El Is a Sound of Joy Plus

[No Index; 2016]

Styles: spiritual jazz, astromusicology, process theology
Others: John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Alfred North Whitehead

.בְּיָדְךָ, אַפְקִיד רוּחִי: פָּדִיתָ אוֹתִי יְהוָה—אֵל אֱמֶת
-Psalm 31:5
:נִכְסְפָה וְגַם-כָּלְתָה, נַפְשִׁי— לְחַצְרוֹת יְהוָה
.לִבִּי וּבְשָׂרִי— יְרַנְּנוּ, אֶל אֵל-חָי
-Psalm 84:2
 א

As much as I hate to disagree with the Saturnian man himself, El is not a sound of joy. We come to it as אֵל (aleph-lamed) and as a preposition it means to or toward. We see it in Arabic, ال‎ (alif-lam), where it forms the definite article. El is a sound of relation, this thing as opposed to that, or one thing as it approaches another. Discreteness and communion. Yet, El is not merely syncategorematic. El signifies, and those who grew up alongside the Jewish liturgy should be familiar with its particular resonances:

ברוך אתה ה’ אלהינו, מלך העולם

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe. The name El is older than that, enshrined as the chief divinity among the Amorites and Canaanites. In Psalm 31, El is truth, and in Psalm 84, life eternal, but in Psalm 29, “The voice of the Lord breaketh the cedars.” Creativity, infinity, and destruction bound in a single phrase. The sacred syllable El, the name of God, is found in our everyday, in babel and hallelujah, in Michael and Lazarus (El’azar). The prepositional function of El becomes clear in this context, since it not only represents relation, but also the thing that is being related, i.e., God. The transcendental signifier, the The, the source from which all that is given extends. El is not merely a sound of joy, it is the ringing of creation itself. All music created in the name of El becomes essentially devotional.

Dry as it might be, this simple linguistic archaeology of a single mystical syllable becomes necessary when it is El. We must mine the history of its becoming, for we speak of nothing less than the beginning of all becomings. That reality is that a Heraclitean fire does not erase God’s sovereignty.

Pater omnium, You are a part of all becoming.

ב

The aleatory and extemporized may pose something of a theological quandary for those subscribed to the notion of the timeless and fixed divinity whose initial utterance begat every moment of time. Although Western thought has long struggled with reconciling sudden and inexplicable change with the power of He whose voice strikes as lightning and shakes loose Lebanon from the earth, jazz never had that issue. American jazz, at its most spiritual, recognized the pluripotent nature of creation. Logos was not a command, but a guideline. Yes, the Creator has a master plan, but who says contingency is not part of it?

Jazz is essentially American and essentially theological because of its relationship to becoming. The history of the nation is the history of velocities converging and diverging, flow disrupted regaining path, multiplicity, bricolage, a history of nomads and transplants resisting striation. The history of jazz is not the history of mossy lycea dedicated to reproduction and reverence, but a detonation of what is known, a history of broken melodies and exploded rhythms. Honorary jazzman Gilles Deleuze saw all of this.

ג

“The universe is not so much unfathomable as unfathomed.”
– Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making

“He did not so much compose or arrange or express; he searched. He threw the dice.”
– Todd May, on John Coltrane

At its most skeletal a quartet, an acephalic action of limbs, Chicago’s El Is a Sound of Joy takes up this history of a universe whose God is as mutable as itself, a universe that exists only through mutation. A history of God and a history of jazz look almost the same. As Sun Ra discovered astral exploration was inner exploration, as Coltrane sought to burst open the gates of heaven, as Sanders outlined panentheism in the shake of a sleigh bell, as Ayler dynamited his body in the curve of his saxophone, El Is a Sound of Joy seek to sketch something of a jazz beatitude.

Despite six years of animation, Plus is the first effort of the group committed to physical media. Six years of recombination and improvisation, behaving as an enzymatic active site for new players and new sounds, have given its core players an expansive and multifarious palette. The cast of characters are culled from Chicago’s rich jazz and improvised music scenes. The instruments on tap stretch from basic jazz combo fare to tuba, cello, assorted electronics and percussion, and a West African ngoni. Consequently, the sound is always diverse and oftentimes surprising, as unexpected phrases materialize out of nowhere only to sink away into the mix.

The organization of Plus also asserts itself as a matter to be contended with. Namely, it is packaged as a CD, but structured as a cassette — two sides of about 20 minutes each. However, each of these sides are split into three separate performances, none of which were recorded at the same time. We begin the record on March 18th 2015, and in just ten minutes it’s September 28th 2013. This temporal disjuncture marks the bricolage nature of the record, its heterogeneity and its multiplicity. We are certainly given the sense of construction, small instances of collusion between the temporal and the material, but there is no sense of composition.

This is not to call Plus especially free, but its maneuvers — sounds and players stepping into and out of the flow of time — and its arrangements of discrete elements in a greater, though not totalizing unity, gesture toward this process of becoming. Each part functions as an exercise alone and an effort altogether. Not exactly potentialization, but exploration. Not the experience of music, rather music as experience, virtual experience. Regardless of any spiritual posture of the performers themselves, it is impossible to not read the discursive horns and the spritely ngoni of “Breathe Easier” as a sort of pilgrimage, one both esoteric and exoteric. Never cacophonous, but hardly restrained, for all its breaks and breakdowns, Plus could perhaps best be described as fluent, constantly and casually diverting its flow to new channels. A questing mood of movement toward movement.

The two meditative intermediate portions, “Northwest Passage” and “Mangrove Recombination” (from the first and second sides, respectively), call to mind the brooding and atmospheric jazz of the 70s that privileged slowly developed textures over virtuosity. Swelling electronics, gritty violins, and lilting bells mark off passages of blossoming and dissolving differentiation. These are not moments of particular focus or consolidation, but come at this searching from a new direction. Perhaps more like an embryology of sound to complement the discontinuous breaks into lines of flight. The close of “Mangrove Recombination,” with its air of chthonian perdition, makes way for a chord on electric piano that can only be described as exultant joy. El.

Stop and start, slow and fast, force and atmosphere, the blessedly organic and the profanely synthesized, these are binaries that in the world of Plus are not opposed. Instead, they are necessary collaborators, each half of the equation deriving all of its meaning from the other half. It all moves in waves of superposition. Returning to the relational nature of the word El, we discover process theology as an exploration into relation, a tactic that brings divinity down into the realm of time and space. The totality bucks the common assumption of fixity in its vital mutability, in its existence as a piece outside time yet simultaneously dedicated to its existence over time.

The old El, the syllable of awful divinity, is his own creation, and as root and radicle shoot off from the Word, he acts in and is acted upon the variegated spread of the universe. We would do well to remember that there is, in Semitic religions, only one true metaphysical fact: the non-derivative existence of the divinity. All else is provisional. Digression is as essential as ritual. We recite our prayers and each time append a new blessing. A religion plus, as it were.

Links: El Is a Sound of Joy - No Index

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