published in Hambone, No. 12 (Nathaniel Mackey, editor)
Pianist-composer Cecil Taylor is internationally known for the brilliance and audacious beauty of his music. He has recorded dozens of albums as a solo performer and with various ensembles over a period spanning five decades. He is currently working with a large ensemble called Phthongos. He has incorporated poetry into his work in a number of ways over the years; in 1991 Leo Records released Chinampas, a recording which presents his poetry accompanied by multi-instrumental improvisations. The following interview, conducted by Chris Funkhouser, took place at Mr. Taylor's home in Brooklyn on September 3, 1994.
Funkhouser: Let's explore the literary side of the work that you do. With the exceptions of people like Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, and a few others, there aren't many jazz players who choose to work with words as a mode of expression. I wanted to ask you about your poetry, where you're coming from when you write it down or are presenting it vocally.
Taylor: Well, I don't know what jazz is. And what most people think of as jazz I don't think that's what it is at all. As a matter of fact I don't think the word has any meaning at all, but that's another conversation...
It seems to me that one of the things that is true with every--oh, for instance--like this Irish writer, William Kennedy. In reading some of his stories about life, his family members in Albany--the thing that struck me, the similarity, and the things that makes human beings who are vital electric, is the way they use language to manifest their live responses to the culture that they are in. So I got that from that. In a way, in its own way, it's like when I was very young I read Langston Hughes' Simple stories and it whetted my appetite for the possibility of using language to move outside of the self.
One of the most important things that happened to me, really--I've always had difficulty with teachers in school. Right after Pearl Harbor I wrote this poem about December 8th--I don't even know why I remember this--and the teacher said, "Oh, that's a very bad poem." Well, I knew that I should write poetry then. If she said it was bad, then it must be okay.
When I was in the Conservatory, there was a Southern woman who taught English the first year that I was there. English--well, English--American language is quite different, actually. She was talking about Tennessee Williams, and she was talking about Streetcar, and she said, 'The language in that play...there are sections of that play that are so good,' she said,'...that I could actually taste it.' And that was one of the most remarkable things that happened to me in the whole four years that I was at the Conservatory. Cause I only had three teachers, really, that were interesting, and all three of them were women. I was sixteen when that was said to me, and I remember of course when Streetcar was on Broadway--I certainly didn't see it, but I did see Talleulah Bankhead do it years later--this was a time when I was in a new environment for me. A new musical community environment, The New England Conservatory [laughs], and whatever that was about. But I was also at that point beginning to construct certain things musically. I was beginning to. And because what was important about this English woman--this English teacher--I wish I could remember her name cause I can see her--and what she gave to me--because she gave it in a not punitive way. Mother always had me reading. Mother spoke French and German and brought Shopenhauer to me when I was eleven years old, but that was something else--that was-- you didn't have a choice there with mother. Boom! That's the way that went. But here was this woman who just said this, and it I heard it. And her emotional dedication to a word--I said, "Wow...that's my dedication to music...you mean it is possible to have that kind of dedication to another art?" So, that.
I never understood how musicians could play music for poets and not read poems. I don't understand musicians who can play for dancers and not know how to dance. I mean, it's very interesting to me, you were talking about your research; well, one of the things--before I put words down, I probably have read a thousand words.
I have a lot of interests. Dance is certainly one. Architecture, particularly structural engineers. I look at basketball. I'm not interested in it though. I love horses, horseracing. I've never seen a horse race. I can remember Sea Biscuit and those things, though. I used to run when I was young. I do all these exercises everyday.
I did write a poem about Nureyev, when I saw him dance. I also wrote a poem about Albert Ayler, too. I think that for me the idea is to--I mean it changes, you know, every ten years or so--but right now I'm going through this whole thing about making these belated discoveries about mother dear. And what that really means is these few years that I have left here to really deal with a certain kind of upward- mobile bourgeoisie nonsense that entrapped a lot of--but anyway, the poetry saved my life, actually.
If you have the opportunity to play for people all in different countries, one of the things you begin to discover is that people are--you can find oppressed people all over the world, therefore somewhere along the road you get the idea that it is certainly not about yourself. Any gift that you have is not about that at all. It's about a force that is about the ungiven, the uncreative. It is about the amorphous, and you are at best merely a vessel. And once you begin to understand that [laughs]--the wonderful thing about it is--I was thinking about it today--that the first time I heard Billie Holiday, I heard it in the room of a member of the family who was not very well thought of, and the other part of the family all liked Bing Crosby. And that was alright, but there is a qualitative difference. So in our small way what we attempt to do is to look and see and receive and become a sponge and attempt to make anything that exists as part of the palette to describe whatever it is we think we want to do. And what you want to do is to be as beautiful and as loving and as all-consuming as possible, so that the statement has many, many different implications, and it has many different levels. The only way to do that, seems to me, is to research.
I think what my mother did give me unquestionably was that--maybe she didn't quite perceive it this way but--it is wonderful to be able to enjoy what it is I do now as opposed to the disciplinary aura that I had to grow up under. Now I do what I want to do because I love doing it, and it rewards me and I've been fortunate in that I've been told that other people have gotten something from what it is. It is possible to do what it is you decide you want to do with your life. For me that has been the thing that has cured whatever despondency, whatever anger, you know...well, that's that.
Funkhouser: You couldn't have been very old when you wrote a poem about Pearl Harbor--so you've been writing from elementary school onward?
Taylor: Well, actually, you know teachers--I ran into a lot of teachers where it was very clear to me that if you didn't do what they told you to do, they would try to stop you from doing anything at all. That's what that teachers do. When I went to the Conservatory, it was the same thing, and boy did I fight with those people up there. Actually, I can tell you when I started writing but that wouldn't be very interesting, cause that was all about romance. And of course that's what it is about, isn't it? But I really started writing in 1962 when I went to Europe for the first time. I was writing letters to this poet, who I was quite taken with at the time. That's when I started writing.
Funkhouser: You were playing before that. Was there a point where the writing and playing began to coincide somehow? I know I've seen you perform and it's chanting, and all sorts of...
Taylor: That's the wonderful thing about maybe never being allowed to get into the business--the music business-- because I was not a very well-behaved person according to the gangsters who control the business. I'm lucky to be alive, really. So what you had to do--and also the fact that what I was doing was considered not very viable. [Laughs] That's a cute word to mean it didn't make any money, or they didn't see how they could make any money. And they would tell you what you were supposed to do. That's the way they are. So, not being malleable that way, the resources that my mother and father gave me, since I didn't have any money--but my father would always give me money. When I wasn't working I always went to see plays on Broadway. Then years later, this woman that I was sort of involved with worked at the Living Theater. So I got a whole new concept, and a whole new thrust of beauty right there, you see. And actually I ran into Baraka around '57. So, what I mean is that one dedication leads to another, especially if it is very important for you to continue to grow, especially when they tell you that "We're not going to allow you to grow in this area." So what does that mean? Meant I had to practice at home. It also meant that I had to look around for other sources of beauty that could aid in what I was doing with the main thing. Then finally, you see, these things mesh, and it takes a while for it to happen. But then, you know, it does.
And so therefore there is no possible way that I can have any regrets about not working, where these other people did. Cause I was always working. I just didn't make any money. [Laughter]
Funkhouser: You said poetry saved your life . . .
Taylor: Yes it did. I had one or two friends that helped. But the work always brought me back. For instance, this work that I'm working on now, which has a lot to do with my mother, actually, and my relationship to her as a property of hers. Unwanted property, it seemed to me, possibly. I mean I have to think of that as a certain reality because of her attempts to kill me at a certain point. Literally. However, the fantastic thing about all of this is that if you survive, then you understand that your parents had parents too. And that must have been a trip. The extraordinary anger that I began to see that was in my family, and resulted in, really, her death at the age of thirty-four, and the death of all people in the family who followed her conception of living, because she was very powerful and very persuasive. And there were at least three people in the family who died of cancer at the age of thirty-four. Given the fact that she had been in silent movies, and that she recited poetry, and that she'd walk into a room and the room would stop--but then she found father, and father was from North Carolina, and he was an agricultural person and she was his dream. She could speak French and German, she knew how to wear clothes, and all of that shit. And then she stopped because we had the only brick house--there were only two brick houses on the block--and pop owned one. She became the lady of the manor. And I became her--so I was tapdancing when I was six. I was entering contests for young virtuosos--I was never a young virtuoso--but she tried to make me--so I was playing Chopin when I was six and all this nonsense. And I was driven. There was no--I was telling someone the other night, I said, 'I've never--I could not be idle'--you had to be doing something. And so of course, she died when I was eleven, twelve--twelve, yeah--and I had a peptic ulcer when I was thirteen. It was just a glorious experience growing up in her house. However, she gave me certain things. She was the eldest of six children, after all; her mother was Cherokee. Her father was never mentioned. Father's father--he had a great deal of problems with him-- he was Kiowa. And all of this I had to discover, and this is the language of--the language of the word is now coming to deal with all of that.
Funkhouser: Is it much different than what you were doing with Chinampas, where you were going back to another set of . . .
Taylor: Well, Chinampas is about those extraordinary Aztecs. You see, the Aztecs, you might say, are my distant relatives too because there is Kiowa and Cherokee. So we're dealing with native americans, and I'm interested in--oh, man, the culture. Like there is an extraordinary Mexican structural engineer named Felix Candello, who has done this restaurant--his most famous work--the only one that I know, actually--is this restaurant that he has constructed outside of Mexico City.
In order to deal with this, it becomes--there is like a difference between therapy, because I've been in therapy-- the last therapist I had was really very much like my father. He ended up in A.A., too. I don't even know whether he's even alive now. When you have the choice to work out your own, or to begin to see into your own emotional mechanisms, and then begin to discover who set them up for you, who gave you these intrapersonal tactics that keep you from being ever-vulnerable--and when you do it through your own experience and maybe you have one friend who does not allow you to get away with certain things--then there's always the whatever we are as people.
Our work is always perhaps more whole than we, and when you really begin to move as a human being then you begin to see the disparity between what is not an abstraction but becomes an emotional force that is akin--it is the same thing as the intellectual perception, which I feel-- cause all of the most amazing poets that I've ever--and when I use the word poet I mean Ben Webster or Billie Holiday, or Maya Pelisetskaya or the incredible Carmen Amaya. You know, these great dancers who when you see them you know that that's a life, and when you look at them they've taken yours. Because you see them and you say, "Jesus, if I ever grow up that's what I'd like to do, that's what I'd like to give."
Funkhouser: It's inside your body, something that enters your body, then . . .
Taylor: A spirit! That force, you know--I realize that my mother had that force. But what she decided not to do with it--and if you have that force and you don't use it, then you die. Because if you kill that force your body follows afterwards. My uncle, her only brother, he could live in the house with us as long as he would not be a musician. And he died of cancer at the age of thirty-four. He gave me drum lessons.
A lot of my rage was really dealing with the hypocrisy of the upwardly mobile middle-class aspirations of certain groups of people that I grew up with. And they all--I mean for instance, I had a cousin who had a beautiful voice, and they convinced her that she was too ugly to sing! [Laughter]
Funkhouser: You feel certain kinship with Aztec and the sensibilities that they developed? There was a group that ran into all kinds of trouble--and what a highly developed sense of spirit...
Taylor: What I am saying is two things: because mother insisted that I do certain things, there was a seed so that when it was left up to me to find certain things, the richness of these other poetical universes I had already had reference to.
Now, I'd rather not talk about my political adventures, beyond saying this: when I was very young, I went to the second Peekskill rally. Paul Robeson was there, [W.E.B.] DuBois was there, and it was in an area that my father's boss lived in. And what happened to me then, and I was thirteen--and the family read the Daily News at that time-- and we were lucky to get out of Peekskill alive. When I got back Monday and I read the Daily News reportage of what they said had happened, then I knew that I had to have other options because that is not what I experienced. And if they were going to say that that's what was happening then I knew that I had to choose another course.
And nothing has happened since, with the exception of those young adults who died at Kent State, those young people who forced this country to stop the Vietnamese massacre. But what happened to those people in twenty years? When the hosannas of democracy blare the loudest, it's when personal options--in terms of choices--become the narrowest. It's at that point that the poet really sees the dimension of the work that is possible.
So right now I'm in a very high state--and this is very interesting since I haven't smoked a cigarette in over a week and I don't know what's happening to me--and I'm feeling extraordinary about all of this. There's a lot--I'm writing a section of this piece today that I've never written anything quite like this before. So I don't know what's going on--except that it feels marvellous--and I can't believe what I'm seeing on television. I can't believe what I'm hearing on the news.
Funkhouser: In "Garden" one thing that begins to emerge from the layers and layers and layers--you invoke some heroic figures from black culture, the lines, "Lines here/have an echo in distant valleys," and then you speak also of "stamping/heredity to a new definition." There is a resonance--however one wants to interpret distant valleys-- taking things to a new place, or transformation in a larger sense, not necessarily a personal sense. You bring in a lot of things. We all know that there room for transformation: what fascinates me with your use of language and form of expression is that it is--in addition to using poetry to make more music, you're saying something and different tensions develop, different almost apocalyptic things come about--so you're there, you're at a certain precipice...
Taylor: The people that I love, I love. The spirits--they're the ones that have changed my life, and the ones that I really--they're here, and it would not have been that way had they not lived. So I always genuflect. I feel that way about certain writers, certain dancers, certain architects, certain women singers, and certain organizers of musical sound. I mean I remember when I saw Carmen Amaya for the first time. And the loveliest thing about it--when they built the national monument--cause she died in this villa in Begur, they asked me to come.
What I am doing is creating a language. A different American language. I feel that. Genet is fascinating because of the intellectual--and it wasn't for him intellectual. Then again, I don't make a separation between intellect and emotion. I think with the great artists that I love there was the same thing. By that I mean they had a structure, technique, and the thing that made the technique and the structure move was their passion. The thing about Le Roi Jones was he's never really had loving emotion.
There's so much destruction that is going on in the world today--all around us--I mean this extraordinary thing with these--did you see where these two eleven year old children killed another fourteen year old--and this business--this Crime Bill? They don't seem to understand that they can build all the fuckin' prisons they want--if we don't get to the root of the violence that is in the air here, then it's all for naught. I mean, of course, Schwarzenegger is connected with the Kennedys, so he can make all of these violent films that he wants to, they're box-office and that's acceptable. Some of the television skits for children on tv: it's just not human! So, now, what do we do? Without becoming literal but using imagination and creating metaphors that confound the senses, and that confound those who are not de-tuned? To disorganize one's whole apparatus in facing all of this, then it's possible to surprise yourself.
Obviously I'm fascinated with words. And without thinking of rhythm in language, but knowing that it's there, and reading a lot of different people, finally what happens is the same thing that happens when we are involved in music. I listen to a lot of different music. For instance, today I listened to Chinese Classical music--which I really didn't dig too much, but I'll listen to it again--I listened to Islamic chants that really knocked me the fuck out. And just single voices. I listened to Duke Ellington's Orchestra circa 1945-- there was one piece that was just amazing. I listened to Victoria de los Angeles singing Purcell's "Diedere and something or other..." and then I listened to Gary Grafman playing the first movement of the Brahms piano concerto. Brahms, boy I tell you--then I listened to Leonard T. Price singing the last movement of Richard Strauss' "Solome." Boy--what what a-- wheeew--boy, that guy--I have to go to see that guy. A lot of shit was up. And then, of course, of course--I listen every day to something by Ligeti. Today I heard "Ramifications" and this choral piece, and "Atmospheres." Then I listen every day to [he chuckles] Marvin Gaye, of course. Then I put on Sarah Vaughn, then I put on Xenakis--oh, this fucking guy--this orchestra piece, and then I'm--god, I mean I practiced the piano four hours today. I spent two hours completing another section of this poem this morning. I cooked, I mopped all the floors in this house, and I've done all this stuff. And not one cigarette I can't understand it. No champagne, anything...
But I'm onto something. I really want to surprise Min [Tanaka, with whom Taylor performed in NYC, 17 September, 1994]. We'll surprise each other. I've been listening to this Kathleen Battle, and this guy who's the head of the Met Orchestra, he was interviewed by Charlie Rose the other day, and he said a couple of things, but anyway he's playing with Battle--she's singing Shubert leider--and she [he chuckles] no, it was Schumann--I don't know--Shubert, Schumann, whatever. Any way, boy, boy, o boy, wow-- mmm-mmm-mm. Such music. Then I listened to Billie Holiday singing, and I started laughing because I'm having such a good time. I'm not seeing many people. I crossed out a whole bunch of people--I do think about them--and you know I have all of these things that I've been doing.
After you do this a number of times, you develop a kind of spiritual touch. For instance, I will go into a bookstore and I will just stand there and I will pick out a book, manytimes, just because I like the way it looks. Then I might not read it for about five years then when I pick it up I know then why I bought it. And so, there are all of these different kinds of self-indulgences, perhaps, but anyway these great pleasures.
Funkhouser: So your expressiveness comes from these various architectures, histories, musicians--Marvin Gaye!
Taylor: Yeah, it comes out of all of that. All of these people. Marvin was an extraordinarily gifted man. All of these people that I'm involved in are. So you can't go wrong. I mean Aretha Franklin, boy, that was so great at one point. Oh! I listened to Etta Jones today, she was wonderful! I mean, you know, all of these...
Funkhouser: Did you talk with [Kamau] Brathwaite about Aretha when you saw him? He raves about "Pullin'" in BARABAJAN POEMS.
Taylor: "Pull 'em"?
Funkhouser: "Pullin'". It's some kind of train song.
Taylor: Well, you know, he--as a matter of fact--I was downstairs when he was reading [at the Naropa Institute, Summer 1994], cause I was trying to get my nerves together. I mean what are you going to do when you're reading with all these great people? What do you do? I don't do anything. And all of a sudden [Anne] Waldman comes running down and she says, "You got to go upstairs, he's [Brathwaite] just reading a poem about you." I said, "I don't want to hear it--I mean I have to live with me, I don't need to know..." Then when I got up there he was talking about Billie Holiday, so that was great. That I can understand.
Oh, here's another view of this building (We are looking at a book of [Salvador] Calatravas buildings).
Funkhouser: It is incredible. Just solid. You could never push that down: it probably won't crumble in an earthquake!
Taylor: Well, they know about that. Wright built that hotel there, and in the great earthquake that they had, when--in the twenties? Wright's building did not fall, and they--I think it's criminal what they've done to Wright's Guggenheim Museum. I can't bear to look at it. I mean, they've put this new addition. Well, I'll have to get over there, I suppose, and look at it. But the Japanese, they are-- the main thing about the Japanese is that they have utilized their cultural longevity to regenerate themselves in a way that spirits must regenerate in order to continue. On a literal level, all the techniques of American production and German production the Japanese have mastered. The other reason I think the Japanese have become the economic power that they've become is because we weren't given the correct information after the second world war. MacArthur and all of those people told us that they would not get rid of the emperor because he was a spiritual leader. Well, of course he was. But the other thing that they didn't tell us is that Hirohito owned fifty percent of all the Japanese industries. You're not going to...
Then, of course, the other shit is that they were not allowed to indulge in the most unproductive kind of thing after the second world war, which is to make arms. So they took all of that and built this extraordinary infrastructure. I mean, the Japanese trains, to ride on a Bullet train--Amtrak is ridiculous! To ride on the French supertrain--Amtrak is ridiculous. Before we talk even, about the Germans, the infrastructure here in this country is falling down. I mean, every time I go over the Manhattan Bridge I'm always grateful that the greatest splash in the world didn't happen, the bridge didn't collapse. You will see, now, that the Manhattan Bridge--when I moved here originally, you could go over the top of the bridge. You could see this extraordinary view of lower Manhattan, with all those Wall Street buildings. But, more important than that is what happened in the American aspiration, with all of that business--although it's not all that. What do you think of the Sardabs that are in, when you think of Harmachis and you think of all of those monuments in Giza, and how they were constructed? We don't know.
But you know, there are other forces, and, you see, with the emergence of technology, science and technology, there has been the defacement of all that is spiritual. And we must... [laughs, pausing] So the point is that now when I go over the Manhattan Bridge and I'm looking at this, where I used to run, and had this extraordinary view before: now we're down here, and they're building this shit, and over here you can see where they're taking part of the roadway off. And, you know, it's all falling. When I went by the Williamsburg Bridge--they've got all of that shit going on. All of it is going to fall into the river and there's going to be a great flood. And this building is not tall enough!
Oh, and the other thing that I should show--that you've got to see--well, you've been to Germany, haven't you?
Funkhouser: Actually, I haven't . . .
Taylor: Well, do you know about those cable-stay box- girder bridges? Oh, you must see them. They're the most extraordinary. You know, the Golden Gate and George Washington--that's okay--but if you have not seen a cable stay box-girder bridge--where are those books? Those are the most extraordinary bridges, and they're cheaper and they're stronger. The forces of liberation during the second world war destroyed all the German suspension bridges, and all of the beam bridges. So they came up with another concept.
For me it's more interesting, in a way, to look at the construction of bridges than it is to look at musical scores. Here we are. Here are the cable-stayed bridges. The first ones, of course, were done in Germany. The Germans also came up with the heliacal bridges, which the first one was done in 1953. And these were all over this river. I think it's the Rhine, too. It's an extraordinary. They come in two different kinds, there's the fan shape and the harp shape, you see. When you go into Cologne by train you'll see the most extraordinary. It looks like a huge piece of sculpture.
But then, oh, boy, I wish I had that book--I don't know--I lost it. The Calatravas bridges. Now, Caletravas bridges--and his teacher, Christian Mann--he's got another conception of bridge building now, and roadways that we just--we just don't understand that shit here. Give us time, however.
Anyway, some of those pictures, they're incredible...
Funkhouser: You said you're are doing a performance with Min Tanaka in two weeks, at the Guggenheim?
Taylor: Yeah, two weeks from tonight as a matter of fact. Down on Mercer Street. He's going to dance. We might both dance, actually, even though I have this support thing here [on his lower leg/ankle], I'm going to do something. I am working it all out.
Funkhouser: You've worked a lot with dancers. Another type of movement, which relates to both your music and poetry.
Taylor: Well, you know, I think Western musicians, fine art musicians, what they call fine art musicians--European fine art--they're the only ones who don't dance. Every other--of course these certain stupid Americans--but you'll find in all other cultures, like third world cultures, musicians dance. What they don't understand is when you--when you are playing, whether you know it or not, you're dancing. I always got great enjoyment watching great musicians dance when they play. I mean, to watch Elvin Jones or Art Blakey. Horace Silver, Ellington had a way--and Billie Holiday--those movements. Or Betty Carter.
Funkhouser: I am interested in your connection with poets. What were your connections with Robert Duncan, and Charles Olson, and Robert Creeley, who are mentioned on the liner notes to Nerfertiti?
Taylor: Those were the names that LeRoi Jones gave me thirty years ago, that I should read.
Funkhouser: And so you read them?
Taylor: Oh, yes. Yeah.
Funkhouser: Duncan's work, for instance. Some was written for dancers...
Taylor: Wasn't Isadora his cousin or something? Yeah, I think she was his cousin. That wouldn't mean--yeah, I like Duncan very much.
Funkhouser: His writing I see working in cyclical and mythological projection in the same way that your writing does. I was wondering about the influences, though I know how difficult it is to talk about writing . . .
Taylor: I would say that it is difficult. Do you know Creeley's book The Island? Well, I read that. The thing-- Olson, Charles Olson might be easier to talk about, or Bob Kaufman, but the thing that allows me to enter into what they do is the feeling that I get. It's the way they use words. It's the phraseology that they use, much the way the defining characteristic of men like Charlie Parker or Johnny Hodges is the phraseology. And in the phraseology would be the horizontal as well as the vertical. In other words, the harmony and the melodic. Well, I also see that in word structures. One of the things I've found maybe odd about Quincy Troupe was that--and you used the phrase before, the tensions were always the same, the ideation was always bracketed in a particular kind of language with no abatement. Always the same kind of thing. And I find that true in a lot of rap that I hear. But then again I don't even want to talk about that kind of necessarily--I mean that's something else.
I'm very moved by the Kabuki theatre, and the usage of the voice there, and the movement there. And, of course, the Butoh dancing comes, is the modern development perhaps of the Kabuki.
Yeah, Olson, and particularly Duncan and Creeley--their syntactical structure was the thing that got, that I really liked. And I hear--Roi at a certain point had that too, had that. His of course was different. Ishmael [Reed] had it at a certain point but I wasn't too interested in it with him. In other words, what I'm talking about is the music, the music, the language. Like Genet has a language that is fascinating because it is so multi-faceted. It's real but it's not unreal, and what is unreal to us is real to him, and what is real to us is unreal to him. And yet when you really follow what Edmund White [Genet's biographer] is talking about, he's like making this man come alive by in a way not denuding of his magic, but making his magic more accesible to others. It's a dense book. It's also history of Cocteau, and of course that Sartre, and [Simone] de Beauvoir. And there was an Algerian poet who wrote a very small book about Genet, about a hundred pages, and that book was fascinating. When I asked Allen [Ginsberg] about this Genet book, he said, "Well, yes, I looked at it." He said, "Burroughs read it." He said he looked in it to see if his name was mentioned. Indeed. [Laughs] No, he would not be mentioned. As a matter of fact, Genet was asked by this Algerian, what did he think of Tennessee Williams? And he said, "I never think of Tennessee Williams."
Funkhouser: There was one place where Baraka wrote about your music as having "an emphasis on total area...giving it means to evolve, to move as an intelligently shaped musical concept" which is an idea seemingly relates to Olson's concept of...
Taylor: Projective Verse? Hmm...
Funkhouser: A movement towards form via activity--or activity via form--whichever way it works, though it's probably form through activity...
Taylor: Form through activity, or, the function determines the form, or is it the form that determines the function? I think it's the function that determines the form. So, yeah, through activity, yes.
Funkhouser: And total area. Olson used the page, and there's more to that connection when I think of your writing. The way that historical concepts, those "distant valleys," and mythology, your present--present moment, past moment and future projected. It seems like since you know Duncan and Olson that maybe...
Taylor: Oh, certainly they had an influence on me, sure. Also Mike McClure.
Funkhouser: His work with forms, shapes?
Taylor: Yeah. But, I don't really concern myself too much about form. And the reason I don't is because I know it's there. I'm always surprised to find out how it's there. One of the things about Cormac McCarthy that I found interesting, and I had started doing something very similar. Because the awareness of the intricacies of what you do become plainer the longer you do it. Like Arthur Miller said the other night, that he was concerned with form. He said, "All writers are concerned with form, daddle daddle dah." I thought to myself, that's why you're such a dull ass.
But anyhow, what McCarthy does in Blood Meridian, he might give you the name of the chapter, but he lists all the events that are going to happen. And I realized that, for instance in this word thing that I'm working on now: a month ago I started writing certain things down that I was going to deal with in this work. And this morning I finished another section. What was really interesting to me was that I read four other sections of this work and I saw the relatedness in terms of this material. That's enough. I said, "yeah, well, I guess if I was pressed to, I could get into the unifying links with all of this stuff." But that's not fun. But it's there. And what I mean by it is, after you do it enough, you make a commitment to the magic. Then the magic asserts itself in ways that you don't have to worry about, because it is incorruptible. That's the whole thing. Integrity must stand. If it stands, then you don't have to worry about other things. You do your work and then it comes. Because that is the truth. That is the beauty. That is the force. However, you just made me realize something. I am not conscious of form but yet you cannot not be conscious of it. Because you look at the page. And the page let's you know certain things. So, of course, one of the things that I'm thinking about is how the next part of this poem is going to be different in terms of its architecture.
I mean, what are they doing, talking about form? I mean, you look at the rivers and the mountains. The forests that they haven't destroyed yet. Look at these rocks. I could have showed you a rock in that place across the street.
Funkhouser: I saw it. Gigantic...
Taylor: Yes. It's extraordinary. Can you imagine all the spirits that are coming out of that rock? And we are, after all, just animals and we are a part of nature. We are a part of, and we are probably the quickest in terms of duration of life. We are the transitory poems. The mountains will be here, and perhaps we will be part of a mountain. You know there are certain West African tribes that believe that life is just a part of death, and when the chemical composition changes--some of them believe that they may become a mountain stream, star, whatever. I think that we definitely go back to the earth. Which is interesting. It's called "mother earth." The Portugese say, "Portentosa", that's Africa. And actually, the oldest bi-ped was found in the Sahara, she was a woman species. But then again that's not really strange when you understand that salps, fish--it is the women who give birth, and without male--and the women, as they mature, they become male and that's how the unite. This is not acceptable by a Christian--but they don't know anything.
The other thing that works for me--I'm always amazed--I was watching some writer, and he said, "Yes, I write five hours every day." And I said to myself, "my, that's really disciplined." Though I don't think there's any one way of going about it. You may not write, but you may read. But you are always thinking about the object of what you're thinking about. So, I found this morning that I put out all of this information in front of me and I said, "what's gonna happen?" And it happened. And I'm already now thinking about the next part of this piece.
Funkhouser: Going back to the influences: were there people you read subsequent to Duncan, Olson, McClure, and the others who had an early impact on you?
Taylor: Oh, yes. Garcia Lorca. Kaufman. I knew--I had the--I spent time with Kaufman. One night, boy, I was at this building that was on First Avenue and First Street. It was a sort of triangular shaped building, and Ginsberg, [Peter] Orlovsky, Le Roi Jones and Kaufman and myself were in this room. And I just stood there. And there was no question in my mind who the force was in that room.
He was like a spirit. I met Kaufman through these two women that I was very close to at one point, and they had known Kaufman before. So finally when I met him, he came to the Five Spot one night I was working there, said "You've gotta come with me after you finish work." I said, "Look, Bob, I started working at quarter after nine, I won't be finished until four o'clock, I can't do this." So he said, "Yes you will," and he came at four o'clock and he took me over to what is now Soho, and he read poems to me until about quarter after one the next afternoon. And I remember walking out of that loft completely energized--I hate that word--but completely transformed. He was also, probably, the most extraordinary looking poet of his time, too. I mean that helped, of course. He was extraordinary. When he was in his last periods, and he didn't speak, I was in Frisco, and I saw him. He just came up to me and said [with a beckoning motion] like this, and we went and had coffee. And this happened twice. We went into coffee shops. And we just sat there. But I was very fortunate, I met [Jack] Kerouac in a same kind of way. Before On the Road.
You see, the trick about all of this shit is, if you're fortunate enough to have longevity, then you may get certain kudus that you're not really responsible for. Cause I don't know, really, who started the Beat movement. I have my own feelings about it, cause I heard--I know what Kaufman was about. That shit--what he was doing there--the nature of the language. And this is all happening when Norman Mailer is supposed to be the great American writer. I prefered Bill Styron, personally--well, the first Styron book Lie Down in Darkness, that one.
There's a fantastic poet, a black guy that's dead now, he wrote Harlem Gallery, Melvin Tolson. Do you know him? I loved Audre Lorde. I thought Audre Lorde was extraordinary. The last time I was staying in Berlin, I heard that there was this woman's bookstore that Audre--Audre, when she was having cancer, she was going to Berlin--I heard that she went into this woman's bookstore and that she was quite well known. So I go in there, I'm standing there ten seconds and this woman walks up to me and says, "We don't serve men in this bookstore." And I said, "You don't?" Well, I had certain words for that lady and I would never be welcome back there again. But the idea of this shit is so ridiculous. Well, I won't get into that. I thought Cancer Journals was an extraordinarily courageous book. Audre Lorde, that stuff that she wrote, man, that's the kind of stuff that really--she's another one of my favorites. It just rivets you, the truth of it, the pain of it. But the pain is not the pain the way people think, it's the glory of the ability to be able to penetrate that deeply that make you--I mean it's frightening to certain people! [Laughter]
One of the greatest things that I'll never forget, in 1962, I was working in this club on Bleecker Street, the three of us, Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray, and myself. We were working, and this guy came in--he was gonna--we would play one set and he would play one set, and he was playing the guitar. I'll never forget, it was on a Saturday night. He started playing and people just laughed and they thought it was great. And we went up and started playing and people knocked over tables, knocked over their drinks getting out of the club the minute we started playing. And I said, "Well, that's okay." Anyway, it turns out that this guy, within two years this guy was Tiny Tim. And they loved it. And whatever it was we were doing, it really did not please them very much. [Laughs] I love it!
Funkhouser: Who else do you think of as important artists?
Taylor: William Dixon, Bill Dixon is one musician. I think Anthony Braxton is, I think that's really something. I think that--oh, I think Calatravas, and you know the guy--the Englishman who did the Hong Kong Bank? What's his name? When that bank was completed in '76, that was the most technically advanced building at that time built. He's got a building now either in Japan or Spain which I didn't like too much. I think the Butoh dancers, Min is. I'm not happy--I mean, Arthur Mitchell got a MacArthur. I don't' know why. Bill D. Jones got an Arthur, I can understand that somewhat. Betty Carter I think is a great artist.
Funkhouser: There's not a lot of poetry, or your writing, that is out in print.
Taylor: Well, you know what Anne [Waldman] said to me, she said, "Why aren't you published?" So I didn't answer her. The reason I am not published is because the reason I don't go record companies and ask them could I record for them. Cause I've gone through them, I don't do that anymore. If somebody wants to publish you, then they'll publish you. It's not what I'm writing for. I'm writing cause I love to write. And, of course, when the time is right, I suppose--I just hope I have something that'll be of interest to someone other than myself, that's all. I just do it because I love to do it.
Funkhouser: Somewhere you talk about writing, or the artist's responsibility is to communicate with themself...
Taylor: I don't think that's all but I think that's a beginning. And when the artist gets a chance to communicate with others then you begin to find out something else. You begin to find out what it really means to have an audience be in front of you and not to even hear them breathe. Then you really know something else about what is happening.
Its already happened. It's passed. That's when it goes beyond yourself. That's when you're really serving. You're serving those group of people who have--you see, people are not there by accident. People who come to certain things have prepared themselves to do that. It is worth preparing yourself to be prepared to serve something, because art did not begin with us. It was here before we got here. We are just, perhaps, hopefully adding a little something to it. But there are whole groups of people who are not artists but who love it. So they become lovers of art. In that sense they become art lovers, they become artists. And they know when bullshit is happening. So if they come, and you're doing your little schtickt--whatever it is--and you don't even hear them breathe, then that's when you know you've achieved another state beyond. That's what you've been preparing yourself for.
And it really doesn't matter. Sometimes when they hoot-- that can be played within a wonderful way.
Funkhouser: Not to get into anything too complicated, or semantic, but how much have you considered poetry as form seperate from music? I see the structural similarities...
Taylor: It's obvious, but I'm not interested in separations. What I mean by that is what I'm discovering and becoming aware of every day now is that the similarity, although the nature of the material is different, the process of building the structure are very similar. This is a recognition of something that was gradual. And I rather delight in it now, because I know, thus far, how to practice. Practice is very important to me, musically. In other words, practice is-- forget that--the preparation, the spiritual--the preparation is to enter the realm of the spirits. And it is not practice because it is voluntary. It is. Practice has to do with discipline.
Discipline, in this society, to me, has to do with sin. It doesn't have anything to do with joy. The expression of life is confused as a result of sin. Whatever my mother's intent was, she insisted that six days of the week I practice. And I had to practice. And I mean practice. On Sunday she said, "You can do what you want." That's when the organization of my music began, was when she wasn't looking. Hopefully she wasn't listening. Factories have to do with treating people like they are machine, objects or machine. The whole idea of discipline is in the Army. It's like "Onward Christian Soldiers." And we're still doing the same thing.
This wonderful English writer said something about what he learned from--he came from the upper classes in England--when he went to Africa to study those so-called primitive societies, he said that, "in the West we think of freedom as a manifestation of our ability to compete. But it never entered into our minds what a certain primitive people knew. That the greatest human achievement was cooperation." And it's true. I mean, I'm a very competitive person. I was a very competitive person, cause that's the way I was brought up. But then, gradually, I had to decide that I was doing it because I really loved doing it, and it had only to do with the fact that it was the one thing in my life that I could be assured of, that would gratify my senses. And you move to the next stage when you recognize the reason the senses were gratified was because certain great spirits before you allowed you to see the potential of developing your senses to that level where you could obtain that sense of gratification. Then the next level is you begin to see that that's a responsibility you didn't even know you were going to be confronted with. That's when the fun begins. Or the tragedy. Because, after all, they also know the wealth of what it is you have, and they offer you things to make you be more in-tuned with their abilities to sell it. [Laughs]
Funkhouser: What about the idea of de-personalization. In your poetry, the writing that I've seen, it's not an "I". There's no I. In conjunction with the idea of sound being within the whole body so everything comes from within the body yet there is a clan. There's an idea of a process of developing a group of people you're speaking with or who tune in to what you're doing. Your writing is very personal, extended outward and becomes this cosmological bridge, meeting, a communion through the elements. You talk about spirits, but there's more than that...
Taylor: Well, there are sources of investigation. And what you're trying to do--the fun is to see what you finally learn from these, and how you--what is the end product of all this investigation, in terms of your own statement. Because, you know, the statement becomes more finite as it grows, if it's growing.
When I do it there are certain procedures that go down. For instance, there are the physical exercises which must be done, and the wonderful breakfast. Breakfast comes after the first stuff--no push-ups, no sit-ups. There are physical things that I do. I tried push-ups, it was too much labor involved. I didn't like it. Gravity is one thing, but--what I mean is, the wonder of all of this--and this is where the people people come in, and the different cultures come in. When you attempt to get involved with what is magical for them, even if you don't agree with it. But just to do it, and then to find out what the exposure means to you and to think about it and then to see gradually how it affects what it is that you do.
The writing is the last thing that happens.
What I'm also learning is, for instance, in listening to these august poets read, see, it was fascinating for me to try to imagine the dramaturgy that was going through their heads as they were reading. Like Anne [Waldman], for instance, had this friend of yours, Steven Taylor. He plays the violin or something? Well she had two of them, and she was singing, or something. I said to myself, "Well, now, well, hmm, that's an evening's work." I'm thinking, mmm, the two other times I heard Anne read, it was not that. Some people I would consider, but with her I had to digest. So all of this is wonderfully exciting because it's the unexpected. It had an effect. Because even though I was downstairs, I was right. A lot of times, when I listen to all of this music that I have scattered all around here I don't have the luxury of being able to--well, I suppose I could--I don't sit down and listen to them. Sometimes. Marvin Gaye is so powerful that when I'm doing my exercises, the rhythm that I have my exercises in are altered by what he does, so I don't play him when I'm exercising. If I want to dance, I'll play him. When I listen to Monk I laugh a lot, because that's so extraordinary, that's what that is.
Listening to music, I have to do things. I have things, like I love to wash socks, cause I love warm water on my fingers. If I really feel pissed about something, then I'll wash clothes. So, I learn from what's happening in music by keeping busy doing something else. Until, of course, my turn to do the music--and then I've discovered what I've learned. But that is also related to when I was really attempting to be a social person. Which meant I was going to--it hasn't been that long ago--going to bars with a lot of different people, and then somebody would say something that would make me very angry, and a day and a half later, when I'm practicing then I'd understand what made me angry about it, and what there was to do about it.
What is happening now is I'm beginning to understand what I do, and some of the effect that it has on other people that I'm not happy with in retrospect. So I'm doing this kind of self-examination. But, you know, in a nice way, a comfortable way. I'm also having my own nunnery. I'm deliberately not--Aretha Franklin made this wonderful record, with extraordinary piano, called Brand New Me. That's what I'm working on.
The whole thing is, the body is always changing. The cells in the body are always changing. When I look at a man like [Bob] Dole, for instance, he was leaving with his cronies--one of those official buildings in Washington--and the Crime Bill, supposedly, was just passed. One of the things he said, but he was looking away from the cameras, and he was walking away, he said, "And we feel safer already." [Laughs] Now that kind of cynicism is, that mindset, that kind of human shit is-- I don't want to touch that, I don't even want to see that. I find it in a lot of places and I don't think I need that. I've been around that enough. And you pick up those little devices and you know how to use them. Because the situations are just to be played upon, they're not to be made anything magical. It's just a game.
Funkhouser: Obviously, you're constructing something entirely different. You're using words, and improvising for a series of ideas and themes much differently than some senator.
Taylor: But, on the other hand, I do read The Economist, and I do read The Voice--not much, but I do it because I think The Economist is the best, certainly the most interesting "English" periodical that I can read now. And The Voice is probably the most provocative American paper that I can read. I have the feeling that if I could read German, Stern and some of those magazines in Germany that are like the equivalent of Time magazine, I have the feeling that Time--there's no way to compare them. For one thing, obviously the photography in those German magazines are much superior.
But you see, the thing is, growing up one of the reasons I was disturbed was because I was raised to believe all of these truths that turned out to be not even myths. This is the land of opportunity. What opportunity? Equality and justice? Took me a long time to understand that none of this was true. But when I finally got to that point, that's when my whole thing--there's a thing about the haunches. Haunches can be found in bridges. It can also be found in the attitudes of people. Like slow, Sitting Bull's nickname was "slow." I that is wonderful. I can't remember how they said it in the Sioux--Sioux is actually nassiew. Wonderful word. The French the ones who turned it in to Sioux. Anyway, he was a very deliberate young man, and when he was thirteen he won his first white feather.
The thing about whatever happened to the native Americans--all of these societies, like this society, we're all animals in the sense that when we get ready to destroy, we know how to destroy. Like the Xhosa, for instance, the divining ladies--the diviners, among the Xhosa were usually women, and part of their body would be painted white and the other part would be black and then the lips would be red--the diviners were to find out who the amataki were. The amataki were the witches. Once they were found, what would happen is the divining ladies would come and do one of two things there. Their job was to eat, destroy the witches. They would either put hot stones--they would put the person flat on the ground, and tie them, put them in stakes. And then they would put these hot stones on their bodies. Or, a more delightful form of torture would be to put huge ants on their eyelids, in their ears, in their armpits, and then have them eaten alive. With the Sioux, it was first of all, bravery. Then generosity. And bravery meant, well, war.
So it comes back to, really, the great poets are the only-- the really great ones are the only ones who have a real feeling for the beauty that is possible through invention, which is, after all, what we are originally supposed to be here for. Because we were invented.
There all of this romantic myth about what one goes through. But I always ate well, I always knew how to eat. Mother was a dietician, father was a head chef, yeah, but okay I always knew how to do that. And I always knew the foods to eat. And I always had books. I always could get them. I always had clothes. I always knew how to go to the theatre when I wanted to. I just never had any money. But I always did it, I always got it. And when I really got depressed I would go to bed, and I would sleep. I'm not saying that I wasn't angry, but just when it got to the point when I thought I was going to do something really painfully destructive, that's when I would go to sleep.
What I am dealing with now is the fact that I've really realized for the last maybe twelve years I have been very destructive in a certain kind of way. Or maybe even longer than that. I have to deal with it now because it's beginning to, now--if I don't deal with it, then I won't get the work done that I want to get done. Because you can't continue to do that to your body, even though you have all these yeasts, and wheat germ oils, and all these gimmicks. But I did have fun, in my own Rapskallion kind of a way.
Funkhouser: I wanted to ask you about the voices in Chinampas. With your spoken stuff you make really great use of multi-tracking, moreso than the above average poet who gets in to a studio. I was wondering how it's done. Do you hear all the voices at once, all the sounds? How do you go about layering sounds? There's that great quote where you talk about being able to have four or five sounds going at once. Then you have multitracks...
Taylor: It's very interesting that you ask me that question. You know, when I was like ten or eleven years old, mother always took me, although she didn't want me to be a musician. She nevertheless took me to hear all the bands. So that when I would come home, and I'd go into my room, I would imitate with my voice. I would make orchestral sounds, I would hear all of this in my head. I could make certain sounds that would be the trumpet, certain sounds would be the saxophone.
And what you have to deal with, then, is you have to deal with these teachers who try to take that all away from you.
Anyhow, I don't hear anything, actually. What happens is that you don't even think about it, and you work on it. Once you've been touched by extraordinary beauty, they tell you what you're supposed to do. And of course everyone who has been touched comes up with their own methodological concept how to translate that into their own language.
Of course, on the other hand, one of the things that I have been doing, and this is why patience is so important--cause I won't fuck around with any of these recording companies who will not allow me to do exactly what I want to do, as much as possible. I've really been thinking for maybe a couple of years about this vocal ensemble of singing voices. What I've been able to do with musicians--I've had them chanting certain things--but I've got a really sort of mischievous idea about what I want to do. I have two men who have very high voices, I'm going to get two women with very low voices, and I'm going to have them all doing things. I'm going to have them changing parts, and then we'll see who the castrati are. But they can really sing, too.
Funkhouser: In a recording like Chinampas, how much is improvised?
Taylor: None of it. What was improvised were the instruments. What is also improvised is how the voice is used.
For this Min Tanaka thing there are three areas that I'm dealing with. I'm dealing with how to get to the piano, what kind of movement is going to be required. How the voice is going to be used, and what kind of language is going to be used. By that I mean, is it going to be translated African, or is it going to be translated native American Indian, is it going to be sung, is it going to be chanted, or is it going to be narrative? Then there's the music. Specific sound organization of music. So, I'm having a wonderful time preparing myself to do all of these things. And I know some people are going to come--cause they do come--and I would love to surprise them. So I'm working on certain things, to see if on the night of the performance I can achieve that level of trance to be able to forget.
Funkhouser: Somebody wanted me to ask you about a collection called The Mysteries, which was supposed to be published.
Taylor: Oh my god! A long, long, long time ago. It was never published. I never did anything about it. It's over there in the closet there.
Funkhouser: It's a manuscript of poems, among your piles . . .
Taylor: Well, I like to think of those group of words are dealing, in a way, they go back maybe fifteen years. Maybe twenty years ago. It was kind of beginning of something, and had a lot to do with voodoo. Had a lot to do with beginning with George Balanchine's conception of movement. Had a lot to do with the beginning of the emergence of the Kabuki and the Bunraku, and the Azuma kabuki. Also, it had to do with the battle that was going down with the bebop musicians who felt that their conception of swing was being violated, which is funny, cause they couldn't dance anyhow. You had to get over that and you had to develop a--fuck all of those people. All of them, all of them, all of them, who--not the great ones, for the most part, their greatness made them impervious anyhow no matter what they said. Their work stood. I mean, Miles Davis is a nasty motherfucker, but at one time he was an incredibly--I mean the lessons he gave were--I can still--I was thinking I don't listen to him at all now. Wouldn't even think about it, but it's funny: I listen to Monk. I listened to Monk today. I listen to a lot. There's something about Miles I don't want to listen to. I don't listen to him, actually, but he was so important. He wrote such beautiful...his conceptions were so wonderful. They live with me here.
What I'm really gonna try to find out now, and I was thinking about this today, is that I'm going to go back and do certain things that I did twenty years ago, to find out. Because most of the great artists that mean so much to me are dead. But they were very important to me when I was twenty years old. And I'm thinking now about rediscovering them.
Funkhouser: I'm wondering about what electronics and the various technologies, what that foretells, what is the future of art. More and more we move away from bodies. It doesn't seem to be a momentum that can be stopped. The arts are being suppressed in a widespread way. So, you're going back to the things that turned you on 20, 30 years ago, probably not a bad idea to keep those sensibilities alive.
Taylor: I don't like to accept the idea that the piano, or any instrument, is a machine. But I can understand that it is possible to say that because, unless it's electrified--I mean, when I was growing up, we had a piano in the house that you could put a roll in, and it would perform by itself for chrissakes, what an awful instrument. I don't really care too much, to the point of evaluating what mechanical devices are used. That is something--whenever that happens, that does. I am interested in seeing what happens, but I know what I have to do at this point, or, I don't know what I have to do. The point is, right now it's all changing. I've listened to more music in the past week than I have in years. I think it does have something to do with maybe some choices that I'm making in my personal life, and I'm having a wonderful time. It's rather scary in a way. It's okay. I know, in a way, what the alternatives would be, and they're not--I've done that already.
So, there are different ways to make surprises happen. The other thing about the technocracy of it is, of course, destroying the ozone layer. It is destroying forests and trees. For instance, now the native americans are now thinking--a group of them are really quite open to receiving this atomic waste on their land--and they're going to get a lot of money for it, which I think is really a very curious turn of events. And when one of the Chiefs was asked, well, suppose certain things happen? And he said, "Well, we believe that if that were to happen, technically there would be some device that would be invented that would ameliorate whatever the danger was." Now that's optimism.
I think maybe the best thing that can be said about New York, Manhattan, what they used to think of as skyscrapers, [laughs] simply that they're man-made mountains. But now that's all past because now the Japanese are building a super-skyscraper. And these things are, after all, pretty relative, because the amount of stone that went into the Giza, and how that was constructed, what, five-thousand years ago? We're dealing with a culture that had its own continuum for we don't even know how many thousands of years. This country is--the United States is a very young-- and of course time is different now.
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