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Bill Dixon: In Medias Res

By Published: September 15, 2009

The Sound's Eye

Critical in Dixon's work is his visual approach to structuring sound, something that fits with his painting and photography. As mentioned earlier, Dixon was a draftsman well before he began in music, starting drawing from a young age. As a painter, he studied with Earnest Critchlow in New York (a WPA artist), and he now mentions such influences as Edgar Degas and Robert Motherwell. Dixon's own work is mostly abstract and uses both line and field in interesting ways, though he wasn't always an abstract painter. "My work was all representational up until maybe 1960—I had a complete utter disdain for abstraction until then. I think at the same time I stopped reading novels I also abandoned representation. I remember one day when I was working at the UN and I was reading a novel, AJ Cronin or something, and I'd just finished it and said 'I don't need a singular figure telling me how a group of characters behave.' That was the last novel that I read." The early 1960s is probably about the same time Dixon began to distance himself from the standard repertoire and compose his own pieces, with pragmatic names like "Trio" and "Quartet" (titles based on arrangements of notes, rather than group personnel).

Bill Dixon Untitled Painting - Ink, Acrylic & Printing Process on Paper, 30 x 32 North Bennington, VT. [2000]

In Dixon's canvases, motifs such as a nude back and bottom detached from the figure into line and shapely area, circular objects akin to a sun, planet or trumpet's bell, calligraphic scrawl reminiscent of later Brice Marden all factor into the composition. There are fragments that come from something—a tradition, if you will—but they are elements of language used in a wholly abstract, for-itself way. His visual works range from large-scale paintings and lithographs to smaller works spanning time spent in administrative meetings at Bennington (some would say "doodles"). Dixon has had one-man shows in Italy, notably at Verona's Ferrari Gallery in 1982, but has long boycotted the American gallery system because of its treatment of black artists. Nevertheless, almost all of Dixon's releases carry an image—either scaled down or in detail—of his visual art, so one can at least get a sense of his approach to the canvas. Dixon's spatial organization of sound goes beyond the two-dimensional, and the openness engendered in his painting and photography is not entirely something flat.

The way in which he views sound is both architectural and (especially in light of his work with Judith Dunn) extraordinarily choreographic. The idea that a soloist need not be out front—rather in the ensemble or behind other soloists, moving or sounding entirely relative to other players and to the space—is not the way this music is usually approached. Certainly, Dixon's voice can be below or behind what the ensemble is doing. Indeed, on a recording like Son of Sisyphus (Soul Note, 1988, with Pavone, Cook and tubaist John Buckingham), Dixon's trumpet seems to be in another room than the rhythm section—an acoustical approach that lays a very different set of parameters on the listener.

"I don't think vertically, but horizontally. For me, if I follow a line I'm playing, I would have to turn around and look at the horizon—and what about the depth of the thing? It depends—shooting out a line and using delay or reverb almost has a cloud effect. You can put forth a phrase, the ensemble can come in, and they hover around each other. I think of this as a cube-like thing, that if it were possible I could walk into the sound and play in it like that. It goes someplace and is a collection of something—why wouldn't it have a width, height, while also having all the instruments on the same level? Let your ear select where it wants to go, toward points where there's something up top, something behind, and you hear trumpets like they're inside the other thing. It holds another kind of responsibility on the ear; we draw out the soloist when we hear something. You walk into a party and if you want to hear what someone is saying, you focus on them." Since the 1960s, Dixon's ensemble pieces and often his orchestral situations have required that every member of the group stand in a circle. The basis for that is so "everyone can be a conductor," but it's hard not to see that visually and spatially, so that everyone is involved on an equal, cloud-like level, giving true form to the sound as well as those producing it.

There's an interesting thing that Dixon does in his visual art—he photographs, cuts up and recombines sections of his paintings into new pieces, a sort of "collage" of components that are from his own vocabulary of work. This relates to two axioms constant through his oeuvre. One is that he always starts with more than he can use in a given instance, and that some things not used may find their way into another piece instead. Another is that he often reuses elements that are particularly effective in multiple contexts. Jonathan Chen's violin line in a work Dixon conducted in 2005 for Anthony Braxton's Wesleyan orchestra is based on a line that tenor saxophonist Steve Horenstein played in Dixon's 1970s ensemble, an anchoring repetition that stabilizes immense blocks of sound. It is similar, perhaps, to the vocal part that unifies the massive 1968 piece played by the Orchestra of the University of the Streets. Yet at the same time, these pieces aren't necessarily revisions or recidivism; indeed, for Dixon, "if your dedication is to a different piece of music and the only relation it has to anything else you've done is that you wrote it, things don't necessarily attach themselves by chronology or proximity. Picasso didn't have a Blue Period; he just painted some blue paintings, right?" Drawing a line from piece to piece is what one might be predisposed to do, but when the oeuvre is as much of a cloud as the sound a listener or player is faced with, a tendency is as close as one can come.

Bill Dixon "Vade Mecum, Series II" - Litho & Xylogravure, 76.5 x 56 cm. Villeurbanne, France. [Winter/1994]

Words and sentence scraps also find their way into his visual art, calligraphic doodles and tracings; they could invoke something, save for the fact that they are only visual elements. Dixon's script is expressive and painterly—curious lines that mark the producer's notes to a quartet of Savoy recordings he curated in the late '60s as part of the fulfillment of his contract to the label (dates given to Pozar, Curran, Watts and Marc Levin). Words and language can also be an auditory element—"Letters: Round Up the Usual Suspects" is a piece he premiered at Bennington in 1990, with Sharon Vogel, Robert Sugarman, Brooks Ashmanskas and Beau Friedlander reciting letters written to Dixon, in conjunction with two trumpets, three basses, piano and reeds. The text becomes sound, even as familiar words and phrases pop out. Curiously, Dixon's solo trumpet piece "Webern" is as much (if not more) about the sound of the word of its title than a direct homage to the composer. "The sound of something, the way it looks, what something means (because I'm not good at titling things)—sometimes a piece falls in your lap as a result. If you like the way the words shape themselves and become a name or something like that, it can be useful. There is a bent for investigating literary trends in my work, and every now and then I've seen something I like and used it."

Dixon is ultimately an integrative thinker, perhaps going back to the idea of collage. The entire sphere of the thing is important; one has only to look at the aforementioned Odyssey or The Collection (both Cadence, 1981) to see this. In addition to the music contained, there are samples of visual art and writings by Dixon and others. The forthcoming Firehouse 12 set will include two discs of music, a DVD, writings by collaborators and drawings. One could conceivably look at such an endeavor from a musical, visual or literary angle. He puts it simply, that "it gives you a better picture of who the person is," but it's certainly more than that. "With me it's been stream-of-consciousness. A lot of people, when they first start to do work, go from the beginning to the middle to the end. Then you realize that the beginning might not be the beginning, and once you're freed from this obligation, you can just start. Because everything is editing, you can put it into the order you want." This view of one's work—all of it—as a collage, a plenum and a cloud is what loosely and definitively ties together this vision.

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