Arms Wide Open

Open Space (JASON KAHN EDITIONS 002) is a composition by Jason Kahn, the American fellow who we’ve heard in an improvisation context, mostly performing with his percussive instruments, and recently has played and recorded with Tim Olive in Japan. He’s also a composer, though. He says he’s been working with graphic scores for about ten years at time of writing, and one of these was used to perform Open Space, which was commissioned and recorded in 2012 around the time of the Australian music festival NOW. This probably accounts for the large number of Australian performers on this recording, among them the pianist Chris Abrahams, Matt Earle, Adam Sussmann, and the trombonist Rishin Singh. Using his grids and shaded blocks – the score looks like an artistic spreadsheet – Kahn determines, programs and controls who will play what and when, while at the same time allowing a certain amount of interpretative freedom to the players. More to the point, the constraints of the score often bring together musicians at particular points in time who might not otherwise choose to collaborate in the improvisation. They’re being lifted out of their comfort zone, in other words. We’re getting down to the nub of what interests Kahn here, a series of creative tensions and structured oppositions. For instance, the musicians can interpret the graphical notation any way they wish, but Kahn is pretty strict about adherence to the overall timing of the piece. You can turn up to work wearing anything you like, he might say if he were the boss of this weird company that produces artistic spreadsheets instead of annual reports, and you can do whatever you like when you’re here. Just be sure you turn up on time.

Even the title holds meaning for Kahn. It refers to the performance space, the space between players, the space between the players making the music and the audience reacting to same. The space between (free) improvisation and (disciplined) composition. Perhaps by implication the space – or distance – between what he wrote on the score, and what the players end up creating. T.S. Eliot, that pinched and misanthropic bank clerk, hated that space. “Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow”, he wailed, indicating that he could only see darkness in that space. Conversely, the optimistic Kahn embraces that space; he can see a way to do something constructive there. He’s concerned with opening all of these spaces to allow even more freedom to rush in. If he really was an office manager, he’d revolutionise the idea of the open-plan office, to the extent that we’d all be working happily in the middle of a fertile desert by now, with desks and laptops under the palm trees. Well, another composer who I think might have worked in not-dissimilar fashion was Cecil Taylor, some of whose lengthy free jazz performances, which when recorded could occupy six LPs of a box set, were carefully structured to direct the contributions of Jimmy Lyons or Andrew Cyrille into the correct targeted sections of what I assume was a piano-based grid. The difference of course is that Taylor usually produced extremely fiery and speedy works of tremendous complexity, an index to the turbulent storms of his raging personality. Conversely, Open Spaces is quiet, respectful, meditative, even verging on the minimal; a modern update on Terry Riley’s In C. If there was any conflict or dissent among the musicians, it assuredly hasn’t ended up on the record. Part of this harmonious quality is down to Kahn himself, who selected his collaborators with care and scored in line with their strengths; so there’s a sympathetic dimension, which is offset by the fact that he’s also telling them what to do, which adds yet another layer of tension.

I think collaborative works of art like this can show to us how art is often “better” than real life. Experts are only after power, and they tend to ruin everything. If we leave it to the senior managers, we get broken organisations. If we leave it to the financiers, we get a broken economy. If we leave it to politicians, we get a broken society. Yet a musician like Kahn can enable a space where human beings can communicate, co-operate and act creatively, a space where other minds, hearts and souls are welcome. The best art, for me, is a blueprint for how society can teach itself to function in a non-broken and productive fashion. And all this from a simple graphic score that resembles a spreadsheet.

Kahn was kind enough to send us a vinyl copy of this work, for which he also designed the cover art. It’s a limited edition, hand-made work of art released on his own imprint. What’s interesting is that the actual piece is a single, continuous 70 minute recording, so it’s been sliced into quarters to fit into the double LP format. I for one welcome this whole-heartedly. The double LP format always frames music, and it does it in the “right” way, giving it a shape which a human being with ears can recognise and identify with. It reminds me of the way AMM sliced up their 1968 Crypt recordings to fit onto a double LP boxed set. When played back, each segment means something slightly different, in the context of the other three sides; even the act of getting out of the chair to change the record adds to this experience. A fine piece of electro-acoustic improvised-composed music of great stillness, clarity, and beauty. Be sure to read the liner notes and download a copy of the score.

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