Culture Rover

#47 - Instrumental Thinking

"I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own. He has to make it do what he wants it to do. And a piano is just a piano. It's made out of so much wood and wires and little hammers and big ones and ivory." - James Baldwin, "Sonny's Blues"

"Well, my instruments are made out of stuff, first off." - Cooper-Moore

Like a strange coffin, the cedar box labeled Cooper-Moore looks like a relic from the past: five 45 r.p.m. size (but 33 1/3 r.p.m. playing) records lay beneath a small booklet within the box's sliding wood door. But the sounds inside are not from some long-lost old-time mountain music recording; they are recent tracks performed by Cooper-Moore on piano and numerous homemade instruments.

The music -- achingly beautiful, movingly ugly, always powerfully expressive -- makes one yearn for a whole CD/DVD box set beyond the brief sampling here. Songs do reach back in time to Cooper-Moore's Blue Ridge Mountains Virginia Piedmont upbringing, but they also soar into the future on space-age overtones and adventures in dissonance.

Traveling the spaceways between past and future, then and now and then again, here and there and perhaps also there, before and after and back and forth and up and down and interior and exterior and deep within and somewhere over the rainbow, Cooper-Moore (born Gene Y. Ashton) revisits one particular question over the course of ten short but emotion- and information-packed tracks: What is the relationship between musician and instrument? Which is really a way of asking: What is the relationship between humans and the material world, between the animate and the inanimate, between our mortal lives and those larger forces that surge through the music but always just escape its precise bounds?

"The flute isn't painful, [or] the diddley-bo. ...The piano is painful. ...The deal is, you get in it and you think you're trying to control it, and that's where the pain and injuries come. It's like my Sunday school teacher, she'd look at me, she'd say, 'You must be born again.' It's the idea that you surrender to it. You just surrender to it. You have this faith, you have this belief, you have some kind of energy inside of you that let go and allows yourself to play it or be manipulated by it in some kind of way. It's a very strange thing. When it works well, I don't feel that it's my energy doing it...." - Cooper-Moore on playing the piano

Cooper-Moore has been performing in the world of "avant-garde" jazz (a clumsy label of course) since the early 1970s, living in those days at 501 Canal Street space with the likes of saxophonist David S. Ware, later performing alongside bassist William Parker and others still actively making beautiful and powerful improvisational music.

But Cooper-Moore is much more than just a sideman. Since the early 1970s, he has created his own instruments: fifes and flutes, mouth harps, a banjo, the diddley-bo, the horizontal hoe-handle harp, and instruments with names such as the twanger (two banjo strings, unfretted neck) and the ashimba (a xylophone-like instrument whose name comes from the contraction of Ashton and marimba).

"So I built one with a bass string, and when I built the one-string upright D bass, after I plugged it in, part of me -- the front, conscious world -- had doubts that it could ever be anything. But then the inner, imaginative world kept saying, 'The is a great thing.' And it took me so long to make it work...." - Cooper-Moore's story of building the diddley-bo

Ashton to ashes but scrapwood recuper(moore)ated. Songs such as "Emancipation" on the ashimba ache with beauty as Cooper-Moore tries to break new ground, but returns to a song he often performs on the instrument, a song in which he imagines what it was like to be a freed slave after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. The music sounds ritualistic, a kind of meditation on sorrow and joy, emotions pent-up and released, as the sweet, crystal clink of the ashimba bars sonically washes tears across the space of the recording.

"It's a whole different way of playing in that you make this jump in your mind that your hand is now your vocal cord. The squeezing and releasing of your hand is the vocal cord. So in my mind, that's where I go. I release my vocal cord in my throat and put it into my hand. I can not do it and just play the instrument, but it doesn't work like when I transfer my vocal cord mindset to my hand, because it's a vocal instrument." - Cooper-Moore on playing the "twanger"

Or listen to the ancient hum of the twanger on "That's Right" or the banjo on "Crow Shit on the Window." The strings sound as if they arise like vines out of soil, deeply resonant, tangled, old, earthy. But as the songs progress, all sorts of overtones emerge: railroad squeals, rubber tire screeches, jet-engine bursts, dial-up internet modem bleeps. Cooper-Moore lifts sounds off the strings that lurch into the space-age while still rooted in their old forests.

"The music came out of politics, yes. Yes, it's very political, very political. Very, very, very, very, very." - Cooper-Moore on politics and jazz

In what could be construed as a nod to Sonny Rollins, one of Cooper-Moore's mentors, a man who famously practiced while perched on the Williamsburg Bridge, Cooper-Moore performs certain tracks on the footbridge to Ward's Island. He transforms the island itself into an instrument of meaning, a place of sorrow and survival, a place where the homeless and mentally-disabled live next to a huge garbage dump.

"The ashimba piece was performed on a garbage heap and the ambience of tit is that of the place where the waste was." - Cooper-Moore

Memory is crucial here to the relationship between musician and instrument. Cooper-Moore recites a strange story from his childhood: the "Sunday Tale" of Miss Jesse Tate, the church-going woman with a skull on her sunglasses. He turns the pacing and tone of his voice and words into an instrument.The future matters too. Cooper-Moore performs for children. Home and far away matter -- from Cooper-Moore's living room in Manhattan to Bordeaux, France. And the audience matters. Cooper-Moore performs for himself, but he also makes music for us.

"I find it's important to be in touch with the audience. It's not necessarily about me. It's about the audience. ...They come because they have a need. How can I fulfill that need and mine too, at the same time?" - Cooper-Moore

Cooper-Moore's music uses the relationship between musician and instrument to examine questions of selfishness and giving, freedom and structure, noise and silence, sweetness and sourness, ugliness and beauty, and other topics that can emerge from the interaction of humans with the world around them.

"I'd just found a bundle of wood. I was sitting on the floor looking at the bundle of wood. ...[Jimmy Hopps was] coming through the hall, he looks over, he says, 'That's your future,' then he goes in his room. ...So when I started building instruments, it was like, I build this instrument but it doesn't have great value because it's made out of stuff. If it gets broken or lost, so what? Make another one. You don't have attachment with it, but as you keep them, they have attachments. ...I would mourn my ashimba bars if they were burned up or lost. But if I got to the point where they didn't matter, I think I would be a very free person." - Cooper-Moore

2 February 2005

Back to #46

Go to #48