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While serving as a cryptographer in the U.S. Army during the early 1950s, the artist Cy Twombly made a practice of drawing in the dark, a variation on the surrealists’ automatic writing technique. It became a way for Twombly to shake loose the rules he’d been taught at institutions like Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Art Students League of New York (not to mention to circumvent lights out).
Pianist Myra Melford likes to recount that story, especially in recent years, as Twombly’s influence has loomed large in her compositions. She cited the artist as one of the sources of inspiration, along with the animator William Kentridge, for The Other Side of Air, the 2018 release by her quintet Snowy Egret, the beginning of a deep and fruitful exploration of his frantic, fevered imagery.
Twombly, who died in 2011, has only become more of a focus since that time. Over the past several years, Melford has traced the artist’s footsteps from his hometown of Lexington, Virginia, to New York City and Rome, two cities where he created much of his work; and to various points across Italy including Gaeta, the coastal village that inspired Gaeta Set (For the Love of Fire & Water), a collection of drawings now housed at Munich’s Museum Brandhorst.
Each of the 10 drawings of the Gaeta Set provides the basis for a movement on For the Love of Fire and Water, Melford’s breathtaking new album for the Paris-based RogueArt label. The suite debuts the stellar new Fire and Water Quintet, comprising an all-star group of improvisers: guitarist Mary Halvorson, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, cellist Tomeka Reid and drummer Susie Ibarra.
Melford discovered Twombly via a 1994 retrospective of the artist’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but her initial fascination was cemented upon further research, when she read about his experiments with drawing blind.
“I just love the idea that someone who was making visual art was considering what the work looked like as less important than how it felt to make it,” Melford explains on a Zoom call from Paris, where she’s spending seven months on sabbatical from the University of California, Berkeley.
“I really relate to that approach,” she continues. “As much as I love sound and music and working with musical materials, my foremost relationship with the piano is a physical one. It’s not that the sound isn’t important, but it’s almost equal to what it feels like to play it physically. It’s kinesthetic. I almost feel like I’m as much a dancer at the piano.” Critics of Twombly might suggest that the artist seems never to have turned the lights back on. His work often resembles the crayon scrawls of a hyperactive child, or the multi-hued layers of graffiti under a highway overpass. But for those affected by its frenetic vigor, the work possesses a visceral kinetic energy, as if every movement and gesture in its creation is etched into the canvas.
This Philly-based writer never completes a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art without a detour to the narrow room showcasing Twombly’s remarkable Fifty Days at Iliam, a set of 10 large canvases purporting to depict moments from Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Iliad. It’s not unusual to see visitors respond to the cartoonish clouds, scribbled text and blood-red smears with an eye-rolling, “my kid could do this” condescension. But look beyond the absence — read: aversion to — representation and “technique,” and it’s a work of brutal power and savage violence. It evokes the ancient graffiti still found in Rome’s Colosseum, bridging distant past and immediate present through crude gestures and the primal instincts of war.
It’s no real challenge to discover what appeals to Melford about Twombly’s art. As a composer and pianist, she’s long married poetic elegance with a keen ferocity; an intricate solo tracing beautiful filigrees can be abruptly halted by the blunt hammering of her forearm across the keyboard. Her playing often seems like the aural equivalent to Buddhist sand mandalas, a precise and multi-hued construction swept away by sudden, devastating force.
What’s most remarkable about Melford’s work as a composer is that she manages to summon similar qualities from her collaborators, no matter how singular each of them may be. And they tend to be extremely singular; she’s drawn to performers with distinctive voices that can then combine in intriguing ways. The Fire and Water Quintet is a prime example, featuring four fellow bandleaders and innovators whose own work reflects recognizable, idiosyncratic visions.
“I seek out people who have a really strong sound,” Melford explains. “It just so happens that many of them are also leaders and composers themselves. But it’s really that I’m looking for a certain energy and a well-developed sound. It’s very important to me that each musician that I work with has such a strong relationship with their instrument that the instrument instantly sounds like it’s them playing it.”
The quintet initially came together for Melford’s June 2019 residency at the experimental NYC venue The Stone. Her weeklong tenure featured many of her regular ensembles and collaborators, but she wanted one night to be a completely new experience. She’d worked with each of the musicians individually, but never all at once. She quickly wrote some skeletal pieces for the occasion, meant to guide and prompt improvisation.
“I just wanted to do something I hadn’t done before,” Melford says. “I thought there was some potential for a nice synergy between everybody, so I just had to come up with a road map. I had some bits of material lying around that hadn’t become finished compositions yet, so instead of just an hour of free improvisation I thought I would string those together with some open improvisation where I specify a process, or indicate who’s playing. It worked so well that I was inspired to write more for them.”
Melford then fleshed out the pieces, incorporating the inspiration of Twombly’s Gaeta Set drawings. The 10 oil-on-paper pieces range from dense, colorful scribbles to barely comprehensible scrawled text to hazy pastel blurs on nearly blank canvases that appear more stained than painted. Just as crucially, her compositions were written with what was now a fully fledged band in mind.
“Myra is very aware of everybody having a voice, and she wants to hear that voice,” saxophonist Laubrock says. “She’s conceived the pieces around that, but she’s also a conceptualist. She knows what she likes and she knows what she doesn’t want. She knows how to devise a piece and how to direct a piece. And she really knows how to make a record, how to put an hour of music together with a storyline that runs through the whole thing.”
The 10 movements of For the Love of Fire and Water, each numbered rather than titled, move fluidly between composition and improvisation. Each piece stands alone, but there’s a vivid narrative sweep to the album as a whole. Melford opens the album solo, with tightly spiraling lines that initiate a piece that gradually accumulates one voice at a time, each member of the band adding their own agitated, repetitive ideas. “II” then snaps into focus with the pianist’s lurching groove, underlying Halvorson and Laubrock’s taut, wiry melody.
“III” shatters this cohesiveness with slippery, interweaving improvised lines that overlap and collide with a spark-generating messiness. The fourth movement contrasts that with a monolithic, dirge-like pace scarred by darting, pointillist deviations. And so on — like the source drawings, the pieces speak to one another through echoes and abrasions, garnering deeper meaning from the contrasts and evolutions of the whole. “X” concludes the album with an aching, elegiac beauty, all the more striking for the aggression and abstraction that’s preceded it.
“Myra does a really good job of providing a clear framework, but also allowing for a lot of freedom within it,” guitarist Halvorson says. “Her compositions inform the improvisations, but it never felt prohibitive. She had very clear structures, but the compositions are so strong that it becomes very easy to break away from them. She left a lot of space for everybody.” For the Love of Fire and Water is the first in a planned multi-part project dedicated to Twombly, the ultimate shape of which has yet to be determined; current plans include a duo piece with bassist Joëlle Léandre and new music for MZM, Melford’s trio with Zeena Parkins and Miya Masaoka. At her desk in Paris, printouts of the Gaeta Set drawings could be glimpsed hanging on the wall over her left shoulder, continued inspiration for additional music she’s writing for the quintet in preparation for a spring tour of Europe.
She also provides those images to her bandmates, but leaves each musician a choice as to whether, and how much, to use them in their playing. “Having worked with a lot of improvisers, I know that some people don’t relate to visuals at all and some people really do. I came up with something that works for me on an intuitive level in terms of the material in the drawings. Then I gave a set of the drawings to everybody, I gave them a text outline for the suite, and then I gave them notated music for certain sections. Then I gave them the option; I didn’t try to impose the visuals on anyone.”
Laubrock chose to focus solely on the music, trusting that the Twombly inspiration would come through Melford’s compositions. “I prefer to just use my ears,” she says. “I do love the results, the way these images make people improvise differently, or [how] graphic scores can make the same group sound like a totally different orchestra.”
Halvorson, on the other hand, spent formative time studying and playing with Anthony Braxton, whose compositions notoriously incorporate cryptic graphic elements for soloists to interpret. “There was a duality happening where the images were informing the composition in a pretty direct way,” the guitarist says. “I always enjoy having some kind of visual inspiration in addition to the notated music on the page. Much like Braxton’s scores, certain images just pop out in a way that informs your mood but doesn’t necessarily dictate what you have to play.”
The path from canvas to composition is equally vague, as Melford described. She’s spent several years now tracing Twombly’s peripatetic journey, visiting the places where he worked and discussing his process with Nicola Del Roscio, Twombly’s assistant, archivist and longtime companion. Together they visited the artist’s studio in Gaeta, tracing Melford’s inspiration back to its own source.
“I was looking at his palettes and brushes, and seeing what the view looked like from where he was painting,” she recalls. “I could gaze out at the play of sunlight on the water and imagine that’s what his inspiration was. It certainly enriches your understanding of the whole of this person’s work.”
One surprising fact, given the often chaotic and explosive nature of Twombly’s work, was how meticulous the artist apparently was about planning his pieces before committing them to canvas or paper. “There was really very little improvisation going on at all,” Melford says.
“Nicola told me that Twombly spent a lot of time thinking about a painting before he ever made it, that he’d get to the point where it was all formulated and only then he would actually paint it. But I think those early experiments drawing in the dark stayed with him. I’m sure he was had a clear intention of what he wanted to do, but you don’t have control over the small details in this kind of work. So to me, the freedom and the energy of an improvised gesture still comes through for me in his work, even if he wasn’t actually an improviser.”
These travels are the latest example of a questing that has long informed the 65-year-old Melford’s life, work and spirituality. She is a longtime meditator who has studied aikido and Siddha Yoga, and has gone on pilgrimages with the Huichol Indians of Mexico in the Sierra Madre Mountains. That experience deeply impacted her first recording with Snowy Egret and her 2013 solo piano album Life Carries Me This Way, but it also ripples throughout all the work that’s come since. In For the Love of Fire and Water, she discovered echoes with the importance of those elements to the Huichol spiritual practices.
“I was thinking about the sacred nature of landscape and the elements for the Huichol and how important fire was in the pilgrimage process that I participated in,” she says. “We spent a lot of time sitting around a fire talking, but also being quiet and communing with the fire. And we spent a lot of time going to the ocean in Mexico. I think that was just another layer of information from my own experience and intuition that informed this whole thing. Somehow the relationships that I made with these places and these people were present in the music.”
It’s tempting, if reductive, to tie Melford’s expansive worldview back to her early years, when she grew up in a house in Illinois designed by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who famously sought to merge exterior with interior, nature with architecture. That impulse seems to weave through all Melford’s career and spiritual practices, which themselves are fairly inextricable.
“So much of what I do is intuitive,” she says, “and really comes from this desire to tap into something bigger than myself that is inside myself.” - Shaun Brady