At conventional symphony concerts, the conductor is also a secret co-composer, exerting a subtle gravitational pull on the printed score. A tempo such as allegro goes more or less allegro, though maybe a tad faster than last night's performance. Apart from the inevitable mistake or two, the notes stay the same; balances between sections as well as individual instruments differ, without disfiguring expectations. The structure of the music remains fixed—unless the maestro cuts a repeat section or someone really gets lost.
Using his revolutionary concept of Conduction, Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris can catapult an orchestra or group of any size into a new, uncharted orbit. Like any other conductor, Morris, a sagacious composer and theoretician, stands before musicians, baton in hand. Yet something else happens. "We start with no written music," he confirms, "and no predetermined ideas about key or tonality."
Instead, Morris deploys a lexicon of signs and gestures to communicate with the performers. "Every individual," Morris explains, "has the possibility to interpret each direction. I have a sign that means sustain—an outstretched left palm. Sustain is a broad term and deliberately so; 20 people can have different ideas of what that means. Conduction accommodates those differences; individual voices can sound and be heard while making a collective statement."
The resulting music defies expectations of a messy, tatterdemalion cacophony. As heard on Testament: A Conduction Collection (New World), Morris creates a space where various techniques and traditions not only coexist but feed each other in real time. "It is not about conducting free improvisation," Morris insists. "Conduction is a way to ask someone to compose or create melodic information."
When I watched Morris lead a large group at New York's famed Cafe Zebulon several years ago, I marveled at the cohabitation of stomping swing, atmospheric atonality, and straight-from-the-hills, old-school blues. Morris is not interested in a single style, but in co-creating a unified yet proudly polyglot musical language. "From moment to moment, there is an exchange," says Morris. "I create the structure; the musicians create the content."
Despite collaborating regularly with ensembles around the world (after Seattle, he's going to Paris and then Korea), Morris hasn't performed here since the 1970s. He looks forward to teaching and rehearsing during an intensive 10-day residency. "When teaching Conduction," he confides, "I'm meeting the individual musician. I've got to learn about them as much as they have to learn what I do."
Morris's residency culminates in a concert (Sat March 6, Poncho Concert Hall, 8 pm, $10–$20) with an all-star band that includes Beth Fleenor, Greg Campbell, Paul Kikuchi, Paris Hurley, Chris Stover, Craig Flory, Samantha Boshnack, and Tom Varner. Don't miss it.