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The Legacy of Butch Morris

1998 Morris-photo by Jules Allen
Butch Morris in 1998. Photo: Jules Allen.

Butch Morris in 1998. Photo: Jules Allen.

Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris (1947–2013) was an influential force in contemporary music, part of a long line of iconoclastic American visionaries ranging from Ives to Ornette, Cage to Braxton, Riley to Harrison. Aside from being a distinctive jazz and experimental music cornetist, composer, and arranger, he originated “conduction” (a term he took from physics) in 1985, a system of structured improvisation in which Morris directed large groups of musicians using codified hand and baton gestures, creating symphonic composition “in the moment.” During a conduction, each musician interpreted Morris’ visual cues through their own cultural perspective and through the sound of their individual instrument.

“Some of (his) gestures are familiar classical music conductor’s signals, some are particular to Morris,” wrote jazz journalist Ed Hazell. “There are gestures to indicate that the ensemble should sustain a chord or a continuous sound, repeat a motif, or memorize a theme and play it whenever called for.  Gestures can also suggest melodic movement or rhythm in a kind of real-time graphic notation.”  In recent decades, Morris traveled globally, teaching conduction and leading improvising orchestras in Europe and Asia. In 1996, he released Testament: A Conduction Collection on New World records, a 10-CD box set of 15 conductions. “The basis of conduction is dynamic communication between eye, mind, and ear, between people- their psychology and imagination,” Morris said. “I’ve often felt I was in a triangle with ensemble and audience that reverberated energy, each passing it on to the other.”

Morris’ imprint on the Twin Cities creative music scene was profound. The Walker invited Morris to Minneapolis for two influential residencies: in 1987, to conduct the then newly-established IMP ORK, a 25-member ensemble of improvising musicians that continues to this day, and then in 1998 with his Japan Skyscraper project, which brought a group of 11 master Japanese instrumentalists performing conductions under Morris’ direction. The weeklong residency and final concert at the Walker involved visiting Japanese musicians as well as IMP ORK, working separately and together.   My memories and interactions with the gentle, wise, joy-filled, animating Butch Morris, who I got to know in New York in the mid-80s and then worked closely with when we invited the Japan Skyscraper project to the Walker in my first season of programming, remain rich and meaningful to me to this day.  The loss of this creative force and friend (to so many) to lung cancer this past January was, and continues to be, deeply felt.

Butch Morris’s life and contributions to the Twin Cities music scene will be celebrated this weekend at Minneapolis’ Ritz Theater during Open Door Music #1, – A Conducted Improvisation and Free Style Music Festival Celebrating the Legacy of Butch Morris. Four of the area’s most adventurous improvising ensembles gather over two days to pay tribute to Morris and a documentary on Morris will be shown each night.  To commemorate the event and Morris’ legacy, we asked two musicians deeply involved with the Walker-sponsored Morris projects — John Devine, director of IMP ORK, and Michelle Kinney, cellist/composer (and recent participant in the Walker’s John Zorn @ 60 celebration) — to share their personal and artistic reflections on Butch Morris.

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Butch Morris and Japan Skyscraper in rehearsal, 1998, Walker Auditorium. Courtesy Walker Art Center Archives.

John Devine

Butch Morris was my friend, mentor, and colleague. I have many fond memories of talking, hanging out, and working together, but some of the most vivid memories are of the times he was in residency with IMP ORK in 1987 and 1998, each culminating in a performance at the Walker Art Center. In ’87 he conducted the group utilizing written elements of compositions written by various orchestra members; in ’98 he returned with the Japan Skyscraper, an ensemble of Japanese musicians playing traditional instruments. On that occasion he conducted one piece with the Skyscraper and I conducted one with IMP ORK, using conduction methods he had taught me and some gestural vocabulary of my own. The concert ended with Butch conducting a combined ensemble of the two groups. I’m proud and pleased to be a part of this concert paying tribute to the genius and soul of my friend Butch Morris.

1986 imp ork program cover

IMP ORK program featuring Butch Morris on cover, June 4, 1987. Courtesy Walker Art Center Archives.

Michelle Kinney

I’m excited to approach the event we’ve planned this weekend at the Ritz to honor the legacy of Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris, and all he contributed to the health of the Great Spirit of Creativity that is revealed through music. We gratefully remember all he has shared, with us specifically, and with the world at large.

When Butch came to work with IMP ORK in June of 1987, we were a freewheeling orchestra of composers and improvisers with a manifesto of chaotic democracy, which felt just great. Audiences roared with laughter during our large group improvisations that would build and build, until they literally shook the walls of what is now the Walker Cinema. The laughter was part of the music, a thrilling, deep, and cathartic release!

Butch came into our process and started to shape this wild energy with sharp, intense looks and fierce physical posturing, waving his baton and demanding “LOOK AT ME!” IMP ORK wasn’t used to this culture; in fact we were consciously creating the antithesis to anything resembling a hierarchical classical orchestra led by a conductor. Those of us with classical training snapped into position, instantly at his beck and call. Those with more of a jazz or free background chafed, smirkingly. There was tension!

But over the week, there was glorious resolution! Butch had us working together like one kick-ass instrument played by a virtuoso. He broke us like herd of wild horses, but gently, like a horse whisperer. He understood that we needed discipline and leadership, but that we also needed respect and free expressive reign. He gave us both, and ultimately we understood that this is how conduction works.

We came to not only trust Butch Morris (probably the only conductor IMP ORK would have been able to take seriously at that time), but also to love him deeply, as a person and as a great artist. He hung out with us that week, socializing, talking into the wee hours of the Minneapolis summer about art, music, devotion and spirit. He saw in each of us what we could contribute to the whole, and brought forth a performance that was a peak experience for us not only as a band, but as musicians and people.

Butch Morris’ career featured this deliverance over and over again, with ensembles around the world. His work is perpetuated internationally, and trickles down through generations. He created a musical genre of conducted improvisation, conduction, that continues to reveal its importance and its place as a true genre as we speak.

He made many, many friends during his lifetime, and will be deeply missed. He had the gift of seeing the highest potential of an individual, and he accessed not only that potential, but inspired each musician to push past it, to the next new place in their artistic and spiritual development as players. He did this musician by musician, tapping into the greatness of each individual, building stunning, surprising, improvising ensemble performances. His energy and vibration were other-worldly, massive, touched, and loving.

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Correspondence from Butch Morris to then-Walker staff member Chuck Helm, circa 1987. Courtesy Walker Art Center Archives.