On New Year’s Eve I dropped in on an event billed as a ‘Tibetan Jam’ and heard something which still haunts me. Four musicians had made a tape loop out of a segment of Tibetan music, which was almost atonal and full of brass, and they were improvising along with it. I had the feeling that the live American musicians and the recorded Tibetan musicians were calling to each other, and in some way which defies all laws of time and space, they actually seemed to be making contact.
This was part of a new series of provocative cross-culturally oriented events taking place at Washington Square Methodist Church under the label ‘New Wilderness.’ It is an interesting concept, and the poets and musicians involved are exploring it in a stimulating way. Last Tuesday the featured artist was Avery Jimerson, a Seneca Indian, who came down from the Allegany Reservation upstate to sing a few of the 1000 or so songs he has composed during the past 30 years. Jimerson speaks English quite well, and he is not at all naive about the white man, but he is not accustomed to giving concerts for him either. So the evening had a curious kind of what-shall-I-do-1974/yoshi-wadas-pipe-horns informality, sort of as if we were visiting him in his living room. He told a couple of stories and his wife led a few volunteers in a Moccasin Dance, but most of the time he sang, and with great assurance. He has a strong voice with a slightly pinched sound, and he never moves his lips more than a fraction of an inch as he makes his way through his intricate melodies, always accompanying himself on a drum. The songs are all short, some scarcely a minute long, but they are not at all repetitious and generally have lots of shifty rhythms and complex formal structures. Most of them have no words, making do simply with hi-yo-way and other non-verbal syllables common in American Indian music.
I found all of this contemporary Seneca music absorbing and intellectually challenging, but for me the emotional high point of the evening was Jimerson’s version of ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ This melody is taken directly from the white man, yet it was so thoroughly integrated into Jimerson’s own Seneca style that I probably would not have recognized it if the singer had not clued us in. It sounded pretty strange, but it was somehow deeper and more communicative than any ‘Auld Lang Syne’ arrangement I ever heard at a New Year’s Eve party.
Bruce Ditmas, Charlie Morrow and Carole Weber, members of the New Wilderness Preservation Band, responded later with some fine music of their own which paid homage to the Seneca style without ever mimicking it or overextending themselves. Against a background of jingling bells, they reeled off a number of variations of a simple melody with singing, whistling, flute and musical saw.
The New York poet Jerome Rothenberg, who has spent a good deal of time on the Allegany Reservation, talked a bit about Seneca customs and read several poems collected in his own Seneca notebooks.Note:
The importance of cross-cultural exchanges of this type can not be overemphasized, as they had great influence on all of the music and musicians that were developing. From a European point of view, we were very naive to think we could communicate with recorded Tibetan trumpets or learn from a Seneca singer, but many important discoveries have begun with naiveté.