Thursday, February 08, 2007

Imagine the Sound

Yesterday, amid my student meetings and stacks of reading, and after attending a mind-stirring lecture and Q&B by my colleague Alex Weheliye from his remarkable, award-winning study, Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity (Duke UP, 2005), I had an opportunity to see a movie I'd heard of but never caught, Imagine the Sound (Ron Mann, 1981), which explores the work of four important figures from the black/music avant-garde of the late 1950s through the early 1970s, Cecil Taylor (one of my favorite artistic avatars), Archie Shepp, Paul Bley, and Bill Dixon. Another colleague, Kevin Bell, whose extraordinary study of transatlantic modernisms, Ashens Taken for Fire: Aesthetic Modernism and the Critique of Identity (Minnesota, 2007), has just appeared, had secured the VHS tape via interlibrary loan (the university unfortunately does not own a copy), and after he rolled the department's video equipment up to my office, he, poet Ed Roberson (!!!--author of the indepensible collection Just In: Word of Navigational Changes: New and Selected Poems, Talisman, 1998, and many other amazing works) and I spent a little chunk of the late afternoon watching and enjoying it. (Kevin's class will get to see it next week.)

For anyone who is a fan of or fascinated by some of the musical innovation of the 1960s, Imagine the Sound is a must-see. Although it only focuses on four key figures, all male, it presents rarely seen material, including Cecil Taylor performing one of his "dance poems" and several solo numbers, Archie Shepp reciting-singing a poem for Malcolm X, and Bill Dixon expatiating on any number of topics in a magnetizing fashion. The performances and commentary by Taylor or Shepp alone would be worth the effort required to get ahold of the video, but Dixon also is a highlight, and his words were a revelation to me. In addition to his trumpet performances, which range between mechanical moans of various kinds to expressive whispers and shrieks, he talks about his experiences starting out and how he had to learn to channel his anger into and through his music, his and the other musicians' pre-commercial foci and the larger field of artistic ferment that was taking place in New York during the 1960s (the Judson Church dances, performance art, the painting scenes, etc.), and his desire to start his own "institute," among other things. Although I often experience brief moments of disabling nostalgia and belatedness when watching such documentaries (as when I recently watched the mesmerizing but problematic 2006 Peter Rozen "great men of art" documentary on late 1950s-mid-1980s New York artmaking and the Henry Geldzahler circle, Who Gets to Call It Art?), I felt energized after the film ended, and Kevin, Ed and I chatted briefly about the narrative, the aesthetic, sociopolitical and performative spaces and dialogues these artists opened up and continue to open up (and all three are still alive, as far as I know), and how we and others are still coming to terms with it. (This was a key theme in all the documentees' commentaries, but especially in Taylor's and Bley's.) It was the sort of afternoon I imagined I'd experience all the time once I cast my lot with academe, but unfortunately, such moments happen all too rarely....

Update: Ron Mann, the director of Imagine the Sound, posted in the comments section to say that he's "just restored the film to HD and 5.1 Stereo Sound. It will premiere at SXSW, Austin TX March 07. For more info see"


  1. !Wow! Just extraordinary, John...and to be joined by Roberson -- man that's just astounding. Will have to check to see if our institution will purchase this (might try to put a word in someone's ear about that) and/or get it through ILL as well. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for writing about Imagine The Sound.

    I've just restored the film to HD and 5.1 Stereo Sound.
    It will premiere at SXSW, Austin TX March 07.

    For more info see


    ------>Ron Mann