The Primal Waters of Pure Consciousness: Cecil Taylor at Merkin Hall

Eric Benson By

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Taylor's instrumental athleticism couldn't overcome the fact that for all its movement, the music felt static.
Cecil Taylor
Merkin Concert Hall
New York, NY
March 28, 2009
Cecil Taylor shuffled in from the wings with knitted tube socks pulled up over his sweatpants, ignored the Steinway grand that dominated centerstage, and began to read.
A shapeless nurturer, distilled...

Australopithecus, pebble culture...

A convergence and continuum...

Emerging lunar-tidal-circles...

Primal waters of pure consciousness...

Oblivious to a centimeter squared...


Expecting a piano recital or, perhaps, a less literal interpretation of the event's title, "Cecil Taylor Speaks Volumes," a dozen or so members of the audience decided they'd had enough, walking out after about thirty minutes. Many others nodded off as Taylor pressed on, reciting his inscrutable combination of high school geometry lecture, textbook on early hominid species, orthography lesson, and dashed-off lyrical phrases. The most lucid moment came when Taylor quoted from a CBS News report on the financial costs of the Iraq War, but even that carried a deep mystery. Was the meandering quest through language imposing and technical really an anti-war political statement?

Taylor didn't leave us much time to wonder, diving in again to his seemingly endless collection of hand-scrawled pamphlets.

The kinetic energy of molecular motion...

Way beyond causation...

Denizens of apocrypha...

The quasi-parallelogram becomes a true parallelogram with opposite sides equal to pi...

He finished, acknowledged the respectful, baffled applause, and walked offstage. No one had announced the structure of the evening's program, so, as the lights came up, a general air of uncertainty pervaded the hall. Would Taylor return? Part of me hoped he wouldn't, using his 80th birthday celebration to give us a scandalous performance that would make John Cage grin: a solo piano recital without any piano playing.

Whether for artistic reasons or simply to prevent an audience riot, Taylor decided to come back onstage after a lengthy intermission, wearing new clothes—a gray sweatsuit and tie dye socks—and sitting down at the piano. After forty five minutes of Taylor's vexing poetry, his playing sounded downright accessible, the easy pleasures of piano virtuosity trumping, for a moment, the demanding nature of his music.

Like his poetry, Taylor's playing unfolded in disjointed fragments. He would hit one cluster of notes, ride it through a momentary melodic flourish, discard it, and crash down on a new idea. Sometimes he bashed, sometimes he tickled, humming softly to himself as his hands pranced up and down the keyboard, simultaneously searching for tonal resolution and confounding it.

Taylor's splintered narrative created thousands of micro-pieces, discreet units that one imagines he could have assembled in any number of ways. This musical hopscotch produced the sensation of tremendous movement; notes gushed from the keyboard in a kind of baroque excess. Taylor has said that he tries "to imitate on the piano the leaps in space a dancer makes," an intention that came across strongly in the sheer physicality of his playing. Even when Taylor had a light touch, the music sounded like it rumbled up from the instrument's bowels. He packed every note with more music—more resonance, more meaning, more power—than any other pianist I remember hearing.

Yet Taylor's instrumental athleticism couldn't overcome the fact that for all its movement, the music felt static. When Taylor began, his repeated zooming runs sounded bold and daring. As the evening wore on and those runs continued at a similar speed and volume, it felt like he was on a high-powered treadmill—sprinting along, but not going anywhere. I don't doubt Taylor constructed these compositions and improvisations with an internal logic, but, like his poetry, his playing proved much easier to process at the level of the phrase than at the level of the whole.

It was appropriate that Taylor finished his very brief encore with an abrupt one note bang. He left us with enthusiasm, force, and little sense that he'd had the patience or interest to shape his thoughts into anything more than furious, sustained torrents.

Photo Credits

Laurel Sheridan

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