The inextricable link between improvisation and intuition grants access to the rarely-tapped psychological space affectionately referred to as “the zone.” What are musicians doing in this secret nirvana? The phenomenal qualities of being in the zone are difficult to explain because of its nature: it appears to be wholly other to conscious, analytical thought. And yet musicians (other than perhaps vocalists) within the zone are using tools to accomplish their ends, marking time with an almost supernatural accuracy, both of which we associate with only the most sophisticated forms of consciousness. Therefore, the chattering brain seems to reach a state between both off and on, creating at once chaos and order. From this fertile soil grows some of the most sublime music, but only the most capable improvisers can sustain it for extended lengths of time.
On The Raw and the Cooked, a document of several performances from their short 2012 tour, it’s clear that Chris Corsano and Bill Orcutt are two of this rare breed. Crucially, they share technical proficiency and chemistry as a duo, both of which cover the price of admission to the zone. Technical proficiency ensures that no brainpower goes to compensating for a lack of muscle memory, while chemistry opens the all important portal to the other side: the ears. When the performer listens intently to each passing moment, the right action to follow it locks into place. Each movement seems fully determinate, only valuable in its execution.
But that evaluation is also difficult to parse, because it too seems almost entirely unconscious. When performers access the zone, they pull you in with them or at least provide an image of what lies beyond. The Raw and the Cooked makes use of the more ecstatic sensations of the zone, granting in several of its most sublime passages a glimpse of Dionysian frenzy to the listener. Perhaps, as audience members, we are only allowed the lesser mysteries, but we get to go there without the work that Orcutt and Corsano have put in.
It’s amazing how closely this line of work approximates chaos. But isn’t chaos just a word for that which we cannot consciously grasp? This noumenal quality is exactly what the zone reveals: the order in chaos, the reality of the world past consciousness. Some devotees to the zone show the more ferocious qualities of the other side, while some work from a state of sorrow towards transcendence. The Raw and the Cooked, however, taps not into fear or pathos, but into a kind of radiant bliss, punctuated by distorted guitar and bright cymbal crashes. Each action on the album propels the listener forward into the zone like combustion driving the eardrum’s piston.
Where Orcutt and Corsano achieve the union of opposites, the power of the zone imposes itself, demanding acceptance. Not that we’re reluctant to grant it. Few words come to mind when we follow them there, but one slips through the portal with us or is perhaps waiting for us on the other side. Its binary partner totally absent, we both hear and partake in an assertion of the universal positive: yes.