Nathaniel Mackey and The Creaking Breeze Ensemble – Fugitive Equation

Nathaniel Mackey is a hugely influential American poet, novelist, anthologist, literary critic and editor. He is the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University and a Chancellor of Academy of American Poets. His on-going series of epistolary novels (begun 1978) From A Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate narrate the music making, dreams and creative life a group of imaginary jazz-based musicians making a fictional music, at the edge of words, dream and physical possibility in late 1970s and 1980s Los Angeles.

The idea for the Creaking Breeze Ensemble emerged in 2016 in response to a reading of Mackey's books by a group of musicians, writers and artists closely connected to the creative community around Cafe OTO in East London: Billy Steiger, Evie Ward, Paul Abbott, Ute Kanngiesser and Seymour Wright. Each have their own distinct voice, and respective connection with the musical traditions at the core of From A Broken Bottle. As a group of artists they felt that what Mackey explored as the making of a fictional music articulated something close to their actual, respective and overlapping musical lives. The group was named and so doing established a space for them to undertake an on-going 'reading' of the novels. And 
led in turn to them inviting Mackey to come to London to work, somehow, on this 'reading' of the novels and their ideas.

Mackey agreed and this mysterious proposal was realised in June 2019. Together Mackey and the ‘Breeze developed a working method and honed their attention on close reading of two letters from the books. What emerged was an open mobile process moving through the letters (and their content) in ways that shaped rich, sensual and playful spaces for reflection and improvisation, iteration and inter-textual pleasures.

The result is Fugitive Equation a remarkable and beautiful long-song across two nights. The first night Lit by Eclipse takes as its point of departure, reads and develops a letter from book five, Late Arcade; the second night Skeletal Water, X-Ray Water takes as its point of departure, reads and develops a letter from book two Djbot Baghostus's Run.

The album is a complex, unique and long-form (2 hours plus) composition of sound and word, unlike the previous work of any of those involved. The six unique voices, drums, violin, cello and saxophone and Mackey and Wards' words. It is a work that continuously collapses, questions and flips many poles - word/sound, voice/music, vocals(foreground)/band(background), recorded past/improvised present and fact/fiction.

The art work for the album cover is ‘Clutch’, a painting by seminal London based artist Frank Bowling whose retrospective was on show at the Tate Britain during Mackey’s visit to London.

The project was supported by the Arts Council of England and Cafe Oto. 


Nathaniel Mackey - voice, readings, vinyl
Evie Ward - voice, improvised poetry fragments
Paul Abbott - acoustic drums, synthetic sounds
Ute Kanngiesser - cello
Billy Steiger - violin, piano
Seymour Wright - alto saxophone

Recorded in concert by Shaun Crook and Paul Skinner at Cafe OTO,
London on June 7 and 8, 2019. Mixed by Shaun Crook.

Supported by Arts Council England and Cafe Oto.

Cover painting: Clutch,1987 (Acrylic gel and mixed media on paper)
by Sir Frank Bowling. Courtesy of the Victoria Gallery & Museum, University of Liverpool. © Frank Bowling. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2021.

List of records played by Mackey during the performance:

Anthony Williams, ‘Barb’s Song to the Wizard’, ’Two Pieces of One: Red’, and ‘Memory’, Life Time (Blue Note, 1965).
Miles Davis, ‘Mood’, E.S.P. (Columbia, 1965).
Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux, ‘Toubaka 81’, Salif Keita, Kante Manfila & Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux (Celluloid, 1981).
Coleman Hawkins and His Orchestra, ‘Body and Soul’ (Bluebird, 1939).
John Coltrane and Paul Quinichette, ‘Anatomy’, Cattin’ with Coltrane and Quinichette (Prestige, 1957).
Henry Threadgill, ‘Air Song’, X-75 Volume 1 (Arista/Novus, 1979).
Charles Lloyd, ‘Little Anahid’s Day’, Charles Lloyd in Europe (Atlantic, 1968).
Michael Rabin, ‘Caprice No. 9 in E Major – Alegretto’, Paganini: 24 Caprices, Op. 1 (EMI, 1958).
Albert Ayler Trio, ‘Ghosts: First Variation’ and ‘Ghosts: Second Variation’, Spiritual Unity (ESP, 1965).

Nathaniel Mackey

Nathaniel Mackey was born in Miami, Florida, in 1947. He is the author of several books of fiction of “exquisite rhythmic lyricism” (Bookforum), poetry, and criticism and has received many awards for his work, including the National Book Award in poetry for Splay Anthem, the Stephen Henderson Award from the African American Literature and Culture Society, the Bollingen Prize, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Mackey is the Reynolds Price Professor of English at Duke University.

Mackey cites poets William Carlos Williams and Amiri Baraka, in addition to jazz musicians John Coltrane and Don Cherry, as early influences in his exploration of how language can be infused and informed by music. In a 2006 interview with Bill Forman forMetroActivemagazine, Mackey addressed the relationship he seeks between music and his own poetry: “I try to cultivate the music of language, which is not just sounds. It’s also meaning and implication. It’s also nuance. It’s also a kind of angular suggestion.”

Mackey is the author of numerous books of poetry, includingNod House(2011), the National Book Award-winningSplay Anthem(2006),Whatsaid Serif(1998), andEroding Witness(1985), which was chosen for the National Poetry Series. He has published several book-length installments of his ongoing prose work,From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, beginning withBedouin Hornbookin 1986. David Hajdu described the prose project as “not simply writing about jazz, but writing as jazz” in a 2008New York Times Book Reviewpiece on the fourth volume in Mackey’s series,Bass Cathedral(2007). Hajdu characterized the movement of language in the volumes as “kinetic and also contemplative, elegiac and mercurial, sometimes volatile.” The first three volumes of Mackey’s series were published together by New Directions in 2010. A recording of Mackey’s workStrick: Song of the Andoumboulou 16-25was released in 1995 by Spoken Engine Company, with musical accompaniment by Royal Hartigan and Hafez Modirzadeh.

Mackey coedited Moment’s Notice(1993) with Art Lange, and American Poetry: The Twentieth Century(2000) with Robert Hass, John Hollander, Carolyn Kizer, and Marjorie Perloff. Mackey has broadcast jazz and world music as a DJ on local noncommercial radio since the late 1970s, an endeavor he describes as similar to that of bringing together journal issues during his long tenure as the editor ofHambone magazine: “You segue, you juxtapose, you mix,” he noted in theMetroActive interview. Mackey’s critical work includesDiscrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing(1993) andParacritical Hinge: Essays, Talks, Notes, Interviews(2005). His many honors and awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts; the Roy Harvey Pearce/Archive for New Poetry Prize; and the Stephen Henderson Award from the African American Literature and Culture Society; the 2014 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation; and the 2015 Bollingen Prize from Yale University. From 2001 to 2007, he served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Mackey taught for many years at the University of California, Santa Cruz and is currently the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University.

Bass Cathedral Discography and Mix