Photo: Michael Jackson (Courtesy of artist)

Dark and Deep Flows the River: An Interview with Wadada Leo Smith

Wadada Leo Smith's sprawling, ambitious musical tribute to the National Parks is a living, breathing work that flows and changes by the performers involved. It's heady, powerful stuff, sustained by a dream list of collaborators.

America's National Parks
Wadada Leo Smith
Cuneiform Records

I felt reasonably well prepared for Wadada Leo Smith’s concert. I was familiar with the recordings, I’d interviewed him recently, attended a lecture he’d given, and had another brief chat with him. Seeing Smith and his Golden Quintet create something — in this case at the world premiere performance of America’s National Parks in Charlottesville, Virginia — requires some extra effort. Trumpeter, composer, Pulitzer-nominated Smith doesn’t work in the normal way, and traveling with him offers unusual surprises.

Understanding Smith’s work begins with his idiosyncratic scores. The most striking works involve his Ankhrasmation symbolic language. These scores are their own sort of art, pages of images in which shapes and colors depict the music to be played. An artist using one of these scores will have to learn a new language. Smith explained to me that reading these scores “requires a lot of care and explanation. It’s a new language where people have to do their own research, and through that research, they determine what portion they’re going to use for that performance.”

At the public lecture, part of his residency and the Impulse Festival at the University of Virginia, Smith walked us through the interpretive process, explaining the connections between pyramid designs, the connection between the color blue and our associations with blueberries, and the sequences to follow. An hour of study only opens up the beginnings of the conversation you’d need to have. An artist studying a piece might find the connections to references in “nature, signs, or one’s imagination,” and that marks the start of being able to play the piece.

If those ideas aren’t complex enough, Smith also utilizes a variation on the more traditional notation that he calls a “sonic stack,” a collection of staves that show “not chords, but a stack of sound” that sets that tone for a given piece (some works also incorporate typical Western notation). Smith remains “interested in intervals that don’t work [in typical] tonality.” His “Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964” from Ten Freedom Summers includes a 64th interval that relies on higher harmonics to make the leap. Pushing into Smith’s compositions — something that percussionist Pheeroan akLaff describes as “a shape in an evolutionary continuum” — may induce vertigo, but it also opens up unique opportunities for musical exploration. As akLaff adds, Smith’s “scoring suggests a refreshing ethos connecting the player and the score.”

Cellist Ashley Walters explains another style he uses: “Wadada’s cello solo, Sweet Bay Magnolia [part of Walters’s Sweet Anxiety release], uses notes on a staff but not quite in the traditional sense. For example, black notes on the page are short notes and white notes are long notes; the spacing of the notes conveys information about gesture and expression rather than a specific rhythm. This seems easy in concept but it takes great care to cultivate an interpretation.”

I know from talking to Smith that he can also combine various forms of notation. He pointed out that the scoring for his solo Reflections and Meditations on Monk, even though some of it comes from Thelonious Monk originals, has Ankhrasmation within it. “It’s the same person,” Smith says, “It’s the same me, and it’s the same mindset.” In America’s National Parks, “a couple of [the pieces] have Ankhrasmation notated inside of the five-line staff idea … They’re thoroughly integrated works.”

Golden Quintet bassist John Lindberg has known Smith for 40 years and has interacted with him in more ways than with “any singular artist I’ve been involved with,” from various conversations to working as sidemen on other artists’ pieces to direct collaboration, as on 2015’s duo recording Celestial Weather. He’s been watching Smith’s work develop, first noting a particular shift starting when Lindberg’s String Trio of New York commissioned a piece from Smith around 1992.

“I’ve always been aware of his developing toward this full symbolic language from the earlier use of rhythm. There was a period when he was using the term ‘Ankhrian invention’ — which are things that got incorporated into this more fully formed Ankhrasmation language symbology … A lot of these symbols about the velocity units, rhythm units, the tower structures were starting to come into his music [in the early ’90s]. In the last 12 years, I’ve delved into it and it’s blossomed to a whole other level.”

With all of these possibilities and even the necessity of learning a new language, it’s not surprising when Walters says, “Nothing has been more important in learning Wadada’s music than being in rehearsal, on stage, and recording with him — it is some of the best education I have received as a musician.”

Photo: Jimmy Katz (Courtesy of artist)

When I settle into my uncomfortable seat for the evening’s performance [little known fact: at the time Old Cabel Hall was constructed, the average human being was 4 feet 10 inches tall], I’m pleased that I’ll be able to see pianist Anthony Davis’s music. The sheets are a mix of types, sometimes with the left-hand page having sonic stacks and the facing page having an Ankhrasmation image. Smith has spoken about performances that worked or succeeded, and the idea that five world-class musicians could see a performance fall apart adds some tension to the pre-concert feel.

The biggest challenge may come to the timing, and the musicians must necessarily read each other as well as Smith in order to move and finish together. Smith’s studies of “proportional rhythms that are non-metrical” as well as patterns that are “self-generative like fractals” means that his ensemble has to stay keyed to how a performance develops. A pattern of long and short cycles gives them opportunities to stay together, but the process remains a far cry from improvised jazz (and Smith strongly favors the term “create” over “improves” to describe what he and his ensembles do). As “New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA” moves through its opening paces, I notice Davis and Walters connect before their joint entrance. The two will interact steadily throughout the evening, one of the ways the ensemble makes sure to proceed together.

While Davis and Lindberg have worked with Smith for decades, Walters has only recently arrived, turning a quartet into a group of five just in 2016 for the Parks recording. Smith said, “I selected the cello because it has that range that goes into the bass area and into the treble area. I have four instruments that are melodic, from the bottom of the bass to the upper register of cello, piano, trumpet up to the top E and F. What I have now done is overlapped the ensemble clef-wise, [allowing me] to write for these four melodic instruments, with the introduction of the percussion sound [specifically utilizing the percussion overtones]. I can create a sound that’s just as vast as a symphony orchestra. This gives us a new beginning.”

The musicians have certainly figured out how to use that overlap. Smith occasionally takes the lead, but he allows plenty of space for his peers explore and interact.

“One of the many things that’s very unique about his music is that it requires individual research and preparation to be brought to every performance,” says Lindberg. Compared to jazz, Smith’s “pieces can be so completely different every time, that it’s an amazing quality. From a listener’s point of view, there are certain things you are going to hear every time that are inherent to these pieces, but how they might be interpreted can be so different.”

With even the performances of the musicians varying so much, the whole process takes on a very unusual feel. As Lindberg puts it, “The way Wadada puts the music together and the way he thinks about it: there are things you wouldn’t see visually or hear anywhere else.” To a point, even the score’s nature in itself is changing through this process.

“It’s like a living score,” he continues. “The score’s there, the structure is there, there are all these things that we’re going to go through, yet it’s a living score. By different cues and gestures — musically, physically, any kind of way — we might drop a section out, we might repeat something eight times, we might skip over a section and come back to it. That score is completely alive. [Smith] is the one who’s conducted that flow. He can look at me, as he did at one point, and I had this long unaccompanied solo. That could have happened or could not have happened. That doesn’t throw anybody for a loop — it happens every time. You say, ‘Oh! We’re going to come in here!’ You can never have an inactive moment in your attention. You’re playing all the time, even if you’re silent.”

More noticeably on stage than on CD, perhaps, Walters is at the center of these interactions. At one point, she makes a frantic run up her instrument and, guided by a slight shift of tone, we realize that bassist John Lindberg (from the String Trio of New York, among many other projects) has matched her pitch, moving out of his groove into a sonic spaced passed from Davis to Walters and not to Lindberg, from which the root of the ensemble can restore order. It’s a moment impossible for the untrained eye (meaning mine) to see in the score, though the group succeeds remarkably in such feats.

Watching that process leads me to think about the origin of residency (which then tied in with the Impulse Festival, organized by UVa’s Greg Howard, known for his Chapman stick teaching and playing). George Sampson, an assistant professor of Arts Administration at UVa tries to bring in artists like these every 18 months or so, ideally drawing artists that might be out of his students’ comfort zones. Bill Cole and the Untempered Ensemble, for example, visited in 2016). The minute he picks up the phone, his enthusiasm for this work comes across.

“It’s a long-standing part of how I teach,” Sampson told me. “My approach is to give my students periodically a chance to work with living artists, work with artists who I personally know, because of luck and my background I try to fill in gaps. Many of the artists I brought here are of color. I try to get my students to deal with these people directly.”

Sampson’s work isn’t just pedagogy. He’s happy to think back on his own origins in this field.

As part of communicating with the community, particularly after the events of last summer in Charlottesville, Sampson recognizes “the use of highly creative artists operating on advanced intellectual, often spiritual, and human planes, which I think together illustrate some of the pinnacles to which human beings can aspire. I happened to encounter incredible people in my high school years actually. A life-changing thing for me took place when I was 17 and I had the occasion to spend nearly an afternoon with Buckminster Fuller. I realized that human beings can be really extraordinary visionaries. I wanted to spend my life working with people like that ever since.”

Sampson wants to make sure these presentations are “not to be didactic.” The art in the residency and the festival spans an array of disciplines and offers ways to think through big ideas from different perspectives.

Smith himself does just that. As part of the Parks project, he reconsiders what it means for something to be a national park. He explained that when the Parks system began, “the idea was that it would be common ground for all Americans. For me, that means something different than they intended. That means Americans that passed on before this idea came about and the Americans that will come in the future. Who is the recipient of this common ground? People take just physical property as the potential for a park. I tried to expand the idea to include a city like New Orleans because of its culture. It was the beginning of culture in America.”

He goes further, with the work’s second piece being “Eileen Jackson Southern,1920-2002: A Literary National Park.” He sees her work as a literary property, acknowledging her writing as “demonstrating the idea of African-Americans to this culture, particularly the music — how people think about themselves through music an art. It’s a deeper view of that idea.”

Photo: Jimmy Katz (Courtesy of artist)

Smith’s work seems to always be about something bigger than just musical ideas (see Ten Freedom Summers or Divine Love for obvious examples). When he speaks at the lecture about Dr. Southern, he digs into the historiography of blues scholarship. He notes that the blues scale utilizes nine tones, but that when researchers came upon it, they “couldn’t believe untrained people could do that.” The study and recording of history determined “who can be a part of [a cultural] structure.” Listening to Smith, I’m reminded of an argument I had in a high school with my most musically gifted friend over whether Michael Jackson was off-key or using a blue note in “I Want You Back.” These sorts of discussions aren’t filtered only through musicology; they carry the weight of race and culture as well.

Looking at the stage during the performance, you can see Smith’s response to closed structures. He’s included a variety of people even in a quintet. He connects that sort of variety to something transcendent in the production of his art.

“With the five people in the ensemble, all of us have different backgrounds. It has men in it and a woman. It has African-Americans and it has European-Americans in it,” he says, adding that in this process, the people creating the music should be changed by it. Musically, the structured work “is constructed in a non-metrical way; therefore it has the opportunity to be not recomposed but reshaped and reconditioned each time we play it. Through that reshaping that occurs in a performance, we are able to reach our purest form as a human being. It accents our exceptions as being part of a larger collective of humanity.”

Concerns about the bigger collective flow through this and other works by Smith. During the concert, he pauses after the first three tracks to talk a little before “The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River — a National Memorial Park c. 5000 BC,” the 30-minute centerpiece of the evening.

“The Mississippi River has a history that’s profound. A lot of it is based around commerce, but also based around a lot of tragedy, specifically a tragedy that up until recently, it was a reservoir for dumping African-American bodies,” said Smith, adding that the location should be “canonized as a memorial site.”

As the performance continues with the dark opening of the piece, I consider my own associations with the big river, largely drawn from Mark Twain and New Orleans jazz — essentially a cartoon steamboat. As a white, younger Northerner, my connections don’t match Smith’s. It’s a moment that questions our received history.

Smith’s music deals with these issues, but the concert isn’t strictly an auditory experience. The Golden Quintet performs along with visual artist Jesse Gilbert, who uses his own “Spectral GL” software to create memorable backgrounds as the evening progresses. For much of the show he manipulates images related to the topics of the songs (a cityscape morphs into a swamp for “New Orleans”), but he also uses real-time video of the musicians, slowing it down to create a classical feel, as if we’re watching old footage of the event we’re also watching now.

“His skills with visual composition is based off the same kind of research that we do,” Smith said. “For every piece, there’s probably 10-15 hours of searching through photographs” followed by a process of narrowing down the selection. During the show, Gilbert, working from two computers and a set of area mics, “sends out an image from the computer, that image is affected by the sound coming from the ensemble, and he visually incorporates in the same kind of create-moment that we have created … a whole different view of what reality is.”

After the music finishes for the evening, Smith explains that these images are meant to “transcend space and time” and to “transport us to these zones” while we “hear what’s on stage.” The combination of sounds, imagines, and explanations make a unified statement that basic information wouldn’t. Smith talks about his interest in our national parks, thinking about the way that humans “didn’t have the skills to resist causing extinction” and the place that we’re in now.

That idea links back to his lecture, where he considered that “before creation was created, there was a zone where everyone was created.” Religion, to Smith, offers “realignment,” where the spiritual passes through the physical and becomes spiritual again (to simplify it). His work with “create” music, as opposed to improvising, all relates “to the big cosmic creation.”

Photo: Michael Jackson (Courtesy of artist)

Taking on that work sounds heavy, and I wonder during the show if the musicians are finding this sort of art to be very stressful or to be an incredible and rewarding challenge (or maybe both). Smith provides minimal direction, primarily leading entrances or decrescendos, but at times his frustration is obvious. The art, even after all these years, is a new thing. The artists, through their research and practice, become able to create something new, sometimes utilizing pictures and ideas about the light spectrum. At the same time, there’s a structure and a vision of Smith’s that holds it all together that can’t give way. The whole enterprise feels both shaky and, perhaps in its tenuousness, marvelous.

“Wadada’s music is not completely fixed nor completely free: it lies somewhere in the middle where parts can slide across each other or align depending on the performance,” Walters says, but it’s the opportunity the performance that stands out. “In this way, performing with Wadada’s ensemble is the ultimate chamber music experience: you know each part so well that you can react and create music with each other in real time.”

Lindberg likewise finds excitement in the work and agrees it’s likely that people who feel differently wouldn’t become involved in this sort of project. “For me, the reward playing that music is the high level of challenge. It’s not stressful or tense. It’s an enormous challenge, but I happen to love challenges. I don’t like comfort or convenience. To be challenged is a reward in itself.”

As akLaff concludes, “There are challenges in concentration, structure, and novelty in this notation system [but] it allows for a projection of values which live on after the music has been played,” and those values stay central to Smith’s work.

The musical, philosophical, and historical elements of the week offer plenty of challenges, but Smith boils it down to a big picture of unsentimental love, “a true and authentic notion of love … which is not about this romantic idea, but is a profound notion of love that transcends every difference and resolves every issue.” Smith musters these complex ideas toward a process of transformation.

I believe that that same notion is actually the glue that holds this world together today,” he told me. “Otherwise there’s no reason for it to hang together. It’s because of people who have that true clear vision and act upon that true, clear vision of this authentic thing called love.”

Acting upon that vision provides demands and challenges, whether it’s protecting our natural areas (“National parks should not be under the control of Congress,” Smith says), proclaiming a literary heritage, or bringing people together in unexpected ways, there’s work to be done, and Smith’s music can be a part of that.

In the meantime, his ensemble, brilliant as it is, needs to pull off a performance of it.

Given the challenges of the timing and the complicated score, a proper finish remains an element of the performance that will define the success or failure of a piece. I’ve watched the ensemble work all night to stay together; it’s been admirable. As “Yosemite: The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells and the Valley of Goodwill 1890” and the concert near their end, I wait in suspense to see what the group does. The band hits a flurry not in the recorded version and blasts a sharp finish. A woman to my left gasps. Smith and his fellow artists have made a rare statement.