Table of Contents

 Part I

Part III

Part II:

The Foundation of Taylor's Music


While Taylor's music proclaims as its fundamental basis the "mores and folkways of Negroes," a history self-investigated with an "African methodological concept,"
1 his formulations are also indebted to Western Art music in a more than fleeting way. Taylor attended New England Conservatory of music in the early fifties. He originally wanted to study composition, but "the department head . . . figured that he already had one Negro [composition student], and that was enough."2 Cecil's response to racism of the academic environment was, "that meant that to me that I had to be black if for no other reason than that they thought that black was bad."3

Taylor, like Braxton and other black artists whose music has identifiable traces of Western Art Music influences, was often criticized for this aspect of his work and was told to "stop Messiaen about"
4. Taylor's answer to this sort of criticism was "I am not afraid of European influences,"5 and in fact went so far as to say "Bartók showed me what you can do with folk material."6 He saw himself as grasping "the energies of the European composers, their technique, consciously, and blend[ing] this with the traditional music of the American Negro . . . to create a new energy." This was not something startlingly new, this kind of appropriation is part of African-American tradition: "This is what has always happened. Ellington did it."7

developments in Taylor's early career

Taylor's first album Jazz Advance was released in 1955, when Cecil was 22.
8 For one familiar with Taylor's contemporary work, the album seems far removed and quite conservativeyet there are distinct elements associated with his music present in this first release: "[H]is harmony, though not his rhythm, is already in a world far advanced beyond bop. His soloing consists of one contrast after another: simple dissonances versus tone clusters, wide versus narrow octave ranges, calls versus response."9 Taylor's early music still uses a rather conventional rhythm-section orientationthe bass still walks and the drums still swingthe horns and the piano operate in a freer context over this "traditional" foundation.

Over the next ten years, Taylor's style came into clear focus. The album 1961 Into The Hot with the Gil Evans Orchestra is a link between his early period and his "mature style." He had abandoned traditional notation and dictated his scores, preferring the players not to notate them at all. According to Archie Shepp, who played on the album "He would play the line, and we would repeat it. That way we got a more natural feeling for the tune and we got to understand what Cecil wanted. . .'Pots,' which a lot of critics have called a masterpiece of modern jazz, was written this way."
10 In the Unit Structures liner notes, Taylor would write "Western notation blocks total absorption in the `action' playing."

Over the next few years, Taylor developed the rhthymical aspects of his music more fully with the "free" drummers Sonny Murray and Andrew Cyrille. The music of this period, particularly "D Trad That's What" demonstrates an increasing rhythmic flexibility and abandonment of the traditional 4/4 time structure. Like everything else in Taylor's music, the "abandonment" of traditional time structures was not necessarily truly an abandonment:

the beginnings of Taylor's "mature style"

While Into The Hot and "D Trad" contained the seeds of what was to become the mature Taylor style, the 1966 album Unit Structures was its fruition. The liner notes, written by Taylor himself, lay out in poetic language the musical and structural formulations which his music has explored from that time up until the present day. The language is difficult and arcane, and expresses itself in a non-linear but logical fashion. There is also a great awareness of his artistic contemporaries. While he rejects other musical formulations, he includes certain other artistic thought, particularly in the realm of poetry. In total, these notes demonstrate a unity of vision in which language, sound, body-movement, and history are dialogic forces in a single, spiritual creation.

Unit Structures` Liner Notes

rejection of the "classic order"

The title of the notes is "Sound Structure of Subculture Becoming"a clear reference to the Black Nationalist elements in Taylor's musicthis is a manifesto for a new consciousness, a revisioning of Black history and aesthetics, a culture actualized through music. Obviously aware of Western Art music's intellectual foundations, Taylor rejects them:

Here, Taylor rejects the hierarchical nature of the classical paradigm described as the centralized structure of the "podium angle." This "classical order" is seen as exclusionary and divisive: only the "righteous" are allowed. But this destructive divisiveness cleaves more than the "righteous" from the "unrighteous;" it divides heaven and earth with its "stone churches with pillars poised," which enact the "dagger ripping skies." The separation of heaven and earth, (which, as I will discuss later, Taylor views as a continuum represented on the piano keyboard), is also a manifestation of the violent division of the body from the mind. The violent nature of this image derives from Taylor's belief that "[t]here are not separate parts: one body and the mind enclosed." In the "classical order" the body has become "bloodless meat." Parts of the body itself are sacrificed, as in the castrati. The rejection of the body in music leads to "sterility," and the repression of the natural reaction to "curl limbs " to the "soundless bottoms" of music. This alienation from the body is so complete that even the "classical order" of dance, an art based on movement, leads one away from a relationship with body: "ballet is the studied manipulation of extremities, a calisthenic procedure away from body center. Stillness advised by death."

relationship to concurrent musical developments

Additionally, he comments on the construction of his contemporaries who had also believed themselves to be rejecting the "classic order." In a clear reference to Cage, he states "Measurement of sound is its silences." But Taylor does not promote the aesthetic Cage postulates: "Acknowledging silence its definition in absence," and, as we shall see, Taylor is interested in presence rather than absence. In other contexts, he was outspokenly critical of the work of Cage and his associates. In Four Lives In The Bebop Business Taylor states:

He sees in these artists as a "reactive occult" and accuses them of ultimately embracing the same destructive elements that are the failings of the order they claim to reject. He aligns them with Boulez, Babbitt, and the other serial composers by saying "in action unknowabledetached rationalization of inaction and detachment mathematical series, permutation and row-underlying premise = idea precedes experience." As we shall see, Taylor sees experience, the body, and their integration as fundamental to the making of music which is connected in a profound way to life.

rhythmic structure and the body

Taylor proposes, in what Archie Shepp called "natural music,"
14 a music based on the body and physical experience: "Physiognomy, inherent matter-callingstretched into sound (Layers) in rhythms regular and irregular measuring co-existing bodies of sound." The foundation of this body-music are rhythms "regular and irregular," as opposed those "measured by academy's podium angle." He goes to some lengths to separate this corporeal impulse of rhythm from those of the "classical order," and the destructiveness of "academy's" use of time.

The juxtaposition is literally the juxtaposition of life and death. By centering rhythmic impulse in the body (as opposed to the "transformed symbols thru conductor" it becomes connected to life through the integration of "all body's limbs"a reintegration of the individual. The focus on the "cathartic" pelvis in "prime undulation" brings in sexuality as well, the "ultimate communion." It signifies the connection between people, where "all body's limbs" are of more than one body. Taylor is also a dancer, and it should be noted that in many types of dancing, and particularly in modern dance, the pelvis is seen as the center from which all movement emanates. In some forms of piano technique, movement also ultimately stems from the pelvis. It is also a double reference to the "castrati robed in fever pitch"a jest at the physical removal of sexuality from Western music.

practice as self-exploration

To describe how this would actually function in the music is rather complicated. Taylor states: "At the controlled body center, motors become knowledge at once felt, memory which has identified sensory images resulting social response."
16 That is, the movements made in "physical conversation" will be iterations of that which has been learned/explored in the practicing of one's instrument ("knowledge once felt") which will be utilized in the musical/social interaction with other players. This requires, then, a new understanding of what "practice" is: rather than learning "traditional" instrumental technique, Taylor sees practice as the exploration of the relationship between one's body-self and one's instrument:

Through practice, the musician translates the dialogic relationship between their bodies and the world into a sonic understanding or "musical symbol." This "symbol" is more than just a signifier, rather its creation alters the signifiedthe "musical symbol" is not just a signifier, but an act and through this act then world itself is altered and a "feedback loop" occurs. With the actualization of the "musical symbol," the musician then recognizes the "self" as an element in the world: "the ear having heard identifies." This identification, of course, alters the musicians perception, and the external perception of the self in music mirrors the internal perception, the "inner light," and the two enter into a dialogical relationship. The music, then, is a "self metamorphosising life's `act'" in which the "musical symbol . . . has placement in creation." Creative energy springs from this dialogical relationship: "Creative energy force = swing motor reaction exchange."

the individual and the group

The music feeds on itself, building energy, each member of the Unit contributing.

It seems important to note here that the `acts' are created not just from sonic input and physical self-investigation, but also from the physical response to the living bodies of the other musicians: "eye acting upon motor responses." In this passage, Taylor reinforces the idea of rhythm as the "central unit"emotion only defines the "particulars" of the "musical symbol." Through rhythm, the unmistakable yet mutable imprint of the "self," we are led to particularities of its functioning, what Taylor calls the "wave"a fluid sense of time in "rhythms regular and irregular" which become and extension of the self (and the collective selves of the Unit) through time:

Through the corporeal building of rhythm the player addresses the material of the composition, a "quantity to shape." But even the addressing of the material, pitch content for example, is colored by the "mental physical participation." It is a "search against mirror held," the mirror of the pupil's "inner light." The shape of the content arises for the approach to the "quantity" through the individual experiences of the performers, their personal history as contained in memory. It is individual memory that Taylor is addressing in the passage "an older child set to the pain in fire" fire is a kind of trope for the memory and experience that "in-forms" the self.

memory and the trope of fire

Fire and light are of particular importance in this writing, and to understand the connection of these things to the music, it is important to understand their relationship to Taylor`s conception of memory. I earlier quoted him as saying "The investigation of oneself means the attempt to hear the calling of those great black minds that have preceded one." That is, there is a kind of inner memory which connects us to the past, with the traditions and beliefs of our ancestors. Taylor states a particular instance of this as "Yoruba memoir other mesh in voices mother tongue at bridge scattering Black." A racial memory of a universal "mother tongue" encoded in memory, particularly body memory. It scatters language among the Black people, it scatters the Black people from each other, and as fire it scatters the "Black," the darkness. The tongues of flame are conflated with the tongues of language, the "mother tongue," and it is this tongue of flame which gives the "subculture becoming" its voice: "a set ritual song cycle in tongues the heat Harlem long ages past rested glory from." It is a resurrection of historical memory through the body, a recognition of the "inner light" of the the fire which the pupil is to mirror. Yet the translation and recognition of that energy into body and memory can be painful; "A flesh lighted scream the beast in God screams," and the pupil as the "older child" is "set to the pain" in his discovery of the self in the "search against mirror held." The ultimate translation of the trope of fire into the movements of the body which create sound is the true history of Black music, a tradition from "long ages past" which has been lost, but now is reborn in the new music: "Where are you Bud?. .Lightning. . .now a lone rain falling thru doors empty of roomJazz Naked Fire Gesture, Dancing protoplasm Absorbs."
The "Naked Fire Gesture," Taylor's music, is the "Sound Structure of Subculture Becoming." It is a revitalizing of the spirit against the what jazz had become. Taylor addresses the mainstreamization of jazz.

The trope of fire gives us light, and light is one of the things Taylor uses to describe the "content" of the "quantity to shape;" part of the mirroring of the "inner light," through the extension of rhythm, is pitch material, the "paths of harmonic and melodic light" which "give architecture sound structures." Here, we begin to understand the larger organization of Taylor's music. The "quantity" given in is usually pitch material, small cells or aggregates of tones (you will see examples of this in the next section where I present the "score" of one of his pieces). These note cells are usually played through at the beginning of the piece, which Taylor labels the "anacrusis"both a musical and poetic reference. "Enter Evening's anacrusis consists of 4 separate lines, unequal in length; statements with changing consecutives." As the "paths of harmonic and melodic light," the anacruses can be manipulate in traditional ways, such as transposition, retrograde, augmentation, and diminution, but the lines can also be conflated to form harmonic aggregates: "Attitude encompassing single noted line, diads, chord cluster, activated silence." The improvisation, then, is the "conscious manipulation" of the anacruses through the rhythmic based inviduality of the player and the "resulting social response":

The resulting music is seen as multilayereda landscape of sound in which "each instrument has strata"both within itself ("timber, temperament"), but also as a strata within the "Plain" or "group interaction." Taylor presents the realization of the "unknown totality" as a physical landscape: "From Anacrusis to Plain patterns and possibility converge, mountain sides to dry rock beds, a fountain spread before a prairie." One of the major forces shaping this landscape is "the piano as catalyst feeding material to the soloists in all registers." The registral implications of the piano have direct bearing on the "landscape" aspect of the music, as Taylor has specific associations with the registers of the piano: "two or three octaves below middle C is the area of the abyss, and the middle range is the surface of the earth, the astral being the upper register."

It is difficult to talk about the form, the "unknown totality" of the landscape of this music, the "Naked Fire Gesture." Taylor has broken down completely the older concept of form in jazz, where a particular harmonic sequence delineates the overall structure of the piece. Now the individual musicians through the "conscious manipulation" of the anacrusis, create the form"form is possibility." The "form" of the music is really a dialogue between an individual's "inner light" and "social response," where "intuition and given material mix group interaction." It is an "opening field of question" where "content, quality and change growth in addition to direction found."

It is on this macroscopic level that Taylor betrays the influences of contemporary poetryboth in conception and vernacular. While his poetic language is at time reminiscent of Pound, his construction demonstrates awareness of the Black Mountain poets, and in particular Charles Olson's essay "Projective Verse."
23 In this essay, Olson lays out a manifesto for open-form poetry, in what he calls "composition by field"like Taylor's "opening field of question." Olson states that, in this kind of poetry, the poem is "energy transferred," and that the poem "must, at all points, be a high energy-construct, and at all points, and energy-discharge." In open-form poetry "form is never more than an extension of content,"24 which, again, is similar to Taylor's "form is possibility" and content derived from the anacrusis. Olson implores that "ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION," an understanding which can easily be applied to the "self analysis" of improvisation. The building blocks of this poetry are also organically rooted in the body: "the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE/the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE."

While the connections between musical formulations espoused in Unit Structures and the poetic formulations of Black Mountain Poets is obvious, Taylor by no means wholly adopted them. Rather, it is merely another example of the kind of appropriation that he sees as part of the his role "to create a new energy," and, just like his "European influences," is subjected to "African methodology." Through his corporeal musical investigation, the "self metamorphosing life's `act,'" he has incorporated the precepts of contemporary poetry in an organic way. It is part of his experience which "in-forms" him: "Dancing protoplasm Absorbs."

 Table of Contents

 Part I

Part III


1 Figi, 31. back
2 Spellman, 55. back
3 Ibid. back
4 This is actually a criticism of Braxton, but similar allegations were made against Taylor. Scott Albin, "Caught, Anthony Braxton Quartet, " Down Beat (March 25, 1976), 41. back
5 Spellman, 27. back
6 Ibid., 28. back
7 Ibid. back
8 This is an extremely brief synopsis of Taylor's early recording career. For a more complete analysis, from 1955 up until the early 1980's, see John Litweiler's The Freedom Principal: Jazz After 1958 (New York: Da Capo ,1984), 200-221. I disagree, for reasons I will make clear later, with Litweiler's assertion that Into The Hot is the pivotal album which begins the kind of exploration Taylor has continued up until the present. back
9 Ibid., 202. back
10 Spellman, 44. back
11 Figi, 14. back
12 Cecil Taylor, Unit Structers, liner notes; (Blue Note, BST-84237, 1966). back
13 Spellman, 36. back
14 Ibid.,43. back
15 Taylor, liner notes; Unit Structures. back
16 Ibid. back
17 Ibid. back
18 Ibid. back
19 I do not know whether there is some personal history involved with Taylor and fire, some early childhood incident for example. Anecdotes from his childhood are few, and even if one seemingly pertinent existed, it would not necessarily be relevant. back
20 Ibid. back
21 Ibid. back
22 Figi, 31. back
23 Originally published in Poetry of New York, vol. 3 in 1950, reprinted in Selected Writings of Charles Olson, ed. Robert Creeley (New York; New Directions 1967),15-30. back
24 Olson attributes this statement to Robert Creeley. back