Wadada Leo Smith

After interviewing Wadada Leo Smith, the composer, performer, and theorist of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians-fame, I struggled to summarize what it was like to approach his catalog for the first time (which I had done, somewhat ashamedly, in preparation for our interview). It was only afterwards, during the process of transcribing, that I was fortunate enough to discover Smith had done the work for me: “You never pull down what your explanation of the stars is about just so you can understand them,” he told me. “What you do is you ascend to where the stars are, and you observe and get your explanation from that.” When engaging art, the observer’s seminal duty is to meet the work, rather than let the work meet her.

Wadada Leo Smith. Photo by Scott Groller.

For Smith, who has spent the last 40 years composing and performing what he and his former colleagues at the AACM term “Creative Music”—avant-garde works written in the spirit of blues—this notion of the observer’s duty is correct, but the subject of his metaphor is not. His catalog resembles more than a single star, more a cluster of celestial bodies—points of mass bound and formed by universal laws that, once discovered, in hindsight appear intuitive and inevitable.

Smith began to codify the fundamental forces of his work in the early 1970s, after a stint in Europe playing with the Creative Construction Company—a trio with AACM associates Anthony Braxton and Leroy Jenkins. Returning to the States, he settled in New Haven for a retreat directed toward the study of composition and “presence” in performance: the ability to attain a meditational state that “allows one the opportunity to microsecond trail along with whatever is being produced [...] To read the inspiration at the same moment and also at the very same moment have that micro element riding right behind that.” Amid these sorts of reflections, Smith developed “Ankhrasmation,” a language comprised of original symbols that can be used as a score or guide for “anyspectrum of performance, whether it be painting, dancing, speaking, playing an instrument.” He also created an augmented musical notation, which makes use of brackets and numbers to allow for interpretive phrasing, and what he terms “Rhythm Units”—the written signification of a given note and its relative silence.

These unique notations allowed Smith to compose intuitive musical expressions, like directed improvisation and non-metrical counting, without being confined to a traditional five-line staff. They also helped him to realize his primary artistic aim: the creation of fluid, performer-driven pieces defined by the context of their environment, where a specific “set of rehearsals becomes the language and avenue that’s going to be explored on a set of performances.”

The arguable culmination of Smith’s compositional theories is his 2012 Cuneiform album, Ten Freedom Summers (see 2014’s Great Lakes Suites on Tum for a counter-argument), a collection of works written for chamber orchestra and jazz ensemble that seek to capture the mood and psychology of the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1964. Begun in 1977 with a piece examining the assassination of Medgar Evers, the collection now totals 26 compositions, 19 of which were released on the 4-CD set. In the early compositional stages, when Smith “had no idea [...] that it would become a collection or large body of works,” he mainly drew from the experiences of his youth in the segregated South—he was born in Mississippi in 1941. It was only after a serendipitous introduction to August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle—a 10-play, 10-decade chronicle of African-American life depicted through cultural examination and introspection—that hefound a thematic and structural focus for the nascent Ten Freedom Summers. Through Dwight Andrews, then the Music Director at the Yale Repertory Theater and saxophonist in Smith’s ensemble, New Dalta Akhri, Smith wound up playing trumpet on the soundtrack for the debut production of Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

The moment I started to pay attention to [Wilson] through that recording that we made, I immediately knew that there was something. I felt kinda like, wow, I think that I know exactly what this guy is talking about even though at that time I knew nothing about him. It was just an intuitive feeling.

By reading and researching Wilson’s play cycle, Smith found that “you could delineate the historical journey of African-Americans in this country [...] by cultural, and not by historical facts.” Working from this idea of cultural delineation, and refining Wilson’s scope of 10 decades to 10 summers, Smith was able to construct Ten Freedom Summers around the idea that it would serve as “a foundation for a psychological reading of the Civil Rights Movement in one decade.”

In the collection, this psychological dimension is mani-fest in what Smith terms compositional “signatures.” In his piece Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless, for instance, he uses dissonance and divergent melodies to evoke a sense of contradiction or psychological tension (African-American men were forced into helping transport Till to where he was murdered). But a signature can also be far more formally experimental.

“The signature in [Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964] is the 64th. I use the year as the signature inside of that piece. Just before the ending [...] I have 64 notes that are interacting between the ensemble,” which not only serve to mark a specific date, but to represent a horizontal imagery “from the 11th century, when slavery started and the North Atlantic trade was beginning to function, up to 1964.” The conclusion of the interaction of these 64 notes, “the end of all the moving, cataclysmic kind of a sound,” is the sustained interval of a 64th, achieved by playing the lowest possible note on the piano and a harmonic on the violin. It’s an epiphanic moment—a climax within the piece representing the landmark passing of the Civil Rights Act, as well the character of our nation as it attempts to reconcile the gross and defining indignities of its past.

This sustained 64th in Lyndon B. Johnson also serves as an example of what Smith calls a “sonic stack”—a stack of notes on a staff in the likeness of chord, restrained only by a given instrument’s range and the “sonic reality” the composer hopes to achieve.

Sound is based off of where you place [the notes], not where tradition says that they are placed. In [a sonic stack] there’s no notion about 1, 4, and 5, or tonic and dominant, none of that notion. There’s no notion about a 7th, even though I can articulate a 7th [...] It’s in a much larger context.

This “larger context” is the notion of multi-dominance: the diminishing of traditional tonal structures for a more unrestricted and democratic method of composition and performance. Valued equally, these elements are free to define their own focal points within a greater work. Smith cites John Coltrane’s Ascension as a prime example, a piece that he contends doesn’t concern itself with a dominating tonality or progression, but a “pitch center,” a pathway towards a certain pitch.

[Ascension] is based off of the idea that we got this single pitch that we can relate to—or not. And in the context of the collective negotiation of how to get there, that choice is upon each individual, and each individual has as much right to the path towards that [the pitch center] as anybody else that’s trying to go there. And when that path has that many options of getting there, it creates this dynamic of shifting dimensions of sonic character and rhythmic character.

This notion of multi-dominance is explored formally on Ascension, but it can also function thematically, as it does in Black Church from Ten Freedom Summers. On the surface, it is an angular, cyclical composition for string quartet, reminiscent in tone to Henryk Szeryng’s recordings of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. But as Smith tells it, “once you get into the deeper sonic relationships of Black Church, it’s a blues. And spiritually speaking, gospel came out of blues, blues didn’t come out of gospel.” This relationship is further accentuated by the use of glissando—a glide from one pitch to another—at the beginning of the second movement, a style that has unique meaning in this context, “because in the blues, the song quality, emotion, is heightened by the inflection of the tone.” Then there is the cultural connotation, in that the idea behind Black Church

is that it’s the longest enduring cultural institution in African-American society. It’s the institution where all of the oppositions took place. Even when there was no physical church, when these people in bondage would make these songs while they’re working, which were centered around this whole spiritual idea of a different kind of world that one day they would be in after passing through death, which was symbolic of freedom.

Within this framework, Smith’s use of the string quartet is of especial importance as well. It is not only a clever inversion of ensemble norms, but also a way to connect the string quartet’s hallowed position in the history of classical music with this idea of the black church, an institution that commands similar reverence in the culture and history of African-Americans.

But perhaps the simplest example of multi-dominance in Smith’s work is his use of non-transposition, or what he calls “allowing each of the instruments to sound in their original constructed tonality.” This method was inspired in part by his research on instrument builders who, he asserts, in building instruments of multiple tonalities, “understood something about the acoustical relationship to instruments that composers never learned.” The sound, and intuitive notion, of non-transposition was also something that Smith experienced firsthand, in what could be deemed the rehearsal of his very first composition, written for three trumpets, when he was 12 years old. His band director, hearing Smith and his friends work through the piece, got out his saxophone and “sat down and played with us just off the trumpet music”—an E-flat instrument playing notes written for B-flat trumpet. As Smith recalled, “that may not seem like much, but for a kid that’s already beginning to have reflections about stuff, I heard for the first time what it means to not transpose. I heard that. I don’t know what that means, but I did hear that.” This concept, which disregards one of the most fundamental rules in Western music composition, has informed Smith throughout his entire career as a composer and musician.

Towards the end of our interview, Smith shared an anecdote about a Louis Armstrong interview he had read. In it the interviewer asks Armstrong if he agrees that jazz was derived from folk music. “You ain’t never heard no horses singing, have you?” Armstrong replies. The interviewer, confusing the meaning of Armstrong’s remark for simple wit, keeps returning to the question, but ultimately fails to obtain the admission from Armstrong.

“That’s one of the most profound statements that you could make,” Smith said of the reply. “Because what he’s saying is actually far greater than what the question could ever imply. You ain’t heard no horses sing, have you? It broadens the whole context. But the guy never understood it.” Why? “Because it’s too clear,” Smith said. Despite what may seem like multiple layers of complexity, in actuality it is this sort of clarity that defines Smith’s work. Ankhrasmation, augmented notations, “sonic stacks,” and the notion of multi-dominance are all only elements of Smith’s music “that make it possible for each performer on each occasion to approach it fresh.” But from there, performers and observers alike are on their own. Horses still don’t sing.


Daniel Gold

DANIEL GOLD is a fiction writer and contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.