Sunday, October 7, 2012

Cecil Taylor: Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within)

The title is for the entirety of this astonishing 76-minute solo performance by Cecil Taylor, on what seems to be the 92-key (yes, 92) Bösendorfer piano that had the extra keys for Taylor to get in more of the wide-ranging orchestral sound for which he is (in)famous, appears to refer to the setting.

This mounumental performance took place on 20 August 1976 at an open-air festival at Moosham Castle in Austria (click here to see the official Web site with photos), which must have been a phenomenal setting and inspiration for the pianist.

Almost any of Taylor's music is challenging and really requires concentrated focus in listening.  For this reason, a lot of people who try listening to him are easily turned off.  His playing is complex, sometimes called atonal (though it doesn't appear that way to this listener), staggering in its technical abilities, and highly percussive and, as noted above, orchestral.  It is not a music providing obvious melodic and harmonic enjoyment.  The pleasure is in being drawn in and held captive to the all-encompassing world that is a Taylor performance, especially in these solo piano concerts.

In Taylor's somewhat cryptic poetry as liner notes, there are hints as to what is he about, or at least so it appears to YHB.  For example, he notes that "technique is weapon to do whatever / must be done/is self-determined / reflective of application / of ancient ritual within family."  It has been said that a Taylor concert or recording is a ritualistic experience. 

Elsewhere, he writes about the "ability to relate instantly, & build concomitant / sound structures: improvisation" and that the music is the "co-ordination of physique (muscles, the mind) / existing as one reasoned act thru erasure / of written note."  Taylor's phenomenal improvisational excursions are definitely the melding of the incredible responsiveness of mind and body in a "reasoned" way, not chaotic or anarchic, but built from years of practice and application.

When the pianist writes further of "Creating Music as sound within / the whole body; which must be brought / to level of total depersonalized realization . . .," it can be understood that Taylor totally devotes himself to playing in a way that has, it has often been reported, leaves him totally exhausted after an all-consuming performance.

The ritual as spiritual seems explained by his remark that "To Play what one hears is our objective Downward & inward are the forces bent to live as recognition of the invisible: spirit" as well as the idea that "sound as a language: communication / the total event being larger than the / combination of individual parts."  And, there is the matter of "trance is the unreasoning / reflection being possible / thru multi-layered / rhythmical complexes . . .

The experience of making music is "recognition of nuance, instinctive / ability relearned released, unchained / to then become forces moving as part of the Universe."  Finally, in the conclusion of these interesting liner notes-as-poetry, Taylor offers that "Improvisation is a tool of refinement / an attempt to capture 'dark' instinct / cultivation of the acculturated / to learn one's nature in response to / group (society) first hearing 'beat' / as it exists in each living organism."

If all this seems strange, abstractly mystical, and pretentious, it is, at least, Taylor's expression of feeling about this music and there is no reason to doubt his total commitment to its statements.  Knowing what Taylor has stated, whether in liner notes or interviews, and the commentary is almost never straightforward and simple, it might help to listen to the music while reading what the composer/performer writes.

One thing is for certain:  Cecil Taylor's world is a totally immersive one, both from the standpoint of his performances and what a listeners should probably be willing (maybe there's no choice?) to bring to the listening.  Branford Marsalis was once quoted as being profanely contemptible of Taylor's notion that a listener needed to prepare and practice before listening to one of the pianist's performances or recordings. 

Why would it be unreasonable for Taylor, who throws everything he has at a project, to expect a listener to come ready and able, through a concentrated effort, to be part of that experience?  At least you know his expectations and, if you're willing to accept the gauntlet, the results could be amazingly powerful.  Well, this blogger thinks so, but knows this is not music for everyone, which is not inherently bad, good or indifferent.

After hearing some thirty of Taylor's records over the years, this listeners feels that anything else than a great appreciaton or utter contempt is probably not realistic.  Can there be a middle ground with someone like Cecil Taylor?  Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within) is a tremendous record, if you are of a mind to take the all-consuming journey.  Otherwise, it would take just moments to decide not to.  This blogger is glad that, twenty or so years ago, the leap of faith was made.  It took a while, but the benefits have been manifold and welcomed.

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