Thursday, July 20, 2006

Trumpet of Sedition

I just got the new/old Wire magazine (their website shows a new issue already out), which I do every month, because, when all is said and done, I really like the Wire magazine. This month I was curious to read the review of David Borgo's Sync or Swarm: Improvising Music in a Complex Age (Continuum), which sounds like the kind of book I would enjoy. Unforunately, it seems like another missed opportunity to properly contextualize improvised music. According to the reviewer, Borgo opts for a very safe focus on the "music itself" that skirts socio-political pressures on creative production.

Sometimes a piece of improvised music demonstrates so powerfully the embeddedness of music within social processes that one wonders how anyone could stick to old-fashioned text-analysis myopia. Such is Mazen Kerbaj's "Starry Night," a brilliant piece of music recorded during the recent IDF air attacks on Lebanon. Kerbaj is a Lebanese trumpet improvisor who lives in Beirut. Along with many of the most interesting contemporary trumpeters (Axel Dorner, Franz Hautzinger, Greg Kelley), Kerbaj specializes in small sounds, breathy noises, and back-pressure/metallic resonance-sourced sustained tones. In interviews, Kerbaj has discussed the impact that military sonics had on his developing musical imagination growing up during Lebanon's long civil war.

It is one thing, of course, to hear links to traumatic aural memories in the extended techniques of improvisors or composers (many of the barely-there extended techniques favored by European improvisors-- breathy white noise, bowing of the wood and tuning pegs of string instruments, etc.-- are also common in the politically committed music of composers like Luigi Nono, Helmut Lachenmann, and Helmut Oering), and another to listen to an mp3, transmitted via fiber optic cable from Beirut to Baltimore to Texas, of a hushed and contemplative trumpet improvisation interrupted at unpredictable intervals by the sound of bombs exploding.

Because the trumpet is an instrument played with the breath, and because Kerbaj's breath is more present in his playing than most (classical technique in fact tries to remove the breath, that material trace of human subjectivity, from the trumpet's sound, even though synthesizer designers have to replicate it via added noise so that simulated trumpets sound authentic), the stakes of a duet for trumpet and Israeli Air Force bombing civilians are high. Already over 300 mouths have stopped breathing. CNN and The New Republic and the United States Congress would have us believe that this is something about which we ought not care.

The trumpeter's breath somehow communicates to us something that the voice (allegedly the ne plus ultra evidence of the subjectivity of the Other), speaking language, English or Arabic or French or German, could not. We who live in the world of improvised music have grown used to hearing the sound of breath and bow-hair and electronic static over the last few years. It's possible that some of us have forgotten how rare a luxury it is to expect an hour (or five minutes) of uninterrupted silence as a precondition for music-making...

If power of the bureaucratic State to circumscribe creative production was the spectre that loomed over the international artistic community in the 20th century, the new phantom haunting our musical lives may well be the permanent-emergency State. It will not issue edicts and black out encyclopedia pages... it will maintain a constant ambience of volatility, threat, and menace... Will we make the same kind of music when we don't know when the bombs will fall?

There is something remarkable about hearing Kerbaz persist in his practice amidst terror and catastrophe, an aesthetic overlay that brings a clarity and poignance-- a poetics of witnessing-- to his music that I am not sure I have heard before in a recorded improvisation. It should spur us to solidarity with the War on Terror's victims of "collective punishment" and to outrage and revulsion towards those who would condone displacement and brutalization and murder.

Thanks for verbalizing what I couldn't have.

Indeed, the most compelling thing about that amazing recording for me is the way the bombs falling and the strange trumpet noises are in no way connected in time. They are independent of one another yet united by the fact that both are unpredictable to the listener/victim.
Oh, by the way... I just remembered where I've seen the name David Borgo. He came on the faculty at UCSD during my last year there as the "jazz guy". He's an incredibly conservative-minded improviser and not somebody I'd ever want to read a book by.
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