Should experimental music be political? US saxophonist Michael Foster certainly thinks so. With The Hole, the recent tape on Manchester’s Tombed Visions label from his trio The Ghost, Foster bends the abrasive dissonance of free improvisation into a furious indictment of homophobia and an impassioned call for LGBT rights. That such explicit statements of political intent are rare these days – even the communitarianism woven into the grain of those early free improv pioneers seems to have been rubbed away in favour of an apolitical focus on process, technique and entrepreneurialism – only makes Foster’s blast of indignation and rage more powerful. As Tombed Visions boss David McLean states in an upcoming interview for this blog, The Hole is contemporary fire music:
“A lot of free jazz and free improvised music being made now has lost the rage the music was born from, the 60s, Civil Rights, the Cold War, it was a battle cry, people who had been absolutely maligned, and maligned in what they could do creatively, pushing back … [The Hole is] the music brought back to its original intended use.”
Indeed, but even if The Hole only showcased The Ghost’s tremendous technique and improvisatory chops it would be a cracker. Listen to the brooding immensity of Under the Teeth of Dogs or Upon The Wheel, in which Henry Fraser’s double bass and Connor Baker’s drumming create a scarred, blackened canvas from which Foster’s anguished horn rises like the death cry of some wounded beast. But its political focus gives The Hole a depth and complexity that most other contemporary records in this field lack. In particular, Foster’s use of samples, from TV news and documentaries, holds a broken mirror up to the straight world and shows in bare detail the homophobia and prejudice on which it is built. More importantly, there is also a demand for acceptance from this world, a call to reconfigure its boundaries to enable people to be able to live in the ways they want and need to, a polemical drive that is integral to Foster’s own aesthetic as a musician. Thus, as Foster’s biog states, his approach “utilizes extensive preparations of his saxophone, augmenting it with amplification, objects, balloons, drum heads, vibrators, tapes, and samples as a method of subverting and queering the instrument’s history and traditional roles.” The squeal and screech of The Hole’s improvisations places that queerness front and centre, exuding a sense of transgression and erotics even during its most indignant passages. Sexuality, politics and music come together in pieces like No More Hangers (itself an allusion to Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest) as The Hole reconfigures that ‘Gay American Dream’ of abandoning provincial bigotry for tolerant, inclusive cities (replayed in the UK through migratory narratives like The Pet Shop Boys’ Being Boring or Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy) with the urge to stand up to heteronormative oppression wherever it occurs, to fight for that utopia, to make it real, on this street, in this town, right here, right now.