Seattle WA, 26 October 2000
There is beauty in discord and chaos.
Although it has seen steady use in the last hundred years, atonality
is rarely well received as a facet of composition. Schoenberg was
mocked when he threw tonal-centered caution to the wind in favor of
this radical innovation as a central piece to authorship. The same
can be said of Cecil Taylor. Nearing almost five decades of public
performance, Taylor continues to demonstrate, at least to the non-believer,
that the absence of a tonal center can function beautifully and poetically
in music not only as a means of expression, but also as an acceptably
stylistic approach to composing. However, it might be perverse to
think of Taylor's music as demonstrations. His performances in the
studio or onstage are axiomatic entities established on their own
Taylor established one such entity recently in Seattle, at the Illsley
Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall. The 540-seat venue, a complimentary leg
to the larger Benaroya Hall, is a space constructed to serve solo
artists and small ensemble performances. The interior is almost entirely
constructed of cherry wood, providing for acoustics that resonate
from the stage and up through the audience, reflecting and refracting
from triangular columns that line the auditorium's walls. The atmosphere
is visually appealing, providing a peaceful environment for the performer
and the audience.
Naked save for the centrally placed, polished Bosendorfer piano, the
stage was ready for a rare performance. Cecil Taylor arrived fashionably
late and was met with an uproarious reception. Clad in black sweatpants
and tube socks, an untucked dress shirt and black headband, he read
from a prepared script of non-colloquialisms that would be referenced
throughout the evening. Since the appearance of 1966's Unit Structures,
the revolutionary work that would blaze the trails for pioneers of
deeper creative music in the late 1960's, Taylor has been recognized
not only for his skills as a musician, but also as a gifted writer/orator
capable of formulating surreal philosophical fragments that often
come together, like his music, as cohesively as a piece of successful
abstract visual art. While reading he simultaneously expressed himself
with tai chi-like dance movements, stopping to ponder himself, or
the audience, and quickly resuming his psychotext, not missing a beat.
Pausing before seating himself at the Bosendorfer, he softly uttered
the phrase, "Leaves turning". A short succession of percussive taps
and strums from a number of strings inside the piano followed.
The Bosendorfer, a piano rarely used by jazz musicians, is equipped
with eight extra keys in the bass end, a valuable asset for solo composition.
This is especially true for Taylor's style of playing and the pianist
left no tone, no key unturned in the first exhibition of the evening.
A series of unrelated intermittent notes established the mood of the
first piece, a seventy-minute tour de force that had the audience
whirling through an array of sonic climaxes and crescendos. As if
lacking sufficient feathers for flight, Taylor repeatedly captivated
the assemblage with adventitious leaps into new territory on the keys.
Between long stanzas of the piano-generated message he stood to recite.
Seating himself again, emitting perpetual huffs and grunts, he seemed
a madman rising to the zenith of this almost entirely improvised set.
Toward the close he played a bastard waltz, relying heavily on the
bass side yet augmented with delicate accents in the treble. Bellows
and whispers of ONE-TWO-(three-te-tee) ONE! TWO-(three) and the mood
reversed. Ponderous single notes immediately collided with angered
sweeping arpeggios, the roots of the music in and of its own unfoldings.
An abrupt block of sound that could just as easily have been sounded
by a sledgehammer ended the set and Taylor signaled the intermission
with a slight perfunctory bow.
Taylor returned to the stage rejuvenated and reflective. I wondered
where he held his energy. Again he read using otherworldly metaphors
and symbolism that would echo through his second, more extensive set
at the bench. It was transcendent in that his dance and spoken phrases
would act as hints, involuntarily accessed as pictures that paralleled
the music. "Transfigured, as a sphere surrounded by an axis…" The
second set was more melodious with nods to modal structures, but incorporating
unique scaleology and bits of blues. His playing was unrestrained,
fluid and light-hearted. The hands conspired at the middle keys. Foreign
chords became the duty of the right while the left took the role of
estranged partisan. Transfigured, as he suggested.
As in the first set, Taylor rose periodically to dance and pacify
us with sotto voce recitations, making the connection between word
and music both latent and omnipresent. When he resumed his place at
the piano he was on fire, his restless theatrics exuberant and captivating.
Interconnected atonal themes revealed themselves as our brains conjured
his previous utterances. Seizing on the mesmeric nature of the music
he became restrained and the energy that had been buzzing throughout
the venue subsided. But quickly enough an effortless string of staccato
notes in the middle and high registers erupted. Connected by slight
pauses and tempoless emphatics these notes ran a circular pattern
and then glided into silence. A series of triplets emerged from all
available octaves and the set ended with a solitary, low resonant
After five (!) encores of various lengths, the last of which was a
single riff, Taylor left the stage. The audience applauded the music,
applauded the experience, and applauded the Bosendorfer left quietly
alone on the slightly dimmed stage. My mind attempted to reconfigure
from a confused bliss, as if I had been dreaming in Portuguese, not
previously knowing the language. The performance had been almost completely
devoid of tonality or a maintained tempo, yet the music was more satiable
than "Bolero". It defied theory, became theory. Nearly three hours
had slipped away, dominated by talent, spoken word and ninety-six
keys. It was an entire education in metaphysics.