My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
Trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith has spent five decades as a positive force in global improvised music. Born in Mississippi in 1941, he joined Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in 1967 and promptly appeared on 3 Compositions of New Jazz (Delmark, 1968), Anthony Braxton’s first record. The watershed LP included “The Bell,” a work that introduced—in embryonic form—Smith’s new method of notation, something he would later term “Ankhrasmation.” In the 1970s, during an extended period based in New Haven, Connecticut, Smith wrote notes (8 pieces) source a new world music: creative music, a powerful self-published treatise on the state of African American music and the politics of improvisation. He also founded his own label, Kabell Records, documenting his evolving concept, which he has emphatically referred to as a system of language scores, in marked contrast with the more common idea of graphic scores.
Ankhrasmation—a neologism formed from ankh, the Egyptian symbol for life; ras, the Ethiopian word for leader; and ma, a universal term for mother—represents Smith’s systemic approach to writing music. These scores eschew (and at times incorporate) traditional notation in favor of symbolic compositions of color, line, and shape, providing specific instruction for the seasoned improviser while encouraging musicians to bring their own special expertise and individual strengths to each performance. By referring to his scores as language scores, Smith insists that they are designed to be used to speak the music rather than strictly followed to reproduce it.
In 2015, curator Hamza Walker and I organized the first comprehensive exhibition of Wadada’s scores, Ankhrasmation: The Language Scores, 1967–2015, at the Renaissance Society in Chicago. We took the occasion to publish a facsimile edition of notes, which had been long out of print, and we issued a CD of previously unheard solo music from 1977, Red Chrysanthemums. Walker has selected Smith as one of the artists to appear in Made in L.A. at the Hammer Museum this summer. As a septuagenarian, having retired from CalArts, where he was a revered professor from 1993 to 2014, Smith has put the pedal down on an already high-gear artistic practice. He’s just recorded all ten of his string quartets, composed over a fifty-year span, for TUM Records, and a recent trip to the studio with pianist Vijay Iyer resulted in the magnificent A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke (ECM, 2016).
Before I met Wadada in the mid-’80s, I found him a daunting presence. In music and disposition, he was possessed of a quietude and patience that seemed profound, almost mythic to me. But Wadada is also an approachable human being, and over the years, whether sitting on the same panel discussion or presenting him in concert, I’ve found him to be wise and open in equal measure. From his old stomping grounds in Chicago, I spoke with Wadada in New Haven, his newly reclaimed base of operations.
Wadada Leo Smith Hello, John?
John Corbett Hi, Wadada. It’s a gorgeous day here in Chicago. How is it in Connecticut?
WLS Ah, it’s cold today. I’m used to Southern California where it’s warm all the time.
JC You were out there for a long time.
WLS Twenty-some years.
JC I wanted to start by asking you about one of the passages from your book notes. It’s an awfully long time ago, but it still applies in so many ways. So let me read you this one quote:
… creative music (black music) is a music with a set of principles that apply exclusively to itself. its image and procreators have been persecuted since its inception in this country (u.s.a.) because the music critics and those who set the standards and regulations for registering music have insisted on confining their evaluation of improvisation to a rigid set of principles that apply only to composition (e.g. it has only been in 1972 that creative music can be registered in the library of congress in the form of sound recording; and it is still impossible to register any scored improvisation unless it has been merely notated after the fact of creation as though it were a composition. it is a vital art form with a future as absolute as the mind. creative improvisers must not be discouraged by the obvious elements trying to destroy them.)
Does this quote give you anything to talk about in terms of your approach to scoring the music that you play and write?
WLS How your work is registered doesn’t really affect how you make it, because you’re gonna make it anyway. But in terms of how it’s viewed and documented, everything is basically the same as it was then. Some inroads have been made in terms of copyright. They use the term “sound recording” now and that means that it’s just a recording of the sound itself, and it’s not really the score. Many people believe that improvisation doesn’t have the methodological possibility of being represented in any kind of form. That’s just not true. Ankhrasmation tells us that that’s a complete misinterpretation of the idea of a score. You can make language scores like the ones I’ve made, scores that capture inspiration and allow that inspiration to take a physical, visible form—just like composition. But the method of interpreting or reproducing that score is different. You don’t sit down and practice how to make a B-flat or an E-flat. Instead, you actually do research in order to be able to make those scores come alive. And that research is something that’s unique to these kinds of language scores.
A graphic score, by contrast, is not necessarily a language score. It has images; it’s a picture score. But because no one has set up any rules for approaching graphic scores and how you use them, you really can’t call it language. It’s just a captured image without anything to maneuver its various colors and shapes. For Ankhrasmation, this poses a problem for publishing. The only way my publisher out in California, A Train Entertainment, can publish these language scores is to publish them as some kind of image art. But that’s not what they are. Yes they are images, yes we can consider them art, but their ultimate purpose is to be shared. The score can share with me and the ensemble, on this occasion or any other occasion, vast possibilities for its usage.
The community itself is part of the problem. I have musicians coming up to me and saying, “This is my graphic score.” And I say, “What does this shape mean? What does this red mean?” They can’t put it into language. It has no meaning to them. If you ask me about my scores, I can tell you precisely what they generate, or what they are intended to mean. So this community still has an idea that you grab anything and say that it is art.
JC Generally, we haven’t figured out a good way to talk about improvisation. Obviously people like you have developed a precise vocabulary for it, not only in terms of how you score but how you discuss it. But in the general public there’s a poor understanding of what improvisation is, how it functions, how musicians use it, how people deal with it in their daily lives. For instance, a word that always comes up is the word just. It’s just improvised.
WLS Yes, see, that’s a bad word. When people say improvisation doesn’t have an idiom, well, the idiom is improvisation. Nothing exists without some kind of context or some kind of methodology. You take a breath of air from wherever you are located and that air comes from the larger batch of air that includes the whole creation. Look at tribalism in art—Europeans think about Americans in different ways than Americans think about Europeans. But often the different ways they think about each other have no value. What does have value is the art that’s being created. The human dimension often allows distortion to come in. There’s confusion as to how to talk about things and then how to actually do things.
JC I agree with you. But one of the interesting things to me about improvisation as a practice is that it allows for people with extremely different points of view to make work together. Obviously at some underlying, very deep place they have to have some shared principles, but they can convene even if they have different aesthetics or ideas. They can come with different ends in mind, and make music together. I would propose, as an outstanding example of this, your collaboration with two European improvisers, drummer Günter Sommer and bassist Peter Kowald. I see the records you made together on FMP, recorded in 1979 and 1981, as the coming together of minds from very different places.
WLS That was a group in which you had people coming from three different kinds of political systems. Günter was coming from East Germany, which was heavily steeped in Marxism at that time; Peter was coming from West Germany; and I was coming from the United States. In that context, the influence that I was able to exude was very subtle. I say “subtle” because there were several instances of conflict. For example, when someone tried to interview us, Günter and Peter would use the words “free improvisation,” but I would say “creative music.” And they had a problem with that. Certain nuances existed. When we came back to play in Germany after having toured all over, the dynamics changed. What was the reason? In Germany, because Günter and Peter were German, they felt compelled to stick to the stereotype by which that society held them. In other words, if I played something that sounded like it had a mood or a nice feeling, they would avoid that and keep going the way they were going. But when we were in France or Spain or Japan or wherever, they would allow that mood or feeling to develop and come into its being.
WLS Yeah, yeah. Our first meeting, which was in Berlin, if I’m not mistaken, produced some of the truest music. It was live, in a club, one of those underground cellars. The fact that it was so fresh and new made it have a reality that became impossible to achieve again in Germany.
JC It’s fascinating that these political realities can be brought to bear on the music. It doesn’t always happen, but at least theoretically, improvising as an activity creates a space in which those kinds of differences are permitted. It’s not utopian, but it’s a place where wildly disparate perspectives can be hashed out.
WLS I think so.
JC Sometimes people are bullied, and sometimes they’re not, but we find out about that when the music happens.
WLS Yes, exactly. When you look at the tradition of what people call “jazz,” that music had those same parameters. You had white guys playing with black guys, Cuban guys playing with white and black guys, South American guys playing in bands with mostly blacks—and then you look closely at their lives, none of them had the same kinds of beliefs, religions, or philosophies. Duke Ellington’s band had the most contrarian group of individuals, yet when they stepped on that diamond stage of a performance space, which is a ritualized space, they all became somebody else. And they accepted without any kind of conflict whatever cue Ellington gave them. Today, in order to make true art in this dynamic that we term “improvisation,” you have to have those kinds of collaborations—whether they’re centered around one guy’s worldview, like Sun Ra or Duke Ellington, or around a collective of views without a hierarchy, like The Modern Jazz Quartet or the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Nobody rules anybody else, but in rehearsal or performance the art itself shapes what is useful and what is not.
WLS But the most compelling thing to me about what I call “creative improvisation” is that it has the potential to actually change the world. And I’m not talking about just music but everything from theater to dance to writing to thinking. If the artistic community allows a little bit of this common collaboration to be successful, or, let’s say, to be successful without judgment, it would actually change the world.
When judgment comes in, if it’s a recording, it makes someone say, “Oh, that last note on that piece, let’s clip it off.” Why would you want to clip it off?
JC That brings me to the question of right and wrong in the performances of your scores. I really like the fact that your scores have a precision to them in terms of how they should be approached, but this precision is different from playing the right note. It’s more about attitude and a specific trajectory. Right and wrong are not about playing particular notes, but on some level you do have to make a judgment about your own performance and about the performance of the ensemble. That seems to be an important distinction between Ankhrasmation scores and other scores that are more arbitrary in terms of the relationship between the notes or the images on the page, and the outcome of the music that’s interpreted from them.
WLS That’s very true. In the first stage, approaching an Ankhrasmation score requires a kind of sincerity in your research. In other words, you’ve logged your research in, and you don’t share that with anybody. Therefore, whatever components of sonic reality you’ve brought into the ensemble, they’re specialized only to you. When that first stage happens, that’s already fifty percent of the correct approach. You also need the ability to allow the score itself to be transparent enough to get through it without getting lost. That’s probably ten or fifteen percent. Another part is having the ability to maneuver and manipulate your score and to tell intuitively when it would start and finish. And the last thing, which carries a lot of weight, is having the courage to let your part finish, to not jump back in because you feel uncomfortable that the others are still playing.
JC So there are four parts. Sincerity—
WLS —which is the major part, because the research is what you’re gonna transfer into musical notes and pitches and silence and sound. That’s about half of it. The rest are levels and degrees of understanding your function within the context of the ensemble.
JC And that’s about staying found, knowing where you are, feeling where the end is, and having the confidence to rest with it.
WLS Letting your ending be, yes. I played in Japan once with a butoh dancer, a drummer, and a shakuhachi player. After I stopped playing, I sat on the floor on the stage for forty minutes until they stopped. I sat there because, for me, the performance was over. But they just kept going. More recently, I played with two guys, and every time the ending came up, one of them would start again. So I walked off the stage. They took another fifteen minutes. I’m not saying I did this because I was right, but I have good sensitivity when it comes to endings. I know what an ending sounds like. The first phrase you play suggests the middle and the ending. It’s just like when a painter throws a curve onto the canvas. That first stroke on the canvas suggests how that painting should develop and how it should end.
JC Endpoints are the most highly caloric place in improvised music. And part of the reason is because it’s the one place everyone has to agree. Everybody can disagree about everything else—Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink can play at absolute odds to one another during the entire set, like they’re in separate rooms. But at some point, they have to agree that the thing is over.
WLS And they do. I’ve seen them do it.
JC It’s the one mandatory consensual place in an improvisation. Even though you and those musicians in Japan didn’t agree about that ending, at some point they stopped, and then you had all agreed that it was definitely over. That’s a special moment because it means that the negotiation that’s going on in real time has to come to a head. I think, philosophically, that’s one of the most interesting points in improvisation.
WLS But take this: I think that creative music, creative improvisation music, improvisation music—when you put them all together and look at them clearly and deeply for what they’re worth—they model the democratic principle or democratic philosophy. Heads of state and legislative bodies could learn a lot from this practice. Even if there’s a bunch of musicians that are all from wherever—Mars, Cuba, Connecticut, St. Louis—once they get started, through the instrumentality of their lives and the quality of their work, they can steer that work in a certain way and make it have content. That steering is something that’s done in a very friendly and harmonious way, even though it can be contentious and actually combative in terms of the music that’s going on when it happens. But at some point it smoothes out. As principles, these things we know from creative music could resolve the kind of mean-spirited society that we are developing today worldwide.
JC Creative music gives us little microcosmic paradigms for social interaction. And it allows us to see human dynamics in a real way, because the interactions are not metaphorical, they’re real. People are working it out on stage, and we’re watching them do so. Things that happen in other social contexts all come in: ego, presupposition, fear. All the potentially destructive or constructive things that happen in real life are happening in real life on stage. And they play out in terms of, for instance, how a score functions. I love the idea that your scores require musicians to go do research for themselves, come to their own conclusions, and then come together. You said once that the ideal manifestation of this may not be a performance where everything feels complete and blended—you listen to the music and hear total harmony—but instead when you can hear each of the players independently, apart from the others.
WLS That’s the idea. The other unique thing is that once the score is performed, it vanishes. You can’t step back, take the score and say, “Okay, let’s leave this where it’s at.” You know from inside the performance and from real life whether it’s going well or not, who’s having a problem and who isn’t. You don’t need the score to look out and say, “It went wrong here.” You feel it going wrong while you are doing it, but the generosity of the ensemble, which is a harmonious unit, absolves the part that isn’t together. So when you sit down to play and the score evaporates, you have truly nothing else to go back on in terms of recasting the score. With the next performance of the piece, that memory is virtually lost, and you can approach it again in an entirely different way.
JC Your scores can be approached as art. You made an important decision that in circumstances where the scores are being shown (especially when they might be acquired by an institution or an individual) the score must be accompanied by a recording of the music.
WLS An old building becomes a work of art when you photograph or paint or draw it. Yet it’s still that building, it’s functional, people live and interact in that building. Well, the same is true of a score. I try my hardest to match the image I have inside of my head, which comes from inspiration. On the page, I try to make it as beautiful as I see it in my intuitive or subconscious mind. I show it to people, and they say, “Wow, that’s beautiful.” And they’re right. I say, “Yes.” And they say, “Well, you know, this is a drawing.” And I say, “Yeah, it is a drawing but, really, it’s a score.” It’s a score because it is made to regenerate itself over and over and over, and that’s what it does.
So yes, the score itself is a work of art. It can become part of a collection. But what makes it different are not the lines and the parts and the way it looks, but the fact that there is another aspect of it that’s unseen, that’s unrealized until it is played. That’s the difference: that psychic, musical element that can only be made real by hearing one version of it. Not the total version, but one version. Ideally, when people hang one of my scores, they would invite me and one of my ensembles to come and perform it for them. And the performance ought to be recorded and exhibited with the score. Periodically, they should invite us back to constantly revitalize that score. That’s the ideal.
JC It’s like watering a plant.
WLS It’s like watering a plant. I’m trying to show something: that a score is a living entity and that it changes just like the cosmos does. Multiple performances will show the score’s versatility and its expansive nature. It’s kind of like a nebula: you see the crest of it, but then it goes around almost into infinity.
JC I was shocked to find out that there was a tradition in twentieth-century Europe that posited that the perfect way to read a score is not to perform it but instead to hear it in your head without being bothered by any of the contingencies, any of the things that might go wrong or be interpreted in varying ways. It’s all in your head and on the page, and there’s an idealized version of it. Which is the absolute antithesis of your approach.
WLS It is.
JC The way you’re talking about the score, it needs everything: the musicians, and the mistakes they make, and how they make them. And what a “mistake” would mean is still part of the interpretation and the life that the interpretation has. As opposed to someone interpreting a score who has never dealt with the reality of the sound.
WLS I’m actually a guy who does read scores. In my studio right now I have every one of the string quartets that Shostakovich composed. And the late Beethoven string quartets. And Béla Bartók’s six string quartets. And Villa-Lobos’s seventeen string quartets. I read the scores of Debussy’s opera or Schoenberg’s operas. It’s a way of enjoying the clarity of another person’s creative mind. But I never substitute that for what the audio gives me once I hear the score performed. Reading the score is a pleasurable excursion that you take to enrich yourself and to experience somebody else’s dream state from a distance. When you hear that music, you become absorbed inside of it, and it becomes part of you. Whereas the score can never become part of you, except through memory.
JC It’s really interesting to know that you like to experience scores that way. It’s basically an obscure kind of literature. Reading scores like that is closer to reading a book than to grappling with music because you’re dealing with an abstract idea, but not with its manifestation.
WLS Music is the only art form that you can’t find anywhere in creation except through inspiration. It’s not like in sculpture and painting, where we have these physical dimensions all the time. Everybody has seen a tree. No matter how abstract you make a tree, you still know it’s a tree. People say, What about the sound of earthquakes? And the sound of planes? And the sound of a heartbeat? Yeah, those are sounds. But music is some other dimension that we actually get through inspiration. Every person who writes or composes or performs a creative piece of music, no matter how unoriginal it may be or how drastically original it may be, comes from the same place of inspiration.
JC That’s a wonderfully optimistic attitude. It suggests that music is a place where things can come together in a unique way.
WLS It is. When I was doing my research for the designs and drawings that I was making to construct this language, I looked through hundreds, maybe even thousands, of different notations and scores. I didn’t want to repeat anything that already existed out there. And when you’re looking through all this stuff and you’re dreaming, you find something out about yourself that’s remarkable. You find out that, Oh my gosh, you’re dreaming something that probably other people dreamt but never attempted to find. I’m amazed at the fact that I did try to find it. That tells me something about myself.
I started composing when I was twelve years old, using the limited number of notes I knew, which was four or five, and filling in the rest in the score. I didn’t say to anybody, “Teach me how to compose.” The moment I heard the score reproduced by my two other friends on trumpet, I knew something about myself. I said, “I’m a composer.”
JC It was a mirror, in a way.
WLS Yeah, it showed me the boldness of doing something without actually having the help, or the permission, or skills to do it. I learned the skills in the process of doing it.
JC Please tell the story of discovering your own version of nonconventional notation while “The Bell” was being recorded.
WLS I had composed “The Bell,” but I didn’t know how powerful it was until we were rehearsing to record Anthony Braxton’s 3 Compositions of New Jazz. We were in rehearsal, and we took a break and put on an earlier rehearsal of “The Bell,” which we had recorded the week before. Immediately the room got still and everybody listened. Once it was over, Braxton walked right in front of me and said, “Smith, would you mind if we recorded ‘The Bell’ for the record?” And I said, “No, man. I would love it.”
“The Bell” contains my first rhythm units, which were outlined in dotted boxes, because even though I had written them, I didn’t know how to interpret them. I didn’t know what they meant. The rhythm units had notes that were either stemless or they had stems but no note heads, things like that. Standing in the playback room, listening, I observed that Muhal [Richard Abrams] and I kept going when we got to the section with those rhythm-unit strokes. And as we kept going, we set up a sense of space and silence and sound. So he would go Bahhmm. I would go Bahhh. And then, Bahhmm, Boom. It was an enlightening moment for me because I realized that I had found part of the truth for Ankhrasmation, even though it wasn’t called that then. I realized that sound could be the silence and silence could be the sound. You go on through life, and you realize what these opposite elements are, like night and day, going and returning. All these things signify the same as those rhythm units.
But then, five or six years ago, I discovered fractals. I was watching a scholar’s TED talk, and after listening to his lecture on fractals, I realized that the rhythm units are like fractals. They are self-generating objects that, no matter how many times you play them, regenerate themselves over and over and over. So I’m still learning the value of “The Bell” experience.
JC That’s remarkable on many levels. Going back to 1967, the fact that you felt inspired to break from the normal way of notating and to write these curved lines, without knowing exactly what they meant, how they would be deployed, or exactly why you were doing them, is amazing to me. You followed your inspiration and then, standing in the playback room, realized, Oh, that’s what those are.
WLS This journey of discovery for me is absolutely astounding. That’s the human experience.
JC You are back in Connecticut again. How does it feel to come back to the place where you started your label Kabell Records and wrote notes?
WLS Well, you go out into the world, and you experience a wealth of different things. And eventually you come back home and from that journey you have four grandkids—the youngest one just going into nursery school. I’m able to babysit three times a week, when I’m not traveling. It’s almost like paradise.
I just set up my space and house. It’s about thirty-five steps from my bedroom to my studio. Once I go into the studio, I can close the door, look out the window, and start writing music. I’m sitting in sun, writing in sunlight. It could not be better.
John Corbett is a writer, curator, and producer based in Chicago. His latest books are A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation (2016) and Vinyl Freak: Love Letters to a Dying Medium (forthcoming). Corbett’s recent curatorial projects include Ankhrasmation: The Language Scores, 1967–2015, co-curated with Hamza Walker, at the Renaissance Society in Chicago. He is co-owner of the art gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.