Talking about complete composers: Henry Threadgill
He isn't just interested in writing forms that will be played in a conventional way, he actually wants to change the way that the music takes shape. The way that musicians respond to one another.
The fact that I failed to mention Henry Threadgill’s work came up a couple of times in reviews of the jazz composer. My initial defence is that it wasn’t that sort of book – it was never meant to cover everyone in jazz composition, and those names I did include (apart from my obvious stress on the triumverate of Duke, Mingus and Gil) were there to prove a point: to spell out why I didn’t like their work, perhaps, or to draw attention to a few fellow-Europeans whose work was largely unknown outside their own country.
‘They made a big impression on musicians all across America, all around the world, the step that had been made by them. Bill Dixon, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor. That move was a very significant move in improvised music in the Western world.Because it was the next move from Charlie Parker and Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, people of that school - that move. Once that move had been made, it was like everyone began to learn this music and they began to formalize this music. It became formalized, the way polyphony in Western music had become formalized by Bach. Then it had fallen into more or less a set of known patterns and predictable outcomes, and consequently it was becoming stylistic and into periodicy, I would say.That it stayed within itself within that period and style, and it advanced as far as it was going to advance, and that was it. There were refinements and arrangements and beautiful solos, but the evolution had stopped.’
Where he and I differ is in our approach to composing itself. I prefer an intuitive approach, waiting for the piece to show me which way it wants to go, a process that continues well into the rehearsal period, and even into its peformance. Threadgill would agree with the last point but starts with a very different approach, one much more technically based than anything I have ever contemplated - or indeed understand:
Over the last decade Mr. Threadgill has been refining a new concept, a method of composition with its own elaborate inner logic. ‘It’s a serial intervallic language,’ he explained, describing a system governed partly by mathematical principles, and inspired by ideas in the music of the 20th-century composer Edgard Varèse. In reductive terms a composition under the system will begin with a three-note chord, and proceed by extrapolating on its intervals, thereby defining the terms of any improvisation. ‘Every movement is according to the numbers,’ Mr. Threadgill said. Otherwise you break the bonding that causes the whole thing to fit the nuclei of the intervallic series.
His music is not for the faint-hearted – but anyone who doesn’t jump and say wow at his entry in Grief, on Song Out Of My Trees, may not even have a heart.
Check out his work by clicking on the links below (and the video of him talking about his Korean experiences is very interesting) or by downloading some of his music such as Song Out Of My Trees from eMusic or iTunes. If you don’t like it you will, as Threadgill says, have had some reaction:‘My only hope is they'll have a reaction, and the reaction doesn't have to be positive, It could be negative. It's fine with me if I drive you away. That's as good as if I kept you there. If it was strong enough to run you away, then it's going to do something to you. It's going to make you think about something. It's going to make you feel something that you weren't feeling or thinking about before. And that's the whole idea.’
Kevin Whitehead’s liner notes for Spirit of Nuff…Nuff quotes T.S Eliot’s as saying that ‘if “tradition” becomes a matter of just repeating the successes of previous generations, we’d be better off scrapping the whole idea’. Another comment which reinforces my view, and is perhaps more eloquently expressed than I managed to do.
Henry Threadgill at Amazon.com
Henry Threadgill at Amazon.co.uk
Ethan Iverson’s Do the Math blog carried an extensive interview with Threadgill including an audio section where he details his experiences in the Korean War.
NPR posted three tracks from Threadgill’s latest album This Brings Us To ... Volume 1
Nat Chinen’s New York Times article on Threadgill (from which the two quotes in orange come) also has some audio clips.