Having just collaborated on a collection of his own writings, the renowned pianist talks to us about the writing that’s inspired him By Erich Christiansen
Matthew Shipp is one of the leading figures of the downtown improvisational scene that came out of the 1980’s and 90’s, along with frequent collaborators William Parker, David S. Ware, Whit Dickey, and Daniel Carter, just to name a few. His piano style has expanded the radical vocabulary established by sixties giants like Cecil Taylor, establishing a fresh voice all his own. He experiments restlessly and works tirelessly, having released more albums than I can count. And as artistic director for Thirsty Ear’s Blue series, he also works to bring similarly innovative artists to the world’s attention. His latest album is 2007’s Piano Vortex, on the Blue Note Continuum label. He has also collaborated with Steve Dalachinsky on a new book, Logos and Language: A Post-Jazz Metaphorical Dialogue, available from Rogue Art. This conversation is part of an on-going series that seeks to make connections between the arts. On this leg of the journey, I’ll be talking to musicians about the books and literature that have inspired them. This led us into a discussion about Shipp’s view of music in particular and creativity in general as a kind of spiritual practice, a way of exploring the inner and outer universe. And it was fortuitous that this would correspond with Matthew’s own foray into publishing with Logos and Language.
E.C.: Is there anything in particular that you're reading right now, or that has been particularly important to you, that you'd like to tell us about, or that the world should be aware of? Shipp: Been reading some pretty heavy mysticism stuff-Sri Aurobindo- Jacob Boehme-and the Tao Te Ching. E.C.: There's an interesting balance among the texts that you listed, in the sense that you have one from the Eastern tradition, one from the Western, and one who's known for drawing on ideas from both (Aurobinda). What do you think that the two sets of traditions can teach each other? Or is that a false dichotomy-- when you get below the surface of institutionalized creeds, are the different religions, especially their mystical traditions, really exploring the same kind of territory? Shipp: Truth is truth- all religions are just symbols and surfaces or constellations of energy- once you break through the surface you are dealing with the same light or energy-whether you come from the east or west. E.C.: You probably already knew this, but I just learned today about how Stockhausen discovered Aurobindo's ideas in May of '68, and how that was the beginning of a shift toward overtly mystical themes in his work. And that got me thinking about the spiritual paths of a number of other experimental musicians of the last hundred years-- Scriabin, Coltrane, Stockhausen, Cage, Dolphy, Sun Ra, David S. Ware, Albert Ayler. Is there something about twentieth century free music that lends itself to mysticism, or a mystical kind of experience? Or is it just that people who aren't dogmatic about music tend not to be philosophically or religiously dogmatic either? Shipp: I never knew Stockhausen was into Aurobindo- but anyway, I think music being an abstract language has always been involved in mystical thought-I mean, Bach was a religious mystic and music has always been involved with transcendental experience. E.C.: You mentioned the Tao Te Ching. An interesting aspect of that is that a certain concept of "flow" is so central to Taoism-- as it is to music, especially in regard to improvised music or highly rhythmic music, or both, in terms of something like your album Nu-Bop, which adds hip-hop elements to your repertoire. And of course, you played on an album with the David S. Ware quartet called Tao. The liner notes of that record talk about the dynamic of that group in terms of wu wei, translated there as "creative quietude." That is, getting the conscious, deliberating mind and its constant commentary and evaluations out of the way so that a kind of naturalness and purity can emerge. Maybe you can talk to us about some of these ways in which understanding the flow of creativity helps us understand Taoism, or some ways that understanding Taoism can broaden our musical horizons? Shipp: To me Taoism and Zen are the greatest religions just because they are not religion-I mean in Zen they have taken all the abstruse metaphysics and got it down to a few propositions like-when hungry eat-when tired, lay down, and when you have to take a shit, take a shit. In the Tao we know everything is interconnected because the universe obviously comes out of a single matrix so there is some principle that we cannot see or grasp that holds everything together. Enlightenment means letting go and living in accord with that principle. Can you think of a better way to think of music? If someone could truly make music in accord with that principal they would be in ecstatic inspiration all the time-because of a naturalism they would embody. E.C.: Is there a specific piece of music, that you composed or played on, that was directly inspired by something you read, that you'd like to talk about? Shipp: I don’t usually do anything where a particular text is the genesis for a piece. I usually work off an overall framework of my own cosmic vision which pieces come off. The closest I’ve come to where a particular piece is inspired by a particular writer and/or text is the CD I did on the French label, Rogue Art, named Declared Enemy, which is based on some pieces that Jean Genet did when he came over to America during the 1968 Democratic convention. E.C.: Yeah, I know the Declared Enemy album very well. Your engagement with Genet's work brings up some interesting questions for me. First, in the interview you did with Steve Dalachinsky that's included in that album, you discuss how your artistic vision parallels Jean Genet's, in that he rejected the ugliness of the world as it is by creating a universe of characters and symbols that were transformed and transfigured, in a subversion of Christian symbols, like transubstantiation. How you both reject and protest against the world through the creation of an alternative reality. One thing that it seems to me that you share with Genet that reflects that is a certain element of ecstasy in both your styles. Even though he's ostensibly a "prose" writer, his work has such a poetic quality, that seizes you and transports you. In other words, let's you transcend your given, reified, taken-for-granted reality. And your music has that same quality, that surges ahead and carries you with it.
Shipp: I agree with you on the ecstasy element in myself and Genet-there is not much more to say than what I said in the liner notes to Declared Enemy but I would say about our shared sensibility and my music is that growing up in an Episcopalian household and having gone to Catholic school the Eucharist looms big in the underground in what I do-or the idea of a subverted abstraction of the Eucharist-I am obsessed with the idea of taking in the body and the blood of the godhead so the abstract language of the music is food to feed the mind in a sense and the language –musical language – becomes the logos or the godhead.
E.C.: In that interview that I was just referring to, you seemed to be pessimistic about a political solution to the state of the world, relying instead on preserving one's own soul through art. Yet, on that album dedicated to Genet, you seemed to focus on Genet's most political period, when he was in the streets fighting for very militant causes. And that same thing seems to resonate in your interest in Sri Aurobindo, who was a political activist and militant before, and in addition to being a spiritual teacher. (And the fact that Stockhausen discovered him in a very political time, May of '68) Isn't there kind of a paradox there?
Shipp: no- the texts I used on the CD where what the producer, who was French, wanted to use-and when Genet came to America in 1968 to cover the Democratic national convention in Chicago, he started hanging out with some Black Panthers and these writings stem from that period. The mystical and political branches can coexist-the reason I do not see any political resolution possible is because I do see greed as the root of just about every problem and don’t see any political solution to greed that could work- the metaphorical kingdom of god is something that could come to earth if each human discovered it in their own heart and decided to live on earth like it was here.
E.C.: Again, in that interview, you refer to yourself as a "Christian-American mystic" but then later say that "... god is just a word. I have no use for that word." And you've also mentioned a current interest in Jacob Boehme, another Christian mystic. Could you talk a little about this seeming paradox? What can the path of the Christian mystics say to those of us who don't believe in what William Burroughs calls the "One Big God universe" of an anthropomorphic, authoritarian personal God, which I've always understood as being central to Christianity?
Shipp: That is the thing- a one big anthropomorphic god is not central to Christianity-it is central to institutional Christianity-Jacob Boehm deals with the god as the great abyss-which sucks in space and time and all partials and the great abyss is some integral whole that is beyond all opposites-this godhead is impersonal and personal at the same time-it is impersonal but personal in the sense that it is the ultimate gestalt so it would contain all personality
E.C.: In a conversation you had with Paul Miller (DJ Spooky) that's on his website, you talked about Mallarme, and how what you liked was "that his poetry is just so dense, and I never understand exactly what he's saying, but I always walk away with 2 or 3 images that are just somewhere out there in space and I really get something out of it." For one thing, maybe you could talk about Mallarme a little bit more. His vision seems complimentary to your in some ways, like this sort of alchemy of art, in his case, the word specifically.
Shipp: Boulez had put a couple of Mallarme’s pieces to music; that’s where I know him from.
E.C.: And more generally, I notice you refer to poetry a great deal: Whitman's vision of America, quoting Blake in the piece with Spooky, Mallarme, doing an album backing Steve Dalachinsky reading. Who are some of the poets who have been most important to you and why? And that seems to go along with your interest in mysticism. Many of the mystics have expressed themselves through poetry or poetic writings, and many poets have tried to gain a mystical experience through their work. Shipp: Poetry is a big part of what inspires me- I aspire to the purity of language that poetry can get to. T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” are my favorite and I actually consider them on the level with the Tao Te Ching as far as a great mystical text. Blake’s whole theory of the imagination. Whitman’s cosmic sweep. The psalms – I like a lot of images I’ve seen in Wallace Stevens especially one image I remember-the garbage can at the end of the world. And of course, Emerson’s essays are the bible to me.