The New York City Jazz Record review by Ken Waxman

SFE – Positions and Descriptions Clean Feed (CF230)
For the past 20-odd years as “Butch” Morris has demonstrated conduction: structuring free improvisation using a specific series of hand gestures, many improvising ensembles have been created in his its wake. Whether groups use or not signals developed by Morris to rearrange and sculpt notated and non-notated music, conduction is part of their inventory. As these releases demonstrate however, it depends on individual musicians’ skills for a performance to be fully satisfying.

This is apparent on Verona, collecting two Morris-directed conductions from 1994 and 1995. While both involve 11-piece ensembles, the instrumentation in 1995 makes it more satisfying. The three parts of “Verona Skyscraper” vibrate with a lyrical exposition and juddering intensity that upstages the five parts of “The Cloth” from 1994. As two percussionists, a guitarist and two pianists stretch, smack and crunch a pulsating ostinato, distinctive solo interludes interrupt the cacophonous friction. Bill Horvitz’s guitar plinks are contrapuntally paired with one pianist’s key clipping or the aggression of the rhythm section is muted by Stefano Benini’s legato flute tone or contralto wisps from Marco Pasetto’s clarinet. Throughout, Zeena Parkins’ harp plinks are lyrical with a hard edge. As the massed instrumental textures quiver continuously, the stand out soloist is J.A. Deane on trombone and electronics. His braying plunger work cuts through harmonized woodwind extensions or the layered friction of piano strumming cadenzas. Eventually the full-force instrumental bubbles to a crescendo, then ebbs to signal the finale by shrinking to triangle pings and guitar plinks.

Although Deane also solos on “The Cloth”, the minimalist quivers predominating from dual cello string shimmies, low-frequency piano chording and gaunt oboe tones make the themes overly precious. When the downward pinches of Parkins’ harp stand out as disruptively staccato, the textural sameness of the other textures becomes apparent. Luckily by the time the carol-like “Omega” is played, sul ponticello strokes from the celli, and whacks from Le Quan Ninh’s percussion join barking trombone guffaws to angle at least this piece towards concluding excitement.

Flash forward 12 years and bassist/composer Simon H. Fell’s Positions and Descriptions owes as much to juxtaposition as conduction, although Steve Beresford s on hand to bring conduction clues to the 16-piece ensemble. The nine-movement suite is described as “a compilation … incorporating composed, pre-recorded and improvised elements”. With the pre-recorded sequences at a minimum, the tension engendered is between the composition’s notated and free-form sections. Early in the suite Tim Berne’s mercurial saxophone lines create free jazz interludes abetted by drummer Mark Sanders’ rim shots. Later, a chamber ensemble of clarinet and strings echo ornate textures as glockenspiel, vibes and bells jingle contrapuntally and a tubax burps. From a jazz standpoint, “Movt. III” is the most exhilarating track, with Sanders’ bass drum accents and Fell’s pumping strings leading the band though a vamp reminiscent of Count Basie’s 16 men swinging. In counterpoint clarinettist Alex Ward produces reed-biting shrieks and trumpeter Chris Batchelor brassy slurs. Before a cacophonous ending, pianist Philip Thomas and violinist Mifune Tsuji output a faux-schmaltzy tango. Preceding and following this, harp glissandi and baroque-styled trumpet maintain the composition’s formalistic aspects. Fell makes jokes as well. “Plusieurs Commentaires de PB pour DR [Description 5]” described as a “mini concerto for baritone saxophone”, only features the horn’s distinctive snorts when introducing the following “Movt. V”. Before that the piece involves flute whistles, piano key percussion and half-swallowed saxophone tongue slaps. The concluding “Movt. V” gives guitarist Joe Morris a dynamic showcase for kinetic string snaps. At the same time Fell has orchestrated sequences in which staccato string vibrations, woodwind smears and horror-movie quivers from the electronics arrive in sequence. Taken adagio, the finale involves every musician creating snarling dissonance.

Whether that last sequence actually involved conduction, giving top-flight soloists their head is evidentially as good a guarantee of quality music as theory.


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  1. 1

    My interest lies in that area between where the interpretation of the
    symbolism that generates notation meets with the spontaneity of
    improvisation; and in the evolution of the musical ensemble, and of
    the individual and collective identities and expressions that
    constitute music, musicianship and music making for a far greater
    expression in the sonic arts.
    At the same time, I have also recognized an overriding need to locate
    in music an essence that can, by its various operations, present
    questions, prompt definitions, explanations and expressions of and to
    what I feel, hear and think– transformed into coherent, often
    poignant information.
    For more than 25 years through Conduction® and over 35 years as a
    musician, I have had the privilege to engage and enjoy, from the
    inside, this intermediate space between notation and improvisation,
    acquiring new skills and perspectives while doing so.
    The context, of course, has been polarized by history and practice:
    musicians and musical communities bound by notation and
    musicians and musical communities bound by improvisation. Yet
    between them is the space where a potential for new life, an
    expansive range of expression that has gone untouched, prevails; and
    where ideals and ideas incubate for the continuum of the ‘musical’
    (and creative) canon.
    The practice of conveying and interpreting a lexicon of directives
    to modify or construct sonic arrangement or composition; a
    structure-content exchange between composer /conductor
    /instrumentalist that provides immediate possibility to alter or
    initiate harmony, melody, rhythm, tempo, progression,
    articulation, phrasing or form by manipulating pitch, dynamics
    (intensity/density/volume), timbre, duration, silence and order in
    Directives (idiographic signs and gestures) ‘signify’ the
    parameters of interpretation and demonstrate a precision and
    flexibility that may be utilized by all musical forms, styles and
    Conduction concerns transmission, communication and expression; a
    common ground where all culture and style cohabit, not only by way
    of their distinctiveness, but also in how each contributes, in the
    ensemble, to a unique encounter. More intimately, it concerns a
    capacity of musicianship for new skills with new principles.
    The vocabulary of Conduction is symbolic information (directives:
    signs and gestures) that carry definition and significance to propel
    musicians toward substantive understanding, achievement and
    meaning. It provides the precision and the focus needed to navigate
    music’s vast terrain.
    The principles of Conduction foster, enhance and evoke the analytical
    reasoning of each musician’s history, knowledge, intelligence,
    experience, instinct, intuition, expression, will and fantasy as
    fundamental requirement.
    In Conduction, the art of composition and the immediacy of
    performance become interdependent — while the language of music
    cultivates and integrates all vernaculars and traditions open to, and
    in, the ensemble.
    Results are ever present: enhanced musicianship; discovery of
    structure and substance in the arc of the performance; the evolution
    of a social logic based on new reciprocities between human and
    music, and between composer and conductor, conductor as
    composer, instrumentalist and conductor, instrumentalist and
    composer — and audience, attaining new levels of momentary logic
    and new clarities about the character of the work itself.
    Now, this bridge that Conduction builds between notation and
    improvisation fuels interest. For with it, I can identify, embrace and
    exploit the weaknesses and strengths of both together and depict, in
    the process, core limitations in either. Conduction also requires its
    realization in physical, rather than theoretical, form to facilitate (new)
    kinds of augmentation. The logic of circumstance(s) dictates the
    maximizing of encounter, and the musical and social structures that
    grow from such encounter.
    Conduction is vivacious in that it draws on the full expanse of
    musical design while asking of its musicians that they refine their
    capacities beyond style and cultural aesthetic or social difference.
    There are as many rewards as questions here but none, it seems, as
    significant as that which opens pathways, both individually and
    collectively; pathways shuttered previously by custom or fear. And I
    refer to the exclusionary focus of most musical traditions and to the
    fear of compromising identity.
    Conduction, however, is not in contestation with given forms as
    much as it seeks to supplement them with a greater appreciation of
    possibility — a capacity for dialogue uniquely spurred by the
    moments and movements that appear and vanish.
    At the same time, by stripping away predispositions to value this or
    that in music, we also construct a mirror to the kinds of relationships
    that subsist in society, and the wherewithal of music to challenge and
    transform them; a community in microcosm that functions via this
    Conduction is neither method nor process, but practicum that reveals
    only in practice and through all its metaphorical concepts.
    A sonic arena utilizing every tool in its arsenal to construct,
    deconstruct and reconstruct with and from the basic properties of
    pitch, duration, intensity and timbre. Primed by an ‘Extra
    Dimension,’ which motivates us to engage and respond within, as
    beyond, all territory, Conduction invokes a continuum that thrives in
    a real-time transmission of relationships and meaning; the
    spontaneity and precision that we need to ignite and combust order
    and organization within sonic thought.
    From the Conductor’s Perspective
    Conduction is the art of “environing,” the organization of
    surrounding things, conditions or influences. It is a technique to
    capture and discover sonic information, structure and sub-structure,
    meaning, implication and expression (as we construct together) — all
    primary values in our pursuit of coherence and poignancy, and the
    immediacy of place.
    From the Perspective of the Instrumentalist
    The musician learns that Conduction is ensemble skill, and that
    Conduction’s criteria drive attentiveness, discrimination,
    understanding, perception and execution.
    Each sign in the Conduction Lexicon has definition, yet within that
    definition each musician is obliged to qualitatively define its
    ‘content’. The descriptive (lexicon/vocabulary) thus generates
    prospect; and by virtue of the definition attached to each sign, each
    interpretation evolves by progressive self-development through
    historical and momentary orientation.
    To contribute to Conduction, the musician reveals explicit content
    within the evolving work. As such, musical flexibility and potential
    expand as we explore a new condition of liberty to foster individual
    and collective freedoms in real time.
    A state of risk, certainly; a distillation of immediacy, no doubt; the
    incarnation of a step in the evolution of music that each musician
    embodies – this is a goal.
    Conduction is an art that flowers in contradiction (for some),
    ambiguity (for others) and encounter (for all involved). By
    constructing, deconstructing and contrasting composition at will, we
    forge an intermediate space, both intensive and extensive, for the
    evolution of ensemble music, and for a new virtuoso thus versed.
    In this way, Conduction opens a range of possibility previously
    unknown, just barely known or in what we know all too well. After
    all, Conduction is a way to explore music as we make it — a probe to
    mine music and the ensemble at its most basic levels.
    All in all, what we have here is the evolution of a model of empirical
    form; a way to contribute to the musical continuum as possibility and
    a (new) musical responsibility where the collective determines the
    experience of symbolic sonic stimuli; where all forms of notation,
    improvisation, style, knowledge, experience and thought combine to
    establish a unique constellation of momentary logic (improvisation);
    where consciences can mature in a perfectly working precision that
    can never reach what is traditionally known as perfection.
    Let us not forget that Conduction lends itself to the extra-musical:
    transmission, energy, convection, radiation, currents, potential
    differences, substance, electricity, guidance, excitation, temperature
    differences and impulse, among many more.
    To foster meaningful interdependent architectonic relationships
    between music, musician and audience is indeed a real-time action
    whose resources are adaptable to a limitless scope of production.
    I for one am curious, and desperate, to know what is behind every
    idea we can possibly find and have about the creative self, and how
    the creative self so richly contributes to the ‘science of finding’.
    Excerpt from ARCANA II
    Musicians on Music

  2. 2
    Simon Fell

    [quote] “Plusieurs Commentaires de PB pour DR [Description 5]” described as a “mini concerto for baritone saxophone”, only features the horn’s distinctive snorts when introducing the following “Movt. V” [end quote]
    I don’t know where you got this idea from Ken, but it’s completely inaccurate. Maybe you need to listen to that track again – a little more closely perhaps!

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