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,” saidHammer 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.
I was riding the 3 train to Harlem, heading to an interview with pianist Vijay Iyer about “A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke,” his collaborative suite with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, when I read the following front-page headline in The New York Times:
Dennis Overbye’s story—the most poetic piece of journalism I’ve come across in the Times in many years—gave the news about sonic evidence of, well, a cosmic rhythm: A “faint rising tone” that, physicists say, “is the first direct evidence of gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space-time that Einstein predicted a century ago.”
When I last spent time with Wadada Leo Smith, he was leading a workshop for instrumentalists, during which he’d pulled out an image meant to represent a “black hole.” He wanted to investigate the idea of a black hole through tone and rhythm.
You can find my review in the Wall Street Journal of the Smith-Iyer collaboration here.
Seated at a Steinway grand piano in a dark, intimate room in early March, Vijay Iyerwasn’t simply playing another gig.
Aficionados in attendance could recognize a loose medley of familiar jazz themes, including Wayne Shorter’s “ Nefertiti” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge.” Mostly, Mr. Iyer and his duet partner, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, issued an unbroken and largely abstract flow, moving easily from dense dissonances to languid melodies.
Musically, the scene wasn’t unlike Mr. Iyer’s performances at any number of Manhattan jazz clubs and concert halls. Except here, the listeners were gathered in a small gallery behind the lobby of the Met Breuer, the celebrated five-story hulk of a building that serves as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new outpost for modern and contemporary art.
The audience was witnessing the first installment of “Relation,” a performance residency showcasing Mr. Iyer, who is equally distinguished as a pianist, composer and educator. His ongoing performances open to the general public Friday and run through the end of the month.
“It’ll be my day gig,” said Mr. Iyer, in an interview at his Harlem home. “It’s almost like having an office.” Continue reading “Vijay Iyer's New Day Gig at the Met Breuer”
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.” Continue reading “Entering Ankhrasmation: Wadada Leo Smith at The New Quorum in New Orleans”