Some Memories of Butch Morris

I met Butch Morris at A Gathering of the Tribes in the East Village of New York City, in the early 1990′s. Steve Cannon had asked me to participate in a Chorus of Poets conducted by Butch Morris, and rehearsal was right there in Tribes Gallery (an intimate experience you could say.) I didn’t know what to expect, having agreed to it simply because it sounded like fun. It was indeed a fun experience, but it was more than that. Butch was doing something that was truly new to me, and really profound I think. Later on I would be a witness to a towering babel suddenly sounding sweet harmony, humanity communicating for a moment in time, speaking a common language and taking a little step closer to the light of the divine. But when I arrived for the first rehearsal I simply had to learn his hand signals.

Butch Morris and the Chorus of Poets II, Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, Mother’s Day May 8, 1994 Photo by Amy J. Klement

It was a little like learning sign language to speak with the deaf. An added element, that was a challenge, were the signals that meant I was supposed to remember a phrase I had spoken, to repeat it later, or remember two or three phrases I had spoken, and which signal referred to which, when he wanted one or the other repeated thirty seconds or five minutes later. You had to take Conduction seriously to get it right. You had to let go of your ego too; that was no small feat for a room of crammed-together New York poets. You might be right in the climax of your poem when Butch would make the cut-off sign. He might be more interested in hearing you make your poem sound like a circle, than in the meaning of your words.This wasn’t poetry exactly. I think it still came under the loose category of improvisational music, except we had a conductor.

It might seem like a contradiction, conducted improvisation, but really I don’t think it was that different from jazz musicians improvising around an arrangement, and a particular chord structure. Except with Conduction, instead of chords there is simply a universal sign language. The majority of his Conductions were with musicians, not poets. He worked with all kinds of musicians, who normally would find it challenging to even find a common key to play in. But with Conduction they simply gave themselves over to a different way of making sounds.

I remember a couple performances in little, always very little, spaces in the East Village. I remember they were fun, but I never actually got to hear them, because I was in them. I know there were some previous recordings with poets, but I wasn’t a part of those. Then we rehearsed again for the Bang on the Can Festival at Lincoln Center. We were well prepared, and we finally had a stage, acoustics, everything. But to all of our surprise, he cut the performance short after about three minutes, and signaled us all off the stage. I never directly asked him, and he never said anything to me personally about it. I heard rumors that it had to do with getting paid much less than everyone else participating in the festival, and that he simply gave them their money’s worth. I have no idea if that was true or not.

We did get to be friends after that. I will always be thankful to him for introducing me to Sabine Worthmann, a talented bassist and composer, who traveled from Hamburg to Edinburgh to work with me sight unseen, solely because he recommended me to her. Sabine and I went on to collaborate together on several projects. Butch was a nice person, sweet really, with a beautiful smile, an East Village guru. There was an East Village nightclub where I used to sit in with dj Jeannie Hopper, improvising poetry over the sound system along with Jeannie’s spinning, but without a stage. It felt a little thankless sometimes, because most people didn’t realize it was live, didn’t notice me among them, a wireless mic in my hand. But I used to take advantage of it too, sitting in dark corners, trying things out. Butch used to come through sometime after midnight, and search me out, sit down next to me, and nod his head. For me that was encouragement. He listened to everything, symphonies, jazz, dj’s, and poets too.

But I didn’t truly, fully, appreciate Butch myself until I attended an open-air festival under a big tent, in downtown New York City. I don’t remember exactly where it was or what it was called, honestly, but I do remember who was playing at the festival. First up was Henry Threadgill’s Big Band, followed by a Butch Morris Conduction. I’ve been a fan of Henry Threadgill since I was a teenager. He was in great form that night. These were some of the finest big band jazz musicians in the world, playing some really great arrangements. It was exciting. It was beautiful. It said that Jazz is alive and well and growing. When it was over, it seemed to me, it had all been done. It had already been a great night of music. But the Conduction I heard next was something truly new. Together on stage were a couple dj’s, and a host of musicians from a variety of disciplines and parts of the world. With Butch leading them, they made sounds together that are truly difficult to describe, but it was music, and it was happening for those breathfull moments on that stage. When it was over there was a spontaneous combustion of a standing ovation, most everyone there as equally overcome as I was with what we had all just heard. I only recall one review, luke warm, in the Village Voice, and can only say that the reviewer might not have actually stayed, or maybe was deaf to the unfamiliar.

I thought about that while I was reading all the obituaries in The Wall Street JournalThe New York TimesThe New Yorker. I had no idea he was so well known, like a well kept secret. Soon after that concert he went off to teach in Istanbul and I left New York for California. I wondered then too, why he had to go all the way to Istanbul for a teaching position. Not that there was something wrong with it, but why doesn’t America have room for it’s creative geniuses at its own universities? Why have so many of them spent their careers living in tiny apartments in the Lower East Side and going abroad to be appreciated and even celebrated, when they get the opportunity? It’s the same news like when Charlie Parker was roaming the Lower East Side.

About ten years ago I stopped in New York for a couple nights, on my way back from Berlin, and ran into Butch, in the East Village of course. He told me that he was doing part of a series of Conductions called New York Skyscrapers the next night at the Bowery Poetry Club. He invited me to participate if I could bring my own monitor/speaker. I hustled the next morning to make sure I had what I needed. That was a special night. For me it was the first time I participated in a conduction with musicians. It was a great experience, and it brought together many people who I was happy to see again for one night. Butch’s brother Wilbur was dying of cancer at the time, and Butch was whisked away in a car by family, right after the concert. On the airplane back to California I wrote an Ode to a New York Skyscraper for Butch, that was published in Issue Six of A Gathering of the Tribes Magazine. I’ve heard there are no more copies to sell of that issue, so I am reprinting the ode here.

Of course no one ever knows when the last time they see someone is going to be. I fancied that one day I would see Butch again, and participate in another Conduction. I am grateful for the experiences I had with Butch Morris, and the music he made for us all. He was a genius, but he was more than that. He was a kind and generous spirit, an inspiration, and I do believe he has passed it on.

Ode to a New York Skyscraper
for Lawrence “Butch” Morris
by martha cinader

originally published in A Gathering of the Tribes Magazine

We’ve been making music
from the front
plucking strings
blowing air through cylinders
beating on animal skins
raising our voices in exaltation
each of us humming
or tapping
or speaking
a melody
or hearing harmony
or living between the beats
improvising each moment
or interpreting what is given to us
to express
with our bodies, hearts and minds.

The music flows on and on.
We don’t always remember it
or even hear it
until we decide to,
but what a sweet decision to make
to come together to celebrate each other
reach together by design.
We have among us those
who have always heard
the symphony
been devoted to the notes
lived in syncopated reverie
whole family trees
whose music crossed all borders
and made the world keep turning
when it came unplugged.

We don’t get to meet them often
because they travel
a lot.
But their coming is preceded by a call
an invitation to aspire
to something higher
than you’ve ever known
so that when the pluckers
and blowers
and pickers
and drummers
and singers
and poets
such a one
creates a conduction
a structure
we none of us
could build alone

with vibrating walls
secret chambers of the heart
arched pathways of dissonance
and discord
leading up to unforgotten gardens
overlooking sculptured melodies,
reaching up to where
we could all see forever
a moment indestructible in our memories
and keeping its own time.

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