By fields harrington, Primary Researcher, 2022–2023 The Kitchen L.A.B. Research Residency. Published as part of The Kitchen L.A.B. Research Residency x Simons Foundation x School for Poetic Computation.
September 21, 2023
The following text is the accumulation of loose notes and fragmentary thoughts. Spending time with The Kitchen’s archive, the documented history of Butch Morris that lives online, and the writing of Katherine McKittrick prompted me to ask: what does correspondence have to do with the legacy of Conduction®, how does absence figure into the desire to develop a vocabulary of gestures and signs, what is the common ground between reinvention and Conduction®, and what is the economy of Butch Morris’s lexicon gestures?
I’ve been watching Butch Morris perform on YouTube; rereading the 1985 press release for his performance Current Trends in Racism in Modern America: (A Work in Progress) (1985) on The Kitchen’s archive; and listening to him demonstrate and explain the concepts, methods, and systems of Conduction® on Soundcloud. Today I wanted to launch myself down a rabbit hole of his documented history again to listen to him explain what drove him to develop his method Conduction®. In a video on YouTube titled Lawrence “Butch” Morris documentary short about the art of Conduction®, Butch talks about the significance of “real-time development.” Taking the symbolism of notation and applying it to real-time activity is important to the conductor, musician, and audience.
He says that he “mines” music and sonic information. He mines it and then refines it. The mining of sonic information is a real-time activity that produces a new social logic of collective imagination in the ensemble of musicians and the conductor. This particular mining is a collective intimacy, transmission, and correspondence. Butch was concerned with the process of construction that can move and turn in many ways at any given time based on the instrumentalists in the ensemble. Butch believed that he needed to find flexibility in notation. Butch wanted to modify written scores in real-time. When Butch was attending conducting classes, he posed a question to his teacher regarding the scenario where a conductor wished to return to a previous moment in the musical score. The teacher’s response emphasized that if the composer intended for the ensemble to revisit a specific point in the score, they would have explicitly written it in the notation for the composition. Butch didn’t need to be specific as notation. Notation is absent of expression. The interpretation of notation needs to be broadened. It is through Conduction® that the break between improvisation and notation is bonded. For Butch “literal movement,” or the real-time literal sonic interpretation of graphic information, could be understood by the musicians in the ensemble by the alignment and orientation of the baton as it corresponds with the conductor’s body.
I wanted to think Butch Morris's method of Conduction® through a lens of reinvention. Which part of Butch’s history do I want/need to be in dialogue with? Initially, I found myself consumed by the invention of his signs and gestures. I wanted to understand why Butch decided to invent a vocabulary of signs and gestures. Not language because according to Butch, music was the language and Conduction® was the vocabulary. What was absent in notation and written compositions for Butch that led him to invent a new social logic or an extra dimension? I should note here that improvisation alone was not enough to produce the music that Morris wanted to develop and hear. Improvisation needed organization, guidance, and structure. Butch was committed to reconciling the gap between the traditions of improvisation and notation. I wanted to know how Butch’s Conduction® overlapped with Katherine McKittrick’s ideas around reinvention. McKittrick states in her book Dear Science and Other Stories, “The reinvention of black life and community, and inventive rebellious practices, regardless of scale, clearly demonstrate a revolt against an entire belief system, including a sanctioned order of consciousness, that negates black humanity; these reinventions and inventions transform an impossibility—black humanity—into an imaginable and valuable and expressive form of black life.” (1) I wonder how Butch’s observation of the absence he found in notation led him to rethink, rearrange, and disrupt the traditions of the written score and conduct improvisation; and if this process of reimagining somehow could be tethered to McKittrick’s writing on reinvention. Butch expresses the absence of a system that fits with his creative impulse in his essay “An Extra Dimension.” He states that “New requirements and scales of evaluation call for a new social logic; one that governs collective intimacy in the immediacy of creation. Why sustain the differences between notation and improvisation? To what end do we make music in ways that ‘fit’ in one or the other tradition? Conduction® is my response to these questions, and it is a response animated as much by regard for proven forms as by a will to evolve the potential available to us: enhanced musicianship, discovery of structure and substance within the arc of the performance, the evolution of a musical practice based on new reciprocities between conductor and ensemble, instrumentalist and conductor, instrumentalist and composer, and between composer and the audience that enters this encounter.” (2)
Conduction® is a gestural lexicon that developed over time. Its meaning shifted weight through time and space marked by a language that was invented out of necessity. Is there an economy of this necessity? Is there an economy of Morris’s gestures and signs? Is the time-space of Morris’s lexicon of gestures in relation to, or a site of, politics? (3) What does the repetition of Morris’s gestures look like without accumulation? How does Conduction® become an embodied dialogue? How does it become an embodied correspondence between conductor and musician?(4) I’m not interested in understanding the efficiency and management of Morris’s gestures and signs with these questions. I’m also not thinking about the commerce or the financial conditions of his gestures and signs. I’m invested in trying to know how Morris’s gestures become inscriptive and have the volume to script, write, and transcribe sonic information. Perhaps, there is a concern with the intentional use and development of his gestures to convey meaning, communicate non-verbally, construct a ground for spontaneous collective intimacy, bring attention to acts of collaboration(5), and refuse feelings of impossibility.
fields harrington is an artist who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. fields has a BFA from the University of North Texas, an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania, and studied at San Antonio Community College. He was a participant in the Whitney Independent Study Program. He has presented solo exhibitions at the David Salkin Gallery, KAJE, and Y2K Group. He has exhibited in group shows at MIT List Visual Arts Center, Parsons School of Design, 52-07 Flushing Avenue, and Automat Gallery. fields harrington was an L.A.B. researcher in residence at The Kitchen in collaboration with The School for Poetic Computation and participated in the research residency Site to be Seen at RAIR.
(1) Katherine McKittrick, “I GOT LIFE / REBELLION INVENTION GROOVE,” in Dear Science and Other Stories (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021), 150–168.
(2) Lawrence Butch Morris, “The Extra Dimension,” in The Art of Conduction: A Conduction ® Workbook (New York: Karma, 2017), 34-36.
(3) Giorgio Agamben, “Notes on gesture, 1992,” in Philosophers on Film from Bergson to Badiou: A Critical Reader, ed. Christopher Want (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 1-30.
(4) Maxe Crandall and Selby Schwartz, “Radical Movements: Gender and Politics in Performance,” Movement Research Critical Correspondence, December 14, 2017. Accessed July 16, 2023, https://movementresearch.org/publications/critical-correspondence/radical-movements-gender-and-politics-in-performance.
(5) McKittrick, “I GOT LIFE / REBELLION INVENTION GROOVE.”
The Kitchen L.A.B. Research Residency is generously supported by the Simons Foundation, whose mission is to advance the frontiers of research in mathematics and the basic sciences. The Foundation’s Science, Society and Culture division seeks to provide opportunities for people to forge a connection to science—whether for the first time or a lifetime. Through their initiatives, they work to inspire a feeling of awe and wonder, foster connections between people and science, and support environments that provide a sense of belonging.