Taylor Ho Bynum

*Photo by Peter Gannushkin

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Bill Dixon: The Essence of a Sound and the Infinity of a Moment

My liner notes for Bill Dixon’s Tapestries for Small Orchestra (Firehouse 12, 2009)

The music of Bill Dixon maintains such a powerful flavor, it is one of those things where you inevitably remember the first time you taste it. For me, it was his mid-career landmark recording November 1981. Within the one minute and twenty six seconds of Webern, the opening track, I realized I had to completely rethink the possibilities of the trumpet as an improvising instrument. By the end of the album, I realized I had to examine my assumptions about the nature of creative music in general. For Dixon’s music does not adhere to the common practice of any established musical genre, be it “jazz”, “contemporary classical”, “avant-garde”, or what-have-you. While drawing upon all of these rich traditions and more, he has established his own set of rules and principles, creating a wholly individualistic canon over the course of his extraordinary career.

Bill Dixon came to music relatively late in life, in his early twenties, after training as a visual artist. From the beginning, Dixon had an advanced sense of what he wanted to accomplish in the medium, doggedly pursuing his own interests rather than following the paths others might prescribe for a more traditional student. In the ensuing 60 years, these instincts have naturally evolved and been consciously refined into an inimitable sound world. At an age where some artists might coast on a lifetime of accomplishments, Dixon’s work continues unabated and with unceasing vibrancy; the last few years have seen the exceptional orchestral recordings of Exploding Star Orchestra and 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur.  This activity culminates in Tapestries for Small Orchestra, with two hours of music and a documentary film culled from a multi-day residency with a handpicked mid-sized ensemble at the Firehouse 12 Studios in New Haven CT.

One of the exciting aspects of Tapestries is the insight it allows into Dixon’s process and the way it illuminates core structures of Dixon’s musical DNA. Ever since that first, sharp bite of November 1981 years ago, I have endeavored to gain some understanding of his music. After years of focused listening, a treasured handful of performance opportunities, and occasional conversations with the maestro, participation in this project clarified some of my rough impressions to the extent that I feel comfortable articulating them. Of course this just scratches the surface; I would recommend the interested listener search out the more detailed and scholarly research of Andrew Raffo Dewar, Ben Young, and Stanley Zappa, among many others, in addition to reading Dixon’s own writings.

There is a revealing moment in the documentary where Dixon discusses his frustration with composition teachers insisting one must never double the third. He was dissatisfied with traditional pedagogy presenting rules without taking the time to explain why. Dixon took the time to learn the “rules” of traditional music-making (in fact, he spent five years in conservatory study). However, he also learned to reject dogma that impeded the trajectory of his personal creative journey. He went on to discover doubling the third produces “one of the most beautiful sounds in music,” but it is so strong it changes the nature of the chord. For his own music, Dixon was not interested in the functionality of the harmony; he cared about what kind of sound that assemblage of notes created, not what it was supposed to lead to.

The most celebrated musical breakthroughs of the 20th century, from Schoenberg to Parker, tended to involve harmonic innovations. (Not coincidentally, also the easiest concepts for institutions to promulgate through the kind of simplistic definitions Dixon rebelled against.) Even amongst Dixon’s peers in the early 1960s like Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and Albert Ayler, the effort to explore, subvert, or explode harmonic conventions remained a primary motivation. However, for Dixon, pushing against the constraints of harmony never seemed to be a motivating factor; instead, his consistent mission seemed to be asserting the primacy of sound itself.

In much of Dixon’s music, vertical harmony is not about moving towards (or away from) any tonal resolution, but about a distinct sonic experience existing in its own space and time. So much music is about “getting somewhere;” from the basic principles of the sonata form to impassioned free jazz improvisations leading to inevitable climaxes. But Dixon was unusual among his ‘60s contemporaries for avoiding this need for forward momentum; rather, he stops the clock, and turns his gaze inwards, towards the infinite potential of the existing moment, rather than the moment to come. His music acts like a microscope of time, peering in at the atoms of a suspended cell and the universe of activity contained therein. This sense of timelessness has always been one of his hallmarks, and allows him to explore the extremes of duration like few other artists. Dixon’s compositions might be thirty seconds or thirty minutes, but the seconds last an infinity, and the half-hour passes in a single breath.

Listen to the album’s title track, Tapestries, as an example. While the low-end instruments (cello, contrabass clarinet, acoustic bass) bubble with ceaseless motion, the brass remains wholly unperturbed, resounding slowly evolving harmonic clusters. (It is somewhat reminiscent of Charles Ives’ Unanswered Question, another revolutionary American master who managed to capture the feeling of eternity.) Again, where free jazz cliché would draw the horns into the temptations of the rhythmic excitement, Dixon holds them back, creating an exquisite tension that lasts throughout the composition.

In the past, some of Dixon’s large-ensemble works have involved extensive, traditionally styled, written notation (his talents as an arranger and orchestrator, as demonstrated on the 1966 classic Intents and Purposes, are too rarely acknowledged). However, Dixon considers all forms of information exchange as a kind of notation, understanding that new musical ideas may need similarly new means of expression. So in recent years, Dixon has gone in a different direction; he will bring in a minimal amount of materials, but painstakingly craft how those materials are played and interpreted. The process becomes the notation. In rehearsal, it is not unusual to spend an hour on how a single line is phrased, or how a solitary chord resonates. By applying this level of care to the smallest details, Dixon forces the performers to become deeply aware of and engaged in every sound they create, and how the choices they make as individuals effect the ensemble as a whole. There also are a few pieces on Tapestries that had no written materials or instruction, but they are far from “free improvisations;” by existing in the sonic environment he cultivated and adhering to the clear principles he provided, the results are unmistakably the music of Bill Dixon.

Just as it is impossible to distinguish between the moments of composition and improvisation, it is a false dichotomy to distinguish between Dixon’s identity as composer and instrumentalist. In Dixon’s music, these are simply terms for the various practices of a consistent artistic vision. But this vision is clearly delineated in his innovations as a trumpeter. For all the extended techniques he has pioneered and the virtuosity he has displayed over the years, Dixon’s most striking tools have always been the diversity of his timbral palette, the character of his tone, and the drama of his rhythmic phrasing and use of space. From his earliest recorded improvisations with Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor to the material in this package, it has always been less about the notes he plays than the sounds he chooses and where he places them. Where some trumpet players sorely miss the pyrotechnics of youth as they get older, Dixon’s playing maintains its intensity. While the physical palette he draws from has changed with age, the mastery with which he wields the brush continues to flourish. Take the openings of Tapestries’ two trio pieces, Slivers: Sand Dance for Sophia and Allusions I. What other trumpeter could shatter the silence with that kind of authority?

Dixon’s influence on the subsequent generations of brass improvisers is profound. The trumpet and cornet players on this album (Graham Haynes, Stephen Haynes, Rob Mazurek, and myself) are but a few examples of his many musical progeny, and even amongst the four of us, the diversity of ways this influence manifests itself is striking. None of us sound alike, nor do we sound like Dixon, but all of us clearly draw upon Dixon’s legacy in how we approach our horns. (It is also interesting to note that three of us are almost exclusively cornet players, and the fourth a very frequent practitioner. While perhaps less accurate and aggressive than the trumpet, the cornet has greater timbral flexibility; it is an instrument for those who improvise with sound as much as with notes. Not a coincidence that we are all so attracted to Dixon’s music.)

This influence is by no means restricted to brass players. Dixon’s subterranean explorations in the depths of the trumpet register clearly offer a template for Michel Coté’s contrabass clarinet work. Glynnis Lomon’s cello recontextualizes the rough-edged beauty of Dixon’s sound, where resonant pedal tones alternate with thrilling harmonics. Bassist Ken Filiano met Dixon for the first time at this recording, while the masterful percussionist Warren Smith has known him for over forty years, but both demonstrate an intrinsic understanding of his concepts. They allow the music enough space to breath freely without sacrificing rhythmic intensity.

For those who are already familiar with Dixon’s music, this recording offers a bracingly fresh document from an artist who, like Ellington or Picasso, refuses to sit still even after a fifty-year career. It is one moment in a journey of uncompromised expression investigating the very principles of sound. For those approaching Dixon’s music for the first time, I envy you. Hopefully, Tapestries for Small Orchestra will be the first addictive taste, offering a sonic feast to those open to experiencing sound and time in a new way.

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