Butch Morris with Alessandro Cassin
It’s going to be a long, hot summer for Lawrence “Butch” Morris, who over the next few months will be conducting an Italian symphony orchestra, a funk band, and the Chorus of Poets—all through repeated back-and-forth trips between Europe and New York, while also finishing a book about “conduction.” Its been 25 years since Morris began the development of conduction, a system of signs and gestures that allows him to lead ensembles across stylistic, geographical, and cultural boundaries. His contribution to the music of the 20th century lies in his unflagging commitment to orchestral improvisation, an area explored only fleetingly by both the classical and jazz traditions.
On a recent afternoon Rail contributor Alessandro Cassin met with Morris in his East Village apartment. Given that Morris’s usual modus operandi has been to eschew reliance on musical notation, Cassin was surprised to find him reviewing orchestral scores just returned to him from his copyist.
Butch Morris: I am very excited about Folding Space, my project with the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini. I want to combine notated music with conduction and voice. The voice is the line that carries throughout.
Alessandro Cassin (Rail): You conceived of conduction as a way to allow more freedom in the rendering of particular compositions. In the process you eliminated the score, planning eventually to get back to notation, the goal being the coexistence of notation and improvisation. Have you reached the closing of the circle?
Morris: Not quite. I am re-introducing notation.
Rail: Tell me more about Folding Space.
Morris: It represents the evolution of ideas I worked on initially as a chamber opera, then as a song cycle, and now as a kind of orchestral suite, built around songs and interludes.
Rail: Conduction has been the core of your musical life. I suggest we start with your latest working definition:
Conduction (conducted improvisation/interpretation) is the actual transformation of a vocabulary of ideographic signs and gestures (directives) that are activated to modify or construct an arrangement or composition. Each directive transmits generative information for interpretation by the individual and the collective and provides immediate possibilities to alter or initiate harmony, melody, rhythm, articulation, phrasing, or form.
It is the real-time interaction between conductor and ensemble through manipulating and exploiting symbolic and sonic information. As a result, the vocabulary of “conduction” is functional within all musical forms, styles, and traditions, and may also be utilized as an extension of traditional “conducting.”
Morris: Actually I am still tweaking it. The Festival of Sant’Anna Arresi in Sardinia gave me the luxury of rehearsing the ensemble for ten consecutive days. This allowed me to push into new areas, testing ideas I had been thinking about for years.
Rail: How many signs and gestures were you able to make operable with the ensemble?
Morris: I’d say around 25 to 26, as compared with the 16 basic ones I usually have time to instruct.
Rail: How and why did you come up with your special use of the repeat sign?
Morris: The repeat sign has five significations. Everything depends on context. I wanted to be able to focus the musicians’ attention on specific phrases or ideas they had played or someone else had played, examine these elements, embellish them, and offer them to the ensemble.
Rail: Do you expect the same reaction/interpretation of a gesture each time?
Morris: The significance of each directive is fixed, but its interpretation is open, ever-changing. Conduction requests a response that comes from one’s musicianship.
Rail: What have been some of the most important breakthroughs that have allowed you to propel this process on?
Morris: A major breakthrough came when I realized that this was not only for improvisers.
Rail: I imagine that also working with musicians from different cultural traditions helped define the scope of conduction.
Morris: Absolutely, and in important ways. I considered Hamza El Din, the oud player from Sudan, a great improviser, but in our discussions he resisted the notion. He said “I am not an improviser. I am an interpreter of my musical tradition, and each time I approach it I do that from a different perspective.” His words really opened my mind, I realized then that that was exactly the case with all musicians, and that I could in fact work with any interpreter of a musical tradition who was open and interested enough in what we had to offer.
Rail: That is precisely what you did with traditional Turkish ensembles or classical ones like the Orchestra Regionale della Toscana.
Morris: That is correct. In fact, at a certain point I realized that I had stopped talking about improvisation, a term which was creating misunderstandings in the context of my work.
Rail: Do you think that it’s easier to follow your instructions for musicians who perceive themselves as interpreters, than for improvisers?
Morris: I no longer see a significant difference. Everyone has a difficult time keeping the focus and concentration that is needed. The results depend on effort.
Rail: Among your other current projects there are dates in Europe with the NuBlu Orchestra, and several dates [at the Vision Festival in NYC and in Sant’Arcangelo, Italy] with the Chorus of Poets. Can you tell me more about the chorus?
Morris: My work with the poets started in the early nineties, when Steve Cannon asked me if I would write some music for his play Now What? What Now? and I proposed to use a Chorus of Poets. I wanted to see if I could use poets, in the same way I used musicians. I asked them to speak their texts, not to sing. I think we reached a very interesting heated dynamic, simply by pitting words against and with words, altering and repeating sentences and paragraphs.
Rail: And now?
Morris: Only very recently have I added some singers, who have introduced pitch. To that, this year I have added strings. To me the sound is a texture, a timbre with very specific characteristics. But it is still about the words, about the poetics.
Rail: How would you define the way you channel the musicians’ creativity?
Morris: It is a transmission process: I give a structure and they give me content.
Rail: What kinds of responsibilities do you expect of your ensemble members?
Morris: I expect them to think collectively and make original musical decisions within context.
Rail: For example?
Morris: Drummers, pianists, and bassists are used to accompanying other people. Trumpet or sax players are not. This is a new responsibility for them.
Rail: I know you are now finishing your book. How has that process been?
Morris: Writing it has been a very useful struggle. It forces me to rethink and define things which up till now have been intuitions. It’s going to be largely a workbook addressing the principles of conduction.
Rail: There seem to still be misconceptions about what conduction really is.
Morris: The main one has been the notion that I have been trying to “tame” free improvisation, when in fact I simply have tried to send musicians in different directions, to keep them from going to their usual comfortable places.
Rail: Some people think that what you do is a kind of sound painting.
Morris: The analogy is incorrect. I don’t put stuff on the canvas, I take stuff off the canvas, more like a sculptor. I tell the orchestra: “Here is your directive, now give me the sound.” I take the sound and I give it back in a different way.
Rail: What was conduction at the beginning and what is it now?
Morris: Well it was an idea, and after 25 years it has become a reality in progress. It bridges improvisation to interpretation to notation while representing a new way to create challenging ensemble music. Along the way it creates new possibilities for a different kind of musicianship.
Rail: A number of people (Greg Tate/Burnt Sugar, Joe McPhee, and William Parker, among others) have began to use the word conduction, adopting some of your concepts and methodologies. How do you feel about this?
Morris: Basically I see it as a positive thing and I would like to see more of it. I would love to see anyone take this seriously and expand it in his or her own direction.
Rail: You don’t feel proprietary about it?
Morris: Conduction is like a saxophone: Anybody can pick it up, but that does not mean that anybody is going to sound like or be Coleman Hawkins.
Rail: Let’s talk about New York City. What would you like to see happening here musically?
Morris: Well, there are a number of things that I would like to see achieved here. One of them would be to hear some of the many university programs and music schools produce something significant. I have not seen or heard any major musical contribution come from Juilliard, the Manhattan School of Music, NYU, and the like in quite a while, although I’d love to be proven wrong.
Rail: What do you feel could allow you to take the next step?
Morris: Working with a group of committed musicians over longer periods of time.
Alessandro Cassin is a freelance journalist and Director of Publishing for Centro Primo Levi Editions. His most recent book of interviews, Whispers: Ulay on Ulay (Valiz Foundation Amsterdam, 2014), won the AICA NL Award 2015.