Bill Dixon: Excerpts from Vade Mecum

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Introduction by AAJ Contributor Clifford Allen.

It is rare in the climate of this music to be presented with a view of an artist that is truly multifaceted, even though the collected works of most artists operate at a number of levels and, on occasion, in a number of media. Bill Dixon is probably best known as a trumpeter and composer; he is also a visual artist, professor (Bennington College, 1968-1996), and has created an expansive body of written material, only a small amount of which have been published. These writings include journals, letters, lectures, and short pieces that, in toto, could give one an exhaustive portrait of the state of one artist's vast experiences within an art form and often in complex relief to how that art form has been manifest in our culture.

Bill Dixon

Dixon first presented his writings alongside scores, photographs, and drawings in the monograph L'Opera: A Collection of Letters, Writings, Musical Scores, Drawings, and Photographs (1967-1986), vol. I (Bennington: Metamorphosis, 1986, currently out of print). A companion volume has not yet surfaced, though Dixon maintains a collection of post-1986 writings that he has given the name Vade Mecum, or a "journal." It is something that he hopes to one day have published, along with a revised edition of L'Opera. Dixon has allowed exclusive access to some selections from these writings for publication here; they are unedited and maintain the prosaic and stylistic approach that characterizes his writings (i.e., all brackets, parentheses, and non-traditional punctuation are Dixon's), with a nod to the stream-of-consciousness.

When I visited Dixon in 2008 at his home in Bennington, Vermont, the idea of a "selection" was both necessary and anathema—I spent several days discussing music, art, aesthetics, philosophy and criticism with him, a huge amount of information that somehow had to be shaped into a publishable and concise article. With the thoughts, ideas, reactions, and opinions presented here, it's difficult to tell a reader (much less a compiler) where a "good starting place" is—the beginning isn't always the beginning. Since the title of the broader work is Vade Mecum, I chose to begin with Dixon's responses to a list of questions and ideas presented by the writer Graham Lock, who had been asked to write the liner notes to Vade Mecum 2 (Soul Note, 1996), the second volume of quartet music joining Dixon with drummer Tony Oxley and bassists Barry Guy and William Parker.

What follows are some of Dixon's writings on ensemble and solo playing ("process" writings), a letter discussing the relationship of artists (and Dixon specifically) to certain parts of the jazz/new-music press, and the responses to two then-graduate students writing their theses on Dixon's work. These excerpts stand as a companion to the AAJ interview Bill Dixon: In Medias Res and the selections of visual art available at the AAJ Photo Gallery (search for the "Bill Dixon" tag). Ultimately, however, my hope in presenting this material is that it may provide a window into the thoughts that, in part, have given rise to and resulted from a half-century of Bill Dixon's music.

Chapter Index

  1. To Graham Lock
  2. The Art of the Solo
  3. Materials and Ideas for Discussion for Workshop in Contemporary Improvisation and Composition as That Relates to the Performance
  4. For Alexandre Peirrepont: The Weavers
  5. Answers to Additional Questions from Andrew Raffo Dewar
  6. Harnette Notes

To Graham Lock

This one side of a faxed exchange between Bill Dixon and writer Graham Lock, where questions are answered and ideas explored in preparation for Lock's liner essay to the second volume of Vade Mecum recordings for the Soul Note label (released 1996). It may be helpful for the reader to have these in hand while re-reading Lock's notes to the album and in (partly) experiencing the recording, but they stand on their own equally well. —CA

Dear Mr. Lock:

I am in receipt of your fax of 20 April 1996; I was in NY for a few days and only returned on Saturday. Since time is of the essence I will attempt to provide answers / that are clear / to your queries.

  1. The main reason(s) for Vade Mecum, 1 and 2, circulates around the idea that, as soon as it was possible to record ideas that I felt would sustain the time factor of a recording, I have attempted since 1980 when I began recording more / for me / "prolifically," I attempted to do so. Whether to the listener it is aurally visible or not, I have gone through great pains to space the recording of my work that is commercial recording: I have, for many years, personally, by recording, documented almost everything that I've done / so that that work that did become accessible to the interested listening public could, as much as possible, reflect the different stages or formations, regarding musical ideas that I was involved with. For me there always IS a reason: I'm working on a specific area; line, density, intervals, spacings, etc.; how does that INTERACT, if it does, with what other members of the group, if a group is involved, with what THEY, individually and/or collectively, are working on; the nature of SOUND and the placement OF that sound relating to attack and duration as THAT relates to the basic nature of the trumpet and how that is articulated concerning the myriad of ways that one can NEGOTIATE notes out of the instrument / and the list continues, etc... / and that reason serves to dominate my thinking relating to the RECORDING of my work and in the case of Vade Mecum served for the impetus of that work.

  2. The MAIN problem that was addressed relating to Vade Mecumcentered around the idea of doing a complete work with the barest minimum of verbal or academically notated / via manuscript / instructions to the musicians that would be complete, cohesive, and non-reflecting of the methodologies utilized in its realization, faithful to my concept of composition / those "compositions" being authored by me / and yet "free" enough to permit the feelings and personalities of the musicians to exist and co-exist sans the general "hell-for-leather" musical attitude that is generally / and erroneously / associated with areas of this genre of music.

  3. The sound of Vade Mecum is exactly what I had in mind and could not have been realized without the players that were used. I wouldn't characterize the sound as "foggy'; it seems / to me / to be a liquidly dark and light sound that is, because of the instrumentation and the manner in which the musicians are able to extract things from their instruments, is able to cross both the borders and the boundaries of extreme high and low; seemingly with ease. In that instance, there is more of a pointillistic approach to the sound / relating to painting / rather than the alla prima / or more specifically glaze approach that might be likened to Turner or Monet. Again, for ME, THIS analysis is, of course, in hindsight, only able to be even THOUGHT of after the fact; since at the time of execution it is the THING that I'm after and NOT how it is done. And, in that instance, there are no accidents. The intuition, sensitivity, musicality and performanceability / if I can coin such a word / of things and ideas only vaguely suggested / by me / TO the musicians, completely dovetailed, consequently rendering the idea of "accident" as being non-existent.

  4. I could hear that this music / or this series of thoughts / was indeed possible if I had this group of players. I had not played with either TONY OXLEY or BARRY GUY but had done an extensive amount of work with WILLIAM PARKER. I knew of both Barry's work and Tony's work. And it was Cecil Taylor, while we were doing the concerts in Italy and France a few years ago, who virtually insisted that I meet Tony since it was his feeling that Tony and I shared musical sensibilities.

  5. I view Vade Mecum as more formally DISTILLING things that I've been interested in and due to that instrumentation / and the particular players / permitting a certain KIND of evolution.

  6. The "accident of purpose" can best be viewed if you will consider the way and manner in which the "OCTETTE I" was done. I wanted the sound and textural feature of eight players; and I had four. I knew I could overdub but I didn't want the MECHANICAL sound and feeling of that kind of device. IN recording the piece the first time it was just done; the second time, I used headphones so that I could hear / and thus PLACE / what I had previously played within the FRAMEWORK of that. I wanted that kind of symmetry. The other players opted NOT to use headphones for the second time around of recording and, as a consequence, there are places where the "accidental" bumping into each other is EXACTLY what I like since I, through what I was playing and how I was placing it could BALANCE, in terms of line, height, and weight the TOTALITY of the sound. Am I being clear??? Listen to it closely.

  7. The suggestions that I gave were, as mentioned earlier, deliberately sparse and left open to interpretation by the players. You don't HAVE to play in any specific tonality, if the feeling for being metric or pulsative seems to indicate that that is what you do, do it. Space, texture, lines and counterlines are desirable, as is the idea of unison, octave unison, if it occurs naturally depending on the direction of the music; I will indicate possibilities of where one can go by what I play; dynamics can be observed by the ability to hear all of what everyone is playing at all times. Regarding the authorship of the compositions, what I play is the composition, and what the players do are their reflections or reactions to these compositions; hence the orchestration and the arrangement, however you want to designate it. In that instance, from how I view music / in this portion of the 20th century, after 2000 years of man's making music / any indication of ANYTHING to any musician that causes that musician to respond in any way other than what he would were it not so indicated, IS notation. And since I define composition as "the assembling of musical materials, generally accessible to every musician, into a NEW order" and improvisation as the INSTANTANEOUS realization of composition without the benefit / or demerit / of being able to change or alter anything for ME, all music is both composed and improvised.

  8. With the exception of one piece / for the time span of the CD / all works were done in the order that they appear.

  9. I've answered this as much as I can at this point.

  10. You are exactly right in "supposing" that the titles come after the music and that, in some cases suggest a quality that / I / hear in the music. PRIOR to that, however, I do make a determination concerning what THIS particular music / relating to what I am attempting to do / is about. If you will go through the titles of my works, including the very titles of the albums themselves you should be made aware that I'm quite conscious about the idea of the documentation of both ideas and the placement / in time / OF those ideas. For example: INTENTS & PURPOSES; THOUGHTS; CONSIDERATIONS; BILL DIXON IN ITALY; HAROLD IN ITALY????/; etc.

    VADE MECUM has several meanings; I used the meaning "NOTEBOOK" or "JOURNAL." INCUNABULA has several meanings; I used the meaning "early books" or "beginnings" / And it IS Latin. / smile//. The supposed "link" referring to the music and painting/drawing is NOT, as far as I can determine, pre-ordained DELIBERATELY by me. If there is a CONSCIOUS link that would have to do with the fact that I do both and would therefore had a NATURAL affinity for attempting / even if subliminally / a rhythmic stratification / relating to sound / AND the articulation of words that might attempt either a definition or simulation OF that sound through the titling of the music, etc. As far as DELIBERATELY plotting such a course architecturally to intellectually affect or attempt a DOVETAILING of the work / music and painting / I don't do that.

  11. There hasn't been a "hint" or a "whisper" of Intents and Purposes being reissued on CD. A few years ago there were some mumblings but that is as far as that went. I've asked SOUL NOTE to see about purchasing it from RCA VICTOR.

  12. I prefer both the alto flute, which is what the late George Marge played on "NIGHTFALL PIECES," and the bass flute which I've done some work with. I'll send you a cassette of some of that work when I can get around to it.

    L'OPERA, which is about 400 pages and would only be of interest to those that might have an INTENSE interest in my work and my thinking about a variety of things. I hope to publish it next year and am currently working on a revised edition of the first volume of L'OPERA, There is also the possibility that there will be a Japanese edition of L'OPERA in the near future. Ben Young's DIXONIA, which he is calling a biographical discography and documentation of the performances of my works, is being published by Greenwood Press and is slated for publication in 1997.

  13. The orchestra work that is being released sometime this summer is the work with TONY OXLEY'S CELEBRATION ORCHESTRA that was done at the Berlin Festival in 1994. I'm a soloist on that work.

  14. The VADE MECUM quartet will be known for the two recordings, done in 1993, one issued in 1994 and the other one / that you're doing the liner essay for / sometime in the summer of 1996; and the concert in November 1994 in Villeurbanne, France at the Espace Tonkin. Incidentally, there is a video of the performance in Villeurbanne. As far as recording is concerned, I have an orchestra work that I'd like to record; Andrew Hill and I have / over the years / periodically discussed the idea of a duo recording; I'm thinking of a solo piano recording; and there are various ideas like that coruscating around. I'm currently discussing a tour / for fall, October 1996 / for Italy, France and possibly Germany,that would be followed by some work in Israel. There is also work being done for some concerts in Japan. Of course there are some new paintings that I'm outlining for work now in addition to my wanting to publish a calendar of my lithographs done in Lyon, France in 1994.

  15. It is not so much that "New Music" has been under attack as it is patently being ignored as a music that generated certain valuable additions to the language / vocabulary of music. It is my feeling that no matter how one tries to deny the past that past has existed. There is a kind of "palatable" niceness and "softness" of much of the music / this music / that lacks a kind of / for want of a better and possibly more politically correct word / "masculine" bite to it. We used to call it cocktail music and while there is absolutely nothing wrong with it, it is at times galling that we are made to believe that that is all there is. Yes, it would be useful were you to pursue that kind of thought. It might just wake someone up.

  16. If you can get a copy of BILL DIXON IN ITALY, Vol. 2, which has just been released on CD by SOUL NOTE. The original notes in the interview I had with Angelo Leonardi, were replete with errors which I have, in this edition, corrected. Read what I try to explain there and it should give you some idea as to what I mean.

  17. In going through my works to arrange and catalogue them in the last four or five years for the radio programs that Ben Young has done for Columbia University's radio station WKCR, I began to view the work in a different light. There is a tremendous amount of work and, considering its breadth and scope, by ANYONE's standards, some of it has got to be good. While that is not the basic reason WHY I have done this work, it hasn't escaped my attention that work of any magnitude, or done for any reason, is not completely fulfilled AS WORK until it has been given the opportunity to be either heard or scrutinized by an outside public. Of course, we have a hostile public; a non-caring public who willingly and blindly have their minds turned in the direction of the so-called purveyors of taste and aesthetics. And they seemingly accept carte blanche what is put before them without even a glimmer of questioning. I used to tell students, when they, when it was convenient, complained about the inaccessibility of the new music, that when they went into a record store to buy what they bought / always the heavily touted and advertised more popular stuff / that they ASSIDIOUSLY avoided the other music; they HAD to pass by some things to get to others. That if they did NOTHING about a problem they had, in fact, done SOMETHING about it. So if Van Gogh's SUNFLOWERS are NOW worth about $12 million, how is that possible??? HE couldn't sell them, so they couldn't have been worth anything. And if they weren't worth anything then, then they can't be worth anything now!!!! We know that things derive their value from their marketability or their lack of same. So I was arguing, at that time about the viability of my own work and someone had suggested something to me that was anathema to me. But that was in the summer of 1976, I was on my way, that fall to do the AUTUMN FESTIVAL in Paris. In twenty years I just may have changed my mind... I don't know, but I am assembling my works to make up my estate and the final decision may be left up to the person who will be managing that estate.

  18. You should, by all means, call both Barry Guy and Tony Oxley. I'm certain that they will, in a less turgid fashion than I can, supply you with relevant and important information as seen from their eyes and experienced by them.

    Graham, though I may have tended to ramble a bit I hope that you can sift through all of this and come up with what is important and necessary for you to know. I'm looking forward to seeing how you will handle this as I find in your writing a knowledge, integrity and passion for the music that, unfortunately is in short supply in your profession.

Ring me if you need to speak additionally.

BILL DIXON /22 April 1996/


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