenched in the African-American experience - is like that of a flashback sequence in a movie, with various memories colliding together in succession. Matana also brings in Fannie Lou Hamer's speech from the 1964 DNC towards the end of the piece (this time accompanied by a passing train from the nearby rail yard), an old traditional blues, and probably some other stuff that I missed. But because all that is happening is rooted in the blues and in spirituals, it's somewhat easier to follow the thread of the piece throughout the hour. I remember, as a listener a couple of years back, being able to catch snippets of the spirituals coming in and out.

In rehearsal, Matana said something that struck a chord in me: "This piece has a lot of bluesy sounds that normally I shy away from, because I feel like somehow they're expected of me." That prompts a lot of thoughts for me - as a white, Canadian, school-educated musician, I don't really feel like there are any musical or artistic expectations of me. I can't imagine what the burden of those kinds of presumptions feel like when one is trying to create (the same way many European musicians are automatically assumed to not swing or have a distant relationship with the blues). It also reminds me how powerful sound can be, and that many sounds are fraught with associations and links that we may not even be cognizant of.


Matana Roberts said...

Hey Davi,

Thanks a lot for this. Your contribution to the music really was beyond stellar... Thank you for treating this music with respect and love.


Anonymous said...

p.s. that was a spelling mistake. i meant 2 write "david" of course


zibalatz said...

hey dave, thanks for the insight in the music. one sentence from your post particularly caught my attention:

"That prompts a lot of thoughts for me - as a white, Canadian, school-educated musician, I don't really feel like there are any musical or artistic expectations of me."

i think you may wish to explore what your own "stereotype" is. i think there is definitely a stereotype of white canadian school-educated musicians and it is always valuable to recognize our own stereotypes and transcend them or work against them.

i hesitate to spell out exactly what i think that stereotype is, because i think there is value in the process of figuring it out for yourself.

Ryshpan said...

Hey Vincent, thanks for commenting. To be clear, I didn't mean for that line to sound like I'm above reproach or beyond expectations. I meant it in the sense that whatever that stereotype may be doesn't really enter into my creative process. I certainly haven't been confronted by it via audience members, listeners or critics, expecting me to... I don't know, play more like Mehldau or swing more or less or something.

I'm actually curious what you think the stereotype of a white, Canadian, school-educated musician entails. I think there's a plurality of them and that it goes in waves, depending on what's in fashion in the jazz schools. This could be a whole post to itself, but I think the idea of schools in North America turning out carbon-copy drones of Brad Mehldau is really just bogus. I meet a lot of students going through that hit roadblocks, and there are many students that don't necessarily think outside the box of their conservatory, but there are others that do in very creative ways.

zibalatz said...

hey dave, first of all, i wasn't implying that you specifically were falling into this stereotype, but merely that the stereotype exists and also that it does actually come from a real place.

yes, the melhdau thing is one example but certainly not exclusive to "white canadian school-educated musicians". melhdau is more of a "mainstream modern jazz" preference. a better way to think of it would be this way: are there any things that you find that most "white canadian school-educated musicians" generally like, perhaps more so than someone from a slightly different demographic? the easiest way to be precise about this is to change one element at a time. i.e.: what do "white canadian school-educated" musicians tend to like (playing-wise, listening-wise, and philosophy-wise) compared to "white american school-educated" musicians, or "black canadian school-educated" musicians, or "white canadian non-school-educated" musicians.

it may also help to use greater specificity, and instead of "school-educated", "mcgill-educated". compare for example "white canadian mcgill-educated" stereotypes vs "white canadian concordia-educated" or "white canadian uqam-educated". you get the idea.

basically the things that constitute elements of our stereotypes are the things that we take for granted. for example, unrelated to music, i had no idea, for years, that eating tripe (stomach lining of a cow) would be considered gross to some people. in fact, i didn't even know what tripe actually was, and only knew that it was tasty! the stereotype here is that chinese people "eat anything". this is not an example of a stereotype i want to fight against, particularly, but it's good to be aware of it. in the case of tripe, i always warn non-chinese people before taking them to dim sum about some of the "weird" foods that might be present.

anyway, hope this provides some insight and personal discovery.