[Marxism] Butch Morris Dies at 65; Creator of ‘Conduction’

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jan 30 17:15:42 MST 2013

January 29, 2013
Butch Morris Dies at 65; Creator of ‘Conduction’

Butch Morris, who created a distinctive form of large-ensemble music 
built on collective improvisation that he single-handedly directed and 
shaped, died on Tuesday in Brooklyn. He was 65.

The cause was cancer, said Kim Smith, his publicist and friend. Mr. 
Morris, who lived in the East Village, died at the Veterans Affairs 
Medical Center in Fort Hamilton.

Mr. Morris referred to his method as “conduction,” short for “conducted 
improvisation.” He defined the word, which he trademarked, as “an 
improvised duet for ensemble and conductor.”

He would often begin a performance by setting a tempo with his baton and 
having his musicians develop a theme spontaneously and then seize on the 
musical ideas he wanted to work with, directing the ensemble with a 
vocabulary of gestures and signals. An outstretched upward palm, up or 
down to indicate volume, meant sustain; a U shape formed with thumb and 
forefinger meant repeat; a finger to the forehead meant to remember a 
melodic phrase or a rhythm that he would summon again later.

He introduced this concept in 1985 and at first met resistance from 
musicians who were not willing to learn the vocabulary and respond to 
the signals; he was often in a position of asking artists to reorient 
themselves to his imagination and make something new out of familiar 
materials. But he demanded to be taken seriously, and he was. After 10 
years he had made enough recordings to release “Testament,” a 
well-received 10-disc set of his work. After 20, he had become an 
internationally admired creative force, presenting conductions at 
concert halls worldwide and maintaining regular workshops and 
performances at the East Village spaces Nublu, Lucky Cheng’s and the Stone.

Mr. Morris, who also played cornet, began his career as a jazz musician 
in Los Angeles. After settling in New York in the early 1980s, he took 
his place among both the downtown improvising musicians of the Kitchen 
and the Knitting Factory and the purveyors of multidisciplinary, 
mixed-media art flourishing in the city.

Though the bulk of his conductions were with those trained in jazz or 
new music, many different kinds of performers could take part, as long 
as they had learned his method. (Five days of rehearsal was his 
preference.) Conduction No. 1, “Current Trends in Racism in Modern 
America,” was performed in 1985, at the Kitchen, with a 10-piece 
ensemble including the saxophonists John Zorn and Frank Lowe, the 
turntablist Christian Marclay and the composer Yasunao Tone. Others were 
for full classical orchestras; electronic instruments and music boxes; 
dancers, actors and visual artists; and gatherings of 19 poets (No. 27) 
or 15 trumpets (No. 134).

Mr. Morris occasionally used written music or texts, by himself or 
others — he did this with the saxophonist David Murray’s big band and 
octet in the early 1990s, and in more recent years with the group Burnt 
Sugar, an ensemble influenced by his methods, for which he conducted a 
version of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” — but most often he used no 
written material at all.

In decades of workshops around the world, and for a stretch, from 1998 
to 2001, at Bilgi University in Istanbul, he taught his signals and 
gestures. Some of these were common to all conductors; some were adapted 
from the California jazz bandleaders Horace Tapscott and Charles 
Moffett, whom he had known early in his career (he also cited Sun Ra, 
Lukas Foss and Larry Austin’s “Improvisations for Orchestra and Jazz 
Soloists’' as influences); many were his own.

He said he didn’t care whether people thought his music was jazz or not, 
although he himself saw it as derived from jazz but not beholden to it. 
“As long as I’m a black man playing a cornet,” he reasoned, “I’ll be a 
jazz musician in other people’s eyes. That’s good enough for me. There’s 
nothing wrong with being called a jazz musician.”

Lawrence Douglas Morris was born in Long Beach, Calif., on Feb. 10, 
1947, and grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. The son of a 
career Navy man, he played trumpet in school orchestra, and after high 
school copied big-band arrangements for a Los Angeles music studio. In 
1966 he served in the Army, as a medic in Germany, Vietnam and Japan. 
Once back home, he joined Mr. Tapscott’s big band, a creative and social 
hub in the Los Angeles experimental-jazz scene.

After studying music at Grove Street College in Oakland, Calif., he 
briefly moved to New York. In 1976 he left to play and teach music in 
France and the Netherlands. In 1981 he relocated permanently to New 
York, not long after his brother Wilber, the bassist through the 1980s 
and early ’90s in David Murray’s octet, did.

Wilber Morris died in 2002. Mr. Morris is survived by a son, Alexandre; 
a brother Michael; and a sister, Marceline. His marriage to Therese 
Christophe ended in divorce last year.

Conduction, with all its logistical complications and no institutional 
system to support it, was never a steady source of income. Mr. Morris 
also taught and sought commissions; he wrote music for dancers, 
including Min Tanaka, Diane McIntyre and Yoshiko Chuma; he worked as 
musical director for the short-lived ABC crime series “A Man Called 
Hawk”; he wrote original music for Ntozake Shange’s play “Spell #7” and 
for the Wooster Group and the Folger Shakespeare Theater in Washington.

One of his projects, in the early 1990s, was writing music for windup 
music boxes, for which he asked visual artists he knew — including David 
Hammons, A. R. Penck, Betye and Alison Saar, and Michael Hafftka — to 
create the outer shells. But he insisted that the artists not think of 
them as music boxes. “I tell them, ‘I don’t want to think in terms of 
boxes,’ ” he explained. “I want to think of them as resonating containers.”

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