Back in the 1950s, jazz and classical music engaged in an awkward do-si-do, with swinging symphonic musicians framing swinging bands or jazz players such as the Modern Jazz Quartet bring improvisational life to classical melodies. Let’s call the music, for the most part, a noble effort.
In the last 20 years, there has developed a new breed of classical musician, playing what has been termed “new music”, who is not afraid to stray into improvisation as part of a new vocabulary of extended techniques and composition that, nevertheless, flows from 20th century classical experimentation. And there is a new kind of “jazz” musician, trained in all sorts of music, who is interested in composition that strays from swing and from the usual melody-set-to-chord-changes format that jazz featured for so long. There is now a rich landscape where these traditions are overlapping, with musicians who don’t see the boundary between them.
Pianist and composer Cory Smythe—who has been notably featured in the trio of composer Tyshawn Sorey—is just such a musician. And his new recording, Circulate Susanna, brings another interest into the mix: his childhood of hearing old American (minstrel) tunes by the likes of Stephen Foster and George Washington Dixon played by his father at their rural Illinois home. The music here, then, sounds nothing like jazz, nothing like vaudeville or country or Americana or minstrel music, and maybe something like searching new music. Except that it is dominated by an open-ended improvisational spirit.
The range of sounds on Circulate Susanna—a reference, it would seem, to Foster’s most famous song, “Oh, Susanna!”—is wide but whispery. While Smythe’s piano is the dominant voice, he is joined by vocalist Sofia Jernberg and Daniel Lippel’s guitar and electronics. Jernberg uses a (mostly) wordless technique of cries, whispers, coos, and creaks to evoke otherworldly and intensely human notions. Lippel’s guitar is detuned and percussive, atmospheric, and atonal. And Smythe adds autoharp and other electronic sounds to the landscape. The results are compositions that feature more texture and atmosphere rather than melody, harmony, and rhythm in their usual balance.
“Reverse soil flutter”, for example, creates a guitar-piano amble with a bit of atonal momentum, over which Jernberg improvises a set of guttural croaks, rattled squeaks, and breathy swirls or patterns that toggle across unusual intervals. “Flutter” is a good word to describe it, but it would not seems to be a written melody. Smythe follows her with an improvisation on the piano that creates an attractive single-note line over the stumbling rhythm of Lippel’s guitar—which gets a brief moment of sharply played eighth-note chords before a piano rumble and Jernberg’s strangled cry finishes the piece in a crescendo and peaceful ten-second coda.
Some listeners will insist on wondering, what does a piece like this “mean”? That is not an unfair question, though it may be slightly churlish coming from a listener who wants a sculpted melody and more apparent “beauty” from the music. Smythe’s autobiographical liner notes tell the story of his childhood in the midwest, with his father playing those old minstrel records (for square dancing) and then telling the kids wild, mysterious stories as they snuggled in a dug-out hole in the earth. The music, the tales of other-worldly creatures with music in their veins instead of blood, the cotton “ceiling” to their dug-out shelter: that is the remembered universe that Smythe offers as an analog for the music here.
But you will struggle to hear any “Oh, Susanna” in “Susanna soil flutter” or in “Circulate Susanna”. On the former, might you be hearing that hole being created or climbed into? The odd, disconcerting process of memory? A few of the fears of childhood, or perhaps the surprises of a night on the plains? On the latter there is something closer to the dance rhythm of Foster’s tune, and Jernberg’s voice hints at saying the name “Susanna”, but instead the tune’s “meaning” night only be that of its musical urgency, with piano, guitar, and voice pushing each other in waves or rushes of feeling. It is the dance impulse as abstraction.
There is beautiful music here, however dreamy it is and still far from any kind of conventional ballad. “Heads gather the stars” is the setting for a poem (“Even now, very children / Twirl the bell, bullgine / Else Alabama wheat sleep / Turn to mole darlin'” —again, abstract) that orchestrates Jernberg’s singing with echoing electronics and atmospheric washes of the piano and guitar. It is dreamlike music—a ringing chamber of disconnected associations, surrealistic in the spirit of Breton and, yes, Satie, with his simple, childlike melodies that rang with mystery. Here, Lippel’s guitar has a country-blues twang to it at one point, and deep into the performance, there is a moment of gargled vocal and rippling treble that sounds like a star shower.
The last track, “To gather the wind”, is a meditation on the 1930s Aber Meeropol song “Strange Fruit”, made particularly famous by Billie Holiday. (Given that the Foster and Dixon references are to white minstrelsy, the presence of “Strange Fruit”, which protested lynching in the American south, seems like a corrective of sorts?) Jernberg sings portions of the song’s lyric against an ominous accompaniment, a musical hint at the tone and imagery of the song without directly getting to the heart of it. It is also beautiful in a largely conventional sense.
Listeners intrigued by different kinds of “beauty” will find many other pleasures on Circulate Susanna. “Circulate to mole”, for example, creates a whirling set of patterns that sound like bluegrass guitar and tumbleweeds, prairie fears and telegraph wires. “Weave the ring” is a set of gestures separated by tiny silences, a string of beads that each fascinate. “Ladies horserun” sounds like a piece for prepared piano, with Smythe’s playing interweaving in a sonic trance with guitar and percussion. “Twirl the bell, bullgine” (a bullgine is an engine from a steam locomotive, apparently) sounds somewhat like a train getting itself started, slowly.
There has been other music emerging in the new jazz, lately, that draws its inspiration from rural culture, and specifically from white folk culture in the United States—from Appalachia, for example. This music has some jazz elements but fewer that are explicitly tied to the music’s dominant African roots. Is it, then, jazz at all? Categories famously don’t matter to the musicians themselves, but this question seems interesting and possibly important in a culture that takes the politics of identity more and more seriously. Will my connection to “Oh, Susanna” (limited, in my case) versus, say, my connection to “Strange Fruit” color how I hear Cory Smythe’s art? Should I be at least aware of that as I listen? Should the history of the abstract improvisational music of Roscoe Mitchell, from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, inform how I hear Circulate Susanna, even though Mitchell’s music is essentially African-American in so many ways?
If these kinds of questions, which suggest how utterly the culture of racism has informed the art of the United States, are uncomfortable, perhaps that is exactly why we should ask them. But they need not detract from the intrigue and richness in Cory Smythe’s art, however you choose to hear it.