June 05, 2002




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Horn balloons

IN THE FIRST letter that N. wrote to the Angel of Dust back in 1978, the world was music and music was in pieces. It was a dream that N. had had, a dream of a bass clarinet broken down next to a manhole. The clarinet turned out to be made of plumbing, and N. played Archie Shepp's "Cousin Mary" through one stretch of pipe until he realized that what he was playing was actually a recording. The pop and scratch of vinyl under a needle was what woke him back up to himself.

The letter begins Bedouin Hornbook, Nathaniel Mackey's first installment in a series of epistolary jazz novels whose title, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, prepares you for their elegance and inscrutability. The letters in Bedouin Hornbook – all written by N., a composer and multi-instrumentalist in the California-based Mystic Horn Society jazz ensemble, to the enigmatic Angel of Dust – let us into N.'s world of jazz performance, music theory, and black aesthetic philosophy. There isn't much plot or action or even character development, but what makes Bedouin such a difficult and puzzling revelation is that it sets out to do the nearly impossible: to describe music from inside music, to find a way to use fiction as a language for something that is beyond language.

Mackey – who is also a poet and a UC Santa Cruz English professor – is a passionate devotee of what the Spanish call duende, the invisible sprit and untouchable force of mystery that fuels flamenco music. According to Federico García Lorca, one of duende's great historians, duende can only be heard, never explained, and heard not in the perfection of form and technique but heard in the tear of a voice or the quiver of a throat. "All that has black sounds has duende," Lorca once wrote. "Duende loves the rim of the wound."

Duende often erupts in the music of the Mystic Horn Society, and duende's uncomfortable relationship with speech and writing is the theme that dominates the third addition to Mackey's series, Atet AD. The latest correspondence between N. and the Angel of Dust tells of gigs and recording sessions although really they are just another batch of metatheoretical labyrinths where music – especially jazz and music from Spain, Africa, India, and the Americas – is not just what is always talked about but also what N. is always talking through.

Mackey is that rare writer who writes with his ears, a zealous, devotional listener who has chosen the written word as his medium. He approaches music not as a thing to be played or heard but as an enveloping sensory and psychological experience, a complete social order that is always evolving. Mackey's characters are musicians for whom there is no outside of music, for whom improvisation and performance are ways of being, forms of consciousness, and tools of Africa-and-beyond cultural survival.

Atet's most stunning moments are when Mackey lets N. write about Mystic's gigs from his own perspective as a musician and we get descriptions of music in the process of performance. "He spoke thru the horn as though telling of a dream while still asleep," N. says of one saxophone solo, "a waking dream whose theme was dreamt conveyance. Behind the lids of my closed eyes I saw the words he spoke inscribed within the blank he had previously drawn, written out and rolling within the template, rolling scroll and teleprompter into one, ancient and modern into one."

Throughout the book N. is the musician-composer who thinks, the musician-as-intellectual who theorizes his own music before any critic gets to it – exactly the kind of jazz figure Eric Porter wants us to pay attention to in his vital new book What Is This Thing Called Jazz?, which shares one of the arguments Mackey's novels make. Black jazz musicians have long been celebrated for what they play, but rarely for what they think, for what kinds of ideas they have about the music they make.

"Unfortunately, African American intellectualism is still often seen as oxymoronic," Porter blasts, "and jazz ... is commonly seen as a product of emotion or instinct rather than a self-conscious activity." Like the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Abbey Lincoln, and Charles Mingus, N. and the Mystic Horn Society are musicians who are articulate about what they play, highly self-conscious thinkers who with every note and every session are grappling with their place in an ongoing cultural tradition of black creation.

In fact, the climax of Atet as a novel occurs when jazz music itself is transformed into the musician's intellectual articulation, when Mystic's sax player, Penguin, starts blowing balloons of text out of his horn. With each breathed note, he blows another with new words that speak of "love's exponential debris" and that "map even as they mourn." When photographers try to document the phenomenal event, they capture nothing – the sound balloons of language leave no visual trace. In that way, Mackey writes like Penguin plays but reversed: the writer breathing balloon after balloon of language to make a music that can only be seen.

E-mail Josh Kun at jksfbg@aol.com.