The following is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of my forthcoming book, In the Brewing Luminous: The Life and Music of Cecil Taylor. It will be published by Wolke Verlag in 2024. To read the full excerpt, become a paid subscriber ($5 a month/$50 a year). I thank you.
Taylor’s conservatory education has been the source of much misinterpretation of his work. During his lifetime, critics who felt that his music had a forbidding quality, or that it lacked the earthiness and blues feeling they believed to be essential to jazz, would ascribe certain tendencies they heard in his work to the influence of classical music. As Allan Chase writes, “Most of the comparisons of Cecil Taylor’s music with specific 20th century composers’ music or musical languages seem facile — they are based on vague impressions of dissonance, atonality or harmonic ambiguity, use of clusters, pointillism, disjunct textures, and/or rhythmic complexity. (Interestingly, Henry Cowell and Charles Ives are rarely on the list, while Boulez, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Webern, Stravinsky, and Bartók are all often mentioned.)”
Chase argues that the composer whose work is most similar to Taylor’s is Olivier Messiaen, who visited Boston during the pianist’s time at NEC. Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, his only work in that format, was performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall, located across the street from NEC. The piece, which had been commissioned by the orchestra’s musical director Sergei Koussevitzky in his late wife’s memory, premiered on December 2, 1949, with a 31-year-old Leonard Bernstein conducting, Koussevitzky having fallen ill. Two days later, on December 4, Messiaen’s Quartet “For the End of Time” was performed by a group that included one of Taylor’s future professors, Francis Judd Cooke, on cello. A surviving program declares that the piece was played “in honor of the composer,” so it seems likely that he was on campus to hear it.
When a major composer comes to a music school, serious students, and Taylor was nothing if not that, are likely to be in attendance. But that, and the fact that he seems to have taken Cooke’s Contemporary Music class in 1950-51, is hardly enough evidence to assert that there is any direct influence taken from the composer by the young pianist. Chase shrugs off any sonic similarities anyone might care to point to as “at most a surface resemblance to certain gestures and pianistic textures, not to the actual pitch material or rhythms — and certainly not to the performance style and rhythm.”
Of course Cecil Taylor was interested in advances in composed music. He studied both classical piano and classical percussion as a child, was close friends with an aspiring composer (more about that below), and was generally surrounded at NEC by peers with dreams of a life in classical music.
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