Exit the Maestro
On this cold, sunny, and sad late January morning, Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris stopped breathing, after months of struggle with lung cancer. With his music in the background and the gleam in his eyes in front of me, I am simply attempting to temper inconsolable sadness for his loss with gratefulness for all he has given, created, inspired, and been.
Some walk the earth with a lighter step and leave behind a shining path, like the trail of a comet.
Butch grew up in California, served in Vietnam, and eventually felt a pull toward this island along the Hudson.
When in the late ’70s Butch moved from California to the East Village, which was to become home, he was already a musician with a distinct personality. He was composing subtly haunting, lyrical tunes, displaying his idiosyncratic approach to his horn, the cornet, in, among others, Frank Lowe’s bands and in David Murray’s, a collaboration which was to last for decades.
Butch came here to play, to explore, to live.
His charm was infectious.
By 1980, when I first met him, walking in the East Village with him was like being with the local mayor: He had a smile, a handshake, a nod for almost everyone. Most important, he had the rare ability to make even the most recent acquaintance feel like an old friend. Something in the way he carried himself, his boundless curiosity, his capacity to relate to anyone, was irresistible.
I was directing theater, and we collaborated on two occasions. He wrote music for Il Presidente Schreber, first presented at Montalcino Teatro in Italy in 1989, and in 1995 I directed his chamber opera Modette, libretto by Allan Graubard at Aaron Davis Hall, in NYC.
In music as in life, he could not be pinpointed to “a style,” he simply “had style.”
He came from the jazz tradition, but once he imagined a music beyond categories or labels, he pursued it with unfaltering passion. It was not that he was dissatisfied with the music of his time—he loved much of it—but that he wanted to expand it. He sought ways to broaden the concepts of composing, arranging, conducting, and improvising into something broader and more unified.
In 1985 his musical imagination created Conduction, a practice that became his life work, and has yet to gain the critical recognition it deserves.
Baton in hand, standing in front of an ensemble, he literally built sound, moving it, shaping it, tweaking it in real-time, most often without a single written note.
His first Conduction, presented at the Kitchen on February 1, 1985, was called Current Trends in Racism in Modern America. After that he used numbers rather than titles, performing 188 conductions with different groups and orchestras around the world.
It is hard to imagine something that is neither orchestral improvisation nor the performance of written (or pre-rehearsed) material, yet audiences all over, in a few minutes of watching Butch perform, understood and became part of the special triangulation between conductor, musician, and audience that characterize Conduction.
His movement across his rigorous and highly stylized vocabulary of gestures was a dance.
Butch began Conduction with jazz musicians, improvisers, and members of the community of new music, later to include musicians from a large spectrum of musical traditions. Over the years his practice convinced him that the apparent divide between interpreters and improvisers does not hold water:
“A jazz musician who improvises, a classical musician playing from a score, a traditional Turkish musician, or a blues player are all interpreters of their distinct musical tradition,” he would insist.
In conversations over the years he would elaborate on the analogy of the contribution of each individual player to the ensemble and the role of the individual in society. Conduction alluded to a new social logic.
During the last twenty-eight years he kept expanding the vocabulary and scope of his Conductions. This is the last definition he sent me:
The practice of conveying and interpreting a lexicon of directives to modify or construct sonic arrangement or composition; a structure-content exchange between composer/conductor/instrumentalist that provides immediate possibility to alter or initiate harmony, melody, rhythm, tempo, progression, articulation, phrasing, or form by manipulating pitch, dynamics (volume/intensity/density) timbre, duration, silence, and order in real-time.
A true global citizen, Butch had intense relationships with people from all over the world. At a dinner after a Conduction, as he seemed to follow conversations that were taking place in at least five different languages, I remember someone asking him if he spoke all of them, to which he replied: “I speak music.”
When in New York, Butch conducted regularly the Nublu Orchestra, yet the economics of the music business made it very hard, particularly in the US, for him to keep working ensembles together over time.
This year he intended to go to Bologna, Italy, for a year’s residency, where he would have had an ensemble at his continuous disposal.
In these last months, as he was fighting his illness with dignity and stoicism, a staggering number of friends were by his side. Some were lifelong friends, others recently acquired, but what they all had in common was the conviction that Butch was their best friend. He gave that to people.
But of the many people near and far that he loved, in recent months the one he spoke of the most was his son Alexandre, with whom he had had an often complicated relationship, and who he could not bear to leave behind.
Butch loved beautiful objects and admired craftsmanship in all forms. Recently he created bronze dodecagons, in the size of large dice, with a musical note on each side: a rolling chromatic scale.
Professionally, he leaves us a treasure trove of recorded music, videos, and written music, and that will surely find its deserved place among the great music of all times.
To those who loved him, he leaves something that is so precious as not be expressible in words, the absence of which will be felt forever.
And now let’s put on his music…and dance!
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.