Entering Ankhrasmation: Wadada Leo Smith at The New Quorum in New Orleans

photos by Larry Blumenfeld, using Jonathan Freilich's excellent camera
Wadada Leo Smith leading a workshop performance at The New Quorum/ cellist: Helen Gillet/ photos by Larry Blumenfeld, using Jonathan Freilich’s excellent camera

In January, I got the chance to return to New Orleans for a focused period of writing and reflection, courtesy of The New Quorum, where I was writer-in-residence within an inaugural residency class. Having unpacked my clothes, I’m now unpacking my notes, interviews and conversations. Here’s the first of a series of posts drawn from that experience.
The New Quorum is an artist residency organization founded and directed by Gianna Chachere, and dedicated to bringing professional musicians and writers from across the globe to New Orleans for meaningful cultural exchange with local and regional artists.
If you’re a musician or writer interested in such an opportunity, now’s the time to go here: Applications for Spring residencies (May 16-June 13) are accepted through March 4.
If you’d lend financial or volunteer support go here now: This innovative program deserves such nurturing.
The night after I settled into my temporary and lovely home on Esplanade Avenue, the living room Christmas tree, which was still up, was dotted with sheet music. This was the first of four workshops for musicians led by composer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, followed by an informal house concerts as part of his January residency.
Smith’s music, which is both singular and part of an influential movement connected to Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), demands improvisatory spirit. And, well, those Christmas tree branches worked just fine as music stands.
The music itself was anything but ornamental. Smith’s work employs “rhythm units” and is expressed on paper through “Ankhrasmation.” Smith uses this neologism—formed of “Ankh,” the Egyptian symbol for life, “Ras,” the Ethiopian word for leader, and “Ma”, a universal term for mother­­—to denote the systemic musical language he has developed over nearly 50 years for, he says, “scoring sound, rhythm and silence, or for scoring improvisation.”
wadada2Here’s the more detailed description, included on his website:

“Since 1971 I have been concerned with creating alternatives for a world music, one which utilizes the fundamental laws of improvisation and composition while retaining a uniqueness of its own. I began to design a notation system for scoring sound, rhythm and silence, or for scoring improvisation, a technique I term “Ankhrasmation.” Ankhrasmation literally means to create and invent musical ideas simultaneously, utilizing the fundamental laws of improvisation and composition. Within this system, all of the elements of the scored music are controlled through symbols designating duration, improvisation, and moving sounds of different velocities.”

If that sounds clinical, it’s distinctly not in practice.
The  organic nature of Smith’s music came across, gradually and then swiftly, to the dozen musicians assembled at The New Quorum house. Though Smith’s scores have great allure as visual representation, “they’re not ‘graphic scores,’ he’s quick to point out—they’re ‘language scores.’”
The musicians gathered for Smith’s workshops represented a wide range of musical interests and instruments. Guitarist and composer Jonathan Freilich, who recruited many of these musicians, had studied with Smith at the California Institute of the Arts. The rest lacked such intimate familiarity with Smith’s ideas. Still, cellist Helen Gillet, trombonist Jeff Albert and others maintain at least one foot in what some call “avant-garde” or “free” jazz but is more appropriately referred to by the term Smith prefers: “creative music.”
Among the first night’s crew were two other New Quorum artists-in-residence. Flutist and composer Nicole Mitchell, who is now a professor at University of California Irvine, has strong musical roots in Chicago, where she once served as the AACM’s president; her grasp of the context for Smith’s music is by now intuitive. For, vocalist and composer Lisa E. Harris, who hails from Houston, Smith’s specific methods formed “an entirely new frontier,” she later told me; still, the ways in which Harris translates her own music through film and contemporary opera and her integration of artistry with natural sciences and social commentary form somewhat of an open door to the logic of Smith’s work. Damon Locks, a Chicago-based visual artist, vocalist and musician, who was also in residence with us at The New Quorum, arrived a few days later; he brought along a bound copy of Smith’s “Notes (8 Pieces),” a 1973 treatise.
As Smith worked through his music to begin his initial workshop, he described the mutable flow of his pieces through possible “routings,” and discussed “events and decisions” that “cause the matrix to shift.” He talked about how some critics and musicians, decades ago, related his ideas to the Minimalist movement. “But Minimalism had no sliding,” he said, elongating that word to a delicious extreme.
“It may feel like these are eighth notes,” he told the musicians at one point. “But they’re not. They exist in space, but not in fixed meter.” Smith’s approach to rhythm dispenses with metric equations, and rather deals with space in relative proportions to craft heightened moments of tension-and-release and to form phrases shaped more like the tumbling out of conversation or the manner in which early blues stepped freely across strict bar lines.
Smith mentioned that he likes to embed each piece with a signature. On that first night, it was the presence of a 64th—an expansive harmonic idea (the number was also referred to rhythmically)—as a marker in “Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and The Civil Rights Act of 1964.” That piece is part of Smith’s “Ten Freedom Summers,” the sprawling masterwork he premiered in Los Angeles in 2011, released in a 4-CD set the following year, and has been revising with additional material in performance ever since (Smith’s music, like Ellington’s, never stands still.)
As I wrote in a Wall Street Journal review in 2011:

“Ten Freedom Summers” is named for a 10-year stretch, from the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision declaring school segregation unconstitutional to the “freedom summer” voter-registration drive and Civil Rights Act of 1964. It also traces Mr. Smith’s life as a composer through 34 years—from 1977’s “Medgar Evers” to his tribute to his John F. Kennedy, written in 2011—to form a personal reflection on the legacy of the civil-rights movement from a musician, born in Leland, Miss., in 1941, who came of age as that history took shape.

At the New Quorum house during that first workshop, soon it was time for chairs and table to get moved, and for an small audience to gather: musicians in one room; listeners in an adjoining room; gumbo and rice on the stove in the kitchen. This was a casual house concert as well as an experimental music workshop. It was also a gathering that harked back to the original Quorum, from which the present New Quorum drew its name.
The Quorum, which took shape briefly from 1963-64 on Esplanade Avenue, not far from the house Chachere has established, was “a haven for artists, writers, poets, musicians, scholars, university professors, actors that opened its doors to persons from all racial backgrounds when that was a controversial thing to do,” said Roxy Wright, who was among its founding members. Wright, who was active in the Civil Right Movement and has served as an officer or board member with many leading New Orleans cultural organizations in the decades since, participated in a panel discussion with Smith and I, moderated by Chachere, at Tulane University. During a conversation billed as “Looking Back, Moving Forward: Music and Advancing Cultural Equity,” and presented by The New Quorum and Tulane’s New Orleans Center for the Gulf South, Wright wondered aloud whether the forces that divide New Orleans along racial lines had really changed that much over the decades, and offered that hope that culture continued to provide one key to productive action.
The legacy of New Orleans cultural traditions—what to hold onto and why—made for some tension during that discussion; most notably, Smith’s feeling that in New Orleans, the reverence for tradition may contribute to a creative stalemate or a stifling environment. (That tension requires and deserves more focus, and I’ll return to it in a future post.) Still, I was touched by Smith’s reflections on the AACM’s early days, in the context of the original Quorum and of his New Quorum workshops:
“The AACM, when I first went there, had poets and writers and dancers as well as musicians—people who were exploring and demonstrating similar ideas. Our music practice is the one most closely related to democratic principles. In our ensembles, even though the composer composes the parameters of engagement in that performance, there’d be a dialogue about how to do it. And anybody’s influence would be part of how to do it.”
wadada2bThat’s the way it played out in Smith’s workshops, which continued for three more evenings, each of a different character and cast and feeling, and yet one consistent arc of engagement. By the final night’s performance, Harris’s vocals grew into unexpected mini-arias. Smith, who played increasingly in the final sessions, engaged in some startling explorations of texture and pattern through isolated duet and trio sections.
Before the final performance, cellist Gillet, who had one such musical exchange, told me, “Wadada turns your concepts upside down and then tells you to fly the plane as usual—improvising, using your skills, but just looking at everything upside down. So everything will be wrong, and also right.” Trombonist Albert said, “Wadada’s ideas pushed us to deal with musical elements beyond pitches and rhythms and deal with ideas like densities, and velocities, and energy levels, things we sometimes talk about but don’t always translate into performance.”
Smith’s presence in that house on Esplanade had a profound impact on me, and not just for my deepened understanding of the inspirations and inner workings of his music. It’s hard to describe the ways in which accumulated wisdom, new ideas and unfettered attitude spill forth from Smith—over eggs and grits at breakfast or while watching college basketball or through a focused interview (the latter of which I’ll share in a later post).
During his stay at The New Quorum, Smith and I talked at length about what he hears as contrasting musical revolutions ignited by New Orleans icons—one represented by Jelly Roll Morton, the other by King Oliver and, in its ultimate expression, Louis Armstrong. Smith got me to thinking anew about the current place of “creative music” in New Orleans (truly an outsider subculture), and about the equation of tensions between art, commerce, tradition and modernity in a city that has, at least until now, never conformed to national conventions.
One day before I left, Freilich drove me around town and shared both fond memories of his days playing at bars like Little People’s Place and in a band led by trumpeter Kermit Ruffins. Like so many musicians I know in New Orleans, Freilich lamented a drying up of the venues and casual contexts that “made this city sound different than any other.”
Smith and I have some points of disagreement about New Orleans traditional jazz culture. Where I see something functional and elemental to the daily lives of a population that refused to be driven out a decade ago, Smith sees, more often than not, an impediment to moving forward in terms of artistry itself as well as the commerce that supports such artistry. That’s an unfair paraphrase in both his direction and mine; and yet my point is that I don’t think either one of us is necessarily wrong.
One thing Smith is right about, and that he declared quite clearly: It’s up to musicians and to those who care about culture to think beyond repairing broken or failing environments; what is needed are new structures, fresh starts and independent approaches.
Smith’s workshops were a tangible example of these ideas in terms of aesthetics. And The New Quorum announced its presence by making a structural contribution: These workshops were precisely the sorts of exchanges that should be going on, especially in New Orleans. The performances were a forceful addition to January’s cultural calendar and distinct from any other offerings. And in New Orleans, such things happen best when literally connected to the city’s history—to, say, Roxy Wright’s history—and as offered up with clear focus as well as good food and true hospitality (and not the tourism sense of that word). I couldn’t help but notice that Chachere’s house had on its walls striking portrait photos of waiter and bellmen in New Orleans hotels—figures who are invisible within and yet emblematic of the city and, worse, jobs that represent a trap against genuine opportunity in the name of a tourism economy. Too often, in a city known for culture, musicians are relegated to the role (and maybe even the mindset) of service employees. (I think, on some level, that’s the trap Smith warned against when he bristled at blind reverence for tradition, even in a town where that can be heard as heresy.)
The New Quorum residencies worked the way these things are supposed to work but don’t always. It was homegrown but not confined, open but not rootless and, best of all, it took the shape and form of the way musicians naturally communicate.
I’ll post again about Lisa E. Harris’s original opera film, “Children of The Lost,”

which she screened for us in the upstairs room where Smith had explained his musical system: Her film’s focus on displacement during a period of rapid gentrification in Third Ward, Texas, struck chords of familiarity with my own chronicling of post-flood New Orleans and yet this was her story, about a place I don’t know, and rendered in an entirely new fashion.
I was sorry to miss Damon Locks’s “Sounds Like Now,” which utilizes records, samples, instruments, and voice in order to “hear the past in present tense,” he says—especially the frameworks for understanding issues of race and justice. During our weeks together, as Locks raided Domino Sound Record Shack for old LPs that still sound fresh, he reflected a little on the consistency of not just tone but details in, say, Roxy Wright’s experience of the Civil Rights Movement and the headlines coursing through this election season.
I hope to return to the house on Esplanade Avenue soon, perhaps to do a reading of my work-in-progress and to have a roundtable discussion about the tension between the traditions and the present moment in New Orleans.
Chachere tells me that these residencies have indeed seeded ongoing artistic dialogue. Nicole Mitchell, Damon Locks and Lisa E. Harris all plan return in July to collaborate together and separately with New Orleans artists. Mitchell plans to record with Helen Gillet. Harris is thinking about working with a brass band on her album-in-progress (maybe the Hot 8, who we heard together at Bullet’s Sports Bar in January).  Smith plans to return to New Orleans in March, and here’s the big news: The New Quorum is planning to mount a New Orleans presentation of “Ten Freedom Summers”—its first staging in the South, Smith tells me—in Fall 2016.
Wadada3There was a great moment during Smith’s workshops, when instead of a score, he pulled out a rendering of a black hole. He’d discussed the scientific concept with the musicians during a workshop. He’d also talked about imagining “a halo around it, like a gaslight in a London fog.” He seemed after a clear idea, drawn from hard research, about energy and matter, as well as something more like fiction, a feeling.
Another night, during a section of his piece, “Democracy,” from “Ten Freedom Summers,” Smith motioned to a drummer for something he wanted from a ride cymbal. He kept motioning. Finally, in a stage whisper, he instructed: “Let it ring!”
He meant a particular sound produced by the proper strike of a drumstick at just the right angle. But he also meant the point of the workshop, and the piece—that feeling of freedom.
Once again:
If you’re a musician or writer interested in The New Quorum, now’s the time to go here: Applications for Spring residencies (May 16-June 13) are accepted through March 4.
If you’d lend financial or volunteer support go here now: This innovative program deserves such nurturing.

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