Muse of Fire

The phonopoetics of Fred Moten, Brandon López, and Gerald Cleaver

Brandon López, Fred Moten, and Gerald Cleaver performing at ISSUE Project Room in Brooklyn last year. Photo: Cameron Kelly McLeod/ISSUE Project Room.

THIS MONTH, a year to the day since the release of their debut album, the trio of Fred Moten (poet), Brandon López (bassist), and Gerald Cleaver (drummer) came to London for a weekend residency at Café Oto. Recorded during the Covid pandemic at New York’s GSI studios and released on the Reading Group label, the group’s self-titled album exemplifies what Anthony Reed, in his book Soundworks, has called “phonopoetics,” a more capacious term than previous indicators like “jazz poetry.”

During its flourishing from what Reed calls the “Long Black Arts Movement,” peaking in the ’60s, the phonopoem has reflected the conditions of Fordism and post-Fordism, of the “Long Downturn,” of the energy crisis of the ’70s and the crash of 2008 across the cities of the United States. And while as a mode it’s most easily identified with the Black Power era—from Barbara Simmons and Jackie McLean to Elouise Loftin and Andrew Cyrille, Jeanne Lee and Archie Shepp—if anything, it’s flourishing more than ever today.

Three years ago, Nathaniel Mackey had an Oto residency with a group called the Creaking Breeze Ensemble. Their performance—in which Mackey read and played from a selection of vintage records while words and sounds ebbed and flowed around him—has since been released on fonograf editions. And midway through the Moten weekend, a matinee reading at the same venue saw the younger Black British poet James Goodwin read from work inspired by UK grime alongside the American multidisciplinary artist Candace Hill-Montgomery. Childhood friends with the pre-fame Ronettes, Hill-Montgomery grew up in Queens alongside younger relatives of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. She later became a part of the downtown art scene, a friend and collaborator of the likes of Ntozake Shange, Thulani Davis, and Lucy Lippard. Reading over a video call with the faint sounds of Charles Mingus’s Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963) in the background, Hill-Montgomery remarked on the way that different musics would play in each room in the house while she was growing up, an anecdote that usefully suggests the multiple levels both of her own work—which references everyone from Ahmad Jamal and Albert Ayler to Merzbow and Megan Thee Stallion—and of phonopoetics in general.

If Hill-Montgomery’s poetry is insistently, dizzyingly multi-voiced, Moten’s mode is that of the affable conversationalist. Live, it sometimes feels as if he’s not so much reading as talking, the way the “I” of anecdote reaches out to its listener and to a shared experience: making suggestions, asking questions, opening up to another voice in the give-and-take of dialogue. The poems he read on the first night in particular were shot through with names—Julius Eastman, Cecil Taylor, Nancy Wilson, Moten’s son Lorenzo—in lists that unfolded like biblical chronologies or a kind of an anti-census evoking Édouard Glissant’s “inventory of the magnified universal.” There’s a paradox here: the pleasure in recognizing these names, the Blackened sensus communis they inform, also potentially runs counter to the communizing desires that animate the trio’s music. In their recent collection All Incomplete (2021), Moten and Stefano Harney include an essay on Chicago’s Wall of Respect, sparking a meditation on the necessity of communizing the idea of the soloist and the hero. “The soloist,” they write, “is bas antechamber to a social practice; a continuous preface, a swinging door.”

On the studio record’s first track, Moten takes inspiration from the way Prince—like Count Basie and Duke Ellington and King Tubby before him and Queen Latifah after him—adopts an honorific that undercuts the hierarchies from which it derives: “Let’s work against royalty, like a Prince formerly known as The Artist / Let’s work against.” Yet the singling out of the exceptional individual is viewed with collectivist skepticism. “Think I’ll change my name to Jean Toomer,” Moten remarks (on the page it’s spelled “gene tumour”), then spins Shakespeare via Archie Shepp into “O, for a muse of fire music!” But if Shakespeare’s muse in the prologue to Henry V would “ascend the brightest heaven of invention” for the purposes of jingoistic saber-rattling, Moten’s comes from below.

As Moten reflects on the world of deindustrialization, a “house party” of abandoned buildings and unaffordable housing, Cleaver—who’s paid tribute to his musical roots in Detroit many times—places one cymbal on another and spins them like hubcaps, the mechanics of moving metal, a kind of broke-down factory machine. “Motherfucker I love cars: It’s the American in me. I want to be buried in one so I can rise in one,” Moten proclaims: the intersection of industry, of the myth of freedom and travel and travail bound up in the long-gone site of workplace struggle, myths outsourced and retained.

“In Africa,” Shepp once wryly remarked, “a man plays one drum, in America he plays five! We’re just following the Ford model . . .” The adaptation to proletarianized conditions is central to the history of the music, a history of change. In taking the kit apart and putting it back together, Cleaver responds to and transforms those conditions the way the music always has. Registering history, the music also defies temporal restriction. As Cleaver remarks of a solo by the late Wayne Shorter: “He is so profound over a defined structure. You hear infinity in that sense.” So too, even as his playing is rooted in the instrument’s materiality, López uses the bass as a portal, a point of access, reaching beyond itself, whether playing its body with fingers and palms like a drum or turning it on its side to make it groan like a cuíca.

Somewhere along the way, Moten utters the phrase “catastrophic joy”: catastrophe, from the Greek kata-, down, and strophe, to turn, the downturn, López detuning a bass string until its sound is a kind of indefinitely pitched shudder, yet going or getting down, reaching the limit point or the end of the line, a point of beginning as much as ending, an open question. Now Moten reads alone: He and Cleaver start talking off-mic, words half-detected. “We free?” Moten asks. “No, we just three.” “I’m getting up,” Cleaver announces, rising from his kit, bringing the performance to an opened close. Music is a language that cuts the places language can’t go. The musicians walk offstage. It’s not an ending, it’s a start.