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Artist Profiles

Wadada Leo Smith: A Vital Life Force

By Published: May 12, 2010

The Scores

Smith has written a thousand pieces using traditional staff-line notation. But, beginning in the late '60s through to the early '70s, Smith created a method of music notation he called Ankhrasmation. This method became a full-fledged language rich in meaning, indicative of the components of life that can be observed and absorbed and understood. "Ankh" comes from the Egyptian word meaning vital life force, while "Ras" is the Amharic or Northern Ethiopian word for Father, and "Ma" simply corresponds to a conventional word for Mother. In the largest sense, one could say that when Father and Mother procreate, they embody a vital and seminal life force. The very name itself has an international connotation and its tendrils intimate the essence of Smith's passion for completeness.

Smith's scores are unconventional. They cannot be read like a traditional chart with measures, parts, bar lines, and notes. Rather they are read horizontally, vertically, and circularly. He prefers that his scores be described as symbolic rather than graphic. "I'll tell you the reason why. Symbols cannot be fixed in numbers nor can they be limited." Furthermore, the limitlessness of symbolism permits Smith's music to transcend time, for no score can be played the same way twice, even though it can be played multiple times. This means that the meanings of the symbols will change every time in accordance with the players' setting in their hearts and minds. The limitlessness is also defined by Smith's imagination and the symbols he creates for the scores, some of which he says have come to him while sleeping or taking walks.

Every score is made up of panels which Smith draws. The panels can be in color or in black and white. Each panel is on an 8-1/2" by 11" letter-size sheet of paper and consists of an original image. Sometimes Smith describes these images as forms. Within the images are the symbols that Smith chooses to indicate cycles of sounds, individual or groups of sounds. Whatever colors he has decided upon to illustrate the sonic units determine how each player, in a group setting, will play the music. "But no player knows what the other is doing." One panel is analogous to one bar in traditional score language. The dynamics of the music might be implied in gestural markings, such as ribbons, squiggles, arrows or single curved shapes or lines. But, on many levels, including notational, sonorous, and as related to how musicians interact with them, every panel represents a complete dynamic, for Smith has created them as ongoing discovery process.

Sonic units are intended to correspond to elements of nature or experience. It is up to each player of the music to research the characteristics of the sonic units; in other words, what these color indicators mean to the individual player. "Once the research is done, you can figure out how your part is expressed," explains Smith. The music can only be realized when the colors are assigned a reference. Yellow, for instance, can reference a banana, a sunflower, the sun. Each player constructs his own ideas about the references he has chosen in detail. Continuing with the example of yellow referenced as a sunflower: it has petals, seeds, leaves, and can have a large diameter. These details become a part of how the musician thinks about and shapes his part within the whole music.

The least number of panels Smith has used in a complete score is one, the most is sixteen. When a piece is constructed, the panels can be touching, overlapping, or have spaces between them or "could all be interlocked in a way." But the configuration of the shape in which the panels are laid out "is very important, because the shape shows the structure of how the panels connect in a music performance." Smith has drawn over one hundred individual panels.

When looking at a score, or panel for that matter, it is impossible to tell how the music derived from it will sound. "The score is only good for the actual performance of the music." Smith elucidates. "When I started putting this language together and had some of these pieces rehearsed, I'd go home and sit down to get the score and I couldn't find it and so I said [laughing]: 'Whoa, that's kinda weird,' and then I looked again and I couldn't find it, and so what I realized was that each time I used the score, it would be the same. [But] When I realized I couldn't find the relationship in the actual music, I realized that that to me was one of the most important parts about it."

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