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M. Lamar & Charlie Looker Discuss their Ecstatic Music Festival Collaboration


Ecstatic Music Festival collaborators M. Lamar and Charlie Looker stopped by Kaufman Music Center to discuss their March 19 Ecstatic Music Festival performance at Merkin Concert Hall. The shared the story behind the new song cycle they’ll premiere on the 19th and filled us in on what Bataille and the Marquis de Sade have to do with their music, the uses of dissonance, and what it means to be a classical composer in 2016.

Get tickets to their March 19 performance.

What will we see on stage at your March 19 Ecstatic Music Festival Performance?

Charlie: My set will be me on guitar and voice, and Mivos Quartet doing radically rearranged versions of material from my various bands over the years, including Extra Life, Psalm Zero, and my acoustic band Seaven Teares. It’s almost like a retrospective or cross-section of songs that I’ve done with different projects over the past ten years that would really work for strings.

Tell us about the song cycle you’ll premiere on March 19.

M. Lamar: “Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche” is a song cycle. It’s a story about a 17-year-old black boy who is accused of killing a white man. The entire piece takes place in prison as he prepares to die. His reflection on his life, even though it’s a short life, takes him back to parts of his childhood and also back about 100 years to what life must have been like on a plantation in a slave context. It takes place in St. Martinville, LA in 1947, so you can imagine what the fate of a black boy accused of killing a 53-year-old white man would have been. Even the accusation, beyond innocence or guilt, is enough to basically guarantee a death sentence at that time. 

It’s very loosely based on the story of Willie Francis. What’s interesting to me about the story is that he was having a sexual relationship with the man he’s accused of killing. And so it’s interesting, this adult having relations with a black boy, and it automatically took me to the question of plantations and what kind of homosexual activities were going on in a consensual sense between slaves and masters. Obviously there’s a question of whether you can really consent in a context where you’re being owned – is that even a possibility? So the show really tries to explore the questions of desire, violence, servitude, mass incarceration and ultimately what the lineage of black death looks like in the U.S. context. Certainly in the media now we have all these films and videotapes of black men and sometimes women being killed by police officers or vigilante white people, mostly police officers. Snuff films, really. It’s horrifying to see, but it’s useful to think about the ways in which there’s been a consistency in the U.S. context of this kind of violence and black death. I first started workshopping this piece in 2013 before Trayvon Martin was killed. It’s so obvious that this unjust killing and the fact that George Zimmerman went free was deeply disturbing to a lot of white people in a way that black people have had to suffer through this sort of death for generations. And so it’s interesting because in a way I feel like the world or at least the public discourse outside of the black community has caught up to this piece. It questions what it means to exist in a black body in a white state.

James Baldwin said that the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect on the world. I think that’s so much of what I’m trying to get at in “Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche,” the interior life of this boy and what he longs for, how he’s trying to understand his circumstances.

Charlie: This performance is going to be a ritual space, a bounded kind of sacred/profane place.

M. Lamar: I think of what I do as sacred music. I don’t think the sacred leaves out the sexual or the erotic. Bataille’s essay on de Sade talks about men as the sovereign states in a way, the sovereigns who have complete will over the people. I’m interested in that because I’m interested in questions of justice in my work. I’m describing things that are happening, but I don’t think I’m making judgments about right and wrong in the work. I present lots of stuff and you have to come to your own conclusions. I don’t think that I’m taking moral positions necessarily.

Charlie: But there is a moral. Exploring the horrors of slavery and its psychic effects. You’re definitely denouncing it.

M. Lamar: One shouldn’t automatically assume that the slave is the servile one. In the white imagination, the white pornographic imagination, most often the fantasy is that the white person becomes submissive utterly to these black bodies, and what the white supremacist imagination imagines is that there’s some realm of the sexual that black people own in a way that whiteness can’t fully understand. I critique that often. Imagining that black men and women are only body and not mind, only sexual beings or athletes, is a fantasy in the white pornographic imagination. I think that we can’t fully understand the violence against black bodies and the murder of black bodies without exploring that.

How does music  help you explore themes of race, sexuality and violence?

M. Lamar: Music is great because it’s mostly from an emotional place, so you can really get to it in a way that an essay, or even a film, can’t. Unlike an essay or even a novel, I think music has a way of making you immediately feel some way about a situation. It’s just so emotional. I like to think of myself as not being a manipulative performer, but I like to put you in the circumstance of the subjugated person, and maybe feel and empathize with them in a certain kind of way that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. And just feel deeply.

I use a lot of Toni Morrison text from Beloved. There’s a moment when all the punctuation goes away and you’re on a slave ship, suddenly. And I actually always cry when I read that. I think that she can just take you immediately very much to a place where you’re sobbing in despair. But musicians always have an unfair advantage in that regard. Music always has the ability to take you immediately to a dark place, a place of sorrow that’s devastating.

Charlie: For me, musical performance is a ritual thing. I think of it as a ritual sacrifice in the sense that it’s a place – Bataille writes a lot about taboo and cultures that had ritual human sacrifice. There was a taboo on violence in society, but then in certain prescribed times, you decapitate someone. And all the violence is absorbed in this ritual act within a certain bounded space. So for me a lot of the time, writing music and performance is a place where you can talk about, sing about and deal with things that are just not acceptable to talk about elsewhere. Everything doesn’t have to be reconciled. We’re not claiming to have answers. There’s something so raw about music physically and emotionally. 

What has the collaboration allowed each of you to do so far musically that maybe you never would have done otherwise?

M. Lamar: It’s been great to work with Charlie. I have so much respect for him in terms of his ability, his skill and rigor. This collaboration has allowed me to actualize a vision that I’ve had about a horror film aesthetic. When I started calling my music Negro gothic music I was thinking about romance and horror, and the horror of white supremacy in a kind of almost B-movie schlocky horror way. I think that Charlie’s arrangements have allowed me to actualize a longing that I’ve had for a certain kind of horrific aesthetic. I think when people finally hear these arrangements they’ll be really excited. I’m just having a real blast sonically. My voice and the violins together – I feel like it’s revelatory in terms of my sound. 

Charlie has a sort of dexterity with moving very easily from romantic kinds of arrangements into extremely avant-garde, harsher stuff. And that to me is really interesting. I think that in my piece there are very romantic elements with also very edgy kinds of arrangements. 

Charlie: It’s just been enjoyable and fun. I’ve never done something where I’m doing a supporting role as an arranger for something that I’m so personally into. To be blending some of the electronic stuff and drum machine stuff with my writing for strings, that was kind of new.

What musical traditions do you draw from?

M. Lamar: The musicians I most admire are black musicians, improvers like Cecil Taylor or Coltrane or Miles Davis. I’m not really an improviser. I play around, there’s a certain amount of happening in the moment in stuff that I do, but it’s really set. I don’t think of myself in terms of genre, but I think that maybe this could be viewed through the lens of classical music.

Charlie: I really got into classical music and the idea of being a composer, learning how to write for classical instruments, though 20th century post-WW I composers like Zemackis, Stockhausen, Nono, Ligety – really, the horrifying-sounding end of that post-war European thing. To me what’s awesome about this collaboration is to be involved in a classical context, with classical meeting and intersecting other genres. But I think a lot of people in classical music right now are frustrated. It seems like people think that a lot of that confrontational European avant-garde stuff is academic or dry or sterile. I’m excited to be doing something where some of what we’re taking from the classical canon is romantic, but some of it is that post-war, harsh music. We’re doing it in more of a horror context. It’s not academic, thorny dissonance on the level of serialism or the academy, it’s on the level of horror.

M. Lamar: And feeling something intensely. That’s the goal, to use all that dissonance to make you feel something. I’m very much interested in things not being resolved in music. There’s no resolution to devastating things in life that one cannot fully resolve, but in art you can create all these dissonances and all these things that are not resolved, and you can decide to resolve them or not. It’s very exciting.

Charlie: You’re talking about dissonance in a more poetic sense of dissonance between conflicting elements, not just literally musical dissonance. Actually, most of what we’re doing harmonically is not super dissonant, really, but these elements are constantly coming in and out. A lot of what you’re doing is coming out of the blues and opera, where what I’m doing is coming out of pop and metal.

M. Lamar: I’m a blues man. Vocal melodies in the Negro spirituals are a big deal, but it’s usually opera singers singing Negro spirituals. Since I was a child I’ve been listening to Leontyne Price and Marian Anderson. These classical singers are able to imbue spirituals with a bel canto kind of singing, a singing in a legato line. I’m very interested in those kinds of these long, beautiful melodic lines that you don’t see so much in a lot of new operatic writing.

Charlie: Sacred vocal music is actually a thing we have in common even though it’s manifested very differently in our respective works. Because your stuff has elements of Negro spirituals and in my stuff there’s always an early music element. My vocal writing for myself comes out of certain kinds of dark pop, but it also is really rooted in medieval and Renaissance music.

There is something about certain types of vocal music, melismatic vocal singing, that really is an ecstatic thing. (I’m not just using “ecstatic” because it’s the name of the festival.) In a gospel context it’s very overtly like what you think of as ecstatic. In the European Renaissance and medieval tradition, it’s a way more cooled-out sounding form of ecstasy, but it’s the same kind of thing.

M. Lamar: It’s the same thing. That old-school way of singing gospel – Mahalia Jackson and Marion Williams are virtuosic singers by any standard of classical music. Marion Williams has these very long line melodies that she does and holds them forever, or the way Mahalia Jackson sings. She has, again, these long phrases, these lines. She understands the bel canto and the gospel in terms of a certain kind of rigor, and what they’re meant to do and evoke for the listener. Singing should be absolutely thrilling and ecstatic and religious. The voice is so much of who we are as human beings. It’s the most personal instrument.

Charlie: Having your body itself be the instrument is this inherently ecstatic thing, where you’re dealing with breath. It is literally spiritual in the sense of spirit meaning breath.