Human Aesthetics

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Transcendental Evening with the Art Ensemble of Chicago

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@ Café OTO in London, UK.

by Ginastera Sianturi

On Monday the 16th of October, a rather breezy autumn night in east London, the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC) transforms Café OTO into a spiritual space, where the world’s sounds meet and gather under one roof. After its successful debut back in February 2017, Café OTO decided to bring the legendary free jazz ensemble back to perform for a 3-night (sold out) residency. Both the young, and those who have been their audience for the last five decade are simply encapsulated and drawn by the ensemble’s virtuosity, improvisational skills, boldness, as well as their rich palettes of colours and textures that still reverberate and resonate to this day.

The ensemble’s multidimensional concept of music, that comes from all walks of life, draws people’s attention for sure. The repetitive layers of music produce natural effects that can put people into a state of ‘trance’, by exploring and experimenting with the conscious and the unconscious state of one’s soul. Hugh Ragin, the man who is in charge of the woodwind section, said that performing in their prime (in 60’s and 70’s) was essentially no different from performing at Cafe OTO 50 years later. He furthered saying that although the setting is different, one thing stays the same, and that is about feeling renewed every time he performs.

Art Ensemble of Chicago – Fly with Honey Bee (Music provided by Vox de Cultura)

The transcendent experience may not be fully integrated into one’s body that has a close and skeptical mind towards the uncharted territory of the human spirits. Many Classical musicians, for instance, struggle to digest AEC music because what they do somewhat against the principles and traditions of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. A prominent psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung states that consciousness naturally resists anything unconscious and unknown. He also explains in his masterwork “Man and his Symbols” that anthropologists have pointed out that there is a deep and a superstitious fear of novelty among primitive people known as misoneism.

He also argued,” The primitives manifest all the reactions of the wild animal against untoward events, but “civilized” man reacts to new ideas in much the same way, erecting psychological barriers to protect himself from the shock of facing something new. This can easily be observed in any individual’s reaction to his own dreams when obliged to admit a surprising thought. Many pioneers in philosophy, science, and even literature have been victims of the innate conservatism of their contemporaries.”

From the Classical music context, this type of “jazz impromptus” can be difficult to digest and to some extend it can be quite disturbing, leaving the audience with an uncomfortable feeling afterward. Knowledge that has been taught at Conservatoires provides a very limited view of the world because it explains music only from a Western Classical perspective.

Music is a “language”, and therefore, Classical music is just one of the musical languages of the world. Knowing and believing in only one musical language hinder us from having a broader musical horizon, and in a wider spectrum hamper us to gain a better cross-cultural understanding and respect. It is hard for anyone to disagree with Ludwig Wittgenstein who said,” The limit of my language is the limit of my world.” A person’s ability to articulate and express what she or he feels and has in mind is determined by the amount of knowledge and resources of the language(s) that she or he speaks. So if we only “speak” one language of music, then we can be sure that musical traditions in the world will not flourish because each remains within its own compartment. Human expressions will dwindle, and even worse, the musical world will be divisive since pigeonholed knowledge tend to bore views and minds that trivialize others’. Variety of issues happening today already indicate the probability of a more divisive future.

Being divisive is not the only problem we are facing; one’s domination over others is just as onerous. Still in the language domain, English for example, is the most dominating international language in the world. According to Research Trends, 80% of the world’s scientific knowledge is written in English. In many non-English speaking countries, perhaps out of inferiority, English has been embraced as the more important, if not the first, language, leaving national language behind; on the other hand, the people of the native English speakers feel that there is no need to learn other languages since everyone in the world already learn or speak English. So neither domination nor divisiveness will ever give us cross learning atmosphere and attitude. Doing music this way is just the same as beautifying a corpse, in other words, embellishing a subject that will soon be decaying.

In the monotheistic religious tradition, God Almighty gave its prophets miracles, which resonate to the conditions in which they live at a time (e.g.: Moses with the ability to turn his staff into serpent, and Jesus with the miracle to awaken the dead). In Islam, the Muslims believe that the eloquence of the Quran as the greatest miracle of Islam.

In his book “The Heart of Islam”, Seyyed Hossein Nasr explains, “…and since poetic eloquence was the most prized of all virtues for pre-Islamic Arabs, God revealed through the Prophet by far the most eloquent of all Arabic works, the Quran.” He then continues: “Its eloquence not only moved the heart and soul of those Arabs of the seventh century who first heard it, but also moves to tears Muslim believers throughout the world today, even those whose mother tongue is not Arabic, although Arabic is the language of daily prayers for all Muslims, Arab and non-Arab alike. The grace, or barakah (corresponding both etymologically and in meaning to the Hebrew barak), of the text transcends its mental message and moves souls towards God in much the same way that hearing Gregorian Chant in Latin would for centuries in the West deeply affect even those who did not understand the Latin words. Of course, the same can be said for the Latin Mass itself, whose beautiful liturgy was of the deepest significance for some fifteen hundred years even for those Catholics who did not know Latin.”

Invoking Jung, Wittgenstein and Nasr in this writing is to argue that the whole live experience is essential in this context. The sound of AEC moves not only the heart and soul of Jazz enthusiasts but also any other music fans who are interested in sounds’ exploration and improvisation. In order to fully experience and to feel what the music is all about, one must go and watch the AEC live. Such experience can neither be replaced by YouTube nor Spotify, regardless how the two have dramatically changed our perceptions of music in the 21st century. Internet and social media have given us inter-connectivity, but ironically eroded the necessity and values of the real or physical human interaction.

The music kicked off at approximately 8:30 pm; it began with a short moment of silence with all musicians stood and faced to the left of the stage. This could be a ritual and long tradition/gesture of AEC that adds a ‘sacred element’ on to the set. The drone-like sound of woodwind and saxophone immersed gradually to warm up the audience that evoked the function of an overture in a Classical orchestra or Alap in North Indian music as a form of melodic improvisation that precedes Ragas. This introduction produced calm and peaceful effects, serving as a prerequisite language for the audience to absorb the overwhelming, bold, and psychedelic sounds of the AEC that encapsulated the rest of the evening.

AEC is not just about the brilliance and virtuosity in music composing and performing. The evolving composition of its members clearly represents their comprehension on the importance of inter-generational transmission. The line up for this London concert consists of the two founding members, Roscoe Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye, then the second formation generation, Hugh Ragin and Junius Paul, and the most recent generation, Mazz Swift, Tomeka Reid, and Silvia Bolognesi. It’s amazing how all of them conceptually, musically and technically fit perfectly in the ensemble. The brilliant and brave playing of Mazz Swift (violinist), and Tomeka Reid (cellist), combined with their positive energy, certainly added freshness and oddity of sounds that depict the sound of today’s living in natural acoustics.

When asked about how more divisive the world today, and the fact that we’re still actually struggling with the same issues that his generation fought for during the Counter Culture Movement in the 60s, Hugh Ragin pointed out that there will always be obstacles that we have to face, no matter when and where. By highlighting the significant role of Duke Ellington in the past, he also urged musicians (and other artists) to get together and bring people together so that we can rise above the impediments.

All cultural manifestations, including music, are contextual. Any music serves its own purposes and ideals according to the contexts in which the music was created at the time. Music is a powerful intermediary that addresses current issues that are relevant to and experienced directly by the musicians and societies they live in. In their early years, AEC challenged the issues by going beyond technique, tonality, and even the existing forms. In this London performance, the whole musical set was thoughtfully constructed and spiritually implemented as it managed to reach and communicate with the deeper souls and spirits of the audience. The set resembles a spiritual journey, a “religious” experience that employs Jazz as a vehicle to express feelings and emotions to the fullest extend by using a vast collection of sounds and musical traditions from around the world. AEC had successfully transformed the evening into a transcendental experience.


Ginastera Sianturi: How do you feel playing now compared to, say, back then in the 70s? Feel any difference with the atmosphere, audience, the vibe and so on?

Hugh Ragin: It’s fresh all the time… I feel renewed every time I play…ha ha ha

I feel energized after the gig myself. It’s been a long day at work, but after listening to your music, I’m up at another level.

Oh that’s beautiful man. That’s the beauty of music, you listen to it, feel refreshed, released…and renewed. I think music does that to me when I practice, when I play. It’s a continuous process, you know.

What do you think of the young musicians today? Especially in the jazz scene…

I think a lot of them learning their history, and keep playing music, and that’s what’s important. I’ve heard a lot of great composers, arrangers, and having seen this, I think the future looks very bright.

Good! It’s great to hear that, because a lot of us didn’t live in the past, but most of the music we create today is still the music of the past.

Yes, but luckily the past was so well documented; with the YouTube, and all that stuff, you can dig down really deep and find out what’s going on. To have young people and listener like you are encouraging; your presence and our sharing are vitamins for the soul, you know.

Let’s talk about the world today a little bit. Compared to the divisive world of the 1960s, it seems like the today’s world is even more divisive, and in a negative way because people are eradicating the values that the 60s generation stood for. We’re still struggling with the same issues, but doing it in reverse, don’t you agree?

Yeaah, but there’s always been that way, you know. It’s nothing new. It seems like these are always gonna be overbearing obstacles, no matter what. This is what music is all about, a way of getting out of the depression smoothly.

Music is a powerful bridge for that, isn’t it?

Powerful man! I was just reading about how Duke Ellington was really linking a lot of people back in the day when he was playing, you know. He was really a catalyst for social justice, by doing what he does with the music.

As a young musician, I feel that we’re losing context today. How do we gain that again back to, you know, where people play music within context, and respond to actual issues that are happening?

Have you seen this exhibition? There’s an exhibition here at the museum; It’s about soul music and art, I forgot the name of it. It’s a great exhibition to check out the history, and an idea of getting the artists back together. Getting people of different disciplines together again; dancers, painters, artists, literary people, musicians, talking and having conversation, just like what we’re doing now, engaging. I think if we ever get closer to that, that’s gonna help bring us back, and that’s gonna be huge. People like you, and me, we have to be on a mission as motivational speakers, get the people involved in this. That’s really our job, that’s the lane we drive in…ha ha ha.

I agree, 100%! The young needs a lot of advise from the past, it’s something we never experience. So, thank you very much for your time, it’s been a great chat!.



Author: Ginastera “Booboo” Sianturi

Chairman of Sacred Bridge Foundation

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4 years ago

Love the article! Great message; listen to the eldest to learn from them.
But I think that this also mean that we haven’t been progressing? Because the issues (about divisive world) is still exist, added by other issue, like losing context, we really have to “wake up” and do something.