Matthew Shipp: Traversing The Regions of the Mind
On May 17, 2009, at 6 pm, Matthew Shipp walked through the front door of Roulette, a performance venue on the Lower East Side in New York City. His face appeared no more or less expressive than it normally does. He is wont to demonstrate his feelings facially, except through laughter and an occasional smile. On this day, his life was predetermined. He had arrived for a recording session for his sixth solo album, and his second for Thirsty Ear.
The only people present for the session were the recording engineer; the record producer, Peter Gordon; and a group of four people who sat in chairs midway between the piano and the mastering board at the back of the room. This small audience, excluding the engineer and producer, were, Shipp said, ..."to provide the physical ambiance" a larger audience would offer. But he swore the audience to complete silence; breaking the promise would incur a "severe penalty." The punishment was never disclosed.
When Shipp entered Roulette, he personified his entire life experience. He brought no music, only a pad and pencil on which he would later write the time length of each piece he played. Everything else he needed rested in his mind.
Shipp is an only child. His parents have many brothers and sisters between them, so in his early years, no diversity was lacking. His relatives' occupations were, as he explains, "everything from judges and doctors to career military people to ministers to monks, who dropped out of the monastery and had sex changes...also we have couple of troubled family members and a lot of fairly successful career people."
As early as his pre-teen childhood, Shipp developed a capacity for mapping the characters of people and seeing the core of their beings. In his parents, he saw a couple whose bond was based in polar extremes. His now deceased mother, though down to earth, opened up his imagination; she customarily told Shipp stories about the fairies and genies that lived in the trees. A police captain, his father held forth as a staunch disciplinarian and "genius at practicality." Yet, the two together presented a synthesis of heaven and earth. For Shipp, the configuration of the population of which he was a member as a youngster was a harbinger of the direction in which he would steer his life.
In his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, Shipp attended school regularly until he graduated from high school. But, for music, he studied outside the school system. He took formal piano lessons from the age of five, from their Episcopalian church organist, Mrs. Lewis. After Mrs. Lewis, from ages eight to sixteen, Shipp was taught by "a spiritual old Black woman, who was enthusiastic about all forms of music, including classical and jazz." Her name was Mrs. Yellings. He likens her to Alice Coltrane. While he was still in high school, he studied with Boysie. Boysie, who taught trumpeter Clifford Brown.
In the seven years between high school and finally landing in New York at age twenty-three, Shipp attended the University of Delaware for two years, stayed at home for a few more, working with a group or two, playing "pure cocktail piano." Yet, during that period as well, he travelled to Philadelphia to study composition with Dennis Sandole, who had been John Coltrane's teacher. As Shipp perceived his destiny taking shape, he eventually moved to Boston to study with pianist Ran Blake at the New England Conservatory.
As he had behaved in grammar and high school, so did he at the University of Delaware. He latched on to subjects into which he could delve; in particular, American history, politics and religion. Leaving the university with a report card showing mostly incomplete grades, he decided, during the time spent at home, to seek out "mentors... those who were ostracized as threats to the system... social or religious systems...The people who did not fit in." As Shipp tells the story, one such man, a rock guitarist and drug dealer when Shipp found him, upon being hit by lightning and actually surviving, suddenly became so knowledgeable that he became a classical composer and later on a computer analyst. Claiming the incredibility of this story, Shipp settles easily into its truth, however, because to be affected by such a person fits into Shipp's own intriguing mode of growth.
During his early teens, still in Wilmington, a significant aspect of Shipp's "weird" and unconventional education was shaped by an African-American philosopher and composer named Sunyata. The meaning of his Sanskrit name, which itself is "emptiness," implanted in Shipp's mind the idea that "Emptiness is the key to allowing everything into and out of your mind; emptiness means that the mind is clear and open." Furthermore, Sunyata instilled in his student three significant lessons.
The first lesson was derived from Sunyata's Tai Chi master, who claimed that he would rather practice Tai Chi than eat. For Shipp, "that idea was in his mind in the hours and hours of practicing" within which he "concentrated on focusing 'chi' [Chinese 'qi' meaning energy] on the piano." Assimilating this concept over thirty years, Shipp says now: ..."Practicing Tai Chi rather than eating... although obsessive and antithetical to theoretical Tai Chi means that striving for balance through constant shifting is the only way to increase one's capacity for knowing and feeling balance when it exists."
The second lesson Shipp took away from Sunyata grew out of a story his teacher told him about "an Indian musician whose music was so powerful that when he sang, candles would light." Disregarding the possible inaccuracy of the tale, Shipp adopted the image to mean that it "describes the energy and power [he] imagined being necessary to do anything and eventually... [his] own music making."
The final lesson Sunyata imparted to Shipp was that he "had a real originality and a real developed point of view and there would be a lot of stupid motherfuckers in jazz that would not get it..." But that should not stop him from pursuing his own thing because "the power of what [he did] would annihilate them." Thelonious Monk was a model to follow in Shipp's claim to individuality. "Monk had more influence over musicians than people give him credit for. And his statement about moving forward regardless of anyone else is absolutely true," Shipp emphasizes.
Sunyata's instruction helped Shipp to mine his consciousness which propelled him headlong into the unending march that his creativity took. His experience in life, both the external struggles and the internal glory, Shipp soaked up like a sponge. He began to read innumerable books, both classic and contemporary. Without hesitation, he lists the literature that impacted him the most, as if he had read the books the week before: Tropic of Capricorn (1939), by American literary iconoclast Henry Miller; The Glass Bead Game (1943) and Siddhartha(1922), by German novelist Herman Hesse; Divine Milieu (1957), by French philosopher Pierre De Chardin; Thus Spoke Zarathustra *1892), by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche; The Way of Zen (1957), by British theologian Alan Watts; and A New Model of the Universe (1931), by Russian philosopher P. D. Ouspensky. Already a youthful mystic, a disciple of the fantastical and omniversal, Shipp knew the road he was going to follow. The piano was his tool for reaching an unidentifiable zone, where no pianist had ever gone before.