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A Matthew Shipp Appreciation from Yuko Otomo


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I'm always looking to introduce new people to The All About Jazz readership. Yuko Otomo provided an appreciation of Matthew Shipp from her perspective as a poet and visual artist.

Let Ms. Otomo take it from here.

Recently, I re-read Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky. I don't remember how many times I've read this book. There are a few Bible-like books and writings (on art) that I return to whenever I have a need to re-check my own viewpoint. I read these books in order to regain my sanity in the midst of the muddy, messy and murky environment of the world we live in.

Right before "Conclusion" at the end of the book, in the section titled "Art and Artists," he talks of the purpose and responsibility of "being an artist."

The work of art is born of the artist in a mysterious and secret way. From him it gains life and being. Nor is its existence casual and inconsequential, but it has a definite and purposeful strength, alike in its material and spiritual life.

He goes on to say:

Painting is an art, and art is not a vague production, transitory and isolated, but a power which must be directed to the improvement and refinement of the human soul—to, in fact, the raising of the spiritual triangle.

Then, he delves further in the same section:

It is very important for the artist to gauge his position aright, to realize that he has a duty to his art and to himself, that he is not a king of the castle but rather a servant of a noble purpose. He must search deeply into his own soul, develop and tend it, so that his art has something to clothe, and does not remain a glove without a hand.

The artist must have something to say, for mastery over form is not his goal but rather the adapting of form to its inner meaning.*

* Italicized by Kandinsky

Just change the word "painting" to "music" and "an artist" to "a musician" or "an artist who works within the realm of music." Then, you can easily adapt the whole content of this writing to the life and art of Matthew Shipp.

As an artist who lives in the realm of music, specialized in the art of piano, he has been walking his path with one of the most awakened awareness of what it means to "be an artist." I've known him since he started his professional life in NYC and I am proud to be one of his long time friends.

It is curiously beautiful to realize that there has not been too much change in his attitude or his spirit over the years in pursuing his art.

He was very aware of the principles of being a responsible artist from the beginning and its degree just has gotten deeper and more convincing as years went by. He must have been like this since young when he started playing the piano at the age 5.

In order to live and keep being creative and to claim your own space and position in the history of art in a society that does not provide you a safety net or a particular support system, every artist struggles one way or the other.

Some fight for the visibility and attention to further their careers; some even manipulate every possible element to secure their survival; some give up their original intention and the principle they started with to adjust themselves toward easier pursuits.

But, no matter what, in the end, it is the genuine efforts of walking your own path that counts.

Then, what does it mean to walk your own path? First, you have to have a sense of destiny. Second, you have to know who you are. Third, you have to know what it is you want to say. Fourth, you have to have your own voice to say it. Fifth, you have to know how to have your own voice.

All these conditions sound simple, but actually to accomplish them is not easy at all. There are so many obstacles on the way to fulfillment.

From worldly seductions for comfort and easy living; artistic seductions to take an easy way out; to appropriate (or even steal) others' styles/theories; creative traps to fall into others' influences to lose your own vision, etc. There are plenty of things to keep you way from the path you were born to walk.

Matthew Shipp, like any other great artists in any field, is very aware of the flow of history and his lineage relating to it. Instead of being a simple and narrow-minded iconoclast, he respects the past, the present and the future as one in the realm of music he is involved in.

This keen awareness, insistent work and practice over the years have made him reach a grand maturity that no other pianist of his generation can compete with.

Just like a big tree growing in an eternally open field, his world is free, strong, sound and unique.

He has become a master of his own art, having his own style; his own voice; his own thought and the definite ability to articulate it. This is all because of his focused and endless efforts to know..." mastery over form is not his goal but rather the adapting of form to its inner meaning."

He has followed his inner necessity all through to reach to this present state. How amazing it is to observe the way he has created his own world without being crushed, swallowed or intimidated by the preceding masters before him!

It could have been almost an impossible task to achieve, but he did it with a devotional dedication and a sincere pride.

I've written about this before, but it is very moving to remember again and again that this grand pianist does not have the luxury of owning his own piano. He goes to various rented studio spaces in the city to practice his art every day as part of his disciplined life.

What an irony to know this reality when so many bad and mediocre pianists possess big expensive pianos!

Every time we hear his music, it is a new surprising experience. Every time he plays, he opens a new door to invite us all in. Within this new space and time, we enjoy opening our own minds up to his art together with him in the most profoundly beautiful and idiosyncratic way.

I say "beautiful" since his piano playing delivers the clear voice of the soul we universally share. That's the moment when the artist/musician and the listeners become one through the music played. And how rare it is for this kind purely joyous miracle to take place in our life!

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