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In the Artist's Own Words

Bill Dixon: Excerpts from Vade Mecum

By Published: January 29, 2010

Materials and Ideas for Discussion for Workshop in Contemporary Improvisation and Composition as That Relates to the Performance

This text has been used (by me) whenever I've done an orchestra or ensemble workshop where I felt that the experience(s) of the participants merited that kind of view in addition to the physicality of the work itself. —BD

  • What is the ensemble?

  • What is the instrumentation?

  • What is (or are) the methods of presenting the material to be used in the performance/rehearsal situations to be used?

  • How are the pieces of material to be practiced by the members of the ensemble?

  • What will be the methods of notation; aural; instrumental (tpt, cello, piano, vocal); spoken; use of calligraphy; the assigning of pitch systems laying out of textures on the piano?

  • From the standpoint of rhythmic propulsion.

  • Setting a harmonic situation on the piano and then playing out all the parts on the horn (the various members of the ensemble left then to notate their own parts at will after their parts have been "described" to them).

  • "Loosely" attacking the situation by the immediate approaching of the musical idea through instant playing; setting the mood and character of the piece and cuing the other members of the ensemble as to when they should enter also giving them the range area in which they are to explore, and indicating by hand signals the density each individual member will use on his instrument and also whether or not they will play (by hand signal) melodically or vertically (as the case may be) also indicating whether they will "trade" off with other instruments (as far as their space situation in the composition is concerned) and indicating the level of the dynamics.

  • Define the role and character of the solo.

  • How are solos to be taken?

  • What is the content of the solo?

  • How is it determined whether it will be harmonic; melodic; rhythmic; or a combination of all three?

  • Define the use of space; silence; rhythmic silence; and the sound of the room.

  • Describe how the soloist makes use of the material; of what has preceded his lone entrance; what takes place (if anything does) while he is playing alone and what will take place at the termination of his "alone" playing.

  • Describe how the entire ensemble sets and maintains textural balances as this relates to the individual horns and the horns in tutti.

  • How are balances (orchestral) entered into and maintained?

  • Define (for this type of ensemble) the use and designation of the term "energy'; define the use of line; define how rhythmic complexity is entered into and maintained (the introduction of lines stated at different times (tempi).

  • Describe how all of these so-called "restrictions" will limit the element of freedom of choice for the player and how the players relate to it.

  • Discuss also the idea of the sometimes complete abandonment of constituency (the being able to single out the "identity" of individual instruments); discuss the idea of the "feeling presence" of certain instruments, the new idea of color, the fact that even though some of the instruments cannot themselves be heard by the listeners, the players can "feel" the presence of the instruments and therefore this "feeling" plays a heavy role in the selection of the material they have at their disposal.



  • Discuss the interchangeability of the pieces of material even after they have been assembled in the slot of final playing order /or performance order/ and how sometimes this "order" changes depending upon the circumstances of performance; the room; (the sound that the room "makes") the audience; the mood of the players; the composer; the idea of defeating the over "slickness" that is almost ever present when a piece of music is played or rehearsed for a long period of time, etc.



  • Describe some of the technical achievements that have been entered into and dealt with.


For Alexandre Peirrepont: The Weavers

The following text was written as a letter to French poet/author/visual artist Alexandre Pierrepont, whose quarterly publication The Weavers focused on "creative writings about creative music."

It is good that you are publishing an anniversary issue of The Weavers that will include the writings and thoughts of musicians. It is to be hoped that those musicians who will be invited to participate will take this opportunity to deviate from the largely artificial stance that so many take when they are interviewed and speak honestly and directly to the issue of their work; those that have work, that is.

If you will recall a few years ago it was on areas of this subject that we disagreed in terms of who you supported via your own writing in the jazz press.

I thought then and I continue to think now that so much time and space has been expended in attempts, in my opinion, to both deify music and its practitioners that for whatever reason(s) people seem to like, that other, and sometimes more important areas and developments of the music itself, relating to continued longevity and artistic merit, is, unfortunately [unfortunately because there seems to be design to it], entirely left out of the picture.

Now I can't be that certain but it is my feeling [and it has been my experience] that in that group of people [albeit a small group] that are more concerned about the music itself, the developments [the pure ones]; problems of the music's presentation; the making available to them of creative people that, for whatever reason(s), are not that often presented, the recordings of these artists, where these artists are working (if they are), than they are with the same old same old and thoroughly recycled ideas (and by now tired and archaic thoughts) about the "spiritualness" of the more overtly theatrically laden performances of that small group of musicians that manage to be put before the public's eye (and ears) due, in my opinion, more to the safety and intellectual "attractiveness" of their exoticness Siamesed to their performances and styles of performances that in themselves, are seldom, unfortunately, able to disguise (successfully) the paucity of musical ideas supposedly resident in the "newness" of their music in addition to placing in bas relief their own severe lack of respect for the traditions of the music that originally placed more emphasis on the music and its development and attempts at artistic propagation (whether audiences were with them or not; whether they were popular or not) rather than the complete surrender to the viciousness that is the gravitational pull annexed to the more commercial aspects of both the burlesque house and the music hall.

When I first got into music serious musicians, doing serious music, knew well the difference between being an artist and an entertainer and saw to it, by their performance, their deportment, their dress and their serious acknowledgement of the audience, that that audience also knew that they knew it.

And whether musicians, significant ones and less significant ones, want to acknowledge it or not, there is a considerable difference between commercial music, music that is deliberately constructed to please and to satisfy what it is that that audience is in attendance for and the basic premise of creative music that music that is supposed to reveal to the listener what the artist is concerned with, relating to the story that he has to, or has chosen to tell.

And fusions, forced or otherwise, or collages of everything to either convey or suggest being hip or attempt a mollifying of the uninitiated to those areas of things that normally would be prone to ignorance or making believe it didn't exist are never things that really, from the standpoint of the larger picture and endurance past the immediacy of the smallness of the time span occupied have never invested in the assurance of the positiveness of the cause of any real enterprise. But who knows this? Who is aware of this? Are musicians aware? Are critics, writers and journalists (and poets who "love" the music and function in their writing because of it) aware of this? And if they are, do they love the music sufficiently to care?

And if they know it and are in a position to inform someone about it, where are they and why are they so silent?

Is it that they also don't know? Have they become so satisfied that they no longer (if they ever did) know?

I always wanted to know about music, how it was made, who were the people that did it definitively, why did they do it, what were the components that were available to all of them such that when this player played something it sounded so different than when that other player played seemingly the identical thing?

Before I began studies in music [and mind you, I was a late starter, I was twenty going on twenty-one before I started music; peripatetic studies in high school, on a clarinet, no less, I wanted a trumpet but there wasn't one available, don't count] and had an insatiable curiosity about the entire enterprise. One day I went to a rehearsal with a friend; I picked up a piece of manuscript paper and looking at the calligraphy that musicians could look at and then extrapolate all of these marvelous sounds, I saw what I later came to know as a chord symbol affixed above the melodic line and it said C7.

The musician I was with was an older musician; he was a trumpet player who had memorized the trumpet solo that Bobby Hackett

Bobby Hackett
Bobby Hackett
1915 - 1976
trumpet
(if memory serves me), took on the Glenn Miller
Glenn Miller
Glenn Miller
1904 - 1944
trombone
recording "String of Pearls," so he was into something, so the uninitiated among us were prone to think.

I casually asked him what a C7 chord was; what did it mean; what did it do; what did it tell the musician?

He looked at me with the kind of disdain that only the uninformed can muster when they have been called on the carpet about something that they either don't know themselves or if they do know have difficulty attempting a coherent explanation to someone else. "What do you think it is," he said trying to mount as much of a Socratic stance as he could imagine one should have when speaking to an "inferior."

Naturally it is an oversimplification to say that the very next day I enrolled in a school where I could have these questions answered.

I knew that this musician didn't know and I knew, at the time, that I didn't know. And I wanted to know.

Nothing was to be gained by wasting time in that situation.

The same thing holds for the premise that I advanced earlier.

A lot of the music, a lot of the recordings and a lot of the music being passed off [and sanctioned] has been done and done definitively a long time ago. So why is it and its practitioners, at the expense of some of the musicians who are trying to create a new music that speaks to the issue of a new experience and a newer investigation of older experiences, continuing to be heralded?

Is it because it is easier? Is it because that music is more comfortable? Does it, like most things that "mellow" with their absorption by time, satisfy and satiate? Is it that the so-called audience for this music is no longer interested in something that will really make them think?

Were it possible for a Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
, Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
, Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
or a John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
to re-inhabit the earth, what would they think? Where would they go? What would they do? How would they be received and perceived?

In 1998 Greenwood Press published Dixonia: A Bio-Discography of Bill Dixon. Because it is my feeling that a book on music should also have some examples of the music I published in 2000 a six CD box set of my work entitled Odyssey.

To my knowledge neither of these works has been reviewed in the French press and if they have, I am not aware of it.

But I have, in recent years, seen quite extensive coverage granted to some musicians who are, in my opinion, artistically vastly overrated, relating to their past and present artistic abilities, history and achievement in addition to being over-recorded. And some of what these musicians (two immediately come to mind and I won't dignify them by naming either them or their would-be piano playing interviewer) say, or are permitted to say, is an embarrassment to the history of this music. Because some of us know; we were there.

So I have to conclude, based on the evidence, that there is more interest in the "energy" of the music; the so-called "shamanisms" and twenty-first century fakery laced onto the authenticity of the music, than in the actual musical developments themselves.

And that is a shame, because some members of the small public for this music, and there are some, would like to be made aware of the totality of the creative aspects of the music.

Anyway, congratulations on the anniversary of The Weavers and I hope that you have many more.

Remember, nothing can ever be old, if it is never allowed to be new.

BILL DIXON


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