For Nora, in that moment, righteousness was a sound awash in tears. On that bright November day, folks on the street stopped, looking up with her to meet a warm rush of sound flowing effortlessly like a tropical tide, bright with the myriad colors and forms of a living coral reef. In that moment, as a brittle, obstinate thought persisting in her mind met the gentle surge of that musical current and suddenly dissolved, Nora McCarthy began to cry.
Above, in the space from which the music emerged, some twenty musicians expertly shaped a spiral galaxy of sound in a unified gesture of balance. Guiding the musicians, alert and attentive to every detail, stood musical director Jorge Sylvester, cueing with precise gestures the unfolding moments in which human song sails forth in search of time’s horizon.
The song was Nora McCarthy’s “Life is a Song to Sing”, evoking an affirmation of Life “as fragile as a butterfly’s wings/fluttering, fluttering.” For Nora’s butterfly, Jorge Sylvester had orchestrated a magnificent rainforest, and in this moment on Sunday, November 4, 2001, the butterfly, its rainforest, and the Conceptual Motion Orchestra had all brilliantly come to life together.
These journeyman musicians had assembled for the first rehearsal of this new orchestra, enthusiastically responding to Jorge Sylvester’s invitation to join a new and creative venture. Most of these musicians had worked together in large ensembles in the past, where they had previously played compositions and arrangements that had evolved in Jorge’s imagination for nearly three decades. Yet, this new orchestra came to life in a context very different from anything previously experienced by any of the participants.
Shroud of silence – tragedy’s entrainment
Strafing shores of voiceless words;
Syndromic dreams – debris of tides
Recursive, breaching shattered walls.
A numbing silence had descended over New York City weeks earlier, in the aftermath of the brutal tragedy of September 11. The Conceptual Motion Orchestra was the fulfillment of the musicians’ need to mount a creative effort in that time of fear and doubt. These were veteran musicians — skilled survivors of a systematic devaluation of their relevance to a social order ceaselessly refactored by billions of profit-taking transactions per second. On that bright November Sunday they had gathered to fulfill an ancient calling of musicians — to affirm fundamental ideas of order in a broken world.
The Conceptual Motion Orchestra is a proof of concept of community triumphant over commodity. Indeed, the righteousness of the very first birth sounds of this orchestra had stopped Nora McCarthy in her tracks and had brought her to a tearful, life transforming realization of the value of her chosen path. Moments later she had joined the musicians to sing her song of Life with them for the first time, and had experienced another indescribable moment when the entire orchestra stood to offer her an ovation.
Such acknowledgement by the orchestra was indeed appropriate. Nora had, after all, provided the motivation and had found the opportunity required for this venture’s inception. It was Nora who challenged Jorge Sylvester to transform his compositional aspirations into reality as the musical director of a new orchestra. It was Nora who prompted Jorge, as they walked in New York’s East Village, to inquire about bringing this orchestra together at the University of the Streets, an enduring grassroots venue, where the agreed terms were simple and fair, intended for making music rather than money — community over commodity.
For years, Nora and Jorge had evolved a collaborative relationship whose strength owed as much to their near telepathic level of communication as to their forbearance in the face of discouragement, limited opportunity to perform, and periods of extreme financial crisis. Despite evictions, relocations, dead-end day jobs, and recurring bouts of despair, they continued undeterred to work on a musical language consciously intended to be beyond the reach of either musician individually.
Like the magnetic field generated by the molten iron core of a planet, the dynamic engine at the center of the Conceptual Motion Orchestra is the synergy of Nora McCarthy’s voice and Jorge Sylvester’s alto saxophone. As a duo, Nora and Jorge perform under the name “A Small Dream in Red”, thereby acknowledging a deep affinity to Wassily Kandinsky — the artistic pioneer whose quintessential goal was to achieve the unique immediacy of music in abstract visual form. Incredibly, Nora and Jorge have achieved, in their duo performances, an innovative form of musical expression comparable in impact to Kandinsky’s paintings, wherein each work reveals a self-contained world of content, form, improvisation, and — above all — balance.
The path to Kandinsky’s level of creative achievement is an exacting and unfamiliar path, exemplified at the highest level within the jazz tradition by Coleman Hawkins’ unprecedented solo tenor saxophone masterpieces, “Picasso” and “Dali.” In this context jazz claims its rightful place as one of the great achievements of 20th century modernity. To work in this challenging artistic realm requires exceptional integrity and unrelenting honesty. Thelonious Monk, the preeminent standard bearer of musical originality, whose artistic mentor was none other than Coleman Hawkins, specifically and significantly described his own music, with its harmonies and rhythms that to this day astound the most accomplished musicians, as simply “modern music.”
Modernity as exemplified by Kandinsky and Monk is distinguished by a striking clarity of expression focused in the present moment. This clarity and presence is the ideal to which Nora McCarthy and Jorge Sylvester have aspired in their duo, “A Small Dream in Red”, and in its extension, the Conceptual Motion Orchestra. The abstract dimension of these artists’ work, often misunderstood as a stylistic choice, is a necessary key to the focused “Now!” at the heart of their work. Abstraction enables a clear distinction between the essential and the superfluous, and so can serve as a catalyst for powerful artistic expression.
As a new path for human creativity and discovery, artistic and scientific modernity arose as a necessary consequence of a historical moment when humanity’s capacity for knowledge surpassed its capacity for wisdom — Darwin’s discovery of biological evolution. In the arts, the unique hallmark of modernity was a sweeping emancipation of human subjectivity, together with the questioning, common to modern art and science alike after Darwin, of the basic assumptions underlying human understanding. Of great significance in this revolutionary process was the emergence of jazz, unparalleled in its immediacy of individual expression, and its essential connection, through a new rhythmic language, to the pulse of life itself.
Yet today, as the terrifying shape of the 21st century unfolds, the significance of jazz as an expression of artistic modernity can all too easily be dismissed as just one more naive anachronism, supplanted by a post-modern, terror-alert condition of infinitely regressing layers of meta-cognitive self-reference. How does artistic integrity and honesty survive in an ecology of contemporary human endeavor that encompasses planet-devouring multinational commodity markets and mass-produced suicide bombers? Where is a work of art secure from being submerged by an incessant, attention-deficit inducing global torrent of mass-marketed, streaming media?
For Nora McCarthy and Jorge Sylvester, in confronting such questions, there is no choice but to trust the gift of inspiration with the humility and care borne of craftsmanship and discipline, and to give authentic voice to the vital, microcosmic “Now!” at the core of artistic modernity. These artists’ work is truly deserving of notice and consideration, because it is work arising out of human necessity, not aesthetic preference. As a result of years of intensive collaboration, their hard-won synergy has enabled them to stake an honest claim to the modern artist’s highest ground — clarity of expression. To begin to understand Nora and Jorge’s fortuitous artistic synergy, it is necessary to know something about these two artists’ complementary personalities and early life experience.
Nora, restless, outspoken, and intuitive, the youngest of five children, grew up in a mid-western working-class family, for whom precious time not claimed by factory jobs, school, and life’s usual mundane distractions, was spent gathered at the piano singing and dancing. Nora’s father, a sometime song and dance man, whose performing aspirations had been preempted by the needs of a growing family, readily encouraged Nora’s early evidence of talent. This loving father who, despite his own careworn burdens, prompted his children to follow their dreams, died tragically on the night the family was to move into a new home for which he and Nora’s mother had worked so hard. Nora was 11 years old, and her family never recovered from this loss.
Music now became a means of solace for this family as its former dreams were traded for the enveloping quicksand of despair and poverty. During this time Nora was a solitary child whose companions were the piano and the radio. Sound was Nora’s lifeline — her constant and trusted guide through life’s uncharted territory. Nora’s development as a musician was unplanned, and was structured only by her restless yearning for new horizons. She learned by doing, and picked up the necessary technical skills and training along the way, through a process of self-discovery perhaps more common among poets than musicians.
Jorge, sincere, quiet, and analytical, the younger of two children, was raised in Colon, the Atlantic terminus of the Panama railroad/canal trade route, in a family where education, craftsmanship, and professionalism were valued and encouraged. Jorge’s father was a highly skilled carpenter and teacher, gifted with an architect’s sense of form and structure, along with the hands-on skill to give material form to his ideas. Owing ironically to a long-term, imperialistic American presence, the sounds of jazz were everywhere familiar in Colon, and Jorge’s father was an avid jazz record collector. Jorge, in early childhood, first awoke to the voice of the alto saxophone by listening to his father’s Sonny Stitt records. Nonetheless, Jorge’s musical wellsprings run deeper than merely the assimilation of American jazz. Panama is this planet’s unique geographical nexus — a crossroads of great oceans and continents — and consequently its people have had to struggle to maintain and refine their own national identity and culture.
Panama has listened with open ears to the characteristic sounds of Cuba, and New Orleans, as well as that of its other Caribbean island and South American neighbors, while preserving its own deep, indigenous musical voice. This generously inclusive identity, intensified by an insistence on the highest standards of excellence, constitutes the exceptional, albeit underappreciated, musical genius of Panama. On such fertile ground Jorge Sylvester took his first steps as a musician, fully supported by nurturing parents dedicated to cultivating his quickly emergent and exceptional musical talent. Jorge’s confident musical mastery today can be traced directly back to the intensive, formal cultivation of his talent underwritten by his parents during his formative years.
When, decades after these beginnings, the very different musical journeys of Nora and Jorge eventually led to their meeting in New York City, they found that they shared a particular and characteristic experience — marginal opportunity to work. They were both sufficiently active as working musicians to have noticed, heard, and appreciated each other’s expressive originality. Yet beyond the halo of this mutual appreciation, which was certainly shared by a growing circle of musicians around New York, they both remained, in some fundamental way, outsiders. Perhaps the doors that never opened to Nora and Jorge will prove in retrospect to have been a powerful motivating factor in their collaborative development, driving each to a deeper mutual appreciation of the other’s original voice and expressive language.
Part of the problem Nora and Jorge have faced in finding regular work is, not only that they are both thoroughly original, but also that they have worked tirelessly to forge raw originality into meaningful expressive capability. Consequently neither of these artists fits comfortably into any familiar stylistic genre. By contrast, many musicians working in and around major centers of musical activity must depend on a chameleon-like versatility for their material survival. Such skillful adaptability is a not only a requirement, but also a well-earned point of pride for a great many working musicians, who have learned to blend seamlessly into a broad range of established stylistic contexts.
In fact this survival strategy helps to ensure the stability of the Conceptual Motion Orchestra’s personnel, whose primary and alternative players, fully versed in the ensemble’s “book”, contribute their talents to this creative effort despite its limited financial prospects. Although, they are versatile enough to make something of a living through more mainstream musical work, it is not necessarily the case that a living wage is assured for any of these talented and dedicated performers. And particularly for Nora and Jorge, a uniquely original sound and expressive language has proven to be an obstacle, rather than an asset in the struggle to survive.
Nora’s vocal identity, aside from a basic jazz orientation, defies classification, and makes spare use of reflexive stylistic mannerisms. In the placement of her voice, Nora can evoke the power of a Malian Diva’s fearless candor, or perhaps a Corsican Voceratrice’s call to invisible worlds in the language of dreams, or the earthiness of an early blues singer’s unvarnished autobiographical witness. She has been attentive to the fluid articulation, phrasing and timbre of the jazz trumpet, the instrument that most clearly has influenced her vocal development. Her shaping of pitch often foregoes the fluid note-bending of the jazz singer in favor of the full press of a sculptor’s touch against viscous clay.
Jorge’s distinctive alto saxophone sound is imbued with the volatility of the Caribbean basin’s complex mosaic, transformed and focused by the probing musical linguistics pioneered by the great saxophonists of modern jazz. Jorge’s composer’s imagination is evident in the matchless structural coherence of his improvisational work. His charts for the Conceptual Motion Orchestra are brilliantly conceived, with a trademark emphasis on compelling sonority, motivic development, contrapuntal sophistication, and prodigiously imaginative development.
The consequence of such unique originality has been for Nora and Jorge, as was certainly the case with Thelonious Monk for many years, the prospect of extended periods without the opportunity to work. Perhaps, as was also the case with Monk, there will come a day when a wider audience will awaken to these artists’ work, will hear the sound of “A Small Dream in Red” and “The Conceptual Motion Orchestra”, and will experience the resonant artistic commitment at its core.
Until that day may these words serve as a message of gratitude to the dedicated musicians of the Conceptual Motion Orchestra and its two founders, Nora McCarthy and Jorge Sylvester, who chose the path of creativity to help dispel a tragic shroud of silence on a bright November day, not so many years ago.