FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004

FMP CD 92 / 93

Wolfgang Platzeck


Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris polarises people. A compromise, no matter how sought after, is often impossible in view of his way of working. Derek Bailey, for instance, one of the great theorists of Improvised Music, stuck out just about five minutes of one rehearsal. Then he had a noseful of Butch Morris' idea of "directed improvisation", grabbed his guitar in irritation and left.

This mutiny has not been the only one. After all, the revolutionary method Morris developed in the mid-eighties not only implies a radical renunciation of any form of written notation - either in the "classical" form or graphically determined, which also Jazz has not been able to do without for decades. His way of "directed Improvisation" (Conduction), of "composing through conducting" can easily be understood, by purists, as an insult to what is commonly called the collective ethos of free Improvisation out of the demand for unlimited equality and equal rights. You have just about managed to free yourself from the straight-jacket of convention, have cleared the junk off the music-stand - just to find yourself following the baton of a new, authoritarian maestro, who puts an abrupt end to even the supposedly most courageous musical stream of thoughts.

No. For so-called self-realisation which is anyway, and not only in the field of music, absolutely destructive for any kind of real communication, there is hardly any space left in Morris' conception. Instead, previously sealed off sound-spaces open up to whoever is prepared to take the risk unconditionally, both as a musician and also as a listener. Butch Morris helps the music gain more freedom by limiting the freedom of the musician. A paradox? For some, maybe. Yet all this is resolved in that magic moment, when the conductor counts in with a wave of the baton.

And yet this 1947 California born cornet player, who has long given up his instrument for his love of "Conducting", is not even interested in having total control of the musical proceedings. For Morris it has to do with a new language of ensemble-improvisation, with a collective sound which develops through the creative process and which, at the same time, allows this process to be at all possible. He tries to replace the multitude of creative centres - normally corresponding with the number of musicians involved - by a single, higher centre of power.

When he intervenes as "spiritus rector" in the spontaneous improvisations, he can further develop certain parts, grab hold of moments of music in order to work with them. "The idea", he says, "is to put people in different psychological sound-states". The ensemble, or the soloist, moves within a certain structure; Morris changes the structure, and suddenly everybody finds himself in a different tonality, a different form, and has to see what he can make out of it - or how he manages to free himself from this situation.

"You have to be absolutely sure when to take up a musician's idea, when to answer his question and when not. You have to get people to think about their decisions, even when they're not on stage, at that very moment. If you don't do that they'll all get on the stand with all kinds of improvisational bits and pieces, which have been well established over the years. But this is not what I want from them". The easiest way is just not the best one, although it may be the most convenient. Naturally the musicians are supposed to bring in their personal histories, their social situation and their ideological backgrounds; moreover they should go beyond all that. They are not supposed to further develop their own musical personality (this would imply a predictable, also to a certain degree controlled, direction of development), but to extend it unconditionally - to expand.

"He, who works with the same musicians all the time, gets the same results all the time": it is obvious that such an ambitious concept is in direct opposition to a fixed, committed and tried and tested ensemble. Butch Morris prefers to realise his "improvised compositions" with ad-hoc groups, with musicians, who would otherwise hardly dream of working together as part of that particular line-up. The less homogeneous the ensemble is, the more different the characters, the bigger the attraction, the challenge. And therefore the greater the chance also to create something really new and exiting through instant composition - beyond all routine and convention present also in Improvised music.

In the case of the "Berlin Skyscraper"-project the pre-conditions were ideal. Morris, who had been living in Berlin for several months in 1995 thanks to a DAAD-grant (Deutscher Akademischer Austausch-Dienst), was able to put together an orchestra of his choice from Berlin musicians for the "Total Music Meeting". None of the 17 musicians had previously worked with Morris. Also the experience with improvisation and the abilities to improvise in the border areas between Jazz and experimental New Music were markedly different.

A number of instrumentalists - Stephan Mathieu (percussion), Nicholas Bussmann (cello), Gregor Hotz (saxophones), Olaf Rupp (guitar) and the Swiss contrabass player Davide de Bernardi - supplied, classically trained or (like Rupp) self-taught, the basic framework of "Skyscraper". The musicians had known each other for a long time, had played together partly in 'open' ensembles or fixed groups of free and contemporary music ("Cucurbita", Ensemble Strukturen", "Bleiwarseinlohn"). Butch Morris could expect an organically developed kind of Improvisation from them.

More individualistic parts, a wider more comprehensive open-mindedness and, as a result, a greater means of expression were to be expected from musicians who could draw upon considerable international experience. Wolfgang Fuchs, bass-clarinet, had gained a reputation for his long-standing collaboration with Sven-Åke Johansson and not least through the European line-up of the "King Übü Örchestrü", founded by him in 1983. His film music for "Queen Kelly" by Erich von Stroheim, written in collaboration with Alexander von Schlippenbach, was performed within the framework of the 'Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin'. Since his first meeting with Cecil Taylor (in his "European American Group" 1986) Fuchs had repeatedly played in Taylor's groups and had done a Scandinavian tour with the Cecil Taylor-Quintet. He had become known also in North America through concerts in Canada (with Evan Parker and Bill Smith) and New York (with David Moss).

The French trombone player Marc Boukouya had performed as soloist in Jazz and contemporary music on major European festivals (Warschauer Herbst, New Jazz Festival, Donaueschinger Musiktage), and had worked together with musicians such as Anthony Braxton, Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky, Keith Tippett, Evan Parker and composers such as Vinko Globokar. After a jazz-rock-orientated beginning in Gunter Hampel's "Coming Age Orchestra", trumpet player Axel Dörner has performed with Tomasz Stanko, John Russell, Johannes and Conny Bauer, Sam Rivers and George Lewis among others and was a member of the "Berlin Improvisors Pool" based around Alexander von Schlippenbach. Apart from concerts with Paul Lovens, Barry Guy or Phil Minton, percussionist Michael Griener has become known through his collaboration with trombonist Günter Christmann and pianist Irène Schweizer. Piano player Bernhard Arndt had played at various times on the "Total Music Meeting" as early as the end of the seventies beginning of the eighties, had taken part in the "Workshop Freie Musik" in Berlin and, among other things, presented the "Art Allemagne Aujourd'hui" in Paris. Arndt, who had lived for a while in the USA thanks to a Berlin-Scholarship was intensely interested in the intermingling of the arts. After his experience in working with dancers in earlier years, he has been concerned for quite a while now - as soloist or in the "Unica Zürn Trio" - with the combination of music and text.

For "Berlin Skyscraper" these representatives of "Free Music" were confronted with ensemble members recruited more from the edges of contemporary classical music: harp player Tatjana Schütz, bassoon player Elisabeth Böhm-Christl, oboe player Johanne Braun and Aleks Kolkowski on violin. Thus corresponding partly with the timbre of their playing: the intonation of reed instruments like oboe and bassoon is inevitably of a classical character. Additionally, Johanne Braun has been intensely concerned with Gregorian chants and the music of different cultures (Ireland, Russia, South America, Germany).

Flute player Kirsten Reese (a pupil of Robert Dick among others) did not only contribute her knowledge of the contemporary repertoire, but also the experience she had gained through her work in the Electronic Studio of the Technical University (TU) Berlin and in projects of experimental music under the direction of the composer Dieter Schnebel. With Dietrich Petzold (violin, viola), Butch Morris had chosen a harmonist and melodist for the string section, whose biography includes concert tours with Uschi Brüning, Toto Blanke and Mikis Theodorakis apart from numerous compositions for theatre, radio and television.

Finally, vibraphone player and percussionist Albrecht Riermeier was the great frontier worker - a musician, who has always thought of musical directions such as Jazz, New Music, Ethno, Fusion or World Music as an inspiration and a challenge, rather than as an obligation. Film- and theatre music, more than 20 recordings with such different musicians as David Friedmann, Kamalesh Maitra, John Tchicai or Mikis Theodorakis give an impressive account of his attempts driven by insatiable curiosity, to explore the cosmos of musical language and dialect.

A couple of days before the start of the five-day "Total Music Meeting '95" Butch Morris began "rehearsals" - and for both parties, conductor and ensemble began the learning process which always follows the same rules with Morris. The first guided improvisations give the maestro an idea of what his musicians can contribute in the way of craftsmanship and creativity. The musical and musicianly power determines the proceedings over the following days, the degree of its success. As the next step, the ensemble members have to learn and internalise Butch Morris' wordless code of speech: a "vocabulary" of 20 gestures and hand-signals, which he uses to make the musicians understand what he wants from them. At times Morris requests the band to remain at a certain point, then there may be a call for forced action. There are signs for loud and soft, for crescendo and decrescendo, legato or pizzicato. There is a sign for taking musicians - individually or in groups - out of the playing, or for getting them back into it. Additionally there is the work with the baton which, at times, is used like a film camera panning: only the one musician is allowed to play, who is at the point indicated by the conductor's baton.

This sign language allows Morris to shape music in the instant it is created. On the other hand this code demands 100% concentration from the musicians: no one can afford to relax his concentration, to not watch the conductor for one second. Nobody knows when the next signal is coming, and in which direction he is supposed to go.

At the same time, Morris does not see his signs as strict rules. The musician is merely instructed to act responsibly within the current ensemble context. When Morris indicates "repeat", he does not tell the band member what to repeat. The musician has to decide on that himself within a fraction of a second. The "remember" sign, on the other hand, reminds the band to remember what is being played in this instant and to be able to recall it at any time.

If one wanted to draw parallels with other art genres, Butch Morris' method could most likely be compared to the work of a theatre director. And it can hardly be a coincidence that Morris has worked with the theatre director who has pursued "instant writing & directing" in Europe in the most persistent way: Christoph Marthaler from Switzerland. The way Marthaler accepts offerings both regarding scenes and contents from his actors, how he chooses, overrules, revises his own position where necessary, how he even on the evening of the opening night actually only presents a 'project' stage - all this is also typical of Butch Morris' work.

The maestro himself also feels the latent tension, the feverish curiosity and uncertainty of the ensemble with regards this "Instant composing". Ultimately, despite all directives, the freedom of the musicians is great enough not to be immune to surprises. "Since nothing is pre-composed or written down, it is very difficult for me as conductor to predict what it is going to sound like, when I bring my arms down and the ensemble begins".

Music wants to be heard. Even so, the visual element with the "Conductions" of Butch Morris is of vital importance. During the "Total Music Meeting '95" the audience in the cultural centre "Podewil" was able to witness over a five day period the development and growth of his ad-hoc symphony visually and in "real time". Every evening started with an exploration of the material, with searching for possible forms, structures: in improvisations of small and the smallest groupings. On these occasions also parts of the sign-codes were determined, although their meanings only became clear after the break during the main ensemble performance. However, sometimes this was not the case. On the other hand some movements, some gestures of the conductor seemed to have no effect. "I can", Butch Morris says, "start a piece with an assignment for the percussionist, and still nothing may be happening. Then I may give a sign to the saxophone and after ten seconds still nothing has happened. But then, when I give a signal with the baton (downbeat), you suddenly get the results of ten or fifteen seconds of work without sound. The audience sees, how music is made, before it hears the music."

"Berlin Skyscraper". Even though the live recording of the "Total Music Meeting" cannot convey the visual experience of a Butch Morris-Conduction - it does not change the intensity, the audacity, the refreshing unpredictability and the enormous musical blast of the ad-hoc-compositions. Anyhow, one thing is valid for both, for the live audience as much as for the CD listener: at the beginning there is total silence. Out of the silence, the first sound is born. The sound grows, changes, doesn't content itself with 'scraping the sky', but ventures to break out into a constantly expanding sound universe.

Translation: Isabel Seeberg & Paul Lytton

zurück / back