It’s late. The cold winter air outside makes the warm moist air inside condense on the cool windows. My docked iPod is playing quietly in the background, set, yet again, to ‘shuffle’. I’ve had my iPod now for some years and I still enjoy that ‘random’ experience of stumbling across the (to me) lesser-known tracks in my collection. The ever new and striking contexts in which to listen to old familiar and not-so-familiar materials are endlessly fascinating to me. I am, moreover, invariably fixated precisely on those moments between the tracks where the unknown speaks for the first time and reveals itself: Mahler segues to Ice Cube, Brahms to Martin Grech, Jorge Pardo to Ella Fitzgerald. I feel as if I were ‘revelling in the rubble’, as Susan McClary puts it,[i] as if enjoying a spontaneous and agency-free ‘levelling’ of the different musics, as if playing absent-mindedly with found musical objects. McCalry’s point, of course, is precisely not about the ceding of agency here: hers is a tough and uncompromising commitment to the politics of differential and pluralist listening, to thinking about the complex and demanding plethora of musics that jostle for our attention, to embracing a subject position that is always, in a sense, gloriously off-centre. Some of my colleagues and students dislike my absent-minded listening as I have outlined it here: when I discuss this with them, many of them find the apparently aimless randomness banal or even offensive; and sometimes I am inclined to agree; but at other times I find this domesticated staging of the apparent randomness of musical encounters themselves extremely engaging. What I really like, since, for the moment we are talking about my guilty desires, is to allow the anonymity of the next track in the sequence to play out, to allow the new listening context to unfold in its time, according to its own logic, to allow my recognition to take shape slowly, without hurry, without being forced.[ii] Rarely, in fact, do I ever return to the iPod to check out what is playing: I enjoy precisely this feeling of ceding agency, of allowing the randomising algorithms of the iPod’s programming to take me where it will.
But tonight I am stirred from my half-conscious and distracted listening state by a striking incursion into the flow of tracks. The new track begins as if it were Thelonious Monk – that strong vamping left hand and that slightly out-of-kilter right hand that makes the music tumble forward. Yes, I recognise it very well. It’s ‘Bemsha Swing’, slightly reworked, with a different rhythmic emphasis, but unmistakably that track, that tune, and, of course, that pianism. Wonderful. But then, some 38 seconds into the track, something quite remarkable happens. Into the glorious chaotic tumble of that unmistakable style there erupts a strangely incongruous string of foot tapping and clapping, in the flamenco style – a zapateo with palmas. The music is immediately ripped from its glorious lolloping and feels as if suddenly ‘quantised’, as if deliberately and forcibly made to sit within the discipline of the flamenco compás. The Monk melody is radically recast, squashed into the rigid rhythmic cycle, levered ‘squarely’ into the structures and strictures of the compás. The next two minutes are like a roller coaster: slipping in and out of the flamenco rhythms, back again into the lolloping Monk style, ripped one way and then the other. The music heaves itself back and forth, totters on the brink of collapse and then redeems itself by settling again into one or the other rhythmic and phrasal logic.
For once, I am called from my desk by this striking incongruity to get up and go over to the iPod. What is this? I am surprised to see a name I know very well: it’s the Chano Domínguez Septet playing a track called ‘Monk Medley’ from their 2002 album Oye come viene. It occurs to me that this track stages dramatically precisely what I have always thought about flamenco jazz – that it represents a kind of beguiling musical impossibility. It is precisely in this moment at which the two rhythmic and phrasal logics are forced to coincide, forced to find a musical middlegroud, that that there is a misfire or musical eruption of a third space, a space without content, without specific roots or cultural texture, but, for a moment, that space opens up as a glorious but ultimately fleeting possibility. When two musical styles such as these are brought into a relation like this, the third space always collapses back onto itself and there is always an excess or surplus that is left over, a nugget of material that refuses assimilation to the new hybrid and which points to the imbalance of the musical differentials at work. ‘Esas músicas de raza’ [‘These musics of race’], as Luis Clemente calls them,[iii] are structurally, texturally and rhythmically at odds; and yet, as any jazz discography of the last 40 or so years will attest, the desire to bring these two musics into some kind of relation has remained stubbornly evident.
There is no doubt that the
racial-political histories of the two musics share some striking similarities.
Both musics have been marked (racially) as symptoms of decay or excess, played
out as the musics of low class racially-marginalised groups and, crucially, as
part of an urban underbelly, which, in their location on the periphery of
Western European and North American Modernism, are nonetheless constitutive of
it, as its ground, its other, its radical counterpart, its traumatic kernel.
Just as Stravinksy, Copeland, Martinů, Les Six and any number of European and
North American modernist composers sought to assemble the metonyms of early
twentieth-century jazz for bourgeois appropriation, so de Falla, Debussy,
Albeniz, Ravel and others sought similarly to assemble the musical markers of early
twentieth-century flamenco, into a characteristic internal (or external) exotic
for bourgeois audiences. Both musics, furthermore, have also been shown to
‘answer back’, refusing their appropriation as mere metonym-array or as signs of
the merely exotic. Just as what Richard Middleton
The track continues on. At about 2 and a half minutes into the track, the to-and-fro of the two styles settles into a fast 6-beat cycle (in the style of a bulerias al golpe) under which a free acoustic bass weaves a complex modal line and over which Chano extemporises around a number of well-known Monk tunes. This new texture, then, answers the flamenco-jazz questions: how is this possible? Where will this lead? It is, in a sense, a commonplace response to the staging of the incongruity moment in flamenco jazz: as long as the characteristic flamenco elements can be made to sound as if part of a modal jazz texture, then all is not lost: the hybrid can live, precisely because of the flexibility of the dominant musical texture. What Chano’s septet does with the problem here is raise the stakes by deliberately staging the incongruity at the heart of the hybrid, by throwing the parentage of the hybrid into radical question and by staging the monstrous survival of a third lumpen material that will not die. The ‘solution’ enacted in this track, it seems to me, is thus only to abandon that incongruity and move into a musical fantasy space where all threads can be tied together, where a serene unity can reign in the name of genre-stability, in the name of jazz flamenco.
But, I suggest, Chano and his septet do not thereby absolve the new hybrid of its ethical ambivalence; surplus always stalks encounters such as these and it is surplus that will interest me in this chapter. As Chano and I steer our way to the end of this glorious strange and monstrous track, I listen hard for some kind of resolution of the first-half incongruity. The second half of the track, then, radically different from the first, enacts a the straightforward response to the materials of the first half outlined above: it is the structural shift in the ‘medley’ at about 2’25” that points to surplus here (or rather to a surplus as that which must be abandoned); the Monk style slows to the point of terminal demise and there is, literally, a gap in the texture where, for the first time, we hear something other than piano and zapateo with palmas. Cymbals mark the shift to the underlying Phrygian modal structure into the stable 6-beat cycle: the second half of the track abandons the surplus of the first by announcing that abandonment – the gong-like use of the cymbals introduces the next stage precisely as a turning away of attention from the surplus. It is no culmination, no simple synthesis, but a detour, a ‘new’ piece that approaches the problem again afresh. And so the surplus of the opening remains, stubbornly stalking the ‘easier’ fantasy space of the second half, as a lump of stuff that will not be taken up. It speaks of the impossibility of closure, of a kind of musical wound that will not heal. This is the monstrous surplus of flamenco jazz.
Susan McClary, ‘Revelling in the rubble: the postmodern condition’, Conventional Wisdom: The Content of Musical
Form (LA and Berekeley:University of California Press
[ii] For more on segue logic, especially in the context of BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction, see David Clarke, 'Beyond the Global Imaginary: Decoding BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction', Radical Musicology, Vol. 2, 2007, http://www.radical-musicology.org.uk (25 March, 2008), 96 pars.
[iii] Luis Clemente, ‘Flamenco y Jazz’ in Filigranas: Una Historia de Fusiones Flamencas (Valencia: Editorial La Mascara, 1995) available as ‘Flamenco y Jazz, esas músicas de raza’, Flamenco World, http://www.flamenco-world.com/ (20 March 2008), 16 pars.
[iv] Richard Middleton, ‘Jazz: Music of the Multitude?’ in Phil Bohlman, and Goffredo Plastino (eds.), World Jazz, Jazz Worlds (publication details) 00-00: 0.
[v] Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (Boston, MA.: MIT Press, 2006), p. 69.