Exquisite Corpse

2020 Part Two

Amirtha Kidambi

Originally based on the parlor game Consequences, in which texts were assembled by guests without seeing (due to creative folding) what was previously written, exquisite corpse became an important source of collaboration and creative experimentation for surrealist writers and artists such as André Breton, Joan Miró, Tristan Tzara, and Marcel Duchamp. These artists used a form of the game as a way of assembling visual and textual ideas into a form that they could not have foreseen and, therefore, had very little control over. Some of the results were astounding, others less so. Every result, however, was something new.

Sound American’s version of exquisite corpse adds a few twists in keeping with our milieu and mission. Each year, three composers will collaborate on a short work specifically for SA, to be published in that year’s journals and recorded at the end of the year for streaming online. One artist will go first, passing on a set of information to the next who, in turn, will add, subtract, and change that information to create a new version of the piece before passing it on to the third, who will create a “final” take on the composition. The readers of Sound American will get to watch the whole process as it occurs as each version will be reproduced in subsequent issues.

We’re very pleased to have vocalist and composer Amirtha Kidambi, as the second composer of this year’s exquisite corpse. She used Moor Mother’s original text as a prompt for thought, sound, and structure. From this, our next composer will work to shape their meaning in a completely new direction. 

Many thanks to Amirtha for making space during this harried time to take part in our Exquisite Corpse!

It feels like kismet that Sound American would ask me to respond to Camae Ayewa’s (a.k.a. Moor Mother) poem Black Quantum Futurism for this second Exquisite Corpse of 2020. I first met Ayewa in 2015 when I was continuing Matana Roberts’s activist work with Musicians Against Police Brutality. I was co-organizing a panel discussion and benefit concert at the Silent Barn in Brooklyn for police shooting victim Akai Gurley’s family. Irreversible Entanglements, the collaborative group of Ayewa and the incendiary cadre of improvisers Luke Stewart, Aquiles Navarro, Keir Neuringer, and Tcheser Holmes, cite this event in the liner notes to their first album as their origin story. Since then, we’ve crossed paths in the creative music community, but have never officially collaborated. I’m honored to be in dialogue with her work now in this context: in the middle of a pandemic, which has bluntly shown the co-dependency of capitalism and white supremacy, inciting a long-awaited rebellion.

Ayewa’s piece is gloriously abstract and begs to be dealt with. In the Black poetic tradition of signifying, it is coded, evocative, referential, and purposefully obscured from the white and non-Black gaze. As a vocalist, it might have been tempting to engage in a song setting of the text. To use a barbaric turn-of-phrase, that’s not how I chose to skin this cat. My approach was to excavate and dig under the poem’s multifarious and layered symbols. 

The title signals theoretical science—with terminology like “Quantum,” “Stacked Up Particles,” “Plasma”—and repeated references to time: past, present, and future. I realized it was not the first time I had seen this language in Black critical thought. Works such as Black and Blur (2017), by the crucial Black poet and intellectual Fred Moten, draw upon the quantum theory of “entanglement,” a term borrowed from theoretical physics and deployed in social theory. My rudimentary understanding of the concept in particle physics is that entanglement describes a pair or group of particles that cannot move independently of each other. They function only as part of a composite system. In social theory, the idea of entanglement challenges the Western post-Enlightenment emphasis on the individual by positing that we are all part of an inseparable whole. An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. Liberating one of us liberates all of us. Perhaps Irreversible Entanglements is on this continuum. This got me thinking about the now mainstream anarchist concept of “mutual aid” and collectivist, socialistic, and communal systems, such as the Black Panthers and the AACM. 

Ayewa locates Black Quantum Futurism in her native Philadelphia, the one-time home of jazz ancestors including John Coltrane, called forth in the lines “Coltrane Strawberry Manion” and “A Love Supreme.” Running through the text is a thread denoting the city’s urban infrastructure: “Free Jazz Highway,” “North Philly Satellite,” “Plasma Through Concrete,” and “Ridge Ave Gateway.” I looked up Ridge Avenue and came upon a towering glass monument to Philly’s recent gentrification called “The Gateway.” Another line names “Revern Leon Sullivan,” a crucial civil rights and anti-Apartheid leader who led the “self-help” movement. Rev. Sullivan invested small amounts of money contributed by hundreds of Philadelphia families, making enough to buy real estate resulting in Progress Plaza, a Black-owned and Black-developed shopping center.

The recent 35th anniversary of the MOVE bombing on May 13 reminded me of another Philly resonance. MOVE was the Black liberation, communal, anarcho-primitivist group whose headquarters was bombed by a Philadelphia police helicopter, killing six adult members and five of their children. There has been no police redress for this heinous act. Rather, nine members of MOVE were sentenced to a maximum of 100 years in prison for the death of an officer caught in the crossfire. 

In Philadelphia, we have witnessed harrowing scenes of police brutality during the recent Black Lives Matter protests, with police allowing white supremacist agitators to roam the streets of Fishtown past curfew. Ayewa incites the reader with the rhythmic line, “Dox Thrash,” referencing the empowered practice of making photos and names of white supremacists and cops public, to be fed to the wolves. Like MOVE, this is an example of Black collectivism: a community working together to survive within a
racialized-capitalist system. 

Amidst my internet sleuthing, my roommate and poet Sylvia Gorelick lent me Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019), a powerful book of Saidiya Hartman’s about the rebellion of young Black women in the early 20th century. These women—lacking ties to the domestic sphere and labor in the homes or businesses of white folks—lived together in mutual aid societies. They were unmarried, and considered jobless vagrants, which was crime enough to be jailed in places such as the Bedford Hills Reformatory in Westchester. After facing daily violent abuse and rape, the female prisoners staged a sonic revolt. It was a “noise strike” of deafening screaming, crying, screeching, and wailing, along with the defacing and burning of prison facilities. The rebellion was significant enough that it warranted a headline in The New York Times: “Devil’s Chorus Sung By Girl Rioters.” It was a collective cry of refusal against brutality, like the one we are bearing witness to now. 

As I reflected on this episode, I found resonance with Ayewa’s poem in her pointedly sonic language (“Low Groan Bubbling,” “High Screeching,” “Feedback,” “Thrash,” “Wave”) and musical gestures of repetition, (“Looping” and “Persistent”). I decided to interpret these as musical directives. “Ever Present” could be a drone, “In the Moment” an imperative to improvise. These gestures are graphically represented by drawings adapted from diagrams used by Richard Feynman in particle physics. I wanted to represent the poem’s thematic arcs of white supremacy and the violence of racialized capitalism, but also of community and collectivity against the powers that be. I decided to make a representative game-piece for improvisers and a prompter—with obvious reference to the socially informed conduction work of Butch Morris, John Zorn’s Cobra, and Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening—representing collectivity and mutual aid in defiance. My history as an improviser, playing in such pieces as Muhal Richard Abrams’s Dialogue Social (2013) (alongside elders including Amina Claudine Myers) and in Darius Jones’s instructional protest piece “LawNOrder” (2018), also informed my construction of the work. If performed, the piece should precede a demonstration, providing catharsis and healing. The resulting piece, “Austerity Measures” (2020) is on the pages that follow.

Austerity Measures (2020) Amirtha Kidambi 

Initiated by Camae Ayewa

Performance Instructions

The piece should be between 20–60 minutes long.

There are nine players (Citizens), plus a prompter (Mayor). 

All players will begin on a drone, pitch/pitches chosen collectively and spontaneously.

After some time, the mayor will begin breaking up the drone by prompting players. Players must obey.

The mayor’s role is to impose order, using two cards, a number card and a sign card, which is tied to an instruction. The prompter can also silence any player with the blank sign card.

Each player is given a number and entangled with another player, illustrated by the diagram. 

Players must watch and obey the prompter and watch/listen to the player with whom they are entangled. 

If your paired player changes their action when prompted, you must react by shadowing or imitating the player. The mayor may try to cut off this chain reaction by silencing, giving another prompt, or it may go unabated.

At some point after the halfway mark, one player will rebel. This player will not be pre-determined and it should happen organically.

The rebellion should be initiated and sustained by extremely harsh and visceral sounds. The entangled player will need to determine whether they are following the prompter’s instructions or have begun the rebellion. 

Once this is determined, the entangled player will also rebel and through the network of “mutual aid” all players will revolt in a chain reaction. 

The mayor may pick up an instrument, microphone, or other sound-
making device to counter. The mayor will be rendered powerless.

After reaching and sustaining a harsh wall of noise for a significant unbearable period, the players will return to a collective drone, which is sustained until the area is cleansed.

Mayor’s Laws (Prompts)

1Stacked Up: Layer or build density

2Particles: Short sounds, detached, staccato

3Thrash: Sudden loud sounds, accents, violent outbursts

4Low Groan: Low textured sound or groan

5Bubbling: Create a percolating textured sound

6Persistent: Repeat a gesture, phrase, or an idea insistently

7High Screeching: High textured sound or screeching

8Feedback: Electronic feedback or sustained extreme high or extreme low pitch

9Looping: Making a loop, cycle, or a groove

10Wave: Oscillations, slides, bends, legato

Kidambi Graphic
Austerity Measures 2020