In advance of the upcoming world premiere of his new work Breaking English, Brooklyn-based composer/producer/guitarist Rafiq Bhatia reflects on his experience collaborating with Michael Cina, a visual artist who lives in Minneapolis.
Michael Cina once told me that he has come to relish the uncomfortable knot he gets in the pit of his stomach when stepping into uncharted territory, because that feeling is almost always a harbinger of progress. These words became a signpost as I created the music of Breaking English, which, like much of Cina’s work, explores the continua between beauty and destructiveness, otherworldliness and intimate familiarity. Both the music and the visuals were born of a sustained dialogue with uncertainty. I broke with everything I was familiar with—the guitar, the ensemble, and my established approach to composing for both—and forced myself instead to utilize the properties and manipulation of sound itself as the basis for the music. In his most in-depth foray in video to date, Cina had to pivot towards foregrounding the process instead of the result, capturing his paints in flux.
Both Cina and I are deeply inspired by jazz musicians. We have both individually come to embrace the process of developing ideas in a way that allows for adapting to a shifting context, and growing from the experience of interacting with uncertainty, oppositional thinking, and diverse ideas. Improvisation is often cast as a primordial, instinctual, esoteric process, but the reality is much more grounded than that. Vijay Iyer (who you can catch at the Walker next year) has frequently pointed out that to improvise is to be human—almost everything we do is improvisatory to some degree. And obviously, most of us don’t go about our days in some sort of transcendental, off-the-cuff state! As in life, artistic improvisation involves responding to changing and/or unstable circumstances in real time. Unsurprisingly, it is guided by preparation, experience, knowledge, imagination; benefits from rigor, facility, and vision; and can be propelled forward through experimentation.
In our own respective ways, we’ve set out to investigate how to incorporate the values and aesthetics of this kind of momentary discipline—communication, physicality, interdependence, immediacy: liveness—into work that requires a longer time horizon. Can improvisation become an outlook, rather than a process? Can liveness be an aesthetic orientation, as opposed to a state? A useful analogy might be the way that strata of rock come to resemble flowing water; something formed over millions of years can approximate the unfurling of an instant. How is that the case? For one thing, the form of each stratum is determined by the contours of the one underneath it. And, though each layer forms slowly across millions of moments, it quite literally comes to encapsulate the most essential characteristics of those moments.
Rafiq Bhatia’s Breaking English, with visual art by Michael Cina and Hal Lovemelt is co-comissioned and copresented by the Walker Art Center and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music Series. It will premiere at the Walker’s McGuire Theater on Saturday, October 21, and will be accompanied by Spiritual Leader, a new work by Bhatia’s Son Lux bandmate, drummer Ian Chang.