Single notes on the piano. Slow fade between notes. A seascape. Teju Cole’s voice is round and resonant. “I opened my eyes. This was the sound I saw.” Behind him the image of a fleet of tiny boats floating on the shimmering Mediterranean Sea. The piano swells in overlapping ripples and waves. Thus begins an illuminating performance of spoken words, projected images and immersive music entitled Blind Spot, a fully integrated collaboration between composer-pianist Vijay Iyer, and novelist, essayist and photographer Teju Cole that asks us to “awaken to the gaps…the blind spots.”
In carefully framed, haiku-like descriptive narratives, each one a textual “snapshot,” Cole invites us to observe and witness selected moments in his travels, to enter the world through the portal of his vision, to see something not seen, or overlooked and acknowledge it. The stories are accompanied by somewhat prosaic color photographs of what might be unremarkable moments on their own, frozen in time, utterly silent and still, and strangely timeless. But combined with the texts the photos reveal unnoticed spaces of presence and absence, unasked or unanswered questions, threads of dialogue between observed and observer. Together they become the “score” for the stunningly evocative music, an improvisational conversation between musicians, speaker and image. The silences between are as important as the sounds. The jazz-based music binds the separate parts together into an interdependent whole, yet like any great jazz ensemble allowing each its solo voice. It is a work that is both cerebral and lyrical at the same time.
The connections between text and image are associative, often metaphoric. Cole’s words describe and frame a place, a moment, an event. Or make quiet political statements in a carefully modulated voice. Although rich in tone, texture and timbre, his voice stays within a controlled range of expression. He does not emote, expound or dramatize. He remains a witness, whose reportage is untainted by judgments, polemics or ideological dogma. This is not to say he does not have a point of view, but that it is presented without the inflection of accusation, recrimination, and hyperbole that mark so much of the white noise of public speech. His words are incisive and insightful in their economy, and in the spaces between that remain open. The music provides another more emotive layer to the narrative, heightening certain moments, counterpointing others.
The title of this work –- Blind Spot, refers to an actual medical condition. Cole recounts how he awoke one morning in 2011 unable to see out of one eye. And how his photography changed after corrective surgery. We gaze at a picture of a statue and a boy facing each other, but looking down as opposed to at each other. “Looking changes,” he says. The trumpet’s melody is mournful, with sweet tiny breaths.
On the Congo River, a boy, close-up is looking at us. He is wearing gloves and a white shirt. The light behind him so bright, his face so dark, we can barely make out his features. Cole points out that he cannot see the boy’s eyes that are looking at us. Then the nonsequiteur, “William Moore, a white postman, was shot while delivering a package in Alabama. The Civil Rights Act was passed.”
A man is standing at an open window, his back to us, gazing out at the sea, as Cole speaks of the goddess Diana (Artemis), Agamemnon and the Trojan War. The window looks out on sky, mountain, sea with a single tiny boat. The cellist plays a pulsing rhythm. The trumpet calls out.
Cole gives an account of a village above the Kadisha Valley (Lebanon). A girl walks toward him. She is dressed in black. Then a second girl also all in black. And a third girl. She too is in black. A young priest died the previous day. Everyone in the village is in black. People are crowded under a blanket in a room. “The Valley is green and full of life.”
And the questions hangs in the air: “Why do people have to be unhoused, turned into refugees? For who? For what?”
Cole tells us that while giving a reading in the National Museum in Nairobi, a bomb exploded in a nearby shopping mall. The photo is of an ordinary gridded glass modern building, grass lawn in front, with tall trees cordoned off with a plastic ribbon. The music is discordant, random chords on the piano, defined and insistent, a staccato rhythm. The trumpet riffs and noodles.
He describes Ethiopian women, dressed up and wearing high heels, in secret clubs in Beirut. They are there illegally. They have to pay for their deportation. The image is a reflection of a white mask-like woman’s face with dark red painted lips and a clenched hand floating mysteriously over the front of a dark building.
In Norway Cole contemplates the meaning of the color blue, of “blueness”. “We shield our dead. They keep us sheltered……The death toll is one. One, plus one, plus one, plus one, plus one.” A still life of wooden cubbyholes four across, three high filled with mapped globes of the world, is lit like a 17th century Dutch painting. “Fire is not in the future. Don’t ask when it will come. It has happened already.”
A small horse is standing as still as a statue in midday light in the center of a courtyard surrounded by low houses. He speaks of the “…works of God in real time. The horse waits for a rider nowhere to be found.” The trumpet soars and calls, long extended notes. The music fills the space with exalted intensity.
With a close up image of a water-stained, sand-colored, stone wall behind him, Cole states “There are no refugees. Only fellow citizens whose lives we have failed to acknowledge.“
Against the image of a white cross on the ground Cole tells us in Birmingham (Alabama) he listened to John Coltrane, adding a reference to the 1963 bombing of the 16th St Baptist Church. Iyar’s quartet delivers a dense layered elegy, dark and dissonant. The trumpet bleats, moans in bursts and cries into a soft breath.
A beautiful melody leads us to the wine growing villages of the French countryside, where Cole walks the roads and meets boys who love living there. The music is glorious, a minimalist symphony of overlapping polyrhythmic patterns that build to crescendos like waves of the sea.
The returning image of the boy from the Congo is accompanied with the observation that “darkness is not empty. It is information at rest.“ The boy is looking out, “poised at the edge of crisis, but also looking inward.”
Some months earlier I had read Cole’s novel Open City. I found it to be disconcertingly dispassionate, sometime frustratingly so. The first-person narrator is a young Nigerian doctor living in New York City, who writes a detailed account of his many walks about the city and his encounters. But it is not the personal voice of a diary even when being introspective or describing a relationship with friend or family. It is a reporter’s voice seeking a tone of objective observation. Thus he appears to remains always one step outside, disengaged from both his environment and others — a man who watches and takes note, without ever truly immersing himself. It is an investigation without character or plot development, less a story than a set of images closely examined in search of the clues to their meaning. He is however an astute observer and witness.
At the time of that reading I did not know Cole was also a photographer. Having seen the performance of Blind Spot, has changed my perception of the novel. The narrator’s detachment becomes clear for it is the eye of the photographer that writes as he frames the image, and assesses each situation, adds historical commentary, or notations on his own responses. Some of those images are in fact reflections in the mirror. Or selfies attached to the travel reports like a series of visa photos.
There is however an important difference between words on the printed page and those spoken in performance. In this case the modulations, nuances, tonalities and inflections of Cole’s voice add another spatial dimension as it interfaces with the music. There are other suggestive layers of implied meaning that accompany speech and alter the opacity of his descriptions. It is like the difference between a text message and a phone conversation.
And so I come back to the existential condition of our current culture, of people moving like robots through the streets, unaware of everything around them except for what is on the screen of the phones in their hands. They exist inside a hall of mirrors, blind and deaf to the true condition of the world, in the spaces between things and in the sounds of the unseen, in the blind spots. This performance suggests that we all go out for a long walk with nothing else but our five senses fully awake and aware. And maybe, I would add a pen and a small notebook. Perhaps then we will begin to see who and where we are.
Vijay Iyer & Teju Cole – BLIND SPOT
The Theater at the Ace Hotel / Center for the Art of Performance UCLA
Sat. Sept. 22, 2018
Vijay Iyer Ensemble
Vijay Iyer – piano, Ambrose Akinmusire – trumpet,
Patricia Brennan – vibraphone & marimba, Tomeka Reid – cello
Cover Photo – Kitty Hu