There is some fleeting alignment between poet Fred Moten’s conception of improvisation as the angel of history being pulled forward while looking backwards and “the feeling of depth” that pervades The Red Sheaves. Written in 2020 for an exhibition of works by artist Jennie C. Jones, whose exhibition “Dynamics” is currently on at The Guggenheim, Moten performed The Red Sheaves as a spoken word piece with improvisers Brandon López and Cecilia Lopez on March 24 as part of the Guggenheim’s Conversations with Contemporary Artists series.
As part of the Conversations series, the evening naturally opened with an in-depth discussion between Jones, Moten, Brandon López and Cecilia Lopez in the Peter B. Lewis Theater at the Guggenheim (not the main gallery). Jones was quick to disclose that she is a meta thinker in the creation of her works – she considers the space that they will be in, the history of that space, their place in time and the humanness of the viewer. The New York Times’ recent profile on Jones is a helpful introduction to her works, which occupy a space between the visual, tactile and sonic. In the discussion, she shared that there’s this painful moment between her inward creative process and a public exhibition when language is introduced into the process. That a question arises when a work that was on the wall gets put on the floor as to if it was a painting and becomes a sculpture – the labeling of language to differentiate the two in and of itself is a kind of disruption.
When listening to the performance of The Red Sheaves, this image of a painting becoming a sculpture when placed on the floor kept reappearing in my mind. Cecilia Lopez’s red woven electronic instrument subtly and continuously morphed in function between a sculpture, instrument, hypnotic object of motion and filterer of Brandon López on bass. The web-like instrument dangled from a wire and had a gentle rocking motion, reinforcing this sense of constant change in the back and forth movement while the idea of constant change within form was reinforced in Moten’s spoken text.
One of Jones’s first questions to Brandon López in the conversation was in regards to how he thinks about intention setting in the context of improvisation. What I took away from his answer is that he prefers to instead stay incredibly present and listening, mindful of the time down to the milliseconds that precede him, and only brings intention in when something feels out of alignment. Moten shared his intention to continue thinking about his voice as an instrument as much as possible – which López assured him was already happening. This intention setting from Moten resulted in my ears clocking the role of the voice during the improvisation, paying special attention to the moment when Moten diverged from the linear text and repeated the word “Oh” in accordance with Cecilia Lopez’s repeated electronic figure.
Brandon López and Cecilia Lopez’s musical choices morphed as seamlessly as the distinctions between instrument, sculpture, text and sound in the work. It’s been written that Jones’s pieces are particularly “score-like” and Moten’s text The Red Sheaves could be an auditory score in and of itself. I found an audio clip of Moten delivering it, sans improvisers, on Jones’s site before attending the performance and was particularly interested in how such strong musical language would influence the musical choices during the improvisation. During the discussion, López shared that he has a gripe with the idea that improvisation should come from a place of “yes, and…” because sometimes the answer is “no”. The musical choices that López and Lopez made throughout were always unexpected. Sometimes the music played into the text, a fluttering and tapping motion while the text hinted at the natural, but more often than not it tugged away from the obvious choices.
I have a hard time discerning time during engaging live performances, so I’m not sure exactly how long the performance part of the evening was, but I know that I would have been happy listening for a lot longer. That said, the clock started at the top of the conversation and the discussions about presence, spontaneity and intention setting rendered a hypersensitivity to the moment while carving depth. Let’s hope that The Red Sheaves happens again, and soon.
Upcoming LP Alert:
Fred Moten, Brandon López, and Gerald Cleaver have a debut LP coming out April 14 on Reading Group. Pre-order it here.