Jimmy Best on his back to the sucker punch of his childhood files was a graffiti tag that was not hard to miss if you spent any time wandering the streets of lower Manhattan in the late 1970's. This quote refers to the systematic destruction of the lives of young men of color by racist policies of justice and imprisonment. The cryptic tag's author was SAMO, aka Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was to take a step beyond enigmatic inner city wall poetry to smote the contemporary art world with a mighty knockout punch.
During my student days of that same time in New York the graffiti of SAMO was of little consequence to me. I was pursuing my music studies yet I also felt a strong connection to visual art; I always carried a book or pad with me for drawing and writing, but it would not be until twenty years later that I would begin to explore my own aspirations as painter.
By the late 1990's I was feeling the tug of painting like an irresistible gravity and it was an important turning point. I did something that would have been inconceivable to me at any other time, I took up painting almost to the total exclusion of music. As it turned out, my painting activity led me back to music and to something new: electronic music.
Through out this phase of painting and electronic exploration I had with me a constant companion: the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat. I found we shared certain artistic sensibilities such as recognizing that the vision to break new ground was a result, and a continuation, of the work of others who had come before. That, along with a distinct sociopolitical attitude, was the synthesis I had always searched for in art. JMB's fearless pursuit of his ideals was a true source of inspiration.
Conceived as a gesture of respect and gratitude to JMB I began composing the Sucker Punch Requiem shortly after relocating to New York from California in 2005 and completed it eighteen months later. Much like JMB may have begun a painting by perusing a favorite source such as Gray's Anatomy, I started by researching the requiem form historically and discovered a number of variations used by composers throughout history. However, in the interest of having the simplest possible structure as a starting point, I settled on the traditional six part "mass for the dead" of the Roman Catholic Church. I wrote themes for each of the parts and then began to do what I felt Basquiat would have done if he had been constructing and deconstructing a painting. I densely overwrote some parts (so much so that we did not get it all recorded) in a manner similar to how he would paint, layering layer upon layer. Then, still following his example, I removed some layers to expose sonic images and overlapping musical shapes . . . inventing, discarding, retrieving, copying and reusing musical gestures and ideas.
I only hope that Sucker Punch Requiem, unrecognizable from its earliest incarnation, captures the spirit of Basquiat.
Perhaps, you the listener will find that quality in this music that Basquiat was purported to say existed in his own music and painting, that it was at once "incomplete, abrasive and yet oddly beautiful."