Biloxi Anapanasati

I wrote this piece at the invitation of the terrific Else, If Else trio in early 2020 and revised it in the spring of 2022. It’s scored for double bass (Zoe Markle), percussion (Nolan Ehlers), piano (Ben Portzen), and a tape part that includes a long text, which I read.

Biloxi Anapanasati presents certain difficulties of description. “Biloxi” may be familiar as place name, but “Anapanasati,” while an increasingly familiar practice–a breathing meditation–will likely be an unfamiliar word. But just what does a Gulf Coast city in Mississippi have to do with a form of Buddhist meditiation? The real difficulties begin here, I’m afraid, because I can’t provide a straightforward answer to that question. Every attempt seems to me either macabre or preposterous, and so far from my intention, which was to transmute or resolve, if not the suffering itself, then the memory of a person who was suffering.

I have to believe art can do this even if I am uncertain that I am personally capable of it. I have to trust that it’s enough to say the text is, partially, an account of the last days of the writer John Kennedy Toole, and that it also quotes the ancient breath-mindfulness sutra. But the piece is also a meditation on time and the feeling of its passage; on photography–a grasping at time–and its distortions; on New Orleans, both Toole’s and the city I finally visited after two decades of imagining it; on death and its interruptions. As such, the text assimilates passages and ideas from Henri Bergson and Vilém Flusser; descriptions of various photographs, including some by Robert Frank; a fragment of clinical research by Edwin Shneidman, which was quoted by Toole’s biographer, Cory MacLauchlin; and a line from Shelley’s last, unfinished poem The Triumph of Life, which has long haunted me.

I made a few simple Python scripts to give the computer access to this reading list so that we could collaborate on parts of the text. Some of the text’s mysteries derive from this generative process, which provided an indispensable poetic distance from elements of the story I found impossible to approach directly. 

[This is a recording of Else, If Else’s European premiere of the work in Frankfurt, Germany in July 2022. They also performed it at the 2022 Banff Summer Festival in Banff, Canada.]