March 25, 2015 Carnegie Hall
First Set, First Poem, First Response
by Monique Avakian
Foreward ~ Clouds Parting
On March 25, 2015, in the Weill Room of Carnegie Hall, the avant-garde jazz musical duo known as Choi/Sacks, offered to us in the first set of the evening, their unique, improvisatory zeitgeist. The set list ranged from composers such as Hank Williams (I’m So Lonesome) to Thelonious Monk (In Walked Bud) to Randy Newman (In Germany Before the War) to Duke Ellington (In a Mellow Tone). Expressions of poems by Ogden Nash and Emily Dickinson as well as various arrangements and rearrangements of folk and children’s songs (by Ives, Copland and the duo themselves) were also offered generously to us in that magical hour.
In Dickinson’s short, four-line poem, the nature of the moon’s wax and wane becomes a metaphor to explore deeply. The reality of perception, the healing nature of natural wisdom, magical facts obscured, yet revealed…even the poets among us are challenged to rise to the call, as many of us are out of practice with the life-affirming dance of ambiguity, having created a culture so mired in the literal.
Talented and bold musicians such as Jacob Sacks and Yoon Sun Choi enjoy taking chances in order to go beyond. This is lucky for the rest of us, as their openness in so doing extends to the listener a path and a way IN.
And such is the singular path that this writer has chosen to take. Keeping in mind that the micro houses the nature of the macro, I am encouraged by forces unseen and familiar to hone in on one selection for this entire write up — namely, the duo’s interpretation of the Dickinson poem, “Each That We Lose Takes a Part of Us.”
Cupped hands bellow subtle acoustics. Intuitive dials spin. A mysterious and intangible radio warms to distilled frequencies sparked by paradox. The human transistor buried inside, opens, and floods with the crimson tide of emotion…
As encouraged by the artistic processes of a poet (Emily Dickinson) and two musicians (Jacob Sacks and Yoon Sun Choi), it strikes me that enlightenment hinges upon a kind of cultivated intuition. Philosophically, I am referring to the evolved faculty of being able to hold the unity inherent in duality. Musically, this translates into the purity of artistic process held within collective jazz improvisation. Poetically, metaphor telescopes into Zen Koan into haiku into an ancient understanding of WiseChildReallyElder.
For the listener in the Weill Room at Carnegie Hall on March 25th, it was easy to inhabit the soundworld of the Choi/Sacks version of Dickinson’s poem. Jacob Sacks’ fluid up-ended gestures on piano allowed the ear to engage with the sound of wind and, thereby, mesh deeply with the very nature of changeability.
Not really arpeggiated, not really random, not really unstructured, not really un-free, the pitches somehow became almost irrelevant. Even the rhythm slyly hid beneath the soundfield he created. In telegraphing the essence of change in this elongated, soft and sustained manner, Sacks eventually transformed himself into the grounding anchor of the piece (!). This poetic housing of pairs of opposites allowed not only the music, but even the musician himself, to become a living metaphor, mirroring the layers of meaning held in this short and powerful poem.
Within, upon, around and through this contextual sonic field, Choi’s ever-pliable voice became a lyrical and conceptual conduit, moving between worlds held still at top speed in an ever-shifting stable universe. Her unique and spontaneous phrasing of the poem’s four lines embodied a sort of uber~rhythmic understanding that provided a sharp and pleasing contrast held within Sacks’ streaming feel. Choi’s percussive command of impromptu syncopated phrasing served as a powerful magnet, driving the ear into a deeper understanding of the many secrets held inside complex musical concepts such as rhythmic consonance and dissonance. And mirroring her partner’s illuminatory stance, even the words themselves became subsumed to the primal nature of vocal utterance. Twining further, this abstraction then became it’s opposite, returning us to that familiar, tangible~yet~intangible place of early childhood, where we expressed to others clearly our thoughts and desires, without the need of any kind of formal language.
But, then again, any description of Yoon Sun Choi’s interpretive command is, perhaps, best left to the discerning powers of benevolent ghosts. Every time I hear her, I think about ancestors and Shamans. Reading up, I learn that the ancient Korean shamanistic lineage travels through the female power line. And unlike in many other cultures, the Korean shaman is not going on a soul journey on behalf of the patient, but is holding the healing space of the trance.
The onus is, therefore, on the listener to become an active agent in the moment. Given the level of passivity encouraged by our machine-driven culture, this call to be completely present is as terrifying as it is transformative.
Dickinson Poem Here:
Monique Avakian Here:
Shaman Studies Here:
Of course, the entire evening, both sets, was equally deep, engaging and meaningful. However, I am out of time (for now, anyway).