Butch Morris on the Art of 'Conduction' Conduction has one meaning in physics ... and another in music. Jazzman Butch Morris talks with Farai Chideya about his own style of improvisation, called conduction. His latest CD is titled Nublu Orchestra.

Butch Morris on the Art of 'Conduction'

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Jazz music is about improvisation. Musicians in an orchestra are expected to be able to create new ideas spontaneously within the structure of a given song, but that freedom of expression doesn't usually extent to the orchestra's conductor.

Butch Morris has taken issue with that. He's a New-York-based composer and conductor, and he's with us to tell us more. How are you doing?

Mr. BUTCH MORRIS (Composer and Conductor): I'm good, and you?

CHIDEYA: I am doing great. So walk me through this. Most conductors use their hands and/or a baton, directing an orchestra through the charts laid out in front of them. So what you do has been called conduction. What is that?

Mr. MORRIS: I teach a vocabulary to the ensemble, but we don't rehearse the music that we're going to perform. The performance is really an instant composition in many ways. Most conductors rehearse what they're going to perform.

CHIDEYA: When you say a vocabulary, are you talking almost a sort of sign language, a way of visually communicating with people who are making sounds?

Mr. MORRIS: Yeah. Music notation is symbolic of music just like writing is symbolic of speech, but what I wanted to do and why I started doing this in the first place is I realized that there was a great divide between what is notated and what is improvised, and I wanted to discover or I wanted to understand what that divide was.

CHIDEYA: In essence, you end up creating music in real time. What does that feel like to you?

Mr. MORRIS: I must say I've been doing this for so long, I think this is the best way to play music.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MORRIS: Conduction opens up the possibilities of music. Of course, I can conduct certain things in their traditional way, but that wasn't my need. My need was to really understand how to take notation and expand it for improvisers, and non-improvisers for that matter - for interpreters to understand a broader scope of music and to reach a new state of poise, so to speak.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MORRIS: I have signs that mean sustain, repeat, graphic information, melodic information, but each musician is at liberty to translate and to express the vocabulary.

CHIDEYA: Well, let's go ahead and hear some of your music, something called "Holy Sea." It's a symphonic work performed in 1995 in Italy by the Orchestra della Toscana

(Soundbite of song, "Holy Sea")

CHIDEYA: Tell us the story, Butch, behind this recording?

Mr. MORRIS: Oh, I was asked to come and work for ORT, or Orchestra, regionally, della Toscana. I was told I could have three days, three hours a day, to instruct the orchestra in the ways and means of conduction, and I refused for a long time.

For months I refused to do it because it's quite a stressful thing, I think, for most conductors who get three days to conduct something they already know with an orchestra that already knows the work, but for me to teach this way of working in nine hours, I thought, was going to be a little too stressful, so I refused.

Finally, I accepted, and I encountered the problems I thought I was going to encounter. First of all, the orchestra walked into rehearsal for the first time in their life where there was no music notation and no music stands, and they kind of freaked out because most musicians, especially symphonic players, go to rehearsal, and there's music and music stands.

It took me a day and a half to convince them that something could be done, and I did that by saying listen, you're the great Orchestra della Toscana, and you have a big reputation. I have no reputation here, and if you give a bad concert, it's going to be on your consciences, not mine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORRIS: And finally they came around. We made this recording, and it's quite a piece of music. Gramophone, Stereo Review and Down Beat all gave it five stars, which is the best you can get in a review in any of those magazines. So you know, I was very happy in the end, but I had to take a two-week vacation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Now what about them? Did you get any sense of how they…

Mr. MORRIS: Oh, they're still on vacation.

CHIDEYA: They're still on vacation? Oh, snap!

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Well, this may be something you hate, I don't know. What category or categories does your music fit into? We're going to listen to more of it, but when you hear things like orchestral jazz, electronica, do you want to take on all those labels, some of those labels, none of those labels?

Mr. MORRIS: I don't think I have to. I'm a jazz musician. I know what I am. Whether the music you think I'm playing or professing is jazz or not, it's kind of not my problem, you know what I mean? I'm a jazz musician, and this is what I do.

I do conduction, and it doesn't matter whether I do it with classical musicians or jazz musicians or traditional Japanese instruments, Korean instruments, Turkish instruments. It doesn't matter. This is what I do, work with funk musicians or pop musicians. It doesn't matter. I'm still doing - I'm still showing everybody the same sign. This means sustain. This means repeat. This means graphic information. This means this, this, and that.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Some of your newer music, it's recording Nublu Orchestra. It crosses many genres. Let's take a listen to "Downstairs."

(Soundbite of song, "Downstairs")

CHIDEYA: How did you get started on this path? I mean, who were your influences? Who were the musicians that sparked in your imagination that this is a road you might take?

Mr. MORRIS: When I was trying to figure out how to make notation more flexible for a larger ensemble. In other words, I wanted to hear 25 people play like a jazz trio. I wanted it to have that kind of combustion and spontaneity and momentum and ignition, and I started thinking about conducting.

As a matter of fact, I thought about conducting 10 years before I even started to practice it or to study it. But the interesting thing is that I didn't want to do it with just one community. I wanted to bring a lot of communities together. So of course it incubated in the jazz community and the free-music community, but I realized that if non-improvisers wanted to do this, I could incorporate all of them into an ensemble.

CHIDEYA: What do you think about jazz, some would say, it's lost a lot of its base African-American audience, but it started out with roots in the black experience. Do you think conduction relates to that continuation of the black experience?

Mr. MORRIS: Well certainly. I think - well, how can I phrase this? What I'd like to see is that more of the institutions that are dealing with black study, black-American music, get hip to everything that's not on the radio rather than what is on the radio. I don't know, this could be elaborated on for the next two hours.

CHIDEYA: We're going to have to catch up with you then, Butch.

Mr. MORRIS: Really? Is that it?

CHIDEYA: That's it. More improvisation to come. Thanks.

Mr. MORRIS: You're welcome, you're welcome. Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris is a bandleader, composer, and the principal theorist of conduction. His latest CD is "Nublu Orchestra." You can hear complete selections of Morris' music. Just go to our Web site at nprnewsandnotes.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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