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Wadada Leo Smith: A Vital Life Force

Lyn Horton By

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The Music. The Trumpet

Smith seriously turned to playing the trumpet when he was thirteen. Today, at the age of sixty-eight, he can give his instrument symbolic meaning. "The trumpet is like a flower; the seed is the air or breath that is projected through it. So a flower unfolds vertically and horizontally or open-like. So I consider the trumpet to be exactly the same symbol as a flower. And when the sound evolves in the mind, then it's pushed out by the air and the diaphragm, through the throat and through this little hole that's drilled into the mouthpiece, it begins from that point on to unfold like a flower, whether rotating horizontally and moving out or whether rotating vertically and horizontally and moving out.

"When it's first outside of the trumpet, it's just like a flower. It actually sends out this aroma or this sound in music and space and silence in all directions once it proceeds from the bell of the trumpet. The horizontal motion is moving outwards towards the opening of the trumpet to evolve on the whole plane of the earth and this other part of it is rotating on itself like an axle."

Smith's view allows him to approach his instrument with a delicacy that is inherent in the structure of natural entities. The trumpet is a source for his musical connection with the world; it is his means of communicating with the world in his own language as well.

Rhythm Units

From their inception in 1967, the concept of rhythm units continues to inform, change and expand Smith's music. They are merely one aspect of how he translates his musical ideas into reality. The intention behind his invention of rhythm units was simple. It was a means to discover rhythm without counting.

Rhythm units are based on the principle that "a single sound has a mate and that mate is a silent sound." The sound and the silence make the complete sound. Smith emphasizes that silence has just as much impact in its being unheard as sound does, being heard. Referencing Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986), Smith further explains how to think about rhythm units: when an eagle takes flight over the beach, it makes a mark in the same way as someone walking on the sand would make a mark in a footprint, even though the mark of the eagle is invisible.

Scheme for a Rhythm Unit



"Thinking about rhythm units goes a lot of other ways as well. For example, when you breathe, you breathe out and you breathe in, that's one complete breath. And the same thing with sleeping. When you're asleep and awake, even though we have different intervals of sleeping and waking, the whole universal concept of sleep is based off of night and day. One is opening and revealing with the sunlight and daylight and clear view and the other one is dark and concealment and they both in some kind of perspective have this relationship to sound and silence or day and night or inner- breathing and out-breathing.

"Rhythm Units are non-metrical and therefore no counting is needed, but a keen sense of proportional measurement that is connected with the motion of the musical elements is a performance. The rhythm-unit concept is one that accepts a single sound or rhythm, a series of rhythm-sounds or a grouping of more than one series of rhythm-sounds as a complete piece of music. The correct understanding of each unit is that the value given to an audible unit is followed by the relative equivalence of silence."

The implication of a Rhythm Unit is vast. The concept affects how Smith delivers the sound out of his horn as an individual player: "feeling and knowing is what a Rhythmic Unit [RU] is." In order for other players with whom he works to understand the implementation of Rhythm Units, they must follow Smith's example at first, "but afterward, each performer must develop their own realization since my example is only my RU; they must create their own RU." Within Smith's compositions, Rhythm Units are incorporated "creatively, with one's heart and head." Rhythm Units are describable in notation form; but the notation itself only indicates how they can be. They are the indissoluble glue that integrates the Smith sound.

The Sound Smith wants to know "how sound resonates in space." Understanding "sonic properties" allow him the freedom to explore unknown territory with the confidence that he will be successful in creating new music. Examining sound property for Smith is logical and simple: "when you make a sound on a piano, you can understand how it resonates within the piano. If you listen very closely, there are some very important things that happen when you strike a string and release it and allow it to vibrate to the end. Do you hear the contact of the note? Do you hear the resonance of the note? Do you hear the decay of the note? And you hear all those fine properties which I call sonic properties and they begin to leave the field."

Smith continues to articulate the significance of sonic properties: "So there are a lot of things to think about when you release sound in space in a particular room and how to think about sound in general. [This] brings in this idea of reflecting on sound or reflecting on rhythm or reflecting on silence or reflecting on space that can be the difference between how the horizontal and the vertical come out in the way I construct music, when I write or construct manual scores. [It] comes out in the way in which I explain to my students how to think about and look at these things, and how it comes out in the playing, because it is all about revitalizing the information I have and trying to find the correct way to make it become more valuable in what I do."

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."

The Pacifica Panel

The Pacifica panel shown in this article illustrates how Smith's panels appear. It was originally drawn in its inspirational moment in 2005. Between 2006 and 2007, Smith spent researching the detailed information he was to include in the final form of the panel. The panel seems to be divided into two parts, the upper and the lower, but the upper and lower parts are indivisible in regards to how they inform the musicians about the music: "the performers move from upper to lower or lower to upper when performing Pacifica."

The upper section specifies how the lower bracketed section is to be played in terms of cycles. The ornamented line or "sonic string," that flies off the upper section denotes "other material to be used in the creating the music. For example, there are eight known objects connected to the sonic string. Four are from Egyptian hieroglyphs; the Udjat-eye, the Human-eye, the Heart and boat that carry the soul to the next world. Two stars, the one in the sky and a Star Fish, the new Silver Moon and the Sun, plus the sonic string are used to create the music." In other words, how this symbolic information affects the players influences how they play the music.

The lower section consists of drawings symbolizing waves in a spectrum of colors, from red to black. To the right of the color of each wave image is written a measurement in meters from "0 M" to "200 M." These measurements, Smith says, describe "the depth that light penetrates into the ocean. It reaches down 200-plus meters, and below that depth is darkness. The water surface reflects about fifteen to twenty percent of the in-coming light. Those depths, colors and size of waves are what the musicians use in their exploration to create the music."

The piece, "Pacifica," can be heard on the first disc of Spiritual Dimensions (Cuneiform, 2009), in a performance by his Golden Quartet. This is the only recording of that score.

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