Wadada Leo Smith: Decoding Ankhrasmation
What unifies all of Wadada Leo Smith’s projects is what also makes them so different from each other—Smith’s commitment to every musician having an individual sound.
At the Affinia Gardens Hotel, New York, NY
December 14, 2011—11:00 a.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Wadada Leo Smith has been celebrating his 70th birthday throughout the entire 2011-2012 concert season by performing all over the world. Though his actual birthday fell on December 18, which he ushered in with a two-night stint at Brooklyn’s new music venue Roulette appearing on stage with all four of his current working bands, the momentum has not let up thus far in 2012. Last month he appeared in Buffalo and Minneapolis after just returning from a tour through Italy, France, Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland. Later this month, Cuneiform Records will issue his massive composition Ten Freedom Summers on a 4-CD set and he will perform generous portions of the five-hour work in Quebec.
What is perhaps even more extraordinary than how active he has been this past year is how seemingly different all of his various projects sound. While the Silver Orchestra is a highly experimental large ensemble, Organic fuses funk and electronics. Mbira is a trio that harnesses a variety of world music traditions. The Golden Quartet (sometimes a Sextet), his longest standing group, has gone through a variety of incarnations. Though its music is perhaps the most closely related to the jazz idiom, it is also very difficult to pigeon-hole. What unifies all of these projects is what also makes them so different from each other—Smith’s commitment to every musician having an individual sound.
Wadada Leo Smith has codified this approach through something he calls Ankhrasmation; it’s an approach to conveying ideas to another musician that leaves a great deal of room for personal interpretation. As Smith puts it:
Ankhrasmation is a musical language as opposed to a musical notation system. […] The first part, Ankh, comes from the Egyptian cross. Ras comes from the Ethiopian head, meaning the leader. And Mas comes from mother. […] It could be referenced scientifically, according to nature or biology, or it can be referenced according to fantasy, imagination. So when all these components are connected, that guarantees the possibility of success; you can definitely, in a critical way, decide what’s not making it. […] The score itself becomes obsolete the moment the object has been rendered.
All of Smith’s current projects revolve around these ensembles which he is very much a part of, but he has also created compositions for contemporary classical ensembles. For him, this is just another manifestation of the same basic approach.
The same music I write for the contemporary classical performers, any one of my ensembles or myself can play. I don’t change up the kind of language that I’m using for this group or that group. I have music for gamelan. I have music for koto ensembles. I have music for gagaku. I have all kinds of music, but I use the specific language that I have to experiment with instruments and people, sometime extracted from their history, sometime using their history as well. Most things that artists do will find this course. Art is here for a specific reason. It wants to engage us to think deeper about ourselves and our connection to our environment.
The compositional aesthetic for all of this music is inherently social and collective in its approach, but Smith’s very first recording project as a leader, which he did exactly forty years ago, was an album on which he did everything completely by himself—he played every instrument and even was responsible for the album design.
I did absolutely everything including the silk-screening of the cover. The original one was written by hand, and it had a red cover over the name of what it would have been before, because I changed the name. And I placed every one of those stickers on there. […] It sounds like it’s overdubbed, because my percussive system had a metallic keyboard with stuff all hanging around. And it had a sleigh of things hanging that I could use my foot to manipulate. So I could play the trumpet, and then play it and strike one of the overheads, and it sounds like there’s two or three people playing.
Even when he is playing completely by himself, he wants to embrace a whole world of music. The aspirations that informed and guided that very first recording are still being played out in Wadada Leo Smith’s largest scale projects. Also at the core of everything he has done there seems to be an educational component, not just in the strictly intellectual or pedagogical sense (although he has served on the faculty of CalArts since 1993 and has been a mentor to generations of musicians) but in a deeper spiritual and metaphysical sense as well. Wadada Leo Smith’s urges all for us to find our own voice through our own creative expression and he believes that through our finding our own voice the world will ultimately be a better place.
I do believe that there’s a world coming where the cultural base is of the Americas—North, United States, Central, South, and all the auxiliary islands and lands around. […] Imagine this, as John Lennon said, what is going to happen when those other cultures take the same level as has happened here in the United States? You’re going to see a fantastic sphere of music culture that no one on this planet, even today, could ever think would be. It would be more fantastic than any artist ever before, and it’s waiting for us to connect, you know. We have not connected for a lot of reasons, but I can say this, the beginning of creative music in America at the turn of the last century began to make that base and eventually it’s going to open up. It’s got to open up because we can’t stand still.
Frank J. Oteri: This season you have had an extremely extensive concert tour in celebration of your 70th birthday, but it’s also the 40th anniversary of the first album of your own music, Creative Music 1.
Wadada Leo Smith: That’s right. I never thought of it. I’ve been going forward, so I haven’t thought about when that was done, but it was done in December forty years ago.
WLS: Wow. That’s great.
FJO: It’s interesting to compare that record to this ongoing celebration. Creative Music 1 was the ultimate do-it-yourself project. You played every instrument on there, you produced it yourself, you did the program notes, and you even created your own label for it. At the time you did that, most people assumed that to make a recording you needed to have a producer and a record company, in addition to side men. Nowadays so many people do everything themselves so it’s no big deal; in 1971, it was a huge deal. But that’s very different from your recent concerts which have involved 50 people.
WLS: It is. It is. On that particular first record of mine, Creative Music I, I did absolutely everything including the silk-screening of the cover. The original one was written by hand, and it had a red cover over the name of what it would have been before, because I changed the name. And I placed every one of those stickers on there. The truth is that there was one done just before that, like about a month and a half to two months before that, but I picked the wrong studio and obviously the wrong engineer, and everything was distorted. So I had to wait until I got it out of my system before I did it again. And I did it again. So the version we’re hearing now is the second version. That other version is just unlistenable.
FJO: Even nowadays with all our technological engineering feats?
WLS: I think I may have thrown it away it was so bad. I couldn’t hear it. Everything was distorted. The engineer was laughing the whole time because he had never seen anybody play stuff like I was playing. So he didn’t know what to do with it.
FJO: I’m curious about what your procedure was in the studio in terms of playing in real time versus multi-tracking.
WLS: In this particular case, absolutely everything was done in real time. I think on my ECM solo Kulture Jazz I do some overdubbing, but the overdubbing is very unique. I play one part. I don’t listen to another part, I play the second part, I don’t listen to the first and second, I play the third part. And I have a kind of a feeling for how length comes out. And so I kind of ease it in in the same zone, or end just a little bit over. I let it hang. I let it stay. What I’m looking for is art, and art is something that doesn’t have requirements as such. It’s a different kind of approach to how you see life, and one guy’s response to that life. And so if it hangs over a little bit longer, it’s fine. You know, that means it will just be two trumpets or two flugelhorns or something.
FJO: Now what’s so interesting about that being done with no overdubs is that if someone were to listen to it without knowing everything was done in real time, it would be easy to assume that the music was being made by a group of people.
WLS: Well, it sounds like it’s overdubbed, because my percussive system had a metallic keyboard with stuff all hanging around. And it had a sleigh of things hanging that I could use my foot to manipulate. So I could play the trumpet, and then play it and strike one of the overheads, and it sounds like there’s two or three people playing.
FJO: That album is such an interesting point of departure to talk about your music overall because in your life you seem to have done three kinds of music making: music that you create for and by yourself; music that you do with other people; and finally music that you write for other people in which you’re not necessarily part of the performance, whether it’s a piece for the Kronos Quartet or Da Capo Chamber Players. I was listening yesterday to this really, really cool bass clarinet and piano piece that you wrote for Marty Walker and Vicki Ray, the Betty Shabazz piece. It got me wondering though about these different modalities or working alone, working with other people, and then making pieces for others that doesn’t include you at all. That clarinet-piano piece could be playing right now while we are here in this room. You don’t need to be there for it to happen; it exists in this other realm. Yet there’s a consistency of approach to all the music you’ve done.
WLS: There is. Basically my experiment is with instruments and people. The same music I write for the contemporary classical performers, any one of my ensembles or myself can play. I don’t change up the kind of language that I’m using for this group or that group. I have music for gamelan. I have music for koto ensembles. I have music for gagaku. I have all kinds of music, but I use the specific language that I have to experiment with instruments and people, sometime extracted from their history, sometime using their history as well. Most things that artists do will find this course. Art is here for a specific reason. It wants to engage us to think deeper about ourselves and our connection to our environment.
For example, Robert Johnson, Son House, and all those great guitar players, every one of them had a different way that they tuned their guitars for their special sound. When they played together, you would hear the uniqueness of each one of them. If they were in the same group, you would hear each one distinctly. That’s language. And that language is what art is all about. It’s that uniqueness, that concern with how you see or project yourself, and what that environment has that you must either encounter, engage, or somehow make peace with.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you talking about the great bluesmen. You grew up in Mississippi, the home of the blues.
WLS: Yes, I did.
FJO: So that was probably the first music you heard.
WLS: It was the first music. That and church music. Blues is such a fantastic music. I talk to people all the time, either in my classes or in lectures, or in conversation. I’ll say, “Let me tell you something about Blues.” And they say, “What?” And I say, “First of all, it’s not a harmonic progression, even though modern guys in the North made it like that. It’s not that. It’s really an interchange between the first and the fifth chord: the one and the five. That’s all it does.” And later in life, you know, studying analysis of most of Western music, and that includes Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, all of them, that music moves in fifths. No matter what the decoration was, they had a relationship of one-five, or five-one. Now, the blues found that intuitively.
This interchange allows the artist the chance to hear and think and breathe at the same time while they’re making this line, which has always only two parts to it. The third part is always improvised. We know in modern times, people make the third line. But in the older days, they would sing the first line, which usually repeated itself, like “I woke up this morning and everything was a mess.” They say the same line again. “Everything was a mess.” The third line now has to solve that riddle of why there was a mess or what you’re going to do about it. And those singers, they used to do that. The guitar players and singers used to figure these songs out. They could make them up daily if they wanted to. Blues is spontaneous, it alternates between two chords, one and the five, and it’s the freest form of music in America. That’s why it was brought into jazz and all the other music, like rock and roll which came out later, because it’s the freest form of music. And it can absorb all influences without stuttering.
FJO: When you got to Chicago, you were playing blues with Little Milton. But when you were still in Mississippi, were you already involved with playing blues?
WLS: Oh, yeah. That’s all I played. Yeah. Yeah, I grew up playing blues. My first ensemble when I was 13 years old had two guitars, a bass guitar, a lead guitar who was the vocalist, drums, and a trumpet player—me. And we played blues. From the age of 13, until I graduated out of high school and left town, that’s all the music I played. I heard other music only on television and radio. When I got a little bit older, like 14, somewhere around there, I ordered a batch of LPs, five of them I believe. I ordered Miles Davis Kind of Blue. I ordered Duke Ellington, the Newport Jazz one where Paul Gonsalves plays a hundred thousand chords or something. I ordered Count Basie. I ordered Billie Holliday, and Michel Legrand, the French composer.
FJO: That’s quite an auspicious way to start a record collection!
WLS: Those five records became the hallmark of my introduction into jazz. Michel Legrand, I didn’t know who he was. Never heard of him, O.K. But he had Art Farmer, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, he had a bunch of creative musicians on that recording. So I got to hear these artists in different settings, where it had an element of classical music in it. But they were there soloing and playing.
FJO: It’s fascinating that Miles was such an early influence for you because I think you’ve absorbed Miles’s sound and have kind of carried it on and extended it in a way that I don’t think any other musician has done. And your absorption of Miles is from all the parts of this career. You’ve embraced it all and you’ve taken it to another level. But many other musicians have said, “Oh, well I like the early Miles, and then he went fusion, and I don’t like that.” And then the folks who are into fusion might say, “Well, the fusion stuff was the great stuff, but the early stuff is less interesting.”
WLS: I’ve heard that often. How can I say it nicely? It’s a junk argument that has no basis whatsoever. Would you take a person’s head only, or his hands, or his fingers, or his toes, or just a heart? You have to take the complete person. And an artist shows you stuff that you may not supposedly like, but once you hear it, it doesn’t matter whether you like it because memory is second to the heart beat. If you heard it, your inner consciousness has stored it. Whether you allow it to happen normally or whether you allow it to happen through intrusion, it’s going to influence you. The great master artist Miles Davis did a lot for music. He played most of his own music throughout his career. He understood the way in which the social system here worked. He was courageous in the sense that he wasn’t afraid to change and go in multiple directions. In fact, he did it all his life. Duke Ellington did the same thing. Most of these great artists changed all their life. But Miles Davis was most recognizable because frankly, his profile was a little bit bigger. Most people won’t take that, but it’s true.
Regarding my relationship to Miles Davis, let’s say it this way. When I approached the first Miles Davis project that I got involved in, Henry Kaiser would send me copies of his music to listen to. I would listen to it, maybe the theme of it, and drop it because what I was interested in doing was seeing how I could relate to his music by using the same principles that I use in my music. That makes it work, and that allows you to be able to expand it and go way beyond it.
For example, my sound is as powerful and great as Miles Davis. I don’t say that out of arrogance; I say that out of deep respect. The articulation that I use is quite different than his. His articulation had a lot of tonguing in it; mine doesn’t. It has where I chopped the wind by the tongue inside the mouth which is very different. Most people don’t know that. They think that it’s the same thing, but it’s not. The air column is stopped inside.
The other thing is that notion of creativity, not being afraid to explore your instrument, to allow the instrument to sound the way it will sound by itself no matter what you do to it. An instrument has a quality that, if you allow it to share it with you, to be a part of what you’re doing, it will give you a sound that no one else has. It will give you articulation and shapes or musical phrases and structures that no one has, and it will introduce this extra sonic aspect. It’s all inside the instrument, but most people fight hard to keep it from coming out. Before multiphonics got famous, everybody tried to avoid them. Multiphonics is easy, it’s when your lip gets tired and the little inner part gets relaxed a little bit and it buzzes or vibrates a little bit different. It cuts out some of the overtones and stuff, so it allows these multiphonics to pop in. While Booker Little was talking about being able to do that, he never quite affected it, and other guys was talking about doing it. The guys that made it most available, the three guys on the Plugged Nickel date that Miles Davis did. He used multiphonics on there. Lester Bowie used multiphonics on there. Wadada Leo Smith used multiphonics. And as a result, everybody that plays the trumpet now has investigated how to make multiphonics.
FJO: Now Booker Little probably would have gotten there had he not died at the age of 23.
WLS: He would have gotten there. I mean like come on, the guy was fantastic. But the thing is his intent was there, and therefore he did it. You see, he was aware that it was possible, and therefore he did it.
FJO: This goes back to this point about the dichotomy of playing music with people and writing music for others to play. We talked about contemporary classical players. I want to get into this whole question of words. Like “contemporary,” “classical,” “jazz.” I think those words are all traps.
WLS: They are all traps. Yeah.
FJO: But one of the mindset traps that even goes beyond the words is that players coming out of jazz or creative music, improvised-based music, whatever we want to call it, are taking instruments and using those instruments to shape their own sound.
FJO: But what Western classical music performance training is about is playing a certain way on an instrument in order to convey the music that another composer has written, maybe two weeks ago but more likely 200 years ago, and producing what is considered to be the best possible tone on that instrument according to a specific tradition of performance practice. This can become a problem even with composers in the contemporary classical world who want to do something new with a particular instrument. Players don’t want to sound bad, and there are specific ways that an instrument is supposed to sound. When you were describing multiphonics, you made me think of all the classical players who might say, “I won’t do that because I don’t want people to think I’m making a bad sound; my reputation is about sounding a certain way.”
WLS: No, the creative musician coming out of that tradition, they all have to have a signature. And the sound is the biggest thing that they have because everything you play, your sound goes through it. Lester Bowie, Ted Daniels, Don Cherry, and Miles Davis—every one of them I guarantee you had four or five Cs, and four or five Ds, or four or five Es. They could shade each of those attacks so that the sound that they play is still a C or a D, but different. That’s because at some point, you have to make the sound be different than it was before. Now, I recognize in, let’s say, contemporary classical music that they have a different sound, too. Only the soloists are allowed to have their own individual sound. Not the ones sitting in the orchestra. They can’t be too individualized, because the conductor is going to say, well, that chord is out of tune, or can you shape that note up. But the soloist can have an individual sound. They can make their individual F-sharp a little bit different. Because who’s going to stop them? Nobody. The conductor’s not going to go up and say, “Stop that.” He’s going to take it because usually the soloist has just as much clout as the conductor.
FJO: There have been some famous stories of soloists butting heads with conductors in bad ways, like the one where Leonard Bernstein was conducting a performance of a Brahms Piano Concerto with Glenn Gould as the soloist and they couldn’t agree on the interpretation.
WLS: Gould knows how to interpret what he wants.
FJO: But to bring it back to your music, you say you write the same music no matter who you’re working with. If someone’s training is totally different, and someone’s coming out of a whole different tradition, even if you’re writing the same music, it could wind up sounding quite different.
WLS: It’s gonna be different, but I’ll always put a little bit of something in it that will make it sound like it’s a part of me. For example, you noticed on Marty Walker’s bass clarinet, I had him do multiphonics. And those multiphonics are nasty. He would do them much cleaner than he did them on my record, but I asked him loosen them up. I told him not to play just to get the correct relationship between the fundamental pitch and the overtone pitches, but to make it so that it has a little bit more noise in it. Then, when it comes to phrasing and structure and stuff that, I talk the player down to where I want him. And I do it very easy. I don’t say, “That’s wrong.” I say, “Can you hold this note a little bit longer? Can you make the phrase feel a little bit more heroic, or a little bit more laid back, or a little bit more like you want to improvise it?” And eventually, that’ll seep right into them, because I’m not demanding that they do it. I say, “Can you do that?” I learned that from Duke Ellington, not from him personally, but from reading and hearing about him. In the studio, he would tell a soloist, “We’re going to do another take, because I know you feel like doing it better.” You make it easy and not confrontational. Just be gentle, be soft, and let them figure it out for a while, and they’ll make it. There have been people that have not figured it out and won’t allow you to figure it out for yourself. And what you do is you just avoid that person.
FJO: Now the amazing thing in your referencing Duke Ellington is that he didn’t write for instruments so much as he wrote for people. He didn’t just write for trumpet, he wrote for Cootie Williams. That’s a very different way of looking at arranging and orchestration.
WLS: Exactly. I write for people, too. I write for the instrument and for people; I’ve blended it, so to speak. When I say I write for instruments, when I write for the pipa, for example, I don’t use references from the guitar or from the piano; I know what that instrument is. I understand its history, and I write it for Wadada. And that makes it come out a little bit different.
FJO: Now, I want to get into some of the technical aspects of the writing of music. You have a term to describe what you do, and I hope I’m not going to say it the wrong—
WLS: —No, you won’t say it wrong—
WLS: That’s exactly right. The first part, Ankh, comes from the Egyptian cross. Ras comes from the Ethiopian head, meaning the leader. And Mas comes from mother.
FJO: It would be great if you could explain how it works a bit.
WLS: That’s easy. At least it’s easy to talk about it because it’s one of my favorite subjects. Ankhrasmation is a musical language as opposed to a musical notation system. In the early years of it, we talked about it as being a notation system. But since 1967, it has moved into a language, meaning it’s a musical language as opposed to being a graphic language. There’s a difference between the two. In my Ankhrasmation, there are lots of commands. There’s a rule of thumb for success or failure for any portion of it. There are elements that have to be referenced, like when there’s color involved. The colors have to be referenced on various levels. For example, it could be referenced scientifically, according to nature or biology, or it can be referenced according to fantasy, imagination. So when all these components are connected, that guarantees the possibility of success; you can definitely, in a critical way, decide what’s not making it.
Now, it has various levels. It has what I call velocity units that deal with all kinds of motion. There are eight of them. There’s a set of four that’s on the left sphere and a set of four on the right sphere. The left sphere is generally slow, and the right sphere is generally fast, and each velocity unit of the four on each side, they all have the same relationship to each other. It’s either a relationship of one and one, or one and two, or one and three, or one and four in terms of ratio. And the density level as it goes from one to four increases or decreases. For example, if it’s the slow ones, the density level decreases. In other words, number four would have the maximum level of space within it. And if it’s on the fast level, the density level increases, so number four would have the absolute maximum of reduced space—there’d be no space, virtually. And that just deals with the idea of things that move. Then there are the rhythm units—six sets. Actually there are seven, but I haven’t used number seven yet because I just started working on it in the last couple of years, and I have to figure out a little bit more the components of how I think about using it. But it’s there. Each set starts with a long and a short, and each set progressionally is long-short, but it gets shorter as it moves from set number one to set number six. But each set relationship ends up exchangeable with each other set. The long-short relationship or the slow-fast relationship is constantly parallel throughout this language, and the reason is because when I compose or construct a piece of music, I don’t want the artist trying to remember how long the last long was and how long the last short was. Every time they come up on an Ankhrasmation figure, they don’t have to worry about trying to figure anything out about how long or how short or how fast or how slow it was. It’s that their relationship is always going to be from any two; it always will be long or short, or short or long.
FJO: Now, is this something a player who has never worked for you, could figure out? Could a player get a manuscript of this stuff, without any additional explanation about it from you, and be able to come up with something that you could say is your music?
WLS: Let me say it this way. It’s most difficult without me, but it’s not impossible. I have a ten-page document that talks about some of this stuff, and I deliberately make it short, because I don’t want it long winded, and I don’t want people trying to figure out too much about it. I want them to be able to integrate that bit of information I give them into their perception, so there’s always a little bit of them in it as well. So that’s why I say it’s not impossible. It’s possible to have stuff upside down; that is, you’re not sure this is long and that is short. But if you functioned on a level in which the command asks for, you’re gonna get some results. The results don’t have to be absolutely the right order, but if the proportions are right it turns out to be right. Let me give you one statement about this Ankhrasmation that I discovered very early and it was a bit of shock at first. On the first early pieces, after having people come to my house and play them or I go to some place and play with them and get back home and put the tape on—at that time it was tapes—and get a glass of Kool Aid or water or tea, cross my legs, open the score, push the button, sit back to follow it and—No. Impossible. Impossible. You can find traces here and there. You can point that it’s here and now it’s there. If it’s three or four people, it’s impossible to tell. So the score itself becomes obsolete the moment the object has been rendered. I was shocked at first. But then if I take the same score, and redo it with the same ensemble or a different ensemble, it’s completely different. So, I don’t mind this score evaporating for each of the music objects that it creates because it’s going to create a new music object that’s completely different. The only requirement is that the artists that are performing it maintain a high level of sincerity. That’s all it requires.
FJO: This is a parallel approach, but almost for the exact opposite reasons, to John Cage’s creation of indeterminate scores. The idea was also for it to be different every time, but his goal in those scores was to create music where the way it was written would not only get rid of his ego in the process, but also get rid of the egos of the performers. The music would happen and ultimately be separate and apart from something that he or anyone else could control. But what you’re doing is creating a music that allows the people who are coming into it to have a piece of the control as well.
WLS: Exactly. But when Frederick Rzewski or David Tudor played a Cage piece, I think they added their personalities to it. I think Cage was a philosopher, and he understood the realms of what that meant. He had to accept the fact that those two guys playing the same set of piano pieces, because of the score, are going to be different, but also because of their different personalities, it’s going to be different. I think he understood it. I think that it was a philosophical notion about these guys getting rid of their egos. But you can’t lose that. What you can do is control it, you see. I think he managed to control it with that particular pronouncement. Guys would not go too far outside of themselves to do it. And he controlled it like that. But in any piece of my music, whether Ankhrasmation or something that I’ve written for just a trumpet, or something I just play on the trumpet, I’m looking to do a number of things. I’m looking to be creative and open. I’m looking to see what the trumpet or the instruments would do inside that room, see if they make that space in there lighter or heavier, or somewhere in between. It can do that, but the condition has to be right. In other words, the artist in that room has to have a dominance of focus that outweighs the one or two people who are not focusing perfectly. You would get that, that little lightness in the room. You get that little feeling of it. You get that little buzz in your body that tells you something is true.
FJO: There is definitely a remarkable through-line in your ideas about music which goes all the way back, again, to your first album, Creative Music 1, from forty years ago. In your jacket notes for the original LP you wrote about wanting to create a better balance between the realm of composed music and the realm of improvised music. You perceived a cultural dominance of Western classical music; musical traditions from the other parts of the world—Africa and Asia—were not accorded the same status. And definitely in your own music, which responds to all the world’s traditions, you’ve attempted to rectify the disparity. Yet it’s interesting to hear that for you, even with music that is created in the moment, as opposed to something that’s fixed in advance, there is a compositional process going on beforehand, and that you create a score from which other people are playing. This actually connects your music to the lineage of Western classical music.
WLS: It does. You have to look at this way. The first truly authentic notion about improvisation occurred right here in the United States at the beginning of the last century, and it was flooded out throughout the world. People say, “Yeah, what about India?” Yes, they were improvising, but they all were improvising based off a tradition. They all improvised based off how their teacher taught them to improvise. If their teacher taught them to make certain kinds of turns, they do those certain kind of turns in improvisation. In the Western world, you can have a guy from India, a guy from Jamaica, a woman from Texas, and a woman from Florida, and you have Wadada in the same ensemble—all of them coming from different backgrounds, maybe different religions, different standards of life, and they would have no problem at all making music. But you couldn’t do that in an Indian ensemble. You couldn’t do that in a Japanese ensemble. You would have to adopt a tradition before you do it. In other words, this creative music that began in America brought in this humanism towards the creative arts. Now it has not been solved, because right now in every school in the world, my school included, Western [classical] music is the only dominant force and the only one that’s worthy of having any kind of decision made that would effect it. It still happens, O.K., and it’s going to continue to happen because I’m not the dean of the school, you know. Or, Anthony Braxton’s not the dean of the school, or Muhal Richard Abrams is not the president of the college.
But I do believe that there’s a world coming where the cultural base is of the Americas—North, United States, Central, South, and all the auxiliary islands and lands around. It’s the largest cultural sphere on the planet, larger than any of them. It also has the most diverse of musical forms and cultural attributes. It also has the largest basis of insect life and animal life. Imagine this, as John Lennon said, what is going to happen when those other cultures take the same level as has happened here in the United States? You’re going to see a fantastic sphere of music culture that no one on this planet, even today, could ever think would be. It would be more fantastic than any artist ever before, and it’s waiting for us to connect, you know. We have not connected for a lot of reasons, but I can say this, the beginning of creative music in America at the turn of the last century began to make that base and eventually it’s going to open up. It’s got to open up because we can’t stand still. As Bob Marley would say, you can go around them or you can go under them. It’s not going to last. This thing is going to bust out. And you’re going to see probably the same thing happening with other spheres. You’re going to find out that the culture of Africa and Europe is actually one culture. People just don’t know that because of the political differences between those two parts of the world. There’s a guy by the name of [Cheikh Anta] Diop who suggests that Europe and Africa were one cultural sphere.
FJO: Well I’d go even further. I’d say that at the beginning of the 21st century, we’re all related to each other in the entire world.
FJO: And this definitely ties in with the music you’re making. I’m thinking now of your group Mbira. This is music that’s inspired by the Shona people of Zimbabwe, but the way you choose to express it is by including the pipa, a traditional Chinese instrument which in your group is played by great Chinese virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen. She has been based in the U.S. for many years, but she’s coming out of a tradition that is very far away from Harare, and yet—
WLS: Right. They are connected because all of us have the same origins. The difference is only through migration. Whatever the scientific basis of all the information that we have, we do know one thing: we’re much closer in perception of language than anybody ever thought a hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago. We’re much closer in cultural ideas than anybody ever thought we’d be. Technology is a world event. It’s inherited by the next generation that has the best economy.
FJO: When you talked about embracing traditions, I thought it was interesting to hear you compare an ensemble from India, which is coming out of a specific tradition, with assembling five people in the United States from Texas, Florida—
WLS: —And India.
FJO: And India, yes. They can be from anywhere and, as you say, have different backgrounds and practice different religions. Now religion has played a key role in your own life. You’ve practiced several different faiths over the course of your life and have created music in response to that. You were involved with Rastafarianism, and as a result you embraced Jamaican musical traditions.
WLS: My Divine Love was a Christian expression. When I made Divine Love, the guys in the studio didn’t quite put it together, but eventually they did, that I’m talking about the love of God. That’s what divine love means. That was an expression out of my Christian zone. There’s also something on ECM that’s looking at the whole mystical tradition coming out of the desert sages and the early Christian mystics. It’s all coming out of them. And the Rastafarian zone, that’s also connected with the Christian view.
And now Islam. I searched for Islam a long time. Even when I was looking at Rastafarianism, I was looking at Islam. I was always fascinated with what I was reading. So I started to actually study it, not with somebody else, but with me, sitting down in my little music room. I started doing the prayers, even though I didn’t know how to do the prayers. I just read that you stand up, you bow down, you do this, do that. I imitated those gestures and one night after I got up and did those prayers, I decided that morning that I had to go take the Shahada, which is the confession of faith. I drove from my home, which was in Green Valley, California, all the way to L.A. which was quite a long ride, a couple of hours. They were having a class. Now the lady asked me my name. And I said, “My name is Ishmael.” And the reason I said Ishmael was because I was reading about Ishmael the night before I came. If she asked me on another day, I probably would have said Leo. But I said Ishmael, so she pinned a badge on me saying Ishmael. So I go to class and after class, we do the Shahada. But in class, they were reading the same story narrative from the Koran that I had read the night before. They were reading the story of Ishmael!
I’m going to jump forward, but I’m going to close it up. I went to Mecca in 2002, and on my way out of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, I heard a sound of myself saying, look up. See which door you going out of. And guess what, I looked up and it was the door of Ishmael. So, how can you say it, the ship sailed in the right direction. I was looking for Islam all along. I went through many other different systems. I even went through a lot of different kind of things, you know, even Zen Buddhism. And I’m still looking, but the ship moved into the dock.
FJO: And yet it seems like you haven’t rejected any of them.
WLS: I have rejected nothing! No, because all of it gave me knowledge. The journey, here and there, gave me information and it all helped to purify me, meaning that it made me feel an awareness about the spiritual dimension that may in fact be larger than the religious dimension.
FJO: Somehow I think the fact that you maintain four different active musical groups is related to your ability to embrace so many different things at once. And they’re all very different from each other. It’s all very clearly you, but they’re very different kinds of ensembles. First there’s the Golden Quartet, which of course has changed over the years also based on who else was performing in the group with you—Anthony Davis, or Vijay Iyer, Jack DeJohnette or Pheeroan AkLaff. So perhaps for me to call that one group might perhaps be somewhat misleading.
WLS: No, because it has been. I decided to change the Golden Quartet after Malachi [Favors] passed. Jack and I talked and he suggested some people. I looked through a lot of different players. I played CDs, I listened, I sat back and imagined. Then I heard Vijay’s stuff. He had given me CDs every time I’d meet him. I listened to all the CDs he had given me. I went through all these other CDs, but I kept going back to Vijay. And the reason I went back to Vijay was this—the way in which he played a chord, any chord. With Anthony Davis, the way that he played a chord, I thought I could never find anybody that played a chord that I would like. But he did. His chord was different than Anthony’s, but it was one that I could assimilate and play through. Over the years, there’s also been Angelica [Sanchez]. I’m still searching—not for a replacement, but—for the right notion about how you play a chord. Somehow that’s what I use to judge my piano players as to what I can do with them. In Golden Quartet, the piano player is absolutely the most essential part because it connects all the lines. All the lines stem from that piano. And not from the piano part, but from how the piano moves horizontally.
Now, Mbira with Pheeroan AkLaff, Min Xiao-Fen, and myself, that group has such a fantastic open sound. All the resonance you can hear because of the strings, stuff like that.
Silver Orchestra has a different kind of a notion. It’s seeks to utilize at the largest level the notion of instruments being unaltered in their performance. Now what do I mean? I mean, non-transposition; I don’t transpose the instruments unless I want a melody or horizontal line or melodic line that needs to be transposed. Otherwise, no instrument in that ensemble is going to be artificially transposed to C. Because that’s what happens when you transpose instruments: every instrument—the F, the B-flat, the E-flat, the D—is transformed from their original intent into this context of C. And my theory is that when you do that, only the C spectrum with overtones and undertones, and character comes out. Whereas if you allow the C, and the F, and the B-flat, and the E-flat, and the D, and the F-sharp instruments to sound simultaneously together, all six of those sounding areas are activating overtones and undertones, and the resonance is great. My Silver Orchestra has maximum 12 players in it. And I can tell you this, I’ve tested many people, they cannot tell you how many instruments are there. They think it’s more. It’s only 12. That’s because I didn’t transpose them. I believe that instrument makers were not dumb people; they were smart. If they made E-flats and As, and B-flats and so forth instruments, why not use them?
FJO: So when you’re saying non-transposed, what you’re essentially saying is they’re playing in their own keys, so what results is a kind of polytonality.
WLS: Yeah. But a rich polytonality, because again your skills of orchestration come in, you see. And that can tell you how rich or how unrich it’s going to be.
FJO: The final group—which we haven’t talked about yet, although we alluded to it when we were talking about Miles—is Organic. I was listening to Spiritual Dimensions last night, and I kept thinking that this music is taking Bitches Brew to the next level and going beyond even that. But I find it curious that a group that has all these electric instruments—something that we might think of as being not organic, not natural—is the one you call organic.
WLS: Right. What I really mean by organic is I’m talking about what it produces. It produces a real, vibrant, sonic reality that’s nourishing and vitalizing. That’s really what I mean by it. And each of the players in there has been really, deeply picked to give this notion, because I tried different numbers of players, and this latest version—which has existed for the last three years or so now—is the right version. Originally, Organic had two keyboard players in it. Very fine musicians, but not the sound that I really wanted to hear. I thought I wanted to hear that sound, but after two performances, or three performances, I realized that’s not the sound I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear these guitars, this cello, these double basses, two basses, and on the second record, the piano. I’m thinking now to get maybe one more instrument, like another bass, and have two electric basses.
FJO: You’ve got a laptop in there, too.
WLS: We’ve got laptop, horns, we got a lot of stuff on there because that project was to be an extended view of what I thought about an ensemble that everybody was calling electric and funky. But I wanted to show them that it was not just that. It was something that has this huge volcanic, lava kind of sound that you can’t really place in those categories.
FJO: But at the end of the day, it really is still pretty funky.
WLS: It is. But it’s supposed to be.
FJO: And, I think, there’s something instantly appealing about this music that makes it an excellent entry point for people who might not immediately understand some of your other music. We talked about how the world is going to come together. What are the commonalities? You’ve done a lot of stuff that has taken people to other sonic realms in your music over the years; there’s some pretty far out places that that music goes, going all the way back to your very first album. In a group like Organic, you’re also doing things that are really far out, but because it’s got this groove, you can take them there more easily than if it were just hard core experimentation.
WLS: Exactly. That’s exactly true. Like Bob Marley said, “Hit me with music, and I fear no pain.” That’s what’s happening here. All the same qualities that exist in that other music of mine, it’s all there. But you make it so that they don’t feel no pain. It’s easy. It’s easier for them absorb it. And that absorption makes it also a little bit easier for me. I can get more work, I can have people come Friday and Saturday. “That guy has returned to the earth.” I could have people speculating as well, “What is he going to do next?” It’s fascinating to be an artist in these times, and I imagine any other time as well; it’s the most exciting thing that I could ever think about doing. Ever.