I’ve written often here and in The Wall Street Journal about trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith. That frequency is partly due to the fact that Smith is so prolific a musician, but it’s mostly it’s because his music and its surrounding aesthetic are so fascinating, deep, distinctive and ever in forward motion.
Recently, I posted about Smith’s residency in New Orleans (and mine) through the New Quorum, and delved into the working of the musical system he named “Ankhrasmation.”
You can find my Wall Street Journal piece about Smith’s March collaboration with pianist Vijay Iyer, “a cosmic rhythm with each stroke,” here, and an older article of mine about his sprawling “Ten Freedom Summers” here.
Smith’s project with Iyer was commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and inspired by the work of visual artist Nasreen Mohamedi. Yet Smith himself is a formidable visual artist, mostly by way of what he calls the “language scores” that he creates to guide each musical piece, and which, he says, are specific to each individual performance of that piece.
These are striking works of diligent and creative visual representation, made all the more fascinating by their functional value to musicians.
Last year in connection with the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), of which Smith was an early and important member, Chicago’s Renaissance Society mounted an exhibition of these scores.
Now, within “Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only,” the third biennial at the Hammer Museum at UCLA, Smith’s Ankhrasmation scores are on view through August 28.
According to the exhibit’s accompanying text, “Ankhrasmation blossomed in Southern California, where Smith relocated in 1993, joining the faculty at California Institute of the Arts.”
“Each Made in L.A. sheds a new light on the work being made by Los Angeles artists, expanding on previous versions of the exhibition,” said Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin. “Made in L.A. 2016 investigates what is vital and distinctive about this city as an international destination and cutting edge art center, and how its artists-from vastly different backgrounds and disciplines-resist and defy categorization.”
Here’s the wall text about Wadada from the Made in L.A. Exhibition and some installation images of Wadada’s works:
Wadada Leo Smith is a performer and composer in equal measure, having taken up both trumpet and writing music at the age of twelve. Smith was a formidable presence in the free jazz scene of the late 1960s, the period when he developed a form of musical notation he refers to as Ankhrasmation, a word combining ankh (an ancient Egyptian symbol meaning life force), ras (father), and ma (mother).
Ankhrasmation began as a cuneiform-like notation in which Smith abandoned instrumentation, meter, and choice of notes, making it a framework not so much for what to play as for how and when to play it. Rather than notes, Ankhrasmation privileges discrete moments of activity, for which he provided only general determinants: number and duration of notes, tempo, pitch, and phrase length. The notation’s signature glyph is the pennant, referred to as a velocity unit. It is a signpost for the intensity of activity. Depending on whether the triangular portion is filled in or accompanied by a horizontal dash across its stem, a velocity unit can call for a rapid burst of notes or prompt a lithe melody.
This selection of scores dates from 1967 to 2014. While it took root during Smith’s years in New Haven, Connecticut, Ankhrasmation blossomed in Southern California, where he relocated in 1993, joining the faculty at California Institute of the Arts. The move west coincided with a wholesale expansion in his use of color, repertoire of signs, and compositional approaches to the page as a whole. Some are defined by large blocks of color and bold singular shapes, either geometric or calligraphic in nature. Others resemble a schematic for what could be a fourth law of thermodynamics. In any case, Smith’s latter-day output only confirms what Ankhrasmation has been all along, namely a cosmology, a meditation about creation in the human and intergalactic sense.