Inspired Motivation, or How to Philosophize with a Conductor's Baton- review by Doug Costa
'Bertolt' by Butch Morris with the Jump Arts Orchestra
The Brecht Forum
122 West 27th Street
New York, New York
Though it is probably necessary, and even logical, that music must undergo periods of stylistic refinement that often come at the price of innovation, any passionate musician, or fan of music, cannot forget that those (these) periods of creative dormancy should best be understood as temporary cultural rests that serve as useful incubation periods for the exploration and evolution of new musical forms and idioms. Without denying that many contemporary musicians and composers have been invaluable in preserving their musical cultures, there have probably been too many who have simply remained comfortably and confidently within the limited tastes of genre, effectively refusing to see existing musical frameworks as the broad palates that they can be in the hands of the more courageous. Now, this would not be as significant a problem if our society could rightly be understood in terms of the cultural compartmentalization that mass media offers as a realistic representation of a civilization's development. It cannot. For anyone who can conceive of an art that serves as the tribal representation of a culture, and not just as a curiosity to be sold and considered only as product, it is necessary that art consistently evolve to meet, challenge, represent, and define tile society that produces it. If it is true that in the blind consumption of media dictated style we are providing full evidence of our human and cultural nature, then perhaps a wide-spread discussion of the creative impulse is disingenuous, but again it remains the imperative of every conscionable artist to ensure that art is not handled so roughly, or that its influence is not degraded so meanly.
When one speaks of (or through) a particular genre, a set of stylistic generalities is already drawn in the mind of the listener. These include expected melodic patterns, and the related harmonies and resolutions, as well as elements as diverse as conventional rhythm patterns and certain emotional themes that are often expressed through a particular musical idiom. While it is true that certain basic musical devices can be aesthetically effective, and also allow for an easy superficial accessibility, the effectiveness of music as a communicative, evolving vocabulary can be seriously undermined if musicians aim only to reproduce the work of their predecessors. This affect can often be seen in the work of interpretive musicians, composers, and conductors. After a piece has been firmly established in the interpretive tradition it can take on the aspect of parody and cheap sentimentality. At the same time, a music born of complete improvisation can sometimes lack the communicative integrity of music that speaks with a logical vocabulary. In either case, although the product can often be quite good, many listeners are left with the feeling that something is missing, that some fundamental creative impulse is lacking.
So, if music is to remain culturally relevant, or if it is to regain legitimate relevancy at a time when trends serve as gospel, and trends are disposable, and history is forgotten, it must evolve beyond the stylistic, and therefore technical, limitations and traditions that serve the process of automatic and autocratic branding. To meet the challenge of musical-artistic development and to expand and explore the full potential of music as a cultural language, Lawrence D."Butch" Morris has created a new vocabulary that will reclaim the poetry of sound. Known around the world as Conduction, this vocabulary grows from history's collective musical tradition, highlighting connections that establish a sense of timelessness in the work undertaken and ensuring relevancy in both the past and the future, while still remaining faithful to the conditions of the particular place and time that necessitated the birth of this new idiom. Born of the classical and jazz traditions, Conduction (conducted improvisation/interpretation) takes music beyond these, or any other, limitations of genre and evolves the possibilities of both interpreted and improvised music.
In order to draw musical traditions together, when they have often been presented and marketed as distinct and sometimes incompatible entities, the most basic need is for everyone involved to expand their understandings of the ways that we, as humans and as participants in history's musical dialogue, understand information and integrate meaning. To take the dynamic essence of jazz, its"swing," and integrate it into the art of orchestral composition, conduction, and performance, is to automatically expand the notion of what music can accomplish. Indeed, Conduction was born out of Mr. Morris' need to direct, and not just conduct, an ensemble performance in real time, with the idea that, if such a possibility could be realized, each scored piece could be played in a way that reflects the energies relevant to each interpretive performance. Motifs could be extended, themes amplified, ultimately giving the conductor greater control over the interpretation of his composition. Eventually, Mr. Morris began exploring the potential of pieces that were shaped by the Conduction process, without the use of notation, allowing him to use his interpretive commands to direct improvisation, building a theoretical bridge between the two traditions. Conduction, was born, and then developed, in the search for a realization of the full potential of dynamic communication in music.
Now, this search cannot be rightly understood in terms of a self-indulgent experiment, for any number of reasons. One of the fundamental facts of existence must be understood as the need for interaction, and Conduction is rooted deeply in the ideal of a personal and collective exploration undertaken for the sake of those who envision a world of interaction and involvement that goes beyond social compartmentalization toward a more meaningful and dynamic expression. Just as significantly, Conduction is not an experiment at all, because Mr. Morris has conceived it in such a way that it is intimately connected to the exploration of freedom and potential; where experimentation concerns itself with what might happen, the motivating force behind Conduction is the desire to know what can happen, what can be accomplished to further the cause of human understanding.
I - Of course, as Mr. Morris admits, many people will not go anywhere if they do not know exactly where it is that they are going. That is natural, since there are always those who will choose to stay behind while others go ahead to explore. What is most important, though, is that those who do participate in Conduction realize that the experience really is the sum of what each person contributes, taken together with the collective experience. Of course, Mr. Morris is the person responsible for shaping the event, for providing the framework within which the individual musician explores his ideas in the context of the orchestral group. He is not only the conductor of groups working within the context of Conduction, but as the architect of the vocabulary, he also assumes the roles of theorist and educator. His role in any given performance cannot be underestimated if one is to understand the nature of the music. This is not"free jazz" created by an ensemble of self-directed individuals, although the free-jazz movement is an obvious antecedent to the work that Mr. Morris is accomplishing, precisely because of his role in guiding the direction of the music. Using a conducting vocabulary consisting of hand signals and baton commands, he is able to instruct the band in the application of melody, harmony, rhythm, and dynamics, effectively allowing him to compose and conduct an improvised ensemble piece in real time. The effect is amazing.
At the Brecht Forum on December 15, Mr. Morris led the Jump Arts Orchestra in the performance of"Conduction #1 30, Bertolt," an often swirling, atmospheric piece that maintained consistent rhythmic themes while appropriately using every member of the fifteen piece ensemble. The most visually arresting element of the show is the attention that the band pays him. From the moment his name was announced, every eye in the ensemble was focused clearly on the maestro, and every musician had to be ready to play on a moment's notice, or less, at all times. That is part of the technical nature of Conduction, since every musician must be ready to contribute exactly what the music needs at exactly\the time that it is needed. Having worked with Mr. Morris before, and therefore having an understanding of the Conduction vocabulary, the Jump Arts Orchestra was more than capable, and excelled even during the most difficult passages.
The Conduction began with the rising movement of an ensemble-wide sonic atmosphere, against which Mr. Morris set a sequence of falling strings. Subtly at first, thematic movements emerged from the descending strings, punctuated by dramatic sweeps of panned sound, the violin themes taking on new meaning when set against the agile movements of the ensemble. It takes very little time to understand how completely the group can function as a living organism, especially as Mr. Morris draws sections of the orchestra together into thematic units, only to then divide them and coax subtle variations from the musicians. Working with no notation at this show, it was remarkable how well the musicians were able to respond to Mr. Morris when he asked for more melodic and thematic development; to look at him revealed that he seemed to be painting the harmonies with his baton, upon the canvas of sound created by the Orchestra.
Mr. Morris is surely a master at keeping his Conductions moving in challenging and unexpected directions, as when the entire Orchestra, except for the strings, stopped playing quite suddenly, revealing that underneath the dominating swell of the ensemble, the string section had been bowing vigorously. It is both a testament to the attention of his musicians and to his aesthetic and spiritual sense that Mr. Morris is able to bury sounds beneath dense layers, only to instantly reverse the contrast, revealing what had been obscured, and softening what had been most powerful. Using the string's continued furious bowing as a foundation, Mr. Morris again drew the ensemble into a swirling, repetitive motion of sound that created an increasingly intense sonic atmosphere. Punctuating furious cello bowing with a series of staccato orchestral bursts, one of the evening's most dramatic moments came as a series climaxes and rising tension alternated with sudden contractions, so that at the end of the first movement, the energy in the audience was heightened and carefully tuned to the performance at hand.
The next two sections were shorter than the first, but each was carefully focused. Following the dramatic conclusion of the first movement, Mr. Morris led the group through a series of technical executions that involved sharp breaks, sudden changes of direction, and some very attentive percussion work. The third section was characterized by a Harmo-Muted trumpet singing thoughtful blues passages against a walking bass line, providing a wonderfully emotive passage. In keeping with one of the night's themes, this sensitive interplay between the two instruments was punctuated by the full orchestra driving sudden, powerful, and rapid bursts of true jazz improvisation-it was the climax to a performance that left the audience energized, with its collective attention surely heightened by the dramatic proceedings. Both the band and Mr. Morris were equally comfortable following the music into nearly any stylistic territory, from classical to jazz to blues to experimental, though the nature of the performance, taken as a whole, belonged to no category-indeed, it was a performance of pure music: serious, thoughtful, exciting, and interesting, and the passion with which the creation occurred transcended nearly every conceivable limitation.
This is an exciting time to see Butch Morris. As he crystallizes his Skyscraper band, which has chapters from Istanbul to Tokyo to New York City, and continues to work with bands like the Jump Arts Orchestra, Mr. Morris is tirelessly exploring the possibilities of Conduction, and thereby furthering any conception of what music can do. By promoting a sound that is not confined by the expectations attendant upon genre or by stylistic limitations, he is significantly expanding our musical understanding through his challenging and insightful use of his Conduction vocabulary. As a teacher, conductor, and spontaneous composer, Butch Morris makes a challenging music that serves as an invitation to look beyond limitations and participate fully in a dynamic, creative process.
For more information on Butch Morris, or on Conduction, please visit: www.conduction.us