Cecil Taylor at Alice Tully Hall



Given his cornucopiastic musical range, Cecil Taylor, quite scrupulously, defies melodious categorization. What we can say is that with a piano Taylor creates gargantuan sonic envelopes to float in. This I eerily experienced again at his euphonious performance at Alice Tully Hall where he exquisitely explored the intricacy of his myriad-colored dexterity by playing back-and-forth with elaborate/lucid musical paradigms and triumphal aggregates like the virtuoso he is. In clouds of muscularly produced tinkling “cacophony” were heard exquisite dashes of Fats Waller, Xenakis, Bud Powell, LaMonte Young, Brahms, John Coltrane, Aphex Twin (drukqs), Sun Ra, John Cage and, of course, Thelonius Monk. His music then is a vigorous paradox where customary opposites coexist, coalesce, and connect.

Cecil began recording in ‘55, working with Steve Lacy, Buell Neidlinger, and Dennis Charles. (Neidlinger, an experienced symphonic bassist, once said that no musician he’d ever met, including Stravinsky and Boulez, had musical abilities that exceeded Taylor’s, and that he is “potentially the most important musician in the Western World”). The group had an extended, six-week engagement at the Five Spot Cafe in New York—literally introducing the concept of Modern Jazz to a club that shortly thereafter became one of its legendary venues—and made an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, which Verve recorded in ‘57. In ‘58 he recorded with Earl Griffith, Charles, and Neidlinger for Contemporary (“Looking Ahead”), and with John Coltrane for United Artists (“Coltrane Time”). Taylor also made his own date for that label in ‘59, and more Candid sessions through to ‘61 (Mosaic collected the complete Candid sessions on a comprehensive four-disc boxed set in ‘92).

Taylor’s primary tool of coherence is what in acoustics is called “envelope”. Envelope, in music, involves the onset, growth, and decay of a sound. Growth consists of the rate of increase of a sound to steady-state intensity. Duration refers to the steady state of a sound at its maximum intensity, and decay is the rate at which it fades to silence. Envelope is an important element of timbre, the distinctive quality, or tone color, of a sound. My supposition here is that Cecil Taylor takes this musical phenomena of envelope and extends it into a more general peripheral spatial intelligence best called holonogic. Yes, I think it is sensible to make use of the holonogic schematic model of Arthur Koestler (established in his books Beyond Reductionism and The Ghost in the Machine) when trying to appreciate the music of Cecil Taylor in that no set or frame of perceptions may be experienced in isolation or as a single part of a finite perceptual collection within the holonogic model.

Taylor’s performance marvelously fits the holonogic paragon starting with its ritualistic beginning (which suggested deep African ceremonial consciousness in dialogue with Taylor’s roots as a tap dancer) to its empyrean conclusion. The word “genius” easily applies to him.

The concert began with four intense piano solos—with Cecil producing some muffled and deeply eccentric vocalizations. These solos all imploded and exploded with those detailed musical references cited above. I had to close my eyes to even attempt at hearing all the musical ideas simultaneously present. The acoustics are phenomenal at Alice Tully Hall though, and they facilitated mild waves of aural imbrication. This made for a rather complex musical reckoning which, for me, turned holonogical, in retrospect.

Taylor’s music reminds us that our once basic Euclidean conception of space has been expanded to include the formation of many-dimensional space. In Taylor’s music the Euclidean concept of space is modified by enlarging the number of vectors which may be constructed within it from three to some much larger number (designated as n). Mathematicians designate this space as n-dimensional Euclidean space. Such a space implies the existence of a higher-dimensional geometry that mimics Euclidean geometry.

There also, however, is another proposed spatial reality relevant to Taylor’s music called curved-space—or curved space/time. Curved-space is approximately Euclidean over very small regions, but over large regions all geometrical properties break down. Curvature is combined with Euclidean geometry with the increase of dimensions plotted. There are also a number of other generalized spaces which drop the Euclidean geometry completely, most notably the topological space model and fuzzy space, where there exists only a concept of nearness.

Part II of the concert consisted of Taylor’s piano playing with (sometimes within) the dazzling percussion of Jackson Krall. This accomplished performance—which included him sassily playing the mise-en-scène with his sticks—would be appropriate to anybody analyzing virtual immersion and the holonogic principle. The deep-base atmospheric spectrum was honorably sired by the colossal Dominic Duval. Playing concurrently, the three sensitively roared. At moments I could hear the majestic universe bellow—and then whimper. Everybody that has ever seen Taylor play live—with or without other musicians—knows this. He does this to the entire room by unframing our mind and ears and expanding the listener’s sensitivity to both noise and the most delicate tiny musical moments. The music then remains beautiful to recall. In this respect he reminds us that hearing is not an activity divorced from consciousness.

But really, any account of Taylor’s sonic dexterity as related to consciousness is inadequate to the facts of our actual experience within it. But the holonogic model of cognitive-aural processing is useful for a one-of-many possible accounts of its reverberations. Yes, his music is particularly holonogic as his sound deprives us of our habitual perceptive boundaries by surpassing them. Through excessive depriving, Taylor makes us remember that throughout time there have been consensual realities that have proven to be nothing but vast daydreams; such as the conviction that the earth is at the center of the universe. Yes, the holonogic model fits Taylor’s adroitness befittingly because according to Koestler’s holon concept, instead of cutting up immersive perceptual wholes into discrete focal parts, immersion should be scrutinized and understood using synthetic sub-whole sets found within ambient space. And Taylor’s music deserves this level of attendant complex scrutiny.

Such an approach to Taylor’s music is consistent with, and indeed epitomizes, the ideals of hermeneutics, as in hermeneutics the central notion is that we cannot grasp the meaning of a portion of a work until we understand the whole, even though one cannot understand the whole until one understands the parts which make it up. However, hermeneutics is not merely a paradox, since hermeneutics indicates that any feat of interpretation occurs through time, with adjustments and modifications being made to one’s comprehension of both the parts and the whole in a circular manner, until some type of resolution is attained.

Such an extensively engrossed holonogic/hermeneutic approach towards the music of Cecil Taylor would be in opposition to what Donald Lowe in his “History of Bourgeois Perception” identifies as the “bourgeois perceptual field”—a mode which he characterizes as fundamentally “linear”, “nonreflexive”, and “objective”. In that our adult creativity derives primarily from our conspicuous potential for abstraction (which characterizes our genus) and in our craving and manipulation of abstractions, what is at stake here for Cecil Taylor is our acceptance of our entire atmospheric sensation as our genuine field of conscious creative interest—an abstract field which calls on our tremendous expansive qualities of which the descriptions of the scientist and the doctor have not done suitable justice.

Joseph Nechvatal
New York, New York