Butch Morris by David Henderson

BOMB 55 Spring 1996
Issue 55 055  Spring 1996
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Butch Morris. All photos by Julie Marr.

Butch Morris’s discography “officially” begins in 1976 when he played coronet on Frank Lowe’s album, The Other Side. One of many musicians who comprised the local jazz and new music scene in Berkeley in the ‘70s, Morris was a horn player, arranger, and a composer whose compositions often did not fall within the jazz category. Morris was a close friend and collaborator with David Murray, who was then something of a prodigy, and it was a year later in 1977, on Murray’s albums, Penthouse Jazz and Holy Siege on the Intrigue, that Morris’s first “Compositions” would appear. Morris and Murray began a serious deconstruction of be-bop, and for a good while it was impossible to separate the two, so long and deep is their personal and musical history.

But at some point, the “Conduction thing” (as Steve Cannon puts it) began, and was reflected for the first time on Billy Bang’s disk, Outline Number 12 in 1982. In 1984, Morris would arrange his own compositions and conduct them for the Ellen Christi-led record on NYCA called The NYC Artist’s Collective Plays Butch Morris. To date, Morris has conducted over 50 performances. His Conduction “system” incorporates the standard moves of the conductor, but fuses them with gestures and signs that instruct the musicians. As Morris says, “I sculpt sound.” His reputation as a sensitive coronetist and as a dedicated composer and arranger has been well established over the years, but it is with this new box set of 10 CDs, just released from New World Records, that Butch Morris emerges clearly as a distinct and singular innovator within “the music.”

David Henderson I believe a milestone in contemporary music has been established with the release of your Testament: A Conduction collection. Congratulations. Are these particular conductions written?

Butch Morris There is nothing written, it’s all improvised. Conduction itself is still in an evolutionary stage. This is ensemble music for improvisers. A lot of improvisers say that they are their compositions, because they give the music its structure. But I give equal authorship to all the people involved. I use the word improvisation so people will know what I’m talking about, but I prefer to refer to these musicians as “intuiters.”

DH Do you have a core group?

BM Not necessarily. There are four or five people represented the most on this box set: J.A. Deane (trombone, electronics, sampling), Brandon Ross (guitar), Zeena Parkins (harp), Myra Melford (piano), Bryan Carrot (vibraphone). That was the core for a long time. Ultimately the idea is to have an orchestra here, just as I have orchestra/ensembles in Berlin, in Tokyo, and soon, in Italy. This country is late. I find it interesting that only a few people over this period of ten years have really been interested in what or how I’m developing. It’s a process working out there like no other process. I mean, in the last what? 20 years, the only person that’s named their own music is Ornette [Coleman], with his Harmolodic system. My system is called Conduction. Put it any place in a record store you want to put it, but it’s called Conduction.

DH Did it inspire you, the fact that Ornette named his own music?

BM Of course Ornette inspired me, and perhaps the Harmolodic Theory did. But his comes from a compositional point of view and mine from an improvisational point of view.

I think Harmolodics, Ornette’s approach to music, is finally gonna get some due. Ornette brought a whole theory to music, and evolved it into music history. That’s very, very important. Ornette and Cecil [Taylor], a whole bunch of people. I think Jelly Roll Morton has as much to do with it as anybody, too.

DH Your inspiration extended to the name “Conduction.”

BM I wasn’t about to let somebody name my music.

DH Your definition of a musician is someone in the service of music, and/or who has surrendered to music.

BM Has surrendered to music.

DH To a sound, or sounds that makes that person tick. You came to this—you didn’t have it since you were born?

BM Yeah, I realized this. Maybe I did have it since I was born, and I couldn’t find it in my brain. Then I found it. Through experience. And playing, looking, listening. Seeing people’s responses. And understanding my own response to music. Music isn’t something on paper, it’s something you make. It’s something you make, and hear. (rings glass with a spoon) That’s what a musician is … As far as I’m concerned, music is not something you think, it’s something you imagine. And if you have to write it, then you think it out.

Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, somebody came along and said, “This is music.” So I’m saying, “Okay, that’s music, well this is music too.” I mean, this is a whole ‘nother day. My version of what music is, and other people’s version of what music is may not gel. I’m not gonna try to intellectualize this stuff, ‘cause I’m not an intellectual in that way. But I know what’s music to me and what’s crucial to making ensemble music. This is ensemble music—something I want to make with other people. I’m interested in this kind of collective imagination. And the only vision, as far as I’m concerned, is the vocabulary and the theory—of conduction. That’s all. I’m not knocking anybody else’s music, I’m just saying, “This is music too.”

DH Back in the day when a lot of us worked out of KPFA-FM, the Pacifica station in Berkeley—Ban Scott, Craig Street, Charles Amirkhanian—the Music Department or the Third World Department—probably both—invited you.

BM It started with O’Jenke’s piece. I did two things at KPFA in Berkeley, one called “Theme for the Newborn” and then I did “Legacy of the Word” by O’Jenke.

DH The poet from LA.

BM Maybe it was an 11 or 12 piece ensemble or something like that. And some of the stuff was written. And we went from notated music into ensemble improvisation. And I used real time, midair, graphic information, or what I call “Literal Movement” to guide the improvisation.

DH And you knew you were gonna do that before you began.

BM I had this information before I started that I wanted to use in an ensemble.

DH And that was a first. So what made you know you were gonna do this.

BM It was planned. I had had an idea prior to the performance that I wanted to give the ensemble gestural information to use. Literal Movement was the only gesture that I used to transmit information.

DH And you have those recorded.

BM I have at least one or two of them. It was live—on the air.

DH You felt that you wanted to make a leap then.

BM I didn’t think of it as a leap, I thought of it as something I had to do.

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DH When you were studying music with Jackie Hairston, and she told you, “If the composer wanted that to happen, the composer would have written it.” Did that inspire you to see yourself as the composer and the conductor? And from there you said, “How would I do it?” And was part of that to add more signs and gestures to the conduction vocabulary, expand the concept?

BM Yeah, exactly. Exactly. These questions had been burning for a long time. I understand now why Jackie couldn’t understand my question. She had no idea that the kind of music I was trying to make was improvised music. And I wanted to structure the improvisations in a way that free improvisational music didn’t. You get ten people in the studio to play free music and it finds its own structure. It’s a structure, but it’s not definite, and I wanted to imply a definite structure. So, how do I do that? I asked Jackie certain things, and then I asked Charles Moffet certain things, but what I realized is, in traditional conducting they don’t create music, they interpret music. That’s the difference between what I do, and what a conductor of traditional music does. I’m making music, they are not.

DH So that improvisation is coming about, essentially, through your compositional ideas, ideas you conduct.

BM More or less, I’m still telling people in what areas to go. I’m just not telling them what to do. You can interpret it however you want, but you know the basic idea of what it means, the basic idea of what all these signs and gestures mean, and you have to interpret it in every moment. Everything, every sign, every gesture is a part of the challenge. That’s why this music is interpretive. Once I hear that sound, I can start to create a direction for the music. And it’s very clear to me that there’s a giant horizon out there where this music can go in a lot of ways. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: This may be the most important thing to happen to music for the rest of this century. That’s how I feel about this music.

DH You say, “I’ve often thought I was in a triangle with the ensemble and the audience, that reverberated energy, each passing it on to the other.” It’s all passing around, and coming back—it is an energy.

BM Especially this November [1995] with my new ensemble Berlin Skyscraper when we played five performances in succession, #51, #52, #54, #55, #56. The crowds were great every night. On the night of November 3rd, just before starting, I could feel the energy, in my back, and on the stage, from not just me and the ensemble, but from the audience. I could feel the anticipation. And when we began it was like we were on a ride together, all of us.

DH Is that a rare thing?

BM Sometimes you don’t get that, not often. It was greater in this situation because it built every night, that anticipation of the ride we were about to go on. It was really exciting. It’s the same thing if somebody’s playing down at the Vanguard, and the word gets around that “so and so’s killing.” Then everybody runs down there, like, “I’ll see if he’s killing or not.” And you go down there and the motherfucker kills … I mean, you understand the excitement, the anticipation of excitement.

DH So the whole idea of residency—of seeing Monk at the Vanguard, or Mingus for so many nights, or you—that’s an interesting principle. People coming back to hear you have an added psychic intention.

BM Yeah, exactly. It feeds right into the music. I just knew that night that there was excitement in the room. You embody it. And when that happens, music.

DH So conducting is no longer a mere method for interpretation, but a viable connection to the process of composition. Composing a conduction. That is where you’re going?

BM Oh yeah, there’s definitely a future.

DH So you’ve got your ensemble, you’ve rehearsed all the signs and gestures of the Conduction System …

BM I workshop all of the signs. There are distinct differences between the signs and the gestures. You have to know how they work. And there are certain times I give information that doesn’t come for another five or ten or 30 seconds. I might tell you “repeat” but I don’t give a downbeat, and then I’m gonna do something else, and then I’ll point to you and give you a downbeat to begin. A lot of times, I will conduct for the first 15 seconds and there will be no sound—until I give a downbeat. That’s how the music begins, everybody playing the instruments has to know in which combination this information will come. It’s “repeat, sustain, repeat, sustain,” a flowing motion from one thing right into the next, right into the next, right into the next … #38, that was recorded in Munich—it’s clear form, but, it’s dynamic form too. It’s up and down, there’s this strong stuff, there’s this soft stuff, there’s this stuff that’s mezzo forte, there’s this piano business, forte, triple forte stuff. This stuff sounds like a machine. It is a machine, a humongous palette of sound.

DH You sound like a visual artist when you talk about this. You sound multi-disciplinary in a lot of respects, like a sculptor, painter—

BM Yeah, but I’m not. You can see it however you want to see it. I talk about it in the book, about Conduction #23. It was like huge mobiles, and I just turned them. That’s what the music became to me, because I could turn the sound, push it over here, or push it way in the back, and then I could bring the sound way up front. Do you see what I mean? I’m not thinking about music itself. I know there’s another kind of improviser out there. There’s all kinds of improvisers who are playing all different things. They come from jazz, or from classical, new music, contemporary improvised music, blues, flamenco, they can come from anything. If there’s something I like about their playing, I’ll try to pull them into the ensemble. That’s all. I’m interested in what they can contribute to music, on a whole, and that they don’t have any reservations about what it is they’re doing. They’re playing their shit. That’s all I ask them to do. Play your shit. But put it within the context of this.

DH And if you ask someone to start, like this flamenco player or the cello player, then you have some idea, perhaps, of what they might play.

BM I have no idea what they want to play. I can’t possibly know—they’re improvising, being intuitive. The point is to bring all these energies together, and at the right moment, begin. Bernstein said this, “There’s only one split second when you can begin an orchestra to get the full effect.” So people wait. A lot of times I stand before the ensemble ten, 15, 20, 30, 35 seconds, a minute, waiting for the inspiration to start. And then it’s like this whoosh! Bam. Then we’re gone.

A lot of people really don’t trust their instincts. And they don’t pay attention, or concentrate—they’re realistic. We are human beings with animal instincts, but people don’t use them. I’m trying to refine and bring ‘em back. Mine, and other people’s too.

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BM I was in Switzerland, it was #45, “Le Chaux De Fonds” (September 3, 1994), and I had to work with eight students from the Conservatory: two violins, two violas and cello, flute player, bassoon player and oboe player. And I had six players from different backgrounds, but they were professional improvisers. I had four days in which to prepare all these people, only three of whom had ever worked with me before. So I had to teach the system again, and it was amazing to me how free the students got. The professionals didn’t, but still we made very interesting music. They got free within the system and they played their asses off. They played great stuff. You have to do the same thing you do in the studio, hear what’s around you, see what’s around you, and respond to what’s happening.

But let’s break it down to this, when you get up in the morning, either you have something to do, or you create something to do. You create a route, a path you’re gonna take for the rest of your life. You make noises that are … accidental or on purpose. You make sounds during the course of the day, and sometimes they interact with other people’s sounds. Like this woman over here digging in her purse, this man walking back here. This is a unison. We are in a harmonious situation right now. And we go out there and we hail a cab, and the cab’s brakes fail, and he’s headed for us—we have to respond to that. Music is the same thing, man.

DH There seems to be more of a philosophy behind Conduction.

BM The philosophy came later. The means came first, the ideas, the questions. You can say, yes, I have a philosophy now, but I have a theory that constantly contradicts itself. It contradicts itself for the life of itself—to go on. I didn’t decide: “I want to write new music.” I needed to figure out what this sound was in my head. How do you make it? How do you do this? I could hear anything—it could be Beethoven for that matter. “Damn, I’d just like to repeat that section one more time.” That’s where the question came from. That’s when I asked Jackie Hairston, “If I wanted the violins to repeat themselves, how would I do it?” She said, “Well, if the composer wanted that, he would’ve written that.” Okay. So, if I’m the composer and I’m the conductor, if I know how to send ‘em back there, can I do it? It’s not a question to her, it’s a question to me. And I’m going, “Yeah, that’s all you’ve got to do is do this, then do that, and you’ve got to do that, and you’ve got to do that.” A lot of times when Jackie couldn’t answer my questions, she would provoke more questions, and that was great for me because that created the appetite. Then I could go to Charles Moffett, and he’d say, “Oh yeah, you just do it like this.” I’d say, “Really?” And he’d say, “Yeah, just do it. Just do it. Just do it.” But you gotta have people that’ll follow you.

DH But with the Chorus of Poets, when you collaborated with the Tribes Stoop Workshop Poets and other poets in performances at the Whitney Museum at Phillip Morris, or Lincoln Center (for Bang the Can Festival) or at the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe, or Context with Steve Cannon’s plays, how was it working with poets instead of musicians? You’ve read the poems. You know what the poems are about.

BM Yeah, but I don’t know where (in the poems) they’re gonna enter. And I don’t know what your pace is gonna be, whether you’re gonna say it slow, or fast, or in rapid phrases. That’s up to you. The words are just like notes. If I tell a musician to go back to Memory Two, I don’t know how he’s gonna phrase Memory Two at that particular moment. Just like I don’t know how you’re gonna phrase your poem in this particular time. Maybe you’re gonna jump in there and read it like that all the time. But I’m gonna say, “Let me move on to something else.” I don’t need somebody who’s gonna have the same expression all the time.

DH So, Memory One and Memory Two refer to when you tell someone in the ensemble to remember a particular phrase.

BM No, you figure particular instances or particular areas of music that run. Whatever you’re playing at this particular time, I want you to remember: Memory One.

DH I can’t recall who has been ridiculed more than Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. You mentioned that you’ve experienced ridicule.

BM I’ve experienced ridicule, I’m still experiencing ridicule, just now, it doesn’t bother me. Of course, it did in the beginning, but now, I’ll never again take a job where I’ll let somebody ridicule me. And if that happens they’re gone.

DH How did that affect you in the early days?

BM I kept going, I kept going. I knew it worked. Ridicule bothered me, it affected me, but it didn’t slow me down.

DH You’ve invented musical exercises that you call Crayon, Forecasting, Temple Variations, Polar Harmony for writing compositions. Tell me about Polar Harmony.

BM Polar Harmony is a system in which I was harmonizing music at a particular time. It was set up as an exercise for me to think about music in another way. I would write a composition traditionally, and then I would change the whole harmonic idea of it.

DH It’s conceptually very exciting. And these were exercises you gave yourself towards Conduction?

BM No, it had more to do with formal techniques, or through notation and composition. It wasn’t related to Conduction in any way, except that I continued to have the desire to want to think about music in a totally different way. The Crayon system was another theory I set up to harmonize things. “Crayon Bondage” is on Elliot Sharp’s record, The State of the Union.

DH You have not written a composition for Conduction, have you?

BM For Conduction? No.

DH Because that’s almost a contradiction.

BM Almost. But you can use the Conduction System within any written composition.

DH You’ve done it for David Murray, and you’ve done it with Beethoven. But you’ve only done it once with your own work.

BM Right. Conduction #43.

DH How did you communicate with musicians, say, in Japan?

BM Well, some of them spoke English. And they translated. Matter of fact, one of my favorite tapes is #50, from Japan. They know how to get loose, get inside—they knew how to get loose inside the system.

DH Those voices were uncanny, really strong. There’s a woman singing, and two male voices. How did you find them?

BM Some of them had been in previous Conductions. But sometimes when people put an ensemble together for me, I don’t know who they’re gonna be. I just ask for improvisers. And plus, in #50, I was really into using the traditional instruments of Japan.

DH How do you work these instruments—like the koto—into the fabric of the piece? It gives another edge to what I’ve heard of your Conductions.

BM Another edge opposed to what? Why should it be any different than if it were a trumpet or a saxophone? Or a guitar, or a piano? Why should it be anything different? But what I’ve come to understand is that I’ve built a system that anybody can respond to. It’s not specifically for Western instruments, it’s for all instruments.

DH How do you look at your work with David Murray’s Big Band? I loved them at the last performance I went with Steve Cannon when you all were at the Knitting Factory. You’re working with all these horns and creating beautiful waves. Steve and I were saying “Wow! Butch has really got those horns going.” You were doing the Conduction thing in residence there every Monday for months. We felt that was an evolution. How has it evolved, moved forward?

BM David’s band has been great for me to just keep my hands in the air, and to see just how far we can take this music. That was our idea when we started the band, to take David’s compositions, or my compositions, and to really weave them into this idea of conduction. The same thing I apply to my music I apply to David’s band. And it’s evolved into very, very interesting work.

DH A lot of the David Murray Big Band’s music are his compositions. You and he have collaborated since California in the ’70s. How do you all work?

BM David gives me his music, says, “Here man.” David’s band is about swing. And the way David writes is great, because he writes all of these multiple lines, simultaneously. So I can isolate this line, this line, this line. He likes it. I think he hears his tunes in many different ways now. Except for tempo, I don’t think David’s ever really given me any instruction as to how to begin, or how to structure his songs. I just see how he’s written it.

If we play “3-D Family” one week, I might play it, conduct it differently the next week. Sometimes I start at the very end of the song, just to get into the top. Sometimes I start with the whole band, sometimes with just the rhythm section, or sometimes with Fred (Hopkins), bass … Or, sometimes I might start with just the drums playing the rhythm. And then I’ll bring in the piano, and then maybe I’ll create a riff to go over the band at the bottom of the page, and then I’ll send ‘em to number one. And maybe I’ll have the rhythm section play the whole thing down before the melody comes in. I mean, there are so many options. I might tell somebody to come in at number two, and play their line. And sometimes I’ll just have the trombones play at number two. And maybe I’ll have ‘em play it way out of time. And then I’ll give ‘em this “hold” on their last note, and while I’m giving this “hold”, I tell the rhythm section, “one, two, three, four, five, six” and “boom!” And they’re still holding … And then I’ll bend that note, bend it up, bend it down. Make it real soft, then real loud, and then real soft again. I’ll play with the note, and then I’ll tell everybody else, “Number one, we’re going to number one, ready? Boom!”

DH So has his writing changed, or evolved, from this long collaboration with your conduction system?

BM Yeah.

DH Has it changed in regard to your conducting?

BM Not really. When he starts writing, I think he knows, “Butch is gonna like this passage, so we’ll just see what he’s gonna do with this.” But he writes it in the standard form. He knows, once I get inside the music, “Oh, I like this passage, and maybe I’ll do this, and maybe I’ll overlap this passage over here, and I’ll put this stuff together.” Ultimately, I build up to reading the thing down. A lot of times, we might get into a song, and we don’t even get into the melody, or the page, or to the written music for five or ten minutes. We have improvised, based on this song, and that’s where we’re going. Like I said, one time I had this notion that music could be read like a book. And I mean that literally.

DH But not from front to back; from beginning to end.

BM Opening it to wherever you want—to anyplace you find it interesting to begin. “I want to begin here today, and I want to go backwards five pages, and then I want to go forwards 20 pages. And now I want to go to the top, it’s time to go to the top.”

DH But that’s not the traditional way of reading a book. (laughter) But it is a way of reading, yes. David Hammons has told me—man he’s got these tapes of Sun Ra, rehearsals where he is lecturing the Arkestra—I remember Sun Ra saying in a rehearsal, “I want you to play this wrong. You’re playing it right, I want you to play it wrong.”

BM Yeah, Sun Ra pushed all the edges. It was just like, push all the buttons, shave all the edges, or straighten ‘em out. His band was so flexible. It’s interesting what they were playing the last five years of his life, a lot of show tunes and stuff like that. It was nice to see what he did with them. It was great.

DH He played a lot of Fletcher Henderson big band arrangements. Tunes from Disney films. Flexibility, as a principle.

BM Sure. Go anywhere you want to go, when you want to go there. As an ensemble. Together.

David Henderson is a writer and poet who lives in downtown Manhattan. He wrote the introduction to Cranial Guitar: Selected Poetry of Bob Kaufman, forthcoming this Spring from Coffeehouse Press.

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Originally published in

BOMB 55, Spring 1996

Featuring interviews with Frances McDormand, A.M. Homes, Padgett Powell, Tina Girouard, William Pope. L, Butch Morris, Malcolm Morley, Jafar Panahi, and John Elderfield.

Read the issue
Issue 55 055  Spring 1996