Page Text


A single mystical chord from Cecil Taylor gives fellow pianist Vijay Iyer a glimpse of eternity

“A motionless, timeless interior”: Cecil Taylor

There was a period in the early-mid-90s when I listened non-stop to Cecil Taylor – seeing him live often, and dosing myself with his recordings every morning over breakfast. On the live solo double album Garden (hat Hut, 1982), “Pemmican”, one of Taylor’s many great, inimitable solo ballads, particularly grabbed me. It’s such a beautiful song. Plus, it had one of the most transparent and economical forms I’d ever heard from Taylor. In an apparent nod to standard jazz practice, he plays the head twice, seemingly improvises over the song’s progression, and plays the head out again. One chord he plays changed my life. It’s in the middle of the head, one minute in (and recurs on the repeats); a mysterious and spectral sound, stable, pure, yet somehow void. I set to work at the piano, trying to discern its contents: OK, we’ve got an A octave in the bass, and an octave B in the right hand, a G in the middle there... That’s it? In three notes I was suddenly peering into the abyss. Sure, the same chord may occur elsewhere, for example in the midst of a typical montuno pattern, but here it was frozen in mid-flight and seen perspicuously from all angles, like an airborne character in The Matrix. This cluster wasn’t mere harmony; it was physics, philosophy, poetics, architecture. The chord had mathematical symmetry (surrounding the root by whole steps on either side); it had physical grounding (the first, seventh and ninth partials of the harmonic series); it displayed no clear tonal function (having no third or fifth); and as a sound it lacked nothing, wanted and needed nothing. To my 23 year old ears, this was an antichord. I could listen to this sound all day; I wanted to live inside it, learn from it; it had something I didn’t have. I suddenly started noticing the sonority everywhere. Andrew Hill deployed it in his trio tune “Subterfuge” on the classic Black Fire. Ellington, Monk and Randy Weston hinted at it, and maybe James Brown and Bernie Worrell knew, too. I started

experimenting with that chord in my own playing, but it always sounded wrong. Like a child with a new word, I wielded it inappropriately, trying it out on standards, in rock and hiphop groups, at weddings and funerals. Soon afterward I found myself participating in Taylor’s creative orchestra music. I was living in Oakland, California, and was still playing occasional gigs on violin, which had been my first instrument, though I kept saying I had quit. But I had to say yes to this occasion, in which 40 West Coast musicians studied and interpreted Taylor’s work under his guidance. In rehearsals, Taylor initially seemed a stickler for detail. We spent the first three hour rehearsal on one postage stamp-sized corner of one of his handwritten scores; he would rework the material bit by bit, singing or conducting a phrase for us, or asking us to permute the written pitches in a certain way. Early on, when asked about the role of the written material, he said: this is the formal content of the piece; what I want is for all the players to bring their individual languages to its interpretation and execution. As the week progressed, his guidance grew less direct; eventually he would just set us in motion and leave the room. I realised that somehow he had taught us aspects of his language – his sense of phrasing and repetition, the way he rigorously explodes a line. Now we were to bring our own ideas and actions to this context. When he returned to the rehearsal room, he would find that we had made something out of his scores. A real collective bond formed; we were not just an orchestra, but a small civilization. Unsurprisingly, in performance we experienced a civilization’s worth of strife and tension. It all came to pass on 26 October 1995, my 24th birthday, the date of a now legendary concert by this shortlived ensemble-cum-cult at the San Francisco Jazz Festival. Once we’d settled onstage after a semichoreographed opening ritual, we found ourselves

in baffled disagreement as to what was supposed to be happening or what to do next. Confronted by the absence of a more linear score to which to adhere or any direct commands from the leader (Taylor functioning more as a trickster in the ensemble), many musicians immediately abandoned their allegiance to the brittle orchestral aesthetic we had developed in rehearsals, opting instead for the more predictable ecstatic wailing. It became an issue of physical power, the softer instruments subjected to the louder players’ whims. In response, small, localised factions formed to conduct their own unified activities, creating pockets of apparent order in the mêêléée. The performance included many such flashes of beauty, fortuitous moments of focus interspersed amid at times inscrutable orchestral noise. After what felt like an age of war, the ensemble’s energy was expended, and the evening ended with a consummate, almost prayerful unaccompanied statement from Taylor, coming to rest on, yes, that chord again – quieting our quickened hearts, healing our battle wounds, absolving our sins. I came to understand that the message of this chord is one of peace. It doesn’t even ask to be heard; it has an uncommon stillness, as though it had coexisted with humanity for millennia, as if it predates us and will outlast us. If such stillness could exist at the heart of a music as turbulent as Cecil Taylor’s, that could only mean that I had previously misread his music. For all its animated surface qualities and its notorious tumult, Taylor’s music somehow possesses a motionless, timeless interior; this chord was proof. I couldn’t even conceive of his music as transgressive anymore; at moments like these, it seemed to exist as incontrovertible fact.  Vijay Iyer is a pianist and composer; for information on his music go to With acknowledgments to