Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris (1947-2013): Conduction, a liberated subversive vocabulary

Butch Morris. Photo: Luciano Rossetti.

What Butch Morris invented and offered this planet is a unique subversive music vocabulary — one that breaks all pre-conceived notions of both creating experimental improvised music and the art of conducting large ensembles.

He wrote a sonic alphabet that liberates the musician to explore her or his most inner core of virtuosic creative expression, whilst adhering to a number of hand and baton symbols — eighty-five in total. An open invitation to deconstruct all previous formal conditioning. You gotta learn the rules before you can break ’em, is the prerequisite to all forms of improvisation.

Butch was a friend of mine; Butch was a bon vivant. He loved great wines and cigars, culinary delights and fine clothes. On stage, he was the dark ninja, the tyrannical maestro. When Butch took center stage dressed in black, he would clutch his baton close to his chest and in a gruff voice say C’mon, make it strong; and if you got it wrong, he would shout at you, even throw the baton. He was the ultimate perfectionist, who guided musicians into waters of the unknown – enabling them to realise the eternal possibilities of ensemble improvisation.

As a musician in Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber, I was shouted at and often left rehearsals with a stiff neck. But working with Butch – in fact, being played by Butch — was such a revelatory and liberating experience, especially when we recorded The Rites1, and later that year played it at the Summer Stage Festival in Central Park, NYC.

I will never forget the very first time I experienced a conduction: it was upstairs at Tonic the Jonn Zorn-owned Lower East Side club, which supported avant-garde, creative and experimental music. I was in the audience, and as I recall, there were around fifteen to twenty musicians huddled on stage in the ensemble. Christian Marclay, the visual artist, was on turn tables. I was in the audience with Michaela Angela Davis and Trevor Schonmaker. I was dumbstruck. The experience was akin to when I first heard John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix. I was transported — transported to another galaxy — and at one point, the conduction sounded like Butch was sculpting forms in a massive swarm of bees. Butch Morris was a manifestation of sonic hybridity rooted in Blackness.

In a 2008 NPR Radio interview with Farai Chideya, the question of how his music could be categorised was asked and he responded thus:

I’m a Jazz musician, I know what I am and this is what I do — I do conduction. And it doesn’t matter whether the music you think I’m playing or professing is jazz or not; it’s kinda not my problem. I work with classical musicians, Japanese, or Turkish traditional musicians, Jazz, Funk or Pop musicians. I’m still showing everyone the same signs.

Each conduction is a terra nova of real-time composition. Nothing is to be repeated unless you receive the symbol to repeat what you just played (eg., ‘memory 1’). To be an element in a conduction ensemble is to be led, to be played — which takes a lot of trust. In fact, one must surrender to the unknown. All gravity is removed. One is projected into limbo-ness: you glide, you’re in flotation mode without a parachute.

I’m listening to The Rites while I’m writing this post. The multiple galaxies that this conduction explores are once again dawning on me. It’s the utter non-predictability that remains fresh on each listening. The music literally traverses industrial turmoil, Baroque Blues, New Orleans Kikongo cyber Klash places and spaces.

In the same NPR interview, Farai Chideya asked Butch, How did you get started on the path? He replied:

Why I started doing this in the first place is, I realized there is a great divide between what is notated and what is improvised and I wanted to understand what that divide is.

I wanted to hear twenty-five people play like a Jazz trio; I wanted to have that kind of combustion spontaneity and momentum and condensity.

I thought about conduction ten years before I even started practicing it.

I didn’t want to do it with one community; I wanted to bring a lot of communities together. Sure, it incubated in the Jazz and free music communities, but I realized that if non-improvisers wanted to do this I could incorporate all of them into the ensemble.

Butch Morris is the epitome of Afro-Sonic Mapping — that’s what he did. His conduction methodology is a radical cartographic approach into diverse sonic realms with a foundation planted firmly in the fertile soil of the Eternal Afro-Sonic Signifier. He sailed fleets into unknown subversive terrains. May his baton, like a celestial sextant, lead us into more expansive, experimental, radical plateaus and plains.

Gratitude and obeisances. RIP Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris.

1 The Rites: Burnt Sugar, Pete Cosey, Butch Morris, Melvin Gibb, Vijay Iyer, Stravinsky, 2003, Avantgroid music and pixelworks.


In late August, I was invited to participate in Ai Confini tra Sardegna e Jazz festival with Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber (FYI, I’m one of the original members). It was a great reunion. The concert, which included elements of conduction, was a revisitation of Porgy and Bess — the Miles Davis / Gil Evans rendition, that is. After the concert, I had the great pleasure of meeting Daniela Veronesi, who befriended Butch in New York on a break after finishing her PhD studies. Daniela attended a number of Conductions in both NYC and Italy and was very instrumental in ploughing through decades of diaries, which eventually led to her editing Butch’s book The Art Of Conduction.

Daniela kindly granted me an interview for Afro-Sonic Mapping, so please sit back, absorb and enjoy.

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