“And in my mouth it was sweet as honey; and when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter.”
On a rainy January in 1941, behind the barbed wire, slightly askew, of POW camp Stalag VIII-A, a clarinet, violin, cello, and piano recite what might be the swan song of humanity. The 400 soldiers, both free and interned, listened to the oblivion of a “Quartet for the End of Time” as the godless rain fell soundless into it. The composer stepped away from the prison piano afterwards, freed with the help of the Belgian-born soldier he would refuse to see after the war. Who knows why? Hearing news of the soldier’s arrival, bent over his compositions freed of foreboding, his stomach rattled with the sourest memory a man may have lived to acquire. It was not lost to Messiaen in that moment that the piece reflecting on apocalypse was what would liberate him, making him as close to immortal as flesh can be made.
It was at the same time that the music-loving soldier, Karl-Albert Brüll left – hurt, angry, vainly trying to understand – that Ornette Coleman would release Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, announcing the end of a strain of rigor running soundless in the veins of jazz in order to liberate what would become its on-again-off-again lover.
This contrarian soundlessness and intensity of noise is the what drives Flying Basket, the collaboration of free jazz saxophonist Akira Sakata, multi-instrumentalist Jim O’Rourke, rhythm duo Chikamorachi (Darin Gray and Chris Corsano), and leading japanoise musician Merzbow (Masami Akita). By comparison to both Coleman and Messiaen, this nameless quintet has less gravity. It’s less Day the World Ended and more Dr. Strangelove. And that’s, I think, a natural consequence of living in a time so embroiled in the apocalyptic (Y2K, 2008, 2012) that we’ve become inured to it.
Sakata’s soft, ominous scales (chimes clank behind, bass throbs) between harsh overblow and warble (O’Rourke strums jaggedly), leading the wave of noise slowly accreting (Merzbow is heard? No. Not yet), building, building (those lasers that itch your ear? Now has Merzbow arrived), then, as if in sacrifice, the sax fades away. And O’Rourke. And Chikamorachi. Slowly, Merzbow fades into nothing but a brooding hum occasionally interrupted by pure, stressed sound. One could call it a four act structure: The sign of the apocalypse, waiting for the end, expecting the end, and the fury of the unhappily alive.
The music – something unheard of, to my knowledge, regarding the now seemingly obvious collaboration of jazz and the heavy electronics of noise – seems a reflection. Wanton, aggressive, unanticipated, and yet still willfully conscious. Near the end of this daunting album, you’ll hear O’Rourke (though it’s hard to say with absolute certainty) screaming. It’s fury, but a fury blending into the madness, as if already insane. Flying Basket is probably just a surreal phrase – I couldn’t find anything it obviously related to: A French fairy tale, a hot air balloon, the debut single of a Korean boy band – but I can see two phrases leaking out: "flying off the handle" and "basket case." Madnesses of different kinds, and the kind of panic that overcomes the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy’s citizens who wait patiently for the barbarians, their end, until one day they never arrive. “And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?/They were, those people, a kind of solution.”