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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.

Butch Morris_002

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.

Morris note w-sig

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

Looking Back: Photos and Notes from 25 Years of Out There

This winter’s edition of Out There marks 25 years of the annual boundary-expanding performance festival. Although each season what is considered “out there” varies, consistent is a commitment to asking the difficult questions: What is performance? What are the relationships between audience and artist? How is a good story told? How can it be told differently? […]

The TEAM, Particularly in the Heartland, Out There 2008, Photo: Rachel Chavkin

The TEAM, Particularly in the Heartland, Out There 2008. Photo: Rachel Chavkin

This winter’s edition of Out There marks 25 years of the annual boundary-expanding performance festival. Although each season what is considered “out there” varies, consistent is a commitment to asking the difficult questions: What is performance? What are the relationships between audience and artist? How is a good story told? How can it be told differently? As Performing Arts curator Philip Bither puts it, “It’s a safe place for unsafe ideas.”

“Way back, someone had the brilliant idea to not call it a new theater festival or a performing arts series, just Out There,” Bither explains. “It allows us to sidestep labels that these artists have been actively defying for years.”

Below are collected images from Out There’s 25 seasons:

While in the spirit of reflection, this year, after each Out There performance, we are collecting memories and feedback from our audiences on a giant wall of Post-Its!
Out There Here

For more Out There stories, check out what theater professionals Young Jean Lee, Mark Russell, Wendy Knox, and Jeff Bartlett have to say!

Two Takes on Choreographers’ Evening

Patrick Scully is performing in this year’s Choreographers’ Evening. Patrick Scully also performed in Choreographers’ Evening nearly 40 years ago, in 1972. You can listen to him talk about circularity and Sage Awards gossip on the latest episode of Talk Dance with Justin Jones. You can hear this year’s curator for Choreographers’ Evening, Chris Schlichting, […]

Patrick Scully is performing in this year’s Choreographers’ Evening. Patrick Scully also performed in Choreographers’ Evening nearly 40 years ago, in 1972. You can listen to him talk about circularity and Sage Awards gossip on the latest episode of Talk Dance with Justin Jones.

You can hear this year’s curator for Choreographers’ Evening, Chris Schlichting, talk about his choices and experience curating in the other latest episode of Talk Dance with Justin Jones.

Tickets remain for this Saturday’s 7 pm and 9:30 show!

 

photo by Cameron Wittig

From the Archives: Merce Cunningham & The Walker, 1990 – present

Leading up to the MCDC Farewell Tour performances this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, here’s the third of three posts looking back on more than 50 years of Merce at the Walker and around the Twin Cities (previous posts here: From the Archives: Merce Cunningham 1972-1989 and here From the Archives: Merce Cunningham 1948-1969).     […]

Leading up to the MCDC Farewell Tour performances this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, here’s the third of three posts looking back on more than 50 years of Merce at the Walker and around the Twin Cities (previous posts here: From the Archives: Merce Cunningham 1972-1989 and here From the Archives: Merce Cunningham 1948-1969).

 

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performs at the Arena Health Club in the Target Center as part of WAC residency in 1993

 

Talking Dance with Merce Cunningham, David Vaughan, Philip Bither and Philippe Vergne in Walker Art Center Auditorium, September, 1998

 

Merce Cunningham Danc company performs at event for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden 10th Anniversary Minneapolis, September 12 1998

Program for Minneapolis Sculpture Garden 10th Anniversary Event, 1998

Installation view from Art Performs Life: Merce Cunningham/Meredith Monk/Bill T. Jones, June 28 - Sep't. 20, 1998

 

Merce Cunningham Dance Company perform Ocean in Rainbow Quarry at Waite Park, September 11 - 13, 2008

 

Merce Cunningham Dance Company perform Ocean in Rainbow Quarry at Waite Park, September 11 - 13, 2008

 

Merce Cunningham Dance Company perform Ocean in Rainbow Quarry at Waite Park, September 11 - 13, 2008

From the Archives: Merce Cunningham & The Walker, 1972-1989

Anticipating next week’s performances by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company on its Farewell Legacy Tour, and adding to the previous post charting Cunningham’s history at the Walker, here we cover the ’70s and ’80s. Click on any image for a larger view. Cunningham performs Canfield in 1972 in a Walker gallery. Design by Robert Morris. […]

Anticipating next week’s performances by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company on its Farewell Legacy Tour, and adding to the previous post charting Cunningham’s history at the Walker, here we cover the ’70s and ’80s. Click on any image for a larger view.

Cunningham performs Canfield in 1972 in a Walker gallery. Design by Robert Morris.

Program cover from 1972:

Cunningham and John Cage perform A Dialogue, 1974:

Event No. 127: Merce Cunningham and Co. perform at the Macalester College gym, with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, 1975:
Merce Cunningham at the Firehouse Theater in Minneapolis, 1977:
With company members in rehearsal, 1978:

In 1981, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (then directed by Dennis Russell Davies) dedicated an entire year to the work of Cage and copresented a number of Cunningham residencies and performances, including the groundbreaking Perspectives series, which highlighted musical elements of the repertoire, complete with lectures, classes, and films.

 

Here’s a poster from Cunningham’s concurrent residency at the Walker:

A video interview that same year, “Chance Conversations,” took place at Saltari Studios in Minneapolis:

The Company premieres Fabrications at Northrop Auditorium, 1987:

Cunningham backstage at the Walker’s auditorium (now the Walker Cinema), 1989:

From the Archives: Merce Cunningham & the Walker, 1948 – 1969

With its historic acquisition of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection earlier this year, the Walker marked the beginning of a new era in its more-than-50 year relationship with the legendary choreographer. The collection comprises hundreds of works by a roster of leading visual artists who created sets, props, costumes, backdrops and other decor for the […]

With its historic acquisition of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection earlier this year, the Walker marked the beginning of a new era in its more-than-50 year relationship with the legendary choreographer. The collection comprises hundreds of works by a roster of leading visual artists who created sets, props, costumes, backdrops and other decor for the company.

Cunningham Fellow Abi Sebaly has been providing a sneak preview of some of the objects here on the Walker blogs (while throwing in some recipes with impressive art-historical pedigrees), and the first exhbition featuring works from the collection, Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham/Robert Rauschenberg, is set to open November 3.

Dance Works I is part of a larger showcase of events, The Next Stage: Merce Cunningham at the Walker Art Center, which fittingly includes some of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s final performances  on its Farewell Legacy Tour.

In leading up to that “Next Stage,” it also seems fitting to look back and chart some key moments in the decades-long association between Cunningham and the Walker. Thanks to Walker archivist Jill Vuchetich and marketing intern Ashley Monk for finding, scanning, and uploading the artifacts below, and for a couple more blog posts in the coming weeks. Click on any image for a larger view.

 

Cunningham’s relationship with the Walker started with a cold call of sorts, via US post, in 1948. An enterprising sort, Cunningham — who was then performing as a soloist with composer John Cage, before founding the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1953 — wrote to the Walker’s then-director Daniel S. Defenbacher regarding a possible tour stop in Minneapolis in the winter of 1949.

The handwritten note on the letter above ( “? nothing else in letter”) indicates that Cunningham may have forgotten to enclose his promotional brochure; in any case, one eventually arrived at the Walker “under separate cover,” as they used to say. Click on the second image to read commentary on Cunningham’s “gifts as a lyric dancer” from the Herald-Tribune‘s esteemed dance critic (and poet and novelist), Edwin Denby:

While Cunningham’s Twin Cities debut took place at a YMCA in the late ’50s, the Walker’s first presentation of this “leading figure in the contemporary American dance” occurred on February 13, 1963. The Walker facility at that time lacked a theater, so the performance, which included John Cage and ” ‘far-out’ pianist ” David Tudor, took place nearby at The Woman’s Club:

That 1963 performance was an apparent success, as Merce & Co. returned the following year. This time they performed in the brand-new Guthrie Theater, which was to host many Walker dance and music programs. The 1964 program, as in 1963, included Antic Meet — a piece that will also be performed during the Company’s final Twin Cities performances November 4 – 6, 2011. Note Cunningham’s statement at the end of the program, which seems simple and forthright today, but was quite radical at the time.

In 1967 the Walker brought Cunningham to town to offer a series of local classes:

And in 1969, he visited (and performed) as an artist-in-residence, the first of nine such engagements. The poster for that performance featured art from Jasper Johns, who by then had replaced Robert Rauschenberg as Cunningham’s primary artistic collaborator on Company productions.

1969 Merce Cunningham Dance Company poster.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stay tuned for posts featuring artifacts from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s.

Tony Allen Tomorrow at the Cedar

  In a July 1999 article, Wire magazine called Tony Allen “the Human Loop,” and wrote  “Allen spins his polyrhythms into hypnotic swirls of Tantric proportions that recall both the infinity of the SP1200 and the long-lost skills of the Meters’ Ziggy Modeliste.” Allen himself has said that “when I play it’s like an orchestra […]

photo Bernard Benant

 

In a July 1999 article, Wire magazine called Tony Allen “the Human Loop,” and wrote  “Allen spins his polyrhythms into hypnotic swirls of Tantric proportions that recall both the infinity of the SP1200 and the long-lost skills of the Meters’ Ziggy Modeliste.” Allen himself has said that “when I play it’s like an orchestra in itself.”

 

Allen was the rhythmic force of Fela Kuti’s music from 1964-1980, and legend has it that four drummers were required to replace Allen in live shows after he left the band.

 

Many writers on Afrobeat attribute the sound in part to the funk of James Brown, but Allen will tell anyone that the influence ran the other way around. When James Brown played Nigeria in 1970, his arranger came to a Fela show and attempted to transcribe Allen’s foot patterns.

 

Tony Allen has lived in Paris with his family since 1985. A complete biography can be read here.

 

His show tomorrow is a co-present with the Cedar Cultural Center, he will be joined by nine other musicians, playing a mix of classic Afrobeat jams and tracks off his newest release, Secret Agent.


Doors are at 7 pm, show is at 8. Tickets here.

 

Eiko and Koma Coming Soon

As mentioned in this blog, Eiko & Koma’s retrospective launched last month, and will be making its way to the Walker starting in October. Mark McCloughan, prior Walker Art Center Performing Arts Intern, had this to share about Eiko & Koma: “As a Walker Art Center intern in the summer of 2009, I worked in […]

Eiko and Koma photos by Anna Lee Campbell

As mentioned in this blog, Eiko & Koma’s retrospective launched last month, and will be making its way to the Walker starting in October.

Mark McCloughan, prior Walker Art Center Performing Arts Intern, had this to share about Eiko & Koma:

“As a Walker Art Center intern in the summer of 2009, I worked in the performing arts department, supporting the wonderful staff as they planned events for the 2009-2010 season and beyond. One of the projects that was on the horizon for late 2010 was a residency by Eiko & Koma, two Japanese-American dancer-choreographers who have a long history with the Walker. Over the course of Eiko & Koma’s career, the Walker has been a great supporter, presenting and even commissioning new work from the duo.

Now, almost a year, later, I find myself working as an assistant to these great artists, who are gearing up to make the planned residency a reality. As part of Eiko & Koma’s Retrospective Project (which you can read more about here) the Walker has commissioned a new piece from the artists, which will take the form of a living installation titled ‘Naked’. Eiko and Koma have been hard at work over the last few months conceptualizing and designing the piece, and will spend the next few months asartists-in-residence at the Park Avenue Armory building the installation before it arrives in Minneapolis in November.

It’s been really exciting for me to get to know Eiko & Koma, both through exploring their history at the Walker and assisting them with their current work. ‘Naked’ is shaping up to be something really special, and I hope many of you can make it to the installation in November to see the most recent product of the decades-long collaboration between Eiko & Koma and the Walker.”

While plans for their month-long installation here in November, Naked, are already in place, Eiko and Koma are exploring ways to add additional components to the piece. They’ve been chosen by United States Artists to participate in a unique fundraising strategy that may be “the first Internet site that allows direct public donations between art patrons and pre-selected artists” according to the Eiko and Koma website.

Part of their residency plans at the Walker also include a retrospective catalog of their work.

A final note of interest is that Eiko and Koma have put together a video anthologizing their entire body of work, nice for those new to the oeuvre. Check the first clip to see White Dance, with Koma “throwing potatoes with abandon” as Gia Kourlas wrote in the New York Times.

Rock around the block: a short history of Rock the Garden

Inspired by outdoor events covering the Twin Cities summer calendar, in 1998 the Walker put together a concert that brought the Garden and the Center together for a day of drinking and snacking and mingling and, of course, rocking out.   That first Rock the Garden, featuring the Jayhawks, was a relatively small-scale endeavor: Put up a […]

Inspired by outdoor events covering the Twin Cities summer calendar, in 1998 the Walker put together a concert that brought the Garden and the Center together for a day of drinking and snacking and mingling and, of course, rocking out.  

Rock the Garden, 1998, on Vineland Place

That first Rock the Garden, featuring the Jayhawks, was a relatively small-scale endeavor: Put up a stage on Vineland Place, bring in a band, show some Garden visitors and music fans a new side of our contemporary arts center. It was an immediate sucess, and in fact drew larger crowds than expected, thus inspiring another outdoor show in 2000.  

Jayhawks in 1998

For Rock the Garden 2000, Sonic Youth came around and were joined by Stereolab, and the Walker had another success on its hands as masses of concert-goers flooded Vineland Place.  

Sonic Youth in 2000

Sterolab in 2000

 

 During Rock the Garden 2002, Martin Medeski & Wood brought their funky jazz jams to the Walker, inspiring yet another summer of awesome music & incredible scenery.  

Medeski Martin & Wood in 2002

 

The next year, Rock the Garden 2003 became a full-on, multiple-band festival.  Still rocking Vineland Place as a sweetly oversized block party, the Walker hosted FogThe Bad Plus, and Wilco as guests crammed together in sweaty celebration of indie music.  

  Wilco in 2003 

In 2004, Barbara Cohen, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, and David Byrne gave their own interpretations of what it means to rock the garden.  

 David Byrne in 2004 

 

RTG, as it’s known to Walker staff, was on hiatus for 2005, 2006, and 2007, as Vineland Place transformed. The Walker’s expansion went up, along with an underground parking ramp, and the ’60s-era Guthrie came down. In 2008, the festival was revived in a new partnership with a public radio station that had gone on the air in 2005 —  89.3 The Current – and welcomed not three but four bands: Bon Iver, Cloud Cult, The New Pornographers, and Andrew Bird.

Andrew Bird in 2008

Last year, Rock the Garden’s stage was turned 90 degrees to face the rolling green hill along on the west side of the Walker. This seemingly minor adjustment made for a whole new kind of experience as fans got off the street and spread out on the lawn — and the festival escalated to grande proportions in a fantastic show put on by Solid Gold, Yeasayer, Calexico, and The Decemberists.  

The masses at Rock the Garden ’09

I hope you’re excited for Retribution Gospel Choir, OK Go, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, and MGMT because they’ll be here before you know it to Rock the Garden with you.

Miroku Reel-to-Reel

What does it mean to present work? More specifically, what is it like for Japanese artists to present their work here in the U.S.? I ask on the occasion of post-performance reflections, having just seen Saburo Teshigawara’s Miroku. But I also ask due to another upcoming occasion; August 2010 will mark 65 years since the […]

What does it mean to present work? More specifically, what is it like for Japanese artists to present their work here in the U.S.? I ask on the occasion of post-performance reflections, having just seen Saburo Teshigawara’s Miroku. But I also ask due to another upcoming occasion; August 2010 will mark 65 years since the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and this anniversary is a notable reminder amongst U.S.-initiated discussion over a nuclear-free world and accusations over alleged nuclear weapons development elsewhere. The nuclear bombings were one way that the U.S. has “presented work” overseas. And this, I think, is helpful to me in understanding Saburo Teshigawara’s Miroku.

Like butoh, which developed in a post-nuclear fallout Japan and which could be interpreted partly as a response to the atomic devastation, Teshigawara’s dance seems equally invested in Japan’s radioactive legacy—how best to respond to the unprecedented aggression of nuclear war and its subsequent aftereffects. Onstage, Teshigawara jerks, writhes, and glides, unspooling like so much tape. It’s no stretch to say that his dance exists in multiple time zones, in different degrees of fast and slow, and his movements convey a seeming reversal of the time we’ve witnessed just before. Dancers, perhaps more than any other artists, know and feel what it means to inhabit the body, to live inside its frame and understand just what the body represents and how it is seen. And Teshigawara, aided as he was by the perfectly discordant sound and light that he designed for this piece, seemed to be slipping free from the past and its prescribed body—its sad blue territory—and to be shaking off the malaise that accompanied what the U.S. wrought on his country.

There is a part in Miroku where Teshigawara stands motionless with his back against the wall, while a zoetrope pattern of lights moves around him and the perimeter of the stage. This is a moment of clarity as we recognize Teshigawara’s distinction between true motion and the illusion of it. And recognizing that Teshigawara created all aspects of this piece helps me understand a further distinction, that sometimes a rapid succession of motion can hide the true illusion, the motive, behind that motion. Despite no words spoken, or perhaps because of it, Miroku seemed to me an act of psychological diplomacy. And what a gift it is when beautiful work is presented.

There are only two nights left to buy tickets.

For audience members who’d like to dig deeper, local choreographer/performer Justin Jones interviewed Performing Arts Curator Philip Bither about Saburo Teshigawara’s Miroku: click here to listen to these podcasts, which are part of Justin’s Talk Dance Series.

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