BY Sean Burns in Music , Opinion | 20 NOV 20

Fred Moten and Harmony Holiday on Music That Makes Space

In the latest episode of frieze’s Autumn Sessions, the two friends play and discuss records that create or bridge distance

BY Sean Burns in Music , Opinion | 20 NOV 20

This year, the pandemic has forced separation between us and reconstituted our relationships with proximity and intimacy. In the second episode of frieze’s Autumn Sessions, poet, scholar and cultural theorist Fred Moten and poet, performer and jazz archivist Harmony Holiday discussed and played records that evoke distance. Moten and Holiday touched on the haptic experience of almost ‘reaching out to touch’ Stevie Wonder’s voice in ‘Seems So Long’ (1972), Luther Vandross’s easy vocal intervals in ‘Never Too Much’ (1981) and how Jesus is ‘the ultimate distant lover’ in the gospel music of Sam Cooke. The full video is available to watch below.

Stevie Wonder, 1967. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Stevie Wonder, 1967. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Separation and Difference 

‘A question I’ve been asking myself is influenced by a great thinker named Denise Ferreira da Silva: do we need to think of distance in terms of separation? Distance between points and between people. And is there a way to think about distance that aligns it with difference but doesn’t necessarily align with separation?’ – Fred Moten 

 Distant Lovers 

‘As distant lover was in my mind, I gravitated towards love songs, either in the form of seduction or breakup songs. Jesus is the ultimate distance lover […] Famously, the group playing music on the deck of Titanic started playing ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’ (c.1800). According to my grandfather, that’s what his father sang right before he died.’ – Fred Moten 

Crowdedness and Emptiness

‘What is the relationship between audience and distance? Which is coming into question now with everyone being live but distant. And also, that makes me think of those Cannonball Adderley albums, where he intentionally made the studio recordings sound like a church. It’s meant to sound like a church, but it was all made in the studio.’ – Harmony Holiday 

Nat & Julian (Cannonball) Adderley during a night concert, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1961. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Nat & Julian (Cannonball) Adderley during a night concert, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1961. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons


‘Do you ever go to the museum and you look at a painting, certain kind of paintings, and it’s almost like you’re being commanded to imagine entering into the space? And it’s a kind of cool thing […] With Stevie [Wonder], it’s not only that you’re enjoying entering into the space of his singing, but you enter into it haptically […] I wanted to reach out and touch his voice. You can almost imagine the texture.’ – Fred Moten 

‘It’s interesting in relationship to him [Stevie Wonder] not being able to see. His depth-perception is a lot better than most people. What abyss or non-abyss is he witness to? – Harmony Holiday 

Rhythm and Americanism

‘Whenever I take a West African dance class, there’s a layer of rhythm that Americanism tries to push out of your spirit and music makes you remember […] I feel like, in Brazil and West Africa there is a lot more freedom with a song not having to be so packaged and commodified, so you can hear where the music wants to go and not where the radio wants it to go. This song [Caetano Veloso and Edith Oliveira, ‘Sugar Cane Fields Forever’] is probably something you would never hear on the radio.’ – Harmony Holiday 

Ritual and Distance 

‘Scholars talk about the importance of distance, which is the importance of precision in the distance. When it comes to the setting of the ritual and the practical enactment, maybe all the precision and distance is to produce closeness.’ – Fred Moten 


Listening with Fred Moten and Harmony Holiday. Episode 2: Distance

Track list

Kendrick Lamar – ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst’ (2012) 

Sam Cooke – ‘Nearer to Thee’ (Live recording at Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, 1955) 

Stevie Wonder – ‘Seems So Long’ (1972)

Luther Vandross – ‘Never Too Much’ (1981) 

Bela Fleck and Oumou Sangaré – ‘Ah Ndiya’ (2009)

Caetano Veloso and Edith Oliveira – ‘Sugar Cane Fields Forever’ (1972) 

Gilberto Gil – ‘Aquele Abraço’ (1969) 

Jimmy Holiday – ‘Hollywood’ (1965)

Marlena Shaw – ‘So Far Away’ (1972) 

Terry Callier – ‘Just My Imagination’ (2003) 

Gwendolyn Brooks – ‘The Near-Johannesburg Boy’ (Live reading, c.2000) 

Main image: Gwendolyn Brooks on the back steps of her home in Chicago, 1960. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Slim Aarons

Sean Burns is an artist, writer and assistant editor of frieze based in London, UK. His book Death (2023) is out now from Tate Publishing.