In 2020, British mathematician Sir Roger Penrose was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his theory that black holes are “inevitable and perfect,” as cosmologist and author Janna Levin summarized his work: “A black hole is like a fundamental particle in its flawlessness. The event horizon hiding any individuality, they become indistinguishable.”
One year earlier, Moor Mother (the stage name of poet, musician, and activist Camae Ayewa), released the album “Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes.” It’s a work more cosmic than cosmological, serpentining through history to illustrate centuries of intergenerational trauma, oppression, and tenacity. Writing for Bandcamp, Whitney Wei perhaps put it best describing Moor Mother’s work as “exploding the myth of America, and searching through the rubble to find the voices of the nation’s most disenfranchised people, and to reclaim and reassemble the Black collective memory.” The way Moor Mother connects the threads of collective and individual memory, of history and sociology, is equally inevitable and perfect. The circuitous routes of history form an event horizon that eclipses individualism towards a larger, fundamental truth.
This month, Moor Mother performs “Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes” at the Beethovenfest Bonn, arranged for string quintet and orchestra by Ian Anderson (one member of the string quintet Wooden Elephant). Its pairing with Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 suggests a common thread of history—epic works of grief and loss, full of cross-references and acutely aware of history. We met in what Moor Mother calls “Zoom Nation” to speak about adapting this work for an orchestra, her interest in the lives of musicians as much as the music they make, and music as a liberation technology.
VAN: How did the collaboration with Beethovenfest come together?
Moor Mother: Ian [Anderson] contacted me and we just went from there. I had done something about Beethoven in 2020, the year of the pandemic. So I was like, “All right, cool, I got something in common with Beethoven.”
That was also the year where the “Was Beethoven Black?” question came up again and took over the internet for a week or so.
When, culturally, your history has been taken and subverted from you, you know, those things are always coming back around.
Edward Said writes about something similar in Orientalism about who ultimately owns and shapes the stories of the capital-O “Other,” and how even today there’s that sense of imperialism and ownership.
That’s what I love about history.
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How closely have you been working with Ian on this arrangement?
We’ve had a couple of calls, getting to know each other and seeing what we can do. I mean, I have a few classical collaborations happening, and we’re all in different parts of the world. I think the last time I talked to Ian he was in Italy, so it’s mostly been Zoom Nation.
Listening to the album is a really specific and specifically-shaped experience. How might things shift in the transition to a live performance?
Well, the difficult part is the guest spots and not having those people there. That part is just some sort of negotiation of, How am I going to work that? ’Cause I really only like to say my own words. I don’t like to present other people’s words, so that’s the one part I wish I was able to think about a bit more. It was something that I didn’t have in the forefront of my mind until I talked to a collaborator from that album, and they were like, “Hey, I would’ve flown out for this,” and I was like, “Ugh! I didn’t even…” You know what I mean? But that’s the lesson of just being a touring musician; learning what’s possible and all the different parameters that you’re placed upon each day or each performance. That’s just a part of the learning process, of continuing to push what I’m able to do early in the collaborative process.
Would it be possible to use pre-recorded samples from them?
No. That could be interesting, but…
Writing for Bandcamp, Whitney Wei described “Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes” as a “reassembl[y] of the Black collective memory,” and in the work you touch on topics like Rodney King, Latasha Harlins, the Chicago and Tulsa riots… Does presenting this work with Wooden Elephant and the Beethoven Orchester Bonn, two largely—if not entirely—non-Black ensembles, change its meaning or context in any way? I’m reminded of a moment in “American Utopia” where David Byrne introduces his cover of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” by commenting on the optics being a middle-aged white man singing a BLM protest song…
Well, it’s a bit different with the orchestra, because they’re reading music off a sheet of paper. And they are trained to just read music off a sheet of paper; they’re not trained to smile, they’re not trained to dance, they’re not even charged with the improvisational parts of your work. So they’re not doing anything but their job as being trained musicians to play what’s on the paper. Not taking anything away from them or anything like that, but that’s just the reality of what they’re trained to do.
Of course, I’m an improv musician. So doing something so strict is something that I don’t usually do. Even when I do compose pieces for orchestra, there’s always room for improv. But I feel like, in this kind of context, it has to be that way because of the album. I did a piece in 2019 with the London Contemporary Orchestra that was all about the bailout from slavery [In 1833, the British government took out a £20 billion loan to compensate British slave owners that was finally paid off in 2015—Ed.] called “The Great Bailout” and they were all white musicians. Two of them were of Asian descent—different reality—but it’s the same situation: They’re all in London. We’re all a part of this, No one has escaped this; the enslavement of Africans, imperialism—none of us have escaped that. We’re all connected.
Even when I travel, it doesn’t matter what country I’m in, I never feel out-of-place or [worry over] the musicians’ racial makeup…That doesn’t affect me because I understand history. I love history. So I understand that there’s no place that I’m going that I haven’t already been. My story is not a separate one; I don’t see it like that. Everyone is implicit.… But I’m showing my students “American Utopia” now, so that’s an interesting talking point. I didn’t know that was Janelle Monáe.… But this is Talking Heads! This is David Byrne! Creatively, David Byrne has given to the world in such a positive way. I tell my students, I don’t just get excited to play with a musician because their music is this and this. I care about who they are as people. How do they come to care? How do they treat things? How are they able to listen? Listening is a very important thing.… What’s the work? Let’s talk about the work people are doing. If it’s just music, then it’s just music. What other work people are doing?
I feel like this sense of history dovetails with the samples you use in “Analog Fluids,” which seem so layered with meaning. You’re not just using a recording of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” you’re using a Paul Robeson recording of it, which adds another layer of history given Robeson’s biography.
Well, it’s kind of hard, because during the creation [of an album] you have all these limitations [around sampling]…What I will say is that it’s all about closing the timeline. It’s bringing everything closer together. This is a lot of work that I do with my collective, Black Quantum Futurism, this reinterpreting of the map; the reinterpreting and reconfiguration of the timeline of space and time. So that’s what it’s really about. I’m trying to really close or shrink this timeline and put us all together, because we’re all connected and all saying these same things that sometimes get whitewashed or disconnected or forgotten.
Many of us remember Paul Robeson’s legacy as a singer who broke racial barriers; few of us remember the hell he went through with HUAC or the MK-Ultra theory.
It goes back to what I said before: It’s not about the work that people actually produce, it’s about who they are. Their acts of compassion, their tales of struggle, their tribulations, the hard roads they walk—that’s what it’s about. That’s why we challenge these norms of what a song is. These norms of what genre is, or what we’re supposed to create—at least speaking for myself. Because of what so many before us went through, you know? That’s where I come from, and the connections and why certain people really ring out for me, it’s because of what they went through, not really their body of work. If that makes sense.
Can you name a few more of those people who ring out for you?
Billie Holiday. Huge on that list for me. And maybe I own like, two Billie Holiday records. But her story, what she went through—I think about that every month. So many women that I just love: blues musicians; I’m always digging gospel singers. Mahalia Jackson’s another person. Nina Simone, of course. A genius.
Speaking of gospel and blues, you’ve described those genres as a “liberation technology.” Can you say more about that?
“Liberation technologies” is a phrase that I use to call these very important pillars of my work: free jazz, gospel music, and the blues. So for my work to do what I want for my outcome, which as I told you before is partly to close this timeline, I’m also interested in this idea of plugging these kinds of spells or curses through time. Using sound as an act of time travel. And these are the parts of the fabric that are needed to make these things happen. I say in my album, “Circuit City,” you can’t time travel without free jazz. I’m constantly speaking of these elements and bringing it into the work, whether it’s my voice doing it or what I’m sampling. In my work, it’s gonna get more and more towards that direction.
In one interview you said, “I really wanna fuck up classical music.” How does that play out for you?
I have a few things that will be premiering next year. I’m definitely looking for more opportunities to present work [in the classical space]. I just think it’s about putting perspectives forward in a really aggressive manner; putting ideas forward in this kind of non-linear way. But just really being bold and aggressive, and bringing that kind of energy to classical music. And, of course, breaking every rule as far as not being able to feel, not being able to add things. For the piece that I did for the Beethoven Festival that I did before, I had the choir and the folks in the orchestra really letting loose: laughing, crying.
I work in a classical music department right now in California, at USC, and I know that some of these kids are really innovative and they’re pushing the boundaries of what’s going to be the next 100 years of classical music. And I wanna be a part of that in the most experimental way. If we can just invoke John Cage’s Silence. Or these moments where [classical musicians] could have this Grace Jones presence; this futurism presence. And it can be continually living, not—not to use this kind of language—these kinds of monoliths of stone. (I don’t like to say “dead” or anything like this, I’d rather just say “stone” or “frozen.”) I want to have something that’s frozen and also melting. Something where maybe we’re being thoughtful about how to stop the melting, or how to bring more care to it. These different elements of freeness, of responsibility, of intent with so many instruments. So many chances for sound as protest, sound as healing and activism all at once. Entangled. Not these separate ideas of past and future. Deeper paths. Understanding that there’s levels to this.
And I want to bring so many aspects of what people envision for futures, you know. Not just the individualistic. Not just from a cultural standpoint. Definitely bring the work that Black Quantum Futurism is doing into the fold. Bringing the work that my partner is doing in housing advocacy into the fold. Like I said before, these are not separate stories, we’ve already made so many connections. Sometimes people feel like they’re the first person ever to go to Europe. [Scoffs.] Like… no! We as jazz musicians, we as blues musicians, we’ve always been going to Europe, before the Wall and after the Wall.
So it’s understanding and not forgetting—and adding on. Not this idea of “We’re doing this newness.” Get rid of the new. Reexamine the old and see what’s actually good from the old… [Black Quantum Futurism] just had a workshop in Mexico City and we had this sort of question-answer session where we actually workshopped these questions [people] wanted to ask. Let’s get to the meat of what we’re trying to get to next instead of all of this fluff; instead of all of this tunnel-vision individualism.
I think this is a central point of cleavage in classical music right now where, on the one hand, there’s a reverence for the past but—on the other hand—a sense of collective amnesia.
Classical music has to be able to move away from the page. I’m not saying abandon it, but… I think about this all the time. Like, how many more books do we need on Abraham Lincoln? How many more books do we need on Benjamin Franklin? How many Christmas concerts do we need of Beethoven? How many?? Where is it pushing us as a collective mind, as a social consciousness? As a community, where has it pushed us? Sometimes it’s OK to take a break, it’s not like we’re forgetting. No one can forget.
As a teacher, are you seeing your students respond to these questions as well?
Definitely that’s what they’re thinking. Creators all over are at an important point in history. Things are really getting advanced as far as AI technology, as far as sustainability… We’re really at a point where you have to have intention and you have to be bold in your work. You see a lot of artists going deeper and deeper, trying to go deeper and deeper into themselves to really pull out the stuff. It’s a work in progress. Everyone has their own trajectory. But things are not gonna get any easier for us as musicians. This idea of defining success for ourselves is gonna really come up big soon. Because so many times in this world of entertainment, this world of selling a product, it’s a major business model and it’s not cut out for communities. And they don’t cut out anything for care. They’re trying to learn the lingo. But writing a policy and implementing it—it’s two different things. Usually, you hire someone else, they write the policy for your organization, but you actually have to follow it and implement it. And we’re going against decades and decades of one way. Only when people are in desperation do they usually bend a little bit. Hopefully we start bending a bit sooner. ¶
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