Wadada Leo Smith is a great composer and trumpet player. Since the 1960s he has been an important person working with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. I recommend George Lewis’s history of AACM, ‘A Power Stronger Than Itself’ (2008), if you are interested in the relation of oral history and linguistic description of music. Smith’s own texts from the early 70s are also very good. I’m really interested in Smith’s compositions and performances because I have the impression that everyone acts like a soloist, a combination of complex symbolization of harmonic experience and guidance by the body incites moments of risk.
CM: How do you center yourself when performing?
WLS: It starts the night before, where I take stock of what the performance is going to be about. I go through scores that I’ve intended to perform, and at night, before falling asleep, I reflect on that. The next day, the day of the performance, I prepare myself for the sound check, or mini-rehearsal, depending on what the occasion is. Then, after the sound check- which I like to be as short as possible, because often you spend so much time in the sound check, the sound gets nearly good, and yet you get back and there’s all kinds of difficulties, so a short sound check is preferable for me- I try to maintain my reflection, my concentration, on what I have to do. And normally, I don’t like to be around the ensemble, I try to find a space for myself. Because most people don’t look at performance the same way I do, they spend a lot of time talking, and laughing, and telling jokes, and being reunited with people who pop into the dressing room, and stuff like that. And I’m not into that. Even when I’m in a dressing room and I have my family there, they all know that I’m being quiet. They don’t come in and try to start a conversation and do all kinds of things. It’s a moment of reflection.
And then, when the time comes to perform, with the first step on stage, I make extra effort to step on stage with the right foot. And keep moving. And on stage the possibility of holding your composure, and keeping your focus, it means you hear everything that’s happening on the stage, but it does not dominate your awareness. What should dominate one’s awareness is their own self-center, and their contribution to that performance. It’s not that you’re not listening, or not aware of what’s going on. It’s that you don’t allow it to take you out of your state of composure, and cause you to lose your perspective as to where you are, what you are doing, and what you have to do.
CM: What about that way of looking at performance allows you to find such unique sounds for your notes, the notes you play on the trumpet?
WLS: Well, I started out, I was born and raised in Mississippi, and my early music teachers, the first one was called Oneal Jones, the second was Henderson Halbert, and the third was Alex Wallace, who was my step father, who was a blues master. I started playing the trumpet outside, practicing the trumpet outside. And when you do that you have the whole- the Earth, and the sky, and the particular buildings, as your boundary point. When you practice outside on a wind instrument, your volume, how you attack the note, that is, how you make it, and how you sustain it, all become far more confident than playing inside. Because whenever you play inside of a room, that room is actually a resonator. It resonates a certain kind of sound area, and when you play in that sound area, the room booms with great velocity and great visibility and audibility.
When you’re outside, you’re not playing in a resonator. The space between Earth and sky is open. That’s the vertical aspect of it. Also the horizontal space is open. Because sound does go through buildings and it also goes around buildings. When you play outside, you develop a larger scope, of the size of a sound, and the concept of different qualities one sound can have. You have a much more strong way of playing the sound. And because of that I think I developed a good sound quality with the trumpet.
CM: Do you think more about notes one by one or with more of a whole intuition of the octave?
WLS: No, I take a quite different approach. When I’m playing the trumpet, I allow my inner self to be the directing force, the intuitive self. This intuitive self doesn’t need to hear or select individual pitches. What it does is- it has several different ways of presenting itself- as a flash just before execution, I can sometimes see the quality of what I’m about to play; and sometimes, because you don’t see it, there is an inspiration that pushes it forward. And as it comes out of the horn, one does achieve rapid levels of epiphany about the reality of what is happening at the moment. Each of those moments has to happen again and again and again, in the context of a solo or a single piece or over a larger arc, which is the context of a performance. The intuitive force, or that notion of inspiration, epiphany, reflection, and memory, all of those levels of awareness or consciousness are in play at the moment.
CM: I think the role of emotion is really important for making decisions on how to blend tones. I was interested in what you said about the flash. Could you give an example of what lights up, for example if you were to listen back on ‘Ten Freedom Summers’? Listening to it, that would be many flashes, I’m sure. And would it be the same as in performing?
WLS: It will be different. I’m detached from the music when listening to it. Even though it is my music, my role is different then when I’m a performer, as the listener in that moment. The flash back has to do with the hysterical moment. It has to do with the rehearsal, the practice, sometimes even the composing of it.
To give an example, when I composed the ‘Emmett Till’ piece in ‘Ten Freedom Summers’, I had no idea how it would sound. I don’t know why I didn’t try to think about how it would sound, but I had no anticipation of what it would sound like. In the first rehearsal, after putting all the parts together and running through the whole piece, I was surprised by how it sounded. It sounded almost like I was aware of the performance, but in the sense of, “who composed this?” That is just a flash that comes through. At the same rehearsal, everybody in the quartet and the chamber ensemble had similar kinds of experiences. Not “who composed the music,” but they were amazed at how it sounded and felt. That is what I mean by flashbacks.
But also, there is another realization I had when listening. On one Saturday, I decided I would listen to all of the music in one day, that’s almost five hours of music. And I did. I fixed breakfast, and sat back, and listened to the whole performance of ‘Ten Freedom Summers.’ Before then, I’d listen to maybe one CD, and then another with a day between, and then another CD with two days between, or two CDs with a few days between or some weeks between and then another. But, this day, I listened to everything all in one day. And the realization came to me that, in the very beginning of my musical thinking, and the path that I took, the musical journey I’ve been on was the right path, and the music itself justified my journey.
CM: I’ve read you talk about how, in collective performances, the sincerity of musicians is of the utmost importance. Is what you were saying about not knowing who composed this, and also this realization of the right path, related to sincerity? Or is sincerity more breaking through habits and automatism? And to add one more question, is the sincerity good, or useful, primarily for the expression of sadness?
WLS: I take sincerity to be a quality of the heart, not the mind. Sincerity, if you find it, is a balance. Its usage becomes more important when it is in balance, outside the cognitive experience of trying to think about how you feel. Sincerity should be almost like inspiration, and it’s a quality of the heart. It should spring forward, expressing something about you that maybe no one can see, but you can feel it, and know the authenticity of your feeling at that moment, or your being as a human being at that moment. Sincerity is a very important principle, conditioned by the heart and conditioned by love, and respect, and kindness. All of those one would have to attach to the notion of sincerity. Believing in that heart quality, with the heart asserting itself over the mental capacity, is a strong quality of an artist, a very strong quality.
CM: I wanted to ask about Ankhrasmation, I’ve also read Ankhreanvention.
WLS: That was the first name I gave to it. I discovered, once I started teaching at the Creative Music Studio up in Woodstock, how to deal with this language. I discovered that wasn’t the right name, so I changed from Ankhreanvention to Ankhrasmation. That first name was based around the idea of inventions in music. But, I was looking for something that was much wider, that could refer to a language, so I changed it to Ankhrasmation. The word Ankh comes out of the Egyptian hieroglyphics, which is where I found the word, and where I studied the word. Ankh means the vital life force. Ras comes from Amharic in Ethiopia. In that language, ras means head or father. And ma is, of course, the mother sound, throughout the world. So, if you look at it and you translate it, in the terms of which I put together, to name this language I was dealing with, it is the vital life force and the father and the mother.
CM: I know it can be used for any number of instrumentations, and was wondering if it was noting more the tones or pitches or rhythm relations, it sounds like it is noting more the feelings?
WLS: Let’s get a closer. It is a symbolic language. The name Ankhrasmation is just what it is called. The language itself consists of signs and symbols, colors, and certain kinds of instruction. If you go to my website, the Ankhrasmation gallery, I have four scores there, for the Four Symphonies. And there is an explanation for each of the four scores of symbols. Those are Ankrasmation scores. Any number of players can perform these scores because it is not based off of one number. Any performer or set of performers can start at any direction or place within the score. Normally we use routers, routers for large type or small type, so it spontaneously builds within the context of an ensemble into a whole structure, and to use large and small cycles of material. That means that if I have three people playing that music or five hundred thousand, each one of them would have a different realization about it. And their realization would determine their contribution to the score.
There are some set principles. They should learn at least one or two symbols that are associated with Ankhrasmation. There is a set of symbols that deal with rhythm units. There are six sets of those. There is a set of symbols that deal with velocity units. Of those, there are eight, four slow and four fast, varying degrees of slowness and fastness. If they learn one of each of those, a rhythm unit symbol and a velocity unit symbol, already that person has enough to play an Ankhrasmation score. Although they may not be able to interpret everything in the score, one performance doesn’t require the complete score performed. They would be able to make a convincing performance even if they know two symbols.
CM: So, it is easy to learn?
WLS: At the beginning of learning, young or inexperienced people can have an access inside the music. My hope is, once they have the slightest involvement with this language, they will be inspired to learn more, and from there, they will be inspired to begin to use it in context. And then, past that, I dream that they will begin to dream and visualize ways to add to this language from their point of view.
CM: With graphic notations, do you think it is important for composers to all have their own symbolic language, or do you think there ought to be a universal language?
WLS: Only if the Creator gives you the desire and will to discover it. For me, Ankhrasmation was a discovery. It was not something I made or built. I discovered this because it was already out there in creation. Everyone knows one of the laws of thermodynamics is that nothing is created anew, that everything is and has already been here, and the basis of creation is energy, those energies take transformation in various form, but the underlying face of it is its all energy. So, I follow that notion of creation.
CM: Because the ‘Four Symphonies’ scores are on stars, it seems to have a purpose of showing that certain concentrations of vibrations would have analogue with physical or spatial phenomena.
WLS: The basis of the ‘Four Symphonies’ comes from an image of the sun. As I began to work on it over the years, it became reduced enough so that you cannot necessarily tell that. It could be a surface of any large body that occupies space.
My whole purpose of Ankhrasmation was not to eliminate or stop composers from working with so-called regular notes. I didn’t look for Ankhrasmation to take over written notes, A, B, C, D’s. I didn’t look for that. I looked for something that had been inspired in me for some good reason. I looked for a period of five years. I discovered the rhythm units first. And bit by bit the velocity units, and a little bit later, create units, and all other aspects of it. The first discovery was in 1967, when the rhythm unit was discovered. And it has been going on ever since. I always come up with different ways of expressing that information.
CM: Could you explain how you use Ankhrasmation to make melodies?
WLS: I would use the word, music, make music, as opposed melodies, because melody is usually referred to as a line. Music has a wide possibility of structure, function, harmony; what happens is this. The person looks at the score. The majority of my scores are now in color. The person sees the color red in the score, and that is a deep red. And right next to it, they see another color, an orange. Not on the level of paleness and not also on the level of a rich orange color, but somewhere in between.
The first thing that person should do is remember from their research, or go online and find the light spectrum, the notion of light in a vacuum, and the first thing they would discover is, that orange color has a different angstrom number than the deep red. Those angstrom numbers are based on the wavelength of those colors, the electromagnetic wavelength of those colors. That means for the person to use the two colors, the deep, dark red and the orange, they know which has the larger waveform, the red. And they also know that in their relationship in the light spectrum, either vertically or horizontally, red is lower than orange. So, they have some sense of where sound is being played, the registration of where sound is being played.
That is the very beginning of the research and collection of material, the next most important thing is, that those two colors need to be put into some kind of form. And what kind of form? You reference them. Say that I reference the dark red as blood, and the orange as an orange bell pepper, in the state when it is more orange than yellow. What do we have now? We have blood, the next thing we do is find out the properties of blood. And all you do is, you just Google it, or get your book out. We know that there are white and red blood cells. The blood has a very powerful function. It carries the vital life force inside of it. It also provides all the organs and cells in the body with oxygen. It has multiple things that it does. It flows through a system, I’ve read that the vessel system, if spread out in a long line could wrap around the Earth, which is a magnificent way of thinking about it. So, that’s the red. We put it in context. We have all these other properties to deal with, the biological property, the spiritual/mystical, and the physical characteristics. Now the bell pepper, look at that, it’s an orangish-yellow. If you cut it in half, you see that it’s wedged. There’s a membrane that runs from wedge to wedge, from the core, all the way down to the bottom. And that membrane, generally, is white. And it’s got this membrane, or wedges, inside of it that informs structure and form. And it’s got seeds inside of it. And it has something else that is very important, vitamins C, A, and D.
CM: It is a lot more complex than just seven colors [corresponding to tones].
WSL: At this point now, and what I suggest to performers in my ensemble is to keep diaries of notebooks on their research. Because the research on each performance should grow, so if you perform five Ankhrasmation pieces, you should have about 28 or 30 pages in your diary or notebook about reference and colors and how to perform and think about things and what the symbolism means. You should have a lot of information by that time. So that on any given day, I could put an Ankhrasmation piece in front of you and all you have to do is refresh yourself through your notebook and you’ll be able to play it. That information will continuously grow because an art piece is a repository for information, and also the discovery of the possibilities of continuous growth. This is the very same notion that they had 6000 years ago in the construction of the pyramids. If you do any study on the great pyramid of Giza- everybody that does a study on that knows, that it was a repository construction and that it was lined up, including the courtyard and the pyramid structure, into the deepness of space and the bottom, all of that was lined up in the cosmology of the sky. An Ankhrasmation piece seeks to do the same thing, but in a different context.
CM: In what way is composing and playing with Ankhrasmation a healing practice?
WSL: The first quality of healing is to bring balance back into the body. Normally what happens in a music performance is the person forgets about what was outside the door before they came into the room or the space or the performance area, they forget about that. And when the music starts and continues, they begin to forget who they are, or what they was, or what they did. And that is already dropping the veils of who that person is, they’re dropping bit by bit, so that by mid-way through the performance, they might begin to be healed. All of this stuff is gone now. Their attention now is on the performance, as a demonstration of how to balance your life, not in a concrete way, but in a sound way, that is non-discursive, where there is no doubt about what to do or how to do it. The intuitive self is listening, and making all of the adjustments that are needed and required. The person who is healed the most is the person who has gotten rid of most of the veils that has covered them. The person who has forgotten completely about who’s outside, what they were doing before, what their family is like, not even knows who the person is sitting or standing next to them. That person is healed the most. Everybody gets some healing. Some get more, some less. But, there is always a healing taking place in performance. That’s why the Creator made performance, so it could heal us.
*This blog is maintained by members of the Oley Freindschift Guild of Braucherei Practitioners and of the Guild of Urglaawe Braucherei and Hexerei Practitioners.