Deep in the Groove of History: The Art of Conduction: A Conduction Workbook

Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris, Daniela Veronesi, ed.
The Art of Conduction: A Conduction Workbook (Karma, 2017) 

At the Brooklyn Book Festival last September, in the cool, marbled interior space of ISSUE Project Room, writer Adam Schatz moderated a panel discussion about someone who was not a writer. The title of the event, “Butch Morris and Radical Black Composition,” was something of a giveaway, but didn’t really get at the heart of the matter.

Schatz, Greg Tate, George Lewis, Brandon Ross, and Mary Jane Leach talked about Morris’s musical work, and what radical black composition might be. The consensus was accurate, acidic, and damning—radical black composition was any music making by an African-American that stepped outside the boundaries that American society allows for black culture.

Butch Morris was resolutely on the outside, though from a distance, and with the advantage of time, it seems clear that he wanted to be on the inside, like all artistic innovators who see their work as the most natural, understandable thing in the world. But he was outside of American culture, an outsider artist in the most meaningful way: his work was beyond the boundaries of cultural comprehension. That was so even vis-a-vis supposedly learned and experienced consumers of non-mainstream culture.

Morris, it is fair to say, came out of jazz. He played the cornet, a bit with David Murray when the saxophonist was a teenager in California, then later in New York City, where he was an established and important player and composer in Murray’s seminal Octet. In that context, and with a background studying conducting technique, he moved to the front of that and other ensembles, facing the musicians, and led the music.

What this turned out to be, eventually, was the art he called Conduction® (registered by Morris). This was conducting in the classic sense of keeping an ensemble together in time and rhythm as they played polyphonic music. But the music being made was mostly, if not entirely, made up on the spot, improvised by the conductor himself, Morris—Conduction®.

J.A. Deane—one of the many dedicated hands that helped realize the publication of this book after Morris’ death—writes in an introductory essay that his first experience with Conduction was the historically important concert at the Kitchen, February 1, 1985, when Morris and his ensemble presented Conduction No. 1, “Current Trends in Racism in Modern America.” Deane says he thought, “[Morris] is doing the same thing that I do with samplers, only he is doing it with live musicians!”

Yes, as far as that goes, but much more. Morris was composing in real time—making structure and form out of thin air, which meant hearing the music being played, “sampling” it with his memory, asking the musicians to remember it, then having them return to that same music at a later time—all with hand gestures and facial expression. Conducting, improvising, composing=Conduction.

Morris made jazz and improvised music, two sliver-like niches in the musical landscape. As the book panel pointed out, Conduction was greeted by the arbiters of terms with the race-driven patronization that of course it was great and cool, but it wasn’t composing. Morris was outside the boundaries of those listeners’ imaginations. They saw a musician whom many of them admired, but they also saw a black man, and they could not bridge a gap between their synapses, a crevasse littered with the assumption that a black jazz musician could write great tunes, but could not be a composer. The craft of writing a score in the symbolic language of music notation was for white men, and Morris’s technique of leading a band and making music with them didn't muster up the sense of authorship and hierarchical control that is so often the (non-musical) criteria that defines a composer. (A further and continuing cultural obstacle is that Morris was a melodist of genius, and critical and musicological thinking about supposed art music privileges harmony and rhythm over melody.)

Ironically, Morris was not only the author of his music, but was so precisely because he exercised hierarchical control with command and in detail. And here we run into the split between Morris and assumptions about musical culture. These are found in our current version of the western classical tradition—which was never a tradition until sometime in the mid-to-late 19th century when thinkers started to look back on the previous 400 years of music and call it "classical." Around that same time, the ongoing industrial revolution narrowed how people were described and defined—first by their work, and then by a specialized or credentialed responsibility.

In music, this led to a bizarre split, beyond which thinking became untethered from history. The modern experience is somehow seen as the steady state of a continuing tradition. It is not. It is ahistorical and will need another 300 years of continued practice to become the predominant tradition. For example, prior to the early 20th century, and especially going back 100 years or more before that, classical concerts were in no way the formalized social experience they are today, the cheap seats (especially for the opera) were at the orchestra level, and a musician was someone who played one instrument or more, who wrote music, who conducted, and who improvised. These last things, now seen as exotic specialties, were part of the basic package; you didn't have to be at the level of Mozart or Beethoven, but you had to be capable of all of those, or else you had a lot more studying and practising to do.

Of those four things, conducting is commonly seen as the most recent innovation, but it is close to being ancient. While the baton was probably first used in the 17th century (Jean-Baptiste Lully is the first on record, using a six foot staff to keep the orchestra in time), the art of cheironomy—leading an ensemble through the use of hand gestures—has existed in the West since at least before the 11th century, and can be found in traditional non-western musics that are as old, if not older.

So Butch Morris—cornetist, composer, improviser, cheironomist—was the living embodiment of an ancient art (he was not the first, nor only, musician to use conducted improvisation, but was easily the most accomplished and prolific, as well as the one most concerned with systematizing his approach). And he was also African-American, “the latest thing on the planet," as Henry Threadgill once told me. Living in a society that, as it has unsurprisingly turned out, questioned the legitimacy of his national identity, no less his existence, facing a musical culture—musicians, academics, critics, administrators—that jealously defended what it imagined was tradition, and patronizing jazz as a sort of diorama of the exotic byways of American history, it's something of a miracle he was ever understood at all.

Generations change, though. When I was in graduate school, New World Records issued his album, Dust to Dust, and I and my fellow composers were deeply impressed. I knew Morris’s music in the jazz context, and here was an ensemble record that was full of complex structures, a variety of idiomatic phrasing (John Purcell’s oboe playing is the most jazz-like, with guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly sounding very much like Eddie Hazel did in Parliament-Funkadelic), and holy shit was it beautiful, with stunning themes for “Via Talciona,” “Othello A” and “Othello B,” the plangent harmonies of “Long Goodbye.” This was compositional thinking to aspire to, musical thinking to aspire to, a balance between notated ideas and spontaneous ensemble exploration that was a pinnacle of the jazz and classical traditions.

Morris has an extensive recorded legacy, especially on New World, which in the mid-’;90s issued the ten CD document of international performances, Testament. That music is wonderful to hear, and it demonstrates that Morris’s art was global in scope, that he could adapt and respond to music from any tradition. In an essay published online at The New Yorker shortly after Morris’s death, Taylor Ho Bynum wrote “In fact, Morris often preferred musicians from other traditions, jazz musicians tended to bristle at obeying too many instructions”—and let’s not get into what America thinks of a black man giving orders. Tate is keeping Conduction alive through Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber, but given a documented permanence, this book strikes me as his most enduring legacy.

This is a Conduction textbook. Musicians who improvise already can use it to master a technique that has proven useful as a way to realize real-time, polyphonic compositions. Conductors, already skilled in many of these gestures and with the necessary confidence to stand in front of a group of talented musicians and tell them what to do, could become improvisers. It is comprehensive in that it covers Morris’s technique and shows the gestures and their meanings with a precision akin to that of notated music. And it also offers any student the opportunity to modify or add their own gestures and musical meanings. That also makes this a seed packet from which some trees will grow and further spread spores—that’s a real tradition.


George Grella

GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.