Photo by Patricia Hruby Powell
Snake Babies: A ConversationMorgan Powell, composer and jazz trombonist, was born in West Texas in 1938. He received his bachelor's at North Texas State University, while studying jazz arranging/composition with Ed Summerlin and playing in and writing for the famous NTS Lab Band. Despite having been thought the jazz trombone phenom of his generation, however, even in his teens, Powell was turning down invitations to join the big bands, Stan Kenton's included. Rather, he earned his master's in composition at North Texas State University, absorbing the canon of modernism under the tutelage of Samuel Adler. In further study at the University of Illinois with Kenneth Gaburo and Sal Martirano, Powell learned the composition techniques of new music. Powell has absorbed these several traditions so thoroughly that they cannot be isolated or analyzed out of his work. His compositions do not invoke modern musical programs so much as they directly address the heart of human doubt, longing and tenderness.
by Ann Starr
What follows is an excerpt of an interview that I conducted casually with Powell— a friend—over breakfast one morning in his hometown of Champaign, Illinois. I was collecting background for an article about the Tone Road Ramblers, the collaborative new music sextet that he has played in and composed for since 1981. Powell agreed to publish this digression from our real topic when I pointed out the public's general interest in composers' motivations, and my own curiosity about his reasons for remaining off-the-record about his work over a long career.
PSF: You've never spoken publicly about your music nor even written liner notes about it that I've seen. Have you eschewed addressing the audience?
Morgan Powell: It's probably very naive to say, but my excuse for not doing this is that the music should speak for itself; I mean, that's a real cliche, but I do believe it. And the other—it may be because I don't know what to say about it. I could say how it's put together. But who's interested in that?
PSF: A lot of people are, because they think it tells them something about it.
MP: My music has been used for theses, things like that. And people have called me and asked me [about it]. And the truth is, I don't have much to say. I have to make up things. They keep saying, 'But, but, but...' It's funny, I just tell them something. But it might not be accurate.
I think for one thing, if they're using my music honestly—because they think it's interesting or there's something of interest to someone else—then they should have to dig into it and find out what it is. If they're doing it because they can come to me and ask me for it, I'm not going to tell them what it is. They've got to find out.
That's the way I taught, too, I tried to teach my theory classes. The idea is to teach them ways they could find out what's in the music. I didn't teach them what's in the music. I wanted them to discover what's in the music. And the only way to really know if they understand it, in my opinion, is if they can loosely duplicate the style themselves. At the end of the course, the project was always, 'Write something in the style of —.' If they could do that, then they've really absorbed what it is, even if they might not be able to explain it: 'No parallel fifths, no this or that.' I mean, that's all really kind of trivial stuff.
So, if I did notes, it would have to be either before I wrote, or during.
And a lot of the reason is that when I'm finished with a piece, I'm finished with it. It's like snakes. They have their babies; they're through with their babies. They don't stick around. And what you're supposed to do is to nurture it: mother it; father it. And that means trying to get it performed, trying to get it performed well, sending it out to various places. I did that. I didn't do it on a grand scale.
PSF: When did you do that?
MP: When I was teaching. Because teaching is a networking thing. But I wasn't doing it for that reason, I assure you.
PSF: Illinois expected you to be composing and publishing?
MP: Oh yeah. I did that early. You know what you're supposed to do. To get to be an associate professor, you're supposed to be nationally known; full professor, internationally known. Well, I did all that. I was a full professor when I was 39.
But my point is that I'd send it out and people would play it and performances were just—mostly—horrible. I just decided: 'Hey. That's not why I got into music. This academic bullshit is not reason to write music and have it performed poorly. That was that. So I haven't done that.
And all of the Ramblers felt this way about it. And this is one of the reasons, musically, that we [formed the group.]
PSF: That's why you write exclusively for the Ramblers, commissions excepted?
MP: Yes. I don't have to say a word to them. They know exactly what this music is about. I bring in a new piece—I don't have to say a word. They know exactly what it means.
PSF: So there's no distance between composition and performance.
MP: That's right.
PSF: It's a collective mind.
MP: It is, it is.
PSF: Your recordings with TRR, then, are your legacy as much as your scores are.
MP: That's right. At the point, I became interested in recording, I was not going to have anything put out on a recording that was not done the way I wanted it. Not to perfection or anything like that, but expressing and getting out of it what it should be.
[The Ramblers have an annual two-week residency at Ragdale, an artists' colony in Lake Forest, Illinois. This is the only time they meet as an ensemble. During their extremely productive two weeks, they rehearse whatever any member has composed and brought for the group to work on. They also improvise extensively, listen to music together, talk and “hang.” The Ramblers have a reputation for having a good time. Most residents' artistic practices are necessarily solitary (poets, novelists, painters). The rites of friendship that are a fundamental component of the ensemble's work are sometimes interpreted as lack of seriousness].
MP: You know, you talk about the Ramblers' leisure time. It isn't what everybody thinks. But there is that. There's the playtime. These guys come to Ragdale. They smoke cigarettes (they don't do that at home); they drink (they don't do that at home); they hang. It's a very important part.
But when we sit down to rehearse, it's different. Not totally different. But the focus is different—-and it is very focused.
We do everything together. I mean, at Ragdale we're there twenty-four hours a day. And most of those hours, we're together.
I remember Jack [Fonville] saying once, 'I hope I have the good sense to know when to stop playing.' And I thought, 'Boy, that's right.'
When we first started, my playing wasn't very good. Every [other Rambler] was so much better than me.
PSF: By your assessment only?
MP: No, I'm sure. Nobody ever said anything: 'Get with it, man!' But I remember saying to them once, almost in tears, 'I'm so pathetic; you guys are so much better than I am.' I could hear them thinking, 'Well, why don't you do something about it?'
And I did. I did something about it. I started practicing, because I hadn't been playing very much. Just these [Illinois] Contemporary Chamber [Ensemble, directed by Edwin London] things, and could play well enough. But not the Ramblers. I mean, these guys...!
And so I did. I started practicing.
PSF: But you were writing the music?
MP: I was writing. So was Jack [Fonville].* So was [Michael] Udow. I sort of held the thing together, by pulling them together to rehearse and by paying for whatever needed to be paid for. And Ray [Sasaki] also pitched in. And the other guys didn't have any [money].
My feeling is that I play better now than any other time beforehand, and I think they would agree. So I don't have to hang it up!
At least so far, it hasn't been an issue.
*The Tone Road Ramblers are Powell and Jim Staley, trombones; Ray Sasaki, trumpet; John Fonville, flutes; Eric Mandat, clarinet (replaced David Sasaki), and Steve Butters, percussion (replaced Michael Udow).
Also see the official site for Morgan Powell
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