Conductor Butch Morris concludes a 10-day Cornish College residency with a "conduction" — a spontaneously directed ensemble performance unlike anything else. It takes place Saturday, March 6, at Poncho Concert Hall.

Share story

On paper, the practice that Butch Morris calls “conduction” sounds like a recipe for musical chaos. But after more than three decades, Morris is a maestro of spontaneously directed ensemble performance, an artist capable of transforming an ad-hoc group of musicians into a thrilling vehicle for instantaneous arranging and composing.

Using a system of graphics and gestures, Morris has honed a semaphoric vocabulary that allows him to shape a performance in real time, initiating or altering harmony, timbre, dynamics, melody and any other musical dimension. After leading hundreds of conductions around the world, he doesn’t set out with a stylistic agenda, preferring to suss out his collaborators through rigorous workshops.

“Every situation is different,” says Morris, 63, who concludes a 10-day residency at Cornish College of the Arts with his first Seattle conduction on Saturday at Poncho Hall.

“As I’m teaching the conduction vocabulary, I’m also learning the musicians, what they do and where they like to go musically. It’s give and take all the way.”

Most Read Entertainment Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Steeped in music from an early age, Morris grew up in Southern California, where he taught himself to play several instruments as a teenager, including French horn, piano, flute and trombone. After serving three years in Vietnam, he gravitated to L.A.’s roiling late 1960s jazz scene, falling in with visionary artists like pianist Horace Tapscott, cornetist Bobby Bradford and clarinetist John Carter.

He traces his conduction concept to the early 1970s, but the practice really came together several years later during a teaching stint at Belgium’s Royal Conservatory of Liege. Around the same time he was making a name for himself as a pungently resourceful cornetist and composer.

While it might seem that conduction is tailor-made for jazz musicians, Morris has spent the past two decades breaking out of stylistic constraints, collaborating with filmmakers, choreographers, directors and visual artists. He credits a 1992 conversation with Nubian oud master Hamza El Din with sparking the epiphany that conduction is far bigger than jazz or any particular tradition.

“From that point I had to rethink my whole idea of what I was doing and how I was going to define it,” Morris says. “My definition evolved in such a way that I had to consider music in general.”

These days, he spends more time working with classically trained musicians in Italy than at home in New York City. He’s inspired dozens of musicians to explore conduction, but no one has attained his level of expertise.

“It’s a mistake to emphasize what’s radical about what Butch is doing,” says Wayne Horvitz, who performed and recorded widely with Morris in the early ’80s. “What’s significant is the level of virtuosity that’s specific to this, and that no one else is doing it anywhere near that level of commitment.”

Andrew Gilbert: