Marshall Trammell on Music Research Strategies

Written by

Marshall R Trammell, Music Research Strategies.

Atwater, California

March & April, 2016






Bradford, Roper, and Wong perform on a loom of interpersonal rituals and dialogic relationships at San Francisco State University in March of 2016. This band, Purple Gums, is a marked territory. The brassy trio (cornet, tuba, and saxophone, respectively) performed for a master class in the Creative Arts building for about 25folks in a medium-sized band room. For this performance, percussionist Vijay Anderson played with the usually drummerless trio. Minutes into the in-class performance, [William] Roper authoritatively erupts a spoken phrase through his mini-tuba: “Assume the position!” A bolt shivers our bones. He continues, invoking an aspect of life in this country. Purple Gums knows what this means. It’s imprinted upon the psyche of generations. Purple Gums refers to themselves as representative of a circular history: a story that’s not yet past. [Cornetist Bobby] Bradford tells us the excess of melanin in the skin causes relative coloration in the gums, and of the racial slurs attributed to it within and outside of the black community. He gives a sermon on the usage and appropriate inflection of the term motherfucker.



The band has had a 14-year interval between hits.

Why did they choose that moment to reconvene?



Purple Gums expresses an oppositional consciousness. Direct transmission of strategic methodology of pissedness and resistance technologies volley across the bandstand; seeing signs in culture (semiotics), analyzing these signs (deconstruction), synthesizing related forms (meta-ideologizing), erecting new principles of action (differential movement), and deploying egalitarian practices (democratics). Chela Sandoval’s seminal work Methodologies of the Oppressed exists for the purpose of generating dissidence and “revealing the rhetorical structure by which the languages of supremacy are uttered, rationalized—and ruptured.”


I entered the room with these lenses on. Gums speaks for themselves:


Purple Gums views music as narrative. A tune starts, by the time it ends, territory has been crossed, a story has been told. Most of the time the band lays down a backdrop for the audience to spin out their own creations within their heads. But on occasion, any one of the band's members will step to the mic and spin a yarn for you. Like the music, these stories are created extemporaneously—knowing the carnival ride you've stepped onto doesn't guarantee that you'll recognize the ride you step off of.



The nature of the signified totality of the presence of this group is that of their agency to produce musical sounds reflective of location/dislocation, dialogic inferences, traditions in/out of music, cultural signifiers, arbitrariness, and any, every part of their engagement.



This and related events were part of ImprovisAsians!, an annual performing arts and community-building event sponsored by Asian Improv aRts (AIR). The goals since 1987:


           1) To make it possible for artists to create innovative works rooted in the diasporic experiences of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage.

           2) To engage a next generation of community members in the arts through arts education.

           3) To enable sustainability for artists and arts organizations in a challenging economic environment.

           4) To facilitate creative collaborations that bring together major institutions, artists, and multigenerational audiences and participants.



The introduction—this introduction—into the subject matter of messages or propaganda or poetics of politics in art/music production is a reflexive process.


When I came to San Francisco 25 years ago as a student/street activist, I literally tripped over people like [saxophonist] Francis Wong, whose worldview and political consciousness shifted in response to the beating death of Vincent Chin near Detroit, Michigan, in June of 1982. Chrysler autoworkers—incensed about recent layoffs attributed to the boom in the Japanese car market—beat Chin to death with baseball bats outside of a bar at his bachelor party. The murderers received lenient fines and three years’ probation, and the state was satisfied. Asian Improv aRts was founded five years later by Wong and others. A bell can’t be unrung.



On the ride home from the class and performance, Vijay Anderson, an AIM devotee, shakes his head remembering how melodic Francis and Bobby are together. I think that overall harmony of difficult material is a binding substance for examination here.



Listen to Black Spirituals




“the streets our brushes, the squares our palettes”

Constructivist motto

Russia, 1917


La Paz Middle School is located in Salinas, California, a historic town in Monterey County near the Central Coast of California named for its salty marshes and fertile agriculture. Reflective of the population of the town, La Paz has a high Latino concentration, presumably descendants of generations of farm laborers.  Just weeks before I delivered a two-day arts practicum on the visual culture of the Underground Railroad, a 16=year-old was murdered by the police fairly close to the school. The history curriculum is a complement to instructor Jason Flores’s constructivist education framework (ultimately based on the work of Jean Piaget). The classroom centers on meaning-making by exposing the tenets, on which the social construction of everything in the classroom is based. As a facilitator, Flores serves to remove obstacles to learning by cultivating cognitive development through a series of observable, didactic activities. Students, as makers-of-meaning themselves, engage in the democratic learning environment as they construct representations of history individually and collectively.


I taught four classes of La Paz Panthers waist-high in the stories of Frederick Douglass, Civil War battles, and coded Black Spirituals. I engaged these young investigators to synthesize their own expertise and acquired knowledge through a socio-historical, tactical arts practicum centered on the intervention of the Underground Railroad quilt codes. “Re-Imagining UGRR Quilt Codes” illustrates connections and dynamics between the Civil War–era Underground Railroad to currently existing underground railroad dynamics and the relevance in their lives today. A conductor is clearly more understood as a coyote in the parlance of La Paz students; a station is a safe house.


Using the tools of perception, production, and reflection, these students demonstrated they had shared an interpersonal relationship with history beyond that of a solely fact-based curriculum.


          1) Perception: students study works of tactical media in historic relevance to emancipatory practices

          2) Production: students use basic skills and principles of the art form and put their ideas into visual form

          3) Reflection: students assess their work according to personal goals and standards of excellence in the field



In art, Constructivism has origins in the 1917 Russian Revolution, where artists built meaningful objects reflective of the resources used for construction. It was an art form rich with materials for producing a new culture through assigning art to a practical, socially useful role in everyday life. For good or bad, they rejected “autonomous art” and the idea of the individual artist in favor of collective movements, like Bauhaus or De Stijl. As a theory of knowledge in education, Constructivism demonstrates an interaction between experiences and idea development. In classrooms, the convergence of social and practical elements in learning advances discourse and an interpersonal, cultural connection to the learning experience.


The improvisational nature of the Underground Railroad is aligned with the collective and individual experiences of slaves and fugitives. “The struggles waged against domination and enslavement in everyday life took a varied of forms,” according to Saidiya V. Hartman. She continues:


Exploiting the limits of the permissible, creating transient zones of freedom, and re-elaborating innocent amusements were central features of everyday practice. Practice is, to use Michel de Certeau’s phrase, ‘a way of operating’ defined by the ‘the non-autonomy of its field of action, internal manipulation of the established order, and ephemeral victories.’


The dual invocation of the slave as property and person was an effort [that] wed reciprocity and submission, intimacy and domination, and the legitimacy of violence and the necessity of protection. By the same token, the law’s selective recognition of slave humanity nullified the captive’s ability to give consent or act as agent, and, at the same time, acknowledge the intentionality and agency of the slave but only as it assumes the form of criminality.


These nuances did not go unnoticed at La Paz. The young Panthers constructed reimagined coded quilt blocks, both mimicking the old ones and simultaneously inventing new ones. The students demonstrated their understanding of the need for safe houses, for a code, for a conductor, or coyote, to weave a network of mutual aid synthesizing technologies of the methodologies of oppressed persons. They taught me codes for safety in their everyday lives. Students exhibited a strong motivation to learn and a confidence in their potential for completing the project. We created nearly 100 new quilt blocks reflecting on both history and personal experiences and knowledge. These reflections of competence and belief in one’s potential to solve new problems are derived from first-hand experience of mastering problems in the past, and are much more powerful than any external acknowledgment and motivation.








"A book neither begins nor ends; at most it merely feigns doing so."

-Le Livre, Mallarme


Above is a graphic from my 2006 graduate thesis (RPI) mimicking Jean-Jacques Nattiez’ semiological, symbolic mapping of Wagner’s controversial Bayreuth Festival production of The Ring (1976).


Simultaneously inspired by [Gilles] Deleuze’s analyses of Leibniz and the Baroque, the map fails to address the Improviser’s choice to approach their instruments, not as jazz machines or rock ’n’ roll machines, but as improvising-machines. An appropriate correction might be to adjust #13 to read simply: Performance. However, I still find comfort in my bold appropriation. The waveform is code emblematic of the persistence of cognition. It represents a translation across media and lineage. It represents a path of identity formation as a significant, recognizable, and navigable event.


Referring to Kantian aesthetics of beauty in his book Economimesis, [Jacques] Derrida writes, "One must not imitate nature; but nature, assigning its rules to genius, folds itself, returns to itself, reflects itself through art.” “Kant,” he continues, “specifies that the only thing one ought to call art is the production of freedom by means of freedom [Hervorbringung durch Freiheit].” Pretty righteous words; to be clear, neither author is speaking of freedom from chains. They speak of an absolute freedom of expression: an art signifying pure ideas. Mimesis can roughly be defined as a representation of reality transmitted through empathetic means; economimesis is regarded, quite simply, as a process that exemplifies that appropriation.


It was Jacques Lacan who taught us that humans acquire identity through the acquisition of language process. Ideologies ingrained in that exchange are likewise absorbed. And it is his student, Slavoj Zižek who emphasizes that the effects of ideology are pervasive, powerful, and a nearly inescapable aspect of our world. Zižek further emphasizes a “creative refusal” of ideology sparked by a profound political change in the S/self, such as the 1917 Russian revolt against capitalism. We can say that oppositional consciousness, a term from Third World feminist praxis, was acquired through discursive processes.



Listen to Marshall Trammell



"His was an historical music. He began himself before he played with Fletcher Henderson, playing alternate piano in the orchestra when Fletcher conducted. In recent years he even brought Fletcher and Duke back with a sweetness and contemporary restatement that was thrilling.


Ra was so far out because he had the true self-consciousness of the Afro American intellectual artist revolutionary. He knows our historic ideology and socio-political consciousness was freedom. It is an aesthetic and social dynamic. We think it is good and beautiful!"


—Amiri Baraka, foreword

This Planet is Doomed: The Science Fiction Poetry of Sun Ra




In 1999, the “Improvising Across Borders” symposium at the University of California at San Diego introduced me to the subject. Pianist Dana Reason had organized the conference at which George Lewis, Pauline Oliveros, Douglas Ewart, Eddie Prévost, LaDonna Smith, JD Parran, Hafez Modirzadeh, and many more were present. I recently found a quote from LaDonna Smith on her experience:


One purpose of the Symposium was to explore one of the most previously slighted, but critically important fundamentals in music creativity and its true role in the shaping of musical traditions, styles, and current direction.



Pauline Oliveros gave a talk on Quantum Improvisation:



Quantum computing is a revolutionary method of computing based on quantum physics that uses the abilities of particles such as electrons to exist in more than one state at the same time. Quantum computation can operate simultaneously on a combination of seemingly incompatible inputs. By analogy or metaphor quantum Improvisation could mean a leap into new and ambiguous consciousness opening a new variety of choices.



At the same symposium, pianist and composer Vijay Iyer gave a memorable presentation on “African American Improvised Music and Embodied Cognition,” in which he analyzed Thelonious Monk’s music with the help of a multimedia display complete with transcriptions and minute details that delight me to this day. This moment greatly informed my thinking on analyzing music, as well as elucidated a process that I had unwittingly undertaken. Iyer’s presentation described and analyzed the way Monk’s fingers moved upon the keyboard with precision: the matrix of complexities pouring through expressive nodes in the body.  As citizen-subjects, we often find ourselves to be subject to dominant ideological elements similarly quilted into our identities and woven into our imaginations. Robin D.G. Kelly’s book on Monk gives us a wealth of insight into the total social fact (Mauss) of the man, entreating us, as fans of his magic, to peer into this “bond between giver and gift.”  We cannot ignore the conditions of cruelty and subjugation to admire the diamonds that such pressure creates. Iyer’s analysis of Monk’s embodied expression demands that Monk’s emulators reach beyond the sounds that come through one’s home speakers.


George Lewis’s essay “Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives” was weighed on my mind during this period in my development. I remember that John Cage’s body of work is known and accepted for his innovations and privilege, and Charlie Parker’s body of work is known and accepted for his innovations and remarkable lack of, and struggle for, privilege. Generations emulated Parker’s research and sound, along with other black musicians of that era; compelled by the representation of those artists’ lives in their music. I’ve wondered if their interest is in the actual conditions of their lives, or so it seems to me, the forces-in-motion that perpetuate those conditions. The oft quoted social theorist bell hooks writes, “Throughout African American history, performance has been crucial in the struggle for liberation.” She refers, of course, to minstrelsy. Moreover, Saidiya V. Hartman talks explicitly in her book about the auction block as a site of forced enjoyment, where slaves were made to dance and whoop it up at the crack of the whip



I still see/practice “free music” and “creative music” as resistance music. I trace my interest in participating in music back to an exposure to Bob Marley, Parliament, and Earth, Wind & Fire as a youth. However, I am an Improviser. “Improvising Across Borders” addressed borders real and imagined, and made them all permeable. I was certainly in the right place at the right time! I had involved myself with this music as an extension of my political education, practices, and deep curiosity about how this form of resistance would change my sense of self, self-consciousness, and actions. I remember daring to raise my hand at that symposium saying that I thought there was going to be some kind discussion about the actual border: you know, the one between us and Mexico. There wasn’t meant to be one, although there is room enough for that to be my work.


Eleven years ago, the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee-General Command of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) launched La Sexta from Laconcondon Jungle. This was the Sixth Declaration from the Zapatistas deep in the jungles of their autonomous zones surrounded by Southern Mexico, and the largest listening party the world has ever seen. Masked Zapatistas collected stories, complaints, recollections, evidence, and other data from the machinations of capitalism and status quo politics throughout the length and breadth of the country. The kick off in San Cristobal began with a peaceful occupation of the zocalo, or town square, by thousands of Zapatista and hundreds of press. Three musical acts took the stage, setting the tone. They played songs people knew. I imagined a performance by the World Saxophone Quartet in the zocalo in San Cristobal de las Casas in the State of Chiapas that New Year's Eve in 2005. What a gig?!? That stage was built with much more that wood and nails. I imagined WSQ, with all its members over time, ascending to the stage miraculously playing “The Hard Blues” together as the system of music to jump off such a project in the States, and I knew I had to be in a band worthy of that stage.

Marshall Trammell is an African American percussionist born July 21, 1972 in Oceanside, CA and raised in Kaneohe, Oahu, Hawaii. Upon exposure to the Glenn Spearman Double Trio and ROVA's conduction systems, he has been a contributing member of the Bay Area Creative Music scene his arrival in San Francisco in 1993. Influences include Donald Robinson, Eddie Blackwell, Louis Moholo, Milford Graves & Papa Joe Jones are present in his performance on the drum set, while a deep exposure to Cuban, Haitian and West African linear drum systems shift his focus away from conventions in Jazz and Free Jazz.


Mr Trammell is a Soloist, Curator and Chief Investigator at Music Research Strategies. He curates "Decolonizing the Imagination: Arts Practicum & Democratics" and conducts "Black Fighting Formations," a conduction system based visual culture and cooperative economics of the Underground Railroad. Mr. Trammell has performed with such luminaries as Roscoe Mitchell, India Cooke, John Tchicai,  Dylan Carlson & Saul Williams. He is a recoding artist as a member of the electro-acoustic duo Black Spirituals (SIGE Records) which performs internationally with Zachary James Watkins.