Bill Dixon: In Rehearsal, In Performance


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A significant portion of the rehearsal was spent discussing solos, but certainly not in any conventional sense. I have often heard Dixon define a solo as "the smallest orchestra possible." Blurring the lines between self and surroundings by essentially dismissing both concepts as falsehoods, this startling view of the solo imbues the performer with the freedom of unlimited sonic possibility. "If you're playing at a volume where you can't hear everyone else in the orchestra, you're playing too loud," Dixon stated, years of conducting and playing experience informing the prescriptive observation. After some group hesitation when the solos were to begin, Dixon summed up his philosophy as simply and as beautifully as I've ever heard: "Do what you do, and do it definitively. If you do this, it will work."

Revelatory moments such as this define Dixon's approach to the dual arts of music and education. He is nothing if not clear, his speech is as musical as his music is rhetorical; his love of the theater and of sound in general being ever-present, transmitted with equal vigor to those he teaches. It was evident in the room just before the performance, anticipation growing palpably through the moment when a lifetime achievement award, advertised for the evening, was conspicuously not presented to Dixon. It swelled as the applause welcomed composer and orchestra and reached fever pitch in the expectant instant before the first note, a crystalline saxophone invocation, the embodiment of chilly precision that suspended time and dispelled rational thought. Again, I could hear Dixon exhort: "Don't just jump in—wait."

How best to encapsulate a glacially frozen moment? More than any other concert at the festival, Dixon's work seemed as simultaneously natural and complex as the drawing of breath. All parts of the orchestra coalesced in huge waves of sound, but each ripple was also readily apparent, a staggering blend of macro and microcosm; this in itself is not new in Dixon's work, nor are the unison passages that served as a kind of ritornello. The placement of each sound, defined by the moment, and the juxtapositions of each spontaneous emotive and structural event in the overall schema defined the piece. Size, scale and volume became relative; the acoustic space in which we sat seeming to grow and shrink in slow fade as the piece progressed in overlapping spirals. There were valleys of silence, as if all involved were breathing between almost impenetrably long phrases, and then the almost imperceptible motion would continue.

Bill Dixon

An apotheosis of sorts was reached when Dixon finally began to play. Using his now customary reverb/delay combination, he brought simultaneous disorder and focus to the work's second half. His playing has embraced rhythm and melody as a symbiosis; as with every other element in his music, they birth each other, existing in a state of constant transition, the embodiment of Baraka's "changing same" if ever there was one. Building line upon line with the delay, and bringing overtones and breathed inflections to the fore with reverb, the orchestral qualities of a Dixon solo were in full effect. Tones so achingly thin they resembled flute more than trumpet vied with sudden bursts, exclamations so forceful as to be threatening, a quality sadly diminished on record.

The others followed stridently—how could they not follow presented with such disciplined freedom?

Blindness prevented me from seeing who was actually playing what passages, and Dixon's orchestration does not follow any of the conventions associated with the traditions on which he came up—so much the better. Similarly, notions of improvisation and composition were obscured to the point of irrelevance, taking formal considerations with them. Passages of obviously composed material emerged from what I had taken to be collective improvisation, only to vanish as quickly, making me unsure of the method behind what I had just heard, what I was then hearing. Dixon's definitions of improvisations and composition, with which I began this article, encapsulate, with the beauty of precision, the experience of Dixon's music in the concert hall.

Moments stand out in my memory, like beacons in a labyrinth. Warren Smith's short sharp shocks of tympani fanned momentary flames amidst the liquid counterpoint. The trumpet and cornet trio of Taylor Ho Bynum, Graham Haynes and Steve Haynes engaged in a stunning dialogue; there was the final ascent, all remnants of solo absorbed into a terrifyingly beautiful high-volume collectivity that forced an eruption of applause just before the meditative conclusion.


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