A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

Bill Dixon
Bill Dixon                                                                                                                    Nick Ruechel©2009

“They do not understand that cacophony is at least as intricate an art as harmony…forgetting that the world of daylight and full consciousness is, above all, opaque and complex.”

No, the speaker is not Bill Dixon, although it is quite the type of thing someone who is familiar with his distinctive, challenging body of work and resolute aesthetic might easily imagine him saying. In fact, it was written by the Northumbrian poet Basil Bunting, in a 1935 essay (“The Lion and the Lizard”) which took British poets to task for the “easy magnificence” of their verse and becoming “the slaves rather than the masters of their metres.” In so doing, he wrote, “…they strive too constantly to be sublime and end by becoming monotonous and empty of lifegiving detail.” Author of the brilliantly detailed, dense, and sonorous long poem Briggflatts,Bunting had a keen ear – in the same essay he blisters his literary peers for neglecting not just the “rhythmically supple” music of William Byrd and John Dowland but that of jazz as well (in 1935!), and elsewhere wrote often of how a knowledge of Italian Baroque composers Domenico Scarlatti and Arcangelo Corelli helped to shape his poetry. By taking Bunting at his word, we can find parallels in contemporary poetry and music – but let’s stick to the latter and, specifically, the music of Bill Dixon.

Cacophony, the dictionary tells us, is harsh or discordant (that is, disagreeable) sound, and my edition of Roget’s Thesaurus goes several better, lumping cacophony, dissonance, unmusicalness, sour notes, and atonality together (I wonder what Schönberg would have to say about that?). But of course perceptions of beauty have changed radically over time, and dissonance today is in the ear of the beholder. One of the truisms that emerged from John Cage’s method of composition according to chance procedures is that any two or more sounds – whether a B flat and C sharp, or a sneeze and a gunshot – heard simultaneously create a form of harmony. Dissonance, then, only occurs when there is a system in place which defines (and thus limits) the parameters of its form. So the idea of dissonance can exist in relation to a Bach prelude or a Bruckner symphony, but not an improvisation by Peter Brötzmann.  If you accept its premise, free jazz excludes cacophony, though certainly not complexity. Sun Ra denied he played free jazz, and asserted “I can compose the most free rhythms.” In the same way, Bill Dixon’s music, whether for solo trumpet or ensemble, is the product of a broad, rich, tenacious compositional sensibility, which may include improvised details, spontaneous relationships between parts, and flexible forms. Cacophony has a role to play in Dixon’s music, as does delicacy, design, and passion.

Over the past few years Dixon has had several opportunities to perform and record with larger ensembles – opportunities which have been few and far between since his emergence in the early 1960s – most notably a 2007 collaboration with Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra (Thrill Jockey) and, that same year, an orchestra he led at New York’s Vision Festival, issued on disc as 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur (Aum Fidelity). Equally relevant is the nine-piece group – which Dixon calls, perhaps with tongue-in-cheek, a “small orchestra,” with personnel drawn, for the most part, from the Vision Fest orchestra – that recorded Tapestries (Firehouse 12) in 2008. What’s remarkable about each of these releases is how they provide fresh insights into Dixon’s musical philosophy, while at the same time confirming aspects of compositional continuity throughout his history. For example, it’s unclear whether the piece titled Entrances, heard in two segments on the Thrill Jockey CD, is the same composition – a section from the larger Autumn Sequences from a Paris Diary: Fall 1976 – which Dixon used to inaugurate his trio’s five-night concert series at the Musee Galliera in Paris (“reviewed” by poet Ted Joans in Coda, December 1976, and again, from a different perspective, by S. B. MacGregor in Coda, February 1977), and later excerpted on the 1980 Soul Note release Bill Dixon In Italy, Volume 2. In any case, the ability to reconceptualize his fundamental material and compositional intent through the experience of different musicians is consistent throughout Dixon’s long, if sporadic, recording career.

The ironic title of 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound crystallizes Dixon’s ensemble practice in the “discovery” of the musicians’ response to the material and the direction he provides. Composition implies control, and trumpeter Graham Haynes, in the documentary that accompanies Tapestries on DVD, half-jokingly relates that Dixon “talks about rules a lot.” But those rules, among other things, require the commitment of the participants to affect the compositional drama through their individual awareness of degrees of energy and ideational variation, in the moment.  In the documentary, Dixon talks about “concentration of the energy, singular, and when it’s compressed within the confines of the group, that’s where the excitement happens…so that when you want to play something delicate it seems even more fragile.” The work’s series of short movements (which harkens back to the sectional structure of Winter Song 1964 [Savoy]) highlights contrasts – shifting orchestral impasto against the solo trumpet, tension created by the thinning and thickening of the melodic line, harmony presented alternately in chunks and striations – and the ominous themes give pause for reflection on the horrific Darfur conflict. The most extended movement, “Sinopia” – which refers to a reddish-brown pigment, but also to the form-probing preliminary sketch traditionally used for a large wall painting – exposes a measure of designed cacophony in a process whereby Dixon outlines the shapes and motifs which the orchestra fills in, in a manner suggesting the spontaneous gestures of abstract expressionist painters framing an episode reminiscent of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s African-influenced migratory soundscapes. Dixon’s own precedent for this type of large ensemble form-sculpting occurs in the crescendo/diminuendo (sound Ellingtonian?) of the Orchestra Piece recorded at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, 1972 (available on the Italian LP Considerations 2 [Fore]).

In these few examples, Dixon established a distinctive orchestral presence. But it’s important to note that, because of his compositional strategies – harmonic layering, surprising tonalities, and an expansive textural palette among them – even his mid-sized ensembles (larger than a quartet, smaller than an orchestra) give the aural impression of being much larger groups. Yet Winter Song 1964 uses only seven-pieces (including oboe and tuba), Metamorphosis 1962-66 (from Intents And Purposes [RCA]) grows to nine (with bass trombone, two alto saxophones, cello, and english horn), Thoughts (Soul Note) is a markedly different septet (with tuba and three bassists), and the sextet heard on the two volumes of In Italy features three trumpets (including Dixon), setting the tone for the five-trumpet “front line” of Tapestries.

Tapestries is a powerful achievement. The title is especially appropriate, alluding to the separate instrumental fibers woven together, the almost tactile sense of texture, and an often complicated imagery (in visual terms, either representational or geometric). In these eight pieces there are, again, compositional strategies that trace back as far as the chamber music-like developmental resources in Intents And Purposes and resonate throughout Dixon’s recorded works – the lyrical melodic contours, primarily dark and introspective; fluctuating, intersecting ensemble details and rhythmic confluence; the poised flow balancing thematic focus and spontaneous, responsive incidents of energy – now expanded and intensified. The five trumpets in play remind us that all of Dixon’s compositional attitudes derive from his personal relationship with the instrument, expressed though a vocabulary painstakingly generated from nuances of tone color, texture, degrees of pitch, and rhythmic intuition. Because of this, there’s a uniform consistency to Dixon’s music – the compositional impulse, derived from his ideas and temperament, multiplied by the number of instrumentalists, and affected by their appropriate creative responses to his material and direction. Ted Joans characterized Dixon’s music as “disquieting,” and while that may have in large part been meant as disturbing to the status quo of jazz and society circa 1976, I think it remains a disquieting, impassioned, and intricate art.

Art Lange©2009

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