Dana Reason - Primal Identity


Dana Reason: Sound Out of All Time

by George E. Lewis

In the declining moments of the 20th Century, the nomadic move­ment of populations—the movement of people in search of resources—has resulted in a radical change in the nature of "experimental music." No longer necessarily embodied in the exploration of novel methodologies, concepts of timbre, instrumental techniques, pitch organization or formal devices, the locus o! experi-mentalism today is in the intercul-tural encounter itself.

In the new, transcultural experi­mental music, personal and cultural narratives are exchanged anil blended, with the possible intetnalization of alternative value systems heing implicit in the process. Influences, as directly embodied in musical people, [low freely between traditions, while traditional Western practices arc often subtly—or violently— detente red.

Current practice in late 20th Century music often combines elements of improvisative and compositional methodologies. This may be viewed, following cultural theorists such as Paul Cilroy, as an articulation of musical "hybhdiiy." Dana Reason, in my view, is one of these new "hybrid" musicians. The diversity of her intellectual and musical background, incorporating studies in Eurological, Airological, and other world musical traditions, is no less astonishing than her articulation of that experience in musical terms.

Today's "improvised music" may be viewed as a social location, inhabited by musicians coming out of diverse cultural backgrounds and musical practices, who have chosen to make improvisation a central part of their musical discourse. Thus, working as an improvisor in the field of improvised music obliges the creative artist to examine cultural, ethnic and personal location, while referencing an enisling establishment of techniques, styles, aesthetic altitudes, antecedents, and networks of cultural and social practice.

The clear implication is that present-day musical creativity cannot be content with the remnants of a "common language", inherited from a single source, but must operate in an interdisciplinary and multicultural landscape, informed by theoretical and critical as well as musical issues. Dana Reason has accepted the challenge and responsibility that this radically altered musical landscape demands of the new musician. Indeed, the music of Dana Reason appears to be part of an ongoing cultural process that is leading to a radical redefinition of what "improvi­sation" is.

Reason's music, with its unusually well-articulated sense of form, demonstrates that in improvised music, form has a purpose, a reason to exist besides simply being the way things always have been. Improvisative works do not exhibit fixed formal potentials, but serve as enabling environments that invite growth, change, discovery and expressivity. In Reason's composi­tions, the combination of emergent form with overall global form produces perceptions of both particularity and wholeness, without any trace of kind of the kind of rigid, academicized formal articulation that only serves to hold the creator hostage to ego satisfaction.
Traditional methods of musical analysis are only partly useful in illuminating how this kind of complex emergent form creates meaning. Perhaps Dana Reason's own words can provide a clue. She describes her work in "Primal Identity" as "searching for your sound and accepting and embracing it with openness and honesty...It is when we take a closer look and closer listen to these recurring elements that we begin to understand our own musical story."
The notions of "sound" and "story" advanced by Reason here are strongly reminiscent of traditional practices in African-American musical practice. The articulation of personal narrative, for example, is well described by pianist Erroll Garner: "If you take up an instru­ment, I don't care how much you love somebody, how much you would like to pattern yourself after them, you should still give yourself a chance to find out what you've got and let that out" (Taylor 1977/93 , 97).
For an improvisor working in Afrological forms, "sound", sensibil­ity, personality and intelligence are part of an improvisor's phenomeno-logical definition of music. Such musicians often speak of "your own sound" as something that every musician must discover. This kind of introspective exploration seems to be at the heart of much of the music that Reason has shared with us.
Reason's reference to identity is consistent with the notion that sounds can become signs for deeper levels of meaning beyond pitches and intervals. The saxophonist Yusef Lateef makes it plain: "The sound of the improvisation seems to tell us what kind of person is improvising. We feel that we can hear character or personality in the way the musician improvises" (Lateef 1985-88, 44).
Of course, we can also hear character in the way the musician listens. The duets between Reason and Philip Gelb, another musician of hybridity—a shakuhachi player of great sensitivity with whom Reason plays two duets on this recording— clearly show the importance of listening as a crucial part of developing one's own sound. The scientists Uta Frith and Francesca Happe have spoken of how humans "read minds", using their empathic capabilities to communicate with and exchange beliefs about other minds in the world. The brilliant negotiation of timbral difference which plays itself out in the two shakuhachi/piano duets is perhaps an ideal live demonstration of this phenomenon.
In listening to this music, you may find out that you are also improvis­ing, posing questions or even alternative pathways—an active mode of listening that lets you discover ways of knowing that even the creators of this music didn't know about. Listening teaches that, despite our best efforts at "structuring" experience, we are not always able to control the meanings that arise. Perhaps we will find that it is not necessary to do so. The creative listener will decide for herself what her experience shall be; perhaps there is no need for the Saussurean "signposts" that dictate—this time semiotically—where we must cast down our buckets.
Though all music is sound, the relation is not commutative. Rather than claiming that we need to suspend our beliefs, our histories and our memories, in order to "really hear"—a kind of disembod­ied spontaneity—I propose that we encounter sound in its full splendor, in all of the richness that comes from reconnecting sound with our imaginations, our personalities, our emotions. What I have learned from listening to the music of Dana Reason is that what is infinite about sound is not the sheer number of sounds that can be made available in an eternity, but the infinity of meanings that sound can convey. Here, sound suddenly becomes a paradox of timelessness, catching quantum dynamics unawares.
Frith, Uta, , and Franceses Happe. 1994. "Autism: Beyond Theory of Mind." Cognition, vol. 50, No. 1, 115-132
Gilroy, Paul. 1993. The black Atlantic: modernity and double consciousness. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Lateef, Yusef A. 1985-88. "The pleasures of voice in improvised music." Views on Black American Music 3.
Taylor, Arthur. [1977] 1993. Notes and tones: Musician-to-Musician interviews. New York: Da Capo.
"She composes and improvises — sounds familiar sounds like everyone in the trailer park is doing it these days. But that's everybody else. Dana's really doing it. From scratch. From black and white and all colors in between. Sits down and it's that natural, as if this flying casket on wheels played all by itself. Wonders like baskets of produce at the checkout counter. All going some­where else. And if cigarettes weren't being upstaged by cigars these days, you might say it was smokin'. In her lumberjack shirt it's some woodshed when she takes her axe out on the axe and makes real stop time. Is there any more Reason than that?"

Alvin Curran '96