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Interview with Lawrence "Butch" Morris

While outside a coat of white snow is covering the ground, inside of Lawrence "Butch" Morris' East Village apartment we are greeted by the warmth of books, sheet music, and art objects: traces of a life lived with intensity.

At 58, the Maestro is about to embark in a month long celebration to mark the 20th anniversary of Conduction(r), the vocabulary of signs and gestures which has made him one of the true musical innovators of our times. During what he has called Black February, Morris will conduct different ensembles every day of the week in different New York venues. Yet despite the magnitude of the commitment he is about to take on, he is, as always, willing to be challenged, discuss and explain his musical universe...

After 143 Conductions in 20 years, what conclusions and what discoveries have you reached?

I found out what the truly important ingredients are for making of what I had in mind musically. They say that music is harmony melody and rhythm, but I found out that intensity, duration and pitch are equally important, at least for my purposes.

The idea of creating orchestral compositions without written music, sounds quite incredible. How did you overcome the initial skepticism of the participants, both among the musicians and the public?

Like anything else: proof. The more I could reassure my self, the more I could reassure the musicians and the audience that there is something viable in here. Over time, as more recordings came out, people began to feel more secure. And each time the musicians could take it to higher grounds. The Conductions are the proof!

Conduction was incubated in the improvised and jazz music community, but you soon allowed it to include many different kinds of musicians...

Conduction is open to all musicians provided that there is time to familiarize them with the vocabulary and their willingness to take risks. Yet everyone interprets Conduction differently. When I was teaching simultaneously in Holland and Belgium, I realized the huge differences in interpretation. Also that it was fruitless to attempt to have the local musicians play they way I had envisioned jazz musicians doing it. It is not that they can't swing or they can't play rhythm, they simply come to the music from their own tradition.

If your method is codified how can interpretation vary so vastly?

The music is created by the sensibility of each member of the ensemble. The signs and gestures that I have developed over the years can be interpreted by anyone. A sustain is sustain, repeat is repeat and the same for all the other gestures, but each one of them has a particular meaning in each musical tradition.

You have often integrated traditional Turkish and Japanese instruments with western instruments and electronics...

Conduction works with the entire range of what can be described as music. Whether it is Japanese music, jazz , European classical music, African music etc. What was a turning point for me is when I brought in to same ensemble, for example, the Ney (traditional Turkish flute) next to the Shakuhachi (Japanese flute) player. They are basically similar instruments but they were played and approached totally differently. It had a lot to do with the musical cultures of origin. The Sufi Ney player, had a different take than the Buddhist Shakuhachi player, not to break it down to religion but these were the cultures they came from.

In the absence of a written score, one might assume that what you do falls within the category of group improvisation, thus that you need to be an improviser to participate. Yet you often performs with musicians trained to read off the paper...

Notated music is system of symbolic representation, and so is the vocabulary of Conduction. What is required is just a good interpreter of symbolism not necessarily an improviser.

Can you give me an example of working with non improvisers?

I was listening, after a long time to "Holy Sea" (Spas(H) Records, 1998) my recording with Orchestra della Toscana. I worked with that ensemble just three days and it was only in the last day and a half that I really got through to them. They really raised to the occasion: we created some incredible music. Considering that the majority of them is not familiar with improvisation I am sure they must find it amazing too.

In the absence of notation, harmonic or melodic information what was there between you and the orchestra?

Nothing, except my history, their history and this encounter system, Conduction, which allowed them to create on their level. That is major!

When you first started, twenty years ago, this was totally uncharted territory, it must have felt like a gamble...

Not only a gamble, I felt very insecure. I think, in a way, that insecurity helped me. It only started as in idea, but the idea, got bigger and bigger and bigger for me. In time I have had to confront what the cultural, social and educational implication are. All of this is fascinating, but I do not want to turn into an academic or an intellectual: I am a musician with an idea.

What are you looking forward to in the future, what might be the next step?

I have created a community of musicians around the world who are vexed in Conduction. I would like to be able travel the word gather them in stable ensembles which I call skyscrapers (New York Skyscraper, Tokyo Skyscraper, London Skyscraper etc.) and just make music. The next step will be to reintroduce notation. I would like to move to Induction, which is the introduction of written materials that can be interpreted and modified in performance through my gestures.

What would Inductions consist of?

I would bring in some written music and call it Induction #1. I want to play Induction #1, twenty times over the next five years and I want twenty different interpretations of it and yet, to the audience, it will be recognizable as the same text.

You speak of Conduction also as an educational tool...

More and more I realize that the idea of musicianship is a very weak notion: too often musicians are taught to understand style and not music. Conduction can be a formidable instrument in the formation of the musicians of the future.

Alessandro Cassin NYC Jan. 2005


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