“THIS IS IMPROVISATION,” Butch Morris says emphatically to an ensemble during a heated rehearsal. He continues, “This is collective improvisation. This is Conduction. This is conducted improvisation. This isn’t necessarily free music. This has a focus and I am the focus.” This moment—found in an uncredited YouTube clip likely filmed in the 1980s at the Alternative Museum in New York—effectively demonstrates the genius of Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris. To encounter the late improvisational virtuoso, theorist, conductor, composer, and performer in motion is to tangle with Conduction®, the rigorous structural method he developed to prompt and push musicians into expansive experimental compositions. It’s a somatic method that demands practice to yield preternatural sonic results—in Morris’s words, “harmony, melody, rhythm, tempo, progression, articulation, phrasing or form through the manipulation of pitch, dynamics (volume/intensity/density), timbre, duration, silence, and organization in real-time.”
Morris is the subject of Global Fax Festival, 2021, a new twenty-seven-and-a-half-minute video by artist David Hammons that is a reinterpretation of an earlier Hammons work by the same name, which took place at the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid in 2000. There, the artist suspended nine fax machines from the vaulted glass ceiling; over the installation’s five-month run, faxes dispatched from across the globe fluttered downward from the machines, littering the grand exhibition space with paper. Toward the end of that iteration of the work, Morris held a concert of his elegiac composition Conduction® No. 113: Interflight (2000). Global Fax Festival, 2021, revisits this performance, cutting together historical video of Morris with footage from a live improvisation by new-jazz pianist and composer Myra Melford, his collaborator of many years.
Temporality and authorship are hard to locate in Hammons’s new work, and the overlay and blur are what makes it so compelling. In early May, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles hosted a socially distanced, invite-only event in its courtyard that was billed as a “private performance by David Hammons in collaboration with Monday Evening Concerts” (the latter being an eighty-two-year-old organization that presents avant-garde music in LA). The experience was a tidal wave of sound and light. It began at dusk in the gallery’s courtyard, which was littered with blank pages of paper, some blowing about in the breeze. Three video screens loomed over a grand piano, its lid removed. The performance began with a montage of video from the first Global Fax Festival playing on the center screen as the remixed sound of Conduction® No. 113: Interflight echoed in a ghostly, indistinct reverb: the jangle of piano keys, a rattle of plucked, dampened piano strings, the echoing lamentations of a cornet. On-screen were musicians, audience members, falling papers, Morris playing, laughing, conducting, watching the papers fall, closing his eyes to take a pause.
Melford entered and took her seat at the piano. Mirrored images of Morris appeared on two of the three screens, bookending a central video of faxed pages falling like drops of water. The recorded audio faded but never disappeared entirely as Melford began to play a surprisingly melodic piece. She improvised from the sheet music of Morris’s 1990 composition Dust to Dust while taking cues from his on-screen Conduction, shifting and changing her rhythm in time with his gestures. Her playing intensified when the video cut to close-ups of Morris’s face, as if these were cues to create a superocean of swelling sound. Her twenty-minute structured improvisation was performed twice, each time possessed of a distinctive form and energy.
To call this a David Hammons performance might seem overreaching for something so squarely about and by Morris and Melford. And yet, as a work by Hammons, it clearly becomes a memorial to a friend, a loving tribute that keeps death close but just out of frame. It recalls the artist’s sprawling 2019 exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, which paid tribute to the legendary father of free jazz Ornette Coleman (and which included facsimiles of the program from Coleman’s memorial for visitors to take away). Here again, Hammons seems to tap into the legacy of “Harmolodics,” a form of expression theorized by Coleman as “transposing any sound whatsoever into your own playing, without having to give up your own identity in the process.” Yet Morris’s holistic soundscapes are distillations of his intense listening, his deep understanding of positive and negative sonic space, his singular control over the unpredictability of groups of people improvising together. Hammons, too, is always creating and re-creating conditions for creation. Anecdote has it that the artist used a conductor’s wand to direct the BLM rock that was placed with a forklift in the Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles courtyard during the installation of his 2019 show. His slightest gesture can often bring about a work of gravity and great importance. Some might call that Conduction.
A video of Global Fax Festival: A New Performance Dedicated to Butch Morris by David Hammons, 2021, can be viewed online here via Hauser & Wirth.