Throughout my professional life, my creative efforts have been
haunted by aspects of a cultural warfare that has been simmering
under the world¡¯s cultures for several centuries. It is a warfare
between a pagan prolongation of the eternal moment, found in the
drum music of traditional religious rites of black West Africans
living below the Sahara, and Western civilization¡¯s concept of time
that emphasizes either a past golden age, postponed rewards in some
vague future, or immediate gratification driven by a
¡°take-the-money-and-run¡± attitude. In the latter approach,
plundering the present at the cost of the future is considered a
good. Whatever else can be said, Western civilization is profoundly
ill-at-ease in the present moment.
For all humans, life is a short affair
climaxed by the grim certainty of death. Since no one can live in the
past, and may or may not have a future, all that any of us really has is
the present moment.
As a composer, my job is to create work
that holds the listener¡¯s attention so tightly that he or she cannot
stray from the piece. Thus the listener is glued to the work from
beginning to end. When this occurs, a continuum of
past, present, and future has been achieved. This continuum, which
is experienced as a prolongation of the present, is what I call the
Ironically, the African slave trade, with
all its horrors and social disruption, also presented an opportunity for
transformation. It was the slaves¡¯ ability to rise to the occasion and
create a new culture and persona that enabled them to survive and
coexist in America. Traumatized by slave-ship voyages, deprived of
languages, gods, families, communities, and rituals, the slaves were
forced to modify what remained from their past and invent
new cultural forms as needed in their new geographical habitats.
In a range of work encompassing Beyonce¡¯s
¡°Creole,¡± ¡±Skunk Juice,¡± Atari Video Games, THE CRY OF JAZZ,
Urban Classical, the Detroit Symphony, Dizzy Gillespie, Hip Hop, and
¡°Urban Counterpoint.¡± I have composed music that celebrates the
pagan prolongation of the eternal Now.
Confrontation has been a dominant quality
of my work since my youthful days as a jazz prot¨¦g¨¦ (clarinet/sax) in
Chicago. Later, as a composition student in the early 40s, I was one of
the first musicians of my generation in Chicago to write atonally and
use Schoenberg¡¯s 12-tone system. Through jazz, I had been immersed in
the harmonic language and sonorities of Art Tatum and Duke Ellington.
Also through participation in many orchestral and chamber performances
of concert music, I was heavily exposed to the harmonies and sonorities
of Debussy, Scriabin and Chopin.
I viewed Western Art Music as dead music,
of interest for gaining great technical command of one¡®s instrument, but
not music to be enjoyed as a living, breathing entity. With the
technical command gained from playing and studying Art music, I felt I
would be able to improvise more interesting and daring solos in jazz.
But I viewed jazz as limiting because of the regularity and
predictability of its cadential structure.
My world changed when I heard a recording
of Stravinsky¡¯s ¡°Rite Of Spring.¡± Not only was the music alive, it
swung! I decided to become a composer because I could then have a
freer formal expanse than was offered by jazz, and a much more
plentiful, colorful palette and powerful instrumental device at my
disposal. I felt that if I could uncover the secret of why Stravinsky¡¯s
music swung, and combine that knowledge with what I knew about swinging
from my jazz background, I might be on a fruitful mission.
After finishing my military duties in World
War ll, I returned to college. I decided to go to the University of
Chicago, a place noted for its investigation of the basic principles of
various subject matters. I hoped that the same attitude extended to the
music department. However, I had been warned by one of my previous
professors that the music department at the University of Chicago was
anti-musical. I decided to give it a try anyway. My need for a school
where the professors could both think and argue with me overcame the
warnings I had received.
that I needed a school where I could question the very foundations of
Western Music and also debate with the teachers. With such an attitude,
I knew I wouldn¡¯t be welcomed at a conservatory. There I would learn
what was supposed to be the craft of composition but I would not learn
why the craft had to be conceived of in that manner and only in that
I wasn¡¯t welcomed at the University of
Chicago¡¯s music department either. At that time, it was a completely
musicologically-based department. Papers concerning historical
musicological subjects were more important than living music.
the music I was hearing in my head and struggling to write, given my
limited technical ability, was unlike any other contemporary music I had
heard. I suspected that the wellspring of these musical ideas was my
black American experience, both musical and cultural. In the late 1940s,
very few American professors of Art music had any knowledge of or
respect for jazz. Of utmost concern to me was the conception of musical
form. It seemed to be conceived of spatially, as architectural
ground plans, with various operations to
achieve balance. Fine enough if that¡¯s what one wants. But I didn¡¯t.
Semiconsciously I was groping for a conception of form based on the
importance of the prolongation of the present moment and conceived of
temporally. In addition, it struck me that the formal logic of music
should be somehow related to the nature of biology instead of
architectural ground plans.
Highly suggestive to me were John Dewey¡¯s
philosophical works, Art As Experience, and Logic: Theory of
Inquiry. Correctly or incorrectly, what I was able to take away from
Dewey to use in my own compositional development was the notion that
artistic creation is thinking in qualities. Qualitative thinking
means the construction of a means/end continuum of qualities. The
transforming situation evolves during backs and forth between
qualitative/quantitative thinking phases, moment, the eternal present,
the eternal Now.
One of my counterpoint teachers at the
University of Chicago remarked that West African drumming and its
polymeric structure was more intricate than Bach¡¯s counterpoint.
Eventually I bought a recording of traditional West African drumming and
discovered that in many pieces there was an adherence to the eternal
present. In fact, celebration of the eternal Now was the norm. With
these insights, I knew it was time to leave this musicological wasteland
and go to a conservatory in order to sharpen my compositional skills.
passing the requisite contrapuntal, orchestration and composition final
exams at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, I was faced with
the problem of earning a living. I never was interested in teaching.
I don¡¯t have the temperament. Attending college was primarily for
the purpose of learning and questioning what was taught there rather
than earning degrees in order to work in academe.
Die Riehe, keeping abreast of what Stockhausen, serialism, the
outgrowths of the dissonant counterpoint theories of Charles Seeger and
Henry Cowell, musique concrete, and John Cage were doing, along with
studying the polymetric intricacies of West African drumming, the newer
developments of jazz, and refining my Art music arranging skills, kept
me quite occupied.