Interviews

“Virtuosity Provides Freedom”: Thoughts from an African American Composer

M. Lamar at Merkin Concert Hall with Mariel Roberts on cello (photo by David Andrako)
M. Lamar at Merkin Concert Hall with Mariel Roberts on cello (photo by David Andrako)

M. Lamar’s recent performance “Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche,” which debuted at Merkin Concert Hall on March 19, begins with a loop of Jamie Foxx accepting his Oscar for Ray, saying, “My grandmother, she would beat me, she would whoop me.” The Mivos Quartet plays tense strings as Lamar enters the stage in an orange prison jumpsuit and takes to the piano — he sings, in exquisite countertenor, his own score, loosely telling the story of Willie Francis, a 15-year-old black boy sentenced to die in 1945 in St. Martinville, Louisiana, for killing a 53-year-old white male pharmacist, with whom he allegedly had a sexual relationship.

The piece explores themes common in Lamar’s work: interracial desire, “crackers” (in today’s meaning but also the slave-era term for the master cracking the whip), Negro spirituals, apocalyptic liberation, internalizations of white supremacy, reenactments of abuse in the black family, mass incarceration, suicide, and self-recognition. It’s part of Lamar’s extended collaboration with video artist Sabin Calvert, musician Charlie Looker, and the Mivos Quartet, exploring sovereignty and perversion, with words drawn from Georges Bataille’s writings on the Marquis de Sade.

Lamar explores a complex web of motley themes in a diverse set of venues, from underground clubs, museums, and galleries to Christian churches and traditional classical music theaters. Echoing the sexual positions of Sade, Lamar’s polyvalence extends his practice toward what he calls “infinite blacknesses” — a movement of self-recognition and self-invention that breaks up the unity of any single authentic representation of blackness.

Lamar’s performances evoke a haunted, transcendent act of awakened consciousness and composed virtuosity that b(l)end the conventions of goth rock and European classical music, opera and the avant-garde, and spirituals and free jazz, yielding something that is singularly his own.

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Felix Bernstein: Your last few shows have used a lot of video — autobiographical images of yourself in different personae and at different ages, S&M fantasies, looped clips, historical images of slavery, supertitles. What do the projected images and text add to the musical performance?

M. Lamar: The image part of what I do with my work is really hard because images fundamentally have a pornographic connotation — objectifying more so than sound. Within the history of black radical traditions, more revolutionary things happen in music than in visual art because you can capture the spirit in sound in a way that you can’t with image. Our bodies have been literally bought and sold and marked by white supremacy through appearances, and now, images of blackness are so caught up in the market. But I try to have my videos exist in ghostly places, where the black body and black image can’t be completely nailed down. I hope that the black image can never be fully captured in my work.

FB: You’ve performed in many places that directly conjure thoughts of ghosts, including funerals, basements, and underground venues. But this most recent performance, at Merkin Concert Hall with a quartet, it’s a very different context not typically associated with mourning.

ML: I don’t think of that place any differently than I think of any other place I perform except that the acoustics are probably better. On a sonic level, I enjoy rooms like that because they’re built for sound, so I’m not conflicted about the places being “too.” One of the main points Nina Simone’s daughter made in the recent documentary was that Nina was a classical artist. It is so beautiful that despite all these markers of her “ugliness” (according to standards of white supremacy), Ta-Nehisi Coates recently said that “she was able to make herself into a goddess.” I mean, classical music can be a sign of white supremacy and imperialism, but it can also enable a certain kind of transcendence, deep, profound levels of beauty that are beyond certain kinds of cultural imperialism. All of my favorite singers are black opera singers, like Jessye Norman and Leontyne Price, who were primarily singing either Italian or German repertoire. But they also sang Negro spirituals.

FB: And yet your performance with the quartet had a number of framing mechanisms that broke with tradition: You had the video playing that displayed historical and often violent images, and you wore an orange prison jumpsuit.

ML: This particular piece is about an incarcerated black boy who was 17 when he was murdered by the state mechanisms, and it’s important to tell that story in that particular way. I hate that orange jumpsuit. I mean on one level, for the diva part of me, getting to perform at Lincoln Center, I wanted to look good, and good to me is not an orange jumpsuit, or any color at all other than an all-black ensemble. So that’s always difficult for me. But I think that being truthful about the story means it can’t just be a recital of music. It is that, but it is also dramatically motivated. Anyway, with opera these days there’s always new kinds of staging, and they’re using more and more video and supertitles. This new piece I’m working on, “Funeral Doom Spiritual” for One Archive and USC, is an installation, as well as a separate musical and theatrical performance. But I think the goal in the near future is to combine both these ways of making work.

FB: At first I felt like you were using the context of the quartet and that space to create something that was a conceptual critique, but in the end it becomes so transcendent that you don’t pay attention to the framing mechanisms. It becomes only about the sound, the voice.

ML: I hope so. Part of my job, I think, is to create an experience that is singular and allows people to really feel something. Critique is great and necessary, but I need to be deeply moved by art. I need it to save my life, which means it needs to go beyond a critique.

FB: Museums are this completely different context — not like a club, or a bar, or a classical music hall, or even a gallery. And they don’t usually have the capacity yet to fully deal with music and performance. It’s like hovering in the oblivion between lukewarm intimacy and complete coldness.

ML: Museums don’t yet have the infrastructure. I think they’re trying, but they still don’t really know what to do with performances. But anywhere I get to perform, I never think there’s anything limiting about any context — if it’s on the street, a really loud bar, or in a café, it’s my job to create an experience no matter what. I need to always have my own catharsis with performance, whether anyone is paying attention or not. But singing at this funeral at St. John the Divine recently was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. As much as I sing about death, we were all there to honor this very specific person in a very specific way. And this individual had a very intense relationship to church, a conflicted one because they were trans and queer. Sometimes people assume that goths romanticize death, but at least, in my case, I’m completely and utterly horrified by death. And I was confronted with my mortality in this intense way, singing at this funeral, with my own suicidal past, being amazed that I had somehow survived trying to take myself out of the world that was destroying me.

FB: In the video for your latest performance, you have images of yourself as a young boy, alongside these stories about incarceration and murder.

ML: I’m working through my own shit. As much as this is a historical story, there’s also a very particular personal story of my own kind of evolution and my own survival. And also, thinking through the recent story of Kalief Browder — they accused him of stealing a backpack, he got sent at 16 years old to Riker’s Island for three years, and then he committed suicide last year. There was video footage of him being beaten by guards. I can’t imagine what happened to him that we don’t know. And he was in solitary confinement for two of the three years he was there, for his “safety,” apparently. Solitary confinement we know creates insanity; being in isolation that way is a form of torture. When he got out of jail, Rosie O’Donnell bought him a computer, he was hanging out with Jay-Z, and other artists were sympathetic to his experience. But that sympathy and collective outrage didn’t save him. This affected me because it wasn’t the police officers themselves who literally killed him. And I know that, for me, the biggest threat in my life has been myself. That is why bell hooks’ work in mental health has meant so much to me. She always connects mental health with critiques of “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”

FB: Part of goth and romantic culture, as I see it, is to take on suffering, and definitely internalize it, but as a form of mediation, exorcism, and transcendence.

ML: Right, whenever there’s singing there’s the possibility of transformation, and that’s what this new project in progress, called “The Negro Superman,” is about: creating a self that can sustain itself in the context of white supremacy. That’s partially why I’ve been interested in Rick James, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, George Clinton — they invented themselves in these very radical ways.

FB: Cecil Taylor, like you, had classical training from a young age. You continue to train as a countertenor. Is there a lineage or method of working within classical disciplines, while pushing beyond them, that interests you?

ML: Yes. Cecil Taylor is very rooted in classical technique with the piano, but he’s created his own technique. He took this European way of approaching the instrument, but he’s filtered that through these black traditions and come up with a different approach to the instrument. John Coltrane, too — they are translating, through these European instruments, a very black tradition. I think free jazz is a manifestation of a very high modernist moment, the epitome of this certain kind of black transcendence. Because we were talking about high modernism, when we get to white paintings and black paintings, we talk about this ultimate kind of transcendence, or a Rauschenberg painting, the sort of spiritualisms that are associated with that. All these riffs on all the Western musical traditions, the history of blue notes, all these notes in the cracks.

FB: What is the connection between virtuosic self-invention and sexual flamboyance, as with Rick James?

ML: Rick James was able to construct himself outside of traditional definitions of black masculinity but still maintain his sexuality. Often when black men radically create themselves outside of traditional constructions of black masculinity, they end up being desexualized, like Little Richard. But Rick James — I mean, Jesus Christ, Rick James is sexy and free. Charles Murphy said Rick James is the freest black man he’d ever seen. The flip side is, though, is that he gets deep into drugs and kidnaps a woman. So I’m interested in him because he is this very free person, but he goes over a certain line.

“Solitude,” still from Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche (2016), digital video (image courtesy of artist)
“Solitude,” still from ‘Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche’ (2016), digital video (image courtesy of the artist)

FB: You are often going back to this line — for instance with the use of Nietzsche, Sade, and Bataille in your work — the line where transgression is liberating but also dangerous. Especially with your new Negro Superman persona, which radically inverts the academic assumption that the Übermensch is necessarily fascistic.

ML: My Negro Superman is coming, but I am just beginning to develop this idea. In my work there has always been a certain kind of sexual depravity, but within realms of consent. How do you go there but not cross a line, how do you maintain your freedom but not encroach on the freedom of others? Because there can be transcendence and sovereignty in perversion, as with Bataille’s writing on Sade, that does depend on subordinating others.

FB: Are the contexts you perform in, like the goth underground contexts, often heavily white?

ML: Oh my god yeah, though more and more colored people are starting to come to my shows. I think the black avant-garde has historically always had a predominately white audience, if you think about Cecil Taylor’s work or free jazz in general. I love thinking about that ’80s album by Screaming Jay Hawkins, “Black Music for White People,” it just makes me laugh because he just had this “fuck everything” way of getting at the truth. I think certain black radical cultural production having a mostly white audience is connected to questions of authenticity in the performance of race, which is actually a huge problem in the evaluation of black artists, black musicians, and black hip-hop. The whole notion of “keeping it real” is doing us a real disservice as black people.

FB: So you don’t think that Beyoncé has become more authentic?

ML: I mean, no. Beyoncé is the product of corporate culture. One of the things that is so remarkable about Beyoncé is how inhuman she is. She’s almost robotic in her virtuosity, you know? She clearly wants to be a mega-successful person within that machine, and I don’t begrudge her that longing. Yet when she sings a ballad, it’s certainly not compelling within the context of the great tradition of black singing. She’s only really compelling in this syncopated tempo where she’s moving very quickly. But she doesn’t have the things that are compelling about an Aretha Franklin or Gladys Knight performance, deep in the gospel tradition, in the tradition of really great singing. The trouble with having these alpha-negroes succeeding is that the system is still in place. Nina Simone, she is a disruption of the system, absolutely. James Brown is a disruption of the system. These are radical black artists.

FB: And RuPaul, do you think that he’s disruptive?

ML: RuPaul is not disruptive. I think RuPaul is extraordinary, in the way he’s been able to feed back the ways in which he’s assimilated white supremacist aesthetics, feed it back to the culture — that’s sort of brilliant. And his survival is a testament to something about black survival, that as a black queer man, a black gay man, a black queen, he’s still living his life, he hasn’t been murdered, or committed suicide, or died from HIV or drugs or whatever. I mean, the fact that he’s in his 50s and he’s thriving, I think that’s a testament to something about him that is extraordinary. I want to always celebrate black people surviving with some sense of dignity, which I think RuPaul does, but I also acknowledge that his work as an artist and image is not disruptive to the status quo, but rather parodies it. His continued success speaks to the extent that white supremacy is in love with itself.

FB: Given your critique of the “alpha-negro,” is your Negro Superman an inversion of that in some way? While at the same time your adherence to the discipline of music inverts imposed violent discipline and creates virtuosic autonomy.

ML: Negro Superman is about a consciousness that anyone can be a self-invention. It’s about greatness and becoming in a deep, profound way, rather than just being “successful” within the system. But it’s also a spiritual thing that allows one to invest in something larger than oneself. There are standards and there are traditions. Virtuosity provides freedom. When I see Serena Williams playing really well, she has freedom of shot and motion. The ultimate technique in ballet and opera singing or playing an instrument really well is an optimum kind of freedom, a looseness. Singing is not about a constraint, it’s about being very loose with your limbs, your breath, your diaphragm — they ought to be open, relaxed, very free.

“Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche,” performed at Cooper Union, November 30, 2015. Still from documentation (image courtesy of the artist).
“Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche,” performed at Cooper Union, November 30, 2015. Still from documentation (image courtesy of the artist).

M Lamar’s Funeral Doom Spiritual is on display at One Archive (909 West Adams Blvd, Los Angeles) through July 30.

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