Hammered Into Clouds: Nine Beginnings for Julius Eastman

Julius Eastman was a black, gay composer in a scene with no antecedents for him. His 1970s compositions open up a counter-narrative for new music in downtown New York, foregrounding race, sex, and politics while turning the patter of minimalism into a hard rain. Eastman connected Eastern thought and Western tonality, and made art songs sound like pop songs. He painted his face silver without telling anyone. He left New York without telling anyone. He changed New York without telling anyone.

By the time of his death in 1990, Eastman had faded from view, but he is still with us. In the beginning of 2018, the Kitchen presented “That Which Is Fundamental,” a combination of live performances and a gallery’s worth of visual work related to, or inspired by, Eastman.

Eastman’s artistic practice was wildly varying, and the current renaissance follows suit. His work was at the center of “We Have Delivered Ourselves From the Tonal,” an event recently presented in Berlin by the SAVVY Contemporary gallery and the MaerzMusik festival. Last November, New World Records released The Zürich Concert, a seventy-four-minute piano and voice improvisation recorded in 1980. This brief list does not include the films and performances rooted in Eastman’s work. If Julius were still alive, he would turn seventy-eight this year.

He began in Ithaca and found the piano as a boy. At the age of seventeen, Eastman became the accompanist at a local dance studio. His compositions were strong enough to catch the attention of Lukas Foss and earn him a spot with the Creative Associates at SUNY Buffalo in 1969. His baritone landed him the role of King George III in a recording of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King, released by Nonesuch in 1973 and nominated for a Grammy. By 1976, he had moved to New York and written several works for multiple instruments that played hard and fast with the role of repetition in notated music. By 1984, Eastman had mounted dance pieces, solo concerts, and ensemble works in both New York and Europe. By 1990, he was dead.

As a singer and a pianist, Eastman was a prodigy, though that’s not the narrative he chose. He was a middling student and, later, an inconstant professor, uncomfortable with institutions of any kind. Hierarchies held no appeal on the page or in the street. As his friend Ned Sublette — also a navigator of the space between composition and pop performance — told me, “Julius was anti-pompous. He would talk with absolutely anybody. Julius did not have a nickel of snobbery in his body.”

And yet Eastman chose to work through notation, in the concert hall, even as friends like Arthur Russell were using the studio to make records for the club. Eastman went along to the disco for dancing and cruising, and his solo concerts involved improvised lyrics that suggested disco songs. (The first piece Eastman performed live after arriving in New York, a solo performance called Praise God From Whom All Devils Grow, contained these lyrics, and only these: “Why don’t you make me feel like a real woman?”) Eastman’s work combined the constant and the chaotic in a way that was absent from the work of composers doing what critic and former Voice columnist Kyle Gann called “living room minimalism” — the guys who you know. Eastman once told David Borden he thought Philip Glass’s music “sounded French.” 

Eastman never aligned with anything, including his own death. The composer died in Buffalo on May 28, 1990, at the age of forty-nine. Gann wrote what he called “a ridiculously belated obituary,” which ran in the Voice in January of 1991. Gann’s piece was one of the few ways to learn about Eastman until late 2005, when New World Records released Unjust Malaise, a three-disc set of archival recordings, and a revelation.

Unjust Malaise was supervised and brought to market by composer Mary Jane Leach. Working alone for years, Leach has kept Eastman’s reputation alive, rescuing many of his scores and posting them on her website. In 2016, frozen reeds issued a 1974 performance of Eastman’s Femenine, a major development in the process of bringing Eastman back into the light. Plangent and rounded, unlike the ferocious pianos and cellos of Unjust Malaise, Femenine confirmed that Eastman’s directness is not limited to the context of Seventies New York — it is absolute.

A susurrating blend of sleigh bells, vibraphone, piano, strings, and horns, Femenine became a soundtrack for me when it came out in 2016. The piece twists around a coiled vibraphone trill, a familiar figure in Eastman’s music, where single notes are hammered into clouds.

At the end of January, as part of “That Which Is Fundamental,” four pianists performed “Evil Nigger” and “Crazy Nigger,” two of the works that make Unjust Malaise essential. Hearing these two pieces at Knockdown Center in Queens, played on four grand pianos, was remarkable. Built from what Eastman described as “musical thoughts,” these pieces chain together sections of specified lengths with notated motifs that do not specify absolute pitches — these are chosen by the musicians during any given performance. “Evil Nigger” and “Crazy Nigger” are examples of what Eastman called “organic music,” an additive and subtractive process that allows Eastman’s thoughts to reach genuine bloom.

At Knockdown Center in January, Eastman’s combination of notation and improvisation sounded like a recalibration of what minimalism could lift and where it could lead. Looser and heavier than the piano works of Reich and Glass, these pieces strip themselves of minimalism and present incremental change as a function of character rather than as a formal device, change as the lay of the land rather than a way to cross it. A proposal for non-narrative music emerges. The tenth minute is no more or less resolved that the first, and the ends of these pieces do not explain or release the component elements they’re built from. Progress here is not teleological but self-referential, a series of circular views into a center, rather than an argument rendered as a linear sequence of sound events.

Eastman wrote approximately fifty-eight pieces, and the scores have been found for only sixteen of them. Nine of these compositions are available commercially as recordings, but the archival holdings at the University of Buffalo suggest that number will grow. When the Julius Eastman box set finally exists, even if it contains no more than nine compositions, it will change how musicians look at late twentieth-century New York.

Episode 2 — Julius Eastman In His Own Voice


To deal with a composer whose work is alive in so many ways, I talked to some of the artists and scholars who’ve connected with Eastman. (You can hear Eastman himself talk in this 1984 interview conducted by David Garland.) That Julius Eastman is performed more now than in his lifetime is not a story of neglect and recovery. Eastman left us with concentrated, intense, thorny work. Julius Eastman refused to be finished. Think of the following as nine more beginnings.

1. JACE CLAYTON, musician and writer

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts told me about Julius Eastman in 2011. The music was something else. It just did so much. It was epic, muscular, romantic. The titles were like conceptual artworks — “Evil Nigger,” “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?,” “Gay Guerrilla” — with their own lifespan. Eastman himself was such a figure, this in in-your-face leather queen, black and outrageous. He had sung on Meredith Monk’s Dolmen Music, which is amazing. He’d also performed one of John Cage’s Song Books pieces in Buffalo, right in front of Cage himself, and made it explicitly gay. That didn’t fly with Cage, who was closeted. That kind of sealed the deal for me. I just loved him.

I did an early version of The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner in 2011 and we started touring the project in 2013. European bookers were passing at first because they had no idea who Eastman was, but now they want to book it.

Classical presenters are saying “What can we do?” They’re getting feedback that it’s all too white and male. But can any of those presenters name another black composer? Julius Eastman doesn’t need to be solving this particular problem for anyone. He is his own topic.

2. EMILY MANZO, pianist

I hope it’s not just a trend that goes away. One of the most racist things we could do is to let Julius be a trend.

3. TIONA NEKKIA MCCLODDEN, artist, co-curator of That Which Is Fundamental

I saw a picture of Julius composing music, and the caption said, “Black gay experimental avant-garde composer.” That got me. I was struck by the picture, because I don’t see too many pictures of black men composing music. The caption complicated the image. It prompted me to see if this really was a person with all of these things inside him.

I realized that Julius was someone that I was going to be dealing with for a bit of time when I was going through the first round of research that [co-curator] Dustin Hurt did. I was skimming and found this clipping of an interview where Julius said he wanted to be “black to the fullest, homosexual to the fullest.” I was like, “OK, that’s what I want to be, too.” I really took into consideration what it meant for him to say that at the time. I was struggling with how to deal with all the multiplicities of my identities and how they existed, and then there was this posthumous mentor delivering me these words. That was the foundation for everything that I’ve tried to do on his behalf, in honor of him.

4. KODWO ESHUN, theorist and artist

[Eshun refers here to The Third Part of the Third Measure, a film made with the Otolith Group that combines a four-pianist performance of “Evil Nigger” with new readings of the remarks Eastman made at a Northwestern University performance in 1980.]

You remember in the [Northwestern] speech, he says, “At this point I don’t feel that gay guerrillas can really match with Afghani guerrillas or PLO guerrillas, but let us hope in the future that they might.” The idea of our film is that the pianists are the gay guerrillas, thirty-seven years after Julius Eastman’s speech. They have come to communicate with us, and we the audience need them. They are something between assassins, soldiers, samurai, and scientists, and they’ve come to train us in vigilance and resilience and steadfastness. The idea is that freaks like us are being targeted. We face all kinds of wars and we are the targets, so we’d better get fit and we’d better get ready for the wars that are coming toward us right now.

Eastman found a way to be an internal outsider wherever he was. Wherever he was, he had a disruptive quality and it was also virtuosic. He was just a virtuoso. He was better than everybody, but he was also better at complicating everything.

The thing I think that’s happened in the last seven to ten years is that we do have a vocabulary now for what Fred Moten calls the aesthetics of the black radical tradition. We have a vocabulary for that now, and it wasn’t there in the Seventies or the Eighties. But Julius was.

5. ARNOLD DREYBLATT, composer, visual artist

I studied in Buffalo from 1974 to 1976. I met Julius first in a Pauline Oliveros workshop, probably in 1974. In that period, my perception of him was that he was this very important singer of contemporary classical music and a member of the Creative Associates. There’s that record, Eight Songs for a Mad King, which was quite famous. I had it. Julius was probably at that time one of the very few African Americans in contemporary music. I moved back to New York in 1976 and I met Julius around town. We knew each other from Buffalo, so there was a connection there.

We went with Yoshi Wada and Julius to a bar on East Broadway in Chinatown, which people said was a Chinese mafia bar. You couldn’t really go anywhere with Julius without there being an incident, especially if he would drink. I remember him at the point where he was on the table singing and carrying on, standing on the table in this place where one really shouldn’t rock the boat. It was made clear that we had to leave.

6. PHILL NIBLOCK, composer and musician

He was a weird motherfucker. It didn’t fit in. He was a weird guy, his ideas were weird, he was flagrantly gay, he was incredibly beautiful, just really stunning, and he had this unbelievably deep voice. He was this skinny little guy that made this deep bass sound, and he could sing falsetto. Incredible pianist, he was an amazing musician, relatively amazing composer, and he was weird, and he finally cut himself off, became a homeless guy and lost almost all of his scores. 

7. DAVID FELDMAN, composer, mathematician, and visual artist

I showed him my work in Buffalo — I don’t remember which piece — and he said, “There’s not enough cock in it!” I understood that he meant to challenge my boundaries personally but I also understood that he was saying something serious. “The body” is an overused catchphrase in academia these days, but with Julius, it really fits. He made music with his mind and his whole body and wished that everyone would.

8. GEORGE LEWIS, composer and musicologist

In 1980, I went on the Kitchen’s tour of Europe with Julius, Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, Rhys Chatham, Molissa Fenley, Eric Bogosian, and Douglas Ewart. I resonated with Julius — we were both self-fashioned in our relation to new music. Ben Patterson wasn’t around, as far as I knew, so Julius, me, and Bill were about it as far as blackness in the New York downtown scene was concerned.  

Around 1979 the scene started trying to deal with race. I don’t remember hearing Julius talk about that publicly, which would have been a difficult conversation. I’m not sure who, if anyone, he might have felt comfortable with talking about that. Not that many people understood the issues.

I was living in Europe in the 1980s and visited New York sometime around 1986. I ran into Julius on the street and he told me he was living in a shelter. I was astonished and asked people if they knew about that. I kept hearing negative comments about him. Maybe some people were helping him too, but New York can be cruel.

I was at MaerzMusik in 2017 when they presented Julius’s “Nigger” pieces at the famous Haus der Berliner Festspiele. I had never seen Julius’s music presented that way — monumental, spectacular, a packed and super-enthusiastic house, with four nine-foot grand pianos and the timings being read out on computer screens next to each performer.

Julius’s work was being discussed in Berlin in the context of a decolonization of new music. I’d like to see that discussion not only about recovery of the forgotten, but about the music and histories of living Afrodiasporic experimental composers and sound artists who are raising similar questions. It’s a question of new music’s identity — what we have now is mostly related to Fred Moten’s observation that the avant-garde is considered by definition as non-black. Thinking hard about Julius can open up the entire field, which is what I think they were trying to do at MaerzMusik.

9. SUSAN STENGER, musician, composer

Although I last saw Julius sometime in the late 1980s, my happiest memories of him are from my formative years in Buffalo. We met around 1971, when I was still in high school and he was performing with Petr Kotik’s S.E.M. Ensemble and the UB Creative Associates. I had sought out Kotik for private flute lessons, having become intrigued by the wide range of experimental music he was presenting, and got to know Julius as well. I’d seen him perform Eight Songs for a Mad King and was in awe of him. He seemed to appreciate that I’d become bored at school and had taken my own education in hand (which he had also done at my age). Once he grabbed my backpack and examined all the books I was lugging around. Mixed in with the Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Genet, and Samuel Beckett were Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. I can still hear his huge distinctive laugh and stomping foot as he exclaimed, “What kind of white girl ARE you?” (This actually wasn’t unusual reading material for the time, but it amused him nonetheless.)

We became much closer when I skipped graduation in 1973 to take part in New Music in New Hampshire, Kotik’s summer workshop at an old inn in the White Mountains. Julius joined him on the faculty, along with David Tudor, Fred Rzewski, Gordon Mumma, and David Behrman. I was impressed by what a great teacher he was and how fiercely he worked to shepherd performances of work by the young composers there, particularly a difficult but beautiful multipart vocal piece by Richard Hayman. Still, he seemed very vulnerable and lonely at times. Richard had established a little hideaway in the cupola of the barn that housed all the performances, reached by precarious ladder rungs and a trap door. Once he and I were up there and Julius climbed up and banged on the hatch. We ended up hanging out, talking, and “three-ply spooning” (Julius in the middle) high up in the rafters. It was sweet.

Having decided to focus on music, I stayed in Buffalo and took courses at UB until autumn of 1975, when I went to Prague to study with Kotik’s former flute teacher. Julius encouraged me, took me under his wing, and made the time to accompany me on piano in practice (“Once again, please”) and recitals. He led a student chamber group that I joined, along with Michael Pugliese, who later worked with Cage and Cunningham. We learned [Eastman’s] Stay On It, which was an eye-opener. Having performed Rzewski’s Les Moutons and Riley’s In C, it felt familiar at first, but it was a huge step into a bold new Eastman frontier. It had a repetitive, shifting, layered quality, but also included elements of improvisation and raucous rhythmic funk. Playing it with Julius over and over was a revelation. In retrospect, it seems like a precursor to a lot of cross-genre work to come.

He was in such great form in those days. I remember the 1974 performance of Rzewski’s Coming Together at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Julius was transcendently magnificent. But although he seemed to be bursting with ideas and potential, I think he was also getting restless and finding academia kind of limiting. It showed in Morton Feldman’s 1975 June in Buffalo festival, at the famous S.E.M. Song Books performance that upset Cage so much. As part of his group of pages, Julius had the instruction, “Perform a disciplined act.” For a previous iteration I’d seen, he’d done a complex and elegant rope-jumping sequence. This time he gave his lecture on a “new form of love.” He told me afterward that he’d just wanted to do something different. He seemed surprised at how angry Cage was, but that’s not to say he wasn’t intending to tweak him a bit, especially about his sexuality. I played in an event a few days later on the grounds of the Albright-Knox that included pieces by Julius (played simultaneously in different locations) called Masculine and Femenine, so the issue was clearly on his mind.

When I came back from Prague, Julius had long since moved to New York and completed the progression from neat dark suits to leathers, chains, and biker boots. Having moved there too, I saw him often at gigs and heard some powerful new work, including the “nigger series” and ten-cello The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc. I was playing with S.E.M., Phill Niblock, and Jackson Mac Low. It wasn’t until later, though, after I’d returned from a few years away and started playing bass in Band of Susans and hanging out with Arthur Russell, that we began to meet again for coffee or a drink. Ever the mentor, he seemed delighted that I had become a bass player and started calling me “Bootsy.” He claimed to have heard us at CBGB with Arthur once, although I never saw him in the audience. Although happy to see him again, I found these meetings heartbreaking, because he often seemed to be quietly unraveling. He absolutely refused to take any money from me or even let me pay for coffee. His dignity and pride would not allow it. When I had no way to reach him I would sometimes leave signs around Tompkins Square: “Julius, call Susan.” Rhys Chatham used to do this too. Julius had my number and if I wasn’t home would leave messages on my answering machine in his characteristic drawl: “Suuuuuusan, how aaaaaaare you?” The last one was probably in early 1989. I never heard from him again. I miss him all the time.


Greil Marcus’s Real Life Rock Top 10: Punk, Liberty, and Dreams

1. Viv Albertine, To Throw Away Unopened (Faber & Faber)

An unsparing, unforgiving book where Albertine — guitarist for the Slits from 1976 to 1982 and solo pub performer more than thirty years later — unravels and reknits her life around the death of her mother in 2014. It’s all caught in a single incident. One night not long ago, when Albertine is trying to get her songs across, a table of loudmouthed drunks up front refuse every polite request that they give her a chance, maybe go back to the bar. They couldn’t care less: “Instead of the audience witnessing Viv-Albertine-the-ex-punk come back to shake them up, they saw a middle-aged woman being disrespected and ignored.” So Albertine confronts the men: “It comes back to you, your punk attitude, when you need it.” She picks up one man’s beer and sweeps it across their faces. Then another: “A Guinness,” she says, because Albertine’s mind is pitched to the capture of the smallest details in any fraught moment.

In Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys, published in 2014 and likely the best book on punk anyone has written, the word always had quotes around it, as if Albertine wasn’t convinced punk ever really happened at all; in this book the quotes are off.

2. “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going,” New York Times Magazine (March 11)

By 25 writers, from the Times’ Wesley Morris, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Jody Rosen to the critics Jessica Hopper and Hanif Abdurraqib. “If you want to know where music is going,” writes editor Nitsuh Abebe, “ask an 11-year old.” So why didn’t he?

3. Gina Arnold writes in on Pussy Riot at the Rickshaw Stop (San Francisco, March 28)

“When members of Pussy Riot were arrested in 2012 in Moscow for performing a crude anti-Putin punk song atop an altar in a Russian orthodox church, the overblown reaction of their government seemed positively quaint. Six years on, after Russian interference in the U.S. election, Pussy Riot’s concerns have become ours. It’s now impossible not to feel politically energized by the sound of the Russian language, particularly when caught shouting feminist slogans over poppy EDM in front of fun video art depicting police brutality and political corruption. At the very least, the sight of Nadya Tolokonnikova in a neon-pink ski mask yelling, ‘Pussy is the new dick’ to a bunch of bouncy hipsters is a reminder that we in America are still at liberty to goof on this stuff. But one wonders for how long.”

4. Jack White, Boarding House Reach (Third Man/Columbia)

Or playing darts without a target.

5. Eels, The Deconstruction (E Works)

Cloying songs about personal misery. It all really happened! The insipidity of sentimentalizing your own life.

6. Yo La Tengo, There’s a Riot Going On (Matador)

It’s true that the title track of Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 There’s a Riot Goin’ On was blank. That doesn’t mean you can use the title for music to put people to sleep.

7. Ad break on TruTV (March 17)

“This is your brain on TruTV,” a guy in a hoodie says. He holds up a TruTV device and places a plastic model of a brain on it. He looks blankly at you through the screen. “What were you expecting?” he says. “A metaphor?” As if it wasn’t in the budget.

8. Elvis Presley: The Searcher, directed by Thom Zimny (HBO)

In Part 1, ending with Elvis in the Army, the use of music is imaginative — “Blue Moon” unspools at almost its whole length, and it sounds more unearthly than ever. The documentary footage is fabulous. Some is unseen, and what’s been seen is made fresh. It’s a welcome relief to have soundtrack commentary but no talking heads. But only Bruce Springsteen looks for a social context, and with the banal dronings of Alan Light, Warren Zanes, Bill Ferris, and Tom Petty, there isn’t the slightest deviation from the conventional, chiseled-in-stone narrative. Before long it’s stupefying: Any new idea would die in this intellectual desert.

Part 2 is better: The conventional wisdom is less oppressive because no one seems to care that much if you believe it or not. It begins with unbelievably wild footage of Elvis performing Lowell Fulson’s “Reconsider Baby” in Hawaii in 1961 — his last live performance until the 1968 comeback TV show — which confuses the “he died in the Army” story the film seems to want to tell. Even more striking is a snatch of interview with Colonel Parker — has anyone ever heard him? — who is so clearly a colonel from somewhere in Europe.

For good or ill, this film comes down to an interview near the close of the film, after a title has announced Elvis’s death. The TV writer and producer Chris Bearde, who died last year, is talking about that ’68 TV show. Every day, he says, he and Elvis and the director, Steve Binder, would gather in Binder’s office. He recalls one day: “We had a little black-and-white TV in the corner. On the TV, Robert Kennedy has been assassinated. Elvis picks up a guitar, and he started playing. Talking a mile a minute. He said, ‘I want you to understand me, because this is a moment in time’ ” — and Bearde’s voice breaks, as if he’s overcome by the memory, yes, but also acting out how, in the moment, Elvis’s voice broke — “ ‘when we’ll,’ ” coming out w’eeeel, “ ‘have to understand each other.’ ”

“We didn’t know how to end it,” Bearde had said of the TV show, and now that becomes the entry for the end of The Searcher. The last song of that night now becomes the last song of this film — and the last word: “If I Can Dream,” the whole performance.

He’s wearing an ice-cream suit that doesn’t seem to fit. The song comes across like a building with all the nuts and bolts still visible. There’s no groove, and the delivery is clumsy and hesitant. And all of that is overwhelmed by the passion Elvis is digging out of his heart, and his story, his whole life as he has lived up to his heroic singularity and failed to.

9. Bettye LaVette at Freight & Salvage (Berkeley, April 19)

“He complains about everything,” LaVette said about her affinity for Bob Dylan, whose songs she was singing this night. “Just like an old woman. And I’m an old woman. But when a black woman ages, she can do it in less than nine verses. So I’m finishing Bob Dylan’s arguments.” At their best, the songs were final and transformed works of art: With “Things Have Changed,” presented as a classic blues, or “Ain’t Talkin’,” a flood of last words at the end of a life, or “Going, Going, Gone,” now a deep soul ballad you could swear had to have been written by Bert Berns, LaVette started at the emotional top of the songs and stayed there. Most unsettling was her at first unrecognizable “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” — because the times have long since changed back, and the demand for a better country, so palpable when the song first appeared, can now be swept off the stage by a single presidential tweet. She had started the show with “Things Have Changed,” but it played behind everything she sang.

10. Paul Robeson, “King Joe (Joe Louis Blues)” (Okeh)

I’m teaching a course on the postwar period, where the reading includes the detective novelist Ross Macdonald’s 1947 Blue City, about a veteran returning to his Midwestern hometown, so I was reading Tom Nolan’s 1999 Macdonald biography. At one point he mentions that in 1941, Macdonald loved to sing Paul Robeson’s “King Joe” to his little daughter: “Lord, I know a secret, swore I’d never tell/Lord, I know a secret, swore I’d never tell,” the novelist Richard Wright had written. “I know what makes old Joe who can punch and roll like hell.” You can imagine: Daddy, sing the hell song again!

I’d never heard of it. Neither had anyone I asked. It’s a shock — the august, six-feet-under voice of the great dramatic actor and oratorio artist recording with the Count Basie band, singing across two sides of a 78, in and out of the gorgeous, yawning swing of the music, like he wants a pop hit.


Why Terence Blanchard’s “Live” Matters

The moment trumpeter Terence Blanchard remembers best from his last tour happened offstage. After a January 2017 show at Cleveland’s Bop Stop, an older white man explained his initial disappointment. He’d expected lush and beautiful jazz, something more like Blanchard’s Grammy-winning 2007 album, A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina)”. Instead, the trumpeter’s E-Collective band sounded angry.

“I’ll never forget what came next,” Blanchard said over the phone from Los Angeles, where he was scoring a Spike Lee film. “The guy told me: ‘When you got up and explained what the music was about, I had to check myself. I had to think — if the musician who made that other music is now this angry, then something serious must be going on.”  

Blanchard was angry. Something is going on — a steady stream of unarmed black men getting killed by police officers who most often are not prosecuted, and a deepening of already dangerous tensions between black communities and law enforcement officials. Three days before our phone conversation, Stephon Clark had been shot to death in his grandmother’s Sacramento, California, backyard — struck eight times, mostly in his back — by police in search of a suspect who’d been breaking car windows. The gun Clark was thought to have brandished turned out to be a cellphone. “It seems like a never-ending story,” Blanchard said. “And what makes it worse is that people seem consumed with the latest Trump tweet. So, if that guy in Cleveland had to check himself because my music sounded angry, that’s a good thing. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do?”

The mission for Blanchard’s E-Collective when it formed, in 2014, was musical. The band was meant to sound loud and aggressive. In 2005, while working on Spike Lee’s Inside Man, Blanchard, who has scored dozens of feature films, wanted something groove-based, more electric funk than acoustic jazz. Among the musicians he called was drummer Oscar Seaton, who told him, “You could have a really killing funk band.” Blanchard liked the idea but set it aside. “When Terence finally called me about this new band,” Seaton said, “I told him, ‘Sure, it only took you about a decade.’ ”

For Blanchard, whose acclaim had centered almost exclusively on his acoustic jazz bands and his orchestral work, the E-Collective, which now also includes pianist Fabian Almazan, bassist David Ginyard, and guitarist Charles Altura, was a departure. He’d used synthesizers and electric bass and guitar before, yet this was his first embrace of a bottom-heavy funk sound with those instruments clearly in the foreground, and with his trumpet often processed through reverb and other effects. The band was, Blanchard said, “an attempt to show younger players that this type of music can be played at the highest musical level.” It was also a way to loosen up, have fun.

All that changed in Europe, on the group’s first tour. “Trayvon Martin had already been murdered,” Blanchard said. “Then Eric Garner got choked to death. Then Mike Brown got shot. Then Tamir Rice, who was only 12 years old. It was relentless, and it made us feel a bit helpless, especially so far from home.” That helplessness lent focus. On the road, musicians talk about all sorts of things,” said Tondrae Kemp, the band’s tour manager. “But at a certain point, there was nothing else to talk about.” Soon after, Blanchard brought the band into the studio. “We can’t make a feel-good record now,” he told the group. “Let’s play how we really feel.”

Blanchard’s first E-Collective release, in 2015, was titled Breathless, in reference to Eric Garner’s futile plea — “I Can’t Breathe” — while succumbing to a fatal chokehold from a New York City police officer in the summer of 2014. Blanchard was hardly alone in addressing police brutality against black men, and in focusing on Garner’s plea. “I Can’t Breathe,” a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement, ended up emblazoned on NBA pregame warm-up shirts and rippled throughout popular culture; it was the title of a song released last summer by Garner’s siblings, Ellisha and Steven Flagg. Blanchard invited the Garner family to his 2016 concert in Staten Island, near where Garner had lived and died, with a letter that said, “I want you to know you are not forgotten and, in fact, you are an inspiration.” Breathless was less a finished statement than the beginning of an immersion — into new musical possibilities and, more so, the issues that had seized his and his band’s consciousness.

Blanchard’s new E-Collective release, Live, was recorded during January 2017 performances at venues in three communities marked by violence: the Bop Stop, near where Tamir Rice was shot in 2014; the Dakota, in Minneapolis, not far from the St. Paul neighborhood where Philando Castile had been pulled over and shot by a cop six months earlier; and the Wyly Theatre in Dallas, in a community still making sense of the deaths of five police officers — Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patricio Zamarripa — who were assassinated while on duty at a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest.

The music on Live mostly grooves tightly, with engaging solos from pianist Almazan and guitarist Altura — the former with notable lyricism, the latter with requisite fire — and from Blanchard, who, at 56, is now a defining presence on our modern jazz landscape. But it is hardly, even in aesthetic terms, feel-good music. Most tracks stretch beyond ten minutes. “Kaos,” whose entwined melody and countermelody are, Blanchard said, meant to evoke a furious tangle of real and fake news, rides an urgent and unsettling seven-beat meter.

There are some words, uttered, not sung — triggered samples drawn from an interview with scholar, author, and activist Cornel West on two songs, and from speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X on another. But this is instrumental music, intended to tell stories through sonic imagery, sturdy themes (Blanchard excels at those), and improvisation. The narrative owes much to Blanchard’s residencies in these three communities, where, he said, “we tried to do some civic engagement. Before we played, we looked, listened, and learned.”

In St. Paul’s Selby-Dale neighborhood, Blanchard visited the J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School, where Philando Castile worked as a nutrition services supervisor. Castile’s friends told Blanchard how Phil, as everyone called him, often reached into his own pocket to pay for lunch for a child without enough money. “These kids came from all walks of life,” Blanchard told me. “Muslim girls with their hair wrapped, Asian boys, black and white children sitting next to each other. Some didn’t understand that Phil was never coming back.” On a frigid but sunny January morning, Blanchard stopped on Larpenteur Avenue, in nearby Falcon Heights, where only a few posters and balloons were left to mark the spot where Castile lost his life. At Ujamaa Place, a nearby nonprofit center for young and disadvantaged men “rooted in the philosophy of African American culture and empowerment,” Blanchard talked about his experiences in post-Katrina New Orleans. With an aspiring rapper, he discussed both the music business and the business of projecting pride and self-worth through art. “Artists can make a difference when it comes to empowering people,” Kedar Hickman, Ujamaa’s program manager, told me. “But it depends on the artist and the message. People in communities know when a message has been commodified. Terence could hear his mission when we talked about our work, and when I heard him play I could hear a bit of mine.”

More so even than his distinctiveness as a trumpeter — the curled notes that recall his New Orleans roots and the daring improvisations that signal modern jazz’s boundless ambitions — what has propelled Blanchard’s career for the past thirty years is an ability to tell resonant tales, to express empathy and purpose, through the language of instrumental music. That’s what drummer Art Blakey heard in Blanchard’s early compositions for the Jazz Messengers, and what a generation of younger players, schooled in Blanchard’s bands and at the universities where he’s taught, have soaked up. For Almazan, who began playing with Blanchard at 22, a dozen years ago, “Terence taught me that finding my voice as a musician has to do with listening to other people’s stories, and creating a point of connection with them.”

Blanchard’s music has embraced ideas about life and death, tragedy and morality, largely via other people’s stories. In 2013, he composed the well-received opera Champion, on a commission from Opera Theater of Saint Louis, based on the story of Emile Griffith, a three-time world welterweight champion boxer who dealt a lethal punch to an opponent that had taunted (and outed) him as gay. Blanchard was largely inspired by a quote from Griffith’s biography: “I kill a man, and most people understand and forgive me. I love a man, and to so many people this is an unforgivable sin.”

He recently received a second commission from the Opera Theater, to collaborate with librettist Kasi Lemmons for the opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones, based on the memoir of New York Times columnist Charles Blow. Blow’s book documents a complicated awakening in a small, segregated Louisiana town. “One truth that is pronounced in my book,” Blow said, “is how long and glorious the history of black people in the South is, and how removed that story is from the caricatures most people draw.” In conversation and in Blanchard’s music, Blow hears echoes of his South. “It may sound corny,” he said, “but, to me, Terence sounds like home.” Blanchard has scored three films directed by Lemmons, beginning with her 1997 triumph Eve’s Bayou. “I felt like he was telling my story with that score,” she said, “but the soul was his. Also, there’s something inherently political about my work, not explicitly stated. And I’ve always gotten that same sense from Terence’s music.”

In his film career, offscreen, Blanchard has been the trumpet behind Denzel Washington’s character, Bleek, in Spike Lee’s Mo Better Blues, and the trumpet-playing alligator Louis in Disney’s animated The Princess and the Frog. Onscreen, he was Billie Holiday’s tuxedoed trumpeter in Lee’s Malcolm X. His most memorable role came in Lee’s HBO documentary When the Levees Broke, which documented tragedy in Blanchard’s hometown, in the wake of the floods that resulted from the levee failures following Hurricane Katrina. In one riveting scene, Blanchard escorts his mother back to her home, where she breaks down crying in the doorway upon the realization that everything inside is destroyed. Suddenly, the story Blanchard was scoring was his own.

In 2006, at the Music Shed Studios in New Orleans, while working on the Levees score, Blanchard told me, “I’ve been looking at footage of these people pleading for help every day. They look like my family, not like what the news calls ‘refugees.’ It’s too early to process all this right now, but I think you’ll see in coming years that jazz musicians will create works that will speak directly to what’s gone on here.” Blanchard’s own process began with A Tale of God’s Will, the album for which he turned his Levees score into a suite for jazz ensemble and forty-piece string orchestra. Violins represented the storm’s fury, woodwinds the foreboding calm of its wake. His horn voiced the anguished cries of those left stranded. The music was lush, yes, but also urgent and full of rage.

If that recording released anger, 2009’s Choices suggested both stark challenge and nascent hope. The album was meant to express, Blanchard told me, “how the choices we’ve made as a community have led us to a number of predicaments.” This time, Blanchard needed words. He sought out Cornel West. He sent West rough tracks of music, and then recorded an hour-long conversation at West’s office — “about God’s will and man’s choices,” Blanchard said. He sampled some of West’s commentary, triggering these quotes within the music by using foot pedals.

The last, longest, and best track on Blanchard’s new CD is a seventeen-minute version of the title track from Choices. Well into the tune, after the cheers from the Wyley Theater audience die down and following a tender piano solo that slowly gains force, Blanchard states his theme — tinged with blues feel, gently soaring at first and then, urged on by his band, edged with rage. West’s voice — recorded in 2009, yet eerily timely — interrupts: “How would we prepare for death?… It comes down to what? Choice. What kind of human being you going to be? How you gonna opt for life of decency and compassion and service and love?”

At a panel discussion the day before that Dallas performance, Blanchard said, “People always ask us what kind of band is this, what we’re trying to do. We really don’t know what to say. That rage builds up in you, and it comes out however it’s supposed to. I don’t even try to guide it. It’s not my responsibility. I’m tired of talking. It’s about action. This is my action. This is our action.”


Jean Grae and Quelle Chris: Hip-Hop That Lifts the Social Veil

On a bright winter’s Sunday afternoon, Jean Grae and Quelle Chris sat in an eerily music-free coffee shop on Tompkins Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant having a disagreement — a friendly disagreement, it should be noted, since the two MCs, both prodigiously skilled at coloring outside the lines of hip-hop, are engaged to be married.

At issue was whether a robot Chris had brought up on his phone was creepy. The automaton in question had the blank face and squat height of a child assassin. Chris, who spent time in Detroit before decamping to Brooklyn and moving in with Grae, thought the bot “adorable.” Grae called it “shit-looking.” The banter bounced to domestic tasks like doing the washing up and then back to a different kind of robot, the Roomba, which Chris characterized as “stupid”: “It’s like if you were living with someone who every day asks you where the bathroom is and it’s been a month and they still don’t know where the bathroom is.”

The artists were in good spirits. But as they got to talking about their new collaborative album, Everything’s Fine, the tone turned serious. The sardonic title sets up the project’s central concept: the way an everyday salutation functions as a social veil, obfuscating the truth around us. The album exposes the raw realities of issues like police brutality, racial and gender stereotypes, and privilege. Guest turns from Michael Che, John Hodgman, Nick Offerman, and Hannibal Buress punctuate the narrative, as each comedian riffs on the title (Chris recalled how Buress’s contribution became “progressively drunker” due to a bottle of Jameson that had entered the recording session).

Everything’s Fine opens with a skit where three characters (one a robot) face off in a quiz that involves “only one answer to everything.” (You win no prizes for guessing the correct phrase.) Then “My Contribution to This Scam” rolls into life over a bed of static and thudding drums, Grae and Chris’s animated voices mocking what the rap industry has become and those who populate it. Grae drops rhymes in the manner of a sarcastic therapist who snaps back at her patients; Chris’s timbre is a froggy, baritone squelch that’s apt for expressing oblique witticisms.

The spark of the collaboration was “Breakfast of Champions,” which Chris started writing after waking up to the news of another fatal shooting (“This time by some cops in Texas or Virginia/Can’t remember,” he rhymes, capturing the grim inevitability of a moment all too certain to repeat itself). He was walking from Bed-Stuy to Bushwick when he was struck by the idea to turn a boast from Biz Markie’s 1988 party jam “Nobody Beats the Biz” into a grisly hook — “Bound to wreck your body and straight burn your body out” — that he and Grae repeat throughout their verses. “Over the last couple of years there were so many instances of police brutality,” said Grae. “So many days when it was just crying, and a lot of times we were in a room with a lot of white people and it was like, ‘I can’t talk to you right now.’ ” Hearing Chris’s first sketch of “Breakfast of Champions” prompted her to sign up to writing a full album with him. “I was like, ‘Good, I can get all my feelings out on this.’ ”

Everything’s Fine closes with “River,” which features Grae and Chris penning open letters to their siblings over sweeping, melancholic strings. By this point the album has shifted from holding a mirror up to the hip-hop industry to personal reflection, but things don’t end with any easy resolution. Chris said he and Grae are “big fans of open-ended movies and shows.” Everything’s Fine closes with an ellipsis, as Chris enunciates, “Everything’s OK and so they say, and so they say…” Grae and Chris have peeled off the Band-Aid, but given no instruction for how to treat the wound underneath. That’s for the listener to figure out.

“A lot of America has finally realized the place that a lot of us have been in for most of our lives,” said Grae, as she and Chris got ready to continue a domestic Sunday that involved a supermarket run and collecting clothes. “It’s interesting to see the door opened to many white Americans that shit is going to be terrible and you’ve just gotta get on with it.

“It’s OK to say something is wrong here — now what are you going to do about it?”


Greil Marcus’s Real Life Rock Top 10: Soul Music, According to Lester Bangs and Bettye LaVette

  1. Henry Holt & Co. announces Lucinda Williams memoir (February 12)

“I have a lot to say and a big story to tell,” Williams is quoted in a press release. “I want everyone to know what’s behind the songs and to know more about me than what people previously thought they knew.” Her whole career has been an act of condescension toward the stupidity of the world, and she just can’t keep it out of her voice.

  1. Elizabeth Flock, “Modern Love” (New York Times, February 4)

She’s been living with an architect for three years. They’re going to build a cabin in the woods, travel the world, have lots of kids, except he’s always tired and won’t talk. “Around this time, a man I had worked with began sending me links to music, the kind of folk-blues songs that got inside you and unsettled parts better left untouched.… At night, I listened to the songs he sent me, or the music of old punk bands I used to love, with lyrics that asked me questions about freedom whose answers I didn’t like.” It’s the most acute music writing I’ve read in years. I asked Flock for her playlist: “Folk-blues songs: Hurray for the Riff Raff, ‘Junebug Waltz,’ ‘Blue Ridge Mountain,’ ‘Hungry Ghost.’ Punk albums: Pixies, Doolittle and “Gigantic” from Surfer Rosa; Dead Kennedys, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables; Ramones, Ramones — and newer: Downtown Boys, Full Communism.”

  1. Cris Collingsworth, commentary, Super Bowl LII (NBC, February 4)

“This game has been as good as Justin Timberlake!” he shouted seconds before Philadelphia went ahead of New England with 2:21 left in the fourth quarter, on a touchdown Collingsworth immediately disavowed, though for some inexplicable reason the call was upheld. The game actually was good.

  1. Franklin Foer, “The Plot Against America: Decades before he ran the Trump campaign, Paul Manafort’s pursuit of foreign cash and shady deals laid the groundwork for the corruption of Washington,” the Atlantic, January 28

In 1939, in the spy thriller The Mask of Dimitrios, Eric Ambler wrote about a klepto-capitalist conspiracy that traveled under such names as Pan-Eurasian Petroleum and the Eurasian Credit Trust. If he were alive today, he could have written this.

  1. Bettye LaVette, “Things Have Changed” (Verve)

Bob Dylan won an Oscar  in 2001 for this tune for Wonder Boys: a good song in a good movie. It was always down, but never sounded so much like an exploration of nihilism as it does here. Under a huge bass, a soul singer who hit the charts before he did wonders what she doesn’t want to do tomorrow, and with such determination she makes you want to come along for the ride, or at least watch from across the street. From her forthcoming all-Dylan album of the same name. I can’t wait to hear what she does with “Ain’t Talkin.’”

  1. Springsteen on Broadway, Walter Kerr Theatre, New York (January 12)

Along with a strange version of “Born in the U.S.A.” that was somehow reminiscent of Paul Robeson, the great actor and oratorio singer of pre-war years, the most striking moment in the show — as drama, timing, theatricality, personal history, musical history, and social history — came when Springsteen described encountering his future wife Patti Scialfa climbing onstage to sing the Exciters’ “Tell Him” with a local band in a New Jersey bar. “The first words I ever heard her say were, ‘I know/Something about love,’ ” he said. A line he followed with a sound lexicographically impossible to render, and vocally impossible probably for anyone else — something between “Hmmmm . . .” and “Oooo!”

That is storytelling. Though I felt cheated that Scialfa, onstage for all this, didn’t then dive right into the song.

  1. Halsey, “Bad at Love,” Saturday Night Live (NBC, January 13)

I have nothing to say, but I can inflate my gestures to the point that maybe you won’t notice, and anyway I have enough money to hire people who look like they would have something to say if they got the chance and have them stand around me as if I do.

  1. Advertisement for “Great Music by Nice People” from Party Damage Records, in The Believer (February/March)

Inexplicably including nothing from the Telluride, Colorado, band Niceness.

  1. Kesha, “Praying,” 60th Annual Grammy Awards (CBS, January 28)

As self-deification goes, right up there with “We Are the World” and Lillian Hellman. Presumably running this kind of number as Ke$ha might have compromised its purity.

  1. How to Be a Rock Critic: Based on the writings of Lester Bangs, written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, directed by Blank, performed by Jensen, scenic design by Richard Hoover, sound design by David Robbins, Under the Radar Festival, the Public Theater, Martinson Hall (New York, January 13)

A marvelously fast and convincing one-man play, set in Bangs’s disheveled New York apartment, which the late critic (1948–82) finds full of people to whom he proceeds to act out what he does and why. The structure is, interestingly, on a parallel with Springsteen on Broadway — riffing through Bangs’s work as dialogue, instead of stopping to sing a song as Springsteen does to mark a point in his life, Jensen walks over to a phonograph, puts on a record, and talks over it. The music instantly confirms whatever case he’s making: The sound that comes out is so rich it’s as if you’ve never heard Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” or Van Morrison’s “Cyprus Avenue” before.

Blank and Jensen get to the heart of the matter: The play is about Bangs’s struggle to believe that music can not so much save his soul as allow him, through signal moments of music, to construct a soul in which he might want to live, and his struggle to believe that he can pass that truth on to other people. For Lester, all good music, or all real music, was soul music. It didn’t matter if it was the nerd soul of White Witch or the heroic soul of Lou Reed, the doomed soul of Otis Rush or the intellectual soul of Charles Mingus. Because it was never absolute that what they had, could he write about it, would truly come to him, his work was full of longing, revelation, self-mockery, and pain. Jensen gets it all.


Greil Marcus’s Real Life Rock Top 10: All Punches

  1. Eminem, “The Storm,” on BET Hip Hop Awards (BET, October 10)

The video of this solo attack on Donald Trump and his supporters, shot in a parking structure with nine other rappers looking on from the shadows, is more frightening to me than anything Donald Trump has said in the last year or that anyone else has said about him. Maybe it’s because Eminem isn’t afraid to sound as if he’s searching for words, not playing with them.

  1. Bob Dylan and Mavis Staples, Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, Minnesota (October 25)

Overheard in Row 7: “Have you guys seen Bob Dylan before?” “No, but we never miss Mavis.”

  1. Hanif Abdurraqib, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us: Essays (Two Dollar Radio)

This first collection by a pop critic from Columbus, Ohio, is funny, painful, precise, desperate, and loving throughout. Abdurraqib’s most ambitious piece might be on Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and the difference between what white people and black people tend to say when someone asks them how they’re doing. I hear that question every hour I’m out of the house and it’s as if Abdurraqib put a little loudness button under it. Not a day has sounded the same since I read him.

  1. Dean Torrence, Surf City: The Jan & Dean Story (SelectBooks)

There are so many memorable passages in this book — hilarious, bitter, pleasurable simply for the phrasemaking — that I may feature one per column for the next year. This month it’s 1963 and Brian Wilson has brought our boys “Surf City,” but Dean is a surfer and Brian isn’t and Brian doesn’t know that, say, “I bought a ’33 panel truck and we call it a woody” is not going to work because a panel truck is not a woody and anyway they didn’t make them in 1933 so they change that to “I bought a ’34 wagon,” and “ain’t got a heater or a radio” is wrong because you have to have a radio and “if this woody is missing anything, it should be the back seat and the rear window because that’s where the surf boards go. Plus, window rhymes with ‘go’ in the next line.” If anyone asks you where culture comes from, this is the answer.

  1. Bruce Springsteen, Springsteen on Broadway, Walter Kerr Theatre, New York City (October 18)

Cecily Marcus writes in: “In 20th Century Women, Annette Bening’s Dorothea is talking to us, sometime after her death, about how her younger charges have no idea that in 1979, when the movie is set, ‘this is the end of punk. They don’t know that Reagan’s coming.… It’s impossible to imagine HIV and AIDS, what will happen with skateboard tricks, the internet.’

“Since we elected Donald Trump, the legacy of the 1980s that Bening’s inscrutable, unusual, utterly California mother describes has never been clearer. At Springsteen on Broadway, the best moments have their roots in the Bible: ‘Promised Land,’ sung in the dark with no guitar, no piano, no nothing, and ‘Land of Hopes and Dreams,’ which may not be of the Bible but has always sounded like Noah’s ark. The sad truth of the show is that everything that Bruce Springsteen has done, brought to life, stood up for — or everything we have done over thousands of years of human civilization — has led to this.”

  1. Joe Hagan, Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine(Knopf)

That Hagan names as inspirations The Lives of John Lennon, Albert Goldman’s attempt to destroy John Lennon, and Positively 4th Street, David Hadju’s attempt to discredit Bob Dylan, means that his book is one more proof that a biography grounded in its author’s contemptuous distaste for his or her subject is not a good idea. There’s a huge amount of information here, but if what Hagan did with what I told him is remotely typical then it can’t be trusted.

When I became the first Records editor at Rolling Stone in 1969, I told Jann that the section would have to be like an independent republic: I would print what I decided to print. He could suggest that I cover certain records, he could read every review and object, but the only way he could overrule my decisions would be to fire me. This always held.

At one point, I assigned Langdon Winner Paul McCartney’s first solo album, which had arrived with a self-interview — for the press kit, not the public — dismissing the Beatles as a whole and denigrating the others as not really worth his time. Langdon’s review didn’t mention this; Jann said it had to; I said no. We went back and forth for twenty minutes and got nowhere. Jann said he had other things to do and that when he’d finished we should go out to dinner and talk more. We did; we argued for three straight hours, and finally he convinced me. I went to Langdon’s house and we spent three more hours arguing until I convinced him. He rewrote the review. Both he and I considered it an example of why Rolling Stone was a great magazine and why Jann was a great editor.

In Sticky Fingers, that story is not there. There is mention of a dispute, and the implication that Jann either forced Langdon to insert negative comments into his piece or that Jann rewrote the review himself.

Hagan’s book has already had such an effect that one review said that it was proof that as the creator of Rolling Stone “Wenner was the wrong man for the job” — as opposed, presumably, to all those other people who would have done it if Jann hadn’t pushed his way in front of them. The book is vile.

  1. Van Morrison, Roll With the Punches (Exile)

His own strong songs and r&b standards, and a tremendous rebound from his last few albums. He may go farther down “Lonely Avenue” than even Ray Charles did. He makes Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” feel like it has a hundred years ahead of it.

8.–9. Maria Alyokhina, Riot Days (Metropolitan Books), and Nadya Tolokonnikova, on The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell (MSNBC, November 3)

Alyokhina’s book is a retrospective present-tense journal from Pussy Riot’s anti-Putin performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow in 2012, to their Alice in Wonderland trial, to Alyokhina’s two years of prison and resistance (Tolokonnikova’s two years are closely followed in Masha Gessen’s Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot). In an invisible translation, Alyokhina is all punches: short, direct sentences driven by thought, rage, a sense of history, and a kind of disbelief in the official reality and philosophical chaos of an unfree country. It is easy to read and hard to read: hard to get one inch away from the gravity of Alyokhina’s voice. “The door closes. I sit on the bench. I need to understand what has happened. I need to understand. The turn my life has taken. My life in prison. I have to remember things in the proper order. I need order.”

Both Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova see protest as a form of life based in the thrill of proving your own reality — in concert with others, if possible, or if necessary alone, as it was for Alyokhina in prison. “I believe that the main problem right now about political action is that people treat it as duty, that they have to do as a part-time thing,” Tolokonnikova said to O’Donnell. “I believe that if politics will become an important and joyful part of your life, then things maybe change.” O’Donnell offered Tolokonnikova a gift of his new book — the title of which, in a strikingly nonpromotional gesture, he neither mentioned nor displayed — coming out November 7: the same day, he noted, as her birthday. “This is about the protests of the 1960s and the activism of the 1960s, which you say inspired you,” O’Donnell said. “I think 1968 is my favorite year in history,” Tolokonnikova said, noting that her birthday fell as well on “the date of the Russian Revolution,” an idea she left hanging in the air.

  1. Robert Plant, “Dance With You Tonight,” from Carry Fire (Nonesuch)

“I offered up the secret places/Reveal the magic of the land/All bound by blood and lipstick traces,” he sings in one of the best songs ever written, right up there with Old Weird America Pale Ale. I’m not as cool as Lawrence O’Donnell.


Lee Gamble Hallucinates One of the Year’s Best Albums

Lee Gamble’s Mnestic Pressure is a compilation of electronic music that doesn’t exist. That’s one way to hear Gamble’s mastery of existing styles: the wrapped drums of hardcore, the airy bits of jungle that aren’t beats, the bits of jungle that are, the hummingbird flap of Aphex Twin melodies. Gamble is a producer from Birmingham, England, who came up on experimental composers, continental theory, and the ferocious health of dance music in Nineties Britain. He has described the tracks on Mnestic Pressure as the “decoded offspring” of two of his previous albums, Diversions 1994–1996 (2012) and Koch (2014). It is bigger than that, and more necessary. Mnestic Pressure blooms as much as it plays.

In the two years before he made Mnestic Pressure, Gamble left producing alone and mostly played DJ sets. This is relevant, but not because the album is a mix of blends and clever selections. Mnestic Pressure is more like the output of a DJ who came off the road after a year, ditched all of his records, and holed up in a studio to rebuild, from scratch, every song he could remember. Instead of a party starter, what you get is a palimpsest of all the music on top of all the other music, riven by gaps and false starts.

“A music that’s in your brain, a hallucination of music.” That’s another Gamble description of his work, from a note on 2012’s Dutch Tvashar Plumes album. Gamble has flirted with this state since his first release, the 2006 EP, 80mm O!I!O (Part 1), which had no drums and no time signatures, just lightly organized dark noise, all of it unruly enough to keep it off the dance floor. Yet that’s where Gamble ended up, while developing a core of material that had little to do with people moving. There is only one track on Mnestic Pressure with drums that stretch the length of the whole song, and it’s “Ghost,” an almost straight-faced jungle track that comes second to last. Plenty of older Gamble tunes were built to make somebody yell “banger!” and wobble about. Those are not here. Gamble’s very simple trick here, one that creates a very unsimple scroll of sensations, is to put drums and timekeeping so far down on his list of priorities that they often just sink out of sight.

This creates a graceful mystery that winds through Mnestic Pressure. Something hollow, maybe real, maybe not, is struck. It vibrates. Pitches shift, and the tail of a sound lingers, but there is no distinct rhythm beyond the tremble of a digital effect. The first four songs make a point of their own interruptions, generating an inquisitive motion. “This? Is this what you listen to? Why?” The short opener, “Inta Centre,” begins with a thick synth cloud that gives onto a drumbeat. The beat barely makes it ten seconds before a bigger cloud takes over, and that’s it for time signatures. In these two minutes, Gamble blends a dozen or so layers in and around his overtones. You get plenty of detail, and the momentum of generalized time, but none of the divisions that a beat provides. “Istian” gives us a beat, except it’s unwell. The hi-hats turn off sometimes, as do the kick and snare. The sandstorm is bigger than the vehicle again, and though there is some progress, the track has to keep wiping off its own goggles.

The programming in just these two tracks has the same sentient, galvanic feel, as if the music were actually being played live and only imitating the grids of software. This is one key to Mnestic Pressure feeling both like a summary of electronic music and somewhat post-electronic. There is little here that slaps or charges or bounces in an automatic way. This is an album of rounded things, fluttering and dropping out. Nobody set some program up to run and then walked away.

By the time you get to the fifth track, “Swerva,” things seem to be building to a breaking point — except they’re not. There’s a brassy, fractured synth line that could be the center of a storming tune, if “Swerva” wanted to be that. Instead, you get a tour of another haunted dance hall, guiding you through gaps and feeling through the decay to no specific end beyond it all being gorgeous. There is a palette over the course of this — the wide furry grays of the chords and the dark reds of broken lights that keep cutting through and then dying.  

“Mnestic pressure” means, literally, the pressure associated with memories. By email, Gamble talked about the phrase: “I’m not trying to make an ‘illustration’ of the title with audio. It’s more related to making an album in these times — these times feel like mnestic pressure to me, as opposed to tranquil, ambient, controlled, etc.” And that pressure leads us to look at how things become mnestic. The beat doesn’t have to go on and it doesn’t need to tell us twice. Just a snatch of that turnaround, a brief stretch of Amen breaks, a glimpse of that cowbell crushed under the echo, and it all comes rushing back.


Moses Sumney’s Quiet Storm of Freedom

On Wednesday, October 11, Moses Sumney took the stage at the Music Hall of Williamsburg shortly after 10 p.m. His two band mates, Sam Gendel and Mike Haldeman, were playing the cloudy intro of “Self-Help Tape,” a blend of guitar arpeggios, bass hums, and a world of echo. Sumney descended in a black tunic and black skirt, regal and calmly smiling. He began singing wordless pitches and swoops, looping them with equipment mounted on a chest-high stand. In the middle of this harmonizing, the words “imagine feeling free” were triggered, or whispered. Those words, like any that Sumney sang, came second after the rush of his voice. Without any kind of timekeeping, a few minutes buckled and we were inside his head, full of wind and bright reflections. What sounded vaguely sweet at first became a mammalian cry, a deep keen. And then it was over.

The crowd went bananas, a sign and a validation. Sumney’s debut full-length, Aromanticism, is gentle and intense music, an album of voice and everything that doesn’t interfere with that voice. Sumney has no use for drums, mostly, and leads with a warm falsetto that runs right next to Thom Yorke’s. That voice is his building block, which he turns into choirs with pedals. What is seductive on record becomes a full summoning in person. And Sumney, for all the sacred heat coming off the songs, is a charming and self-possessed master of ceremonies. It has been a long time since I relaxed so quickly at a show, that I got the sense someone didn’t just make a great album but knew how to inhabit himself and keep the crowd in mind. Songs that I was fond of became quick favorites, and moves that felt showy on a recording became irrepressible onstage. Sumney bleeds this stuff, breathes it, gives it.

Sumney began in San Bernardino, California; did a six-year stint in Ghana, where his parents are from; and then returned to California. He’s played guitar in Karen O’s band and performed on Solange’s A Seat at the Table, which is a decent indication of his blast radius, though not of his style. He creates personal music shaved of all sharp points, immersed in emotional candy paint, and reduced on a low flame. It is the ballad as invocation, the quiet storm as safe place, the implicit as explicit. His touchstones — Radiohead, Nina Simone, Prince, jazz fusion, Erykah Badu, Björk — would slow down a lesser talent. Live, a cover of Björk’s “Come to Me” stayed faithful to the song’s original form but tightened the motif, moving the feel from Nineties trip-hop to a cabaret vamp. Sumney didn’t approach it with any of Björk’s vocal colorations, choosing instead to melt the lyric and blend it with his wordless threads. The result sounded like a singer of equal capacity opening up the song rather than worrying about his distance from the original.

Sumney can move through moods quickly and without much fuss. “Make Out in My Car” is a brief for low-impact sexuality: “I’m not trying to go to bed with you, I just wanna make out in my car.” Those are the lyrics, in full. Sumney breaks them up with the Badu sense of loose bump, words falling where they fall, then caught and reshelved at the last second. Playing the song in Williamsburg, Gendel and Haldeman re-created a flute figure heard at the close of the recorded version. Doubling it on sax and guitar, they stuck in tight unison to the line while Sumney conducted the entire phrase with his back to the audience.

Sumney subsumes all these moments into this suspended feeling that is already his own. When he churned up and crested a wave of voices in the middle of “Doomed,” before letting the song sink back to a slow prayer, there was a sense that he was in some new area, a place that was very forgiving of noise and mayhem while seeking lots of familiar harmony. A generation of digitally comfortable musicians with strong traditional performing skills present a real, delightful threat to previous forms. Sumney hasn’t arrived with intentions — he’s arrived with the thing itself.


ALA.NI’s Antidote to Robot Music

ALA.NI is rhapsodizing over a bar of dark chocolate spiked with pink peppercorns that she’s found in Ouro Preto, Brazil. The singer-songwriter, who was raised in London but now resides in Paris, is touring to promote You & I, a debut that cannily blends late-Thirties Café Society jazz and mid-century pop. (The tour will bring her to the Music Hall of Williamsburg, where she opens for Son Little on October 19.) Speaking from Brazil via FaceTime, she outlines her cocoa theory: “It can’t be too overly sweetened and over-flavored and adulterated. It needs to be raw. I think we as people are a lot more aware now and want that rawness — we want to taste the earth and the bitterness.”

At that, ALA.NI lets out a self-deprecating laugh as she realizes that her chocolate pontificating could be an apt description of her music, too. The vibe of You & I has been tagged as nostalgic and retro, and tracks like the dusky ballad “Darkness at Noon” and the gently swinging “Ol’ Fashioned Kiss” have drawn comparisons to Billie Holiday and Judy Garland — fair enough, given that ALA.NI recorded and performs with a vintage 1930s RCA microphone that she affectionately calls Monster. The songs are pitched as an antidote to what she sees as “robotic computer music” that focuses on sounding “really low and beat-y or very high and trancelike.” Instead, her treasured microphone — which she sourced from Munich after meeting a collector of antique musical equipment on a beach in Grenada — allows her voice to settle into the middle ground: “That’s where our hearts and the molecules in our body resonate to it in the most peaceful way.”

You & I — originally released as four seasonal EPs in 2015 before arriving as a full album earlier this summer — isn’t a stylistic pastiche. “I didn’t set out to make a kitsch album,” she says. Her interest in the past is less stylistic and “more about how music was made back then.” The twelve songs center on ALA.NI’s voice, supported by atmospheric guitar and a smattering of background instruments (including the lesser-spotted flügelhorn). This foregrounds the stark emotions of what she calls “a love story, a very intimate affair,” that was written off the back of a breakup with a Swedish beau.

ALA.NI grew up surrounded by music. Her great-uncle Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson was a face on the 1930s London cabaret scene; her father played bass and guitar in a reggae band. She recalls accompanying him at a young age to rehearsals that consisted of “a whole room of men playing reggae music, smoking massive amounts of marijuana” and remembers lying on a chair with “literally a cloud circulating above me.” ALA.NI’s father encouraged her to sing, and as she ventured into the performing arts scene, she found herself flipping between “reggae at home and then ragtime or theater at stage school.”

That stage school was the Sylvia Young Theatre School in London, whose alumni include Amy Winehouse and Rita Ora, and ALA.NI began gigging as a backup singer to a mix of artists like Mary J. Blige, Blur, classical tenor Andrea Bocelli, and Ora herself. It wasn’t for ALA.NI: She recalls feeling like “my soul was being destroyed” as she went through the rigmarole of backing up “artists who didn’t appreciate their position.”

Pressed on that last point, ALA.NI lets out a defiant laugh and says, “Fuck it, I was doing Rita Ora on [BBC TV show] Jools Holland and was so bored they could see it on my face. It was a lot of someone to do her nails, someone to do her hair, someone to do her clothes, someone to put her shoes on, someone to wipe her arse.… I was like, ‘Dude, just sing.’ ” Eventually, Ora’s crew dumped ALA.NI at the TV studio, leaving her to hang out with Damon Albarn’s band. “That was that,” she says. “I got fired!”

Inspiration to make good on her own ambitions came from reading a biography of her uncle. “It was a poignant moment,” she says. “He was bisexual, black, and living in the Thirties and he pursued, conquered, and achieved.” After a reflective pause, she says, “So I have no excuse as a free, liberated black woman that I should be able to achieve the things I want in my heart to achieve.”


Songs of Love and War: Syria’s Omar Souleyman

Omar Souleyman, who if all goes well will play the Poisson Rouge May 11, is a major musician. But the most remarkable thing about him isn’t his music. It’s his status as a Syrian refugee who got out before his homeland’s civil war became the tipping point of an international crisis. Far too cautious to voice political views insofar as he has any, he is nonetheless a vivid and visible embodiment of a culture that ought to unite all his homeland’s warring factions except the pseudo-puritanical ISIS nihilists who filled the vacuum created by Bashar al-Assad’s will to power.

Souleyman, who since 2011 has toured worldwide from his exile’s home in Turkey, has new music coming out on Diplo’s Mad Decent label June 2. As has been said about several past Souleyman albums, it’s somewhat more complex and filigreed than its predecessors. But as usual, it’s not all that filigreed. Instead the new development is that the last two songs of To Syria, With Love are his first two ever to reference Syria directly. The lyrics are in Arabic only, but translations are provided. From “Missing Al-Jazira” (his region of northwestern Syria, not the news agency): “When will our alienation end/So we can go back home?” From “Mawal”: “Being away from home/Is like having dust in the eyes/I walk and my heart/Feels dead among the dead.”

The fifty-year-old Souleyman began working as a wedding singer in 1994, and soon became a master of the ubiquitous, elastic Levantine genre called dabke, a word related to “foot-tapping” if that pins it down for you. He’s said to have released five hundred live tapes in the spare, beat-heavy, synth-driven style by the time he went international in 2007. The most compelling dabke I’ve heard is a 2012 compilation on Sham Palace called Dabke: Sounds of the Syrian Houran, which includes no Souleyman. But in the Spotify age, assorted dabke from Palestine and Lebanon is there for the hearing, and Souleyman’s seven-album catalog cuts it all — it’s deeper, louder, more propulsive and muscular and miserable. Lyrically, Souleyman has only one subject: romantic love as ecstasy and tragedy, usually the latter. The emotional color of the political anguish he voices on the new album isn’t much different — barely different at all if you don’t know Arabic. Though the tempos of the two pertinent songs definitely set up camp toward the slow, grave end of his spectrum, these are songs not of protest but of heartbreak.

Nonetheless, Souleyman’s live shows are rousing affairs driven by a keyboard player — formerly Rizad Said, now the fancier but no less beatwise Hasan Alo. More imperious than impassioned, Souleyman paces the stage in sunglasses, white robe, and checked red hood. He claps his hands, snaps his fingers, bows, raises his hands, and throws the occasional air kiss as he emotes emotes emotes in a runaway power baritone punctuated with a rising “yeah” sound that’s his aural trademark. The first time I saw him he seemed slightly distracted — I even caught him checking his watch. The second he was much more into it, and it made a difference. But both times the Syrian tragedy was far more muted for American audiences than it has since become.

On May 11 the conflict will feel painfully desperate. And on May 11 Souleyman will have reached an American stage in the teeth of a newly brutalized immigration department. Even this past December, before Trump completed his coup and became ICE’s boss, Souleyman’s New Year’s show in Austin was a close call. This time his Turkish manager, Mina Tosti, will have to fight harder than ever to get him the work visa he long ago earned.

By all accounts, Tosti is a battler who’s very good at this part of her job. But check with the venue before you venture out to catch this concert. And if all goes well, clap like hell for Omar Souleyman — just for being there.