Scatting | Sonia Louise Davis
you can’t think and sing at the same time:
there is a displacement that happens so that the physical reactive body can take over—
if you had to think before every note you’d be at least one beat behind.
per-form / pre-form
there is a necessary letting go in the performative moment
but it’s bookended by a rigorous practice,
the training needed to be able to get to that place,
a certain mastery of one’s instrument, which is synonymous with
the body / the frame / the limits imposed or understood by a certain structure.
& what if the body and voice are used in such a way as to
illuminate not illustrate the embodiment of a particular experience
and ancestral knowledge without figuring the body or depending on language?
As a vocalist I remember being hyper-aware of my frame,
and not just during performances or on stage, but in rehearsals
when my professor Jay would remind me to stand and breathe correctly
and stop thinking in order to produce sound that could resonate
within my body and propel outward from it. He said that if I wanted to sing like
some of those women I so admired (Ella or Sarah) I would need to work at it.
A differential in sheer physical size meant that their voices
could resonate more easily within their frames.
verb [with obj.]
place (a picture or photograph) in a frame: he had the photo framed
- surround so as to create a sharp or attractive image: a short, strong style cut
to frame the face
abstract, the verb, means to separate out, to remove something from its context, but it also means to withdraw (oneself). scat is a directive: go away. voicing is the way a musician chooses to play a chord, and there are all sorts of references to the spoken/singing voice when giving praise for a horn player in common parlance. resonance is the physical vibration of sonic depth, and is also used to describe something evocative or emotive, so resonance can be at once the scientific fact of sound and its ability to produce affect.
a rigid structure that surrounds or encloses something such as a door or
- a person’s body with reference to its size or build: a shiver shook her slim
One time a friend told me he could hear me practicing because the
sound traveled into the lecture room across the hall. I got so embarrassed
realizing that all the upper-level music students were listening to me sing
during Braxton’s class every week.
about movement and stillness: there’s something in the generative tension between two poles. action and non-action, or reflection, or slowing down so much you almost look like you’re going backwards but you’re storing up potential energy in the process. duration gets you somewhere if only because of the passage of time. we’ve got to stop setting up this opposition between doing and thinking, as if thoughtfulness required no verb, no work. what if what you do in the slow-down looks like nothing? there is strength in singing out of time.
listening is engagement and collaboration, awareness and attention.1 it is a key element of improvisation, a crucial skill to develop in a practice (necessary for playing together, still important when playing alone.) how do we reconcile the machismo jam session effect with a non-hierarchical feminist organizational structure? working towards a common goal with other people doesn’t mean sacrificing each participant’s unique gifts. it’s like Lorraine O’Grady said recently “the best collaborator is someone who has her own business to mind.”2
It’s funny now looking back that I spent so long keeping my singing self
and my artmaking self apart, like these roles could not peacefully co-exist.
Maybe there’s something about my identity as a singer that felt
dependent in relation to the band, or specific to the college campus.
noun [usu. in sing.] a basic structure that underlies or supports a system,
concept or text: the establishment of conditions provides a frame for
- technical short for frame of reference: the Earth’s motion relative to the
frame of the distant galaxies
improvisation is about the synchronicity of the moments of composition and performance, preparation and action, an ever-present readiness.3 being alert to one’s surroundings, making snap judgments informed by changing conditions and responding to the world are all ways we improvise throughout everyday life. it’s strange then to talk about the technique as if removed from any environment, and even stranger to discuss the practice when the conversation centers on the false understanding that improvised music is simply playing without a score or going off-book. improvisation is not utter freedom from any plan, but is the act of collapsing planning and playing together under a set of determined constraints or limits, which might be the chord changes, your instrument’s range, how much you warmed up, the temperature of the room, or how you’re feeling that day.
Singing standards became too predictable after a while,
I think I was happy to give the whole thing up after graduation. I also developed
a distaste for that positioning – being on stage in front of the band,
looked at instead of listened to.
Moving back home to Harlem there was an urgency in
working slowly as everything seemed to be moving so fast around me.
the breaking apart of the (Black/woman)subject: the way that the parts never add up to the whole, the compartmentalizing we are taught to do to ourselves and our bodies. (musically) you have a good ear, or a nice voice...a strong sense of phrasing, work on your pitch in the upper register. enclosure/foreclosure: “where are you from?” the body is an instrument or tool that performs identity in public space and is read and mis-read as foreign or exotic, over and over, even as a native in this city.
For a while I made large format analog portraits of neighborhood
families as a way to hold on to the feeling of grounded-ness.
My projects often took place outside in public space, on the sidewalk
or in a park, and I enlisted collaborators in family members.
We called our process a dance: taking turns framing through the ground glass
and passing the shutter release to a portrait-sitter. Even though a photograph
was the result of our encounter, it never seemed to encompass the prolonged
moment we shared together, or the excitement from passersby about
our performance. I was always most interested in what was happening
outside the frame of the picture.
verb [with obj.]
create or formulate (a concept, plan, or system): the staff have proved invaluable in framing the proposals.
- form or articulate (words): he walked out before she could frame a reply.
singers embody musicianship in the physical body as their instrument. in the gendered division of labor what you bring to the table is (only) yourself. the familiar desire to move beyond often troublesome lyrics to the solo, to behave as a member of the band, to exhibit and display the fullness of your instrumentality always works with and against the refusal to be instrumentalized.
In early spring one year my friend Tamara did a tarot reading
that revealed cleansing, healing and mental clarity were in my
immediate future, and advised that I spend time near bodies of water
to recharge my batteries. For the next two months I traveled almost daily
to a botanical garden on Staten Island for a residency in a cottage.
I quickly found myself singing alone in the wooden house
because the acoustics were so good. Some afternoons a recording of
Whitney Houston singing the national anthem came in
through the windows from the ball fields behind the grounds.
“Improvisation is located at a seemingly unbridgeable chasm between feeling and reflection, disarmament and preparation, speech and writing...improvisation is never manifest as a kind of pure presence – it is not the multiplicity of present moments just as it is not governed by an ecstatic temporal frame wherein the present is subsumed by past and future. Improvisation must be understood, then, as a matter of sight and as a matter of time, the time of a look ahead whether that looking is the shape of a progressivist line or rounded, turned. The time, shape, and space of improvisation is constructed by and figured as a set of determinations in and as light, by and through the illuminative event. And there is no event, just as there is no action, without music.”4
and where does radicality lie? is it in the gesture or the medium or the project’s stated aims? can it inform the fullness of a life and a practice in all of the complicated and subtle ways we want it to, always?
The studio can be a site of refuge, a reserved practice room for improvement, endless
workshopping, small victories, and necessary failures. It may be my notebook on the
subway and it can also be the localized resonant space for running those scales. A room of
my own with rules made and remade, broken and breaking.
The contradiction here is not between engagement and craft,
but between call and response. Working to and through.
1. According to scholar, composer and improviser George Lewis: “Improvisation involves not only outwardly expressive action but also inwardly manifested attention and the analysis of conditions. We must choose where to direct our awareness, and the consequences of those choices feed into the next expressive action, as well as the next moment of attending to the present moment.” (Lewis, 2014).
2. During the first group meeting of Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter, convened by Simone Leigh at the New Museum on July 20, 2016.
3. Here I am thinking of Danielle Goldman’s use of readiness and her description of contact improvisation specifically. She notes improvisation’s power “as a full-bodied critical engagement with the world, characterized by both flexibility and perpetual readiness. ” (Goldman, 2010, 5).
4. Moten (2003).
Goldman, Danielle. 2010. I Want to Be Ready: Improvised Dance and the Practice of Freedom. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Lewis, George E. 2014. “Collaborative Improvisation as Critical Pedagogy.” Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art 34 (Spring): 40–47.
Moten, Fred. 2003. “The Sentimental Avant Garde.” In In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, 63–64. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Sonia Louise Davis is an artist who lives and works in New York. She attended Wesleyan University and the Whitney Independent Study Program.