A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange


Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris, 1998         ©Lawrence Svirchev 2013

You start in one place with an idea, and gradually get eased, or quickly pushed, in another direction, then multiple directions. Soon, manipulating the material offers some unexpected new perspectives, discoveries enlarge the context, and the ending is never what you thought it would be. For example, as I began to compose this essay in my mind, taking pages of notes, deciding what facts were needed, what intuitive responses I could offer, what shape I could give it, before long the possibilities suggested by research, the breadth of material, and the experience of listening affected my judgment, my frame of reference, my writing. What started out intending to be a modest appreciation of the late Butch Morris became something else, a debate (with myself, inspired by all these outside sources) on the nature and meaning of composition. The process took control. I was no longer composing, I was being decomposed and recomposed. Who’s in charge here?

That’s the key, isn’t it? The dictionary is no help. My well-worn Webster’s New Collegiate limits the definition of a composer to “one that composes; esp: a person who writes music.” Taking a step backward, the entry on “compose” includes several juicy alternatives: “to form by putting together,” “to form the substance of,” “to arrange in proper or orderly form,” and my favorite, “to create by mental or artistic labor.” But notice there’s nothing here that says that the process of such formation necessarily be the product of one person at a time, a single sensibility. And that distinction between “mental” and “artistic” labor is certainly curious – implying that artistic labor occurs during the performance of an action (whether sculpting from a stone or blowing into a tuba, one supposes) as opposed to the conceptual labor of thinking, but that either or both can be responsible for whatever form of composition results. Which at face value, unless you’re one of those who enjoy obsessing over where the boundaries of “proper and orderly” should be drawn, seems to once and for all legitimize free jazz, or any manner of spontaneous group improvisation, as a form of composition, like it or not. And more, since the value of mental labor therefore likewise embraces the creative inspiration behind, say, Cageian indeterminacy, John Zorn’s game pieces, or any manner of unconventional notation – graphic or verbal – before the fact of actualized realization. If so, then the ethics of composition would seem to require only a vision, the expression of that vision, and acceptance of responsibility for that expression. Any and all may apply.

Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris, born in 1947, was a cornetist, an improviser, a composer (of pieces which others could play), and, primarily, an exceptional practitioner of the art of conduction. Conduction, or conducted improvisation, by his own definition, is “a means by which a conductor may compose, (re)orchestrate, (re)arrange and sculpt with notated and non-notated music,” accomplishing this through “the immediate transmission of information and result. The act of conduction is a vocabulary for the improvising ensemble.” Morris acknowledged that he did not invent the concept, specifically citing Charles Moffett – educator, bandleader, and former drummer for Ornette Coleman – with introducing him to the process and potential of conducted ensemble improvisations; he later came to realize that many others, from Sun Ra to Frank Zappa, also used various aspects of spontaneous direction and organization in their music. But Morris devised his own system of gestures and non-verbal indications to communicate his intentions to the participants, and a philosophical context to explain his point of view. The list of his conductions reached 188 as of September 2009 (which is the extent of the documented chronology on his website, www.conduction.us, to date), and though the practice in general, admitting any amount of personal idiosyncrasies and stylistic and formal diversity, has over the past few decades become almost commonplace among improvisers and adventurous ensembles, he can nevertheless be credited with expanding the character and methodology of conduction in any number of innovative ways. Which is not to say his work was free of controversy.

It’s ironic that the most orthodox, if you will, of free improvisers as well as their doctrinal opposites, the ever-vigilant protectors of the conventions of traditionally notated European classical music (pre-Schönberg, that is), similarly reject – from their own points of view – the notion of a conducted improvisation as being not just oxymoronic, but impure, improper, invalid. For the most part, Morris’ detractors dismiss the premise, without accounting for the traditions from which it arose, or the frequent creative intricacy and integrity of the results. Let’s first consider the former. Relevant precedents include the loosely structured, pliable, soloist-motivated extended pieces of Charles Mingus; Sun Ra’s devotedly rehearsed motives spontaneously shaped into large-scale edifices such as The Magic City (Saturn/Impulse) and all three volumes of The Heliocentric Worlds (ESP) (for a fuller description, see “A Fickle Sonance” in Point of Departure 22); Bill Dixon’s ensemble-expanded forms based on given material (ditto, Point of Departure 19); Cecil Taylor’s rare but fascinating ventures into variable ensemble integration; and Earle Brown’s open systems of mobile-like organization, with final structuring in the hands of the conductor (or sometimes multiple conductors), like Available Forms I and II, Novara, and the aptly titled Sign Sounds. (Besides crediting Charles Moffett, Morris, in a 1985 interview with Eddy Determeyer, cited the malleability of the blues, especially as variously restructured, including spontaneous arrangements and “head charts,” by Swing Era composer/bandleaders like Hampton, Basie, and Ellington, as an influence on his sense of formal design. As for other, less-direct sources, the occasional plunge into unknown waters by dabblers, which once included even – believe it or not – Leonard Bernstein, leading the New York Philharmonic through “Four Improvisations By The Orchestra” [Columbia], in retrospect now seems ultimately too obscure, undocumented as to preparation and intent, or sporadic, and thus irrelevant to Morris’ focused perspective and long-term commitment.)

The key difference between Morris’ approach and the ones mentioned above is that in the cases of Mingus, Sun Ra, Dixon, Taylor, and Brown, each provided the musicians with an amount of musical material as a starting point, allowing them, despite the subsequent degrees of flexibility or freedom in their individual methodologies, to be conventionally identified as “composer” of the music. Even Taylor, that most rigorously intuitive and self-sufficient of pianists, has from time to time devised ensemble formats based upon largely predetermined musical parameters, rehearsed before performance through oral transmission of details, not notated scores. Unit Structures (Blue Note) is probably his best-known and most critically acclaimed example, but the remarkably thorough documentation which accompanies the equally provocative, if stylistically dissimilar, Legba Crossing in the FMP box Cecil Taylor In Berlin ‘88 reveals just how meticulous and formalized his preparation has been. Thanks to H. Lucas Lindenmaier’s written transcription of Taylor’s verbal instructions to the ensemble, we see how he provided each player with melodic material for themes, responsive motifs, and unison passages; aligned dynamics, tempos, and timing; configured instrumental combinations, blends, entrances, and exits; but also required that they use “optional extensional material” in active pursuit of “Structural/Sound/Building,” create corresponding phrases without counting beats (“Rhythm is not measurable, or rhythm is not time,” he is quoted as saying), and be constantly aware “that the material is all being related to all [of] what you are doing, so you have to know where the other person is, in that [it] will determine the shape of each section.” The music of Legba Crossing shifts fluidly, yet unexpectedly, between points of designed confluence and conflicts of dramatic immediacy, representing Taylor’s desired balance between predetermined and spontaneous activity, and yet still sharing an essential impact and intensity – what Morris called “ignition” and “combustion” – with Morris’ own intuitive sound-shaping.

One of Morris’ stated concerns, however, was to incorporate the distinctive “histories” of the participants within a conduction – that is, not simply their technical abilities or powers of improvisational imagination, but qualities relating to traditions attached to their instruments, their ethnicity, previous experiences, and sense of identity. A significant factor in evaluating the success of his approach is not merely how different the results sounded from ensemble to ensemble, but how his system accommodated and inspired the breadth of differences inherent in such a wide range of ensembles from such diverse backgrounds – some established, others ad hoc, or combinations of both; involving jazz musicians, Japanese and Turkish folk musicians, electronics artists, European classical musicians, even choirs of poets, either with their own theory and practice of improvisation, or none at all. In most cases, they were responsible for providing the basic material which Morris would manipulate, and for an ingenuity and quickness of response to his direction. For his part, as a conductor working in the arena of spontaneous composition, it’s apparent that Morris had a remarkable ear for instrumental color and texture, an inventive and often surprising view of the relationship between pitch and rhythm, an awareness of contrast and coherency, a vision for large scale development, a sense of proportion and detail, and a talent for motivation. There were occasions when musicians responded to him with confusion, indifference, or hostility. It is an obvious, yet sometimes forgotten or ignored truism that the ability of improvisers to create, sustain, shape, and formalize music cooperatively, without the direction of a particular leader, is not in question; the goal of conduction is to engage a group of musicians in exploring unfamiliar options and create music unattainable through any other means. By nature, like any artistic endeavor, it’s a hit or miss affair, and no doubt Morris had his share of misses. Because only a small number of his conductions have been released on disc, alas, we have a limited perspective of his life’s work. But at least some of what we have is unique, and memorable.

The largest body of Morris’ work available to us comes from 10 CDs originally released in a set entitled Testament: A Conduction Collection, but which can now be obtained individually from New World Records. They survey 16 separate conductions from 1988-95, and display a dazzling variety of melodic and rhythmic excursions, instrumental colors, textural fabrics, and formational strategies. Among the highlights, from my point of view, is the aural assault from a sextet of samplers, turntables, electronics, and percussion in Conduction No. 22 (Documenta: Gloves & Mitts); the mystical, magical atmosphere which introduces Conduction No. 11 (Where Music Goes) and gradually provides viewpoints from different, deceptive angles – string bowing, sharp horn interjections, patches of high energy ensemble work; the contrast between celestial harps and post-punk racket, evolving into an eventual volcanic eruption and a bluesy episode, before winding down like the slow death of some wild beast, in Conduction No. 38 (In Freud’s Garden); and the sensitive, revealing way in which Morris makes use of the Turkish and Japanese elements – the non-Western intervals of the instruments, the alternative rhythmic and phrasing properties which the musicians bring – in Conductions No. 25 (The Akbank Conduction), No. 26 (Akbank II), and No. 28 (Cherry Blossom), respectively. On the other hand, in collaboration with the finely tuned Maarten Altena Ensemble, the layers of sustained and jittery activity, the reliance on texture and tension, in Conduction No. 35 (American Connection 4) seems blunt and ordinary, and No. 36, with the same ensemble, choppy and dour, as if playing a game of Chutes and Ladders. But typically, one of the touchstones of Morris’ sensibility is that nothing stays the same for too long – individuals enter into conversations, contrasting ideas create friction, the company unifies along a common thread and moves towards a resolution, then divides and presents multiple viewpoints of shared beliefs. The sounds can be bulky and opaque or icy and transparent, aggressive or tranquil, lush or prickly, jazzy riffs or exotic flora. Such unpredictability is to Morris’ credit.

Several of my favorite conductions are not part of the Testament collection, but pick up immediately thereafter: Numbers 51-56 under the generic title Berlin Skyscraper ‘95 (FMP) and, recorded three months later, Numbers 57-59,as Holy Sea (Splasc[h]). These were created by a mixed group of experienced New Music improvisers and classical non-improvisers in Berlin, and the ORT-Orchestra della Toscana in four concerts on tour in Italy. Perhaps I’m drawn to them because much of the sound material, initiated and invented by the musicians, has a modern classical harmonic and rhythmic slant, which is adapted and molded by Morris into environments alien to most familiar classical composers. One could try to explain disconcerting episodes as an explosion of Xenakis, a bristle of Birtwistle, a drift of Maderna, or a drizzle of Donatoni, but the effect is made cogent by blending incongruities, allowing alternatives, freeing and reconforming ideas with an unexpected logic. Could Pavarotti have dreamt he would be sampled and floated through a sea of Stravinsky, Stockhausen, and intimations of opera? Or Alban Berg imagine his exacting dodecaphonic expressionism find a comfortable niche within post-industrial noise pollution? Probably not, but what we have here is something that is “important beyond all this fiddle,” as Marianne Moore put it in her poem “Poetry.” She reminds that although usually “we / do not admire what / we cannot understand,” only by combining “rawness” and “the genuine,” finally becoming “literalists of / the imagination” and presenting in their art “imaginary gardens with real toads in them” can artists fulfill their function, succeed in their craft. That’s what composition, ideally, can do, and what Butch Morris, at his best, did.

Art Lange©2013

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