by John Schaefer —
Butch Morris, who died this past Tuesday at 65, was a cornetist and conductor, best known for developing a musical vocabulary that he called “Conduction.” The term meant conducted improvisation, where Butch would shape the music through a series of gestures, and both audience and ensemble could watch the performance unfold as they listened. It is not the type of musical experience that radio is good at capturing, unfortunately; it really is one of those “you had to be there” things. But we did give it a try, once, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
This performance comes from one of our annual day-long marathon concerts of American music that we used to do in the 1980s. “Americathon 1987” took place, if my memory is right, in The New School in Greenwich Village. We were broadcasting live, which meant that after each artist or band finished, I had to cover the sounds of the set changes with talk. This is not unusual; I would just talk to the next musician or composer while the previous gear was being removed and the next ensemble moved into place. It’d take a few minutes, we’d get an introduction to the music, and off they’d go.
What was unusual was Butch Morris’s ensemble that day. It included the Philadelphia new music group Relache and a host of leading musicians on New York’s “downtown” scene (including many who are still major figures and at least one, the cellist Tom Cora, who is no longer with us), and several of the musicians were playing through complicated electronic rigs. What this meant is that after the usual 5 minutes of talking to Butch, the crew was clearly not even close to being ready. 10 minutes… still not ready, gotta keep talking. 15 minutes… By the end of this epic interview – itself a kind of conducted improvisation – both Butch and I were sweating. But finally, after about 18 minutes, the band was ready to go. By that time, Butch, who was as game as they come, had given us a far more in-depth look at his process than either of us had expected. Now, I think it’s great that we have this tape – although it is missing about 2 minutes in the middle where one reel of tape had run out and another had to be quickly set up. (The engineers were caught off guard by the long set change too.) I’ve edited it together so the conversation still makes sense.
And after all the talking, there is the performance. It is obviously just the audio portion of what was a multi-sensory event, but it’ll have to do. And it does capture the sounds of a one-time performance by a crack group of musicians.