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Performance Series Presented by Blank Forms: Josiah McElheny

Performance view: The Sun Ra Arkestra, James Cohan, New York, NY, September 14, 2019

For his solo exhibition Observations at Night, on view from September 6 to October 19 at our new 48 Walker Street location, Josiah McElheny has created an environment of glass sculptures and paintings that explore the poetics—and political hope—of the night hours. By using refraction, reflection, and lensing to manipulate perception, the artist explores new ways of looking and listening through darkness. The exhibition's centerpiece, a large-scale sound-responsive sculpture entitled Moon Mirror, will serve as a site for a live performance series curated by Blank Forms taking place throughout the show’s duration.


Performance Series Presented by Blank Forms:

Jessika Kenney at James Cohan: September 7, 2019

Jessika Kenney is a vocalist, composer, and teacher whose work extends the vocal traditions of Indonesian sindhenan and Persian radif into new realms by way of contemporary composition and improvisation. Internationally regarded for the elegiac timbral quality of her voice, her practice of sphygmoresonance, or resonance of pulse, entails ritualistic focus and reverence for inner architecture that emanates a palpable sense of stillness. Kenney’s interest in the full spectrum experience of sound has led to collaboration with a wide range of experimentalists, while her partnership with composer/violist Eyvind Kang has yielded five spellbinding albums of minimal, delicate beauty. A student of radif with Ostad Hossein Omoumi, Kenney’s music is timeless, yet steeped in textual research, respectful of its spiritual roots while invoking unknown futures.


Amir ElSaffar at James Cohan: September 11, 2019 

Amir ElSaffar is an Iraqi-American trumpeter who has developed techniques for playing microtones idiomatic to Arabic music in order to reconcile the aesthetics of jazz with those of his heritage. After moving from Chicago to New York and performing in Cecil Taylor’s ensemble, ElSaffar in 2002 dedicated himself to tracking down the surviving practitioners of Iraqi maqam, a 400-year-old, urban classical vocal tradition of complex melodic modes that represents one of Iraq’s richest cultural offerings. His search led him to vocalist Hamid Al Saadi, an Iraqi vocalist and scholar of maqam and the only person of his generation to have mastered all 56 maqamat from the Baghdad repertoire, with whom he studied intensively, learning a majority of the maqam compositions. Seeking an interaction between the spiritual essence of Iraqi maqam and the swing, improvisation, and spontaneity of jazz, Al Saadi has toured extensively with ElSaffar, both as a duo and with the latter’s groups Two Rivers and Safaafir, in which ElSaffar plays santur, a hammered dulcimer central to maqam.


The Sun Ra Arkestra at James Cohan: September 14, 2019 

Founded in the mid-1950s, The Sun Ra Arkestra became the primary conduit through which polymath jazz composer, bandleader, pianist, poet, and philosopher Sun Ra expressed his visionary perspective. Sun Ra’s mythology transposes the forced dislocation of the African diaspora from slave ship to spaceship, wielding technology and music as an instrument for utopian black interplanetary migration, with the Arkestra as its vehicle. When Sun Ra left planet Earth in 1993, his role as leader of the Arkestra was taken by John Gilmore before the latter’s ascension in 1995, when Marshall Allen assumed its helm. An alto saxophonist, flautist, and electronic valve instrument player who joined the Arkestra in 1958, Allen lived, rehearsed, toured, and recorded with Sun Ra almost exclusively throughout his musical career. At age 93, Allen is the only living member of the Arkestra’s original core group, but maintains that its current incarnation is no ghost band. To the contrary, for Marshall Allen, Sun Ra is not gone. Allen and the other members of the Arkestra continue to live at the Sun Ra residence in Philadelphia, the group’s communal base of drug, alcohol, and sex-free operations since 1968. There, Allen writes fresh arrangements of Sun Ra’s tunes and composes new music for the Arkestra, committed to a life of discipline centered on the further development of Sun Ra’s musical precepts. With such a massive, joyous songbook that encompasses spiritual grooves, sing-along chants and ecstatic fire music, the Arkestra continues to traverse their namesake’s spaceways. As far back as the ‘50s, Sun Ra used to say that the Arkestra was playing the music of the twenty-first century. In today’s political climate their message is more relevant than ever.


Susan Alcorn at James Cohan: September 18, 2019

Susan Alcorn is a Baltimore-based composer, improviser, and virtuoso proponent of the pedal steel guitar who has spent over 40 years liberating the expressive potential of the harmonically rich instrument from its conservative role in the country western tradition. Initially inspired by a live Muddy Waters performance to pick up the pedal steel for its ability to play “the notes between the notes”, Alcorn later cut her teeth in country swing bands in her home of Texas before being encouraged by Paul Bley to “throw away the real book” and channel her diverse influences: the spiritual and free jazz of Ornette Coleman, Alice and John Coltrane; the avant-garde classical music of Messiaen, Feldman, and Varèse; and the lyrical phrasing of Roberta Flack and Carly Simon. Incorporating these styles via the philosophy of Deep Listening into the haiku-like economy and heartfelt immediacy of American country music, Alcorn has traversed new paths with the pedal steel, applying its singular attributes (contrary motion string bending, volume swells, natural sustain) and her own extended techniques to everything from group free improvisation to intimate solo composition.


Louise Landes Levi at James Cohan: September 21, 2019 

Louise Landes Levi is a poet, translator, musician, and performer whose travels have charted an elaborate constellation of mystic and cosmic pathways. A founding member of Daniel Moore’s Floating Lotus Magic Opera Company, she participated—from 1967 to 1969, alongside Terry Riley and Angus Maclise—in multidisciplinary drama inspired by Artaud’s research with the Tarahumara, the Balinese Gamelan, Tibetan monastic ritual, and Indian dance. Following studies at Mills College with sarangi master Pandit Ram Narayan, Levi traveled alone from Paris through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to reach northern India for research into its musical and poetic tradition. There, she studied with Sri Annapurna Devi and Ustad Abdul Majid Khan, later becoming Ali Ak Bar Khan’s pupil at the Basel Conservatory of Music and in California. Completing her journey in her birthplace of New York, Levi studied with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, monitoring their Dream House into the 21st century. Levi has translated the work of Henri Michaux and Indian mystic Mira Bai (whose Sweet On My Lips La Monte Young wrote the introduction for) and is responsible for the first English translation of Rene Daumal’s Rasa, or Knowledge of the Self (New Directions, 1982). She has published over a dozen books of her own poetry, most recently Crazy Louise (or la Conversazione Sacra), a series of poems examining sexual trauma from the perspective of an initiate, delineating an oriental interpretation of lunacy to reclaim the notion of the feminine hysterical from its subordinate and abusive occidental role. Levi’s introverted lifestyle and reverence for musical tradition and attainment have left comparatively little space for musical dissemination, but the last decade has seen the reappearance of works from the ‘80s in addition to several contemporary releases featuring contributions from her friends, the late Ira Cohen and Catherine Christer Hennix. Whether alone or with accompaniment, Levi’s elegiac sarangi, bells, and flute exude the feeling of otherworldly, indeed forgotten ritual. Her invocation & interpretive sense of raga, in these recordings, overlaid with spoken and sung poetry, invoke threshold experience, railing against mono culture with a sincerity & presence as sardonic or mournful as it is devotional.


Makoto Kawashima at James Cohan: September 25, 2019

Makoto Kawashima was born in 1981 in Saitama, a prefecture of the Greater Tokyo Area, but it wasn’t until 2008 that he first picked up the alto saxophone, electing to perform primarily in a solo configuration since 2010. Following the tradition of alto forebears Kaoru Abe and Masayoshi Urabe, Kawashima recorded his 2015 record Homo Sacer for P.S.F. Records. The swan song release for the legendary Japanese noise label, its publication and recent reissue by Black Editions have represented something of a passing of the free improvisation torch, with the session boasting an impassioned performance by Kawashima using one of Kaoru Abe’s reeds given to him by the latter’s mother. Leaping between subdued lyrical lamentations and insistent trills, Kawashima leaves ample negative space for his dizzying screeches into the void. Kawashima has additionally self-released a number of recordings on his own Homosacer Records.


Nicole Mitchell at James Cohan: September 28, 2019

Nicole Mitchell (b. 1967) is a creative flutist, composer, poet, conceptualist, bandleader, and educator. Finding her voice through her involvement with Black Arts Movement institutions in Chicago, Mitchell was a co-founder of Samana, the AACM's first all women ensemble in 1992. She started working with Hamid Drake and David Boykin in 1996, and by 1998 had established her renowned Black Earth Ensemble, soon after to enlist the likes of Tomeka Reid and Joshua Abrams for her ongoing creation of vibrant, soulful spiritual jazz that bridges the familiar and the unknown. Taking cues from her mother’s interest in Afrofuturist literature, Mitchell in 2008 recorded Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute to Octavia Butler and regularly incorporates elements of sci-fi libretto in her work, speculating into future climate meltdowns and the racial politics of imagined utopia-dystopias. Mitchell was once enticed to join the Sun Ra Arkestra, but her development in Chicago has instead led to collaborations that have included the recording of Liberation Narratives with poet Haki Madhubuti and playing with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Mitchell was the first woman president of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and is currently the William S. Dietrich II Endowed Chair in Jazz Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.


Akira Sakata with Darin Gray at James Cohan: October 2, 2019

Akira Sakata (b. 1945) is a veteran Japanese free jazz alto saxophonist as well as a marine biologist, television and film actor, and writer. Sakata entered the international stage as a member of the explosive Yamashita Yosuke Trio from 1972 to 1979 before striking out on his own as a leader and creating a heterogeneous body of work that has touched on electronic music, pop, and Japanese folk, including sessions for Enja Records and three LPs for the now coveted Better Days label. He has lent the swagger of his blistering reed phrasing to collaborations with the likes of Last Exit, Jimmy Lyons, Hamid Drake, Keiji Haino, Peter Brötzmann, Hijokaidan, Urban Sax, and Charles Hayward, but his performances can also distinguished by his idiosyncratic use of his voice. 2001’s, Sakata’s ode to folksongs of the sea, finds him alternating between sultry alto lines and possessed vocal ululation, its dark mutant funk featuring no less than legendary fusion-era Miles Davis guitarist Pete Cosey in his first recorded session since his 1983 contribution to Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock. Continuing the immaculate pedigree of his collaborations, Sakata in 2005 began performing with Jim O’Rourke, drummer Chris Corsano, and bassist Darin Gray, marking a fruitful return to his incendiary free jazz roots across several albums. Gray is best known as Jim O’Rourke’s go-to bassist of 20 years, having played on the latter’s beguiling classics Eureka and Insignificance. He was also a fixture of the vital St. Louis and Chicago noise rock scenes of the ‘90s as a member of Dazzling Killmen, Brise-Glace, and Yona-Kit, is a consummate prepared bass guitarist, and has played with Will Oldham, Daniel Johnston, Loren Connors, Ikue Mori, Merzbow, Rafael Toral, Konono No. 1, and Nels Cline. Gray has also composed for film, theater, dance, and radio and has released five albums as half of On Fillmore. 


Fred Moten at James Cohan: October 5, 2019

Fred Moten’s areas of study and practice are Black Studies, Critical Theory, Performance Studies, and Poetics. His writing has included scholarly texts In The Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition and consent not to be a single being, several books of poetry, and ongoing collaborations with theorist Stefano Harney (they are co-authors of The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study and A Poetics of the Undercommons) and artist Wu Tsang (they are authors of Who Touched Me?). Moten’s capacious investigations are marked by the appositional consideration of ostensibly disparate figures from the realms of free jazz, popular music, contemporary art, and continental philosophy as interpreted through the lens of the black radical tradition. His recognition of the already given and forceful presence of of the vernacular in high theory and vice versa pervades both his critical writing and poetry, blurring distinctions between the two and undermining the very notion of their binary nature in the polyphonic mode of interstitial jazz improvisation. He lives in New York and teaches in the Department of Performance Studies at New York University. For his appearance at James Cohan Gallery, Moten will lend his solemn and hypnotic baritone to a reading from his latest book of poetry, All That Beauty.


Okkyung Lee at James Cohan: October 9, 2019

Okkyung Lee is a cellist, composer, and improviser pushing contemporary cello performance to its extreme limit without abandoning a reverence for its tradition. Classically trained in her native South Korea, Lee has developed a polyvalent approach to cello that spans tonal elegance, turbulent improv, and the noisiest reaches of extended technique, sometimes within minutes. Her penchant for pushing boundaries breaches space itself, as she routinely departs from the concert stage in an exploration of each venue’s structure, audience, and other furnishings in her expanded performances. In demand for her versatile, visceral playing, she has recorded and performed as a bandleader, collaborator, solo, and in intimate improvisation settings with the likes of Cecil Taylor, Marina Rosenfeld, Arca, Bill Orcutt, Ikue Mori, Vijay Iyer, Mark Fell, and John Zorn, appearing on over 30 albums. Lee currently leads the Yeo-Neun Quartet, an acoustic chamber ensemble inspired by the Korean pop music Lee gew up listening to as a teenager intertwined with textural improvisation.


Joe McPhee at James Cohan: October 12, 2019

Few artists are as deserving of the label “creative musician” as is Joe McPhee. A multi- instrumentalist, composer, poet, conceptualist, and theoretician celebrated for his contributions to free jazz, McPhee continues—at an exuberant 79 years young—to seek new articulations of music’s rich universal language through improvisation. Although his odyssey has taken him through Deep Listening collaborations with Pauline Oliveros and countless left field improv sessions both within and way outside of the jazz tradition, McPhee is perhaps best known for Nation Time, a 1971 album made in tribute to poet Amiri Baraka that stands as a defining monument to the civil rights era. McPhee’s own poetry, which he sometimes reads in performance and has published in Blank Forms’ journal, is steeped in the same political urgency and cosmic love that permeate his music. It is in this role as a poet that McPhee will perform as part of Observations at Night.

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