A History of "J. Jasmine: My New Music" by Ted Gordon

A History of "J. Jasmine: My New Music" by Ted Gordon

One might ask of J Jasmine: My New Music: what are you? Actually, not what—which? Which style? Which format? Which history? Which narrative? Which music?

A first listen might suggest some answers: this is an album of songs, mostly under three minutes, mostly of a type that would not be out of place at a cabaret—a chanteuse and her piano. But what is that mbira doing there? Or those ebullient electric flourishes that peek out of the reverb for a second? Isn’t David Rosenboom known for making music with brainwaves? And why would this album be made for the Ann Arbor Film Festival?

As the title of its first song suggests, My New Music feels androgynous: it resists categorization. Yet the stuff it is made of points towards categories: singer-songwriter confessionals, ballads of heartbreak, desire, and fantasy, country violin harmonies, honkey-tonk tack piano. The lyrics of that song continue: “androgyny / it’s happening to me / it’s just one more thing that I’ll use to be free.” The melting away of categories—the freedom that that melting reveals—is one among the tools of liberation. Androgyny may be “happening” to this song’s narrator. But it may also be happening to her, putting her in a state of becoming. My New Music records this state of becoming, showing us how to use music to be free. Humbert dedicates this album to “the hope that one person’s fantasies can contribute to another person’s freedom.”

How did we get here? By the mid-1970s, the idea of “popular music” had already been around for a few generations, enough for a few cycles of the nostalgic re-purposing of old tools for new tasks a few times over. If, as Lyotard suggests, the modern is always-already contained within the post-modern, then Humbert and Rosenboom’s play with musical signifiers should be seen not as an ironic nod to their meaninglessness—but rather as a rather sincere commitment to their affective power.

David Rosenboom had moved to Toronto to help found York University’s Department of Music in 1970. He had already begun a career as an experimental musician, bouncing between the University of Illinois, where he studied with Lejaren Hiller and Salvatore Martirano; New York City, where he worked for the Electric Ear series at the Electric Circus, and worked alongside Morton Subotnick in his legendary Bleeker Street studio and NYU’s Intermedia Program; and the Center for Creative and Performing Arts in Buffalo, where he was a Creative Associate. Rosenboom played the role of composer, producer, musician, recordist, collaborator, and engineer: “music” meant media, and media meant experimentation. Everything seemed up for grabs.

Around 1972, George Manupelli—whom Rosenboom had met in the late 1960s while producing a performance of a Robert Ashley work at the Electric Circus—moved to Toronto and joined the faculty at York. Manupelli had founded the Ann Arbor Film Festival in 1963, and had most recently released his Dr. Chicago series of films, staring Alvin Lucier, Mary Lucier, Steve Paxton, and the mime Claude Kipnis, who had studied with Marcel Marceau. Manupelli had also participated in the ONCE Festivals in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which included Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma, Mary Ashley, Milton Cohen, and many more. For both Manupelli and Rosenboom, collaboration was a way to experiment not only with their own respective media, forms, and conventions, but also to experiment with taking on different roles in the creative process.

Whereas Manupelli got his start collaborating with Milton Cohen to produce the legendary “Space Theater” in Ann Arbor, and Rosenboom had been deeply involved with brainwave research and multi-media, both brought their sense of experimentation to new political realities in the 1970s. Among their close friends and colleagues at York was Chilean printmaker and painter, Eugenio Tellez (1939—); and soon after Manupelli had relocated to Toronto, so did a large group of Chilean refugees, fleeing Pinochet’s coup in 1973. Rosenboom had established a Laboratory for Experimental Aesthetics at York where he and his students were pursuing advanced work in biofeedback and the arts. Jacqueline Humbert was one of those students, and soon, she and Rosenboom collaborated on a brainwave performance work, titled Chilean Drought, which used human brainwaves to control how versions of a news story describing the Chilean people’s challenges with multiple natural disasters are heard.

Soon after this initial collaboration, Humbert and Rosenboom began an art collective named Maple Sugar, after a farmhouse near Maple, Ontario, where they invited artists to present works during the summertime. Maple Sugar grew to include Manupelli and several other artists from York and the greater Toronto area, and soon started presenting shows in galleries and other Toronto venues year-round. Rosenboom remembers the group’s interest in making politically-oriented works, using all of the tools available to them at the time from across technological and aesthetic spectra—from EEGs to Motown. Uniting this group was a desire to study themselves through experimenting with musical forms, aesthetics, and technologies, following what Rosenboom calls “propositional music” to its end, in order to reveal something true. For Maple Sugar, playing with music—like playing with identity—was, as Humbert’s character J. Jasmine sings on “Androgyny”, “just one more thing that I’ll use to be free”.

Humbert and Rosenboom traveled to Berkeley, California, in 1977, during a sabbatical granted by York. Along the way, Humbert began to work on her own political project: a set of song lyrics which expressed her growing interest in second-wave feminism, putting into action the slogan “the personal is political”. Humbert and Rosenboom gradually collaborated on setting those lyrics to music, and turned to a thriving Bay Area community of artists for collaborators, including Sam Ashley and David Behrman—both of whom were connected to the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College. They recorded the album at the CCM studios, with help from Maggi Payne, and at 1750 Arch Street in Berkeley, a studio run by Robert Schumaker—which would later become CNMAT, the University of California Berkeley’s electronic and computer music center.

Manupelli suggested that they press LPs to distribute to all of the entrants to the Ann Arbor Film Festival in 1978, and so they did— a kind of album-as-film, with an image of Humbert as J. Jasmine on its cover, sitting in a peacock chair with a Muybridge-like film still of a galloping horse between her legs, an alternate “origin of the world”. Manupelli shot performances of three of their songs for the festival, but the audio was out of sync; Rosenboom remembers him telling the audience, “watch the mouth, not the music.” They toured the songs along the west coast, performing at art spaces like the Portland Center for Visual Arts and the Western Front in Vancouver. To make a postcard promoting the album, they posed on an old Studebaker (owned by William Farley, who taught filmmaking at Mills) parked on the Mills College campus—Humbert as a resplendent J. Jasmine, complete with a black feather boa—and Rosenboom, Ashley, and Behrman as her backing band, all wearing headphones. During that sabbatical year, while living in Don Buchla’s basement apartment in Berkeley, Rosenboom went to work making “The J. Jasmine Songbook”, which features piano-vocal scores for all of the songs on the album, illustrated with enigmatic cover images of Humbert in the desert and photo portraits of her mother Evelyn Marie Smith Humbert, who had been a child vaudeville star in the late 1920s and early 1930s. A group from the Maple Sugar crew reconvened in the summer of 1978 at Manupelli’s own summer retreat in New Hampshire, where they shot another Manupelli film—Almost Crying—for which Humbert and Rosenboom made a new J. Jasmine song, “Oasis in the Air”. Humbert went on to make another album with Rosenboom, collaborate with Robert Ashley, and release an album in 2004 titled Chanteuse with songs written for her by an array of contemporary composers; but beyond a private-label Korean re-issue in 2010, J. Jasmine: My New Music new music was not heard again in North America.


What does the desert mean for Humbert and Rosenboom in these songs? Perhaps more importantly, what does it mean for J. Jasmine? These songs fantasize a terrain where heartbreak is as big as the Grand Canyon, where one might stumble into an old-time saloon and hear J. Jasmine dedicate her song to “Miss Margo St. James, and the Coyote Organization.” Where men leave women after meeting other women in motels, and where women fantasize about leaving their men for other women. Perhaps the desert represents freedom, but that freedom comes at an emotional cost: heartbreak, loneliness, and burning desire.

Our first clue comes in “Androgyny”, the album’s first track: what seems like a simple country waltz, an aesthetic space often marked with rigid gender boundaries, is actually an ode to becoming androgynous. In “Broke and Blue”, J. Jasmine then takes on a voice with markers of masculinity—calling up a lover only to find out “their love has gone cold”, taking refuge in brandy. And yet—this refuge is also a painting studio, where Jasmine is “painting a picture that’s colors of blue / And painting a picture that’s finally true // It’s homemade to me, But the truth it does speak /It’s a picture of me without you.”

Immediately after this realization, we are treated to the album’s first extended instrumental section (“Wild about the Lady”), as if the affective powers of Jasmine’s realization have been finally let loose: a disorienting 7/4 piano ostinato, with delayed and reverberated mbira and vocals panning throughout the stereo spectrum. While articulating her desire “for that lady over there / the one with the platinum hair”, Jasmine gains the accompaniment of fast-moving percussion, adding to the propulsive desire of the verse—all before breaking the song’s rhythmic meter to relish in her “merging of souls”, illustrated by a trill- and octave-heavy piano solo reminiscent of “Blue” Gene Tyranny.

After this reverie, the listener is snapped back to reality—a kind of filmic cut—to the auditory space of a horse racetrack, with narration by George Manupelli. In the most cinematic song on the album (“Rented Car, Painted Lady, Borrowed Time”), written by Manupelli, Jasmine is accompanied by a tack piano and country violin, as we hear the story of a breakup: with a rented car, a painted lady, on borrowed time, in a “lonesome motel room”. There is then a song of longing—eerily similar to “Androgyny”—in which Jasmine craves her lover’s “Strong Arms”, but ultimately needs “more than a man / I need him to see who I am”.

This is followed by an extended instrumental break—an excerpt from Section VIII Rosenboom’s ongoing composition, “How Much Better if Plymouth Rock Had Landed on the Pilgrims.” Rosenboom had made this particular recording in 1968-1969, playing trumpet, Hammond organ, and piano—using analog delay and feedback to create a kind of canonical form, which he later spatialized into two stereo tracks. Perhaps this section illustrates the postcard Jasmine receives from her lover in “Grand Canyon Heartache”—another country waltz with all the right genre markers.

J. Jasmine

But this heartache seems to be productive: it enables Jasmine to see a “Clear Light”, in one of the most complex and emotionally-laden tracks on the album. It begins with an out-of-time, harmonically complex introduction accompanied by a solo piano, but is followed by new territory: a fast rhumba rhythm in the piano, accompanied by bongos and female backup vocals. And as soon as we’re in time, we’re out of time again: Jasmine tells us “You can shine sister, shine / It’s your time, it’s your time.” After yearning, betrayal, heartache, and remorse, J. Jasmine has “actualized her wildest dreams”—she’s a whole person. Androgyny—the blurring of identity, the assertion of selfhood—has happened to her, as she promised it would at the very beginning of the album.

As an epilogue to this long narrative arc, the album—without the later addition of “Oasis in the Air”—ends with what Rosenboom calls an “environmental collage”, carefully constructed from field recordings he made during happy hour in a large hotel lobby in San Francisco, mixed with a rock band playing Section VI of “How Much Better…” (Rosenboom recorded every part of the band himself.) Jasmine speaks directly to her audience in the sound-world of the album—in which we imagine ourselves—and, in alternating verses, reveals that she has become a sex worker—and an enthusiastic one at that. Rather than see this as a kind of return to the scene of trauma—her character’s betrayal comes from her husband leaving her for a different sex worker in a motel—this is an assertion of the space of the “clear light”, a kind of actualization of the self: J. Jasmine is finally free.

Jasmine: My New Music is, yes, an album of country ballads and cabaret songs. It could be read as an intertext to the so-called “cabaret revival” of the mid-1970s, and the growing interest of female-identified singers, like Patti Smith, in experimenting with the raw material of two generations of American pop music. But it is also “new music”—and in Humbert’s community, this term meant something. For Rosenboom, Ashley, and Behrman, “new music” often meant a kind of cultural production that defined itself in opposition to “old music”—what most might call “classical music”—but which kept much of its infrastructure: the role of the composer, the support of the institution, the use of scoring, the economic and social networks of patrons and performers. J. Jasmine, Humbert’s alter-ego, declares: this is my new music. It’s the music of old weird America—country ballads and cabaret songs about love, fantasy, and “the world’s oldest profession,” yes—but also androgyny, intergenerational love, and feminism, sequenced with a filmmaker’s flair: a complete new world.

- Ted Gordon