Fred Frith and Annie Lewandowski: An Improvisation

Fred Frith guitar
Annie Lewandowski piano
Barnes Hall, Cornell University
February 29, 2012
8:00 pm

This is what it feels like to close one’s eyes and listen to the shadows for the first time:

Feet bare and prayerful. They tremble on either side of the divide. Turn the radio dial to a frequency where life pours in through the cracks, they seem to say, and you will find in the draw of a bow (whose memories of cracked whips whistle in the distance) a chance to hear the change in your pocket as if it were inside your skull. Place a forest of fingers in the sand and you have only kernels to show for your treasure hunting. It’s not as if one need crack open a tooth to find the nail on the chalkboard, for in each arid stretch there was a music so beautiful it might have knocked you right out of your adolescent skin. The instrument sprouts leaves, adds to its own skeleton with every spontaneous preparation. Those gestures, they come back. The march, the very rhythm of it, has substance. It drips like sap, filling crusted buckets only when left to its own devices. A koto-like thing amplified and stretched to another shore, it cries with the force of a crane in soaring flight. It reverses time even as it drags its own reflection by the magnet on the end of its golden tail. The winds still carry a scent: village candles, bite of tower bell, snuff of horse’s mane. The radio crackles again, speaking as might a mother who has forgotten a lullaby and cannot sleep for all the unrequited attempts swirling behind her eyelids. He plays with light and lights with play. A thousand beams for a thousand children, each the bearer of gifts for hungry wayfarers. Our radio loves us to pieces, hugs us so hard it puts us back together. The sounds of repair are the speech of the broken. Clouds spin into a sea of gray, the stairs a blanket of norms duly obscured. Heat whispers through rips in the mirage: “There is a grain for every hope. Why do you tread here?” A messenger of the plains runs into view, bringing with it tales of pasture and a looping caprice. He taps the edge of the bark and teaches the termites to sing. A spate of talk, a bird’s living wish rewound back to the egg. The beak crunches into flour and is baked into a pastry of careening, listless messages.

Intermission is a word invented by psychics in their sleep with an agenda geared toward interruption. The missions, yes, are hearable, but the “inter”-ness of it is lost to our idle chatter, which tries to unravel everything that has been spun. An obsession, to be sure, throughout which the mind desires silence yet at which we cringe to find the words. What is improvisation but the absence of tongues? There are battles in places we will never visit, and far more visits to places where battle will never be waged. I can smell the ice.

Stairs walking up themselves: that’s what I feel, at least. For whatever is to be made by holding our looking glasses to our ears, this is it. Someone gallops away. We are left, subtracted from one. An animal breathes, decidedly mechanomorphic. Can you speak without also whispering? The piano tells us no: the latter is always hidden in the former. She touches the breeze, clips the hilltops with her wingtips, and showers the land with a promise of elastic. A footstep felt from the inside. The delicacies of our harshest gestures creased until the paper becomes softer than breath. The bottle has a tune to uncork, and in it lies a metallic question. He blinks his eyes as she squeezes hers. Pulling blades of grass from their communities becomes an act of self-destruction. Spindles of willow reaching skyward, forgetting the fires that have long since abandoned them. Masks switch places where the sun has touched them (the cheeks, forehead, and nose) and hold fast to where the moon (lips, eyes, throat). Only the burnished reflection tells us from where its life has sprung. Unscrewing the lid, she dumps out water and mouths, folktales and tracts of yesteryear, each the first of its kind to have suffered the iniquities of a printed score. Thus freed, they dance a path’s worth of steps on overgrown earth. He traces the edge of a language; she transcribes her own on surfaces desirous of fadeout. Every grandmother’s hum of an afternoon crashes outward. Run a fingernail along the ridges of your cochlea, and you will come closest to recreating what has transpired. But you must do it alone, where only ghosts can blow out the candles melting in your hallway. Sounding the pulse like sugar, it distills the spirit of the thing by never repeating itself.