Experiments in the art of living: Don and Moki Cherry’s Organic Music

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In 2021, New York curatorial platform Blank Forms published Organic Music Societies – a book focused on the interdisciplinary work and lives of avant-garde jazz musician Don Cherry and textile artist Moki Cherry.

The publication, which was edited by Blank Forms founder Lawrence Kumpf and artist and musician Naima Karlsson – Don and Moki’s granddaughter – along with Don Cherry biographer Magnus Nygren, formed part of the platform’s larger project under the same name. Encompassing two records, an exhibition – curated by Karlsson and Kumpf – and a performance programme, the Organic Music Societies project delved into intersection of Don and Moki’s creative works and their collaborative experiments in the art of living.

It’s these pioneering communal artistic experiences and experiments of the couple that feed into this June’s Terraforma Festival. Where the Italian event’s post-Covid return last summer focused solely on the rave – as co-founder and artistic director Ruggero Pietromarchi puts it, “for once, we just danced. It was really about being all together again after two years of social distance” – Terraforma 2023 is centred on the community at its core along with an emphasis also on the non-club programme. As part of this, Karlsson and Kumpf will be giving a talk on their Organic Music Societies publication. This is set to take place in a domed structure inspired by the one at Sweden’s Moderna Museet where Don and Moki Cherry spent time both teaching and creating art in 1971 along with their children Eagle-Eye Cherry and Neneh Cherry – who is the mother of musicians Mabel and Tyson as well as Naima.

Ahead of Terraforma – and also the first solo exhibition of Moki Cherry’s work in London opening at the ICA later this month – we spoke with Pietromarchi, Karlsson and Kumpf about the enduring relevance of Don and Moki’s experiments in the art of living, the regenerative capacity of art and more.

Crack: How did you first meet and end up working together?

Naima Karlsson: Terraforma already had connections with Blank Forms, that was how we ended up meeting the other year – which was after we’d been doing the book project with Blank Forms. We started doing that with them quite a while ago, it became a longer and bigger book because of Covid. We started talking about doing some kind of archiving collaboration with [Blank Forms] in 2018. There’s lots and lots of material that I’ve gradually been working on, organising and cataloguing. When I met Lawrence, he was interested in helping in digitising some of it and then that was what ended up becoming the book project with them and it came out in 2021. Originally, it was supposed to be more like an exhibition and music project. And then because of Covid it became mostly focused on a book.

First of all, Lawrence approached us interested in doing a bigger exhibition in New York. And then the project took a different shape and became a book which is great, there wasn’t any proper published book about Don or Moki or the things they’ve done together. Then we did a concert in Paris. I think that that was the one that Ruggero was interested in, and we talked about doing something then.

Ruggero Pietromarchi: So, as a quick introduction, Terraforma is a three-day festival happening in this stunning venue just outside of Milan in Italy. It started in 2014 the idea was to terraform this space of Villa Arconati – which is a site from the 17th century that was abandoned for more than 20 years – and to start organising a music festival that could also have this potential of activating a regenerative process of the space.

For this upcoming edition I wanted to go back to the roots of the festival, of this communal experience. Through a friend of mine at the Bourse de Commerce I saw this interesting project about the Organic Music Society. So that’s how I got into this beautiful universe, which resonates a lot with me through Terraforma’s intention of regenerating a space through arts and culture and music. For me, it was essentially this kind of love story between these two souls, Don and Moki. They created this open space for music installations, performances, workshops, education, and a lot of other elements, which rang a lot of bells related to Terraforma for me.

In the beginning, we were thinking of an exhibition, but we didn’t feel it was the right way to address the Organic Music Society [at Terraforma]. In the end, we thought of this architecture; Don and Moki were invited by the Moderna Museet in Stockholm to bring their own experience of organic music to the museum within this architecture of a geodesic dome, where they essentially lived for a couple of months or so in 1971. The idea that we’re working on is to recreate this infrastructure, this geodesic dome within Terraforma for the three days and to make a space for what was missing last year with panels, workshops, installations and performances. We’re working closely with the Domus Academy based here in Milan to make it an open process in rethinking this dome. At the same time, we have this legendary figure Bengt Carling who’s the original architect that Naima put me in touch with, who built the original dome in the Moderna Museet. So we are creating this dome for the festival where Naima and Lawrence are going to introduce the Organic Music Societies through presenting the book.

Crack: Are there any parallels between the Organic Music Society and the community created through Terraforma?

RP: Well, there’s a lot of different touch points. Mainly, of course, this architecture of the dome and then there’s also a lot of music references, because there’s [Don Cherry’s] record that came out in 1972, Organic Music Society which is a masterpiece. And to me, that was also very interesting and important as a musician for Don Cherry coming from the New York free jazz scene, opening up to a number of sounds and musical experiences from all over the world. That’s what I’m also trying to do within the music programme. There’s a lot of music expression that, for me at least, resonates within the Organic Music Society. From people touching on the aesthetic of the family in a way, like the legend Dennis Bovell MBE who will play on the Sunday, and Naima will play as Exotic Sin with Kenichi Iwasa and her sister TYSON.

Also Beatrice Dillon, who for me is the perfect example of an artist who’s bringing this legacy in contemporary aesthetic. She’s going to perform together with this master of tabla percussions Kuljit Bhamra. That’s quite an important expression of how these two aesthetics coming from the past and from the contemporary can converge together.

Crack: Is there anything from Don and Moki’s work and their Organic Music Society that can be applied to imagining the capacity of art in our current society and how we live today?

Lawrence Kumpf: Naima and I started with the album Organic Music Society, which was really the inspiration of the project that we worked on together; and from that came this idea of making the “society” plural and making it expansive, imagining multiple societies. I think this is really Don and Moki’s approach to thinking about ‘world music’ and thinking about how one can connect with different cultures; and this would include the culture that birthed jazz–which is the culture that Don is coming from–and viewing it on the level with these different musical folk traditions. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense, but in the sense of non-commercial music, these deep culturally specific practices that as a musician he can dive into and really learn and spend time with. And then move to another space, another way of educating oneself, and bringing all of this together in a way that I think is really respectful of these differences. I think that’s a really instructive way to think of bringing divergent cultures together in a way that is perhaps meaningful in this current political moment.

NK: And at the time, for a variety of reasons, that came from circumstances and needing to find opportunities. Don and Moki – being visual and musical artists together – really tried to be open-minded and creative about where they could take their art and music together. The ways of combining that and taking it to other places. I also think Moki brought a lot to Don’s music as an artist by thinking the two could be theatre or in a museum or in a school, as well as in festivals. That interdisciplinary approach to combining their practices and taking it to all types of different places that was outside of the usual institutions for jazz or for art. They could create these situations and other environments to share their work with the public or with an audience and also learn together. It wasn’t so much about performer and audience.

I think that is something – especially now with everything being so corporate – still for artists and musicians, to find other ways of still being able to reach people. But [Don and Moki] were also doing that to find work. They needed to earn money and be creative about where they could take it; in 1972, they did 88 school workshops, travelling around the country to bring their workshops to schools, but they also probably found that through really needing to find work. This combination is still the same now for artists and musicians; it’s so difficult to find the space to place your work and also to earn money.

What we can take from that is being open-minded about the kinds of spaces where we could share our work as artists. Iit’s still really valid today. Maybe even more so with how corporate most spaces are where music and art is shown. And it’s really difficult for many people to access that or it might not even be where we want to share our work. So it’s about creating these other environments and other possibilities for experiencing it.

LK: One of the things that’s really compelling that gets articulated in the book at different moments, is that across all of these different situations – whether it’s Don and Moki working with school children, performing at a festival, Don rehearsing his band or whatever the situation is – there’s a consistent approach to teaching the music. Whether it’s with a band or a group of children, he approaches sharing and teaching in similar fashion. I think that this is a really compelling part of the practice. The way Don taught music to children was the same way that he taught it to his band members. So they could come together and perform that collectively.

Crack: Thinking about Don and Moki’s experiments in the art of living – what does the art of living mean to or look like for you?

RP: I just wanted to kind of subscribe to what was said before about how this transverse model of encapsulating art within life was really essential. This really resonates within the same idea I try to develop with Terraforma, to make it a project with an intention and a meaning in a way.

Like what I was saying earlier, with an event that can regenerate a community space. With Villa Arconati it’s a historical monument and there’s many in Italy that are completely left alone and they need a reinterpretation. From my point of view only art can give this new life, this new interpretation, otherwise it becomes corporate.

Villa Arconati was private property of a noble family that then went bankrupt and it was acquired by a private owner who wanted to make it a golf club. And they got stopped by the municipality. But then the municipality couldn’t handle this huge property. So it was abandoned. I think art and culture in general is the best way to give new life and potential, also on an economic level, to this kind of incredible heritage. But you’re an artist Naima…

NK: I was inspired by growing up in my family. So of course, it connects to what we’re talking about already, having grown up with a lot of creative people and already thinking that you can create your own world. Living or the art of living and what that can mean to you in your life as an artist, as well as the many things you can imagine and create around you, reflects on what you believe in.

A lot of that is obviously a visual art approach, which is Moki’s home, which is still our family home. She’s made and created nearly everything in the whole space. If you can imagine it you can create it and you can make it part of your world – whether that’s with your philosophies of living with music or more self-sufficience. All of those things reflect a lot in her home. For example, making loads of the things around the house like furniture, clothes, growing vegetables, everything like that also reflects on my ideas of self-sufficiency. And making your art part of your lifestyle, which I think I still, in my own way, definitely value very much. Bringing creativity into your everyday life.

I still live in the house half of the time. So, of course, that influences the way that I think too. A lot of that is about improvisation as well; self-sufficiency and improvisation connects to that very much and so it’s bringing that into your everyday life, your approach to living and everything. There are many possibilities, it’s like a philosophy. It’s interesting to hear Ruggero’s ideas about the festival and how this dome space that will be at the festival is inspired by some of the things that Don and Moki did, and how they can connect to each other.

RP: I guess also Blank Forms in a way is such a space…

LK: I think the project that Naima and I worked on together is a really great example of how Blank Forms works as an organisation. Don Cherry is really well known in the United States, as, a pioneer composer and musician, coming out of this free jazz tradition with Ornette Coleman, but I think what we tried to do is really highlight how interconnected and divergent the discourses and communities are that he interacted with as a musician and artist and how that inspired him. So the idea of looking at Don with Moki and their collaborations together was a way to open up and expand the conversation by just taking what’s there already but it has never really been highlighted. His work has always been compartmentalised as a musician within another tradition.

NK: For the project that we did together, it was focusing, like Lawrence said, on me basically showing the kind of things that Don and Moki did together, collaboratively. That was the focus of what the Organic Music Societies book is, that collection of material. And showing it was this joint thing and how that together they created all of those different manifestations of it.

In the book we did also share more information about Moki to explain who she was as an artist and how much of the things that people see that they just connected to Don Cherry’s music was made by her. There wasn’t a lot of that information out there in the world to know that she was actually an artist and making all of this visual material for the project. A lot of people think about the tapestries or record covers as a part of Don’s music but don’t really know who made it. So it’s also important to publish and share the background story. That was the focus of the book, it shows what they were doing from different angles. Showing some parts separately but also how they’re connected and their practices. In some parts, it’s just Moki’s writings and other interviews with Don, but it’s all connected to what they were doing together.

Terraforma 2023 takes place in Villa Arconati, Italy, from 9-11 June

Moki Cherry: Here and Now is on at the ICA, London, from 31 May to 27 August

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