Sunday, December 4, 2011

Butch Morris and the anacrusis.

A little over a year ago I met one of this earth's great musicians, Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris. He's also a fine example of a human being. He's the kind of guy who always carries a little notebook around and writes down his ideas as they hatch, for future reference and sharing. Butch has been a cornetist, composer, Vietnam vet...and since 1985 has led "Conduction" gatherings. I had the great musical privilege of working with and learning from Butch in his Seattle workshop and performance at the Cornish College of the Arts.

Conduction, a term he coined for musical purposes, is a means of guiding a group improvisation. Not limited to dynamics and speed, he has invented hand gestures that can capture melodic material, indicate accompaniment and set up a structure involving development and repeats. I believe there are five different kinds of repeats!

Butch Morris at Cornish, 2010
Butch resides in New York and works with certain musicians there, but he also travels the world leading mixed groups in his Conduction workshops. By mixed, I mean that he prefers to assemble folks who wouldn't normally be in an ensemble together: orchestral players alongside jazz musicians alongside rock drummers, folk singers, accordionists, you name it.

Here's what Butch has to say about musical commonality:

"As musicians, we all share a common language. We may speak in different dialects, vocabularies, categories or styles, but the language is music. Whatever the tradition from which it springs, music has certain intrinsic properties beyond harmony, melody and rhythm. Although these properties may ultimately resist analysis, music will always allow musicians to communicate from vastly differing perspectives."

His aim is to get everybody off their normal musical modus operandi and move toward truly listening and responding. To let go of the big solo jazz ego. To get away from the virtuosic lick. To depart from genre-based clichés. 

Butch considers himself to be the improviser and the ensemble to be the instrument. You might be tempted to think that sounds a lot like Gustav Mahler's monomaniacal vision of himself as the artiste before the music workers o' the orchestra, but because Butch's system of gestures invite each individual to develop their own idea, including choice of pitches, rhythms, inflections, etc. within the designated structural framework a creative environment ensues where Butch is not dictator but leader, and the musicians are organized in a way that propels them beyond ego to common cause. Even as some players are designated soloists and others accompanists. The thing is, you never know in advance which you might be.

So what about the anacrusis?

Here's a Merriam-Webster definition of anacrusis: "one or more notes or tones preceding the first downbeat of a musical phrase." In other words, a pick-up note, or notes.

In Butch's parlance, though, the anacrusis becomes an extended means of making shape and expression within the phrase. The implementation of an anacrusis indicates the musician's awareness of gathering up energy to point to the arrival in a phrase...a phrase that they are inventing on the fly. So that improvisation is not a matter of "let your fingers do the walking" as my good friend Philippe describes it, but an immersion in the shape of space, with docking stations, flight paths and all that built in.

In other words, how you start, where you're going and what you do when you get there. Sounds like a winning formula for making a phrase come alive, and one that classical musicians and teachers could have a lot of fun with.

The anacrusis talk got me thinking about the term 'appoggiatura', too, and I'm developing my own definition for the musical implications of leaning. But that is for another post and another day.

By the way, my Seattle colleague, the stunning violinist/composer/dancer/improviser Paris Hurley, who also played the Cornish show back in 2010, blogged about Butch on the Degenerate Art Ensemble's website as a guest writer - post from 23rd Nov. 2011.

Addendum, post-publication: HERE is a BBC news clip where you can hear Butch talk about Conduction and see him explain some of the gestures to a group of musicians who have sheet music in front of them - a rarity in the scope of his performances.


  1. The thing I am feeling the most monomaniacal about today is the pepper spray cop, but anyway...

    Ok, I really want to witness a conduction gathering! This is exactly the kind of experimental music I love most.

    Was this a Scrape thing?

    I think R&B/Hip Hop Anacrusis might my anacrusis of choice! I'm thinking of the Miseductation of Lauren Hill...sometimes you can't tell if the notes are preceeding the beat or just behind it. I love that.



    I gobble up your writing! Keep it up, love!

  2. Hi Paloma! This wasn't a Scrape thing - it was started, I think, by my friend Wayne Horvitz, and sponsored by the Cornish College of the Arts. We worked for a week, M-F from 10 - 1, and then performed Saturday night. That's actually a lot of rehearsal! He also worked with a student group, and they performed on the first part of the concert.

    I would love, love, love to play with Butch again. If something's on the horizon I'll let you know.

    Gotta look into R&B/Hip Hop Anacrusis...