Meditations: Tice Cin on Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water
By Wasafiri Editor on June 7, 2021 in
Wasafiri’s ‘Meditations’ is a new series that features creative and personal responses to new literature, asking writers to seek connections with themselves, their own work, and the text they’re reading. Lying between criticism and life writing, each ‘Meditation’ offers a unique angle to view the writer and the reader, and the world around them.
Caleb Azumah Nelson‘s debut novel Open Water traces the lives of two young artists – two Londoners – falling in love, struggling to resist the relentless pace of a city marked by displacement, systemic racism and police violence. In music, they find their own slow rhythm; their own way of being. In this ‘Meditation’, writer and interdisciplinary artist Tice Cin explores music as a space of safety, of intimacy and of deep imagination, both in the novel and in her own life. In mapping out the lovers’ archive of ‘music memories’, Cin traces her own personal archive of digital playlists, liminal spaces and sacred songs. As Open Water does, too, Cin asks us to slow down and pay attention to the way music holds still the split-second moment between the past and the present – the intake of breath before the track begins to play – where hope, intimacy and freedom come alive.
Loving like slowing down time — a photographer chases light, and finds it in his lover, a dancer. One day, she turns the camera on him. They hold their breath. Love sees you — a clear picture inside that nothing else can capture.
Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson tells the story of two young artists who fall in love. At the same time, they experience the many ways that their society has made their vulnerability near impossible. They are two people who feel isolated, navigating London with a sensuality bound together in music and joy. But we see in their story that life is a struggle, and a hard life makes it complicated to love.
The photographer shuts himself in his house one day. Shuts himself away for a week or so. In listening to music, he asks himself how he’s feeling. He’s been low. Emotions spill. A song does that. The song is ‘Afraid of Us’ by Jonwayne — who talks about loved ones offering to help him, and even though he needs it, it’s hard to express that need. One of the refrains in the song is: ‘I need to slow down’. Someone might come and tell you to slow down, because it’s easy to get caught in time. Those loves lost in hurt time. Grief. A cup run over. What brings you into full feeling? In the novel, ‘A vocal sample from a group of Black women’ carries over.
Maybe, music reaches where a lover can’t. Slow down.
Throw time back. Nowadays, we can have playlists for relationships. After a breakup, if you dip back into it, it can be like pressing a wound. Instant access, climbing back under the covers of a memory. Scrolling through DMs of linked songs back and forth. A Christmas playlist to cook to. A back-to-back session where your songs competed to ‘out-feel’ each other. It’s not like rifling through records, though we can do that, too. But there is something in the jump cut of a digital playlist. This glitch between past and present.
Recently I’ve been thinking about the way a playlist between two lovers can vary. Something integral to your formation of a memory could be a lost song to another. There’s a moment in Open Water where he wonders if she remembers, too — ‘you want to ask her if she remembers what song was playing when you were on the train home.’ Sometimes, it’s easier to ask, ‘do you remember the song?’ than it is to ask, ‘do you remember the moment?’ An intake of breath. Tongue-timed to a swell in music. A chord designed for hands on you. In James Baldwin’s story ‘Sonny’s Blues’ he writes, ‘when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations.’ Loving through music is ephemeral in that it vanishes without archive. Notes glossing over a piano can be so fleeting that we want to ask the other to lock them in, too.
Baldwin is speaking about the need to take over a song, to inhale the gasp before it goes. Asking about a song is asking about the moment of a swell. Can you hold that memory for me? Can we hold it together? There is no acquiescence to ephemerality when two are invested in a mutual archive.
Remembering has always been an act of love. The dancer in Open Water returns to songs in body-memory. When she puts her head to his chest it is ‘a bassline’, a heartbeat to memorise. She describes her love of movement as dancing into a space that she makes, into ‘moments and spaces the drums are asking you to fill.’ This innate sense of where you are supposed to go. In school, my music teacher spoke to me once about sound waves and the frequencies that are within our range of hearing. I remember him describing those imperceptible sounds as the secret ones that pull you in, the reason why vinyl records have a certain extra something in the air. I’ve been entranced by ghost notes and the gaps between what we hear and what we feel ever since. Intimacy can be like this. Love as syncopation — the unintentional type. A rock that skips over water, just about to fall in, ‘those pauses like percussive breaks where your own breath is the loudest.’ These pauses permeate Open Water. Ripples in time where a single choice could change the course of a relationship.
Time fragments itself in Azumah Nelson’s writing. The photographer, when thinking of his love, loses himself ‘in a memory of something yet to happen.’ But around him, reality is always enmeshed with the violence and societal invasions that target Black people. He thinks of an evening with a record playing in the background, and is jolted out of the mercurial plains of a sound-tracked fantasy into the present tense ‘like a moving vehicle edged off the road’ by them: ‘them’ being the police. The insidiousness of state violence against Black people in Britain and beyond, in a world where the police and the hegemonic structures that uphold them are drunk on power. The freedom to tuck away into a memory of something yet to happen – the gentle sweetness of archiving a potential love in case it never gets to be – is directly inhibited by the world around him. In Open Water, vulnerability sits in this fragile balance, creating fractures within time.
For the photographer and the dancer, some of their most precious memories either take place at home or in musical safe places — places where they can slow down to take pleasure. The couple go to a jazz night in Deptford, a place filled with ‘Black people just being themselves.’ Elsewhere, they touch while watching a friend play a live set – music comes in to lull the two towards a private liminal space. In another moment they watch jazz players on the train, where there is sacredness so powerful even a train journey becomes art. Jazz, as a Black art form, represents the safety of recognition, of community. Love thrives there. The photographer describes Black music as ‘the greatest expression of Blackness – that ability to capture and portray a rhythm.’ This rhythm reverberates between the two lovers; they become ‘a pair of jazz musicians forever improvising.’ Improvisation as both a testament to the skill of creating without preparation, and to the way that lovers, like jazz musicians, create something out of curiosity for an as-yet-unformulated future.
Sound is sacred. Holding it can be a duty that one pays attention to, gently. Azumah Nelson ties everything into the rituals of love. Cups of tea. Falling asleep beside a takeaway. Headphones shared, one bud in her ear, the other in his. The noise of the Underground making it all the more important to lean in close and listen while they play Isaiah Rashad. Rashad’s ‘Brenda’ reminds him of his love for his grandma, whose loss he grieves. Another time, much later, he shares a memory of listening to someone in a basement full of strangers, trailing off and losing the words to explain further — but he doesn’t need to. She gets it. The scene reminds me of times in my life where I’ve played a song that has affected me deeply, like ‘2009’ by Mac Miller, and then realised I replayed the same parts that my last love also would have replayed. A music memory can be a key that unlocks a love: play the song and hear its accompanying story.
At one point or another, we are one song away from each other. Idris Muhammad’s ‘Could Heaven Ever Be Like This’ closes the night the lovers first meet each other. The lyrics of the song speak of so much potential – ‘I feel music in your eyes’ – oscillating around the dynamic, spacious drums that made Idris so iconic. The optimism of a first meeting — the way such feeling can propel us ahead into imaginings of someone in your life, before letting it unfold into a quiet acceptance: ‘sometimes, to resolve desire, it’s better to let the thing bloom. To feel this thing, to let it catch you unaware, to hold onto the ache.’ Some relationships are built on that play between doom and hope, a mutual risk that you might outpace through enough sweetness, like a good song. Lovers wait for each other with no guarantee that the other will turn up at the end of the story.
‘DJ Screw, legendary Houston pioneer of chopped and screwed music, would make songs at slower tempos, to feel the music […] There is a pleasurable freedom in this slowness; where the frequencies lower and it is not so much a matter of the head but the chest,’ writes Azumah Nelson. Time in London can feel too fast; too much can happen too quickly. Music might be the only thing that can reset your inner clock, slowing you down long enough to linger on the feeling of resting your head against someone’s chest while a song reverberates through you both. I once spoke with a producer from New Jersey, Ase Manual, about his approach to music — he told me how he loves making music where he plays with time and uses breath. ‘I want you [the listener] to inch in a little closer and listen,’ he said. This languor can shift your mind into daydream and possibility. Sink into a song; sink into a moment.
If love is an archive, someone else might inherit it and experience it anew. One day, the photographer and the dancer might return to a memory of the present, in this present.
The other day on the train I was listening to a song from my own playlist for The Big Love. Head swaying, I was locked in a memory. Across from me, a boy a bit younger joyfully bopped his head to something, almost in an attempt to join in with me. Both dancing to different songs on the train, the uncanny difference of it struck me — held by the way an encounter with a stranger can feel more personal than with an exchange with a friend.
The next day, I was DJing at Pirate Studios in Tottenham and I cued in a piano-held remix of Tina Moore’s ‘Never Gonna Let You Go’ from the same playlist. Even though time makes long memories out of these feelings, the songs are still sacred, untouchable. I can’t mouth those words at anyone else.
Tice Cin is an interdisciplinary artist from north London. A recipient of a London Writers Award for Literary Fiction, Cin’s debut novel Keeping the House comes out in September 2021. She has been published in places such as DJ Mag, Skin Deep and Extra Teeth, and commissioned by venues including Battersea Arts Centre and St. Paul’s Cathedral. She creates digital art as part of Design Yourself – a collective based at Barbican Centre – exploring what it means to be human when technology is changing everything.