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Out of the lab
Butch Morris's bold experiment yields 10 CDsby Ed Hazell
Morris began performing conductions in 1985; he's participated in 50 of them. Until recently only two were issued on CD, and neither gave listeners a good picture of the form's full potential. Now its tantalizing possibilities are exhaustively documented in Testament: A Conduction Collection (New World), a 10-CD box set of 15 conductions recorded between 1988 and 1995. Morris enlisted the most advanced and uncompromising improvisers from around the world to work with him in these explorations of spontaneous structuring. Each ensemble has its own character; most of them feature unusual instrumentation, sometimes with instruments and musicians from non-Western cultures. What emerges over the course of 10 CDs is a substantial body of work unique in improvised music.
To conduct music as it is improvised, Morris developed a series of hand gestures. Some of these gestures are familiar classical music conductor's signals, some are particular to Morris. There are gestures to indicate that the ensemble should sustain a chord or a continuous sound, repeat a motif, or memorize a theme and play it whenever called for. Gestures can also suggest melodic movement or rhythm in a kind of real-time graphic notation.
There are precedents for some aspects of conduction. John Zorn's game pieces and the gestural conducting of Frank Zappa and Sun Ra are recent examples of attempts to guide improvisation. Using his conduction vocabulary, Morris can also rework written arrangements, which he does with the David Murray Big Band or with his own compositions, as he did in 1988 at Tufts University when he presented Trail of Tears, a commission from the Massachusetts Council for the Arts. The music on Testament, however, is riskier and more ambitious than conducting compositions.
The best conductions are genuine collaborations between conductor and musicians. In No. 25, "The Akbank Conduction," Morris orchestrates the first encounter between Turkish musicians and American improvisers. Co-existing in one ensemble, both camps find themselves in unfamiliar territory; yet with Morris as their guide, some of the most beautiful and unpredictable music in the entire set emerges. The haunting melodies of Suleyman Erguner on ney (a kind of wooden flute) and free-jazz interjections from Hugh Ragin's muted trumpet converse over a tintinnabulous ensemble shaped by Morris into lulling tinkles and bold church-bell tolls.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Maarten Altena Ensemble, a Dutch new-music and improvisation ensemble whose members know each other well, respond quite naturally to Morris in Nos. 35 and No. 36, from the concert series "The American Connection 4." Their improvisations are the most organically developed, and the motifs they contribute are among the most varied and witty. It's the most fully realized collaboration of the set, one in which conductor and musicians respond generously to each other's contributions.
Since ensemble responsiveness is such an important component of the music, an outstanding individual contribution isn't always necessary for a substantial performance. No. 23, "Quinzaine de Montréal," creates its most engaging moments by means of the orchestra's coherence. When one of the cellists (there are five, along with bass, violin, piano, trombone, electronics, and percussion) pours out a melancholy folk-song-like theme over the scrapping and twittering ensemble, it sounds like Bartók in a rain forest. At his best, Morris can shake players out of their old habits, or place a microscope on one aspect of a musician's artistry and build an orchestral fantasia around it.
Sometimes the alternating vamps or contrasting sections seem too schematic to sustain an entire performance. Left to their own devices, improvisers often develop much more subtle ways to organize music. On No. 31, "Angelica," the structures Morris imposes on the group of European free-improvisers (which includes the wild-and-woolly likes of drummer Han Bennink, guitarist Hans Reichel, and bassist Peter Kowald) seem more like constraints; the music takes wing only when soloists cut loose. But despite the inevitable moments of diminished interest, these performances make a strong case for Morris's bold experiment.
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