The Art of Conduction: A Conduction Workbook

a review
Taylor Ho Bynum

What artifacts does an improviser leave behind? For an art form dedicated to the ephemeral, the in-the-moment joy of spontaneous creation, legacy can be a vexing question. There are recordings of course, but even the most obsessive collector would admit they are but snapshots of the vibrational reality of real-time inspiration. There are scores and transcriptions; they might capture the framework, present a particular set of parameters that musician explored, but those are the bones, not the body. Perhaps most powerful, yet the least tangible, is one’s sphere of influence – the genetic/stylistic imprint on the next generation of artists carrying on the ever-evolving tradition.

Ever the searcher and ever the iconoclast, Lawrence D. ‘Butch’ Morris came up with another possibility – a manual of use, a compendium of the philosophical inquiry and praxis underlying his patented Conduction technique. Posthumously published four years after his death, lovingly edited by Daniela Veronesi and assembled with the invaluable help of J.A. Deane and other long-time collaborators, The Art of Conduction: A Conduction Workbook provides a markedly clear and concise presentation of Morris’ life’s work. Beautifully assembled in an oversized, art press-style hardcover, the materials in the book basically fall into three categories. It collects Morris’ own writings about conduction, from formalized texts to interview transcriptions to musings, scribbles and emails. It includes essays and exercises by other writers, mostly from Veronesi and Deane but including contributions from jazz critic Howard Mandel and poet Allan Graubard, that provide historical context and practical applications for the work. And most crucially, it contains the Conduction Lexicon – the meticulously detailed vocabulary of the gestural and visual cues Morris painstakingly developed over many decades.

I only had the chance to play directly under Morris’ baton on a few occasions, though I witnessed his work many times more. But even as just a friendly acquaintance and rare collaborator, the Lexicon’s illustrations trigger a burst of saudade. With Butch’s face and body lightly sketched, and his hands and baton boldly spotlighted, it feels like he is right in front of the orchestra again, with each position and movement’s meaning laid bare beneath. Even more than the book’s many beautiful black and white photos of Morris in action and at rest, somehow these simple drawings best capture that moment of anticipation and reward that marked his performances. (The only thing missing is the devastating glare directed at anyone who missed or misinterpreted a direction - an unmentioned part of his conducting magic came from a feeling of creatively generative terror!)

While The Art of Conduction will be invaluable for the practitioner, it also provides deep insight to the layperson. Morris regularly talked of Conduction as a means of crossing musical genres, techniques, and traditions. While explicitly emerging from jazz and embracing its ethos of spontaneous creation, the form is markedly trans-idiomatic. (I particularly love his designation of a freely improvising individual as a “pedestrian” rather than a “soloist” – the activity is always in service of the ensemble.) It is based on universally shared musical principles rather than any advanced structural or harmonic theory: activation, development, and repetition; articulation, timbre, and shape. As such, it provides an interested listener an inside glimpse at the points of definition in the decision making processes of any kind of music – whether improvised or composed, conducted or not. Like most well-articulated systems, it breaks down complex ideas to simple building blocks to maximize individual and collective creativity.

Morris’ methods did not emerge from or exist in a vacuum. His inspirations ranged from Count Basie’s head arrangements and Sun Ra’s cosmic exhortations to his own experiences as a young musician with Horace Tapscott and Charles Moffett. His contemporaries’ output includes the impressionistic explorations of Alan Silva and Karl Berger, the rhythmic matrixes of Adam Rudolph, and the graphic orchestrations of Barry Guy. In terms of a precisely defined vocabulary, the closest parallels might be Walter Thompson’s Soundpainting and Anthony Braxton’s Language Music (the system in which I was musically raised). Yet ultimately these approaches are as distinct as the tenor saxophone stylings of Albert Ayler, Warne Marsh, and Yusef Lateef (with Lateef’s biblical Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns an analogous scholarly text). They are representations of powerfully individual voices - the priorities and aesthetics captured in The Art of Conduction can be traced back to the brilliance and clarity of Morris’ own early cornet improvisations.

Thanks to the work of Morris and these other pioneers, the idea of a conductor serving a crucial role in the spontaneous creation and organization of sound has become an accepted component of creative music practice. Morris, Veronesi, and their colleagues have done the field an immeasurable boon by providing such a comprehensive, insightful, and useful volume. It provides an inspiring model of articulating one’s creative impulses into transmittable format; an example to learn from and an instigation to develop one’s own vocabulary, in whatever discipline or pursuit. What is this world but an ensemble in dire need of organization, and we but pedestrians navigating its forms?

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