Cecil Taylor, by César Aira translated by Will Nediger Daybreak in Manhattan.

With the first tentative rays of light, a black prostitute crosses the last streets, returning to her room after a night’s work. Dishevelled, with dark circles under her eyes, the chill of the early hour transforms her drunkenness into a stupid clarity, a withered withdrawal from the world. She hasn’t left her usual stomping ground, which means she doesn’t have much farther to travel. She walks slowly; she could be going backwards; any distraction could dissolve time into space. Although in truth she wants to sleep, at this point she isn’t even aware of her exhaustion. There are very few people outside; the few that do go out at that hour (or those who have nowhere to go out from) know her and thus don’t look at her high heels, violet, her tight skirt with its long slit, or her eyes which, in any case, wouldn’t return the gaze of others, glassy or soft. She’s on a narrow street, an undistinguished street, with old houses. Next come two blocks with buildings slightly more modern, but in worse condition; shops, indistinct condominiums from which a fire escape collapses, a dirty cornice. Around the corner lies the building where she sleeps until evening, in a rented bedroom which she shares with two children, her brothers. But before she gets there, something happens: a group of people who have been up all night has come together; half a dozen men gathered in the middle of the alley are looking in a shop window. She feels curiosity toward these shady statues. No part of them is moving, not even the smoke from a cigarette. She’s out of cigarettes. She advances, watching them, and as if they were the point she needed to hang the thread on which to support herself, her step becomes lighter, more suspended. When she stops next to them, the men don’t look at her. It takes her a few moments to understand what they’re doing. They are in front of an abandoned business. Behind the dirty glass there is a half-light which hides dusty containers and rubble. But there is also a cat, and in front of it, with its back to the glass, a rat. The two animals are looking at each other without moving, the hunt has reached its endpoint, and the victim has no way of escape. With sublime calm, the cat tenses all of its nerves. The spectators have become beings of stone, no longer statues: planets, the very coldness of the universe… The prostitute strikes the window with her purse, the cat is distracted for a fraction of a second, enough for the rat to escape. The men awake from their contemplation, look at the complicit black woman in disgust, one of them, drunk, spits at her, two of them follow her… before the darkness finally fades away some act of violence takes place. After a story comes another story. Vertigo. Retrospective vertigos. Any term in the series would be necessary so that the next term would make it infinite. Vertigo causes anxiety. Anxiety paralyzes… and spares us the danger that would justify vertigo; approaching the edge, for example, of the deep fault which separates one term from another. Paralysis is art for the artist, who sees events follow each other. The night ends, the day does the same: there is something embarrassing about the work in progress. Conflicting twilights fall like chips into a slot in the ice. Eyes that close once and for all, always and everywhere. Peace. Even so, there exists, and more perceptibly than we could have hoped, an out of control movement, which causes anxiety in others and provides the model of our own impossible anxiety. That too is called art. Art is a multiplication: styles, libraries, metaphors, disputes, the painting and its critic, the novel and its era… It has to be accepted, like the existence of insects. There are remnants everywhere. But, as is well known, “you only live once.” From which it results that the biography of an artist is impossible; there are ways of proving that it is: those ways get the possibility of biography mixed up, so that literature is born again, and the unbearable situation invades thought, the operator gets worried and no longer sees the succession of scruples, but instead a proliferation of models which are difficult to apply. Biography as a literary genre derives from hagiography; but saints are saints precisely because they renounce the profits of biography, they hardly even collect the throwaway scraps. On the other hand, hagiographies are never alone, they are always part of a sort of collection. Biography would tend to the opposite, even if the result is exactly the same. Who would boast about knowing what is a scrap, and being able to distinguish it from the opposite? No one who writes, at least. Take the biographies of artists. They are the perfect example. Children read about the lives of celebrated musicians, who were always musical children; then comes a success story, the account of a triumph, with its spectacular or secret strategy, its vengeances, its transparency like dinosaur tears. These are subtle mechanisms, part of its essential idiocy, which hardly stick in the memory (except for a detail here and there) but which distort it nonetheless: they graft onto it large iridescent chutes, forming a panorama so picturesque that the victim believes himself a Proust, which in itself is a nice false triumph in life.

Impossible not to distrust those books, above all if they have been the main sustenance of our past puerilities and those to come. “Before” there was the success of the future, “after” there were its delicious rewards, all the more delicious for having been the object of detailed prophecies. Evil auguries have the perfection of a pearl; good ones lift up the world in their hands and offer it to the stars. The Queen of the Night, in a word, sings by day. Let us examine a more familiar case. That of a great musician of our time, any one of them (there are many). Cecil Taylor. It could easily be said of him that he is the greatest musician of the century. Conceived in body and soul by a popular type of music, jazz, from the beginning his energy for renewal made him universal, perhaps the only genius who could go beyond Debussy: he who could consummate music like a sexual twisting of matter, the fluid atomist of all the sense and nonsense which constitute the play of thought in the world. And he continued to be the greatest representative of the city in jazz; in fact he is New York, the superimposition of the skyline on the image of the focused pianist, with music as the connection. What else is realism? An age in which certain people have lived. Jazz, an eternal breeze. The city in miniature, in a diamond. It is Egypt, but also a small tribe that lies in wait. Our anthropological civilization produces (or could produce, with an adequate art of narration) histories in which, say, two naked blacks wage war in a forest, pursue each other with the most subtle signs, chance, pure mobility. And jazz. An act of dreams: situations. Everything is situations, novelistic ecstasy (no longer of concepts). According to legend, Cecil created the first atonal jazz recording, in 1956, two weeks before Sun Ra did it independently. (Or was it the other way around?) They didn’t know each other, nor did they know Ornette Coleman, who was working on the same thing on the other side of the country. Of course, history records these moments without giving them a value per se, since all of them (and Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, Coltrane, who knows how many more) convincingly demonstrated their genius in the course of the following decades. In any case, History has its importance, because it lets us interrupt time. In reality, what are interrupted in the process are series; more precisely, the infinite series; this last quality destroys any importance which interruption might have had. It becomes frivolous, redundant, light, like a stifled cough at a funeral. At this point a second rupture is produced, and what was nothing more than thought suddenly turns, revealing an unexpected face: Necessity rears its head, clear, tremendous, inviolable – and at the same time microscopic, voluble, stupid, neutral. Interruption is necessary, but it is the necessity of a moment. From extended necessity is born “atmosphere,” so essential to the specific weight of a story. The importance of atmosphere in literature could not possibly be overstated. It is the idea which lets us work freely, without duties, moving in a space which in the end stops being this or that, a space which succeeds in dissolving the entities of the writer and the written, the long multiple tunnel in full sunlight… Well then, atmosphere is the three-dimensional condition of regionalism, and the medium of music. Music does not interrupt time. Just the opposite. 1956. Let’s begin again. By that time Cecil Taylor, a brilliant black musician of a little more than thirty years, a prodigious pianist and a subtle specialist in the avant-garde music of the century, had consolidated his style, that is, his invention. Except for a couple of jazzmen familiar with his work, nobody could have had the slightest idea of what he was accomplishing. How would they have? His originality lay in the transmutation of the piano, which in his hands ceased to be an instrument and became a free, instantaneous method of composition. The so-called “tone clusters” from which his momentaneous writing developed had been used before by a musician, Henry Cowell, although Cecil took the process to the point that, because of its harmonic complexities, and above all due to the systematization of the rich atonal current in tonal flows, it could not be compared with anything else in existence. Let us suppose that he lived (this is the type of information with which biographies provide us) in a dilapidated apartment in Manhattan’s East End. Mice, which North Americans love, an indefinite and constant supply of cockroaches, the dull promiscuity of an old house with narrow staircases, are the initial panorama. Atmosphere. The unnecessary. In his room there was a piano which he could not always get tuned for lack of the necessary fourteen dollars, and it was by then an almost posthumous piece of furniture. He slept there in the morning and part of the afternoon, and went out at nightfall. He worked in a bar washing dishes. He had already recorded a disc (In Transition) and was hoping for some temporary jobs in piano bars.

Of course, he know that he had to abandon the idea of immediate recognition, and even of a gradual triumph, like concentric circles; he wasn’t that naïve. But he did hope, and he had every right to do so, that sooner or later his talent would come to be celebrated. (Here there is a truth and an error: it’s true that today he is appreciated all over the world, and those of us who have listened to his recordings for years with love and a limitless admiration would be the last to cast doubts; but there is also an error, a logical error, and this story will attempt to show, without emphasis, the quality of error. Of course, nothing confirms the necessity of this story, which is nothing more than a literary caprice. But it happens that once imagined, it becomes somehow necessary. The story of the prostitute who scared the rat is not necessary either, which is not to say that the long virtual series of stories is unnecessary as a whole; and nonetheless it is. That of Cecil Taylor is an old fable: the manner of implementation is right. The atmosphere is unnecessary… But how can you hear music without an atmosphere? The piano bar in question turned out to be a local one which attracted musicians and drug addicts. The artist prepared himself for a reception fluctuating between indifference and interest; he could rule out scandal, in that environment. He prepared for indifference was the plane, and interest the high point: the plane could cover the world like a paper awning, interest was momentary and real like two fish greeting each other. He prepared himself for the incongruence inherent to grand geometries. By chance, the audience might provide him with an inkling of attention: nobody knows what grows at night (he would play after 2:00 – the next day, really), and what one does never goes entirely unnoticed. But this time it happened. To his great surprise, the opportunity showed itself precisely never. Invisible liquid derision in inaudible titters. Thus the evening passed, and the owner cancelled the second performance for the next night, even though he hadn’t paid him. Of course, Cecil didn’t discuss his music with him. He didn’t see the point. He merely returned to his mice. Two months later, his distracted work routine (he was no longer washing dishes, but employed in a gas station) was enhanced once again by a verbal contract to perform in a bar, only one night this time, and in the middle of the week. The bar was similar on the inside, although perhaps slightly worse, and the audience was no different; it was even possible that some of the audience members who had been at the previous bar were there too. He went so far as to think that, naïve as he was. His music sounded in the ears of a dozen or so musicians, drug addicts and alcoholics, perhaps even in the beautiful little black ears, of a woman, a real knockout, dressed in satin: a kept woman, thanks to heroin. There was no applause, someone laughed heavily (about something else, surely) and the proprietor of the bar didn’t even bother to say goodnight, why would he? There are moments like that, in which music is left without commentary. He promised himself, for no reason, to come to the bar at another opportunity (he had once frequented it, as a listener) to imagine himself at home in the position of a human being in the presence of music: the consummate pianist, the succession of ancient melodies, slow and spaced out. He never did it, believing that it wasn’t worth it. He considered himself a person lacking in imagination. After a week, the memory of that failure fused with that of the previous one, and this produced a strange feeling. Was it a repetition? He had no reason to believe it, and nevertheless it was exactly how reality presented itself. One day he found himself in the street with an ex-classmate from the Advanced School of Music of Boston, a neo-classicist. Cecil secretly scoffed at Stravinsky (all blacks look down on the Russians, that’s a fact). A few sentences, and the other became vaguely impressed by the sibylline tone of his acquaintance’s voice, the murmur, the wool hat. (If instead of being a nobody, the ex-classmate had become something, he would have noted the fact in his autobiography, many years later.) Three months later, a conversation at dawn at a table in Village Vanguard resulted in an offer to perform there one night, as accompaniment for a renowned group. He abandoned his job at the gas station and worked ten hours a day at his piano (he had moved to a room in an old house owned by pimps on Bleecker Street) during the week before his performance. At V. V., the crème de la crème of the jazz world was in attendance. He was convinced that in that moment the first circle, not much larger than a point, would form, from which the understanding of his musical activity, and consequentially the activity itself, would irradiate. The night in question arrived, walked up to the platform where the piano set when he was asked, and attacked…

There was nothing more than a smattering of condescending applause: “at least he broke a sweat.” This disconcerted him. Backstage there were a few musicians who looked away, smirking like monkeys. He went to sit at the table with his acquaintances, who were talking of something else. One of them touched his elbow and leaning towards him shook his head slowly right and left. With a great guffaw, someone broke out in an “After all, it’s over.” The most prominent jazz critic of the age was sitting a few tables over. The one who had shaken his head went to talk to him and returned with this message: “Sinhue” – which is what they called the critic amongst themselves – “made a syllogism as clear as a cloudless sky: jazz is a form of music, therefore it is a part of music. Since what our dear Cecil does isn’t music, neither can it aspire to the category of jazz. According to him, as I (who am self-taught) understand it, you cannot approach jazz except from the funnel of the general, which is to say there are no particular characteristics that can be related to jazz by analogy.” He didn’t attempt a refutation. Evidently this imbecile knew nothing of music, which didn’t surprise him. He, for his part, didn’t understand a word of his reasons, or rather the conviction which supported his reasons. Bewildered, he waited for one of the musicians he saw over there to tell him something. But nobody did. In fact, he couldn’t be sure that any of the musicians that he thought he saw were actually there, because he was very near-sighted and was wearing dark glasses which in the poor light of the room obscured all recognition. But, when he thought back on the situation in the subsequent days, he understood that there was nobody from whom he should expect less explicit recognition than his colleagues. Would he be obliged to listen eternally to the music of others until he recognized a note, a single friendly sol-fa, a “hi” like from those who pass each other returning from the bathroom after a fix? He had done nothing else in his life, and he loved jazz. Several weeks passed. He worked as a janitor in a bank, as a night watchman in an office building and in a parking lot. One night he was introduced to someone who took down his address for the most futile of causes: Mrs. Vanderbilt was hiring pianists for her tea parties. In fact, he received a call a few days later: apparently his studio credentials had been investigated and approved. It was at six in the evening at a mansion on Long Island and he had a cup of coffee with the servants, who seemed to have a strange idea of his work. A valet came to announce that he could begin his performance. He sat in front of a perfect halfopened Steinway, in a room where an elegant quantity of people of both sexes were drinking and conversing. His performance had lasted scarcely twenty seconds when Mrs. Vanderbilt herself, with a gesture that those in the know would describe as snobbish, approached him (the snobbery of the act was that she didn’t order her valet to do it) and ever so slowly closed the cover of the piano on the keys. Cecil had already moved his hands away. “We will have to dispense with your company,” she told him, her pearls jingling. It is not as difficult as it’s supposed, making pearls jingle. The guests applauded Gloria. “I had to assume that something like that would happen,” Cecil said to his lover that night. “But I also had to assume that the strangeness itself, instead of piercing the those people’s shell of ignorance, would act as a lubricant so that the impenetrability of the shell would turn on itself and become useless. My music has many aspects, and I only know the musical ones. Life is full of surprises.” In the spring he landed a new contract, this time for a whole week, in a bar whose most striking characteristics were the gusts of worthless importance conferred on the music that was played there. Old black women, former slaves, had to play there at daybreak, their pianos falling apart. The proprietor concerned himself exclusively with heroin trafficking, and the man who dealt with the pianists was just one of the waiters. Cecil would play at midnight, for two hours. People came in and left, he couldn’t count on anyone, between a purchase and a sale, or between acquisition and use, being clear-minded enough to appreciate a genuinely original genre of music. With this stage having been set, he sat down at the piano. Two or three minutes into his performance, the proprietor of the bar approached him from behind, waving the hand which wasn’t holding a cigarette. “Shh, shh,” he said when he had reached his side. “I’d prefer if you didn’t keep going, son.” Cecil took his hands off the keys. A few regulars applauded, laughing. A black woman came up and started to play “Body and Soul.” The proprietor handed a ten-dollar bill to the dejected musician, but when he reached out to take it he withdrew his hand: “Were you trying to pull our legs?” He was a dangerous individual. He must have weighed ninety kilograms, fifty more than Cecil, who left without waiting to be told off further.

Cecil was a sort of elf, elegant despite his misery, always in velvet and white leather, pointed shoes, corresponding to his small, muscular frame. He could lose two kilograms in the course of an evening of improvisation at his ancient piano. Extraordinarily distracted, light, volatile, when he sat down and crossed his legs (wide pants, immaculate shirt, knitted vest) he was as redundant as a trinket; the same when he lit a cigarette, in other words almost all of the time. Smoke was the forest in which this elf made his dwelling, in the shadow of damp spiderweb. That night he wandered the deep streets in the south of the island, thinking. There was something curious: the attitude of the diffuse Irishman who sold heroin was not much different from that which Mrs. Vanderbilt had displayed not long before. But the two figures were nothing alike. Except in that. Could the common denominator of the human species be found there, in the act of interrupting him? On the other hand, in the last words of the individual he encountered something else, something which now resurfaced in the recollections of all his hapless performances. They always asked him if he was doing it as a joke. Of course Mrs. Vanderbilt, for example, hadn’t deigned to ask him, but in general the existence of the question was assumed; furthermore, it could be said that her indignation was due to nothing more than the insolence of putting her in the position of having to ask such a question, explicitly or tacitly, to a black man. She had said “I don’t know, and I don’t care.” But in a way she had shown that she did care. Cecil wondered why it was possible to ask him that, and the same question was inappropriate when it came to everyone else. For example he would never have asked Mrs. V. if she was doing what she was doing (whatever that may have been) seriously or as a joke. The same with the proprietor of the bar that night. There was something inherent in his work that prompted the interrogation. Mrs. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, was the subject of a famous anecdote, which was reproduced in almost all of the psychology books written in the last few years. On a certain occasion she had wanted to liven up a dinner with violin music. She asked who was the greatest violinist in the world: how could she settle for less? Fritz Kreisler, she was told. She phoned him up. I don’t give private concerts, he said: my rates are too high. That’s not a problem, she responded: how much? Ten thousand dollars. Very well, I’ll be expecting you tonight. But there’s one more detail, Mr. Kreisler: you will dine in the kitchen with the staff, and you’re not allowed to mix with my guests. In that case, he said, my rates are different. Not a problem; how much? Two thousand dollars, responded the violinist. The behaviorists loved this story, and they would go on loving it their whole lives, relating it tirelessly amongst themselves and transcribing it in their books and articles… But his anecdote, Cecil’s anecdote, would anyone like it, would anyone tell it? Do not anecdotes also have to be successful, so that someone will repeat them? That summer he was invited, together with a legion of musicians, to participate in the Newport Festival, which was going to devote a couple of days, in the evening, to introduce new artists. Cecil reflected: his music, essentially original, would be a challenge in that framework. It would be heard in concert for the first time, not in the disagreeable distracted atmosphere of bars (even though all the great jazz musicians had been successful in bars). Well, when the moment came, his performance took place in a climate of the greatest coldness. There was no applause, and the few critics present withdrew to the hallway for a smoke to wait for the next act. It was mentioned in a few articles, but only as a monstrosity. “It isn’t music,” said the experts, laconically. While the rest asked themselves if it had been a joke. The reporter for Down Beat asked the question (in an ironic light, of course) as a paradox: if you bang the keys of a piano at random... In short, a recapitulation of the Cretan paradox. Music, thought Cecil, is not paradoxical, but what’s happening to me is a paradox, in a way. But there are no paradoxes of style, there couldn’t be. That’s the paradox in my case. Over the course of the following months he performed in half a dozen bars, always different because the result was identical in every case, and there were two invitations: first to a university, then to a series of avant-garde artists in the Cooper Union. In the first case Cecil went with an unsteady hope which ended up being disappointed (the room was empty only a few minutes after the performance started and the professor who had invited him had to perform a difficult balancing act to justify it, and hated him ever since), but at least it served to confirm another small detail. An exclusive audience is a snobbish audience. Snobbery is an open secret which keeps quiet. The audience at the university had no reason to “understand” the music;

we won’t say “appreciate” it, because that didn’t concern them. But in turn there was a pressure (they themselves were the pressure) for them to understand it. Dishonesty found its ideal difficult atmosphere, misunderstanding could live forever in those classrooms. A small percentage of dishonesty, as small as it was, could prop up the incontrovertible truth of the real. Who can assure us, in the end, that we are really dressed in the important sense, that pants and shirts and ties are not obscene? Well, his performance produced nothing of that. So did snobbery not exist? If that was true, the whole support of Cecil’s mental edifice was crumbling. He would never be able to understand the world. In the Cooper Union the experience was even less gratifying. The avant-garde musicians who were performing their works along with him were in the ideal position to determine what was music and what wasn’t, since they themselves were located precisely on the inner edge of music, in its area of systematic expansion. But here again the ideal position failed to produce the correct judgment. Of the work of the black jazzman they could only say two things: that for the moment it wasn’t music (that is to say that it would never be) and that the question might occur to them by chance of whether they were being faced with some sort of joke. Cecil abandoned one of his regular jobs and with some money he had saved up he spent the winter months studying and composing. In the spring a contract came up for a few days, in a Brooklyn bar, where the experience of that first night repeated itself yet again. While he was returning home by train, the movement, the passage of the immobile stations brought about in him a state conducive to thinking. So he realized that the logic of the whole thing was perfectly clear, and wondered why he hadn’t seen it earlier: in all of the stories which Hollywood had brainwashed him with, there is always a musician who isn’t appreciated at the beginning but is at the end. There was the error: in the passage from failure to success, as if they were point A and point B, connected by a line. In reality failure is infinite, because it is infinitely divisible, which isn’t possible with success. Suppose, Cecil said to himself in the empty car of the train at three in the morning, that in order to gain recognition one has to perform for an audience whose coefficient of sensitivity and intelligence has crossed a threshold of X. Well then, if I start by performing, say, for an audience whose coefficient is a hundredth of X, then I’ll have to pass through an audience whose coefficient is a fiftieth of X, then a twentieth of X… and so on ad infinitum. “So that as long as the series continues, I will always fail, because I’ll never have an audience of the necessary quality. It’s so obvious!” Six months later he was hired to play in a dive in front of some French tourists. He performed just before midnight. Sitting on the stool, he stretched his hands towards the keys, attacked with a series of chords… A few guffaws rang out without emphasis. The maître was signalling for him to get down, with a cheerful expression. Had they already decided that it was a joke? No, they were understandably disgusted. Immediately, to put an end to the sour moment, a black pianist of around forty years came up. Nobody said a word to Cecil, but he still hoped that they would pay him part of the agreed fee (they always did) and he stayed, watching and listening to the pianist. He recognized the style, a little of Monk, a little of Bud Powell. The music moved him. A conventional pianist, he thought, is always dealing with music in its most general form. In the end, he was paid twenty dollars, on the condition that he never asked them for work again.