Coordination and Production:
Sara Serpa & Jen Shyu
Editor for Winter Solstice 2020 Cohort:
Contributors: Winter Solstice 2020 Cohort
Acknowledgments: Special thanks to Nancy & Joe Walker, mediaThe foundation, New Music USA, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, South Arts, CRS (Center for Remembering and Sharing), Christopher Pelham, Arlene and Larry Dunn, Emily Bookwalter, and all of our individual donors and supporters.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Michele Rosewoman: A Dream Scheme, Sound Track, The Women and Children
- Fay Victor: How I Regained a Creative Space During a Time of Crisis
- Shanta Nurullah: In Search of Musical Women
- Camila Nebbia: El Ritual de las Flores
- Chloe Kim: Practicing Music Through Painting
- Ganavya: [ ] : on the Form behind form
- Monnette Sudler: You Gotta Rumble: Love, Life, and Music in the 60s and 70s
- Richie Seivwright: Hollow
- Malika Zarra: Warrior Queen
- Cleo Reed: what i touch, i inherit
- Samantha Boshnack : “Shining Through”: On Listening to the Earth’s Truth & Dreaming Towards Hope
- Miriam Eilhajli: Elegy for Lungs
FOREWORD – A note from Jen and Sara
From our experience, it is still a challenge for many musicians to have access to meaningful and respectful mentorship in the music and arts worlds. Creating M³ helped us imagining a new paradigm of mentorship within our community, connecting women, non-binary, BIPOC and LGBTQIA2S+ musicians, especially relevant during the pandemic’s time of isolation. By supporting artistic excellence through each cohort, M³ creates expandable music communities, while developing sustained lucrative career opportunities for women and non-binary musicians in the industry. By building a non-hierarchical and intergenerational paradigm of mentorship, M³ celebrates a global network of artists, providing a think tank for new ways to connect, collaborate, perform, support and create.
The idea of an anthology furthers M³’s mission and fills the void, the absence of written stories—stories we wish we had heard when we were students, when we were filled with wonder discovering jazz and creative music, stories that were never told or glorified, stories that were made invisible. While we respect and appreciate all the struggles and achievements of our male predecessors of the music we love, our musical and professional world has mainly been shaped by male narrators. Most of us have experienced being the only woman in the band countless times.This unbalanced environment presents multiple challenges for musicians from underrepresented groups to see themselves represented in meaningful and respectful ways. How come we never had women improvisers and composers as teachers? How come jazz history doesn’t teach us about Mary Lou Williams or Alice Coltrane? Why does the Real Book, the encyclopedia from where most jazz students learn music, barely feature any women composers?
We find the narrative to be incomplete, because we don’t read about those who have not been represented and promoted. When we invited our Winter Solstice 2020 Cohort musicians to contribute a written piece to this anthology, we gave them complete freedom; they could write about any topic and embrace any literary form whether it was an essay, a poem, a thought, a drawing, an article, or recipe. Some musicians felt intimidated, asking themselves, “How can I express myself in an unfamiliar art form or language that might not yet be my own?”
For this second volume we have had the fortune to work with the poet, writer, and scholar, Naomi Extra. Initially in our minds, she was our Editor-in-Chief. We learned that Naomi’s work could be better described as a facilitator, someone who took the time to enter each musician’s world and challenged them to go deeper. Her dedication was remarkable. Naomi’s work ragend from phone calls helping them to clarify and develop their ideas, coaching the musicians in their writings, to numerous emails and pointing them to resources that could better inform their stories, offering knowledge and resources on literary technique and storytelling, brainstorming ideas, proofreading, and copy editing. The message that prevailed was: What can we know more about this detail? What story do you want to tell and why does it matter? What can we learn from you that will be a gift for present and future generations? The result is fascinating—from memories and poems, to essays on music and practicing, the pandemic, ancestry, and climate change, we couldn’t be prouder to share this new volume with you.
How do we thank all the participants in this volume? By reading their contributions, with time, care and love. Listening means to deliberately pay attention to a sound. We hope you can pay the needed attention to every written word, and appreciate the value of these texts. Gender diversity in music and performing arts is similar to restoring vision to an organism with impaired sight, making it whole and allowing it to function at its full capacity and imagination. We hope this anthology contributes to this new vision. December 2021
1. Michele Rosewoman:A Dream Scheme, Sound Track, The Women and Children
A Dream Scheme
I’ve been weaving warmth around me
to keep the freeze of tentative
survival out of my bones.
Survivors seeking moments of ease–
Create a lifelong Image
in this hole in Time
Hey–now I keep
this feeling ’round me,
fills this Life with awareness
of its link in a chain.
In those eyes
where there are questions,
let the questions run out of eyes
Into the deeply concerned
The Heart of our Ancestors.
Their names are Sister,
Brother and they stir
in the window of ALL dreams.
Conductor of emotion and recall.
Bulging memories play on cue.
Ghosted visions manifest in fullview.
Came through the window,
on an evening breeze.
a VERY spiritual dream.
play complete melodies.
All one theme.
Imprints from ritual
play time—play space.
A life, reverberating in place.
A “living” is more than a life,
more than a lifetime.
I see it left a track.
And referencing the foot – notes,
I can follow it back.
Soul cycles in surround sound.
On the way up or down
A sojourn to roots.
I got to spread -this -thing -around.
I can trace my life this way.
from my beginnings
to my forevers…
The Women and Children
The women and children
found strength in isolation.
of song, dance
and unspoken motion.
Water-like. Traditional fluidity
The Fire in our inner eye
that sees and reflects
of this moment.
The women and children
A web of Being
At the base of it
Encircling the laughter
and the children’s tears
The Women and Children gather
to soften the edges of brutal foundations.
Slow but effective
Running into ALL cracks
Fluidity is HER way.
Moon Song to sanctify.
We gather round
to find the open-sesame of the heart.
Your waxing-waning heart.
2. Fay Victor: How I Regained a Creative Space During a Time of Crisis
On the morning of March 12, 2020, I was on the way to New Haven to mix my group, SoundNoiseFUNK’s, sophomore release from a live concert. I boarded the 5 train to Grand Central Station in Manhattan, an hour ride from my house. People were quiet and tense. We’d heard the reports from China, then Seattle but no one dared think that our city, too, would succumb to Covid-19. When I arrived at Firehouse 12, a recording studio in New Haven, it started. My phone began to light up with cancellations of all sorts—tours long set in motion, residencies, performances at places like Joe’s Pub and Atrium at Lincoln Center. I tried to remain calm. I continued to work on mixing what would become We’ve Had Enough (ESP DISK 2020), totally distracted as we edited and listened back to the live concert recording. Heading back to NYC, it was clear the world was about to change. Little did I know that this would be my last subway ride for over a year.
Like many, during the pandemic I transitioned into working from home. After many months of doing everything in my house, there was no separation anymore. The days gradually fused together until I didn’t know which day it was anymore. Dates for Zoom calls and appointments, dates to submit things electronically, dates to meet socially. Dates and more dates. Deadlines and reminders, notifications and online signatures. Figuring out what to wear in real life and on screen, when to turn the video off, when to turn the mute on. Private lessons, master classes, lectures, panels, cocktails, social calls, birthdays and deaths all happening in the same space, same screen. Same box size for everyone. Feeling like a cog in a machine never had so much resonance as I looked out on the tiny, equally distributed squares with faces equally placed. Lighting and backgrounds were perfected. It all looked so perfect. So uniform. So anemic. The days and seasons rolling in and out of each other. I was dazed and confused most of the time.
Some weeks into the NYC lockdown and as my panicked state slowly rescinded, I noticed I hadn’t written a note of music. I started using GarageBand to come up with soundtracks and simple melodies for streaming solo shows I’d perform from time to time. I hadn’t used GarageBand in years but creating in that space felt more immediate, maybe even disposable. I couldn’t write anything notated. At first, I allowed myself the space. I thought if this is how I’m dealing with the pandemic, then let my composing have the space. I thought it would work itself out in a few weeks, a month at the most. But no. Months went by and I got scared. One day I opened Notion, my notation software, in an attempt to write something—anything. A small motive, a short progression. Nothing came out. I’d been on such a roll before the pandemic, composing as much as I could whenever I could. Yet, this period of dearth during the pandemic was never-ending and empty. I got depressed about it. In all the time since I’d begun composing seriously, I’d never faced a creative block like this. I kept thinking about how to get back to writing. In early July of 2020, I thought why not try working on compositions that were unfinished? I decided to start there. I figured writing was writing. I worked on pieces that needed to be cleaned up and that got me back on my composing legs.
When New York City was the global epicenter for the pandemic, the sound of ambulance sirens became a part of the everyday soundscape here. They were a reminder of the pain and crisis that we all were facing. Over a period of weeks, I began to record as many of these sounds as I could—the ambulances, fire trucks, vans and police vehicles. Eventually, I listened back to the recordings, noticing different melodies and decided to transcribe them. This kept on inspiring me so I created a ‘mode’ out of all the notes I had heard, started writing them out by hand, thinking about ways to put them together conceptually. I also started thinking about what instruments could represent these sounds to create a ‘memory document’ composition. Working at the piano, I came up with a line that I loved, so I opened my notation software and began to place the line in a work that would eventually become “Sirens and Silences (2020),” a composition that captured the moment. Not too long after I started to write this work, I was commissioned by the Jazz Coalition to create a work and I submitted “Sirens and Silences” for the submission, which is an instrumental work for trombone, clarinet, violin and cello.
I’m a self-taught composer and I’ve gone through times when I didn’t trust my ideas. But a person of deep wisdom told me that my path as a composer is a unique one. This sage went on to say that there is something to not going through the academy, not getting caught up in all the lessons taught of what not to do. It’s true. That devil sits on my shoulder quietly. I cried after I received this wisdom and never looked back, writing copiously for years. Not that much of what I’ve written has been performed but it pours out of me anyway. I have no idea when anyone else will hear some of these pieces. None of this matters because it’s from me and now it’s here.
I’m full of gratitude for finding my way back to work that I’m deeply passionate about. Now, opportunities to present my composed works are showing up and that means everything to me. It shows me that process can take many forms and patience is a virtue I still need to work on.
3. Shanta Nurullah: In Search of Musical Women
In March of 1971, young people were turning the world upside down. The Black Power Movement, Vietnam protests, and the women’s movement were stirring. I was in my senior year at Carleton College, a small liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota, where young Black folks like myself were eager to get into the world to make their mark. There was an electrifying energy in the air. A few of us who hung out in the Black House were transforming into vegetarians, rooting for Angela Davis on the run, and falling in love with Alice Coltrane. I remember the spirituality in her music, how it lifted me up.
After graduating from Carleton, I returned home to Chicago. Having recently finished an independent study on the Black Arts Movement, I was eager to get involved. My entry point was Val Gray Ward’s Kuumba Workshop, headquartered in the historic Southside Community Arts Center (SSAC). I was welcomed at the first rehearsal I attended and included in that Saturday’s “Ritual” where everyone presented a short piece. This meant I had to present a poem or song. No problem. Poetry was my bag. I recited Don L. Lee’s “a poem to complement other poems.” My favorite lines were “change change your change change change / your / mind [n-word].”
During this time Alice Coltrane was my role model as a woman in music. As I got deeper into her music, I wondered: where were the other women? The singers were visible, but where were the instrumentalists? So in the mid-seventies, I went in search of Black women instrumentalists. I interviewed women all over the U.S. hoping to write a book about their stories. In New York I met and interviewed pianists Mary Lou Williams and Valerie Capers, french hornist/pianist Sharon Freeman, bassist Carline Ray, trombonist Janice Robinson, and cellist Akua Dixon. In D.C. I sat down with the legendary guitarist Elizabeth Cotten. And in California I met alto saxophonist Vi Redd, keyboardist Patrice Rushen, and the esteemed Turiyasangitananda Alice Coltrane.
Often during interviews I had my first born son, Mansur, with me. When I interviewed Mary Lou Williams in New York, he was a toddler. Williams was unnerved by him as he played with his little toy car. She wasn’t used to having a three-year-old in her living room but she took to me, even inviting me to spend time with her after a Chicago performance months later. At that performance she told and played the entire history of jazz on the piano!
Many of the musicians I interviewed were warm towards Mansur. In California, Patrice Rushen let him play on her drum kit. But when I was in Alice Coltrane’s home for an interview, Mansur ran toward her orange draped chair and her devotees had a fit! Getting in to see Alice Coltrane had taken months of letters and phone calls. I was nervous, and here was my kid about to blow everything. But he settled down and we sat quietly through her devotional service as she rocked her organ and the attendees sang and chanted. Then, Mansur was sent outside to be entertained by the Coltrane children while I spoke with their mother. As we sat across from each other on a sofa we had the following exchange:
Shanta: I was wondering if you could talk about your life, with emphasis on the musical development.
Alice: Here is another thing, why I have not been responding to people who have been writing me and requesting musical information, per se. I am more quick to make some type of arrangement to respond to people who are interested in spirituality, above music. Because God is spirit and from that Supreme God comes everything else, like music and art. My preference is to respond to people who are interested in spirituality – that’s the true reason, above and beyond any other generalization.
Shanta: Are you saying you do not want to respond to that question?
Alice: No. I’m not saying I would not speak on the subject of music. My direction and instruction through meditation was that I didn’t really have to respond to people or anyone who was just mostly concerned with music; but people who were seeking, searching for some higher realization, then some talk about music can show how that’s imminent to spiritual realization. If the person has some kind of feeling for God, then his music can be like a vehicle to God.
Shanta: That is the approach that I am trying to take in my own development – the realization of my musical studies, or talent or whatever – using the sitar as a vehicle for expressing my beliefs and my feelings and pursuing other realizations.
Alice: That’s beautiful – that’s it.
After the interview, we exchanged letters for a few years. Upon receiving news of my third child, Rahsaan’s birth, she sent this note:
Alice Coltrane always reminded me that my spiritual growth should be my primary concern. Connecting with Turiyasangitananda continues to be a highlight of my life.
I did these interviews because I needed to know that these women existed and that they persevered. I didn’t end up writing the book, but from these conversations in the 1970s, I wrote articles that were published in several magazines. Pieces on Mary Lou Williams appeared in Hot Wire, a magazine focused on women in music. My full interview with Vi Redd ran in Cadence. And I wrote a piece entitled “The Family Struggles of Sisters Making Music” that was published in Black Books Bulletin. There were genuine friendships formed, precious letters exchanged, and I found the living examples and inspirations I’d been seeking. More than anything, I gained the inspiration to keep on going, to never give up. To make a way out of no way.
As I journeyed into the stories of women musicians, I kept playing music. In the late 70s AACM vocalist Rita Warford and I put on a concert entitled “Black Women Makin’ Music” at New Concept Development Center, one of the Black independent schools in Chicago. The show featured the five women from Chicago (Rita Warford, vocalist Chavunduka Sevanhu, bassist Sherri Weathersby, drummer Bernice Brooks, and myself on sitar) and three women from Detroit (flute/harpist Kafi Patrice Nassoma, clarinetist Elreta Dodds, drummer Gayelynn McKinney). Percussionist Bunchy Fox from the Bronx (whom I’d interviewed on one of my trips to New York) was part of the show as well.
Rita Warford, with her deep voice and a commanding presence, wove spells with words and utterances, shrieks and hollers. By contrast, Chavunduka Sevanhu was the songbird you wanted to take home with you to serenade your every waking hour. Rita and Cha’s duets were simply magical. Elreta Dodds’ bass clarinet on her abstract and haunting compositions made all of us stretch to do her music justice. And Kafi’s flute and harp took us on journeys to ancient civilizations. We loved pairing the harp and sitar, so we had to have another bassist. Sherri Weatherby brought the funk, along with drummer Gayelynn McKinney, who was barely out of high school at the time.
We were so well received that we decided to form a group, which we named Sojourner, and get a percussionist closer to home, Barbara Huby of Detroit. She wasn’t able to work with us for long and was replaced by Ahsia Hill. We won the Combo Contest at the Fourth Women’s Jazz Festival in Kansas City, and performed for several years throughout the midwest.
Besides being all women, Sojourner was unique because almost all of our music was composed by members of the group and we featured instrumentation that was uncommon on the jazz scene. In the absence of formal management, we did a lot of the promotion and performances ourselves. My husband and I self-produced several Sojourner concerts in rented high school auditoriums. Other group members got us gigs at places like Wayne State in Detroit, the Detroit African Festival, and the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.
The Michigan Festival was memorable in so many ways. It was a women-only space (no males over the age of ten) where women felt free—so much so that many women went around topless. The enthusiastic reception to our Saturday night set was wonderful. I wandered into the breakfast tent and was able to sit with Bernice Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock, who generously shared nuggets of wisdom. If only I’d been able to follow the one I remember: “Keep the group together, no matter what.”
I was five months pregnant at the Michigan fest. After I had Keewa, my fourth child, my mission became getting out of my marriage which had become abusive. I got a full-time job so that I could separate from my husband and had less energy to put into the band. Eventually, we stopped performing. For years afterward fans inquired about Sojourner music and concerts. The band had definitely made an impact and filled a void. Looking back, I see Sojourner as another way I/we were lifting up women in music, amplifying our voices.
After leaving my marriage, I worked for about three years as a social worker for the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), while also rebuilding my self-esteem, navigating the world of single parenthood, writing children’s stories, and developing a solo career as a storyteller. Storytelling became so lucrative and promising that at the time of my third layoff from CHA, I asked that I not be recalled. Serendipitously, I was invited to participate in a new initiative around that same time, The Women’s Self-Employment Project, and was able to successfully establish my storytelling work as a business.
Through storytelling I was able to express myself creatively and provide for my family. During off-seasons I’d take a part-time job. Rarely was I invited to play music. Even before that, I seldom got a gig other than with groups I’d formed myself in spaces I’d rented. In storytelling, it was a relief to be on stage and not be counting heads, wondering if I was going to break even for my self-produced band events. To this day, it saddens, angers and baffles me how little support I’ve gotten from my male musical peers.
Storytelling was so much more than a business, it felt like a calling and became, for a time, the thing I felt like I did best in the world. I spread the love of my people, our history and culture. I told stories of love and peace. I mentored women who became self-supporting storytellers themselves. I found a nationwide community of truth tellers and culture keepers. They heard, recognized and rewarded me.
During the 1990s, I co-founded the all women’s group Samana with multi-instrumentalist Maia (also known as Sonjia Hubert Harper) and flutist Nicole Mitchell. Active for eight years, Samana became the first all women’s group in the AACM. In the early years, we’d sometimes do shows with as many as ten women (including several vocalists and a dancer or two) or as few as two, finally settling on a group of five. I was on sitar, electric bass and mbira, Maia played flute, harp, voice and vibes, Niki was on flutes and sometimes sax, Aquilla Sadalla sang and played clarinets, and Coco Elysses (now AACM president) played percussion. Samana’s music was hard-driving, ethereal, whimsical, and danceable. We performed frequently in Chicago and around the midwest. We recorded one album, Samana, and officially disbanded when Maia moved to California in 1999, though we’ve reunited occasionally since then.
In 2001, nest emptied, I moved with a new partner to Las Vegas. There, I struggled to find adequate work as both storyteller and musician. I jumped around from job to job in tourism and eventually became a second grade teacher. Much to my surprise, I fell in love with the work. But then I got called back to Chicago in 2008 to help my elderly mother. And in Chicago I totally bombed as a public school teacher (poor classroom management skills). So it was back to storytelling (yes!) and music (yes! yes!).
But it was music with a twist. Younger men and women in the AACM were calling me to perform with them—Saalik Ziyad, Tomeka Reid, Junius Paul, Ben LaMar Gay. I found my teaching niche in the early childhood program at the Old Town School of Folk Music. In 2016, I formed a new band, Shanta Nurullah’s Sitarsys, and recorded Sitar Black with a city grant and money raised through crowdfunding.
In 2018, still dissatisfied with gender disparities in the music world, I embarked on another women in music quest. With a grant from Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, I conducted interviews, attended numerous festivals and concerts, wrote a blog and did social media posts on my 365 Days of Musical Women Instagram and Facebook accounts. Highlights of this journey were: conversations with trumpeter Jaimie Branch and pianist/clarinetist Angel Bat Dawid, experiencing Toshi Reagon’s band Big Lovely and Martha Redbone at the Sisterfire Festival in D.C., and meeting M3 cohort sister Fay Victor when she performed with Nicole Mitchell at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Women in music today are organizing among themselves, demanding respect in the workplace and on the bandstand, equity in academic institutions and with performing opportunities. To some extent, the industry and culture are responding to the calls for change. Still, in my decades long search and advocacy for women in music, I have found that women are still in the minority on concert and festival stages. I still have to search nationally for women musicians in order to have a gender balanced band of musicians who speak my language. Change is happening but it’s still too slow. I hope that this essay sets off a quest for and a curiosity about music by women.
4.Camila Nebbia: El Ritual de las flores
Un ritual para encontrarnos siempre en nuestra memoria Donde decir Exactamente Las palabras, los sentimientos, el silencio, Nuestra verdad La virtualidad no puede borrar la calidez de cada encuentro Incluso cuando la distancia nos abraza El tiempo se disuelve cada vez que estamos juntxs Nuestrxs ancestrxs hablan a través de nosotrxs, Ellxs escuchan Nosotrxs escuchamos ¿En que lenguaje nos encontramos en el silencio? ¿Cómo expresamos lo imposible? This ritual is to evoke our collective and personal memory, to find each other and connect with our essence in distance. Gather fifteen flowers for each one of us, representing all the powerful energy that we all have been creating these past months.
Rose, for love and confidentiality Lavender, for silence and calmness Iris, for wisdom, hope and trust Hydrangeas, for unity and togetherness Peony, for prosperity and love Gladiolus, for faithfulness and strength Lotus, for enlightenment and spirituality Chrysanthemum, for respect and happiness Canterbury bells, for gratitude and faith Freesia, for friendship and trust Orchid, for strength and wealth Marigolds, for passion and creativity Sunflower, for strength and positivity Wild rose, for love and adoration Anthurium for abundance and happiness
Be in a comfortable position, sitting down or lying down. Relax and imagine yourself in the same place with all of the group surrounded by all of these flowers. Feel the essence of each one, its meaning and its power. Words and memories pass through our mind at any time, embrace them. Let your memory and imagination flow. This is an invitation to bring all those powerful energies to your lives and to everyone around you. Being near is being connected with the heart.
Now breathe and just feel the closeness of flowers.
5. Chloe Kim: Practicing Music Through Painting
Author’s Note: Form, with a capital F, is pronounced “infinite Form,” or whatever term you use to define a starting point or opening for yourself into the infinite realm; form, without a capital f, is pronounced “form,” or whatever term you use to describe a finite, tangible, repeatable shape (however complicated).
2: To form, or not to form?
3. I m balance
5. The Wisdom of the Kitchen
6. [ ]
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, with soloists Claire Chase and Esperanza Spalding: “Double Concerto” by Felipe Lara
Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.”
Queen’s “Bicycle Race”
Nina Simone’s “I Put A Spell On You”
Immanuel Wilkins’ “Blues Blood | Black Future”
Bill Weathers’ “Grandma’s Hands”
Hide everything in the nothingness, an Elder once told me.
I nodded, trying to grasp what some part of me already understood. She took the tea bag out of her still-brewing cup, looked me in the eye, and dropped it back in with an incredibly toothy smile. I smile, now, as I think of the sentence, a toothy-smile. I smile because at that point, most of her teeth were already missing, but I still write toothy to describe her smile, because the (in)visible structure of her teeth was still apparent to me. The once-present teeth that trained her smile all those years— even with them gone, you see them there, sitting. The non-present present. The invisible form. When she smiles, even with all of her teeth gone, it is still an incredibly toothy smile.
The mind’s ability to fill, to live in the cracks of visible reality, perhaps this is a favorite home of Spirit. Without this, there is no liberatory future. There is no music. Sometimes, I still feel like I have no idea what she was really talking about, hide everything in the nothingness. She taught me music. Kaveh quoted Paul Klee, saying ‘our work is not to reproduce the visible world, but to make visible’—
—so, to translate music in Elder-speak, wouldn’t this be to make visible the everything in the nothingness? What did she, who taught me the art of summoning Old Sound, mean by hide everything in the nothingness? This morning, in a gathering, Kunal Nayyar spoke about silence, that we are emptiness, that emptiness is silence: everything is just a filling of this emptiness.
Did Elder mean hide Old Sound in silence? Mm, no. She said bring it out often, as often as possible. She said it protects itself and can’t be misused, I don’t have to worry. Or did she mean hide all things in emptiness? Mm. Can emptiness be full and still empty? Yes. I think of old prayer-songs, of how one is full of nothingness without the Beloved. But then I think of Buddhism, how one is full of sacred nothingness, śūnyatā, precisely when you are fully with the Beloved. My head begins to spin. Come, scratch my head with me.
Over two-hundred years ago, one dry summer, Jane Austen wrote to her sister, “My dear [sibling], Where shall I begin? Which of all my important nothings shall I tell you first?” This is how I begin with you. What I write is important. What I write is about is the nothing. It is a tracing of what maps to safety are safely hidden in the nothing, a nothingness that protects itself always— the large important Nothing that protects the art of music-making.
I write because this journal is a peculiarly safe space for making the Nothing briefly visible. It is a journal for, and by, non-binary, trans, and femme-orienting musicians, a space that men tend to not attend to. This journal is like my grandmother’s kitchen, a space I pray you will come to understand by the end of this letter to you.
Friends, here is my toothy smile, with my Elders transitioned. Even with her gone, you see how they trained me. They, who helped me grind the realities of this world into a small enough form so that I could begin to digest the life-giving nature of it all. They aren’t here now, but they’re still here in every one of my smiles. The Form behind the form.
Who are the people in your life that you can still see traces of when you look into the mirror? If you want to keep reading this letter, I ask that you please take a moment and offer a flower to one of them in your mind’s heart.
Once upon a time, there was a giant sea mammal, who weighed up to twenty-three tons, swimming in the Bering Sea. In 1741, a German naturalist “discovered” Hydrodamalis gigas swimming large and luxe, at least three times bigger than the contemporary manatee. Within twenty-seven years, the entire species was extinct, killed on thousands of European voyages for fur and sealskin.
So she knows what we know. It is dangerous to be discovered.
— Alchemist of Realms Innumerable: Alexis Pauline Gumbs,
Chapter 1: “listen” from Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals
I remember a time before we split into the self and the other, when we were all connected by the same sense-organ. On the days I manage to disentangle myself from the false web of compulsive-illusion in this world, when I sing with my people, I go back to that time before the split. I want us now to remember that feeling. I wish to quickly make you my kin, now. How? Perhaps I could write to you in my mother tongue, and if you were to understand, you could be my mother’s kin. I must write to you of the language that keeps me safely shrouded, in appropriate distance, from those who are not as immediately safe as the familiar. I offer this bond, a token made of one gesture of demystification. It is a small, but deeply intimate thing for me. A spiritual blood oath, the intentional slicing open of the self to reveal the essence that lives behind the surface. Let us share just one letter together, in Tamil.
What is the sound of silence to you?
As I quietly reflect on the past few years, I realize how much I have been tracing the remnants of love— voices— in places I have visited. “________: Let Our Silences Speak,” I pleaded in one title. Resigned and unable to describe the presence of my most familiar and most beloved divine, I wrote in another paper: “For now, I leave all else here: [ ].”
Voice is how I first understood love. The absence of a voice is how I first understood oppression. The presence of voices in spaces that are hostile to them: this is how I first understood resistance. The shaping of your voice so that it can pierce through a wall of potential violence by changing just the outer layer of it, while retaining its core: this is how I first met the kind of intelligence many call subversion. Those who knew how to hear and respect voices, particularly that of the vulnerable: this is how I first understood kindness. Those who kept asking themselves if they were being oppressive, despite the ever-evolving nature of one’s station: this is how I understood wisdom. Those who could hear both what was being said, and what wasn’t being said: this is where I found trust. We Have Voice, the organization names itself, at once both an insistence and an aspiration. A war cry and a sigh.
What is the sound of silencing to you?
Ssssh. “Hush little baby, don’t you cry” melodied Gershwin in that troubled song. Is it the promise of tomorrow, however untrue, that keeps us going? How do we train ourselves to swallow a cry even before we know how to speak?
Ssssh. Appropriately named a voiceless retroflex fricative, this sound is not native to Tamil. It migrated from the north. We have no sha, something about the nature of our southern land, instead birthing a different set of sounds to mediate the inner and outer climates of a being through breath. Agastyar, the first Tamil speaker, is said to have believed that sha was not beneficial in our lands, for our bodies. Instead, Agastyar found cha. I look at a phonetic symbol someone once taught me to translate this sound to Latin-adjacent scholars. Most of it is a familiar form, recognized and found often in the mundane. But there it is: a curious underneath. The unsayable nuance, living under and alongside the recognizable. Ssh.
* * *
Did you ever make a paper boat as a child? We made them in Shengotta (well, now that you know the history of certain sounds in Tamil, it is actually Chenkottai,— Tamil for ‘red fort,’) a village known for its rains and waterfalls. There were two kinds of boats we knew how to make from a quarter piece of newspaper. One boat, the standard, could also be worn like a cap— a thoppi. It could be made in about 10 folds. The older children in the village knew a more advanced technique: one where the boat had what they called the shark’s fin underneath, an anchor of sorts. Some called this the kathi kappal, or the knife-boat. For many months, I didn’t know about the kathi kappal, because when they are set to float on the temporary water-paths the rain makes in front of your home, you cannot tell the difference between the thoppi and the kathi. Both the hatboat and the knifeboat look the same on the surface, when floating.
But the boats that had the hidden underneath survived the current of water much longer, they had a gift of balance that the other kind did not. When the skies are falling on you and your fragile paper boats with the vengeance of a hundred thousand tears, it is hard to know which of the boats have that hidden anchor— but the child in me found a way. It was simple. The boats with the hidden anchors could not be worn as caps. It paid well to predict.
My bets became more and more accurate. Look for the kids who had the hidden balance-maker underneath. They were the ones who weren’t— who couldn’t, really— advertise their boats by wearing them as caps. It got so bad that my mother started wondering if I was pestering the pettikada corner store owner for free Tiger biscuits— how else could a child have amassed so many packets? If you had enough Tiger biscuits, you could trade them in for a packet of Parle G. If you had enough Parle G biscuit packets, you could trade them in for a packet of Milk Bikis. I can’t remember the ratio, but my older brother could tell you. Probably because he made them up— was it three to two to one? I made enough Tiger biscuits to get Milk Bikis. It didn’t really matter, we ended up sharing them all between us anyway. But, I learnt to keep them from my concerned mother. How a hidden shark’s fin prevented a cap from being worn and how this turned into packets and packets of biscuits… this was not something a girl of three plus three years knew how to explain to a mother.
But as I aged into the body of a woman, I realized— not without tragedy— that my mother had a knifeboat all along. The thing behind the thing. The hidden underneath is sacred, and by nature of its making, it cannot be worn proudly. And conversely, those who wore the crown revealed themselves to not possess the hidden underneath, either by choice or ignorance. The price paid for balance in a force-filled world. It is dangerous to be discovered.
Take your pick. Crown, or balance? Sssh.
* * *
Sssh. We— and by this I mean someone, a while back— made a set of new letters in Tamil for these sounds that were not part of the original Tamil set. The adopted cousins from the north. When written by hand, like its Latin phonetic counterpart, the letter sha in Tamil has a curious underneath. Hm. How might I begin to describe it? It looks eerily familiar. Like what children in a village I once lived in called the hidden shark’s fin, underneath a paper boat.
* * *
This Tamil letter, the sound of sh, loses a fair amount of its flourish when it is typed. But still, to type this categorically voiceless sound— half serpent’s hiss, half breath— is difficult. Yet still, it appears to be two wells, one discovered, one covered. One open, one still protected. But they are both always there. Hold on to this image, the simultaneous openness/closeness of reality. Keep it in your pocket for me, as you read the rest of this essay.
So there. Now we both know a letter in Tamil.
A few days ago, in Umbertide where I write to you from, I found myself in a beautiful field. It was nighttime, the field alight with fireflies. “We call them lightening bugs,” one said to another. “What do you call them?” nudged Lauren. “Mmm… minmini-poochi,” I said. “Onomatopoeic. Poochi is bug. Minu-minu is…” but I didn’t have to finish the sentence, the field was explaining the sound back to us in lights.
“Minmini-poochi,” says Lauren softly, tracing it again and again. A strange feeling in my stomach, a warm feeling. Quietly, I said to her then in my heart, what I say to you now in writing, bonded by a drop of Tamil:
You are my kin.
* * *
2. TO FORM, OR NOT TO FORM?
There was a time, when I was made to wake even before the Sun so that I would practice, a time I would groggily ask myself what possessed humans to want to create forms that we would repeat in this ridiculously mindless and obsessive way. What is practice? A ritual for repetition of form? Here is the scale, play it ten times. What are you thinking about while you’re playing it? I wish I could reach back and speak to a younger self. Congratulations, you can now play and sing many notes very quickly. Very impressive. But be careful, because if you didn’t practice feeling the notes at that speed, you’ve created a kind of unproductive emptiness in you, one that will require an audience’s reaction to be your proxy; you’ve created a strange, twisted pathway for projection, one where the audience will project themselves onto you as you perform a virtuosity that nears inhuman perfection, and you will project yourself onto them as they experience a divinely human joy.
We— you and I— now have a shared understanding of a form, and in that moment of shared understanding, we have briefly undone the split. Perhaps I shouldn’t frame it in terms of an undoing, not in terms of a redoing, but a relationally independent doing. I mean to say, for that moment, our psychic sense organs stretched into each other’s fields. The being together that changes longing into belonging. We have become one by witnessing together: witnessing, from Proto-Indo-European weyd– (“see, know”), later Old English ġewitt (“denoting the mind as the seat of consciousness,” or “to sense”). By seeing something together with the same understanding, we are traveling to consciousness together. We are sensing together. Vijay once framed polyrhythms as an opportunity for multiple consciousness to be experienced at the same time, by multiple people. The allure of virtuosity: the deeper we co-understand, the further we travel into and beyond together. Being able to live in the same form together allows for a brief reprieve from the illusion of separateness. (The downside of obsessive virtuosity: you may be traveling somewhere with your co-musicians, but you could be leaving your witnesses behind, further and further away. I am not impressed by a culture that thinks this is somehow necessary. I am not impressed by constructed gaps between humans: between artist and audience, between royalty and ‘subjects,’ between caste. I do not believe in projecting onto someone else’s travel into the seat of consciousness. I am, however, impressed by the virtuosity of revealing the falsehood of these constructed gaps, impressed by those who can travel far into the Divine while bringing others along with them.)
There is something about understanding form together. Yesterday, when I had gone to record something with Raveena, Aaron said he doesn’t like it when musicians have music-stands up on stage. I, too, was taught to think that needing a tangible form of music was a bad sign. It was certainly an insult to your teacher if you wrote down notes in class. It was believed impossible to cross the line between aural and written without a loss of fidelity, and facilitating that loss was immeasurably unholy. The impossibility of capturing Spirit in words.
I do understand what the Elders-who-only-teach-by-ear are saying, in a way. The toothy-smiled Elder who briefly showed me the tea bag (source of essence) before dropping it back into the ocean. Hide the source. People have forgotten, and will try to capture the source.
Although I am terrified of the notion of participating in the capturing of anything, I don’t think writing the form of music is an insult to the infinite Form that lives behind it. Any position, in extreme, is harmful and not true in this hypercomplex world. It took me a few years before I could face the fact that I was just using a convenient narrative— that my music cannot survive the transfer on to page and ink, that form is a hopeless and violent reduction of Form— to circumnavigate the humbling practice of having to learn a basic skill so late in life. “For me,” I told Aaron, “at this point, I just want everyone to feel the freedom to be able to pray on stage. If they need a chart, I want to give it to them. If they need good food before, I want to give it to them. Whatever we need to be comfortable and lean into it is fine. Chart, no chart.” Whatever form you need to arrive to the Form, I will try and find a way to do it for you. Could you, in return, promise to try and find Love with me? Return me back to the Ether, back to the Beloved. Nothing but prayer.
I’ve looked at form from both sides now, good and bad and still somehow, it’s its illusions I recall . . . if I find myself swinging to either extreme on the subject, I remember the millennia-years old words of a Goddess, from my first production with Peter:
All syllables have the nature of liberation.
Why? Liberation is neither within nor without, nor in between.
Likewise, syllables are neither within nor without, nor in between.
Therefore, Reverend Śāriputra, do not point to liberation by abandoning speech!
Why? Holy liberation is the equality of all things!
— Text of “Liberation Song” composed and sung by Ganavya Doraiswamy in Vimalakirti Sutra Ch. 7: The 2 Goddess (2019). Directed by Peter Sellars, featuring Michael Schumacher, with words translated to English by Robert Thurman
* * *
3. I M BALANCE
Practicing speed, in particular, should come with its own warning. It reminded me of what my dance teacher once said when I got my first bicycle: Little one, careful. Driving quickly is easy to balance. As I remember— relive— it now, it feels like she was speaking to the future, to the woman I would become, the one who would need to revisit this memory years later, replaying it again and again to myself when I sense unhealthy speed running through my veins, through various periods of addictions and afflictions. Ganavya, you don’t know how to balance the bicycle yet. Yes, I do, I protest. Well then, I am going to let go of the handle bar. Can you keep the bicycle standing, to sit in your balance, when you are not moving?
You know how to ride the bicycle. You don’t know how to balance it yet. You are depending on the power speed gives you for balance. This is dangerous. Remember balance. Speed courts habit, habit can parent addiction, and addiction is the enemy of balance. Form must be maintained, at all speeds. If you’re going to practice singing at that speed, practice praying and feeling at that speed, too.
Before I left the country, I spoke with her. On a still, but standing, bicycle. True mastery is not found in compulsive repetition of a form, in rapid gesticulation. True mastery is revealed in she who is full of balance, even when not distracted or supported by momentum. A hundred small movements that others looking at you can only register as stillness.
Be careful about obsessive repetition of form. Obsessive repetition of anything leaves no room for breath, for growth. I remember Claire explaining a Pauline piece called “13 changes” to us: a text score, everything is necessarily improvised, but if something worked in the evening and the ensemble tried to repeat that same approach a second evening, it just wouldn’t work. You can’t even repeat an approach to a text score twice and expect it to work. It is a little on the nose to say obsessive repetition of form is not where change happens, but it is necessary to say it nonetheless.
* * *
I remember my parents gleefully telling me they had reached the top of a 80 foot tree when they visited me in Banff, Canada. Excuse me?!, I choked. Then, Anne showed me the picture as they all laughed from their stomachs: a tree had fallen down, and my parents walked upon it, from one end of to to the other. We climbed a tree all the way to the top! To the very top! What a large tree!, the child ever-living in my father says, full of laughter. It is no longer a matter of vertical aspiration; of gravity-defying effort. It was simply a matter of balancing on the beam, for which your once-enemy, gravity, has now been made your friend.
It is true. That day, my parents climbed a tall tree, all the way to its very top. I cannot deny them this. But I could not consider this, until I changed my literal perspective. Follow the sound of good-natured laughter, I have learnt. This is an honorable way to navigate the world. You will find that humor was branded as frivolity by those who do not wish to let go of a form. But people like my parents— immigrants, students of new languages, the people of the in-between— they give form a new life precisely by accepting the advantages that disorientation reveals. Are you looking up at a tree, tired, terrified of the fall if you were to find yourself at its extremities?
May we learn from my brilliant parents, so that with balance alone, we will be able to walk to the top. My worry around them falling was not relevant, for they found the path in a world where the form itself fell to their feet.
This is why you rest, everywhere! my father joked at the top of the mountain, where they found this tree. If I didn’t take a nap while you were all out ‘hiking,’ I wouldn’t have been able to see that I could just walk to the top of the tree! These things, I try to remember. Don’t rush. If you want a challenge, try practicing the same form but slower, not faster. And, of course, practice the ultimate act of slowness: rest.
* * *
I first read the word weltschmerz in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. He was describing the sound of a song he heard when under a spell. Weltschmerz. A woman, singing. This, I remember. Weltschmerz, mourning the loss of fidelity between the perfect world that lives in our aspirations, and the world we live in now. The feeling of knowing the nuances of the form of a melody when you are humming inside yourself when you’re doing the dishes, but when the time comes to sing it with the band, you’re distracted in the presence of others, clarity lost in the present. What is it about purity, that it can live so clearly in our hearts, but even with great effort, it can be lost in the exercise of bringing it out for each other?
The Form beneath the observable form. I think of James Newton, my once-professor and now family. Every time I spoke to him and his wife JoAnn, it didn’t matter what shapes they were using, they were always in essence saying the same thing:
we love you,
we want the best for you,
we believe in you,
we see you.
It didn’t matter what they were saying. What they were actually saying, always, was this. The tangible form as a map to the intangible that lives within, behind, and through it. The affective truth that lives within, behind, and through our manifested expressions. The way our stomach reveals to us when someone is saying “I am this!” But then, the Form behind the form says, “I am not this.” Somewhere between the two is the entirety of human experience. And what of the music I make when they say the same thing in all realms? Trance? Prayer.
The image of an object losing its integrity as it exits the atmosphere of the earth, you wonder if any of it will survive by the time it travels completely to the outside. The transformation of affect to a verbal register can be visualized in this way. But I am not all resentful of this invisible fire that shields the skies, for it also keeps objects from entering into my world with ease. Planet, personhood. All in the physical world is at the mercy of a gravity. We are pulled and repelled by each other, the sum of these forces determining our resultant positionalities. LaMont wrote a simple question the other day:
what is the mathematics of your message?
I imagine a conversation between Simone and LaMont, between the two of them the entirety of my interest in affect theory explained. I wish to know what forces are enacted upon me that prevent me from accessing the truth that lives in the bottom of my stomach, in the core of my bones, in the flow of my blood and breath. I wish to know when I am that force for someone else. And, at the best of it, I wish to be someone who makes it easier for someone to become their self-of-infinity, a phrase I do not know how to translate to English. So I ask myself, as a bandleader, summarizing my thoughts on affect:
What is the mathematics of your presence?
All the natural movements of the soul are controlled by laws analogous to those of physical gravity. Grace is the only exception, Simone writes. I think of why so many of us hold on to James and JoAnne Newton’s Forms, as my fingers reach out to draw a line on the spine of a book they sent to me on St. Francis, before either of us knew I would be visiting Assisi so soon. The closest possible explanation is this: benevolent friends, teachers, mentors, people— they are windows to grace, and grace has no gravity. Or, it is a gravity that necessarily pulls you towards more grace. Moral gravity, Simone calls it— the fall towards the better. The sound that kept us walking for days when on pilgrimage. It requires no curation. Remember grace.
* * *
5. THE WISDOM OF THE KITCHEN
It is easier to speak our truths in the presence of grace. What are the mathematics of your truth? When are you able to sense and speak of your truth? When you speak, who hears you? I ask these questions across time to my younger ones to lead to the final question— have you found the people your music will serve? Because we carry a belief that was carefully passed on to us, that the sounds that come from us serve somebody— if we are lucky, ourselves— and as such, no music is bad. It’s just a matter of finding the people who need it. If your music exists, the people who need it exist. It’s an unflinching mystic law. Don’t let someone convince you the nature of your truth must change for you to be heard. It just means you’re not being heard by the right people yet. Many truths go unheard because this mystic law is forgotten.
Peter, when visiting a class once, spoke of his production with Elder Toni Morrison, Desdemona. In it, all the women in Shakespeare’s Othello (who are unnamed, and given no lines to speak) are gathered in the afterlife, looking down at the realm that killed them, now finally able to speak of their overlooked knowings. A deeply familiar scene, women in the kitchen shaking their heads at the foolishness of the brash people in the next room.
Now, we have come to my grandmother’s kitchen. What you read now is a severely truncated version of the letter I had first written, the original being about three times the size of this, the sheer volume of what was pouring out of me stunning my own fingers. Under what conditions would so much want to be heard?
To understand this, the mathematics of the impulse’s presence, I looked at two things: what I was saying, and who I was saying it to. What I was saying was an inventory of the indescribable weight of unsaid knowings I was carrying: stories of abuse, violence, oppression, eventual loss of hope. But perhaps it was the who I was saying it to, this particular journal, that was the key: an imagined community of musicians across time who shared these silent struggles. This is something I realized in my grandmother’s kitchen: the ritual recounting of these memories is not to curse perpetrators of violence, for we cast a gentle eye on all human life and effort, but it is to recount the tracings of wisdom and perseverance that lives alongside these difficult stories. The recounting of these stories is to remember how to hide the something in the nothing, so one of us can find it again when we need it.
I cannot, in good conscience or deference to the Subtle Energies of this psycho-physical world, recount everything I wrote of. I don’t have the book with me right this instant, but I remember it almost word for word: in Sister Love, a now-published collection of letters between them, Audre Lorde wrote something like the to Pat Parker: “I wish I could have this letter self-destruct like Mission Impossible, but I can’t, so don’t please leave it lying around.” I understand this sentiment. I can’t write what I had written before, in its entirety, knowing that this letter to you— despite all its safeties— cannot self-destruct and protect itself against the obsession with permanence.
The tabla teacher who molests his students and collaborators alike. The musician at Berklee who tried to punch his wife, but found my face instead as she hid behind me. The teacher who kept falling in love with his students in Los Angeles, forcing them into silence. Someone just sent me an email about an article in The Washington Post about pedophilia in El Sistema. This is the most difficult of all the memories: the music conference I was invited to speak at, on a panel about gender-based abuse in classrooms— where a professor who had abused a classmate was scheduled to be on the panel as well. Somehow, nobody knew that this had happened, the silence on this so deafeningly loud that such an invite could happen at all. I can’t do this, I told Rajna. You have to. Otherwise, he gets to speak unchallenged, she gently responded, with a strength larger than both of us. (Rajna’s silences, like Elder Coltrane’s silences, are loud. When she speaks, it can change lives.) The choice is between being part of a reproductive system that births the form of abuse repeatedly. Silence is its midwife.
Why write or speak these things at all? The etymology of the word cliché is onomatopoeic, Julietta Singh tells us. It is the literal sound of reproduction, of a kind of printing press. Cli-ché. Cli-ché. Cli-ché. I have a boil in my left ear that sits right beneath the surface. Every four months or so, it grows to the top, at which point it becomes too painful to ignore, and I pop it. But it lives there, and until I know what the actual root cause is, it will keep repeating itself. Every four months. This is perhaps what saddens me the most in the tales of abuse within music circles. We see the boil beneath the surface, but don’t address it. We just watch the tale repeat, over and over again. We just accept that one day, it will boil over, and we will deal with it then. And then, again, it will repeat.
This is something I have learnt from Yosvany: there is no use running away from worlds, because at the heart of it all, it is the same. Twenty years ago, I left my first musical home. There, men treated love in a profane way. Years later, worlds apart, the same exact shape repeats itself. Karnātik musicians, jazz musicians, the academy. It doesn’t matter where and how far I run. The same shape will keep emerging, and eventually boils to the surface. The pain is the indicator that there is a boil underneath. What is this particular form— the one of a lying, powerful man seeking love in terrible ways— trying to tell us? It will keep reappearing until we understand. And what are we doing to help it endlessly reproduce itself? I am not the messiah, no. Perhaps it is not my place to stop it. But I speak because I do not want my hand in its reproduction.
In India, we have a belief that you can never repay a teacher for their wisdom, but you make a ritual offering called the gurudakshina. I pray for a world where we give these powerful, hurting men the gurudakshina of truth. To not protect them from the truth, but with it. Bring the wisdom out of the kitchen, please. Offering the truth, but from a place of nourishment. The world will be better for it. Here, take fruit from this kitchen to place on the offering plate.
6. [ ]
I am starting a new production with Peter, this time the first chapter of the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra, having now done both the seventh and the second chapters. Sariputra cries to Elder Buddha, that this world we are all in must be led by impure spiritual leaders, for it is in such disarray— what an imperfect world we live in, he surmises.
Among other things, Elders immediately challenge Sariputra on this: if a person who is blind from birth cannot see the Sun and Moon, would you say they don’t exist? they ask him. No, I would say they are unable to see it due to their own conditions, he responds. Elder Buddha places his toe upon this world, instantly revealing it to be bejeweled, like the sister-world of Anantagunaratnavyuha. This world already, and always is, perfect Elder Buddha says. You just can’t see it yet due to your own conditions. This is the ultimate truth of my grandmother’s kitchen.
Although it is true that she taught music from this room, instructing students seated rooms away all while she sat in front of the stove, those who actually entered the kitchen itself usually came looking for a different kind of help.
From my small corner, I saw many people visit this room— many a battered wife, a hurting child, a hungry son, a disillusioned student, an overexerted mother, a me— and for every person, my Grandmother would hold their face with her soft hands and convince us the world was indeed already perfect, we just needed to find the perspective that would let us see it. Sometimes, the stories would only take a few minutes. Other times, it would take hours. But she never rushed them, the stories just found their own pace and way to the light. And after every telling, she would say the same thing: that through her limbs, a power greater than us all, would take care of it, and that we are not abandoned in this world.
I look at my hands and wonder how much of her is in me. I sing and wonder how much of her voice is in me. I play and wonder how much of her rhythm is in me. I care, and wonder how much of her care is in me. But then I write, and see that I can’t tell how much of her is really in me, but I don’t think that’s the point.
This orientation towards togetherness, the her in the possibility of you, that allows for the continued presence of the infinite Form in my life. Every time someone came by to cry on her shoulder, they would thank her as they left, and she would respond: oh, I did nothing. But Patti, you did everything, I would want to say. As I write to you, I suddenly see that she is in you, in the spaces where we read each other, listen to each other, think with each other. This is the nothing in everything.
* * *
Full names of partially named friends and people in letter, with birth years if known, in order of appearance: Seetha Doraiswamy (musician, grandmother, b.1926), Kaveh Akbar (poet, b. 1989), George Gershwin (composer, b. 1898), Lauren Groff (author, b. 1978), Vijay Iyer (pianist, b. 1971), Raveena Aurora (musician, b. 1994), Aaron Liao (musician), Peter Sellars (director, b. 1957), Claire Chase (flautist, teacher, b. 1978), Pauline Oliveros (composer, b. 1932), Anne Bourne (cellist, composer), LaMont Hamilton (multidisciplinary artist), Simone Weil (philosopher, b. 1909) Rajna Swaminathan (musician, teacher, composer, (b. 1991), Yosvany Terry (b. 1972).
The essay-letter was written in Umbertide (Italy), Cassis (France), and while traveling through the lands of the Tongva and Acjachemen people (Irvine, California, USA), and the Tygh people (Tygh Valley, Oregon, USA).
7. Monnette Sudler: You Gotta Rumble: Love, Life, and Music in the 1960s and 70s
I grew up in Philadelphia in the 1960s at a time when Uptown Theater was the place to go to see all the Black entertainers from Motown plus. Saturday afternoon matinees were for the young and the midnight show was for adults. Sam Reed and his orchestra played for all the acts. I saw artists I loved—James Brown and the Flames, the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Four Tops, Ike and Tina Turner, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. It was exciting to hear and watch their acts. I began to dream about what it was like to make music that moved people, made them dance, shout, and scream. Teen life wasn’t easy but the music was dependable, like a good friend who always answers your phone calls.
By the time I was fourteen, my parents had separated and we had moved about four times. In 1966 we were living on Rittenhouse Street in the Germantown section of Philadelphia in a little semi-detached home with a coal furnace. My mom built fires constantly for us. Sometimes I helped shovel the coal or break up the wood. Even though I was accustomed to the rustic adventure of building a fire, I was a stranger to camping and the outdoors. The summer before I went to high school, my mother sent me on a camping retreat sponsored by the church. Initially, I didn’t want to go but while I was there, I enjoyed the time on the lake and being out of the city. At the end of camp they had a talent show. As all of the young white girls were playing their guitars I became ticked off. Why hadn’t I brought my guitar? I wanted to get up there and play too. I had been too busy doing the cha cha with Fred from my church who was the only other Black kid there.
I returned home with an explosive musical spark. I told my aunt and grandmother how much I really wanted to play the guitar. My aunt arranged my lessons at the Wharton Center, a community center she worked at in North Philly as a secretary. Grandmom bought my case. I would take the bus from Germantown each week to attend my lesson with Carol Freidman who taught folk music.
I practiced the guitar religiously. Around the same time, I made a friend, Carla, at a talent show at my church. We were both around fourteen years old, African American, played guitar, and sang. We also shared a mutual enjoyment of folk music. We would practice all day, make up songs, and buy music to learn. Eventually we were good enough to perform for churches and recreation centers. We traveled to Washington, D.C. to perform at a church where we played folk and gospel music. They loved it. We were so happy and proud. We were always trying to create different picking styles. I’d practice this finger picking style on a song called “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles until my brother Truman couldn’t stand it anymore. Once Carla and I graduated high school we both went off to college. I was off to Berklee College of Music and Carla went to Shaw University. During the interim I began my quest to play jazz. Carol recommended Bob Zatzman. He was in Germantown. Carla and I would go to his guitar gatherings and meet other young guitarists. We picked up a lot just mingling and watching.
Berklee of the late 60’s and early 70’s was very different from today. The college didn’t have accommodations for female students so I had to stay at a house for young women off-campus run by Quakers. We had a curfew of 8:00 pm during the week and 11:00 pm on weekends. This meant that I couldn’t even go to a concert and stay until the end. Another challenge was the lack of racial diversity at the college. I was one of very few African American students at Berklee and at the off-campus dormitory. There was one African American woman from New Jersey at the school who became a crucial part of my support system. I also faced financial struggles as a student. Because none of the residents at the house could use the kitchen, we ate out. My friend Joan, who was a pianist, would help me out when my funds got low. It was my friendships with other women that kept me afloat.
One day, my co-worker at the YWCA where I was teaching guitar mentioned his friend, Khan Jamal, who was a vibraphonist. I called Khan and he was excited to get together. Khan Jamal and Omar Hill (percussionists), came to my house to shed (practice). In 1970 we became the nucleus of a jazz group called the Sounds of Liberation. The group evolved with various bassists and drummers, but the final group was Khan Jamal on vibraphone, me on guitar, Billy Mills on bass, and Omar Hill and Rashid Salam on congas. Later, Byard Lancaster joined on alto saxophone and flute. We performed at festivals, colleges and some jazz clubs mixing African rhythms and avant-garde with popular grooves. The 70’s were years of development and growth, serious study and introduction to avante garde music. I worked with alto saxophonist/flutist Byard Lancaster, tenor saxophonist Sam Rivers, and the father of avant-garde drumming, Sunny Murray.
Even before going to Berklee, I had begun listening to saxophonist John Coltrane’s spiritually rooted tunes like “After the Rain” and “Alabama.” Saxophonist/multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef would really swing or he would play very beautiful folk-like melodies such as “Love Theme” from Spartacus. Guitarist/vocalist/composer Richie Havens was raw, energized with a unique guitar and vocal style. I once had the opportunity to see how Haven prepared for his shows. He had someone change his strings after each set so his guitar always resonated. He strummed hard and his lyrics told the truth. Singer/songwriter Nina Simone’s music as well. Their music inspired and comforted me like a warm blanket. Even after I married my dedication was steadfast. Most days I would get up and practice from 5:00 am until 1:00 pm or whenever I felt the spirit.
Alongside my musical career, I was also learning about the twists and turns of love. I met James (I called him Jim for short) in junior high school. We were really good friends for maybe a year then decided to date each other. I guess you could say we were childhood sweethearts. He was into art and jazz music. His dad used to take us to the Quaker City Jazz festivals in Philly. I got to see and hear so many great musicians with him. One of my favorites was Hugh Masekela whom I was fortunate enough to work with years later. Jim’s family also had an extensive selection of albums—Jimmy Smith’s Slaughter on Tenth Avenue was one of my favorites. Jim liked to read. He enjoyed history and had read all the James Bond novels and The Hobbit which came out in the movies later. He was so excited to see the movie but I really had no clue. Jim was on the fencing and debate teams, and spent hours drawing and creating murals in his family’s home. So focused…enjoyed kite flying and bike riding. Later, he started to play the flute. In his later years of high school, I noticed something change about Jim. He met some people who smoked weed and who were, in my opinion, less dedicated to any practice. He and I still dated but not exclusively at that point.
After high school, I went to Berklee and he went to art school. Around this time he had a son with another young woman and they moved into an apartment in west Philadelphia. They stayed together for several years before splitting up. Eventually, Jim and I married in March of 1977. The year before I recorded Time for a Change, my first album as a band leader, for Steeplechase records. I had become more immersed in the music business, beyond just playing my guitar. I had my own group, was recording as a leader, and I was married.
My husband, although he seemed to be supportive on the exterior, sang a different tune behind closed doors. One time, after singing my musical praises, I overheard him telling his friends that I wasn’t all that! In addition to having a husband who diminished me behind my back, I also faced discrimination from folks in the business. When my husband and I were working together, there were times when the agent or club owners would ignore me when I tried to handle the business aspects of our work. As a Black woman, a single parent, and professional musician, I am among those who receive the least amount of opportunities, monetary advancement, and respect. It’s the same globally where Black women want to say and often do say, “Hey, I’m right here doing the work, creating, motivating, exploring. Why are you treating me like I’m invisible?”
While Jim and I lived together, we sometimes smoked a little weed. I was still working with Sounds of Liberation, traveling back and forth to New York working with Sam Rivers and Sunny Murray. I began to notice that he would have cocaine and weed in some social situations—couples night or him hanging out with his boys. I would always decline. I stayed on course for so many years while living in the midst of what became chaos until I saw a person I respected get high at our home, and then I thought maybe I should try it too. This started my downward spiral.
It wasn’t until children entered into the picture that I began to step out of the turbulent haze that had become my life. Having my first son in 1985 was actually the best thing that ever happened to me. My second son was born in 1988 after broken promises of “I’ll do better, baby.” We were living in chaos and my marriage was starting to crumble. It was our sons who gave me a purpose greater than music. Jim and I divorced around 1990. I was left trying to balance single motherhood, my music profession, and juggling my extraneous jobs trying to make ends meet. It was overwhelming.
I became frustrated with my life and suddenly began questioning my worth and why I wasn’t getting more recognition and recording opportunities. I became resentful and bitter because I was not on the level I believed that I should have been at. It took years for me to reevaluate my life, make amends, focus, and align myself with like-minded people who were clean and in a positive space. Eventually, I found myself at peace again and in my happy place remembering the essence of why I play music. Remembering that young girl at camp who wanted more out of life, the joy that music brought to me and those I serve.
It’s ironic that as a child at school they will have a police officer or a social worker address the class to tell us to beware of strangers. Don’t accept rides or take drugs. They never tell you that it’s the people closest to you that can sometimes hurt you or that life requires more than just showing up. It requires bravery and strength. I confess it’s not always easy to decipher a person’s intentions because people can be very clever. Sometimes it’s overt, someone telling you what you can’t do or how you won’t succeed. I have talked to women that didn’t even know what it meant to have a dream. Once you realize your dreams, whether large or small, take one step at a time, stay focused to make it happen. You gotta rumble.
8. Richie Seivwright: Hollow
I follow a procession of metal and oil I hear a humming feverish tune Those on their journeys eager and impatient to get somewhere. Where? The same place as everyone else But we must never speak of it. Why? Because we're all afraid Afraid of seeing no yesterday and no tomorrow Its sounds peaceful to me Those infected with a common case of delusia Afraid of being thrown into a bottomless pit of misery and pain The thought of falling for the rest of eternity was almost enough to sway me too So easily swayed Fickle world Faithless people To make sure we arrive prepared we spend a lifetime working Working so we can think about all the work we’ve done Nothing to show but a mark left by a rich man The mark of the beast And some of us create more robots And program them to grow up quickly Just to repeat this all over again Again Over Repeat What a legacy So concerned about how we will be remembered We spend our lives living for approval Playing the lead role in a distorted fairy tale We look for groups to fit into Label ourselves with hollow terms But reject the idea of being boxed We divide ourselves into regressive groups And then beg for unity and progression Brainwashing our own minds with just the swipe of a finger We gossip cheat and lie but we’re not sinners Sinners judging sinners for sinning differently Then the self-doubt brews and lingers Trigger Trigger Triggered. So outraged to see a cop killer ya yigga Then forget about it in 2 weeks Next time just keep ya weak fake whimper Then we cancel to make things simpler Done by those who claim they see but are not freethinkers Loosen up, open up, be limber Wake up and smell stench Instead we press our nostrils and look the other way Barely breathing, suffocated Underwater There’s a poor connection down here A disconnection to the source I have no remorse Since we ourselves are the cause A nation of sleepwalking sheep Owned by pigs and ruled by wolves I’m guilty too It’s not an easy escape from the mother computer complex
9. Malika Zarra: Warrior Queen
Traveling seas Hope Smile Starting again and again all over Creating Thinking Redoing New life New start Getting old Falling in love Making a baby Ease tensions Creating again Starting from scratch Reimagine the present Reimagine the future Holding it Trying to breathe Crying Rebuilding new paths Hope Smiling Breathing Believing Hope again Smiling again I’m a warrior queen And so are you!
10. Cleo Reed: what i touch i inherit
i’ve contemplated my own feelings of preciousness, scarcity. And without touch, i thrive under stress. So if the floor shakes below me, the greatest thing i can do is smile and panic, all at once. an anxiously attached child within me finds rooms to breathe in, again. letting her die makes me feel like i’ve become too certain, maybe even lackadaisical. the internet raised me this way. gave me places to feel like procrastination was integral to my spirit. infinite thoughts floating through my head, as i’ve been given 1-2 curated ads a day. it feels lazy of them. perhaps they need the touch i need. i need an seo that shows me how to hug my parents without feeling like i’m hurting their feelings. i want to let go of ownership. a warped part of me knows as fact: to touch is to earn.
11. Samantha Boshnack: “Shining Through”: On Listening to the Earth’s Truth & Dreaming Towards Hope
“The artist’s medium is not reality, but dreams. I don’t mean ‘dreams’ in the sense of made-up bullshit. I mean dreams as the X-ray of truth, truth seen through and seen for what it really is, truth boiled down to its essence.” – Steven Pressfield
During the Covid-19 pandemic I found myself, like many others, missing the life force that makes me feel awake—performing. In 2021, as I was stuck home trying to envision what would come next, I was selected to participate in two artist cohorts—Mutual Mentorship for Musicians (M³) and Composing Earth—that gave me the opportunity to reflect on my practice and to connect with other artists. Without live music-making and left to my own devices, I can get into a dark and lonely mindset. M³ introduced me to wonderful women artists from around the world. Communicating with them and feeling a part of that community helped me immensely. Through collaborating with Fay Victor on our music, I felt activated again as I had not been in a while.
As a member of Composing Earth, a composer group created by the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music, I read and dialogued about the climate crisis. Each composer was commissioned to produce work on a climate related topic of their choosing. Our year-long study has radically shifted my understanding of the world around me. Reading Amitav Ghosh’s “The Great Derangement” deeply affected me. We have known for a long time that our style of living and industrial ways would push our climate into an apocalyptic and catastrophic state, but we kept at it anyway. I was aware on some level just how wrong our civilization treats the earth; but when you learn more facts, it can knock you over. Food, travel, economics, infrastructure—it’s all set up in very unsustainable ways. There were warnings all along the way that our systems would not work, but they were ignored. We’ve created our own reality, within the natural world, forgetting what was here before. Humans have turned away from caring for the earth.
My growing consciousness on climate change has affected not only how I think about the world but how I make art. I started writing music for M³ on a day when I was really feeling disgusted with humanity. Reading about the creation of a carbon-based society which values money over the living beings on this earth will do that to me. When I feel this way, I escape into nature. I live in the amazingly beautiful Pacific Northwest, where I am grateful I can still find solitude when I want it. I took a walk to a nearby lake in an attempt to escape the man-made world. I went to a tree completely filled with red-wing blackbirds, where I got wrapped up in their rich and complex song. I recorded this incredible symphony and brought it home. I improvised along with it on my trumpet, imagining myself apart from the greed and short-sightedness of our society. From this feeling came lyrics:
When times are hard, I hide myself
Through darkest nights, I find myself
Alone at Last
At last has come, I tell myself
No more to fear, I’m by myself
Alone at Last
Then you shine through, so clear and bright
I find myself bathed in your light
Alone has Passed
Shine through, clear and bright
Nowhere to hide
Fear has left me alone
Alone at Last
I started this piece from a sad and frustrated place, but I knew that this would not serve me. As upsetting as the facts are, feeling hopeless and giving up is not the answer. I want to act from a place of determination. The reference to shining through in the lyrics is meant to convey the sense of trying to do something about the problem with the skills that I have. When I can explore—the mountains, the bodies of water, the countryside—the beauty of the earth shines through and fills me with a sense of purpose. So much is already lost, but there is much we can still work to save.
There have been times as I study the climate crisis, that I wish I had chosen a career path that could more tangibly change the world we live in—a scientist, a lawyer, a politician. Something more practical in terms of getting the job done. But I can’t go back now and I have felt music pulse through me as if it was in my blood, felt the clarity that this was what I was here for. So I have to trust the truth in that, and dedicate myself to trying to affect the world around me with what I have. I do believe that there is something practical about the impractical; that we need the dreamers to see beyond what is given to us as reality. It is incredibly difficult to see how to portray this in music, but I am searching for ways to express that truth. Throughout history, art has always been a means of expressing urgency, of crying out to the public that change is needed. The truth is that we have to do something about the climate crisis and very fast, reality needs to change for all of us. I want to be a part of looking beyond the current failed man-made reality, to find a truth which can sustain the earth and its inhabitants.
12. Miriam Eilhajli: Elegy for Lungs
“It is not only air that one exhales but it’s a current which, according to mystics, runs from the physical plane into the innermost plane; a current that runs through the body, mind, and soul, touching the innermost part of life and also coming back; a continual current perpetually moving in and out.” “Breath is like a lift, a lift in which one rises up to the first floor, and then to the second, and then to the third floor – in fact wherever he wishes to go” - from The Music of Life by Hazrat Inayat Khan I. Caught in between the coil of inherited tongues, my upper lip my lower lip are a crosscurrent underneath this slanted bridge where the east river sinks ferries just for fun. Half open I spill out can not find a container in which to retrieve myself and you are no longer beside the pier, with a spare handkerchief in your raincoat to place into my hand, without looking, and wait until I can catch my breath. (You never asked me for an explanation.) Listening to the drone of the fisherman’s reel, We admit to forgotten family recipes. Was it saffron or mustard seed in the secret jar of spices left behind? If only I could remember the size of her palms I’d need no measuring cup. II. remedy diner (april 2021) I will never write anything down I will never write anything down I will never write anything down I will never write anything down I will never write anything down I will Not write anything down I will not write anything down I will not write anything down I will not write anything down I will not write anything down I will not Write anything down I cannot write anything down I will try to write anything down I will never try to write anything down I will not write everything down I downright or else write everything up Never write anything down Never write anything down Never write anything down Never write everything down Never write everything down Never write everything down Down I anything write Write I Down everything Down down everything I write W irte ownd ythingever ewrite I thing I thing I thing I thing I thing I thing I thing I think I ching I ching I ching I ching I think I thing I think I thing I thing I thing I thing thing thing thing disconnected suffocated text that is not what I meant at all act seventeen scene two-thousand; miscommunications libations pay attention to the notes ringing ….false note ………false note ……………. false notes…….. false note…… ……church bell…………….. false note……..pause….. jackhammer…..exhalation….. … .. …..false note……….. ya know sometimes you’re full of shit! not one word rannnnnnngggggg metal chime brass silver truth quantum particles agitated by your deadpan indifference towards cosmic nuance input input input 9V to 12V to 16V EXPLOSION III. no one drags me to church anymore but it’s Easter Sunday on 11th & C so I celebrate resurrections & my weekly unemployment claim at the dilapidated corner chapel with inviting windows. the Dominican preachers wife doesn’t know what to make of me as I enter late to service with carpenter pants on inside out & a stain on my vest. I catch her sideways glance containing the unspoken reminder that I am no longer a child. No longer unnoticed when blowing out rows of votive candles, no longer protected when walking behind my grandmother, pinching her elbow, as we pause in line to receive confirmation. I am held accountable now and have to explain myself this afternoon - my improper attire, shaved head, armpits.