To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Julian Cowley: Some Liner Notes on Charlie Morrow, a Retrospective View

[The following is from the liner notes to a retrospective triple CD of Charlie Morrow’s works & performances to be published on the XI label early next year. It follows a week in September 2010 devoted to the Little Charlie Festival in New York City.]

Our possibilities are historic. We are known in the most utter revelation of starlight in the hills. Our possibilities precede the glacier...........................................
-- Richard Grossinger

Casting his astute eye across trends in twentieth-century Western culture, the late Guy Davenport noted that “what is most modern in our time frequently turns out to be the most archaic.” Examining the terms of this unlikely rapprochement between the pressingly new and ostensibly remote, Davenport recalled Pablo Picasso’s often stated observation that “modern art is what we have kept”. More provocatively, he suggested that this meshing of modern and archaic corresponds, at least in part, to a “radical change in our sense of what is alive and what isn’t.”

Twentieth-century anthropologists and archaeologists, Davenport pointed out, have resurrected ancient awareness of “a world totally alive, a world in which one talks to bears and reindeer, like the Laplanders, or to Coyote, the sun and moon, like the plains Indians.” Vital artists, philosophers and scientists of relatively recent times have at some level been attuned to this insight, have grasped that the archaic still has much to tell us about the significance of making poetry and design - that is, about ways to understand the world and live in it. Davenport wrote with the heavyweight Modernist mainstream in mind: Picasso; Stravinsky; Einstein; Brancusi; Joyce.

Charlie Morrow belongs to a later generation. His identity as an artist took shape during the 1960s; a decade when such identities became volatile, when shape shifting, border crossing and evasion of conventional classification started, once again, to become the norm. Tom Johnson, writing in The Village Voice in 1975, celebrated Morrow’s versatile unpredictability. You might find him turning out an advertising jingle in the morning, working on an atonal score in the afternoon, improvising on a Tibetan scale with fellow members of the New Wilderness Preservation Band during the evening.

The following day Morrow might spend time developing experimental vocal techniques or pursuing research into sounds made by fish, planning a film project or painting a multi-coloured poster-size score, designing an electronic circuit for his home recording studio or promoting some stimulatingly off-the-wall idea to Madison Avenue executives. “For anyone else such variety might be chaos,” Johnson remarked, “but for Morrow it all seems completely natural. He wears all his hats quite easily.”

A bowler has long been Morrow’s trademark headgear, but he is – to borrow a phrase from his old friend Dick Higgins – “attracted and moved by multi-hattedness”. Charlie Morrow is of his time, alert to changing contexts, new technologies, new means and modes of expression and creative action. But Morrow, more than most of his contemporaries, has grasped the persistence of the archaic in our sophisticated and complex present. And few current Western artists have matched his committed sense of “a world totally alive”. With humour and delight he has talked with the moon, sung to the sky, collaborated with buzzing bees, chirping frogs and calling birds; he has even staged a concert especially for fish. Guy Davenport noted that Wyndham Lewis, studying prehistoric cave paintings in southern France, observed acutely that “the artist goes back to the fish.”

Morrow’s outlook in part reflects an interest in shamanism developed while he was studying at Columbia University with Willard Rhodes, an ethnomusicologist acclaimed for his work with Mazatec mushroom music and his notation of shaman songs. Morrow subsequently studied composition and trumpet at New York’s Mannes College where, during the early 1960s, he met Jerome Rothenberg, a poet who shared his deep interest in shamanic practices. During the next decade Rothenberg published not only the important and influential ethnopoetic anthologies Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poems from Africa, America, Asia, & Oceania (1968), and Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas (1972), but also Revolution of the Word (1974), a collection of avant garde writing from 1914 to 1945. What is most modern in our time frequently turns out to be the most archaic.

Between 1973 and 1989 Morrow and Rothenberg ran the New Wilderness Foundation, promoting cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary art and performance, while exploring correspondences and points of contact between the new and old. The Foundation published EAR Magazine of New Music and New Wilderness Letter: Journal of Poetry. It played host to performing groups: The Wind Band, Grand Conch Chorus and The Ocarina Orchestra. Its “Audiographics” cassette imprint issued recordings by artists including Philip Corner, Annea Lockwood, Pauline Oliveros, Jackson MacLow and Lakota medicine man Leonard Crow Dog, who had participated in the second Wounded Knee uprising.

In 2003, 30 years after setting up the New Wilderness Foundation, Morrow invented a 3D Sound Cube, an advanced playback system for presentation of his own specially designed sound works in galleries, museums and other public spaces. The Cube was developed in collaboration with expert acousticians from Arup SoundLab, and in 2006 it was a featured exhibit at the Torino Winter Olympic Games in Italy, offering an immersive hi-tech sonic experience. Charlie Morrow respects the old ways but he’s fully plugged into the current.

He has a mind geared to design, and a taste for collaboration not only with other artists but also with theorists and technicians in a wide range of fields. He observes trends and seeks out specialist know-how, yet he still cherishes the acoustic properties of that ancient and organically occurring instrument, the conch shell. He sounded a conch at the funeral of his mother, and at those of Armand Schwerner, George Maciunas, Robert Watts and other friends. “The sound carries far even when it is blown very softly,” Morrow enthuses. “The conch is played universally, and has developed in different ways over the ages around the world. My research into shamanism led to recognition that any ritual you are doing in the present is a re-enactment of the first time it took place. When you blow a conch shell you connect back to the Palaeolithic, back to antiquity.”

A child holding a conch shell to her ear hears an ocean’s roar. In Morrow’s hands concepts can have comparably unbounded content. His Mars Doppler Shift Echo Event opens out onto interplanetary space, where the rotations of Mars and the moon may modulate radar signals. His installation Land Sea Air: Changing Climates offers an overview of Earth’s climate history, stretching back 400 million years to a point when terrestrial life emerged from the ocean. In such pieces a shamanic imagination shares horizons with the findings of science and the facilitations of technology.

Since 1968 Morrow has run a home studio, a self-reliant set-up allowing him creative independence and professional autonomy. In 1969 he established Charles Morrow Associates, a business venture which he describes as “the crucible for my commercial sound production work”. But his earliest recordings, issued on cassette tape by the New Wilderness Audiographics imprint, were intensely personal chants that got to the persistent core of his multi-faceted personality. These chants didn’t imitate traditional incantations, but were intimate soundings out of his own body. Morrow has subsequently fed his chanting body with dream visions, and he has taken the infinite sky as his score, charting through voice the eccentric mutations of clouds and the patterned flight of birds. Morrow’s sound work has extended from the orbit of Mars to his own buccal cavity, from the dawn of life on Earth to his own improvisatory present.

He has always found improvisation compelling, as a solo performer and in various groups. Improvisation played its part in the ideas-driven, interdisciplinary performances of the New Wilderness Preservation Band, formed in 1974 by Morrow and Carol Weber with singer Joan LaBarbara, percussionist Bruce Ditmas and bassist Harvie Swartz. Morrow has worked in ad hoc contexts with other brilliant musicians, including percussionist Glen Velez and guitarist Derek Bailey. He has also played frequently with amateurs. Morrow formed The Ocarina Orchestra on the simple, pragmatic basis that “the ocarina makes a good sound for anyone who plays it. It was a way to bring people together to improvise and make structures. It became a social instrument.”

During the 1960s Morrow played trumpet with Tone Roads, the exploratory chamber ensemble formed by Philip Corner, James Tenney and Malcolm Goldstein. It was a liberating experience within his development as a musician, an exhilarating, good-humoured alternative to the doctrinaire sobriety of the university music scene at that time. Tone Roads, the contemporary activities of Fluxus friends and a little later Philip Corner’s Sound Out Of Silent Spaces music-ritual project consolidated Morrow’s sense of music-making as an adventure in the living world and as a social gathering.

Morrow has the improvisatory outlook of a man who has grasped that, as Richard Grossinger succinctly and poetically put it, “our possibilities precede the glacier”. He’s an improviser imbedded in the world as it is, an individual organism finding terms of articulation within a universe that is historic and teems with life. He’s an improviser stimulated by fascination with the human heartbeat, by recognition that a tugboat’s horn is a musical instrument, that a bell-tower is a sound art installation, that marine life has a language. He is accepting of the given; not in a politically passive sense, but as a condition of his own creative existence. Social formations congeal and dissolve in time, over the tireless pulse of life. Morrow’s artistry, from the mid-20th century into the 21st , arises from unorthodox slants of perception, from discovery of unexpected applications and alignments, different functions, alternative modes of organization.

As a composer, Morrow soon became disenchanted with the concert hall. The issue was not merely physical containment of music. Morrow’s more recent work has actually involved capture of sounds and their installation in specific enclosed spaces. He has even created drawers and reliquaries holding sounds that may surprise and amaze gallery visitors who pause to listen in. Morrow’s objection to the concert hall was above all that its conventional character implied a blank canvas, scrubbed clean of sonic content in preparation for the composer’s work to be presented without extraneous distraction.

An Evening with the Two Charlies, an anti-war event staged in January 1973 at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in effect marked his farewell to the standard concert hall’s sterile tabula rasa. The other Charlie was composer Charles Ives, precursor, fellow renegade and kindred spirit in music and Nature. The programme started with Ives’s Intercollegiate March and featured his Three Page Sonata plus arrangements by Morrow of America, He Is There and General William Booth Enters Heaven. These Ives pieces were interspersed with Morrow’s own Trumpet Concerto, with soloist Gerard Schwarz, and Requiem for the Victims of Kent State, an angry keyboard piece played by pianist Zita Carno. The evening concluded with Morrow’s epic The Birth of the War God. A recording of that stirring work, performed by The Western Wind vocal ensemble, was issued in 1988 by the Laurel Record company of Los Angeles. It is one of the rare instances, until now, of Morrow’s work being available in CD format.

After The Two Charlies concert, Morrow moved outdoors, becoming a dedicated event designer and galvaniser of collective actions in public spaces. In 1973 he organized a celebration of the Summer Solstice in New York, which was so well received that other Summer Solstice events were staged annually until 1989, commissioned by the city, reported locally, but also broadcast nationally and shared through international media. While negotiating with metropolitan bureaucrats and media operatives Morrow was nurturing a sense of spatial and temporal relatedness that reflected his researches into shamanism.

Ancient reverence for the Solstice surfaced in distinctly modern ritual; a point in urban space connected back into the rhythms of cyclic Nature, and was projected across the globe by means of telecommunicative channels opened up by the newest technology. Morrow’s work as a carnivalesque event-maker in physically definable public space reached its apogee with Citywave, staged on the streets of Copenhagen in 1985. It involved more than 2000 participants - folk musicians, singers, brass bands, bell-ringers, rock groups, boats, helicopters, clowns on bicycles.

During the mid-1980s, Morrow made ambitious radiophonic artworks, some using specifically Arctic sounds, for Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) in Germany, commissioned by enlightened producer Klaus Schoening. Morrow has long been fascinated by the Arctic soundscape and by the prospect of listening to the Far North, and in 1996 he co-ordinated a Circumpolar Spring broadcast, tracking the arrival of that season, with the cooperation of a network of radio stations in Alaska, Siberia, Russia, Finland, Sweden and Greenland.

In 1987 Morrow provided music for the soundtrack of Beyond Day and Night, Swedish Sámi director Paul-Anders Simma’s acclaimed film about a city boy striving to acquire the old ways of living harmoniously with Nature. Morrow’s work in soundtrack writing actually dates back to 1969, when he supplied the highly effective, varied and dramatically atmospheric musical accompaniment for Theo Kamecke’s spectacular Moonwalk One, a feature-length documentary about the Apollo 11 mission. The director’s cut of Moonwalk One has recently been recovered and released on DVD. During Fall 2010, at the Little Charlie Festival held in New York City to celebrate Morrow’s life and work, a 20-minute sequence from that movie was screened while his music was performed live on Baroque pipe organ mixed with the intermittent beeping of NASA’s telemetric signals.

The Little Charlie Festival gave some indication of the scope and scale of Morrow’s activities as composer, sound artist and event-maker. It presented his Land Sea Air installation, instrumental concerts and a workshop, soundscapes, sound sculpture, parades, settings of ancient poetry and a composition for boat horns and blinking lights. Much of his work seems to exceed the viable limits of documentation, yet Morrow has compiled a comprehensive archive at his home in Barton, Vermont, formerly the home of Dick Higgins and his peerless Something Else Press. In Morrow’s archive are audio and video materials, assorted publications, artefacts and artworks; not just his work in sound, but its offshoots in stitch-work and calligraphy. The archive proves that it is possible to capture through documentation at least a strong sense of Morrow’s robust yet mercurial creativity. Further proof is offered on this long overdue CD release.

1 comment:

Ed Baker said...

OH MY! Thanks for this .... Morrow link

I am
as we speak

cruising in

Guy Davenport's
The Geography of the Imagination

(as I recall: he was at Hopkins when I was there...)

am reading Jim Nollman's
The Beluga Cafe

"[Jim Nollman] has sung with orcas, plucked a Jew's harp in waters teeming with humpback whales, and shaken rattles in the company of bottlenose dolphins. (...)."

thanks ... I'm excited