Friday, August 20, 2010

A Tapestry for (from) Bill Dixon

August 3, 2010

When I mentioned to friends that I would be attending the memorial service for Bill Dixon at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery the last weekend in July, as with any situation where one mentions “death” and “funerals,” the response was unequivocally apologetic. Those same people were probably surprised when I said it was something I was looking forward to attending / experiencing and that, after all was said and done, how powerful and enjoyable it was. As speaker Ben Young said, it was a chance to allow us, the more “normal” people, to do what “we do,” which is celebrate someone after they are gone. Dixon wasn’t particularly interested in being memorialized, and that makes sense when one considered his body of work – it is all about the present, as much as it is timeless.

In addition to Ben Young’s speech (I hesitate to use the word “eulogy”) and a poem by Steve Dalachinsky, the service was concert-like and featured the orchestral suite “Tapestries/Shrike” along with Dixon’s “For Franz,” composed and recorded for trumpeter Franz Koglmann in 1974. Andrew Raffo Dewar compiled a series of images, including Dixon’s paintings and drawings as well as photographs of him taken over the last few decades, which were projected on the wall behind / above the musicians.

An affirmative question that this memorial both asked and dealt with was the idea of repertory. Bill Dixon did not leave a body of work for others to play – not exactly. His compositions were written only and expressly to be performed, and they did not exist until the performance was complete. In other words, nothing was written not to be played. Once it was played (performed/recorded/etc.), it was done and he moved on to the next thing. In essence, and if we are to be true to some sort of overarching vision, this music should not have been played because Bill wasn’t there (though he was “in the room” and his trumpet was perched on a stool in front of the Tapestries orchestra). As much of a collagist/recycler as Bill had been – sleuthing can reveal lines and fragments of earlier or contemporaneous pieces re-contextualized (though it isn’t always the point) – his music isn’t meant to be done “again.”

In this light, the presence of “For Franz” on the program was a bit of a shock, played as it was by the quartet of trumpeter Stephen Haynes, bassist Joe Morris, percussionist Warren Smith and tenorman Stephen Horenstein (who was on the original recording). “For Franz” isn’t “Doxy” or even “Ghosts” because it isn’t a tune – rather, a line or a series of lines and a situation that brings those lines together. It was given to the Austrian trumpeter Franz Koglmann and recorded on his second LP, Opium/For Franz (Pipe, 1976). Curiously, as Dixon notes in the liner notes to the LP, "I hope that Franz will continue to play the piece when opportunities for that kind of instrumentation make themselves available." Could that be read elsewhere in Dixon's music? Part of the piece was used in the composition "For Cecil Taylor" from the Bill Dixon in Italy, Volume Two LP (Soul Note, 1980, with Haynes playing the primary line). In this situation, Horenstein brought it; he's a flinty preacher who has rarely been heard outside the context of Dixon’s music, and furthermore, his playing is delightfully and so clearly its own. And as much time as I have spent with the original recording, this wasn’t that – the quartet made “For Franz” their own. Was it still Bill Dixon’s music? Of course it was.

The suite of “Tapestries/Shrike” was a reconvening of the Small Orchestra that had performed at Victoriaville in May 2010, as well as recording the Tapestries for Small Orchestra set for Firehouse 12 in 2008. Joe Morris was added as a second bassist and Dixon’s conducting presence was instilled into Stephen Haynes and Taylor Ho Bynum, who signaled the pieces into motion. In Victoriaville, Dixon conducted but did not play; for the CD set, sometimes he conducted the band while at other times he played the pieces. Any concerns of how it would work without the composer’s literal, physical presence were recast – of course, it would be foolish to say that it was the same because his specific guidance was not part of the music. Certain things were done because he wasn’t there to draw out other things.

However, it was a shattering performance in its own right, and a form / possibility of music that could not exist without what Dixon (the composer / the instrumentalist) had lain out. The scores were there, the awareness of what Bill wanted the music to do was there, and the trust that Bill had in these nine musicians was also uniformly there. (Morris is someone whom Bill appreciated and while these were his first forays into playing the music of Bill Dixon, his place is assured.) Central to the piece was a recording of Dixon’s solo trumpet piece, “Shrike,” recorded in 1973 and released as part of the Odyssey set, nearly a minute’s worth of materialist “blowing the bell off the horn.” The use of "Shrike" as a pre-recorded section was also part of the Victoriaville performance (to be released on VICTO next year) and part of Bill's concept for the work.

Just as I wanted more time with Bill, I wanted more time with the music and the experience that was brought into St. Mark’s Church on Saturday. It would have been great to have a few more hours of the orchestra’s performance, just as several more conversations with Bill would have illuminated so much more. It’s not possible; immediately I thought of the sentiments levied by Eric Dolphy and captured on the 1964 Last Date album, “once you hear music it’s gone, in the air. You can never capture it again.” Ultimately, that's bullshit – at least if your music, art, and person are as all-pervasive as Bill Dixon’s. The fact of the matter is that those two hours were a slice of something much more pervasive that, through organization and orchestration, bubbled into the air for 200 people to experience. The sounds might have receded but they didn’t stop. By the same token, Dixon is a composer, and not only an improvising composer – his music begs being brought into focus through the right context and individuals, even if he’s not sitting on that stool with his trumpet one hand, gesticulating and intoning “all right, okay… Play, play… No. Yes. Now THAT’S the thing, see?”

What we’re left with is a body of recordings, reams of reference to unreleased music, and many thoughts and ideas committed to both words and visualness. But this music still needs an “all right, okay” and most certainly a few “no’s.” The question is whether and how Bill Dixon’s music can continue to be dealt with even if he’s not around to offer physical guidance. Those close to him can find ways to ask him, but he instilled a huge amount of trust / weight in musicians, improvisers / composers and writers to do what needed to be done for this music whether he’s here or not. His generosity was, in part, toward setting a very high bar for others to try and work toward.

At the same time, his work wasn’t finished – hearing the Tapestries suite performed and listening back to Tapestries for Small Orchestra over again, it is clear that Dixon’s work is far from done. If a repertory ensemble is nearly galling to the legacy and import of this work, the fact still remains that he busted creative music wide open for something more. For the rest of us he’s not here to do the work, but there are a number of people who are. I don’t know whether his music can be done without his doing it – of course, it can’t, but at the same time artists convene to do something heavy and that’s taking a step that needs to be taken. I’m waiting with bated breath to hear what is next, and I know that only a fool tries to capture what is already surrounding him or her. Because now this is what we do.

Reference recordings:

Franz Koglmann & Bill Dixon, Opium/For Franz, Pipe, 1976
Bill Dixon, Odyssey, Archive Edition, 2001
Bill Dixon, Tapestries for Small Orchestra, Firehouse 12, 2009

Photos courtesy of Isabelle Moisan.


  1. Weasel Walter and I were there. You can see us in the first photo at the top. Weasel is to the far right wearing a yellow shirt, while, I'm a short distance away wearing a light green tee shirt. Did not know you were there. It would have been a pleasure to meet you. We hung around afterward talking to musicians, most of whom I have not seen in a long time as well as meeting new ones.

  2. Great stuff, Clifford. Losing Mssrs. Dixon and Anderson has made this a VERY tough year for the music, doubly so for Dixon, as I feel Tapestries, excellent though it is, was the tip of the iceberg as far as far as Dixon's vision being actualized.

  3. Marc, I was there and we did meet.

    I agree about Tapestries.