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.
Creation is not an act of summation. It is an act of the integration of exposure, assimilation, experimentation, organization, refinement. That integration's expression comes through a language specifically crafted and honed by the artist. The musical language that Shipp uses, he believes, began to develop when he was a toddler, for at that time, he claims, in the most general sense, given the way he understands how consciousness evolves, "everyone knows all music by the age of two." Combine his cognizance of that nascent awareness with the way he describes his entrance to life on earth and there is no question as to how Shipp crafts his music:
"I have no influencesI existed together with god and the piano before time Beganand my piano playing is the direct result of the fact that my mind and the cosmic mind that sustains the universe are in harmony, so when I play, I intercept electro-magnetic frequencies directly from the mind of god and can convert them to lyrical phrases on the piano. If at any time it sounds like another pianist it's because the universe is one organism and there is one underlining [sic] language field so what I articulate on the piano can resemble what another part of the one cosmic brain would articulate on the piano."
"Probably at thirteen," Shipp began listening to Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. Shipp considers both pianists pioneers of bebop whereas he sees Dizzy Gillespie as "the salesman" of the style. Shipp also identifies with these two pianists for reasons connected with the perception of race: how racism threatens the flow of creation engendered in people of African-American heritage; blocks the view of the origins of important musical genres; and, instead, replaces the genuine product with some superficial one that grew out of it.
Whereas many pianists of his generation reference the likes of Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, Shipp dipped deeper into the history of jazz to surround himself with the music of the "true messengers" of piano art, especially Powell. Of Powell, Shipp proclaims: "Bud is the greatest...he is the source...he is an angel." Regarding Monk as a "true modern musician," Shipp respects the pianist's discipline and his belief in himself: where Monk's "open mind absorbs everything into his own idiom...to offer an infinity of responses for future generations." Shipp exemplifies a future generation. How he has grasped the genius of both Powell and Monk has nothing to do with taking from them, rather he has learned from them through osmosis: knowing their history, feeling their approach to the keyboard and sensing their auras and inner beings.
Although he has worked with many contemporary groups and incorporated into his methods the musical input derived from these experiences, the individual musician who has affected him the most is bassist William Parker; once again, not for anything Shipp literally extracts from the way in which Parker plays. Rather it is Parker's demeanor, attitude towards life, his uniqueness, his "homemade development of his own reality" by which Shipp is embraced. Parker has given him nothing but support through their friendship in- and outside of the music, never casting aside the chance for "intense conversations."
Shipp can define his musical language technically, but in his own poetic way. When asked to characterize the elements that constitute his vocabulary, he responds:
"A lyrical placement of notes...tetrachords that are melodic but not in the usual way people try to be lyrical...in other words, little nodal points of sensation on the piano that are melodic fragments.
"A critical mass of fragments reach a critical mass to be clusters or sets of chord substitutions that form harmonic shelves like drawers in a dresser. The harmonies are like sheets of glass plus jarring rhythmic movement. There is an underlying pulse under the music that gives it its kinetic force. But, on top of that crazy pulse, any rhythmic gesture can occur. In other words, you can break it up in infinite ways...tempos, etc."
His musical language is one that is open to transformation; he constantly "rebumps into the contours" of the innocent world view associated with the marker of being "the age of two." For this reason, he can carry the confidence that nothing he does to alter his improvisation methods will upend who he is inside. Because the piano is his only instrument, the challenge he sets for himself every time he plays is to imprint his mind on the instrument through his fingers. He is not tied down in static musical concepts, in premeditated grandiose notions of the way the music should sound or in a status quo originating in public expectation.
In June of 1995, Shipp was invited to perform a solo concert at The Akademie der Künste, in Berlin. He was informed that the concert would be recorded. A first for him, Shipp was "giddy" with the novelty of the experience, so before he played he conditioned his mind to "sound good for the recording." As he was quoted in the liner notes, he wanted "to get his hands really accustomed to using the whole piano. I actually worked on some things from the classical literaturebaroque stuff mostly. That got me thinking in some new directions." The result was the 1997 Before The World, from Free Music Production of Berlin. How it sounds typifies the nature of how, at that time, he projected his language. The phrasing possesses a strong identity. Overall, the phrasing sparkles cleanly; it seems separated; often repeated chords or bass notes project rich dark colors. But the music moves constantly forward and ever so delicately touches melodies as antidotes to the heaviness he finds in the bass end of the keyboard. The breadth of his capacity for solo improvisation loomed large.
Released two years before the FMP album came out, his second solo session came out in 1995 on No More Records. He was approached by the producer, Alan Schneider, to offer up some ideas for it, so Shipp later presented Schneider with what he had in mind "scribbled on a napkin." Spending one day in the recording studio, Shipp manufactured a recording of thirteen "compact miniatures of ideas imposed on a structure," called Symbol Systems. He knew intuitively that all "these different little premises...alphabets... would hold together." He tailored this record: he was beginning consciously to bring his mind into the creative process ...to connect all those little nodes...to tap the neural network that was his brain. He was giving his work a solidifying purpose.
By the time he made Songs (Splasc(H)) in 2001, Shipp's pianistic attitude was fully deployed. Though he chose to play recognizable tunes, his intention was to infuse them with "Shipp-ness." That is to say, he wanted to use such standards as "Angel Eyes," "On Green Dolphin Street" and hymns like "Almighty Fortress Is Our God" as "armatures for his own vocabulary."
Eleven years after his debut solo album, Thirsty Ear released One. Just as the FMP recording had been an omen to Shipp that he was meant to play solo, so the chance meeting with Peter Gordon, at the ASCAP awards, where Shipp received the first ever Jazz Vanguard Award in June, 2005, indicated his future path. Gordon believed that Shipp "could do anything that he wanted to do musically." In August of the same year, One was recorded, and was released shortly thereafter in January, 2006. For this album, Shipp committed himself to serious composition. He notated the heads for "Patmos" and "Module;" he wrote the lead sheets for "Gamma Ray" and "Abyss Code," and abstracted "Blue In Orion" from a Miles Davis tune. The improvisations in the recording established the high standards that Shipp owned, even in the tracks for which Shipp wrote nothing. This had been another opportunity for Shipp to further his language, to reach another level of transcendence, where his spiritual goals could penetrate the tactile world; where he could let his musicality grab onto the physical boundary of the piano keys, surmount their limitations and trust that he could throw himself into the soundscape without any metaphorical injury.
His next solo recording, Un Piano, was produced by RogueArt in 2008. Shipp aimed to "pare down his own language" to achieve that intrinsic Monk and Powell purity, but un-bebop it, and mold a sound that no other pianist produces. "This music," poet Steve Dalachinsky writes in the liner notes, "is a system both simple and severe. It contains a full dimension of style, range, technique & sound sources. It does equally well, feels equally (un)comfortable at home (alien) here in(ner) out(er) (s)pace using broad designs, vagaries, different & difficult patterns & obvious mannerisms."
Shipp has said that Dalachinsky's words paint a clear portrait of the music and of himself. He has also declared that a part of who he is operates in front of "the same backdrop that existed for Beethoven when writing his sonatas," a backdrop that defies creation as permanent. As Belgian pianist Edwin Fischer (1886-1960) commented in his 1959 Beethoven's Piano Sonatas: A Guide for Students and Amateurs: "For Beethoven, the sonata form is not a scheme that can be used in caprice one day and abandoned the next. This form dominates everything he imagines and composes; it is the very mark of his creation and the form of his thoughtan inherent form, a natural one." And so for Shipp, the form of his music, as it bleeds from his mind through to his fingers, seizes tiny aspects of the great cosmic puzzle, forever to pose questions about the next steps to take, the turns to make, and the choices to face in search of the cosmic piano.
Before Shipp sat down in front of the 1894 Steinway B grand piano at the Roulette recording session, he rolled up the sleeves of his blue denim shirt and sat down on the bench. He warmed up his fingers and joked with the people in the room, had a conversation with Peter Gordon and set his brain in coincidence with his breath. He was the only person in the room who had any inkling as to what he would play. In his mind, he was embodied in the piano, alone, yes, but also together with the rest of history and time-space.
Matthew Shipp at the 4D Recording Session
Before he began, he leaned towards the microphone that was suspended over the instrument's sounding board and announced "Vibration and Sequence" as a title. After a brief hiatus, the sound came forth. His piano voice came across as never before. Flowing, lyrical, melodic structures prevailed and penetrated the space. Each note was concise. There was no question that every note was chosen from a stratum of Shipp's consciousness that was imperceptible except through the music. After every piece, he stood up and just said: "How long?" He made a note of the time told to him, walked around a bit and then sat down again to play. If he had a title in mind, he spoke it; otherwise, he simply said the number in the sequence of pieces.
His body language broke into conspicuous physical movement as he moved his legs and bounced his feet with the rhythm or to activate the pedals. He looked straight ahead. Sometimes, he lowered his head to a position that was at a right angle to his shoulders. The muscles in his forearms flexed as his fingers spread to play chords. His fingers touched the keys assuredly, automatically, as if their nerve endings were not complete without their connection to the piano.
From piece to piece, which at the onset of the session lasted on the average of five minutes each, Shipp moderated the textures in the way in which he shaped the details, the nuances of the continuing line. These small concerns were the focus of the inestimable amount of time spent practicing before that evening. The music manifested no discrete separations between phrasings anymore; an unabashed fluidity crept through the form and overcame its past posture. The "metaphysic" underlying his language had not changed: the shape of the vocabulary had. His voice had not changed; the thrust and strength of the tonality had.
Midst endlessly innovative improvisations, Shipp re-interpreted recognizable pieces from his own repertoire; he interpreted a few standards, one of which was "Autumn Leaves;" and hammered out a tune remembered from his childhood because he said, "it would give him an excuse to pound." Towards the end of the session, he began playing hymns, alluding to Monk, who recorded several hymns during his career.
The session lasted three hours; Shipp played thirty pieces. By the time he had reached song number twenty-two, his immersion was evident for a little more than fifteen minutes. He was utilizing every aspect of his vocabulary. He tripped across the treble keys, accented one or two high notes repeatedly, returned to the mid- register and rumbled through keys as if to make one sound out of a multiplicity of notes; his left hand marked the meter with sporadic chords to fill the absence of chords in the treble. His right hand fingers literally danced across the middle to the right end of the keyboard. At one point, he landed in the bass and it did not seem like he could extricate himself, but he did. He clustered the notes, and out of the clusters, moved right into multi-note phrasing as it was meant to be; his instinct and intuitive logic were in control. He was in a period of complete transcendence of the objective nature of what he was doing. He had unquestionably mounted the plane where his psychic vision and its literal translation had merged. After finishing number twenty-two, he immediately switched gears into "trying" Ellington's "Prelude to A Kiss." His timing was impeccable. With crystalline clarity, he slid into some dissonant chords, but adhered reverently to the melody, gently and tenderly improvising to the close.
Nearly having completed the set, he exclaimed that he "was really tired." Deservedly so.
In the last stages of production, Shipp scrutinized the tracks carefully. He exchanged emails with Gordon, describing how he felt about his choices for the sequence of songs. He was interested in tempo, the balance of styling from the "boppish" to the classical and the blues. It was his intention to portray everything that he is and create an album that formed one continuous piece of music. The order in which he placed the pieces ended up where couples of songs were linked, but those couples shifted in and out of the order in which they were initially played. The first cut of the session wound up becoming the first cut of the final sequence, and the last cut, the last cut.
Shipp named the cuts, after the final sequence was determined. "All the titles," Shipp says, "have to do with electromagnetismphotons, light particleswhich You could consider the soul. [The soul] is light and it is pure intelligence and it is what animates us, so it is a scientific explanation for all the hocus-pocus of religion. Photons were called messenger particles by Einstein and angels mean 'messenger,' so we are animated by an individual intelligence. Our head is a temple, a neural network or garden. The right hemisphere equals the garden of Eden: if the electricity is flowing right you have heaven, if it is flowing wrong you have hell[the] same energy, but different flows. So all the titles in some way have to do with the flow of electricity that is our neural reality. The algebra of our nervous system equals jazz as a language system, to find a second of equilibrium within this blue web in space." One of the titles is "Blue Web in Space;" another is "Teleportation;" and another "Dark Matter."
The seventeenth of eighteen cuts on 4D is called "Primal Harmonic." It is dedicated to Alice Coltrane. The sound evokes nothing short of cascades of notes that break, tease, shift and flow like waves landing on a beach. In Shipp's words, Alice Coltrane "represents someone who comes to improvised music from an Afro- American approach but with a cosmic consciousness as the premise...She searched for the archetype of what I would call the cosmic piano, which is something only a jazz pianist could articulate on the piano but in order to do it...one must have transcended jazz..." To transcend jazz is the creed of Shipp's religion.
At two points in the recording session, about two-thirds of the way through, Shipp spoke into the microphone. The first time, he divulged: "Are you wondering why I do this? Is it a universal necessity? I don't know... I have to do this. I don't know. I am going to do this..." Then he played an exceedingly rattled improvisation that unfortunately never reached the final album.
Immediately following that piece, he spoke for the second time, proclaiming, in reference to the piece just played: "That is cosmic piano." He continued to speak, describing Alice Coltrane as the "precursor to cosmic piano." He concluded with the statement that he believed he had discovered "another passage into it."
But, most significantly within the body of those words, with a voice whose inflection summoned heart, mind, and every thread of innocence, vulnerability, tenderness and aspect of human nature that could possibly be elicited, Shipp animated the definition of the cosmic piano. He said, "I am trying to get inside that spaceship... and fly away."
The moment he uttered those words, he codified his essence. With the piano, Shipp is reaching beyond the realm of critical scrutiny, right and wrong, the divisiveness between races, and the absence of compassion and love. No one can imitate him. His aspirations are singular. He is plunging into ..."that place where the mind rests in a heaven of silence and one can hear the hymns of angels." The Fourth Dimension.
In the creative process, the stream of events comes naturally. But the "eureka" moments are those that speak so loudly that they cannot be ignored. Those are the moments when the artist knows exactly what has to be done. That imperative drives the steps to be taken, after having attained a certain stage with the collective work.
Matthew Shipp has fearlessly carried out those imperatives throughout his career. The imperatives have become more sharply defined the more he lives through his music. With the making of 4D, he has decided to use the record as a means of "bracketing his language by bringing all aspects of it together...The summing up of everything" into a "dream notebook." Practically speaking, he "does not want to get caught up in his own language," and wants to step over commercialism. His intention is to stop recording and direct himself only towards performance.
Matthew Shipp, 4D (Thirsty Ear, 2009)
Matthew Shipp, Un Piano (RogueArt, 2008)
Matthew Shipp, One (Thirsty Ear, 2006)
Matthew Shipp, Songs (Splasc(H), 2001)
Matthew Shipp, Before the World Matthew Shipp, Symbol Systems (No More Records, 1995)