by Paul Attard Featured Kicking the Canon Music

Roscoe Mitchell Sextet | Sound

May 19, 2020

What’s the difference between music and noise? Besides general semantics, the two terms are perceived to create something of a dichotomy in relation to one another; often when trying to pass critical judgment on the sonic qualities of a recorded piece, there’s a tendency to dismiss compositions lacking rigid structure or strong melody as sharing the same aspects as amorphous white noise. Most musicians who produce these types of works don’t function within mainstream circles or ever have a hope of receiving commercial radio play; there’s generally not a strong demand for these types of works outside of some nebulous outsider art angle, largely due to the preconceived notion many carry about what “music” is. After all, when one listens to music for the first time, what do they listen to? Usually what’s recommended to them to by friends and family, what’s culturally in vogue, what’s been deemed as important by subsets of experts over the years — all this generally trending toward works poppy and upbeat in tempo, tightly structured, around three minutes in length, and enjoyable on a visceral level. And why shouldn’t one seek this out? Music, like many other forms of art, is treated like leisure to many, and if something isn’t producing pleasure, then why bother when there’s plenty other subjectively digestible artists working? This isn’t to decry popular music in any way as somehow less artistically valuable or to pigeonhole the entire movement as brainwashing the masses into passivity— there exists a need and desire for this type of catharsis — but more to point out the ways in which culture influences a general understanding of what music can and can’t be.

Yet, it’s through this seeming randomness that order is constructed, one based more on intuition than emotive cohesion; the punctuated silences help to establish a rhythm, a meandering tempo that is just as likely to fly off the rails as it is to be barely audible.

It’s from these emerging tensions concerning auditory conception that saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell — co-founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a non-profit arts organization founded to help cultivate avant-garde jazz in the 60s — conceived of Sound, the most neutral and objective title he could bestow upon this collection of seemingly random commotion. Indeed, it’s difficult to determine the degree to which these songs are just completely improvised experiments in throwing shit against a wall and seeing what sticks, considering Mitchell’s penchant for dropping his instrument at a moment’s notice to start playing another — he’s credited with playing not just the alto sax, but also the clarinet, recorder, and “etc.” (which includes both the slide whistle and glockenspiel) — and how frequently the sextet just stops playing entirely, often for stretches of several seconds. Yet, it’s through this seeming randomness that order is constructed, one based more on intuition than emotive cohesion; the punctuated silences help to establish a rhythm, a meandering tempo that is just as likely to fly off the rails as it is to be barely audible. If there even is such a thing as a precise organizing principle one could impose on Sound, it would be in its sequencing: the three tracks can be understood as a litmus test of sorts, with each one doubling in length and becoming more abstract than the last.

Opener “Ornette” pays homage to the titular artist who had paved the way for such bold experimentation half a decade previously — the reverence continues on the liner notes, which claims the album is “a summary of the past and implications of things to come” — featuring blaring horns and equally volatile percussion, right before the final few minutes has bassist Malachi Favors attempting to pluck faster than the ongoing madness; suffice it to say, he’s not fruitful in his endeavors. “The Little Suite” has Mitchell and longtime collaborator Lester Bowie flying through a litany of musical equipment, the latter leading with a harmonica before Mitchell joins in with a piercingly high-pitched recorder backed by an abrasive güiro. And then there’s the meat and potatoes of the project, the titular “Sound,” which is as mystic and uncategorizable as its vague label implies. It starts as a low simmer, each bell lightly tapped, every added aural component carefully considered, up until Mitchell seemingly has enough and starts stretching every note until they reach their breaking point. Then, all bets are off: the remaining 18-minutes-or-so turns into a Dadaist excursion that doesn’t just cavort in the face of order but is also willing to accost the listener. Mitchell applies such delicate force to his saxophone that it begins to mimic a kazoo containing excess saliva, squeaking and squawking with equal fervor; cymbals crash with little rhyme or reason other than to seemingly annoy; and over-rosined bows are applied onto string instruments like a set of keys scrapping against the body of an automobile. One doesn’t passively listen to music this caustic, which is, again, to imply that what’s being formed here is even music at all; it is certainly a bunch of sound, though, which is all Mitchell ever claimed it to be, rendering these semantical disputes as rather arbitrary in the process.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.