By Sara Fullerton
Last Wednesday, March 7, Hudson Performance Hall held Darius Jones’ LawNOrder, an improvisational, jazz-influenced performance piece that “Is itself a protest,” as English professor Allison Hobgood explained in the introduction.
Based in New York, Jones is a notable saxophonist and composer in the modern jazz world. He belongs to a tradition of musicians who have “us[ed] art to grapple with the emotional weight of a particular moment in history.” In the informational pamphlet for LawNOrder, Jones wrote, “My music is a confrontation against apathy and ego.”
This considered, the performance could not be described as pleasant or palatable. Some audience members even reported developing headaches over the course of the event. Jones said, “LawNOrder traps us in the chaos of our past and present as a nation, forcing us to face what we’re doing to each other.”
Jones collaborated with 17 Willamette students and faculty, marking the first version of LawNOrder that’s taken place on a college campus. In the spirit of jazz, which values improvisation and resists familiar form, performers received stage directions just two hours before the event and weren’t allowed to compare notes. Hobgood explained in our interview, “It’s not like they have a score. It’s not like they have notes to play.”
I struggle to do the experience justice through the conventional medium of a newspaper article, attempting to articulate the unfamiliar, disconcerting artistic environment in sentences and paragraphs.
As the performance began, it sounded to me almost like several radio stations playing at once. Musicians were spread out across the stage, and while at first this registered as complete lack of cohesion, there emerged a certain synchronicity among performers. As Hobgood explained it, each ensemble member was “aware that they were performing their bit, but it was a part of this conversation which was the entire piece.”
The group included a percussionist, an electric guitarist, an oboist, violinist, bass player, singer, pianist, organist, viola player, cellist and several performers who spoke and used noisemakers. Jones, the anticipated star of the show, faced away from the audience, mostly blocked from view by the massive piano in front of him.
Often, the sheer amount of noise erased individual voices. Then, out of the wall of sound, a message would surface. “Freedom is not free” was one of the first statements I heard. Others included, “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do,” and “Stop pretending your racism is patriotism.”
Performers drew the audience in by arbitrarily pointing to folks as they delivered their messages, an action that seemed to “hold the audience accountable,” as audience member Anna Neshyba (‘18) noted.
Several times throughout the performance, invoked by a trill from Jones’ saxophone, all other noises dissipated, and the performers repeated the word “justice” more than a dozen times. With each repetition, one could hear the performers’ conviction diminishing.
Hobgood explained that at times, there are “flashpoints” in history, such as those initiated by highly-visible incidences of police brutality. Energy and activism follow, but too often the determination for justice dries up. For this reason, Hobgood thinks that what Jones is interested in is “the long game.” The performance acted out ways in which we repeat the same cycles of rage against injustice, and then grow weary and give up.
As the performance closed, Jones’ saxophone became “this trigger that brought everybody together,” as Hobgood described. All the noise dropped out and the saxophone emerged, producing a magnificent wail that relied heavily on minor notes. After a minute or two, the beautiful sound was disrupted by alarm-like electronic sounds. The music persisted until eventually the beeping fell away. Then, as he ceased, Jones exclaimed, “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!”
Jones intends to empower individuals toward activism through his art, but he refuses to settle for simplistic or unscrutinized approaches to this. Hobgood explained, “It’s a call to action that is also a critique of common forms of activism that don’t ever seem to go anywhere.”
LawNOrder begs the question, “When is it just a historical recursive loop, and when are we building on something and there is progress being made?”
Jones’ performance broke away from the mold of how we are comfortable thinking and talking about major injustices on campus. Whereas intellectualization can create comfortable distance from “-isms,” Jones’ performative disruption acknowledged the immediate, emotional, visceral realness of injustices and the imperative to act.