Callaloo 23.2 (2000) 608-620
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The Creak of Categories:
Nathaniel Mackey's Strick: Song of the Andoumboulou 16-25
Nathaniel Mackey's intermedia play on Strick: Song of the Andoumboulou 16-25 compels us to rethink much of what we know about music, language, sound, and poetry. Strick is a text-recording of boundless hybridity, a cross-fertilization of jazz and poetry which opens cognitive hatches to a world where conceptual dualisms (I/they, meaning/nonmeaning, sense/nonsense) disintegrate before the fertile power of that which rationality excludes. Linking his project to the work of Federico García Lorca and Lorca's invocation of cante jondo (deep song), Mackey enacts a specific recitation of cante jondo in order to trace the ineffable in poetic/musical practices. In both Mackey and Lorca, one finds "an espousal of not only cross-cultural but intermedia fertilization and provocation," the appearance of a collective, polyphonic presence ("Cante Moro" 71). In Strick, this presence appears not as a product, but as a process of improvisation, or what I will call an "aural oscillation" between the dualisms of word and note, poetry and jazz. In this sense, Strick operates simultaneously as a critique of exclusionary tendencies and a positive project bringing the once expelled back into a shared history.
Mackey points to this project in Strick's liner notes where he explains "strick" as a term. While strick refers directly to unwoven strands of hemp, Mackey hears in strick "those words which are not really pronounced in that word [stick, strike, struck, strict], but there are overtones or undertones of those words, harmonics of those words. The word, then, is like a musical chord in which those words which are otherwise not present are present." Behind "strick" as straight referentiality, we hear an absence made present through word as music, through "harmonics" in which strick as sound becomes freeplay. Or as Paul Naylor argues in Strick's liner notes, the "matrix" of words and music "resonates rather than reconciles," all in a process of mutual reinforcement and mutual disruption. With Strick, Mackey both recasts meanings and revives the dispossessed, an assertion of silence as sound which ultimately displaces silence and sound as poles in an exclusionary rationality.
In this essay I argue that in order to interpret Mackey's jazztext, we need a hybrid discourse which draws from both musicology and literary studies, one which explains without categorical determination, for otherwise we fall into the very trap from which Mackey seeks to spring us. The advantage of this hybrid language is greater sensitivity to texts which require more than a single interpretory process. A hybrid discourse can follow the contours of a text which "is transmitted on frequencies outside and beneath the range of reading," one which relies on signifying sound as [End Page 608] well as indexical language (Moten 213). We need a lexicon that can illuminate contemporary practices, like Strick, which blend sound and sense to hint at, point to, and suggest rather than delimit, determine, and mandate. We must find a language which can say the unsayable and speak the unspeakable without doing violence to either. I suggest words like "ensemble," "process," "cut," "gap," "improvisation," and perhaps most importantly, "oscillation" in order to elucidate Strick on its own terms.
We should perceive the development of this new critical lexicon as a shared quest rather than as an individual endeavor. All interpreters of innovative poetry and radical music struggle to find a vocabulary adequate to the material which calls us. We wrestle over material which exceeds the boundaries of received genres by drawing on media usually kept separate, and in some cases subordinated, one to another. We have only to think of the critical gap between considerations of song lyrics and those of literary prosody for such separation to become clear. Despite this gap, however, some texts like Marjorie Perloff's Radical Artifice (visual media and writing), Aldon Nielsen's Black Chant (African-American music and poetics), the essays in Charles Bernstein's Close Listening (poetry and performance...