Photos courtesy of Peter Gannushkin / DOWNTOWNMUSIC.NET
For the composer and multireedist Henry Threadgill, music is momentum, and anything else shouldn’t even be an option. This and myriad other convictions emerged during a long talk in advance of this Arts & Leisure profile. We met at the same Italian pastry shop that Threadgill had chosen for interviews with a couple of my colleagues (whose work is linked at the end of this post). Every once in a while, another café regular walked by, and pleasantries were exchanged.
Threadgill has just released a brilliant and intriguing new album, This Brings Us To, Vol. 1 (Pi). He’ll also be the focus of a sure-to-be-epic Mosaic box, The Complete Novus & Columbia Recordings of Henry Threadgill & Air, which probably drops in March of next year. But when we spoke in person, Threadgill was more focused on the impending premiere of a Roulette commission called “All the Way Light Touch,” for a cello-enhanced version of his band Zooid.
The concert, on Oct. 25, unfolded in two parts. Before playing his roughly 45-minute new piece, Threadgill led Zooid in a handful of compositions that appear on either volume of This Brings Us To: “After Some Time” and “Chairmaster,” from Vol. 1, and “Extremely Sweet William” and “Polymorph,” which will appear on Vol. 2. I had heard some of this music on a previous concert at Roulette, but it really resonated this time, probably because I had spent so many recent hours absorbing Vol. 1. The music was uningratiating but appealing, with all that fractured funk and spidery architecture; its chromatic angularities came nestled in a context of pliable cohesion. The same balance carried over into the commission, which involved discrete sections linked by improvised cadenzas. Heading into the final stretch, Threadgill happily swayed for a while, eyes shut, savoring the heady blur of timbres.
Threadgill and his ensemble have spent much of the last decade working on what he calls The System, a distinctive methodology of composition and improvisation that seems nearly as difficult to describe as to learn. I did my best to explain it for a general readership, but that required a rather severe reduction of its terms. So I thought I’d go a little deeper here, with the help of the theorist himself.
The sound clip above is a very brief except of our System-related dialogue, early in the interview. Note how he refers to voice leading -- but not in the traditional sense, which typically concerns resolution. His version of voice leading exists within a kind of circuit: it’s merely the means of moving from one node to the next. When I made this point, Threadgill nodded, and then gave credit to his band. “These musicians in Zooid, they’ve learned enough about the language where they know how to do these things,” he said. “They can interject all of the musical information that they have, not just this particular conceptual language. This conceptual language allows me to bring in all of the information that they have musically. But that requires sophistication on their part when they choose to interject any other type of system.”
Deciding to follow up on this line of thought, I called guitarist Liberty Ellman, who just might be the new-album MVP. Ellman was happy to discuss the intricacies of The System, even as he admitted that it tends to confound analytical description. His straightforward take on Threadgill’s ideas was of tremendous help as I cobbled this piece together. So I figured I would devote the rest of this post to a partial transcription of that phone conversation:
One thing that stands out about this group, of course, is a blurring of the lines between composed and improvised. There’s an inherent mystery there.
A lot of the mystery comes from the uniqueness of the forms in the music. For people who listen to jazz music in the traditional sense, it’s easier to follow the form if you know the piece, but Henry isn’t really concerned with that formality. In this music we have a lot of through-composed things, and we might play one section in a piece, and there might be room for a solo in that particular section, or there might be two or three solos before we go back to the written material. Every piece has a completely different form. If you were able to follow the score while we were playing, you’d see that everything, it does bear a lot of similarity to traditional jazz, in that we’re following the form. These complicated forms make it a little bit more of a masquerade.
And that puts a certain onus on the band to be conversant in those forms. I know you rehearse a lot, relative to other working groups in jazz.
The work we do in rehearsal is as fun as, or even more fun than, the actual performances. That has to do with Henry’s approach to rehearsing, explaining the music and getting us to develop the music to where it’s second nature. It’s getting rarer, for economical reasons, to have bands that rehearse all the time. Even if we play the Jazz Gallery, we’ll rehearse five or six times.
Henry and I spent a while discussing the “serial intervallic language” behind his recent work. He got me pretty far into it, but I wondered if your perspective might clarify things a bit. We spoke about how he begins with these cells of musical information, and how each cell has to be dealt with, in terms of the prescribed intervals, before you can move on to the next one.
Each particular chord is a cell. Most of the chords in this are three-note chords; I don’t want to call them triads. These chords and their harmonic function are defined by the intervallic relationship within the chord itself. Meaning that in a three-note chord, there will be an interval relationship between each note in the chord. Once he’s decided the first chord, he looks at the interval relationships between those notes. Using those intervals he’s able to generate five more chords. So if there’s a minor second in the first chord, you can take the top chord and go a minor second from that, or you can take one of the bottom notes and go down a minor second. All of those chords share the same interval set. The numbers mean these are the intervals that are present. So if you have one bar of music with four chords, all four chords are going to have the same interval relationships.
The intervals themselves he’ll write in a bracket above the chord. So that’ll say what interval set is related to that bar. Sometimes the interval set can go over several bars. And then you use those numbers to inform your improvisation. It’s similar to the way a jazz player uses scales and arpeggios to identity the strong tones in a chord sequence. So in Henry’s music you have the chord tones, and then you have these interval sets. So you use those intervals in your melodic phrases in order to accent the flavor of that particular cell. Visually, you’ve seen a jazz lead sheet: the melody on the top staff, then you have the chord changes on the bottom staff. What we’re looking at isn’t that different from that. He writes everything on score paper and so it looks like chamber music, but then below that we have the chord changes. But the changes are these three-note chord cells, and then to go with each of those chords, we have an intervallic set above that.
Henry used an analogy of tables in a café. He said you move from table to table in a series, but you can only use what’s on each table while you’re on it.
Right. For example, if you have two chords that share the same interval relationship and you’re in one bar and improvising, you’re going to move from... actually this is super important when we’re comping. When we’re moving from one chord to the next, we absolutely have to move using the intervals on the page. So say that you had an interval of a minor second, and one chord was a D and I was going to move from a D to an E-flat. If I go up to the E-flat, it’s a half step, but if I go down to the E-flat, then we’re going down, what, a seventh? But if there’s no seventh in the interval set, that would be an illegal motion. So it’s the same pitch but I’d be breaking the rules of the counterpoint. When you’re comping, that’s really, really important.
More so than in the solos?
In solos I use that information as a guideline, but occasionally you’re going to break those rules so you feel like you’re improvising. But if you focus on the interval set that he’s given you, it gives you a sense of consonance in terms of the concept. I remember especially when I first started playing with Henry, I found that if I played with a jazz vocabulary, it didn’t sound good in the context of the music.
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