"People misrecite the best portion of what they memorize, memorize the best portion of what they write, and write the best portion of what they hear. So if you acquire knowledge, acquire it directly from their mouths. You will not hear except the best—unstrung pearls."
- Ibn 'Arabi
Most of the music I am attracted to represents some kind of undoing. Sun Ra's undoing of the big band, or of the jazz solo. Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern's undoing of the classical music concert. The A.A.C.M.'s undoing of the jazz combo and the club date. Pauline Oliveros' undoing of the musical score. Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry, and Cornelius Cardew's various undoings of the profession. What's more, none of these undoings are antagonistic or destructive. The thing undone is the thing unstrung, unthreaded from its predictable row and progression.
In my own playing, my desire to undo things has at times led to "not doing" them. Yarrow Canon is a project that traces a sustained attempt I made, during the on-again-off-again months of solitude in 2020 and 2021, to actually (un)do it.
The album is divided into two halves, solos on drums (tracks 1-3), and duos/trios (with myself) on keyboards (tracks 4-6). Each half begins in the middle of the 20th century and ends in the second decade of the 21st. Each half begins with familiar percussion instruments and ends with stranger/other ones accompanying my voice.
When I started learning the first piece, Psappha by Iannis Xenakis, I studied other recordings and found that other performers tended to play at the upper range of Xenakis' given tempos (he always gives a minimum). This tendency leads to a certain on-the-brink quality that has its appeal, but to me also renders the piece uniformly hectic. By contrast, I wanted to make a version of Psappha that had a more feelable and variable motion, and that therefore allowed more perceptible play with its sounds, textures, and grainy changes.
The second piece, Her Teeth Were White by Chiyoko Szlavnics, focuses more explicitly on sonic richness. Szlavnics "encourage[s] individual exploration of, and connection to, the instruments chosen for performance," and likewise steers the percussionist towards "non-systemic" instruments. The result is an intimate piece, where rhythms pulse in shorter and longer utterances, but steadily interrupted by silence and lingering resonance.
Fish of the Sea is a movement from Scott Wollschleger (composer) and Abby Minor's (poet) percussion monodrama We Have Taken and Eaten, a piece that meditates on the apocalyptic colonization of the Americas and the mythological residues that project. The text is collaged from Brief and True Report of the New Found Land in Virginia, a 16th century tract by English colonist Thomas Harriot. Those "systemic instruments" are now completely gone and the song is sung into an amplified lightbulb, which is also struck in duet with a temple bowl.
The keyboard half of Yarrow Canon begins with Roman Haubenstock-Ramati's Liaisons for vibraphone, recorded as a duet with myself. Though the clear notes of the vibraphone bring the listener back to solid territory, Ramati's score is an open-ended map, and the percussionist has a range of choices about how to make a performable version. In this way, Ramati invites the performer into his slippery, sometimes rhythmic, sometimes tonal world, a place where the collaboration is bound to find cracks in the vibraphone's crisp pitches.
Anthony Braxton's Composition 304 is no percussion piece at all, but rather a short duo for two melody instruments. This presents another sly slipping of the pitches; in the middle of the unfolding duet, there appears a measure with a hand-drawn fermata and the words "open improv." I played this piece on vibraphone and glockenspiel, and took the liberty of adding a percussive third voice.
The final piece, Yarrow Canon, I wrote in 2020 with the text of Abby Minor's poem "Yarrow," from her series Affirmations for use in political spells. This trio setting is a graphic score written in canon, played on vibraphone, harmonium, and percussion, with each part speaking and singing. The pitches in all parts are free but recurring, each instrument becoming a kind of wind chime unto itself with and/or against which the player sings.
Each piece is only loosely resonant with the next. Traditional technique is translated into the technique of listening, and finally into the counter-technique of singing. Yarrow, the familiar white flower of roadside meadows, serves as an emblem of an alternative canon, a common practice that undoes the boundary between virtuosity's lucid rigor and amateurism's ambiguous song.
I would like to thank Scott Wolschleger, Abby Minor, James Searfoss, Chiyoko Szlavnics, and Mike Tierney for their help in seeing this project through.
All instruments and voices by Kevin Sims
All recordings made in Aaronsburg, PA by Kevin Sims
Mixing by Kevin Sims and Chiyoko Szlavnics
Mastering by Mike Tierney
Artwork by Abby Minor
Layout by Dave Petersen
Orb Tapes 2023
released June 2, 2023