Butch Morris and the Art of Conduction

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Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris is a 62-year-old composer and bandleader who was part of a cadre of North American jazz innovators whose work began coming to public attention in the mid-1970s. Since 1985 he has developed, refined, and implemented a method for creating unique ensemble music using a patented vocabulary of conducting gestures. This novel strategy and the music it produces present an array of theoretical questions. Some of these have been simplified as questions of classificatory nomenclature: Is Conduction improvisation, interpretation, composition, or none of the above? How does Conduction as a system compare to other methods of structuring musical performance in real time? Other critical and social questions are addressed whose answers hinge upon the values and functions that sustain Conduction in the real world of monetized and competitive musicianship. Through interviews with Morris and members of his ensembles as well as observations conducted at numerous Conduction rehearsals and performances, my study documents Morris' art form as a new instrumentality that offers new ways of making and thinking about music. In the course of this study, a variety of materials and sources are used to describe how Conduction® was developed, what its historical precedents are, and how it operates in real performance situations. The explanatory implications of framing Conduction practice as a novel musical instrument are also examined. This new instrument has garnered a community of users with differential investments in and expectations for Morris' vehicle and how these investments and expectations have defined Conduction's place in the domain of musical performance and education. Supported by self-reporting and analysis, Morris' method is shown to arise from a pro-ensemble orientation that seeks to breathe new life into both the jazz big band and the classical orchestra by awakening and redistributing those core capacities most essential to the production of musical sound.