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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."

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